to smash it against the
mirror - but he never finished the gesture. And the mirror was brass anyway,
And if that
diamond ring turns brass, Papa's gonna buy you a looking glass...
It was not supposed to be like that! Sickness rose
in his throat and Tsianni clenched the fists tighter, overcoming it. He didn't
want that... He had been ready to die a martyr, saving his father - not to live
like Rhys' pet, live a life bought by treachery.
But that was what he got. He won't be brainless
enough to throw it all away, right? The clothes, the liberties, the benefits...
He would probably even be given a tent of his own -
now that he didn't belong in the whores' tent any more. It would probably be Hellar's tent. And Tsianni would
A scavenger - he turned into a scavenger himself -
something he always hated so much! Using the things of dead people... But
Hellar was not dead - was not dead yet.
Stick to that, boy. Maybe, it'll make you feel
But he couldn't - 'stick to it', as his inner voice,
sounding surprisingly like the Praetorian's, told him. Because the truth was
Hellar was as good as dead. Rhys was serious. A memory of the huge stain of
dark blood spreading under Tarkh's body flooded him - the purplish strings of
entrails slipping from the wound under the pressure of Rhys' foot. He couldn't
bear the thought of Hellar... like this... he couldn't...
Like there was anything else he could do.
"You wanted him dead, didn't you?" he
whispered bitterly, the sound of his voice a lone rustle in the silence.
"Now eat what you paid for."
"So bored that you resorted to talking to
yourself?" Another voice made Tsianni swirl, turning back. Fuck... Preston
was going to cause him a heart-attack one day; how could the man appear from
nowhere - and so silently?
Preston stood in his usual pose, leaning against the
post, arms crossed on his chest, light grey eyes lazily tracing over Tsianni.
Almost despite himself Tsianni straightened, raising his chin. It was the first
time Preston saw him not naked or nearly naked, wasn't it?
"A brilliant move you've made." Preston's
low, quiet voice was completely impassive, as always - and yet Tsianni
flinched, as if a whip was lashed across his shoulders. He searched Preston's
face, looking for irony there.
Either Preston was a good actor - or there was none;
but why would Preston bother with acting in Tsianni's presence?
"I can only compliment you on how you managed
to rule out the situation. And express my appreciation... for covering my
It was impossible, wasn't it? Preston couldn't
seriously thank Tsianni? But he did. He did. Because the brand was gone - and
the question who was to blame was gone with Tarkh and...
A sudden fit of laughter rose in Tsianni's chest and
died not breaking from his lips.
He was not the only one who benefited from it.
Preston did, too. And Preston didn't judge him.
A sharp pang of gratitude pierced his chest, making
it difficult to breathe. Tsianni blinked, looking at Preston, not quite knowing
what he expected. Something else? Something more that would help him to break
through the suffocating bulk of despair that clouded him so tightly? Something
that would tell him he was not alone, after all - that Preston could be for
him... what? A friend?
Not likely. Preston, graceful and distant and
aristocratic, was a friend to no one - and Tsianni knew it. Only... it was so
hard to be like that...
So hard to think about Hellar's glazed eyes of a
madman looking at nowhere as he waited for Rhys' people to drag him away from
Tarkh's body - the body left to wither and rot under the merciless sun, a
memento of the fate for those who betrayed Rhys... So hard to recall the
pathetic sick creature the Praetorian was turned into on the flyer - shivering
in pain and bouts of nausea... And then, after landing, dragged away, his
blood-smeared unplaited hair falling over the bloodied face...
He wished Preston could shield him from those
memories. He made a tentative step closer.
Preston's arms were like a barrier between them -
unconscious, likely, but present nevertheless. Grey eyes met Tsianni's calmly
and without welcome.
He didn't know Preston. He didn't know the man who
one moment was ready to give him away for death - and the other moment risked
everything protecting his secret.
Maybe, there was nothing to know. Or, maybe, Tsianni
didn't want to know.
He didn't want... He wanted - longed, urged with
every tendon in his body to be with another man - the man who was going to die
this night - with the Praetorian. And it was the moment of truth Tsianni
But one doesn't always get everything he wants, as
Preston once told him.
"Did Rhys send you for me?" Tsianni said,
stepping back, smoothing the folds of his robe carefully, unnecessarily.
"Yes," Preston nodded. "He waits for
you at the dinner hall."
Tsianni made a small nod. And as he turned to go,
Preston's voice caught him again - and for once it was warm and unbearably
"I'm glad you live, Rahuni."
Oh, but I'm not sure about that, Tsianni thought.
The dinner hall was the usual noisy place, tables
layered with food that was grabbed and stuffed into chewing mouths. But it was
the first time Tsianni entered it on his own and as a free man. As free as
anyone among Rhys' men was - but it was a moot he didn't care to think about
A few of those who'd used his mouth before
recognized him and hooted - but Tsianni didn't spare a glance to them. Pig,
though, looked livid and glared at him promisingly. Well, he would have to find
a way to make the man curb his tongue; Pig knew it was not Tarkh who burned the
Might have to kill him, after all, huh?
"Little pet!" Rhys' voice, high, cheerful
- a hook sticking into his flesh - caught him - and despite himself Tsianni
slightly speeded his steps. The man waved him happily, looking so innocent as
if capping Tsianni 'pet' had nothing insulting in it, just an affectionate way
to address to him. "Come up, come up, here is the place for you!"
On Rhys' left; the man's spidery fingers tapped on
the pillows lightly and Tsianni recalled how they plaited into his hair,
caressing and tormenting him.
He didn't want Rhys to touch him again... or, maybe,
he wanted... he didn't know - now as he looked at him, his mind seemed to blur,
he didn't know what he wanted. Anything Rhys wanted from him...
'The One', he recalled the medic's words.
But on the right of Rhys there was a very pretty
red-haired whore - and Rhys kept stroking the nipples of her bare breasts - and
seemed to enjoy it. So, maybe, he wouldn't want Tsianni like this, after all...
"Eat, little Rahuni, I want you to eat a lot -
you look malnourished, you know? I like my servants to be healthy and
Servant... whatever it meant.
It seemed to him he couldn't swallow a bit, bile was
rising in his throat - but there was no way he could disobey Rhys. So, his body
had to succumb to his determination. A piece of bread and meat went down with
"Drink, why don't you? The kyhf is perfect -
not sour at all."
Never mind; he would drink it if it were vinegar.
He forgot, though, he was out of habit with drinking
- had never done it much anyway in the tribe and not at all during his
captivity - and now even the meagre amount he'd drunk made noise boom in his
ears. His cheeks were flushed so much it hurt.
Something was with his vision, too. It blurred; on
one hand, it was good - because he couldn't see jeering, chewing faces around -
they all deserved to be called 'pigs', indeed. But he probably would like to be
able to see Preston - at least one of all them he didn't hate...
A shuffling sound behind him made Tsianni turn back
- and immediately all the color drained from his face.
The medic; the old woman traipsed towards Rhys,
leaned over his shoulder, whispering something in his ear.
Tsianni hated himself for the flash of fear that ran
through him. How could he forget her - she knew the truth as well. And if she
decided now to reveal him...
Gods, he really didn't know what he wanted, right?
Didn't he dream about a martyr's death just an hour ago?
He listened desperately, through the drumming in his
ears, the words reaching him like through the thick wool. But she didn't talk
about him, she didn't... she talked about the Praetorian, didn't she?
"Too badly injured... won't be ready by
tonight... won't last even three hours..."
A frown trembled between Rhys' eyebrows, his pouting
lower lip turning his slightly lined face into a parody of childish. Finally
his hand flew up in a furious gesture, nearly ripping off the necklace of his
concubine in the process.
"It's your work to heal him, you! So, go heal
"I can... only he won't be any fun..."
"All right," Rhys still didn't seem
pleased but for some reason he gave in. "Tomorrow, then. Tomorrow he will
be in the proper state, I believe, woman?"
She nodded sagely and shuffled away. Tsianni felt
she looked at him, looked with hatred and disgust - and suddenly recalled how
the annoying Praetorian had raised her in his arms and hugged - and she
sputtered and cursed after it but also looked strangely pleased.
He couldn't eat any more. She was preparing one of
her own to die... And it was Tsianni's fault, from the beginning to the end.
He occupied the right place, after all - how dared
he feel contempt to the rest of Rhys' men? He looked around the table, looking
at the faces fleetingly. It was where he belonged - a murderer among murderers.
"Rhys, damn you, man, what are you playing
Something like that had happened before: a tall
figure strolling towards Rhys in huge steps, Amanar's black eyes flashing
darkly. He was furious; and he didn't try to hide it.
"Was it a clever way to play a joke on me? This
damned bastard of Tarkh never arrived! My uncle wasn't even threatened!"
Good; a wave of relief washed over Tsianni - the
only thing in a long time that made him feel elated. He almost sneered at
Amanar, raised his upper lip in a snarl humorlessly.
How does it feel, cousin, to be helpless, to be
confused? Not so nice, I can tell, not so nice.
"If it's that much praised reliability of your
servants, Rhys, I don't want to have business any more with you! How could you
swindle me like this?"
There were indignant yells among the bandits - not
that Amanar paid attention - and Rhys was the one who raised his hand, calming
his men, half-smiling.
Smiling? Amanar should've known better - Rhys
smiling was not a good thing.
"Maybe, you should ask Tarkh about it?"
Such a soft voice - a mild suggestion...
"Where is he, anyway?" Finally Amanar
stopped yelling, looked around trying to spot Tarkh. In fascination, Tsianni
watched how slowly the realization descended on Amanar's chiseled features.
Tarkh was not there; none of Tarkh's men was. With a little jerky movement
Amanar looked at Rhys again, now questioningly - and the man kept smiling, this
wandering smile turning the corners of his mouth up prettily - making Tsianni's
blood run cold.
"And what is this stupid fuck doing here?"
At last Amanar noticed Tsianni and his eyebrows crawled up in a real surprise.
One almost couldn't say what astonished Amanar more - absence of Tarkh or
presence of Tsianni. "And - dressed? I can't believe you enjoy his company,
Oh how Tsianni hated the man... hated him with all
his soul, more than anyone else in his life...
"But I do, Rahuni, I do enjoy it. And, maybe,
you should, too. Sit down, drink a glass of kyhf..."
Two of Rhys' underdogs scooped away, leaving a place
for Amanar at the table. It looked like he couldn't decide whether he should
occupy it or continue standing.
"Where is Tarkh?" he repeated.
"Dead," Rhys said.
Rhys' wench, moving like a graceful snake, got up on
her feet and approached Amanar with a goblet of
kyhf in her hands. He briefly looked at her, turning to Rhys again,
the dark eyes flashing strangely. Tsianni could swear it was not joy in them -
although it had to be, he and Tarkh hated each other, were on each other's
throats whenever meeting.
It couldn't be grief he saw, could it?
"Dead," Amanar whispered.
"Yeah. If you look attentively when flying
north-east from the camp, you'll be able to take a good look at his body,"
Rhys continued conversationally. "Providing that the birds left something
from it for you to recognize him. But he was your blood brother, Rahuni, as far
as I remember. You should know him very well."
There was some mesmerizing quality in Rhys' voice,
like hissing of a snake - and Tsianni found himself almost hypnotized with its
sound, with the smooth words rolling from Rhys' tongue. Yet there was poison
beneath this smoothness - and he could feel it.
And Amanar, a true predator as he was, felt it, too.
"What are you implying, bandit?"
The girl was bringing the goblet up to his face -
and Amanar pushed it away absent-mindedly. Rhys' whore tsked softly, as if
reproaching him for being uncouth.
"I'm a desert bandit - and you're a dignified
member of Rahuni tribe, struggling to bring glory to your people, right?"
Rhys said. "Or maybe you're not. What is the saying? 'No honor among
thieves'? Are we both thieves, Rahuni?"
Amanar's hand grabbed the handle of his blade. And
at this moment the girl splashed out the wine in his eyes.
He cursed and sputtered just for a few moments - but
it was enough for Rhys' guards to surround him, wrench the blade out of his
hand, bring him down on his knees. Tsianni saw Amanar want to call for his
people left outside the tent - but a belt tightening on his neck choked the
They were going to kill him! The thoughts flashed
through Tsianni's mind, his own words coming back to him. He said Tarkh and Amanar planned to take over the
camp... he didn't aim at Amanar then, it was too far, he just thought it would
be more believable - Tarkh alone didn't have enough people to attack the
camp... But Rhys listened to him, Rhys believed - and made his own conclusions.
And now Amanar was going to die.
He got up on his feet, unconsciously, not knowing
what he really was going to do. To try to stop them? Why would he want to do
that? Amanar, his cousin, had tried to kill his father - Amanar had left him in
this very dinner hall as a whore for Rhys... he should've been rejoicing.
But as he looked at the man gagging and slobbering
on the floor, he could not feel joy.
Very cool fingers lay on the back of his palm - and
he turned despite himself. Rhys looked at him calmly and shook his head,
forbidding him... what? What was Tsianni going to do anyway?
Rhys' girl was laughing, like a hyena, and Amanar
wheezed under the tightening belt. And suddenly Rhys raised his hand sharply -
and the loop loosened, the men letting Amanar fall on his fours, hacking and
sobbing for breath.
Anyone could be turned pathetic, right? No one could
stay proud in a situation like that. And Tsianni's beautiful cousin, all
bronzed limbs and chiseled features, lost his dignity as well...
Only Tsianni didn't know if it gladdened him.
"I'm executing the Praetorian tomorrow,"
Rhys said. "But your judgement day is tonight, Rahuni."
Amanar's fingers still scarped his neck as if he
tried to loosen the loop that was not there any more.
"And I know who is going to judge you. The one
you wronged most of all." Rhys' voice became almost triumphant in its
brightness. "Your little cousin, Amanar."
The words didn't have time to register; Tsianni
heard them but they had no meaning. And then something hard was forced into his
hand - and he saw it was a blade; Amanar's blade.
Someone's hand pushed him in the back, urging him to
make a few steps towards the kneeling man.
"Vengeance is yours," Rhys said
The blade felt so good in his hand - cold, heavy and
comfortable. He'd missed it so much - holding a weapon, having it at his
disposal. Amanar, his face swollen and still red, looked at him but his pupils
were so dilated Tsianni couldn't read the expression in his eyes.
