Pawn

Nicole Lee’s life is going nowhere. No family, no money, and stuck in a relationship with a thug named Bungie. But, after one of Bungie’s “deals” goes south, he and Nicole are whisked away by a mysterious moth-like humanoid to a strange ship called the Fyrantha.

Once aboard, life on the ship seems too good to be true. All she has to do is work on one of the ship’s many maintenance crews. However, she learned long ago that nothing comes without a catch. When she’s told to keep quiet and stop asking questions, she knows she is on to something. Nicole soon discovers that many different factions are vying for control of the Fyrantha, and she and her friends are merely pawns in a game beyond their control. But, she is tired of being used, and now Nicole is going to fight.

Timothy Zahn’s Pawn is the first in a new space opera series—available May 2nd from Tor Books!

 

 

There had been many times over the years when Nicole had looked forward to sleep. When the world was crashing down around her head, sleep had often been her only escape.

But this sleep wasn’t an escape. It was restless, full of frightening dreams of glass monsters and giant butterflies and men and women staring down at her and babbling in strange languages.

The worst part was that she wasn’t sure that all of those hazy images were, in fact, dreams.

And whether she was dreaming or lying half-awake, through all of it she could sometimes hear the faraway voices, once again wordless.

When she finally came fully awake, she found herself alone in a small room, squarish like a normal room instead of the round one she’d first seen after the parking lot disappeared. She was lying on a mostly comfortable bed, with a soft light coming from small gaps in each of the corners. The walls and ceiling were a pale gray, with a sheen that seemed to imply they were made of metal. A pair of tall white racks stood beside the bed, one on each side of her, with three boxes loaded into each of them. The boxes were connected with wires and clear plastic tubing, and from the upper box on each side another tube came out and into a taped-over spot on the inside bends of both her elbows. It was sort of like the IV setups she’d seen, only with boxes instead of plastic bags like they used in hospitals. Across the room were a chair and a small desk with a built-in computer screen.

Nicole looked around, listening to her heart thudding in her chest. It was a hospital room, obviously. Probably in the VA hospital where Bungie had tried his insane kidnapping stunt.

But why was she in a hospital at all? Had she been shot? She couldn’t remember anything like that happening.

Unless the butterfly people, the round room, and the marble monster had been dreams. Hallucinations, maybe, after hospital security jumped her and Bungie. Maybe during the struggle someone had shot her.

But then shouldn’t she hurt somewhere? Packer had told her about a guy he’d patched up once who’d been shot ten years earlier and still wasn’t able to move his arm without it hurting.

Maybe one of the machines was pumping in drugs. That could explain why she wasn’t hurting. But shouldn’t there at least be a whole bunch of bandages somewhere on her?

She lifted her head and looked down at her body. To her surprise, she was no longer dressed in her jeans and sweatshirt, but was instead wearing a blue jumpsuit sort of thing with a black belt and low black boots. There were no bandages anywhere that she could see, or any indication that there’d ever been any.

On the plus side, she didn’t smell like booze and vomit anymore.

She was still gazing down at her new clothing, wondering when hospitals started using jumpsuits instead of those flimsy robe things, when there was a softer version of the whooshing she’d heard in the round room and a door half-hidden behind one of the racks slid open.

Nicole tensed, her mind flashing back to her nightmares about butterfly people and marble monsters. To her relief, it was a normal woman who stepped into the room. Her face was cheerful and heavily freckled, her reddish hair tied back in a tight ponytail. She was wearing a jumpsuit like Nicole’s, except that hers was red instead of blue.

“Good morning, Nicole,” the woman said. Her voice was melodious, with the kind of pleasant English accent that Nicole had always liked. “It is Nicole, correct?”

It took Nicole two tries to get her voice working through an unexpectedly dry throat and mouth. “Yes, I’m Nicole,” she confirmed cautiously.

“My name’s Allyce,” the woman said. She crossed to one of the racks beside Nicole and peered at something on one of the sides that Nicole couldn’t see. “I’m your doctor. How are you feeling?”

Nicole’s first instinct was to say she was fine. People who complained about feeling bad got left behind on jobs and didn’t get a share of the take.

