Disclaimer: Voltron is the property of World Events Productions.
Gypsy of a strange and distant time,
Traveling in panic all direction blind,
Aching for the warmth of a burning sun,
Freezing in the emptiness of where he'd come from.>
Left without a hope of coming home.
The Moody Blues
This place is worse than the stories make it out to be," Hunk grumbled as he and Keith passed through the streets of Helena. "I can't believe Lance would have come this far, to such a disgusting place."
"I'd rather have him end up here than in Zarkon's hands," Keith replied. "But you're right; this doesn't look like the kind of place Lance would come to."
"Then let's make this fast and get out of here. This place gives me the creeps," Hunk said anxiously.
And so they began their search.
Their presence in the spaceport was an anomaly, even more so than Lance's had been; for while Lance had at least the air of aloofness and disaffection, Keith and Hunk could not even pretend to fit in. Keith had "do gooder" written all over him. Hunk, on the other hand, looked like a longshoreman turned law enforcer. There was no disguising the fact that the two men had come to Helena on a mission. Only the nature of the mission remained a mystery.
The suspicion that followed their every movement made it impossible to obtain information as they moved from tavern to tavern. There were two establishments where they were simply told to leave after posing their first question, which was as vague as "We're looking for a friend . . . "
In the taverns where they were tolerated, no one answered their inquiries with anything more than a headshake. Wariness and distrust met them at every turn.
And no sign of Lance.
By four o'clock in the morning, their dim hopes had faded to even blacker shades. Still, they were not ready to give up. They couldn't give up until they had scoured every corner.
They discovered the speeder by sheer luck.
After having reconnoitered one of the streets nearest to the old sea docks, Hunk suggested they cut through an alleyway and check the quay.
Keith agreed – anything to take a break from the confining port streets. A glimpse of the sea might be nice, even if it was in the dark and from behind the sea wall.
Moving through the alleyway, they came upon a wide recess in one of the walls, where several vehicles were parked.
"Keith, look!" Hunk said suddenly, veering off and hopping over one speeder, resting his hands on the one next to it. "This is one of the castle's speeders!"
Keith joined him as Hunk shined a light on the side of the vehicle. "You can see where they've tried to sand off the crest, but you can still make it out."
"You're right," Keith replied. "It's a relatively new one, too." He withdrew his commlink and hailed Castle Control.
A weary-sounding Coran responded.
"Coran, we've found a speeder," Keith announced. "Can you check the id number with the one Lance took?"
After a few seconds, Coran replied, "R39X2."
"Check it out, Hunk."
Hunk swung into the speeder and checked under the dash.
"R39X2," he read out loud. "This is the one."
"Coran, this is the speeder," Keith reported. "That means Lance has been here."
"Or someone jumped him and stole the speeder," Hunk added.
Keith drew in a deep breath. "Right. That's possible." Then into the commlink, "We're going to hang out a bit and see who comes to claim it. I think that's the best we can do for right now."
"Be careful. You know the people who inhabit those ports are dangerous."
Hunk simpered. It was just like Coran to point out the obvious to those in the midst of doing the work.
"We'll be careful," Keith replied.
They staked out vantage points in the darkness of the shadows, one of them at each end of the alleyway.
It was not long before their vigilance paid off.
A burly, staggering, apish man entered the alleyway at Keith's end. Keith watched his progress, seeing him stop at the row of speeders. Keith moved into the alleyway, his footsteps light and silent. As he drew closer, he saw that the man was about to get into the stolen speeder and he pressed a button on his commlink to alert Hunk.
"That's a nice piece of machinery you've got there," Keith remarked, at which the man jumped and spun around to see who had followed him into the dark.
Seeing Keith, muscular yet slightly built, he relaxed, judging him to be no threat. "What's that to you?" he said carelessly, turning back to get into the speeder.
"Nothing," Keith replied. "Except that I don't think it belongs to you."
"I'm getting into it, ain't I?" the man replied.
Keith stepped up and gripped the man's arm. "I don't care what you do with it now, but I want to know where you found it. And what happened to the man who was driving it?"
The man looked slowly down to where Keith's hand held his arm. "You'd better get your hand off me while you still can."
"I will, as soon as you answer my questions," Keith replied.
The man drew back his fist, only to find himself being restrained by another assailant. Hunk had come at Keith's summons, and now the thief found himself confronted by two determined adversaries.
"What the hell do you want?!" he demanded, trying to jerk his arm free.
"I've told you what I want," Keith replied. "I know where that speeder came from, but I want to know how you got your hands on it. And I want to know what happened to the man driving it. If you cooperate, we'll let you go. We'll even let you keep the speeder. All we're interested in is finding the driver."
"Who are you?" the man asked, his manner still confrontational.
"That's not important. Just answer the questions or when we leave here, you'll be leaving with us," Keith threatened, while Hunk crossed his arms over his chest in a gesture of strength. "Where did you get the speeder?"
The man still did not answer. At a nod from Keith, Hunk lunged forward and wrapped an arm around the man's neck and twisted one arm behind his back. The man struggled, but it was no use.
"Start talking," Keith said firmly. "How did you get that speeder?"
"I found it!" the man spat out. "Outside the port!"
"That's not enough."
"Tell him to let go! I can't breathe!"
Keith was unrelenting. "You can breathe fine. Explain. Where exactly did you find it?"
"It was hidden behind a hedgerow just outside the port . . . at the Mesey Crossroads," the man replied.
"And the driver?"
"Weren't no driver."
"You're lying," Keith said.
Hunk tightened his hold.
"Weren't no driver!!" the man wheezed out. "Weren't no one around!"
Keith nodded at Hunk.
Hunk pushed the man forward, where he landed, gasping, on his hands and knees.
"You're going to show us where you found it," Keith said. "Get on your feet."
There were no signs of any struggle. Nothing at all to even indicate that Lance had been in the area.
Keith frowned dejectedly. He didn't know what he'd expected to find; but the absence of any clues at all weighed heavily upon him.
After searching the area, he approached Hunk who was keeping a close eye on their guest.
"We'll take him back to the castle," Keith announced. "He's a thief, for one. And second of all, we can't let him run around telling everyone what we're looking for. If Lance is in trouble, that would only make things worse."