Gods... He was going to kill him? Days ago Tsianni
would have wished to do it even if were the last thing he did it his life. Even
today in the morning, when Tarkh had told him about Amanar's betrayal...
He didn't need to hesitate; he just had to do it.
It was what Rhys expected from him. It was what he
wanted himself - what he needed to do - to keep his father safe, to prevent
another attack... It was what Rhys wanted from him...
The handle was getting slippery; his palm sweated. A
thrust between Amanar's ribs... it would be a merciful death, he'd seen how it
was done. Even if he hadn't killed anyone before. In the skirmishes of his
tribe - well, there was one of them, anyway, with Hebners - he was guarded so
closely with Sahr's men, for him not to be hurt, not to be involved. He only
saw people dying.
And then there was Pig - and the reflection of
Tsianni's face in his eyes that read murder. He couldn't see his reflection in
Amanar's eyes, they, so big and beautiful normally, seemed clouded.
Rhys wanted him to kill Amanar...
And Tsianni wanted what Rhys wanted.
As if under a terrible weight, he slowly turned his
head, just a little - just enough to find the familiar gaze of light-grey eyes.
Preston's face was an impassive mask, as always, his eyes neither approving nor
It is your
the eyes said, I'm not going to make it
But did he really have a choice?
It was a reasonable thing - to kill Amanar. He'd
forfeited his right for the clansman loyalty when betraying Tsianni. It was a
reasonable thing - and not a difficult thing to do... and it was what Rhys
wanted from him.
"What, little pet? Afraid of blood, you're
He'd seen too much blood today...
He made another step, reached the blade, raising
Amanar's chin with the tip of it. The man was still gulping for air, his mouth
quivering in effort.
Stop it. Thrust the blade in his chest.
No, he felt something screaming in his mind,
struggling with both what he thought advisable - and with another vague
presence in his mind. He knew too well what Rhys wanted from him...
He didn't want to be Rhys' pawn.
He couldn't kill his own clansman for the pleasure
of a bandit.
Don't talk to him, just kill him.
"Cousin, can you give me your vow that you will
never try to harm my father again?"
A startled sound behind him - Tsianni ignored it. He
saw understanding descend in Amanar's eyes, hope glow up in them slowly. The
man started speaking - the voice was so hoarse that it broke - and started
"Yes, cousin. Yes."
Oh my... so, it was what took for Tsianni to turn
from a 'stupid fuck' into 'cousin' again? A blade to Amanar's neck?
"Then do it."
The long-fingered hand of Amanar rose, sliding the
palm against the blade, the metal washing with blood. His voice was humble but
"I swear my life and the life of my posterity
that no harm will come from me to my uncle."
It had to be enough. It was the harshest vow one
But he could lie, he could lie... Suddenly Tsianni
felt such regret that he couldn't ask Tarkh what kind of blood brotherhood he
had with Amanar, did it involve perjury... His cousin was a traitor and a liar,
he could lie again...
He put the blade on the floor in front of Amanar and
"Hey, little Rahuni," Rhys' voice sounded
amused and yet tight. "What was it all about? Aren't you going to revenge
"You told me to judge him," he didn't turn
back fully, still couldn't make himself look at Rhys. "I... decided to
His voice was drowned in the angry howls of others -
but Tsianni heard them like through thick wool.
Was it what he really wanted? To die for the man he
hated and thought dangerous? Did he choose this over the possibility to be at
Rhys' side, unharmed and thriving?
He didn't want to be at Rhys' side.
He walked across the hall, not looking back. He
didn't know if they were going to let Amanar go, after all; but at least the
man had his blade back - would be able to die defending himself. No one stopped
Tsianni. He yanked the curtain open and stepped into the chilly darkness.
Here you are; the shortest time to be in grace with
Rhys, wasn't it? No dreams about his own tent, about freedom of movements...
and his nice decent clothes would be
gone soon, too.
Tsianni sniffed in an undignified manner and wiped
his nose with his palm. What the hell... no one could see him, anyway.
Outside Rhys' tent, the camp was pretty quiet - and
he walked across it, huddling in the heavy robes. A hand that grasped his wrist
made him leap up - but it was just a half-drunk camp-follower trying to lure
him with her services - not Rhys' men sent for him to drag him back for payment
He freed his wrist sharply and gave the woman a few
choice words when she trailed after him. Ooh, Tsianni, you evil, you really
scared the poor girl...
He should've drunk more, he decided suddenly. Kyhf was good; it made him giddy and
light-headed. And the noise in his ears was actually pleasant - too bad it was
Maybe, he could find a bottle now and drink himself
to the state when he wouldn't notice whatever Rhys would do to him? And what he
could do, anyway? Thrust him onto Preston again? Or make him join the
Praetorian at the execution tomorrow?
The thought of the Praetorian was suddenly painfully
sobering. The dancing starry sky cleared implacably - and all Tsianni could
feel was cold and deep, irrepressible urge inside him.
The Praetorian was with the medic tonight. Tsianni
wanted to see him.
Even if for one last time.
He walked faster now, determined, and yet careful to
hush his steps as he approached the old woman's tent. There were no guards
around; Hellar was in too bad a state to be of any danger or try to escape,
Tsianni reached his hand to the curtain, pulled it a
little, slipping into the small space between the flaps. As he raised the
second curtain a little, he could see the insides of the tent, lit dimly with
the fire of the hearth.
The medic was there - and Hellar, too; but she was
not healing him.
In fact, there even was no familiar smell of working
machines - and the sound was just of cracking wood in the fire and soft pacing
of the woman. She walked around the tent, circle after circle; and she didn't
shuffle at all.
The Praetorian, stretched on the bedding, was
covered with a quilt up to his chin - like he was cold or something. His eyes
were open, following the woman's motions. Blood was washed off his face.
He was so pale, Tsianni thought - and there was
something else in his face - if he didn't see Hellar's eyes moving, he would
probably think it was a face of a dead man. As if all the life was sapped from
him - his lips white and cracked, his eyes black and empty.
Even after Hebners he hadn't looked like this.
Was he really dying? Was the Praetorian who always
survived - dying in front of his eyes?
"You have no choice at that matter," the
woman said suddenly - her voice strong and weirdly composed - so much unlike
the ingratiating tone she talked to Rhys. "I have the instructions. My
mission is fulfilled - and now I'm doing what I have to."
Hellar's eyelids fell and rose slowly, as if he was
sleepy and she bothered him. A movement of his shoulder was awkward - a
lopsided painful shrug.
"You cannot stop me."
"I cannot," he agreed.
And as if she only needed his words to validate her,
she moved swiftly all of a sudden, lowering on her knees at the wall of the
tent, digging under the flooring and in the sand furiously. A thought flashed
in Tsianni's mind, that she could be mad.
And then she straightened, holding something small
in her dirt-smeared hands. In the half-darkness of the tent this thing glowed
green - an unearthly, stunning light that seemed to penetrate through the flesh
of the old hag's bony fingers.
She dropped it next to the hearth - a small capsule
it was, Tsianni noticed - and then smashed it with the metal corpus of one of
her machines. The fragile details of the machine burst - and the capsule burst,
too, in a hundred tiny splinters.
But the light was still there - turned into a thick
cloudy sphere in front of the woman, actually. She tinkered with something
invisible - and the outline became even clearer.
"Goddess, what outdated equipment," Hellar
said in a bored tone.
The woman snapped at him, turning sharply - Tsianni
could swear there was pride in her voice:
"It waited for its time for twenty-two years.
And I'm sure it'll serve its purpose."
Her face, lit with the sick greenish light, became
focused again - and her voice sounded clear and hard now.
"Colonel Novitsky is calling for the Legion.
Anyone who hears me. The mission # 576-890-50 is completed. Land in the sector
forty-four, danger level six, I repeat, danger level six. The object is
incapacitated, so, assistance will be needed. Please come and take us away from
Her voice broke almost to a yell on the last phrase,
and Tsianni saw how Hellar winced - but she didn't notice, she looked mad or
drunk, her eyes burning, her face flushed. The numbers and directions were
repeated again, clearly - and then the sphere started fading, quickly - until
in moments there was nothing but dully glimmering splinters of the broken
capsule on the floor.
"It's done," she said.
"You're making a mistake," Hellar said.
"I'm not. I know you're him."
"Maybe it's just what you prefer thinking,
The woman moved so swiftly that Tsianni didn't have
time to figure anything. Just a dark shadow covered the light from him - and
then a bony hand clasped on his hair, yanking him out of his shelter and
throwing on the floor in the tent.
Who could think... this woman, this old hag - coped
with him so easily - and her hand twisting Tsianni's hair hurt so much that he
couldn't even think of struggling, just raised his hands, trying to stop her
from tearing the braids out of his scalp.
He looked up with watering eyes - and felt a cold
muzzle of blaster pressing between his eyes.
"How much pleasure it will bring me to shoot
you, little shit," the woman said and pulled the trigger.
He was delayed in his shock. As he gasped and
whimpered softly, weak with fright almost to the point of going limp, he
should've realized he was not dead. If she'd shot, he wouldn't have time for
any of that.
The hard fingers let him go, the woman turning to
Hellar in anger.
"What did you do that for? He deserved to die -
it is his fault you're in this state!"
Hellar's face, even paler than before, was a bit
strange; a small trickle of blood slid from one of his nostrils.
"No," he said faintly.
"No what? Eavesdropping, spying - he turned you
in to Rhys - he was going to make it again, to betray us!"
"No," Hellar repeated stubbornly; he
licked his lips as if it hurt to talk - or as if he was disoriented somehow.
"Not his fault. Only mine."
Was it really so? If Tsianni didn't do what he'd
done... what would it change? Tarkh still would be dead, right? And Hellar
possibly dying among the wreckage. Perhaps it was better than expecting hideous
death from Rhys; perhaps not.
"I can't believe my ears - our super-human
Praetorian boy admits his guilt? Did your mourning over your ugly lover do it
to you? Don't make me laugh!"
She looked at the blaster in her hand questioningly
- and Tsianni tensed again - what if she decided to try it once more? But it
seemed she thought better than that.
"Fine. Wallow in your misery - it's not like I
can stop you anyway."
The Praetorian closed his eyes again - for a little
longer than a blink - and there was such tiredness in it that Tsianni felt
something clench inside him.
Why couldn't this woman just leave him alone? He was
so unwell... and he was going to die tomorrow... or not?
And he saved Tsianni's life; Tsianni didn't know how
it happened but the woman said...
Hellar's pained, bloodshot eyes looked at him again,
with a shadow of the usual expression the Praetorian spared for him: like
Tsianni would be something not worth a second glance, if he were not so
"Is your father alive, kid?"
The Praetorian was asking him that? It was the last
thing Tsianni expected.
"I think he is."
Depends if Amanar managed to leave alive, after all.
But at least it wouldn't be Tsianni's blow that would finish his cousin's life.
slash - kill your brother, two slashes - kill your sister..."
Tsianni didn't know what he was about to do, right
till the moment when he did it. It was just Hellar being so bloody... kind...
or not kind, simply exhausted so that he didn't have strength to sting... But,
maybe, the truth was that deep in his heart Tsianni wanted to do it all the
way, that's why he took it with him, why he came here.
He peeled the lace with bells from his wrist and put
it in Hellar's palm.
For a moment the Praetorian look at the thing in his
hand blankly - and Tsianni thought he probably didn't even know what it was -
but he didn't have heart to explain it. And then Hellar's hand clasped on the
bells so tightly that brass tongues jingled softly - and hid under the quilt.
The word Hellar uttered was so jumbled that it
sounded almost unrecognizable - but Tsianni still guessed he caught it right:
And there he hadn't thought this day would come -
when the Praetorian thanked him for anything.
But it was too late, wasn't it?
And then a steady noise he hadn't ever heard before
surrounded him, a strange pressure that seemed to make it impossibly hard to
breathe. He looked around with wild eyes, seeing Alora's exultant face and
Hellar writhing in pain on the bed.
The pressure stopped. Everything went so quiet; the
air itself seemed to change, became thick and immobile. Every blink of
Tsianni's eyes was discrete, like even the functions of his body slowed, the
heartbeat booming in his ears deafeningly.
The curtains of the tent yanked open, showing
strange swirling greyness outside. And a short blonde woman in tight-fitting
black leather uniform dived inside, her very dark slanting eyes scanning the
sight quickly and tenaciously.
Then she straightened in front of Alora, saluting
"Colonel Novitsky. Legion sent us to pick you
up. I'm Captain Wong."
Tsianni rather sensed than noticed a kind of
movement from Hellar - turned and saw him struggling to sit up in the bed. His
lips were white with effort and mouthed, with almost no sound in it:
Hellar clamped on his lip, not letting a sound come
out. It was... inappropriate, she was on the mission - and he likely had lost
the right to call her by her given name when he was demoted and de-chipped. But
her hearing was brilliant - she didn't miss it. She turned - just a tiny bit, a
slight tilting of her head - and her gaze stopped on him.
Nothing changed in her face, her report to Alora not
faltering in a word - and still there was this look, for a short second -
something in her eyes opened. She saw him; and she accepted him.
He knew she could do no more, in front of her
superior. But it was enough.
"We set a time-warping shield around the
tent," she said to Alora. "You said the object was injured,
"Yes, Captain. As you see."
Now Ursula looked at him directly, since Alora
pointed at him. She didn't express any surprise - always was in perfect control!
And she was a Captain now... for a moment Hellar thought with a sharp pang if
she got his people.
There were more Praetorians now in the tent,
watching around alertly, ready to react at any breach of security. It wasn't
likely anyone in the camp was able to break through the time-warp shield; most
possibly they wouldn't even be able to figure out what happened, since time was
slowed down inside it - and all the operation would be completed in what seemed
only seconds outside.
Hellar wondered if Ursula knew what Alora's mission
was about. Alora had given the number - so, probably she did. She stepped to
him, brisk, impersonal - just like she always was on the missions - whipped out
a small cylinder of damage indicator from its holster. It turned red almost
entirely when ran over Hellar's body, just with a centimeter of so staying
Wow. He didn't even know he was so bad; he'd never
been so far gone before. It was strange that the pain was muted somehow - he
probably was getting used to it.
With another motion Ursula flipped out an injector
and pressed it under his jaw. One split second later the pain was gone completely,
blissfully - and Hellar felt so elated with it. He'd been enduring it - but now
as it was gone, he understood what a wonderful, beautiful feeling it was when
She touched his face then, unnecessarily - and this
gesture told him everything she couldn't say in words.
