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     ...I think it might be loosening.

     Determined not to just roll over and give up without a fight – not to mention, barely able to sleep in her cold, dank cellar, needing something to keep her from spiralling into despair at her current predicament – Blink had busied herself during her waking moments with another ill-advised attempt at escape, working at the ribbons binding her wrists, rubbing and wriggling her pinioned limbs and trying to get the fabric to loosen. If only she could have reached the knots with her teeth!

     I definitely think it’s getting looser.

     Like Tun had said, it was just a bit of fabric. Just a flimsy little bit of fabric that a dedicated fessine could rub or tear or bite her way through, and escape once more to freedom! Just had to be patient and committed about it. If she kept on working at it, pulling and stretching and straining the fibres, eventually one strand would fail, and then so would all the rest in quick succession. And it really seemed to be getting looser...!

     ...oh, who are you trying to kid, anyway.

     Blink swallowed a despairing sigh and leaned against her wall, for a moment, to catch her breath and straighten her thoughts, closing her eyes against the pain in her arms and willing it to go away. Didn’t feel like she’d actually achieved much for all her efforts except skinned, sore, bleeding wrists... and tighter knots. The ribbon certainly refused to yield to her work. Blind, stubborn determination only took a girl so far.

     A brighter, approaching glow from the corridor attracted her limited attention. Was someone coming to release her? Her heartbeat quickened; what should she do? Should she acquiesce, promise to behave – and actually do it, this time – just to stop everything hurting, or should she refuse, dig in her heels, stay down here on principle?

     I am not your sex toy, and no amount of beating, starving abuse will ever cow me into submission.

     Rehearsing in her head the words she wanted to say to Tevak was all well and good, but the idea of potentially staying down in this damp, uncomfortable cellar until she died? It made her stomach shrink inside her, compressing a bilious nausea into her throat.

     You might be stubborn, and you might have plenty of principles you want to cling to, but is it really worth dying, just because you don’t want to let him have sex with you? her conscience scolded. Come on, girl. You can’t betray your family like that. You need to take whatever chance you can to get to a radio, and tell them what happened, and if that means swallowing your pride and ‘behaving’, even for a monster?

     ...her visitor was not Tevak. For that matter, she wasn’t entirely sure who it was, although her heart gave a little leap at working out it was definitely not Zinovy; the figure silhouetted in the door had a large tail and pointed ears, which suggested it was a vul, but it lacked Tun’s fidgety mannerisms.

     Blink froze, shying closer to the wall. What was he here for, to hurt her? To... to do things to her? “...leave me alone,” she croaked, as assertively as she could manage through her parched throat.

     The vul crouched near to her, moving slowly so he didn’t appear too threatening, and set the oil lantern down on the floor. It cast a dirty yellow light that only seemed to make the shadows deeper. “It’s all right. I’m not here to hurt you,” he reassured, quietly, with a wan smile. “Just here to give you a drink.” He lifted the jug he was carrying, as an explanation.

     The quiet slop of water reminded Blink just how achingly thirsty she was, but she could only find the energy to stare at him, for several heartbeats. “...what?”

     “It’s midmorning. You’ve not had a drink since... middle of yesterday afternoon, by my reckoning?”

     Blink licked her cracked lips, involuntarily. Her tongue felt huge, swollen and dry, all stuck to the dehydrated inside of her mouth. “...not allowed water,” she reminded, hoarsely, shaking her head. “...said he was going to... starve the manners in, or something...” She looked away. “’re not going to trick me into getting into more trouble.”

     The vul’s genial smile faded. “He wants you weak and submissive, and willing to do what he tells you, not dead,” he corrected, softly, pouring a little of the precious fluid into a shallow cup. “And you’ll die without water.”

     Blink turned her face away as he offered it up to her. “...well I don’t want it.”

     “Please. He sent me down here specially, and he’ll only take it out on me if I don’t get you to drink.”

     Blink took a good hard look at the long face, but the vul’s expression was inscrutable. He might have been lying, she accepted, to get her to do what he wanted... but it also sounded like the exact sort of thing Tevak would do. She caved, at last. “...all right... just a sip.”

     He lifted the cup to her lips, and tilted it carefully so the small layer of water in the bottom would pour into her mouth, without choking her on it.

     Cold, fresh, delicious water, it made her throat cramp painfully as she gulped at it. Never before had anything tasted so good. It felt like it absorbed straight into the dry, painful lining of her throat as she swallowed, without a single drop getting to her aching stomach, making her cough feebly as it went down the wrong way.

