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Original Fiction
Space Opera by Juxian Tang

Part 01


He was weak and stupid by definition; he was not supposed to be anything else. And even though he did have enough intelligence to realize that the world was falling apart around him then, all he could do was to watch helplessly, without hope that anything would ever be the same again.

Everything started with the howling sound of the alarm - and Kai's master marched out of their quarters, his face paler and older than ever, his jaw set resolutely.

"Stay here!" he snapped as Kai trailed towards him - and Kai obeyed, of course, sat and waited and tried to lull himself into not hearing the shrill sound of the siren and yells in the corridors.

His master never returned. The noise stopped - but when the door opened, there were strangers coming in. They dragged him out, first along the empty corridors of Intrepido, then through the facilities of another ship and finally locked him in this small empty room where he currently was.

He didn't know how much time he spent there. He slept for a while, curled on a low protrusion at the wall that might or might not be intended as a bed; the white, matted light never changed. Kai started getting thirsty - and he wanted to piss pretty badly.

He flinched as the door slid open; there were two men in black uniform - he didn't know if they were the ones who had found him on Intrepido, he'd been too confused then to remember. From these two, one was a middle-aged, solidly built man with short-cropped grey-blond hair; the other one, much younger and with slightly longish dark hair, was perfectly, coldly beautiful. His eyes of silvery translucence stopped indifferently on Kai who stared up at them, sitting on his heels.

"Get up, slut," the blond man said.

Kai obeyed hastily; the note of anger in the man's voice was unmistakable - these things Kai sensed very well. He stood up with his eyes lowered, hoping his deference would be enough to pacify the man.

"I meant no disrespect, sir ..."

A blow threw him against the wall; dazed, he saw a flash of contentment in the blond man's eyes. Kai's lips and nose felt numb and as he raised his hand to touch his face tentatively, his fingers got wet and hot with blood.

"Did you really need to do it, Kazarin?" the dark-haired man said neutrally, barely with a tinge of distaste.

"It's nothing that he doesn't deserve." The man looked at his adorned hand, readjusting one of signet rings carefully. "I hate the likes of him."

"The likes of him? Genetically engineered slaves?"

"Genetic whores."

Kai sat on the floor, swallowing blood, and wondered what he was expected to do now. The man had told him to get up - but then he'd knocked him down himself. Moving now could anger him even more. Kai felt his head start aching; he hated the situations when he didn't know what to do, when he had to make a choice and any option could turn wrong.

He stayed as he was, finally, watching the feverish glitter in Kazarin's eyes.

"Heartless things," the man said. "Stupid dolls who wear jewelry worth hundreds thousands. Any normal man feels sick looking at them."

"You exaggerate, Leon."

"Oh do I? Maybe, your problem, Victor, is that you already don't know what a normal man feels. You imagine yourself more Heles than Heles themselves are, don't you?"

"You exaggerate," the young man repeated blandly.

Kazarin didn't answer, shrugged - and suddenly caught Kai's braid and pulled him up. The yank was so hard that Kai gasped. He scrambled on his feet as quickly as possible but it still was not quickly enough. His hand flew up, trying to protect his hair from the pull.

"Hands down!" The man slapped him, not hard enough to knock him off his feet again. Kazarin's eyes, bright blue, peered at him in distaste. "You touch me, whore, and I'll break every one of your fingers. And don't you dare talk to me."

Kai who was already about to confirm hastily: 'Yes, sir. I understand, sir,' just flinched and nodded. Kazarin pushed him away, wiped his hand on the jacket.

"Take off your jewelry."

Kai pulled off his rings. He had a lot of them, some really precious; his master liked Kai to be adorned generously, bought plenty of decorations during the time he owned Kai. Kai knew he didn't have the right to give them away since they didn't belong to him but he didn't see how he could prevent the man from taking them - even if his master would be angry with him for that ...

The gems, green and red and white, didn't sparkle in the dull light but glowed quietly. Kai held the rings in his hands until Kazarin provided him a bag.

"Bracelets. And the necklace. And the belt."

He gave them all away; it was a little unusual, not to feel the weight and polished metal on his skin. His master had a peculiar taste, wanted to see some things on Kai even when he had nothing else on.

"Why did you stop? Earrings!" Kazarin snapped. Kai looked at him helplessly as he pulled on the clasps, without much hope.

"Sir ..." He remembered he was not supposed to talk but what else could he do? "Sir, I can't take them off. They don't open ..."

It was the truth; the earrings, long pendants of white gold layered with diamonds were an ancient work and General got them for a lower price exactly because they didn't open well. He said they suited Kai enough to wear them constantly.

"It's possible to file the pins ..." Kai suggested in a barely audible voice. He knew Kazarin wouldn't like it, could see near-thunder in the man's eyes. He wished he could do something to stop it, to pacify this anger - but he didn't know how.

"You're really brain-damaged," the man said with a shrug. He had such an expression as if it all was far beyond his tolerance. "You expect me to ruin these things just to take them off of you?"

He reached his hand and yanked. Kai guessed he was going to do it and couldn't keep from raising his hands protectively. But it was too late - and to the better; who knew how Kazarin would react if Kai did try to hinder him. Pain splashed over his earlobes. Kazarin gave a short pleased smile, holding the earrings in his fist.

"You'll still have to file them open," the other man, Victor, said.

"Maybe." Kazarin was unfazed. "If they truly don't open. If it was a lie, the slut got what he deserved. And if not - well, I can't say I'm sorry."

"I know you're not sorry, Kazarin."

"Now, whore, I want you to strip. And carefully, don't smear your blood on the clothes."

Kai shivered. He had wondered if it'd come up to that, if Kazarin's anger were just a prelude. It would be nothing he hadn't done before, he told himself, unbuttoning his long jacket.

"There is no time for your sexual activities, Kazarin."

"Huh?" The man turned to his companion, his eyebrows drawn together in disbelief. "I'm not going to fuck him, Victor. The slut would probably enjoy it too much. I need his dress. Do you have any idea how much it costs?"

Kai handed away the heavy jacket, trying not to make the eye contact with Kazarin. The man didn't seem satisfied.

"Shoes."

He took them off and stayed barefoot. The floor was icy - or, maybe, it just seemed to him. He was dizzy with nervousness.

"Continue."

The rest was not for the value of his clothes; Kai knew it. He felt Kazarin's unfaltering gaze on himself as he stripped. His teeth started chattering, he didn't know with cold or with agitation. There was nothing new in his situation, he reminded himself. Just imagine it was another auction. But the truth was he'd hardly ever been viewed in such a hostile way before. And he also knew he was not regarded as something valuable - not by Kazarin, anyway.

"Is it what some people are ready to pay such money for?" Kazarin kept looking at him; Kai could feel it unmistakably. Was it going to end? He wished desperately it was over at last. "What is so good about him? His ass is tighter than any other? He sucks better?"

"I believe it's more like ... a fashion point," Victor said conversationally. "There are always people who are prepared to pay for something far beyond necessity. That's why genetics are considered a luxury."

"I see," Kazarin jeered. "If these sluts just didn't interfere with the lives of normal people ... Wait. What is it?"

Kai couldn't help it, looked up and saw the direction of Kazarin's gaze. He swallowed upcoming sickness. He had forgotten ... he should have taken it himself - a pin with ruby pendant going through his left nipple.

"I assume it doesn't unlock as well," Kazarin said icily.

"It does ..." Kai started but it was too late. Pain scalded his chest as blood trickled from his torn nipple. He cried out and bit his lip quickly, shushing himself. It hurt much worse than his earlobes, and brought tears to his eyes.

"Dress!"

A bundle of soft, cheap clothes landed in front of him on the floor. Kai snatched them up quickly, nearly gasping in relief. There was not much - just jeans and a t-shirt - but it was so much better than nothing. He dressed hastily, clenching his teeth as the cloth brushed over his split nipple.

There was no order or warning to heed this time; Kazarin just hit him as soon as he straightened up. Kai landed on the floor, pressed to the wall and watched with terrified eyes as Kazarin raised his hand again.

The next blow never came; Victor caught it in the mid-way as his hand lay on Kazarin's wrist. The man turned back, his face distorted with fury. Victor's still-water eyes seemed as serene as before.

"Enough brutalizing him; we're short of time for these things. Take him to the others."

"Okay, okay." The last thing Kazarin did was to yank out the hair slides holding Kai's hair. Kai felt his braid unplait, fall loosely over his shoulders. Kazarin opened the door and shoved him outside.

* * *

He learned quickly that snow could hurt. During the first minutes it just burned, was crumbly and prickly under his feet. But as the time passed - ankle deep in soft white blanket - the pain came.

He tried not to think about it, looked up at the fascinated faces of the elder boys, listened to them giggle and put the bets. Or looked down at their black shiny boots, laced with new-fallen snow. He had to think about something else, repeat square and cube roots or conjugations or whatever the first lesson in the morning had to be - just to forget about the cutting pain in his feet, starting somewhere in his bones and spreading up like slow fire.

Some kid next to him didn't keep it up and wept and begged to be let in. But Stacey had to stop listening to it. It could make him as weak as the boy was - and then he would fail, would lose the game ... He wouldn't listen, wouldn't look at the boy's bluish, shriveled prick and at his feet buried under the layer of snow. He would stand - even as spasms started going through his legs.

He would win.

In Stacey's set of favorite nightmares, this one came when he was cold. He knew it and hated it and would gladly do without sleep when it was likely to come. But two days with nothing to occupy himself with except dreams or fretting over the future were too boring and exhausting.

With an effort of will Stacey discarded the remnants of sleep, reacquiring his orientation in reality. Real good. He was stuffy, had the blanket wrapped around his head - and his feet were icy-cold, not covered by anything. No wonder the dream decided it was a good time to visit him.

He tossed and turned, huddled into the thin blanket, trying to settle more comfortably on the hard surface. The sight of the people, alone and in small groups, curled on the floor around him, the sound of their sleepy breath and unquiet moaning had something almost surrealistic in it. Not pacifying but unnerving - and Stacey wondered how many of them were in the middle of their own nightmares right now.

Two days in the cold, lit with unceasing, dull white light premise - no news about their possible destiny - it was hard. No wonder that people deteriorated. Stacey noticed it by himself - how irritated he got when hearing someone's hysterics or laments. So far he managed to keep away from saying something he could regret later - but in this state he was not sure it'd be for long.

He closed his eyes again - and looked up almost immediately as the low sounds of voices came from the door. He thought for a moment there were their jailers with some orders or information - but saw only a few of the crewmembers there.

He knew them, Andrews and company, always up to something. He didn't like them; they talked quietly enough not wake up the others and if Stacey didn't want to listen, he could do that easily ... could fall asleep again. And what? Ride another nightmare?

"Wow! I can't believe my eyes! You don't look so smart any more - I wonder what kind of price one would get for you now."

It was some kind of particular meanness in Andrews' voice that got Stacey's attention, not even the words themselves. He sat up and peered at the small group.

There were four of the men standing and one sitting on the floor, pressing to the wall in a pose that reminded Stacey of a cornered animal. For a moment he couldn't believe Andrews dared to treat any one of the crew this way - and at the next moment he understood the man was not a part of the crew.

He looked faintly familiar, a very young man, nearly a boy, with long shiny-black hair spilled over his shoulders. The kid's face was smeared with dry blood and his slanting eyes were wide, looking up at his tormentors with an anguished, startled expression.

"Not so proud any more, are you? When you warmed up General Herrera's bed, you thought yourself better than any of us, didn't you? Look where you're now!"

Stacey saw Andrews push the kid in the side with his foot; the young man seemed to wind up even tighter, almost as if trying to meld into the wall. The bad thing was there was nowhere to go anymore.

It suddenly struck him where he'd seen the boy. Exactly as Andrews said - with Herrera as the general, an imperious man in his fifties, had boarded Intrepido. The general's arm laid around the waist of a reedy young man, exotically beautiful and clad in a white, heavily embroidered dress. Stacey remembered the long thick braid that fell over the kid's shoulder - and the enormous eyelashes shadowing his long hazel eyes. The kid hadn't been out of the general's quarters for all the time of the trip.

And so - was it him?

"General's bitch," one of the men from Andrews' company spat.

"An overpriced bitch," Andrews added. "You won't earn so much in your life as they pay for those genetic freaks."

A genetic. It didn't come to Stacey's mind for some reason. On the other hand, he hadn't seen any before. So, the boy was one of those slaves sold and bought for astronomical prices, not a lover or a ward ...

"Why does it seem to me you're not happy with our company," Andrews continued. "You don't like to mingle with us, normal people, do you? You expect your general to get you out of here? Don't hope much for it - and do you know why?"

The kid's huge, very serious eyes stopped on the man. His voice, lilting, soft, sounded barely audibly:

"No, sir. I don't know."

It made them laugh.

"Because the old goat is as good as dead. He got himself sentenced by the Heles - and he got all of us imprisoned."

There was a rather mesmerized expression in the kid's eyes, as if he hardly understood what the man talked about. Then Andrews made another step towards him and the boy tried to back away some more - but couldn't.

"Your fuckin' master is the reason why we all are here," Andrews said. "So, you'll have to make it up for us."

The kid's eyes were wide open, making him look strangely defenseless as he passed his gaze from one face to another. He was holding on his hair, handfuls of it, probably hard enough to cause pain, but he didn't seem to notice.

He looked both scared and exhausted, Stacey thought. His lips were almost blue in color and he was shivering. It might be fear as well but Stacey also could see he had nothing but flimsy pants and a t-shirt on. No socks or a blanket. The Heles were damn bastards, Stacey thought; well, they kept the temperature on the verge of tolerable to have the prisoners lazy and unwilling to move but they stuck this kid here without any protection from cold at all ...

The genetic's gaze focused on Andrews at last, hopelessly and unhappily.

"How can I make it up for you, sir?" he asked softly.

The men laughed. Stacey felt a wave of nausea. He didn't like it - hell, he didn't want to witness it at all, should've tried to fall asleep at the very moment he noticed something fishy. Now it was too late ...

"Don't play the fool," Andrews said huskily. "You know what you're good for, bitch."

The kid's fingers that clenched on his hair were white-knuckled. Stacey saw traces of crusted blood on his small earlobes. The kid's throat was trembling as if he tried to swallow and couldn't.

"Move. Don't make us wait." Andrews kicked him under the ribs. It was not a hard blow, their boots were taken away, but heavy enough to make the kid crouch on the floor. He got back on his knees, sleepwalking-like slowly, and held on to his t-shirt.

Stacey got up on his feet before he had time to think - and was on the way over. They didn't notice him before he was at the group - and the men looked back at him in surprise as he squeezed between them. The kid knelt, his eyes blank, looking somewhere past all of them as he clenched his hands on the hem of his t-shirt.

"Ah, Radek." Andrews turned to him. "Wanna join? We're gonna have a party here."

"I actually intended to spoil your party," he said quietly. He didn't feel quiet, anger ran like fuel in his veins; but he knew he had to stay calm, couldn't let it go, couldn't let himself snap. He knew what could happen if he lost control again ...

"Why that?" Andrews' tone was unconcerned but his eyes didn't smile.

" 'Cause I'm going to take him away," Stacey muttered and spread his blanket, as if shielding the kid with it. The genetic flinched as the coarse cloth touched him, seemed to snap back to reality and looked up at Stacey for the first time. The blankness from his eyes was gone, replaced once again with misery, tiredness and fear, all floating in the expanded pupils. And then, very slowly, some understanding glimmered there. "Get up, kid. Let's go," Stacey smiled.

"You think you're the boss, Radek, don't you?"

The kid got on his feet and pressed closer to Stacey under the shared blanket. His eyes darted from Stacey to the others frantically. He reminded Stacey of a frightened rabbit; he put his arm around the kid's shoulders and felt him tremble thinly.

Andrews blocked their way; even faked cheerfulness was gone from his face.

"We have different rules. First come, first served, heard about it? We got him first - you can use him after us if you wish."

Stacey's jaw ached - he clenched his teeth so hard, fighting down the memories. He couldn't let them crowd on him or he wouldn't be able to stop it and it would get too ugly. You can use him ... The glimpses of the past streamed in, all the blood, pain and shame and body after body he had accepted. And anger ... Stacey's best acquaintance and worst enemy, the anger that had nearly ruined his life. No, it wouldn't happen again. Even Andrews wouldn't make it happen.

"No one's going to use him." The words came off in a satisfying way, quite calmly. "Let us pass, Andrews, or I'll cry blue murder so that not only half of the crew but even Heles will be here in a moment."

"No one will interfere," Andrews said but his voice gave away his doubts and Stacey latched onto it.

"I think you're wrong." He moved past Andrews, propelling the genetic in front of himself.

"You're a smug son of bitch," Andrews said through the clenched teeth.

"And you stink," Stacey dropped. Silly; he knew he didn't smell roses himself.

But being silly was better than letting his anger go. And making Andrews think that he'd rather call for help than fight was better, too.

Besides, it did work.

He wondered, though, how correct Andrews was in his assertion that no one would interfere. Walking back to his place, he kept meeting the stares of the crewmates - their eyes moved away hastily. As for the Heles ... well, they probably thought about something when putting the kid here - but it was not likely they would be interested in his well being, as they were not interested in the well being of any human.

"Where is your blanket?"

The kid made a short hitching breath; he looked as if he needed to gather his courage to answer.

"I haven't got any, sir." The voice was too quiet. "I'm sorry ..."

"It's okay. We can use mine. I bet it'll be even warmer, shared body heat, you know. If you don't mind, that is - or do you prefer to freeze?"

"No, sir," the kid said seriously. "I don't like the cold, sir."

"Who does?" Stacey settled down on the floor. "Come on, sit next to me. Closer. Put your arms around me."

The kid was as quiet as a mouse. Stacey felt the thin slender arms wrap around his ribcage carefully, without pressure. The fuckin' blanket was too small for one, let alone two. Stacey looked up unhappily. There had been a reserve of blankets when the crew of Intrepido had been brought here but now people pilfered them and he didn't think anyone would share.

"Get your feet between mine." Man, the kid's soles were icy. Like he'd been standing in the snow ...

Stacey didn't like this thought; there was no point to think about it - and, after all, he'd already done enough for the kid.

His feet would hurt like hell once they'd start warming up ...

"All right, all right," he replied to his own thoughts and pulled his socks off. "Here, take them. I don't think they are cleanest socks in the world but if you are not squeamish ..."

The kid looked at him with an expression akin to awe.

"No, sir ... please. You'll get cold."

"I'm already cold," Stacey mumbled. "You can give them back to me when you warm up."

Which was hardly going to happen, he thought watching how the kid's hands shook as he got into the socks. The genetic's eyes shone quietly as he looked at Stacey.

"Thank you, sir."

"'Not at all' wouldn't be an adequate answer, I guess."

* * *

To Stacey's surprise, it turned out to be quite all right. The kid didn't crowd on him; his arms were almost gentle wrapped around Stacey's ribcage. He smelled faintly with some lemony perfume and there was also a sharp tang of fresh blood, which Stacey thought must have been from his torn earlobes. He started nodding off, not even particularly cold any more, when the kid grew restless.

"What's wrong?"

The genetic's eyes were hesitant, nearly miserable again.

"Sir ... I need a toilet."

"So what? You want my permission? Go."

"I don't know where."

Stacey felt ashamed for his harshness; really, how could he know anything here?

