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Original Fiction
ZERO TOLERANCE

Part 3

"Now... I want you to do something, Peter, my boy."

The flickering of the flame and a thin piece of metal his father holds in pincers, moving it through the fire.

Peter looks at it and somehow he knows what this 'something' is going to be - and he wishes he were wrong.

He also knows he can't argue with his father - and if he does it will end up worse for him. Still he prays silently for something to happen. Something... What? His mother is in her room with a bottle of cognac under the bed. Uncle Andre is away on a business trip. And the door of his father's study is locked anyway.

"Come on, Peter. Take it. You don't want to say you are afraid of a little pain?" his father smiles. It is not a good smile - it can deceive strangers but not Peter who knows it too well. His father's voice is like purring - he doesn't press, doesn't hurry - he just lets the piece of metal get sooty.

"Show me you are a man. Show me you are Solana."

Peter reaches and his father hands it to him.

Oh God... It hurts! He cries out, terrified - draws his hand back quickly and looks at his palm, dark and red and swelling - and feel the tears rise in his eyes helplessly as he hears his father chuckle above. Not a laughter, just a short snort.

"Stop it! Men don't cry. You are my son, aren't you? Either you are my son or not"

Yes, yes, I am! Please don't say that. He shivers. He makes himself stop. There are no more tears than those that have already come out.

"Good. You know I do it for you, Peter. Everything for you."

Of course, he knows. His father repeats it every time when he has to punish him.

"Kiss my hand now. Say 'thank you'."

He does. And then his father brings the band into the fire again and says:

"Now take it once more. Prove that I don't waste my time on you."

He woke up feeling the burning in his palm again. But it was not blistered this time - just a deep outturned cut over it - not bleeding any more but stinging at every motion of his fingers. He could use this hand, though - unlike the other one that throbbed with pain unceasingly, the bracelet of pink puffy flesh around the wrist looking ugly.

The lights were on again. He raised his head and looked around and chuckled joylessly, feeling this sound inside his head, not hearing it. He remembered. He knew he couldn't hear the rustle of water any more - the sound he got used to during the last day, nor the slight humming of the mechanisms somewhere above. Most of all it reminded him of holo-pictures when the sound was suddenly turned off. But unlike holos - even unlike the first day when he was shell-shocked - now he knew it was forever or permanent.

He closed his unhearing ears with the palms of his hands and pressed his forehead to his knees.

The briquette hit against his feet and he looked up abruptly, shocked at seeing Simon so close, unable to fight the panic the first few moments.

//"Eat."//

He shook his head, wanting to say something and realizing suddenly that his throat was closed, as if he was about to cry, his voice wouldn't come out as he wanted it to - so, he'd better not to try to talk.

//"Then starve. Bitch!"// Simon made signs when speaking, a special one for every word. The sign for "bitch" he was going to learn pretty quickly, Peter thought sarcastically.

Simon walked around the camping place gathering his possessions and although it seemed he didn't pay any attention to Peter, every time he moved he caught Simon's sharp, watchful look at him. Simon could hear him, right? A little later he came up to Peter holding the pain gun, pushed the button several times and shrugged.

//"I don't need this to keep you on the leash. Get up. Walk."//

He saw Simon reach for him, apparently to raise him on his feet, and backed away furiously.

"I can do it myself."

He did - nearly doubled over with the flare of pain in his chest and belly. He made himself straighten and walk, though. Simon followed him, just like yesterday - only now Peter had a hard time making himself not to turn back to see if Simon was behind and how far.

Simon was there, of course - sometimes Peter could feel it - a hand running over his ass lewdly - or an angry push when he was not quick enough. The path was leading them upwards, as before, sometimes slightly, sometimes steeply - but the ferns around were the same. What if there was no end to it, he thought suddenly, not knowing if the thought scared or surprised him. An eternity of ferns. This variation of hell he had never heard about.

And then they saw the clearing. And something else there - something that made Peter gasp. Something looking like a low hut made of plastic plates - unmistakably made by an intelligent creature.

//"Down!"//

Simon gripped his neck and threw him on the ground, the impact reverberating in his body. He felt Simon stretch along him, holding him down.

The man was smart - and with better reaction then Peter had.

The hut was built on the ground free from ferns, three hundred feet away from them; the path reached it, turned round it and went farther - and as Peter looked at the place, he knew he was right - it was human-made - or at least humanoid. The hut itself was ugly - one could see the door, the windows made of plates.

