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Original Fiction
Title: Dead Heat
Authors: BlueGreen and Juxian Tang
Genre: Original fiction
Rating: R for first three parts, later solid NC-17
Pairing: m/m
Themes: desert setting, sci fi
Feedback: Juxian Tang - juxiantang@hotmail.com
URL: http://juxian.slashcity.net
Warning: rape, violence
Summary: A moment of mercy that a chieftain's son shows to a captive turns into a long journey full of dangers for both of them...

Lots of thanks to Quinn for wonderful comments that have helped and are helping to shape the story in the right way!

DEAD HEAT

Part 1a

Written by Juxian Tang

He knew they were all dead when the cloth was torn off of him. As the orange - blinding - sun hit in his eyes, he was nearly breathless with painful, dark joy that overwhelmed him at the realization. He felt anger, too - at himself, his loss of control - and he tried to force himself into calmness. It had to be possible, even without the help of the chip. But for a few moments, before he managed it, all he felt was this joy. Pure impossible joy.

He knew they were dead - his captors, his recent *masters* - in his mind he repeated this word with bitter useless irony - but irony was probably the only thing he hanged on lately. If they were alive, they wouldn't bother to free him from the black cloth on his eyes. They would just unlock the clip linking his tied hands to his tied ankles and drag him further.

So, it had to be those who attacked them - who won over them.

Hellar shook his head, tossing long strands of his sand-filled hair away from his face and looked. The hot wind hit him, bringing shrap tang of blood and burnt flesh with it - as he stared, blinking away the tears from irritated eyes, seeing the crumpled, weirdly angled bodies in the sand. It had taken time to bring down all the Hebners, he thought, maybe, something like over an hour - as he was kneeling in the sand, listening to the sounds of the battle so hard that blood pounded in his ears; wishing desperately that he could see... knowing that if a stray charge reached him, he would die seeing nothing but the blackness over his eyes.

He survived - and the Hebners didn't. How many of them had been there, he tried to remember. Something like thirty people when last morning they had left the settlement. Yes, something like thirty, he should've known better - after all, he had felt every one of them inside himself last night.

Dead now. All fuckin' dead.

He looked up at two men who were towering over him; clad in the usual desert rags, fatigues of a kind, belonging to no army. Bronze-faced and chiselled-featured, part of their hair cropped close to the scull, part braided - the usual dregs of one of the planet tribes, just like the Hebners. Hebners... He swallowed bitter taste of contempt. Animals. Living in the sand, barely civilized enough to use charge weapons and flyers - but not civilized enough to stop killing each other for a scrap of clothes and a handful of ammunition. Oh yeah, they called it battling for power - but of course there was no even a phantom of power they could divide; not now, with the legions watching them.

He cut this thought abruptly. Thinking about the legions did him no good. Thinking about anything that was his past did no good. What was gone - was gone - and he had more urgent things now than to worry about it.

"Don't kill me," he whispered feeling the grains of sand gritty on his parched tongue. The bastard that had been supposed to take care of him didn't give him any water this morning - said that he had enough to swallow last night. "I don't threaten you. I am not your enemy."

He saw them smile derisively and knew what they thought about. Yeah, he didn't deserve to be considered an enemy. Nearly starved and well beaten into submissiveness. But it was okay, let them think this way. Just don't let them think that he wasn't interesting enough to let him live.

He looked behind the men, over the slope flat dunes littered with dead bodies and lost weapons - where others gathered around their flyers, their shrill, exhilarated voices reaching him with the wind. He looked for their leader - someone who could made a decision. Someone who could be his savior.

There was a mere twitch of surprise as Hellar realized that it was a boy. The youngest among them - but these things didn't come with experience in the desert tribes, they came with birth. The boy's hands were raised slightly in the gesture of triumph as he contemplated the devastated land in front of him. Hellar wondered briefly how many of the corpses belonged to his own clan - and wondered if it mattered to the kid. Hardly. And it certainly didn't matter to Hellar.

His eyes met the leader's - and even though he couldn't see any expression from this far, he saw the boy nod a little - then make a tiny sign with his ringed fingers. His order was passed - by another man, a tall and darkly beautiful one even in his war paint.

"It's your lucky day," someone said over Hellar and unshielded the dagger. Not to strike but to cut the fastening on his ankles. "Tsianni eb Rahuni wants to talk to you."

Hellar kept his head lowered, strands of hair hanging down to his shoudlers, as he got up. He didn't think they would notice... not if they didn't know where to look, that is - but one couldn't be too careful.

"Move," he was pushed from behind, stumbled and willed his stiff body into obedience. Kneeling didn't make him feel better at all - but really, he should have learned to control his body at last - even without the chip. Even with his hands tied - especially with his hands tied.

He bit his lip making himself move, despite every part of his body begging for a rest. The Hebners didn't spare him. These were not the Hebners... Rauni, if he heard right. But he couldn't expect them spare him, too.

Spare... The thought of it made a vicious smile curve his lips, loose strands of hair making it invisible. He didn't expect being spared. Not since the moment on the ship when he had been arrested. And Goddess sees, he was right about it. He was the only one he could count on.

Well, a little bit of luck might help him, too. For example, this kind of luck - that had brought down those who used and abused him for weeks... given him a chance to lie his way out of those who were his enemies' enemies. Who didn't know him. Who didn't know that they had a reason to hate him. Yet.

He knew he wouldn't be able to deceive them for long. But just for a little while - please, Goddess, for enough time for him to reach the flyer - and then he would be free. He didn't let the thought penetrate his mind that in his state he wouldn't be able to drive the flyer fast and precisely enough. He would get away - would find enough strength in his body. He would escape - and he would reach Shegra...

What in Shegra? As if he had anyone there who would risk his life to help him. But he didn't let himself think about this, too. He would get out. And he would revenge himself.

Yes, the thought of revenge was sweet - like a mouthful of water... and often had to substitute it recently. Hellar didn't specify whom he would revenge himself upon. As for hatred - he had enough of it for everyone; fed his hatred with the things he remembered - and he remembered a lot. He might have lost nearly everything - but his memory didn't fail him.

He remembered the trial - brief, cold and ruthless - lost before it started, his counselor not bothering to hide his boredom at dealing with this hopeless affair. The silence of the troops as his insignia was torn off of his leather jacket. And worse than that - a flashback so powerful and tormenting that he swayed... his total helplessness in the shackles that held him on the surgery table... the slight hiss of the chip machine - and, with impossible, killing pain that could compare only with despair that seized him - the metal claws entering his brain, pulling the tiny piece of metal out of it.

He remembered how he, demoted and de-chipped, was thrown out of the shuttle in a few meters above the sandy surface of the planet, rolling on the sand. And the pale, detached faces of those who were his former comrades looking down at him through the shutting hatch.

Leaving him to his death in the desert. Or not to death.

He saw the Rauni boy look at him, fold his arms in leather and metal armbands on his chest, his chin raised as his cold eyes studied Hellar. That was when Hellar passed a corpse of a Hebner and slid on the sand, flopping down ungracefully. One of the men who dragged him shook him upright immediately - but the moment was enough. The edge of the blade disc hidden between his tied hands was hair-thin sharp.

Closely, he could determine the boy's age. Nineteen, maybe, twenty. Short - slim and muscular, with a handsome face of a patent expressionlessness of desert chieftains and their offspring. Hellar would recognize it even if the boy's long hair braided carefully in innumerable thin braids didn't point at his status. He met the boy's dark eyes, the only thing on his face that was still warm, still not trained into indifference - and forced himself to stand this gaze.

"Who are you?"

He knew he would be asked - and knew he was stepping on the shaky ground here. But a right answer could mean his freedom now.

"I am not a Hebner."

He heard the boy's shallow, cold laughter:

"I know this much. You would be dead if you were."

"I was a trader," licking his lips - and still standing the gaze; demonstrating that he had nothing to hide. "Our caravan went to Shegra. Was attacked by Hebner-aga. He killed a few people and took our goods."

It had to do. Everyone knew what a threat these desert bands were to the traders.

"And he took you?" a tiny smile flickered on the boy's lips. He sighed.

"I fought him."

Even without looking he could feel a slight shift in the mood of the raiders - or, maybe, he just wanted to believe in it. He heard a short chuckle from Tsianni - and then felt a hand reaching to his clothes. He didn't flinch away, hoping that no one noticed how his jaw tightened - just started looking somewhere above Tsianni's head. The hand dug through his clothes, yanking them open on his chest.

He didn't need to look to know what Tsianni would see here. He heard a few whistles from the men in the crowd and willed himself into calmness; a frozen, unflinching gaze - even when the cloth brushed over the fresh sores.

He suddenly wanted it to be already over - desperately wanted his clothes to be wrapped around him again - and thought with self-loathing that his self-control apparently left him all in all. There was nothing he could do as Tsianni continued his inspection, anyway. The boy's hand, hot and callused, slid over his ribs, probing blue and purple bruising against the recent fracture. He didn't manage to restrain himself, giving out a hitching breath.

"I recognize the mark of Hebner-aga," the boy said unkindly - and his voice made Hellar's cheeks flush despite his attempts not to react. He knew what Tsianni meant - and it was not the traces of a Hebner whip. He clenched his teeth in hatred, the same much towards his former captor, now dead, as towards Tsianni who made him go through that. He didn't move, though, when the rough tips of the boy's fingers slid over the tender semi-circle traces of teeth on his skin, over the torn, barely healing wound of his left nipple.