"Can you smell that pretty odour coming from that corner? Go there, behind the screen. It's a place where you can do all you need."

Stacey wondered if the kid was going to be shocked; he didn't think somehow that in the milieu of General Herrera one could see something like this loo. But a few minutes later as the kid walked back, he looked much more content. Stacey unfolded the blanket and the kid slid in there.

"Sir ..."

"What else?"

"I didn't find any water."

"It's because there's no water." He couldn't contain irritation, not at the boy but at the situation. "The Heles apparently think it a luxury." Or they think humans would be more pliant if their needs got cut down. Or they just didn't care. "So, if you want to wash your face, sorry, you'll have to do without it."

The kid nodded in understanding, licking his lips convulsively. Stacey felt a pang of shame; the boy just wanted to drink.

"Here." He handed the kid a half-empty flask. "Drink it. They'll bring the food soon and then we'll refill it."

The kid's fingers were silky soft on the tips when they brushed against Stacey's hand as he took the flask; his eyes looking at Stacey had an absorbed, nearly worshipping expression as he drank.

No, don't look like this, Stacey thought with sudden bitterness. A few gulps of water were not worth it. But he knew how it was, it had happened to him, too - when he'd fallen over into gratitude, into near-reverence for the smallest reasons; like falling for the boy who happened to ask his name before fucking him.

He was not better in his adult years, Stacey thought angrily, trying to keep his memories at bay; like falling in love for a warm smile that turned icy grey eyes into shining silver ...

"Thank you, sir." The kid gave the flask back.

Now, he had to do something about that ...

"Don't 'sir' me, okay? Call me Stacey, that's my name, or Radek, that's the surname, as you like. And what is your name?"

"Kai, sir ... That is ... Sorry ..."

"Never mind," Stacey chuckled. "Can you do one thing, Kai? Do something with this hair, okay? It tickles."

He felt relieved that the kid didn't cringe at his words. Kai nodded intensely, gathered his hair with both hands and started plaiting the braid.

Stacey cast a quick glance at him and felt his mouth go dry. The bloodstains spread on the kid's t-shirt were hideous; he hadn't noticed them before under Kai's hair. Now he understood where the smell of blood had to come from.

"Are you injured?"

The movements of Kai's hands didn't slow down.

"No." The kid shook his head slightly. "I had a nipple pierced. The man tore the pendant out."

"Ouch. Hurt like hell, I bet."

"Not much." A smile on the kid's face was short but unexpectedly sweet. Kai turned to Stacey, an expectant expression in his eyes as he threw the braid over his shoulder. "Better this way?"

"By all means. Okay, if you don't want to pee, drink or anything, then sleep."

The kid made a small sigh that sounded almost contented - and unexpectedly for himself Stacey reached and pulled him closer, intertwining their arms. He felt Kai's soft silky hair touch his neck and wanted to tuck the strand away but felt too comfortable and tranquil to move. Then sleep came over him.

* * *

The ship was burning. Module after module exploded in silence, consumed by the blinding beauty of fire. So fast, so irreversible - yet slowly enough to convey all the inevitability of it.

He knew he was losing everything in this blazing hell. He would give everything to stop it - but there was nothing he could do; just watch.

Just watch as the man he loved was dying. And in some strange way he knew absolutely that it was his fault.

"No ... I don't want to ..." He flailed his arms, fists clenched, aiming at something that seemed close but was never close enough to catch it. It was always like this - there was something that didn't let him, stopped him ...

"Stacey, please ... Sir, please ..." A soft voice was out of place in the picture. And suddenly the darkness of space and brightness of fire started crumbling down - he knew already it was just another dream ... or another memory ... or something else.

"Shh, sir, it's okay, it's okay ..." Kai repeated nearly desperately; his arms wrapped around Stacey, preventing him from jerking away. A wave of shame covered him as he quieted, fell back against the wall. How stupid ...

"I'm okay, Kai." His voice was hoarse, but he hoped, sounded sane. "I'm so sorry."

Two nightmares in two attempts to sleep; he was going neurasthenic or what? It was really so stupid ... humiliating - like he was incapable of controlling his nerves.

Kai's arms around him, as soon as the kid didn't have to hold him down, became very gentle, so light as if the kid was ready to remove them at the first sign of dislike. Stacey didn't dislike it. He felt chagrined and ... and aching. Pulling his legs closer to his chest, he hugged his knees, trying to lull away the feeling somewhere in his stomach, the hurt as if there was an open wound. He felt Kai look at him and he didn't know what he wanted more: to be left alone in his misery or to be held closely, insistently, as before.

"I just ... hate Heles," he said sullenly - and kicked himself mentally for saying that. The kid didn't need to listen to it, had enough of his own problems. Kai's pale, delicate face stayed very serious as the kid looked at him. "I thought I'd be killing them in packs if I got a chance to face them. And now I'm on their ship - and I can't even get to any of them."

"Have you seen any?" Kai asked softly, as if looking for a path by touch and unsure if he chose the right one.

"On the screen," Stacey shrugged. "When they suggested surrendering. And from afar, when they herded us here. Not much. And you?"

The kid shook his head, curiosity in his eyes.

"Just humans. There are humans serving them, I think."

"Yeah, there are," Stacey spat. "Damn renegades. I wouldn't call them humans at all." He shook his head, trying to dispel his anger. "Never mind. Come on, get closer. Don't be afraid - I won't get violent any more. At least until the next dream," he added grumpily. "Then just whack me on the head and I'll get quiet."

He felt a small laughter from the kid. It made him feel good, for some reason; Kai's quietness made him feel uncomfortable ... but, maybe, it was how the genetics were supposed to be. Having someone own you didn't dispose you of joyfulness.

"Still cold?" he asked as the kid huddled up to him. A headshake. "Thirsty?" Another negation. "Hungry?" A nod. "They'll give us some food soon. I hope so, at least."

The kid grew quiet against him but Stacey could feel he was not asleep; neither he was sleepy himself. The people around either rested or talked in sotto voice. Stacey realized that no one was looking directly at their side but quite a lot cast covert glances. As if he'd done and was doing something obscene, something that decent, normal people didn't do.

There was time when he'd feared it; when just a thought of being a focus of such attention would send him reeling with terror. It was when he most of all was afraid of making a mistake; when belonging was his biggest dream and he would do everything for it. He'd got jaded in two years since joining the fleet - and he was not sixteen any more. Anyway, he could stand it now if Andrews and a few others considered that he didn't behave as they would like him to.

The kid sighed quietly.

"Do you worry about your master?"

There was a small pause, then Kai asked:

"Is it true? That he is dead."

"Not yet. But apparently he will be in a few days. The Heles had him on their list of most wanted; and those whom Heles have there - they are practically always sentenced. It's because of him the Heles attacked Intrepido," Stacey added with mixed emotions.

The Heles had suggested Herrera to give in, promised safety for the crew, with an exception of a few other higher militaries. Everyone knew Heles didn't lie. General Herrera agreed.

Stacey recalled the muzzle of a Heles on the screen, its grey skin, dully shining black eyes and the coils of tentacles lying placidly on the control panel in front of the creature. And the beautiful, melodic voice that said:

"We admire your decision, General."

Stacey knew that he should've admired Herrera, too, for the man agreed to die to save his people - and yet a part of him trembled thinly in anger. They should've fought, should've tried to get through, not to give in to those monsters.

And he also couldn't help thinking that if eight months ago Colonel McBride had done what General Herrera did, everything would be different. His life would be different, he wouldn't have a reason for his dreams of burning ships and death. And his lover, his betrayer - would never be with Stacey - but would be alive.

He shook away the memories, looked at Herrera's little slave who sat next to him.

"The General seemed to be a good man." Maybe, he was - maybe, he wasn't - Stacey didn't have time to know. But it didn't hurt to say that.

"He'd never been bad to me," Kai said quietly.

"Did you love him?"

"I don't think I can love anyone at all. I guess I just don't have it in me," Kai added. "It's not put in genetically, you know."

For a moment Stacey felt somehow uncomfortable, thinking about it. He knew genetics had a lot of qualities in them programmed on purpose - the ones that made them perfect for slavery and practically unsuitable for anything else. Low intelligence, beauty, submissiveness, loyalty, ability to adapt ... That made some people say genetics were a bit more than purebred animals; certainly more expensive, of course.

"Why wasn't it put in?"

"I don't know," the kid shrugged. "I think, maybe, because genetics have to change so many masters. If they fell in love, it would harm the performance."

It was logical, quite logical - especially for someone who was considered lacking intellect.

A sound of the bell interrupted Stacey's thoughts. He watched how the door opened to let in a square machine with columns of plastic bows towering at its side.

"Hey! Food and water."

They queued to get a portion of warm jelly-like stuff, slightly sweet and apparently nutritious, and a crunchy pellet like pressed corn flakes. Stacey filled his flask with water and shoved it to Kai.

"Go to the toilet and wash your face and anything else you need. I'll hold your food - and then I'll fill the flask again, hopefully the machine will be still there."

The kid nodded and walked to the screen. Stacey sat on the floor cross-legged and scowled at the bowl. He didn't like how the stuff looked. Okay, he'd eaten worse things in his life - but it didn't mean he had to like it.

The kid walked back from the toilet, his face wet and clean and a few strands of soaked hair clung to his cheeks. Some drops of water still trembled on his eyelashes. He saw Stacey look at him and smiled.

Stacey didn't notice the idiot who tripped up the kid, realized it when Kai already landed on his hands and knees. The flask bounced on the floor as the kid looked disoriented. His smile disappeared completely.

Stacey felt so angry he couldn't breathe. The only thought that stayed in his mind was - not to snap, not to do anything ... anything he would repent for, maybe, during all his life. It seemed he managed to cope with himself by the time he got on his feet, walked up to Kai, picked the flask and pulled the kid up on his feet.

"Don't look like this. It can happen to anyone."

"But it mostly happens to clumsy genetics," someone said behind them. It was not even an insult, was it? Stacey turned, meeting the stares, none of them sympathetic.

They were all tired of being here, their nerves were worn thin ...

"Sorry," he said quietly. The faces around him blurred; his anger made him see white. "Sorry for the inconvenience. Let's go, Kai."

He felt nearly exhausted by the moment he reached his corner; he didn't notice when it started feeling the only safe place for him. At least he could press to the wall if attacked.

No one was going to attack him, he reminded himself.

"Eat." He handed Kai the bowl. "I'll go get more water."

"Look at him!" Now it was Andrews. Stacey was pretty sure the son of bitch who started it all was also from Andrews' company. "How hard he tries! Eat, puppy. Drink, puppy. Can I keep him, mommy? You really have nothing better to do, Radek, don't you?"

Stacey didn't understand the part about mommy and said nothing, walked to the machine and refilled the flask. He kept looking back to be sure that Andrews stayed away from Kai.

* * *

They spent the next twelve hours - Stacey couldn't say if it was exactly twelve hours, after all: no one had a watch here - talking or dozing. But his anger kept smoldering in him through all this time. When the food machine appeared again and everyone got their dinner or supper, he walked to the door and said, looking at the small eye of the camera above:

"I want to talk to someone. I need another blanket and some clothes."

Unsurprisingly, no one answered. Stacey heard how the noise in the room behind him stopped. Cowards ... too afraid to anger the Heles. He was a coward, too. A coward and a fool. He kicked the machine, then slammed his fist into the tower of unused bowls. They spattered on the floor with dry clack.

Now it was childish. But hitting the machine was better than hitting someone - Andrews, for example. He pushed down another lot of the bowls.

A calm, well-modulated voice came from the announcer:

"Clean the mess, human."

"I will." He could control himself, now he would show it. "If you give me another blanket and a pair of socks."

"You think you can blackmail us, human?"

"It's not blackmail. I need the blanket for ... for someone."

"The number of given blankets was bigger than the number of confined people."

"So what? I can't take it away from someone else!"

"Clean the mess, human."

He flipped the bird; the gesture hardly insulting for a Heles but they certainly dealt with humans long enough to understand what it meant.

"Identify yourself, human."

"Lieutenant Radek. And you, your tentacled Excellency?"

That went a bit too far. Stacey knew it as soon as the words got off his tongue - but it was too late to regret it. He froze not knowing what to expect. Some punishment for his audacity?

"Uranus. Scientific Officer," the voice said suddenly, with a short chuckle - and then added. "Clean the mess, human. You'll get what you ask for."

Stacey felt his hands tremble slightly as he picked up the bowls. He hated himself for this sign of weakness - and for everything else, for negotiating with an enemy. He didn't feel victorious; well, he hadn't paid for his rudeness but, after all, the misdemeanor was so minor and the Heles forgot him as soon as it was over.

"Stacey ..."

Thin long fingers touched his on the next bowl. Kai squatted next to him, gathering the things quickly.

"Why did you do it? It wasn't so bad with one blanket, was it? He could have done something to you ..."

"Well, he didn't," Stacey cut off.

"Lieutenant Radek."

He prided himself on not flinching. The voice was a new one, sounded through the announcer.

"Come up to the door."

He saw Kai look at him miserably and smiled.

"It's probably nothing." He couldn't resist an urge and patted the kid on the head. "Don't worry."

A slot opened in the door and there was a wooly bundle on the slab there.

"You asked for a blanket."

"Duh!"

He hugged it, pressed it to his chest, feeling silly and triumphant at the same time.

"Look what I've got ..."

The warning in Kai's stare made him swirl around - and cleanly dodge from Andrews' punch.

"You're crazy or what? What have I done to you?"

"You could get all of us in trouble!" It was true - and that's why Stacey particularly disliked hearing it. "For your bitch you could get the Heles on our ass!"

"You're so afraid of them?"

"I'm not afraid! I just don't want to pay for your wish to fuck your whore more comfortably!"

"That's what bother you, right?" Stacey asked. "That you didn't get to fuck him?"

Andrews swung at him and he sidestepped. He didn't want to fight; even now he didn't want it. As long as he could avoid Andrews' blows ... Another one nearly got him and he blocked it with crossed arms.

"Humans. Stop it." Uranus' voice made Andrews freeze. Stacey thought what a good opportunity that was - but he really, really just wanted to be left alone. "Move away from each other or you will be punished."

Stacey saw the furious and cowed expression on Andrews' face and spat:

"What are you waiting for? Move away! It's my place."

He picked up the blanket from the floor. And socks ... right, he asked for the socks as well.

Kai's face was paper-white, distraught. Stacey touched his shoulder briefly.

"Andrews is a fuckin' idiot. An asshole. Don't pay attention to him. Here, this is for you."

"Thank you," the kid whispered, hugging the blanket. "Thank you for everything."

"Come on, stop thanking me. It's really nothing." It was nothing. He just dealt with his own complexes and the kid got caught in the middle of it. He looked away from Kai, suddenly feeling ashamed.

"Stacey, sir, I ... Would you mind if I stay here - near to you?"

The relief he felt surprised him.

"Of course, you stay. And ... What do you think if we take both blankets and use them together? I think it's gonna be warmer. How about that?"

Kai's quick nod comforted him.

"But if you don't want, you just say 'no'."

The intensity of the kid's voice was almost startling:

"I do want it. I so do want to be with you."

"Okay then. You'll lie at the wall - I don't want your hair in my face."

"But if you turn, it gets to your face all the same," Kai said seriously.

Half an hour later, under two blankets and feeling the heat of Kai's thin body against his back, Stacey sighed contentedly. And heard a faint whisper:

"Stacey, sir ... What he said, that man ..."

"Calm down, Kai, Andrews is an idiot," he started but the kid continued hastily, as if afraid to be interrupted again:

"If I can ... if you want to ... I don't have anything but this I'm good at it ... I'd love to please you."

Stacey frowned - and knew the kid must have sensed him getting tense because Kai's arms around Stacey's chest tightened convulsively.

"Please ... I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. If you don't want to, I mean. But please don't refuse. Whenever you want ..."

The kid's lilting voice got more agitated with every second. Stacey put his hand on Kai's, intertwined their fingers and whispered back:

"You say whenever?"

"Yes, Stacey ..."

"How about this? We'll discuss it some other day, in a more suitable setting, okay?"

* * *

He slept but he didn't rest. In his sleep Stacey Radek kept fighting his battles. At first he huddled under the blanket that was tucked carefully not to let any cold air get in. And then his body started unwinding, sought freedom as he threw his arms open, turned on his back, caring little or nothing for the blanket. His pale, bony face under the fringe of pale red straight hair seemed pained, almost tragic, his eyebrows drawn together in a frown. But his small pink mouth, compressed tightly, had an expression of strange vulnerability in it.

Kai looked at Stacey's face briefly, not wanting to wake him up with his gaze. He didn't need to look to check if everything was okay; Stacey's hand in his always clenched abruptly when a nightmare approached.

He liked to hold Stacey's hand. He didn't like Stacey to be scared or suffering - as it obviously happened to him in his dreams. But it felt good to know that he, Kai, could stop it by a little squeeze of his palm, by a small touch on his face, a strand of hair pushed out of his face.

It felt good to be able to touch Stacey. Touching and being touched was a part of Kai's life but he didn't remember if he ever enjoyed it. With Stacey, he would like so much to do more, to run his fingers over the high line of Stacey's cheekbone, to feel the softness of his dark, almost girlish eyelashes covering long green eyes. Kai didn't dare, of course ... Holding Stacey's hand was good enough. It made him feel safe; he'd never felt safe before - even when he could be reasonably sure of it. His masters would never damage a property of such high value. And yet Kai had known all the way that the moment when his master decided he was more a nuisance than an entertainment, he would change the hands and belong to someone new.

Of course, it all was unreasonable; even with his little, genetic's mind Kai understood that if there had been no stability in his world before now, at the present he was hanging loose over an abyss. None of those around him knew what would happen to them tomorrow - and Kai least of all. But as long as Stacey was with him ... he just didn't care.

The morning - or what stood for it here - brought another announcement from the Heles.

"Humans, we want you to line up in four rows facing to the door. You will be instructed by our representative. Keep your hands behind your back, keep silent and don't move until ordered."

"That's something new," Kai heard Stacey mutter. "Earlier they did perfectly without showing their ugly mugs to us."

The people grumbled and placed themselves roughly in four rows; there was some feverish excitement in them even through annoyance and tiredness. The order was at least something, at least it meant they were not forgotten.

Standing next to Stacey, Kai felt him tremble very finely, probably unnoticeably for himself.

"I just hate Heles ..." he recalled Stacey's recent words and wished desperately for Stacey to stay quiet, not to try to do anything.

He must have felt Kai's gaze because he looked back quickly - and Kai saw again how his eyes turned almost golden as he smiled a little - the sight that Kai was dying to see as often as possible.

Then the door opened - and Stacey looked away.

It was not a Heles who came in - but a slender dark-haired man in black uniform; Kai recognized him at once - the one who had come to him with Kazarin. His name was Victor or something - he was the one who had prevented Kazarin from hitting him. He walked across the room a little and stopped, his hands in black leather gloves holding on each other firmly in front of him. Kai felt a brief glance of serene grey eyes slide over him indifferently.

"As you know, the condition of surrender for Intrepido and General Herrera was that the crew of the ship, with the exclusion of General himself and four other military officials, would be released unharmed. We never break our word - and we don't fight humans, just those who give orders to eliminate us. The criminals will be punished but the rest ..."