Hunk nodded. He had known all along that Keith was bluffing by offering the man freedom in exchange for information. Keith had no qualms about lying if he felt one of his teammate's life was at stake.
"We're taking you with us," Keith announced to the man. "And if you decide you remember anything else, then we'll talk about negotiations. But right now, you're a thief. And a thief's place is a jail cell."
And being that the man had no choice in the matter, he found himself in his stolen speeder, being sped towards the Castle of Lions.
"So, you see, if you plant the seeds too close together, both plants will die. There's not enough nourishment in the soil for both of them."
"Won't the stronger one kill the other?"
"Some plants are like that, but not the meppas. Meppas simply need to be given room to grow. If you crowd them, they all die."
"Meppas are stupid plants."
"Eh, Lance, there are no stupid plants or smart ones. They're the way they are."
Lance looked at the freshly tilled soil. "Oh." Then, after a thoughtful pause, he stated emphatically, "Then we have to be sure to plant them right so that none of them die."
"Now, you're learning."
Lance beamed up at the man standing beside him. "Will I ever be as smart as you, Papa?"
"I bet you'll be even smarter," his father replied. "Smart enough to do whatever you want to do."
"I want to do what you do," Lance replied, reaching up to take his father's hand. "You can teach me everything, and I can stay with you."
Mr Isamu smiled lovingly. "Of course. And here's another lesson for you . . . you know what time it is?"
Lance looked up at the sky and judged the sun's position. "It's evening meal."
"And if we're not back by the time your mother starts the evening prayer, she may give everything to your brothers and sister."
Lance's eyes widened in boyhood innocence. "Mum would never do that! She wouldn't start without us."
Again, Mr Isamu found his grin spreading. "You're right about that. But then, we would never keep her waiting, would we?"
Lance shook his head earnestly. "Should we run?"
"I think there's still time to walk."
They began walking back along the edge of the field through the long rays of the evening sun.
After a few seconds, Lance became aware of a sound in the sunset – a low rumbling, steady and growing. Lance had never heard anything like it before.
"What's that sound, Papa?"
His father surveyed the sky. "I don't know."
Lance followed his father's searching gaze. There were glints in the sky on the western horizon, like sunlight gleaming on metal. A pair of brief flashes illuminated the distant sky, then came the sound and reverberation of an explosion.
The glints of light were moving closer. The humming sound intensified. Lance and his father watched as more than a dozen sleek craft approached from the west and passed over them at amazing speed.
"What are they, Papa?!" Lance asked, his voice filled with excitement. "They're so fast!"
Mr Isamu was baffled. "I've never seen anything like them," he replied. "They look like warplanes. Come on, let's hurry home!"
Lance could sense his father's tenseness. He reached up for his comforting hand, found it, and struggled to keep up with the ever-increasing pace.
Another sortie of silver streaks approached from the west and roared overhead. This time, the sound of explosions came from behind Lance and his father. Turning, Lance could see a pillar of smoke wafting into the air, spewing flame in every direction. It was far away, yet that did nothing to lessen the impact of its appearance.
"Papa—" Lance's voice wavered. "What are they?!"
His father lifted him up into his arms now and began to run. "Something's happening!" was all his father would say.
Lance looked over his father's shoulder. His eyes filled with the sight of the smoking spiral. It scared him. His father's fear scared him. He had never seen anything like the wicked cloud, and he could not stop looking at it. He clung tighter around his father's neck, all the while staring at the rising gray demon, watching it expand and grow, creeping nearer and nearer.
Lance could see it rolling over the fields. "Papa," he said softly into his father's ear. "Papa, it's coming."
Mr Isamu craned his neck around. A horrified gasp escaped his lips. He'd had no idea the cloud was heading towards them. He ran faster.
Suddenly, barely visible above the distant tree line in the direction in which they were running, a billowing wave of smoke appeared.
Mr Isamu stopped abruptly. "Dear Father, save us!!" he cried out.
Lance looked to see the second cloud. With his arms and legs, he clung to his father, burying his head in a shoulder that now could offer little comfort.
His father looked about for some kind of shelter. The only thing that afforded itself was an irrigation ditch, half-filled with water, two hundred yards away on the far side of one of the tilled fields.
"Hold on tight!" Mr Isamu whispered fiercely and began running again, picking his way as quickly as possible across the field. He jumped down into the ditch, the water coming up to his waist. He watched as the smoke inched forward from both sides; he was determined to wait until the last possible second before going beneath the surface of the water.
He clutched Lance tightly to his chest. "We're going to go into the water, son. When the smoke gets here, we're going to go down into the water. You'll have to hold your breath. You can do that, right, my boy? Of course, you can. You're my little hero." He could hear Lance snuffling into his shoulder, but at the mention of the word "hero", Lance raised his head long enough to nod his bravery.
Lance looked into his father's eyes. There was great love there. Devotion and protection.
Mr Isamu kissed Lance's forehead. "My brave boy . . ."
And they waited.
But the smoke never arrived. Instead, it halted just short of the ditch, settling into a thick dust on the land.
Mr Isamu waited many minutes before venturing out of the ditch. He set his son down at the edge of the field.
"Stay here," he said. He picked up a dried stalk and approached the boundaries of the dust. He prodded and pushed it about with the stalk. There was no peculiar reaction from the dust – no sign of combustion or acidity. It might be lethal through inhalation, but there was no way of knowing. It might be pressure sensitive; again, it was impossible to tell.
But Mr Isamu knew one thing: beyond the line of trees where he had first seen the smoke approaching from the east was where his farm lay – his wife and the rest of his family.
He took out his handkerchief, then tore a strip of cloth from his sleeve. He soaked them both in the water of the ditch, then handed one to Lance. "Put this over your nose and mouth, Lance. Breathe through the handkerchief." He scooped Lance up into one arm, and held the other cloth over his own mouth and nose. He set off across the darkened field.
There was a tiny brook on one side of the Isamu's farm. A footbridge spanned the narrow stream, which was now a charcoal-colored frothy mixture slogging through blackened strands of watergrass.
