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DEAD HEAT

Written by Juxian Tang

Part 10a

On the flyer he started feeling again; he wasn't numb any more - all the awareness of his broken, contused body crashed on him fiercely. It was like a black tide that had been held in until now - and then this something was gone - and the pain was so huge and unstoppable that very soon there was nothing but it.

He threw up; sickness coursed through him in spasms. Hellar was dimly aware that he was vomiting blood - and there was nothing surprising in it; his insides must've been damaged. And he was so weak he couldn't even rise on his hands, for a more comfortable position. He could feel his bones were broken, now - and how he longed for the recent insensitivity of his body...

Then someone grabbed his hair and threw him to the edge of the flyer, apparently for him not to soil the surface. Wind beat in his face, tossing handfuls of his hair in his eyes - but he couldn't see anything underneath, greyness was almost palpable, shrouding everything in front of him. He wanted this greyness to step closer and envelop him - but for some reason it didn't happen.

He still could feel someone's boot on the small of his back, presumably to prevent him from tossing himself down - and someone else kicked his shin - pain exploded in a firework of white as splintered bones grated. He could hear the voices above him - names - Tarkh's, Demir's, his own - well, 'the fuckin' Praetorian', as they called him. And vaguely there was the noise of the engine in his mind, too. Only he couldn't gather strength to take control over it.

He didn't want to.

"I wanted to go to Shegra with you."

He said it to Tarkh when he asked him, over and over - "Why?" - and Hellar didn't know what else to say. And it was only half-truth because if he had wanted that, really, then he wouldn't have tried to kill Tarkh... but it was the truth as well, the truest one - because if he had wanted to kill Tarkh, he would've done it...

He'd done it, after all, hadn't he?

His hand clenched on the metal edge of the flyer, so hard that fingernails were breaking, blood sliding from the raw tips. He remembered how Tarkh's skin felt under his touch - warm and smooth on his chest, rough and tightened on the scars... warm and sweaty - and Tarkh's palms were warm - no, hot - cradling Hellar's face with promise of almost crashing force but never really hurting him.

He'd never hurt Hellar, had he? All those times when he could - in bed, in everyday business - he'd never done any harm to him... until Hellar forced him to. And even then... even after what Hellar had done - Tarkh still did everything to save him - dying so that Hellar could live; dying in disgrace so that Hellar could live.

"You're killing my people!"

He could still hear Tarkh's voice, carried away with the wind, full of such - disbelief - and his black burning eyes stared at Hellar over the flopping facecloth.

"But *you* don't have to die," Hellar said then and smiled, licking blood that trickled from his nose.

Yet all he could see in Tarkh's eyes was anger and betrayal - and when Tarkh lunged at him, he was ready - and fought back.

The choice was simple, right? He had to kill or to die.

And Hellar always made the right choice.

He still could feel how Tarkh's vertebrae snapped under his hands; the memory was branded into his skin and bones - and he knew he would bear it with him till his death, as short as it would be till then - and he knew it would be the only memory he would have.

All the rest he had to forget; he had no right to remember it.

All the rest... Tarkh's body leaning onto his, all heat and wrapped arms - and him melting into this closeness, wanting more of it, wanting it to never stop. Tarkh's well-aimed cock that played Hellar's body masterfully, bringing him to the peak with unerring precision. Fingers exploring his face in the darkness so carefully it was almost tenderness in those touches.

Somehow, before everything started, Hellar believed that he could spare Tarkh, no matter what. He told himself he was ready to do what he had to - but in the deep corner of his mind he thought that, maybe, everything would work out. He'd get what he wanted - his freedom and Shegra; and Tarkh would be where he'd left him - in the camp, going on like before. And, maybe, one day when Hellar was ready, he would return - and they would have everything again - those nights, and shared bottle of kyhf - the bottle neck tasting with Tarkh's lips - and they would talk again, and laugh again.

There would be nothing of it now. There would be no more Tarkh.

Hellar felt almost relieved that soon, as Rhys would start making him pay, there would be no more him either.

