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Ghosts of the Federation

Chapter Text

*~^~*~^~*

"Honored, I assure you, there is no way for this game to be rigged in any way whatsoever!" Ezra Standish contrived to look shocked that anyone could even consider making such an imputation.

"Table could be fixed--"

"But I am new in town -- as new as your good self, judging by the dusty apparel you chose to grace us with." He coughed faintly, and smiled. "I neither know the proprietor of this establishment, nor, in fact, do I wish to. Now," he ran his hand over the chips, smiling as each one glinted briefly in sync with his wrist LED then disappeared, "if you would please excuse me?" He nodded to the two others sitting with them at the gaming table and rode to his feet as the last chip registered with his credbank. "Thank you."

He'd barely gone three meters away from the table when he heard quick steps behind him. A hand on his wrist stopped him, turning him roughly to face his accuser. She growled into his face, "I don't know how the hell you cheated, you thieving quim, but I want my money back!"

"My dear," he smiled wider than ever, holding her eyes, peripherally well aware of the silent room and the eyes fixed on them, "Accusing the proprietor of malfeasance is a dangerous game."

"I ain't accusing him." She hooked his arm, and stepped well into his personal space. "I'm accusing *you**."

His eyebrows rose. "Why, are you suggesting that *I** would be able to circumvent softs that even our fine federal government endorses? I am shocked." He restrained his amusement firmly. The strip embedded in his wrist had a number of modifications that would upset the federal government, including a piece of soft that happily circumvented the security that the state required all gambling establishments use -- and charged a premium rate for.

She let go of his arm, clearly confused. "You gotta of been done *something**. I ain't never lost that bad."

"Maybe you had never met a player of my caliber," he suggested, and then muttered, "or indeed of any ability whatsoever."

She'd almost gone for it, turning back to her table and walking away, and then she heard his last remark. Her ears pricked up, and Ezra swore silently, and stepped hastily back.

"You callin' me a bad player?"

He blew caution to the winds, and smiled sweetly. "No, madam. I believe to achieve *bad** you would have to considerably supplement what God and Nature saw fit to give you." He eyed her bare neck, with no tech enhancements at all, and the winking wrist strip with only two charms hanging off it. "Perhaps you should consider that anyway."

"Why, you--" She launched herself at him, and froze, her hands around his throat.

"Now," he said very softly. "Just let go, nice and easy, and perhaps we won't find out what happens to human flesh when a point-S weapon discharges right up close." He shoved the gun, made all from organic plastics and thus not screened out when he walked into the saloon, deeper into her rounded belly.

She looked down between then and swallowed.

A chair scraped and his second hand snapped out behind him, unerringly targeting the robed man rising to his feet.

"You fire it'll kill you too," she snarled, but a tremor as her eyes flickered down and to the left gave her away. Fear of something in her past would make her give in. He smiled.

"My body armor is fully up to date. How's yours?" he whispered into her ear, his lips brushing over her dark skin. He licked lightly at her throat and then stepped back.

No one moved.

"Put the gun down, son," the priest said softly, and straightened to his full height. Ezra blinked. The man had sharp, hard features, and his hands were folded into his sleeves.

"I think not, father," he said sarcastically. "Anyone could put on a robe."

"Could they?" he asked mildly. Abruptly both hands were visible and full, a palm sized silver disc in each with that tell tale hazing that spoke of energy buildup. "Could anyone do that?"

"Illusion," Ezra said. He'd never seen anyone so fast. But the presence of the weapons at all--

The man smiled. It was not a pleasant expression. "Checked your ident lately?"

Ezra nudged at the display that flickered in the corner of his vision. He blinked as it confirmed the rank, and looked away.

"A priest has no place in a gamin' house."

The man simply shook his head, then turned, the black cloak flaring as he moved. His left hand blurred, and someone who Ezra hadn't even noticed shrieked, then burned up into nothing. Ezra swallowed.

"I'm not just a priest, son."

Ezra finally put a name to the face, his uplink finally coming up with a match. Larabee. Priest-inquisitor. Not good. Oh, so not good. It had been a long time since he'd misjudged someone this badly.

A chill ran down his back, and he decided to play this out, perhaps the man would forgive innocent ignorance. Perhaps. He squinted, trying to spot the last indicator, and Larabee stepped closer, and pulled his collar down. Ezra nodded, and ducked his head, his eyes locked on Larabee's, watching his every move. There it was, the ridged double circle. Burned into place, and white with age.

He holstered his guns and held his hands slightly away from his sides, ostentatiously empty.

"My apologies, fisher."

The noise slowly resumed in the room, and Ezra breathed slowly out. It wasn't every day you called a P-I a liar and lived.

"Next time, son," Larabee said softly, "don't replace the lock codes with photon bridges." No one else paid them any attention. No one else *wanted** any part of Larabee's attention.

Ezra smiled cockily. The man didn't seem interested in running him in for his infraction. "I merely adjusted the house odds away from favoring the proprietor. That it affected others also is more a testament to their own skill. I am a gambler, sir, not a thief."

Larabee's eyebrow twitched upwards. "So you reduced the odds against you."

Ezra's grin widened. "I said that I am a gambler. I never said I was mentally deficient." He bowed, and hastened for the exit.

He made it all the way back to his landing pad before he stopped. "Good *Lord**," he said with considerable feeling, and sat on the stubby wing of his transport. "Good *Lord**." He mopped his face, and sighed.

*~^~*~^~*

"Josiah, that wasn't fair."

"Jedediah, my son, things are rarely fair. Did you, or did you not claim you could break it?"

"Not so loud, jiao shi! I did -- and I *can**, I just." JD Dunne scratched his neck, absently reseating his chips, half of them illegal, all of them hidden under his straggly black hair.

"Don't worry about disturbing the sanctified dead. I'm told on good authority the day is coming when they shall riiiiiiise from their graves." Josiah chuckled happily. "Yes, indeed."

"You sure?" JD frowned at the screen invisible to anyone but him, currently being projected onto his retina.

"*Dead** sure!"

"You ain't half as funny as you think y'are, Jo-siah."

"Well, you're twice as funny as you think you are, son!"

"Oh, hey, did I tell you this one?"

"Yep."

"I didn't even start!"

"It was... the one about the man and the three melons and the dinner date."

"Ha! Nope!"

"Darn." Josiah slumped, "I could never remember the punch line to that one."

"Got it!" JD blurted.

"The punch line?"

JD grinned. "Give me an uplink and watch me fly."

"No, I don't think that was it."

"Oh, fer cryin' out loud, preach, I broke it."

"Then mend it, son, mend it, before Dear Henry gets a hold of you."

"You're weird, you know that?" JD swiftly downloaded the data he'd been asked to find. "Sliced, diced, and dumped." He shut the link down, and smiled. The beater-bots were still trundling back and forth in the planetary loop he'd trapped them in nearly three star systems away. Nothing like having personal *legal** access to a CoH wormhole.

"You have all of it?" Sanchez sounded completely serious and completely sane for once, and JD smirked.

"You betya." He rummaged in a pocket and pulled out a sliver of glass. "Gimme a sec and you'll have it too." He plunged the splinter into his wrist and sighed happily as it darkened from clear to blood red. "There ya go." He tugged it out and handed it over, sucking at the blood dripping from his wrist as he did so.

"Written in blood," Sanchez murmured, and shook his head. "An ill omen."

"Sheesh. Subdermal wristband, Josiah." JD shook his head and licked his bloody lips. "Finest money can buy."

"Or purloin?"

"Oh no, this one's totally legit. Paid for in pure enphidium strips." He turned his bare wrist back and forth. Not a sign, not even a scar remained to show the band welded to his bones. Worth every penny of the eight E-strips -- more cash than most people saw in any four lifetimes. "The fastest, most accurate, coolest band on the block."

"And invisible."

JD grinned. "With my record? Bonus!"

"Son, have you ever considered a career in the priesthood?" Josiah asked thoughtfully.

"Ha! Me? No way."

"Then you might want to lose yourself in the sea of humanity that is Delivery. Immediately."

JD turned around . It only took a moment for his quick eyes to pick out the guy in black. "Priest?"

"Priest-inquisitor, I hear."

"Which one?" JD squinted trying to get a line on the face or pick up the ident chip every human carried, implanted at birth and locked to their deenay.

"Larabee?"

"For real?" JD squinted closer. "Psi?"

Sanchez shrugged and sighed. He might get older but he didn't get wiser. "Son?"

"Yeah?"

"Get out of here. Right now."

"Aw, J'siah, it's just getting interesting." JD flinched at Josiah's glare and sighed. "Sheesh, alright, alright, I'm gone."

And he was.

The stiff silence that had surrounded them while the kid worked fell away. Josiah smiled, rolling the tiny glass splinter between his fingers. JD had all the newest gadgets. He didn't always make the best use of them, but he had a good heart, and, following his recent eighteenth birthday, a clean adult record -- the juvie one automatically expunged by computers everywhere. He snorted. Yeah. Because the Church really locked access to *all** records on minors when they reached majority.

The sounds of the city drifted up, filling the peace and quiet, and he sighed, and slipped the splinter-drive into a pouch. He would examine the files later, when Chris Larabee wasn't stalking towards him like Death himself.

*~^~*~^~*

Larabee settled back into his chair, sharply aware of the frightened eyes on him, and the wide berth that everyone was giving him. No one messed with a P-I. He smiled grimly. The joke went that they answered only to God -- and God was too afraid to ask any questions...

Perhaps that was what had attracted him into the Church of Humanity.

He snorted softly to himself. Perhaps nothing. The comment came in his mind in another's voice, and he shook himself. Forget it. That one was long gone.

He sighed, and stood again. Maybe he should find somewhere to stay, just until the week was out. There was nothing on this poxy little planet worth finding. Just sand, dust and the dregs of humanity.

Aw, now, Chris, there's *always** something worth the finding. Hell, where'd I find *you**?

Chris's face softened momentarily, a change in expression so brief that a mere blink would have missed it altogether. Then his face closed off entirely. The owner of that voice was long gone, he insisted, and held very still when a soft chuckle ran through his mind, and whispered, "You keep tellin' yourself that, darlin'."

"Buck?" he whispered in disbelief. He turned, sweeping the hall with his eyes, trying to find the body to match that voice. "Buck?"

The only reply was a ghost of a chuckle, and he shoved his way outside, looking up and then down the street. In the distance he saw a man with dark hair, and ran, robes flying to spin him around but a stranger's face greeted him.

"What the-- can I help you, padre?" the man went from irritation to obsequy fast enough to turn Chris's stomach. He shoved him, and walked away.

He walked all the way out to Delivery, the city landing pad, named for the only excitement that ever happened near it. Nothing.

He stared blindly at the dozens of unfamiliar vehicles, and turned away. "Buck!" he screamed, but nothing stirred, not even the dust.

Nothing. And he still had nowhere to stay for the night. "But if you're very good, you might have someone to spend it with..."

"When I catch you--"

"You'll let me do whatever I want with you, darlin'."

The voice seemed so real that he had to bury the tears in anger. "You're *dead**, Buck. Leave me alone!"

"Ain't no crows on his grave," a deep voice rumbled and he whirled.

"Who the fuck are you?"

The man was huge, clad in a motley collection of gaily colored, wildly patched clothes. Somewhere in there was a shawl, a shirt, a wrap around pair of trews... He shook his head.

"Josiah Sanchez, at your service, padre." He bowed, and Chris scowled.

"You don't need to drop your shoulder to me."

"Death is here."

Chris laughed. "Death is my stalking horse."

Josiah chuckled softly. "You are Death's stalking horse."

Chris blinked. Maybe so.

"Find a door, and all the rest will follow," Sanchez said cheerfully, and spun on the spot. "Circles in circles in circles in circles in..." He whirled round and around, a dervish with mantra.

A madman.

"A man in search of the truth." Sanchez stopped with a stagger and crooked a finger at Chris, "A secret?"

Despite himself Chris leaned forward. Sanchez kissed his ear, and laughed raucously.

"The door and the circle and the serpent and the crow. And your stalking horse, oh yes." He winked, and laughed. He turned and addressed the busy landing field. "And you, too, fortune's bitch. Would you care for some tea?"

Chris shook his head. Sometimes it went like that. Humanity's minds couldn't always cope with the cyborg implants that made life so much easier. Sometimes they rejected them straight off. Sometimes it took a while. If he wanted to, he could even find out this man's history, discover what went wrong. Maybe get him placed somewhere safe. Perhaps the Sisters would be able to bring him back from the brink he had tumbled from. Maybe.

He wouldn't do it. That was Buck talking. Buck would have cared. He would have cared once too. But he didn't care any more. Not about anything. A small smile pulled at his lips. Perhaps now was a good time to go drown himself in Oblivion.

He headed back into the city, through the main thoroughfares, intent on getting back to his drugs.

*~^~*~^~*

Vin Tanner groaned and straightened his back. He wasn't designed for clean-up duty.

"How's it going there?"

"Not too bad, Mr. Watson," he said politely pushing his hat back so the man towering above him could see his face. "Just stretching out a couple of kinks before wiring it all back together."

"You sure you're comfortable down there?" Watson looked anxious, and Vin dredged up a smile.

"Knees ache a bit, but I'll be up again in no time." He sighed and looked around at the sand quietly sifting into the machine trap, heaping against his knees and blowing through into the store. "If you want to shut things up for another ten minutes the dust screen should be back up."

"Okay." Virgil Watson trotted trustingly back into the store, and Vin stared after him for a moment before bending his head to the delicate mechanism under his fingers. He moved a wire and swore sharply as it fizzled against his bare fingers. "Stupid damn box," he muttered, kicking it viciously. There was a hum, and the dust screen flickered into serene life. He stared at it for a long moment, only long familiarity with the perversity of the inanimate keeping his jaw from dropping and his mouth from swearing. "Percussive maintenance," he muttered, "Works every frigging time." He suctioned out the dirt and sand from the box, and closed it all up, then stood, his knees and back protesting vigorously.

"All done, Mr. Watson," he called into the store, and the store front blinked from shuttered to open, the hologram changing in the blink of an eye. It settled for a moment, then churned. Great. The holo had a flicker. Vin looked at it grimly, and sighed. Either the cycles were off, or the fuel cell was dying. Or both. Great.

"Can you just suction off the front here, Vin?" Watson tottered out hauling the industrial sized cleaner that he used inside the shop.

"Sure, Mr. Watson. Let me get that." There *had** to be better ways to keep a low profile than this. He took the machine and started cleaning. There just *had** to be. Shouting at the far end of the street caught his attention and he paused, leaning on the long pole of the suction pump. What the hell?

*~^~*~^~*

Nathaniel Jackson shook his head. "If you brought him in a week ago, then maybe, *maybe** I could have saved him." He gestured behind him at the patient the sand bandits had brought him. "But that? That's a breathing corpse! I'm amazed he's even alive, and there's *nothing** I can do. He's got a systemic bacterial infection, a serious problem with necrotizing faciitis, and a kicillin allergy! I'm amazed he's even alive, and there's *nothing** I can do 'cepting make him comfortable for's long's he's got."

"That's my *brother*, you're calling a corpse, Doc," one of the sand bandits growled, loosening his guns in his holster.

"I'm sorry for your loss," he kept one eye on the gun, "*Real** sorry, but there just ain't nothing I could do!"

A shrill whistle came from behind him, and he groaned inwardly.

"What's that?"

Nathan shook his head, his eyes downcast. That's the sound of your breathing corpse of a brother finally giving in on the breathing thing, he thought, but didn't say.

"You *killed** him!"

Aw, hell. He grabbed at the defense charm on his wrist band and sighed as the forcefield shimmered into being. It wouldn't last long, but merely activating it called the feds. Or it *should**.

"Shinies are going to be here in less than five," he said mildly. "If you were thinking of doing anything but taking your brother's corpse to the undertakers, then best you do it fast."

"Sure, Doc," the brother said and smiled cruelly. "Y'ever heard of a little problem with them personal defense shields, Doc?"

"No..." He backed away.

"Bounces off weapons. Holds off fists and feet. But rope... rope ain't been programmed in. Bit of a bug, you might say." The man displayed a mouthful of rotting teeth.

"You're bluffing."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. It all depends on the rope." A length of split optic-rope coiled around his arm and he grinned.

Nathan struggled madly, but the shield had limitations, and even with it, although they didn't actually manage to connect any blows, they could still move him. They dragged him up the street, the rope wrapped around his neck and chest. For now, it was as though he was cushioned. He watched the field flicker with increasing anxiety, and strained for the first wail of sirens.

"Did I mention how optic rope has a bit of a dampening effect, Doc? Your precious feds ain't heard a thing."

Nathan stared in horror as one of them produced another length of optic-rope and started fashioning it into something that looked startlingly like a noose.

"Leave him alone, you bastards!"

Nathan looked up and groaned inwardly at the woman confronting the gang.

"Mary! Get back!" he shouted.

Mary shook her head. "Let Doctor Jackson go or I'll shoot!" She raised the tangle rifle to her shoulder and keyed the base unit. Nathan watched the charge glimmer into life in seconds -- seconds she didn't have.

"Next time," the leader of the pack stalked up close and sneered in her face before simply pushing the gun out of his chest, and twisting it from her grip, "fire it up before you start something, sister." He threw the weapon away as it died and shoved her to the ground. "I've got a brother to avenge. Come on, boys!"

Nathan closed his eyes momentarily as they started moving again. She'd been lucky. Ms Travis had had the weapon locked to her DNA to stop her boy getting at it -- but he'd had to deal with more than one involuntary amputation where the criminals had taken the hand along with the gun to keep it usable...

They reached the graveyard, and he looked around, hoping against hope that old Sanchez might be there. Though even if he was it was more than fifty fifty that he would be out of his mind and no use to man or beast.

He swallowed hard as the defense shield shuddered and died, with no sign of the police. He looked up at the tree as they threw the rope over it and dragged him towards the noose. Jeshu. He really was going to die.

*~^~*~^~*

Chris Larabee didn't allow himself to show his emotions in expression, word or body language as he watched the local doctor being murdered. The blonde woman who had tried to stop them nearly galvanized him into action, and he quirked a half smile at her impassioned yells at the apathetic populace.

His back prickled and he turned, to meet a steady blue gaze. Light blue eyes, he noted, and disappointed, took in the rest of the man. Scruffy clothing made from animal hide. He raised an eyebrow, wondering if the man knew that animal hide blocked his sensors. Without really realizing he was doing it he walked slowly towards the man, who nodded fractionally, then turned and vanished into the store he had been cleaning.

Chris felt a jolt of keen disappointment, not for him being the wrong person, but, and to his surprise, because he had expected more of the man. A moment later the young man reappeared, a tangle rifle in his hands, and the store owner scolding him. He smiled grimly.

"You can't take that, Vin! I won't let you! I won't give you the key for it--"

Vin shrugged slightly and ran a loving hand over the security pad at the butt of the rifle. Chris repressed a smirk as the security crumbled happily and rolled over for this Vin boy.