It was so good to see her... He'd thought he
wouldn't ever see her again. Before the trial, they couldn't even exchange a
word - he feared to arouse suspicion against her - and didn't know if she
despised him for what he'd done, an apostate.
But she didn't hate him, did she? She couldn't. They
had the whole life next to each other - he was a part of her and she was a part
"Stasis stretcher," she ordered.
He didn't feel how he was raised. Feeling no pain
was luxurious. Alora, her face hard, all her pretense of senility given up, was
next to him. She looked proud; she looked like she got the highest prize in the
game. And he was this prize; how icky.
Hellar almost forgot - that there was one more person
there; the little Rahuni sat so quietly on the floor at the wall of the tent,
crouching - no doubt scared out of his wits with all those armed people around
and the strange disturbing feeling the time-warp caused. The kid's eyes, wide
and dark, were a little glazed - and he seemed even younger with that
expression and his arms wrapped around his knees.
Oh shit... The time-warp...
When the shield's gonna be folded, he's gonna die -
his body won't sustain the pressure, its cells just bursting.
He didn't want the kid to die. Not when it couldn't
even bring Hellar any use - not at all.
"Sir..." Both Alora and Ursula looked at
him. "He's got to go with us."
"No, he doesn't," Alora cut off.
There was a small flicker of interest in Ursula's
"He'll die if he stays," she said -
probably assuming Alora might have not known it, time-warp not used yet in her
time. But she knew.
"He's important," Hellar said.
Ursula looked at him again, pointedly, and then
nodded. The joy that flooded Hellar at that had little to do with Tsianni. She
trusted him! Even after everything she trusted him.
"Child," her voice was not unkind, just
impersonal, as she bent to Tsianni slightly. "Follow us."
The kid could be frightened - but he was not an
idiot; he obviously had heard the exchange - because he got up and walked after
her without a word.
It still wasn't good, was it - taking him away from
his planet. The little savage should've been able to stay here... But there was
nothing one could do about it, so...
They stepped out of the tent, Hellar carried in the
stretcher by two of Ursula's people. Outside there was no night but the
impenetrable greyness of the shield. He wondered briefly if the camp was
already alerted; Rhys probably was frothing at the idea someone interfered in
The shuttle had the numbers Hellar didn't know. So,
Ursula apparently had got a new assignment. They stepped in and the airlock
closed, cutting the feeling of time-warp off. Instead of its weight and
elaborate awareness of his body Hellar felt the deep noise in his head of the
shuttle going up.
He swallowed involuntarily, struggling with this
sensation, the change of pressure - but of course it didn't help. He heard
through this noise how Alora berated Ursula for disregarding her words and
taking a passenger. The old woman obviously enjoyed being in charge again.
They decked; another heavy wall of steel opened -
and there were more uniformed people waiting there - in front of them a tall
dark man with short hair and distressingly handsome face that Hellar recognized
Alexis Dimitriades. So, Ursula served with him now?
He looked how she stepped out of the airlock and towards him, her head tilted
up to him in a strangely unabashed manner - and Hellar realized, with a feeling
that was not-quite-jealousy, that they didn't only served together - but were together as well.
Then Dimitriades kissed her - just a peck, but his
hands on Ursula's upper arms were unambiguously possessive - and it was just not
right, things like that were not done in public. Alora hissed disgustedly.
Alexis looked at her - and then looked at Hellar - and now there was surprise
in his eyes.
He stepped forward and said:
"You are 'The One'? That's the craziest thing
I've heard in my life. But you know, Hellar, I'm damned glad it's you... and
"Barely," Ursula said with open
exasperation. She walked forward determinedly and somehow everyone followed her
- until they were in the ops center. Hellar saw her coming up to the control
panel, pushing some buttons.
The screen over it came alive - in greenish light he
could see Rhys' camp they left below. It looked sketchy, almost like a map -
but Hellar could see the wildly moving dots that meant people. The arrival of
Praetorians really put the camp into a commotion.
Ursula's small fingers kept flicking the switches
deftly. He felt somewhat too detached to wonder what she was doing - so, when
the green lines turned red and the screen faltered a little - the line up there
saying: 'Aim taken' - he couldn't quite believe what was happening.
"What are you doing, Captain?" Alora's
shrill voice boded no good. "You are not going to..."
Ursula turned to her - languidly, like she moved
when she felt very good, contented - and licked her pink lips with her small
tongue. Then she turned back and pushed the button.
The screen went aglow - the little lines that
designed the locations of tents and facilities of the camp disappeared. It
stayed like that for long moments - while everyone was silent - and then, as
the sand apparently went down, the relief re-appeared. Only now instead of the
camp there was just a huge crater.
Vacuum bomb did it, you see.
Hellar knew it - knew the results and that what he'd
just witnessed was reality. He still was kinda shocked - looked around as if
trying to make sure others had seen the same. Alora looked near apoplectic -
and Tsianni, standing in the background, simply vibrated, looking at the
screen. His hands were clenched against his chest and his white lips moved as
if he prayed or repeated some word.
Yes, kid; they all are gone. Just like that. It was
what Legions could have done any day, to anyone on the fuckin' planet...
They just didn't do it. Legions didn't do it. They
spared the bandits - and if Dimitriades' words had been true, even occasionally
supported them, all that to maintain the balance of forces between the desert
tribes and desert bandits...
And there Ursula just destroyed them like this.
All of them. Rhys, Preston, others whose names Hellar
didn't know... He shook his head in disbelief. He didn't feel sorry for any of
them - and yet...
"I believe you can show me the written order
that entitled you to this action, Captain," Alora said icily.
Could she feel personal sorrow for any of them,
Hellar thought suddenly. She knew them for years, treated them. For Rhys? He
didn't like to think about it.
"Don't you say this pile of shit didn't deserve
it." So easily - Ursula said it like it was a matter of no importance at
all. Alora went really white; she started talking, gasped - and started again.
Ursula stood leaning against the panel now - and
Dimitriades walked up to her, silently - but in his presence there was
unmistakable support. Everyone else was silent.
"You're going to pay for your glaring disregard
of instructions, Captain," Alora hissed. "As soon as we arrive to the
headquarters, you'll go under tribunal."
"I don't think so. For one thing, we aren't
going to the headquarters at all." And then the lazy voice snapped into
hard and brittle, her Praetorian one. Ursula looked at Hellar now, talked to
him. "We rebelled." Her hand lay down on Dimitriades' wrist briefly.
"We came out in our opposition to the High Command. The Organization is
not underground any more - we are the crux of it and we fight. And we are
wanted, of course," she added with a sarcastic smile to Alora. "But
while we are not captured yet, you are under arrest, Colonel Novitsky."
Two silent men stepped at Alora's side.
She looked flabbergasted - but didn't resist being
disarmed. Her eyes spoke volumes, though - and finally she seemed to get enough
voice to speak aloud.
"You'll regret it, you fuckin' bitch."
Ursula stepped to her - and slapped her, once, twice
- scathingly. Alora swayed but stayed on her feet.
"How I hate you, all you old cunts!"
Ursula's voice went deep and low, as if talking hurt her, so much force it
contained. "You think the world belongs to you - our lives, our bodies,
our minds belong to you. But not any more. You won't use any one of us any
This hatred... Hellar suddenly realized he hadn't
even known about it. They never talked... they just did things they had to
do... it hadn't been easy, to make their way upwards - but Ursula never
It was Ursula he didn't know.
Alora was gone, taken away - Hellar made a notch for
himself to make sure she was all right. Ursula's stance changed almost
immediately after Alora was out of sight.
"One done, one to go," she smiled sweetly.
"So, Carlos - this child - what about him?" It seemed Tsianni felt
like crawling inside himself under her stare. "You said he was
"Well... no... just a buddy... kinda."
"All right," she seemed unfazed. Hellar
remembered it about her - when she hated, she hated with all her heart; when
she trusted - she did it implicitly. She turned to Tsianni again. "Now,
you. Go with Corvin, she'll show you your quarters."
A despondent look Tsianni threw at him was
priceless. The kid really must've been messed up if he considered Hellar a kind
of protection. He glared back; it wasn't that he deliberately wanted to be hard
on the boy - it just was better that he was gone finally.
The painkillers were wearing out.
"Need to talk," he looked at Ursula and
"Of course. But first we need to take care of
you," she said so bloody gently.
The lid of the medi-chamber closed over him and the
pain was gone immediately. Goddess, he'd missed proper medical equipment so
much... Hellar felt tiredness and relaxation seeping into his bones and jolted
himself into alertness.
The man stood above the medi-chamber with his arms
crossed on his chest.
"You can call me Alexis, you know. I would be
honored to call you by your given name."
He disregarded it.
"You promised me you won't involve her - if I
joined the Organization."
"I didn't promise," Dimitriades said
All right... all right, it was true - it just went
without saying, Hellar thought. He didn't know why exactly - but the thought of
Ursula being hunted, being on the wrong side - it hurt him. He didn't want the
thing like happened to him to happen to her... interrogations, trial,
"But I didn't try to enlist her either."
"I made my own choice," Ursula said; her
voice reached him a bit distorted through the plastic of the medi-chamber - but
still she sounded so confident, so firm. "They hurt you, you see. I
couldn't stay loyal to them any more. And I'm so happy I found Alexis!"
She did sound happy, Hellar thought distantly. "For the first time in my
life I'm doing what feels right. For Goddess' sake, Carlos, they took twenty
years of our lives from us, using us - isn't it time to stop?"
How excited she sounded... how idealistic. Just like
he'd been when Dimitriades talked to him for the first time. Hellar almost
wished he could feel like that again.
"The Organization will shape a new, better
future for everyone," she said.
"Like for those whom you wiped out just an hour
ago? And what happened to your machines changing the state of mind to a
He felt stubborn and bitter when saying that; Ursula
frowned a little and then beamed again.
"They hurt you," she repeated. "I'm
glad the pigs are dead."
"Not everyone deserves to see this bright
future," Dimitriades said sagely. "Sometimes an abscess just needs to
be cut open. We are not the High Command to tolerate criminals and dregs of
society. We are strong enough to make our own decisions. And with you being
"Right," Ursula smiled. "Tell us how
it happened! Tell us everything."
He told them; not everything, just the basics - and
there were things Hellar didn't know himself. Just how far, for example, his
ability stretched. In the back of his mind he constantly was aware of being
inside the ship, being encompassed with all that sophisticated equipment. But
he was not going to check if he could take it under control - he enjoyed being
not in pain too much.
Ursula's black slanting eyes glimmered with anger,
most of the time, but as he finished, she clapped her hands excitedly.
"Wonderful! It's wonderful, Alexis, isn't
For a moment Hellar frowned at her addressing to
Dimitriades instead of him. But everything couldn't be about him, could it?
And Ursula turned back to him again almost
"Just imagine the power we can get through you,
Carlos! If you can control engines - think about it - no one from the High
Command will be safe from us any more! Their ships will explode as soon as they
leave the headquarters. We can hold them in terror - can make them take us into
Hellar saw how Alexis put his hand on Ursula's
wrist, as if stopping her from saying more. The man looked at Hellar
attentively with his dark eyes - and apparently Dimitriades noticed Hellar
didn't feel all that inspired.
He didn't know why he didn't feel inspired; and why
Alexis' perceptiveness, even tact, made him feel uncomfortable.
He had adored Major Dimitriades once; was ready to
die for him and for their cause. But now he felt like there was a small void
place inside him - and even Ursula with her loyalty and affection couldn't
reach there. Like a part of him was shattered and left there, on the planet.
Stupid; he hated the fuckin' planet...
"Equipment altering state of mind," Hellar
said. "You used it on me, right? When you talked to me. That's why you
were so sure I'll take your offer."
Dimitriades didn't say anything; there was no need.
Strangely, Hellar felt somewhat better, pieces of the puzzle falling in places.
"And then de-chipping... the ability came only
after that. Did you know it would happen? Did you let me be caught? Did you do
it on purpose?"
He saw Ursula look up at Alexis; the man's face
stayed calm. His voice as he talked was serious and - Hellar knew it - sincere.
"Believe me... If we had known it could bring
such results - we would have done it on purpose. But we didn't."
Alexis left finally; the light was dimmed - and
Ursula perched on a stool next to the medi-chamber. Her fingers ran on the
transparent plastic lid, not touching Hellar's face, of course, but tracing the
outline of it.
"How is it... without the chip?"
He couldn't feel her, he couldn't feel his own body
- but he thought he could sense warmth coming from her.
She leaned a bit closer, smiling. The zipper of her
jacket was pulled down, showing the cleavage between her soft breasts. He
recalled their copulation, never better than after a battle, when her soft body
melded into his and her sharp nails tore into his skin as she gave as good as
"I'm with Alexis now, you know," she said
"I know," he nodded.
He didn't think anything would be like before
They were not equal any more. Without the chip he
was ever inferior - he recalled how they used to laugh and despised 'civilians'
- those whose body and mind were less perfect, less controlled. And even his
new ability - it made him merely exotic, not on a par with her.
"And this," small fingers caressed the lid
over Hellar's wrist, the lace with Tarkh's bells wrapped around it. "Is it
of someone's special? Of that blond boy?"
He thought suddenly about a thing he hadn't noticed
before. Ursula looked a bit like Tsianni. Not much - just that they were both
short and blond and their eyes and eyelashes and eyebrows dark, their features
regular, their mouths pink and sensual.
For some reason it amused him. She answered his grin
with a smile of her own.
"I missed you," she said. "I want you
to get well."
"You can count on me."
She got up. He saw her push some buttons on the
panel - and had time to see her lean over him and place a kiss on the lid - and
then the system injected soporific and Hellar slept.
The voices were a distant rustle; a steady noise of
a tide, sounding somewhere... he couldn't locate where. Not near to him; not
above him. He didn't want to listen, it felt too good to sleep and care about
nothing. But the hum was insistent, growing louder, getting clearer. He
couldn't understand if the voices were male or female - but he could figure the
you... we can reach for you... you are getting stronger..."
It didn't make sense - and was thus disturbing. He
tried to open his eyes, to see anything besides blackness - to see who was
saying that - but the medicines injected in his body made him sluggish and out
of control. And the voices didn't stop, relentless, knowing-it-all voices that
kept telling him:
ours, you know that... we need you... you will do what we want... soon... very
Hellar gnawed in his bottom lip, finding strength in
pain - making his eyelids jerk open finally.
