Disclaimer: Unfortunately, as previously stated, Stargate Atlantis does not belong to me, because if it did it would still be on our screens! Enough said...

Many thanks to Sterenyk Strey and lizlou57 for doing their usual beta work for me. It's very much appreciated, just as it always is. All remaining mistakes are mine because I can't resist tweaking even after the beta work is done!

This is a 30 chapter story (unless it grows during editing!) and is the first instalment of a two part saga. Updates will be once a week, mostly on Mondays.

So, on with the story, and...enjoy! :)

Precious Commodities

Chapter One

'I wasn't flirting, Rodney,' Sheppard insisted, casually scanning the HUD for signs of trouble as they approached the space bound Stargate floating above M4L 925. All clear – no bad guys in sight, and nothing but stars streaking by to witness their passage. Just the way he liked it.

The mission had been a cake-walk – good food, pleasant company, and all within a short walking distance of the spot where they had concealed their craft, so there was no reason to suspect the flight home shouldn't be the same. But unfortunately, there was a drawback to having such an easy day. The lack of anything else to worry about made the pure scepticism oozing from McKay in the seat behind him even more palpable.

'No, of course not,' Rodney scoffed, his tone fairly dripping with derision. 'The big smiles and nauseating flattery were all perfectly legitimate negotiating techniques, right?'

Sheppard shrugged, non-committal. 'I was just being friendly. You should try it some time,' he replied innocently, knowing a quip like that would only fuel the fire of Rodney's already smouldering annoyance. Even so, he couldn't help but do it. Rodney-baiting was like an addiction for him sometimes; he knew he shouldn't do it, but the buzz he got was just too good to pass up. Another side-effect of an easy day…no trouble approaching made him want to go looking for it.

He glanced over at Teyla sitting beside him in the co-pilot seat. She gave him a brief smile, a minor acknowledgement of his joke, but didn't step in to save him from further abuse. He suspected she thought he deserved it, though she didn't say as much. Unlike Rodney, she was far too tactful for that. But Teyla had a way of looking at him that made him regret his actions without a single word being necessary. And that regret was beginning to gnaw at his conscience already…

Okay, so on a rethink maybe he had flirted a little more than necessary, but it wasn't often he got the chance to practice his skills these days. Had it been professional? Perhaps not entirely…but no one had gotten hurt and that was always a plus. Most of their missions were a lot tougher than the meet 'n' greet they'd just attended. Woolsey didn't send them on these "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" trips too often these days. He'd mentioned something to do with it being outside of McKay's skill set. Code for Woolsey not wanting McKay to upset the natives, he figured. He couldn't argue with that logic. Rodney was a genius with anything technological, but did have a habit of messing up on the social stuff.

'Oh, really? And I suppose it was just a coincidence that you were being more friendly to Giselta than her older, wider, uglier sister, hmm?' McKay challenged, not at all convinced by his argument.

Sheppard couldn't suppress his smirk this time as he glanced back over his shoulder. 'Was she pretty? I didn't notice,' he lied, returning his attention to the view through the windshield.

He could almost feel the eye-roll McKay gave behind him. 'Urgh! You are so predictable.'

True enough, Giselta had been an absolute knock-out. Petite with pretty blonde locks that tapered in at the nape of her neck, curves in all the right places, and wearing a dress that left very little to the imagination. There was no way he could resist that. It would have been like fasting at an all you can eat buffet.

'I got us access to the device, didn't I?' Sheppard protested, that sense of regret making him defensive now. 'Giselta told me she knew how to find it, so I...sweetened her up a little, that's all.'

'Yes, that's all,' Rodney mocked, practically stuffing the ZPM up Sheppard's nose. 'And a fat lot of good it did us; it's all but drained. Getting back to Pegasus used up almost all the power left in the ZedPMs Todd gave us. I give it a couple of weeks tops before this thing's spent, too.'

'Which gives us a whole two weeks to find another one,' Sheppard replied, putting a positive spin on it.

Rodney only huffed in disgust.

