Two monans later

John could readily say that this place was getting seriously on his nerves. They were up at the crack of dawn, were herded into the transport that took them to the mines, had to nearly break their backs working on mining the theeben gas, both in solid and gas form, then were herded back to the transport and taken back to the slavers estate where they could spend the rest of the day feeling miserable because they knew it would all start over again the following morning.

And on top of that, John was beginning to develop respiratory problems. He felt like someone had placed a lead weight on his chest. His breathing was labored; not overly so, but enough to worry him. He felt like he had contracted a bad case of pneumonia without the obvious side-effects of a fever and general malaise; but he was certain that whatever side-effects his body deemed necessary weren't far behind.

He coughed hollowly into the palm of one hand and muttered a stilted and inefficient curse at the rattling in his chest. He would kill for a bath and a good night's rest; hell, right now he would kill for some decent food and more than four cups of water. He would most definitely kill for freedom.

Before he could determine how to handle his at present pour condition, the gates to the enclosure opened and four overseers stepped in. They looked around, their eyes skimming over the assembled males, and John got the odd feeling that something new was up; something different.

One of the overseers fixed his gaze on him and wiggled a finger at him to come forward. As he knew from experience what disobeying would get him and he was neither in the mood nor physical form to accept such punishment, he climbed out from under the roof and stepped forward. Popeye was also called forward and the big guy looked as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

"What's going on?" John whispered hoarsely to Popeye. The big guy shrugged wordlessly.

With a slight frown, John watched as two more males were called out and he tried to determine why the four of them had been singled out and not the rest. He figured that all four of them were in better condition than the rest and wondered if they were going on special mining duty or something.

"Move," one of the overseers said and stepped aside.

Instead of being moved toward a transport, they were all herded up to the main building. Teelum was waiting for them, hands clasped behind his back, while he eyed them all thoughtfully. Then he nodded without a word and stepped aside.

They were herded inside the building and taken to what John could only identify as a shower room. "Get cleaned up," one of the overseers said. "Put on the new clothing afterward. And be quick about it."

Whatever the reason was, John decided to get the best out of it. To get a shower was going to make up for a lot.

As it turned out, the water was ice cold and he didn't feel much better afterwards. The new clothing – same as the old, only clean – clung to his wet skin, but he didn't care much. He felt cleaner, but that was about it. It hadn't been the sought-after sensation of invigoration he had dreamt of. Instead of being dirty and miserable, he was now marginally clean, wet, cold and miserable.

Together with the other three males, he was herded outside again and into a pen-like enclosure. Confused about what came next, he glanced around at the others. Popeye still looked clueless, but the two others looked marginally expectant, which made John wonder even more.

At the very moment he caught sight of the female on the platform outside the enclosure, it hit John like a ton of bricks what was going on. And he couldn't believe it. This was so much more demeaning than being forced to work in the mines and having a damn control collar around his neck. This was a slave auction and they were getting sold off to the highest bidder.

The female stood stock-still between two overgrown gorillas and all John could think of doing was to stare at her. She was so out of proportions that he hardly considered her female at all, but the way she dressed along with her shape in general made him think that she was female.

After a moment, she suddenly stuck out a heavily ringed finger and pointed at him. "That one," she said, glanced up at one of her gorillas and nodded. "Take care of it," she added and left.

Teelum hurried after her while the two gorillas instructed two of the other overseers to get him out of the pen. John was caught somewhere between disbelief and total disgust, which rendered him unable to respond in any way to what was happening to him. He couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that he was stuck in this nightmare. The two gorillas inspected him, fortunately only visually, and accepted him. Without question or comment, they took a hold of him and dragged him along to a rather luxurious transport, where the female was already seated. He, however, was thrown in the back, which was probably similar to a trunk, but big enough for him to sit upright in.

Once in there, he settled down and just sat there for a moment with a frown furrowing his brow. "What the hell just happened?" he muttered to himself. Essentially, he knew what had happened, but something in his mind would not allow him to acknowledge it for what it was.

***

The ride was long and smooth. Since these transports hovered above the ground and didn't use the more basic means of transportation like wheels, it was hard to determine where they were going or how fast. All John knew was that he was sitting there, waiting for whatever fate had in store for him next, and all the while he tried to decide if he should get worked up about this or not. It all depended on what happened at the other end.

