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Magnetic shackles bound Tael’s wrists, shredding old calluses down to tender new skin. He had outgrown them a long time ago, but his alien captors would replace them soon enough. A spirit-crushing gift just in time for his fifteenth birthday.
And the shackles weren’t even the worst part.
White-hot pain shot through Tael’s neck, and he leapt forward, trying to slacken the leash in his master’s hand.
“Hurry up, boy.”
General Salric’s voice sounded thick and gargled, like the growl of an animal. Another yank on the leash and more electricity surged through the shock collar on his neck. Tael stumbled trying to maintain his master’s pace through the echoing tunnel and managed to regain his footing after a few shuffling steps. He knew better than to displease his master. His shoulder still ached from the round the clock torture of the rapid mend clinic.
Machinery rumbled in the distance, and Tael smelled the acrid stench of the alien mining extractors. He’d never seen them work but imagined them as being gigantic metal monsters, tearing through the earth with huge teeth and fiery lasers. The Raxions didn’t waste time preserving the environment. They just chewed through mile after mile of the Earth’s crust, extracting lithium and destroying humanity’s home.
Shouts erupted ahead. A frantic cry, keening high over the rhythmic chime and bang of machinery. Tael knew it was the sound of trouble. A strained metallic whistle made him wince, then an explosion sent shockwaves through the rocky floor.
Tael rocked off balance as a wall of steam heat hit him in the face. He wanted to run, but he knew better. He was chained like a dog and running would only draw another surge of painful electricity or worse.
The hollow crack of a failed power coupling popped in his ears, then the ambient hiss and hum of the mine’s ventilators stopped, overtaken by eerie silence. With the power grid down, his quadrant would be without air or lights. Now they were all in the dark.
General Salric twisted Tael’s body around and slammed him against the rock wall. Tael managed to raise his arms in time to protect his face, but the impact still wobbled his legs. “Seal your hands on that stone, boy. If you move from this spot, I will hunt you down and feed you to my children.”
Tael stiffened, expecting his master to send another searing message through the collar. Pain was the only form of control Salric held over him now. The miners up ahead would enjoy no such luxury.
Screams of terror already flooded out of the main shaft as his master stomped off, targeting them with his power. Humans called it “The Fear” – the most devastating weapon humanity had ever faced. Raxions had a natural ability to pour torment and suffering into the human mind, saturating every thought with visions of pain and horror. Images of death, betrayal, and sedition blinded people to reality. Shadows of monsters and the breath of demons curled their bodies into balls of panic and dread.
The first Raxion he had ever seen killed his entire family. The alien, all covered in muscle and black reptilian skin, had towered over his father. The sight of the monster’s pitiless ice-blue eyes haunted him even today.
Tael listened to the sounds of anguish and despair echoing through the mine, wishing he could disappear. A childhood accident had somehow inoculated him against the Raxions’ mental attacks, but immunity had come at a cost. Every time the Rax turned The Fear against his people, Tael heard every scream, every plea, as they withered into tortured ruins. Sometimes, he almost wished he could feel the horror. At least he wouldn’t be so alone.
A patter of feet approached through the darkness. Tael turned to face the noise. The footfalls sounded too light for a Raxion.
The echo of rapid breathing bounced off the walls. Tael pulled his knees to his chest, hoping whoever it was would pass by.
A frantic female voice seemed to erupt out of nowhere. “I can’t see a thing! We’re never going to find our way back. It’s pitch-black in here. What happened to the stupid lights?”
“I don’t know,” said another voice, deeper and much more sharp. “Just run! He’ll be after us any second!”
“The circuits will reset in a minute.” Tael reached up to cover his mouth, but the words had already escaped. He shook his head. How he could have been so stupid?
“Who’s there?” the girl whispered. “Who is that? Can you help us? We’re lost. We need to get out of here.” Her words came at him in quick staccato succession. “Please … If you can help us, please talk to us.”
He heard the boy slunk toward him, trying to be quiet, but Tael could hear his ragged breath. The girl rustled along the ground too, getting closer. Tael could hear her crying. The sound reminded him of his mother. Pangs of guilt welled into his stomach. Tael knew these mines. He could find his way in and out of any shaft, lights made no difference to him. He could guide them out to safety. And maybe…
Tael took a breath and rose to his feet. “I can get you out, but we have to hurry.” His legs were as shaky as his voice.
A steely hand grabbed Tael’s arm.
“Who are you?” the boy demanded.
“Does it matter?” Tael tried to sound sure. He was anything but. “We have seconds before the power clicks on again. Find your friend and don’t let go of me.”
“I’m here,” the girl said. Tael heard her rise to her feet as well. “I have hold of him. Let’s go.”
The boy started to voice an objection, but Tael took off. “Just keep moving. I won’t run you into anything.” Tael stretched his bound hands out in front of him, but he hardly needed them as a guide. He had been through this mine a thousand times, counted every step, mapped every corner. He could navigate this area as if he had built it himself. In a way, he had.
They were moving fast now.
The Rax could see much better than humans in the dark, but Tael doubted even they would dare traverse these pitch-black caverns at this speed.
The strangers never said a word. Tael turned right, then left, then left again, never slowing. The fevered pace had him gasping for air. One wrong turn, one missed step could mean catastrophe, but if they could just make it a little bit further …
Then reality hit him.
He was running away.
He had disobeyed the master’s orders.
Conflicting feelings of elation and terror overwhelmed him.
Tael didn’t know what to do. He slowed, feeling unsure.
These two didn’t know who he was, or his value to General Salric. They had no idea what the Raxion would do to get him back. These strangers could die because of his rash decision to join them.
He had to turn around.
“We’re almost there,” the girl said.
