Nancy dreamed. Her mind wandered in strange paths through the musty, unused places of her mind. The pictures and the places and the ideas were all strange, with a strangeness bordering on the uncomfortable. Yet they were only dreams, a part of her second life, where excitement and daring were to be had without any price to pay. She was happy with her dreams, and could trust them, as being herself mistress over them.

She did not realized that this was not so, that the dramas playing out before her were born from patternings in crystal, set by the will of others, not fantasies of her own.

two girls playing in a courtyard with statues

Nancy stood in the Granite Garden, a maze of fantastic statuary in the south of Castle Wolf. It probably had a formal name, this place, but she was content with the play name she had given it a decade and more before. This was her special place, from as soon as she discovered it : a place designed for games of' hiding and chasing, and just eerie enough to add spice. The place had also acquired other memories for her. Here it had been, on a sun-bed at the top of a small tower, a rook in a chaos of chess pieces, that she had first made love with Tricia; the first time for either of them.

Yet something had soured the friendly warmth of the place. The sky had clouded over with winter storm clouds, in the darkest of sky-greys, and the wind was fitful and cold, driving grit lashing across her bare skin. Those statues that had recognizable faces leered malevolently at her, making her more consciously aware of her nakedness than the temperature.

Somewhere close by, someone laughed, powerfully, satanically, in unholy glee. A girl screamed shrilly, from a torment appropriate to that hideous cackle.

Nancy headed towards the source of the sound, fighting her way between statues that seemed to move to block her progress through the mazes. The screams came again, bubbling as they faded. They were not always screams now — they had lost power, were instead groans of unendurable anguish.

At last, she stumbled into an open space, and stopped, horrified at what she saw. The frame of a child's swing had been set up across from where she stood, and instead of a seat, something else had been chained to the crossbar. It was Tricia, hanging by her wrists, shackled to the bolt holes, her body had been savagely mutilated, but through it all, she was still alive and conscious. Their eyes met, in a plea for help, or surcease. The carnage sickened Nancy to her stomach, and to think that that body had been once so beautiful…

Standing between them, turning now to see where Tricia stared, holding in her hand, the gory scalpel that caused the damage, was the Lady Jeanne Marygay of Wolf.

Despite her acceptance of Jeanne's higher social rank, Nancy did not show any respect as the red anger and black hate rose in her mind.

“You bitch!” Nancy could say nothing further. There were no words she knew that could suitably express her complete outrage. She sought to conjure up hellfires to cast at that laughing monstrosity, but the dream fabric refused to obey her.

Words failed her again as the Lady Jeanne effortlessly took her and hung her in Tricia's place, and began slowly to remove her skin with a scalpel now blunted from previous use. The agony burned incessantly, but she hated equally.

Both sensations seemed to go on forever.

Linna, High Priestess, stirred in her sleep, and woke. Sleep was elusive that night, in the heat. Besides, tomorrow the Great Song would be sung, a full month before the date normally appointed to it.

So the priests of the Skyfather urged, and despite her rank, Linna was content to bow to the superior wisdom of their astrological lore. They had pointed out all the new stars that had blossomed in the night sky, an event that had never been recorded since first the heavens had been established three thousand years before, and the great plays of the southern lights, brighter and more persistent that ever in living memory. Those were facts, incontrovertible, and there for everyone to see — even the common-folk.

She threw aside the bedclothes and went to the window to look at them. They were bright indeed in the crystal clear air, which flamed in the south. It was no wonder that the populace had been thrown into near panic. There was talk of the gods coming down to earth, and the end of the world; something especially favoured by the heretical preachers that had sprung up like a cancer in the year since these things had started

On a separate plane, Nancy interpreted the data. There was a war on up there, moving this way at just under light speed — no other way that the light could stack up so neatly. That gave this world of Lincoln very little time to live, before the raging fire of its sun burned it clean.

None of this bothered Linna. She was too involved with the intricate patterning of the dance, and the flow of the song. Unnoticed by her bed burned the deep blue gem, the regalia of the Earth other, woken by the patterns of mind.

Nancy was young again, only five or six years old, and her physical viewpoint on the world was disconcertingly different. She was playing catch with her sister Tracy. She was tall and slim, and Nancy found herself slightly envious of her looks.

She missed her catch, the ball sailing past her to land in the bushes that edged the open space of grass where they played. It was dark and green under their huddled leaves, but the ball was made of brightly coloured plastic, in yellows and reds, and was easy to see in the gloom.

She crawled forwards to pick it up, but something moved it away from her clumsy reach. She struggled after it, following its retreat into the depths of the shrubbery and then suddenly she was out in the open again, in a lagoon of open that she had never guessed to exist. She was not alone.

The Lady Jeanne held the ball, and gathered around the clearing were all her sisters, daughters and nieces, each one bearing the aspect of their age.

“I hate little girls,” said Jeanne, as if as spokes'an, “We all hate little girls, don't we?”

The rest of them nodded and murmured their assent.

“You were playing catch, weren't you?” the sneering voice continued, leaving Nancy chilled with fear, “and now we're going to play catch.”

This was too much for Nancy. She broke and ran as fast as her infant body might allow, but Jeanne was the faster, and grabbed her up — holding her despite her fiercest struggles. When she quieted a little, Jeanne hurled her at another of the girls.

Sky and earth, sun and clouds spun past her, and then she was caught in cruel hands, and thrown on to another. Sometimes they didn't catch her, and she fell on the hard earth.

It ended, finally.

