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It was a sere wasteland, riven by stark gashes, as if some intolerant and sadistic god had lashed it with a flail of lightning. There was no vegetation, whether gray, green, purple, or blue, nothing but the broken rock that sometimes reflected the heat of sun blaze, sometimes lay grimly dark under a thick massing of clouds—which was true now.

The building clinging to the rock tenaciously was so squat that it might be crouched awaiting some annihilating blow. It was uglier than the wasteland, for it had been built, not wrought by pitiless wind and weather.

Not that the prisoner, huddled by the narrow window slit that gave him so small a view of the world, could see the building. That he was a prisoner in a prison he understood. Why he had come here—who he was—

Sometimes he dreamed, and in those dreams he thought he knew. But though he tried to hold on to even a scrap of such a dream, he never succeeded. Upon waking, all he carried into the next stultifying day was a discontent, a dim belief that there was a different life he had once known.

There was food for his body and clothing, and now and then that discontent set him to force his sluggish mind to work—not to uncover lost memories, but to look through the slit, to wonder a little at the bare and blasted landscape. Yet never in all the time he had so watched had he seen any movement or life there.

Cloud shadows reached out, spread, dwindled—nothing else, save when the storms came in their wild fury and torrents of rain ran in the gullies cut by earlier floods and hail fell in great chunks to lie melting in the hollows.

One thing he could remember—why he did not know. He had a name—Andas Kastor. Was it really his name? He frowned now as his lips shaped that name, which was all he had.

There must be a different life out there somewhere, but what had he done to be exiled from it? How long had he been here? Once he had tried to count the days by scratching on the wall, but he had been sick and lost count. After that it had not mattered. There were the robots that brought food at intervals, that had tended him when he was sick—faceless things that he hated with what emotion had not been wrung out of him, but that were impervious to any attack or rebellion on his part. Twice he had tried that, only to have sleep gas flood his cell.

It was going to storm again. A faint flicker of interest stirred him. That was out of the normal pattern, and anything that broke the pattern was to be treasured. They had had one of the bad storms only two days ago. The pools it had filled out there among the rocks had not yet entirely drained. To have a second so soon was most unusual.

The clouds were gathering so fast that it was as dark as night. The lights in the corners of his cell came on, though they usually did not in storm time.

He stayed by the window slit, though the aspect outside was threatening. Somehow the fear it caused sharpened his mind. There had been many storms. Wind, hail, pouring rain had done no harm to the building. Why should he feel apprehensive this time?

Night darkness and the howling of the wind—he could hear it even through these sound-deadening walls. He put his hands flat against the windowpane and felt a vibration of force. Solid and secure as the building was, the storm was striking at it with no ordinary power.

Now the lightning began, and the flashes were such that he was driven from his viewpoint, his hands over his eyes. He stumbled to his bed, crouched there, his head down on his upthrust knees, his hands over his ears. He was afraid as he could not remember having been before. This storm was such fury unleashed that he could only cower.

There was a great burst of light—then nothing.

* * *

Imperial Prince Andas sat up to stare about him dazedly. His head spun. He felt more than a little sick. But he steadied himself with one hand against the wall and looked about in desperate disbelief. He could not be seeing this! A dream—surely a dream!

Where was his own bed? There should have been four posts of Caldroden golden marble, each carven into a losketh with wings outstretched, and over his head the Imperial demi-crown of precious darmerian wood inter-set with the five gems. The walls—these gray walls? Where were the proper hangings of painted Iamn skin, bronze-green, with here and there a tinge of faded red? There were no rugs—no—

Where was he?

Andas shut his eyes firmly to this nightmare and tried to think, to fight panic, which was a sour, foul taste in his mouth, a shaking throughout his body.

Anakue! This was Anakue's doing! But how—how had that half-crazed rebel—whom none took seriously—done this?

Andas kept his eyes closed. The how—that was something he could discover later. The now was more important. Grisly events from past history crowded into his mind, a montage of all the horror tapes one could imagine. Palace intrigues—he had heard of those—but only in the past. Such things did not happen nowadays—they could not! Why, no one with any sense listened to Anakue's ravings. His right to the throne was nonexistent, coming as he did from the illegitimate lines both long discounted.

Cautiously Andas opened his eyes again and forced himself to study what lay about him. This was not his bedroom, this gray box with its very simple furniture, lacking all the color and beauty he had always known. Now he looked down at himself, running his hands along his body to assure himself by touch that his eyes reported the truth.

No silken nightrobe—no, a coarse one-piece coverall such as laborers wore, gray as the walls. His hands—their natural brownness had a yellow tinge, as if they had not felt sun for a long time. He missed the rings he had always worn as his status insignia, just as his two wristbands were gone when he hurriedly pushed up his sleeves to make sure.