"If you go after those hoodlums, and end up dead don't come crying to me for a job! I'm not having no murderers and gangers in my shop!"

Chris walked to the middle of the street and smiled as the man joined him.

"Hell, now I'm out a job *and** dead," he said cheerfully, and they matched pace as they walked in long easy strides up the street to the cemetery.

*~^~*~^~*

Vin hit the charge button on the rifle. No good having something like this and using it as a club. Not that he'd hit someone with this beauty. He'd spend the next year wishing he'd left well alone if the entangler backfired. He hefted the gun and smiled faintly. That was the fun of quantum tangle weapons. Every now and again, one of them blew back into someone's face, disentangled half their atoms, and left 'em dead, dyin' or wishing they was.

He couldn't see weapons on the stranger in priest's robes, and that would normally have worried him. Going into some white hat job with unknown backup was what landed him in Last Chance in the first place. He wasn't worried. Not even deep down, where his gut would whisper, yes or no, good or bad sometimes. Right now, this was right. The rest was details that'd get fixed sooner or later. They didn't matter for now.

He heard the priest breathe in and raised his rifle to his shoulder as the man began to speak.

"Cut him down," he said mildly to the rowdies, and Vin grinned at the looks on the faces of the gangers as they turned, ready to take on whoever was telling them their business, and saw the robes.

"Happen you'd live longer," Vin added, finding his shot by eye. The rope glinted dully in the sunlight, and he knew he had to make the shot fast, or lose his lock.

"None of your business, travelers! Back off, or you can dance with the murdering bastard that killed my brother." Guns were raised and Vin shrugged mentally. Five low energy weapons, one singularity weapon, and a bunch of drunks. Easy.

Gently, he slid his finger over the switch, and smiled, finding another target before the black guy had finished tumbling to the ground, clawing at the broken rope wrapped around his throat.

Beside him he was aware of the sub-audible thud of a pulse weapon. The sound shook his bones, but before the last vibration had ended a second, then third and fourth shots thudded dully. He ignored them, aware peripherally of the man in black, guns in hands, taking down target after target. He calmly lined up and took another shot, then lowered his weapon.

No one was left standing, the last of the men were running down the street, shoving past the crowd, and Vin pursed his lips, rapidly weighing the danger of killing an innocent against taking the escapees down, and shrugged. He hurried towards the doctor.

Jackson was tugging at the rope around his throat, his face darkening from lack of air and circulation. Vin's face hardened, and he reached into his pocket. Split optic. Barely legal, and strangling the man. His solution wasn't much better, but it was quick -- and right now that was more important than playing by the rules.

"Hold still," he said, and lightly pressed a loop of monofilament wire to the thin cable. The molecular wire slid straight through the fibrous glass and dipped into the skin below despite Vin's slow and careful touch. He quickly pulled away, but Nathan held his breath until the wire was safely reeled back into its box, and Vin couldn't blame him. There wasn't much that could stand up to mono-wire, and human flesh wasn't one of those things. More than one person had lost tips of fingers, or worse, to careless use of the stuff.

Jackson nodded at him. There was a look in his eyes that suggested that he wanted to demand answers -- why save him? Why did Vin own something as murderous as mono-wire? But he said nothing more than a muttered thank you as he rolled to his feet. Vin froze for a second as a dull thud reverberated through his ribs again, and half turned, only to see the flash of a blade spinning past his face, and slamming squarely through flesh, bone, and exploding out the other side of the woman's body in a welter of red and fragmented white. Vin blinked. Looked like good ol' Doctor Jackson had his own reasons for not asking about illegal weapons.

"Thanks," he dipped his head, and Jackson shrugged.

"Least I c'd do for a man who put his neck out to save mine."

He held out a hand and Vin hesitated then held out his own, letting their tags touch briefly, palm to palm. Wasn't much the good doctor could do before the end of the week, when he'd be heading out anyway.

Jackson's dark eyes dropped to Vin's wrist, taking in the tracery of silver wires and strips showing grey under his skin before snapping his gaze back up. The doctor knew. Vin gritted his teeth and jammed his hand back in his pocket. Well, it wasn't like he had been planning on settling in. Cybes never did. And if the good doctor had words to say, well, he had some words too, starting with anti-matter blades.

"Doctor Jackson!" The blonde who had challenged the lynch mob in the street rushed up. She glanced at Vin and dismissed him instantly, "Are you all right?" She gripped the man's arms and peered anxiously up into his face.

"I'm fine, Ms Travis," he said easily. "Thanks to these gentlemen." He nodded to Vin and the priest who had appeared at Tanner's shoulder, silently watching the scene.

Travis shone a bright smile on them, and again, dismissed Tanner to focus all her attention on the blond man. Vin wiped a hand over his grin. He wasn't any great shakes at women -- or men for that matter -- but even he could spot a woman turning on the charm -- and a man summing her up and shrugging it off without even trying. "Then we owe you a debt of thanks," she said sincerely, smiling up into the man's eyes. He looked at her like she'd spoken in Martian, and shrugged faintly. Without a word they turned on their heels and headed back down the street.

"Where did you come from?" She hurried after them, and Jackson sighed as he walked alongside them.

"Local logger," he said under his breath, just loud enough for Vin and the stranger to hear, and Vin had to consciously relax the tension that snapped into his back and neck. A fucking journo. That was all he needed. He looked at the man in black to gauge his reaction and found himself staring straight into grey eyes. The man quirked a tiny smile and said without looking back, but just loud enough for her to hear; "Saloon."

Her feet hurried after them and Vin grinned to himself, none of them so much as hesitated as she called, "Who are you? Where are you going?"

He didn't even need to look at the other two to know the answer. "Saloon," they all said, and slid smiles at each other, walking away from the woman without breaking step.

Vin couldn't resist a quick glance up the street as they stepped into the bar, and spotted her talking busily into a wrist-comm. Lovely.

*~^~*~^~*

Nathan rubbed at his neck absently. The welt around his neck was almost invisible now. The tissue rep had easily leeched out the blood that had seeped from broken capillaries; there wouldn't even be a bruise. Not that a bruise would have shown, but even so. He rubbed at it again. He could feel it, tightening, choking.

He'd thought as his trachea closed up, the light wire crushing into his larynx, well, this is a fucking stupid way to go. He'd survived being indentured. He'd survived being on the wrong side of a Corp coup, helping the target shareholders when they were shot, mugged, attacked, beaten up, raped. Murdered. He'd been the only one in the city who had helped. And he'd been indentured to ExCorp for doing it. Treason, they'd called it.

He closed his eyes and shook the memory away. DeeGee four-ten had split the company up, broken the board, and freed the slaves. Sorry, the 'indentured workers'. he snorted and opened his eyes. Well, they could call it what they liked, but he'd been a slave, like the books claimed the ancients had been, once.

And then. He slid a glance left and then right, then poured himself another glass of the unlabelled rotgut. Rezinta, called after the rezin that they made it from. Larabee and Tanner. He wondered briefly if those were even their right names. They were two of the most silent men he'd ever met. He snatched another look at Larabee. The man knocked back his shot, and the double circle flashed briefly from under his collar, burned into the hollow of his neck. It made Nathan feel faintly queasy to see. Scars like that could be healed, eradicated. That Larabee had chosen this -- that the Church allowed it -- said everything about the man's state of mind.

Sanity was optional for the Inquisitors.

DeeGee four-ten had had one on temporary assignment. He shuddered and threw the clear, thick drink down his throat. No. No more.

Not that he wasn't grateful. He was. He was just feeling like being grateful at a bigger distance. Like, maybe a couple of solar systems worth of distance.

Maybe it was time to move on. He could practice anywhere. His credentials were good through the galaxy.

He wondered about Tanner too. Tanner was staring at Larabee again, and Nathan scowled faintly. The man seemed pleasant enough. Polite, hard working. Not everyone who ended up here decided to get a job. Mostly they fetched up with the bandits, or the whores. He was pretty enough to earn his keep on his back, he thought cynically, and found himself wondering if that was why Tanner kept staring at Larabee. Was he trying to pick the man up? Maybe he ought to tell him that PIs only married but once, and by the looks of things, Larabee had done that already.

Or maybe he wasn't interested in marriage. Concubinage wasn't unknown, and you couldn't get a better protector -- *if** you could get him. Especially this far out from the ancient worlds. He sighed. Wasn't none of his business anyway. He looked up and found grey eyes staring at him.

"No," Larabee said in a rough voice, and Nathan nodded, in no doubt that the man knew what he'd been thinking.

"No," he agreed, and waited to let Larabee break the gaze, telling him without words that he had nothing to hide.

Tanner glanced at him, and then back at Larabee, then shrugged. "I'm gonna get some air," he slanted a lopsided smile at the world, "maybe find out if I've still got a job."

Larabee nodded silently, and on a whim -- or possibly the sudden, urgent desire not to be on his own with the man, Nathan stood as Tanner did. "I reckon I'll go see if those boys managed to scare off all my patients."

Larabee smirked at him, but nodded, and Nathan was left wondering if he'd been mocked or approved. Either way, he thought as he walked briskly out of the saloon. There was very little chance he would see the man again. After all, what the hell would someone like that want with a dead end hole like Last Chance?

*~^~*~^~*

JD bounced happily as the documents opened up in front of his eager eyes. Well, not eyes, exactly, but close enough. Those guys were *so** toast when he was done. He copied and assimilated the data and then bailed out of the Travis woman's net. If she wasn't smart enough to lock down her peripherals, then who was he to tell an eld what to do? Especially a journo eld, whose sept father was a system Axe.

JD shivered. He'd met Travis a couple of times -- the Axeman, not the journo, he was keeping well out of her way, and had a healthy respect for the man. Travis had had him pegged the first time they'd met, and had given him a chance anyway.

He grinned. Okay, well, maybe 'gave' wasn't the word. More like 'gave in' when there weren't no other volunteers to watch the fed grid no matter how much cred he offered. Not that he'd offered a lot. JD's grin faded. So he'd had a juvie record. That crap was meant to be sealed now. Not used for blackmail.

"Fed Dunne?"

JD froze, and pulled a face. He hadn't known she'd known his name, let alone was going to take this stupid job seriously. So much for keeping out of her way. Maybe if he made like he didn't know about her he'd be safe.

"Fed Dunne?"

JD froze, and pulled a face. He hadn't known she'd known his name, let alone was going to take this stupid job seriously. So much for keeping out of her way. Maybe if he made like he didn't know about her he'd be safe.

"Yes, ma'am?" He turned and smiled. "Can I help?"

Mary Travis smiled sweetly at him, and even as he felt his spine straighten and his shoulders go back and an urge to check his hair was straight and his fasteners were all closed, he knew that she was after something -- and nothing that he was going to want to give her.

"I hope so." She glanced demurely down. "I think I may have a bit of a problem."

"Yes?"

"I think someone's been accessing my grid illegally." she said blandly, and JD scowled.

"That's terrible, ma'am."

"I can't think who'd want to do such a thing."

JD shook his head sadly, "What were they looking at, Ms. ?"

"Travis, Mary Travis," she emphasized delicately, telling him -- like he needed the reminder -- of her contract sept. "I can't imagine," she said in bland -- and lying -- answer to his question.

"Well, if you'd like me to have a look?" he offered, as though reluctant, and she wasn't quite smart enough to damp her bio filters, and he caught the slight pickup in her heart rate. She actually thought she'd caught him.

She held out a hand-held datawand, and JD carefully ran his own diagnostics over it. "Hmm."

"Yes?"

JD held the chip out to her. "Here, I'll download the raw files, let you have a look, but basically, it looks like you've picked up a couple of freeloaders." He smiled happily at her. "If you want I can wall down your net."

"Does it say who?" she asked urgently, and JD shrugged.

"There's a couple of deenay tags, but I'm betting they're false. Grave ringers." Her heart beat picked up again and JD frowned. What was she getting all worked up about?

"Can you run them? Please?"

JD looked at her, really looked, and abruptly felt ashamed of himself. "Yeah, no problem." She looked scared. "Miss, do you have any idea--"

"Not here," she said urgently, before he could finish the sentence. JD's mouth hung open for a moment as he tried to get his head around the idea that Travis wasn't trying to play mind games with him because he had been hacking her net. She was really frightened. It wasn't about him, it was about someone else trying to hack a journo's files. Someone trying to hack the files of someone in the System Axe's sept, whose contract partner had been another journo. Operative, 'had been'.

"Well, I guess it was probably just some scriddies, you know?" He struggled to sound natural. "If I come over and, you know, fix that wall for you? If you want? It should help some, and I can put word out on the fed grid--"

"Discreetly!" she said quickly, and JD blinked. "I might just be panicking over nothing -- I'd hate the Axe to be bothered by this."

"Sure," he said slowly. "I'll ask a couple of people I know." And maybe have a think about why you don't want your sept-chief to know. Or any other Feds than me.

"Thank you. If you could fix wherever it was they got in, I'd be so grateful."

JD reddened. He didn't deserve her thanks, and his mind kept heading off to all the wrong places about how that gratitude could be expressed and it *wasn't** going to happen, he told himself firmly. Another thought occurred to him that killed all his libido. Damn. He was going to have to do the job properly, and that meant no more hack trips into her net.

"I can come over now," he offered weakly and she smiled. His blush darkened for quite another reason, and he could feel himself starting to babble. "It'll only take half an hour or so, I can do that right now if you want? So yes, I'll, I'll do that now, and, I'll be right there."

He backed away and turned, wincing at his ineptitude. "I've just gotta -- uh, you know, get, get, my tools!" He finally found a way to end the sentence and breathed a sigh of relief. "Be there in five minutes." He didn't look back. Damn. He mentally kicked himself as he headed to his tiny office/apartment. Axe Travis had *told** him about his son. Had *told** him that no one had ever proven the connection to the Hou-Corp. If she thought someone was hacking her, she would be terrified. He was a fucking *moron**.

Maybe he should tell her it was him.

He automatically dumped out all the new stuff into his private net as he walked through the door. He sighed, his whole body relaxing as his net slipped snugly into place around him, protocols meshing seamlessly with his hards and softs. Even made this ugly, boxy little hole feel like home. He headed to the main terminal, intending to pull some sort of security program for her, maybe even give her a version of his own, when the net tugged back at him. Curiously he checked the tagged file, and stumbled, almost missing the chair as his knees gave.

Oh god.

This was bad.

This was *way** bad.

*~^~*~^~*

Mary -Travis watched the young Fed as he communed silently with her network. She'd been worried enough when he'd stammered and stuttered at her, clearly torn between dismissal of her fears, and a juvenile hormone attack. She'd half expected him to turn up after having a clean up and change of clothes. Instead he appeared four hours later than the promised five minutes, looking more disheveled than before, and had plugged himself into her net without much more than a vague request for passwords.

And now he was staring vacantly into space, and she was watching him. Waiting. She shook herself. She could make the boy a decent meal at least. She tried to ignore the steady brush of foreign commands against her net. He was just doing his job. She headed into the kitchen, and started on pulling out plates and cutlery. There had to be something in the freezer -- the inventory list presented itself silently and she gasped. A soft voice murmured, "Sorry," into her mind and drifted away again.

She stared at the door of the freezer, her heart pounding. No one should be able to access that far in to her without her direct permission. Sudden anger built. He had no business going that deep!

She turned and stalked back into the main room, and was horrified to find the boy slumped, his nose bleeding, blood trickling from his ears and a thin red trail running down from where he'd bitten through his lip.

"Mr. Dunne?" She hurried across, putting a call to Nathan at the same time. "JD? Are you okay?" She carefully dabbed at the blood with a tissue, and frowned as a sticky, red thread seemed to willfully slide over her fingers until she hastily wiped them clean.

"Oh, he's fine, Ms. Travis," a soft voice said, and she whirled. No one was there. "Boy just bit off more'n he can chew." JD jerked sideways, and the voice chuckled. "Wake up, kid."

"Ain't a kid, Buck," JD said petulantly, still only half conscious by the look of him. "I know what I'm doing."

"Who's Buck?" Mary asked, and JD blinked at her, glanced around the room, opened his mouth and then closed it again.

"Good kid," a ghost of a whisper said. "Now shut it down."

"Who's Buck?" Mary scowled at a knock on the door. Nathan. "JD? What's wrong? What happened?"

JD shook his head. "Spread the net too wide," he said hoarsely. "Fixed that rat problem of yours though."

The knocking got louder. "In a minute!" she called. "JD, did someone attack you inside the net? Inside *my** net?"

That caught the boy's attention and his dazed eyes focused, not on her but over her shoulder. "Not -- no."

He moved awkwardly to his feet just as the door flew open and Nathan marched in looking thoroughly pissed off. "Mary? You all right?" His eyes were on JD, and he scowled. "That blood yours? Did the boy try to attack you?" His hand slid towards his knife belt and Mary shook her head.

This was getting out of control, and she wasn't going to get any answers if Nathan didn't go away. "No, no, JD was looking for a problem on my net, and--" she turned to look at the federal officer. JD was trying to wipe away the blood from under his nose with indifferent success, simply smearing it in drying lines across his pale skin. "I don't know what happened next."

Nathan looked at her as if assessing her sincerity. "Better wash that blood off then," he said neutrally. "What happened, son?"

JD shrugged. "I'm fine, Doctor Jackson," he said, carefully formal. He'd probably picked up on Jackson's nervy reactions, which was more perceptive than she'd given him credit for -- or -- her eyes narrowed. The little bastard was probably tracking bio changes. For a moment she was furious, then remembered again he was a fed and was supposed to access that sort of thing. Okay then. She pushed her anger down. Okay. Plus Nathan's reaction might have been a clue. She took a deep breath.

Nathan was there anyway, running a quick sweep over the kid, and then frowning faintly as he processed the data. "Sugar's down. Drink some fluids. And you're going to have hearing problems unless you let me fix your right tympanum."

JD promptly poked his finger at his ear, and Mary shook her head. Boys. Billy would have done exactly the same. Tell him not to touch and sure enough, there he was, touching. She wrenched her thoughts away from her son with an effort, and added, "Let Doctor Jackson help, Federale Dunne."

JD peered at the flakes of blood on his finger and sighed. "I'm fine." But he didn't protest as Jackson carefully probed his ear. JD flinched and Mary moved to hold his head still.

"All done," Jackson said after a couple of seconds. "Next time, pull out before you overload your neural net," he chided. JD shifted, and Mary let go of him quickly and backed away. It was all very well helping the sick, but the kid's face had been a little too close to her breasts for comfort. And by the red blush spreading up his neck, he thought so too.

"Yeah, okay." JD promised. He sounded distracted and Mary wondered if he'd actually heard a word the doctor had said. "Ms Travis, can you try something for me?"

"Yes?"

"Go into the net and ask it to run ext bio chk pt/5531." He yawned as he spelled out the commands, and she frowned.

"What will that do?"

"That's the question," he said, and at her irritated look, added, "It's checking on one of the parameters that let your rats in before. Make sure the wall's fixed the hole."

