They were Thieves for Freedom.
The golden ring - a sacred object to the inhabitants of Janipur - was one of five. Together they were the key to control of the Master System and the only hope of humanity taking charge once more of its own destiny.
Hunted through the galaxy, the rebels' chances of survival, let alone success, were desperately slim. The three had been transmuted into Janipurians - four-legged, hairy creatures - and had infiltrated the complex, ritualised society of this long-ago terraformed planet.
And with them was Vulture, the artificially created shapechanger who could become, in body and mind, any organic creature. Vulture it was who now watched the solemn ceremony as the ring was brought out and displayed to the crowd, who understood that not just the Master System but the whole population would be hunting down the stealers of the ring.