Kai realized suddenly the man always used 'we' as he talked about the Heles, as if he was one of them, too. But he was human, wasn't he? Kai felt like sharing this thought with Stacey or asking what he thought about it. Even though he had to be silent, he still glanced at Stacey ... and felt his heart sink.

Something was wrong with Stacey. His normally very animated face was frozen, a bloodless, white masque - of a dead or dying. His lips tightened in a thin pale line, his eyes unblinking, wide, staring at the officer of Heles.

He looked as if he was about to collapse, Kai thought helplessly, looking from Stacey to the man in black uniform and back. The man's voice continued to sound calmly, monotonously.

"The ship and all property of the crew members is expropriated by us for our needs. But you are free to go. Tomorrow a launcher will bring you to the human colony RX-160 where you will be able to get all necessary assistance."

His words had an electrifying effect on people. They moved slightly, even though it was still not allowed, the little whispers sounded here and there.

Stacey was silent. He didn't look dazed any more, his eyelashes fell covering his eyes - but a short ripple of pain on his face scared Kai even more.

The beautiful collaborator of the Heles made a small pause, waiting for silence.

"The boarding will be announced separately," he said and walked out. Kai turned to Stacey and saw him pass his hand in front of his eyes, as if dispelling a veil or mist clouding his gaze. A small, lost smile flickered on his lips and something in it made Kai feel as unhappy as never before.

* * *

The announcer commanded them to be at ease. The men moved eagerly, as if throwing away a huge weight. Kai reached his hand and touched Stacey's arm carefully. For a few moments Stacey's gaze at him was the one of a drug-addict or hallucinating - empty, unseeing.

"They will let us go," Kai said just to say something. He would do anything to change what was happening, to undo what came over Stacey. But he didn't know neither how nor what it really was. Stacey's eyes cleared finally, recognition appeared in them.

"Sorry, Kai, I guess I missed what you said."

The voice was normal, calm - and Kai wished so much he could believe that nothing happened.

"I said they'd let us go. Isn't it good?"

He saw Stacey's mouth curve bitterly, convulsively - and then warmth was back in his eyes, warmth and sadness. He ran his knuckles against Kai's cheek briefly.

"Absolutely. It's wonderful."

The men exulted around them. Kai saw Stacey wince as if with headache, as if the joy of others didn't have anything to do with him. He sat, leaning against the wall, and as Kai dared to settle next to him, he put his arm around Kai almost gently. Kai felt the fingers plait through his hair, touch the strands in some strange, absent way as Stacey looked at something - something that was not here at all.

Kai couldn't stand the silence in the end.

"Stacey ... When they let us go, what will you do?"

For a moment Stacey's seemed tranquil, not shadowed with anything.

"Well, let me tell you. We all will wait at that colony. You see the Empire has to pay money to pick us up from there - judging on the number the colony is a hellhole. I don't think the Empire will be happy - so, we're likely to survive hand to mouth there for I don't know how long." He chuckled.

It would make Kai happy to see him smile - if he didn't see how quickly this smile left his face. He hesitated; Stacey patiently looked at him.

"And what do you think ... will be with me?"

"What about you?" Stacey's eyebrows drew together.

"I'm General Herrera's slave ... And if he dies - what ..."

He suddenly felt the hands clutch on his shoulders - and Stacey pulled him closer, staring at him. His eyes were bright, blinding green.

"Listen here. Don't talk about it. Never remind anyone about it. As soon as you get to the colony, try to take any transport that leaves it - at any price. The Empire is big enough so that you can get lost there. And then you'll be free."

"Free ..." He didn't know how this word sounded, applied to him. "You mean I won't have another master?"

Stacey's eyes kept glowing and Kai felt losing himself in them.

"You're afraid, aren't you? Isn't it what you want?"

"I ... I don't know. I think I never thought ... it could happen to me."

"You'll like it," Stacey said with absolute certainty. "There is nothing better ... than to be free."

He looked at Kai for a moment more - and then drew him into a hug, pressed to himself. Kai felt Stacey's palm on his cheek, felt the light strand of hair tickle against his temple. He'd never been so close with Stacey before, had never been held like that.

"If I can be with you," Stacey whispered so softly that Kai barely could hear it - but he did hear it, he knew, "I swear ... "

The voice on the announcer was the familiar - velvety, beautifully modulated one.

"Lieutenant Radek. Come up to the door, put your hands behind your back and wait."

Held in Stacey's arms, pressed closely to him, Kai felt it - Stacey's body didn't shake at these words. As if he expected it all the way, Kai thought. For a moment more Stacey hugged him - and then he let Kai go, stood up smoothly. Kai looked up at him - wanted to scream or to hold on to him, not to let him go.

Stacey's eyes were soft and sad - and then he reached and tucked a strand of Kai's hair behind his ear.

"You're always so disheveled," he said and walked to the door.

* * *

Kai couldn't sleep; it was not cold that bothered him, on the contrary, having two blankets at his disposal could have made him feel almost comfortable. Yet he closed his eyes just for a few moments and then looked up again, at the inevitably closed door.

He thought he didn't want to miss the moment when Stacey would be back. But, maybe, the truth was exactly that he was afraid - the fear that made it difficult to breathe - that Stacey would never be back.

The crewmembers calmed down at last; their excitement about tomorrow release seemed to exhaust them even more than pointless waiting did. In the white matted light the shapes of the men were motionless, like stones.

Tomorrow ...

"And you'll be free," Kai recalled Stacey's intense, serious words. He still could feel where Stacey's hand had laid on his shoulders. "If I can be with you, I swear ..."

Be with me, he wanted to ask. I don't want to be free without you.

There had been little he'd desperately wanted in his life, always known that his wish didn't have any effect on what was going to happen. But this time he groped in his mind frantically for any means he could use to change the situation.

His last master used to pray; he remembered it. Kai had learned a few words - General said he didn't have a right to say them because genetics didn't have a soul. But if there was a way it could work ...

"Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae ..."

A shadow fell against his tightly closed eyes and he looked up, hoping for a brief moment that he missed how the door opened and Stacey was there. It was not him, of course. Four or five men stood over Kai, the one Stacey had called Andrews among them.

"Wakey, wakey, slut."

Kai didn't have time to move or, rather, he didn't know what to do as the man squatted in front of him and caught him by the braid. It hurt as Andrews' pulled, making Kai tilt his head up.

"What do I see? You're alone? And your knight in shining armor - Radek - isn't here to rush for your protection?"

They knew what happened as well as everyone, Kai thought with sudden anger. How unfair it was that Stacey had to go - and these ones stayed! His thought was cut short as at the next second Andrews clutched his hand on Kai's braid more conveniently, wrapping it a couple of times around the palm. Kai bit his lip not to whimper.

"Looks like Radek left him alone," another man said, squatting as well. "For us."

"We wanted to be nice to you, whore, do you remember?" Andrews reached to Kai's face, pulled the corner of his mouth. "When you first appeared here. But you started all that mess and called for help. Now the rules changed."

It was not true, he didn't call for help. Kai bit his lip again, keeping away from arguing with Andrews. It was pointless, he knew it - and there was something else that stopped him, some unfamiliar feeling. Disgusted at the touch of the man's hand? Or protest?

He knew his genome conditioned his faithfulness to his master. He'd had sex with other people, though, at his master's order. It had never fazed him. But something about Andrews was different. The man was Stacey's enemy and ...

"So, whore, open your pretty mouth," Andrews continued, "and suck my cock wet. Suck well because next thing it's going to go up your ass. Every inch of it."

"It's your lucky night," another man said. "Five boners to worship."

"He'll thank us - when his mouth isn't full," Andrews said yanking on Kai's hair. Kai wanted to be silent but couldn't help it, gasped painfully. "Don't you make noise!" Andrews hissed - and his fist slammed into Kai's face, splitting the lips, making his mouth fill with blood.

The pain was worse than when Kazarin had hit him; numb at the first time, then dizzy, Kai looked up, barely hearing Andrews' words.

"You'll scream when I tell you. You'll breathe when I tell you. And the only thing you have the right to say is 'Please, sir, fuck my ass.' Say that."

Another yank on his hair pulled Kai into a sitting position; blood dripped from his nose, hot and quick. There was a tinge of disgust in the eyes of the men who looked at him - but much more arousal and fascination.

"Maybe, let's drag him behind the screen?" someone suggested.

"What?" Andrews scowled. "You expect me to fuck near the loo?"

"But others ..."

"They will do nothing."

Kai didn't know why but he knew these words were true.

"So," Andrews turned to him. "Say what I told you."

It wasn't going to be difficult. Some of Kai's masters expected him to say something like that quite often. Andrews ... Andrews was not his master! None of them who crowded on him was.

"I'm waiting," Andrews sing-sang. "Say it, bitch. Beg me. Ask me nicely to start fucking you - and we'll come to the business."

"He hopes Radek will save him," one of the men said. Kai looked at him wide-eyed. How could he guess? Kai almost really, really believed it: that the door would open - and like the previous time, Stacey would push his way among them and take him away.

Don't think about it, it won't be like that, he told himself. Stacey was somewhere, maybe, in trouble himself ...

"Let's see if it happens," Andrews said and drove his fist in Kai's belly.

Kai gasped, struggling for breath; his body moved convulsively. Others probably took it for resistance; the hands locked on his arms, twisting them behind, holding him for the next few punches of Andrews. The man worked on him silently. His other hand still held Kai's hair.

He felt sick, weakened with pain that exploded in his chest and belly. Kai would've cried out but he couldn't get enough breath for it, his lungs feeling deflated, worthless. He gagged and retched, bile filled his mouth and leaked out.

"Dirty slut." Andrews shook his head in disgust. "I don't think I even want to put my cock in this dirty mouth of yours."

"Fuck him dry!" another one inserted.

Andrews hit him again, with deliberate force. Pain burst in Kai's groin, so blinding and huge that he shrieked. He doubled over his knees, shaking, trying to will the pain away. Someone kicked him.

"Beg me, whore." Andrews yanked his braid, making him raise his face. He didn't want to look up ...

"Please ..." he started and couldn't go on. "Please ..."

"Please what?"

He had to say that - or they would beat him more. They would probably kill him. He thought about it and was not sure he was afraid. Closing his eyes, Kai imagined Stacey's face, so bright and sweet and intense. He was afraid much more to lose the right to think about Stacey.

"How about that? We'll discuss it some other day, in a more suitable setting, okay?"

Well, there was no way he could prevent Andrews from doing it - but at least he wouldn't offer himself.

"The slut obviously likes it rough," Andrews said. "Well, he can get it rough."

He pulled the collar of Kai's t-shirt apart, ripped it in one motion. Kai didn't have time to wonder what next as the man's fingers clenched on his torn nipple.

He choked on a cry and coughed with blood in his mouth. The barely scabbed tissues bled again. Andrews twisted the torn flesh savagely, wrung it. Kai moaned, shaking; his body moved convulsively in the futile attempts to escape pain.

"Shut him up," someone said.

A hand lay on his mouth, muffling him. Agonizing twisting continued. Kai shivered hugely, feeling hot and cold - until a wave of stiff darkness covered him and he blacked out.

He came round face down on the floor; his wrists behind his back were tied together with his own t-shirt. He stirred and coughed when a corner of the blanket was shoved into his mouth.

They held him as someone yanked down his pants - Kai knew it was Andrews even if he couldn't see him. His legs were spread wide. He heard a sound of zipper pulled. His stomach clenched in expectation. If he had been strong enough, he could have prevented them from doing it. But he never was strong.

Andrews' hands pulled his buttocks apart and the cock pushed in.

Andrews was bigger than Kai's last master had been - and it was a few days since the last time - and much longer since he had it done unprepared. But even the pain was not so bad as the dark feeling of shame that twisted inside his chest. He didn't want it to happen, he wanted to be clean for Stacey ...

It was stupid, he hadn't been clean to begin with, a genetic - he had changed a dozen masters, had served them since he could remember. It was his life. But now he hated what happened; he hated Andrews and all others. Kai screamed into the blanket, not with pain but with anger. Andrews drove forward, entering him.

He felt battered, his anus stretched and bruised; Andrews' fingernails sliced the skin on his hips as the man pulled him closer. Kai shivered, clenching his tied hands on each other. A wave of sickness coursed through him as Andrews pulled out. The thrust back was violent, sending his body forward. He felt the man grab his hair; his braid unplaited and spilled over his shoulders. Andrews kept him in place by his hair, slamming into him.

"You like it, whore. I know you do."

The man's hand crawled to his groin, clasped on his genitals. Kai tried to curl tighter to prevent it. It was futile, of course; Andrews squeezed his cock, half to bring it to hardness, half to hurt.

His body reacted. Trained by years of being responsive, he couldn't prevent it, no matter how he tried. Stacey, he thought, if Stacey saw it ... he would feel sorry he'd ever protected me.

"I knew you'd love every bit of it," Andrews said; others laughed above him. Kai clenched his teeth on the soaking corner of the blanket in pain and pleasure. The pleasure ended first as his cock twitched in Andrews' grip, his sperm spattered on the floor.

"Horny slut," the man laughed. Kai felt him wipe his hand on Kai's thigh. The cock inside him kept battering. Kai shuddered in pain but at the same time there was strange relief because now he couldn't humiliate himself any more ... only he already humiliated himself as much as possible.

He felt Andrews pull him closer while coming. The man's semen leaked out of him as Andrews withdrew. The sensation made Kai's skin crawl. It was no more disgusting, of course, than the feeling of his own come drying on his belly ...

"I told you we'd only be doing what he himself wanted," Andrews said and another man occupied his place.

The entrance was slick, the penetration faster; there was nothing to struggle against any more. Kai gave in. There was nothing he could do any more ... even think about Stacey. It would be insulting for Stacey if he thought about him at this moment. He made a cocoon of misery in his mind and waited out for the next man to finish.

There were third, fourth and fifth and then, when Kai almost thought they were done with him, someone said above him:

"What are you doing here?"

Andrews answered:

"What, you want to join?"

"Yeah, why not," a man said - and there was another intrusion - and then more ...

Kai didn't know if they noticed they fucked him raw. It felt like a red-hot knife at every thrust in his swollen, bleeding anus; Kai didn't think they cared, anyway. The blanket muffled any sound he made. On tenth or eleventh he lost the count of the men who used him.

He didn't know how much time later they turned him on his back and pulled the bitten through piece of blanket out of his mouth. Andrews looked down at him smiling.

"Tell me, slut - whom you belong to."

Kai knew what answer was expected, knew why Andrews asked it, with all those people standing around him. Now, he'd say it - and everything would be over, he would degrade himself finally and irrevocably - and they would be satisfied.

"Speak, bitch." Andrews kicked him under the ribs casually.

Kai moved his split lips, trying the words on his tongue.

"Stacey Radek."

"What are you muttering there?"

"I belong to Stacey Radek," he said louder.

He heard someone laugh. Andrews' face, swimming in and out of focus, went blank, then red in fury.

"We were too nice to you, slut, huh? I guess it's time to correct the mistake."

He tried to curl in a ball as they kicked him - and screamed as they fisted him - and as they fucked him both ass and mouth, he felt almost nothing. But he also felt good, he felt at peace. He felt as if he'd chosen the right way.

* * *

A small room on the screen didn't look like a cell; a high bed in the middle of it was littered with pillows - and on the table in the corner there was a tray, full of nicely looking food, not unappetizing jelly that the Heles provided for prisoners. Yet the man on the screen didn't behave like a guest. In fact, for the first minutes of being locked there, he walked around the room, checking the surroundings - a little fox sniffing around a cage. Then he perched on the bed and sat there cross-legged, unmoving. Just his eyes dashed across the walls, in apparent search of possible cameras - as from time to time he started twisting a stand of his hair around his finger.

Victor swallowed with an effort as he looked away from the screen. There was a bitter taste in his mouth and his eyes stung. As if he was ill. Of course, he wasn't. He just couldn't look at it ... he just couldn't stop looking.

"I don't understand you." A rich, low beautiful voice sounded at his side. "Isn't everything as you wanted it to be? He was under observation, never in danger. We looked after him so that he didn't get in trouble. And now he is at your disposal. What else can you want, comrade?"

"Nothing, Uranus." His voice sounded flat as usual - calm. He could be calm - when he didn't look at the screen. Why to look ... he was supposed to act. "Nothing at all."

"I don't understand," the Heles repeated. "What happens in this mind of yours." A grey muscular tentacle reached out and slid over Victor's forehead, butted slightly. "Your thoughts are a mess. It hurts my receptive centers to try to figure them out."

Victor watched the tentacle withdraw, then looked at his own gloved hands.

"Will you believe it if I say I don't know it myself?"

Uranus' laughter was not as beautiful as his voice, somewhat harsh.

"I suspected that much. And yet ... He is here for you - why don't you go to him?"

"I ... I'm scared."

"Of what?"

"Of something that can go wrong."

"Can something?" The voice lost its humorous notes, became sharp as a hook entering flesh. Victor glanced at the screen again and turned away quickly.

"No. Of course not."

"It's still not too late to stop it. Put him back with others and ..."

Victor let out his breath carefully. He knew what he was going to say - there was no other way.

"No! I'll do it. It's for him, not for me. I'm doing it for him."

Prodded with his own words, he got up, walked to the door without looking back. Uranus' voice reached him already on the threshold, so, he was not even quite sure if it sounded outside or inside his mind:

"You humans have an inexhaustible capability of lying. Particularly to yourself."

He had to remove his glove to use the dactyloscopic lock. The door slid open and he stepped in.

He had time to see Stacey's nervous movement at the sound of the opening door - a short gesture as if he was both about to leap on the floor and to huddle in the corner of the bed. He stayed in his place finally, obviously willed himself into it - and Victor saw his eyes, grass green, stare at him, wide open, mesmerized.

He thought that even if Stacey was wounded to see him - he, Victor, was wounded no less - with these dazzled eyes looking at him. Unlike in compressed lips of Stacey's small mouth, in his eyes there was no strength, no challenge - nothing but stark open vulnerability - and expectation. With the eyes like these one can expect a coup de grace ...

With the eyes like these Stacey had expected their first kiss.

Victor felt the door shut behind him and leaned against its smooth cold surface, his arms folded on his chest. He knew his voice sounded with mild notes of irony as he talked - irony he didn't feel.

"Will you say anything to me?"

His words affected Stacey like an electric shock, making him flinch, start back minutely. The transparent green of his eyes darkened to almost black - and Victor saw him shake his head very slightly, as if he was groggy and tried get back to clarity. Then he slid down from the bed and walked to Victor, still in silence. Victor saw his fist rise style='color:blue'> for a punch, and knew he would take it to his face - and did nothing to protect himself. Just his eyes dashed away in instinctive fear.

The punch never came. At the next moment Stacey was on him, falling in his spread arms, pressing against Victor's body as if he trying to get as closer to Victor as possible, to merge with him.

Victor closed his arms around Stacey, hugged him; his body, his arms, his senses were recalling immediately how Stacey felt - hot, skinny, struggling, his soft hair against Victor's lips smelling warm and sweet.

How could he be afraid of it? Why was he so afraid? Nothing could happen - but this ... Nothing would happen.

"You're not dead." Stacey's bony hands clenched on the back of Victor's neck, pulling him closer, not letting him go. "You're not fuckin' dead!"

"Do you have to be so foul-mouthed?" Victor smiled. If Stacey wanted to hold on to him ... well, Victor didn't want anything else, either.