Sheppard let his friend's attitude slide. It had been a long and tedious day for very little reward, other than the extremely easy on the eye Giselta, who had insisted he was welcome back any time. He, not them. And that was why Rodney was sore at him. She was a hot blonde, McKay's favourite kind of woman, and she hadn't even looked at him twice. But whether McKay liked his methods or not, two weeks of juice when the other ZPMs failed was better than nothing. So, it had been worth it. That was what he was going to keep telling himself anyway. That way, this wasn't just another wasted mission when they should be shoring up defences against a future Wraith attack.

They'd been back in the Pegasus Galaxy a full six weeks now, and it hadn't come as any great surprise to discover that in the two months they'd been absent the Wraith had taken culling to a whole other level. They had been busy gathering supplies – a delicate way of describing their human food source – and replenishing their strength, ready to resume their domination of the galaxy. But now Atlantis and its crew were back and they were ready to deal the Wraith's plans for galactic domination some real damage. The IOA had given the go ahead to introduce the serum Keller had devised into the Wraith ranks any which way they could to rid the Wraith of their pesky need to gorge on human life forces. And since word would undoubtedly spread of their endeavours once the transformations had begun, and the Wraith would come knocking – or rather pounding – on their door to try and stop them, they desperately needed more ZPMs to power city defences before they could go ahead with deploying the serum. So, in terms of that proposal, he supposed the ZPM they'd just collected truly was next to useless. The Wraith were unlikely to get tired of bombarding Atlantis in such a short window of time.

He hated it when he had to admit McKay was right…so he didn't.

Ronon yawned and stretched in the seat behind Teyla, a deep rumbling noise that left the rest of them yawning in its wake, instantly diffusing the tension. Yep, it really had been a long, boring day...flirtations aside. Sheppard was ready for a hot shower and a big meal...after the customary post-mission medical checks and debriefing. He inwardly groaned, knowing what he wanted wasn't mere minutes away through the Stargate, but most likely a couple of hours out of reach behind mounds of protocol and bureaucracy. Seemed like he'd have to grab a power bar and a coffee to keep him going as usual. Same old same old in the Pegasus galaxy…

'What is that?' Teyla asked, pointing to something that had suddenly appeared on the HUD display.

Sheppard squinted at it, not sure he liked what he saw. 'I don't know, but it wasn't there a second ago,' he replied, straightening up to full attention in his seat. It was the best answer he had, other than his gut instinct that their easy day was about to become anything but.

'Whatever it is, it looks big,' Ronon grunted, his seat creaking as he swung his feet down from the perch he'd popped them onto and leaned forward to take a better look.

'And it's gaining fast!' Rodney squeaked.

'I see that,' Sheppard snapped, mentally asking the jumper for more speed. The ship responded instantly, giving him everything she'd got. But it wasn't enough. The other ship was huge, which equalled more power, and was gaining more rapidly than they could accelerate away from it.

'Dial the gate!' he barked, hoping they might just make it through in time.

Teyla acted on his instruction without hesitation, dialling Atlantis and preparing to send through her IDC. In the distance, the Stargate flashed into view, the event horizon a brilliant blue-white beacon to safety, lying just a little too far away for comfort. But there was a chance they might make it through before their pursuers caught up. They'd succeeded with worse odds before.

'We're not going to make it!' Rodney shrieked.

Sheppard's heart sank. Or maybe not…

'Whoa…wait a minute. What the hell is that thing?' McKay yelled, excited fascination suddenly overcoming his fear. 'It has an energy signature like nothing we've ever seen before. And it's bigger than a hive ship…way bigger! I think they might be using some form of near light-speed technology that's unlike anything we've seen anywhere else in this galaxy…or the Milky Way for that matter.'

'Fascinating,' Sheppard grunted, making evasive manoeuvres. He hoped if they couldn't outfly that ship, maybe they could confuse it.

'That thing's gotta take some powering up…maybe we should try to make contact,' McKay urged, suddenly changing his tack.

'Are you kidding?!' Sheppard yelled back at him, feeling the strain as their ship struggled to find more speed while he wound his way toward the waiting Stargate.

'No…isn't this exactly why we go out exploring…to find new technologies?' the scientist reminded him.

'Not when that new technology is bearing down on us at breakneck speed and we have no way of knowing if its owners are friendly!' Sheppard shot back at him.

'Well, they haven't fired on us yet.'