The flyer went down - he could feel it in the deep ache in his bones, in another wave of sickness that surged through him. But he had nothing to vomit any more, so, he just hacked dryly.

They landed; he didn't want to see the camp again, the tents and fires and everything he'd thought this morning he was saying farewell to. He recalled a strange expression one of his instructors used, a weird guy who always talked like no normal man would - something about best laid plans of mice and men. Mice... those tiny creatures they used for experiments on biology classes. Hellar really had as small a brain as mice had - as little common sense.

He was almost thankful he couldn't see clearly because it spared him of seeing the camp. But smells were there, anyway - sharper than ever, for some reason - or did it seem to him because of concussion? He couldn't block the smells - smoke, and food, and cheap perfumes of the whores - the crowd must've been gathering around, to see the catch Rhys brought. He couldn't block sounds as well - disembodied voices floating over him - hissing:

"Traitors... killed everyone else... execution..."

He knew he would die; but they didn't know how little he cared. It made him want to laugh.

A boot slammed in his side, throwing him down from the flyer, on the sand. The pain was so stark that he shrieked. His mouth filled with blood again; he choked on it and writhed on the ground, coughing. Someone cursed him again:

"Damned Praetorian... dirty son of bitch..."

"Now, now," Rhys' lilting voice was almost playful, like the whole business was something no more important than punishing a child. "If you are going to kill him, be prepared to take his place. I have big plans for him - and he needs to be in a better shape for that."

Unsurprising, wasn't it?

"And you, my little pet..." Rhys' words reached Hellar but he knew this time the man talked to someone else. "You really told me the truth, didn't you? Don't think I'm not able to appreciate your loyalty. And... since your brand is gone all the same, little Rauni, I don't see the reason for you to return to the whore's tent. I will reward you... by letting you stay at my side."

There was no answer from Tsianni - or Hellar didn't catch it. He felt a smile twisting his lips sardonically.

At least someone benefited from the entire thing. Wasn't it what he, Hellar, wanted? To make it up to the kid somehow... So, let it be. Let Tsianni be alive and well - while his enemies, those whom he hated - Tarkh and Hellar - were gone.

He knew he was picked up - his arms twisted behind his back brutally, another blow in his kidneys - most likely to give him something else to occupy his mind, to prevent him from struggling. They didn't know he was not going to struggle; he'd done it before only to get to Tarkh, to do for him the only thing Hellar could.

Now he had no reason to put up a fight. It was amusing, really. The vicious Praetorian going to the slaughter like a little lamb. He was going to tell them they didn't need to worry - but when he opened his mouth, laughter bubbled in him, rushing out, hurting and choking him but impossible to stop.

He kept laughing as they hit him - and then when he was dragged into dimness of some tent - and when the floor impacted with his broken bones, he slid into unconsciousness still hearing his own laugh.

* * *

He was fourteen and it was the time for the second trial. In the dim insides of the launcher they sat, their uniforms shiny new and crispy, scarlet badges of Legion cadets on the black leather like tiny streaks of blood. Their faces were so white, some looking faintly sick. Opposite to him, the dark-skinned girl looked almost grey. Her teeth chattered. All right, it was very cold in the hold - but Hellar didn't think it was because of cold.

Her name was Johnson III. There had been five Johnsons in their group in the beginning; by now only one was left but everyone still added the number to her name.

They didn't tell them estimated losses for this trail; apparently there were no estimate losses. Numbers could vary - from none to ninety per cent... to everyone dead. It wasn't unheard of.

Next to him Ursula's body was a living, compact source of heat. She always felt hot when close to danger; he kinda liked it. He liked how she wiggled a little - a contrast with still, solid presence of Marshall on his left.

"What are you thinking about?" Her lips nearly touched his ear - and her breath was like a hot gush. He thought about many things - that he wished they had been given some weapons; that if he died, he would never finish the puzzle he'd left on his cot in the barracks. He said:

"Johnson's annoying."

"If she doesn't survive today, there will be no more Johnsons in our group," Ursula said reasonably. And too loudly.