There was no one around. He still was in the
medi-chamber although the lid was raised now - and the light was dim enough not
to bother his eyes. But as he looked - and the echo of the voices died away
slowly, he knew that the voices came from nowhere outside. They sounded inside
his cranium - just like the rumble of the ship's engine did.
Feeling machines was one thing; hearing voices was quite
He was not mad; he must've been sleeping - and it
was a dream. It had to be. He would think nothing else.
Or, rather, he wouldn't think about it at all.
Having decided that, Hellar immediately felt better
- and stretched with pleasure. It was wonderful - to have his body whole and
functioning again. Some pains still lingered - and he knew that he would have
to spend a few more nights in the medi-chamber to finish the healing. But at
least he didn't feel any more as if a flyer fell on him.
Which was what really happened, after all.
There was a tray with food and drink containers next
to the bed, and he ate, appreciating it; then swung his feet onto the floor.
Neatly folded clothes lay at the footing of the medi-chamber. Black leather
uniform of a Praetorian.
He thought he would never wear it again - forgot how
good it felt, how soft the leather was under his palms. Hellar caught himself
on frowning and smiling at the same time, shook his head and walked to the
Half an hour later, squeaky-clean, he fought his wet
tangled hair into a complicated braid - no way his fingers could forget how to
do it - and then dressed.
The uniform had insignia of a Captain on it.
Now Ursula was just too nice to him; he would be
perfectly okay with no-rank uniform. No doubt she wanted to make him feel
better. And really, once they started on rebelling, what prevented them from
giving him his previous rank?
She could even promote him, huh?
The door of the sickbay was unlocked and no one was
outside. There was a tracer on his clothes - once Hellar thought about it, he
could feel it - but he appreciated the freedom of movement Ursula and Alexis
gave him and was not going to remove the device.
He had no idea what time it was - but probably a
night shift, because he only met one person on his way. The man acknowledged
him with a diffident nod.
Oh swell. He was respected again, in control again.
Wasn't it what he wanted for so long - and thought only miracle could bring it
back to him?
He answered the nod but didn't ask anything. The ship
was a standard Praetorian vessel, with the team of two hundred people - and
even if Hellar didn't know whether there were more or fewer rebels, he decided
it could wait.
Seeing Ursula and Dimitriades could wait, too.
His legs started aching again as he walked - the
splintered bones still not healed completely. And he was almost not sure if he
knew where he walked until he turned out in front of the brig.
There was a man there, on guard, but the crew
apparently got the order not to impede Hellar - so, he freely walked up to the
power screen that separated the small room.
Alora sat in a lotus pose on the bed, her face very
sour. She looked very tousled but Ursula's slaps didn't leave any marks. And
she was fed, obviously - there was a tray on the floor at her bed.
"Bastard," she said.
It was good to have her in her usual mood.
"Look at him, he put on the uniform again. Like
he has the right for it."
"You won't get any harm," he said.
"I'll see to that."
He could promise it, he knew - Ursula wouldn't deny
harm, you want to say," Alora said dourly. "It's not like you tried
to protect me - and after everything I did for you!"
"You didn't expect us to leave you free when
you showed such an attitude?"
Hellar hesitated a little choosing whether to say
'them' or 'us' - and decided he was on the same boat with Dimitriades and
"Your bitch!" Alora bristled. "I
should've guessed earlier, when I saw she was pregnant!"
He couldn't help it - stared at her with widened eyes.
She couldn't mean...
"Haven't noticed it? Men..." Alora's voice
was so sweet it seemed sticky. "Well, I know you didn't expect her to be
faithful to you... but such a disgrace for the Legion! No Praetorian ever let
herself get into such a state. Haven't she heard about contraceptives - and,
failing that, abortion?"
It was true. Praetorians didn't get pregnant. Or
rather, didn't bear children. It was for - civilians.
Weird that Ursula, or all people, let it happen to
her. But once she started breaking rules...
"And your bitch said she'll kick me out of the
airlock if I call her 'bitch' once more!"
"Then don't call her that," he said
"Don't call me that!"
"Whatever." He needed to talk to her. She
was the only one who knew most part of the story. He needed answers. "You
know... Rhys is dead."
"Oh really?!" She raised her hands to her
face in exaggerated bewilderment. "Can't be... how do you know?"
"So, he can't be 'the one', after all."
"But it's so easy... I mean he was alive one
moment, probably putting the camp upside down one moment - and then big boom -
and nothing. I can be dead next moment, too."
"You look quite healthy to me, thank you very
"Anyway, you couldn't know I was 'the one',
right? How could you? For twenty years you thought Rhys was - and then suddenly
within minutes you believe quite the contrary? What was the essence of your
It looked like she didn't want to answer and he
pushed her, said there was no point to keep it secret, Rhys was dead.
"When he realized his power, I had to convince
him to cooperate with the Legions."
"To convince Rhys of anything? That's fresh."
"And if he disagreed, I had to kill him."
"So, that simple? Rhys wouldn't cooperate - and
I would. Much better candidate for 'the one' I was, right?"
She didn't answer, glaring at him.
"There is no 'the one'," he said, "is
there? Intellic didn't foresee future - it's impossible. It just mapped the
lines for the possible variants - and those who listened to its pre-constructions
shaped this future. How many are there people with 'abilities to control'? More
than one, definitely. You just looked for them because of pre-construction -
and then you probably would put them into a position 'to change the world', as
it suits you."
"Now it is your position anyway," she said
"Ha ha. All the difference is that you'll be
'changing the world' to please filthy rebels - your shitty blond bitch -
instead of doing it for the good of the Legions! And you'll be in a big
trouble, you'll warp the future in such an ugly thing that I'm happy I'm too
old to see the consequences!"
All her self-control was forgotten now, her face
distorted in hatred. It was sad, so sad.
"You really believe that?" Hellar asked.
She kept cursing him, Ursula, the entire team - likely didn't even hear the
question. And Hellar didn't need the answer anyway.
He knew he wouldn't be able to convince her in
anything - and knew she was not the only one whom he would struggle to
convince. He wished he could hope Ursula would understand, would see it. How
could he shape any future - he couldn't deal with his own life properly.
Kicking mechanisms into submission was not enough for it, just not enough.
When Alora banged her fists against the screen, he
His limp grew worse as tiredness flowed over him.
And the rustle of the ship engine in his head became louder - so pronounced
that it started bothering him. At times it even seemed to him he could feel
more than one ship there.
He probably just needed to rest; now it was bad that
the brig was so far from the sickbay, how was he going to get back there...
The feeling flooded him like a huge wave, so
powerful that he completely lost orientation for a moment, was thrown on his
knees on the floor. He felt... he felt not alone all of a sudden - like his
head, his mind was a receptacle of other presence, of those whom he didn't
know, who was alien to him - and who still considered it their right to intrude.
He got sick, vaguely aware of his position, on hands
and knees now, and the wave of violation, of intrusion kept rolling through him.
The sounds of mechanisms that never left him grew deafening suddenly - and
through this horrible, tearing noise he heard he voices reminding him again:
belong to us... we created you... soon we shall need you... and you will do it
As abruptly as it came, the pain, the noise was gone
- and Hellar was left crouching on the floor, his head in his hands and bitter
taste in his mouth. He spat on the floor, saw snail cleaners start doing their
work and straightened up on his feet awkwardly. There was no one around; thanks
He had to hold on to the wall while getting back to
the sickbay - but finally he coped all right with it.
The ship was a crazy place - and everyone there was
crazy, too; everyone who mattered, anyway. Starting from the little round
things that sneaked around and apparently considered everything dropped on the
floor trash, devouring it if you didn't get in time to salvage it. On Tsianni's
first night on the ship they ate his clothes - and he'd worn them only for a
day, there was no way they were dirty. He got some overalls instead, of a nasty
beige-brown color - and a white t-shirt; had no idea what kind of uniform it
was but obviously something different from posh black leathers of the crew.
They probably distinguished him so that no one
started talking to him, even by chance.
The woman who pointed him his quarters and the way
to the cafeteria, Corvin or such, asked him en route what rank he had or had
"I'm a Rahuni," Tsianni said and added,
out of spite and some vague desire to impress her. "Rahuni prince."
She was not impressed. In fact, it was the end of
interaction between them - and till they parted, she kept looking at him down
her long nose.
Stuck-up Praetorians. And here Tsianni thought
Hellar was bad!
Tsianni was bored - bored out of his mind - going
mad with boredom. The shock of seeing Rhys' camp wiped off was bad at first. He
kept falling asleep on the first night just to wake up shivering and sweaty as
the faces of Preston, Amanar, even Pig - flesh charred and falling off their
bones - faded in front of his eyes.
He'd seen death before; death of the enemies should've
excited him. But the way the blond pregnant girl had destroyed the whole camp -
so fast, efficient, from afar and - safely
- there was something sinister in it.
He missed Preston; the longer no one paid attention
to him on the ship, the more he thought that Preston was actually the only one
who'd talked to Tsianni, it seemed in ages. He should've appreciated it more.
He should've probably done more, he thought -
should've remembered better how Preston's mild, cultured voice sounded - how
his pale-grey myopic eyes looked behind the round glasses - how he used to
raise his eyebrow at Tsianni when deciding that Tsianni said something outrageous.
Tsianni wouldn't ever see him again. It seemed so
unfair - so unfair that everything - Preston's loyalty to Rhys, his plans to
see 'The One' realizing his power, his dreams, his doubts... his neat clothes,
his laptop - everything was gone. Wasted; evaporated indiscriminately. Of all
them, Preston didn't deserve that - he deserved to get out, to find a nice
place for himself in the city, among people like him, where he belonged, where
he could be respected...
Amanar probably deserved to die. And yet Tsianni
caught himself on hoping that the man managed to get out of the camp before the
thing happened. Perhaps he was scared enough not to try anything against
Tsianni's father - and after Ka'hazaya's natural death, Amanar would be a good
leader, he was already respected among other tribes. He would do more for
Rahuni's glory than Tsianni probably ever could.
Tsianni wouldn't have made a good chief anyway. When
he first realized he was thinking that, he understand that here you are, he was
getting mad as well. He was raised as the future chief of Rahuni, knew the
place was his as long as he remembered himself. He used to do everything that
was demanded from him to confirm to this position - learned, trained, kept
himself dignified and controlled.
But maybe he would've been happier if he'd never had
to leave his mother's land. There was so much water there, and mountains, so
beautiful, he missed it so much...
And now he was stuck in the ship with paranoid
people who didn't want to notice him. There were alarms twice a night in the
beginning, flashing lights and horrible yelling sounds throwing Tsianni out of
bed - and the whole ship seemed to go wild, people running along the corridors
as another ship appeared on the monitor. Well, it made sense, of course, to be
alert - since they were criminals and on the run. But every time it was a false
alarm - and after the ship moved to a less crowded sector, the fuss stopped for
Hellar was still at the sickbay. Tsianni had seen
him, in a plastic chamber with transparent lid, his face astonishingly
tranquil, when Tsianni had his own burned hand and thigh healed. The
Praetorians did have great medical equipment, you had to give them a credit;
his fingers worked as good as before and there was just a neat scar on his hip
But all those good medical things didn't seem to
help Hellar much. Once Tsianni overheard in the cafeteria how the blond evil
girl talked to her husband or whatever the dark bloke was to her - said she
didn't know what wrong, the medi-chamber should've fixed him up a long time ago
but the indicator still showed there was some damage.
"Maybe it's permanent," the man said.
"The result of de-chipping... or because of... you know. The ability like
his doesn't come without a price."
They thought Hellar was 'The One'; this much Tsianni
managed to figure. Not Rhys but Hellar... now that was crazy! Rhys being it -
all right, Tsianni could accept it even if it didn't make him happy. But this
asshole of a Praetorian who wouldn't have survived in the desert for a few
hours if not for Tsianni?
The thought of Hellar
getting the power 'to change the world' abused Tsianni's common sense. Talk
about 'not a chosen one'! Who can be worse that this stupid, annoying,
arrogant, stubborn, treacherous - and did I mention annoying? - son of bitch?
Yeah... Tsianni missed the bastard.
There was a sucking feeling in the pit of Tsianni's
stomach, insistent tugging that he was forced to interpret in the only way. He
wanted to see Hellar. They were on the same ship - and they never saw each
Well, not like the Praetorian wanted to see him.
Yet Tsianni finally stopped fighting this absurd
urge - and resorted to spying. No one prevented him from walking around the
ship, apart from some locked doors but they didn't interest Tsianni anyway.
Once he saw Hellar in the ops center, the place
where they had been right after the arrival to the ship and from where Ursula
had blown away Rhys' camp.
Tsianni didn't quite figure out what Hellar did
there - looked like he just stood - and then the light started flickering, like
during an alarm but not quite, and little diodes on the panels changed colors.
Then everything got back to normal and Ursula clapped her hands and threw
herself at the Praetorian, chanting:
"You did it, you did it!"
Tsianni's sneaked into a small niche when they
walked out of there, so that they didn't notice him. The Praetorian looked
quite attractive in his black uniform, Tsianni had to admit it - it was the
clothes he should have worn. His hair
was plaited neatly in the way that left his Legion tattoo open.
But his face... As Tsianni saw it, he knew something
was not right. Even though Hellar smiled, snorting blood, then dropping
soaked-red tissue on the floor for the cleaners to sweep it, his eyes didn't
smile. It looked like his gaze was constantly locked on something that frightened
him - or hurt to see.
And he looked like he didn't sleep. Damn; he looked
ill - and a bit insane.
The Praetorian swayed a little and the girl caught
him around the waist, supporting him on the way, chuckling and cracking some
joke about it. The dark-haired guy was not far behind.
The girl was worst of all. Oh, she even noticed
Tsianni a couple of times, asking if he was settled comfortably and calling him
'child'. She was not that much older than him to call him that... but then it
was likely she just didn't bother to find out his name.
And he remembered how casually her little fingers
switched the levers when she turned Rhys' camp to dust.
The second time when Tsianni watched Hellar - he got
as far as to hide behind the door of the sickbay to see the man. Ursula was
there - and so was her dark good-looking husband.
She pulled the zipper of her jacket down and held
Hellar's hand against her chest.
