"Commander, we've got a problem. Her Highness and Charmian have gone."
"What do you mean, gone?"
"I mean they aren't where we left them and they aren't in this area of the forest at all. They are nowhere they can possibly have got to on foot. Commander, they've disappeared."
As the brunettes ran toward the Silver Vixen, Charmian turned to the Princess.
"What now?" she asked in a quiet voice.
"Not much to do now except wait for the brunettes to clear out the Vixen," replied the Princess. "Let's sit down." In truth she felt Charmian had best sit down before she fall down. She took her hands – still ice-cold – and settled her against the trunk of a great tree of some alien species.
"Can they do it?" asked Charmian tremulously.
"Our brunettes? Clear out a few schizzies? Of course they can."
"Only one armed brunette," said Charmian.
"Don't you worry about Chinchi," said Mela. "There is no one better to have by one in a tight spot."
"You are right …"
"Sshh!" hissed Mela. Charmian opened her mouth, but Mela squeezed her arm tightly, and put a finger to her lips, warning her to stay silent.
Two creatures were making their way through the undergrowth. As they came nearer it was clear that they were human in shape but very bulky. They could well be more mascûls. As they were not headed directly toward the blondes, Mela felt the best course was to keep silent and hope they were not seen.
Charmian stared ahead. She seemed unaware of what was taking place, almost as if she were in a trance. As she became more aware of the mascûls – for they now decidedly were mascûls – she began to moan very quietly and rhythmically as if in abject terror. Mela held her arm firmly both to reassure and attempt to restrain her. The girl seemed to have no awareness of her own actions and Mela feared she might do something to signal their presence.
The mascûls trod heavily through the undergrowth. They were a good fifty yards off and facing in another direction. Provided they didn't turn and look in the blondes' direction, they should be safe. Charmian was breathing heavily. Her frightened moans were too quiet to be heard at any distance, though she seemed to be in some state of mental shock.
The mascûls were approaching the point where their path placed them directly in line with the blondes – though not facing them. After that they would be walking away from them and would soon be gone.
Mela tightened her grip on Charmian's arm, scarcely daring to breathe. Suddenly, a strange bird screeched and one of the mascûls turned toward them. The mascûl was looking high into the branches of the trees, looking for the source of the sound. It did not see the blondes, but its harsh, furred face was clearly visible at this distance.
Then the unthinkable happened. Charmian screamed – a long, wailing scream full of fear and despair. The two mascûls turned toward the blondes and then started running at them.
"Get up!" Commanded the Princess. "Come on – we've got to run."
She leapt to her feet and dragged Charmian after her. The mascûls were bearing down upon them with a speed that belied their bulk. Mela ran, dragging Charmian behind her, but Charmian ran like a girl in a trance. Mela felt as if she were pulling a dead weight behind her.
Suddenly Charmian screamed. One of the mascûls had caught up to her and seized her arm, crushing delicate blonde flesh and sinew in its huge paw. Mela had already flipped the cap off a slender gold pen-like tube, now she released the lever. An earl-splitting scream rent the air as something streaked skyward, leaving a thin trail of black smoke. Then the heavens were illuminated by a dazzling white light and a deafening explosion caused the very ground to tremble.
The two mascûls threw themselves to the ground, thinking they were under aerial attack.
"Come on," shouted Mela, pulling Charmian's hand. The shock of the assault together with the terrible explosion seemed to have cleared Charmian's head. The two blondes ran fast across the rough ground.
Despite its ferocious noise, the skyflash had no offensive potential. It was simply a distress signal with which Mela had been equipped by Chinchi. It could be seen and heard for miles and should bring help running – but with Antala away, Claralin and Chinchi fighting inside the Vixen and the others in a village some miles away, it seemed doubtful that help would come.
As they reached the road, the mascûls were already up and after them. One of them drew a blaster and shouted a command at them. They could not understand a word of it, but "Stop or I'll shoot" seemed a rather probable guess.
The two blondes stopped running as they reached the roadside. The mascûls slowed their pace and walked toward them, each holding a blaster levelled at their helpless prey.
The one closest to them leered unpleasantly through its facial fur, and then its expression changed. They all became aware of a clangourous ringing sound, like that of several electric bells, distant at first, but coming rapidly closer. The mascûl looked at its companion, which was already turning back into the forest. It turned to follow, and they disappeared into the trees as two large black cars pulled up, their bells drowning all other sound.
"I never thought I'd be so glad to see the rozzers," said Mela.
The bells were shut off, but the ringing continued in Charmian's head. She heard car doors banging, saw uniformed brunettes. One of them saluted. Words swam in and out of her mind.
"……..aerial explosion…..this area………."
And then everything was black.