Suddenly, all movement ceased and the trunk lid opened, revealing the two gorillas again. Without a word, they grabbed him and hauled him out of the transport again.

They were on some private property with lush vegetation and a pretty damn big house. It was made of some kind of white rock and looked very airy. John glanced around before focusing on the open door to the transport's main cabin. "Where's the fish lady?" he asked and glanced up at the gorilla holding his right arm.

Both of the goons ignored him and dragged him inside. The house was freezing and if there was one thing John hated, then it was freezing. The goons didn't stop to let him inspect the interior, but instead dragged him halfway through the house and into what passed for a bathroom. There they released him and stepped back.

"Get cleaned up," one of them instructed.

John turned around to face him with a frown. "Again? I just had a shower," he said and decided right there and then to make as much of a fuss as he could. He didn't want to be here and it didn't matter if they were going to treat him well.

"Get cleaned up or we'll do it for you," the big guy said.

John glanced around the cleansing room, as it was called out here, and sighed. "No," he finally said. "I'm cold enough as it is. I don't need to get wet again."

The two goons glanced at each other, shrugged and advanced on him. And John just knew that whatever they wanted to do, he would be forced to let them do it. There was no way that he could fight off both of them. He backed up and assumed that he would at least be able to put in a few good kicks before they overpowered him.

***

There was a cool breeze going through the already airy ice castle of a house and John's at present sparse clothing, which consisted of a pair of rather thin, knee-long pants and nothing else, did nothing to protect him from it. With goose bumps rushing up and down his bare arms, he hugged himself and glanced around with nothing short of distaste. If you liked to live with a minimum of comfort, this place was definitely it. The tiled floor beneath his bare feet was close to freezing and the humiliating bath he had just been put through had left him moist and shivering.

The room he had been brought to had overtones of ancient Greece about it. White pillars supported the roof and the windows, if there were any, were obscured by long, white drapes made of a very light, flowing fabric that moved with the slightest disturbance. The floor was covered in white, frosted tiles and there was hardly any furniture apart from a divan and a small crystalline pillar sitting next to it.

The female he had first seen at the slavers' estate had draped herself over the divan, and was smiling at him in a way that raised more goose bumps on his arms. She wasn't Sebacean. She wasn't even Sykaran. But she was humanoid and obviously female. Her eyes were too big for her face and she had what looked like soft down instead of hair. It was long and piled on top of her head, but it still didn't look like hair. He assumed that her smile was supposed to be seductive, but on him it had the opposite effect.

She propped herself up on one elbow, her thin lips stretched in that feral smile that exposed her razor-sharp teeth. They were pointed like a shark's and John was very much reminded of the predator that prowled the Terran seas. Her pale, almost translucent skin definitely instilled the image of a water creature in his mind and he got it into his head that she was probably cold and slimy to the touch.

"Come over here," she said and gently patted the seat next to her.

He made no move to comply, just remained where he was and stared at her defiantly.

"Come on," she cooed and wiggled a heavily ringed finger at him. "Come on. You know you want to."

"No, I don't," he disagreed gruffly and remained where he was. He knew by now that defiance earned him nothing but pain, but he was willing to risk it if it meant he didn't have to touch that creature; or be touched by her, for that matter. The thought sent a shiver through him that he had a hard time repressing.

His tone as well as his words in combination obviously gave her a clue about what he did or did not intend to do and she sat up, swung her legs off the couch and planted her sandaled feet on floor with a slap. "What?" she asked, her tone full of disbelief. "You do not oppose me," she stated and folded her arms over her chest. "Not now, not ever. Do you understand? You are my property and you do as I say."

"I'm nobody's property, lady. I don't care how many credits you paid," he countered aggressively.

She rose in a whisper of fabric, her dress reminding him of ancient Greek garbs. The dress was made of some kind of flowing, red fabric that was tied up under her rather flat chest and just generally seemed to free-flow around her. The red was rich and dark and fell heavily even though it looked paper-thin. "You will do as I tell you, male," she snapped angrily. Her anger lent her skin some color.

John focused on her face. She was pretty, but only on the outside. He had learned the hard way that beauty was usually only skin-deep. "Nope, I won't. Not unless you force me," he countered obstinately. "And why don't you turn up the heat in this dump? I'm freezing my ass off."