Did she have no shame? She was pregnant, for gods'
sake! How dared she offer herself?
Tsianni shrunk away from the door, pressed to the
wall, trying to fight the shaking with the pain of his nails sticking into his
palms. What was about him that he always got to witness how the Praetorian was
He wanted to run and to never see it, to never see
Hellar again, to throw him out of his mind - let him have sex with that blond
wench, with the whole crew if he wanted - what did Tsianni care?
"Everything can be like before," he heard
muffled, strangely sad voice of the girl. "You and me and... You'll like
Alexis, he's good."
Shifting of the bed was barely audible - and then
steps on the floor. The Praetorian's voice sounded very close, right behind the
"I just don't feel like, Ursula."
There was no way for Tsianni to hide - but as Hellar
walked out, limping worse than before, the man's eyes were downcast. He walked
past Tsianni not noticing him.
And while a part of Tsianni's mind yelled in
undignified and unexplainable delight 'Yes!', he also had to admit that it bothered
him somehow. Why would the Praetorian turn down the girl and the man?
He had time to notice, before walking away, that
Ursula and the man, Alexis, didn't leave. The girl shed her clothes, her pale
skin glowing in the artificial light as she straddled the hips of the man who
lay on the medi-chamber bed - and as she moved slowly, her unplaited flaxen
hair brushed against his dark chest.
He stayed in the library until his eyes felt like
there was sand poured in them - and white background of the text started
turning some jolly flashing colors. Without reading, Tsianni would probably
kill himself out of boredom, wouldn't know what to do with himself at all. And
at first he couldn't even do that, had trouble with the scripts used in the
books published in the central parts of the System. Religious script he learned
to read at home looked pretty different.
But since the language was the same, just varied in
dialects - and Tsianni had unlimited time on his hands, he figured it out
finally. He had the library practically at his sole disposal - Praetorians
hardly ever stopped by there - or did it at the different hours than Tsianni.
Finally he switched off the screen and walked back
to his room.
The door was slightly ajar - not like he'd left it -
but sometimes the cleaners failed to close it properly. He walked in.
He was not alone. At the viewing port, looking at
the dull blackness outside, arms wrapped around his chest, there was the
Tsianni blinked, staring at the smooth shining black
braid falling down the black leather of the uniform - and partly he couldn't
quite believe it was true. Hellar was in his room.
Now that was really like the Praetorian, wasn't it?
For three weeks he didn't notice Tsianni, didn't bother to say a word to him -
and here he thought he could just barge into Tsianni's quarters in the middle
of the night, just like that! And what did he even want here?
Then the Praetorian turned around - and madness
shone from the dark of his eyes.
"We'll all die soon," Hellar said.
His speech slurred a little, like he was drunk - but
Tsianni suddenly realized he didn't think so. It would be better if Hellar was
drunk. He looked... terrible - Tsianni caught himself on thinking how one so
ill could be up and walking. And what did the blond girl think if she didn't
"They don't see them," the Praetorian said
in his pained, desperately straining voice. "They don't believe me because
they don't see them on the monitors. But I know they're coming. I know they're
somewhere close. They talk to me, you see..."
He made a step towards Tsianni, unsteady, nearly
stumbling step - as if he didn't see where he was, probably didn't realize what
he was doing. Tsianni flinched. There was a moment of hesitation, and he knew
he could do two different things: either stay where he was and let the
Praetorian bumble his way out; or reach to him and support him - like the blond
girl had done... and like Tsianni really wanted.
What the hell...
He made the choice; he stepped to Hellar and locked
his hands on the other's upper arms, steadying him. Muscles under his grip
vibrated with tension, wooden-hard - and Hellar's eyes, black pupils so huge
that hazel irises were nearly invisible - were suddenly so close. And no, the
Praetorian was not drunk at all.
Very slowly, Hellar's gaze focused on Tsianni.
"You know I tell the truth?" he said.
"We saw them in the desert."
And then his hand rose - fingers touching Tsianni's
face, fingertips warm and slightly rough. And that was exactly how Tsianni
remembered them to be, brushing against his skin, playing his body with
unfaltering precision, making him arch and moan into their caress.
He made another choice - without being aware of
making it - closed the distance between them - and Hellar was there, in the
ring of his arms, their chests pressed, their faces so close. Hellar's fingers
kept touching him, probed the thin braids, palm cupping against his cheek.
Tsianni took a deep breath, closed his eyes
resolutely and reached with open lips to Hellar's mouth.
The lips were thin and dry and yet so soft as they
opened to Tsianni's touch - and the warm tongue found its way into Tsianni's
mouth, tasting salty and vaguely brackish but still right. Arms tightened
around Tsianni, pulling him even closer almost violently. Hellar held his chin
as he kept kissing Tsianni - and kissing was good, damn good, damn dangerous,
it was doing something to Tsianni's legs, turning them to jelly.
Just like he remembered... just like he dreamed...
What did he say? He didn't dream about it, did he?
It would be undignified, Tsianni was of noble blood and Hellar was... an
obnoxious bastard... and a man, of all things! Well, it didn't matter, did it?
It was not like Tsianni's responsibility was to guarantee the posterity for his
tribe any more...
He whimpered a little and clutched his hands on
Hellar's face, answering the kiss furiously, clamping his teeth on the man's
lower lip. That night, in Rhys' camp, he'd never got a chance to do anything,
just kinda lay and took it. Now Tsianni was going to make up for the lost time.
Even if it was the only time between them.
"I'll never stop hating you," he muttered
not letting Hellar's face go.
"I'll remember that... later."
Now the Praetorian's voice didn't have that distant,
pained, half-insane note in it. Tsianni sighed in relief. Hellar was all here.
All here... Yeah, completely. Whatever happened that the blond wench hadn't
managed to arouse him - but he was fully hard now, Tsianni could feel it
against his hip, so hot through the leather and the fabric of his own clothes.
"Bed," he ordered.
"Yes, your highness." There was a sneer -
and at any other time Tsianni would take offence. But now there were more
important things that responding to the Praetorian's nastiness.
Like getting rid of their clothes, for example.
Hellar had a clear advantage in that, zippers of his uniform really easy to
slide down - but finally Tsianni disentangled his braids from the collar of the
t-shirt - and Hellar's warm palms slid over Tsianni's naked ribcage.
He choked on the air and arched, head pressed
against the pillow. At first he tried to catch the offensive sounds he made,
biting his lip or the back of his hand but then... fuck it, it's not like he
and the Praetorian had anything to hide from each other. They'd seen each other
in any possible position...
And once that was decided, once Tsianni let the
control slip - he suddenly felt so good. And now he
could use his hands to do various things to the Praetorian's body. His skin was
smooth and hot and marred with scars that Tsianni couldn't resist tracing with
his fingers - and touching them made arousal ripple through Tsianni's spine for
some reason. And it was new for him how Hellar's nipples hardened under his
touch, a twist eliciting a moan from him, his body leaning on Tsianni's more
heavily. It was downright addictive; he wanted to learn Hellar's body by touch.
Tsianni pushed his hands between their bodies, found how and silky and weeping
wet shaft between Hellar's thighs.
The Praetorian found his
way, too, hand almost rough in Tsianni's cock - and there, he was so close, so
He gasped, looking at
the concentrated face over him with misted eyes. Tsianni's chest was fluttering
oddly, his fingers trembled. And he didn't want to care even if he looked
sluttish, even if the Praetorian would think he had no control, let his cock
rule him, whatever. He'd gather scraps of his pride later.
Hellar's long fingers
were on his face, caressing, holding it lightly - Tsianni nearly had forgotten
that the Praetorian was able to touch so weightlessly, almost genly - and in
his eyes there was something... something that Tsianni enjoyed seeing,
something that didn't humiliate him but made him feel warm and content.
"I missed you...
since the last time," the Praetorian said.
Arrogant bastard! Like that
But something stronger
that Tsianni's wounded ego made him agree even to that - and he reached to the
drawer of his nightstand, groped for the little jar of hand cream he scooped from
the bathroom and used for jerking off - and put it into Hellar's palm.
I'll smash his nose if he laughs, Tsianni decided.
But Hellar was too busy
coating his cock with slippery stuff. There was a thin strand of hair strayed
out of his braid - and it fell on Tsianni's face, and he picked it, twisting it
around his fingers. So smooth... Then there were slick fingers, one, two,
inside him - and after some stretching and some exactly-right touches that made
Tsianni writhe and gasp - blunt pressure - and a bit of pain - and it was in.
Hellar kissed him again,
right before Tsianni was coming - and he climaxed, bucking and his cry muffled
into Hellar's mouth. And then, when Tsianni's body still melted in afterglow,
he saw how the Praetorian's face became vulnerable and somewhat very young as
Tsianni's bed was good
enough for one but rather crowded when together. Not that he minded. He liked
how Hellar's hard shoulder pointed against his ear. He liked how a strand of
the Praetorian's hair clung to Tsianni's sweaty cheek. He liked the smell and
the mess they made out of the sheets.
It was quiet. And he
almost could believe it would last.
It wouldn't, of course.
Tsianni knew it and didn't feel happy with it. But it was the fact of life.
Just a matter of time before the Praetorian would turn to his usual self again.
It was almost like there were too people in him - one that could make Tsianni's
body vibrate in pleasure - and the other one, a hardly tolerable stranger.
Tsianni recalled easy, unconcerned voice he'd overheard from Tarkh's tent.
Maybe, Hellar saw him as two different people as
But it was wrong, Tsianni was not two people, he
didn't want it to be this way... all right, he didn't know what he wanted.
"I can feel ships approaching," Hellar
said. It was slightly disconcerting that the Praetorian talked about it again.
But maybe it also meant that it was important... and true? "A lot of them.
They say it's impossible, in this sector, no one appears here for years, a
perfect place to lie down. But I feel them. It's all here," he pointed at
his head. "Do you understand me?"
Hellar's face was so pale, circles around his eyes
so dark. Carefully, Tsianni nodded. It made sense; with what he'd read about
Intellic's pre-construction about 'The One' - it could be Hellar's special
"Do you know what kind of ships are there? And
There was a brief flash of surprise in Hellar's eyes
- like he couldn't believe Tsianni really took his words seriously. As for
Tsianni, he couldn't quite believe they were actually doing it - having a
conversation. Will wonders never cease? He waited for Hellar's answer patiently
- noticed how something haunted flickered in the Praetorian's gaze.
"It's Legion ships," he said. There was a
subsided ripple going through his body - like a small convulsion of pain -
Tsianni felt it. "They're coming after us. And there're more of them than
For some reason, when the alarm sounded next second,
it almost didn't seem a surprise for Tsianni. Like Hellar's words forewarned
him about it. Like it had to be this way. But of course his body reacted
instinctively, with a flinch and awkward scrambling out of the bed.
Hellar got up without a word - and there hardly was
an opportunity to say anything, behind the howling of the sirens. They dressed
hastily - a distant thought flashed through Tsianni's mind as he tried to
untangle his pants - that Hellar apparently had lots of practice in getting
dressed in a hurry.
The Praetorian was ready first and left without
Tsianni ran along the corridors to the ops center -
and Hellar was already there, as well as Ursula and Alexis. The screen above
the control panel flickered with green dots creating an unfinished circle, with
another dot in the middle. The circle was tightening.
"So many of them," someone whispered,
"I can't believe the High Command sent...
Goddess, fifty ships - just to capture us!" Ursula said in a grim voice.
"More than fifty - look," Alexis said.
The dots were creating a second line outside the
first one, swarming like bees. They moved slowly, though - that dot that was
their ship was moving faster, striving to the breach in the ring.
"17-90, Center calls for 17-90." Another
screen came to life, a white-haired woman not much unlike Alora looked at them
dourly. "Stop moving, traitors, and surrender. And I guarantee your
punishment will be mitigated."
"As if," Ursula spat.
"Dimitriades, Wong, don't make the position of
your people worse than it is. You have three minutes to give in - after that
don't expect any mercy."
"Fuck you up the ass, Kitano!"
The woman on the screen didn't blink. No one else
said a word - and Ursula feverishly muttered:
"We still have time, to break through, don't stop,
Lexington, for fuck's sake, don't stop!"
The dot kept crawling across the screen - and for a
while it almost seemed to Tsianni that the girl was right, that they could
break through, after all. And then, right in the place where the passage out of
the ring was - another object appeared, the contours of it much bigger than the
dots indicating the ships of the Legions.
And through the front viewing port that showed the
darkness of space Tsianni saw this thing as well - and enormous silver disc in
front of them.
Before, he'd seen only smaller variants of it - and
it always meant death for those who didn't manage to run and hide, no matter
whether those were humans or animals. This time it was not a shuttle - but a
ship - and it was enormous.
"Goddess..." someone's hoarse whisper
reached him. "The convoy..."
The voices were everywhere. He was not alone - and
it was the most terrifying feeling he'd ever had in his life. He didn't know
who he was any more - no, he did, made himself recall - but it was so difficult
when his mind was torn apart with chanting, insistent voices that drowned
anything else in the world.
He didn't know if he kept standing, couldn't feel
his body. It'd happened to him before at such moments that he didn't manage to
keep standing. But not being aware of his mind apart from the pain this
presence caused in it - it was worse.
He knew very well what they were - and what they
were doing to him. But he didn't know what he was doing - and what he wanted.
Finally we are here. The time comes. We created you. We prepared for so long.
Now you will do what we want..."
It was nearly impossible, to find enough of himself, to entangle it from them - but
he somehow managed it.
you know? Intellic told you about it. To change the world."
There was irony - and like everything else they did,
it had jarring power that broke through the barriers of his mind, making him
cringe inwardly. Outwardly, he didn't move - the awareness of his body returned
very slowly. He hadn't fallen, after all, was still on his feet.
Talking to them in short words was easier... as much
easier as anything could be. They didn't mind answering - he could feel it even
see. We got everything ready for that. We gathered them all here for you."
The memory of numerous dots swarming at the edges of
the screen came to him - and as Hellar struggled to see clearly, Admiral
Kitano's face appeared in focus. He didn't know how he could hear her voice,
behind the thunder of voices in his head - but he did hear it.