"Fuck you!" Stacey pushed him away forcibly and stepped away because Victor had nowhere to go, pressed to the door. In a way Victor expected it to happen. "The ship ... Colonel McBride ... I thought they'd blown it up!"

"They did actually," Victor said quietly. The wide, intense stare of Stacey's eyes was sometimes difficult to bear ... too difficult - maybe, that had been the reason why Victor had agreed to go away with McBride then - found the burden of expectations put on him by Stacey too heavy and dropped it all in all. "They also carried out a rescuing operation simultaneously. I was lucky enough to be rescued."

"The Heles?" Disbelief made Stacey's eyes very light.

"Yes, the Heles." It probably went even better than he expected, Victor thought. "I know it's difficult to accept but they are true to their word. They don't fight humans. They eliminate only those who give the orders."

He saw Stacey shake his head, as if unable to put it all together - or unwilling to. Victor ached to reach back for him, to draw him into a smothering embrace again, to feel his smell and his heat and his hardness once more. And softness of his lips, the small mouth blossoming out like a flower under the kiss ... And then more ...

Victor shook his head. There would be time for that. If everything went as he planned, they would have their whole lives for that.

Stacey passed a hand over his face, as if brushing something away, something that hindered him to see.

"I thought you were dead," he repeated in a small voice. "When I saw you today ..."

"I thought you told me that, as far as you were concerned, I was as good as dead for you," Victor interrupted him, feeling a wry smile curve his lips. He didn't need to be reminded about it but he couldn't stand this perplexed sound of Stacey's voice. "Then, when I left for Colonel McBride, remember?"

He regretted almost immediately that he'd said that - when he saw anger and pain in the other's eyes and Stacey raise his hand as if trying to stop him . He watched - but the gesture never got finished.

"I've never forgotten it," he said softly. "When you died ... I thought - I knew it was my fault - my words that brought you bad luck."

Oh no. He really meant it? One part of Victor couldn't help feeling flattered; but the other part of him bled. Poor child, poor silly one.

"Silly fox." He didn't expect these words to have such an effect on Stacey; or - a lie, he did expect it, was afraid to try and couldn't resist. Stacey reached for him again, blindly, and he cupped his hands on Stacey's face, tilting it up.

With his eyes closed, the semi-circles of curved dark eyelashes over the bluish shadows under his eyes, he seemed so frail - it was breaking Victor's heart.

"How could you torment yourself like this? Stop doing it now, okay? I'm alive and I'm ..."

With you, he wanted to say.

Stacey's eyes opened suddenly; the glitter in them eliminated the impression of frailty immediately, made him look hard and tough.

"And you're serving the Heles," he concluded.

There was no way to deny it, Victor mused looking at his black uniform with a wry smile. Stacey backed away from him again, looked warily, like a cautious animal.

"Do you hate me for that?"

He saw Stacey shake his head briefly, his eyes very serious.

"I can never hate you any more, Vic. Never will. I think I probably never hated you, really."

Victor grinned. Okay, Stacey had looked as if he hated him then, two years ago, when Victor informed him he was going to join Colonel McBride, when he explained it wouldn't be just a job arrangement.

"You don't mean you're going to ... sleep with him, Vic? And ... what about us?"

"I would say it has nothing to do with our relations but it's pointless. Colonel McBride sails far enough and we probably won't ever see each other again. I don't believe in love breaching any distance, fox."

"Don't you call me 'fox'!"

Stacey had hated him - as much as he could hate then, that is. The boy with round eyes and baby-face, so young that when Victor saw him for the first time, he couldn't believe someone was so crazy as to put a child into fleet.

So trusting, so easy to amaze, so soft it was a pleasure to mold him into whatever Victor wanted. Two years made him lose his softness and round lines but did anything else change?

"The Heles saved my life," Victor said quietly. "While the Empire doomed me to death."

He knew it had an effect - and pressed, adding:

"All the Empire did to me was to turn me into a slut, for it was the only way to achieve anything there. The Heles at least don't lie. They promote you for your abilities, for what you can do."

And for letting them use a part of your mind at their disposal, he added to himself.

"They give promotions for fighting ... with your own kind?" Stacey asked softly.

That's it. It probably was going to be difficult, after all.

Victor reached his hand, trying not to scare Stacey away - and rejoiced touching Stacey's cheek without him flinching away. He met Stacey's eyes and held their gaze.

"You are my kind," he said at last. "And I want no other in this world."

Stacey's eyes went misty, as if he was about to cry - but he didn't, of course, Stacey never cried. Keeping his gaze, Victor said what he came here for:

"I want you to join the Heles with me. That's why I brought you here. That's why I got Intrepido captured. I was the one who arranged the attack. And I did it for you."

He saw Stacey look at him - he didn't know what was more in these eyes - anger or disbelief. Stacey didn't make an attempt to get free - at least that was good, Victor thought.

"I can't, Vic," he said. "You know I won't ever do it."

"Why?" How stupid! To decline it like this, flatly. He could have at least pretended he regarded it! If he let himself time to think about it, he would sure understand there were no solid arguments against it. Well, Victor would give him time.

"Because ... it would mean, like, betray the Empire ..."

"Betray the Empire!" It made him want to laugh. "Let me tell you what the Empire will do to you after we let you go. They'll leave you rot in this God-forsaken colony just because it's too expensive to get you out of there and because they'll feel resentful that you managed to get yourself caught. It's easier to get another kid from the Academy on your place, why will they bother with you? Your life for the Empire is as good as finished. And the Heles offer you ..."

He stopped as Stacey wrenched out of his touch, with the warning in his eyes.

"I don't want to listen to it, Gessen. Your choice was yours to make - leave me mine."

You don't know - I can't do it, fox; not any more - even if I wanted to.

"I talked to the Heles," Victor said instead. "I have three days to convince you to join us."

"Three days?" Stacey's eyes became round, startled. Victor thought he could read his mind so clearly. Three days - and the launcher left tomorrow ...

He didn't want to explain it, couldn't bear to do right now. He paced a little.

"I hope this room will be more comfortable than the previous place was. It's not cold at least. There is a shower, you probably noticed it, and I'll send you fresh clothes." He stopped at the table. "And please eat. There are no drugs in the food, you can be sure of it. The Heles need your consent given in a good will. They don't lie, you know."

He didn't look again at Stacey's narrow figure, the arms wrapped around himself - until walking out and sealing the lock close.

* * *


They cast him away finally, like a dirty rag. By all means, he was dirty; Kai didn't know how many loads he took up his ass but he was so loose it all kept leaking out of him, white mixed with red. The ones who took him in his mouth wanted him to swallow - and he did but there still was enough of their sperm smeared on his face.

When they left him, Kai found it so hard to move he couldn't even curl up. There was no part of his body that didn't hurt, and no part of him that didn't feel defiled. He lay shivering, biting his lips to stop himself from sobbing aloud. He knew no one would care and he didn't want to shame himself more.

They hadn't untied his hands, so, he made himself work on it. The torn t-shirt didn't make a good rope, it started giving in - and he was patient. After all, there was nothing except unconsciousness that could distract him from doing it.

He got free by the time a voice announced that the crewmembers had to prepare to leave. The preparations were short, they virtually had nothing to take with them. The men seemed less excited than yesterday.

"Fuck them, we'll die in this colony before the Empire will send a ship for us," someone said in a heartfelt way.

Kai wiped himself best he could with the blanket and put his pants back. His t-shirt was torn in the middle but it was the only other item of clothing he had, so, he donned it as well. No one looked at him, no one seemed to notice - and it pacified him a little. It was an agony to move and he concentrated on keeping himself upright, on making step after step.

The door opened and people trailed towards the exit.

It was somewhat a sorrowful procession, a hundred people following each other in silence. Kai thought what waited for them on RX-160 - and thought what Stacey told him about taking the first ship and leaving the colony.

As if he knew that he wouldn't be there, Kai thought without sudden realization. Stacey wasn't there. The first crewmembers boarded the launcher - and Kai looked around desperately hoping to see Stacey - brought up or coming here. Stacey didn't appear.

Whatever happened, he was not going home today. Maybe, never.

The slender dark-haired man, Victor, supervised the launching, his gloved hands locked tightly on each other as he followed the passing people with indifferent stare. Suddenly Kai knew what to do.

He stepped out of the queue and walked to the man. His voice had never been loud, a part of his genome, but he tried as hard as he could.

"Where is Lieutenant Radek?"

Victor's eyes stopped on him. Kai felt how they assessed him, a shadow clouding their serenity for a moment.

"Where is he?" Kai repeated. "Please let him go."

Victor moved his chin slightly, giving a wordless order to another human - and the man took Kai by the upper arm, shoved him back to the line.

"Please, sir ..."

And at this moment, another voice covered all the minor noise - as a man stepped out, walked towards Victor, spreading his hands in a pacifying gesture.

"I want to join the forces of the Heles," Andrews called out. "I resign from the fleet of the Empire and want to join you."

Other crewmembers stopped, turned, someone even tried to reach for Andrews.

"As a sign of my good will, I want to report that among us there is a non-human, genetic - property of the sentenced General Herrera. As any property of the captured, he is not up to release but has to be expropriated."

Kai felt blood beat in his ears. A property ... of course. Stacey's words returned to him.

"Don't talk about it. Never remind anyone about it."

Andrews kept pointing at him, talking unceasingly, his eyes narrowed to slits.

"By the way, if you need some means to influence the certain Lieutenant Radek, this one is a very good variant. Radek showed some perverted attachment to him."

Kai looked at Andrews with as much hatred as the man looked at him with. Then Victor's calm, almost bored voice came.

"We are not interested in any more collaborators. Humans, proceed to the launcher."

Andrews tried to resist, looked trapped as he was shoved back to people whom he wanted to betray. Victor didn't look at them any more.

And then - Kai didn't know what happened - it looked like some crawling sensation bothered Victor, made him shiver slightly. Kai saw the young man touch his temple unconsciously as his eyes acquired a strange concentrated expression. As if he listened to something no one else could hear. And he didn't enjoy hearing it.

Victor turned abruptly, his silver eyes found Kai and Andrews with a strange expression.

"Kostin," he said to the man who pushed Andrews to the launcher. "A new order. These two will stay. We shall keep them both."

* * *

" You haven't brought me cigarettes, have you?"

Stacey's voice was peevish, grumpy. Victor lingered on the threshold. He'd had a phrase he'd prepared before coming in - and here, now he apparently forgot it.

"You didn't ask ... Hell, I didn't know you smoked!"

"I thought all those days were a good occasion to quit. But I'm just not sure if I feel like doing that now."

If you keep being so stubborn, Victor thought wryly, you won't have to worry about lung cancer killing you. It was a bad thought and Victor didn't like it. But the truth was he didn't like a bigger part of his thoughts. He also would like to believe it was prompted from his shared part of the mind but he knew it was not that; Uranus, ever present, was silent at the moment.

"I'll bring you cigarettes," he promised. "Have you thought what I talked to you about? What is your answer?"

"Yes - I have thought. No - that's my answer."

"Why?!"

"You're such a nuisance." Stacey turned on his belly and away from Victor. Victor sighed; the fool didn't know how serious it all was. He sat down next to Stacey carefully, trying to keep his hands from reaching. "If you asked for sex, I would already give in, just not to listen to your endless 'why-y -s?'?"

He had to be patient; he would be.

"Will you whack me on the head if I ask you once more what makes you choose such an answer?" Victor said mildly. Stacey clearly found something irresistibly interesting on the plastic wall in front of him but his narrow back flinched slightly.

His voice sounded dull.

"I won't fight against humans."

"Oh God!" Victor felt like laughing but was afraid the sound would be too brittle. "Fight against humans! Do you really think your participation in this war can change something? Don't take so much on yourself. The war started thirty years ago and will go for more thirty years, that's simple. Neither you nor me will solve anything in it."

All we can do is to gain something from the idiotic conflict, he wanted to say. And be together. Was it not the most important thing - to be together?

Stacey turned to him abruptly, the green eyes narrowed, angry.

"Why to fight at all if that's what you think! You've never been a defeatist, Vic, I know that!"

I am a pragmatist, he wanted to say. Always was a pragmatist - didn't you notice it? But he said another thing, a thing he hoped might affect Stacey after all.

"There is nothing to be patriotic about in this war. Humans should feel ashamed for themselves. Thirty-five years ago the Heles were our allies - good allies, loyal and strong. It was thanks to them we banished the Tsatos to the outskirts of the galaxy. And we would still be allies with them if some smart guys in the High Command hadn't decided that the Heles outlived their necessity. For five years humans hunted them everywhere we could - before they struck back. And even now they eliminate only those who give orders, not common military."

Stacey's gaze was intent, darkened - and Victor wasn't sure what it was he could see there. Compassion?

"Of course. It's what they told you to make you join them, didn't they?"

How naive. The Heles didn't need to say much to him.

"It's true," Victor said flatly. "Before joining them ... I can't say I was a real crazy patriot. My family had served the Empire for thirteen generations. And what did they get for it? They are broke! I couldn't buy my way through the ranks, so, I had to fuck my superiors instead!

"My parents stayed in the Empire," he said in a calmer voice. "They don't know I'm alive. You know the Heles always fake the death of those who join them not to put the families in danger? They know well what the Empire can do to the families of renegades."

"It doesn't matter to me," Stacey muttered. "My parents are dead."

"I know!" Victor felt like screaming - but his whisper was, maybe, even more intense. "And the Empire put you into an orphanage. A place where they beat you for years. I know that; I've seen the traces on your body. Are the people who did that the humans you want so much to be loyal to?"

He saw something flit in Stacey's eyes, some fear; Victor remembered he'd never liked to talk about his past. But now Victor needed to use this weapon - needed any means to convince him.

"You don't know," Stacey muttered; his eyes became defenseless for a moment. "You don't understand ..."

But before Victor had time to ask 'understand what?', the vulnerability was hidden again, the stubbornness back.

"The Heles do fight common military," Stacey said with certainty. "And even with civilians. They destroyed the Red Cross convoy - with children! - just because General Maltsev didn't give in."

"It's propaganda," Victor said. "The convoy was destroyed by the scouts of Tsatos."

"Propaganda!" Stacey's lips curved in a mean smile. "I just don't know whose propaganda it is - the Empire's - or the Heles' who claim to never lie!"

"That's why they need us, humans," Victor said. "They need to be able to think like humans to survive this war. They need us - and they pay well for that. Is it so bad?"

"The Heles are bad. Look," for a moment Stacey's eyes became almost pleading. "For eight months I believed they killed you. Have you any idea how much I hated them?"

"Not that I'm not pleased ..." Victor started. "Hell, I'm alive! Here, touch me!" He reached his hand and couldn't resist, grabbed Stacey, yanked him closer. Looking from such a short distance to the huge, surprised eyes was almost dizzying.

I can never get enough of it, Victor thought, enough of this hot compact body, this angular face, the brush of soft hair against my cheek, these eyes ...

"The Heles saved me," he said. "You have no reason to hate them."

"They are nasty," Stacey said.

"You little racist." Victor pushed him away - and watched with hungry eyes as Stacey scrambled away in the end of the bed. How much he wanted him ... "Three days," he said very seriously. "I have three days to convince you to join the Heles. You wanted to ask yesterday how you would go home, if others already left with the launcher. Well, you won't go home. You'll either stay here, as my fellow officer. Or you'll die. They'll execute you together with General Herrera and others."

There; he'd said it. It took him an effort of will to raise his eyes on Stacey. Stacey looked at him from the corner of the bed - startled, disbelieving.

Now he'll ask how I could do it to him, Victor thought - and somehow all the arguments that worked so well in his mind before were not going to sound so convincing now.

Stacey didn't say anything.

"Now you understand," Victor said quietly, "that I'm going to use every possible means to make you join. Every possible means."

He's probably too shocked to say something, Victor thought. Of course, as far as he knew Stacey, he'd never been shocked speechless. He'd yell and kick and curse. This silence was ... unnerving.

"You have a choice between being with me - and dying to prove pointless loyalty to someone who neither deserves it nor will know about it," he said. "Is it so difficult to choose?"

"You don't know ..." Stacey repeated, the same restricted, hesitant expression in his eyes. "You don't understand ..."

"I won't! I won't if you don't tell me - and in a way that will make me understand! Tell me!"

But the truth was he didn't want to listen. He grabbed Stacey again, pulled to himself, almost dizzy with the feeling of the struggling familiar body against his. He yanked off the glove with his teeth, ran his fingers over Stacey's cheek, felt his slight tremble and trembled himself. The small mouth seemed so hard - and yet was so soft to touch. Victor's lips crushed against Stacey's, so hard that he could feel Stacey's teeth, tasted the salt from the little split on Stacey's lip. He sucked on this mouth, ravaged it, didn't want to think about anything else.

He felt for a moment how, as always, Stacey tensed, went rigid in his arms, almost excruciatingly - and then, as if some thread snapped - melt into him, gave in. He cradled Stacey's narrow body in his arms, lowered him onto the bed carefully, not interrupting the kiss. Stacey made a small, plaintive moan, a sound between agony and complain - and Victor felt joy flood as he recalled this sound, recognized it. He laced his fingers through the strands of Stacey's hair, clasped his hands on the fine-boned, angular face, withdrew a little to look at Stacey's heavy-lidded, dazed eyes. The girlish eyelashes rose and fell slowly.

"I bet your Heles friends watch us," Stacey whispered pointing with his chin somewhere in the direction of the cameras.

"I don't think so," Victor chuckled.

He was human, he could lie. Stacey didn't need to know that the Heles, Uranus at least, didn't need cameras to watch them, could do it through Victor's own eyes.

"And do you care?"

"I dunno." Stacey giggled. But his hands answered with more certainty, pulling Victor's face closer, bringing their mouths together.

He moved his legs apart, opening for Victor, letting their groins connect. Victor thought there was way too much clothes between them - but even like that the sensations were almost overwhelming. He wanted more, though, wanted it now, would bear no resistance or distraction. He felt Stacey nearly convulse as he got his hands under Stacey's sweater, ran them over Stacey's ribs. For a little while Victor couldn't move, wanted just hold him like this.

He'd told the truth; he knew Stacey's scars, the one against his ribs on the left side, and the thin lines that looked like razor cuts on his belly, and an ugly, torn one right above his groin. They were a part of Stacey, a part of Victor's memory of him, that resurrected perfectly clear now. As if there were not two years apart ...

Please don't make me lose him again, Victor thought. Please make him give in.

Stacey's hair flew up and fell over his face messily as Victor freed him from the sweater. Victor remembered him so well - his pale, nearly translucent skin, the pink circles of his nipples - pale pink like Stacey's mouth usually was ... his mouth that was kissed bright and swollen now.

Victor bent, kissed his nipple, worked on it, turning it the same shade and tenderness as Stacey's lips were. Stacey arched, tossed his head from side to side in torment yet his hands kept pressing Victor's head closer, almost too tight.

When Stacey moved, Victor was ready for it; his body remembered Stacey's habits better than his mind did. He felt Stacey struggle, try to overturn him. They rolled on the bed, Victor on the bottom eventually as Stacey straddled him. He wrinkled his nose reaching to Victor's uniform, yanked it open, tearing the buttons off.

Patience, patience ... It wasn't easy, though, as Stacey's kisses trailed over Victor's chest. His fingers found the curls of Victor's groin. Victor trembled under those fingers that avoided his cock masterfully, teasing.

"Stop," Victor hissed through the clenched teeth. "No, do it."