"I killed two of his men," Hellar said hoping vaguely that he sounded less shaky than he felt. "He didn't appreciate it at all."

Bullshit... When the Hebners found him, Hellar was so dizzy and weak with blood loss, a constant trickle dripping from his nose, that he hadn't put any fight to them. Just let them surround him and grab him, dangling like a rag doll in their hands, as they searched him and identified him. Giving no more fight when they took turns on him, right there, in the sand.

"When was it?" the boy asked sharply.

When did they get the last report of a caravan raided on the planet? He gritted his teeth trying to make his sluggish, helpless brain work.

"Six weeks," yeah, right. A week before his downfall. He expected a blow - a deadly one - if the information didn't sound true to them - but it never came. The hand left his chest and he restrained a sigh of relief, keeping looking above Tsianni's head.

And meeting the eyes of the tall man slightly far away - the one who passed the boy's order. Wicked eyes - the same as the man's little smile was wicked - cold and contemptuous and somehow very malicious.

"You don't reckon on your words to bring you freedom, trader?" Hellar heard Tsianni saying - and blinding hope flashed in his mind. The boy called him "trader". He believed.

"I know that my freedom will cost me a neat sum," he tried to chuckle but it was beyond what his parched mouth was able to do. In his mind he didn't laugh. Fuck you, desert scum, he thought, just give me a little slack and you won't see me again.

"Are you thirsty?" the boy asked suddenly - and for a moment this phrase was enough to void Hellar's mind of any other thought.

"Yes," he said breathlessly. "Yes."

He saw Tsianni make a sign to one of his people - and saw a man take out a flask - and Hellar couldn't look away from it, barely realizing that he was already swallowing, as if trying to drink, only there was no saliva in his mouth.

"Are you sure you want to let him drink, brother?"

He missed it; the tall man coming up. His voice smooth like silk and yet poisonous - mockery hidden so carefully in it that no one could accuse him of it... but almost everyone could notice it. Hellar saw Tsianni's eyes rush hesitantly - a brief moment when the haughty mask of his face broke; a brief moment, no more.

"What is it you want to say, Amanar?" adding with undisguised annoyance. "Maybe, you'll just say it?"

"Of course, I'll do," bad, bad... Hellar could sense this feeling in the pit of his stomach - something about to happen - and knew so well that he could do nothing to prevent it. "I just wanted to make sure you were going to quench the thirst of a... Praetorian."

His hand lay on Hellar's hair at the moment when he started speaking, pulling the strands away and making him turn his head. Showing the blue tattoo of the dices on his neck.

"Death legion," someone hissed. Not Tsianni. The boy was silent - and Hellar didn't need to look at him or at others to know how their faces froze in hatred.

"And a..." Amanar's hand continued to twist his hair, tugging painfully - his thumb brushed slightly over the tattoo, "ah, a Captain. I guess today's your lucky day, brother."

Hellar yanked his hands apart. The last tissues of the leather didn't have time to separate under the disc but he was desperate enough to make them tear. He dived away from Amanar's grip, feeling how more of his hair than he would like stayed in the man's hand, and slammed his elbow in Amanar's solar plexus. Hellar might have lacked the strength that the chip could give - but he still had a few tricks in store.

The man didn't make a sound sagging on the sand - and Hellar didn't look there. He plunged forward, catching Tsianni's hair, turning the boy around and pressing to himself, covering himself from the guns, already pointed at him. The disc was between his fingers and he yanked the boy's head back by his braids, making him bare his throat and pressing the sharp edge under his jaw.

"Do you want him dead?" he tried to speak and suddenly found his voice weak and hoarse, barely comprehensible. He just hoped he drove the point home to them - would do it even without words.

They looked at him - hatred seeping out of their eyes, both hatred to him as a Praetorian and to someone who raised his hand on their leader. And Amanar was looking at him - already having risen on one knee - and... in his eyes there was no hatred. At least it was not the main expression in them. Maybe, calculation was.

Others won't risk Tsianni's life, he thought. But Amanar will... Perhaps it was what the man wanted - to risk Tsianni's life.

"Tell your brother not to do it," the boy's ear was nearly under his lips, he whispered there through the thin tight braids - almost intimately. He could follow Tsianni's gaze - to Amanar's hand reaching towards the dagger - and thought for a moment what if the boy decided to risk. A wave of relief flooded him as he heard a stifled, hateful voice saying:

"Don't, brother."

He retreated to the flyer, dragging Tsianni with him. The boy's body was rigid as he followed Hellar unwillingly... tense and feverish warm. But his whisper was cold as he continued his slight resistance, not enough to stop Hellar but enough to delay him:

"They'll chase you. They'll catch you."

"Not if they don't want to crawl on the sand trying to stop you from bleeding to death," he answered quietly. The boy didn't flinch; Hellar had to admit it - this chieftain's son was trained good.

The flyer was right behind him and he touched its smooth corpus, finding the direction by touch, getting inside and pulling the boy after him. He saw the little movement made by the others and shifted the disc slightly, letting a single drop of Tsianni's blood run over it. A reminder that had to be enough.

One-handed, with the kid in his embrace, he switched on the engine and started, reaching the full speed within seconds. He didn't look back. And he heard nothing but the whistle of the wind in his ears, pushing everything he could out of the flyer.

It was when he felt ticklish warmth over his hand - the one that dug into Tsianni's shoulder to white knuckles. Red. Red washing trails through the grime - and it was not Tsianni's blood, this much Hellar knew. It was dripping from his own nose.

Not now, please... his mind clenched in despair - in betrayal that was even more bitter because it came from his own body. Damn the chip... what did they do to me... and he still tried to make himself believe that he had a little bit of time, that he would do it.

He didn't realize that he was not holding Tsianni any more, was not threatening to the kid with the disc. He didn't know how close the chase was. Too late. Everything - blood and sand and the sun became equally black suddenly and he didn't even feel it when he collapsed losing control over the flyer.

The End of Part 1a

 

DEAD HEAT

Part 1b

Written by BlueGreen

Deep desert, they say, has bred its own people. Strong enough to live in hell's mouth and stubborn enough to stay there.

Tsianni knew his mothers tribe blood to be dominant in him - a people slight of build with the quickness of enraged vipers in them. He had none of the Rahuni lowland-tribe colouring - his hair the colour of freshly turned moist sand and tawny skin proclaimed him dune-born as did his markings on hand and feet.

He thought he would never get used to breathing the heavy lowland air. That and finding himself a head shorter than his warrior-kin.

***

Tsianni woke up in the shade.

Black clouds crawled across his vision once he moved his head and although sand had found its way into his mouth and ears, he knew better than to rub his burning eyes. Shook his head trying to clear it, and had to bit down on a moan as he rolled over to his hands and knees. His shoulder hit vibrating metal. Dazed, he made his aching eyes follow the line of the horizon; very carefully he lay down again and turned on his back.

The flyer's underbelly reached up to heavens like the sail on a mighty trade vessel, huge and threatening; half its body was rammed into the flank of a dune. Tsianni shuddered as the constant high-pitched whine at the back of his head turned up a notch. The machine called to him. In its song there was a wrongness that made his backteeth ache.

Gods, on his first raid he'd managed to kill one of the tribe's precious war flyers. And it was dying - though the metal body was horribly twisted by the impact it yet kept spasming trying to free itself. Alive like a yassar with a broken back, crawling after the herd until the moment of its death. Sickness rose up Tsianni's throat hot and bitter and for a moment he wished he hadn't survived. His recollections of the flight were few and hazy, bloodsmell and the irritating tang of sex reeking from the prisoner's close embrace; then the winds roaring and tearing at him for a long time.

A human groan forced Tsianni to his knees. Swaying, he shaded his eyes against the low-standing sun and made out a curled up form on the outer edge of the shadow.

In haste he scrambled over there on hands and knees, wouldn't fall for that old trick, had his trusted small blade ready as he reached the man.

The Hebners prisoner had his eyes open. Murky-coloured, they were tearing as Tsianni's own. Tsianni watched them staring into the red sky ignoring his presence as if it being of no consequence. A trickle of fresh red made its way down to the bruised mouth. The metal creature began a new song and the man's breath quickened as his whimpers became high and fast. Tsianni watched him twitch and wondered what it felt like, never had seen warrior-kin so closely attuned to the things.

It explained how the Hebners' slave, weak and bleeding and surrounded by the Rahuni warriors had managed to take control of one of the tribe's war flyers - it didn't excuse his own capture.

Tsianni had to grit his teeth at a note that broke even through his control, every instinct in him screaming to flee the wounded flyer's call; broken and half-buried there was no way it would ever lift itself on its own again.

His prisoner with the instinct of an animal has made himself small, curling up against the shifting sand. Tsianni watched him taking flat controlled breaths one after the other for some long heartbeats and then kicked him over to his back. The man blinked up at him more astonished than frightened.

His face wasn't burned as badly as his light skin would suggest, light for the desert, that is - but then nobody would accuse the Hebners of being wasteful, scavenger clan they were. The man's legs twitched in an aborted attempt to curl up again but Tsianni straddled him placing his weight just over the hipbones, one hand gripped in the man's greasy dark hair while the other pressed lightly on bruised ribs.