"You're not going to survive, you bitch!" Johnson yelled. Someone from Hellar's side retorted. Johnson's side joined - the belts held them to the seats, though, preventing from lunging into a fight.

Ursula's warm cheek was on his shoulder now; looking askance Hellar saw her pale, almost glowing face seeming pretty contented. She'd done it on purpose - started a quarrel - and they were not supposed to quarrel, had to have better control than that.

"You know we probably won't have anyone to rely upon today, because of you?" he said quietly. The cheek moved against his shoulder in a nod.

"Don't... need anyone," she muttered - and slept. She was a model Praetorian, in better control of her chip than anyone was.

The place of the trial was Nimea. A free-zone planet and safe place for every riff-raff in the galaxy. It was a joke to disembark them in the thick of things, thirty uniformed cadets without a single weapon at their disposal. Like blind kittens. But it was the essence of the trial.

And kittens had claws.

Hellar remembered killing the first man who attacked him, in the first bar they entered - and taking his gun and machete. At his side Ursula gutted another man with a broken bottle - and since then all that stayed in his mind was blood - and more dead bodies - and dead exhaustion in his limbs from killing, and killing, and killing again.

When they couldn't fight, they ran and hid - but by then the city was on riot and every single son of bitch there was after the 'fuckin' Praetorians'' heads. So, when they were spotted, they had to fight again - and he also remembered Ursula's warm back pressed to his - and his knowledge that as long as she was there, he was safe.

Marshall joined them somewhere on the way - and proved to be very useful - and the day was very long - but finally the twilight came - and they managed to make it to the launcher.

Out of thirty, eighteen were going back - coated in blood, of others and their own. It smelled so thick - salty and metallic - in the launcher; and if it was cold, no one noticed it.

Johnson didn't return. If she died, it was really the best for her.

That night, after having their wounds treated - Marshall had a few mean ones but Ursula and Hellar were just scathed - they had sex, three of them, expanding the unity they felt while fighting into bed. And it felt good - and Hellar thought there would be many, many days like this - of his victories - and many nights when pleasure of penetrating and being penetrated melted. He thought he was going to be happy.

Marshall died four years later, stabbed in his back in a drunken fight in one of the Legion bars.

* * *

The high, whining sound of a small machine made his jaws ache. There was pain, too, revolting, sickening alive thing turning in his belly. Hellar groaned and squirmed, trying to escape it - but for some reason he couldn't move much. Everything down from his pelvis was like a stone; everything up was agony.

"Hush," the voice came. "It's just a little pain."

Oh really?

But the voice gave him some incentive. Hellar managed to recall he had a hand - and he used it to push at the annoying machine. A hand swatted his fingers away.

"I said 'hush'. Your spleen is ruptured. I need to mend it."

"Why?" He managed only one word; his lips were so dry - and his tongue felt huge and didn't want to move.

"Because otherwise you'll die." Alora sounded as no-nonsense as always - a bit miffed, too. He wanted to laugh again but it hurt even to curve lips in a smile.

"Good."

"Shut up."

The pain went on. It almost seemed he could feel his tissues knit and mend inside him. He didn't want that. He wanted to hurt - because it was what he deserved - but the pain distracted him, was difficult to bear. He wanted to die; but it was why she was doing it, right? To make him well enough for Rhys to be able to enjoy the execution.

Grey nothingness in front of his eyes dispelled as Hellar managed to raise his eyelids. Alora's lips were pursed, her face focused and completely blank as she kept working on him.

A determined one, wasn't she?

"How long does he want me to last? Days?" He tried hard to put irony in his voice - and it seemed he succeeded. Alora didn't look at him, though - didn't say anything. "Pretty mindless work you're doing, right, huh?"

He didn't know why he tried to bait her. There was no reason why anything he said would bother her. Loyalty among legionaries was a myth; and he was not even a Praetorian any more.

He just wanted her to stop; even if the pain was not going to stop - but he wanted to be with his pain alone.

"You don't need to do your best, you know... it'll be wasted all the same." He didn't achieve more than a whisper but it didn't matter. She heard him. Her hand faltered a little, raising the pain to new heights. "Ooh... that hurt. But I guess it doesn't make any difference..."