"So, 'stop' or 'do'?" Stacey ran the tip of his finger along Victor's shaft and Victor growled.

He flung Stacey on the bed, almost with too much impact, looked for a moment into the dazed eyes and then pulled Stacey's pants down. Stacey's cock was hard, its tip wet, and Stacey made a small whining sound as Victor brushed his fingers against its length.

I want to ravish every bit of his body, Victor thought; he leaned to Stacey's concave belly, the neat, round hollow of his navel, his straining shaft. He took the cock in his mouth greedily, roughly, heard Stacey's short cry, half of pain, half of pleasure. Victor's fingers slammed inside Stacey, gaining the entrance. Stacey cried out again, his body rose arching as if trying to escape the intrusion. But his legs were open as before, his hands on Victor's head pressed as tightly.

It surprised Victor to realize his fingers didn't enter with the normal easiness; Stacey's body had always been accustomed to him. Two years, he thought with a twisted smile. Had Stacey been faithful for those two years? Victor surely hadn't, Colonel McBride aside - although he had to admit now nothing made him feel so deeply satisfied as being with Stacey.

He carefully shifted his fingers that were clamped tightly in the hot ring of Stacey's anus, and thrust deeper. A labored sigh Stacey made got Victor both clench in compassion and shiver with arousal. He raised his head.

"I can't wait, fox ... I need it right now ... Sorry for hurting you ..."

"It's okay," Stacey whispered, straining towards the intruding fingers, almost hafting himself on them, despite the little signs of pain his body gave. "I need it, too. It was too long a wait."

Victor spat into his hand, wetted the entrance more, then applied some over his cock. He was almost afraid of the urgency he felt; Stacey did tell him if was okay but he was afraid he would go past what was tolerable, normal.

He rose over Stacey, supporting his weight on his hands and felt Stacey's small hot palm on his shaft, guiding him the right way. For a moment the pressure was unbearable, the resistance seemed insurmountable. Stacey trembled under him, his lips bitten almost bloody. And then Victor slid in, in the hot velvety sheath of Stacey's body, and felt lulled and delighted with familiar sensation of it.

He hadn't known himself, till this moment, how much he'd missed this tight clinging on his cock, the closeness of their bodies, his balls pressed to Stacey's crack. In the beginning, with Colonel McBride, he'd thought his mind could forget it, stop tormenting himself with futile memories. But his body never wanted to forget it.

"You're mine," Victor muttered, pulling out. The tightness was maddening and Stacey's body, wracked by anguish and arousal, felt like the tightest, the sweetest thing he'd ever penetrated. "I'll never give you to anyone else."

"You won't have to," Stacey said in a very soft way.

Victor fucked him hard and fast, the way they always did it, the way Stacey seemed to expect him to do it. Catching the little cries from Stacey's lips, he muffled them with his own mouth. Stacey's hard shaft between them was warm, silky and pressing, and the thought of Stacey, waiting patiently for whatever Victor would do was even more arousing. He squeezed Stacey's wrists, pressed them to the bed, held him down, overpowering the minor, token resistance, a conventionality in their play. Stacey's legs wrapped around his body, strong, holding tightly, not letting him go. Not that Victor wanted to be let go.

He clamped on Stacey's lips, bit them hard, drawing blood again - and then sank his teeth in a vulnerable nipple, hearing Stacey's almost frenzied gasp. His teeth, lips and tongue worked as his touches seemed electrifying on Stacey, affecting him even more than Victor's cock that slammed into his body. Victor felt how the little movements Stacey made under him reverberated through his body; this dance of acceptance and resistance - how well he remembered it, how much he always wanted it.

It was too much for him. He collapsed on Stacey's body, buried as deep as possible and striving in even more. Pleasure coursed through his body, made him shudder, as he spurted inside Stacey. It was perfect, it was as it had to be ... And then he lay, exhausted, contented. Yet deep inside him, a strange agitation still lingered - and it made him move, made him get on his knees.

Stacey gasped as he spread him wider, raised his hips. Victor's mouth touched his gaping, slightly bleeding anus. He felt the salt of Stacey's blood and bitter salt of his own come as he licked the wounded ring. He felt how even soothing motions of his tongue made Stacey flinch minutely. He licked it clean, then thrust into the ring - and felt it clamp around his tongue, felt Stacey shiver. Stacey's hands free now and he clenched them on the sheet convulsively as his hips thrust towards Victor's tongue. Victor smiled feeling it, reached deeper, darted faster.

"Fuck you!" Stacey's normally bright voice was low, tormented. "Fuck you, you fuckin'..."

This habit never changed. Victor reached quickly, got the head of Stacey's cock into his mouth; and felt the creamy, brackish fluid fill it. He always liked how Stacey tasted. Stacey's muttered curses trailed away. Victor licked the cockhead clean - and slumped down along Stacey's body, exhausted, limp.

"Kiss me," he whispered and brought his mouth to Stacey's. There was still some of Stacey's come on his tongue. "It's how you taste."

"You stupid." Stacey's voice was lazy, sleepy, as he rubbed his nose against Victor's in a brief caress. "Not tasty."

"Join us," Victor whispered softly, pulling the blanket from under Stacey and wrapping them together into it. Stacey's eyelashes fluttered, then his eyes opened, bright and not sleepy at all. "Join ... me."

"I am with you."

"Not for long!" he almost screamed. "Not for long."

"Then don't waste this time for talking," Stacey said.

It was all ruined; Victor got up on his feet angrily, paced around the bed, then realized he had to be a comic sight, naked as he was.

"I'll be back." He started pulling his clothes on. "Don't hope you get away from me so easily."

"Don't forget cigarettes," Stacey said, stretching. His eyes became thoughtful. "Vic ..."

"Yes, fox."

"Today in the morning ... did everyone from Intrepido board the launcher?"

For a moment Victor wondered at the meaning of this question. Did Stacey complain about the impossibility of his going home? He said carefully:

"One man, Ensign Andrews, asked to join the forces of the Heles."

He saw Stacey frown - and at the same time some sparkles of laughter appeared in his eyes. His voice was almost breathless with laughter as he spoke.

"Congratulations for the Heles with such an acquisition. And now you want me to join? Thank you very much, me and Andrews - we don't match each other."

"Tell him about the human slave."

The sensation of Uranus' intervention in his brain made his skin crawl. He tried to keep from wincing and knew, by Stacey's eyes, he didn't quite succeed in it.

"And General Herrera's slave was left on the ship as well," he said obediently.

A sudden flash of distress in Stacey's eyes startled him; he watched how Stacey bit his lips hard for a few seconds.

"Why?"

"I don't know," he shrugged. "The Heles wanted it. Actually, it's fair - he is General's property, not a full-righted human being. The Heles keep the property of the captured for themselves."

He didn't like how Stacey's eyes sparkled with anger. Why was he so involved? Five minutes ago he didn't seem to care about his own life or death ...

"They could've just let him go ... They wouldn't go broke. And what do they want him for?"

"I don't know," Victor shook his head. "My guess is they'll either sell him or keep him for the ship needs."

"For the ship needs? Like what? Like a prostitute?" Stacey's voice was harsh.

"I don't know," Victor repeated. He wanted to close this topic, really. Why should he care? Why should Stacey care? They had other problems to think about. "It doesn't depend on me."

He recalled the savagely bruised face of the little slave, his torn clothes not enough to hide the traces of abuse on his body - and lilting, desperate voice begging him:

"Where is Lieutenant Radek?"

And Andrews' loud voice:

"If you need some means to influence a certain Lieutenant Radek ..."

"I'll arrange his release," he said hastily, "if you agree to join the Heles. I'll find a way to let him go. He's in a bad state now, you know, he apparently was violated on the night you weren't there. If you join the Heles, you'll buy his freedom this way."

A probing, pushing sensation in his temple was sickening.

"How can you promise the human what is not up to you to give?" Uranus' voice caressed the insides of his brain. "The human slave is the property of Nostromo now, not yours. Or is it a case of the human so-called 'lie'?"

Stacey's face, angry, distraught, made Victor feel lost, confused. I wish I didn't have to put this choice in front of you, Victor thought sadly; but it is the only way for us to be together.

"I ... I need to think ..." Stacey's voice was almost soundless as he looked at his own hands intently. "I can't say right now ..."

"Think," Victor said firmly. "He'll be more useful than the little bitch," he said to Uranus desperately, "the genetic who is probably going to succumb in the nearest future all the same."

"I know," Uranus replied. "But the choice is made by the Ship Council."

* * *

Victor felt the cold tickling of the dactyloscopic lock on his bare palm. The door unlocked. The room was tiny, probably one of the smallest on the ship, not spacious enough to accommodate even one Heles. It made him wonder what such facilities were for but he never got to ask Uranus about it.

The little slave was sleeping, curled on his side awkwardly; his loose hair fell over his face, and his lips and eyelids fluttered in fitful sleep. Yet even the sound of the opening door didn't wake him, neither did Victor's presence. A little lapdog, he probably had no instincts at all.

There was a mixed feeling of pity and disgust in Victor as he looked down at the boy. He probably was exhausted, Victor thought, it had been a rough night for him judging by the marks on his body.

The genetic looked very messed up; it was difficult to believe, looking at him now that someone could have paid outrageous sums for such a creature. Dirty, battered black and blue, reeking with blood and come, he seemed good for nothing, worth nothing at all.

Yet Victor had to agree, no matter how he would like to deny it - that the kid probably was as valuable as he'd been before. Bruises would fade, ruptures could be healed - and, cleaned and groomed, the genetic would be able to become a desired toy for another rich idiot.

"I'll pay up his market price from my wage," he said to Uranus in his mind.

"As far as I know it'll take you a few years to do that," the voice answered but not antagonistically. "Wake him up."

He touched the kid's shoulder with his gloved hand. Kai looked somewhat groggy as he opened his eyes, turned his wide stare at Victor. His left eye was black and bloodshot, his lips split deeply; despite himself Victor felt a little unease looking at it. What the fuck could the boy have done to make them beat him up like this? Struggled like mad?

Kai's torn t-shirt hung loosely as he wrapped into it hastily. He also started plaiting his braid.

His hair used to be smooth and shiny, like silk, Victor thought distantly. Well, a genetic was supposed to be attractive - it was what people paid for.

No one in his own family had ever owned a genetic - their life was too hard for it and, Victor believed, his father, an old-fashioned man, considered this kind of entertainment a bit obscene. But they had guests, father's fellow officers who achieved more success, bringing with them those living dolls, boys and girls, mere children and dazzling adolescents.

He'd wondered once what happened to genetics who outlived their time, reached the age when no one wanted to buy them. Someone told him merciful masters put them to sleep. Otherwise they wound up in brothels or in the street, quickly became drug-addicts or alcoholics. It was a reason why the genetics were made sterile, not to increase the numbers of pathetic, half-witted creatures as they were.

"Take him to the Council room, comrade."

"Can't we ..." he started.

"No, we can't." Uranus' chuckle was like a trickle of icy water running over his skin. "Others want to look at him, too."

Victor could have said it was pointless to assess the pet's value when he looked like this - but didn't say it. If others would be disappointed - all to the better.

"Kai, get up," he said. "And follow me."

The kid nodded and moved obediently but awkwardly; Victor didn't know how much of it was from sleeping in a stiff position and how much from the consequences of the last night.

"Sir ..." The kid's serious eyes caught his gaze. "Sir, please. May I ask a question?"

"Yes, you may," he said flatly.

"What is with Stacey? You took him away."

So, it was 'Stacey' now? Victor compressed his lips. The kid stood swaying slightly with weakness but his gaze never left Victor.

"Stacey Radek expressed a wish to join the forces of the Heles," he said firmly.

Kai's eyes opened widely, his mouth half-opened, too, as if he wanted to say something. The words never came; the kid shook his head and kept silent.

"Now move."

The Council room was located ten levels up. In the elevator Victor took pity on him:

"Lean against the wall."

The kid did it, just as he did everything he was ordered. His eyes closed and the long eyelashes trembled. Victor recalled suddenly how Andrews, after joining the crew of Nostromo, told in the cafeteria about his well-spent night, the details too revolting for Victor to keep them in mind.

The Council room was spacious without an oppressive feeling, probably because the seats were located behind the mirror glasses. It made the room seem empty for Kai - but Victor knew better. He had no idea how many Heles were behind the glass but he supposed there was more than one.

"Stand in the middle of the room."

Victor thought about the time he'd seen Kai first, when Leon Kazarin had ripped off his jewelry. Had the kid known, he thought, it probably had been the last time when he'd been safe and adorned? Even if he went free now ...

He wouldn't lie to the Heles, Victor decided, he'd pay an honest price. Releasing the little whore was not too high a price for being with Stacey.

"Tell him to undress." He moved his shoulder involuntarily feeling Uranus' voice.

"Undress."

The kid had too little clothes for it to take long. He obeyed without hesitation, discarded his torn t-shirt and slid out of his pants, then straightened, looking at Victor. There was no shyness in his gaze. Genetics probably don't know shame, Victor thought.

"Tell him to turn around." The voice sounded on the announcer and was a female one, husky, beautifully modulated contralto, subtly accented. The language of the Heles consisted of chirps and clicks, impossible for humans to interpret, so, they used voice modulators for talking to humans and, occasionally, between themselves. Sometimes Victor thought the Heles found human paraphernalia, despite the state of war with the Empire, some kind of chic - exquisitely sounding voices, meaningful names. This voice belonged to Officer Minerva - the voice, they said, made after some famous actress of old times.

He actually didn't need to repeat the order since Kai heard it and flinched, apparently at the realization that he was watched. But Victor never argued with Heles when it was not necessary.

"Turn around."

He realized suddenly he had quite a sad feeling looking at the kid's marred body. His abdomen and kidney area was nearly black with bruises, his arms and hips scratched badly. He apparently stopped bleeding but the backs of his thighs were covered in dry blood and, Victor didn't doubt, crusted come.

His torn nipple looked worst of all, swollen and festering.

"How permanent are these traces?"

"Not permanent, Officer. If treated, a light scarring may stay, nothing more."

"Good," she purred.

"Tell the Council I'll pay the price they will set," Victor sent mentally to Uranus.

"No need to repeat it so many times," Uranus chuckled softly. "The Council is already aware of your wish. Although you haven't got the consent of your little human buddy yet."

"I will."

Kai stood, his arms limp along his body, his face void of any expression except weariness. There still was something about him ... Victor found it difficult to explain - but even as he was, misused and exhausted - yet there was something faintly bothering about him. Something arousing.

Perhaps it was just Kai's vulnerability that had an effect, Victor thought, the idea of him being exposed, like a thing, like some goods for examination. He was nothing but goods, of course ...

"Tell him to say something."

He followed Minerva's order, said:

"Introduce yourself."

There was no note of surprise in the kid's eyes as he started talking.

The voice had a very quiet, soft sound, containing the same kind of gentle, breakable beauty as the kid's looks did, something that made one think both of ravishing, protecting and destroying it.

Next moment you'll think about buying a genetic for yourself, Victor thought.

Kai fell silent. There were no more demands. Victor waited for the Council to come to the decision.

"They reached it," Uranus' voice whispered through his mind finally. "You won't like what they decided. The human slave remains the property of Nostromo and will be used for the needs of the crew."

He felt blood rush in his face.

"Ask the Council what the reason for this decision is. If they think someone to serve the needs of the crew is necessary, I can pay for another slave ..."

"You get yourself into near-slavery, you know that?" Uranus chuckled. "You're like that character from human legends, the one who served seven years for the wife he wanted and seven years for her sister."

"Jacob," Victor muttered.

"Right, Jacob."

"The Council doesn't want another slave," Minerva's cultured voice informed him aloud.

Bitch. Did the Council really care - or was she pulling the strings? It was unlikely, Victor knew, his anger made him blind.

"Ask the Council ... if they are aware why I need this particular slave ... what I was intended to do ..."

"We are." It was another voice, a male one - Victor recognized Captain Achilles. "It was your choice, Commander Gessen, to try to convince your friend to join us. So, now you'll have to find another way to do it."

Another way ... if only he had more time. But he knew they wouldn't give him more time, the given word meant everything to them.

In futile anger he looked at the kid who still stood naked in the middle of the room, his eyes closed tiredly as if even just standing was too difficult for him.

Damn him! Because of this genetic ... this worthless pet ... Stacey was doomed to die?

"Why?" he asked desperately. Uranus' voice was light, mild with irony.

"Don't ask me. You know my existence is almost purely spiritual now, so to say. But the Council found the human somewhat interesting."

"Put him to the corresponding quarters, Commander," Achilles said. "And prepare the schedule of visits for him. Of course, you may include the human part of the crew as well."

He felt a bit dumb.

"As well?"

"We don't discriminate anyone," Uranus chuckled. "The human crew members will have equal rights to use the services of this slave as do Heles."

* * *

The room he let Kai in hadn't been used before as far as Victor could recall but it was meticulously clean, as everything in the ship; the tiny robot-cleaners doing their work soundlessly day and night.

"Come in." Victor let Kai pass by and stopped at the door. The kid's eyes, dark with pain and tiredness, looked at the wide bed and then turned back to Victor. Despite his low IQ, the kid understood what he was there for, Victor thought.

Well, he would most possibly wind up in a brothel in a few years all the same, Victor reminded himself cruelly; we just speeded this up for him.

The mixed feeling of bitterness, rue and antipathy he felt towards Kai was disorienting. He had a violent wish to hit him, to let out his anger. It was the genetic's fault that the Council had chosen him ...

Of course, it was Kai's fault - and he would pay for it - and Victor realized suddenly that the kid apparently didn't even know to what extent. His hatred drained away.

"Sit down," he said. "You can barely stand."

The kid sat on the edge of the bed gratefully; Victor looked at his ragged clothes and thin arms wrapped around himself. It was not cold in the room but Kai shivered slightly, Victor didn't know if with exhaustion or nerves.

"This is where you'll live from now on," he said. "You will be fed. There is a shower in the adjacent room. You will be given clean clothes but you are expected to remove them when this indicator lights up. It means that you're going to have a customer in a few minutes - and the clothes shouldn't be damaged."

The kid swallowed hard and nodded, confirming Victor's guess that he had already guessed what was going to happen to him. There was no shock in his eyes, just exhaustion.

"Now strip and lie on your back."

He suspected what Kai thought it was for, some kind of desperation appeared in the kid's movements as he stripped. But he didn't beg. Victor looked at his stretched body, felt Kai's intent, anxious gaze on his face. He took a small box from the drawer of the nightstand. Something changed in the eyes of the kid.

"Do you know what it is?"

"A mender," the kid whispered. Victor raised his brows; the technology was said to be developed by Heles after the start of the war, so, these things among humans were rare and very expensive. "One of my masters had the one like this, only bigger," Kai added.

"You know how to use it?"

The genetic shook his head.

"He said it was too precious, I could break it. I was little then."

"It's not difficult," Victor sighed and resigning to his task, showed what to do, moving it over Kai's chest. The slight hissing sound indicated that the mending process started.

* * *

Stacey sat up abruptly as Victor walked in. His hair flew up with an abrupt motion and a defiant strand fell over his eye, making his stare somehow reticent, even more stubborn than always.

"Cigarettes." Victor tossed the pack and the lighter on Stacey's lap. Stacey took them up and held but did nothing else.