It felt good hearing the man groan.

The other's hands had come up and Tsianni slapped the pitiful attempt away, rage hot and delirious in him. You are dead, he wanted to say, you and me both. But his throat was closed. It had been his first raid and a moment of compassion had cost him everything.

He met the pale eyes and saw the other sneer.

Tsianni felt the first punch in the bones of his hand; two times, three times, missed the bitch altogether on the fourth, the momentum knocking him over. They rolled on the sloping sands, feet kicking for better purchase, their hoarse breaths in each other's face. Tsianni must have been lucky; his elbow hit some cracked ribs - for his opponent gave his first grunt of real distress and his eyes slid up inside his head. Tsianni shook off the sudden limp grasp and heard himself over the whine of the metal thing, sobbing with rage.

He rolled off the other then and let the man curl up on his side, coughing.

Trying to control his own gasping breath, he sat down heavily next to the prisoner, each bruise and the pain thrumming in his head and joints. His limbs had heaviness in them as if they were packed in wool.

In the light of the setting sun the horizon had a greenish tinge.

His sluggish brain made the connection slowly, almost unwillingly.

A sandstorm in the open had killed more experienced tribesmen than he was, would surely kill the battered foreign prisoner and make the flyer's parts unsalvageable. It would be Tsianni's first lowland storm if he'd survive it.

They would never find his corpse if he didn't.

He scrambled upright although his joints flared up with pain against the sudden movement.

He would need water, shelter and distance from the crash site. And fast - the wind already had started the first squalls.

"Free me," the prisoner rasped. Tsianni had to grin at that .

Despite the foreigner's claim to have killed Hebner warriors his binding were those of a slave, functional but not cruel. And they were permanent fixtures. The bands around his wrists and ankles had no release, the thick leather having being sewn on.

Tsianni took no risks. He used his own clips made of precious metal to secure the man hands behind his back, then heaved him over to his side. The bound prisoner twisted his mouth once like a fish out of water, his whole body curling in a brief spasm, then stilled.

Sprinting back under the bow of metal for the packs took more out of Tsianni than he'd thought. When he returned huffing up the slope for the second time, the man had managed to inch towards the weapons bundle.

Mad laughter bubbled up in Tsianni.

He gripped the man's greasy dark hair

"Look at the sky, slave," he said. "It's a sandstorm coming. You kill me and it's your own death."

He met the hateful gaze of the man and knew the other didn't believe him. Tsianni let him go and forced himself upright Tsianni shouldered the waterskins and the bundle with the tent. The weapons got a kick down the slope.

He wouldn't be back again. Only a fool would try and keep a hostile prisoner alive...

He grimaced at the thought of Amanar coming to the rescue,

"So your temper got the better of you again, huh? Maybe you deep desert tribes don't care for off world techs, etc... But we do"

Could imagine their hateful arrogant stares - you wont lead us, boy.

***

He urged the man upright roughly. The pained gasps the prisoner made weren't placating; Tsianni had seen the Hebners work. He put a hand on the bigger man's neck and jerked him down to his own eye-level.

"Stay on your feet, whore," he yelled against the winds howls. "Or I'll kill you on the spot."

He grasped the man's arm and turned him so that he could pack a bundle on the other's back. Nothing on which Tsianni's survival would depend, water and tent were in his own burden. When everything was lashed securely, he gave his beast of burden a push up the dune and had to keep pushing to get the other to move.

Once in the open, the winds showed their true sting. Tsianni's prisoner with none of the headgear to guard his eyes was practically blind and thus reluctant to even put one foot before the other.

Move bastard, Tsianni thought. It was like dragging a yassar. Tsianni felt his strength leaving him with each gasp.

The small rock-formation that marked the beginning of rough terrain had no more than a child's height. Just a few smooth boulders leaning on each other. Tsianni pushed the coughing prisoner to his knees

"Down!" he yelled over the winds howls and enforced the command by a flat-handed smack. He briefly considered going back for just one more trip when the first real gust hit.

Tsianni found himself half sprawled over his prisoner. The heap of stones suddenly seemed very small indeed.

He had to fight against the driving sands to put up the tent - working with thus with closed eyes and raw hurting hands. He stumbled twice over the crouched form of his prisoner, swore over the howls of the storm and pushed him out of his way roughly. Finally the last pole had been hammered in between the boulders and Tsianni rather fell than crawled into the small space. Sound abruptly ceased to be deafening and, holding a hand over mouth and nose, he could take his first deep breath. Fine sand made crunchy sounds as he wormed his way deeper into the shelter between the rocks. His throat hurt from his pained gaps and he fumbled blindly for the waterskins bound on his torso. His eyes began to tear shamefully after the first sweet swallows. Tsianni slumped down in the far back of his meagre shelter.

Something prevented him to close the opening.

Gods, no.

His prisoner with the instinct of an animal began to drag himself into the tent. Tsianni didn't think - only knew that the storm would rip the cloth apart any moment if they left themselves open to its attack. His grip found purchase in the other's odd rags, pulled him in and pushed him aside to close the breach in the tents opening.

He knew the other had lost his voice, knew it by the painful sounds the dark-haired man made trying to breathe. Without the benefits of hands to filter out the worst of the dust his prisoner did the next best thing. Tsianni felt his hot sharp breath as the man buried his face in the layers of his clothes.

He reached for the man's ankles and clipped the bindings on them. Better safe than sorry.

***

The storm still raged above them. Tsianni must have dozed. He came to at a small suppressed cough somewhere next to him and twisted over to his side in alarm but his prisoner was well secured. And quite weak by now. But he flinched at Tsianni's callused fingers travelling over his blood-encrusted face that was a dark mask in the tent's gloom.

"Some water, slave?" he asked the trembling man.

Much too dark to see the man's face but then Tsianni remembered the hazel eyes losing their hard look at the previous offer of water.

He knew that he was showing shameful lenience with the prisoner, Amanar would tease him mercilessly and then reject him.

The End of Part 1b

 

DEAD HEAT

Part 2a

Written by Juxian Tang

The water was killingly good. Too sweet, too heady, too overwhelming. His throat contracted convulsively as he gulped on it. He didn't know he was giving out a moan, more than once. He felt shame when he registered it - but even shame paled in comparison with the pleasure.

He came back to his senses only when the ring of the waterskin was torn away from his lips and there was nothing to swallow any more - and this deprivation made him mad, made him want to scream - but all that came out of his mouth was just a rustle:

"More."

He trembled violently in hatred when in reply the kid laughed dryly... were they taught this kind of laughter, just like they were taught to fight? He would make the little bastard swallow this laughter... Hellar wished there was more fury in this thought; but he didn't have strength for that now.

"You can't have more," Tsianni said. Of course, Hellar couldn't. He who'd tried to kill this prince of dregs - it was a miracle that he had some at all. "You'll get sick."

It was not what Hellar expected to hear and he didn't believe it, discarded the tone of the kid that was not mocking, just hard. But the boy told the truth. He was already sick. His body craved for water but was not so eager in accepting it. He curled on his side, as much as his bindings allowed him and tried to keep it inside. He could feel his arms and legs twitch slightly and closed his eyes waiting it out.

He felt light-headed; was losing contact with reality now and then, despite cramps and dizziness. The howling sounds of the storm above them seemed somehow lulling, even though Hellar realized how deceptive the safety of their shelter was; and the kid's body half-pressed against his in the little space of the tent emanated steady warmth.

No, he didn't have to sleep. Not now, right after he'd got down to the very bottom again. He spurred his mind into awareness reminding himself about his recent failure. Damn it! Damn his weakness... that lasted only a few moments and cost him so much.

Well, maybe, not too much? He was alive... and not in immediate danger. The kid hadn't left him outside where he would have been dead and buried in the sand by now. Well, Hellar didn't let Tsianni leave him, that was more exact.

He still might feel a kind of gratitude to the kid - for the shelter and for water - and he forcefully voided his mind of it. The little desert brat had him bound... probably thought that it would be enough.

How wrong of him.

"How long is the storm going to continue?" he asked. And sensed a slight flinch of Tsianni at the sound of his voice. It gladdened him in a nasty way.

"How am I supposed to know, whore?" there was haughtiness in Tsianni's voice - and yet he didn't just ignore Hellar, didn't keep silent. "Hours."

"When it ends, I want us to split," he consciously said it this way - as if he was the one making choices there. "You can return to your tribe - and I'll go my way."

There was silence; he was not sure if Tsianni approved this variant - or if he was stunned with Hellar's audacity.

"I won't bring the Legions against your people," Hellar added - a monstrous bluff - but his voice was so husky all the time that it could hardly give him away. "I won't tell anyone about your raids, I vow."

He heard Tsianni laugh - almost jolly - as little deliberately as the boy probably could laugh.

"How naive do you think I am? The vow of a Praetorian given to a civil?"

Good, Hellar thought before anything else. The boy didn't know he had nothing to do with Praetorians any more. As for the vow... Tsianni estimated it for about what it was worth, in other circumstances.

"I don't think you have any other choice but to trust me."

"Oh don't I?" something cold stirred in Hellar's stomach at these Tsianni's words. The kid seemed to have an agenda... Too bad. "I guess it's you who are not basking in choices, Praetorian. Especially once the sandstorm is over and my people get here to find us."