"Shut the fuck up!"

Now she hissed - and her hand flew up as if she was going to slap him. For some reason she didn't.

"Or what? Or you'll kill me?"

He wanted to die, didn't he? And in the end it didn't matter if he went to death broken as he was - or mended somehow; all the difference was that it just would continue a bit longer then. He could take it. He just had to lie back and take what she gave him.

"Do you think you can make me do that?" Alora's pale eyes, full of sarcasm, glared at him now. "Do you think I have so little self-control that you can make me snap?"

It wasn't really that. She wouldn't harm him - because if she did, she would pay. It was that simple; she was following the orders. So what was the point?

"Just leave me alone," he said.

"I can't do it, you know, you stupid fuck? Do you think I enjoy it? To have all my work drained to the gutter? To have one of my own mended just to send him to death?"

Something was broken in her voice, like there was splintered glass in her throat that made it painful to talk.

He closed his eyes, trying to swallow; there was no saliva at all.

"Rhys won't notice," he said. "I won't give you away. You know I can do it. I'll last long enough for him to be pleased."

For some reason it got to her worse than anything Hellar said until now. The machine even moved away but didn't stop humming.

"You idiot, you stupid idiot, what have you done?"

I hurried, he thought; I just hurried. If he waited some more, tried to persuade Tarkh... or learned better control over engines... it could be different.

Yeah, believe that.

He didn't even know what Alora meant, in fact. That he sided with Tarkh? That he killed Tarkh, depraving Rhys of revenge?

The machine kept humming - but it didn't touch his body now. And it was a great feeling, a big relief. The pain, as huge and cumbersome as it was - it was Hellar's own. He could live with it; could carry it with him to the very end.

As long as Alora didn't mess with him any more.

There was some wetness on his tongue, warm and brackish - and it seemed to come from the cracks on his lips but Hellar savored it. The silence, broken just with the soft humming of the machine, stretched - he didn't know for how long - but there was nothing bad in it; it was almost lulling.

"Where was your second trial?" he asked.

With his eyes closed he couldn't see Alora's reaction, just heard her shift a little. She was silent for so long Hellar thought she wouldn't answer; maybe, she didn't remember. Or they had a different set of trials when she was in training.

"On Borghi."

"Ah."

A tough place; very bad ecology. Only most desperate of criminals landed there.

"They had native population then," she explained, without him prompting her. "There were rebellions. We were sent to keep the order. It was only later they threw those mercuric bombs that no one could live there."

"How many of yours survived?"

"Eleven per cent."

"That's bad."

"I survived," she said. "It's all that mattered."

"I survived, too," he echoed.

That was the crux of it, right? He'd survived so many times, in so many places, at such a high price. He survived even after he lost everything - the Legion, the chip - after he was turned into a whore. There was something so awfully tenacious in him that kept clutching at life even at the lowest points, that made him discard the thought of suicide. His pride - his firm belief that somehow he'd get through, that somehow he still was the best one - the remnants of it still made him resist Alora's treatment.

But most of it was shattered. He wanted to die; and he wanted to die in peace.

"If it makes you feel better, I'll say I'm sorry," Alora said. "There's nothing personal in what I do. I just follow the orders."

Her voice was sensible again; no nostalgic notes in it, no anger or distress. She cooperated with her chip very well, obviously.

The machine moved towards him again - and the pain rose, to the apex, so bad that Hellar cried out weakly. But it was not the pain that was the worst - it was his fury that she still was doing it, even though he asked her...

Why didn't she listen when he promised not to give her away?

He reached mentally to the machine, almost unaware that he was doing it - and shattered the fragile mechanism. Just switching it off would be insufficient, he knew it - so, he damaged it irreparably.

The silence was blissful, the humming gone.

Above him, Alora made a snorting noise. Through half-raised eyelashes he saw surprised, almost disbelieving look on her face as she looked at the machine, apparently trying to make it work again. It didn't work, of course.