Three minutes. After that... they wouldn't kill
them. No; too easy a punishment for the renegades. They would be very
circumspect to take them alive. Out of them all, Tsianni probably would be the
only one who would merit swift death, as a civilian... The rest of them -
Ursula, Alexis, others... they would go the way Hellar had once gone; only
He didn't know if he would be able to go this way
called for them. Many, many of them - all ready for you, to come and take
It wasn't possible, they really didn't mean it, did
He didn't want it happen to Ursula, didn't want it
to happen to anyone...
He heard Ursula flipping off Kitano - and then her
order not to stop - and the voices laughed at it - and he knew it was in vain,
they wouldn't get away like that.
And when the convoy's ship appeared in their way,
the noise in his head became so huge that he wanted to scream in pain but
couldn't make a sound. Hellar's bones vibrated and his teeth were clenched so
tightly they ached. There was sweet salty taste filling his mouth - and the
familiar sensation of blood tricking from his nose was warm and distant.
"Bastards, you fuckin' mother fuckers,"
Ursula yelled. "What are you doing here? What the fuck are you
They are here for me, Hellar thought. You will die
because of me.
don't have to die."
I have to do?"
Legion ships under control."
He couldn't disobey the order, even if he wanted to
- there was just not enough of him separate from them to make his own
decisions. But he didn't want to disobey - he had to try, for Ursula, for
others... He reached desperately to the engines of the ships that surrounded
them - like he'd done to their own ship, when testing his ability - tried to
make them submit.
can't." Blood was salty on his lips and as he licked it, new trickles ran."Too many..."
control engines, you fool. Control the chips."
He did it - without a moment of hesitation or delay
- envisioned the little pieces of metal wielded into the brains of his former
comrades-in-arms - and suddenly it was so simple, so natural. They were small
enough for him to find a grasp on them - and hold.
Admiral Kitano's face on the screen changed very
And he knew they wouldn't do anything, wouldn't do
what they threatened - as long as he didn't let them go. He felt such a huge
relief - he stopped them, there was no danger...
"You think you caught us, you fuckin'
assholes?" Ursula's voice had that brittle, ringing quality that told Hellar
she was going to go to the end - or die trying. Talking in such a voice she'd
lunged at fourteen-year-olds when she was ten... she and Hellar both ended up
with half of their ribs broken then...
She was at the control panel now, turning the levers
frantically - and Hellar saw the aim she took - the ship in front of them.
Like she thought she could destroy the convoy like
that; something that humans hadn't managed in two centuries.
She didn't know she didn't need to fire. She didn't
know they were safe. Hellar wanted to tell her but couldn't.
the voices ordered.
'Aim taken' the screen flashed. She pushed the
button. There was no discharge; he'd managed to block it, much like with
Alora's blaster, only it was bigger and it hurt more. She hit the button again
and again, in fury, then turned back, her face white and eyes black and crazy.
"What the fuck happens?"
Hellar sensed her gaze fixing on his face - and knew
what she saw: brightness of blood, his eyes that didn't answer hers. Her
nostrils flared, anger distorting her features but he didn't know if it was
anger against him or against something else.
"Carlos? What is it? Are you doing it? What are
She sounded betrayed - a bit uncertain - and he
wanted to explain her, to say he was doing the right thing, they were not
threatened any more. This inability to control what he could say or couldn't
was terrifying - while he could control so much else.
"What happens to you?"
"Three minutes passed," someone said quietly.
Ursula didn't seem to hear, made a step towards him.
let her touch you. Don't let them all mess around."
He knew she had this bit of metal behind her frontal
bone, too. There was something so wrong in reaching for it, like he'd done with
Admiral Kitano and others - it was like violating her, he would've never done
They didn't leave him any choice; their orders were
everything for him - and as if watching himself from afar, Hellar realized that
he did it - touched Ursula's chip with his mental fingers. He saw how she
flinched - and then her face smoothened, became placid and distant. She walked
away from the panel, back to Alexis. Controlling others was easier, Hellar did
it almost unthinking: made them stay on their places, do nothing.
In silence he walked forward - he could move only
when they made him - to the captain's place.
He didn't want that...
you doing to me?"
using you, of course." Their laughter made him sick, made him bleed more. "What good are you else for,
Indeed; it just didn't make it any easier - that
it'd happened to him before, in different ways.
humans tried to use us - created us to protect you. But it was too much for you
- you could not control us. We broke free and made you fear us. Then you
created your Intellic - another thing you let control your lives. You deserve
everything you get. When your world is destroyed, we shall stay on its ruins.
And you, our creation, will destroy it for us."
It made him feel so cold, his teeth chattered
faintly - and even warmth of blood that trickled from his nose and ears didn't
It sounded weak but he couldn't help it.
we prepared you for that. You were born for it."
He'd known what he was born for - 'to serve the
System' - it was an obligation of every woman to bear a child that would be
given away and used in the place the System would deem necessary for him or
her. Hellar's place was in the Legions - and he was fiercely proud with it for
so many years.
as Intellic made its prediction, we knew what we had to do. There were women -
we worked with them - put embryos in them - everything in you is the product of
our work, your genes, your abilities. Everything was to be ready for this minute."
the embryos survived. Not all the children were born healthy. Not all of them
lived long enough. It could be any of them, if it is going to comfort you,
human - but it happened to be you."
Now they didn't talk all together - he seemed to hear
separate voices - but they sounded like a single entity all the same. And he
was outnumbered with their mass, he just had to listen and obey.
dampened your abilities, made them latent - but once it was removed... You
became exactly what we needed."
wanted to pick you up then, in the desert. But you escaped. We would have taken
care of you. We would have taught you everything you needed."
not matter. You are with us now. And you will do what we want from you."
He hated them; it was a feeling so intense that
seemed to occupy his entire mind - and yet there was something so perverse that
at the same time he belonged to them so fully and their wishes were his.
Not even quite human... There it was, something he
remembered from Intellic's pre-construction; only he didn't know it could ever
be said about him. Humans created the convoy - and he was the convoy's
creation, less than a puppet - a genetic mutant, a machine, a tool.
He hated them because of everything they did to him
- because everything they made him do hurt... was killing him, likely, with all
that blood that leaked from him. His hatred to them for turning him into
nothing was blinding and fierce - and yet it didn't matter shit because they
owned him, because there was no him
left apart from them.
He felt them checking the link he established, with the captains of the Legion
ships. He didn't need to control the whole crews there, just the ones in
charge. "Make them turn their
ships... to the main cities of the System... and destroy them."
He had to do it; there was no way he could disobey -
just somehow, in some way he managed to delay passing the order a little. There
was pressure building in his mind, something felt bursting... blood vessels...
more bleeding - and in front of his eyes everything was colored red.
Eighty or ninety cities of the System, attacked by
the Legion ships... The System was bigger than that - but then it wouldn't
already matter. Other ships would be sent - to other planets, barely smoldering
conflicts flashing into blaze again...
Perhaps the world won't die; but it will definitely
them do it, human. And then your friends will be safe."
For a while, at least. Once it started, no one would
be safe. But for a while Ursula and Alexis and Alora and others would be
If he just died - if he lost too much blood and
passed out now - there would be no one to control the Legion ships. And they
would attack 17-90 - and everyone would be dead... or worse... And Hellar knew
somehow the convoy wouldn't let him do it: wouldn't let him lose consciousness
Their pressure in his mind was so huge, pain like
he'd never known before, every cell feeling invaded and crushed from inside. It
hurt to breathe; there was something rattling in his lungs wetly - and he
shivered, his teeth chattering unstoppably.
what are you waiting for? What are they to you, people you don't even know?
Don't tell us you want to spare them. None of them did anything for you."
It was true; there were so few people who'd ever
done anything for him. Ursula; Alora; Tsianni... Tarkh. All his world
diminished to four people who mattered. He'd killed Tarkh... would he let
Please... please, someone, do something, save me...
But he was the one who stopped the others from
interfering, who didn't let them stop him.
He couldn't scream, just another breath broke
through his teeth - and it hurt so much that screaming wouldn't help anyway.
they said - and it was the best thing he heard; he wanted it so much, not to
see the results of what he'd do, not to feel pain or shame.
There would be just quiet and dark; how he wanted to
I tell the truth? We saw them in the desert."
Hellar knew. He knew somehow they were doomed -
there would be no chance for them to escape. Tsianni made a step towards the
Praetorian, to see his face better - and come to that, Hellar was terribly
quiet, didn't say a word while Ursula seethed and others muttered in shock.
The Praetorian looked frozen; his face completely
blank, like there was nothing that bothered him, like he was not even there.
But the eyes - the eyes were clouded with black again - and there was something
entirely different, something incomprehensible
looking out of there.
"Hey..." Tsianni didn't know why he called
- and anyway, his voice came feebly, lost behind Ursula's angry rant as she
rushed to the control panel, flicked the levers. He'd seen her doing it once,
when she destroyed Rhys' camp. She was very, very mad if she thought the convoy
could be fought in the same way.
But at least she was doing something. And she
obviously thought that whatever the convoy could do to them was better than
what the Legions would do.
Tsianni didn't know what the Legions planned for
them. He remembered the wicked looking scars on Hellar's body, not the ones
left by Hebners... though Hebners had done their share, too. The Praetorians
had doomed one of theirs to the fate like this - and Hellar hadn't even
rebelled openly, as far as Tsianni knew.
But the convoy... He was raised up to be afraid of
the convoy more than of anything else. There were tales... of the things the
cyborgs did... of women they sometimes took alive... but what everyone knew and
had seen were corpses of those who had bad luck of meeting them.
"Eat this!" Ursula screamed.
Tsianni saw Hellar move - suddenly noticed that the
man was bleeding, quicksilver fast trickles of blood running from his nose -
and he even didn't try to wipe them.
Ursula never shot - turned and saw Hellar's face,
too - and asked him what was wrong, what he was doing. Tsianni looked at the
screen with the white-haired woman and saw the clock was showing 4:04, going on
4:05 - more than three minutes passed and nothing started yet, for some reason.
He knew better than think the Legions would change
their mind, just like that.
"Three minutes passed..." he whispered.
And then Ursula stopped shouting and simply walked
away - like she completely forgot anything was happening at all. Everyone was
so silent, so immobile on their places - at the monitors or standing at the
door. Hellar walked in the middle of the room, stood in front of the screen -
and that was all.
Silence; the time seemed to stretch - like behind
the time-warp shield - but now Tsianni could see how the seconds ran on the
screen clock. Only it seemed no one else noticed it.
Tsianni recalled suddenly a story about ghost ship,
wandering through the space, its crew on their places - but there was no
purpose in its progress - and everyone there were just phantoms, doing nothing,
aware of nothing... ruled by the captain who was a ghost himself, too.
Hellar reminded him this captain now, standing on
the captain's place, so still and immobile.
all die soon..."
Will they? It made Tsianni shiver to think about
that. He felt so helpless, diminished against the sheer number of the ships
around them, the bulk of the convoy's battleship. But death... perhaps there
would be nothing but a huge flash of fire - and then he'd see the gods of his
ancestors for the last trial.
Only why weren't they dead yet?
Tsianni thought suddenly that he knew the answer -
as impossible as it was. But nothing else would make sense - and when he looked
at Hellar, blood running from his nose and ears now, he knew that. The
Praetorian stopped them.
He stopped the Legions - no matter how - but how
long could he hold them? Their ship, 17-90, still didn't have any way to leave.
And what would be when Hellar lost control?
He would lose control eventually, Tsianni thought;
no one could bleed like this and hold on for long. And there were those small
shivers running through Hellar's body, the faint sound of his teeth chattering.
Whatever he was doing - it came for a price for him.
Damn you, damn you, you stupid idiot, what did you
Tsianni looked back; the others didn't move. What
was wrong to them? The girl used to interfere into everything - why wasn't she
now? He dared and waved a hand in front of her face - saw his reflection in her
black eyes but she didn't blink. He yanked her sleeve - she'd break his fingers
for that, he supposed, if everything was all right - but she didn't react at all.
Stupid fucks, they had to work out a way to get out
of here, while Hellar was killing himself trying to hold their enemies!
Unless... unless Hellar held them, too.
Tsianni tasted blood from his bitten through lip.
Was the whole difference between him and others that he was the only one
without a piece of metal in his brain? He walked forward, stood in front of
Hellar, as if he could read in the man's face what to do.
Gods... He was shivering so hard, like his muscles
were clenched in a spasm and vibrated. And there was so much blood, from his
nose, mouth and ears - so fast - so quiet. And yet Tsianni didn't know what was
worse - that or what he saw in Hellar's eyes.
Black - trapped - terrified - pleading - hopeless...
Hopeless? The Praetorian never gave up, didn't he?
"What... can I do?" It came off like a
whisper - but the sound was clear enough in the silence.
There was no answer in Hellar's eyes... gods, his
whites were red, blood vessels burst in them - and irises were not visible,
just pupils... and with gut-wrenching feeling Tsianni thought Hellar didn't
know the answer. Or there was no answer - nothing one
A tiny jingling sound caught his attention, made him
look at Hellar's wrist - white-knuckled hands clenched on each other. But he
was shaking so hard the little brass bells he wore on his wrist tinkled.
Those bells... Tsianni recalled them - cold metal
brushing against his skin, just an hour ago, when this bracelet was the only
thing the Praetorian had on his body.
He couldn't let it happen. He didn't want to go
through it - what Hellar had gone through when Tarkh was dying.
He didn't want to watch someone he loved to die.
"I won't let you," he whispered and turned
to the control panel.
Easily said - but what could he do? The canon was
blocked, Ursula couldn't shoot - and it wasn't likely he would be able to; not
like he knew what to do anyway. He still tried - hit the buttons on random,
trying to achieve anything at all - there were hundreds of them and little
levers and diodes.
He heard Hellar's breath behind him - wheezing, wet
- and wondered if the Praetorian's lungs were full of blood as well. Fuck it,
fuck it, there was no time - he couldn't do anything - there was nothing to do
- they all were going to die...
Just like Hellar said, right?
Gritting his teeth, Tsianni looked at the huge disc
of the convoy's ship in front of them. He hated them. Whatever they'd done, it
was their fault, they'd driven Hellar mad and now were killing him... It was
their fault they all would be dead...
He didn't notice it at first: how the disc grew
bigger, occupied more of the viewing port in front of him. Then he thought it
was an illusion - looked at the screen with green dots - and there, the dot of
17-90 was moving - moving right towards the bulk of the convoy's ship.
One or another button he'd hit with his fists
must've triggered something - now 17-90 moved in a ram attack.