Some part of him knew he wasn't doing himself any favors, but he just couldn't help himself. If this female thought he would jump in bed with her for 'freeing him', she had another thing coming. He was nobody's slave; least of all some spoiled little semi-Sebacean brat's and that was how he saw her. That she in fact could be older than him didn't make any difference. She behaved like a snotty brat and he was not going to put up with that kind of behavior.

Her expression seemed to be stuck somewhere between disbelief and anger. "You ... you ..." she tried, but obviously couldn't think of anything to say to his rude behavior.

"I what?" he snapped, trying to use this obvious advantage he had on her right now. "Why don't you just shut the frell up and leave me alone, huh? I've had it with being bossed around."

She was flabbergasted. There was no other explanation for her openmouthed surprise. But then her eyes started smoldering. Instead of turning into a blubbering mass as he had hoped she might, she turned up the anger instead. "How dare you?" she snarled.

Too late did John realize that the slavers had equipped her with a control box. He saw light glint off the metal as she raised it and pushed the button. Before he knew what hit him, he was on the floor, writhing in agony.

The onslaught was brief and barely enough to rattle him at this point, but it still drained him and he felt like he'd been kicked by a mule. With a bit of an effort, he got up on his hands and knees and took a moment to regain his composure before he raised his head and gave her a dark look. "Is that the best you can do?" he rasped angrily. He was getting awfully tired of being pushed around.

His insolent behavior had awoken her fury and she squashed the button on the device down as hard as she could, her sparkling red fingernail glittering in the sunbeams falling through the windows as John hit the floor a second time in a full-fledged spasm.

This onslaught lasted much longer and if he'd had any control over his vocal cords, he would have cursed her to high heaven. He had never previously considered that electric shock could be so painful when it was prolonged this much.

When she released the button again, he released a gasp of air while his body went limp. For the longest of moments, he considered staying where he was, face down on the floor, but then he rolled over on his side and forced his jittery muscles to comply. "God dammit," he rasped and struggled back up on his hands and knees. No matter how much he felt like giving it up right then, he couldn't let her know how close he was to crying uncle. Instead, he raised his head and gave her a nasty glare.

At first he had intended to leave it at that, to just stare at her angrily and not get himself in over his head, but the look in her overtly big eyes was enough to raise his hackles. She looked smug, content in the knowledge that she had the power to subdue him at the tip of her fingers.

His gaze snapped over to the control box in her hand and the mere thought of her pushing that button again made him sneer with anger. And anger, it seemed, was a fuel source he hadn't considered before. It wasn't desperation that drove his next action. It was anger; pure, undiluted anger. It was as much a surprise to himself as it obviously was to her when he leapt back to his feet. He covered the distance between them, grabbed her wrist and twisted it backward until she let go with a howl of pain. And still his anger seethed inside him. "If you do that again, I'll rip your damned face off. You got that?" he snarled.

To say that he was pissed was the understatement of the year. He was livid with anger and not afraid to show it. He wasn't thinking straight. All he wanted to do was to make her understand that he was not going to take this one sitting down. He was not going to put up with further maltreatment.

Before he could consider the further consequences of his actions, he had a hand around her delicate little neck and was putting pressure on her windpipe. Whatever it was, something suddenly broke through the angry haze in his mind and he became painfully aware of what he was in the process of doing. Stunned by his own behavior, he let go of her as if she had burned him and took a hesitant step back.

She coughed helplessly, a very provoked sound. Then she looked up at him, her expression far from what he had thought he would see there. She wasn't scared, she was angry too, big time. "HEECAN," she screeched at the top of her lungs, her voice high-pitched enough to be painful. "HEECAN!"

The doors swung open and two rather hefty-looking Sebacean males came storming in.

The female pointed a shaking finger at John and suddenly her big eyes welled up with tears. "He tried to kill me," she whined.

The one called Heecan strode past John and pulled her into an embrace, his bulk dwarfing her slender form. "There, there, now," he said quietly. "We're here now. He won't harm you again." Then he glanced over one shoulder at John and John knew without a doubt that he was in for a very rough time.

He took a step back and bumped into an unmoving wall right behind him. One glance over his shoulder revealed that the other male was at least a head taller than him and broad as a barn door. The hulk grabbed him by the shoulders; a grip he wouldn't be able to break even if he'd been at the top of his game.