Nancy wandered alone in a space of unreality. All around her was black, save glowing outlines in neon colours that drifted like deep-sea fish. She could move in that isolation as she wished; there was only the problem that one place was much like another in this sea. There was only the faintest of gradients to distinguish one place from another.

She reached for the source of the signposting, across an indistinct distance of space and time. And as she moved, she called the name of the only person she cared deeply about: “Tricia, help me, help me, my love.”

And pictures came to her from that source, fragmented at first, but unmistakably real. She looked out at the world through Tricia's eyes, and there was a crystal sharpness about the contact that cut through the fog of illusion that had clouded her dreams.

Her soul partner had departed the control room, and had returned to her room, where now she ate, wearily. She hoped that everything was under control, knowing that although the first operation had been interrupted from outside, that the present search would not fail — although whether it would be in time would be another matter. In the central control of operations, working against the pressures of time and violence, the Clan was bending its will to Nancy's rescue.

For herself, Tricia hoped fervently that they would succeed before it was too late for Nancy and worried that they would not until she could not eat. From her viewpoint, Nancy tried to reach Tricia, to tell her what was happening and as she strained, their waking minds touched, just for an instant. Love and reassurance blossomed where there had only been loneliness and fear.

They exchanged only a brief statement of their names, but that was enough of a message for either.

It was a day of High Dinner in the castle, this one to mark the birthday of Trixy Linda. The whole Clan had gathered together in the Great Hall, each in the formal robes of their station, most vying with their contemporaries for outrageousness of design and completeness of ostentation.

Nancy herself had chosen modest attire — her gown in purple, trimmed with silver, and on her brow, the circlet marking her as holding the rank of barronne, but that was as nothing against the metal and jewel encrusted outfits that adorned the high table.

[Decoration] Clan Wolf Arms (as blazoned)

Above that great gathering, on the wall, beneath a representation of the arms of the clan — argent, a bend sinister sable, between two wolves heads erased sable, armed and langued gules, was inscribed the roster of worlds that the Clan had graced. Lindisfarne, Starbow, Luthien, Heartward, Toehold, Last Gasp and Wyvern — even the five year-olds knew that list to recite.

Nancy herself was seated on the middle file of tables, midway down, on the left as one faced the high table, surrounded by her contemporaries, engaging in a frivolous conversation of some lightweight matter, whiling away the time until the food began to arrive.

“Nancy Elanor!” The Lady Jeanne roared out that name. Nancy felt her heart pound, and cold sickness close in on her belly. She turned to look at the source of the call.

All conversation ceased in the instant.

“Stand on the table, Nancy Elanor,” came the command.

“Do it, damn you!”

Nancy had hesitated but for an instant.

Aware of all the watching eye, she obeyed, kicking the cutlery carelessly aside. A knife clattered to the floor, loud in the ominous silence.

“Now strip!”

The circlet fell dully to the wood of the table, followed by the gown, carelessly discarded. Her hands shook as she unzipped her boots and kicked them off, wreaking further havoc down the table, Her grasp was no better as she fumbled with the fastenings to her dress, but the elegantly tailored blue cloth tumbled at last to her feet, and she stepped from its ring.

There was a pause, and then her underwear joined the pile of discarded clothing.

Nancy felt the eyes of the gathering upon her, lustful, laughing, cruel. She dreaded to think what might be in store for her at their hands. Only Tricia was not caught up in that fever. There was sadness in her eyes, and fear as she stared with morbid fascination, wanting to tear her eyes away from the sight.

There was a slight disturbance at the high table, and then Jeanne began to walk slowly towards her. Even at this time, she could notice the full regal attire and bearing of the woman she loathed, and the heavy whip she carried in her hand.

“Stand away from her,” she cried as she approached

They did, nervously moving away to form a circle about both Nancy and Jeanne. Coldly, the mother of the clan cast aside her heavy robes of silver fur, streaked with black, and her crown of argent and adamant, and held the lash ready. Their eyes met, and Nancy saw sickening savagery in their depths, and could only reply with fear and hate.

Jeanne raised the whip, showing the barbs woven into its length, and then brought it crashing down on Nancy's back. The end curled around her and raised a weal across her bare stomach.

The sky was clear, and a faded blue. From its vantage point, the sun shone down in scorching summer heat upon the great theatre. There were a few pinpoints of light in the sky that were stars in their death agonies, the aurora were a faint shimmer in the southern sky, like curtains of light.

The theatre was decked with flowers, and thronged with the devout, pilgrims come to this central rite, to be caught up in the oneness of life, in celebration and worship.

In the arena, the priests and priestesses assembled, ready for the commencement, on the hour deemed most auspicious. There was a heavy scent in the air of raw fragrances of flowers and herbs in the oils upon their skins. Set around the stage, incense burners sent up narrow columns of white smoke.

The finger of shadow on the sundials reached the appointed mark. Linna spoke the first words of the chant, and that was enough. On the instant, the dance began, each dancer following the path that they had been trained to, unified by the power that was in the amulet Linna wore. She was as if at a distance as she moved through that joyous crowd, the Great Words of the song pouring from her lips, and her body moving to the rhythms of the dance, embodying the ebb and flow of the seasons, and the intoxicating pulse of life.

Sweat streaked her body, drying quickly in the scorching heat, but still clogging up with the dust. Her feet were sore, bruised on the rough stone, but the joy within buoyed her up, and her steps did not falter. Time passed without anyone being conscious of it, until the clearly remembered closing stanza began. Already the dancers were pairing off to honour the Earth Mother.