'Yet…' Sheppard echoed, focusing all his energy on getting them through that 'gate.

'But they have advanced technology…who knows, it might be something we can adapt to power Atlantis' defences.'

'Much as I'd love to hang around and figure it out with you–' Sheppard was cut short as the jumper came to a complete and sudden halt. Everything was still running, but they weren't moving forward any more. In fact, they were beginning to drift backwards.

'A tractor beam? You're kidding!' Rodney gasped, his eyes bulging with a mixture of exhilaration and panic. 'This would be so cool if it wasn't locked onto us.'

'Yes, Rodney, it would. Now, instead of geeking out, how about you find some way of disrupting it?' Sheppard grunted. He asked the jumper for even more power, putting her into overdrive, but even at those unrecommended levels of output the craft was heading back towards their pursuers.

Certain now that they were in danger, Sheppard ordered the jumper to fire a couple of drones, watching them cross over each other in front of their ship and then wind their way back toward the huge craft now bearing down on them. The HUD showed other craft firing an energy pulse in response that deadened the drones and left them floating aimlessly several hundred yards off their hull.

'We're screwed!' McKay whimpered, taking the words right out of his mouth.

Inside his head, Sheppard felt the jumper scream in distress as it struggled to pull free. He was over-stressing the engines. If he didn't cut them the ship was going to blow. Sheppard ordered everything to shut down. If they were lucky, they'd been picked up friendly travellers looking to strike up a conversation. If not, they had no option but to stay put and fight.

'Atlantis, this is Sheppard. We're unable to return. A large, unidentified craft has locked – '

The Stargate shut down, cutting his message short. Whoever was on their tail had overridden their dialling command. Over the following minutes all they could do was watch helplessly as the enormous vessel moved over them and towed them in, closing a huge set of bay doors beneath them with a metallic clunk that shook the jumper hard.

'What do we do now?' Rodney's ragged, panic-stricken voice asked him.

Sheppard rose from his seat and snatched up his P-90, holding it at chest level but not aiming it. Teyla did the same as Ronon drew his magnum, letting his arm hang at his side, muscles tensed for a quick reaction. The cake-walk was over. And as necessary he, Teyla and Ronon had seamlessly slipped into fight mode without any need for communication. They all sensed it. Trouble was coming. 'Now we hope they plan to make nice, or we show them that we don't take too kindly to being abducted.'

And that was exactly their plan until the rear hatch forcibly dropped and they were hit with a pulse of brilliant white light that knocked them all right off their feet, leaving them squirming in agony until their senses could cope with no more and they slipped into blissful darkness...

oooOOOooo

6 months later...

Mehra jerked awake to find herself enveloped in virtual pitch-blackness. Slumped in a half-sitting, half-lying position, she gradually came to her senses, straightening out her aching joints and wondering why everything hurt so much. The last thing she remembered was being on patrol down on M5T-568, trying to look unfazed while ignoring the local kids who were giving her grief over being a female and carrying a gun. Apparently, only the men folk there could hunt and protect the village. Well, screw that. She didn't need any man to take care of her or tell her what to do.

Sometimes Dusty hated her job exploring the primitive worlds of Pegasus. In most cases, women were expected to keep house and have kids, like it was the dark ages, which she supposed it was to them since the Wraith didn't let anyone advance much beyond that level of development. Well, not her. She had a choice…and she would choose a P-90 over a screaming brat any day. Even if the P-90 was in someone else's hands and pointed straight at her.

After a few moments of self-pity as she straightened out her aching bones, the memory of what had actually happened on that patrol popped back into her head, along with a single thought: Holy crap!

A hurried attempt to scramble to her feet resulted in her bumping her head on something solid just inches above her, a collision that set loose an array of colourful stars in her vision. Well, at least it broke up the blackness, she supposed. Groping around in the dark, she traced her fingertips across four solid walls and a low ceiling that surrounded her, all forming a box no more than five feet square by her estimation. It appeared she was in some sort of crate. At the top of the walls narrow slits allowed minimal light and air in, and, on peering through them, she saw a number of other similar crates stacked around her. They looked like animal transportation boxes, but the voices screaming and sobbing from within each container told her exactly what was inside them. Were some of them her teammates?