She nodded and ran it. The probe ran out, and then slapped her back. "Ow!"

JD smiled with satisfaction. "That's fixed then." He yawned again, "I think I'm gonna go home and sleep for a month now," he said slowly, and pushed himself to his feet.

"JD, what happened in there? Did you have to fight something? And who's Buck?"

JD shrugged. "Don't really 'member," he said through another yawn. "Tell you 'bout it when 'm 'wake." His eyes drooped, and Nathan grinned.

"I think our brave little Fed is asleep on his feet. Time for bye-byes," he singsonged softly, and even half asleep Dunne scowled. Nathan supported him with an arm, and nodded to Mary. "I'll just get him home, ma'am, if that's all right?"

"Of course, Nathan," she said easily, already thinking about how she could find out what had happened. She didn't really even notice the door shutting behind them.

*~^~*~^~*

Vin Tanner watched the town silently from the roof of the Watson's store. It was quiet up there, and it gave him line of sight on pretty much every flash point in the main street. There wasn't much to Last Chance. Just Delivery, the landing base, and a collection of shops whose economy relied on no one ever getting too far ahead or too far behind. No one would ever get rich here. Mineral strikes were a fairy tale that happened to other places, other planets. No one would ever get out. It was the last stop on a downwards spiral.

He sighed, letting flesh and bone relax and creak loose of the tensions of the day. He leaned one elbow against the low wall that edged the roof, staring up at the sky. There weren't any light ordinances here. He didn't much care. He'd spent enough time in space that the claustrophobia of the lights reflected off the clouds was comforting. Here there was no chance that a single wrong move could lead to the fatal breach, the soft hiss of venting atmosphere.

He breathed in deeply, filling his lungs and breathed out again. You only took air for granted until the day you lost it. He breathed in deep again. Yes. He didn't regret the stars, or the open spaces of the galaxy. Here at least he wasn't trapped and beholden.

He clenched a fist, and felt the ripple of cybernetics in his skin. It took more than mere willpower to relax these muscles of woven alu-glass. He'd torn his own skin more than once, misjudging the relative strengths of the implants and his natural born flesh and bone. He'd learned care the hard way. The same way he'd learned grace, and total kinetic awareness. If he didn't know what was going on around him he would break chairs by tripping into them, clutching too hard at them.

The stars didn't care. They shone on their own solar systems, those that had 'em. Those that didn't circled in great swinging loops, dancing between galaxies, sometimes a tight pas de deux with a barely seen partner, sometimes arcing through empty spaces on a line destined to one day rip open some other star in a blaze of glory. Nothing mattered to them. They hung there, unmoving in his eyes, drifting in fractional increments that he could chart to the micron, but didn't. Just human eyes. Just human processing.

Just a man, small and empty, watching the stars.

The world slowly slipped away, and he sighed, then tipped his hat over his face. He could sleep now.

*~^~*~^~*

Chris Larabee slammed his glass down and jerked his chair back. The room tilted unpleasantly, but long experience held his body rock steady. "You're drunk. Get out of my face," he said very quietly. The bar was raucous around him, but the table of card players was a pool of silence. Heads started to turn, the silence and the man in black catching attention in the spreading uneasy quiet.

"Gentlemen, surely there is no need for--" The man fell silent.

"I thought you already got run out of here once," Larabee asked, never moving his gaze to the dealer, still watching the drunk who'd accused him of cheating.

"I'm just saying ain't right f'a Judas t'be playin' carss," the man slurred.

"I don't care if he's a fuckin' hetaira out of Hashon, his money's good. Put up or shurrup," another of the players snapped.

Larabee shook his head as the dealer tried to tug him back to his seat. "Sir, sir, please, a small misunderstanding, we have no quarrel--"

"Did you just call me a Judas?"

"No sir, I'm sure he didn't, now if you'd like to ante up, next round boys and girls, don't be shy--"

"I said, did you just call me a fucking *Judas*?"

He reached across the table and grabbed the man by the collar, and dragged him across the table.

"I'll tell you what a Judas is," he whispered. Around him chairs scraped on the floor, he could feel the change in air pressure as people backed away. "It's taking a man into your life, giving him everything you ever loved, and watched him destroy it all. It's listening to people telling you it was an *accident**, when you can taste the lies in the air they breath. It's standing here, talking to a piece of crap like you, when I could be hunting."

He flung the man away, and looked up, calm again. "Bar! Another bottle. And keep 'em coming." He gathered the cards and tapped them into a neat square, then looked up, gathering the former players with one swift, comprehensive sweep of the bar. "So, that next round?"

*~^~*~^~*

JD moaned in his sleep, and nearly woke. He wished he could wake. His net had gone insane around him. Everywhere he looked people were watching him, eyes on him, judging him, finding him unworthy and then watching his every move.

He tried running, tried to control the net, but he couldn't, and that made him more afraid than anything else. He hadn't been out of control of his world since he'd gotten his first neural net embedded as a toddler. Learning to control it was as automatic as breathing. If he couldn't control the net, he was as good as dead.

Words poured through him, and he whirled trying to grasp them, but they made no sense, just whispering through and in and around, but never lingering long enough to be heard.

He tried running, tried to control the net, but he couldn't, and that made him more afraid than anything else. He hadn't been out of control of his world since he'd gotten his first neural net embedded as a toddler. Learning to control it was as automatic as breathing. If he couldn't control the net, he was as good as dead.

Words poured through him, and he whirled trying to grasp them, but they made no sense, just whispering through and in and around, but never lingering long enough to be heard.

The eyes were on him were blue, dark and knowing. Scary.

He moaned could hear himself and couldn't wake, couldn't, god he was trapped, he was going to burn his mind out lost inside his own hyper wired skull and with that he jerked awake, sitting up in his bed, gasping for air.

He was drenched with sweat, his limbs trembling as though he really had been running for hours, for parsecs over rough ground, trying to escape the man who kept following him, kept just *being** there when he couldn't possibly be. The deeper JD went, the further into his own space he got, the safer and more secret he thought he was, the more easily he seemed to find --

"Stop it!" he hissed to himself. He held still, blanking his mind out, breathing slow and deep. Just a bad dream.

Just a bad dream.

Those hackers had freaked him, that was all. Not the usual scriddies, with bought code and drones, but full on rogue programmers, rewriting on the fly burrowing into a net and ripping through the paths. But they couldn't get in here. And they couldn't get into Ms Travis's net any more. He was sure of that. But he'd been so careless.

He groaned and pressed the heel of his hand into his eyes. What if they'd been there already when he'd gone in? What if they'd been waiting for him, and had downloaded into his brain, and were just waiting to burn out his cortex and overwrite him into a drone, a cyborg with only the genetic material of a human being. The brain would be all machine. His breath shivered out of him.

Too many horror movies. That's all it was. The hackers, and horror movies, and --

"Hey kid, do you ever shut up in here?"

JD scrambled out of his bed, jamming his shoulders against the wall. No. This wasn't possible. He shut his eyes tightly shaking his head slowly.

"No, no, no, nonononononononono..."

The man just sighed, staring at him from the inside of his eyelids. "You're gonna have a heart attack before you're, uh, huh, twenty, at this rate, kid."

JD squinted one eye open, and then shut it again. It didn't help. He opened both eyes, and somehow it was easier to deal with a tall black haired guy sitting perched on his office chair, than it was to stare at the same man in the same pose with no visible means of support floating in his mind's eye.

"That's it, good kid. Just breathe, nice and easy," the man grinned at him. "There, see. Not so bad, huh?"

"Not so bad?" JD said incredulously. "Not so bad! I've got a fucking virus! I've picked up some goddamned freaking qingwa cào de liúmáng, and you wanna tell me it's not so bad?!"

The man stuck out a hand. "Buck Wilmington. Pleased ta meet you. Ain't humped any frogs lately, but I'll be sure and let you know, seein's ya got an interest an' all."

"Gah!" JD clutched at his head. "Wipe and reboot. That's it. If I go down to core and rebuild from yesterday's files I'll only lose today, and most of that's still gonna be in soft."

"Ah, now, you don't wanna do that, xiâo dì dì," Buck cajoled. "Why, you ain't barely got to know me yet."

"Gah!" JD scowled at him. "I don't wanna know you. You're some viral sprite that some hundan has gone and mined my net with. I don't want you around."

He straightened his back and nodded firmly. That was more like it. It was a computer generated illusion, and the sooner he got rid of it, the better. He strode over to the manual interface set into his desk, walking straight through the illusion. "Five minutes and you're gone," he said smugly. He wasn't entirely sure that was going to be the case but no point giving a sprite any more ground than it already had.

JD scowled at him. "I told you." The image inverted without turning around, a trick that made JD's stomach lurch. "I ain't a sprite, I ain't a virus, and you ain't getting rid of me."

"Yes, I fucking am getting rid of you. Why am I even talking to you? You're a construct, a cybernetic responder with no intelligence of its own."

"Aw, that's just harsh, xiâo dì dì," Wilmington said firmly. "You know better'n that."

The scary thing was, JD thought that maybe the sprite had a point. He'd never met a auto-responder that was quite as smart on the uptake as this one. His eyes widened as and idea struck him. His hands moved faster on the table. "Freaking government ghost!"

"Whoa, no, absolutely not! Kid? Kid! I'm no gov-drone. Ah, now, kid, stop that--" The man's image fuzzed out, then coalesced again. "Come *on*, do I *look** like a Fed?"

JD kept his hands moving, his eyes slid shut as he sank into the subware of his net, racing through the connections, sealing himself off from the outside, then shutting down the whole thing, line by line. You're going *down**, he thought viciously, and drove the program further and further away from his main net until he had it trapped in a loop that he could, and promptly did, snap out of the main link.

"Jeshu," he muttered. He looked carefully around the room, and his shoulders slumped with relief. It was just him and his tiny three room apartment. And the big black haired man bouncing on his bed.

"Hey!"

"Kid, you need a better job. The perks on this one are for shit."

"You can feel that?"

Wilmington grinned at him. "Biofeedback."

"You're locked out!" JD said plaintively. He looked at his net, and there was the bug, churring quietly in its locked off loop. And there was Wilmington, grinning at him. "Why won't you leave me alone?"

"Well, that's an interesting story, kid. Glad you asked me."

"Shut up! You're not here! I can't see you! Shut up!" JD yelled.

There was a knock on the door. "Fed Dunne?"

"What?" he yelled back, rapidly losing the last shreds of control on his temper.

"Are you okay?"

JD stalked to the door and flung it open. "Do I *look** okay?" he snapped. He waved inside the room. "Does that look normal to you?"

Casey stared at him for a long moment, then peered inside his room. "Uh. Yeah. Why were you yellin', JD? It got Aunt Nettie all worked up. You know she hates being woken up."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm sorry," he muttered. "I'll come shut her down in a minute. He hesitated again. "Look, Case -- seriously. Do you, uh, see anything strange in there?"

Casey looked inside carefully. "Well, that pile of laundry's gone from the floor. That's pretty strange right there," she observed, and JD gritted his teeth.

"Without the personal commentary?"

She slanted a smirk at him, "But the commentary's the most fun I get most days."

"Casey!" He didn't get her, he really, really didn't.

"Well, I could help you with that."

"Shut up, you!" he snapped, and then realized what he'd just said. "Not you, xiao mei-mei," he said quickly, but Casey was glaring at him.

"Well, fuck you too. I only came up to see what all the yellin' and stuff was. Next time you can fry in your own brain fat."

"Casey -- Case-- ah hell." JD slammed the door shut behind her. "Well, *hell**," he muttered again. The only girl in town who was remotely interested in him and he'd pissed her off. Again.

"Whooee! Real little firecracker you've got there, xiao di di." Wilmington observed. "Now, you want my advice--"

"I don't! Thank you! I'm absolutely *fine*! Just let me be! Please?" He didn't mean the last bit to come out quite so plaintive, and Wilmington frowned.

"Hey, kid, don't take it so hard. See, thing is, for girls that kinda slamming and flouncing is just courtship rituals. You know, making sure you don't take 'em for granted."

"Yeah? No!" JD stopped himself before he could ask any further. "You're not even here. You're not real. And once I've debugged this place, you'll be gone." he snapped his fingers. "Poof!"

Wilmington smirked. "Sure, kid. You go ahead and think that if it makes you happier." He settled himself on the bed, which didn't move under him no matter how much the man squirmed to get himself comfortable. "I'll be right here when you're done." He closed his eyes and then opened one again. "Don't forget to shut down Aunt Nettie."

"Gah!"

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra sat back into the main pilot's seat. The *only** pilot's seat, some bitter edged whisper reminded him, one that sounded only too like his dear, late Mama. The seat had once been covered with memory-hide, soft as silk, conforming to the owner's posture while calculating on a second by second basis, the most supportive position for him. Now it was faded, torn and parts of the electronics dug into his back if he moved incautiously.

None of this was any better than the rest of the ship. Indeed, in many ways it was better off. The seat at least had once been classy and beautiful. Now it was merely utilitarian, holding him in approximately the right position to pilot his craft. This of course pre-supposed that the craft in question was capable of flight of any description whatsoever...

He was not a man who spat, but he could understand the sudden urge to do so, no matter how uncouth.

Instead he drew a deep breath. "There is always another choice, Ezra," he said firmly, and swung out of the seat. A piece of metal snagged on his jacket and ripped a couple of centimeters open before he caught himself and unhooked it. "I am meant for greater things than this. I will not allow this to in any way --" His foot slipped on a patch of oil and he crashed to the floor. "That's it. I am getting rid of this hunk of misbegotten machinery, and finding myself a new means of transportation off this filthy little dirtbowl of a planet." He stalked out of the ship, and glared around the field. He paused, staring at a Gerrun Three. Small. Old. Fast. Extremely well built.

Rare.

If he owned one of those he'd be able to do as he pleased. On planet. Off planet. He could feel himself start to salivate, and sighed happily. A goal. Mother had always said, first set your goals. Then find out how many rules you're going to have to break getting there. He patted the pocket in his left breast where a small picture of Maud Standish the 23rd lay hidden under a microdot in one of his business cards. No point advertising of course.

First, find out who owns it. Second, find out what their weak point is. Third, apply crowbar.

Or the nearest reasonable approximation.

He smiled happily and there was an actual bounce in his step as he walked across the field. He walked right around the beautiful ship. Oh, the outside was battered. Micro-meteors would do that to all but the ships of the line. But inside. Ah, *inside**.

"I wouldn't."

Ezra didn't even turn around. "I am merely wondering exactly what one might call this particular craft."

"Mine," the voice said flatly, and Ezra turned around. Oh dear.

"Padre. What a delightful surprise. And you say this ship is yours?" He frowned a little. "Well, I heard that the Church encourages poverty and abstinence--"

Larabee smiled faintly at him, and Ezra nodded as though he'd meant to shut up at that point all along. "I'll just be on my way. Into town. Getting supplies."

"Standish?"

"Yes, padre?"

"Make me a decent offer, and we'll see."

From the way Larabee's eyes slid indifferently over him, Ezra wasn't sure if Larabee was after an offer on the ship, or an offer of his body.

"I'm not quite sure I follow--"

Larabee tilted his head, and Ezra found himself unaccountably falling into silence once more. "I have a ship. You have a burning need for a ship to get off this " -- the sharp planes of the man's face slackened for a second -- "Yeah, this filthy little dirtbowl of a planet."

Ezra kept his face still by long practice and custom. Nonetheless he was shaken. "I believe it is contrary to the ethics of your good brotherhood to rummage around in the minds of random strangers."

"Why, Ezra, I'm hurt," Larabee said softly. "Y'ain't random at all."

"Brothers!"

Ezra jerked, startled by the roared greeting. Two enormous arms wrapped around him and lifted him in an entirely unwelcome hug.

"Sir, please unhand me at once!"

Larabee, to his acute annoyance, was laughing silently. The behemoth put him down and he whirled. "I would thank you to leave me alone in future, laotou."

"Xiao di di, that's no way to speak of your elders and betters."

Ezra looked the old man up and down, and then from side to side, taking in the full glory of the kilt and serape. He allowed his incredulity to show, and stepped back. "My mother had but one child, and I am he. So unless you have information about illegal cloning activities, I strongly suggest you leave me alone."

He glanced at Larabee, the man's face gave nothing away, and he wished he knew how to play his cards here. He'd already had one run in, and nothing would persuade him that he had come off entirely in his best light on that occasion.

"Osanchez," Larabee said with a slanted smile at Standish, "Let's talk."

The two men walked away, and Ezra stood watching them, his brain working furiously. He *had** to know more about Larabee. If he was ever going to get off this dirtball, then Larabee was his ticket out. He didn't question the certainty, accepted it, incorporated it into his future decision sets, and moved on. Now, who would be the best place to find information about the newly arrived priest.

Did this backwater hole even *have** a Church of Humanity consulate? He weighed options, and then reluctantly decided to go for the easiest one. The coffee shop at the end of the main street had a publicly accessible news term. He should be able to download anything he wanted to see there. He walked quickly, purposefully. It was just asking for trouble to look like a man who didn't know exactly where he was going at all times. And sometimes, trouble came asking without so much as a by your leave.

"Hey, Mister!"

A hand gripped his sleeve. He twisted easily out from under it, recognizing the voice of the woman who had lost to him the night before. He kept going. "Hey!" He picked up his pace a little hoping that the public location would prevent her from going too far.

"*Hey*! You! Gamblin' man!"

Ezra stopped, glared momentarily at the sky for the benefit of the interested bystanders, and turned in a manner as indicative of contempt and third degree boredom as he could usefully manage. "Were you by any chance referring to me?" he asked mildly.

She glared at him. "I'm calling you out. You stole my money, and then you lied about it, and you called me a lousy player." That last seemed to rankle the most, and Ezra twisted his mouth regretfully. Maybe he should have refrained from that last comment.

On the other hand --

"Madam, I believe I did not ever refer to you as lousy. Execrable, possibly. Atrocious, I admit that in the silence of my own thoughts I may have used the word atrocious. Abysmal may also have sprung to mind. But in fact the word I used, madam, was 'bad'. You are a bad player. And a bad loser." He looked her up and down, "And if you will forgive a man for commenting on such a thing, a bad dresser. Lilac is not your color."

"I ain't givin' you no other warning!" She flipped open the peace catch on her side arm, and Ezra swore mentally. The last thing he needed was a run in with the local law. He flicked a quick glance around. If there even *was** any local law. No sign of it yet. And that interfering P-I had stopped him last time. Hmm.

Still, no point being too trigger happy.

"Madam, I have no argument with you--"

"Well, I sure have an argument with you! Draw!"

"Madam, surely we can settle this dispute amicably, rather than by a crude trial of arms in the public gaze."

"You a coward?"

The crowd murmured, opinion swaying away from him to the woman again. Cowardice was not a charge to be ignored lightly.

"I am no coward, madam. As you please." He stepped down into the street and waited for her. They faced each other, then turned sharply.

"On ten, madam."

