During the last Interglacial, more than 125,000 years ago, humans hybridized with the R'il'nai and spread across the galaxy to colonize other planets. Although they formed The Confederation, they still depended on the R'il'nai for guidance and protection—not only from the Maungs but from each other.
But only one of the pureblood R'il'nai still lives—Lai, an embittered survivor who mourns his lost human love but still feels bound to honor his race's responsibility to the Confederation. Two others possess the potential to change his and the Confederation's future—Snowy, a young slave dancer who is frightened of his odd powers, and Marna, a healer who survived a planet-wide epidemic on her home world.
All have their own individual loyalties which put them in conflict with one another, but the only way they can reach a future which will benefit all is to work together.
The living sculpture could no longer control its body, even to blink its eyes or turn them away from the horror in the mirror…No, Flick thought. His eyes. My eyes. I am still I. I am he. He could still hear and feel—if only he could stop hearing, and feeling, and even seeing! His master’s body stepped behind his own in the mirror, and the ice and silver eyes of his sculptor’s reflection traveled lazily over his distorted body. Zhaim was a handsome creature—oh, yes, with black hair braided into an elaborate crest above the smooth, bronze face, and a body that might have been designed by a far saner sculptor than the owner who had made a distorted mockery of his own body. Flick hated his owner with a passion that verged on madness, but while Zhaim had no qualms about invading Flick's mind, he never seemed aware of his young slave's hatred. Unaware or uncaring? Flick felt despair sting his unblinking eyes. What did it matter if a statue loathed its creator? The R'il'noid sculptor walked around his latest artwork, and Flick fought desperately to move, to scream out his hatred— "Snowy, Snowy! Wake up!" For a moment Snowy was lost, trapped in confusion between the horror of Flick's emotions and awareness of his own identity. Then the feel of Flame's arms around him, and the concern and caring he picked up from Timi and Amber, and most of all the fact that he could move his own body to burrow closer into Flame's embrace brought him back to himself. "Nightmare," he muttered. "Sorry to wake you all up." Behind him, he could hear Timi yawn. "You do less of that than most of us," Amber reassured him. "Go back to sleep. We've got a busy day tomorrow." "Right," he mumbled. "G'night." He readjusted his position against Flame, and closed his eyes. He felt the physical comfort of his friends, bodies jumbled together like a pile of puppies. What had happened was no nightmare, and he knew it. His sensitivity to the thoughts of others, though it had increased greatly in the last year or so, was under at least crude control. His ability to share emotions had also increased—but that was something he could not block without constant, conscious effort. When he slept, those blocks went down. And he was most sensitive to those he cared about. Like Flick. He owed Flick. Without the older boy's encouragement, he would never have started dancing with Flame, back in the days when he was a ten-year-old catamite and she a slave-bred concubine of the same age. That had led to a blessed respite from the worst of the abuse and more, to a realization on the part of their owner at the time that they were worth more together than separate. Later they had integrated Timi and Amber, both captives, into their dancing group. For the first time in his life, Snowy had friends he had some hope of keeping with him. For that matter, it was the first time he had had a market value high enough that he had some hope of surviving into adulthood. Sure, he was good looking, with his bronze skin, snow-white hair, and golden eyes. So was Timi, with his black silk skin, matching, loosely curled hair and flame-amber eyes. And the two girls—Flame with her copper hair and alabaster complexion, and Amber with blond hair, blue eyes, and creamy-tan skin—set them off beautifully. But attractive young pleasure slaves were easy to find, here on Central. It was the dancing, and the increased value that gave the group, that had kept them together for over two years now. … So what could he do about the situation with Flick? Maybe nothing—but just maybe… He didn't dare leave anything Zhaim could read in Flick's mind. He remembered something Zhaim had once said, while showing off his living sculptures to a visitor. "I am not Lai's property, and I do not agree with his soft-headed treatment of Human slaves as people! As the last of the pure R'il'nai, he deserves respect. But his ideas are outdated. When I, as the ranking crossbred, take his place, the Jarnian Confederation will be run as it should be, for the benefit of R'il'noids such as us. I left the Enclave because my father refused to grant me the artistic freedom I needed. He is not welcome here. But he can hardly refuse me the mental privacy he grants even to slaves!" Clearly Zhaim never even thought of granting mental privacy to slaves. Snowy took a deep breath and released his blocks against sensing emotions. He hadn't actually tried to tap into a specific person's feelings before, and it took a certain amount of awkward fumbling before he could ignore the sensations of his three friends. Once he reached Flick he had to brace himself against the intensity of the older boy's agony and hatred, even worse than they had seemed before. He couldn't leave Flick like this! He hated going into another mind, even to read thoughts or emotions. It left him feeling sick, as if he'd been swimming in garbage. Actually affecting another's thoughts or emotions was even worse. He'd done it—twice to save his own life, and once to save Timi's—but those experiences had left scars that were still painful. And the only way he could see to help Flick was to go into his friend's emotions deeper than anything he had tried before. He didn't think that what he had in mind would be reversible, either. Clamping his teeth on his lip, Snowy tried to build an image of what he intended in his mind. No words; Zhaim might be able to detect those. Only emotions. What remained of Flick's personality to be separated entirely from bodily sensations, and sent dreaming. Not of the last few months, or even the last few years, but of the time before his capture, when he had been part of a group rebelling against an unjust and arbitrary planetary government. Only the body left tied to physical sensations, so that changes in heart rate and breathing would convince Zhaim that his captive still felt his manipulations. A shallow smokescreen of the mental reactions Zhaim would expect. But no way of returning from the dream. When he had the emotional message complete, Snowy tried to transmit it to Flick, with a sense of question. The response was immediate, overwhelming, and positive. Snowy hesitated an instant longer. It wouldn't work if Zhaim went deeply into Flick's mind, but he rarely did that, not any more. Snowy was a slave himself; there was no possible way he could get Flick away from Zhaim physically. And Flick hadn't really understood that he was being offered a choice; his response had been more of "if only this were possible." What frightened Snowy most, though, was his mother's remembered warning. Could the interference with Flick's emotional state, if Zhaim ever recognized it, be traced back to Snowy? But the alternative was leaving Flick in his current state of suffering. Carefully, Snowy went deeper into Flick's emotions. He knew what he wanted to do, and he was pretty sure it was possible, but he was working by trial and error. Several times he had to back up, realizing he had made a wrong step, but finally he had the configuration he was after. He attuned himself to Flick's changed emotions for a moment. Not peaceful, no, but hopeful, excited, looking forward to a better world. A world that would never come, now, for Flick—but Flick didn't know that, and never would. I still owe you, he thought, if there's anything I can ever do. Then he made the last move of his scheme, cutting himself loose permanently from Flick's emotions. The hatred dropped away as he felt his own body around him again. Not all of the pain dropped away, though. His lower lip was throbbing, and he tasted blood. A quick inspection confirmed that he had bitten it through. Again. Hastily he opened to his friends' emotions, confirming that they were all asleep. And with his head buried against Flame's shoulder, the injured lip wasn't likely to be on any of the monitors. Guiltily he reached for the damaged tissues, and began Healing the injury.
Sue Ann Bowling earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at Radcliffe/Harvard and a Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Alaska. After thirty years of teaching, she retired to focus on writing. Bowling has lived in Alaska for forty-five years. Visit her Web site on canine color genetics at h t t p : / / b o w l ingsite.mcf.com/Genetics/Genetics.html.