'Major Teldy! Proctor! Drewry! You there?'

A thump on the outside of her crate was the only response she got. So, these bastards didn't like noise, huh? Well, then they'd kidnapped the wrong girl. She pounded her fist on the crate right back at them. There were more sounds of movement outside, but she couldn't see anything clearly. Her military training kicked in. If taken hostage, she should try to engage her captors in conversation, make them see her as a person and not just an object. Form a bond that would make it harder for them to harm or kill her...unless they shot her to shut her up. Ah, hell. It was worth the risk.

'Who's out there?' she called. Another thump answered her, on the top of her crate this time, but it didn't deter her from carrying on. 'What do you want with us? What are your demands?'

A face loomed up to the ventilation slots and blocked her view – a face with no recognisable human qualities. A guttural rumble rattled deep within its throat, at least she presumed it was its throat, and she instinctively flinched as far as she could from it, pressing herself against the back of her prison. Its breath smelled as rank as anything she'd ever encountered, and in her line of work she'd encountered some pretty appalling things. Filthy peasants, animal crap, every bodily fluid imaginable, and decaying, Wraith-drained corpses were among the list, but this smelled far worse than any of those – more like a combination of all of them wrapped up in one. Okay, so, it was ugly. Ugly didn't mean tough. Ugly didn't mean it had her beat.

Feeling suddenly weak, she sat back down again. Her face throbbed down the left side, and when she tentatively touched it, she could feel a mixture of dried blood and grit caked on it. She'd been shot...she remembered it now. Not with a bullet...with some kind of fancy-schmancy stun weapon. And apparently, she had also face-planted. So maybe she'd hit her head and this was all just some weird trip conjured up by her concussed brain. Yeah...that had to be it because she had never seen anything like these critters before. They were just some messed-up hallucination while her brain took a time-out to get its act together.

Yet, try as she might to tell herself this was all in her mind her gut was telling her otherwise, and her gut wasn't prone to flights of fancy. So maybe not an hallucination then? Might be best to go with the worst-case scenario and assume this crap was real. Ugly aliens, claustrophobic confinement and all. This was the Pegasus Galaxy. It really wasn't that much of a stretch.

Terrified cries and whimpers came from the other crates, punctuated by the same thumps her own calls had provoked. Underlying all that reverberated a low engine sound, more distant than their voices, but somehow immense in its cadence. It reminded her of the sounds she'd heard aboard the Daedalus, but much, much deeper. Deeper suggested bigger. They were being transported somewhere in a big ass ship, bigger than anything she'd been aboard before. That'd be sweet if she thought she could fight her way out of there when she was ready. But right now, she couldn't even hold her head up straight. The odds weren't exactly in her favour.

As the journey went on, a burning thirst grasped her throat and hunger complained in her stomach. Those were feelings she could override. It wasn't the first time she'd faced short supplies. Hunger was just a minor inconvenience. She had to stay focused.

Intermittently, shadows fell across her as her captors passed by her tiny air vents. Sometimes they stopped and peered in at her, but not often. She did nothing more to catch their attention, a growing sense of trepidation now telling her that it wasn't wise to upset the huge, butt-ugly aliens...not without backup. In all her time in Pegasus the only other weird looking critters she'd come across, not including the Wraith, were Michael's experiments-gone-wrong. These guys were way scarier, and she prided herself on not scaring easily.

After a while, more details from her mission came back to her and the events leading up to her abduction replayed more clearly in her mind. That morning, she'd accompanied her team on a typical Pegasus Galaxy meet 'n' greet, just another backwoods village with almost zero tech other than a few relics left behind when the Ancients had last visited the planet. She'd been posted outside some ramshackle old hut while Major Teldy and the others had gone inside to negotiate a deal for some plant that had apparently amazing medicinal qualities...at least she thought it was something like that but she'd shut down pretty much as soon as Proctor had slipped into her usual medical mumbo-jumbo. For some reason, she always got left outside during these talks. Probably because she had the best eyes and ears in the team so could keep watch better than the others. She didn't mind. Negotiations were mind-numbingly dull anyway. She'd take a shootout with a Wraith over wrangling for crumby old leaves any day.