"Whatever."

And that was very nearly the last thing he ever heard, and he knew it as the gun thudded dully as she spoke, blending with someone yelling "Down! Federales! Everybody down! On the ground or I shoot the next person standing!"

It was a young voice, with an edge to it that spoke of uncertainty, and the possibility that law or no law, he might just shoot -- and his hands might be shaking a little too hard to be certain he wouldn't hit you.

Ezra was already on the ground, and he stayed there as brisk hands removed every last one of his weapons.

"Case? You got anything?" the young man again. He was closer, and Ezra could just see him brusquely running a scanner over his assailant then taking the weapons he found away from her.

"Three guns, couple of knives, something that the scanner says is weapons grade and looks like string," a girl's voice said remarkably close by, and Ezra groaned. Today could surely not get any worse. "Come on, git up!" she added, toeing his ribs ungently.

Ezra rolled cautiously to his feet.

"Hands on your head. That's it. You been arrested before?" the girl asked pugnaciously as she wound memory cuffs around first one wrist and then the other. She turned him around and he closed his eyes in pain. Not ten feet away his aggressor was being similarly treated, by another child. Their combined ages quite possibly did not accumulate enough to pay for a decent meal. And both were in federal uniform, a full blown First and his Second.

The perfect ending to a wretched day. A wretched week.

All it lacked was to have his past catch up with him. He regarded the fiasco in progress, and decided that he might, just might, successfully evade the full weight of the retribution awaiting him in federal hands. What could those kids know?

"Why no, miss -- I must admit I do not understand why I am being incarcerated. I did not so much as pull my weapon on this good citizen when she approached me."

"Save it for the Axe," the girl said tersely, and slid a look at her boss. "JD?"

"Lockup," the kid said, and then added, "better make it separate cells."

'Case' rolled her eyes. "I'm not stupid, JD."

"I know, I was just saying."

"Well, you didn't need to. I thought of it already."

"Fine, okay, that's great." JD looked at Ezra, clearly trying to think of a way to ask if she needed any help which wouldn't result in getting his head bitten off. "How about you take him in first? If that's okay? If you don't need a hand or anything?"

"And what are you going to do with her if ya come and help me?" she demanded impatiently. "Come on, you, *move*." She aimed a kick at Ezra's ankles.

JD visibly gritted his teeth. "Activate the immobilizer field for starters."

"Oh."

"And Case? Don't hit the prisoners. The Axe'll want to see the files on the incident, and the cameras are still rolling."

Ezra carefully didn't show any sign that he was amused by her infuriated expression.

"Ah, shut up," she muttered under her breath. "Off planet know-it-all. Just got the job cuz ya schmoozed the Axe. Know-nothing pig-ignorant halfbreed."

Ezra walked into his cell and settled himself comfortably on the chair there. A moment later the cuffs fell off and dissolved into the floor. Well now. Young Miss Casey looked like someone worth cultivating. All that lovely resentment...

Before he could start the cell next door opened, and the woman stumbled inside, a more reluctant prisoner than himself he rather suspected.

*~^~*~^~*

"Doctor?"

Nathan Jackson looked up, a smooth smile slipping into place. "Good morning, Federale Dunne."

"Doc, can I ask you something?"

Nathan looked at his half packed up workshop. Most people would have figured out that the closed door, and the clutter, and half filled boxes would be a clue. Not this fed. He let out a carefully controlled breath that was *not** a sigh, and said, "Yes?" as shortly as he could. He didn't want the boy hanging around. he had managed to get a flight off this hole. By the time he hit Celaeno he should have a stack of planets lining up to hire him on. God knew that after the Scatter, no one could afford to lose medical talent. His lips pursed briefly as he remembered Ex-Corp, and their approach to staff retention.

"Um, if it's a problem..." The fed stopped and looked helplessly at him, and Nathan sighed.

"No. No problem. How can I be of assistance?"

"I, er, last night? When you -- and you said I'd overloaded my neural net?"

Nathan's eyebrows bounced briefly. He had had no idea the kid had been awake enough to hear that. "Yes," he said cautiously. Was he going to regret his teasing comments from the night before?

Dunne looked at him, anxiety on his face, and Nathan frowned. "Have you had more problems?"

Dunne slid a look sideways very briefly, so fast that Nathan wondered a second later if he had really seen it. "I had another nose bleed this morning."

"Could you taste blood at the back of your throat?"

JD shook his head. "No." He looked anxiously up as Nathan hmm'd thoughtfully. "That's good?"

"Not tasting blood is pretty much always good, yes," Nathan said dryly.

Another quick sidelong glance away from Nathan, and the young man's lips moved. It looked like he was muttering 'shut up', and Nathan turned to look at whatever the fed kept looking at. His half empty book shelves and the clutter of his packing. He shook his head, abandoning the mystery.

"Did you injure your head at all? Jar it?"

"No."

"Did you maybe do it while you were sleeping?"

"I was just sitting eating breakfast, on my own, and it started again. Shut up, it's your fault." At Nathan's startled look, he added swiftly, "Just talking to, uh, myself." He smiled weakly. "Don't mind me. Bad habit. Net thing. Just--" he snapped his mouth closed on what Nathan strongly suspected was another request to shut up. Another of those sidelong looks, this one venomous.

"Federale Dunne -- JD --" he leaned forwards a little, "is the nosebleed really the problem?"

JD visibly swallowed. "Do, do you know anything about blood nanites?"

He wouldn't meet Nathan's eyes, and Nathan could hardly blame him. He had the sudden urge to go and wash his hands again. Maybe burn the clothes he'd been wearing when he wiped up the kid's blood last night.

"Not much," he said slowly. "Everyone knows the stories. The blood music."

The kid was staring at his hands folded tightly on his knees. He looked very young, like he wished he could pull his knees up to his chest and hide.

"It's not like that. Not really." He looked up, eyes anxious and wide. "People forget they're coded to deenay. They would just die if I -- if they, when they, well." He ducked his head, stumbling to a halt in the face of Nathan's silent disapproval. It was the kid's body, but *why** would you do something like that?

"You have blood nanites?" he asked flatly, and the kid looked sideways away from him, and then back, and straightened his back.

"Yeah." His head dropped, and he muttered, "It wasn't entirely my idea, okay?"

"I'm not saying a word," Nathan said, wondering if this was the problem. "Is -- JD, did someone do this to you against your will? Recently?" He stumbled over the sentence, trying to wrap his head around the idea that this wasn't theoretical. Nanites so small, so complex that they could be used to replace actual blood cells. He swallowed. It would explain the nose bleeds, and the ear bleed. Maybe the nanites were going rogue. Trying to break out. He felt sick, and cursed that he had left his personal force field to charge. He glanced across the room to the small pack plugged into the mains.

"No, no, that's not it. Uh." JD hesitated, and said, "Do you know if there's any way that a neural net could interact with them?"

Nathan frowned. "I'm a doctor, not a technician," he said slowly, "but aren't they two different things? The net is wired in the brain, and the nanites are simply in the blood stream. They shouldn't affect each other."

"Oh. Okay." The kid stared at the floor as he spoke quickly, "Have, have you ever heard of, um, after-images."

"From net time?"

JD nodded.

Nathan shrugged. "Momentary ones. Mild hallucinations sometimes occur, especially in new users. The insertion surgery affects every part of the sensorium, so you sometimes get tactile, labile and auditory phenomena too. But most people learn to filter them out or adapt for them."

"Oh."

"JD -- are you hallucinating something?" He didn't mistake the snatched glance left. "JD?"

"No. No, it was just, just a glitch. Probably."

"JD, if your neural insertion is glitching, that's extremely serious." Nathan hesitated a fraction of a second, and lied. "I'm not qualified to go in and investigate." He ignored the 'brain' brain sitting on the shelf with a dozen other chips loaded with surgical and medical data. "I'd have to recommend you find a neurological specialist. Urgently."

"Urgently?" Another quick look to the side. "Doc -- "

"Yes?"

"You don't see anyone sitting on that big box in the middle, do you?" he asked, in a very small voice.

"No, son," he said gently. Options ran through his brain madly. Neural net failure, psychotic break (in a fed! Jeshu, they were lucky he had sedatives that would take down a bull elephant), nanite break out, comms failure-- he breathed in sharply and the kid's head came up.

"What?"

"Have you checked no one's broadcasting to your net frequency?" he asked, abruptly relieved at such a simple solution.

"I--" He stopped, looked sideways for a long moment, then nodded. "I didn't think of that," he said flatly. "I'll, go away and check it." He stood and offered his hand to Nathan, who smiled pleasantly and held up his filthy hands in refusal.

"I'm covered in dirt. I was just clearing up in here," he said, deeply grateful that he wouldn't have to touch the fed. DNA imprinting or no DNA imprinting, those things were dangerous.

"Right," Dunne said quietly. There was an old look in his eyes, and he added slowly, "I'm sorry to have troubled you, sir. I'll let myself out."

"Come back if it turns out not to be that," Nathan said, feeling vaguely guilty. "I've got a couple of diagnostic tools that might be able to help." If I'm still here, he thought. What if he is having a psychotic break? What if I send him back on duty, and he's carrying and he thinks he hears voices and starts shooting? What if I leave and he kills someone?

What if he kills someone because I was too scared of a medical myth to do my job properly?

He held out his hand. "Wai, wait a minute. Look, give me a minute and I'll find that diagnostic. I'll double check. Since you're here."

The fed shifted from one foot to the other, and said, "You don't have to--"

Nathan smiled. "Actually I do. Part of my medical oath you might say. Wait here."

Dunne waited, not taking a seat.

"Okay, put your hand in here," he said easily. He held out a bio-mol scanner. Strictly, it wouldn't tell him anything about Dunne's mental health, but it *would** tell him about the nanites and the kid's genetic disposition to mental illness. His patient stuck his hand into the small space between the fixed jaws of the scanner, and after a couple of seconds it beeped. "Keep perfectly still," Nathan said. It beeped again, and he nodded. "Okay." Dunne withdrew his hand, and cocked his head curiously.

"Just a couple of minutes, and we'll just have a look at what's going on in there," he said, and tapped his own head. The device chirped, and he keyed it to download to his terminal and run against standard diagnostics for bio and bio-mech.

He twisted and reset the scanner to fit around a skull. The plates slid out smoothly, like a spatial fold toy he'd had years ago. He smiled faintly. This one didn't fold out into a small spaceship of course. "If you could stand here." The tool had a stabilizing hook, and he carefully guided Dunne into the scanner space. "Hold still." It bleeped, and a few seconds later bleeped again. "That's it. Now I just wait for the --"

His terminal chimed softly. The first diagnosis was ready. He read through it and smiled. No bio anomalies. No mech anomalies. A series of figures footed the report, but he gave them only a cursory glance. The second set of data were running, and he watched the report build up. No genes for mental instability. No indication of drugs; stress hormones within acceptable limits. No anomalous brain stem activity. Whatever the kid was seeing, it had an external source. Probably.

He frowned at the seventy-three per cent probability rating. He hadn't seen something that low in a while. But no psychotic break. And he had to pack.

He hesitated a fraction of a second, wondering if the nanites could affect the scanner's function, then dismissed the thought. They were just tools. Like his own immune boosters, they gave their owner a biological advantage that was, if not necessary, then very useful in a universe that had not been designed to accommodate human beings. He might as well be afraid of touching a sick person with a non-communicable illness.

"All's well," he smiled. "It's probably someone's entertainment system broadcasting on your frequency."

Dunne nodded slowly. "Yeah. Thanks, Doc," he said, but didn't offer his hand again. "Bill me privately would you?"

Nathan blinked, and then nodded. Understandable. "Have a good day, Federale Dunne."

"Yeah. Yeah, you too." The fed looked around briefly, then left, his shoulders slumped.

Nathan sprayed the scanner and the seat with disinfectant.

*~^~*~^~*

Chris didn't open his eyes. He tried not to move at all, but breathing in and out was putting painful pressure on his stomach, and he turned his head a little, just far enough to not choke as he threw up.

By the smell, it wasn't the first time.

He half wished he could have the comfort of closing his eyes, but he could feel light on his skin; even through his eyelids the world intruded. He drifted. He'd learned not to question this. It was quiet inside his head. He couldn't think, didn't remember. Nothing mattered except the bitter taste at the back of his throat that warned that he was going to try to turn his stomach inside out again. And the lassitude, and the quiet emptiness.

A headache stretched at the edges of his bones; he was so dehydrated that he thought he could feel his brain shrinking away from the sides of his skull, rattling inside, a desiccated husk of everything it once was. Maybe the memories escaped with the water.

A small smile pulled at his face. Maybe that was the solution -- the smile widened. Yes, dissolve the memories, pour them out with the piss and the puke. let them drain away until it didn't matter any more that

He stopped. The memories were there still; dark and reaching out for him, and he refused to look. No, this was just him, and his hangover, and the calm before the storm.

"Hey, mister!"

Chris winced, and scowled.

"That glare'd be killer if yer eyes were open," she added, and Chris levered one eye open to take a look at this foolhardy female. "You can't stay here, sir, you gotta a place to go?"

Chris blinked and his pleasant lassitude fell away, leaving the growing weight of his past pressing in on his chest. He blinked again, trying to clear his eyes, and took in the grey uniform of a fed. A single stripe indicated a acting second, and he wondered where the first was, and if she would be easier to deal with.

"Sir?" A strong pair of hands gripped at his shirt and tugged until he had to either stand or be dragged.

"Get your hands off of me!" he snarled, and slammed his hands up and apart sharply, breaking her grip and almost certainly leaving bruises on the insides of her wrists.

"Shit."

Maybe that wasn't the best idea he'd ever had. "Stay right where you are, mister!" He winced at her yell, and squinted against the strong sunlight to see exactly what he expected. She'd backed off about two meters and was holding her sidearm on him. As he watched she lifted her wrist towards her face, "Federale Dunne, come in! Wannerate."

"Where are you?" A man's voice came through loud and clear and Chris grimaced.

"Beecher an' Main."

"Right with you."

Chris wiped at his mouth, and then froze as her gun hand twitched.

"Stay right where you are, sir," the woman said.

"Fed Wells, I really don't think you want to do this--"

"Sir, I really don't think you wanted to strike an officer of the law, either, but you did. So if you'd like to just wait there, my boss'll be along in a minute, and you and he can have a nice little chat down at the house."

Chris was torn between laughing in the girl's face, and swearing. a moment later he was definitely opting for the swearing.

"Hey, zhàngfu, what you got yourself into -- oh, now that's bad," Buck Wilmington's voice seared through his world. He looked up and found the man smiling at him from maybe ten meters distance, long legs eating up the ground as the young man beside him -- also in federal uniform -- loped towards Wells.

"Buck," he said softly, and lunged for the man. This was it, this was the moment he had been waiting for; three years of waiting and looking, and guns were too quick, too easy, and he reached for his throat, already anticipating with grim pleasure the sight of that fine face blackened and bloating grotesquely under his hands. "I've been waiting for a long time to do this, you murdering bastard!"

But Buck wasn't there.

Too many things happened at once to really register. The kid by Buck was yelling, the girl was too; both of them had their weapons up, and he felt the pressure change as they both fired; but he was already falling though Buck; his body seized up, and he measured his full length on the ground, unable to reach out and save himself. He hit the ground painfully, immobile, not even breathing, desperately waiting for the neutralizer to kick in and allow his heart to beat again. A second later there was a soft feeling running through him that he knew from experience -- on both sides of its use-- was that weapon releasing his autonomic systems from the grip of the cell-stopper. He drew a deep breath and coughed helplessly as grit and dust were blew in, but he couldn't close his mouth, or move anything.

The pure visceral panic of having every bodily system except his brain stopped faded as sluggish blood started to circulate. He concentrated on breathing, the feeling of being winded gone as though it had never been. Each breath should have calmed him, pushed him deeper into a proper mindset for dealing with some snot nosed little fed and her barely out of diapers boss. Instead they rode his rage up, cycling higher. He was raging against the block, straining every thought towards moving, towards getting to Wilmington and wringing the life out of his filthy little neck.

"Sir, sir, please calm down!" The young man was crouched beside him. He was frowning as he looked at him with that half-abstracted gaze of those listening to voices in their heads. Probably watching bio-phys readouts, and afraid he was going to infarct right in front of him. "Do you have any medication you require?" The neutralizer ran over his lower face briefly, softened his jaw muscles. He felt his muscles slacken, and worked at his jaw cautiously, checking he hadn't loosened anything when he'd hit.

Buck was crouched next to the kid, overlapping with him slightly, and Chris stared, wondering if the fed knew he was sharing body space with a ghost. From the irritated little looks he kept throwing at the ghost he figured the answer was yes.

"Chris? Chris? What is it?" he was asking anxiously against the fed, who was biting his lip, and asking his question about medication again.

He waited a couple of seconds to be sure his larynx and tongue had been included before saying softly, "Get the fuck away from me," staring into the dark blue eyes that he'd once thought he would give anything in this life for.

The fed glanced at Wilmington, and Chris felt a momentary puzzlement. Did the girl see him too? Why was a fed seeing one of his ghosts? And then a pang tore at him. If Buck was a ghost, he was dead too --

He groaned and breathed in deeply again.

"That's it, sir, and another one," The kid was patting his shoulder. Each touch brought his surface thoughts bubbling through, clear as day; disjointed and fragmented as any human mind.

He wanted to push in deeper, and reached to do just that, but the kid jerked back as a warning squeal erupted from his wrist. "God! I *hate** that," the kid muttered. "Sets my teeth on edge."

"What happened?" A pair of booted feet appeared in Chris's line of sight, walking thorough Buck, much to the man's bemused disgruntlement by the look on his face. A second later he recognized Wells' voice. "Did he attack you again?"

"Got a red light on eleven." The kid sounded like he really didn't want to share the information, and a minute later, Chris understood why.

"I *said** he was a rogue! I said he was a psi rogue!"

"Case!" The man sounded irritated, "Not in the street, okay? Look, you want to do something useful, get your gloves on and pick up his feet. I'll get his arms."

It wasn't the first time he'd been removed from a street like so much unwanted trash. But it quite possibly was the single most embarrassing.

*~^~*~^~*

"I assure you, Federale Wells," Ezra said, leaning forward from his seat on his cellbed, his head tilted up a little to emphasize that she was taller, in control, more powerful, "I had nothing to do with the altercation in the street."

Casey looked doubtfully at him. "I ain't the federale around here."

Ezra let his eyes widen a little, "But as second you are entitled to all the respect of a first when the first is not--" he looked ostentatiously round the jailhouse, "-- around."

"Huh." She fidgeted with the unit at her belt, the charms on her wristband clacking softly together as she twisted it to and fro. "The Axe said we was both his representatives," she agreed, clearly thinking aloud, "So I guess I've a right to it."

"Of course you do!"

She wandered back to the desk at the front of the cell area and sat down, swinging idly to and fro. "Where's that accent from?"