Something sank in his heart as Victor looked at Stacey's face ... he hadn't slept well, obviously, if at all, the shadows under his eyes were purplish-blue, deep. He met Victor's gaze expectantly.

"I've made up my mind. I'll join the forces of the Heles. If you set Kai free."

In any other case he would be beyond himself with joy, hearing it. It was all the wanted, the answer that he needed to get from Stacey so much. And now, when Stacey had made this decision - how could Victor tell him that the Council ...

" ... a case of so-called 'lie'..." he recalled Uranus' voice suddenly. Yes, it was a chance. He'd lie. Stacey could hate him for it as much as he wanted - but it would be later, when Stacey would already be safe. And Victor had managed to make Stacey forget his anger before, he would do it again.

He would make Stacey believe that the little slave had been set free.

He reached and took Stacey in his arms, a nearly asexual hug. The wings of Stacey's shoulder-bones were hard under his palms, Stacey's whole body rigid, unyielding. But it didn't matter - as the stunned, lonely expression in Stacey's eyes didn't matter. He let Stacey go, on the length of outstretched arms, tilted Stacey's face up in his hand.

"It was not so difficult to say, was it?"

"No," Stacy said. "Not difficult."

The green eyes were so transparent, so openly looking - and that - or something else - suddenly made suspicion stir in Victor's heart. He frowned not wanting to believe his unease.

"Stacey, you really mean it? You'll have to announce your decision for the Heles aloud."

"I really mean it. If you set Kai free."

The answer was too firm, and the gaze too honest. Victor felt his heart ache with the impossible unfairness of what was happening. He moaned aloud, made a low, suffering sound akin to growl.

"Stacey ... You lie."

And he saw how the green eyes dashed away.

"What do you want from me?" Stacey's voice was irritated. He freed from Victor's touch, moved away on the bed. "I told you I'd join. Isn't it what you wanted to hear? What else can I say?"

"You don't really mean to join, right?" He hoped so much for Stacey to argue, to find a way to dissuade him - and knew already it wouldn't happen. "You're going to desert - or to throw a fight - as soon as possible, aren't you?"

Stacey's eyes became cold, angry and very stubborn, vulnerability buried deeply in their gaze.

"You promised me, Gessen, didn't ya? You promised me you would let the boy go if I joined! I agree to join, so, now do it! What difference does it make what reasons I have for it - I fulfill my part of the deal. So fulfill yours ..."

What difference would it make if you get yourself killed a few days after joining the Heles, he wanted to say and suddenly felt too tired to continue arguing. Stacey lied to him ...

"I can't," he said simply. Stacey's antagonistic stare turned surprised.

"You don't want to?"

"I can't," he repeated. "The Council of the ship ... they decided to keep the human slave aboard."

He knew Stacey recalled their yesterday conversation, as he mentioned the purpose of keeping Kai on the ship. The anger in Stacey's eyes frightened Victor but his pale lips bitten bloody were even worse.

He'd seen it before, how Stacey went white all of a sudden, his eyes turning almost black. He'd seen before how Stacey managed to cope with his anger, tearing lips with teeth and palms with fingernails. Now Victor watched it again as Stacey struggled with his demons, for long moments, until this awful paleness changed with some color.

"Why don't they just let him go ..." he muttered.

"It changes nothing," Victor said. "I still will press for your consent to join the Heles - and you'll have to truly mean it."

"Truly mean it?" Stacey's voice was nasty. "Who's saying that? You lied to me, too - if I really agreed ..."

The admission that he'd definitely never been going to join the Heles, except for as long as it would be necessary to get the freedom for Kai, made Victor snap finally. He felt the thin contours of Stacey's collarbones in his grip, realized suddenly the fragility of his lover in front of his anger. He shook Stacey savagely, afraid to let him go not to hit him. The furious green eyes kept staring at his face.

"I lied! That's right, I lied! I did it to save your life - while you apparently doesn't bother with it!"

Stacey's eyelashes fell over the bright eyes shortly, suddenly changing Stacey's gaze too undisguised, incredibly sad.

"It's not my life," Stacey said quietly.

Even with the noise of blood in Victor's ears, he heard these words.

"What?"

"The Empire gave me my life, Vic. I owe it to the Empire. So, you see I can't save it by betraying the Empire."

"What are you talking about?" He still gripped Stacey's shoulders but not violently any more. He recalled suddenly how yesterday Stacey repeated:

"You don't understand ... you don't understand ..."

So, that was it?

"I was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Gardens of Shangri La. Seven years ago."

The shock made him push Stacey away. Victor's brain processed the information hastily, prompting whatever he knew about Shangri La. The place for civilian murderers with no hope to be rehabilitated. They spent their time there in virtual realm programs and getting enormous portions of aggression-decreasing medicines. Whether it was the fault of the pills or generated realites, but no one lasted there over ten years, turning comatose at the end.

"Oh. You already don't want to touch me, Vic. Is the conversation finished, then?"

He swallowed bitter saliva.

"God, fox ... No!" He reached his hand to Stacey's face; Stacey struck it away harshly.

"You fool! I don't want to be touched. Not by you, not by anyone else! I lived two years very well without you ..."

"You had to be a child when you were sentenced. How old were you - eleven?"

Stacey nodded. The soft strands of his hair fell over his face, hiding his eyes.

"In the orphanage ... There was a group of elder boys - a special committee, you know. Everyone wanted to belong there. And one boy from them, he ... well, he fancied me, so, he wanted me to join. There was a test - an initiation, you know ... I had to prove I was worthy to join them. They brought one kid and told me to cut his face, to write something on his cheeks ... with a knife ... He was a young boy, seven or eight, I don't know. I barely knew him.

"I had to do it, you know," Stacey continued after a pause. "After doing it, I would be accepted by the elder boys, no one would touch me again ... And then I couldn't. I got so angry - there was one boy from the committee, I hated him ... I just got blind with hatred. There was that knife in my hand.

"I shoved it to the heart of that committee boy. I struck and struck. They said I just shredded it, his heart. And when the teachers tried to stop me, I cut them, too, wounded another one, she could've died, I nearly sliced her carotid ...

"So, they put me to Shangri La."

"You spent five years there?" Victor thought how he'd seen Stacey for the first time, his childish face, those wide naive eyes ...

"Only four," Stacey laughed quietly. "I don't remember much of that. And then, the Empire started a rehab program, giving inmates another chance or something like that."

"Oh." Victor suddenly remembered. "I heard about it. But it didn't work, did it?"

"There were tests - and I was the only one in Shangri La who passed them. So, they sent me to the Academy for a year - and here I was."

"You never told about that ..." Victor started and realized it was not a clever thing to say.

"You never asked," Stacey retorted and then added without sarcasm. "It's not a past one can be proud of, right?"

With sudden realization Victor understood how little he really knew about his lover. They had been together for five months before Colonel McBride came up and Victor thought he knew everything. He knew how Stacey's body tensed up and shivered in arousal, his habit to swear right before coming, the sob-like gasps he made when Victor entered him. But had he known anything beyond that? Did he even try to know?

"You think they gave you a life," he said quietly. "But the truth is they twisted your life in such ugly way that brought you to murder - and then punished you for it - and then decided they could use you some more. You don't owe anything to them - all you could've owed, you already paid."

Victor Gessen was not a sincere man. He knew it about himself and lived with it. But at this moment he meant every word he said. And somehow he knew Stacey understood it. Through the reddish fringe his eyes looked at Victor so defenselessly that Victor felt his throat close. He reached his arm almost hopelessly - and felt Stacey cling into the embrace.

"Fox ..."

He kissed the line of Stacey's jaw and felt him press closer, his arms tight around Victor.

"Do you still want to have sex with me?" Stacey's whisper was soft against his skin.

"Always," Victor whispered back.

This time Stacey's body accepted him easier, like a tight glove; the muffled sounds Stacey made were so erotic Victor barely could keep himself from slamming in. This time he had Stacey on hands and knees and Victor liked it even more, twisting his nipples, rubbing his cock, listening to the little yelps Stacey made at a particularly crafty motion of Victor's fingers.

He didn't want to be in a hurry this time, wanted it to go and on - entered Stacey as slowly as possible. It'd never felt any better. It was his place, with Stacey, he belonged there - how could anyone think about separating them.

He kissed Stacey's neck, caressed his narrow back with light fingers - and then complete clarity descended on him through the haze of upcoming orgasm. Victor promised he would make Stacey agree to join. Even if he'd have to break him for it.

Later, resting on his elbow, he traced the thin line of Stacey's vertebrae and thought again: I will break you but I won't let you die, fox.

"You have one more day to think," he said.

"If you say so." How could he be so calm, so ... content? Why didn't he yell and curse at Victor for dooming him to death?

"You're not right saying I was brought into a situation that made me a murderer." Suddenly Stacey looked directly at him. "It's nobody's fault, just mine. My anger blinded me, made me inhuman. I still feel it sometimes boiling inside me. It makes me feel afraid they made a mistake letting me out."

You're afraid of becoming a murderer again, Victor thought; and I'm likely to become a murderer - if I don't manage to make you change your mind.

"Are you angry with me now?" he asked. He should've known the answer, why did he want to hear it to his face ...

"Not with you. With the Heles - yes. They really wouldn't go broke if they let the poor kid go ..."

Again that little whore! Irritation flooded him.

"How many people will he have to serve?" Stacey asked suddenly. Victor kept silent for a few moments, thinking that Stacey didn't know about Heles themselves. Well, he was not going to let him know.

"Eight people," he said. "Will be nine with you."

Join and you'll be able to affect Kai's destiny in some way, he wanted to say but didn't - maybe, because it was not true; or, maybe, because he didn't want to see once again how Stacey's face changed, became concerned at the sound of Kai's name.

* * *

The little light turned green with a soft humming sound and Kai took off his clothes. Just like Victor had told him. He was not quite sure what else was expected from him and sat on the bed with his legs curled, looking at the door.

It was silly to get so agitated; he would just do what he'd done for years. But the reasoning didn't work well. Kai felt his heart beat so loudly it seemed he could hear its thudding against his ribcage. The door opened and a man came in.

It was an unfamiliar one, or one whose face Kai didn't remember, his black uniform identical for all humans on the ship. His clean-shaven face with narrow grey eyes seemed more curious than malicious. He waited for the door to close, looking at Kai. Kai shifted under his gaze, sat on his heels.

"I'm here to serve you, sir."

For a few moments the man kept staring at him as if Kai's words had no meaning or Kai didn't talk in a human language; then he smiled.

"Cool!" The man's voice was heavily accented, in the way that Kai couldn't identify. "Talks nicely. And he's already undressed."

His gaze measured Kai unhurriedly, making him twitch slightly. Kai sometimes felt that unreasonable wish to cover himself, maybe, some minor defect in his genes - and he usually coped with it just fine, none of his masters even guessed anything.

"Nice, nice," the man said, stepping forward. His cool hand touched Kai's head, tugged on his hair, unplaited the braid. The man examined him, touched Kai's tilted face, run his thumb over Kai's mouth. "What can you do, slave?"

"Whatever you want, sir," Kai said very quietly. This voice usually worked on his previous clients; he raised his hand slowly and put it on the man's thigh. "You'll like it, sir."

"Will I?" the man chuckled. He was getting aroused, Kai could sense it even without touching the man's groin. The man didn't push Kai's hand away; it was a good sign and Kai ventured for more.

"Let me please you, sir."

"Please me?" The man made a short, somewhat nervous giggle. "You want to please me? Okay, let's see what you're capable of."

Kai reached his arms around the man's waist, ran his fingers over the client's hips, pulled his zipper down. It felt good not to be afraid to move, not to hurt, he thought suddenly. The mender worked really well, had healed all his scratches and bruises, left just small scars on his earlobes and nipple - and now he could be at his best for the man.

He took the man's cock to his mouth and felt the hands dig into his hair, gathering handfuls of it. It didn't hurt, the pulling was minor. It got slightly stronger as the man gasped when Kai's tongue ran along his shaft.

He was good at giving blow-jobs, years of training and predisposition polished his skills. The man panted hard, rubbing Kai's hair in his hands; his thighs thrust forward but Kai could cope with this tempo and depth effortlessly. He felt the man's cock twitch in his throat and swallowed hastily, not letting it spill. None of his masters liked him to make a mess.

"Good pet," the man hissed, still playing with Kai's hair as Kai lapped on his softening cock.

"I'm happy to serve you, sir."

He was supposed to say 'I'm happy to serve my master' but something didn't let him do it, and Kai just hoped that the man didn't know the formula. He was going to have many ... masters now, he thought wryly. Several a day apparently. It was that; his life had changed and he had no power to do something about it.

Should've forgotten the brief moment when he thought about freedom - was it even real? Was Stacey real?

Oh yes, Stacey was real; even if nothing else was.

Kai looked up at the man who kept running his fingers through Kai's hair.

"Play with yourself, little bitch," the man said mildly. "I want to look at it. I have more forty minutes of my time to spend here and I'm not sure I'm up to another fuck so far, you know what I mean."

"Yes, sir," he answered and added, after thinking. "Thank you, sir."

The man reclined on the bed, propped on his elbows, watching Kai do his bidding. His spent cock hung out.

Kai moved in an expected way, licked his fingers, caressed his nipples; his eyes got heavy-lidded as his cock went hard. A long time ago, Kai had learned to look at his masters without seeing them at the moments like this, to put himself into his own world, where nothing except his touches existed.

He tried to do it again; and he tried not to imagine one face he would like to see most of all now, the pale, green-eyed one, with a fringe of light red hair ...

"Put your fingers up your ass," the man ordered. His voice was getting hoarse as his cock twitched to life. Kai obeyed, glad again the mender had repaired him so well. He finger-fucked himself, stretching the entrance carefully - he knew what order would be the next.

"Come on, pretty, sit down on it," the man motioned at his shaft. Kai squatted over him, lowering himself neatly. The man wasn't big, entered smoothly, almost painlessly. The man screw his eyes shut tightly in pleasure.

"Hot ... tight little bitch."

His hands reached blindly, grabbed Kai's hair. But it was all he did, allowing Kai to choose the pacing and the angle.

Kai's voice was broken, uncertain as pleasure overcame him.

"Sir, may I ... may I come?"

"Just don't hit my uniform," the man said goodheartedly and Kai grabbed his cock, caught the jet into his hand and wiped it on the sheet quickly. He felt fuzzy, dazed with pleasure as his body kept moving in the same rhythm.

He clenched his muscles on purpose and heard a choking, delighted gasp of the man, felt wetness fill him, warm and slick. The man's hands in his hair held him in place for a little while more.

"Should I clean you, sir?" Kai asked carefully getting off the limp cock. Another flash of interest flitted in the man's satiated eyes.

"Clean me? Okay, why not?"

He sighed contentedly as Kai licked him clean. Kai's hair spread over the man's groin, as Kai knew he would enjoy.

He left some ten minutes later and the indicator switched off with his leaving.

The tiny turtle-cleaners already were doing their work cleaning the bed. He walked to the shower. It was not so bad, was it - his first customer? Kai could bear it. He was doing nothing new, just exchanged one master for many ones. But he had been created for sex, was supposed to be used this way, as long as he kept interesting his owners.

His stomach turned inside out suddenly, the taste of the man's come in his mouth again. He didn't want to bear anything! He didn't want to be a whore! Stacey ... tainted as he was, Kai couldn't even think about Stacey again. Because Stacey was clean and he would hate Kai if he knew what Kai became.

A slut. They had called him a slut, all of them. And now he finally knew it was true.

He washed and wiped his mouth and went out of the shower. There was no time to get back into his clothes, the light switched on again. Kai settled on the clean sheets waiting for the next client to appear. Then it opened - and there was Leon Kazarin on the threshold.

* * *

Victor entered Stacey's room, resolute.

"Come with me."

His voice was so hard it didn't suggest any questions - and Stacey didn't ask anything, just obeyed, walked out with Victor. He was barefoot, Victor noticed suddenly, just in socks - he'd forgotten to send the boots when he'd sent fresh clothes to Stacey. And now Stacey walked carefully, trying not to slide on the smooth floor. A faint smile appeared on Victor's face at this sight - and faded out; it surprised him he still could smile.

The room with unlit screen and a chair in front of it was empty.

"Sit down in the chair."

Stacey shrugged minutely and obeyed. Of course, Vic; since you ask so nicely, Vic ... He couldn't bear to look how conveniently Stacey put his arms on the elbow-rests. He looked at Victor with half-smile, his head titled on the side. Victor suddenly noticed how high the chair was - Stacey's feet didn't touch the floor and he dangled them absent-mindedly.

For God's sake, why do I have to do it ...

Victor saw Stacey's eyes widen as he snapped the arm and leg holders.

"You want me to stay put during all our long conversation? Looks like I've finally worn out your patience, Vic."

He didn't answer, pressed the round clips to Stacey's temples tightly. Stacey's eyes darkened as understanding descended on him. Victor avoided his eyes.

"Open your mouth."

It surprised him briefly that Stacey still obeyed him, despite everything. He shoved a rubber bit into Stacey's mouth; it probably tasted bad because he saw how Stacey wrinkled his nose. He pushed the button hastily not to think about anything.

He knew what would happen, prepared himself beforehand, hoped the knowledge would minimize the impact. It was presumptuous; he couldn't be prepared to it: to Stacey's face distorted in pain, his body arched, struggling against the holders, his muffled screams behind the gag.

He switched off the current and in silence Stacey's body convulsed, his head hitting hard against the back of the chair. When he slumped down, Victor pulled the bit out.

"You ... you fuckin' idiot!" Stacey's voice was high-pitched, his eyes wide, with pin-like pupils. "It hurts, you know!"

"I know." A handkerchief was stark white in his black-gloved hand; Victor brought it to Stacey's face, wiped his chin carefully. His voice was flat, completely inanimate - but he felt he'd never been more resolute than now. "I told you I would use every possible means to convince you."

"So, now you're going ..." he didn't finish; Victor didn't let him. He didn't want to hear the words that might've been said. So, now you're going to torture me ...

Even if it was the utter truth.

"You see this screen? I'll switch it on and you'll say to the representative of the Council that you want to join them ... us. And everything will be over. I don't want to hurt you, you can imagine how I hate it ..."

"You want me to sympathize with you? Oh poor dear," Stacey sniffed, his eyes narrowed, peering at Victor. "I can imagine it. You hate to fry my brains to make me join those tentacled asses ..."

"I'm sorry," Victor interrupted. "I have to do it."

This time Stacey resisted as Victor pushed the bit into his mouth - he had to push under Stacey's jaw to make him open. It's for you not to bite your tongue ... He increased the current this time and kept it longer. He had to let Stacey know he really meant it; sparing Stacey would be killing him, in this situation. Victor had to do it - for Stacey's own good ...

He watched Stacey tremble and struggle silently. For the first time he tried to get free from the cuffs - in vain, of course.

"Will you join?"

He met Stacey's gaze, dark, angry, shining through the messed strands of red hair and got a shake of head for the answer - drove his finger into the button again. He counted seconds to himself as it went on; as if it could help him not to hear the hoarse, nearly inhuman sounds Stacey made - as if there was a way not to see the spasms racking his body.

He yanked the bit out, noticing the imprints of Stacey's teeth deep and clear on it.

"Will you join?"

He saw Stacey's shoulders shake and got frightened. Had he broken him to this extent? He'd never seen Stacey cry before. But at the same time a part of him rejoiced; if Stacey was broken, he would say was demanded, would be too weak to conjure up any plans ... he would be saved.