So, she'd stood out in the sun, wondering what was on the menu for dinner that evening and chewing a stick of Orbit, watching the tree line surrounding the village for signs of trouble or suspicious activity. Nothing had seemed out of place. Everyone in the village was just going about their business, drawing water from the well, feeding their animals, washing clothes...all the mundane stuff these people seemed to excel at. All that along with the usual jibes about her being unworthy to carry the gun she was brandishing from several young males, because she was a girl. Boy, was she ever glad she'd joined the military and not followed her downtrodden mom into the role of homemaker. She was so not domestic goddess material. Any man who ever dared complain to her that his dinner wasn't on the table would find himself wearing it…or worse.

She'd been pondering how best to prove she was way worthier than the brats giving her grief when she'd noticed the adult villagers nearest to her had stopped moving and were now looking in her direction wearing expressions of utter horror. She stroked at her hair. Was it a mess or something? She was sure she'd tied it back securely this morning, but it had been kind of windy on the walk in. Then the kids were looking scared too…backing away and quaking. She seriously doubted the stink-eye she'd given them had resulted in that response. Only then did the creeping sensation of someone standing right behind her demand her full attention. Okay, so they weren't looking at her, rather at whoever was sneaking up on her…no doubt some village idiot or other planning to put her in her place. Well, whoever it was was opening themselves up to a whole world of hurt if they tried any funny business. She'd spun, arm pulled back to fling a right hook if necessary, to find the biggest son-of-a-bitch cockroach in history pointing a gun at her. With no time to secure her grip on her weapon she'd followed through with the punch, her fist smacking into the solid chest plate of its exoskeleton. And then it had fired on her and everything had gone black real fast.

Dusty rubbed at her grazed knuckles, realising they still hurt from the blow she'd wasted on that fugly bug critter. Should have tried for the gun. It couldn't have ended any worse.

After what seemed like an age, the sound of the engines changed and Dusty's crate began to tremble, forcing her to focus on what was happening in the here and now. Vast metallic clunks and groans followed, and finally, everything thumped to a graceless halt, followed by a long, slowly fading hiss of hydraulics.

She edged back over to the slits in the wall of her box to take another look, seeing one of her captors moving around and checking the boxes. It was a strange and fantastic creature. It had what looked like six short legs supporting its lower body, and its upper torso reared up off the ground with two sets of long, spindly, multiple-jointed arms that ended in pincer-like hands with two claw-like fingers and an opposable third. In those hands, it carried a gun like the one she'd seen in her flashback. What she wouldn't give to get her hands on one of those.

Despite her initial fear and repulsion, the sight of it now calmed her. It looked so far removed from anything she'd ever seen that it made her more certain it couldn't be real. Perhaps this was all some wild hallucination. She had eaten some berries on the two-klick trek from the Stargate to the village that morning. Maybe they'd been bad. Teldy was always telling her she would get poisoned one day, but she couldn't help having a lightning fast metabolism. It made her hungry all the time and she got sick of pigging out on Power bars all day.

Another of its species came into view. It looked a shade smaller than the first, and because it turned in her direction, she got better view of its face. The surface looked hard and shiny, with two large lenses set almost on the side of its head. There was no evidence of a nose, and only a grill-like structure existed where she thought its mouth should be. Tubes emerged from two holes either side of the grill, going back over its shoulders and into a pack it wore on its back. It occurred to her that they were wearing masks. So, what did they really look like underneath them?

She saw the row of boxes opposite hers begin to move on a conveyor toward a huge hatchway that opened at the end of the bay. Numerous pairs of alarmed eyes stared out, and she wondered if any of them belonged to the rest of her team. It didn't seem likely because she was pretty damned sure they would be making more aggressive noises than the screams and whimpers she'd heard so far, especially Teldy. She was no one's fool.

Once the last crate in that row moved out of sight, her own cell began its steady progress toward the opening to the outside world.

The transport vessel sat in a landing area bathed in sunlight. Beyond the landing strip lay fields and trees that looked like any of numerous agricultural areas she'd seen. How come all planets looked like rural Canada? Then, across that picturesque scene, several gigantic, multi-wheeled vehicles trundled into view, their engines growling like a pack of angry animals patrolling their territory. As they slowed to a halt, more of those creatures came flooding out, hoisting the crates into the back of the enormous tank-like structures. Typical that one of the most technologically advanced species they'd come across in a long time had to go and abduct her. Why could they never be good guys?