     “...better?” he prompted, already pouring another small portion for her.

     She glanced away, embarrassed, and nodded. At least he didn’t seem to be saying I-told-you-so, a trace of genuine concern in his rough voice. She watched out of the corner of her eye as he poured out another small portion of water. “...why are you doing this?”

     “Why?” He looked up at her, and shrugged. “Why not? Maybe I’m just not a bad dar, at heart?” He lifted the cup to her lips. “Not everyone here is here because they’re an evil monster who’d stab you in the back as soon as look at you. Some of us are here because we haven’t got any other options.”

     She took so long thinking about his words before finally accepting the water that he knew she had something preying on her mind. “Don’t believe me?” he intuited.

     “Well-... You live here, with Tevak. I-I mean...” She licked her lips, uncomfortably. “Odati said-”

     He interrupted with a little snort. “You’d do well to ignore her. That jergy old vulline says a lot of things, and most is propaganda to make herself look better.” The fessine’s frown made him arch a sardonic eyebrow. “Don’t believe that either, huh?”

     “I don’t know,” Blink admitted. “She’s been... fairly nice, to me.”

     “Only ‘fairly nice’?”

     “Well-... She almost didn’t want to let me stay, at first, but the others persuaded her. But that was only because she was worried about everyone else!”

     “Because you’d been bitten?”

     Blink pursed her lips and shot him a tormented look. “Does everybody know?”

     He smiled, sadly. “You don’t think Tevak’s gonna keep something like that a secret, do you? One thing that is true about this group is that violence is a way of life, and there’d be no way any of them would be able to treat you with protective gloves if you weren’t immune. That and, uh, well...” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Bites aren’t the only way this thing is transmitted. Any bodily fluid is good enough.”

     Blink groaned and let her forehead drop back to rest on her hands. As if the point hadn’t made clear enough already that she had to get out of here, her company – unwanted company, she added, uncharitably – just had to rub it in.

     “So anyway. Lemme give you some background.” He sighed and sat back on his heels, briefly pinching the bridge of his nose. “I came here... six, seven years ago now? Long story short, I was in a mountain of debt, and figured that if maybe I got lucky, if maybe the power had finally run out, I could make a little money by selling stuff I’d taken from the Institute.”

     “Pit. Why is everyone so obsessed with that place?” Blink despaired, sagging against the pipe; it was beginning to feel like she was stuck in a planet-sized psychiatric hospital. “It’s the cause of so much trouble. It’s the only reason I’m even here! And no-one can even get in.”

     “I guess the place makes folk optimistic. The Institute has kinda grown its own mythology, over the last twenty years or so.” He held up the third cupful to her; now the worst of her burning thirst had been slaked, she drank more slowly. “The more people that visit and can’t get in, the more people think there really must be something hugely valuable or hugely important inside that’s worth stealing. There’s even people who think Head Researcher Daavi himself let heff loose among the population, because they discovered something so terrible, he couldn’t risk the discovery getting out and deliberately shut down the whole planet. That sort of thing gets people curious. Gets them excited.”

     “But that’s just stories-!”

     “Is it?” The vul spread his hands. “I don’t know. Does anybody know? Has anybody been able to get in to check?”

     Blink was forced to admit defeat; for all she knew, he was right. “...go on.”

     “Anyway. The interstellar quarantine grid was failing, but it still had just enough juice to cripple my ship. I came down in old farmland somewhere south of the headland, took me a few days to get over the hills to Kust. The Library was the first place I bumped into. I figured, won’t hurt to ask for help, right?” He pursed his lips, dismissively. “Odati wouldn’t give me the time of day. We don’t accommodate criminals, she said, and turned me away. Wouldn’t even let me over the fence.” He sighed. “Then I got bitten, of course, and well...” One shoulder came up in a half-hearted shrug. “I wandered around Kust for a few weeks, sick and hungry, until this lot eventually took me in. Tevak said he didn’t really care about my history, so long as I worked hard and didn’t lie to him.”

     “You can’t tell me you like it here.”

     “ But I don’t really have much choice, do I? My choice is between here, the Library or dying in the wild, and the Library don’t want me.”


     The frightened whisper from out in the corridor attracted both of their attention.

     “Are-... are you down here?” the voice went on, and after a second or two, a short-haired little fessine appeared silhouetted in the doorway.

     “Hey, Liega.” The vul’s long face pulled back into a brief smile. “What are you doing down here?”