Hellar watched her maliciously as she got up, chose another device from her bag. This one he crashed as soon as it started humming - and found a great pleasure in doing so. After everything that happened, after Tarkh, he told himself he wouldn't use his ability again - that it would be the price he would pay for what he'd done. But now he was doing it again; and even though blood leaked from his nose - he was so weak that controlling even such small mechanisms hurt - he liked it.

He saw Alora cast a suspicious glance at him. She apparently was checking if he witnessed her fiasco. But something in his eyes must have told her he was involved.

Only how could he be involved, he even didn't touch those things, right?

Hellar watched her come up to him. She wasn't a stupid woman, Alora - none of them Praetorians was. There was another device in her hand. This one was for treating poisoning - had nothing to do with him - and she switched it on almost demonstratively.

He put it out as well.

She looked at him. His eyelids felt heavy and there was salty blood trickling into his mouth.

"Keep them away from me," he said. "I can break them all."

* * *

The pause was so long and so quiet that he could hear steady noise of blood in his ears, in cadence with his heartbeat. From outside, the voices of bandits and women reached him. He wondered if it was already dusk; Rhys would have him executed after the dinner - would start executing him, in any case.

Alora's stance was as still as a statue, her withered face very blank, with only her pale-blue eyes seeming alive. Bony hand clutched the damaged machine.

"What else can you do?"

She finally asked it - and he answered her; why not, there was no gain he could or wanted to get from keeping it secret.

"I can control engines, other things... pretty much everything powered."

Her eyes flashed, as if she recalled something.

"The grub... that's how you took it out."

He knew what was behind those cautious words - could read in her eyes what she didn't mention - that she made a connection and understood it was him who destroyed Demir's flyer - and Tarkh's flyer as well... that he was not Tarkh's accomplice in treachery but the traitor himself.

"The thing had enough metal in it for me to control it," he said.

She moved; the tampered device felt on the ground - and Alora was right over him now, leaning towards him like a viper, her watery eyes hard and piercing.

"And how about weapons? Can you control a blaster?"

He didn't know; he hadn't thought about it. He didn't usually feel connection with the guns - but then, maybe, they were just too small for that. A moment later there was one in Alora's hand, point blank at him.

"Stop me," she hissed.

Why should I, he thought. He wanted to die, after all.

She probably took it into account - would have missed deliberately or something - but he didn't let her shoot. His instinct overruled his consciousness - sent a signal to his brain - and his mind reached for the small mechanism of the gun, impeding the shot.

Alora raised the blaster to her eyes, looking at it intently. Hellar saw how her chest rose and fell in hasty breaths. She was hyperventilating, he realized suddenly. He'd never seen her so agitated.

Yet he was strangely calm; it was a feeling of deepest tranquility that suddenly descended on him. Perhaps never in his life he had felt so unperturbed.

Whatever Alora was going to do - he didn't care. If she ran out now and called for Rhys - and Rhys decided to multiply tortures for Hellar's crime... or if Rhys tried to put Hellar's ability to serve him... he didn't know whether he'd die then or if he'd try to blow up every single thing in the camp at first - which most possibly would kill him as well.

He just didn't care.

Very quietly Alora stepped away and tucked the blaster into her robes. Her voice was low and tight as she spoke.

"How long... do you have this ability?"

"Since getting to the camp," he said. "Maybe, even before - but I didn't realize it. Since the chip was gone, likely."

"De-chipping doesn't do it," she dismissed it.

He shrugged. Alora paced around the tent, frowning - he could see how hard she was thinking, Hellar just didn't know what about.

"Perhaps de-chipping triggered it," she said finally. "In any case, it came to you here, on the planet, correct?"

"Correct." Perhaps. He wasn't sure. He couldn't make himself wonder.

"It's laughable, really," she whispered. He didn't know what was so funny - and in any case, she talked to herself rather than to him. "To waste more than twenty years... for one... and then realize that it was... another..."

She glared at him.

"Do you even realize, you stupid asshole, who you are?"

He would have taken offense if it hadn't been so ridiculous... and tiresome. He didn't understand what she talked about; and he didn't care.