But there was something in Allyce’s voice that made Nicole think that maybe she really did want an honest answer. “My throat’s kind of dry,” she said, taking a quick mental inventory of her various body parts. Surprisingly, especially so soon after a binge, her head wasn’t hurting. Had they found a new cure for hangovers? “My stomach hurts a little, too.”

“Probably hunger.” Allyce pointed to the tubes running into Nicole’s arms. “We’ve been feeding you and filtering out your wastes intravenously, so your stomach hasn’t had a lot to do lately.” She smiled. “I know what you’re thinking, that dialysis usually means a lot of discomfort. Fortunately, this system is completely painless.”

Nicole looked at the tubes again, her stomach tightening around the empty hole inside it. That hadn’t been what she’d been thinking at all. “Was I sick?” she asked anxiously. “Was I hurt? What happened?”

“No, no, you’re fine,” Allyce assured her. She did something to the box, then stepped around the rack and started unfastening the tube connected to Nicole’s right arm. “We just needed you to be under for a few days while we fitted you with your neural-link translator.”

Nicole stared at her. “A few days?”

“No worries—the implantation went fine,” Allyce continued. “How’s your head, by the way?”

With an effort, Nicole dragged her mind away from the idea that she’d been lying here for days instead of just a few hours. No wonder her hangover was gone. Only—“My head?”

“Yes.” Allyce finished with the tube and drew a circle in the air with her forefinger above Nicole’s right temple. “Specifically, this area right there.”

Nicole frowned, focusing her attention on that part of her head. It did feel a little strange, now that Allyce mentioned it. And the breezes from Allyce’s movement were strangely cold right there. Carefully, she reached up and touched the spot.

And jerked her hand away. All the hair from her temple to her right ear was gone. In its place was a slightly lumpy grid that seemed to be made up of slender, stiff lines, circles, and spirals.

“It’s all right,” Allyce said quickly. “The procedure’s finished, and it went fine. And there are never any side effects.” She turned her head and pointed to the same place on herself. “See?”

Nicole stared, her stomach tightening even harder. Partially hidden beneath Allyce’s hair was the same grid thing Nicole could feel on her own head. Allyce’s threads were bright silver, and there were small globules at most of the intersections. It was like a strange tattoo, only made of metal instead of ink. “What is it?”

“As I said, it’s your neural-link translator,” Allyce said. She leaned over and started removing the tube from Nicole’s other arm. “It’s so that you can understand all the different languages that are spoken here.”

“You mean foreign languages? Like Spanish and French?”

“Spanish, yes,” Allyce said. “I don’t think there are any French speakers here at the moment. But there are others. Plato speaks Greek, for instance, and there are one or two even stranger ones.” She finished with the tube and stood up. “Come. It’s time for proper introductions.”

Slowly, Nicole eased herself off the bed. For having spent several days not moving, her muscles seemed in reasonably good shape. Unless Allyce was lying about how long she’d been there. “Where’s Bungie?” she asked. “Is this the veterans hospital?”

“Your two friends will be joining you shortly,” Allyce promised. “As to where we are, I’ll let Plato explain that.”

She reached for Nicole’s arm. Automatically, Nicole twitched away. Allyce took the hint and let her hand fall back to her side. “Come—I’ll take you to them,” she said instead. She walked to the door and touched a small plate beside it. The door opened with another whoosh, and she stepped out into a gray-walled hallway.

Not sure she wanted to do this, but with no better ideas, Nicole followed.

The hallway was like a longer version of the room they’d just left. Its walls and ceiling were made of the same gray metal, with the same kind of indirect lighting glowing from the corners and from a few spots along the edges where the walls and ceiling met. The floor, fortunately, wasn’t just more bare metal, but was instead covered with a slightly bouncy wall-to-wall mat that reminded her of dark red pizza crust. There were other doors along both walls, and ahead she could see a couple of gaps that probably led into other corridors.

Oddly enough, there were no windows or skylights or any other natural lighting. The handful of hospitals she’d visited over the years had all had lots of windows. Even their hallways had had some light coming into alcoves or waiting areas.

