The first thing he had done, after ascertaining that certain portions of their memories had been wiped, had been to give them names. Names that he felt suited their new lives, names which, nevertheless, he made sure that reflected in some way their past existence.
It would never do to use their real names or publicly known identities. They must be thought to be dead, and he could never let them remember their own past.
There was Shadow, the leader. Blue eyed, auburn haired and charismatic yet, like the name he had been given, invisible to both eye and ear when he chose. He had always, Zoltar reflected, had that aura of leadership about him. Yet, that wide eyed steady blue gaze always seemed so innocent.
Then there was his alter-ego Blade – the Spectran one. It perplexed Zoltar how they had all missed his heritage before. When you looked at him it was obvious.
He was taller than the others, his hair the color of burnt caramel with exotically slanted blue-grey eyes. In a room of Spectrans, he was undistinguished, but amongst the other humanoid races, he stood out. Where and how, Zoltar often wondered, had they gotten hold of him?
Then there was Nox. Beloved by all three, although she and Shadow were bound together in a way that nobody but they understood. Zoltar had no idea about her heritage. What genetics, he wondered, had given her that unusual combination of pale, pearlescent skin, vivid green eyes and hair that was sometimes black, sometimes green? Sometimes he thought that he could see in her traces of the Old Clans of Spectra – those clans long extinct, wiped out generations ago by their opposition to the Great Spirit.
They belonged to him, now. Bound to him body and soul, bonds renewed by their regular joinings.
Not that any of them considered that a hardship.
At first, Zoltar had been astonished that all had little or no experience in the Pleasures, but then he began to revel in it, taking the time to teach them the joys the flesh could give, encouraging them to experiment with him and with others.
They kept coming back to him, until they eschewed the others completely. He had worried that he would lose Shadow and Nox when he saw their own bond growing day by day. Once, he had voiced this concern to them, knowing that his own hold over them would be weakened if they ceased their mutual sexual encounters.
They had been perplexed at the thought that they would not share with Zoltar or Blade, and he had rejoiced in their subsequent union.
They could not seem to grasp that their own bond should be put before that of the unit. In his joy, Zoltar made sure, though, that they did get time to spend together. It pained him and Blade to be separate from them, but it made the reunions all the sweeter.
Yet, he knew they had only the illusion of freedom. He could see in their eyes sometimes that they knew it too. He watched Shadow yearn for the freedom of the sky and knew that he could not give it.
The risk would be too great.
He dressed them in a manner to which he knew they were accustomed. At first, they had worn full Blackbird garb, but when Zoltar saw them try to fly using the stiff, unwieldy wings; to fight using talons, he relented. Besides, since first seeing their faces, he had been loath to hide them, so had made adjustments.
The fuller wings, the lack of talons, the bare faces. Thus, he could gaze on them and enjoy their beauty; could see the joy in their faces when they spoke to him.
He could also rejoice in the knowledge that members of the ex-Federation who suspected, also now knew they were his.
Thus it continued until five years after the Spectran victory.
Zoltar watched them sleeping. It had long been one of his pleasures, to watch them at rest, bodies relaxed, and expressions unguarded.
At first it had amused him to see their true natures revealed in this unconscious state, watching the way they slept.
Shadow and Nox inevitably curled up in each other's arms. Blade restless beside them, close yet apart; until an arm or leg from one of the others drew him into their embrace and his restless sleep settled.
Sometimes, Zoltar felt jealousy at the trio's closeness, a jealousy that pricked until he was once again within that embrace himself.
It had, he reflected, happened gradually. At first there was pride of ownership. Pride that these enemies had been bonded until they were now his closest allies. Those who had once hunted him now extended a fierce protection.
It had amused him, at first, to bond them to him in this way. It took him time to realize that he needed them as much as they needed him. He realized why the bond had been forbidden, for it bound the bonder as much as it did those who were bonded. Now, five years later, only death could part them.
He had tried, in those first couple of years, to unearth the secrets of their skills. He had performed scans until he found their implants. Tried to remove them, tried to see how they worked. But he had stopped when he had discovered that any physical attempts at tampering rendered them useless as fighters, and could kill them.
He had continued trying through electronic means, until the night he had come to discover them sobbing heartbreakingly. He had gathered them to him and they had told how the electronic experiments hurt, both physically and mentally.
He had vowed then never to let anybody touch them. He had made the decision to forget about obtaining the technology, rather than lose them.
When Mala had accused him of loving them, he had not been able to deny it. It had shown in his face, and she had poured scorn on him.
"And what will you do, Brother dear, when your captive birds turn on you? When they decide that a cage, however gilded, is still a cage?"
"They are mine, Mala. We are bound together heart and soul now. To be apart from each other is not possible."
She had been horrified. "What have you done, Zoltar? That is forbidden!"
"I am the ruler of the Spectran Empire, Mala. Nothing is forbidden to me."
"Remember that, brother. Remember that when the Great Spirit finds out what you have done. Remember that when he breaks that bond, and shatters your souls."
"It is no different to what he did to me, Sister. Our Great Spirit forbade the ritual to ensure that only he could forge that bond."
"And yet you defied him. You undertook it yourself. How many others, Zoltar?"
"You know I am the only one. When the Spirit forbade the joining, he put to death all those who could forge it. Only the Ruler of Spectra; the High Priest of the Great Spirit, knows how."
She shook her head. "They are still your enemies, Zoltar. Deep down, they are still your enemies."
"That is gone, Mala. What has been forged between us cannot be broken."
"Again, remember that. And pray that it is true. Because if they ever remember, then their vengeance will be swift."
"There is only one who can make them remember, and he is kept locked away. The others of their unit are dead. They have no bond to their former team."
He turned away from her to contemplate the sleeping forms in front of him, and she left the room, disturbed at the revelation.
Now, three years after that conversation, five years after their Victory, he worried.
Of late, it seemed, they had started to dream. Worse, their dreams had started to take form. In their sleep, he could hear them muttering, whispering names, places.
Once, he had heard Nox whisper Shadow's true name as they shared Pleasures. Worse, he had acknowledged it, and the two had shut out both Zoltar and Blade, lost in their dream world, only re-emerging after climax.
Zoltar was getting worried. He could see the times when they were confused were becoming more and more frequent. The yearning look was back in their eyes.
They were seeing their gilded cage for what it was, and he could not see what had occurred to strain the links he had forged.
He couldn't lose them. To be alone again, to return to those empty days and nights without his beloved companions, would be torture.
Somehow, he knew that he had to find out what had happened to change their bond.
He knew the answer lay in those implants. And that meant one thing.
He would have to see Anderson. Have to let Anderson see them.
It was a risk, but he was willing to risk everything to ensure he did not lose them.
Shadow, Blade and Nox. The Eagle, Condor and Swan. What would he do without them?