Coming off the footbridge, Lance's father set him down again very carefully, trying to disturb as little dust as possible. "Wait here for me."
Lance looked at the farmhouse. This was his home, but he hardly recognized it. Everything was covered with the dust. Nothing moved. The chickens that had been in the yard lay about in cluttered lumps. There were other gray mounds in the yard, but Lance did not go near them. He did not want to know what they were.
He waited for his father.
Several minutes passed, and still his father had not returned.
"Papa?" Lance called in barely a whisper.
He received no answer.
The silence began to close in on him. Slowly, he walked towards the house. He came to the front door, left open by his father, and went inside, straight to the kitchen where he knew his family would have been for the evening meal. The gray dust lay everywhere. It was as if the house had been wide open.
The kitchen was empty.
The porch door was open. There were footsteps in the dust, leading out to the storm cellar. Lance followed them.
He found the storm doors open, and from inside he could hear a sound. It was something he had never heard before. It was his father's voice, but it sounded like he was crying.
Lance leaned over, but he could not see inside. He went to the first step, then the second. He was half-way down before he was able to see anything. The figure of his father was not hard to make out, for he was the only splash of color in the place, surrounded by gray. He was holding something in his arms, rocking back and forth, the strange sound coming from deep within his throat.
Mr Isamu looked up as if struck. "Lance! Go—go away, son! Don't come in here! Go back up!"
Lance did not listen. He was staring at the gray figure in his father's arms as he came down the rest of the steps.
"Lance, mind what I say! Go back up top!"
Lance stepped nearer and held out his hand. He touched the figure. "Mum?"
"Mind my words, Lance!! Get back up there before I have to lay my hand on you!"
Lance put both hands on his mother's arm and began shaking her. "Mum? Mum? Mummy? Why don't you answer me . . . Mummy?"
Lance's father reached out and grabbed Lance's arm with more force than he had intended. He yanked Lance back and pushed him towards the steps. "I told you to go back on top!! Do as I say right now! You obey me!"
But it was too late. Mr Isamu knew it was too late. He could see, as Lance picked himself up, that his son's eyes had caught sight of the rest of the family: his three older brothers and one older sister – all lying on the floor of the cellar, covered with the gray dust. They were not moving.
Suddenly, being a hero did not mean anything anymore. Lance wanted only comfort, only protection. He began to move towards the nearest body, that of his oldest brother.
"Desmond?" he asked, in a voice filled with tears. "Des? Des?"
Lance's repeated refusal to obey his orders sent Mr Isamu into a rage. The horror of his discovery was compounded by the fact that he had been unable to protect his youngest, his only surviving child from the gruesome scene. Laying the body of his wife aside, he lurched across the cellar, snagged Lance by the back of the collar and dragged him up onto the surface.
"When I tell you to do something, you mind me! Do you hear?!" he shouted, punctuating each syllable with an open palm against his son's bottom. "Don't you ever disobey me again!" With the last reprimand, he cast Lance down into the dust. Then, with an air of exhaustion, he collapsed onto the top step of the cellar and buried his face in his hands.
"Oh, Myria, Myria, I should have been back here with you," he cried. "I should have been here with you. If I hadn't been out there with Lance, I could have done something . . . we could have died together." He wept bitterly. "My children, my joys, where was I when you needed me? Now I've lost you . . . I've lost all of you. I have nothing left."
Then he heard the tiny voice behind him, filled with tears, frightened. It was the little voice he loved. It was the only voice that could still call him 'papa'.
He got up quickly and turned to see Lance cowering in the dust, the sound of his crying the only thing to be heard in the eerie stillness.
Without a moment's hesitation, he drew Lance into his arms. "I'm sorry, Lance. I'm sorry, my little child, my little boy."
His father's kindness opened something inside Lance, and his small cries rose into sobs.
"Shhh, my poor baby, Papa is so sorry," Mr Isamu whispered. "Something bad has happened, and Papa is sad . . . but I'm not mad at you. I love you, Lance, my little Lance. I love you. I love you."
"I'm sorry, Papa," Lance whimpered. "I didn't do it."
"I know you didn't do it," his father said, tightening his embrace. This little body in his arms was all he had left, all that remained of his family, his dreams, his happiness. He would never let go. He rocked gently back and forth, humming a tune that his wife had always used to sing in order to lull the children to sleep.
He continued with the melody until he felt Lance's body going limp in his arms. He lay his son down on the porch swing and prepared to tend to the last duties he would ever perform for the rest of his family. He could wait to find out what had happened until after he had buried the dead.
He had taken only a few steps when he heard Lance's voice.
"I want Mum."
Turning, he saw Lance had opened his eyes, but they closed quickly.
Lance fell asleep with the image of his father, smudged with the gray dust, face tear-stained and streaked with filth, emblazoned in his mind.
His father was walking away.
Lance had lost count of the days. He had walked a little; but most of the time, his father had carried him. They'd found drinkable water a few times, but very little food. Anything they did find always was split with the greater portion going to Lance. They had passed many bodies covered with the gray dust. Lance tried not to look at them.
Every day they prayed: in the morning, at noon, in the evening . . . and many times in between. But the prayers didn't sound the same without his mother, brothers and sister. Nothing felt the same anymore. Lance said the words, but he was not sure he believed what he was saying.
You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety, though you do not know the way.
Be not afraid, I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.
It was puzzling to Lance's seven-year-old mind. He had always believed without question. His father had told him what was true. His mother had echoed those beliefs. But if God was going before them, then why was everything so hard, why did he hurt so badly? Why was he so sad? He cried often, which made him feel like a baby, but he could not help it. Yet, his father never chastised him.
After a time, they fell in with a group of stragglers – no more than two dozen, a mixture of men, women, and children. As they traveled on, Lance caught little pieces of the adults' conversation. There had been an attack, but no one knew who the enemy was. There were no communications systems working. No one knew what was happening or what they should do. The only goal the wanderers had was to find a population center where some answers might be waiting, where food and drink might be available for survivors.
The Isamu farm had been very far out in the country. Lance had never been to a city before. The idea of going to one now did not appeal to him. He wanted to go home, and this was his daily lament, softened and smoothed away by his father's gentle assurances that "everything will be alright".