Were they in one of the hospital’s inside work areas? Or maybe down in a basement?

“Unfortunately, the translator is audio based and can’t help with these,” Allyce commented as they walked past the first closed door. “But you’ll catch on quickly enough.”

“Catch on to what?” Nicole asked.

“These,” Allyce said, pointing to the next door.

Nicole frowned, slowing to a stop. There was a small white plate beside the door, right about eye level and a foot or so above the same sort of touch switch that Allyce had used to open that first door. She’d seen plates like that before in hospitals, with the room’s name or identifying number on it.

Only the black characters etched into the plate weren’t any sort of letters or numbers she’d ever seen. Some of them were curvy and complicated, like the letters on Chinese take-out menus. Others were sharp-angled with maybe something curly added on. “What are they?” she asked.

“That’s the room number,” Allyce said. “This one is postinda-three-three-six-one-five. Don’t worry—as I said, you’ll catch on. Plato will give you a copy of the manual later—that will help.” She reached for Nicole’s arm, remembered in time, and pointed ahead. “Come—breakfast is waiting.”

They passed three more doors before Allyce reached the one she wanted. Beside each of the doors, Nicole noted, were number plates with the same strange squiggles.

The room Allyce ushered her into was several times larger than the room Nicole had woken up in. At first glance, it looked like a small cafeteria, with half a dozen people in blue jumpsuits seated around one of the tables and a few others in green and or red outfits at some of the others. A serving counter was set up against the far wall.

Only there wasn’t anyone at the counter, like there was in a normal restaurant, but just some trays with cups and plates of food on them. The tables were also oddly shaped, with eight sides like stop signs instead of normal round or square ones. The chairs were high-backed and looked a lot more comfortable than the cheap plastic ones at the fast-food places she got to eat at sometimes.

She took another look at the people . . . and only then did she notice that not all of them were actually people.

She stopped abruptly just inside the doorway, bouncing another half step forward as Allyce, caught by surprise, bumped into her. “What is it?” Allyce asked. “What’s the matter?”

“That,” Nicole murmured tensely, bumping into Allyce a second time as she took a quick step backward. The shark-faced marble monster who’d come at her when she’d first arrived at this place was sitting at the table with the blue-jumpsuited men—

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Allyce said, a note of exasperation briefly coloring her calm voice as she tried without success to push Nicole the rest of the way into the room. “That’s just Kahkitah. Go on, he won’t hurt you. Go on, Nicole—I can’t get in until you do.”

Nicole swallowed hard. The whole room had gone silent, with all faces turned to her and Allyce, including the nightmare face of the marble monster.

Still, it wasn’t making any move toward her this time. Maybe it was just some new kind of robot, something the hospital cleaning staff used to clean up dangerous spills or collect bedpans or something.

Whatever it was, she decided, standing in the doorway wouldn’t gain her anything. With an effort, she forced her feet to resume moving.

“That’s better,” Allyce said as she slipped around from behind Nicole and again tried to take Nicole’s arm. This time, Nicole let her. “Come on, we’ll start out slow. Let’s take that table over there and I’ll get you something to eat while we wait for Plato and your friends.”

Watching the marble monster out of the corner of her eye, Nicole let Allyce lead her to an empty table. The men in the blue jumpsuits watched her the whole way, but the marble monster himself simply returned to his meal. Nicole chose a chair where she could see both the monster and the door, and gingerly sat down while Allyce went to the serving counter and brought back one of the trays.

Like the room and hallway, the meal wasn’t what Nicole had expected. The main bowl contained a thick yellow paste with oddly shaped bits of other colors mixed in, like someone had taken butterscotch pudding and poured in several different children’s breakfast cereals. The two smaller plates beside it held what looked like burnt toast and perforated red marshmallows. The mug contained water with what looked like frozen pieces of lemon floating in it. “What’s this?”

“Breakfast,” Allyce said. “Go ahead, try it. Trust me, it tastes better than it looks.”