And in the end, she was alone on the open stage, save for the one priest who would possess her on the altar. The last words were spoken, the last steps made, and she stood there panting from the exertion.

They faced each other, and Linna let slip her tattered garlands, her dusty gown. She turned to run to the altar. Locked within her Nancy's personality writhed for escape.

The Sun! She did not know who had first made that cry, but it was taken up by all the multitude, in the sky, the aurora flared, even against a sun swollen and grown brighter, its touch was parching, and searing, its light bluish and hotter than any furnace.

This was the nova, the death of world by the hands of uncaring gods, but though the people might fear, none knew truly what was happening, none save Nancy, and she could not act, she could only wait as the heat claimed them all.

There was darkness, it was cool and bathed her like stream water from the mountains, fresh melted from the snows of a hundred winters ago. There was a pathway in the dark, leading to a doorway, and she took it, and she and Tricia were together again.

Both slept, and both dreamed, and together they could master the flow of their dreaming. All their dreams were strange and beautiful

In Clarke orbit, the Clan Wolf troops were considering their possible avenues of escape. Two were open to them — either to hijack the shuttle taking the mercenaries down to the planet, or to wait a further two hours and try an escape immediately after a Link, when the Linkers would be unable to act.

Every second of their discussion they were painfully aware of their vulnerability to detection by any of the psychically aware Guild personnel, should any be so minded as to eavesdrop. There was only the standard convention on such invasions of personal privacy to protect them now, and even that couldn't prevent an accidental overhearing.

The former alternative was tackled first, with its great advantage of providing immediate transport and the drawbacks of having to face active Linkers and the assumed mercenaries. Conversely, the latter plan would avoid such lack of finesse, but possibly leave them without any transport available.

Eventually, they decided to wait for the link, and chance the transport, having determined that it gave the better chance of success, although neither seemed to be particularly hopeful. But they were content with that slim chance. Two and one half hour hence, during the psychic maelstrom of the link would be the most appropriate time for departure.

Time passed. Dreamers moved through the fantasies of the night, and schemers awaited the next Link. And on each of these, the fate of thousands rested.

Come the appointed moment, in the Snowflake, the Linkers reached out with their minds to forge new existence, to touch their sisters at Windfall Station, the next stop heartward.

The span of the great ring blinked like an eye, and at its centre, red fire blossomed, and green and gold rushed to join it, to rush outwards to the circumference bounding them, where they bubbled and frothed harmlessly around the gate to another place.

And as the whirlpool of colour spun and frothed in the ring, two dozen silver haired, grey skinned shapes made their move. Following courses reconstructed from memories and the briefest of scouting expeditions, they made their separate ways to the main docking complex.

Scattered, they avoided suspicion just long enough for them to reach their goal. Then, again en masse, they moved in on the few people hanging around, binding and gaging them briskly, and leaving them to be found later. Fireteams detached themselves, going to seek out transport for the escape, and one came up with a suitable vessel. It was a small in-system craft, presumably parked by someone gone away, with all the creature comforts that their previous trip had lacked.

They packed themselves into the craft, and as soon as the hatch was sealed, Jakita, in the pilot's seat, gunned the engines into action. Docking latches screamed and failed as the small ship tried to tow the whole station along, against the locking action of the Link, and then the ship was free to plummet towards the planet at its highest acceleration, taking them beyond the effective aegis of the Linkers in a scant handful of seconds.

Strained by their recent exertions, the Linkers attempted no fight with a ship that was being steered at ever increasing speed towards the largest concentration of inhabitation on the world below.

And in that place, Nancy dreamed.

Minutes passed, and the fleeing ship altered its course eastwards, risking everything on a descent at highest feasible velocity into the safety of the Castle. Towards their home, they cut a thousand-mile long path of ionization through the upper atmosphere, a trail that endured for minutes after that meteoric descent.

Only at the last possible moment did they radio ahead a call that the protective screens be dropped for the instants of' their passage, to give the least possible warning to the besieging forces. The nanosecond reflexes of the defence computers opened the outer barrier when the car was but yards away, and closed with such tolerance afterwards, but in the ten milliseconds during which the outer screen was down, the five assaulting cybersoldiers poured all the fire they could into perimeter installations, and the heavy laser batteries that were uncloaked burst into life. Five transient fingers of light ignited five longer lasting, but still brief flashes in the air.

The war had claimed its first irrevocable victims, and no one could say that they would be the only ones. There could be little hope of any sortie from the castle in the days to come; anything that asKorran, or the telepath might have to say to shed light on Nancy's plight would remain unknown.

The world turned on its axis, and morning: eventually came to the city of High Prospect, the ascending sun lighting its towers first in pink, then orange and then dazzling white.

On the couch where she lay, Nancy stirred, waking slowly from her sleep. Bacon was frying in the kitchen, its scent making her mouth water, its sizzling loud enough to be annoying, should she attempt to sleep again. She was thirsty, and her head ached, and when she tried to remember what she had dreamed, she felt decidedly uncomfortable. Whatever they had been, it seemed wisest to forget them now.

Nancy sat up, and swept her hair into some sort of order, and looked around her, remembering the events of that last night, a night that seemed to have endured forever, in chaotic, feverish activity. By contrast it was nice here, and quiet, nicer by far than at home where… She shuddered without really knowing what there was to shudder about. Trying to think about it felt like struggling in cotton wool and besides, hunger was at that instant more pressing than that sort of worry.

She joined her hosts in the kitchen, where Janice was cooking the meal, and Guy was setting out the plates.

“Morning, Janice. Morning, Guy.”