The door opened and a man came out of it.

He was human. He could be a citizen of almost any planet of the Union - even of the League. Slight, in his late thirties, with a ridiculous mop of grey curly hair on his head. His clothes were something that looked like a filthy loose overall hanging on him shapelessly. He stretched looking around without much interest. Not seeing them.

Whoever he was - whatever this place was - seeing him made Peter almost delirious with joy. Everything would end right here. Simon was not so clever, after all. He should've stayed in the ferns for the rest of his life, not go exploring. And certainly not to take Peter with him.

As the man made a couple of steps away from the hut and started taking a leak, Peter felt Simon's hand on his neck suddenly, turning his head forcibly to face him - and saw him whisper, articulating the words clearly:

//"Stay put,"// affirmed with a jerk on his hair. He felt Simon's knee pressing on him as the man got up - and wondered what the other planned to do. If he was going for the gray-haired one... he couldn't really expect Peter to lie here like that, to pass the chance to get free... no way!

He looked up slightly and saw that Simon didn't move towards the hut at all - but somewhere back to the ferns - and for a moment another fit of joy overwhelmed him. He was leaving! To hide in the ferns, just as Peter thought...

He knew he was wrong almost immediately, seeing Simon open the bag and pocket a few boxes of the stuff. Sure, this much stuff could make him a rich man everywhere. A whole bag could be too dangerous, too much a treasure to keep it.

Peter pressed his injured, trembling hands to the ground and took a deep breath before getting up. He knew Simon would hear him. Simon would be pissed off in a major way. But there was nothing that would stop him from trying.

Taking the heated piece of metal for the second time was more difficult.

The pain exploded inside him as he got up and dashed towards the hut and the man. He ignored pain. He didn't know if Simon had already noticed him gone, if he followed him - but even if so, he still had enough time. He saw the man lift his head and turn - his wide pale eyes, strangely watery, got huge with amazement, then with suspicion. He stepped back and pulled out some stocky baton-like stick from under his overall. Being prepared for unpleasant business, Peter could understand that... but he would explain.

The bastard should've cut off my tongue, he thought fiercely, starting talking, hoping to sound coherent even being short of breath:

"Do you speak English? Russky? Union argot?" he rapidly tried the most common trade-linguas waiting for anything to sparkle in the man's eyes. "Do you understand me?"

He wasn't sure - there was hardly anything else but tension and doubt in the man's face. But then the man said something which Peter couldn't read but at least it might be some way to communicate.

"Sorry, I can't hear you," he motioned to his blood-crusted ears. " Please, help me! I am a citizen of the League, I got in trouble. Help me contact the government and you'll get an award, my family will pay a good ransom for me."

He could swear the man understood him - something shifted in the teary eyes but he was not sure it was at the mention of money. And there still was this suspicion - too much of it.

"I know I look like shit," he tried for a reassuring smile and knew he'd only half-succeeded as the man's eyes narrowed, "but you will be paid, I promise it, don't worry... my family has the influence..."

And at the same moment the man's gaze left him. He didn't look at Peter any more but over his shoulder, watching intently, his hands clenching and unclenching on the baton. He was listening, Peter understood.

Yeah, right. Listening to Simon who came walking out of the ferns now - a great friendly smile on his face, waving his hand joyfully. He looked and saw it and felt sick with fear and hatred mixed. For a moment he was short of words. Desperately he sought eye contact again

"Be careful! The man is dangerous. He is my slave and a criminal... help me take him!"

The man looked at him again, with a quiet, calculating look in his eyes - and his lips moved but Peter was not sure if he spoke - he probably just muttered something to himself. Then he smiled as if finding an answer - and made a step towards Peter. Slamming the blunt end of the baton in his belly.

He gasped in disbelief - feeling sickening, hot pain spread inside him, weakening his limbs - and as he fell on his knees, a moment before losing consciousness, he felt in weird amazement how his mouth filled with thick salt blood, warm and choking.

* * *

"You say he's your slave," the man stood over Peter's curled body and although Simon smiled to him with his most charming smile (makes blood freeze in your veins in six seconds), he still held his pathetic stick at the ready. "Stay away!"

Simon made another step and stopped, raising his arms in a half-mocking calming gesture.

Still looking suspiciously at him, the man bent over Peter - who bled from his mouth again, the blow must've gotten a wrong place - and took his right hand, checking his forearm.