The boy shoved him from behind, and Tael staggered forward. He took a breath, ready to tell them he had to return, but as he inhaled, he experienced something he hadn’t known in a very long time: the outside air.
Tael smelled freedom.
General Salric drove his fist into the wall where he had left the boy standing a few minutes earlier. The impact sent a shower of fine, dusty gravel to the floor. His face twisted in disgust as he inhaled the damp, putrid air. The filter implants in his nose reduced the oxygen to reasonable levels but did nothing to mask the disgusting smell of the humans.
Turning his head, Salric looked at the junction of tunnels, wondering if he should chance going after the boy alone. Six shafts diverged from the cavern. The boy could have wandered into any of them.
General Salric hit the rock wall again, then turned back toward the main shaft. He had no choice. He would have to use his guards to find the boy. With their help, it shouldn’t take long. He just had to make certain they didn’t get too curious.
The boy was lost and alone. He would wander the caverns until Raxion soldiers found him. Then the human would pay for his disobedience.
And if the guards got curious, well, guards were expendable. The boy was not.
Salric kicked a piece of the damaged penetrator out of the way as he entered the main shaft. The power grid had reset, restoring the lights, and he could see the damage the rebel device had done. The drilling equipment was destroyed and would have to be replaced before he could reopen this lithium vein.
Salric supposed he should be grateful it wasn’t worse. The energy required to run a laser-powered penetrator was more than enough to collapse the whole mine. The refining filters focused the power into a precision tool, but set free, it would erupt with more energy than any crude explosive a human could produce.
The rebels had gotten lucky, and so had he.
Even so, the Commander would not be pleased about the damage or the resulting delay. Commander Magrieot was the largest supplier of illegal lithium to this quadrant and a major player in several others. His distributors would not look kindly on a delay of the most popular recreational drug in the galaxy.
Earth was a huge source of high-quality lithium with a ready-made workforce. The planet was tucked away in a forgotten corner of the universe, and the Raxions intended to keep it that way. Delays meant questions, and questions meant trouble. If the lithium stopped flowing, distributors would backtrack like junkies toward the source of their addiction. Salric could not let that happen.
“Guard!” Salric pointed to the first Raxion he saw, a soldier searching the wreckage.
The Raxion flinched, then jogged over to stand at attention, issuing a fist to his chest in salute. He showed rows of sharp black teeth as he labored to breathe, his armored uniform heaving with the effort.
“Form a search party,” the General said. “The rebel responsible for this mess is loose in the mine.”
The boy had no part in the sabotage, of course, but Salric needed an excuse to hunt down what they would see as a single useless slave.
“He is small," the General continued, "with brown hair. He wears restraints and a control collar. You should have little trouble finding him. He won’t be moving fast.”
The guard hesitated.
“What is it?” Salric growled.
“Sir.” The guard hissed. “Is this the slave that accompanies you through the mines?”
Salric’s hand shot up to the straps that crossed the front of the soldier’s uniform. Breath wheezed out of the shorter Raxion's chest as Salric threw him against the wall. The guard was black but marbled with white across his eyes and cheeks. He was young. Just enough of the ivory color remained in the soldier's complexion to suggest the lingering aggression—and ignorance—of youth, though not enough to imply stupidity or senselessness.
“What I do is my business,” Salric said. “Your place is to follow orders, not to speculate about what I do with my time. Find the rebel, or share his fate.”
The Raxion guard kept his eyes glued to the ground, not daring to meet Salric’s angry gaze.
“I’m sorry, sir. I did not mean to question, only to identify the rebel.”
Salric slammed the guard into the wall again and leaned down until his own piercing eyes were inches from the young soldier's face.
“The boy’s identity is not your concern. Find him, or I will hold you responsible for what happened here today.”
Salric let go of the cowering soldier.
The guard fidgeted under Salric’s stare and couldn’t seem to regain his bearing. The General held his gaze a moment longer, enjoying the youth's discomfort, before turning his head to a pair of human workers huddled against the wall.
They crouched, arms wrapped tight around their knees, curled into balls of terror. They rocked back and forth against the wall. Salric had seen the look a thousand times. The humans did not speak or show any awareness of the world around them. Tears streaked their faces. Quiet whimpers issued from their trembling lips—the only indication of the horrors playing out in their minds.
His guards had broadcast the power wide when the explosion occurred with the hopes of debilitating the rebel spy. These humans would feel its debilitating aftereffects for quite some time.
“Issue stunners from the weapons locker,” Salric said. “I don’t want my prisoner looking like these two. I need to interrogate him and quickly. He was last seen in junction eight. I will start there. You and your party will search sections twelve through seventeen.”
The order to issue hard weapons drew a surprised look from the soldier. For a moment, Salric thought the guard might question him again. If so, it would be the last decision the soldier ever made.
The guard took a breath as if to speak, then laid a hand to the comm unit on his chest to issue the order.
Salric did not wait to hear him finish.
He turned toward the tunnel where he’d left the boy. He would find his slave himself if he could. Salric couldn’t afford to let the boy get too far away, even if the chances of a successful escape were slim.
General Salric paused at the junction and wondered if he had made a mistake in recruiting the guards to find the boy. Harboring a human with an ability to resist The Fear was a crime punishable by death. Not even his rank would protect him. Salric risked everything in keeping the boy alive, but without him, Salric knew he would be nothing.
Only luck could lead the boy out, but even the smallest chance was too big a gamble. Salric would check this passage first and double back to trap the boy in the mines. Upon his recapture, Salric would have the boy fitted with gravity restraints and increase the voltage to the collar. The General knew he had been too kind. Over time, he had grown soft toward the child.
He would not make that mistake again.
The boy would never have another chance to attempt escape. In fact, when Salric finished with him, the boy would never dare to try.
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