The further they traveled, the scarcer the food became. The only water they had left was a jug Mr Isamu had found in a cool house at the last farm they had passed.
Many evenings went by with Mr Isamu eating nothing, giving to Lance whatever little sustenance he could find.
Yet, the truth could not be put off. Lance was weakening. The prolonged journey; the lack of food, water, and protection; the despondent sadness of loss was taking a toll on his small body.
One night, as Mr Isamu slept with Lance folded into his arms, he felt the first chills shuddering through his son's body. Placing a gentle hand on Lance's forehead, he felt the fever.
Lance squirmed in his embrace. "Papa, I don't feel good."
"I'm here, Lance," his father whispered. "You just go to sleep. I'll take care of you. You go to sleep, then you'll feel better." He closed his eyes and prayed. "Please, Lord, he can't die. He's all I have. I'd do anything to save him. His life is more important to me than my own. Please, don't take me from me."
He fell asleep with his cheek pressed to Lance's.
The next day, they came upon a ship.
The Jinapa Ray was a cargo ship. Its usual load had been agricultural products for export to other worlds, but after a few inquiries, Mr Isamu learned that it was now being used to evacuate children.
It was a ship of life; yet, looking at it and the hundreds of people crowding around it, Mr Isamu felt only sadness and remorse. Until now, until the accidental discovery of this ship, he'd had no choice but to keep Lance with him.
Now, he was faced with a decision. He had the chance to send Lance away to possible safety. But at what cost? He knew if he did so, he would probably never see his little boy again. If, on the other hand, he kept Lance with him, it would only be a matter of time before Lance succumbed to the conditions prevailing on the planet.
There was little time to ponder the situation. The ship was set to leave within a few hours.
Mr Isamu sat at the edge of the throng, Lance cradled in his arms. He looked at the crowd of dirty, disheveled people, scarcely believing that they would truly part with the children they clutched to their breasts.
His gaze went down to his own son, ashen in appearance, eyes closed in sleep as he rested his head against his father's chest.
I'd do anything to save him.
"Lance?" he said quietly, shifting the body in his arms so that Lance was sitting up on his knee. "Lance, wake up, my boy."
Lance opened his eyes and regarded his father wearily.
Mr Isamu took the water jug and held it to Lance's parched lips. "Drink some, there you go. Come on, you need to wake some more. Papa wants to talk to you."
Lance took a sip of the water.
"Now, I want you to listen very carefully to me," Mr Isamu said, looking Lance directly in the eye. "It's not safe here anymore. Our planet is being attacked, and you're not safe here. This ship is going to take you and the other children someplace where you'll be safe."
Lance regarded his father with feverish curiosity. "Are you coming with me?"
Mr Isamu swallowed. "I can't, Lance. Only children are allowed on the ship."
"You're not coming?"
Lance's lip began to tremble. At length, he asked tearfully, "Are you mad at me, Papa?"
Mr Isamu was stung by the question. "Of course not, Lance. What would make you ask that?"
"You said that if you hadn't been with me, you could have been with Mum, and you could have died with her," Lance replied. "I'm sorry, Papa. I'm sorry you weren't with Mum."
"Oh, Lance." His father drew him into a tight embrace. "Oh, my boy, that's not what I meant. I was sad. I was very sad, but I want you to understand something . . . " He eased Lance back. "Look at me, son."
Lance looked up.
Mr Isamu put his hand against Lance's cheek. "You are everything to me. You're all that matters. I love you more than anything else in this world."
"Don't send me away, Papa," Lance begged. "I don't want to go away from you."
Mr Isamu felt his throat constrict.
I'd do anything to save him.
Including separate myself from him forever.
"Can you pray with me?" Mr Isamu asked, after a long silence.
Lance nodded. "Okay."
If you pass through raging waters
In the sea you will not drown.
If you walk amid the burning flames,
You shall not be harmed.
If you stand before the power of Hell
And death is at your side.
Know that I am with you through it all.
Be not afraid. I go before you always.
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.
"You're going to be my little hero, right?" Mr Isamu asked.
"Take this," Mr Isamu said, producing a short chain with an oval medal strung from it. "This belonged to your mother."
Lance looked at the medal.
"It's the Queen of Heaven," Mr Isamu said. "You remember?"
"You keep it in your pocket for now, okay? I want you to keep it safe. Your mother had always planned to give it to you when you made your profession of faith. But she wants you to have it now."
"I'll keep it," Lance said. He put it in his pocket.
Mr Isamu stood up and, carrying Lance on his hip, he joined the crowd, which was now ushering children towards the loading ramp of the Jinapa Ray. Mr Isamu pressed through the crowd, drawing closer and closer to the iron barrier, where children were being handed over the gate into the waiting arms of the ship's crew.
There was much wailing, from children and adults alike. Some children refused to let go. Others moved with dazed faces up the ramp. It was a horrible scene, the most recent in a stream of ghastly images.
Mr Isamu was at the front now.
And Lance suddenly realized what being a "hero" had meant. His father was going to give him away.
"Noo!" he screamed, his arms wrapping desperately around his father's neck. "Papa, no!! Don't give me away!! Papa!! I don't want to go! I don't want to go!!"
Mr Isamu hugged Lance's body to his own.
"Come on, then, mister!! There's no time to be wasting! Hand him over the railing!" someone was calling out.
Another voice urged from beside him. "You can't keep him with you. That would be condemning him to death. You have to let him go!"
And still another voice shouted angrily. "If you're not going to let go, then get out of the way! There are other people back here!"
Yet, through all the voices, Mr Isamu only truly heard one.
You said you would do anything to save him. I am giving you your chance.
Gritting his teeth, Mr Isamu pried Lance's legs loose from around his waist and handed him partially over the railing. Then, working past the piercing cries of his only surviving child, he pulled Lance's arms loose and put him fully into the arms of a man on the other side.
"Papa!! Noo!!" Lance screamed. "Don't leave me!! Please don't leave me! Papa!!"
Lance shuddered into wakefulness to find that he had traded one nightmare for another, one memory of abandonment for the reality of it.