"He doesn't have the brand on him," it sounded like an accusation. Simon shrugged. The truth was he could cut the man's throat with one movement, stick or not stick - and that was partly why he let the things go wherever they could bring them. "He said you were his slave. Show me your forearm!"

He enjoyed showing the man his unmarred arms, both of them. The League didn't brand their slaves.

"I didn't have time to brand him," he said conversationally. "I just... acquired him recently."

The man's forehead smoothed a little - disapproval not leaving his eyes, though.

"You should have bothered to do it first thing. He wouldn't dare to give you this shit then."

"I will," Simon said firmly - and smiled even wider, making his voice sound as nonchalant as possible. "But where are my manners? Thank you for your help!"

"You have the strangest accent - never heard anything like that," the man shrugged but apparently didn't make the conclusion Simon was afraid of. Well, as for him - the man was the one who talked strange - but Simon thought he would be able to pick up the speech patterns if necessary. "He talks crazily, too," the man pushed Peter's body with his foot. "I had a hard time choosing between you."

"I recommend you for choosing me, then," smile.

You should thank yourself, you know. Because if you'd chosen the wrong guy, you would be lying here on the ground soaking with your blood, man.

"I usually mind my own business," the man said thoughtfully, barely looking at Simon. "That's why I live here. I have enough of these problems in the City."

"Well, sorry for disturbing you," Simon smiled again. "I think we'll just leave soonest."

"I hope so," the man muttered - and continued to stand there as if waited for something else.

"Simon Kewlene," Simon reached his hand.

For a few moments he doubted that the man would take it - and then he did.

"Raymond Glint."

The man's hand was covered in stains, blue, red and black, pale, as if they had eaten into the skin. He caught Simon's cautious look and said quickly with a bit of resentment:

"I am an artist. That's why I live here. Loneliness does me good. And what are *you* doing here?"

"I'll tell you," Simon grinned and added suddenly. "Do you mind showing me your works first?"

"You can say it's a strange way to work," the man led him into the hut, his mood changing abruptly. "But it's so perfectly quiet here, just the machines, you know - and the air... up there you can never feel such air. When I go to the City to sell my works, I return ill from there. Totally poisoned. I gather the images in the City - but inspiration... my inspiration waits for me only here."

He started pulling the cloths away from the canvas when Simon stopped him.

"Let's take care of this poor son of bitch first, okay?" Peter was still dazed, barely following him into the hut.

"Yeah, sure, lock him here," the man pointed at the small dark storeroom amiably. "I never owned a slave but there is a convenient bar to tie him to."

Simon did exactly this, putting Peter on his knees and tying his wrists to his ankles, with the rope going around the bar that went along the wall.

"Don't go away, shit," running his hand over Peter's cheek and feeling him shun away half-successfully. "And, by the way, be nice to me. We didn't settle up yet for you pulling this trick on me," he was not sure if Peter could understand him.

By the time he came out, Raymond had finished freeing his canvas from the rags. Colors... Fierce green of the ferns merging with dull grey on the horizon. Narrow blue of the trenches and brown of the path. And something else on other pictures. Dirty-green and grey of tall, grim buildings reaching to the same greyness above them.

"The City?" Simon asked.

"Yeah," Raymond nodded mechanically.

There were people, too - light, dark, in all shades - the mixture Simon had seen only when Peter visited one of the big metropolises of the Union. But just humans, for all he could see. Then the pulsating, brilliant red on one of the pictures caught his eye.

"I finished this for the Commander," Glint smiled almost self-consciously, pointing at it. "Dunno if he buys it but hope so."

The picture was strange, like everything Raymond did - rough, thick lines that made Simon think he must've been painting with his hands - and it seemed to have two backgrounds at once. One of them was of a huge tall construction on the square apparently in the City - a pale cross-like shape of a man there, a pool of red around him and a crowd of people beneath. The other one - a ghost-like pale face, almost featureless, just icy-blue eyes staring from it... and blood leaking from the mouth.

"I don't know how I am going to call it yet. 'Death of an insurrectionist' is too long. Maybe, just 'The Block'?" and seeing Simon shrug, added smiling deliriously. "I thought that guy of yours could be an insurrectionist - and you a bounty hunter, huh? Don't worry, I won't ask you to share."

It was a perfect opportunity and Simon could've jumped at it - but he didn't.

"He's my slave. And I promised to tell you what I'm doing here - so, I will. But first of all," he said before Glint could say anything else. And looking right in the man's eyes, continued, taking the narrow box of the stuff from his pocket. "Do you always feel the inspiration come easy to you, Ray?"