“Good morning, Nancy, how are you today? How much do you think you can eat?”

“OK. I feel a bit crook, but should be all right when I wake up properly, I feel hungry enough to finish off whatever you put in front of me.”

“Whatever you say. We can take it easy today, at least until this evening. It must have been terrible being chased by those barbarians.”

“The chase was no fun, but I think you're going a little far calling them barbarians — they have their own ideals — and I'm not so sure I like some of our history so terribly much. They might have a point however badly they put it.”

“I suppose you're right, Nancy. The idealists are probably a decent bunch. Its the corporation money-grubbers that are to be despised, like Shammarra and Kingarra. They're staying in that tower over there…” Janice pointed out of the window at another building.

“Just think what you could do with a small cybersoldier hand weapon — no hassle, just point it and no more directors for a couple of large corporations. They'd be too busy then keeping themselves from civil war and takeover. That'd see you safe, these last few days.”

“If I had a gun. Let's eat.”

That morning they spent strolling through the parks that made up by far the greatest proportion of area of the works of intelligence on that world. Despite the heavy make-up she wore, and the long black wig, designed to protect her from casual notice, Nancy felt freer than she could ever remember having been. All weight of responsibility had been lifted from her, all the compulsions to act as a good clan member against the dictates of her own self interest, all the hiding from alerted opponents of her presence. Though the storm might rage about her, she was at the eye of the hurricane.

On the hill slopes above the city to the north, they sat and ate a picnic lunch. The city itself was the centrepiece of their view, a rush of gleaming white, spawning tall towers that rose into the pale sky. Small specks of colour drifted around the structures, soaring in the thermals from their great concrete aprons, people hang-gliding around the only city this world possessed.

Nancy sat, and watched them soar about, as they launched themselves down the slope, against the breeze, and moved up and away in widening circuits. They were no source of threat; only to be envied for their freedom of action, and after months of paranoia the chance to throw off her habitual patterns of distrust was intoxicating. The close, almost family-like nature of the group enhanced the feeling of sudden freedom. She had regretted her most recent return to the castle, but she was now almost dreading the next one.

The thought wiped the smile from her face, saddening her deeply. The Castle seemed so restrictive after all this that even the prospect of return cramped her. For a long while she sat staring wistfully down at the bright city, not seeing, and only half hearing what was being said.

Yet looking back on it later, she could say that she enjoyed that afternoon, whatever else she might qualify that statement with, and it was with regret that she agreed with the decision to go back home. But that was not until the shadows were lengthening, and swinging far around to the south-east, and when their stomachs began to suggest that dinner would be a good thing to have. Even from the apartment now, the shadows stretched beyond sight, and the air was cooling, although the direct sunlight was still warm. The fateful evening would soon be upon them.

The local time was already shortly after 17:30. In less than an hour the sun would set on the city. While Guy prepared the meal, Janice and Nancy prepared for the flight to the Castle. All the while, Nancy hesitated, seeking to make a sufficient delay that they would have to postpone the operation until the next day. But that was not to be. Guy and Janice had obviously done the preparations in advance, leaving only the details for Nancy to fill in. The meal was soon ready, and Nancy ate slowly, the food seeming to lose its taste. The prospect of going home did not appeal to her and yet there was Tricia, waiting, for her, afraid that she might be lost to her forever. With that end in mind, she was determined to go through with it, even if she would leave as soon as the castle lifted.

And when the eating was done, Guy suggested to Nancy that she have a nap now, against what could be a very long night. She agreed, partly from expediency, partly from a weariness that was consuming her. She was thoroughly exhausted, all too ready to go to sleep.

And when she did succumb to its lure, Guy placed the helmet upon her head, and loaded it with a second cassette. She mumbled something indistinct as the first message began to pour through her brain, and then was silent.

Guy and Janice looked at the clock, and at the sleeping girl.

“Everything on schedule. Now for the next stage.”

Guy took up the phone, and dialled a number.

That morning, unwontedly late for her, but before in absolute terms, taking time zones into account, Nancy woke, Tricia made the decision to break out of her half-sleep and get up.

“Good morning, Tricia. The usual breakfast?”

“Sure. Anything happen while I've been asleep?”

There were a series of explosions, and the distant sounds of gunfire. When the sounds of combat lulled again, Genevieve replied to her.

“We've had no luck on tracing Nancy so far. However, the girls who were sent out after her managed to escape from the Snowflake. We even managed to get five of the matt cybersoldiers while the screens were down to let the girls' ship in. We only lost a few areas of the outer wall during the attack. Nothing much has happened since. The assaulting forces have built up massively — it's going to be almost impossible to get in or out of the Castle from mow on. It's mostly air cover, very little ground activity.

“They seem to be biding their time for some reason, waiting, and no one is sure why. I don't like it, and neither does Jeanne. I believe that they're waiting until they can get something that can take us out in one go — they must know as well as we do that it's only going to be another hundred hours until we lift.

“Other stuffs — the platoon who went out after Nancy want to take a heavy set of weaponry and set off after asKorran and the Guild telepath Nancy mentioned, to try and get some more information, but I don't think it'll fly. Jeanne is a little more calculating than that.”

“Thanks, Genevieve.”

Tricia thought of the dreams she had had, and of Nancy who had been with her during that time. it grieved her to consider that it would only be in dreams that she would ever again meet her, as a skein of animated memories.

She ate her breakfast without appetite. Without Nancy there seemed little point in life. There were other people, but she didn't get along with anyone quite the way she did with Nancy.