Nicole had heard that one before, usually from her grandmother, and it had never, ever, been true. But her stomach was feeling emptier than ever, and the aromas rising from the food didn’t smell all that bad. Picking up the oddly shaped spoon lying beside the bowl, she steeled herself and dug in.

For once, the meal was a pleasant surprise. The pudding dish was hot, and tasted more like Italian food than pudding mixed with cereal. The burnt toast was also good, reminding her of a type of breaded chicken she’d had once. The red marshmallows were only fair and unlike anything else she’d ever eaten, though the taste did remind her of the way a Japanese restaurant smelled.

But the long days of eating through a tube in her arm had left her ravenous. She ate everything, including the marshmallows, down to the last crumbs of burnt toast.

“I would say your appetite has definitely returned,” Allyce said as Nicole scraped the final bits of pudding from the bowl. “That’s a good sign. Would you like some more?”

Nicole looked over at the trays on the counter. Her grandmother had told her that eating too much made you look greedy. Trake had said that a full stomach slowed you down.

But she was still hungry, and neither of them was here to complain at her. “Would that be okay?”

“Absolutely.” Allyce’s smile turned brittle. “If there’s one thing this place has plenty of, it’s food. I’ll get you another tray.”

She picked up Nicole’s tray and headed back toward the serving counter. Nicole watched as she moved between the tables, running their brief conversations over again in her mind, trying to figure out what exactly the other woman wanted from her.

She did want something, of course. Everyone did. And the nicer or friendlier a person was, the bigger the hook hidden behind the smile and kind words. Allyce wanted something, and sooner or later she was bound to let a glimpse of that hook slip out.

Nicole was still thinking over the possibilities when the door whooshed open and Bungie strode in.

He looked surprisingly good, especially considering the shape he’d been in the last time she’d seen him. His head, like Nicole’s, had been half shaved, his newly acquired pattern of silvery thread glistening in the light. But otherwise he looked awake, alert, and steady on his feet.

He stopped a pace inside the door, just as Nicole had, probably to assess the situation, just as Nicole had. His gaze swept the room, his face expressionless as he looked at the people and marble monster. He glanced into the hallway behind him, then strode toward Nicole’s table. As he did, another young man stepped into the cafeteria, a thoughtful look on his face. He watched Bungie cross the room, then headed over toward the serving counter.

Bungie reached Nicole’s table and dropped into the chair beside her. “What the hell’s going on?” he demanded quietly.

“Don’t ask me,” Nicole murmured back. “All I know—”

“Yeah, well, I am asking you, aren’t I?” he snarled back. “What the hell is this place? Who the hell—what the hell—are these people?” He jerked his head toward the marble monster.

“I already said I didn’t know,” Nicole said, feeling her throat tighten. She’d hoped the lack of emotion in his face meant he’d decided to play it cool. Instead, it had been a mask he’d put on to hide the anger and fear bubbling under the surface.

She hadn’t personally seen all the crazy stuff Bungie had gotten himself into. But she’d heard enough stories, and anger or fear was usually a big part of the mix. And if there was one thing they didn’t need right now, it was Bungie doing crazy stuff. “It’s okay,” she said in as soothing a voice as she could manage with her heart pounding in her throat. “If they were going to hurt us, I think they’d have done it already.”

“Yeah?” He jabbed a finger at the silver threads on his head. “What do you call this?”

“It’s a translator,” Allyce said, appearing at Nicole’s side and setting a fresh food tray in front of her. “How are you feeling, Howard?”

“The name’s Bungie, bitch,” Bungie bit out, glaring up at her. “Yeah, that’s the same stupid story Pretty Boy here said. You think I’m stupid?”

“She’s telling the truth,” another voice put in.

Nicole turned to look. It was the young man who’d come in with Bungie, another of the food trays in his hands. “Here’s your breakfast,” he continued, setting the tray in front of Bungie.

“What the hell is this?” Bungie demanded, glaring distastefully down at the tray. “It looks like kitchen scraps.”

“It’s actually pretty good,” Nicole said. “That stuff that looks like—”

“Did I ask?” Bungie cut her off, his voice gone ominously quiet. “Huh? Did I ask?”