Without first receiving any food or drink to revive them for the journey, they quickly found themselves on the move again.

The temperature inside her crate began to mount. From the box stacked beside hers, Dusty could hear another woman sobbing. Looking out, she met the tear-filled eyes of her neighbour. 'Hey…What's your name?' she called across to her.

After catching her breath, the woman replied, 'Valerie...Val.'

Valerie? That sounded oddly Earth-like for a Pegasus native, but she supposed it was bound to happen sometimes. 'Don't worry, Val. My name's Dusty and I'm a marine. I'm going to take care of you. Nothing bad will happen while I'm with you.'

'Thank you...thank you,' Valerie gasped before dissolving into floods of tears again.

Of course, Dusty had no way of fulfilling that promise, but her years of experience in the corps had taught her that even a few words of comfort could sooth the most horrific situation. If only somebody there would say something comforting to her.

The heat and lack of sustenance left her woozy now and, slumping with her head in her hands, she fought against the urge to empty out her pitiful stomach contents onto the floor of her cage. She didn't even realise she felt faint until she toppled sideways and hit her head hard on the wall…

oooOOOooo

Hidden behind a craggy outcrop overlooking the landing strip, two Birajan rebels watched the Kheprian drones load the transport vessels through their view enhancers. Bringing the scene into sharper focus, they observed them lugging the twenty crates onto the back of four armoured vehicles under the watchful gaze of swarms more Kheprian guards.

The heat reflected up in waves off the parched ground, distorting the vista as they took a rough headcount of the towering aliens. Forty-five, maybe even fifty of them carried out the operation, far more than they had ever witnessed before.

'This is a large intake,' Mishta muttered, zooming in for a better look. She could barely see anything through the slim breathing holes near the top of each box, but in her mind's eye could imagine those puny humans doing their best to steady themselves as their crates were all but thrown from one transport to another.

'It is indeed. They grow more adventurous with every trip,' Juroah agreed, wiping the dust from his own enhancers with his sleeve before checking the scene again for himself. 'They've stepped up security, too. Moving them in so many vehicles reduces their losses to the human-traders if they mount another ambush.'

'Hmmm.'

She sensed Juroah turn her way. 'You might as well say it. I know it's eating you up.'

'Well, what do you expect?' she rasped, narrowing her violet eyes at him. 'We were meant to take action months ago. Now, because of the ambush, it will be harder to get through Akalus' defences.'

Juroah gave her a casual and infuriating shrug. 'Then we shall just have to hope he doesn't find what he's looking for before the next few months are out.'

'The more humans they collect, the greater the chance there is he'll find exactly what he's looking for,' Mishta sighed, wondering if that very thing might be in any one of the boxes now being strapped into place on the desert trucks.

'Indeed.'

Mishta lowered her enhancers to look over at her companion, annoyed by his continued use of the word she'd long ago learned indicated he was only half-listening to her. 'We planned to take out their ship over a year ago. Higher security or not, we need to move now. The longer we leave it, the more opportunity Akalus has to find the human he seeks.'

She shifted as if to act, but Juroah caught her arm and gave her a sharp tug that pulled her back in place. 'Don't be foolish, Mishta,' he hissed, his lilac eyes flashing with anger. 'We only have hand weapons and minor incendiaries. How much damage do you think we could inflict before we're spotted and killed? Stay low and stay alive...live to fight another day when the odds are stacked more in our favour.'

'And what if one of those boxes contains our doom?' she demanded, furious to be treated like a hasty fool.

For a moment, Juroah was speechless, because he knew she made a good point. Then he hissed, 'If that is the case, there's still no point in dying. What use are you to our cause if you're dead?'

The transfer of the humans was swift, well-organised and over in minutes. Soon, the rear hatches of the transports were being secured ready for the journey ahead. As the transporters began to roll out on their thick, powerful, metal wheels, Juroah signalled for Mishta to follow him from their hiding place. They slipped and slid their way down on loose dirt and stones to a spot where they could conceal themselves from the road used by the Kheprians behind a wall of fallen boulders and observe their movements a while longer. Only then, once the dust had settled around them and he felt sure they were safe, did Juroah speak again.