Ezra blinked. The conversation wasn't going quite as planned, but, no matter. "Borealis Ultra."

"Really?" The girl's head came up. "It always sounded so romantic--"

"Until the recent unpleasantness it *was** romantic. An idyllic world, filled with beautiful ladies and dashing young men--"

"And a poverty line forty percent below galactic standard, and a pair of mono-corps that owned everything that wasn't protected," a harsh voice croaked and Ezra couldn't stop himself shooting a glare at the man who had interrupted him, then snapped his mouth shut again.

Him. Larabee. "I am sure that a man like yourself would approve of Four Ten and their ilk," he said recklessly, and was thrown by the near silent chuff of laughter.

"Yeah, Four-Ten. Sure I approve; hell, I love all the Dee-Gees and their corps." He looked at Wells, and shook his head. "You're too young, child, and he's playin' ya. Concentrate on your job, and forget about cities in the sky, and cloud dancing."

The girl's face hardened. "I ain't as young as all that, Mister Larabee. Maybe I just wanted to pass the time of day with a friend. No law 'gainst that, is there?" She tapped at her screen and then smirked at Ezra. "That'll shut him up." She jerked her head towards Larabee's cage, and when Ezra frowned added, "Noise filter on his cage. We use it for drunks mostly."

Ezra slanted a look at the raddled face the dull eyes and vomit stained robes and smirked. "Well, I would say that is an entirely appropriate response, my dear."

"So..." she asked, biting nervously at her lip, then looking up through her lashes in a move that no Daleesian princess could have bettered, "What was it like? Before the Hegemony broke it up and --"

"Before they stopped the dancing and the music?" he asked softly, as though half lost in a memory already, and she nodded eagerly. "Ahhh, well."

This was going to be too damn easy.

"There were days where you could see forever. The skies were the richest, most delicate green, and the clouds were blue with rain, the oceans were emerald below us and we would dance in the clouds. The House Lady was always first, the last time I saw her she wore red and orange, her skin like night against the flames of her robes. The girls wore blues and yellows and pinks and reds, bright against the sky, long streamers trailing from wrists and elbows and ankles, the hems too low, long split skirts that trailed too far to ever walk in, but skydancing, well, that didn't matter. And the boys were beautiful too," he couldn't help a brief flicker of his eyes towards Larabee, whose noise filter was clearly one way only, and who was rolling his eyes in disbelief. He snatched his gaze back before Casey looked and the spell was broken. "With their great iridescent sleeves, and the skin fitting suits that showed every muscle as they danced as though the air was a platform, and the clouds themselves nothing but comfortable feather beds and chairs."

Casey was smiling, "It sounds beautiful," she said softly. "It must have been hard--"

"Let's not dwell on that, my dear. The Dee Gee had their reasons, and they were not entirely bad reasons," although we might have taken then a little more seriously if they'd protested our monopoly on the mining worlds *before** we received the offer of Saffra's management, and all her enphidium plants...

"Did you go to dances?"

That threw him for a moment, and he smiled, "Why, of course, child. No one who was anyone failed to go." For a few precious seconds he was there again, the wind in his face, the hard pressure of antigrav at knees and shoulders supporting him as he took part in a display as lavish and erotic as any birds of paradise could give. All gone. Perhaps the dances would come again, but with the power of the Ex-Corp monopoly broken, it would never be the same.

"I'm sorry," Casey whispered, her eyes soft, "I didn't mean to--"

"No," he smiled, perhaps not with as much difficulty as he pretended -- though possibly more genuine pain than he wanted to admit even to himself. "No, it is always worth remembering beautiful things."

There was a long silence, and he wondered how exactly he had managed to dredge up foolish, sentimental memories of Borealis Ultra in its last days, with shining girls, and gallant boys, and the sound of music playing and playing until the ships came.

"So, how long have you worked with Mr. Dunne?" he asked, and her face darkened. Much better. Miss Wells, it seemed, could hold forth on the subject of Mr. Dunne, and his employment as First Federale at some length.

Eventually, he grew to envy Larabee his noise filter.

-----------------------

JD Dunne was having a bad day. So far he'd arrested two men, both of whom he was going to have to release, and a woman who was going to have to be held until the Axe got back to Last Chance.

One of the men was a PI. He ran a hand over his face again and groaned. He'd arrested a PI.

So much for a new career going straight.

"Aw, it ain't that bad, kid."

And then there was him. Buck.

He looked at the man. Avatars didn't tend to be quite like their real life counterparts, but even if Buck Wilmington was a little less good looking and gregarious, the charm and the friendly assumption of big brotherhood was unfiltered. He sighed.

He'd seen prettier. But not by much. He shook himself and tried to concentrate.

"Who are you?"

Wilmington shrugged. For someone who seemed to have more than enough to say the rest of the time, he sure picked a funny time to shut up. "Do you know padre Sanchez? Josiah Sanchez?"

Wilmington shook his head. "He the one put you in the way of finding me?"

JD nodded, then shook his head. "I don't know if he was expecting you--" except he knew that Josiah had been expecting exactly this. 'A favor owed' he'd called it. And he'd given this mad grin and promised JD it was a nice surprise. He was never quite sure if Sanchez was crazy, or crazy like a fox.

"You called Larabee 'zhàngfu'."

"You heard that?" Wilmington said, the ready humor fled from his face.

"You mean it?" JD asked, scanning Wilmington for any sign or symbol--

Buck's mouth pulled in a sad smile. "More than anything in the world."

"What happened?"

Buck shook his head. "You're gonna have to find that."

"Why can't you? You're in my net?"

"Nope."

JD blinked. "You must be. It's the only way I could -- unless. But. They've crossed the endothelial barrier?"

"What?"

JD shook his head. "Never mind." Then he ran the conversation back. "How do you know you're not in my net?"

Buck shrugged. "Tried to check some data -- catch up on the news. Couldn't break out -- tried the other way around and couldn't break in either."

And as easy as that, the nose bleeds made sense. Break outs. *Nanite** breakouts.

"Fuuuuck," he whispered, and stared at his wrist. There was a tiny mark on it where he'd pulled the data from his subdermal wristband into the thin alu-glass drive for Sanchez. Blood nanites swarmed the data into the splinter, packing it more efficiently than DNA, each one holding teraflops of data in quaternary code.

And he'd licked up the blood from his wrist.

He laughed hysterically. Buck was in his blood. Buck had crossed the blood brain barrier, and was projecting directly into his sensorium. If the man decided to abuse it, he would be dead, or a zombie, before he so much as had a chance to slit his own throat.

"Kid, kid, *kid**!" Buck was yelling at him, up close and personal. He looked like he wanted to shake him or something, and JD flinched back before he remembered what Buck already knew -- or had just rediscovered. No touching. A ghost in the blood. "We don't have time for this," he said more quietly now that JD was paying attention. "Calm down. We're gonna get this fixed."

"How?"

Wilmington smiled jauntily, "We'll figure something out. Your brawn, my brains--"

They looked at each other, and suddenly they were both laughing helplessly.

"Oh, we're so fucked," JD spluttered.

"I'll have you know I have the finest brain on five planets," Buck said haughtily.

"Yeah, and it's *mine**!" JD dodged back away from a friendly swat that sailed right through his head. "Wow that's weird," he added, blinking a little as the hand re-merged.

"Who'd you say told you where to pick up the file?"

"Josiah Sanchez." JD said, sobering.

"The old dervish?"

"Dervish?"

"Uh--whirligig man."

JD nodded, it was a good description of Josiah on one of his mad days.

"Then maybe we start with him."

JD looked dubiously at Buck. "He doesn't make a whole lot of sense some days."

"You listened to him, he made enough sense then."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess he did at that," he conceded.

"JD?"

"Dunne speaking," he answered the net call automatically, then backtracked, "Hey, Aunt Nettie."

"Got an incoming message from Church of Humanity about your newest arrest."

"Larabee?"

"The same," the Net coalesced into its preferred avatar, a skinny old woman, and put its hands on its hips. "You really done it this time, boy," she said with a smirk.

JD sighed. "Yes, Nettie."

"The Southron is gonna be trouble too. Got an outstanding on him," she added, and then idly offered, "Plus he's trying to sweet talk Casey into staging a coup and becoming First."

JD groaned. "Any more bad news?"

"Yeah." She looked him right in the eye. "You're talking to yourself."

"Most intelligent conversation around here," he smirked. "What's the outstanding?"

"Notation on the warrant says Ex-Corp want a word."

JD's eyebrows lifted. "Ex-Corp? Recently?"

Nettie looked thoughtful for a second, "About five years."

"Can I just release it?"

"It's a proper warrant. Signed by a System Axe too."

"Yeah, betcha ten cred it was Granot of Borealis," Wilmington said cynically, and JD nodded slowly, resisting the urge to look at the man.

"Granot of Borealis?" he asked casually, and Nettie nodded, her face impassive. "And it wasn't reviewed after his arrest and indictment?"

"No sign of it."

"You sure it's legal?"

"It'll take time to find out," Nettie said.

"Can you do it?"

"I *can**, have you thought whether I *should**?"

JD opened his mouth and then stopped. Legal warrants had to be executed. If he handed the man over to Travis, he'd end up either auto-sentenced, or shipped back to Borealis. If it was illegal, he risked sending an innocent man into the headless hydra that was Ex-Corp, probably to his death.

If it was illegal, and he started asking questions about the man, the hydra might come here.

"When's Travis due?"

Nettie smiled at him, like he'd gotten the answer right and she was surprised but pleased. "Two weeks."

"Huh." He stared into space, drumming his fingers. "It say what for?"

"Crimes against the state."

JD winced. "Can I think about it?"

"You might want to put him on silence too," Nettie offered, and grinned, a wicked expression on that hard old face. "Like the other one."

"The other one?"

"Yeah. The one the Church is coming to check up on."

JD froze. "On Larabee? But he was shot! She can't do that!"

"Already done, boy," Nettie said, but it was to an empty room. "My, that boy can move when he wants to," she said idly, and vanished.

*~^~*~^~*

"Surely you understand, cy-brother," the man said urgently to Tanner. Vin looked at him impassively. "You understand our plight--" he held out a gloved hand, and between the glove and the cuff of his leather jacket silver glinted.

"I'm sorry, I think you've got the wrong man," Vin shrugged, and poured himself another shot.

"I know who you are!" the other whispered, and Vin froze, just his eyes moving to meet the old man's coldly.

"I hope for your sake you don't really mean that." He tilted his head to take a thorough inventory of the man. "I really hope you don't mean that."

The man tugged at his own leather jacket, and looked significantly at Vin's. "Hide," a bitter smile crossed his face at the pun. "Animal skin to conceal --"

Vin shook his head slowly, "I just like wearing it," he said easily, and finished his glass.

"Cyborg," the man said, so quietly that no human ear could hear it -- that no human throat could have shaped the sound and had it be meaningful -- and Vin ignored it.

"Brother, you *must** help us," the man leaned in conspiratorially, apparently under the impression that his whispered accusation was a clincher in the battle for Vin's aid. "They want to take our only resource, force us even further out of human civilization --pah -- " he spat, "what a galaxy, where the seekers of peace and prosperity are driven half to Galactic Rim, and the murderers and monopolists sit in ease on Central."

"That's sad, but it ain't my problem." He eyed the bottle, then tipped the dregs into his glass and emptied it at a gulp. He stood and tipped his hat to the man, "I'm sorry, old man, I'm not the savior you're looking for."

He walked away in long easy strides, the middle of his back itching as he wondered how many people had been watching them talk. How many people were staring at the filthy cybes.

He couldn't do it.

"How many did you say?" he asked.

The miner nodded at him solemnly, doing him the courtesy of not gloating. "If I said twenty, would that scare you?"

Vin shrugged. "Twenty, huh. Need more'n me for that."

The man flipped something that glinted dully as it turned, and Vin reflexively caught it. He turned the narrow metal tube curiously and then slid it into his pocket. "That won't buy much man power."

The cyborg smiled at him. "I have faith, Mr. Tanner."

The man walked away, and Tanner pulled a rueful face. How exactly had that happened again? Oh yeah, that altruistic streak of his that Mom had always said would get him into trouble. She wasn't wrong. He hefted the little capsule, and wondered if the contents would even pay for one mercenary, much less the ten or twenty that this sort of operation would probably need. The capsule shone, light glinting from the metal, the noon sun reflecting in the small window into its contents. Maybe it would be enough.

Maybe that Larabee guy would feel like going for another crazyass tilt at a windmill.

*~^~*~^~*

Chris stared at the ceiling, and started counting backwards from ten thousand. A million was too high, although he'd made it into the seven hundred thousands while on trial back at Aquilae Secundus that one time. And he really didn't expect to get to talk to anyone in anything under a thousand. So ten thou was a decent compromise. As anger management strategies went it was primitive, and tended to get rolled eyes from the counselors assigned to him.

On the other hand, it worked.

He tucked his hands under his head and watched the sky. The cells were comfortable, and the sky-ceiling was state of the art, the sort of programming that always made him deeply suspicious of the motives of whoever installed it.

His dinner had appeared a couple of hours before, and he had tried to talk to the Fed, but she'd backed away swiftly, fear on her face, fumbling desperately at her utility belt. The chances were good she was even now reporting him as a psi rogue.

He smiled. He was kind of looking forward to the moment when High Command told her in no uncertain terms to release their Priest Inquisitor. There weren't too many opportunities for entertainment out on the far side of Scorpio belt, but this one boded pretty well.

Two other moments of entertainment presented himself and he tried to shove them both away. That Tanner man. Cyborg. Whatever he was. Saving the local medic.

Well, finally a good deed to chalk up on the positive scale. The negative seemed to weigh a little less heavy until he remembered the five dead men who had had no quarrel with him. He'd been on edge, true.

Hearing the voice of your family's killer would do that to a man. He held very still, watching the clouds drifting in the ceiling. Maybe they thought that the illusion of freedom would calm prisoners down.

He closed his eyes. He'd spent so long hating Buck; it felt like he'd hated him since before he'd known him. It bled backwards, staining even the best days with blood and ash. He consciously unclenched his jaw, waiting for the vein to stop throbbing at his temple. When he'd come back to their homestead and found nothing but smoking ashes and the deenay remnants of their wife and son, and no trace of Buck he had thought he'd lost all of them.

Something twisted in him. He'd never thought past hunting him down and killing him in revenge for Sarah and Adam. And now, he was cheated of even that. All he had left was Buck's ghost, and all he could feel was cold emptiness. This was the end then. They were truly all gone. And now he didn't know whether to grieve, or scream with rage that he'd been denied his kill.

*~^~*~^~*

Nathan scowled. Did no one in this town understand the meaning of 'I'm sorry, I'm moving to another planet'?

"I can pay," Tanner said hopefully, and waved a half filled xenobia cartridge.

"Is that genuine?" Nathan asked dubiously. A half share of it would pay for a couple of days living expenses on ship, but only if it was uncut.

"Mostly," Tanner said. The man at least had the decency to look uncomfortable. "But they're miners, maybe there's more where this came from?"

"Huh." And maybe those are real live fish I'm seeing flying by now, he thought.

"Course," Tanner looked away down the street, "we'll have to split it some."

"Some?"

"Well, I figured, Joche said twenty of them. Five of us should do it."

"Five." He looked from the ten gram cartridge to the strong profile staring determinedly in any direction but his. "Four to one odds, for something that won't pay my power bill for a day?"

Tanner nodded deprecatingly. "I know it ain't a lot." He stopped and Nathan waited for him to fill in the 'but' he could almost hear.

He slid a look at the man. He *had** saved his neck. He'd never so much as passed the time of day with the cyborg, and yet he and that priest fella had risked their necks for him. His hand rose to his throat and rubbed at the vanished bruises.

And maybe he did owe them something. Those miners were part of the reason this town existed. Part of the reason that he'd had a place to live and a job to do the last two years. So half of them were more metal than man, but sometimes he wondered if there was anyone who wasn't.

"The law involved in this?" he asked abruptly. If the feds were in it then the odds would be better.

"No." The word came out too fast, and Nathan's eyes jerked back to Tanner's face. He saw the wide shoulders lift and settle as though the man had carefully regulated some sudden urge to move or strike, or do something. "No. No feds," Tanner said more quietly. "You in?"

Nathan looked around his small room. He was never going to get packed. And if it wasn't over in seventy two hours he'd miss his flight. But-- "Yeah." He waited for Tanner to say something, and was vaguely annoyed to just get a nod.

"Okay then."

"Okay."

"You got your other three men lined up?" he asked.

A smile pulled at Tanner's mouth for the first time. "I'm working on that," he said, and Nathan gaped at him. "You got any friends?"

Nathan started to laugh helplessly. "There's a man I can ask. No promises mind, but he's not a fed, and he doesn't mind violence." Tanner nodded again.

"Meet back here in five hours?"

"Sure." Nathan couldn't stop himself, "Who are you going to get to help?"

Tanner grinned wickedly. "Oh, I've got a couple of straight shooters on ice." Nathan followed the man's gaze and discovered his attention locked on the jailhouse. The high security federal jailhouse.

"You ain't gonna-- you can't--"

Tanner turned his head to smile lazily at Nathan. "Oh, you got no idea what I can do." He looked back down the street. "No idea at all."

*~^~*~^~*

Josiah moved bricks rhythmically. The steady movement was settling, as good as meditating, and less likely to result in him running screaming down the high street. Although, he allowed with strict honesty, it had been known to happen even so.

He had all of them just about. The serpent was going to try to leave; he'd have to do something about that. The door was breaking open wider every minute. The pieces of the broken circle were nearly together. It shouldn't take too much to get them all into place together, and then, well, Ezra Standish wasn't destiny's only bitch.

And he was hungry. He put down the teetering stack and walked back to the small cubby hole and his MREs. He popped one, waited for it to finish heating and ate it. It smelled delicious, and he shook his head. Somewhere, if there was any justice, there was a food aromarologist who had trouble sleeping nights, when every fragrant mouthful was a lie on the tongue. He chewed thoroughly, and took another bite. These things took forever to finish, purely because it took an effort of will extended over several seconds to actually swallow the stuff. Eat, but don't eat too much. Food as penance.

Whatever it was he couldn't help feeling that there was no justice, and that someone, somewhere, was laughing. Probably at him.

He wondered how the boy was doing. He hadn't thought that he was part of it until the dreams this last sennight.

He rose to his feet and arched his back, enjoying the sharp series of cracks as muscles and bones alike realigned and settled themselves. That was good. He set back to moving bricks. Eventually, there would be neat stacks at the walls, and he could begin with the rebuilding. But first, he had to lay the groundwork, bring order out of chaos, and other such over worn metaphors for his life of penance. He growled under his breath.

"Am I interrupting, Josiah?"

Josiah blinked. "Brother Nathan." Well, if the man would sneak around he was bound to get growled at occasionally. He should warn a body.

"I was wondering if you had a few minutes to spare?"

"Minutes are plenteous, my friend."