Nicole clenched her teeth. “No.”

“So here’s what’s gonna happen,” Bungie said, his voice still quiet. “You, Pretty Boy, are going to get me some real food. Then you’re going to get me a drink, and then you’re going to show me the way out of here.”

“You finished?” the young man asked calmly.

Nicole winced. Angry, afraid, and quiet. Bungie was on the road to crazy, all right.

This was not going to end well.

Bungie looked the young man up and down. “Yeah, I’m finished. For now.”

“Good,” the young man said. His voice was still calm, but there was a new edge to it that sent a shiver up Nicole’s back. “Let’s go in order. First: The name’s Jeff, not Pretty Boy. Second: This is the food we have this morning. Eat it or go hungry—your choice. Third: If by drink you mean alcohol, forget it. There isn’t any aboard.”

Nicole frowned. Aboard? What kind of word was that to use with a hospital?

Either Bungie didn’t notice the odd term or didn’t care. “Like hell there isn’t,” he snarled. Abruptly, he shoved back his chair and stood up. “If you got people, you got booze. I want a damn drink. So you go get the whiskey, or I’m gonna—”

“Or you’re going to what?” a deep voice challenged from the doorway.

Nicole turned. The man standing just inside the room was short and broad-shouldered, with black hair framing a dark, craggy face. His eyes were on Bungie, his expression holding the same hard animosity that Nicole had seen on way too many cops throughout the years. Standing uncertainly behind him was McNair, the doctor from the parking lot, his new translator glinting from his half-shaved head.

And even though the figure in the round room had been only a silhouette against the bright light, Nicole had a strong sense that this dark-haired man was that same person. The man who’d said incomprehensible words to her and the others just before the marble monster had come at her.

Someone across the room ground out more foreign words—“I said you’re going to do what?” the broad-shouldered man repeated, taking another couple of steps toward their table.

A fresh chill ran up Nicole’s back. This time, she’d been looking at the newcomer’s face when he spoke . . . and his lips and mouth hadn’t matched the words he was saying.

In fact, she was pretty sure he’d actually stopped talking before he’d finished asking the question.

But that was impossible. How could he keep talking after he’d stopped talking? Was he one of those ventriloquist people?

“I’m gonna crack some heads, that’s what,” Bungie growled back, taking a step away from the table and looking the newcomer up and down. If he was bothered by the other’s strange mouth and lip pattern, he didn’t show it. Probably hadn’t even noticed it.

Again, the broad-shouldered man said something incomprehensible. This time, he was still talking gibberish when he also started speaking English. “You need to take a minute and think about what you’re proposing,” he said, his voice even colder than Bungie’s. “Even if you were to win such a fight—and I guarantee you wouldn’t—what then? Do you propose to find a door and simply walk home?”

Bungie snorted. “Give me one good reason why I can’t.”

There was another quick series of nonsense words—“Because we’re currently a thousand light-years from Earth,” the man said calmly. “Everything you’ve ever known is far, far behind us.

“And you’ll never see any of it again.”

Once again, silence filled the room. Even Bungie seemed unable to find anything to say.

But he recovered quickly. “Yeah, right,” he said. “You must think we’re stupid or—”

The other man snapped something—“Do you understand Greek, my friend?”

“Because if you think—” Bungie stopped. “What?”

More jabbering—“Because that’s what I’m speaking right now,” the other man said. “The reason you’re hearing English is because of the translator grafted to your head and brain.” He gestured to the marble monster and said something else—“Kahkitah, speak some of your language to him.”

Nicole jerked violently as what sounded like a rapid-fire series of birdcalls suddenly filled the room. She had just enough time to see that the marble monster’s shark gills were vibrating in time to the sounds—“Plato speaks the truth,” the words came over the chirping. “You’re hearing the language of the Ghorf people as yours. I think you’re hearing it that way,” he added, suddenly sounding a little confused. “Of course I can’t hear what you’re hearing. But I hear your language as mine, and I’m told it also works the other way.”

The broad-shouldered man—Plato?—spoke again. “Kahkitah’s easily confused, but I’m sure you get his point,” he said. “And even you, Bungie, must have figured out by now that this technology isn’t even close to possible on Earth.”