He hurt. He hurt so badly.
How long had he been like this, strung up like a hunting kill, drifting from unconsciousness to semi-consciousness and back? How many times had one or another of them come back to him, taken their pleasure, then left him for the next comer?
He didn't know how long. Hours? Days? Weeks? He didn't know, and he didn't want to remember the waking horrors of this place; yet even when he tried to push the memories out of his mind, the images of recollection only became more vivid . . . the feel of their hands on his body, the sound of their laughter and jeering, the stench of their bodies in close proximity, the taste of his own bile and blood . . .
He opened his eyes, seeing only the gray steel of the bulkhead.
The place was silent.
Was he alone? He dared not look any further to find out. He feared making eye contact with anyone, lest that should invite more torment.
Suddenly, he felt hands on his sides, stroking down past his waist and over his hips. A voice close to his ear whispered, "You're not so pretty anymore, are you?" The hands began their movement back up, coming around to drift across his chest. "But you still feel good."
Lance recognized Arangus' voice.
"You've still got uses . . . good enough for some things." Reaching up with one hand, he forced Lance's head back, exposing the long, smooth length of his throat, where a deep bruise marked the spot where he had been choked.
Arangus touched the tips of his fingers to Lance's throat, and he thrilled at the feel of the supple skin.
Lance's breath issued from his lips in feeble sounds of hopelessness and terror.
"That's nice. Nice . . . so nice. You should be afraid. Now you know what you're in for. We land tomorrow," he said, his voice taunting and sinister. "And although you're not fit even as a stable boy, I'm going to put you up for bid. You'll see the kind of scum who are willing to pay for a boy as ragged as you've become. Only the flies will be attracted to you. But there's still tonight. And I intend to have you once before casting you off." A pause. "First, though . . ." He turned to the crewmen, watching from the shadows. "As a final gesture of appreciation to such an excellent crew, I offer him to you for one last go."
The offer was not turned down.
Arangus watched them as they acted upon his generosity. He listened to Lance's groans, his swallowed cries of anguish. And he relished the treatment being inflicted on his former prize acquisition. The scene before him increased his own longing. He would make a good show of his power before these crewmen.
When they had finished, Arangus ordered Lance cut down from his bonds.
Lance crumpled into a heap at the foot of the ladder.
Arangus stood above him. "My turn, now."
Merdock sat at the table in his room at the Twihouse Inn. He had a lot of thinking to do, and little time in which to do it.
Word had spread quickly. Two men had been in the port the night before, asking questions. They had claimed to be looking for a friend, but there had been something odd about them. They'd been too clean-cut, too wholesome.
Just like him, Merdock thought ruefully. Damn, he was telling the truth. He really was a member of the Voltron Force, and now they're out looking for him.
Merdock was not unused to dangerous situations. Being part of the slave trade had required him to attain to a certain degree of level-headedness. He knew how to think things through, and certainly, the current situation demanded his utmost attention.
With the credits from his last sale, he could afford to leave Arus and live quite comfortably in retirement on any number of distant worlds, where his trail would be difficult to track. A new name, a forged history, and life might be very sweet. He might even be able to afford some companionship of his very own.
But what of Bayari? Bayari was entitled to half the credits. And the loss of those credits would make it very difficult for Merdock to make a successful getaway and start a new life. Then again, Merdock needn't feel any strong compulsion to split the profits . . .
And why should I? Bayari had no hand in kidnapping the last one. That was all my doing. Why shouldn't I keep all the credits for myself? I can be gone before anyone even realizes I've left . . . yes, why not?
He did not have to try very hard to convince himself. In fact, he'd been contemplating leaving Arus with all the credits ever since the transaction with Arangus. But now he had a pressing reason for a speedy departure.
It was settled. He would leave that night.
Interrogating the man had revealed nothing. In fact, his story seemed very likely true, which left Keith and the rest of the Voltron Force no closer to finding Lance than they had been before the discovery of the speeder.
Keith had immediately wanted to return to the Helena ports, certain that Lance had to be somewhere within their limits, but Coran had restrained him.
"Your continued presence in the ports will only serve to increase suspicion," he explained. "If Lance is in trouble, it would be better if we send a number of our men, in disguise, into the port, perhaps to seek work in the shipyards or the taverns. They can search for Lance secretly."
"That will take too long," Keith protested.
"Lance may not even be on Arus anymore," Pidge added.
"We can't just sit around while other people look for him, Coran," Keith continued. "He's our team mate; and as captain of the Voltron Force, I have a responsibility to—"
"To Arus," Coran cut him off. "Your first responsibility is to the people of Arus."
Keith turned away. "I don't know if I can agree with you."
"Keith, keep in mind that it was your own hotheaded reaction to what Lance did that created this situation—" Coran began, but Alura interjected.
"Coran!! That is unnecessary."
"I am only trying to point out that there have been several hasty decisions made in recent days, and the results have been disastrous. I don't want any more trouble."
Keith felt the fire burning in his cheeks. "Trouble?" He turned angrily on Coran. "Lance's life may be in danger, and you just call that 'trouble'? I can tell you this: I'm not going to stop looking until Lance is found. You're right, Coran. It's my fault he's missing. But I did what I felt I had to do. And I still have to make my own decisions. And my decision is to go back to Helena and keep looking for him."
"Keith," Alura put her hand on his arm. "I think Coran is right. You've already seen how suspicious the people are in Helena. If you and Hunk go back, it will be the same. No one will help you, and it could make Lance's situation even more dangerous. Let us send some of our agents in under cover."
Keith stood trembling with Alura's hand offering gentle reassurance. At last, he asked, "How long am I supposed to give them?"
"I don't know, Keith," Alura replied honestly.
Keith determined his own timeline. "Two days."
"That may not be enough," Alura told him.
"It's the best I can do," came the uncompromising reply. With that, he turned and left the room. He followed the castle corridors, coming to the great gates of the drawbridge. At the far end of the expanse stood Black Lion on its pedestal, and this was where he headed.