     “I, uh, I-I wanted to bring something.” The little fessine inched her way into the cupboard, looking like she expected to be bodily attacked at any second. She didn’t look much bigger than Blink herself – certainly not as tall as the shrieking Natalja. “Lia’s gone off somewhere with Naté, so I figured it would be safe to come down.”

     “I thought you didn’t like the dark?”

     “I don’t, b-but I had to bring this.” ‘This’ turned out to be a thin cushion, which Liega couldn’t seem to stop wringing between her hands. The poor thing looked terrified of being down in the basement, her eyes enormous, her skin ghostly pale; Blink didn’t remember her looking so spectral when she’d seen her before, quietly eating lunch in Natalja’s shadow. “I know the floors here are horrible,” she whispered, faintly, sliding the thin cushion under Blink’s knees. “And I wanted you to know we’re not all out to get you.”

     After sitting for so long on the unyielding, unfriendly concrete floor, the worn pad of foam felt as luxurious as a feather bed. Blink sighed gratefully and rolled her weight off her knees, grimacing briefly in pain. “Thank you.”

     “You’re a lot braver than me,” Liega added, softly, bumping cheeks. “I only ran the once. Making me sleep in that horrible cupboard was enough, I didn’t dare run away again.”

     Blink managed a small smile; the world was conspiring to prove Sett’s point, that not everyone here was evil. “I don’t know. You seem a lot braver than you’re giving yourself credit for, staying here,” she argued, quietly. “Smarter, too, if you didn’t get spooked and run away for a second time.”

     “Tevak’s really not so bad, so long as you do what he says.” Liega sat back, folding her arms around herself; looked like even she didn’t seem to quite believe the words coming out of her mouth. “I-I mean... he, he’s got a bit of a temper, and he can be rough, but... he does try to be gentle...”

     “I don’t want him to be gentle. I don’t want him to touch me at all!”

     Liega managed a tortured smile. “I don’t know where you came from, but it sounds nice,” she murmured. “Like a place where fessine get given a choice.”

     Her words reminded Blink uncomfortably of what Rae had said, that night he got so horribly drunk. “...what if you said you wanted to leave?” she wondered.

     Liega dropped her gaze to her lap and shook her head. “I can’t go anywhere; I’m married.” She pursed her lips in a forced smile. “Asnaté was an important medusi, had a big family before heff came along. The virus wiped most of them out, except Natalja.” Sigh. “There’s no way she’d just let me walk away.”

     So you’re just a status symbol? Love never comes near the equation, let alone into it? Blink swallowed her discomfort; however hard it had been back home, struggling to get her groundling mind around the skyborne concept of ‘trine’, struggling to learn to share, at least there’d been no doubt that they’d both loved her. She couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to have only been wanted because it made them look better.

     Liega gave her a tiny hug and whispered; “I’m sorry I can’t do more. I’ll come see you again if I can. Us fessine gotta stick together, right?”

     Blink let her head rest on Liega’s shoulder, sadly. “...right.”

* * * * *

     Whether it was his own injuries making him weak, Sadie’s antibiotics, Halli’s painkillers, or some mixture of all of it, Rae slept through pretty much the entire day after being bitten, stirring only for his antibiotics and a mouthful or two of food before collapsing back into a deep, thankfully-dreamless sleep.

     When he finally woke up properly, almost a day and a half after he’d been bitten, he felt weak and sore, and to cap it all, a blinding headache had wriggled its way into his skull and now nestled between his ears. In his medicine bowl, there were no more of those delicious little fat red capsules to knock it back out, either – just antibiotics, and a selection of Mama Odati’s ‘herbs’. He felt like he’d happily trade all the herbs and antibiotics in the world for just one of Halli’s ‘secret candies’, right now.

     Rae lay and stared at the shallow basin for several long, resentful minutes, until it became clear the contents weren’t going to miraculously turn into something else. Much as he wanted to stay in bed... he couldn’t help feeling guilty, as though he’d consciously chosen to abandon his friend in her hour of need, not been stuck in his room, barely conscious and genuinely sick. He slithered out from under his sheets, hissing in pain through clenched teeth. His shoulder felt no better, although it probably didn’t help that he’d inadvertently rolled on it at some time during the night.