He didn't feel sorry for spending the stuff on Glint. He needed the man to check how it would be received here - if he would have the venue for selling it... Well, he was sure he would - people were similar wherever they lived.

As a nice side-effect the stuff would relax Glint enough for him to get to know what he wanted from him. He was walking a fine line; but a dose would make the man answer all Simon's questions.

He saw acute interest flash in Raymond's eyes when he opened the box and the little jelly balls caught the light.

"What is it?" a careful voice but his eyes, big and watery, didn't leave them.

"Something that will make you fly, Ray. Will make you feel... like God... omnipotent... blessed... Will make you paint as never before."

He handed the box to the man and saw him reach for the jellies - as if he was hypnotized. The caution stopped him at the last moment:

"You take it first. Who knows, maybe, you try to poison me."

"Don't you worry," Simon said and put a jelly in his mouth.

He had never used this stuff before. Then, on Aben, it was too expensive - he and his friends used much cheaper shit, much more deadly. Well, fortunes changed, didn't they?

He knew the dose was one jelly for the beginners - and could be driven up to five or six with time... Peter used two or, on a bad day, three.

He felt the jelly melt on his tongue - and as Raymond, making up his mind at last, reached for the box, Simon turned away slightly, spitting the half-melted ball on the floor and crushing it with his heel. No time to get blissed out. He needed his head clear. At least as clear as possible.

"I know... I read about this," half-closing his eyes, Ray said quietly, "There was the stuff like this on Earth. Making you feel high and mighty. But they didn't let us take it to the Sphere. Where did you get it?"

Simon felt chilly; he didn't know if it was because of what Ray talked about - or the stuff was taking effect. He breathed hard through his nose trying to stay sober - but felt how almost impossible it was. His heart was filling with unbearable, sudden vibrant joy.

"I brought it from a ship. The League smuggles it... The Union doesn't like it, of course, but what can they do? Me, I am not from the League, I'm from Aben. I was enslaved for twelve years but now... now I am free... I won't let anyone enslave me again... and they will pay..."

What am I talking about?

Why did it seem such a good idea to brag with his achievements? Terror pierced him when he understood what he was doing - and saw Ray's pale face very close, his wide eyes staring. Fuck the stuff... If it knocked him off so easily... But at the same moment he realized that the drug started taking its toll on the man, too. He nodded to Simon, not shocked with his revelations at all.

"I knew something was wrong with you," he laughed; a silly small laugh - but a happy one. "A ship... coming to the Sphere. What we waited for three hundred years. Why did you come? Did they send you to check if we changed, if we could return to the society? Does the Earth forgive us?"

"The Earth? There is no Earth any more," but Ray seemed not to hear.

"Some didn't believe in it - thought they forgot about us, that we would never leave the Sphere. But the Commander was right - and the order... you'll see our order. We changed... we became good..."

Simon felt like hitting him suddenly - just to make him stop, to swallow this ridiculous joy that was so difficult to understand - or, maybe, just difficult for his hazed brain.

"Wait! Tell me about the Sphere."

"Yeah... the Sphere - don't you know? Well, well," Ray suddenly turned on his heel, rushed to the canvas and pulled out the clean one, dipped his fingers into the paint.

"I'll show you, beautiful stranger. I'll show you everything you want. Look at this - it is the Sphere."

The paint was grey and the circle he draw was more oval, compressed from up and down.

"This is the Sphere. And we are here," he drew an arrow towards the bottom of the circle. "Zero level. The fern lands. The lungs of the Sphere. And above us," he drew a line inside the circle, "are the fields. Collective farms as they are called. Farmers work there. The lousy life, you should've seen my picture 'Death of a farmer' - but someone must feed the City, right?" he drew one more line, in the middle of the circle and started drawing some notched landscape over it. "The City. That's where everybody lives."

"Except you?"

"Well, one can live everywhere. Except slaves and farmers and workers. Most people just don't. And, of course, there are rats, too - the insurrectionists," he continued to draw something on the canvas. "Living between the levels, in the darkness."

"How can I get to the City?"

"And how did you get here?"

"Followed the path."

"The path is the long way, it goes around the Sphere. But you can take a short cut. Go straight ahead and you'll see the tunnel. It'll take you to the level of the fields - and there you can take the elevator. But you'll need the passport to get to the elevator, because of the farmers, you know, they always try to escape."