The late afternoon had grown heavy and oppressive, storm clouds moving in from the west. Keith could already feel the electricity in the air. The low rumble of thunder only increased his sense of restlessness and agitation. He chose the steps over the elevator, and proceeded up to the top of the pedestal and sat between the great cat's enormous front paws, staring out over the darkening landscape.
He lowered his head and sighed deeply. "Lance."
God, Lance, what have you gotten yourself into? Why do you always cause me so much worry? Yes, I'm worried. I admit it. I'm scared to death, because this time, it feels different. This time I know you're in serious trouble. I can feel it. I'd do anything to get you back safely. Where are you?
His mind turned, undirected, to an image of Lance from their first meeting: the sullen, closed features of a lonely boy whose greatest efforts had been directed towards gaining acceptance. Lance's eagerness to please had been overshadowed by a guarded expectation of rejection. Keith had never forgotten that initial meeting, never forgotten his immediate assessment of his soon-to-be teammate. Keith had reached out; and Lance, unaccustomed to overtures of friendship, had balked, retreated, and in the end, developed the only kind of relationship with Keith that he could sustain without fear of betrayal: that of the cocky second-in-command who obedience to his commander was strictly a matter of personal decision.
Lance was not solitary by choice. Keith was sure of that. There had been times when Lance had been overcome by joy or excitement, and his guard had dropped. But it always returned, and it returned before anyone could penetrate too deeply. What was it that held Lance so tightly in its grip that he could not escape that odd moroseness that hovered between his ill-placed sarcasm and his amazing skill as a fighter? It was that same mysterious shackle on his soul that delivered him into dangerous situations, like the one he was doubtless facing now.
Keith stood up as the first drops of rain began to fall.
I'm not giving up, Lance. There's still too many thing unsettled between us. I won't give up. I promise you. I let you down once. I won't do it again.
The sun was brilliant to the point of being painful.
After the cold darkness of the ship, the heat and light were staggering.
Aegypto was a world of sand, occasional pockets of greenery, and wide, slow-flowing rivers. Exotic and barbaric, not yet capable of interstellar flight, still a thin segment of the population benefited from the visits of various merchants and slave traders who, through their advanced technology, brought their space ships to the planet to peddle their wares.
Arangus was one of the best known and most anticipated visitors.
This time his shipment surpassed impressive: over three hundred boys and young men.
Arangus' crew and the market organizers had brought the boys from the ship into the circular holding area just outside the market square.
"Strip down, all of you!" came an order, which was enforced by a patrol of reddish-skinned men who did not hesitate to beat any boy who lagged in compliance.
Lance slumped against the wall of the enclosure. Two other boys had been tasked earlier to get him into the holding area; once there, the boys had moved as far away from him as possible, not wanting to risk bringing the same sort of treatment down on themselves as that which had so obviously been delivered on their charge.
Lance was already naked. His damaged body repulsed his fellow prisoners, and no one came near him. He was unaware as groups of boys were led out of the enclosure into the marketplace. He did not see, as the other boys did by peering through cracks and holes in the masonry, the raised platform in the square, where the boys were brought and inspected by men from the sizeable crowd in the marketplace. The sounds of bidding were only so much gibberish to his ears. The noise went on and on and on.
He felt a sting on his shoulder. He opened his eyes slowly.
"Get up, you! You're the last, and don't think you're going to get out of it just because it looks like someone decided to have some fun with you already!!" It was one of the red-skinned men.
Lance turned his blurred vision to scan the enclosure. There were only a handful of boys left, all of them standing near the entrance to the marketplace.
Lance did not move, and the man who had struck him reached down and pulled him to his feet.
"You can walk. You will walk."
Lance staggered along beside the man, all the while being supported by him.
They entered the marketplace, and for the first time, Lance became aware of the crowd. There were hundreds of people there – mostly men, all of them waiting and watching as the last group of boys was brought out.
Once on the platform, the boys' wrists were bound above them, and they were raised so that their feet just barely touched the surface.
The inspection began. Dozens of prospective buyers came up onto the platform to examine the merchandise, with no compunction against touching, fondling, and intense scrutiny.
Towards Lance they showed nothing but disgust and ridicule. One even performed a mock rape to the cheers and laughter of the crowd.
Lance made no sound, no movement. He kept his eyes closed, as if blindness could shut out the evil around him.
Then the bidding began.
When the auctioneer came to Lance, there were no bids. There was only disinterest, then jeering as the auctioneer tried harder to solicit bids. At length, when it became clear that no one was going to buy him, Lance was taken from the platform and set against the wall behind it. The auction went on. When it was over, only Lance remained.
"Hold out your hands."
Lance bent his arms at the elbows, barely offering up his palms.
"Hold them out straight!"
Lance held his arms out straight. He saw the wooden stick flash in the Mistress's hand, then he felt the sting as it hit his palms, first one then the other.
Twenty strokes, each hand.
"Now, speak the words," the Mistress demanded.
Lance opened his mouth but hesitated . . .
The Mistress slapped him across the face.
"Speak the words!"
Lance's voice was hardly audible. "I will serve the master faithfully. I will do his bidding. I will obey his voice."
"I will serve the master faithfully. I will do his bidding. I will obey his voice."
"I will serve the master faithfully. I will do his bidding. I will obey his voice."
The Mistress turned her hard gaze to the man standing next to her. "Take him to his room. And tonight, he will take the testimony stand outside the temple."
The man took Lance by the collar of his smock and jerked him into step. "Come on, Pitcha. We'll take your ugly face out of the sight of decent people."
Pitcha. Something of no worth. A useless thing. That was what Lance had become. Once, he had been the most important thing in someone's life. Once, he had been cherished and loved and played with and cared for. Once, he'd had a father and a mother . . . brothers. A sister. Once, he had been surrounded by joy and peace.
But here there was no joy, no peace. No family. No love. No friends. There was scarcely even tolerance. This place was not his home. It would never be his home; it couldn't be.
What had he done to deserve being sent to such a place? How much wickedness could he have conjured in the eight years of his existence? Why had the God he had grown up with abandoned him? Why had he ended up here?
'Because no one wanted me,' he answered himself silently, as he was led across the stone-cobbled courtyard. It was misery and self-pity going to work on him again; yet even knew that it was only a half-truth. 'Papa wanted me . . . but even he sent me away. All those people when I first got here . . . none of them wanted me. None of them cared about me.'