     Carefully, he inched his way downstairs; walking at a normal pace jogged at his arm, which in turn pulled at the stitches holding the wound closed, which made pain shoot all the way down through his lung and into his stomach, leaving him distinctly bilious. (Or was that just hunger?) At least, he consoled himself, the pain hadn’t got any worse, and nor was the tissue too hideously inflamed, so hopefully the antibiotics (and that excruciating wound-wash) were doing their job.

     At the bottom of the stairs, he turned right and away from the breakfast room, heading for the bookshelves of the library proper; what he particularly wanted was a good map, and knew where he could find one. Although most of the city plans were twenty years out of date, and well-nibbled by insects, someone had taken the time to keep one of them clean, updated and current, stashing it carefully-folded in a protective plastic box on the main desk directly inside the front door, where the librarian would have once sat.

     Taking the precious sheet of paper over to the reading area, Rae spread the map out over the table by one of the huge main windows looking out over the square, set his basin of antibiotics and painkillers on the wide sill, and settled to pore over it. Someone with a careful hand and excruciatingly fine pen had marked on all the pertinent new boundaries in and around Kust; the Library perimeter fences, mostly, and areas Tevak and the Old Station Pack were known to have claimed.

     Rae steepled his fingers and tapped them against his lips, thoughtfully. What I need is to find a way into Tevak’s land, where he’s least likely to notice me sneaking in. He leaned further over the map, trying to work out which parts of the faded key referred to which areas of the city, and whether he should trust that they were as updated as the rest of the series of fine squiggly lines. What had been an industrial area in the past might be dangerous ground, now. Then, I can work out how to get to his base of operations, and see if I can get in to look for Bee.

     Ugh. Easier said than done when the lines on the map seemed to be wriggling around in front of him, swimming like ripples on a tiny pond. Pain throbbed like a whole new little heart in his skull. His brain felt swollen, pulsating, any second now about to burst out through his temples.

     He massaged his temples with one hand, scrutinising his small bowl and the selection of slices it contained of... well, whatever it was. Hard, brown, woody bits of a stem or a root or some bark or something. Odati had said it contained a good natural painkiller, but he couldn’t help wishing the brown slices would turn into more of those fat little red capsules.

     Well, I’m in pain. I guess it won’t hurt to try it. Rae sighed, and picked out a smallish piece of the least dubious-looking plant material. “All right. Here goes...”

     Precisely as he’d expected, it felt like chewing a chunk of wood, with the added delight of a bitter taste that made him grimace. “Ugh.” He muttered something resentful under his breath, unable to shake the idea that Odati had given him something nasty on purpose, as punishment for causing problems.

     But he persevered, chewing diligently until the wood had broken down into a bitter-tasting fibrous mush. And what do you know? It did seem to have taken the edge off the pain, even if only slightly; his brain still throbbed, but no longer felt like it was going to break dramatically out of his skull. (Reluctantly, he took back the assertion of petty-mindedness.)

     “Ah! Hey, Sadie?” Halli’s voice came from the doorway. “I found him.”

     Rae offered them only an abstract glance, listening as the soft toks of Sadie’s hoofbeats accompanied the two women across the hard varnished wood of the library floor. “Greets, ladies.” He didn’t really want the company, but guessed he ought to at least be polite. “All a’right?”

     “With us? Fine. We took some breakfast up to your room and saw you’d disappeared,” Sadie explained. “How are you, more importantly?”

     Rae forced a smile, watching as Halli settled into the chair opposite, putting two mugs – one for her, and one apparently for him – down in the windowsill. “Well, I’m not dead yet. Still taking the pills. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go.”

     Sadie squeezed his good shoulder, gently. “It’ll be all right.”

     Rae glared and pursed his lips. “All right; I’ll bite. How?”

     “Because for the first time in nearly thirty years, we have an actual genuine chance at finding the cure – and if not the cure, something to stop the sickness getting worse. We’ll rescue Blink, we’ll get into the Institute, we’ll filter out some antibodies and we’ll stop the disease in its tracks,” Sadie promised, seriously.

     “What are you looking for?” Halli prompted, gently. “Do you need any help?”

     “Much as I’d like to say yes...?” Rae sighed, and propped his head on his good hand. “I’m not even really sure, any more.”

     “What do you mean?”