Oh yes. Amanar... Pissed off for being knocked down and eager to confirm his loyalty by punishing someone who'd tried to kidnap the chieftain's son. Hellar was not sure he wanted to think about it.

"You can't hold me, boy. It won't be safe for your tribe. My friends will find me, sooner or later - and shall I tell you what they will do to you for your crime? To every single person in your tribe? To every woman and child?"

He hoped he sounded frightening enough. He felt slight trembling of Tsianni's body and hoped it was with fear.

Just not let him ask why Hellar's alleged friends never found him at Hebners.

"They'll make you watch it all," he said carefully. "We always do it this way. They might also make you do something - and you are wrong if you think you can't be made. We are taught to be very persuasive."

He wanted to add some more gruesome details - and heard Tsianni's voice:

"But you'll be dead by then."

And the absence of the sound in it - a mere hiss - told Hellar that he was wrong about the kid being scared. Angered - that was true.

There was no place at all for a good move in the tent and the sound gave the kid away. Hellar threw his body against the boy's when Tsianni dashed at him. They clashed against each other in the middle-motion. Hellar's ribs crunched audibly but he ignored it - he would have time to hurt later. He didn't know if Tsianni had a blade - assumed he did - and hit with his shoulder against the kid's right hand - breaking his weight down on Tsianni at the same motion.

He felt Tsianni buckle - but he was heavy enough to restrain the boy's movements, Tsianni's hands jammed under and between their bodies. Hellar leaned down even more, feeling the kid's chest flutter furiously, sensing the softness of his cock and balls under his belly. Tsianni's face was so close that Hellar almost touched it - could kiss it - or tear it with his teeth. A brief memory, of one of Hebner-aga's man leaning to his face and biting his lips was so dizzying that he was out of it for a moment. Goddess, he wished he could make them pay. Everyone... this desert scum... wash off every memory that he had...

"You slut pussy," he whispered. It was hopeless with his hands tied behind his back.

He rolled off of the kid. A flash of pain scalded him, somewhere below his ribs. He felt heat spread around the place immediately - and another jab of blunt pain. Damn the boy's rings...

Tsianni twisted up, hitting him again - and then was over him, all his weight and his hard knees pressing on Hellar's side. He gasped - and couldn't take another breath, barely registered how Tsianni straddled him and hit him in the face. Vaguely Hellar thought that the kid might use the blade now.

But he didn't use it. There was a short pause while Tsianni must've looked down at Hellar - he couldn't see it in the darkness - and more out of stubbornness than in defiance Hellar spat:

"What? You like to ride?"

Tsianni shifted on him, silent, his knees pressing a little more - and trying to stifle a cry Hellar felt the kid's hand catch his face. At the first moment he didn't understand what it was - a palm against his blinking eyes, rubbing quickly - and then he understood, arched in anguish, even before the pain hit him. The palm was not empty - full of the fine, all-suffusing sand that the kid rubbed in his eyes.

He screamed, more in fury that in pain - but it was too late - and the pain didn't take long to come. The burning was so intense that Hellar shook his head frantically - tried to get his hands free, hurting his ribs worse in this struggle but not noticing it. He was cursing - the words that demonstrated his defeat better than anything else. He was almost surprised when some string of dirty words must've broken through Tsianni's composure because a hand slapped across his mouth, rings splitting his lips.

"Shut up!" the kid shouted louder than Hellar did, louder than the howling of the wind above them. "Shut up, it's all your own fault!"

Hellar felt tears welling up between his puckered, trembling eyelids - involuntary tears of the irritation that hopefully might take the burning away. But at the same time, as the tears ran over his cheeks, he couldn't help but admit that in a way it was real tears. Of his helplessness and self-hatred.

It came as a shock to him. The chip always suppressed the emotions like this, never allowed him to cry. But now he was again - like a six-year-old, just like he had been almost twenty years ago - before he and Ursula and a few other kids in their orphanage were chosen for the Legion...

He had to stop crying. He felt Tsianni's hand on his face and flinched, both in fear of more sand and in realization that the kid would feel his face wet.

"Maybe, at last I'll get some rest from you, bitch, while you are occupied with your eyes," he heard Tsianni's voice, satisfied and slightly muffled - and he realized that the kid took his tears for what it had to be - for a reflex reaction. He felt the weight shift from him and gritted his teeth at more pain in his ribs. But there was already some relief, the possibility to regulate his breath - and he tried to concentrate of doing it, on thinking about nothing else. He felt Tsianni settle down in the tiny space - saying nothing more, as if the affair was solved.

Breathe. Breathe and let tears wash out the sand. It was not that he had anything else to do - or could do anything. The pain in his ribs was dizzying - but somehow he could get used to it - could believe that it was getting better little by little. Waiting out for the little cutting sand grains to wash from under his eyelids was much more agonizing. Just waiting. Somehow this waiting seemed to him similar to the process of waiting out the de-chipping adaptation. They told him he would regain strength and abilities of an average man in two-three weeks, the bleeding had to stop even earlier. Was it a lie? It was five weeks by now and he felt just a little better than in the very beginning.

Was it that they had done something to him? The thought came to him for the first time and scalded him - had they done something to him on purpose? As a revenge? What if he'd never be normal again? The thought filled him with such horror that he clenched his jaws - until felt familiar pain in his head - just where the chip had been - resound through him.

Was it worth it? Was what he had been trying to do for the Organization worth of losing everything? Of becoming half-human like this? He recalled stricken, disbelieving looks of his comrades when his indictment was read out - at how could someone bring something like that on himself. And then their stares acquired the demanded indifference to someone who was not their part any more. Crossed him out. Everyone - and Ursula, too. Well, he didn't expect anything else - he would do the same in their place. He had known the risk, hadn't he?

And how pathetic was he now, lying in the darkness, all unhappy and bitter, and trying to question what couldn't be changed? He tried to sit up abruptly, not paying attention to the pain shooting through him - even wanting it. Pain was better than self-pity.

"What do you want?" he thought the kid was asleep - but he wasn't. His voice was absolutely awake - and very quiet - and Hellar needed several moments to realize that Tsianni didn't need to shout any more. The storm died away.

"It's over," he said.

"I know. It's night outside. Sleep."

He didn't feel like sleeping at all. He knew about the dangers of the night in the desert, comprehensive information about the planet was a part of the legions' training - but if he were free, his anxiety would drive him out immediately, making him walk even though he wouldn't know the direction. If he were free...

Well, at least he could open his eyes a little. They were still leaking and burning and he couldn't keep them open for more than a second or two - but at least it was something... and not that there was anything to look at, all the same. Hellar tried to remember where Tsianni put the weapons - and more guessed than recalled that the boy hid them behind himself. Had to wait for a better chance, then. Would wait...

He needed to get out of there. The kid was not willing to let him go - and Hellar knew why. He was Tsianni's prize, his ticket back to the tribe - a proof that he was a victor, not a victim.

If only his hands were free... if only he hadn't let the kid bind him again...

He probably slept eventually - because when he tried to open his eyes again, the teary film on them was grey, not dark. He saw Tsianni shift in the dimness, getting up, then pull the cover away carefully and look out.

A stream of sand flooded the tent - but it was what poured over their shelter, not the madness coming from the sky that had nearly killed them yesterday.

The kid didn't make a sound but somehow Hellar sensed satisfaction in his mood. He watched how Tsianni opened the waterskin and made a few gulps; the sound of the water splashing inside the waterskin was almost too much for him.

"Give me some."

Should've asked nicer... he didn't have time to regret his harshness. There seemed to be only a short hesitation before Tsianni turned to him.

"Open your mouth."

He obeyed hastily, no other order would get such eager obedience from him. The water was warm - and so delicious that it took the same much strength of him as it gave. He was still in this half-dazed state when Tsianni took it away and pushed him to the exit.

"Out. We gotta go."

Don't command me, boy, he wanted to say but decided to spare his breath.

It was quiet outside - even more quiet than usual - the wind barely moved the sand at all. Hellar couldn't get up and stayed on his knees while Tsianni stood looking around with intent eyes.

It was very early morning - the sun was somewhere near but not coloring the sky in orange yet; the kid must've seen quite well in the darkness since he tried to discern something there.

He probably did.

"Get up," he took off the clip from Hellar's ankles but not from his wrists, pulled him up by his clothes and partly by his hair. "Move, whore."

"You are a whore's son," he muttered spitefully but the kid didn't hear - or preferred not to hear. Hellar would like to sabotage everything what Tsianni expected him to do - whether it was a good tactic or not - but he had to wait for a chance to get free, just as he told himself... and he wanted to see what Tsianni noticed there.

He saw it soon - it took a few moments for him to process what it was and then he laughed. The flyer - that was standing almost upright yesterday - was flat now. Flat and buried under the layer of sand a couple of feet high. It wouldn't be visible at all if a bit of twisted metal didn't stick out. Would be buried within hours, too.

He saw Tsianni make several steps towards the flyer as if forgetting about him - the boy's tattooed hands slid over the only uncovered part of the flyer. Caressing it?

"They won't find you so easy now, will they? They won't see the flyer from above," Hellar's voice sounded nasty - but he felt nasty, too. Tsianni turned back abruptly, as if he was lashed - and for a moment it seemed that he was going to start a fight again - but he didn't, took control over himself. Hellar laughed. "I really don't know why you want them to find you so much. A damsel in distress and a hero Amanar coming to rescue? Are these the roles you relish?"