"Do you have one?"

"Yeah, I..." he might be gone too far but he still wasn't an idiot. His short motion stopped - and he looked at Simon slyly. "Beautiful stranger... you were right. The inspiration comes! I want to draw you. I wanted it from the first moment when I saw you."

"Go ahead," Simon nodded. "What was the Sphere built for?"

"A prison," the man shrugged. He took another canvas, tried to fix it and failed. "For bad guys. 'Take everything you need and leave our beautiful Earth. And please, please don't come back'."

If they'd sent away all bad guys, it means that the ancestors of Aben and the League were the good guys, Simon thought with bitter irony.

"The Sphere is self-sufficient... It can't be damaged... it repairs itself automatically. It is migrating randomly - but it can never land on any planet. We can live here forever, generation after generation - just to take care of the ferns and build houses and grow food. At first nobody wanted to work... there was famine... people killed each other.. and the Commander..."

"And the Commander?"

"The first Commander, not this one. He set the order. He destroyed guns... appointed slaves and farmers and others... limited the birth rate... Oh my head..."

The man moaned but he didn't seem in pain - rather too excited. His speech grew so incoherent that Simon wanted to shake him but didn't. He had seen the signs a lot of times before. His own heart speeded heart but he made himself forget about it. He was going to leave now.

"No!" suddenly Glint's dirty fingers clasped on Simon's hand. "Don't leave me! You promised... I'll draw you."

"Sure, Raymond," Simon said comfortingly and raised the man in his arms easily. "You just need to lay down a little. I'll be with you."

"I love you..." Glint whispered as Simon carried him to the bed. His arms clutched around Simon's waist - and contracted just once when Simon took his head between his palms and snapped his neck.

"I appreciate that," he said leaning towards the face with dulling eyes and thrust his tongue in still warm mouth. The taste was there - sweet and spicy of the melted jelly.

He felt dizzy and exuberant and at the same time strangely disturbed as he rummaged through the drawers of the table where Glint's hand had pointed so carelessly when he mentioned the passport. It was there, an old dog-eared paper and, after reading it, Simon made a small addition in the line for slaves. Hopefully he wouldn't have to use it for long - he didn't want to change his name to this shitty one at all.

He found a neat heap of the banknotes of different nominations there, too, and pocketed them - having no idea if it was little or a lot, of course, but hoping that it would do at least for the nearest future. Not for long... the stuff was the thing he counted on... and he was not wrong counting, he knew now.

The light cast a trail on the floor when he opened the door to the storeroom. He saw Peter blink at him - and asked:

"How is it in the darkness when you can't hear?"

He knew Peter didn't understand, noticed how his eyes became intent and worried.

"I bet you missed me, slut."

It was silly, he shouldn't try at having a conversation, not with a deaf man. He stepped closer and pulled his cock out, pulsing hard, though Simon seemed not to notice it before:

"Bring me off - and do it carefully - or I'll break your fuckin' neck just as I did it with that son of bitch..."

"You are high!" Peter's voice was strangely accusing as he dodged away from Simon's cock - dared to do it. "Go on, fuck up your brain with the stuff!"

"Look who's talking," Simon caught his face, tugged the corner of his mouth, making him open it, and felt it tear because he couldn't control his strength. Dazed he watched how red smeared over Peter's face under his hand. "Fuckin' do it now!"

Blood from Peter's mouth leaked over his shaft as he pushed it in - but Simon didn't feel it, barely felt anything at all - it seemed he was hard and yet anaesthetized, arousal bubbling in his head instead of his bottom belly. He slammed into Peter's mouth, kept slamming, ruining the resilience of his throat - fascinated to see how familiar defiance gave place to pain in Peter's eyes.

He didn't feel how he came - just heard Peter cough and choke and noticed that his cock started getting soft. He pulled it out, tucked it without getting it cleaned and started untying Peter.

A sudden thought came to his mind - a cool and clear one. He took out the box, grabbed a few jelly balls.

"Open your mouth, scum. I just want to make you happy."

He saw the doomed expression in Peter's eyes. The bitch knew it was a mistake to take them, knew what the stuff would do to him - and still he couldn't resist. Simon pushed the jellies into his mouth that was still bleeding and smeared with Simon's cum, held it covered with his palm until he saw Peter swallow.

"Now I'll be able to handle you better," he smiled, finished untying the ropes and pulled Peter up on his feet.