"Yeah, except you wouldn't believe how much stuff I suddenly have to cram into a finite number of minutes. It's like, put a time stamp on you availability and suddenly it's the last hot toy on the shelf at solsfest. Everyone wants it, and no one's asking you if you want to be wanted. You know?"

"I believe I can smell herring," of the red variety, my friend.

Nathan threw him a look that said with beautiful clarity that Nathan was humoring the lunatic. "Yeah. Uh. Josiah. I've got this guy, friend, saved my neck yesterday, don't know if you heard about that, up here with the bricks."

"And the crows," Josiah interjected happily.

"Crows. Right. So we're riding out to take care of a little problem over at Camp Hugo and we were, I mean I was wondering--"

"Harbingers, Nathan. Today is not a good day to die."

Nathan looked blank, and Josiah sighed. Nobody watched the classics any more. It was all direct input and neural feeds, "And see where that gets you," he said towards the federal jailhouse in the distant town.

"No day is a good day to die, Josiah," Nathan said, sounding irritated, although the emotion didn't appear anywhere but the slight edge to his voice.

"Contrariwise, Nathan," Josiah said happily. "Some days are better than others. When were you planning to die?"

"Day after forever."

"There! A good day to die!" he smiled, genuinely amused, until Nathan reluctantly smiled back at him.

"So, will you help?" Nathan persisted, and Josiah cocked his head thoughtfully, considered the question carefully, and slowly nodded, coming to a decision..

"No. Absolutely not." He looked earnestly into Nathan's disappointed brown eyes. "I couldn't leave my bricks."

*~^~*~^~*

JD was out of breath as he swung the corner through the front door of the federal building. The house was quiet, which always worried him -- usually Casey had music blaring, or was happily chatting to the prisoners out the back. He picked up his pace again, ignoring the burn in his lungs. He really hoped she wasn't off in a chatroom again. He grimaced at the memory of trying to find a way to tell her that anyone else would have written her up -- and not in a good way, for being in a VR chamber during working hours.

Travis hadn't said anything about having to manage a bad tempered self willed, independent cuss who thought *she** was going to be First when he'd handed him the town.

Damn Travis and all his sept.

He burst into the cell area and ran through to the cages. The woman was snoring on her bed -- he downloaded her arrest record automatically: Juliet MacKenzie. Pretty name. Shame about the owner. He checked over her biostats and logged them, as he went past, realizing as he did so that Casey had forgotten to do a baseline report.

"Case?" He called, and moved to the next cell, where there seemed to be some confusion about the occupant's name. "So which is it," he asked. "I've got Ephraim P Standish, Eric P Simone, Ezra P Standish, Elena P Samson..." he kept reading the file. "About the only common thing is EPS. Should I run a search for you, EPS?"

EPS looked suitably shocked, "Why I am Ezra Standish, sir, as my ident will clearly indicate."

JD nodded dubiously. "Uhuh. And you have no idea who all these other idents are that have gotten mysteriously attached to your deenay. It's like nothing I've ever seen before."

JD caught the widening of Ezra's eyes, and nodded, "What, I wasn't supposed to be able to see 'em?" He straightened up a little. "Take a smarter 'grammer than you found to lock that sort of thing down," he said cockily, and checked the man's bio stats. Hmm. Baseline, and half hourly updates. Manually entered at that. Nettie had said they was talking.

"Take someone with some interesting skills," Standish said pointedly, and JD knew that guilt shone in his eyes when Standish smirked.

"You been chatting with Miss Wells?" he asked, changing the subject as fast as he could. Too much to hope that the man would forget.

"Just passing the time of day," EPS smiled and settled comfortably into a lazy sprawl. "No law against passin' the time of day with a pretty young lady." He slid a look at JD and JD had to bite back a retort.

"Whatever," he said, and moved on to his original objective. Larabee seemed to be asleep, but the cage lights were flashing orange -- how had Casey not seen the damn alert? He slapped his hand onto the door lock and was through, dropping to his knees by the bed and the still figure on it before the door had swung fully open. The man was barely breathing, there was no baseline in the file, no biostats, and worse yet, the noise filter had been turned on, contrary to regs.

"Casey!" he yelled. He pulled the arm away from the man's pale face, and looked around, trying to decide what to do. The doctor. He sent out an emergency call and swore when the call bounced. "Fuck, *fuck*, *Casey*!" He carefully shook the man's shoulder, "Sir? Mr. Larabee? Ah, lao tian yeh!"

"*What*!" she snapped as she wandered into the cell area. JD didn't even look at her.

"Did you deliberately ignore every single rule on the books about care of prisoners after using a cell stopper, or did you just think it would be funny to kill a PI?" He rolled Larabee carefully onto his side, and into the recovery position. Casey was staring, her hand over her mouth and he gritted his teeth. "Don't just stand there, idiot, get me the fucking stim shot! And call Doctor Jackson!"

He heard her stumbling towards the emergency med kit, scrabbling through to find the epinephrine, and then running back. He held his hand out imperiously.

"Give me the hypo," he said, and looked up in time to see her tight, angry face. "Casey, I don't have time -- *he** doesn't have time! Give me the goddamn hypo." She slapped the pen into his palm and he jabbed it hard against the man's chest. The trigger set and a moment later the drug was hissing into the prisoner.

"You never said anything about the baseline! I thought you'd done them. You're *First** aren't you? An' no one said anything about the noise filter being bad--"

"You call the Doc?" JD asked first, brushing aside her protests for now.

"Yes, I called him! It bounced, okay? I guess he's on a call or something. I left a message -- I expect he'll come over..."

JD looked at her steadily until she stopped talking. "Well, that's one thing you've done right," he said finally. "You have any idea how many things you did wrong yet? Regulations are that baseline is taken on arrival. Well, that's my fault, I trusted you to do it, and didn't check." He ignored her thinning lips and narrowed eyes. "And I thought, being's your Second an' all, and you know so much, that you knew about procedure post cellstop." He glanced up and then away again, "My fault again. I issued you with the damn thing. You better check it back in and we'll find you something else to use."

"You can't do that! I've got a license!"

Larabee mumbled something, his head moving restlessly, and JD sighed with relief. As he watched the diagnostic readouts were slowly climbing back into acceptable levels. Jackson would have to look him over of course, but the man should be fine.

"So," he looked up at her with mild curiosity, "You have a license, which means you've taken the safety tests, so, you're telling me you knew the regs and couldn't be bothered to follow them?"

"What? No!" Casey spluttered.

"Well, either you don't know the proper procedure, or you do." He felt old, somehow. He and Casey had been friendly enough up to this point, for all their friendly rivalry over the job that he had and she thought she should have gotten. He didn't much care for being the boss, and now she was standing across the room from him and he knew with cold certainty he was going to have to fire her. "Same applies to MacKenzie as Larabee, though at least she hasn't been stopped. The only prisoner you checked on was pretty-boy over there." He jerked his head towards Standish. "And then you put up the noise filter and didn't bother with reg checks on someone we used the stoppers on." He shook his head. A small sound came from the man in the bed, and JD looked away, concentrating on the bio readouts and the rough and ready federal diagnostics and the churning in his stomach.

"I -- JD, I meant to, I just got to talking with him, and--"

"It's his fault?"

"No, no. JD, you're putting words in my mouth. I thought you'd done the baselines."

JD sighed. "Yeah, I know." Larabee was slowly easing back up to consciousness. If they were very, very lucky no one would know. It would take him minutes at the most to wipe all hints of this from the records -- delete the alarms, edit the event logs, airbrush the visual record invisibly enough that no one would ever know.

It was tempting.

He looked at the man. Dark blond strands were plastered to his skull, sweat beaded on his forehead. He was pale, his heart slowly calming as his breathing eased into a normal pattern, the touchy alveoli exchanging blood gases happily instead of simply failing to work. Larabee would never know. He'd probably chalk it up to a bad reaction, and a medical intervention. Reactions happened. He hadn't died. It wouldn't be lying exactly. Just -- editing reality a little.

Would it really matter if no one ever knew?

"We both made mistakes," he said. He stood up and watched. Wilmington was sitting by Larabee's head, and JD hesitated. "Are you gonna stay with him?"

Wilmington nodded, "If I can," even as Casey said, "If you want me to, sir," in a voice held steady by force of will.

"Casey, you come with me for now." He switched off the filter in Larabee's cage, and walked to his office out the front of the building. He settled into his chair, and Casey stood the other side of his desk, parade ground stiff.

"Sit down, Case," he told her. What to do, what to do?

She settled onto the very edge of the chair beside his desk, facing him directly. "You want me to resign?"

"What? No? If I asked you to resign, I'd have to do it too," he said instantly, and knew a momentary flash of something that felt like pride in himself. He wasn't going to take the easy path after all. Maybe this straight and narrow thing was going to work out. "I'm gonna write it up and dock us both a week's pay, okay?"

She looked suspiciously at him. "Both of us?"

He nodded resolutely. "It's my fault too. I'll send the files for Travis to assess and pronounce if you'd rather? It's gonna have to go to him anyway, but we'll have to wait until he gets around to us-- "

"No, no. Docking is good," she said quickly.

He shrugged one shouldered. "Well, you better go get some lunch for them. I'll watch Larabee. Make sure he doesn't have any other reactions."

"Okay." She relaxed, but didn't leave, twisting her hands together nervously.

"Go on, say it."

"JD -- I really didn't know about stoppers. No one ever told me."

She wasn't lying. He looked down at his hands, and then back at her.

"Then it really is my fault." he said. "Okay. And Case? I forgot too. Nettie told me."

Her face cleared and then her eyes narrowed angrily. "You let me think you--" She glared and turned on her heel. "Men!" he heard, quite distinctly, as she stalked out of the building.

"That went well," he told himself ruefully. He looked around, and realized that his ever present blood ghost was looking faded and fuzzy. It seemed to be sitting on something JD couldn't see. "Buck?" he said doubtfully.

The image firmed up a little, then hazed out again, like a bad signal. "What are you doing?" he asked, but got no answer.

*~^~*~^~*

"You know the worst thing about this all?" Chris frowned, or tried to. Somehow he was asleep and awake at the same time. He tried to open his eyes, but nothing worked. "I been figuring it out, and the kid tells me it's 3782. You know how long it's been since I got any? Three years! Three damn years! And Jeshu knows when the dry spell's gonna end." Buck made a whistling sound between his teeth, and Chris could just about see the look on his face even with his eyes closed.

"Think... a... all ... them... poor folks... 'prived..." he whispered, in time to Buck's

"Just think a all them poor deprived folks, who've missed the chance for a little Bucklin lovin'--Chris?"

"Kill ya, cheat on's..." he whispered through a smile. Buck didn't change. He talked a good game, but nothing would make him cheat on his partners.

"Chris?" Buck's voice sounded ragged, as though Chris had shocked him.

"'N feel so good," he whispered, and tried again to open his eyes.

"I know, zhàngfu, I know." Chris expected a gentle touch to go with the soft croon, and was disappointed when didn't come.

"Y'all righ'?" he asked, anxious. Nothing normally kept Buck away from him. Touch was practically another form of language for him. "Where' Sar?"

The long silence worried him more, and then an unfamiliar voice was there. "Mr. Larabee? Mr. Larabee?"

"He's definitely awake, kid," Buck's voice was somber. "Seems to have lost a smidge of time, is all."

"Are you okay?" the other man asked, and Chris nodded gratefully, yes, ask Buck if he's okay.

"Yeah," Buck said in a quiet voice that suggested he was anything but.

"What's the last thing you remember, sir?"

Chris frowned. The man sounded vaguely familiar, and he wondered where he knew him from.

"Sir?"

"Dunne." With a wrench he opened his eyes, and his memory came flooding back. Buck was watching him, crouched beside him. He lifted a hand and waved it through Buck's insubstantial form. A ghost. Huh. "You're Dunne?"

"That's me, sir." the kid smiled, and Chris wondered why he was so damned happy. "JD Dunne, First Fed for Last Chance." He ducked his head. "I'm real sorry about what happened, sir, me'n' Casey shoulda paid more attention to you."

He nodded, carefully, his head felt like it might fall off. His hangover didn't care that he was recovering from a cellstop blast but just kept on pounding happily at his skull. "I still under arrest?"

Dunne fidgeted, "Um, not exactly sir. But I got a message from Inquisitor General Culpepper to ask you not to leave."

"If I ain't under arrest, I'm going." He tried to sit up and fell back, his head spinning.

"Your blood pressure's a little low, sir," the fed said earnestly. "An' your blood sugar. And your electrolytes and just about everything. Casey's bringing some dinner, if you want it?"

"You should rest, Chris," Buck said.

Chris looked from one to the other and rubbed at his eyes with a hand that felt almost too heavy to move. "Buck?"

"Yeah, pard?" Buck smiled at him and he frowned, shaking his head slowly.

"You dead?"

Buck shrugged, and the fed snorted. "Dunno. Maybe. Maybe not."

"You kill 'em?"

"Who?" Dunne asked, looking between them, and it finally registered. "Who got killed?"

"You c'n see him?" Chris slurred. "How come?"

Dunne nodded. "I'm more interested in why *you** can see him."

Chris smiled thinly. "Mine."

"That's all very well, pard," Buck said gently, "but the kid has a point. He sees me because of-- well, it don't matter none right now, but believe me, you shouldn't be seeing me. No one else does."

Chris hand drifted to his collar and he tugged at it. "This might have some to do with it," he said, and yawned.

"Shit... Chris, what did you do?"

Chris was going to answer but Dunne stood abruptly. "I'm gonna see where that food's got to, and you should sleep. You're welcome to stay here, if you want, or I'll help you to your rooms, if you've got any."

"Sleeping on ship," he said. His eyes closed and he forced them open. "Di' you kill--"

"No." Buck sounded infinitely sorrowful, "No, zhàngfu. I don't know what happened that made you think I could ever hurt 'em, but no. I swear."

"Cou'n un'stan'--" he whispered, and Buck's voice followed him into sleep.

"We'll figure it out, Chris, I promise you, we're gonna figure it out."

Chapter Text

Vin Tanner leaned against the sun warmed wall of the federal building and closed his eyes. His hat slid slowly forwards as his head drooped, and to anyone walking by he probably looked like a man about two snores away from a sharp spot check on local planetary gravity. At 1.3 G it wouldn't be comfortable, but anyone looking for a little entertainment to brighten their day was destined for disappointment.

The downside to animal hide was that if it cut others off from him, it cut him off too. Most times he didn't much care. He'd had the changes made to improve his use to the armies of the Coalition. Now, the coalition was broken, the Hegemony in-fighting in something about a year away from civil war, and the Federation was taking it all, sucking it in.

No one was going to remember, or care about one insignificant little cybe.

They'd better not.

He slid slowly down the building, loose limbed, as though drunk, and laid his hands gently on the wall/walk interface. Federal buildings might be state of the art, but to someone who'd swept floors in more secure outfits than this; who'd hunted down richer prey than any this place was ever likely to find, there were ways in.

The shield edge trembled against his palm. It would take time. Well, then it took time. Joche had a deadline. Doc Jackson had a deadline. But he wanted those guys, the pale eyed Larabee with his arrogant power and the smart mouthed card sharp with his double handed targeting.

Maybe then he wouldn't end up dead. He sighed softly, and shifted as the shields melted against him. Yeah, yeah, let me in, he thought. Just me, old military codes, just another guy, let me in...

"Hey." A girl's voice.

He kept his head down, risked a faint snore.

"Y'can't sleep here!" She grabbed his shoulder and shook him. He took a fraction of a second to decide and then chose. A little training for the foolish fed.

He gripped her hand, twisted, rolled and wound up with one knee in the middle of her back, pressing just long enough for her to be absolutely clear that he could have twisted her head clear off her pretty little shoulders, and then got to his feet.

"I'm sorry, miss," and he was, a little.

She ignored his extended hand and scrambled to her feet, hand on her empty holster. "I -- I should take you in!" she said furiously. "Assaulting a federale!"

"Miss, I was asleep, and I usedta be a soldier. You know, like most everyone over twenty one around here." He tipped his hat. "Now, I said I was sorry, and if you'd just let me--"

The girl made a strangled noise and turned on her heel and stalked away, gesticulating and holding forth on the iniquities of men.

He grinned and lightly touched the side of the building. Well now. A smile pulled at his lips. The shield knew him now. Wouldn't raise an alarm when he slipped in later that night. Wouldn't even complain if he over-rode those high tech print locks with his old hardwired military codes.

And that would be four. Five to one odds could work. He jiggled the xenobia in his pocket. 'Course, it wasn't going to split much between four people, but hell, maybe Larabee'd do it for free. Him being a priest and all.

The card sharp wouldn't do it without a little incentive. He grinned wickedly. Hell, maybe the priest'd fix that for him too...

Meantime, he should get well away from here. A lesson learned from OCS: sneaking around is much harder to do in the dark and is a bad strategy for anything. Sneaking in broad daylight when you've every right to be there -- *that**'s good planning.

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra was asleep when the hand slid over his face and pressed down. He was awake a split second later, eyes wide open as a faceless figure raised a finger to its lips.

"Shhh." The voice was obviously camouflaged, giving no clue to identity or even gender between the quiet and the distortion. "You want out of here?"

He shrugged, and the hand lifted from his mouth.

"That depends on who wants to know," he murmured. White teeth gleamed briefly, and he thought he caught some hint in the line of the face, despite its mask, to suggest a male.

"I have a proposition for you," the man whispered, and Ezra pulled a disdainful face.

"I think you will find I am not that sort of a man." he mocked, certain that the man meant no such thing.

There was a muffled chuckle. "Tch, now I'm all disappointed. Nah. I've got a job I reckon about suits your talents."

"A job? Actual remunerative activity?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"Out of the question, dear boy. I do not do the 'W' word."

"Not even for a ticket out of here?"

"Out?"

"I hear there's a want on you signed by Granot himself," the man said lazily, as though it was just of passing interest. Ezra was suddenly acutely interested, but did not let a hint of it show, not even his heart or breathing stuttered. "Reckon they'll be shipping you back to home sweet home next week when the Axe gets in. I hear the prisons on Borealis Ultra are getting kinda crowded these days, but hell, you'll enjoy the company." The man paused a beat, "Or maybe not. You not being that kinda boy an' all."

"Most subtle." Ezra glowered at the man. "What does this 'job' entail?"

"Nothing much. Ride out to this place I know. Help out a couple of friends of mine. Pick up the payment and come back. You can head out wherever you please after that."

"Tempting," he said sarcastically, and turned his face towards the ceiling. "Let me see. An anonymous person breaks *into** a jail, attempts to break out one of the miscreants incarcerated there for the dubious privilege of riding out into the desert to some mudhole masquerading as a human dwelling place, to perform some unspecified yet undoubtedly illegal 'favor' for these unnamed 'friends', with a payment that has yet to manifest." He tucked his hands behind his head. "Amazingly enough I find I am quite comfortable right where I am."

"Got a xenobia cartridge." The man waved the distinctive capsule enticingly, and snatched it away as Ezra reached for it. "Ah, ah, ah!"