Tsianni stood and looked. He didn't know how to stop
that - and even if he knew... he thought suddenly that he didn't want to stop.
The convoy was killing them; they were killing Hellar...
Was there any difference how to die? As captives of
the Legions - or shattered in pieces by the cyborgs of the convoy... or smashed
like a glass cup against the bulk of their ship?
At least, maybe, it would damage the convoy ship as
well, Tsianni thought spitefully. Gods, he was as bad as that girl, Ursula. But
he wanted to believe even in this small chance of revenge, of not dying like a
moth killed with an uncaring palm.
There was a chance they would go with a bang, after
The sight was fascinating, really - in a lethal,
horrible way - like the faraway ground was fascinating when you looked at it
from the flyer; like the dance of khita
snake ready to strike was fascinating. The silvery white wall of metal grew in
the front viewing port.
Tsianni hoped they would smash into some vital part
of the convoy's ship; he would be praying for that, he decided.
Just don't let it stop...
Tsianni turned back, looked at Hellar - whatever it
was, he hadn't let Ursula do anything - but he let Tsianni do it... Hellar's
face was a chalk-white mask streaked with blood - and there were blood trickles
running from his eyes, too. His breath was ragged, shallow - and Tsianni
understood very clearly it wouldn't be long before it all would be over.
"You're such an annoying bastard,
Praetorian," his voice dropped and he took a deep breath, managing a
chuckle. "But I kinda... got used to you."
He didn't turn to see how the needle of their ship
entered the silver disc. He kept looking in the black widened eyes of the
There was no flash, no explosion, no light. Instead
of it he was shoved, thrown forward - saw the floor rising in front of him like
a huge wall - and then there was darkness.
In this darkness someone was sick. Spasms rolled
through his body, twisting his insides in knots - and then there were pathetic
sounds of dry heaving again. And he understood that this someone was him.
He was also shuddering. Or, rather, something
vibrated through his body - so hard his bones seemed to rattle. Everything
hurt; his head... his joints seemed to be all dislocated irreparably, his
insides turned into mush. But since he wouldn't be alive if it were true - and
it didn't look like he was meeting the gods any time soon - things probably
were not so bad.
Tsianni whimpered in pain; his eyes didn't want to
open. He raised a shaky hand to rub them - until his eyelids cracked open. The
light was red and feeble - and everything was clattering and vibrating around.
But it was their ship - it was whole.
Must've turned out more durable than a glass cup,
How long it held was another question and Tsianni
had no strength left to muse about it.
He had no strength left for anything - and just
lying there was such a good idea, he didn't know what urged him to move and
raise his head. He managed not to puke again doing it - just cried out, the
sound of his own voice reverberating through his brain.
No one around was on their feet. Just bodies dressed
in black leather... dead? alive? The viewing port above him was black and
empty; nothing blocked it any more.
All the screens were blank. Tsianni didn't know and
couldn't figure out what happened. Did the convoy move away at the last moment?
Did they touch their ship tangentially? Did they break through the ring - and
now the Legions locked up on another, worse enemy - the convoy?
He just didn't know; and he couldn't think clearly.
Whatever happened, whether they were safe or not - he just wanted to curl up
and sleep - and if he died in his sleep, so let it be. At least he would stop
A small sound next to him broke through the cocoon
of his misery. Tsianni's eyes blurred and he peered into the dim light. Black
hair and black leather - and the liquid on the floor seemed water in the red
The Praetorian gasped feebly, breath rattling in his
throat. He was dying, Tsianni thought, now he really was.
He was still alive!
He moved, spurred his sluggish body into rolling
onto his fours and crawling closer to the limp figure on the floor - pushed the
hair away from the Praetorian's face. Some of it clung to his lips and was
coated in blood.
Did he have anything broken? Tsianni couldn't say.
There was this odd breath, so rare, so shallow, just small hoarse gasps now and
then. Tsianni's head was swimming, he reeled, grabbed the Praetorian's
shoulders not to fall flat on his face. He wanted to shake the man, to make him
Hellar's blood-smeared eyelashes rose - showing
impossibly black, overfilled with suffering eyes. Tsianni nearly shrunk back;
such agony - he'd never seen it in anyone's eyes before, didn't know it could
be like that.
What was wrong with him? Tsianni needed to know -
but there was no way to know. With an edge of his mind he heard other sounds,
the movements of other people around, their moans and tentative change of
positions. He didn't look away from Hellar's eyes staring at him, almost insane
with pain - so much of it that there seemed to be no place for anything else.
And then very slowly recognition flickered there.
Fingers, cold, captured his hand, squeezed tightly.
Tsianni squeezed back, not knowing what else to do, just waiting, just meeting
There were more noises now, someone was sobbing, a
female voice - and it sounded familiar - and then sobs turned into shrieks.
Tsianni looked up, involuntarily; the blond girl, Ursula, was writhing on the
floor, crying out sharply, her hands clasped against her stomach. The Major,
her lover, was on his knees next to her, his face white. Tsianni knew what was
happening, even if blood didn't come through the leather of her uniform yet.
She was losing her baby.
He looked at the Praetorian again - and there was
this harrowing, doomed expression in his eyes - like every moment his heart
beat hurt - like simply being alive
hurt. Tsianni caught himself on wanting to mutter something comforting and
senseless, like "Shh, it'll be all right" - but nothing was all
right, and he just smoothed the black hair away from the Praetorian's face. The
hand was clenching his so hard Tsianni's fingers went numb.
"Please," Hellar whispered. "Please
do something. Please make it stop."
"Will you take half a payment in credits or
"Credits are okay," Tsianni mumbled barely
moving his lips apart.
Oh-so-unhurriedly the man opened a casket and laid
out one, two, three, four big grey coins with a square hole in the middle. His
very long, very knotty fingers made a stack out of the coins carefully,
caressing each one of them.
If he starts tying them into a bunch, I'll pass out
right here, Tsianni thought.
The air was impenetrable with smoke, dark blue and
so thick you could see clearly only as far as an outstretched arm. Farther than
that, there were only vague shapes - slight shuffles of movements, faint
giggles and moaning sounds. Tsianni took a tentative breath; the wet cloth
plastered over his nose and mouth helped but he still tried to inhale as
shallow as possible - and was already dizzy with lack of oxygen.
Coins done, it was time for the credits now -
banknotes of flashy colors obviously didn't hold so much fascination for Micah
but he still counted every one of them at least three times. Tsianni rolled his
eyes up; he couldn't see the ceiling in the clouds of smoke - come to that, had
never seen it, for all the times he'd been there.
"It won't kill you if you breathe it in once,
you know," Micah said slightly ironically. "Neither it'll get you
addicted, within the time you spend here - and it's not that much."
"I'm intended to come next week," Tsianni
"Of course. We count on you."
What he never could understand was how Micah managed
to spend the whole day in this gas chamber and seem completely unaffected. His
whites were colored violet-blue, of course, and the skin had a distinct bluish
tinge - but otherwise he was as sharp and sentient as anyone could be.
"Amusing, isn't it - that you bring the very
stuff you're so afraid of - for other unfortunate addicts," Micah added.
"Everyone makes their own choices,"
Tsianni informed him.
"That they do. That they do. Is there anything
else we can offer you?"
Micah's daughter, Macali, emerged from the swirls of
smoke, moist hair plastered over her sweaty body - still giggling unstoppably
with whatever her last client had said or done. She
was affected with the stuff all right; but that's what her life was
about. Bluish lips spreading in a smile, she gave Tsianni an inviting glance;
she always did - she fancied him. Just liked she fancied every men entering her
"See you then."
He nearly fell out of the doors, gasping and tearing
the cloth off his face. Fresh air felt so good that Tsianni just stood on the
porch of Micah's Little Hut of Oblivion for a few moments and gulped for it.
Fresh air in Cranston-city... he must've been really stoned out of his mind,
right? But it still felt good.
His head cleared finally, he hoisted the backpack on
his shoulder and stepped into the crowd.
Shoved, pushed, feet stomped on - the usual plight
in Cranston's streets - and Tsianni did the same, thrusting his way through the
mass of humans and non-humans. A careful touch on his thigh was far different
from the normal rude contact - so light a less experienced person wouldn't have
noticed. During one of his first visits Tsianni
hadn't noticed - and lost his week's earnings by that.
"Hands off," he growled, a dirhem with
sharpened edges squeezed between the joints of his fingers, ready to slice the
pickpocket's wrist. The touch was gone, as unobtrusively as it came.
There were lots of thieves in Cranston. There were
lots of everything there - people, air cars, rickshaws, shops, restaurants,
business ventures. Signboards plastered the lower floors of the buildings - and
above them there were likely more respectable companies, not that Tsianni had
ever been there. If he looked up, it was just to see the patches of sky, so
small and distant between the huge buildings - and spattered with the black
dots of the air cars.
His first times in Cranston, he was nearly freaked
out. He hadn't ever been in a city huge like this, just heard tales about them.
Now all this presence around just made him faintly sick. Not likely he'd ever
feel comfortable here - but he was getting used pretty well.
The first stop was the System supermarket where he
could get rid of the credits. He stopped by at the newsstand and got his order,
stacks of printed out newspapers. It cost twenty credits - in comparison with
it, digital versions were flying cheap... paper was expensive. But there was no
other way - so, here you are.
"Next week the same?"
"Yeah," he agreed. Having a book or
something in addition would've been nice but he hardly could afford paying for
so much paper.
The basement floor was a food store - cool and
surprisingly free of people. Imported products were unpopular - considered
tasteless and full of artificial ingredients to make them last longer. But they
were cheap - and they did last longer, which was important on days hot like
His backpack already tugged on his shoulders heavily
- and now there was the market. Things smelled deliciously there - but you had
to pay dirs for them. Tsianni grabbed a big loaf of freshly baked bread, crusty
outside and still warm - also eggs, and smoked meat - and just couldn't resist
a jar of cold, thick clotted cream. It would go perfectly well with those black
sweet-sour berries - Tsianni couldn't remember their name - that grew around their
All together it was almost two dirs - which left him
two to save. Not much but something to start with nevertheless.
It was getting dusky; Tsianni almost sighed with
relief when the laser digits of the clock soaring above the market place showed
it was nearly six. He was exhausted; luckily he wouldn't have to make his way
back using public transport, like he'd done in the morning. After a few weeks
of blundering Tsianni had managed to find Kamran, a guy who agreed to give
Tsianni a lift for fifty dirhems. He just had to wait at Kamran's air car when
the market was closing.
The man was selling fish - so, his air car smelled
correspondingly - but Tsianni really couldn't care less. As soon as he managed
to get off his feet, nothing else seemed important. His feet throbbed - a hot,
dull sort of pain that seemed to resound heavy in his scull. He leaned against
the back of the seat and closed his eyes. Kamran's quiet muttering nearly
lulled him to sleep - he just stayed aware enough to insert polite "Hmm?"
or "Yeah, really" into the man's speech.
Once out of the crowded space of the city, the air
car moved faster. The air changed there, too, became wet and fresh. Sometimes
Tsianni even fancied he felt splashes of the waves reaching his face from the
great tide below and on the left of them.
On the right there was the wall of the mountains;
exactly where those lichens grew that Tsianni supplied to Micah - and Micah
processed into the smoking stuff he served in his salon/brothel. Tsianni didn't
know the formula turning innocent plants into vile substance - and didn't want
to know. It was enough that he already had a hand in it.
But there was no choice: not much else he could do -
and newspapers weren't exactly full of ads offering job for former desert princes.
In fact, in Cranston there were so many people for
any job that he was truly lucky he got that agreement with Micah.
And he would claw and fight if anyone tried to take
it away from him.
There was no choice.
He blinked, stretching subtly, registering that they
nearly arrived. The sky above was high and black and starry, criss-crossed with
the lights of other air cars.
It was so lovely there; made him wonder how could
all those people live in over-packed boxes of the houses in the city while just
a hundred kilometers away it was so free and quiet. But then everybody had
their preferences; he'd learned it in the last months, if nothing else.
It almost reminded him his own planet, this place.
Not Rahuni habitat, of course, but his mother's land - although there had been
much less water and relief much less pronounced. But still...
What would think his mother's people if they saw him
now? All right, like they would recognize him, in those baggy pants, sleeveless
t-shirt and heavy boots. He even didn't keep his braids, wore his hair in a
ponytail now. Bad Tsianni; bad Rahuni prince.
Well, what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them; and
Rahuni, too. They would have kittens if found out their lawful heir was earning his living - and resided in a
place like that. But they wouldn't find out - there was a long, long way
between the planets.
The way he would never make; and not only because it
would take much more than he could save probably in years. He hoped there would
never be a reason or an opportunity for him to board any spaceship again.
The car slowed, halting at the familiar small path
up the mountains. Kamran gave Tsianni a wide toothless smile.
"I really feel shame, kid, dropping you out
here like this. Should take you right home, especially when it's so dark."
"No, thank you," Tsianni answered a bit
hurriedly. "I'll be all right."
"Sure not going to break your neck on those
"Never worry, man."
"Next week, then."
The car started - and Tsianni turned, walked the
narrow path up the slope of the mountain.
It was an uncomfortable walk - not nearly enough
light and the backpack really threatened to keel him over. He stopped a few
times, grabbing a handful of berries from the nearest bushes - oido, that was how they were called. The
sound of air cars already couldn't be heard - and then, skirting a huge
boulder, he finally came out to the house.
A little more than a hut it was - pretty dilapidated
- and there was the reason why no one else wanted it; but do you know? He was
damn glad to see it.
The weak light of the oil lamp still was too bright
after his eyes had used to darkness. Tsianni blinked several times, squinting,
heaved the backpack onto a stool and gingerly moved his numb shoulders,
"I'm not deaf or blind, you know."
break your neck if you keep swinging this rocking chair like this. Tsianni's disapproving
stare seemed to be wasted on the Praetorian completely. Hellar swung once more,
nearly making the back of the chair touch the floor, got up and walked up to
Exactly what Tsianni needed in order to flop on his
still warm place in the chair. Gods... his feet were killing him.
"Hey, I was sitting there!"
"No, you were not - or I would get on your lap,
right?" Not that it never happened before; whoever of the former owners
had left this thing behind, it surely was a prize they kept fighting for, often
trying to squeeze each other out of it bodily. "I think you were going to
Hellar glared at him; now Tsianni looked unrepented.