And yet…

She checked the situation at each of the other Castles. The inactivity of the matts around Castle Wolf began to worry her more. DawnCastle, holding of the two Hrulgani families, was only under the lightest of sieges, a token effort, in the face of the knowledge that that Castle would lift within twelve hours, the first of them all.

Castle Abiding, Fort Brady and Shallamir Hold were each under intensive assault, and yet only Fort Brady would be leaving after Castle Wolf. And despite that, a large force just waited, inactive, around Castle Wolf. Could they be waiting on a secret weapon that would give them the whole Castle at a stroke? Could that weapon be Nancy?

Tricia was certain to both answers, certain that they would each be ‘yes’, and she told Genevieve so, only to find that the analysis had already been made, and that plans to deal with that event were being drawn up. That left Tricia with a crazy hope for her girlfriend's life, a hope that sustained her against the silent hours of the day.

During that day, the last but two lifter unit was completed, excuse for some minor celebration. Jakita's mission never flew, despite her protestations. The night came down again, and midnight approached, and still, the fighting remained low-key. And in High Prospect, Nancy was drugged again, and fed dreams.

The sun was hot, and the air was choked with dust. Casual eddies moved across the ground, marked by whatever litter there was for them to pick up. Nancy stood at the defence perimeter of the castle her home, gun in hand, an army at her back, ready to throw down the evil queen and scatter her folk. She waited the word that would signal that the all-out intensive assault had begun around the whole perimeter, spearheaded by fresh troops, and while she waited, she sweated inside the light harness she wore, as a toned-down cybersoldier unit. She would be glad when they gained the buildings, just for the cool and the shade.

After what seemed an age, the word came.

“Now!” Nancy yelled, and leapt out into the open, followed by a small group of soldiers. The sun-baked earth felt hollow under their feet as they bounded forwards, assisted by the power of the suits, ten meters at a stride. Automatic gun-turrets tracked uncertainly recognizing her as a member of the clan, and holding their fire. She had to get behind them and out of their fields of fire before someone noticed what was happening, and overrode that fragile protection.

They lost two stragglers that way, or simply because they were so far away from Nancy that they were beyond her protection, before piling to a halt inside the first perimeter. Their protection fields sparkled under the beaming, flared, and died, leaving two charred corpses sprawled on the dead ground. Those losses were acceptable and had been planned for.

As they regrouped for the next challenge, Nancy sent up a flare, searing whiter than the sun. At that signal, five heavy combat lasers went into action, streaming their power at the five most vital sectors of the castle. That would keep the lifter fields up, and in so doing, keep them safe from internal laser batteries until they were across the minefield and under their maximum depression.

Directly under one of those titanic beams, as it roared through the air, Nancy led her team across the dry earth, under a hail of small arms fire from hastily assembled militia teams. She fired back, sending the defenders scattering.

With the lifter fields in-between, there was no such thing as aiming. Those fields were now tighter than they had been on Nancy's departure, raising the dust twenty feet or more into the air in an almost opaque wall. As the attacking team passed through them, the fields snatched at them, throwing them several feet up into the air.

That was the time they were most defenceless. For an instant, they were disoriented, under the open sky and within the fields. One enemy fireteam could wreak havoc if it caught them — but none did, the reactions were just too slow, and the only walls to hold them out were of stone and of metal. Blaster in hand, she poured through at the head of the avenging horde, cutting down the Clan troops as they tried to stem the tide.

A wooden door puffed into smoke at the touch of her handgun, leaving only the frames that had bound it together, and she hurried into the corridor beyond. She was alone within her home, save for the lone figure waiting for her at the end of the way. With hate in her heart, she advanced, gun at the ready, intending to leave the death shot until the last moment.

But as her finger tightened on the trigger, she recognized who it was that she faced, and in her horror at what she had been about to do, dropped the gun.

“Tricia,” Nancy moaned in anguish, “what have I done? Lift! Lift! Lift the castle now. Save what you can. It's not too late yet.”

All her will went into that. The castle had to lift, and before that, all the pre-patterning of the dream shuddered and failed. The earth rumbled beneath the castle, and trembled noticeably underfoot, and then the whole structure, all hundred billion tons of it, drifted majestically from its resting place, up into the starry void. Behind her, although she did not see, the figures of the matts became misty, and drifted away like smoke. She was just not interested in such things. Her eyes streamed with tears, and she rested her head on Tricia's shoulder, and held her tight.

Reality tore under the desperation of her grasp and she held more than a dreamthing in her arms. In her state of almost unquestioning stupor, it did not seem surprising to her that she should hold with her mind the mind of the real girl.

Tricia had been lying in her bed, alone this night, waiting for sleep to come and pass the hours away, thinking wistfully of the dreams she had dreamed the previous night, with Nancy by her side, in cities of gold and coral and open plains of green grass, or by a roaring fire in the middle of winter. And in the middle of that state of daydream came the contact, strongly, not like the fleeting ghost of one that had come while she had slept the night before, a contact that she thought had been no more than a mere dream.

This one she could not so deny. It was Nancy that she held, not a figment of her imagination, and she did not care to look a gift horse in the mouth.

They communicated without words, not needing any such clumsy medium by which to carry their messages, which were too deep for their limitations. But however the messages were encoded, the information did pass along the line, and each knew what the other was doing and where.

Nancy, deep in the darkness of her mind, with falsehoods and stupidity being pumped mechanically into a body obviously incapacitated by drugs, clung tightly to that misty connection, drawing reality about herself as a cloak, taking sustenance from Tricia's mind.