"I guess I do."

"No shit. You heard about Intellic, didn't you?"

"The big comp... the one that pre-constructed the future, right?"

"Word perfect," she laughed - and there was a distinct hysterical note in her chuckle. "He predicted you."

"Me?" Not even funny. "Me - like Carlos Hellar, former Captain of Praetorians, blah blah..."

"You - like 'The One'," she spat. "If I'm not mistaken - and I'm not mistaken, I can feel it..."

She was rubbing her hands, in a feverish, nervous gesture. It was strange how little her excitement affected him. It was not that he thought she suddenly went crazy; but anything she said, even though it had everything to do with him, still seemed so distant, of no interest at all.

"You know about this prediction, don't you?"

"Pre-construction," he corrected her feebly.

"Pre-construction, whatever! I spent fuckin' half of my life tracking it - and just to have you flop on my head like this, after all!"

"Why do you think I am 'the one'?" He really didn't want to know. "I can't be."

She didn't quite answer - she was rather talking to herself, the pale hands wrenching each other furiously.

"The planet - it said 'The One' would come to his force there... it said 'The One' was not a respectable member of society... it said 'The One' would control - it didn't say what - we assumed it would be people... but is Rhys' control that unavoidable - for those who wants to avoid it?"

Rhys...

"Don't discard Rhys so easily... If I were you, I would rather bet on him than on me."

"Nonsense," she made a sharp movement with her hand, as if cutting Hellar's words short. "It all makes sense now! We Praetorians created you - and now, as you realized your powers, we are going to take you back. And more than that," her eyes had an almost fanatic look in them, "now it becomes clear... I always wondered how it could mean Rhys... The pre-constructions are made when the factor comes to existence, you know that? Intellic told about 'The One' twenty-six years ago. How old are you? Rhys is much, much older..."

Perhaps she was crazy, after all, Hellar thought. Someone who was so eager to forfeit the meaning of all her life had to be.

"I watched the wrong one for twenty-two years," Alora finished with a chuckle. Her eyes were too moist - if Hellar didn't know better, he would think she was crying. And yet she looked at him... as if he was a gift she was about to unwrap. And it didn't make him feel happy.

He didn't feel much at all, telling the truth. If she was right - he was supposed to be excited; if she was mistaken, he could feel disappointment for his glorification was so brief. Hellar felt neither.

It was like he was forced to play the game when he was tired or it didn't interest him. And he liked games; all his life had been games, contests, striving to win, to get a prize... to survive.

The sad thing was that he probably could be the one Intellic babbled in his prediction about.

But he couldn't care less about changing the world. He couldn't care less about changing his own fate.

He hurt; he was exhausted; he wanted it to be over.

His eyelids finally grew too heavy and he let them fall down. Not seeing was peaceful - and even if Hellar couldn't stop hearing, couldn't stop feeling pain, he tried to believe that he was wrapped into nothingness all the same.

Nothingness broke when bony finger poked into his chest. He looked up and bared his teeth at Alora.

She leaned over him with the usual determination in her face.

"Stop moping around. There is no way I'll let you die, you prick. You don't belong to yourself any more."

What's new there, he thought.

*******************************************************

Part 10b

There was a bath; a real bath with enough water to come to the middle of his shins as he sat in the tub - not the meagre, heavily scented amount of liquid he had to use for cleaning before: perfumed oils used to drown the smell of perfumed oils. Tsianni dunked his head into the water, scrubbing his scalp until no grain of sand was left in his hair and the braids became smooth and flexible. Rivulets of water ran from them over his shoulders as he leaned against the edge of the trough, his skin quickly getting dry on the hot air. The curtains flopped gently under the breeze - and it was the only sound he heard.

So quiet; so alone. He wanted to scream. But of course he knew better than that. A small wound he gnawed on the inside of his lip secured his silence.

There were clothes; more clothes that he'd worn for ages, it seemed. Rough fabric felt good under his palms; the colors were dark - grey and brown and black. Facecloth. Boots. The bracelets, earrings and other stuff Tsianni piled near to the tub; he didn't know, he might be allowed to keep them - but he didn't want them. His own wristbands were gone and he didn't want anything that a whore wore.