“Then where are we?” Nicole asked, trying hard to keep her voice calm. “You said we were in space?”

Plato said something—“You’re aboard the Fyrantha, a large spaceship traveling between the stars.”

Bungie threw a hooded look at Nicole. But he had a reputation for never backing down. Looking back at Plato, he folded his arms across his chest. “Yeah? Prove it. Open a window or TV screen or something and let’s see outside.”

Plato snorted and spoke, his tone sounding sarcastic. “If you can find either of those, you’re welcome to take a look,” he said. “Better still, find a door and leave. I won’t try to stop you.”

He turned around and continued speaking as he gestured to McNair. “Don’t just stand there, Sam. Come in and have breakfast.”

“What?” McNair asked distantly, his eyes on Kahkitah.

Plato spoke again—“I said come in, sit with your friends, and have something to eat,” he said, gesturing to Nicole’s table. “The day’s work will soon begin.”

With an effort, McNair tore his eyes away from the creature. “They’re not my friends,” he said, his voice hardening as he looked at Nicole and then Bungie. “And whatever you think I’m going to do for you, you can forget it. You kidnapped me for nothing.”

Plato eyed him for a moment after he’d finished—waiting for his own translator to finish its work, Nicole realized. Then he gave a sort of barking laugh and started speaking. “You misunderstand, Sam,” he said. “You weren’t the target. Nicole is the only one we needed.”

McNair had started walking stiffly toward the table. Now, abruptly, he stopped short. “What?” he demanded. “Her?”

Plato nodded as he spoke again. “Indeed. She’s one of the rare ones—a Sibyl—and we need her—”

“Wait a second,” Bungie interrupted, glaring at Nicole. “You want her—what? What do you want her for? She’s a nobody. A useless drunk.”

Nicole dropped her gaze to the tabletop, feeling her face flush with embarrassment and shame. Nobody. Useless. Drunk. With all the strange things she’d experienced since waking up, she’d almost forgotten.

But he was right. She was useless. All she’d ever had was Trake and his group, and that was gone now. Gone forever.

And suddenly, she really, really wanted a drink.

Plato spoke—“Of course she’s an alcoholic,” he said. “Most Sibyls are. They have a unique brain chemistry, and the most common Earth-side manifestation of that is addiction to alcohol. Of course, we need her to be completely sober before she can be of any use, which is why there’s no liquor aboard.”

“What the hell are you babbling about?” Bungie demanded. “What brain stuff—what are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the unique brain chemistry,” Plato said, “that allows her to listen to the ship.”

Nicole frowned, her growing craving for a drink suddenly forgotten. “Listen to the ship do what?”

Plato spoke—“The Fyrantha will tell you what needs fixing, and sometimes tell you how exactly the repairs are to be made,” he said. “Your job will be to relay those instructions to your work crew.”

Nicole looked at Plato, then at Jeff and Allyce. If this was a joke, no one was laughing. “That’s crazy,” she said.

“No argument here,” Allyce agreed. “But it’s still true. Tell me, did you ever hear voices in your head? Things you couldn’t really explain or make out?”

“Yes, but—” Nicole threw a furtive look at Bungie, wincing at the expression on his face. She’d never told Trake or any of his people about the voices. “They were coming from here?”

“Actually, they were coming from the Wisps who were on Earth at those times,” Allyce said. “It was their communications with the Fyranthawhile they were picking up other people that you overheard.”

“You mean those UFO crazies were right?” Bungie demanded. “Those damn butterfly things have been flying around the world all these years?”

Plato spoke—“They don’t fly anywhere,” he explained with strained patience. “They locate their target, port in and grab him or her, then port out again.”

“That’s how we all got here,” Jeff said. “The Fyrantha needed workers and sent the Wisps to get us.”

“This makes no sense,” McNair insisted. “You said Earth was, what, a thousand light-years away? You can’t snatch people from that kind of distance.”