He didn't know if it got the kid. He hoped he was right in his understanding of the situation.

"Let me go," he said seriously. "You want to go back to your people and I want to go my own way. You won't be able to drag me through the desert - for how many miles? I'll be a burden for you. I vow you I'll be a burden."

This vow Tsianni could believe. Hellar smiled and felt how the scabs on his mouth broke. The kid shook his head, his sand-covered dreadlocks brushing over his shoulders. Hellar couldn't see his face well but somehow he knew that there was no hesitation in it.

"You will go with me."

Tsianni needed him; needed a prisoner - a meek and tamed prisoner, preferably. To show Amanar what he was worth.

"Just fuckin' let me go!" wrong... he should've used arguments, not yelling - and it was not that he could yell real good, anyway. But he was past arguing. And he couldn't make his voice sound calm and demanding - instead of it, with disgust Hellar heard crazy notes in it. He was losing it; knew he would snap if Tsianni laughed once more.

The boy didn't laugh. Perhaps he was just too tired; but his voice sounded serious - stunningly serious in comparison with the outrageous logic of his words:

"If you are going to be too difficult to take with me, I'll leave you here dead. I'll cut your throat and leave you here. I think even after lizards and birds feed on you, there will be enough of you left to show my people."

Your people, Hellar wanted to chuckle. Not funny. Nothing was funny there. Rather desperate.

"You are going to kill me?" he said - and realized that his voice sounded composed enough - just as he would like it. Tsianni watched him, the first rays of the sun streaking his cheek red and making his eyes gloomy dark - as Hellar knelt in front of him and looked up. "Then kill me."

The kid's mouth twitched slightly - Hellar noticed it before throwing his head back, leaving his throat exposed.

A part of his mind screamed that he was a fool, that he would die - but a part answered coldly: so what? At least it'd be fast, he thought, trying not to wait for the soft sound of the blade unsheathed. And he still was telling himself that the boy wouldn't do it. Killing like that - it was not easy - not the same as in the fight. Tsianni wouldn't.

But the moments of waiting were so long - and so hard to handle. And then Tsianni moved - and Hellar backed away - curling protectively - lost his guts in the last moment - knew it would be too late if it was the blade in Tsianni's hand. But it was just the hand, slapping over his face angrily, then catching his hair and yanking his head up. To look up - in shameful relief of being alive and upsetting realization of his absolute un-readiness to die.

"You idiot!" the kid leaned down to him, his smooth handsome face so close that Hellar could feel the warmth of his lips as he talked. "You don't want to die."

No, he didn't. Even after everything - he didn't.

But he didn't want to be there, too.

The End of Part 2a

 

DEAD HEAT

Part 2b

Written by BlueGreen

"Up," Tsianni said. "We can't stay here."

The prisoner's hair obscured most of his face, deliberately so, Tsianni assumed; knew he had shamed the man. But the gall of him... Amanar would have destroyed him without a further thought. But he wouldn't, would not loose another prize after the war steed.

Damn stubborn fool with a deathwish.

Fine flying sand made him blink. The winds that had risen just before dawn would keep on blowing as long as the dunes retained the nights cold. Letting his gaze travel over the large submerged body of the flyer Tsianni felt almost unreal standing there. Sometimes during the night the machine had gone silent; the new dune that covered (this is what I do, too - use too much of a gerund; read recently that it doesn't sound good for English-speakers) it was shifting already and would swallow it the before dawn.

No doubt Amanar would continue the search first light. Why to lose an opportunity to make himself look good? As far as Tsianni knew his cousin, Amanar had probably sent the veterans back home with the pilfered yassar herd to give notice of Tsianni's shame and their victory and then - took the young bucks for some sharp dune hopping all in the name of rescuing him.

Tsianni turned away from the wind, mind tricks already making him hear their jeers.

He wished he had an idea how far the flight had brought them into disputed territory to estimate the time of the arrival of his men but the landmark had been unfamiliar to him yesterday.


His prisoner made a pained sound as Tsianni heaved him to his feet. He kept his hold on the bigger man until the other straightened and found his balance under the bundle lashed to his back. Tsianni gave him a push towards the wastelands.

Leaving the dunes behind might be his only choice with his few skins of water but he hated having to flee the crash site. It meant he had to trust the clan trackers to find him before scavengers had the same idea - there was no way either could overlook the signs.

Some cliffs in the distance looked defensible - he aimed the man's steps towards their new destination.

***

His use by the Hebners made the Praetorian's walk less smooth than Tsianni imagined him to have, that and his breath hitching now and then; would have to tend to the others injuries soon or risk them getting worse.

For the first few miles Tsianni kept walking behind the man, as a small boy would herd household animals. But he quickly found it too taxing to use the switch on the man to order him out of harm way; what seemed to Tsianni a clear path between the snrafh bushes and some obvious sand-viper hills were to the foreigner's feet an invitation to trample straight ahead into disaster. Tsianni hissed in annoyance and shouldered the Praetorian away from the sloping walls of a bigger desert dweller.

"Stay behind me," he ordered. "Keep your eyes open!"

Then he himself had to squint his eyes when the hurt inside his head began as they left the soft sand. He knew he wasn't injured, it was just his body aching - but walking in his hard boots let him feel it with each step with a vengeance.

Rest and water and some shade soon, he promised himself. And yet he kept watching the horizon until his eyes wouldn't focus anymore. No change there - only that with the rising heat the ache in his head grew to be a constant reminder of his failure.

They didn't get far during the morning hours, not surprising to Tsianni; ever so often he had to stop and wait for the man to catch up. Some war prize - a well-used prisoner.


***

Near midday they rested in the small shade of a boulder after Tsianni had scouted the cracks for poisonous crawlers. He let the man sip the water sparingly and found himself being contemplated in turn.

Tear-tracks had run over the man's cheekbones showing the pale skin beneath.

He pointed to his own eyes:

"Still hurting?" and watched bruised-looking reddish eyes draw away.

From an inner pocket Tsianni pulled out a small packet of syrupy sweets and brushed off the fine dust clinging to it.


"You are lucky - Rahuni don't mutilate slaves," he said more out of spite than giving up information.

His prisoner shifted trying to relax against the stone surface; awkward with arms clipped on the back.

"I have to piss," he said.

"You don't need hands for that."

Stupid slave.

Ah but not so stupid - not when it came to taking his chances. Tsianni remembered Snek's dark-lined face looking at him, warning him, as he watched the prisoner - and he - he had all his attention on Amanar and his snide remarks as if he hadn't an enemy in front of him.

With his teeth Tsianni ripped the waxed string off the square little bundle, the sweet and spice taste already in his mouth. He sucked the dried leaf wrapped around the sweet clean. Once moistend, it let itself be rolled up like a smokestick, not nourishing at all but lending a bit of sharpness to make the saliva flow. The honey had crystallized some glittering on the dried fruit and nuts. Taste exploded in Tsianni's mouth as he worried on a stringy bit.

Chewing he asked:

"How long were you really with Hebner-aga?"

"Long enough not to expect hospitality from the likes of you," the man hissed then bowed over turning his face away. Paying for his outburst with ribs protesting. "You can't keep me tied up like and think I would walk one step more..."

"Man, you'll come crawling after me on your belly," Tsianni said resonably. "Once you get real thirsty," he smiled at the man's face. "Have to keep you off me with a stick then."

He wasn't used to someone stare at him as if he were something utterly interesting and the other couldn't decide whether he felt fascination or disgust at the sight. For the longest moment Tsianni didn't even make a move to punish him for it.

How did the man managed to live among Hebners, he wondered after the other had lowered his eyes much too late, never even learned the smallest courtesies due to his betters. There were a lot of things Tsianni believed about the Hebners but not them letting their slaves out of hand. Their plaything probably never saw daylight.

He bit off another sweet and jerky piece and pushed it behind his back teeth to melt there, then wrapped the rest up again carefully. His sticky fingers had only a few kernels of sand on them - they got licked clean.

Frowned as he found the man's attention still on him.

"What? " he snapped.

The Praetorian leaned his head back against the cliff surface closing his eyes.

"I have seen your dirty backwater territory from orbit - you know what I am talking about - flying above your lousy heads. Ugly and empty piece of land we're walking into," the man swallowed as his voice went rough. "There is nothing here - no water, no habitat. Wrong direction, boy."

"Shut up," Tsianni told him. "Call me boy once more and you can wear a gag the rest of the day!"

The Praetorian shook his head looking imminently sane for the man Tsianni had seen on his knees lying for all he was worth.

"Rauni then, listen. I don't care for your fuckin' little tribal wars - kill all your enemies, it's your game. I only ask you to let me..."

Tsianni snorted.

"You crashed a flyer, man!" the Praetorian cried. "For whom do you think your brethens are going risk another? For you? Or for me? "

"Shut your fucking mouth! "

Tsianni lashed out then but the man had seen it coming, so, rings only scraped him.

"Just leave me alone..."

Tsianni's downward swing almost connected. The man evaded him and the back of his head hit the boulder's surface instead.

Dazed he let Tsianni reach for his grimed face and bring him close - until feeling the man jerk and seeing his lips getting white and pinched in pain.