It started to rain. Lance held his hands out. The coolness of the drops felt good against the red, abused flesh of his palms.
The movement unleashed the tongue of Lance's escort.
"You should have received worse. The Mistress was lenient. But next time she'll hand you over to the descaplenar, and you will receive the punishment you deserve. If it had been left up to me, I would have had you beaten before the entire house."
Lance was silent.
"We take you in, save you from being sent to a workhouse or a common orphanage, and you repay our kindness with disobedience and heresy!" His escort went on. "I never imagined the day when Ritula House would sully its hallways with one such as you."
Lance had not known what 'heresy' meant until shortly after his arrival at Ritula House. He knew it very well now; he heard it daily applied to himself.
"I don't want to stay here," Lance said. "If my papa comes, I'm going to leave with him."
"Stupid pitcha. Your planet is dead. If your father was going to come for you, he'd have done it by now."
Lance protested. "He's still looking for me!"
His escort stopped, spun Lance around, and squeezed his arm forcefully. "Don't raise your voice and don't talk back to me! Do you understand?"
When Lance did not reply right away, the man shook him. "Do you understand me?!"
"Answer me properly!"
"Yes, I understand, Monz Fella."
They began walking again, coming to the far end of the courtyard and entering a large stone structure, three stories high. They went up to the top floor and down a narrow corridor, coming to a small room near the end.
Monz Fella opened the door.
Lance went inside.
From the doorway, Monz Fella glared at him. "You will stay here until I come to get you for temple service. And you had better think of what you're going to tell the other children."
Lance watched the door shut and heard the clatch of the lock. He turned into the room, which was empty, other than six bedrolls stacked in the corner. He walked over, and taking the top roll, moved it to below the window and lay down. He could hear the sound of the rain against the panes of glass. The sound comforted him, and he fell asleep.
Someone pinched his cheek.
Lance's eyes opened onto a circle of boys' faces.
"Ha-ha!! Pitcha got in trouble again!!" one of the boys jeered, pinching Lance again, this time on the other cheek.
Lance rolled onto his side and tried to get up, but the boys pulled him down.
"Trouble! Trouble! Trouble!" They teased, poking and pinching some more.
"Stop it!" Lance protested, his arms and legs a flurry of resistance.
"Slap, slap! Look at his hands! Ha! Slappy-slap!!"
"Do you think the Mistress made slappy-slap on his ass?" another boy asked with a crude inflection.
"Let's see!" several more shouted in unison.
Lance fought them, but he was only one eight-year-old boy. There were at least five or six boys arrayed against him, and their ages varied between eight and twelve. Within a matter of seconds, they had lifted his smock and pulled down his undergarment.
"She didn't blister him!" the first boy announced. His name was Hyet, and, at twelve, he was the oldest of the group.
"Me! Me! I get to!" This time, it was the crude boy who had spoken. His name was Josh, and he was eleven. He already had his hand raised, when a voice from the doorway stopped him and made the rest of the boys move away from Lance.
"Is this acceptable behavior?"
The boys looked at the floor and remained silent.
Lance pulled his underpants up and drew his smock back down.
"I asked you all a question. Is this acceptable behavior?"
"No, Monz Menzitar."
Monz Menzitar was the descaplenar – the man in charge of discipline at the Ritula House.
"I will have you all in my rooms after temple," Menzitar said. "If I hear you have touched him between now and then, you shall all be beaten." He looked at Lance. "Sit there in the corner. You will not move until Monz Fella comes to get you for temple."
Lance crawled into the corner and sat with his knees drawn up to his chest.
Monz Menzitar sent a chilling glare throughout the room before departing.
Immediately after the descaplenar had left, Josh spat out at Lance, "You got us in trouble! You always get us in trouble!"
"That's cause he's a stupid farm boy," one of the younger boys said. His name was Belvin, and he was Lance's age. "That's all he knows is chickens and cows and ducks—"
"And manure!" Hyet interjected, and they all laughed.
Lance rested his head on top of his knees and closed his eyes.
'They don't know anything,' he said to himself. 'They'll see. Papa will come get me. Then they'll wish they had a papa like mine.'
The testimony stand was a single rock slab standing just outside the entrance to the temple. It stood two feet high and was only large enough for one person to stand on. Lance was its occupant that evening as the residents of Ritula House – over 800 children and 50 adult staff members – filed into the temple for the ceremony.
As they passed by, anyone who asked Lance why he was there was entitled to an answer. This evening, many of them asked – the children with laughter and snickering in their voices, the adults with gravity and severity.
Lance had rehearsed his answer. "I did not say the prayer of obedience. I was disrespectful to the Mistress. I offended the Master."
He repeated it over and over again, to all those who asked.
It was not Lance's first time on the testimony stand. At least once a week, sometimes more, he found himself in the humiliating position of having to explain his infractions to anyone who wanted to hear them.
Failure to show proper respect during the temple ceremony. Refusal to take part in those same ceremonies. Disrespectful behavior towards teachers and other staff members. Fighting with other boys. Out of bounds in off-limit areas. Moody and sullen attitude. Ungrateful and spiteful treatment of those who had taken him in after tragedy had delivered him to this planet. Heretical worship of a false god.
This time was no different from any of the others. The children sneered, made faces, laughed, and pointed as they passed by. Many of them asked the question and even repeated it several times, until one of the adults would put an end to the badgering, scuttering the child along and regarding Lance with a look of disgust.
After the last person had gone into the temple, Monz Fella approached from the alcove where he had been watching Lance's performance. "You will stay out here until the ceremony is completed. You will remain standing and not move from the testimony stand. Monz Menzitar will deal with you after temple. He has told me that you and your roommates were fighting again. There appears to be no end to your wickedness. What an evil day it was that brought you here!" With that, he turned and strode into the temple.
Lance heard the heavy doors close behind him. He remained standing in his place.
'What an evil day it was that brought you here.'
Monz Fella had been correct about that.