     He managed to grimace his way into a feeble smile. “I’m just running around in ever diminishing circles, failing at everything. I haven’t even found Bee, let alone rescued her, and I’m going to be crawling and spitting and biting in under a month.” He rested his forehead in his hands, squeezing his eyes closed against his emotions. He wasn’t the blubbing sort, but tears still threatened, welling behind the lids. You came here to rescue her, and because you couldn’t even do something as simple as secure Squib properly, now you’re both going to die here. “So I’m laima, so what. I’ve got the slimmest chance of surviving, and if by some miracle I do live, only a one in five chance of not completely losing my mind-”

     Halli reached across the table and claimed one of his hands in her own. “Hey. Hey!” She squeezed his fingers until he looked at her, unspilt moisture clinging to his eyelashes. “Don’t give up on yourself before you’ve even had a real chance, eh? You’re acting like you’re already dead.”

     Rae threw up his hands and sagged back in his chair. “I might as well be-!”

     “Only if you let yourself think that way.” The zaar kept her fingers tight on his. “Laima resist the disease for longer, so you’ve still got, what, six months left to live? At least six months, and that’s a worst-case scenario where we can’t rescue Blink and you go without any treatment.”

     “And once we find the key to the infection – which we will do, I swear – you’ll be vaccinated and cured before you even develop any deformities, let alone lose your mind,” Sadie added.

     Rae snorted, tiredly. “Aren’t they some pretty darn unrealistic expectations?”

     “No.” Halli folded her arms and lifted her chin, teasingly belligerent. “You’ve got us to help you.”

     At least the smile that now creased Rae’s face was a genuine one. “Like I said, unrealistic expectations.” He wiped his face dry, squeezing the tears away from his eyelashes. “...I really appreciate your help, ladies.”

     Sadie gave his shoulder a bump. “We just appreciate being trusted. Right Hal?”

     Halli managed a lopsided smile. “Mama Odati seems to be running a little low on that, recently,” she agreed, grimly. “What were you planning on, and how can we help?”

     Rae pursed his lips, and glanced surreptitiously at the doorway. “I was thinking of going over the fence into enemy territory,” he admitted, in a voice so soft even his friends barely caught it. “Like we discussed when we first realised Blink was missing.”

     “Well you better not go anywhere without telling me, because I’m coming with you,” Halli reminded, equally quietly – then added, only half joking; “Besides, you’re a spur, you’ll only get lost without me.”

     “What about your hip?” he challenged.

     “What about your shoulder?” she shot back. “My hip is fine. Almost completely healed up.”

     Sadie gave her a little swat around the ear. “Liar.”

     Halli glared briefly up at her. “Point being, if you’re well enough to go charging around the countryside with a big hole in your shoulder, then I’m more than well enough to go with you.” She waggled a chastising finger at Rae. “And you better not sneak out without me, either, because I will hunt you down.”

     Rae smiled. “Don’t you worry, I’m not sneaking anywhere.” He lowered his voice, and added; “at least, not until tomorrow morning...”

* * * * *

     Down in her basement prison, Blink dozed uneasily, drifting in and out of consciousness. How long had she been down here, now, anyway? If only she could get some sleep – except she ached too much to sleep for very long at a time, and the little sleep she did get was punctuated with bad dreams.

     Everything just... hurt. Her face hurt, the bruise over her right eye still swollen and throbbing, leaving her blind on one side – not that there was anything worth looking at, down here where gloom reigned. Her oozing, bloody wrists hurt, so much that she could barely move her hands; the inflamed tissue swelling and tightening the ribbons even further. Her knees hurt, from sitting so long on the hard floor which even her cushion did little to protect her from. A gnawing, bottomless hunger had chewed its way into her abdomen like some kind of noxious, spiny worm. Not a single part of her body was actually comfortable.

     How long had she been down here, now? Was anyone even looking for her? Maybe they were glad she was gone, or maybe she’d been gone so long, they assumed she was dead. She was definitely losing track of time, down here in this windowless, timeless little artificial cavern. It felt like she’d been a prisoner for days – maybe weeks. How long had it been, two days? Three days? She groaned through her sore throat. How could it be such a short time?

     Since that brief visit to bring her a pillow, anxious Liega hadn’t been back; Blink wished she could find the spirit to hope she’d not got into trouble for it, but couldn’t dredge up the energy to process the thought properly.

     Sett, too, had only been back the once, with more water – never any food to soothe the crawling pain in her stomach. The same selfish lack of energy wished he just wouldn’t bother. If Tevak wanted to prolong her discomfort, then Tevak could come down here himself. She’d happily tell him where he could stick it, and hang the consequences.