* * *

They left the hut - Simon stopped to throw one of the rags that Glint used to cover the paintings on his face... he was sure the man wouldn't mind, he might even like it. By this time Peter was stoned out. He had a bit of a problem with walking straight and in the direction Simon wanted him - but when Simon dragged him a little bit by his upper arm, he complied - and not even winced when Simon twisted his broken wrist inconveniently.

His face was white and his eyes wide open but all expression was smoothened from it except some kind of amazement. And he kept turning his head around as if he forgot why he couldn't hear anything. Or as if the stuff gave him his hearing back. He also seemed to forget constantly that Simon was there - and frowned every time when he saw him. And he didn't seem to be in pain.

Knowing the effects of the stuff - feeling them upon himself - Simon knew that Peter would be as soft and pliant as a child now. He thought that he could do anything to the little bitch now - throw him on the ground, fuck shit out of him - and Peter would only blink his wide-opened eyes with the pinpoints of pupils in dark-grey.

For a moment Simon wanted to do it - to lean over him, right on the road, crush him to the ground with all his weight, cradle his head between his hands and eat his soft, puffy lips mercilessly - or bite the white lithe column of his throat. Feel Peter wince under his touches and still stay soft and melting.

No. He shook his head. The thoughts seemed to bring him another hard-on - so quickly - and he didn't have time for it. He didn't spend the jellies on Peter to see what a fucktoy he could make. Because now Simon needed to play it right. And if he played right, he would have as much time to explore everything about Peter as he wanted.

He remembered verbatim what Raymond said about the tunnel - but the truth was he had no idea what the man meant. And when he saw it, he felt a kind of jolt in his chest. It looked like a tube - or a water-tower - of the old kind that he remembered seeing on Aben; but more narrow, barely two arm's spans, made of some grey rough material, not metal or stone - something man-made. And it was tall. Going right up until it was lost in the upper regions.

The entrance of the tunnel was barred with a big sign: "State property. No trespassing."

"Sure, whatever," Simon kicked the sign away and looked inside.

It was dark in there - really dark; the light from outside lit only a few thin metal rails wielded into the wall.

 

"Listen to me," he grabbed Peter, trying to shake some attention into him, articulating carefully. "Go up there. And no fuckin' stupid things from you - or I'll cut off your tongue and make you eat it."

"No... not my tongue..." at least this much he understood - and Simon hoped the drug made him suggestible enough.

"Go!" he pushed.

The stuff was making miracles. Peter didn't resist, got in and went up, swifter than Simon expected - and when he tried it himself, he realized why - it was convenient. The rails were located just on the right height.

He also didn't feel any fear. The rails seemed to be fixed firmly. Truth was he kind of enjoyed moving like this, in the darkness, feeling the slight strain of his muscles and not doubting that he could go on and on like that.

Then he felt Peter move somewhere aside - speeded up and realized they were already at the exit of the tunnel. On another level.

He took hold of Peter once more and pressed his hand to his mouth. He couldn't make himself more understandable - he was using the clearest signs possible. He hoped Peter knew it was up to his slave to recognize and to follow them. And to suffer the consequences if not.

With the lax body of his prisoner in grip Simon left the dark entrance only to come to a stand-still in amazement as they entered a new world.

Well, he expected - according to what Raymond told - but still seeing so many people suddenly, after such a long time of solitude, was kind of shocking. A panicky thought beat in his temples - that his freedom was over, he would be apprehended now and sent into slavery... or into death.

No. No, stupid. Everything is going to be all right if you do everything right. You either risk - or you lose.

The land in front of them was as flat and dull as it could be imagined. Simon had grown up in the city, had never been in a rural area before - and neither had Peter, most likely - but something told him this landscape never could be all natural. It had been created by men and was handled by men.

People everywhere - hundreds of them, bending over the dark greasy land, gathering green stuff from it and throwing it into big boxes that other men dragged to the carts. On any Union planet this process would have been mechanized a long time ago, even using slaves for it would be considered expensive and unadvisable. Farmers, and slaves, the lowest of the low according to what Raymond said.

And they were being guarded. Simon looked at those other men standing upright and motionless, clad in black uniform and small black berets - and with what looked like weapons in their hands. Crossbows! He wanted to chuckle and recalled what Glint said about guns. Wished that he had a gun - the pain gun or a projectile one - any one would make all the difference.