'Besides, the plan has changed,' he whispered, his bronzed, leathery old face now sombre. 'The time draws ever closer when Akalus will put his plan into action. The Founders have been meeting to discuss our tactics and they no longer feel that destroying the Kheprian ship is a strong enough plan. Akalus grows in confidence and fury every day, and fear is a most persuasive emotion. The Kheprians came in more than one ship…they would simply deploy another at his instruction. The Founders believe we must take out the whole of Phylacos with Akalus in it. That's our only hope of stopping him entirely.'

'They want to kill Akalus?' Mishta's violet eyes grew wide and fearful, her tan complexion paling. 'If we fail, he'll turn his attention to us. There will be a terrible price to pay!'

'And if we don't kill him, the whole universe will pay the price,' he warned, pushing her down from the half-risen pose she had adopted. 'Have you forgotten the teachings?'

She rolled her eyes, pushing back her red tresses from her eyes as she glared at him. 'No, of course not. But as you say, he grows more powerful every day. How will we even get near Phylacos without his knowledge? He has eyes everywhere.'

'That's the part that troubles the Founders, and that's why we do not act.' Juroah tucked his enhancers into his coat and squinted at the primary sun through the dust-choked wind that whipped up around them. He pulled on his hood to cover his scaled head from the heat of its rays. 'It will be unimaginably hot in those crates, poor creatures.'

'With any luck, it will prove too hot.' Juroah cast her a withering glance, shaking his head. 'I would think far worse awaits them at their destination if they survive,' she scoffed without sympathy as she watched the transporters heading for the horizon.

Now, he nodded. 'You're right. They may only be humans, but they should not be treated so poorly – no offence, Mishta.'

She shrugged her indifference at her smaller comrade. As a Human-Birajan hybrid, she had grown used to brushing off insults about Akalus' prisoners. She'd heard them since she was a child, and they had little effect on her now. She mostly agreed with them anyway. Humans were weak-willed, pathetic victims. She had watched this operation being repeated time and time again, with their weeping and groaning and pleading cries always in accompaniment. Why did they show no defiance? Why did they not feel anger at the injustices meted out to them? All they did was cry and mewl…she could not muster one ounce of compassion for such wretched creatures.

'When we destroy Phylacos, I expect it will be a merciful release for those held inside.' Juroah headed back to their craft, a two-seater hover car that had seen better days as attested by its battered, paint-chipped exterior. But that decrepit body contained an engine envied across the region, and the rebels would not part with it for any amount of money. They had outrun many perimeter guards at Phylacos in it, and they hoped to outrun many more before it was done. He jumped in and slipped on his visor, his protection from the gritty breeze. 'Are you coming, Mishta?' he called to her, encouraging her to join him.

She shaded her eyes as she looked up at the suns. The primary hung high in the sky; nearly midrise, she estimated, and her stomach grumbled in support of her theory. It was time to head back to camp and take refreshments. It would be long after sunset before the humans would have the opportunity to eat. Her father had told them the routine inside Phylacos' cursed walls, his tales recounted around the campfire while he'd thought she slept filling her childhood self with feelings of utter desolation and despair whenever she listened to them. But her sympathy for the humans had waned as the day for Akalus to act inched closer. Those same stories now fuelled her ire...at both Akalus and the humans. Although she knew her emotions were irrational, she felt angry at these humans for coming to her planet and putting her world at risk. Not that they'd asked to be kidnapped, but she couldn't shake the idea that they should have been stronger...that they should have defended themselves more effectively against the Kheprian harvesting missions. What kind of a race gave up their loved ones so readily? Had they no defences at all?

She pushed her own view enhancers into her belt, and followed Juroah to their transport. As she slipped on her visor and pulled her hood over the tail of long red tresses tied high on her crown, he put the vehicle into forward drive and they headed back to camp to report what they had seen to the Founders.

No doubt they would procrastinate about this development for many hours to come. Procrastination was the only thing they seemed to excel at these days.