Now he began to explore his face, his head, by touch. His thick hair was not as long as it should be. It was clipped closer to his skull.

Shakily Andas got to his feet. Out—he had to get out, to discover where he was. But, this must be a prison—only, when he looked to the far wall, he saw a half-open door, though that part of the room was very dim, for the only light came from a slit of window.

Wary yet of the door, Andas went to the window and looked out on a scene that was a new and sharp shock. This was not Inyanga. Nor Benin, nor Darfur—he had visited both of those sister worlds in the Dinganian system. He braced himself by one hand on either side of the window and stared out at the forbidding wilderness of twisted and broken rock now running with streams of water. This was nowhere in the world he knew! Which meant—how could it be Anakue's doing?

Swaying, Andas edged along the wall, steadying himself with one hand. He had to find somebody, to learn—He had to know!

But when he came to that half-open door, Andas hesitated. It was even darker beyond, and what might lie in wait? His hand went to a belt he no longer wore. He had not even that ceremonial long knife which was seldom drawn from its elaborate sheath. He had nothing but his two hands. But the need for knowing drove him on, to sidle around the door and stand in a dark corridor.

There were one or two faint beams of half-light, as if they issued from other rooms. He slipped on, keeping to the wall, heading toward the nearest of those.

This was like combat training at Pav. He was suddenly fiercely glad that he had argued his grandfather into letting him have that experience. Of course, he had been then only third in line for the seat of the Lion, and it did not matter that he wanted to see life beyond the Triple Towers.

He reached the doorway and froze. The faint scrape of sound was from within. The room was not empty. Andas flexed his hands. He had learned a lot in combat training, and now he felt, rising above his bewilderment and fear, that cold and deadly anger that was the heritage of his house. Someone had done this to him, and he was ready to make the first comer among the enemy account in return.

"Please—is there anyone—anyone at all?"

A woman. But this was not too strange. Many times in the past a throne had toppled from intrigue begun in the Flower Courts of the Women, though he knew none favoring Anakue.

"Anyone—" The voice was a low wail.

Andas read fear in it, and that brought him into action. He rounded another half-open door to confront the occupant of a cell exactly like his own. She stared at him, and her mouth worked. In another moment she would scream. He did not know how he guessed that, but it was true. He moved with trained speed to catch her, holding his hand over her mouth.

But she was no palace woman, nor even of the Dinganian system—he would take knife oath on that. Her skin was very light against his own, and it was covered with tiny pearly scales, which felt rough to his touch. Her hair was green, and she had odd lumpy growths on either side of her slender neck.

"Be quiet!" he whispered.

After her first instinctive recoil when he had caught her, she ceased to struggle. Now she nodded, and somehow he trusted her enough to take away his hand. It was plain as he looked about that cell that she, too, must have been a prisoner, though her race and home planet he could not guess.

"Who are you?" Her voice was steadier than it had been earlier when she had cried for help. It was as if by seeing him she had gained assurance.

"Andas of Inyanga, Imperial prince of the Dinganian Empire," he told her, wondering if she would believe him. "And you?"

"Elys of Posedonia." There was that in her tone which made that name as proud a title as the one he had voiced. "What is this place?"

Andas shook his head. "You may guess that as quickly as I. I awoke and found myself here. By rights I should be in the Triple Towers at Ictio."

"And I in Islewaith. This—this is a prison, is it not? But—why—?"

He nodded again. "There are a number of 'whys' for us, lady. And the sooner we get some answers, the better."

She spoke Basic as well as he, Andas noted, which meant that she was from some planet within the general sphere of influence of the Terran outflow in the past. But since no man recently had attempted to number those worlds, there was no reason why she should know his home system, any more than he hers.

"Do not leave me!" She caught his sleeve as he turned back to the door.

"Come quietly then," he ordered.

But an instant later they heard a footfall in the dark corridor that made them both tense. A shadowy form appeared in the doorway. Andas half crouched, his hands ready to deliver the blows he had been drilled in.

"Peace!" The newcomer held up a hand, palm out in a gesture of good will as old as time in the galaxy. He was a little taller than Andas, but this time his race was known to the prince.

Salariki! From his point-tipped ears to his sandaled feet, their claws retracted now, he was unmistakably of that feline ancestry. The fur on his head and outer arms and down his shoulders and spine was blue-gray, his skin a shade or so darker. And the slanted eyes in his broad face were a brilliant blue-green. He did not wear a coverall like the other two, but a kilt of the same coarse material. Now he stood with his hands on his hips, surveying the two of them.

"Two more fish in the net," he commented, his Basic slightly slurred with the hissing inflection of his species.