Heecan tilted his head to the right, his eyes on Hulk now, and John more felt than saw the other man nod. "Nobody hurts Madam K'irri," the hulk rumbled and lifted John off the floor.

Heecan squatted down and retrieved the control box. "Hold him," he said and pushed the button. "You'll soon enough learn humility," he added as the full effect of the collar made itself felt in every fiber of John's body.

***

Once torture-time was over, Heecan and his buddy dragged John through the house to a room at the other end. They threw him unceremoniously on the floor and he decided that he might as well just stay where he was. There was no way in hell that he would be able to move right now without at least one of his muscles going into a full-blown spasm.

Darkness descended on him mere seconds later and it was still dark when he finally woke up again. Despite his aching and sore muscles, he reared up from the floor and slammed his back and the back of his head hard against the wall.

"Easy, friend," a voice next to him said and a warm hand grabbed his arm in the complete darkness. "You need to take it easy."

Swallowing hard to get at least a partial grip on his panic, he blinked furiously and could still see nothing. "I can't see," he rasped.

"Of course not. It's the middle of the night," the voice responded.

"This world has a moon. There should be light," he countered and even he could hear the somewhat panicky tone to his voice. "Where am I?" With the sour taste of panic still in his mouth, he realized that he could now add disorientation to the mix.

"In the slave quarters. There are no windows in here, so hence no light," the voice next to him said quietly.

John turned his head in the direction of the speaker, but could still make out nothing. Slowly, the panic ebbed away and was replaced by a mixture of defeat and anger. "Oh. I see," he replied with a despondent sigh.

"If you know what's best for you, friend, you will give in to Madam K'irri. She can make your life very easy," the voice said. It sounded like an older man, but out here you couldn't be sure. But the gender or age of the speaker was not the first thing on his mind at that moment.

"Give in to her? No way! I don't want to be here," John countered hoarsely and shifted around a little so he was leaning against the wall with his legs stretched out in front of him. "Why the hell is it so damned cold in this dump?" he asked after a moment while trying in vain to control the shivers that had started to ripple through him.

"Madam K'irri prefers the cold," the speaker said. "She is very delicate."

"Delicate my ass," John muttered and banged his head against the wall hard enough for it to hurt. "I'm gonna show her delicate."

"You will only get yourself injured," the speaker said. "Or sent back to the slavers' estate."

That made John pay attention. "You mean if I keep up this behavior, she'll send me back?" he asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.

"Yes," the speaker said, his tone regretful. "Although this is not freedom, it is better than working in the mines. You may not see it now, but it is."

"Yeah, right," John grumbled. "I'm not going to stay here if I can help it. And it would seem that I can."

He could almost imagine a wizen old man as he heard the sigh of the speaker. "You are crazy," he muttered. "You cannot count on ever being free again. Why not take the best you can get under the circumstances?"

"Because, friend," John said and tried not to sound too strained, "I don't want to end my life being some rich lady's lap dog, okay? There's a woman out there that I love and I have friends who will do whatever they can to get us out. So you see, I can't be here. I have to be at the estate. How can they free me if I'm not there?" Frustrated by his own words, he scrubbed both palms over his face. His muscles were jittery with fatigue and in general he just wanted to curl up in a corner and sleep, but he needed to pump this guy for information on how best to antagonize Madam K'irri.

The speaker sighed again, an almost brittle sound, then patted his arm lightly. "I understand. But you will come to your senses soon enough." With that, the speaker handed him a blanket and moved off somewhere.

John draped the blanket around himself and was amazed that the thin fabric gave any measure of warmth. He would have to consider his options closely before he pushed the limits of Madam K'irri, but push them he would. And he would push until they broke. Either way, he was not going to be a resident of this drafty ice castle for very long.

***

"YOU ARE GOING TO BEHAVE! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

A drill sergeant in boot camp couldn't have made a better display of authority. The only problem was, it didn't impress John. He pulled his head back a little and made a face, but decided to say nothing. Heecan wasn't as big as his buddy, but the hulk wasn't far away.

"DO YOU COPY?" Heecan roared into his face and caused him to pull back even more.

"Have a breath mint, dude," John countered and waved a hand in front of his face.

Heecan was obviously not expecting John's attitude and looked a little stumped at first. Then his color turned a deeper shade of red. "YOU ARE NOT GOING TO FRELL WITH US. YOU ARE GOING TO COMPLY OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES," he then roared.