And with the strength she gained, she listened beyond the torrent of drivel entering her mind, trying to reach her captors. But not knowing how, she failed to do more than locate them, without knowing the keys by which she might contact them in turn, and force them to release her.

She waited, holding minds with Tricia, afraid that if she were to relax the link, it would break without her being able to restore it. It was an hour and a half that she remained like that, her only contact with reality through her link with Tricia, and that her only defence against the indoctrination aimed against her. Then, at the fringes of her awareness, another mind moved, one open to her probings, enough that she could listen to its conscious thoughts, and see through its eyes, and feel with its other senses. It was a girl's mind, and she was walking towards the apartment door, impatient with something or someone.

She knocked, and waited a few seconds for Guy to come and open the door, and beckon her in, and welcoming her by the name of Valerie.

“Why, hello, Guy, she answered him, what did you want me for?”

“You remember I told you we had captured one of the Clan Wolf girls, and put her under indoctrination? Well we're running the final sequence now. She didn't take all that well, so I don't want to make her too suspicious in case something backfires on us. What I'm doing is giving her false memories for the present sequence, something to stop her getting suspicious about the amount of time she's spending asleep these days.”

“And where do I come into all this?”

“Well, the most obvious memories to give her, to explain what she was doing in bed, is to put another girl in there with her.”

“And Janice refused to do the work for you, and you couldn't do it yourself without more time to work in, so you called for me instead. How much are you paying for this essential work?”

Guy hesitated. He had not considered that aspect of the problem — and he doubted that he could persuade Valerie by appealing to her political sentiment: she had none to speak of. He was trapped in the situation, having already committed himself by putting one specific girl into the conditioning tapes.

“Fifty plaques, no more, he said, grabbing a figure from the air.”

“One hundred. Let's be reasonable, and have a round number. Have you no sense of aesthetics?”

“OK, OK, don't rush.”

“I shan't. Cash please, now. Then we can talk business.” Knowing that he had no threat to hold over the girl, Guy signed the credit over to her.

“Let's have a look at her, then.”

“She's just as we left her, fully dressed, but under a contact cap. She won't notice anything when you undress her. The only hassle will come when you have to take the helmet off, hide it, and get into position, all before she begins to take notice. She's drugged a bit, but whatever they did when they designed her has given her a fantastic resistance to drugging, so I wouldn't trust that too far.”

“Thanks a load. I wish you had told me about this a little earlier, though — I prefer at least to know in advance who I'm going to be sleeping with.”

“But it's all in the cause.”

“Big deal. One girl. I hope you weren't thinking of calling me in for all n-thousand of them. Where is she?”

“In the bedroom. This way.”

Nancy followed their approach, every step a threat to her, her safety and her integrity. and yet she was intrigued by this girl Valerie who was to lie with her. She had not seen her face or figure, save through the intermediary of Guy's eyes, and her contact there was poor, and in that way had found out only that her hair was brown.

The door to the bedroom opened, and from her viewpoint, Nancy saw herself sprawled clumsily on the bed, a filigreed mesh of bright metal among the silver of her hair. She tried to move, but could not. Until the cap was removed, she would be helpless, totally at the mercy of anything that her captors purposed for her. Through Valerie's senses, she noted Guy's interest, and tried to cringe.

“Like screwing a black-and-white photograph,” she declared. “Well, business is business. Clear out.”

And when Guy was gone, Valerie bolted the bedroom door. Nancy noticed that, and modified her plans accordingly. It would give her just that extra margin of time in which to act, though the game would be just as all-or-nothing as before. She watched disinterestedly as she was undressed, only caring really that she saw where the necklet was placed.

“Any moment now, Tricia,” she called down the link, pouring a great weight of regret and sadness to her mind-partner at that thought. Valerie paused to examine her involuntary partner, before discarding her own attire. Hiding the cap quickly, she realized, was the problem, but simply throwing the thing under the bed should suffice. She lay down beside the still form, and examined the fixing of the cap.

Nancy felt the gentle touch of fingertips across her scalp, the scratching of the wire meshes, and then the cap was torn from her head.

“Tricia, Tricia, I love you!” she called down the fast fading connection. She would have said more, but there was not time. She was alone in her own head again, totally trapped by a form of flesh ridden by chemicals, with a stranger girl on top of her.

Still, her mind was clear, despite the sluggishness of her body, and she acted. But the flesh was still weaker than the spirit was willing, and instead of throwing the girl from, her, all she did was writhe under Valerie's warm body. There was enough residual drowsiness about her to tempt her to stay and enjoy this stroke of good fortune, rather than immediately to escape from this threat.

That was good, she muttered, to keep up the pretence. Valerie kissed her, and they embraced tightly. And as soon as they were locked in that embrace, Nancy made her move, rolling them both from the bed, with Valerie landing up on the bottom of the heap.

Being forewarned about it, Nancy recovered from the instant's disorientation and winding before her partner, enough time for her to disentangle her hands and get them around the other girls throat, and to lean her weight on them.

Valerie thrashed, and made a few loud, half vocalized noises, the difficulty with which she made them indicative of the effectiveness of the attack. But she was taller, and stronger than Nancy, and her struggles, even from a position of disadvantage, were almost enough to free her from the desperate hold. As her air ran out, and she felt she must surely choke, Valerie reached up and tried in turn to strangle Nancy, but by then, she had pinned one arm, and the grip on her throat was a mere discomfort.