"And you?' Andas demanded. He found the Salariki's stare irritating.

"And I," agreed the other readily enough. "Though how I got here from Framware—"

"Framware?" Somewhere Andas had heard that name. Then he put memory to good use. "Framware, the trading station of the Growanian Six Worlds!"

The Salariki showed his fangs in a grin, which Andas thought did not denote much humor.

"Just so. In fact, I was the head of our trade mission—I am Lord Yolyos."

Andas introduced himself, as did his companion. The Salariki rubbed a forefinger across his chest, the long, dangerous-looking claw at its tip extended to the fullest.

"It would seem," he remarked, "that someone has been collecting notables. You are an Imperial prince of somewhere—which doubtless has a weighty meaning in the right time and place. And you, lady"—he turned to the girl—"are you perhaps a ruler, or ruler to be?"

"I am the rightful Demizonda, yes." There was pride in her swift reply.

"We have other companions in misfortune," Lord Yolyos continued. "There is one, Hison Grasty, who assures us, and continues to do so regularly, that he is Chief Councilor of some place called Thrisk. And an Iylas Tsiwon, Arch Chief of Naul, and also one called Turpyn, who so far has not seen fit to supply us with more than his name. Now, what do you remember?" He shot that at Andas in an entirely different tone of voice, a sharp demand for information that the prince found himself supplying before he had a chance to resent such inquisition.

"Nothing. To the best of my memory, I went to bed in my own chamber—and woke up here. And you?"

"The same. Where here may be none of us seems able to supply. You, lady?"

The girl shook her head. "No more. A familiar room—then this!"

"There are indications," Lord Yolyos continued, "that there has been a power failure in this building."

"Power failure—" Andas repeated. "Inhibitor! They may have had an inhibitor on us!"

"Inhibitor?" Apparently Elys did not understand.

"A mental block—to keep us from remembering. If none of us can, that must have been it!"

"Possible, yes. There is another point," the Salariki said. "We seem to be alone here. To all purposes, this prison was run by robots only."

"But that is impossible!" Andas protested.

"I shall be most happy to have the opposite proved true." Lord Yolyos held up his hand, extending all his finger claws, armament that Andas eyed with respect. He would not like to meet the Salariki in unarmed combat, not even with his own training. "I would like," the other continued, "to have an interview with the lord of this place. I do not think he would deny me any answers I desired."

Search the place they did, thoroughly. But when the band of prisoners gathered once more in the central space, they pushed among robots halted statue-like, sure that there were no other humans but themselves under this roof.

Of their company Iylas Tsiwon was clearly the eldest, though with all the rejuvenating methods now generally in use, plus the fact that there were great differences in the aging speed of various races, they could not be sure of that. But he was clearly the least strong, a small man, close to the Terran norm physically. His hair was thin and white, his face a pallid wedge with deeply graven lines on either side of his beak of a nose. His coverall seemed too large for his shrunken frame, and he pressed his hands tightly together to still the tremor in them.

Hison Grasty loomed over Tsiwon as if to make two of the frail Arch Chief. But it was mostly blubber that made up his bulk, Andas decided with inner aversion. His round face was rendered doubly unattractive by a dull red flush about his nose and mottled dewlaps. His obese body strained the seams of his clothing with every ponderous movement.

Turpyn, who had impressed Andas with his skill at seeking out every possible hiding place in the prison, was in great contrast to the other two. He, also, was probably Terran, but there were certain subtle modifications of the original that hinted at planetary mutation.

His hair was cut very short and looked almost as thick and plushy as that on the Salariki, but it was white, though not with age. In addition, he had a thick tuft of it jutting from the point of his chin. And his eyes were very curious indeed, showing no whites at all, only a wide disc expanse of silver. He spoke seldom and then only in monosyllables, nor had he made any other statement concerning his past than his name.

But he was the first to speak now. "No one here—robot controlled."

"We must get away," broke in Elys eagerly. "Get away before someone comes to start the machines again."

Turpyn turned those cold discs of eyes upon her. "How? We are in desert country. There are no transports here. And we don't even eat unless we can activate the food section again."

"And if an attempt to activate that starts everything—even the guards?" Andas demanded.

Turpyn shrugged. "I don't know if you can live without food. I know I can't."

Andas realized that he himself was hungry. So Turpyn was right—they had to have food.

Yolyos spoke first. "What chance have we of getting at the food supplies? I freely admit my people seldom deal with robotic equipment, and I am totally ignorant of the field. Have we an expert among us?"

Tsiwon shook his head, and a moment later Grasty's jowls wobbled in the same gesture. Elys spoke aloud.

"My people are of the sea. We do not use such off-world machines."