There were other people around, too - a few had cast weird looks at them when he and Peter appeared from the tunnel - not suspicious, though; they didn't seem to stand out. There was no uniform kind of clothes for those who were not guards or farmers, no similar looks. A perfect way to get lost, Simon thought. And get new life.

He looked at Peter and saw him sway slightly, his eyes half-closed. He looked phased out - badly - and Simon wondered if the dose had been too big. But even if it was - he still preferred Peter this way rather than fighting and trying to escape.

I could've killed you, bitch, do you know? Could have left you lying together with Glint's body, rotting slowly in the chilly fresh air of the fern lands.

He saw another vertical passage almost immediately - and that was where most people were heading. So, he pushed Peter who stumbled - and they stepped on the moving band that carried them there.

"Wow," he heard Peter mumble and this showed him better than anything else how far gone the kid was. He could scream... despite everything... he didn't. For a moment a strange feeling stirred in Simon's heart - something almost close to pity as he saw how Peter was losing his chance - his very last chance, Simon would take care of that - and even not realizing it.

People flipping passports at a guard post to the doors of the elevator; there was not much attention paid to that - and he showed his own recently acquired paper with the same absent expression as others. It passed.

Ten minutes later and a dizzying trip in the elevator that hummed and rumbled as if it was going to break any moment - they were in the City.

* *

The place looked much like the dead crazy's pictures. The City really was a much like any one of the Union metropolises could be - most buildings jetted into the false sky. He saw Peter look up, too, and dragged him again - to the building that had a flickering sign saying 'Rent' on it. He hoped he had enough money to pay for an accommodation there.

And that was when they saw the first portrait. Occupying the whole wall of one of the buildings, perfectly drawn and colored - a smiling grey-haired man in a small black beret. "Commander Duvall. Thirty years of perfect order for perfect people."

"Are you sure we are perfect enough?" suddenly he heard Peter's voice and turned back abruptly but saw only unfocused, glazed stare.

"Don't give me shit! Don't give me any shit now!" he felt he was about to lose his temper and stopped himself.

He rented a flat on the top of the building, for a few days at first - without any problem, the owner didn't even demand the passport for it. Raymond's money was more than enough... but surely it was not the last money Simon would have here. He would get more soon... very soon.

The first floor of the building consisted of some slimy looking place, a kind of bar or something, with few people at the stand and a couple of creatures that could be male or female, apparently waiting for customers. They used another elevator to get to the top - had two rooms, small and with some furniture, a bathroom and a balcony there - partly the reason why Simon had chosen the upper floor. He thought that he'd later come out and look at the sky - at the surface above him - getting a bit closer to it. It fascinated him, he didn't even know why.

Another reason was that he knew he would feel safer with Peter locked on the upper floor - without giving him any chance to get out.

He dragged the somnambular-like swaying man to the smaller room and threw him face up on the bed, taking out the ropes again. He tightened the ropes so savagely that Peter's face distorted with the pain that reached him even though the haze of the drug.

"You can rest now," he said not sure Peter understood him, looking down at his eyes that closed and opened as if he no longer had the strength to coordinate their movement. Simon was, too - felt the weariness that the stuff usually left after itself. But he couldn't afford rest. Not now.

"I think I'd better gag you," he mused aloud, tore a strip from the sheet and covered Peter's mouth tightly.

It had to be enough. At least till he was back.

He left the flat, locked the door - and descended back in the street. He knew where he was going to go. He didn't ask the road but choose it by his wits - riding the band past the apartment buildings, shops, restaurants and state institutions - more portraits of the Commander - and some posters with the mugs of men and women with the announcements of the award for captured 'rats'.

He saw something that was vaguely familiar to him, too - a huge construction in the middle of the square. The Block. Just like on Raymond's painting.

When he reached the Commander's house, he knew it at once - he would know it was the place even if there was no white banner on it with the portrait of the man over the door.

It was not easy to get in but Simon managed - he learned a bit from the way the families - Peter - handled their business, after all. He was searched a few times - his knife was taken away but not the stuff - and made to wait for hours in the spacious empty hall.

At last the door opened and a man called for him tightly:

"Mr. Kewlene, Commander Duvall is ready to see you."

He risked and he won.

Two hours later Simon returned to his flat having a crispy new passport on his own name, the paper confirming his rights on the slave - and having left two boxes of the stuff in exchange for enough money to make his pockets bulge.