He didn't know why he put on a single decoration - actually, not a decoration at all - but the thin lace with small bells on it, the one from Tarkh's boot. Tsianni wrapped it around his wrist, a poor trinket, jiggling very softly at his movements.

A big murky mirror showed his reflection - and for a moment Tsianni had an almost surreal feeling of un-recognition. The face was half-hidden behind the cloth; the silhouette was alien; it could be any other bandit he looked at. It could be Tarkh; it could be Hellar.

What if it was the Praetorian's clothes? A sudden panic flooded Tsianni, making him pull at the sleeves of his robe frantically. Hellar didn't need clothes any more - they could give them to Tsianni, right? He sniffed the fabric. No, it didn't smell bitterly with metal oxides and herbs; in fact, it only smelled with sand and heat.

Likely it belonged to some other misfortunate whose body was processed and turned into useful extracts that Rhys sent to the plant in the capital.

Beggars cannot be choosers, right?

A smile curved Tsianni's lips under the facecloth but the eyes stayed completely non-amused. In fact, the eyes that looked at him from the mirror seemed to be screaming... for help.

Stupid, wasn't it? He didn't need help; he was not in any danger. He was so well off as he hadn't been for weeks. The brand was gone; the whore's clothes discarded. And all he needed to do for that was to write a few lives off his consciousness.

Oh gods. He raised his hand clenched in the fist - as if he wanted to smash it against the mirror - but he never finished the gesture. And the mirror was brass anyway, didn't break.

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 accept it.

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 better.

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 negligence."

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 couldn't deny.

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 sincere:

"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 right now.

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 brand off...

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 well."

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 an effort.

"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 him!"

"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 at?"

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, Rhys."

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 sound.

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 half-mockingly.

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 condemning.

It is your choice, boy, the eyes said, I'm not going to make it for you.

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 not?"

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!

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.

"Cousin."

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 again.

"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 clear saying:

"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 could give.

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 stepped back.

"Hey, little Rahuni," Rhys' voice sounded amused and yet tight. "What was it all about? Aren't you going to revenge yourself?"

"You told me to judge him," he didn't turn back fully, still couldn't make himself look at Rhys. "I... decided to amnesty him."

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 in kind.

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...

Whatever.

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 retreating now.

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, anyway.

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 this hellhole!"

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, Alora."

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 disgustingly fascinating.

"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.

"One 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:

"Thanks."

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 her deftly.

"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:

"Ursula!"

*************************************************

Part 11a

"Ursula."

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, correct?"

"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 unmarked.

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 nothing hurt.

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 of him.

"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.

"Leaving!"

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 eyes.

"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.

"Good riddance."

"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 his domain.

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 immediately.

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 you're alive."

"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.

"How dared you, Captain?"

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 more!"

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 complained...

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 important."

"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 Alexis.

"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.

"Dimitriades."

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 mildly.

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, de-chipping... disgrace.

"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 positive one?"

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 'The One'..."

"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 it?"

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 immediately.

"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 consideration..."

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.

"Difficult."

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 she got.

"I'm with Alexis now, you know," she said mildly.

"I know," he nodded.

He didn't think anything would be like before anyway.

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?"

"No."

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."

"Now sleep."

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 words now.

"We feel 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:

"You are ours, you know that... we need you... you will do what we want... soon... very soon..."

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 another.

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 shower.

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.

"Sir."

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 his request.

"Any more 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 Ursula anyway.

"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 reasonably. "Alora..."

"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."

"No shit."

"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 much."

"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 mission?"

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 dryly.

"Not likely."

"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 walked out.

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:

"You belong to us... we created you... soon we shall need you... and you will do it for us."

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 Goddess.

He had to hold on to the wall while getting back to the sickbay - but finally he coped all right with it.

***********************************************************

Part 11b

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 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 a while.

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 left.

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 other!

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 fucking someone...

Someone else.

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 door.

"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.

"Lights on."