Victor knew at once he was mistaken - Stacey laughed; shaky and almost sob-like - but he laughed.

"Remember I told you yesterday ... that I don't remember what there was in Shangri La, Vic? I lied. I remember it. They had those virtual programs that were supposed to put the feeling of guilt into us. One of them - they were particularly fond of it - was about that boy I killed. It was like I had to watch how he would grow up if I hadn't killed him, would become a student, then teach, would meet a wonderful girl, marry, have children, make an invention that would save people's life ... It was so real - it was like I lived the whole life near to him, watched how his family loved him, how his students were proud of him, how the Emperor awarded him. And at the same time I knew it was just a game ...

"I had a button there," Stacey said with hard, almost toneless voice - but Victor heard a tiny note of upcoming hysterics in it. "I knew if I pushed it, he would die. In some other way, not how he really died: street robbers would mug and kill him - or he would die in a car crash - or of cancer - but it would be all the same as if I killed him once again.

"And now the best part. They tried to make me kill him. That is, they wanted me to resist the urge - but they sent the shocks ... and it hurt, it really, really hurt - and I knew it would stop if I pushed the button and killed him. I tried not to. But eventually I killed him all the same, so many times.

"So, let me tell you something, Vic." Hysterical notes were gone completely. "I've had a great training in tolerating these things. You'll have to try very hard to show me something I haven't been through before."

The defiance of these words triggered him. How Stacey dared ... how could he treat Victor as an enemy, oppose him like that?

He couldn't control himself as he raised his hand, backhanded Stacey. Stacey's head dangled, his hair fell messily. There was a small streak of red on the black leather of Victor's glove. He hit again, caused a trickle of blood leak from Stacey's nose slowly. Stacey snorted it, looking up at Victor with a smile.

He didn't want to do it; electricity was enough - electricity was a clean way, not this blood ... He didn't want to beat his lover, his beloved ... But he couldn't stop either.

Victor did control himself finally, panting, and looked in terror at Stacey's split lips. Stacey spat blood on the floor - and white crumbles of broken teeth. His gaze at Victor was level, composed.

"You don't understand," Victor whispered tiredly. "I love you."

"I'm sorry, Vic."

"I'm not," he said and pushed the button again.

* * *

Kai had lost the track of time. Or, rather, it was torn to bits and pieces, to swirling, rushed moments of anxiety between Kazarin's blows - and longer, blissful periods when Kai almost slipped into soft, accepting oblivion.

He always was yanked back by pain, though.

There also were words - a steady accompaniment; hateful, unforgiving words that lost their meaning somehow.

"Mindless whore. Soulless thing. You don't understand anything but pain - so, that's what you get."

At first Kai tried to be silent; he managed it, taking the first few blows. Kazarin held him upright against the wall, aiming precisely with his fist, the punches heavy, merciless - in his face and chest and guts. Kai's nose was broken quickly and he snorted and coughed blood - and Kazarin fractured his rib next.

"Look at yourself, slut. Why did you strip for me? You thought you could seduce me with your assets? You disgust me. I'll never touch you in the way you want me to, never give you such pleasure."

It was a hard work - beating; Kazarin panted, getting tired - but his fists kept working. In the beginning, Kai hoped that soon the man would get bored with it, would get exhausted. When it didn't happen, when the blows continued and he couldn't escape any of them, he got scared. He started to cry, even though he knew it was likely to anger the man even more.

He collapsed on the floor as soon as Kazarin stopped holding him - but it was not over yet. The blows of heavy boots were crueler and more damaging as Kazarin sought vulnerable places on Kai's body, aimed there unmistakably.

Kai would beg him to stop; he was far beyond dignity and out of his mind with fear. He would kiss Kazarin's boots and plead to spare him - if Kazarin gave him a moment of repose, let him unwind from the tight ball he curled in trying to shield himself. If blood was not choking him, drowning all the words he tried to say.

"I would kill you, bitch - but it would probably be too merciful to finish you like this. I want you to die a thousand deaths. Remember that - every hour of my visit will be a hour of agony for you."

How could he not remember it - when every blow made him convulse in pain? Later Kai couldn't shriek any more. He just took the blows, curled, whimpering as the boot caught a fractured rib or his groin.

When the blows stopped, Kai couldn't believe it. Was Kazarin satisfied? Was the hour over? He opened his eyes with an effort. Kazarin stood over him, smoking a long slim cigar.

"I'd like to put it in your eye," the man said suddenly in a hoarse voice. "But the Heles would mind it if I spoiled you like this. So ..."

He squatted and pulled Kai by the hip, unwrapped him. Kai knew what was going to happen but had no strength to protest any more. All his body was a tangle of pain - of pain that flashed to impossible as Kazarin pressed the tip of the cigar to Kai's navel.

"Scream for me," Kazarin said turning the cigar in the blistering cavity.

It was not the end; there were more burns, on his cockhead, balls and nipples - and Kai did scream, or rather shrieked frantically, writhing in futile attempts to escape pain.

Kazarin beat him some more - and Kai was already so beyond himself with pain and exhaustion that he didn't even try to shield himself, couldn't move, just jerked under the blows.

"It was a very satisfying hour," Kazarin said finally, standing over Kai, a fresh cigar between his fingers. "I hope you enjoyed it too."

He picked up the mender from the nightstand and threw it on Kai's limp body.

After the door slid shut, Kai couldn't move. A reasonable part of his mind told him that he should've done something, fixed his injuries, washed himself. But he couldn't make himself do anything at all.

He was afraid; he'd never known before how much pain his body could endure, even the night with Andrews and others was not so bad. And he was afraid even more because he knew he would survive it, Kazarin hadn't done anything irreparable to him. Anything he wouldn't be able to do again.

Kai sobbed and shuddered in pain the shifting of his broken ribs caused. The mender was so close, felt cool against belly. It clattered on the floor as Kai propped himself into a sitting position.

He wouldn't think about his fear; he wouldn't think about anything; just make discrete movements, reach for the mender ... He clenched his teeth as a wave of nausea flooded him. His fingers scraped on the floor, not reaching the smooth handle of the mender. He almost felt relief when sliding away into unconsciousness.

A strange feeling of small claws that tugged on his skin brought him back. He'd probably been out cold for some minutes, no more, was still in the same position, slumped against the wall. And there was a shiny turtle-cleaner stubbornly trying to crawl up his thigh.

The cleaners had done a great work on the room, eliminated every bloodstain as far as Kai could see. They normally were programmed not to touch animated objects. He must have deceived it by his immobility, Kai thought bitterly, an inanimate object.

He winced feeling his skin sting with the cleaner's washing liquids that dissolved his blood.

"Hey, don't try so hard." Split lips made the words sound muffled. He hadn't had a habit of talking to himself before ... but it was not quite to himself, was it? He took the turtle in his palm, ran his finger on its smooth back and listened to the angry beeping of displeasure that its work was interrupted. "Mindless thing," Kai whispered.

Just like Kazarin had called him 'mindless thing'. Perhaps that was true.

He picked up the mender this time and passed it over his body, felt the pain leave slowly. Every next movement was easier than previous. Some half an hour later Kai was able to get up and walked to the shower. He sat in the tub, leaned against the wall and let the hot water wash over him. The water felt good even if nothing else did.

Blood could be washed, Kai thought with sudden anger, but how to wash the dirt inside him? Kazarin had been right - it would be more merciful to let him die.

With his eyes closed he envisioned briefly Stacey's bright angular face with deep green eyes.

"I'm sorry," he whispered taking hold on his wet hair, the last thing he could hold on to. "I let you down so, so much."

* * *

He noticed Stacey flinch in pain even between the shocks. There were crimson traces of burns on his temples under the clips. Victor tore the clips off, had to change the place - opened Stacey's shirt and placed them on his nipples. Stacey's bloodshot eyes stopped on him, dark with pain. His battered lips moved but he didn't say anything.

The convulsions were as long as always, Stacey's shrieks frantic. Victor didn't put the bit in his mouth any more, it really made no difference. There was already enough blood leaking from Stacey's mouth.

Stacey's head sagged as the current stopped. More than anything else, Victor wanted to kneel in front of him, to tilt his face up, to look in his eyes. But he knew he wouldn't see anything there but pain and rejection.

"You kissed his nipples yesterday."

"Damn you, Uranus!"

The Heles' voice, soft, insidious, intruded his brain, making him jerk as if with an electric shocks.

"It doesn't work, does it?"

"It will," Victor answered. What did it matter if he really felt so certain? He couldn't afford any doubts.

"If I were you, I wouldn't count on it so much. Do you know how long you're already doing it?"

He knew; he didn't want to know.

"On the other hand," Uranus suggested, "you probably just enjoy doing it."

He flinched; the unforgivable injustice of these words made his mind burn.

"It is not true! I hate hurting him ... I never wanted to hurt him."

"If you say so, comrade."

He never wanted to hurt Stacey ...

He suddenly recalled that dark, agonizing feeling of pleasure he'd felt two years ago when, telling Stacey about his intention to join Colonel McBride, he saw Stacey's stricken face and pain-filled eyes. The feeling of omnipotence, the realization that the fear to lose him made Stacey weak and vulnerable ... It was pleasant; it almost reimbursed Victor's own loss.

He recalled Stacey's tormented gasps when Victor led him along the thin line of pain and pleasure as they had sex, the line crossed to the side of pain so often because Victor liked it, because it got him going ...

No; he shook his head. It was not true.

"Stacey ... Stacey, listen to me. Now I'll switch on this screen - and you'll say that you'll join."

He didn't know if Stacey heard him; he'd stopped talking to Victor a while ago - and now his head, hair hiding his face, didn't move in a nod or a shake.

Victor wanted to reach to make him turn his face - and couldn't bring himself to do it. There was already too much he could see, Stacey's swollen wrists and ankles in the holders, his sweat-slick ribcage fluttering with breath, the strands of his hair getting sticky with blood.

"Please," Victor asked. "Please ... What are you doing to me?"

* * *

Kai walked out of the shower, wiping his hair on the towel, and the indicator was lit again, he'd missed the beginning of the visit. He started, looking around, knowing he was already not alone - and yet his mind didn't register at first what his eyes saw.

It was not a man in the corner of the room. Some enormous bulk, grey, covered in slick-looking leathery skin. And yet it was a living creature - an intelligent one, its huge black eyes followed Kai with a patient look. Its head, smooth, round, was placed on a huge body hidden under a purple-colored loose garment that went right down to the floor. The garment fluctuated, the mass under it was moving - and with dazzled eyes Kai noticed the tips of grey smooth tentacles reach from under it and hide again.

A Heles.

The towel fell on the floor as Kai stared at the creature, like a rabbit at a snake, his body rigid, frozen. His mind refused to cooperate, void of anything but terror. He'd never seen an alien so close before ... An alien who came to his room for some reason.

He made a hitching breath as the realization hit him. But it couldn't ... it couldn't be ...

"Pretty human." The creature's voice was male, husky, infinitely human one. A beautiful voice came from a device fixed under the Heles' mouth. "Pretty human whore. Lay down on the bed and spread your legs."

The Heles was patient; he didn't get angry even as Kai didn't obey him, unable to move. The truth was he was unable to do anything but to take small, shallow gasps. He felt choking all the same. The Heles waited for a few moments - and then the tentacles uncoiled from under the robe. He didn't even need to make a step towards Kai, reached for him from where he stood, pushed in the chest softly, toppling him over on the bed.

Kai thought he'd cry out at this touch; as it was, he couldn't make a sound. The tentacles were heavy, cold, powerful. He felt paralyzed with fear, helpless, stunned. The tentacles recoiled - and then the Heles moved towards him, towered over him, his bulk so huge its shadow covered Kai completely.

"Open your legs wider," the Heles said. "Do it quickly."

The tentacles appeared again, long muscular limbs, wrapped around Kai's ankles and pulled them apart, not painful but impossible to resist. He watched with dazed eyes as the Heles climbed up on the bed, as the bedding sank under his weight.

A tentacle traced over Kai's chest, the suckers clung to his skin and left a puffy trace of pink when coming off. It probably hurt, Kai didn't know; his mind was a mess. All he could see was the huge body of the Heles and even it swam in and out of focus.

"You're hyperventilating, human," the Heles said.

A tip of tentacle touched the corner of his mouth - and then pushed between Kai's lips, slid inside. Kai wanted to scream but couldn't, choked when the slick limb pushed past his tongue into his throat.

"Breathe through your nose," the Heles said.

He was not sure was he felt; it was unspeakable, the incredibly long cold snake slipping into his throat, inch after inch. His throat was swelling, expanding to accommodate it - and the Heles kept pushing it in. It seemed to Kai he could feel it reach his stomach and coil there, unbearable heavy, pressing. The Heles' black eyes looked at him steadily, with interest.

"You're so hot inside, human. So hot and soft."

He probably did breathe through his nose, it couldn't be otherwise since he was still alive, still conscious enough to feel the enormous weight of the alien to lean over his legs, keeping him in place; to feel the probing of another tentacle against his anus. He thrashed as it started slipping in but there was nothing he could do, no way to escape it. It went through his rectum and deeper, into his intestines, filling his belly.

"So accommodating, human. There is so much I can put inside you."

Now he wouldn't be able to scream even if he had breath to. The tentacle, slender at the tip, widened so that Kai's jaw was on the verge of breaking, the corners of his mouth split. His stomach hurt, felt overfilled - and his insides felt swollen, cramped, as the tentacle strove into him. His anus was over-stretched, every movement of the Heles sent pain through it. He lay and stared at the alien with pleading eyes.

"You have such a pretty gaze." Another tentacle touched his cheek, marked it with pink trace of the suckers. "We didn't make a mistake keeping you for us."

He felt the tentacles pull out of him slowly, his insides turn inside out - but that was not so bad as the thrusting, inward movement after that. This time his anus split and the corner of his mouth tore. Kai felt wetness trickle over his body - and other tentacles probed against his piss-slit, ears and nostrils, finding the orifices too small to enter.

He knew the Heles changed the pair of tentacles and entered him again, slid along already tried passages, re-filled him. The motions of the alien got less refined, more violent. The Heles turned his body into a cavity for penetration, the cold limbs pushed into him unceasingly. Kai looked in the huge black eyes that never left him, never blinked - and he finally knew that these boneless limbs that entered him, filled him, broke something in him that couldn't break neither Andrews on that night, nor even Kazarin with his fists and boots.

His decline was complete; there was nothing whole left of him. Nothing left at all.

* * *

" How do you humans call it? Whipping a dead horse?" Uranus' voice pronounced the unfamiliar expression carefully.

I won't answer him, Victor thought knowing that it was an answer good enough. He pushed the button again; Stacey's body spasmed but no sound came; he'd lost his voice by now. Stacey's head rolled but his eyes stayed closed, the eyelids almost translucent.

Victor's mouth felt like full of broken glass as he swallowed. Trickles of sweat ran on his temples, the strands of his hair clung to his forehead. His lips hurt as he talked.

"Join us."

"Vic ..." The voice was so quiet, barely a shunt of breath, and Victor cringed, wanted suddenly to cover his ears not to hear it. He knew Stacey was not going to say he would join - would never say that. "You know. It wouldn't be me if I joined. Stop it, please. Just let me die."

"You don't know what you ask for ..."

He saw Stacey raise his head, shook it slightly trying to push the hair away from his face. His mouth, bloodied and swollen, curved in a lopsided smile.

"I surely know what I ask for."

Victor sobbed; he couldn't raise his hand to drive the finger into the button. He couldn't do it again. But how could he live with the thought that he, by his weakness, doomed his lover to death?

Once he'd betrayed Stacey, left him behind; he couldn't let it happen again.

"Do as he tells you."

He felt disoriented for a moment as Uranus' voice intruded his mind.

"You gave me three days ..." he started.

"Not three days. Seventy-two hours starting from the moment you offered him to join. And your time is over."

He gasped. He couldn't believe it was that, that he was mistaken, that they deceived him like this.

"You know we didn't deceive you."

He hated them for never lying! The thought was scalding for a moment and then he lost the spirit to fight. Of course, it was his own misunderstanding. And now it was over, all over.

"Your friend will die tomorrow with the rest of the sentenced," Uranus said in an official voice that suddenly softened on the next phrase. "Spend the time that is left till then together."

Victor couldn't argue; he couldn't even stand, slumped on his knees, choking with dry, tearless sobs, and yanked the cuffs free from Stacey's ankles and wrists. His fingers trembled as he reached to the bleeding, raw traces on Stacey's ankles. He had done it ... He expected Stacey to push him away - or to hear him say, irreconcilably as always: 'Don't touch me'.

But none of that happened and Victor lost the remains of his strength, sank against Stacey's knees, pressed his forehead against Stacey's lap, his arms wrapped around Stacey.

He shuddered and sobbed again - and at last the tears came as he felt Stacey's warm hands lay over his head, rocking him slightly.

* * *

The Heles left him limp on the bed. Kai lay coughing, feeling as if something was torn inside him. There was some blood rolling out of his mouth. He felt sick, thirsty - and he felt numb. It was as if his mind didn't want to join from the bits and pieces it was turned into. Kai was not sure it would ever happen - and somehow it didn't matter.

He didn't think he wanted to move - so, he stayed as he was, bleeding slowly into the sheets. Busy cleaners sucked the blood away continuously. He realized another customer could come, a human or that ... that thing - but the thought of their possible anger was so distant Kai couldn't make himself care.

He felt so cold; not cold like in the place where the crew of Intrepido had been held. Had it even been cold there - with Stacey's arm around his shoulders, Stacey allowing to hold on to him all night?

This cold was inside him.

He still reacted as the door opened again and another vision, a tower of grey flesh, entered the room. The loose garment of this one was bright yellow. Kai shifted minutely, curling tighter. He wanted to close his eyes but understood he couldn't, his gaze was glued to the alien who walked up to him.

"Ooh poor human," the voice cooed. It was a female one, of rich, exquisite depth, sounding gently, sympathetically. "You're bleeding. Bad, bad Hermes, did it to you."

But the tentacle that probed him was as cold and strong as the other.

It didn't cling, though, left Kai and reached for the mender. The device hissed, healing him.

"That's better." A brush of the tentacle on his cheek was light, short. "Now let's get to know each other. My name is Minerva. And you're ... you're Kai, I know."

It was good she answered her question herself because he didn't think he could talk.

"So scared." It seemed to him he could hear a smile in her voice. "Don't worry, dainty creature. I'm not like Heles males, I won't hurt you."

* * *

He carried Stacey back to his room. Stacey's eyes stayed tightly shut as Victor moved the mender, eliminating bruises from his face. The down-turned curve of his mouth was small and bitter, tired.

He shifted weakly in Victor's hands, a little more animated than a doll, as Victor pulled his clothes off of him.

"We'll take a shower now," Victor whispered against Stacey's hair.

"Shower ... That'll be fuckin' good."

Under the hot streams Victor held Stacey's lax body on his lap, pressed to his chest, cradling in his arms.

Uranus was right; there was so little time left for them - he couldn't forfeit a moment of it.

* * *

Minerva didn't lie to him. Her cold huge body along Kai's didn't press, didn't try to spread him open; her limbs wrapped around him didn't strive in but cradled him, almost lulling, the tips swirled gently, exploring his closed eyelids and lips, plaited through the strands of his hair.