"I have no guarantee that the contents of that are genuine," he said, but even he could hear the avarice in his voice, and winced inwardly as a smug grin parted the man's lips again.

"I'll just leave the front door open for ya, shall I?" he said easily, and rose to his feet patting Ezra in an entirely too familiar manner before he exited the cell. "I'll be heading out in a few minutes. Take your time deciding, though. And if you change your mind, those boys on Borealis won't be sorry."

Ezra threw the man a withering look, but his back was already turned and it was wasted. He watched as the intruder pressed a black gloved hand to the print lock on Larabee's door and groaned.

"Hush now," the man said softly. "Don't want to wake up Ms MacKenzie there, now do we?"

"How thoughtful of you," Ezra said -- but very quietly. Well, at least if he went along with this asinine excuse for a plan there wouldn't be anyone there intent on killing him. Apart from Larabee, he corrected himself as the intruder slipped noiselessly through the open door and crouched by the sleeping priest.

A moment or two passed, the intruder whispering too softly for Ezra to discern the words.

"I believe you may have some difficulty waking him," he offered helpfully, and quietly enough that no normal human could hear, and smirked as the man's head came around. "Those half assed excuses for federal officers both cellstopped him, and then didn't follow procedure. There was a certain amount of excitement this afternoon when he stopped breathing."

The intruder rocked back on his heels. "Well, hell," he said, not at all quietly.

"Careful," Ezra murmured cheerfully, "we don't want to awaken Miss McKenzie, now do we?" He couldn't see the man's eyes in the dark and through the mask obscuring his features, but felt morally certain that hidden behind those things was a thoroughly irritated glare. He smiled.

The man sighed and prodded at Larabee one more time, then rose to his feet, bent down, slid his arms under the unconscious man and with little more than a huff of effort, hefted the man over his shoulder.

He stalked out of the cage, and glanced back at Ezra, who looked around the peace and quiet of the federal house, sighed, and climbed to his feet and followed.

"I had no idea," he murmured, eying Larabee's bobbing head, "that this was such a romantic town. Midnight breakouts, rescued damsels -- ah, gentlemen -- in distress. Why, all he needs are the flowing blond locks of legend, and we would have a tale ripe for the arenas."

The man looked amused but said nothing except: "Let me go first here," at the front door. He paused halfway through and gestured for Standish to go past, then followed him the rest of the way out.

"Photon benders on a large scale?" Ezra mused out loud as the man hurried across the street and down a narrow passageway between two buildings. "In built photon distortion tech? Legit codes?" he paused at that one and eyed the man, then shook his head. "Too tall for either of those pernicious teenagers passing themselves off as the local law, and you would have known about Larabee."

"Do you ever stop talking?" the man asked as a car slid up next to them smoothly. The lights flickered briefly, and then the doors swung up and open. "Get in. The loop only lasts fifteen minutes, then the fed net is going to notice it's missing a couple of people."

Ezra was already settling himself into the worn vehicle as Larabee was carefully lowered into the back hatch and left curled up awkwardly in a space barely large enough. "Not exactly what I'm used to," he said, eying the battered shell, torn seats and dirty controls.

The man laughed and swung himself into the driver's seat, pulling away before the doors had finished closing, leaving Ezra feeling distinctly queasy as the ground vanished and they shot upwards.

"Where exactly are we going?"

"Wait a few minutes and I'll tell you. Just got to pick up another fellow and we'll be away."

"Excuse me, did you just say that you were planning on picking up someone else?"

"Yep."

"I see. And what exactly were you planning on paying him with? Not my xenobia, I hope," he said tartly.

The man pulled the mask away from his face. "Well, sure." He grinned at Ezra's apoplectic expression, and added, "Vin Tanner. Always good to meet another fugitive from federal space." And he stuck out his hand.

*~^~*~^~*

"Kid! Wake up! Wake up!" Buck tried to shake the boy's shoulders and growled in frustration as his hands slid through. "Goddammit, what kind of di neng fed sleeps through his own fricking sirens?"

JD mumbled something, and Buck put his hands on his hips and glared, waiting for the boy's eyes to open and take in the full enormity of Buck's ire.

The kid didn't even have the decency to notice. He went from still mostly asleep to halfway across the room, pulling on jacket, hopping, off balance, as he tried to drag on his pants while he accessed the fed grid directly. Buck felt the brush of the kid's net reaching out. It was the closest thing to solid physical touch he'd had out of the VR environment, and it startled him. "What're you doing?" he asked, and tried to twist into that view that let him see the lines of data streaming. "are you wide-banding? Didn't they teach you *nothing** at Fed School? You want to flood the network and burn your brain out, you go right ahead and broadcast wide."

"I know what I'm doing, Buck," JD said. "I just, need, a little -- there!" The siren shut down and there was a yell from downstairs along with a thud, and the walls shone with a flickering blue that fizzed in peripheral vision, but was a dull, steady glow if he looked directly at it. The pressure against his being vanished, and JD sighed.

"What did you think you were doing?"

"What did *I** think I was doing? I was trying to wake up the goddamned OIC who was sleeping through the bells and whistles."

"Not that," JD glowered. "Did you access the security codes and release two of the prisoners?"

"What?" Buck's jaw dropped. "Who?"

JD's scowl deepened. "You telling me you didn't know? You were awful interested in him yesterday, calling him husband and all? Who is he?"

"Chris?" Buck took two quick steps forwards, hand out to grab the kid and shake the information out of him before he remembered that he *couldn't**, and he growled in frustration.

JD backed away anyway, and his right hand gripped his left wrist, right where the boy claimed his wristband was buried. "Stay back!"

"I'm not -- dammit, boy, I can't do anything to you, even if I wanted to! I just want you to tell me, what happened to Chris?" He slumped a little at the suspicious look, and added, "Please?" very softly.

"I oughta purge those damn nanos," JD said, but it was the tone of someone who had no such plans. "Mr. Larabee, and Mr. Standish or whoever he is, were broken out of the prison about ten minutes ago by someone who had hardwired back door access to the federal grid." He sighed, looked away. "I fucked up, again. Mr. Larabee wasn't in any condition to break out. He's been kidnapped. Unless you think he knows anyone here?"

Buck shrugged, "How would I know. But is he gonna be okay? After yesterday--"

JD grimaced. "Maybe. If they feed him, and let him sleep it out. If he gets too cold, or he goes anywhere and picks up a chest infection his lungs are just going to give up again. He needs about a week of rest according to the diag file on him."

Buck huffed a laugh. "Well, Chris was always about a week short of enough sleep, don't reckon that'll faze him so much. But the lungs -- that's not good."

"He might be fine."

"But he might not?"

JD shrugged in apology.

"Well, hell, boy, quit jawing and get after him!"

JD rolled his eyes, "Wow, I'd've never thought of that by myself."

"Enough of your sass, kid," Buck said, but a grin was tugging at his lips. "So, what's the plan?"

JD smiled grimly back at him. "Well, first, we wake Casey."

*~^~*~^~*

Josiah woke as the first air car screamed overhead. "That's a good start," he mumbled, and yawned. Nathan would be along next, so he'd have to be ready. He rolled out of bed, regretting its warm comfort almost immediately. The day's heat had long since leached from the stone floor, and he shivered. "Not that it's any warmer where you are," he remarked to the room at large. His eyes drifted to the stones laid over graves within the church.

"Well, perhaps tomorrow I'll be near as cold as you," he said finally. He slipped his feet into loose pair of rope sandals, and pulled his poncho over his head.

*~^~*~^~*

When Chris woke, his first thought was to stretch out, unkink the tight ball that he had somehow forced his body into. His head smacked hard against metal, triggering a pounding in his head that brought with it the memory of why he felt like shit. He kicked out, ramming his feet into something that was hard, but yielded briefly before stopping, sending a jolt that traveled all the way through his body with loving attention to his aching knees, sore back and chest, and throbbing skull. A blanket was tangled around his legs and he kicked out again, swearing and coughing.

"Get the fuck off of me!" He slammed his feet against the hard surface again and this time provoked a response.

"*Do** you mind?" came from a voice he recognized. He gritted his teeth, dragging the blanket off himself completely as he reached into the mind he could feel in front of him. He jerked back, furious. That filthy little would-be ship thief who'd been eyeing up the Saradam.

He twisted around and got a handful of fabric and pulled, choking the man in his seat. "Do you know what the penalty is for abducting a priest of the Church of Humanity?" he asked in a tender whisper. He didn't wait for an answer. Judging by the desperate scrabbling at his hands Standish had other priorities. "No, nobody does. Do you know why? Because no fucker's ever been stupid enough to try it before."

"Well then, I guess I'll get to have another first," a slow drawl told him in his ear, and something cold and hard pressed up into his jaw. His head snapped around fast enough to shake his stomach. "Hao le ma," Tanner added, as softly as Chris had threatened Standish, and Chris reluctantly let go.

Acid bit at the back of his throat and for a few seconds he didn't dare open his mouth. He drove the nausea back, and breathed, "You?"

He wasn't sure if he was more angry at the sight of Tanner holding a gun on him or less. He had thought he and Tanner had been, if not friends, then at least not enemies. But he'd kidnapped him, dragged him away from Buck and all bets were off. It hit him then, and he looked around quickly. No sign.

"Who's Buck?" Tanner asked, lowering his weapon. Presumably he thought Chris's lack of response meant he was going to behave. He let no expression show at Tanner's question. He hadn't meant to let the name slip out.

Standish sniggered, and Chris's fists balled in the darkness, imagining closing around that smug white throat and wringing...

"Some former lover, I imagine," Standish said airily, "He was talking to him during his psychotic break yesterday. Are you sure you picked the right man for the job? You must admit that hallucinations and incipient dementia are hardly the best indicators of sanity."

Chris drew a deep breath as the man spoke, orientated himself on the two of them, and then lashed out, one foot to each exposed head. He caught Standish squarely. The man howled with pain as his nose broke, then dropped behind the back of his seat, knocked over by the kick to his face.

Tanner was another story. He swung to one side, moving barely far enough to dodge the blow. His hand shot up and grabbed Chris's ankle, holding it immovably still scant inches from his face.

Chris tried to jerk away from him, and when Tanner's grip proved too strong to break reversed and tried to drive his foot, hand and all, into Tanner's faintly smiling face.

"Jeshu Borealis, that fa feng Neanderthal broke my nose!" Standish moaned. Chris simply tuned him out.

"Hold hard, niu lang," Tanner said urgently, "it's not what you think. I'm breaking you out. It's okay. We're the cavalry."

"You fucking *idiot**!"

Tanner just looked at him blankly, and Chris took advantage of the man's momentary inattention to twist out of his grasp and roll to a more defensible position. He blinked a little as he realized they were high above the ground; he'd been dumped in the cargo compartment of a private air car like so much shopping. Fine. He'd get control of the vehicle and then kill them both once they were on the ground. No point dying until he figured out what the hell was going on. He pushed himself to his knees and backed against the rear window, and narrowed his eyes menacingly at Tanner.

"Take. Me. Back."

"Can't do that, pard," Tanner sounded almost apologetic. "Got a tight schedule already."

"Sedate him! Do something before that madman kills us all!" Standish re-emerged from wherever he'd fallen, clutching a bloody hand to his face. "He's insane!"

"Bizui," Chris snapped, not even looking at him.

Tanner grinned faintly, and raised a pair of quizzical eyebrows at him. Chris ground his teeth. The bitch of it was that he could sense Tanner's mild amusement and the lack of threat -- no more than that. Between the leather clothes and the metallic tang of a cybe he was half surprised to sense that much.

"I was -- " he stopped. For some reason, mostly to do with the avid curiosity in Standish's eyes he was loath to say, that he'd just been sleeping off a couple of doses of oblivion because he didn't have anywhere else to go. "I wasn't under arrest," he said instead.

"He just *likes** being locked up in an iron cage, and wearing manacles," Standish sniped.

"Shut up," Tanner said mildly, surprising a momentary smile out of Chris.

"The feds made a mistake."

"What, picking you up, or nearly killing you?" Standish paused a beat, "I'm beginning to be in real sympathy with young Mr. Dunne."

They both ignored him. Tanner nodded.

"I need some men to help with a problem. Some friends of mine--" he hesitated, and Chris realized that he was editing whatever it was he had been about to say. "I was asked by someone I feel an obligation to, if I could help them go up against some hun dan threatening them. They just want a quiet life."

"Who?"

"People out at Camp Hugo."

Chris frowned, weren't they--" Cybes?"

"You have a problem with that?"

Chris shrugged. "Just checking. Their money's as good as the next man's." He paused. "They do have money?"

"No!" Ezra's protest was over-ridden by Tanner's grin.

"Got some xenobia in my pocket."

"That's my xenobia -- that's *my** xenobia, Mr. Larabee! You can find your own reward. I hear cybes can always think of something to barter with priests," Standish said, and stopped abruptly, as though he couldn't believe he'd actually said that.

Tanner hissed softly through his teeth, and Chris found his fists were clenched.

There were some things you never, ever said.

After a long, loaded moment, Chris said, "Who's going after them?"

"Some people," Tanner said vaguely.

Chris shook his head. "Who?" he insisted.

Tanner shrugged, and moved his hands over the controls. The car dipped, and accelerated towards the ground.

"We there?"

"Nah. Got one more passenger."

"Who you are not paying with my xenobia!"

"Shut up, Standish," both men said, and Chris caught the faint amusement in the mirrored blue eyes, and laughed under his breath. He sobered a second later. He must have dreamed Buck. It had been everything he'd most wanted to hear -- that he was back, he hadn't done it, he still--

He choked back the thoughts. No. Even if he was dead, Buck Wilmington deserved nothing but his hatred. And if he was alive...

*~^~*~^~*

Nathan was cold. The suns had set hours ago, and the moon rising in the north only served to make the world look colder and more hostile. He pulled his jacket around him more closely. He'd need to buy some warmer clothes for Celaeno; he'd heard it was a water world, and they were always unpredictable with their weather. Least little bit of axial tilt and you went from beach paradise to arctic wilderness in 10 clicks. He shivered, shuffling uneasily. Maybe Tanner wasn't coming. He was going to give it another ten minutes, and if the man didn't show he was definitely going. He glanced at his watch, blew on his hands.

He wondered if there were any nice girls on Celaeno. Women were in such short supply out here that it seemed that they were all in short or long term contracts -- of one sort or another. God knows why a woman would chose to come here if she didn't have to. Maybe a matching agency would have a better chance of locating someone suitable on another planet.

He rubbed his hands together and walked to the end of the gully and peered out down the canyon. Maybe he wasn't coming. He could still get a decent day's work in if he went back home right now and went to bed. Granted, it wouldn't pay, but maybe he should be focusing on his move, and not a debt of honor.

He was shaking his head even as he thought it, then ran a hand over his scalp and sighed. Who was he kidding? He tilted his wrist again to check the time. Only two minutes. Where was he? What if someone came? The feds had been running nightly patrols recently on odd nights -- not every night, and irregularly enough that you couldn't count on them one way or the other because there were only the two of them trying to do it all -- what if JD or Case came along and wanted to know what he was doing out here with his medical box?

Wasn't against the law to appreciate the stars. And you never knew what might happen. What if there was a freak accident and he didn't have his box? He closed his eyes briefly, torn between laughing and sighing. Yeah, right. A freak accident in the middle of the desert. And he was skulking in a quiet little zone that wasn't under controlled space for his health. Maybe he wanted to appreciate the stars. He looked up at the sky. Because he didn't get to see them every night. What had he been thinking?

A moment later and a dark shape swooped out of the darkness. Reflexively he ducked back into the overhanging rocks, holding his breath.

"Doctor Jackson?" a low voice called, indistinguishable against he hum of the engine. "Nathan?"

He hesitated, then edged out a little way. "Hello? Vin?"

A small glow illuminated Tanner's face for a moment, then faded, "Yeah. Come on, we're losing air."

Nathan hesitated a moment longer, looking back towards the city, the small, safe place he'd called home for years, and planned to leave by the end of the week. He'd be fine. "Coming," he called back, and hurried to the car.

"It's a bit crowded, but I reckon all y'all can get acquainted that way," Tanner said. Nathan threw a suspicious glance at him, and then another at the other occupants. Larabee and a stranger.

He crawled into the cramped cargo compartment, ignoring the sour smell coming off of Larabee, and nodded. "I'm set," he said, and closed his eyes against the sudden vertigo as the car swooped up, sans lights, as fast as it had landed.

*~^~*~^~*

"You think maybe that was a little harsh?" Buck said idly as JD fired up his bike.

JD shrugged. "Can you, I dunno, float out of sight or something?" he asked instead of replying. "Kind of distracting to see you just floating there." He tried not to think about how they could hear each other despite the helmet and lack of radio gear. If he didn't think about it, he wouldn't get creeped out by the thought of nanites in his brain.

"And deprive you of the wonder that is Wilmington?" Buck asked, but he edged out of JD's field of vision, and if he had been real, would have registered as a second rider on the bike. As it was, JD could ignore everything but his voice.

"Wonder, yeah, right," he snorted.

"Now Miss Casey there is a nice little girl, you should make more of an effort--"

"What *for**?" JD asked, exasperated. "So I can give her ammo for that discrim/harrassment petition she's just dying to hand to the local Axe?"

"You have off hours?"

"Not so's you'd notice," JD said darkly. It was tough trying to run the law here. Two kids didn't get a lot of respect; the name of the Federation tended to either get them shot at or laughed at, and worst of all, there were just the two of them and the Fed net. Aunt Nettie tried to monitor everything, but even an AI as smart as she was couldn't catch everything. So, they traded off. They both worked nights, and every day one was on call and the other slept. Sometimes that meant thirty-six hours without sleep. It was no wonder that Casey had slept through the alarm. He was only faintly amazed that he himself had woken up.

Sometimes they still needed both of them -- which meant no downtime, and a steady diet of stim shots until Doc Jackson refused to issue them with any more. He sighed. He'd have to get Casey recertificated on the cell stoppers. Maybe if he asked Travis real nice they could get some relief for a week or so. Travis always showed up with a couple of fed bodyguards. Maybe next time JD could borrow them to watch the town while he and Casey slept for a week. Maybe a month. A month of sleep sounded good.

"Well, that's your problem, right there kid. Give yourself a day off, get a nice picnic basket, take the girl down to the river. A little food, a little wine, a hot, sunny day -- what could be more natural than a cool dip, and maybe, a little nude sunbathing..."

"I don't think so," JD said tersely, "Not my style."

"Boy, take it from me. You wanna get laid, you better *make** it your style." "

"I find that, 'Hi, wanna fuck?' works pretty well," JD muttered. Though possibly prostitutes and saloon-pretties didn't count.

Fingers swiped across his vision and the bike swerved until he realized that they weren't real. "Will you stop that?"