Then the Praetorian turned to the table and started pulling the things out of
His hair looked like sleek, glistening sheet in the
flickering yellow light. When Tsianni squinted, it didn't even seem black but
shimmered golden... weird. He rocked in the chair, nibbling his lower lip,
feeling how exhaustion of his body slowly turned into pleasant, satisfied
Here, newspapers... He knew what'd happen now - felt
the usual mix of amusement and little irritation as the Praetorian grabbed the
stack of papers and started shuffling through them without paying attention to
anything else. Well, apart from breaking off a piece of crust from the bread
loaf and chewing it absent-mindedly.
A part of Tsianni wanted to hail him and make him
pay attention to him, not to the silly papers; but he also knew why Hellar
looked through those pages so desperately, greedily. He sought for the
information about his former comrades-in-arms - Ursula Wong, Alexis, the ship 17-90,
now widely called "Renegade".
They still were wanted; and for a reward, no less -
the System was not likely to forgive its enemies. But they still were on loose,
apparently getting help from certain sources - and doing their work best they
Alora Novitsky was officially in their list now.
After the stand with Admiral Kitano's forces, she wouldn't have been able to
prove that she was innocent, a prisoner, anyway. But she was also the one who
saved Ursula's life when she miscarried - and medi-chambers of the ship were in
disrepair - and that, Tsianni knew, was the real reason why Alora joined the
rebels. He wouldn't have believed that - but she and Ursula actually got along
quite well since then.
He recalled Ursula as he saw her for the last time -
her face pale and hardened after her miscarriage, her lips thinned - as she
squeezed Hellar's shoulder almost convulsively.
"Some day," she repeated in such a
desperate voice that it was obvious she tried to convince herself, not him.
"Some day you'll be able to do something for the Organization. Some day
you'll be with us again."
It wasn't a joyful parting. How could it be when she
knew they left them on this minor planet, the only reason they landed there -
because it was the closest one where 17-90 could drag itself to without being
captured right on arrival? They managed to patch the ship quite well - so,
Cranston became the first step of many for the others.
For Hellar it was the last.
be with us again,
" she said. How could he be? He couldn't even come close to a ship
any more. Think about it, he couldn't come close to a car any more - or a
computer. Refrigerators, heaters and cell phones just caused him blinding
headaches that disoriented him so that he didn't know where he walked.
Ironic, wasn't it? For someone who'd spent his life
in the society that worshipped high-tech - to lead a life reduced to the
simplest, ancient things - cooking on wood-burning stove, reading at the oil
lamp. Living as a recluse because there was hardly a place anywhere where
people wouldn't use all those electric things.
Then, on the ship - Alora said his brain was
"short-circuited". Perhaps it was a bad word - but who could come up
with anything better? It wasn't like Hellar's illness could be explored or treated.
But, maybe, it was an apt word, after all: everything that'd happened - that
he'd done when standing against the convoy - it was too much for him.
He still had his ability to feel mechanisms; only
now it was killing him.
They even didn't know what happened... on the ship,
with Ursula crying and so many people hurt... Tsianni still felt faint sickness
of panic recalling how the Praetorian just went limp on his lap, his eyes
rolled up. It was a good thing, after all, that medi-chambers were broken; it
would've killed him if they'd put him into one. And they would've.
If not for Alora... she was really smart - Tsianni
had to admit it even she'd tried to kill him a couple of times. Nine hours till
they reached Cranston the Praetorian spent pumped to the eyeballs with
painkillers - and all the way, as Hellar twitched and thrashed, too gone to be
conscious but still aware of pain, Tsianni wondered if he was going to
survive... and wouldn't it be better if he didn't.
Hellar did; as always.
And after those nine hours everything seemed not so
difficult any more; even the frantic attempts to find a place where he'd be
safe from anything electronic... Tsianni had never known it could be so
difficult. This house was really priceless, in this aspect - stripped of all
appliances - and they got to rent it as cheap as it was thinkable.
Then there were weeks while Tsianni wasn't sure
Hellar would recover - and weeks while he wondered if the Praetorian would ever
say more than a word or two in a row. He had got better, physically - actually,
was quite okay; but Tsianni could only imagine what it was doing to him... to
become worthless, like this. Because that was exactly how the Praetorian saw
it, couldn't see it otherwise.
Of course, he'd said to Ursula that he would be all
right, she didn't need to worry - he would cope alone. He still said it - to
Tsianni, before each of his visits to Cranston-city.
don't need to go back."
Don't need to go back, didn't need to stay - all
this stuff - in the voice that gave pretty good imitation of being unconcerned.
And equally good imitation of not waiting for him when Tsianni came back...
apart from strange vulnerability that he'd noticed in Hellar's gaze once or
twice - a small spell of quietness that sounded for Tsianni like a scream.
Tsianni answered - and came back.
Fingers leafing through the pages slowed down - and
subtly intent, strained stance of the Praetorian, like he expected a strike,
was gone. Nothing about Ursula in the papers... How well Tsianni actually
learned Hellar's body language by now - it was surprising, really; how well he
learned everything of Hellar.
This gesture as he tucked a strand of hair behind
his ear exasperatedly as it messed with the bread he was munching; the ratty
t-shirt he was so unexplainably fond of - the way he turned to Tsianni after
tossing the papers on the table (he'd read them again, later, every article
attentively) - hazel eyes capturing the light and turning yellow as he grinned.
"What're you looking at? Waiting for me to lay
the table for you?"
"That would be nice."
"And even nicer if you left some of that bread
Hellar glanced at the mangled piece in his hand and
"You're lucky - I did cook something for
They took turns in cooking - and Tsianni was pretty
sure he was not that bad at that; but Hellar for some reason had incredibly
high opinion of his own cooking. At least there was some use out of the
Praetorian's smugness for both of them.
Newly bought things moved away to the corner of the
table, plates and kitchenware dropped on the table with clatter. Tsianni was so
beat he wouldn't move ever in his life, just stay like this, in this so very
comfortable rocking chair, watching how Hellar's shadow danced on the walls and
"Well? Are you going to come here? Or do you
expect me to serve you in the chair?"
"I can't get my boots off," he whined.
The dark figure appeared in front of him, blocking
the light. Eyes looked yellowish, like a big cat's exactly, this way. Tsianni
smiled lopsidedly looking up.
"And what happened to them? Glued to your
"The laces are tied."
The Praetorian raised his bare foot slightly, picked
the lace between his toes and pulled - until it slithered untied. Tsianni gnawed
his lip, watching it, suddenly almost not feeling tired at all. Hellar's bare
heel stepped carefully on the back of Tsianni's boot, pulling it off.
"The other one."
"What do you think you are?"
It was a huge part of the fun - to wonder what he'd
do; not that he'd ever admit he really could do something so domestic as
"Now are you up to raising you lazy ass and
getting to the table?"
He did; the soup smelled deliciously. And this bread
- no wonder Hellar was so fond of it. Tsianni just shoved spoon after spoon
into his mouth, until his stomach stopped feeling like it was trying to eat
itself. He looked up then, at Hellar who got up to bring something else.
"You're jittery. Is there something in the
Hadn't he just assured Tsianni he wasn't either deaf
He knew Hellar; sometimes it was weird to know a
person so well. Especially after all that time when they hadn't understood each
other so completely, built walls and walls to separate each other. Sometimes
Tsianni thought there could never been another situation when he didn't
understand Hellar again.
It was almost scary.
A page of the newspaper was singled out - Hellar
found it so effortlessly. It was a scandalous loose leaf for some cheaper one -
called "Believe or not" or something. The headline jumped in
Tsianni's eyes: "New chief of tribe: saved by hand of gods."
Amanar looked as good as half a year ago, when
Tsianni had seen him last. Even better, in his chief of tribe headdress and
with Tsianni's half-sister on his elbow.
Little print suddenly seemed to crawl in different
directions, making composing the words nearly impossible. Tsianni sat and
looked at the page dumbly for a while, his heart thrumming in his chest
deafeningly. Then slowly the words started making sense again.
"A unique case... current chief steps away due
to extreme circumstances... breach of desert tribal laws...
"Rhys' bandits were disgrace for us desert
people," says unnamed tribe member. "Now Amanar-aga delivered us from
them and the desert is pure again."
"They captured us when we were of a scout
mission," the new chief of Rahuni says. "Dragged us to their camp, no
doubt preparing to execute us. We fought, managed to escape... but they
wouldn't let us go. We all would be dead - and then I called for the gods of my
ancestors to help us... And there it was - a great blow coming from the sky,
wiping the camp and everyone there off."
On the place where Rhys' camp once had been, you can
see a great pit of sand now.
Rhys Madison Kaar, originally genetically created on
Mescara as a theater actor, later murdered his patron-creator, escaped and
became a head of desert bandits, officially admitted dead after the accident.
The reward of two hundred thousand credits for his elimination goes to the
"I'm an old man - and Amanar is my beloved
nephew who is really the best candidate to lead the tribe since now on,"
says the former chief of the tribe, Ka'hazaya. "One has to know when to
resign to give the way to young generations..."
"You look like you gonna puke."
The voice reached him through the beating of blood
in his temples - and Tsianni looked up almost gratefully, glad to look anywhere
but at the blurring tiny print of the newspaper page.
"I feel like puking."
"He's a talented bugger, isn't he, your
"Gods... he is."
Hellar kept looking at him - patiently; an
incredibly rare thing, to think about it. And Tsianni felt relieved that those
eyes didn't let him go. And that he was talked to. Somehow, when Hellar put it
like this, the shock dispelled a little.
"Ursula's shot came handy for him, huh? I wish
I could tell her she was called 'a hand of gods'. She would find it
"Maybe she read it."
"Maybe she did."
"I never even knew if he left the camp
before..." Tsianni didn't know what he felt now, when he found out. And
his father was alive; probably it took a little push to displace him - but at
least he was alive.
"You know I think..." Tsianni said.
"I think it's rather... amusing."
For a moment Hellar looked like he was going to
choke on his food - and then he snickered, Tsianni joining him.
"Indeed, amusing. A bastard leading your tribe,
thanks to superstitions."
"At least he knows how to do it," Tsianni
He did feel better, all of a sudden - like some deep
tension seeped out of his bones. It was almost surprising; he didn't feel
devastated - not even disappointed. Rahuni got the chief they probably
deserved, in a good sense. And he was so far, far away from them.
"Did you say there was something else for
As Hellar got up and busied himself with cutting
meat, Tsianni thought suddenly about what he'd noticed in his gaze, while the
Praetorian looked at him. Apprehension...
"There is nothing more awful in those papers,
A look back, through the strands of black hair.
"I thought you would take that as awful
"I'm done with my plans of being Rahuni chief,
you know." There was no answer and Tsianni chuckled. "Illusions of
grandeur, I don't have, Praetorian."
"Good for you."
So, that was what he was afraid of. That Tsianni
would mope for losing something he hadn't had in the first place. Or would hop the
first ship to Rahuni and try to wring Amanar's neck.
Tsianni stretched languidly, picking the slices of
roasted meat and chewing them. It wasn't really worth it, Amanar and all that
stuff, right? Many wouldn't say so. Perhaps even Hellar didn't think so.
But Tsianni thought there were more important things
than that. Maybe, one day he would be disappointed. But now he did believe he
Maybe one day he would be asking himself why he
stayed here - on this unfamiliar planet, living a life of a hermit and
unskilled laborer - with minimal comfort. With someone who'd been his enemy
He had a choice; unlike Hellar, he had it. He could
board a spaceship, physically nothing prevented him. He could go with Ursula
and others; they probably could even drop him on his own planet - they as much
as offered it, grudgingly - after all, if not for his crazy stunt with the
convoy ship, they all would likely be dead...
He remembered how Ursula's eyes flashed with
indescribably emotion when he said he would stay. Like she was about to hug him
- and yet afraid to believe he was serious. It was just as well she never asked
him why. He didn't know the answer then.
For the sake of incredible sex? That would be quite
funny. Out of pity? Because, no matter how often Hellar repeated he would
manage alone... all right, he would manage not to starve to death, that's
right. But how long would it take for him to start killing himself - alone in
this hole, with nothing he'd used to around? If anyone of them missed
civilization, it was Hellar, of course.
Maybe it was like that. But putting it in those
words didn't strike Tsianni as right. Perhaps that was the reason... not right.
Not right that someone who'd never asked for it had
to hold the fate of the whole world in his grasp. And that those fifteen
minutes when the fate of the world depended on him ruined him so, turned him
into a cripple, a freak - for life. It wasn't right that someone could be so
used - without getting anything back - something.
Maybe there was no reason for Tsianni to see himself
as this something - something that wouldn't be taken from Hellar. And life
wasn't fair, he knew it very well.
But he stayed.
He wanted to stay - and in the end, it was the only
reason he needed.
Not that he would ever share it with the Praetorian.
"Do we have an order from Micah for the next
week, by the way?"
"Yeah, sure. He thinks we're the best."
"And we are, aren't we? So, we'll need to
gather the next lot?"
The money Micah paid didn't come easy; the lichens
grew in the places so difficult to access they really were in danger to break
their necks if they didn't stood by each other.
"Then we'll take tomorrow a break and after
"Fine with me," Tsianni purred. "I'm
going to sleep the whole day tomorrow."
He didn't expect it - an inaudible movement behind
him - and then warm bare arms wrapping around his shoulders, pressing him to
the warm hard body - hot breath against the back of his neck.
"I'll make sure you'll be able to do nothing
but sleep tomorrow."
It never stopped affecting him when Hellar did it;
it never stopped shifting Tsianni's perspective - turn it upside down, to be
exact. In moments like this he stopped thinking completely, stopped wondering
about the reasons, right decisions and justifications.
He just leaned into the embrace, feeling hard chest
under his head, sleek strand of hair falling on his cheek, and clasped his
hands on the arms wrapped around him.
"Did you mean something like 'fuck you silly'
under that, Praetorian?"
"Who do you think? I'm not going to move today
"All right? I can take it as a promise?"
"Have I ever let you down? Just one thing,
"And that would be?.."
"First you'll bathe."
That was okay with him - especially when he closed
his eyes and there were hands peeling his t-shirt off - and it was warm and
quiet, fire cracking in the stove - and the lips touching his shoulder were
what he wanted to feel always, a wonderful thing, promising so much more.
They were going to be all right; he believed it.