Tsianni remembered laying his fingers on those hidden marks on the Praetorian's body, male signs of possession on the smooth pale torso, bloody among bruised discolored flesh. The eyes meeting his were still reddened but had a glare to them.

Tsianni knew a challenge when he saw one.

Scowling he pulled the larger body towards him, male damn, foreign and male and slave - nothing to get excited about; breathing through his mouth didn't help any. His body had its own ideas about the matter, and he went achingly shamefully hard. Sweat was running down freely his sides by the time he had the clip that restrained the man's arms removed.

He angrily evaded the clumsy head-butt and had to take a hold himself to let the other go and just flip him none too gently to his belly. The man went ummpfh getting a whack to the back of his head just for good measure.

"Shut up and go to sleep, damn you!" Tsianni ripped the bundle off of him with more force than necessary.

***

The land took on deeper colors with the shadows getting longer and breathing became easier once the air currents lost their heat glitter. There was even moisture in the winds, as if the storm from the night had pulled in its wake some of those heavy mysterious sea mists.

Raiding weather, Tsianni thought. Only there were no raiders in sight - nor had he heard sounds telling him of the breaking up the mighty flyer. The wind had shifted some but he should have been able to hear any clashes. He tried not to look too often into the direction the flyers had to come from.

He had skinned and impaled a dozen red-striped lizards, their poisonous gallbladders drying to black sticky goo on a flat stone, and had a makeshift gag ready for his prisoner.

Who took his time waking up, turning away from his prodding as if lazing in his lover's tent. A sharp stick drawn along the legs did the trick, an instinct even soft city dwellers hadn't lost jerked the sleeper awake. The row of little lizard corpses brought him up short.

Tsianni grinned at his gasp. He knew himself to be a good hunter, and fast, which was the main thing when trying for the small reptiles.

"You can cook them for me tonight," he said. "It's women's work."

Probably it was only the mouth gone to dry for a retort but Tsianni enjoyed the man's mute look enormously.

***

The man sat up with a groan, blinking furiously. Tsianni took in his minutely shaking hands and the flat controlled breaths; the careful shifting for some soft sand under his backside - man looking like a tired filthy slave.

"Water?" Tsianni asked friendly-like.

He held the skin for the eager mouth, regulating the flow, while the man made small unconscious noises sucking on the cork. Tsianni magnanimously let him have another sip before he packed the skin away and rose up, stepping up behind the kneeling prisoner.

"You can have more soon," he promised.

Which was a lie.

He pressed the gag fast and hard to unsuspecting lips.

"No, don't move," he ordered sharply slapping the hands that tried to rise and finished tying the cruel thing.

Even now it felt like holding on to a large angry rubyadh cat - spitting and growling, then freezing under Tsianni's hands with its hackles raised - an intelligent predator. One wrong move and it would be Tsianni's blood staining the sands. He drew the man's head back and saw the eyes go white, then dark again and out of focus.

"Do you feel it? This pricking on your tongue?" he asked and shook him slightly to get his full attention. "Blind man, didn't you see the lizards? A burr anointed with their poison feels nasty, doesn't it?"

Only then the man's hand scrabbled for his face and pushed fingers under the gag. Frightened now to swallow or to make any move that would bring the poison to him.

Tsianni hunkered right next to him until the man looked at him again.

"I am going to take a look at what the Hebner had," he said slowly. "Then your ribs need to be bound. Any move towards me - anytime you take your fingers from the gag and the thing in your mouth will find a permanent home in your soft flesh."

The End of Part 2b

 

DEAD HEAT

Part 3a

Written by Juxian Tang

It was disgusting! No, the fuckin' kid was at his best... using another one of his dirty tricks but who would expect him play fair? It was him, Hellar, who was disgusting - he knew it - and he would let himself a few more moments of self-loathing if there were no more urgent task of deciding what to do.

The boy could be bluffing, about the poison, he thought. But what if not? Even if the poison wouldn't kill him... it might guarantee him a few hours of violent sickness. Too high a price for experimenting. He tried to pin Tsianni down with his eyes but the kid seemed unimpressed; now really, why would he be? He was the one who called the shots at the moment.

Hellar felt how his fingers that he held under the gag were getting slightly wet with his spittle. He tried so hard not to swallow that it leaked from the corner of his mouth. An abominable waste of liquid... and quite humiliating sight - but he couldn't do anything about it. He felt how dissolved acid burned on his torn lips and against the gashes on his knuckles.

Didn't matter; let it hurt... let him pay for his stupidity...

"I see you understood me, whore," Tsianni said, a little flash of triumph making his light brown eyes almost golden.

Whore... the fuckin' little bastard was a whore, what about him rubbing his cock against Hellar as he'd handled him... Then another thought - and much less pleasant - came to Hellar's mind - with a reminder of Tsianni's words. What did he mean he had to take a look?

He continued to glare up at Tsianni - who stood over him, looking down - an exemplary condescending position - gee, usually it was Tsianni who had to look up at everyone, right? His hand was in Hellar's hair, pulling his head back. Then his other hand reached and shook Hellar's clothes open.

He breathed through his nose, a sound substituting a hiss he couldn't make - and tried to back away, walk away on his knees - but was pulled back by the hand in his hair. A small grimace of exasperation flitted over Tsianni's face, distorting its smoothness - and Hellar expected an outburst - but Tsianni only shrugged, muttering:

"Stay here, stupid slave. Don't make me hurt you worse than you already are."

Liar, Hellar thought sarcastically. Hurt... he could stand being hurt. It was the thought of being forced one more time that made his stomach go up - forced to do something he didn't want to. He stared at Tsianni's crotch, too close - trying to figure out if there was a bulge under the misshapen clothes. There had to be, what did he think... He knew what the kid wanted, had no doubt about it. Damn him, damn them both if Tsianni was going to get it...

Male sex was okay for Hellar. Why, it was a common knowledge that one had to fuck his or her way into the cast of Praetorians - and he had done what he had to do in his time - had been doing it for years, until three years ago his age and his rank put him beyond the interest of his commanders. But with these desert pigs it was different. The Hebners... he didn't want to recall it.

Wouldn't recall it - if only his body didn't bear so many reminders of Hebner-aga and his people.

"This sand is like salt, eating through the injured flesh," he heard Tsianni's somehow thoughtful voice. No husky notes of foreplay in it, as far as Hellar could hear - but he didn't put much hope on it. He knew what Tsianni had in his mind. "It should be washed and covered but we don't have enough water to waste it."

The kid apparently considered him a complete idiot, not being able to take care of himself... Then a little word "we" reached Hellar. Yeah right. We... till the moment when Amanar would appear on the horizon - and then Hellar would probably feel sorry that the lizard poison didn't kill him, after all.

"The Hebners didn't care if you lived or died," Tsianni said. Unable to retort, Hellar just shrugged. "What a waste to treat a slave like this."

I will never be your slave, he thought, when will you understand it.

"How much does it hurt?" Tsianni's concentrated voice reached him, fingers pushing against excruciatingly fragile place on his smashed ribs. He stayed silent and motionless, looking defiantly - didn't make a gasp. And heard the boy whisper - half with disgust but half with the emotion that Hellar couldn't define immediately. "You fool!"

The over-adorned dirty hands continued to probe his bones and damaged skin unhurriedly - until suddenly Tsianni slid down on one knee in front of him. To get a better look - and Hellar winced when Tsianni's fingers brushed against the older scars under his nipples.

"It wasn't done by Hebners."

No, it was not. The traces of the wires inserted under his skin during the interrogation - and later they didn't bother to use the digital healer on him since he was already deprived of all privileges of a Praetorian. He recalled the pain seizing his body at the turn of the switch... and his own surprise that he somehow managed not to spill everything he knew. But then they didn't quite know what to ask him - perhaps if they asked the right questions, he wouldn't be able to stay loyal to the Organization.

The question was if the Organization deserved his loyalty; he had enough time to think about it since then - and he still didn't know the answer.

He knew one thing, though - the Legion interrogators couldn't break him - and if the lousy kid thought that his desert people would be able to break him - he was wrong. Very wrong.

Tsianni's hand hovered at his waist - and Hellar almost missed the moment when it reached to the fastening of his pants, pulling it open. His body reacted involuntarily - hand pulled from under the gag, catching Tsianni's bracelet-wrapped wrist, twisting it backwards. He heard a small sound of pain the kid made - and it gladdened him beyond his expectations - and the feeling of the bone on the verge of breaking was good, too... fuck these arm-bands that hindered him... The kid's fist smashed against his mouth, making his head snap back - and that did it. He didn't understand at first that he swallowed - just felt a burning sensation in his throat.

They both froze - their eyes met, looking intently at each other. He saw the kid curse soundlessly - or, maybe, there was no sound for him because overwhelming nausea was covering him. He reached for the gag, knowing that it was already too late - and felt Tsianni catch him, overturn him on the sand. The kid wanted to finish him off, he thought, it was not enough for him that he was going to die now...

Then he felt Tsianni's hands tearing the knot of the cloth keeping the gag, pulling it off, turning his head on the side.

"Spit it, fuck you, Praetorian idiot! Spit it out!"

He did, of course - and the fingers were in his mouth now, pushing at the root of his tongue - making him sick. Bile hurt his burnt throat - and he had nothing but bile to be sick with - but the kid continued to torment him, making him dry-heave again and again.

"Stop fighting, you..."