He could've tried to push his stuff himself, illegally, bit by bit, building his clientele. But he guessed the beauty of the Sphere was that legal and illegal depended on one man's will here. And he knew the Commander would appreciate the chance Simon was giving him.

Simon brought a short square-jawed man with a big suitcase, too.

Hey, bitch, don't I take a good care of you? Bringing you a doctor?

He felt a special interest as he looked at Peter. He'd had to try the stuff again, for the Commander, and that time he had to swallow the dose, no way to spit it. He was amazed again with the powerful effect it had on him, just one jelly. And he didn't even remember how many jellies he'd given Peter. And now the young man looked at him with widened eyes but the pupils were no longer tiny - but huge, dark and pulsating.

Too bad for you if you came round.

"I want you to check him first," he ordered the doctor. "He was bleeding from both ends and I don't want him to kick the bucket now."

He was pleasantly surprised that the doc seemed to be smart enough not to ask to untie him or remove the gag... well, taking into account the sum Simon paid him, he should've been smart.

He half expected Peter make a show again - but the doctor carefully avoided to meet his stare - except the moment he check the movement of the eyes - and even then it looked like he didn't see anything but what he was looking for - the signs of concussion, inner bleeding of the brain or whatever. Then Simon saw how Peter's body tensed when his pants were pulled down and the doctor pushed on his belly hard enough to make him flinch.

"I always say whipping is less damaging than beating," he heard the doctor mutter and filed the information. He could see Peter freeze as the doctor undressed him more, touching the scabs around his anus.

He suddenly knew what was going on in Peter's mind. Wasn't the doctor the first man who really knew what happened? So far it had been between him and Simon - no matter how obvious everything was. But now it was public.

Now you won't be ever able to deny it - that I fucked you up the ass, little white slut of the family.

"It doesn't look so bad," the doctor shrugged. "I think I won't even have to sew him up. Call me if it tears worse."

It might, doc, you know it might.

"What now? Branding?"

The instruments were shiny. Simon watched with fascination the doctor setting the tiny letters for Peter's name and Simon's own into the square form of the brand. "Peter Solana, property of Simon Kewlene." One had to admit it sounded good. Irresistibly good.

He saw the doctor light a small burner, holding the brand in the pincers above it - and that was when Peter came round, raising his head, staring at the doctor, his eyes filled with absolute, total panic.

He screamed - a muffled, low cry he made when the doc tried to bring the heated metal to his forearm - and Simon congratulated himself with tying him down properly because he started thrashing - desperately enough to make the doctor's face acquire peevish, annoyed expression.

"It doesn't hurt yet, right?"

It was not pain - it was fear - and Simon knew it. Pain wouldn't make him so frantic. He pressed Peter's right arm to the bed, using his knee - and put his hand on Peter's face, making him look away.

It made the things better. At least a little bit. He felt the moistness of the kid's skin against his palm, the eyelashes fluttering frenziedly, as the doctor heated the cooled brand again.

"He is a defiant one, isn't he?" the doc talked louder than the small gasping sounds Peter made. "Slaves like this usually finish on the Block."

"I can punish him myself," Simon shrugged and saw the brand press to the skin.

Peter didn't cry out with it. He got still, his eyes open against Simon's palm.

Simon winced at the smell of burning flesh, saw the thin whiffs of smoke rise from the blackened contours. He realized Peter didn't fight any more and let him go as the doctor held the brand pressed for a few more seconds. Then he took it away and Simon read the clear letters printed indelibly into Peter's forearm.

He looked down at Peter who lay motionlessly now, staring into the ceiling, and wondered if the kid knew what had just happened. What had been done to him right now.

It should be a moment of his, Simon's, triumph, he thought and realized that he didn't feel this triumph for some reason. Maybe, because he was too tired, spent too much effort on getting here. But all he felt was a strange relief that at least *this* was over... and, totally unreasonably, some sadness. He looked at his own palm, recalling the light, quick brushing of Peter's eyelashes against it as Simon had spared him from looking at the heated brand.

He reached to Peter again, not completely understanding why he was doing it - to touch his blank, dazed face, run his fingers over the bruises and torn mouth - or to stroke his forehead slightly, in a half-comforting gesture, trying to get him out of his withdrawal, maybe, saying something... But the doc was here, watching - and it helped Simon discard this unnecessary, strange wish almost immediately. He pulled away the cloth covering Peter's mouth.

"Scream all you want now, bitch. You belong to me," and to the doctor, "do something with his wrist, I think it is broken."

The End of Part 3

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