That day, nearly a year ago, still stuck in Lance's memory as if it were yesterday. Hundreds of children crammed within the innards of a transport ship that had been turned into an evacuation craft. The ship had landed on a world Lance had never heard of; all he had known was that it was not home, that everyone and everything he had loved had been left behind.
The evacuees, all children, had been taken to a large, hangar-like structure. Over the next several days, the number of children had dwindled. Strangers had come and taken them into their homes. Eventually, only a knot of a dozen or so children had remained. Lance had been one of them.
That was when the Mistress had come.
Lance had noticed right away that the woman was not pleased about having to take the children.
"This is nothing short of extortion," she had said. "Forcing us to take in these children . . . we have hardly the means to feed and educate our own students. Now, you demand that we open our doors to these off-worlders. They no more belong at Ritula House than they belong on this planet."
"Take it up with the governor," replied the man who had appeared to be in charge of the distribution of the children. "Every public and private house of learning has been ordered to take in a certain number of these children. You'll be subsidized for it, so you have no reason to gripe."
"Ritula House is a religious school," the woman had replied. "There's no subsidization that is worth introducing heretical beliefs into our temple."
"Look at it as your chance to make some new converts." The man had then turned away.
Heretical. That's what Lance was. At least, that's what they told him. They didn't even seem to care about converting him. In fact, it felt as if the people at Ritula House were perfectly content to allow him to wallow in his 'wickedness'; it gave them someone to punish, someone to make an example of.
It began to rain.
Still, Lance did not move from his spot.
His loose smock, the standard garb for students, became wet and heavy and clung to his body. His bare feet stood in a small puddle of water in the middle of the stand, where centuries of guilty feet had worn a hollow into the stone.
He closed his eyes and lowered his head, wrapping his arms around his body for warmth. He prepared to wait a long time.
It was dark when the temple doors opened, and the worshippers came out into the wet, wind-filled night.
Monz Fella went to Lance. He steered him by the shoulder to Monz Menzitar's rooms, where Lance's roommates were already assembled. Once Monz Fella had closed the door, instruction began in earnest.
"Who started the fray this afternoon?" Monz Menzitar asked.
None of the boys answered.
"Shall I punish you all then? Who started the fray?"
Still, there was only silence.
"Very well, then. Strip down, all of you."
The boys did so, standing only in their undergarments.
"Come." They followed Menzitar out into the courtyard, where the rain was still pouring down in sheets. They passed through the courtyard and went outside, down a narrow pathway that led to an open area between high cliffs, forming a natural arena.
The boys began to run around the inner boundary of the enclosure. Monz Menzitar sat down in a covered space near the entrance and drew out a flask of wine to keep himself warm against the cold and the rain.
Lance ran at the back of the group, not because he was slower than the rest, but because he wanted to avoid contact with them. Yet, after several laps, Hyet motioned to the other boys to drop back.
Lance found himself encircled.
"This is all your fault!" Hyet spat out between breaths. "And I'm going to get you for it!"
Someone tried to trip him, but Lance kept his feet.
They reigned in their behavior as they came close to the place where Monz Menzitar was sitting, but once they had passed, Lance's roommates started up again. First, it was another attempt to trip him. Then Belvin shoved him into the rock wall, and an all-out fight ensued.
Hearing the melee across the darkness, Monz Menzitar got angrily to his feet and crossed the distance, coming to a tangle of boys, at the bottom of which he found Lance. He pulled Lance to his feet.
"Pitcha! You're the cause of everything!" he growled. "The rest of you keep running until I come back. I will know if you've stopped." He took Lance by the hair and led him back towards the entrance to the arena. Leaving the arena, he went down the path to where the remnants of an old crumbling wall afforded a partial barrier against the elements, as well as an obstacle to curious eyes.
Drawing out the leather switch that served as his on-the-spot form of discipline, Monz Menzitar propped one leg up on a fallen portion of the wall.
"Come here," he said to Lance, who was standing in front of him, staring at the switch with fearful eyes. "I said, come here."
Lance shook his head.
Monz Menzitar lunged forward and pulled Lance to him.
"No! I don't want to be hit!" Lance cried. "I don't want to be hit! I didn't do it!" He struggled uselessly, as Monz Menzitar bent him over his knee and drew down his undergarment.
The sound of the switch against Lance's bare skin competed with the howling wind, which competed with Lance's cries. At length, only the sounds of the belt and the wind remained.
Someone nudged his foot.
"Get up. We want to get a look at you."
Lance did not move.
The nudge became a kick, then a rap to the back of the head. Finally, after repeated attempts to him to stand, Lance found himself being hauled to his feet by two men. A hand under his chin raised his head, though he kept his eyes downcast.
He was poked, prodded, and manipulated until at last one of the men said, "Look at me. Do as I say, or I leave you. This means you will die. Look at me now."
Lance raised his eyes to find a dark face peering into his with an appraising air. The man was bearded, middle-aged, and possessed of a sense of superiority. Beside him stood a man of similar stature and state.
"What is your name?" the first man asked.
Lance offered no answer.
The man showed no aggravation, for he had not expected a reply. It was clear that the boy in front of him had been terribly abused, was ill and growing weaker, and had been reduced to a state of utter helplessness.
"Better than what we'd hoped for," the second man remarked in his own language. "Samoset will be pleased, Zamai."
"If he can regain his health," Zamai replied. He ran his palms over Lance's shoulders, amazed at his good fortune. How could the other buyers have missed the remarkable beauty hidden beneath the bruises on the young man? The festering injuries had been so distasteful that the other bidders had not noticed the perfect shape of the body, the idyllic face, the smooth, supple skin. They had missed the most valuable purchase.
And now Zamai was going to walk away with him for next to nothing. If the boy recovered from his injuries, he would quickly become the envy of every household and the object of greatest desire. Samoset would reward Zamai handsomely. And if the boy did recover, it would be hardly any loss.
"Put him in the cart," Zamai instructed his companion. "He certainly can not walk. When you get back, have Omeya tend to him. I leave him in your charge, Yetan. Inform me daily of his progress."
"Yes, Zamai," Yetan grinned. "And I thought we were going home empty-handed."
Zamai glided a hand over Lance's cheek. "Quite the opposite."