He couldn't stop. But as it was, soon he found it impossible to heave any more, every tightening of his stomach making him moan - and he was not in the mood to try to bear it stoically. He pushed Tsianni away angrily and crawled a few feet away, collapsed on the sand, curling, trying to lull the ball of heat inside him into calmness.

He wanted to be left alone. Was too exhausted to feel hatred - and there was nothing else he could feel. Goddess, he was too tired to live. Maybe, the complete darkness of the nether world was not such a bad thing, after all - in comparison with it.

"You are the most stupid, the most ridiculous slave I've ever had," he closed his eyes not to see the kid but Tsianni's voice still reached him. "Every stupid thing you can do - you do it!"

"And you do only clever things..." he started acidly and then stopped. He wouldn't talk to the little brat. Whatever - maybe, if Hellar didn't notice him, he would lose interest and leave him alone.

He almost thought it worked. He covered his ears and the darkness and steady pounding of his pulse enveloped him, bringing him an illusion of invulnerability - and Hellar felt in surprise that the burning inside him subside little by little. Then he was touched again - hands not rough but annoying.

"You fuckin' pervert," he said disgustedly. What a fool Tsianni was. Now, when Hellar got rid of the gag, he would make a game more exciting, so to say.

Suddenly he was handled into a sitting position - and Tsianni's arms wrapped around his ribcage - but it was not a sexual touch, nothing like that. Hellar's eyes snapped open. The boy's face was very close - eyes looking down - and a shadow of concentration lay on his sharp features.

"Hold this," he said to Hellar handing him an end of the long cloth that wrapped around Hellar's chest. "Don't let it go."

He didn't know why he obeyed - he knew he shouldn't; he couldn't figure out what the kid was doing but could it be anything good? Tsianni started wrapping the cloth around his ribcage, layer after layer, very tight - against the throbbing outline of his broken ribs.

It had to hurt more, to be pressed there - but to Hellar's surprise it didn't; and although for the first moment he was not sure he could breathe, it turned out that the pain that used to slam through him on every inhale almost disappeared... stayed only somewhere deep inside him.

Hellar could never imagine that some relief could be achieved like this - without a digital healer or an autodoc - but so it was. It puzzled him the same much as why Tsianni had done it. Why to do something like that - something that wouldn't serve the purpose of weakening him - but could, on the contrary, make him stronger?

"That's better," he heard Tsianni mutter as the kid tied the ends of the cloth. You'll know soon if it's better, he thought threateningly. "And now you are probably thirsty again."

He couldn't believe it. The kid was laughing at him.

"You'll get to drink. Do you see these rocks over there? If we get there before the sunset and without any adventures, you'll get your portion."

Hellar didn't see any rocks; readily thought that Tsianni had to mock him - but there had to be some part of his mind that stayed calm - and it told him that probably the rocks were there, his sight just wasn't good enough.

"Do you understand me?"

"Yes," he hissed getting up and reaching for his bundle. He didn't want to carry the damned stuff - but no way he was going to show how weak he felt. He swayed but hoped that the kid didn't notice it. He walked to the direction where Tsianni had shown - and heard the sand screech behind him as Tsianni followed.

It was not so bad; not worse than the first survival exam at least... when he was ten... and he had coped with that, only four of their group did... he, Ursula and two other kids... the two that died during the second exam, when they were twelve... only the best of the best were allowed to join the Legion... But he was not a part of the Legion any more... they called him a traitor but he was not a traitor, he wanted the things to change, the Organization wanted the things to change...

Hellar didn't notice how his mind was wandering; he wanted to stay focused - on the little black silhouettes of the rocks that appeared on the horizon at last. Trying not to think about the kid steadily walking behind him, just a touch now and then guiding him on the right path.

They were not going to stay together for long, this much Hellar knew. He would try to get out again, as soon as he would gather some strength.

"If we don't slow down, we'll get there in time," Tsianni's thoughtful voice reached him and he felt like saying something ironic in reply but decided to ignore the kid.

And that was when it came to him. All of a sudden, it seemed to him, but, maybe, it was just too faint for him to feel it before. The small vibrating sound - and not in his ears. Somewhere in the back of his head. Shocking him almost mute. A thin string touched by invisible fingers in his mind.

He froze - and felt Tsianni run into him - and heard his irritated voice:

"What, playing your games again?" but the voice was less definite and less urgent than the vibration - the vibration that grew stronger, pulsing inside his brain.

He thought it hadn't been for the first time. It had happened before... when he lay on the sand by the crashed flyer - only the string then was reverberating so wildly that he thought it was going to snap... and to kill him... the dying mechanism of the flyer sending the signals through his brain.

"What?.." one more question from Tsianni - and too shocked with his realization to try to pretend, Hellar turned to him and said:

"There are flyers somewhere. They are going here."

For a few moments there was total disbelief on Tsianni's face.

"Where?"

"I dunno. Somewhere."

He didn't have to add that it had to be Amanar... and that everything was over for them... in a different way but over.

He looked at Tsianni who stood and stared around - and Hellar almost couldn't believe that the kid didn't hear anything, so strong the trembling sound in his head was. Overwhelming him. Then suddenly the boy turned to him and there was no joy in his eyes at all... no any other possible emotion that Amanar's arrival had to cause. And Hellar thought that for the first time he saw real fear in the kid's eyes.

"We won't have time to reach the rocks..." Tsianni muttered and looked wildly around - and put his armload down. "Shit, I don't think we have a chance at all but..."

"Why..." Hellar started and met Tsianni's hard stare.

"It's not flyers. I can hear it now, too. It's the convoy's shuttle."

The End of Part 3a

 

DEAD HEAT

Part 3b

Written by BlueGreen

Every big carnivore had its following of carrion-eaters.

It was their only chance now. The convoy was a predator that killed without distinction; so, there had to be someone who'd pick up the scraps. Tsianni didn't allow himself the time to question why and how some city breed was able to feel the flyers approach way before a trained warrrior would. Shading his eyes he scanned the horizon hoping against the odds the deathbringer's path would not lead it out of the dunes.

The Praetorian made a sound and then Tsianni saw it, too.

"It has started killing all the small animals..."

It looked like dust devils hovering above the plane but these were but the precursors for the flight of myriad of small desert creatures that was to follow. Then out of the corner of his eyes Tsianni found what he'd been hoping for.

The flyer must have been very old, it wobbled over the dunes like a fat low thundercloud, shearing off the tip of one with a screeching whine and an explosion of dust, then caught itself again on the dive downwards. Poaching near the wave of death could be very profitable indeed if you had the nerve for it. Scavengers made it their business to know the path of the convoys. Now and then Tsianni and his warriors-kin came across the carcasses of those that rode their luck to the limit and lost. He could only hope that this band had interest in some life passengers.

"I didnt know Rahuni were that crazy..." the Praetorian muttered.

"They are not " Tsianni's honor-blade caught the sunlight. He angled it to make it a signal of their presence. "These are degenerates and clan-less. Bandits."

He looked at the man sideways through his lashes and didn't add "honor-less and not to be trusted" - just like every outsider.

Gods, Tsianni suddenly wished he'd had an armed man beside him - and knew that whatever his prisoner's agenda was, he was a fighter and ruthless to the bone.

"Hands," he ordered and ignored the questioning gaze as well as his own bad feeling, hastily snipped the leather-bands around the other's wrists apart.

The platform had seen them; changed its course and was nearing fast, bigger than Tsianni had thought an old leviathan would be, the net for loot on its sides almost brushing the ground.

The Praetorian made a choking sound as the stench hit them - the scavengers' nets were full. A cloud of emerald fleas was buzzing aggressively around the animal carcasses that hung there ripe and dripping.

They stood in the shade of the mighty growling machine, both of them sharing a brief grim look. Tsianni's belly cramping with the instinct to flee.

You do not trade with bandits - not without your braves at your back and your weapons ready.

Men dropped from ropes and encircled them, more than a dozen of them, all ragged and armed and with a crazed smile to the last of them. The bloodsmell got very strong.

A face-clothed one slurred:

"Look what we have here - you need a lift, Rahuni-aga?"

Tsianni couldn't say what made him look to their boots.

Perhaps he'd already seen familiar luck-rings hanging as baubles from a bandit's ear and his mind didn't want to recognize them - but this particular pair set of boots on the mangy grinning individual in front of him - he couldn't but know. Not that he knew the name of the warrior brave himself who'd been so proud of them, like a good kind of leader would have - one who bothered to learn the names of all the young warriors. But only a deaf man wouldn't have noticed the jingling spikes whenever the man trudged by.

Tsianni must have lost it then going for his weapons.

It was the Praetorian who decked him. Tsianni came to for a short moment his numb body hanging between his captors when he met the cold hazel-green eyes and felt the dark mane of hair brushing over his face before his vision went black.

***

He probably did wake up several times, and then slipped under again, smell and sound of his surroundings being almost familiar to him as he opened his eyes.

Still airborne.

He refused to call it flying, his stomach heaved at a particular nasty bump, and Tsianni tried to roll over as bile rose to his mouth. His hands were fastened to a noose around his neck and he must have made some abrupt motion fighting his bonds. Pain struck like a lightening, running from the soles of his feet to the top of his head and forced his whole body into a cramp. When he came to next, he was lying on his stomach limp and the air currents were cooling his sweat-soaked naked skin. The groaning sounds were his.