And held in gentle vices of the tentacles, Kai almost could will himself to believe that nothing happened, that it was normal and usual and it was his destiny from now on. That he was where he belonged.

* * *

In the bed, holding Stacey, Victor couldn't keep his arms from tightening, from pulling Stacey even closer. Stacey's face, still tired, kept a faint, absent smile on it. His soft drying hair spilled around his head on the pillow.

"You'll die," Victor whispered. "I'll lose you."

I won't see you again, I won't hold you again, I won't make love to you ...

Stacey's hard fingers caught into his hair, pulling his face closer.

"What are you muttering?" The voice was weak but bright as usual. "Come here, kiss me."

Victor gasped, touching the soft lips with his mouth. The warmth, the taste was so familiar that he felt tears sting in his eyes again. His breath was taken; he couldn't break the kiss and lacked air eventually.

"You're like the first time," Stacey chuckled, his eyes open at last, narrowed in a smile. "Forgot how to breathe?"

No. Victor shook his head, leaned down again. Stacey's pink tongue licked his quickly, gently. He'd never feel it again, after this night; he'd have to live with the memory of it, a hand-to-mouth life, he was not sure he even wanted it ...

"And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away ..."

He whispered the lines their family priest had made him learn once. Pointless words ... false words.

Only silence was not pointless, only kisses didn't lie.

Stacey's face was clean of bruises, his nipples not burnt any more and Victor traced them with his mouth. Stacey arched slightly in his arms, pushed closer, held Victor's head in the warm cradle of his arms.

He moved open for Victor's mouth that sought for his groin - trusting, willing as before - and Victor knew now that even if it were their last hours, his last memory he would have to live with ... they still had this night. Just for them two.

* * *

Nostromo was docking. It made little noise but Stacey still could guess it over the minor changes in the vibration of the ship's bulk. The push was soft but heavy enough to make him grip the bed rail to stay on his feet.

They were at the station of the Heles.

He squatted and started lacing the boots; finally he'd been given a pair. His hands didn't shake, he noticed with small satisfaction, only the motions were a little bit too slow. However, wasn't it surprising that he wasn't scared? Abnormal, even. He realized clearly what was going to happen within next few hours but his mind was numb, as if under anesthesia. On one hand, it was good - he wouldn't do anything undignified, driven by his fear of death; on the other hand, he probably should want some stronger emotions for this time.

It would come, Stacey thought wryly, maybe, at the most unexpected moment.

There was nothing to do in the quiet, empty room and he sat on the bed, smoking. He did always hate to wait. The door opened at last.

He knew it wouldn't be Victor - they had said their good-byes a while ago - and yet as he saw the black uniform, his heart leapt. It was some other man, of course, blond and coarse looking. His pale blue eyes expressed nothing as he pointed to the door. As Stacey made a step in front of him, the man grabbed his hands and pulled them back, locked cuffs on his wrists.

I'm not going to bolt, Stacey wanted to say and then decided not to argue. The man was under orders, after all. They walked along the corridors of Nostromo and then took an elevator to the station. Rooms and rooms, some empty, some full of Heles - and then he saw several humans dressed in the same cheap clothes as the ones given to him by Heles. There he was uncuffed.

It took Stacey a few moments to realize he looked at General Herrera and other arrested militaries from Intrepido. Without his tight-fitting uniform, the general looked different - an elderly lean man with short grey hair and quiet, somewhat humbled stare. He sat quietly in the corner of the room, his hands folded on the lap.

Stacey thought he didn't know what crimes the General comitted against Heles; he apparently wouldn't ever get to know it. Now, when everything was over, he did feel admiration towards Herrera. He, Stacey, had only spent a few hours knowing that he would die ... and, after all, it was his own choice. The general had known it since the moment he agreed to surrender.

It was also so much easier for Stacey because he didn't have family; the general did. He wondered if the general was thinking about them now. He wondered if Herrera ever recalled his little genetic slave.

This morning, as he looked at Victor who was dressing slowly, Victor's hands like white marble on the black cloth of the uniform, Stacey asked:

"Will you do one thing for me?"

"If I can, fox."

Victor's eyes shone with misery even as his voice was calm.

"That genetic, Kai ... If there is any chance for you to do something for him - will you do it? I know you can't let him go or anything - but if you just can make his life easier ... Okay?"

"Okay ..." Victor answered tonelessly as if he didn't quite understand what he was asked for.

"You promise?"

He saw a bitter compression of Victor's mouth.

"I promise, fox."

"Lieutenant Radek?" A surprised voice sounded next to him and he turned to face a slim middle-aged man with longish, pointed nose.

"Captain Monk."

"What are you doing here?" The man probably realized the answer before Stacey said anything. "I mean how did you get here? Here is no one who wasn't in the position for giving orders. I can tell you somehow these toads know a lot about us. But you ... It must be some mistake."

"No mistake," Stacey smiled. Monk was a decent man, a real man, strict and caring for his people. Stacey thought it could make him feel better - to talk to Monk; if only the man weren't in the same situation as they all were.

"What do you mean?" Monk looked at him concerned. "You surely didn't give any orders to kill Heles. Hell, you're too young to give any real orders anyway - and I saw you when you were arrested, you didn't harm any Heles then as well. I need to inform them that they make a mistake ..." he muttered.

"Don't ..." Stacey started but it was too late, Monk walked towards the door. There were two Heles and two humans who guarded them in the corridor. Stacey heard Monk's insistent voice that explained, tried to prove something. Other men raised their heads and looked at that direction.

It's useless, Stacey thought, but at the same time he felt some strange gratitude towards the Captain. Sentenced himself, he still tried to save one of his crew, cared enough for that. The argument in the corridor became harsher. Stacey walked there, worried - and saw Victor come up to the debaters.

It made him start back instinctively, suddenly the thought of seeing Victor again was unbearable. Stacey knew Victor had his duties - and still ...

Victor didn't look at him.

Stacey couldn't discern the words but Monk's face changed at something Victor said. He spat under the guards' feet, turned away and walked back.

"Whores. Heles' bitches."

"Spare your nerves, sir."

"Call me Monk, Radek. I don't think subordination means anything now."

They didn't wait for long - which Stacey found quite considerate. He did start getting nervous. His palms were wet - even though he still couldn't quite understand whether he was scared. He probably balanced on the thin line between fear and numbness. Well, he'd try to stay there as long as he could.

The trial room was huge, with a high dais at its far wall where the places for the Heles were located. As humans were ushered to stand in front of the dais, Stacey thought with amusement that Heles, normally much bigger than humans, would appear giants this way. Good for their self-esteem.

It was not the first time he stood on the trial. Seven years ago, everything had seemed oversized for him, too - but, maybe, it rather had been his own self-perception, his guilt and shame than reality.

This time he realized he looked with a kind of curiosity at the Heles who climbed the dais.

The Heles had a kind of fetish about human traditions since the time of their alliance, although Stacey was not sure if it was done in mockery or fascination. The garments of the Heles were black and long, reminding the cloaks of judges in old movies.

He imagined suddenly how they would look like if they put the powdered wigs on their bald heads and couldn't restrain a giggle. It sounded rather clear in the silent room. Stacey looked around carefully, ashamedly. Victor's burning eyes looked at him from the depth of the room and Stacey felt how his exhilaration drained out.

Another Heles climbed a small rostrum on the right of them.

"Darwin," he introduced himself. "Your lawyer."

"We don't need a Heles lawyer to represent our interests," Stacey heard Monk's hard voice. "We'll be our own defenders."

The humans hummed approvingly. The Heles spilled in a short laughter.

"I didn't say I'd represent your interests. A defender would have nothing to do on this trial. I'm here to see that all the documents are registered properly."

"It's not a trial, it's a comedy," Monk said disgusted.

"Then let's laugh together, criminal," the Heles answered sharply.

It turned out to be longer than Stacey expected. The Heles talked between themselves in their language, exchanging clicks and chirps, while humans looked from one of them to another.

It was unnerving, Stacey thought suddenly, as if something important was going past them, something they could have changed otherwise. It was an erroneous thought, something that his idle mind prompted him to distract him from fear.

He wanted it to be over sooner. It probably was a strange wish - wasn't he supposed to cling to every minute of life that was given to him? He recalled a story he'd heard about a man sentenced to death during one of the revolutions on Earth, a man who pushed through the crowd of his fellow-sufferers begging to execute him first.

"...there shall be no more death ..."

Suddenly the Heles stopped chirping.

"The Humans - Fernando Francisco Herrera, David Bates, Alexander Savitsky, Teodor Paget, T. C. Monk, Stacey Radek - are sentenced to death by the law of Heles. The sentence will be carried out in one hour. Fernando Herrera and Alexander Savitsky who expressed the wish to perform their religious rites before death can proceed with the corresponding priests."

"Did they ask you if you wanted to see a priest?" Monk whispered to Stacey.

"No," Stacey shook his head. "But it doesn't matter. I'm not a believer."

Victor must have known that.

Walking out of the room Stacey passed Victor so close he almost could reach for him. He didn't, of course. Everything was over. Victor's eyes looked at the floor, the long dark eyelashes fluttering.

If I miss anything, it will be your silvery eyes, Stacey thought.

The sentenced, with the exception of Herrera and Savitsky, were led to a small room with a small table with cups of coffee and a pack of cigarettes.

"I can't believe my eyes," Monk said derisively. "Looks like the remnants of some banquet. And where is my cake?"

"Good enough for me." Stacey grabbed the cigarettes and lit one, inhaled the smoke deeply. His hands were wet again, and cold.

Monk joined him in smoking and sniffed a cup of coffee.

"Do you think they put some stuff here? Or in the food? Some tranquilizers or what? I can't understand why I'm not afraid."

"I'm not either," Stacey answered. But he already didn't know if it was true. His skin felt crawling but the sensation of terror clenching his stomach was absent.

"We must be in shock - the understanding didn't descend on us yet." Stacey followed Monk's thoughtful gaze towards one of the men, Paget, who sat in a small chair, rocking, his arms covering his head. "Perhaps if they somehow made it more dramatic ..."

"No, thanks." Stacey laughed and Monk laughed as well.

"Did they take a letter from you, for your family?" Monk asked. "They promised to pass it. I wonder if they'll really do it. I mean why to bother?"

"I don't have a family. But I think they will do it. Everybody says the Heles don't lie."

"A difficult concept," Monk remarked.

The door opened but it was just Herrera and Savitsky, brought back. Behind them, a Heles entered the room and placed a pile of grey clothes on the floor.

"You have to change, humans."

For a few moments everybody was motionless - and then people moved to the pile. It was simple overalls, tight fitting and with red glossy oval sign on the left side of the chest. Now Stacey felt his stomach lurch as he realized what it was. A marker for the laser gun; automatically aimed. To secure the correct shot.

He looked at Monk who fastened the buckles of the overalls and straightened.

"Looks posh, doesn't it?"

"Line up at the door," the voice said on the announcer.

"Well ..." Suddenly Monk's voice acquired some thoughtful, almost soft sound. "I guess that's it." He reached his hand to Stacey. Stacey wiped his palm against the overalls quickly before giving it to Monk. If the man noticed its wetness, he didn't say anything, held it tightly for a few moments. "It was nice to meet you."

"It was nice to meet you," Stacey whispered as Monk turned away.

It suddenly slammed on him, the realization burning like lava. He was seeing this man for the last time; now Monk would die - this harsh, sarcastic man would be no more.

He, Stacey, would be no more.

It fell down on him like an avalanche, fear and grief flooded him, made him stifle a cry. What had he done? He didn't want to die. He didn't want anyone to die. He recalled Victor say he'd carried out the operation to capture Intrepido because of Stacey. It could be a very big exaggeration - but if it was not? Herrera and Monk and others were dying because of him, not knowing it?

He stumbled; his heart clenched so hard it hurt. Paget, who'd been sitting covering his head before, wailed now, pressed into the corner - and Stacey suddenly wanted to join him there. Two black-uniformed people grabbed him by the arms. A small injection and the man quieted, his eyes became meek, plaintive.

Stacey didn't scream, didn't claw and fight. He went step after step together with others. He suddenly wanted one more cigarette, desperately, regretted every one he'd hadn't smoked in his life.

They passed the door. Victor was in the corridor. His presence was like a gut-punch, took Stacey's breath away. Would he be present on the execution? Didn't Heles have enough people apart from Victor? Victor's face seemed stone-like, cold and tranquil, his eyelashes rose and fell very slowly.

The sentenced walked in a single file, a strange procession of silent people. They entered a facility that was very big, almost hangar-like. The light there had some strange greenish color. There was a long line of human-size capsules in the middle of it, more than were necessary - but apparently there had been more massive executions sometimes.

He turned again, wondered if Victor was still there - and he was, his gloved hand clenched on the other, his feet spread slightly as if to keep him from swaying. He didn't meet Stacey's gaze and Stacey didn't know if he felt relieved or upset with it.

He felt a touch of tentacle against his shoulder, was pushed to one of the capsules. He thought he would embarrass himself now, his feet would refuse to move. But he moved, lay down on the black polished bottom of the capsule. It was barely big enough to accommodate there. His arms and legs were taken into holders immediately, saving him from unnecessary movements.

Above him, in the ceiling, there was a tiny black opening and he knew what it was, knew that it would light up and it would mean his death. He didn't want to look at it but was unable to take his eyes away from it.

There were some short slamming sounds on the left from him. A few moments later he saw a muzzle of a Heles above and a shutter moved over his eyes.

"Don't, I don't need it ..." he started but the Heles didn't listen. The shutter fell and Stacey stopped seeing the opening and anything else.

Now it was soon. Please let it be sooner ... They couldn't make them wait like this, in darkness, for long. He couldn't bear it, he would scream, he would throw up.

"Execution starts," a voice said and he had time to feel relief. Then there was nothing.

Nothing happened. He knew the laser was soundless - and there was no pain, no nothingness to swallow him. They said the death was instantaneous, the laser worked for a minute but it was just for security reasons, an overkill ... so to say. Was it a lie? Was the laser destroying his body right now and he didn't know it? He thought that he'd missed the beginning, so now he didn't even now how many seconds were left till the end of this minute. He tried to count them and only could catch enough air to breathe. His mind was blank. There was nothing.

The shutter was suddenly thrown away from his face, the Heles' muzzle looked down at him. So, that was it ... He couldn't bear it.

"It didn't work, did it? You can't make your fuckin' devices work!" he screamed, feeling suddenly that he was not held any more, and used it to get up. His head felt empty and an abrupt movement nearly made him fall, slamming against the side of the capsule. There was another Heles in front of him, unusually looking, with his body located on a big cube.

"We decided to spare your life, Stacey Radek," the Heles said. His voice sounded familiar. Scientific Officer Uranus.

Stacey felt anger flood him, blinding, desperate one, leaving no place for reason. Victor's pale face with huge, black eyes was ghost-like behind the bulks of the Heles. Stacey jerked towards him.

"You knew it! You arranged it, you bastard, how could you do it to me?"

Victor's lips were white, his face blank except for these blazing eyes. He flinched, tried to say something as Stacey swung his fist in his face.

His wrist was caught, a tentacle wrapped around it, pulled it back. He struggled against the alien, felt more slick limbs wrap around his body, pull him away from Victor.

"I hate you," he screamed, "I hate you so much!"

He spat in Victor's shocked face, saw him flinch but not move - and Stacey was already dragged away, held tightly by the Heles. The last thing he saw was Monk's face, with the shutter covering his eyes and his mouth drooped in death.

Then Stacey felt a small prick under his jaw - and suddenly his body went heavy and lax and he stopped feeling or seeing anything, submerged in blackness that was so much like death and as inescapable.

* * *

He sat on the floor, forehead pressed to his knees, arms hugged around his chest. This way he didn't have to see anything, could believe he was alone and sheltered. This way he could lull the pain inside him to sleep.

It was an illusion, of course. He was not safe - was not invulnerable. He was not even alone. The stirring in his mind made him shiver.

"How long are you going to wallow in self-pity, comrade?"

Leave me alone, Uranus, he wanted to say but knew the Heles wouldn't obey. It didn't matter either way.

"I thought you would be happy," the Heles said a little petulantly. "After all, taking into account to what lengths you went to save your friend ... Are you angry that I kept you under control during the execution? I just didn't want you to make any stupid actions."

Victor recalled insurmountable heaviness in his body, so huge that even raising and lowering of the eyelids seemed impossible to do. He recalled how his body moved, not by the order of his mind but by someone else's will.

"Angry? No, comrade Uranus."

"I'm glad. You're a very promising human - and believe me, no one knows you better than I do. Sharing the mind-link with you also provides us with invaluable information. Having you on the side of Heles, having you as my mind-symbiont is a great acquisition for us."

Victor's lips trembled spasmodically; fuck you, he wanted to say. Perhaps Uranus felt this thought - but preferred to ignore it.

"Why don't you go to your lover, comrade?"

"Is he awake?" Victor felt his throat go dry.

"Sleeping. We injected him some more tranquilizers. Sleep will be good for him, hopefully he would be out of shock when he wakes up. And we need him asleep for our operation."

"Operation?" What else are you going to do to him, you ...

"Why do you think we left him alive?"

He didn't know; he was afraid to think about it. Stacey had thought he'd known about it, planned it all - but he hadn't ...

"Have you heard about Voices, comrade?"

He nodded carefully; who didn't.

"The Voices ordered us to spare him."

"But aren't Voices ... well, a fake?" Perhaps 'fake' was not a good word when Heles were concerned. "Or a hallucination?"

"You humans think that because Voices don't communicate with you. But they have their own reasons to ignore you. And is it not that you have a trouble to believe in something you can't touch?"

Okay, he was ready to believe in Voices, in a devil with a tail and horns, in whatever - if Stacey was alive because of it.

"But why did Voices want Stacey ..."

"We don't question them. Voices see the whole picture while we can see only a part of it. But I can't say I'm sorry," Uranus added. "Your friend will serve us well."

"Serve us?" Did they think that the mock execution made Stacey more pliant? Even he couldn't hope for it. He touched his cheek that still felt burned by Stacey's spit.

"We'll apply another method to him. The method I created under the supervision of Voices when I worked on their station."

Victor would ask more about it but Stacey's future was more important now.

"What method?"

"Memory blocking. The results are quite promising. I think a minor intervention will be enough to bend your friend to the necessary direction."

It was just too ironic.

"You want to mind-wipe him? You forbid me to use drugs to convince him!"

"The mechanism is completely different," Uranus said sharply. "Drugs imply a lie while the mind intervention will make the subject express his own free will. You don't need to be nervous."

"You cannot do it!" He clasped his fists feeling the leather of his gloves fret under his fingernails.

"The Voices consider it an appropriate variant. And the Heles will benefit from it, I'm sure. You see we don't have illusions about people who join as, the recent reinforcement, Andrews, a good example of it. Highly intelligent, responsible people like you and Stacey Radek are rare ..."

Flattery.

"...and if Radek passed the tests after four years in a correctional facility ..."

It sickened Victor to think that Uranus had heard that. But there was nothing he could do.

"That's right, comrade. There is nothing you can do. Isn't it enough for you that your friend is alive and safe? As for the memory blocking process, I want you to help there. It'll assure that we will make a right choice what to block and your friend won't be harmed."

Victor got up on his feet and smoothened his uniform quickly.

"I'm ready whenever you need me, comrade Uranus."

The End of Part 1

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