Plato rattled off some words—“Two hundred years ago you couldn’t have a conversation with someone on the other side of the planet, either. Is it so strange to think that someone more advanced than us could come up with an equally miraculous invention?”

“It’s nonsense,” McNair said flatly. “For one thing, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. For another, it’s flat-out ridiculous. Why would anyone with technology like that invite a bunch of cavemen like us to come in and fix up their ship for them?”

“It wasn’t exactly an invitation,” Jeff said grimly. “I was snatched straight out of my computer repair shop. Plato was pulled off a construction site.”

“Everyone has their own story of how they got here,” Allyce said. “But don’t worry. We’re well treated, and there’s plenty to keep us busy. You’ll get used to it.”

“No, I don’t think so,” McNair said stiffly. “I don’t know why I’m even here when all you wanted was her. Fine. Send me back and we’ll call it even.”

Plato spoke, shaking his head. “I’m afraid we can’t.”

McNair’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, you can’t?” he demanded. “Of course you can. Just turn this thing around, or crank up whatever machine you used to bring us here. Whatever it takes.”

Plato spoke. “The Fyrantha will not allow it. But don’t worry. As Allyce said, there’ll be plenty of useful work for another doctor—”

“The ship won’t allow it?” McNair drowned out the rest of Plato’s words. “The ship? Who the hell’s in charge here, you or it? You get on that machine and you send me the hell home.”

Plato shook his head and said a single, flat word. “No.”

McNair’s face darkened. “Listen. I don’t know who you are, or who made you king of this little—”

Plato bit out something in a tone that all by itself made McNair stop in midsentence. “Enough,” the translation came.

Once again, the room went quiet. Plato continued in the same ominous tone—“We don’t raise our voices here, Sam,” he continued. “We don’t threaten each other, and we absolutely don’t fight. We settle any and all differences in a polite, civilized manner. Is that clear?”

“And if I don’t feel like being a sheep today?”

Plato spoke—“Then try harder. The ship doesn’t like it when we fight.”

McNair threw Nicole a disbelieving look. “The ship doesn’t like it?”

Plato was talking again—“And you don’t want to make the ship unhappy. You don’t want the food dispenser to suddenly dry up. You don’t want the lights to go out. You don’t want your room’s temperature to drop to forty below zero.”

“You’d really do that to us?” McNair demanded.

Plato spoke—“We don’t run the Fyrantha, Sam. It’s not up to us. So. No fighting or arguing. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly,” McNair said between stiff lips.

Plato shifted his gaze to Bungie and spoke again. “Clear?”

Bungie snorted. “Buncha cowards,” he bit out. “None of you ever been hungry or cold before?”

Plato spoke—“You’ve never been hungry or cold like this. Clear?”

Bungie looked at McNair. The doctor looked back at him.

And with a sudden tightening of her stomach, Nicole saw the flash of understanding between them. Bungie was a street thug and kidnapper. McNair was a high-class doctor and kidnapping victim.

But neither wanted to be here. And both were prepared to do whatever was necessary to get home.

Even if it meant working together.

“Fine,” Bungie said. “Clear.”

Plato nodded and spoke again. “Now, eat your breakfasts, both of you, and we’ll sort out your duties.” He looked back at Nicole as he continued. “You, of course, already have your assigned task. When you’re finished, you’ll be taken to your work area and Allyce will instruct you.”

Nicole looked down at her tray. If Plato was telling the truth, she’d been kidnapped because of the voices she’d been hearing all these years. Voices that were supposed to tell her how to do things.

Only they weren’t doing that. They never had. Aside from that one moment of clarity when the butterfly person had been holding her in the darkness, she’d never even heard a complete sentence out of them.

Should she tell Plato that? If it really was the only reason she was here, maybe that would persuade him to send them all home.

Only Plato had already said that wasn’t going to happen.

Which meant Nicole had to stall somehow until she could figure out what else to do. She had to stall like crazy. “All right,” she said, picking up the spoon again. The first part of that stalling, she decided, would be to eat very, very slowly.

And hope that whatever Bungie and Sam came up with, they would come up with it fast.

Excerpted from Pawn, copyright © 2017 by Timothy Zahn

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