It took a long time for Valerie's struggles to quieten, a time during which Nancy was many times nearly thrown free, and during which she was ever fearful of intrusion, despite the locking of the door. Yet even when her victim lay still, she continued the hold, just in case the girl was faking unconsciousness.

She breathed deeply and raucously when Nancy released the grip, but did not stir. Not wishing to take any chances, Nancy moved hurriedly, taking up her necklet and her coveralls in one bundle, and tiptoed over to the panel in the far wall marked Fire Escape, moving with a stooped stance like some half-ape ancestor.

The panel fell away from the supports that had held it tight, with a brittle snapping of restraining bars, and end-over-end it tumbled down, auraed in red by the active field of the fire escape. Ringlight glinted from the splintered ends of the glass rods that had held the panel, and tingled as it fell on her bare skin. The thousand foot drop, the framework of the tower were a flat pencil sketch, with perspectives distorted.

A sudden vertigo made her head spin, and the air was chill about her. For milliseconds that seemed to be minutes, she contemplated the fall before her, the assurances of her intellect now overcoming the animal fears of her mind, before the din of the warning hooter, muffled though it might be by the field, but loud enough yet to waken the dead, hammered its way through her distraction.

She scrambled out of the door, hanging at arms length from the sill, and swinging herself under the apartment. She had to get out of sight before the cause of the alarm was discovered, and the bedroom door broken down. But what swing she had gained was soon dissipated in the viscous medium, and she was forced to try to swim, but it was no different to trying to swim in normal air. Under the influence of the safety field, only vertical motion, under gravity, was affected, impeded, and the air was made only to impede motion, not allow it. And with those constraints upon her, her transverse progress was painfully slow.

So slow indeed, that she was: almost too late. Guy arrived first at the open panel, carrying a stunner in his hand, and Nancy was yet a yard from getting out of his sight as he leaned down. The beam reached for her, but only clipped her legs, and was without effect.

Janice's voice, echoing strangely in the field, its tonal qualities grossly distorted by its acoustic side-effects, announced her arrival, and she joined Guy in the hatchway. She fired calmly at Nancy, weighing the increased accuracy of the aim against the rapid disappearance of the target, and almost won the gamble. A tangline coil splattered against a girder, wrapping it up in a pallid white cocoon, its point of impact mere inches from her legs.

For the moment, she was safe, and the time came for decisions, time to guess whether they would try to recapture her, or opt simply to kill her, before they succeeded.

They had the choices of either following her down outside the tower, or racing down in the central gravshaft and catching her as she drifted down like an autumn leaf. Against this, Nancy could play either to remain outside and dodge the attacks, hiding behind the supporting engineering, or heading for the gravshaft and taking that way herself.

She set up the game matrix in her head, making up the payoff values much off the top of her head, and decided that the matts profited by taking the shaft, and her play relied on her choosing the safer of her two choices under those circumstances. She opted for the centre. That would end the game faster, and would give her opponents less time in which to prepare for her.

She passed close to one of the beams, and grabbed hold of it, changing the direction of her fall in the few instants for which she held, drifting now more in the direction of the central core. She hoped that her analysis of the situation was sufficiently detailed, that enough conditions were satisfied for the reasoning to be valid. There were no obvious omissions, only the oppressive need to be right, first time, or not at all.

The only flaw she could identify in the reasoning was that those opposing her take only one strategy. They could play as many as they had personnel and weapons — two at least, three if Valerie was sufficiently recovered. She looped the necklet over her head, and threw away the coveralls, to collect them at the bottom. It was time to to panic now, and she would prefer not to be cluttered.

She looked up. Alone, Guy drifted into sight in pursuit of her. She guessed that that would mean that Janice would be taking the gravshaft, arriving at the bottom long before she would. The fire-escape was only a simple comparatively fail-safe device, the shaft-fields were more sophisticated, the simplest difference being that the shaft could make one go up against gravity.

That idea, was crazy enough to be worth the try. The nearly mile-high tower would be amply sufficient to lose two or three searchers in; and if she could find someone in the tower who owned a hang-glider — or if she could tempt all three to head up at her, for her to dive past at the highest velocity she could attain. That decision would be kept until she reached the tower core. The problem was now how to reach that place.

There was now almost a race on, an incredible slow progress through the loose forest of girders, as Guy struggled to locate Nancy in the shadows through the red markerhaze that clung about him, and obscured his sight, preventing necessary dark adaptation, and Nancy wriggled and writhed towards the structural beams, so that she could halt her fall and drag herself arm over arm to the central shaft.

Guy won the race, and while Nancy was still a few feet short of her goal, he saw her clearly in a shaft of light that passed through the meshwork, and with a clear line of sight on her he could hardly miss. He did, but for the merest instant, and with a slight twist of the arm the beam, almost at its full drain, caught her square in the body. Yet as far as he could tell, it was totally without effect, its power just being absorbed in the blue haze that had supplanted the red about the girl. That it was markerhaze, he doubted, for it tattered slightly under the blast, but did not falter.

Nancy scarcely noticed the attack, until the blueness engulfed her, enhancing the ringlight non-colours, and not competing, as had the rosy glow of the field haze; if it had any effect, it was negligible besides the wooziness still left over from her last drugging. The matts however would not prove so resistant. Now if only she could capture the gun, all would be well. The idea intrigued her enough to try it, despite her trepidation at the thought of closing, with Guy, while totally unarmed.

The cold metal of the beam she had been struggling for slapped against her outreached arm, brushing it aside without changing her course. The next one she grasped more tenaciously, swinging around until she was falling almost directly to the next one in sequence below. She almost landed there, killing most of the twenty feet per second of velocity she had acquired. Now, at a more leisured pace, she could actually grab hold of the next crossbar, and hang there, still.