     ...Whitesides sat near to her, against the wall, his legs tucked around underneath him; the smooth top of his pale helm skimmed the ceiling. Blink’s heart gave a little jump – how could he possibly be here? She’d been watching the doorway the whole time, but had not even heard him arrive, let alone watched him sit. How had he sneaked in so quietly?

     Blink rapidly realised that she didn’t care. Him being here at all was enough. She smiled, exhaustedly, leaning involuntarily closer. “Day.”

     “Hello, Bitlet.” His warm blue eyes were just dim enough not to be blinding. “What have you managed to get yourself into this time, eh?”

     “I-I don’t know.” Blink grimaced, helplessly, giving a little demonstrative tug of the wrists. “I don’t know! A-and... I don’t know what to do. Escaping makes it worse, b-but I can’t-... I can’t just let him... do...”

     “You won’t have to let him do anything. You’re a lot smarter than you’re letting yourself believe, and if you don’t escape on your own merits, your friends will rescue you. I promise.”

     “Even if I escape, he’s never going to stop chasing me, and I-I... I can’t kill him-!” She sagged, let her head rest against her hands. “...I’m going to die down here, aren’t I?”

     “Nobody’s going to die, Bit-”

     “C-can you at least tell Dash I’m sorry?” she whispered. “If I never get the-... I-I never meant to hurt her. I’m so sorry-!”

     Whitesides smiled sadly for her, shuffling closer on his knees. “Oh, Bee. You left without telling anyone where you were going. We could be looking for a thousand years, and still not find you,” he reminded, one big hand resting gently on her shoulder. “You know I’m just a dream.”

     Blink closed her eyes; the words she’d hoped most of all that he wouldn’t say. “But you’re right here...!” She could hear her words trembling.

     “I’m so sorry, Bee. Don’t you think if I was real, I wouldn’t have freed you the second I lay optics on you? I would never just stand by and let them do this to my little one; I would fight tooth and nail to get you out.”

     Painful truth underlined his words. All through her life, her dam had been there for her, with comfort and reassurance when she needed it. If she’d been hurt, or confused, or unhappy, he’d been there, with words of advice and gentle arms. And now, when she needed him most? Billions of miles away – unreachable, uncontactable, maybe sad but blissfully unaware of the horror she was caught up in.

     Tears stung at her eyes. “I miss you.”

     “We miss you too, Honeybee, so much more than you realise. You know you can come home at any time,” he murmured, gently. “You know we’d take you in, in a heartbeat.”

     “I never meant to hurt you...! And I’m so sorry I ran away, instead of telling you all-”

     “Blink, you don’t need to apologise. You don’t. You just need to let us know where you are, and we’ll come and get you, I promise...”

     “But you’re not even real!” A sob hitched in her throat. “Nobody’s coming to get me. Nobody cares! The only way I’m getting out of here is if I get myself out-!”

     After a few moments struggle, she managed to wrap her hands around the water pipe, putting the flagging strength in her legs behind her weight and yanking, upwards and backwards. The pipe... did nothing. Frustration increased her struggles to whole-body thrashing, determined to bend or break the copper itself. It wasn’t that strong, just an old, corroded pipe. She could have snapped it like a matchstick! Should have snapped it like a matchstick. She’d dealt with steel plate a hundred times stronger than this, and the flimsy tube of metal refused to yield!

     She fought until the fire blazed in her wrists, painful as brands from red-hot metal. “Get me out of here. Get me out of here!” she pleaded, pathetically, struggling to find a comfortable way to sit that took her weight off her arms. “Oh please, oh god, someone-... anyone?”

     Whitesides moved to sit behind her, draping his arms around her. He mantled his cool hands over her mutilated wrists, protectively. “I promise we’ll find you, sweetheart.” The sorrow in his voice hurt to listen to. “Just give us a clue, and we’ll find you.”

     Strangely warm, yielding plating pressed up against her back – instead of the cool, familiar touch of metal and enamel, he had a warmth and a softness like organic skin. At least, for a hallucination he made a vaguely comforting hallucination, and with a little concentration she could persuade herself that he was real, and she hadn’t been abandoned...

* * * * *

     In the doorway, Sett watched and listened as their prisoner’s breathing deepened; the heavy blanket he’d wrapped around her shoulders seemed to be staving off the worst of her shivering, and the hallucinations seemed to have stopped, for now at least. Tevak would probably have some severe words for his ‘impudence’, but the vul figured he could spin his way out of trouble with a little careful thought. It wasn’t as if he was letting her go, just... keeping her warm. Keeping her alive, since no-one else seemed to want to take the time to.

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