"What's the alternative?" John asked and gave Heecan a joyless grin.

Heecan grabbed him by the throat, slammed him bodily against the wall and nearly lifted him off his feet in the process. "YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY?" he roared.

John had grabbed onto Heecan's rather beefy wrist and tried to pry his hand off his throat with little luck. Gasping for breath, he shook his head and it had the desired effect. Heecan released him again. Rubbing his sore neck, John glared at the other man. "No, I don't frelling think this is funny," he snarled angrily. "Now, GET THE FRELL OFF MY BACK," he the roared back. Then he cleared his throat. "Jeez," he grumbled.

Heecan had obviously never had this much opposition from any of Madam K'irri's other acquisitions, because he looked like he had no idea how to respond to that. "Declan here is not above using brute force," he finally said. "I suggest that you get your act together and behave before Madam K'irri has had enough of you."

"I don't frelling care. You think I prefer being her frelling lap dog to being at the estate? Give me a frelling break," John shot back, his tone more subdued than before.

A shovel of a hand suddenly closed around his throat and raised him clear off the floor. Declan was a man of few words, but he didn't need words when his strength did all the talking for him. John couldn't even close one hand around Declan's wrist and the pressure on his throat, despite the collar in the way, was like a steel band being tightened slowly.

"You will do as you're told or you will die. Do I make myself clear?" Heecan asked quietly. "Madam K'irri is a fragile being and she has to be treated as such. If you put one toe out of line while you're in the same room with her, I will take it out of your hide."

Despite the relentless pressure and the ever-rising need for air, John couldn't help but latch onto Heecan's words and he stored them away for later use. Right now, he had enough to do just to stay conscious and no clawing at that trunk of an arm did any good.

Eventually, Declan released him at a nod from Heecan and he dropped to the floor like a wet rag. Gasping for breath, he pulled back against the rear wall of the room and settled for staring angrily at Declan, who paid him no attention at all.

Heecan squatted down and regarded him thoughtfully. "I know you think you can gain something by pushing us, but you can't. Just conform and you'll have a quiet life here. Madam K'irri grows tired of her acquisitions rather quickly and will leave you alone after that. Your life will be far better here than it is in the mines."

John made a face and sat up a little straighter. "Get real. I am not going to be a prisoner for the rest of my life," he snapped.

"You won't have to be if you conform," Heecan countered calmly. "I used to be like you. But I have a good life and Madam K'irri is a good woman. She takes good care of us."

"I don't want to be taken care of by some rich, pampered ... whatever the frell she is," John countered and got back to his feet. He kept his back to the wall and well out of reach of Declan. "I want to be free to go where ever I want to go without having to ask for a frelling permission slip first."

"That part of your life is over. The sooner you adjust to that idea, the better for you. But I will not allow you to harass Madam K'irri like you did yesterday. She's too delicate for that," Heecan said darkly.

"Then she shouldn't keep slaves," John countered and snorted with contempt. "If you think I will ever settle for this life, you've got another thing coming. I'm not going to give in here. So you might as well tell her to send me straight back to where she found me. Because I'd rather work myself to death in a frelling mine shaft than have her touch me again. She's clammy."

Heecan's temper went flying at once and he backhanded John across the face, knocking him off his feet. A bloody nose was worth the confirmation of what he thought he had picked up on before. Heecan had a soft spot for his mistress. Bad move for a slave, he thought, and wiped the back of his hand over his lips, drying away the blood steadily oozing from his nose.

"YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT HER LIKE THAT," Heecan roared. Declan seemed to have a little more brain than John had initially given him credit for, because he grabbed Heecan's shoulder and stopped him from going berserk on John.

With the back of his hand pressed against his nose, John rose again. "Alright already," he said. "I'll keep my mouth shut. But I'm not giving in."

"We'll see about that," Heecan snapped, ripped out of Declan's grip and stormed out of the slave quarters. Declan eyed John for a moment, giving him the impression that he was being looked over by a big, dumb cow, and then he too turned around and left, closing the door behind him.

With a heartfelt sigh, John dropped back down on the floor and pulled his hand away from his nose for a moment. "Fine mess you've gotten yourself into here, isn't it, John?" he muttered to himself, leaned his head back and pinched his nose shut. "Fine mess," he repeated and sighed again.

***