Roi and his best friends from slavery are taking a challenge journey on Falaron, a planet terraformed from Earth during the Ice Age. They look forward to a vacation of dog sledding, hang gliding, horseback trekking, sailing, whitewater rafting, and rock climbing—but the friction developing within the group is adding its own level of challenge to the trip. Their guide, Penny, finds the four a refreshing change from her usual spoiled clients. She is worried, however, by the unusual number of accidents the group is experiencing. Even though they are vacationing on a wilderness planet, this foursome seems particularly accident prone. But they aren’t all accidents. Roi’s half-brother Zhaim, a brilliant and malicious sociopath, has decided that the journey is an ideal opportunity to rid himself of his rival. He is capable of manipulating not only the weather but affairs on distant planets. His schemes distract the only two adults who would be able to protect the young people and draw them far enough away that they can be of no help. He has even managed to plant an unsuspecting agent in the party. As the group travels, their journey becomes a far more serious challenge than any of them could have imagined.
“Got your packing finished?” Roi asked, on the eve of their departure. Timi flinched a little as he turned to answer. “Except for a few things I can’t put in ’til the last minute,” he replied. “I just want to take a walk around the corridor system before we leave. Alone. Do you mind?” He knew his tone was sarcastic, but these meetings, exhilarating as they were, frightened him, as well. The one thing he could not be was relaxed and casual—and he could hardly explain that to Roi. His owner looked at him, a slight frown wrinkling his forehead. “I wish we could just be friends, like we used to be,” Roi said. “We were slaves together, then, instead of slave and owner,” Timi replied. “Maybe when I’m free ….” Roi nodded. “Have a good walk, Timi,” he said as he turned back to his own packing. Timi almost ran into Amber as he turned toward the corridor. She jumped back, laughing, and repeated Roi’s question: “Got your packing done?” “All but the last-minute stuff.” She tipped her blond head and looked hard at him. “You don’t look very excited. I mean, how many slaves get to go on a trip like this? Even Derik said he wished he had the time for that kind of thing.” “A month on horseback? I can think of things I’d rather be doing.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “Well, the rest of us like riding. And we’ll be sailing, too. You’re good at that. I hope Flame and I don’t get seasick.” Timi forced a laugh and headed on down the corridor. They weren’t really corridors, of course, but small rooms with jump-gates at each end. He had started early, afraid of interference, and he deliberately chose a long route to his destination, walking by windows that opened on late-evening scenes varying from seacoast to mountains. Most were too dark to see anything without pressing his face against the windows, and he strolled unseeing, trying to understand his own attraction to the R’il’noid he was going to see. Zhaim was dangerous. He understood that, from what Roi had told him. Zhaim was Roi’s half brother, but the two had as little as possible to do with each other. And Timi remembered all too clearly the time when Zhaim had tried to force Roi to sell him. Could he really believe Zhaim’s more recent assurances that he had simply felt Timi was being wasted in Roi’s hands? Zhaim had gotten Timi that desperately wanted conditional acceptance to the Space Academy, when Roi hadn’t managed—or perhaps hadn’t wanted—to do anything. Oh, Roi’s tutoring had helped, but that same tutoring somehow left Timi feeling hopelessly stupid at times. Everything came so easily to Roi! And Roi was so complaisant. Even if Roi found out about this evening, Timi thought, the worst he would do was look hurt. If Zhaim cared about anyone, he would care enough to kill. Timi turned into a side corridor that led directly to the guest garage, pushed open the door, and looked for Zhaim’s silver and gray skimmer. There was supposed to have been an Inner Council meeting tonight, though Roi had been let off his usual observer status, and Zhaim, who was blocked against teleporting into the Enclave complex, should have come by jump flyer. Sure enough, the skimmer was in its usual place, with Zhaim swearing into an open access hatch. Timi hesitated a moment, and Zhaim looked up. “Timi!” he said. “You know something about these things. Why won’t it start?” Timi relaxed in a glow of pleasure as he walked over to peer into the opening. “It was all right on the way in?” he asked. “Fine, but now it acts like someone else is trying to start it up.” Timi moved around to where he could see the status panel of the little craft. “Try it again,” he suggested. The status panel confirmed that the finger panel was recognizing Zhaim, but the start command was getting only about halfway through the system. Timi thought for a moment, mentally going over the starter circuit. There were a couple of places where something could have been jarred loose. “Hey,” Zhaim said, “what’s this I hear about your getting a vacation?” Timi grimaced. “We’re all going to Falaron for a couple of months. We’ll be traveling from the Spine Range down to Safeport along the Surprise River. Roi wants to make it a Challenge journey, so it’s not exactly going to be a vacation.” He opened a side access panel, finding and tightening a loose plug. “There’s the problem, I think. Try it now.” The machine purred into life, and Zhaim swiveled sideways in the driver’s seat. “Good job, Timi. You’ve got a real talent with electronics.” His expression turned serious. “You said a Challenge? That sounds a bit on the dangerous side.” Zhaim’s voice was concerned. “Timi, I worry about you. Roi’s just too reckless where his friends are concerned. I know it sounds silly, but—will you accept a small gift from me? A luck piece? And keep it hidden. Roi’s still pretty prejudiced toward me.” He grimaced. Timi hesitated. He knew perfectly well that Roi would not approve—but he was sick of looking for Roi’s approval. Zhaim might frighten him, but there was a thrill in defying that fear that Timi found increasingly difficult to resist. Then Zhaim reached into a pocket and pulled out a pendant carved of some translucent flame-orange material. A cat-like creature, with slanted slits of eyes and one paw lifted in warning—not an expensive piece, he thought, but one that appealed greatly to him. Timi’s hand went out, almost of its own accord, and Zhaim smiled as he dropped the braided leather cord over Timi’s head. “Matches your eyes,” the R’il’noid said with a smile as he turned in his seat. “Have a good trip, Timi.” Not until he was back in his own home did Zhaim allow himself to gloat over his success. Not only did he know roughly where on Falaron Roi and his friends would be for the next couple of months—a piece of information he had been quite unable to worm out of his father or anyone else who knew—he had planted a locator beacon and control circuit in the party. That was certainly worth pulling a plug loose to put the brat in the right frame of mind to accept his “gift.” And—a Challenge journey. He had assumed that Roi would be closely guarded during his vacation, but on a Challenge journey the group would be very much on their own. This could be an opportunity he would be a fool to miss. Zhaim owned a hunting lodge on Falaron, more as a matter of prestige than anything else. Officially, the place was closed for the season, but that would be easy enough to get around. And from the lodge, it shouldn’t be too difficult to eavesdrop on the Company communications. Maybe he could even get a tap on the finders the party would be carrying, as a backup for the beacon on the slave. Zhaim was not particularly good at long-range precognition. But over the last two years he had discovered that he could use his considerable short-range talent to affect the precognitive warnings of others. He had used this ability for over six months now to hide any precognitive warnings of danger to Roi. Evidently he had been doing a good enough job that Lai had been willing to accept the Challenge journey. He still did not dare attack Roi directly while Lai or Marna were anywhere near. But if they were both called out of the Central system …. Could he arrange that, somehow, without attracting any suspicion to himself?
Sue Ann Bowling earned her AB in physics from Harvard/Radcliffe in 1963 and her PhD in geophysics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1970. She taught at the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute until she retired in 1998. Sue Ann currently lives in North Pole, a suburb of Fairbanks, Alaska.