He was not alone. At the viewing port, looking at the dull blackness outside, arms wrapped around his chest, there was the Praetorian.

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 notice it?

"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 close...

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 was enough.

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 he came.

* 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.

"He's nothing," Tsianni recalled easy, unconcerned voice he'd overheard from Tarkh's tent.

Maybe, Hellar saw him as two different people as well.

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 ability then.

"Do you know what kind of ships are there? And how many?"

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 should be."

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 looking back.

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, crestfallen.

"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..."

*************************************************

Part 12a

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... 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.

"What do you want?"

"Don't 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.

"How?"

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 amused them.

"You will 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 worse.

He didn't know if he would be able to go this way once again.

"We called for them. Many, many of them - all ready for you, to come and take him..."

It wasn't possible, they really didn't mean it, did they?

"Why?"

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 doing?"

They are here for me, Hellar thought. You will die because of me.

"They don't have to die."

"What do I have to do?"

"Take 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.

"I can't." Blood was salty on his lips and as he licked it, new trickles ran."Too many..."

"Don't 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 slightly.

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...

"Eat this!"

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.

"Stop her," 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 you doing?"

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.

"Don't 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 that...

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...

"What are you doing to me?"

"Why, using you, of course." Their laughter made him sick, made him bleed more. "What good are you else for, human?"

Indeed; it just didn't make it any easier - that it'd happened to him before, in different ways.

"You 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 help.

"Will I?"

"Oh yes."

"Why me?"

It sounded weak but he couldn't help it.

"Because 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 soon 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."

"Not all 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.

"The chip dampened your abilities, made them latent - but once it was removed... You became exactly what we needed."

"We 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."

"It does 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.

"Now it is time." 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.

"Do it."

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 change.

"Make 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 unscathed.

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 or die.

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.

"Come on, 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 others die?

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.

"Do it."

He couldn't scream, just another breath broke through his teeth - and it hurt so much that screaming wouldn't help anyway.

"Do it and die," 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 go there...

***********************************************************

Part 12b

"You know 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.

"We'll 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 yourself into?

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.

Fuck it.

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 could do.

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 all.

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 Praetorian.

* * *

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, huh?

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 hurting.

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 light.

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 answer.

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.

"Kid..."

Fingers, cold, captured his hand, squeezed tightly. Tsianni squeezed back, not knowing what else to do, just waiting, just meeting Hellar's stare.

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."

***********************************************************

Epilogue

"Will you take half a payment in credits or only dirs?"

"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 muttered.

"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 father's enterprise.

"No thanks."

"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 this.

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 house.

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 rocks?"

"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, relaxing.

"I'm home."

"I'm not deaf or blind, you know."

"Oh yeah?"

"Absolutely."

You're gonna 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 the table.

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 unpack."

Hellar glared at him; now Tsianni looked unrepented. Then the Praetorian turned to the table and started pulling the things out of the backpack.

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 tiredness.

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 could.

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.

"You'll 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.

"You 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.

"We'll see," 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."

"Nice, huh?"

"And even nicer if you left some of that bread behind."

Hellar glanced at the mangled piece in his hand and snorted.

"You're lucky - I did cook something for us."

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 the ceiling.

"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 feet?"

"The laces are tied."

"I see."

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.

"Ooh."

"Better?"

"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 helping Tsianni.

"Wonderful..."

"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 newspapers?"

"Ah?"

Hadn't he just assured Tsianni he wasn't either deaf or blind?

"Something about..."

"Oh... no."

"Then what?"

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.

"That."

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 Rahuni tribe.

"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 cousin?"

"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 hilarious."

"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 shrugged.

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 dinner?"

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, is there?"

A look back, through the strands of black hair.

"I thought you would take that as awful enough."

"Nah."

"Good."

"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 lost nothing.

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 only recently.

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?"

"Ugh ghu."

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 that start."

"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?"

"Fuck who?"

"Who do you think? I'm not going to move today any more."

"All right."

"All right? I can take it as a promise?"

"Have I ever let you down? Just one thing, Rahuni..."

"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.

THE END

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