Andas was angry that he must also deny any useful knowledge. But when the Salariki looked to Turpyn, there was a faintly different expression on his face.

"But you, I believe, do know. Is that not true?"

Andas wondered if the Salariki was purposely extending his finger claws as he asked that question, or if it was an unconscious reaction brought out by that hostility Andas, too, was sure lay beneath the surface of Turpyn's attitude.

"Enough—maybe—" The man turned and went to the far side of the room, being closely trailed by the rest. There was a control board there, and he walked along it slowly, now and then extending a hand as if to push some button or lever, but never quite completing that movement

Was he a tech, Andas wondered, an engineer of such standing as would make him equal in rank to the rest of their prisoner band? Yet he did not have the manner of the techs Andas knew. He had, rather, the self-confidence of a man well used to giving orders. But unless he was playing a part now, he was not very familiar with these controls.

At length he appeared to make up his mind and returned along the wall installation, pausing only a second now and then to flip up a switch. When he reached the opposite end, he stopped and glanced over his shoulder at them.

"This is the test," he said. "I will switch on to an alternate power source. That may or may not work. I hope I have turned off the guard robots—perhaps I haven't. It's stars across the board, risking all comets." He reduced their chances to that of the galaxy-wide gambling game.

Tsiwon put out one trembling hand as if in protest, but if that was what he had in mind, he thought better of it and said nothing. Grasty backed to one side, into a position from which he could better see both the board and the robots. The Salariki did not move. Andas felt Elys's light touch on his arm, as if she thus sought some reassurance.

Turpyn pulled a last switch. Lights went on. They blinked against the brightness. Andas thought that those lights were a concrete argument that this room must sometime be used by humans—robots did not need them.

He was watching those robots with the same apprehension that held the others tense. Only one moved, and as it trundled doorward, he saw that it was a servo. It passed them at a steady pace and came to the wall at the end of the room, where it flashed a beam code against what seemed solid surface. A panel opened.

"So far, so good." Even Turpyn appeared to relax visibly. "But if we are going to eat, I would suggest that we get back to our rooms. That thing is programed to deliver the food there." And he started for the ramp leading to the cell corridor.

A little hesitantly the others followed. Tsiwon and Grasty first, the other three behind. As they started up, Yolyos made a small signal for caution.

"He knows more than he admits." There was no need for the Salariki to indicate who "he" was. Suddenly Andas had an idea. What if their jailer now posed as one of them? What better way to conceal himself than to claim to be another prisoner?

"He might be one of them you think?"

Yolyos again displayed his fangs. "An idea clever enough to be born from the mind of Yared himself! But not to be overlooked. I will not say that he is our enemy, but I would not hail him as cup-brother with any speed. We must discover the purpose for our being here, because only then can we bring our true enemies into the open. Think about that while you eat—"

"Need we eat apart?" Elys cut in quickly. "Iconfess freely to you, my lords, I have little liking for entering that room again, less for sitting there on my own. Can we not take the food when it comes and bring it to some common place?"

"Of course!" Though he would not have mentioned it, Andas knew the same uneasiness. To enter that cell and wait gave him the feeling that once more the doors might lock.

"Your room is between mine and the prince's." Yolyos fell in with her suggestion at once. "Let us collect our food and come to you."

Andas did not even go in his cell, but waited outside until the robot came rumbling down the corridor, pushed into the empty room, slid two covered containers and a lidded mug on the table, and went out. Then he collected all quickly and went to Elys's cell, from the doorway of which the robot was just emerging.

When he entered, she stood away from the wall. Andas pulled the upper covering from her bed and rolled it into a tight ball, which he pushed down to keep the door from closing automatically.

"Well thought on." As the prince got to his feet, the Salariki arrived with his own dishes.

It was when they opened all the containers that they had a new surprise.

"This," announced Yolyos, "cannot be prison food. Smalk legs stewed in sauce, roast guan—" He now flipped up the lid of the mug to sniff its contents. "Vormilk well aged, if I can believe my nose."

Since the Salariki sense of smell was famous, Andas thought he could. But he was bemused at his own supplies. This was food such as might reasonably have come from the first table at the Triple Towers, except it was not ceremoniously served on gold platters and he was not wearing a dining robe of state.

"They put us in cells, dress us so"—disdainfully Elys flicked the stuff of her coverall—"and then feed us richly. Why?"

"Food of our own worlds, too." Andas looked at the girl's main platter. He did not recognize the round white balls resting on a mat of green resembling boiled leaves.

"Yes." The Salariki raised a spoon to suck noisily at its contents. And the prince remembered that the aliens made a practice of eating with sound effects, so that the host might be sure of the enjoyment of his guests.

Just another question to have answered, he thought. Then he fell to eating with full appetite.


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