"You know, Rauni, the more I drink of your desert water the more I begin to notice its shitty taste."

He didn't want to turn his head to the voice. A boot tapped his ribs and kept on giving him nasty little pushes until he faced his former prisoner sitting against some bales in the shade.

"I... I see you made friends already."

Hellar toasted him with a waterskin smiling a bit sourly.

"It's easy to charm you backward desert boys - huh!" he nudged Tsianni again. "Don't go to sleep, boy. Our hosts are in two minds whether you're worth keeping. I fear you've got something of sunburn. I told them blondes don't stand the heat real well."

You told them much more. Back-stabbing whore-son.

And he hated Hellar for being right, hadn't had a sunburn since childhood.

The bandits had stolen his trousers too. Curiously loosing his boots didn't bother him so much. Them taking possession of a well-crafted pair was something he'd expected but to image their dirty hands on him stripping him bare while he lay unconscious made Tsianni gnash his teeth in rage.

And they had done much more than just rip off his hidden weapons and body-armor, he thought incensed. He could feel their handling from the shameful throbbing of his nipples in twin fires, to the tender flesh around his genitals and his anus, which stung like brushed by nettles. For lowlifes like that to even dare take liberties on a Rahuni clan heir - any Rahuni warrior for that matter - and not to fear the consequences... all that rotten meat must have gone to their heads.

The Praetorian's mouth moved. The sound reached Tsianni belatedly, like the far growls of thunder, a curious effect. Yet it was all the same to him. Kill you for that, too, he thought feeling vaguely satisfied that he at least had somewhere to start his revenge.

Then the shade reached out and slammed his head to the floor - or so it felt - taking sound and sight with it.

***

Someone with a bit of sense had thrown a blanket over him.

The sands hadn't lost the day's heat completely yet and for a few moments between waking and dreaming Tsianni's mind let him believe that he was back among kin and the fires among the deadwood trees of the ravine were those of his braves. A many-eyed glowing worm this campsite was, more of the bandit packs in one place than he had imagined possible.

The stench of a returning guard snapped him out of his daze. The man must have relieved himself nearby. Tsianni pulled himself into a sitting position; didn't want them to find him laying flat on his back. The jarring noise in his head let him barely hear his own gasps; something inside felt broken.

You deserve this.

Hellar bested you in the tent with his arms tied to his back; you knew he had his outlander tricks and no honor, wouldn't be alive if he had a shred of honor left, not after Hebner-aga. For the first time Tsianni felt as if he could understand the Praetorian's mind - the Hebners had treaded him like a piece of offal. But only someone who never dealt with bandits before would consider them an alternative.

It still felt as if his head had split at the seams - Hellar hadn't held back.

Some coarse ropes were twisted around Tsianni's bare wrists and fastened to a noose around his throat. It itched on tender skin. With a frown he tested his bonds and found them tied negligently. Sitting very still he tried to ignore the vanishing borders of his vision.

***

"I am Tsianni eb Rahuni, clan-leader's son," he pronounced it very carefully to the leather-clad legs in front of him. "Lay hands on me and Rahuni will stake you and your brothers in a convoy's path."

The man snorted, then spat.

"Your dame-bitch had a big mouth on her too."

Tsianni head jerked up. He knew the cadence slurring the words. The man hunkered down and lifted the facecloth to bare the ruined flesh within - scars to mark a kin-killer among clansmen - among the Rahuni.

"We never knew what the old buck had seen in her - perhaps he was hoping to sire a girl..." the words were whispered moist and obscene into Tsianni's frozen face. "Looks like he succeeded. Amanar certainly got a fit riding second to you, little bitch."

Tsianni forced himself not to stare into the revealed horror of mutilated skin and cartilage. He didn't know the man but there was no doubt of him being Rahuni. Deep-desert clans would not have allowed such a man to live.

To imagine the likes of him, a former raider to judge by the remnants of his tattoos - preying on the clan -- madness.

Or someone paying off a debt.

Tsianni wasn't naive enough to think it couldn't have happened, even a kin-slayer had a life and friends before the deed. Only then he realized what he'd just heard, what the man didn't say - oh wouldn't he have relished to bring the news of the clan's raiders death? But he hadn't. Rahuni raiders were still alive.

The man's fingers brushed his chin and instinctively Tsianni threw his head back with a growl. Hope and rage cursed like a sweet sharp spice in his veins.

"I see you dead, kin-slayer."

Scarface gave a short cackling laugh and stood up.

"I can't wait, pretty," he smacked his lips once, then let the facecloth fall again.

***

The pack of the men kept staring at him - their prize. Tsianni was on his feet cursing, his balance almost gone when he saw them rise as one, as if they had received an invisible signal.

Only a few steps back into the scrubs and the night was his ally. Stumbling on numb legs he turned around and ran through clinging bushes, his captors in noisy pursuit. A thorny vine lashed fire across his abdomen, he hadn't seen it despite his cat-like eyesight. Tsianni ripped himself free with a growl only to find his further way into the dark gorge barricaded by a massive deadwood tree fallen across its width, branches spiked out like gutting barbs. It hardly slowed him down. Young and nimble enough on his feet to skirt their sharpness, he scrambled for the pock-scarred sandy wall. Packed earth held his weight for a few meters then crumpled under him and without his hands he couldn't hold off his slide downward. His pursuers' yells turned shrill with victory.

Shoving and pushing him among themselves, the drunken men were grunting in eagerness. Out of the dark acid-like nails stuttered over his slick thighs and all thoughts of flight were gone; with a burst of pure rage Tsianni twisted and rammed his sole into the first grinning face, then followed it by a head butted into a soft throat, the man all but falling onto him. His teeth ripped along sour skin and fastened on someone's screaming hand, and he held on, getting shaken like some rabid rat. Only when the blood in his mouth threatened to choke him, he spat out - dimly hearing the distressed sound its owner made. Others fell onto him then and Tsianni cried out as he felt a shoulder give. He just met someone's angry bloodshot eyes before his head was forced back brutally.

A new set of armed men went into the melee like a hot wedge; he remembered that vaguely later when was back on his feet then, waving between them.

The pack didn't like that. Evading the glowing end of a stick Tsianni fell back into the arms of one of his captors.

"Hold him! Hold him damn, just like that..." Scarface cried as he elbowed his way through the crowd. His sidekicks fell back at the voice of command, not without jeers and hisses in their prey's direction, though.

Tsianni found himself pushed to the ground and fought to rise again clumsily, with his arms still tied, too enraged to curse them for it; fully armed and armored in hard leather and metal, these weren't the drunken lowlifes from the fireside.

His new guards watched him with cold indifferent eyes as he struggled to his feet.

"I can walk," he snarled more to keep their hands off of him.

Scarface wouldn't have it - shook him with a fist buried in his dreads until his gorge rose.

"One more joke like this - one more, hear me."

Tsianni knew what he was saying, Damn bare-ass kid, you better not make a fool of me before my men.

Would have spat in the man's face, had he been able to.

***

Their new path evaded the major fires completely. The night's cold was fully upon him; that or just nearly being emasculated let his teeth chatter like an old woman's.

He heard the kin-slayer's amused snort. Some petty revenge.

They stopped eventually at the dark entrance of a sidearm of the whadi, nearer the core of the main camp Mine surmised but much of his orientation was gone.

One of the men gave him a small contemptuous push and he locked his knees and twisted out of reach. He wasn't a lamb following its butchers.

This time they were prepared, though, and in no time Tsianni found himself half-choked by the noose around his neck. A stringy haired bully was clumsy enough to catch his jerked up knee in a tender place but the rest of his comrades had him off his feet two to a limb in no time.

Hell, they would want payback now he thought more scared at the turn of things then he would admit to himself.

Thrown facedown over a smooth sand-covered boulder and only then he found his voice again.

"No! Damn you bastard..."

Pushing down on his limbs, they simply outweighed him as he struggled himself to exhaustion.

A rough warm hand pressed on his flank right at the curve of his buttocks, rubbing the skin there. The man gave him a flurry of slaps, sharp and hard, not really hurting; more like one would give to an unruly mount to get its attention. He let his hand stay on Tsianni's clammy skin as the first sting of a knife cut followed, short butterfly cuts one after the other that were taking his breath away. When the man grunted and brushed against him, Tsianni knew what he would feel next.

A handful of fresh sand was firmly applied to the cuts to stop the bleeding and to complete the work.

Knife-branding only made superficial cuts to mark the place for branding later, being a more provisory sign of ownership. Done with colored sands, it might well leave a permanent mark.

"I am of the clans..."

They must have seen his markings. The Rahuni outcast knew. He forced himself to raise his head to seek eye contact with the mutilated man. Tsianni bit down on a groan as the recently mauled muscles of his shoulders protested. He didn't recognize his own voice anymore.

"You know I am Rahuni, clan-leader's heir - not... not a runaway slave. My ransom is high."

You can not do that to me.

The man's eyes crinkled in a smile. He let his hand run down the muscles of Tsianni's back to his buttock giving them a squeeze, not un-gently. As if on command Tsianni felt bile in his mouth hot and sickening - knew that any words of his might as well be the sounds some beast of burden would make in protest of its fate. It was as much attention he was likely to get from their captors. He endured the others' hands on him only as long as it took him to gather enough strength to lash out.

The End of Part 3b

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