She scrambled up to stand there, and looked up at her pursuer. A hundred feet above her he was, and committed to a pursuit path, without any structures available for him to steer from. That gap gave her five seconds to manoeuvre on the beam, still some five hundred feet up from the ground, time to prepare herself for what she would, do. She might just as well carry through the lunatic plan, now, as there would be time enough to stop again later. She checked around for other apartments, and saw no other ones in the stack she currently occupied for about three hundred feet below her.

As Guy drew level, Nancy sprang from the beam, diving for him as he thrashed about to turn and face her. She reached him before he had completed the manoeuvre, approaching him from one side. Recognizing that under the circumstances it would be more a liability than an asset, he threw the stunner away, as Nancy struck him feet first. With the object of the fight one out of reach, Nancy began to regret her decision, for despite the first kick to the head, her opponent was still willing to fight her — or more, from the look of him.

His hand caught her left ankle, and drew her towards him, her struggles availing her nothing. All she could do was continue to land weak kicks to head and shoulders with her free leg, sacrificing strength for agility, to avoid the capture of the other leg. Guy waited for her to tire, riding the blows, content to let her remain at extreme range for a little while.

But Nancy succeeded more than she had realized she would. Their combined course drifted them horizontally, across the space to the next line of beams, and Guy, being beneath Nancy, and facing upwards, was not aware of this until he landed on one, taking the force of their combined deceleration. His grip slackened, enough for one sweeping kick to the face to free her entirely, and set her drifting back.

She might have gone after the stunner at this point in the action, but she had heard it clatter from some piece of structural work, off to one side, without any notion of where it had scattered to, that idea lost its charm. Besides, it was more entertaining to watch Guy tumble limply from the beam, obviously not conscious.

Her artistic appreciation of the events did not preclude her from hearing a sickening slurp as a tangline charge took something — her coveralls, she guessed. From the path of his fall, Guy would be next — he didn't have an apartment below him any more, or so she judged. That would amuse the ground crew — or something. Then either she could slip out at a distance while confusion reigned, or instead just stay on a crossbar, taking all comers. No, scratch that idea. That last victory had been mostly luck and she didn't feel like chancing her arm again. She would sneak out like a coward, a modus operandi that suited her temperament so much more closely than the heroics that she had been involving herself in.

She began the landing approach to the apartment, killing her velocity in fleeting contacts with crossbars as she had before, for it was as much important to her not to make an excessive noise as it was not to endanger her personal comfort by making a poor landing at high velocity.

With more room to play with, she let herself roll as she hit. The rooftop was finely gravelled, like coarse sandpaper, and scoured at her skin, but did no more than leave white scrape-marks. It was no discomfort to stand on it in bare feet, but not to sit down on in similar attire.

She dusted herself off, and walked towards the central column. There was a small railing, designed to prevent those getting off at wrong floor from falling, but she climbed it easily, and opened the shaft door. Brightly lit, it extended in severe perspective above and below her, distorting her perception of direction for a few instants.

Recovered of her sense of up and down, she punched keys to the code for the ground floor, and stepped out into the shaft. Warmly, protectively, the fields grasped her, pulling her down at several gravities of acceleration, then suddenly reversing at the half-way mark, drawing her to a halt at her assigned destination.

The entry concourse was deserted. Nancy peered out from the shaft, looking out into the night, in as much as she could see anything through the doors. Against the contrast of illumination, she could see that they were not directly guarded. Towards the city, a few lamps showed a vehicle park which she would have to cross. It was almost empty, and the mercury lights made it a fast way to suicide were she to attempt it. Away, there were trees and parkland. As the least desperate of the options, she chose that, and sprinted out.

This was the side opposite to the apartment and where she had remained during her fall, and Janice was, as she expected, not there. Valerie was, and standing right where Nancy would run into her. She did. Both went sprawling on the concrete, with Valerie's gun falling from her hand, and skating across the rough surface.

Nancy picked herself up and crawled across to it, but fumbled her attempt to pick it up and run. Something inside her snapped as she panicked, and her mind spiralled away.

Janice came running at Valerie's involuntary shout, and found her picking herself up off the floor.

“No, it wasn't her. It was a dog of some sort. She must still be up there hiding, Reinforcements?”

“I suppose we'll have to. Stay here. I'll phone from the car — and don't let her jump you like that animal did.”

Almost within sight of those events, Vors k'Shammarra was far less happy that he would have been, had he been observing them. He had diverted his prime force to searching for Nancy, but without much in the way of trail to follow, and without any information from those responsible — not even a claim of responsibility, let alone negotiations with the Clans; and none from the prisoners from last night's fiasco, it was no surprise that so little progress had been made.

And there was that worrying business about the attack on Castle Wolf. Serious though the loss of five cybersoldiers might be, he did not care for the local commander's decision to cease all but the slightest of attacks, and call repeatedly for reinforcements to make up for that loss. He had made his decision, and would abide by it, just to spite the man. Not being an employee, however tenuously, of his, and not being native to this world, there was little he could hold over him in the way of threat. Not that at that late juncture, it really mattered. DawnCastle would soon be lifting, and the troops from there could go in as the reinforcements so many times demanded. But it would be too late now for there to be much chance of actually cracking one of these strongholds. It served only as an outlet of feeling.

He would let the people play at toy soldiers. As for himself, he had more profitable projects underway to occupy his time.

© Steve Gilham 2000