"If I was solid--"

"If you were solid, you could have sat in with the prisoners and we wouldn't've gotten tricked by a stupid patch loop," JD grumbled, but he was far more angry at himself than he was at Buck, or even Casey, for all he'd just spent ten minutes yelling at her. Gou shi. That was probably what Wilmington was getting at. He bit his lip, and absently adjusted his screen to follow the heat trail. He'd apologize when he got back. If she was mad at him she wasn't going to fall asleep again and let anything else get by her. He grinned as infrared showed two norms and a hot going down the alley.

The shadowy trails cut off, which probably meant, according to the training scenarios Travis had made him load, that they had gotten into a heat shielded vehicle. He sighed and shook his head. Not smart enough. He scrolled rapidly through the tracing screens and smirked when a double line of dull yellow particles showed up. He adjusted the screen a little -- he didn't want to miss seeing a mountain because he was too busy watching displaced electron trails -- and followed it with his eyes. Nearly straight up, and then once out of the town's air net, out south. No problem.

Follow the trail, catch the three of them, dust a grateful Larabee down and get him back to the house before Culpepper arrived to ask about his errant priest; re-arrest Standish and get him locked up again before Travis arrived to hear petition from Borealis for extradition; and arrest whoever'd broken them out and really enjoy watching him get ten years hard for hacking a federal system. His very first jail break round-up.

This was going to be fun.

He whooped as he kicked the engine into high, and leaned far forward against the pull of gravity as he gunned it upwards to follow the softly shining trail.

"You're gonna die," Buck said fatalistically, and JD laughed.

"Aw, come on, lighten up! How bad can it be? We'll be home for breakfast!" he yelled, and Buck groaned.

"We're *both** gonna die."

The wind was rushing past, the moons were high, the stars were bright as the lights of Last Chance dimmed behind them, and JD couldn't stop grinning. This was what it was supposed to be like -- the thrill of the chase, hunting down wanted men.

"You got some sorta shielding on this thing?" Buck asked, and JD's flights of fancy came to earth with a thud.

"Oh, yeah," he flicked a switch and watched himself disappear out of the radar under stealth. Hard to sneak if they know you're coming.

"Better," Buck grunted, and JD scowled. "You got backup coming?"

"There's just me," he said proudly, but somehow the long silence that Buck greeted his statement with made him less enthusiastic.

"You and Casey," Buck said finally.

"She's gotta watch the town-grid and the house."

"Hm."

"We can't both be away," JD protested, "anything could happen."

"And so you're out here, chasing god knows how many people with the smarts to hack your grid and leave no trace of themselves."

"Three people."

"You know that, huh?"

"Yeah. The infrared--"

"And how many were in the car? How many are back at their base? Use your *brain** boy, or whatever you netheads have to pass for one, and *think** before you get both of us killed!"

"I don't have to listen to you. You're not even really here."

"I think therefore I am," Buck said solemnly.

"Not in my head you're not."

"If I'm not really here," Buck observed blandly, "why are you even arguing with me?"

JD clenched his jaw and managed to stop himself from answering. Damn wai sui took all the fun out of things.

*~^~*~^~*

Josiah swung his bag on his back, and a saddle on his shoulder and started out. He hadn't gone far when a soft breeze brushed at his face. He looked up and smiled. The night sky was shimmering with stars, their light just enough to show him how pitch black it really was, remind him how very small and insignificant he was.

Not that insignificance on a cosmic scale should prevent him from acting.

He paused and shook sand from his sandals, and spared a second to remind himself to check the etymology of the words. They had to be connected somehow. He'd barely gone a click and his feet ached already. A little pain was good for the soul, he told himself. The thought sounded just as dubious as the first time the novice-master had said it, right before he was whipped for public disobedience. However, what bothered him more was that he had a deadline to make, and about thirty clicks to cover.

He'd finally figured out the solution to the dust and sand of this out of the way little planet. Something with no mechanical parts. Something that would be largely self-maintaining. Something that would even replicate without his intervention -- given a certain number of prerequisites of course.

He chucked softly, and smiled as a dark shape loomed out of the darkness. "Hey, girl," he whispered and patted Horse on her chocolate brown shoulder. He stepped back and looked into the large, dark eyes, and spoke seriously.

"Far to go, mei-mei, and not a lamp to light the way, even if I knew where the path will take us." He nodded and patted her again, "Fang xin, xiao mei-mei. I have a feeling." He patted her one last time and hoisted her saddle from his shoulder. He furrowed his brow at the multiple straps and buckles and with a grunt of effort swung it into place. "Now, let's see if I remember how this goes..."

*~^~*~^~*

"And who is this?" Ezra asked dubiously as a large black man crawled into the dwindling space in the back of the car. He reflected briefly that at least he wasn't trapped back there with Larabee, even as a particularly painful twinge in his face reminded him that Larabee didn't need proximity to render himself obnoxious.

Tanner glanced at him. "Doc, Ez. Ez, Doc." He frowned at the skyline and Ezra glanced automatically at it to try to spot the problem before realizing that he had just been introduced with the most discourteous --

"You're a doctor?" the words somehow slid straight past his internal censor. "I wonder if you--"

"Impotence?" the doctor asked, amusement barely concealed. "A growth on your dick?"

"He wishes," Larabee growled, and Ezra was glaring at him when he realized that Tanner's shoulders were shaking gently with merriment.

"My *nose**," he said emphatically, and far too nasally to be either elegant or polite. "That, that hu lu," he gestured at Larabee, who settled himself back in the cargo hold with an air of contentment, "broke my nose."

"Ah. Well." The doctor leaned closer. "Hmm."

"Hmm-what?"

The doctor settled back. "Oh, just hmm. It's a doctor thing."

Ezra closed his eyes for a brief second, and then opened them again. "I beg your pardon. I have been most rude. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Ezra, Sept Standish, Sa'Maude."

There was a silence, an he wondered if he had completely misjudged the man. But surely that had been a hint of Borealis in the low, gently amused voice?

"Clan Hou?" the man asked neutrally.

"Not recently," Ezra said, "As soon as my dear mother realized what was going on in that House she left." With a pretty penny in her pocket for keeping her mouth shut, and the gratitude of DeeGee Fourteen for doing no such thing... and a warrant on both their backs when the Clan realised.

"Hm." The doctor sounded far less kindly than he had a minute before. Ezra wondered how the fall of Ex Corp had hit this one. There was always someone with reasons to hate him.

"I'll look at your face when we land," he said brusquely, and Ezra's eyes widened. "What? You thought I wouldn't treat a Ha'Standish? I'm not like you people. I take my promises seriously."

"No, no. I just didn't want to waste your valuable time until after the small task currently before us," he lied easily, and was horrified when the man nodded.

"Maybe I misjudged you," he said grudgingly. "Jackson. Nathaniel Jackson." He held out a hand and they shook. Ezra wondered if it was too late to back out. He let the man's hand go, and his eyes accidentally met Larabee's. Okay. Leaving not an option. Not yet.

*~^~*~^~*

Casey was pacing furiously back and forth through the cellblock. It wasn't her fault. It *wasn't**. Travis ought to have left her in charge and they wouldn't have ended up in this stupid mess.

"Will you quit it!" McKenzie yelled, and Casey stamped up to the cell bars to glare at her one remaining prisoner.

"No. I. Won't," she snarled, and stalked away again. God, she'd had such high hopes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She thought she'd found a way off this hole. Volunteer into the Feds, get an education, move up and out. And now, she was stuck as the person who'd half killed a PI, and allowed him to be kidnapped. Like that wasn't enough, someone had engineered the first jail break in Last Chance's history while she had the watch.

She swiped an angry hand over her face. Okay, so there hadn't really been any jailing before she and JD took on the job, but even so.

Fine. She turned and stomped the other way, ignoring McKenzie's irritated stare. *Fine**. Maybe she could get a job in the bar. Except that she didn't really want to spread for anyone who had cred -- or a strong enough arm. And now JD had run off, and she was left to watch the baby, and what was the *point**? She might as well sign up as a breeder for a cybe-farm.

Hell, at least it paid well. She had decent genes. Okay, so the tech could be a problem, but they had to start somewhere. She sighed. Not even to buy her way out of here was she gonna breed cybes. Maybe Travis wouldn't fire them. Maybe he'd, oh, I dunno, shoot them first for nearly killing one guy and then losing two thirds of the prisoners they'd ever had. Even if one of 'em wasn't a prisoner.

JD was the security expert. That was what Travis had said when he'd told her that she'd gotten the consolation prize: second to an off-world hacker. He had skills and experiences that would be necessary here. JD had made all this song and dance about nets and grids and watches and rotas, and when it came down to it, he got all the glory and she was gonna get shafted. Nothing changed.

Maybe she could get something figured out. The computers were on full attack mode. No one in, no one out. Meant she couldn't leave, McKenzie couldn't leave. She wondered how much food was left in the kitchen upstairs, and was running through the contents trying to decide if she could bear to cook, or if she'd just have the house grid come up with something, before jerking herself back to present reality and the beeping viewscreen oh shit.

She ran to the main office, slapping the dust and crumbs off her shirt, driving her hair back with hard fingers, only to have it flop forward into her eyes again.

"Federal Waystation. Second Wells," she said, and tried not to gasp for air.

"Good morning, Miss Wells. Is Mr. Dunne there?"

Casey's eyes widened. "Uh, no, he uh, went out." The Axe! At three in the morning! Oh god, they were so screwed.

"Oh." Travis didn't say anything more, and Casey shifted from one foot to the other, then caught herself and stood still, stuffing her hands in her pockets then yanking them out again and clutching them together behind her back, out of sight.

"Is there a problem, Miss Wells?"

"Nosir," she blurted.

His eyebrows lifted. "Splendid. Well, tell Mr. Dunne when he returns that I have an opening in my schedule, and I will be there to discuss recent events with him in," he glanced up, presumably at some sort of clock, "let's say about sixty hours." His eyes sharpened. "Sixty hours, Miss Wells."

"Yessir. I'll let him know," she nodded.

"Excellent." He leaned back in his chair but didn't close the link. That deceptively old face looked thoughtfully at her. "You seem nervous Miss Wells."

"JD -- Mr. Dunne said he was gonna tell you about Mr. Larabee?" Somehow it ended up as a hopeful question.

"Ah. Yes." She couldn't help squirming uneasily under his gaze. It made her feel like she was on the wrong end of a microscope. "Unfortunate. Still, as I understand the circumstances, I quite understand the initial occurrence. The consequences were," he paused then repeated, "unfortunate, but I believe no harm was done in the long run."

"Thank you, sir," she said, and winced as her voice cracked.

"Merely my personal opinion, Miss Wells. Mr. Dunne's is the one that matters in these things. Internal discipline is a local issue." He raised his eyebrows. "Unless you wanted to add anything to his observations?"

She should tell him. Right now. Before the Axe got here and found out she'd lied. "No, sir. Nothing else. I'm sure JD was fair." She clamped her mouth shut before she started babbling, and found herself thinking, well, I tried.

"Very well. Sixty hours, Miss Wells. I expect to see both of you on time as soon as I land."

And the screen turned black and gold, the logo of the Federation of Aligned Worlds fading into sight.

*~^~*~^~*

"Tanner."

Vin stopped in his tracks and looked back at Larabee. The man was leaning against the aircar, his thumbs tucked into his waistband in a way that suggested they would have been resting on his guns had Vin given him any. "Yeah?"

Chris glanced across to the interested faces of Jackson and Standish, then back. "Get rid of them."

"There is a remarkable dearth of places to be got rid of to," Standish said, and Chris ignored him.

"Five minutes, guys."

Jackson frowned a little. "Standish, I'll fix that damn nose of yours if we've got some time." Standish immediately brightened and hurried to Jackson's side. Chris wondered why he hadn't thought of suggesting it, except he really didn't care if Jackson did plastic surgery or pushed Standish off a cliff.

Tanner's eyes were on his face, but he turned away and walked around the other side of the aircar. He could hear Standish's muffled complaints as Jackson probed his face, and ignored them.

Tanner had followed him and he could feel the blurred weight of the man's mind. He smelled trustworthy. And yet--

"Guess you're wondering why I broke you out?"

"There isn't any xenobia, is there?" Chris asked idly.

Tanner shrugged faintly, a bare shift of his leather clad shoulders against the dim light coming from the aircar.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked, genuinely curious. Tanner shrugged again.

"It's the right thing to do," Tanner said eventually. "They -- we don't get many breaks."

"They ain't going to like a priest," he said dryly, and saw Tanner wince at the understatement.

"They'll live with it. They might not without."

"I'm still not real happy about getting thrown around like a sack of potatoes."

Tanner quirked a grin at him, "You lived."

"I ain't got any guns." He felt the amusement an instant before Tanner turned away.

"Here." The man turned back and handed him all four of his guns. Chris lifted his eyebrows briefly, and slid all but the rifle away, hefting it thoughtfully.

"You sure you wanna do that? I'll most likely kill you with it?"

"I'll take that chance," Tanner said with the kind of blithe insouciance that he had thought only Buck was crazy enough to hand to him.

A cry of pain dragged their attention towards Jackson and Standish.

"Guess he did break his nose."

Chris smirked. "Break more'n that if you ever do that to me again." I mean it.

"You'll have to catch me first." Tanner tilted his head, both serious and not serious. Okay. They could have it out afterwards. It was the sort of thing Buck would have said: hit me later, pard, we got a job to do. And he'd be off, whooping, and Chris would follow in his wake, and probably fight him to the ground afterwards. Or fuck him through the floor. Sometimes both.

Chris shook his head, abruptly weary beyond measure. He turned away and drew in a deep breath. Too much had happened, and his head hurt. He coughed, hard, his chest clenching painfully.

"You okay?"

"Gun ququ!" He heard Tanner turn on his heel and walk away, and drove his head into his hands. Rare you got a man who trusted like that. Course, not that Tanner was exactly a man.

He wondered if he really had seen Buck, or if he'd hallucinated that.

Cold air bit at his back, standing every hair on the back of his neck on end. Maybe he was losing his mind. He'd heard it could happen to psi ops. For a second he wondered if, when he fell into the madness, Sarah and Adam would be there too, and wrenched himself away from the thought. No. Buck wasn't a ghost, haunting his dreams and sickness. Buck was alive, and out there, and on the run.

If anything else was true, then he had just wasted three years looking for the wrong person. His jaw hardened. That was unthinkable.

He drove away the thought that if Buck were a ghost, he was dead, and Chris had never grieved for him. It churned in his stomach, and he told himself that it wasn't real, it was just dreams and wishes. The thought that Buck could have been saved.

No. Buck was alive. One day, he'd find him, and kill him.

Or maybe beg him to come back.

*~^~*~^~*

Buck was grateful that he didn't currently have a stomach. The kid drove like a lunatic. No, not like; he *was** a lunatic. That last dive had virtually been free fall until the last instant, and even if he technically couldn't feel the wind in his face, or the lure of gravity on his plummeting body, it didn't stop him from seeing the ground approaching at terminal velocity.

"Looks like they landed here," JD said while Buck reassured himself that nanite driven projections couldn't die.

"Great. Where now?" he said sourly. JD waved south west, and Buck frowned. "You know that or you just guessing?"

"Saw the trail," although that didn't seem to be spurring the kid into action.

"Well?"

"Well what?"

"Get after them, then!"

JD looked at him like he thought Buck had lost his mind. "I'm looking for clues."

"Clues? What've you been reading, boy? They went thattaway!" he swept out grandly with his arm. "Go get 'em!"

"They picked someone up," JD said flatly, not looking up.

Buck blinked. "Well, why didn't you say so in the first place? How am I supposed to know these things? Divine intuition?"

"Shutting up would help," JD muttered under his breath.

"Who?"

"Well, if I didn't have someone bellowing in my ear every five minutes, maybe I'd know!" JD folded his arms and glared.

"What? Me? I'm just trying to help you out here. Warn you a little before you get your fool head blown in."

JD grimaced. "I've managed just fine up to now."

"And I am awed by the mystery of a universe that allowed that to happen," Buck shook his head. "Kid, if you pay attention, and listen real close, then *maybe* you will come out of this older and wiser."

"An' if I don't?"

"Then you'll be dead."

"Geeze, way to build my confidence." JD griped, and stood.

"And you should ditch that damn uniform. That color is gonna stand out for miles."

JD rolled his eyes and headed back to the bike.

"And get rid of those damn luminous stripes!" Buck yelled.

*~^~*~^~*

Joche Mendeleyev did not move as the four men walked towards him through the deserted village. Josiah had arrived an hour earlier, and even now was sitting in a hot tub of water and vinegar, and swearing that he would never get on the back of another horse so long as he might live. He'd promised him that the men coming would be enough. He eyed them through the darkness and doubted.

Tanner crouched across the fire from him, the other three staying a little back. Well, that was five. Josiah had promised seven, a good number, but had been vague about when the other two would arrive. Joche did wonder sometimes whether the jiao shi was as reliable a help as he seemed. Things always worked out, but never quite in the way anticipated. It made for interesting times.

"Joche."

"Vin." Two could play at that game. They were both quiet, and it came to Joche that Tanner actually didn't mind; he wasn't playing dominance games, he was just waiting for Joche to speak.

"They came two days ago," he began easily. The others moved closer around the fire and he nodded to them, each of the men that Josiah had promised him. He wondered if they really would be enough. "They said they were part of Sept Apman; that we owe them service and tithe." He looked around at the home they had built themselves.

"That clan was broken five years ago." A blond haired man with a closed, dark face. Joche took in the besmirched black robes with some alarm. A priest? His eyes darted to Tanner. Josiah was bad enough and he wasn't even technically with the Church any more. And an unknown one at that? Had Tanner turned them in?

"Broken, but not destroyed. Fragmented, and left headless," Joche amended, looking at him before turning back to Tanner.

"Chris Larabee," Tanner said. "Joche, gu lao to Camp Hugo."

"Mr. Larabee." Larabee nodded at him, and Joche looked at him doubtfully. "I mean no offence, but one such as yourself--"

"Not my idea," Larabee said shortly. "Tanner says you want some help running off the Apmans?"

Not just a priest. Even in the doubtful light of the fire Joche could see the burned double circle. Triad, and widowed; revenge sworn. Not a propitious person to bring in, but too late now. He couldn't afford to turn anyone away who offered a hand. Even if it was a ke wu priest.

"We have nothing to tithe them. And their leader either genuinely believes that we are lying when we tell him otherwise or pretends to do so." He shrugged. "We would simply leave, but we have left too many other places already, and we have built a home for ourselves here, it is not much, but it is all we have," he looked directly at Larabee, "It is all we have been allowed to have. This is not somewhere we would chose to live had we the choice."

"I wouldn't quarter a rat here," a voice murmured acidly, and he looked for it. Ah yes.

"Ezra Sept Standish, Sa'Maude, or some such nonsense," Jackson said. Joche smiled at Nathan.

"My friend," he welcomed him, then turned his eyes back to Standish. "Thank you for helping us."

"That's to be seen," Standish muttered, and Joche smiled serenely.

"Of course." He looked around them. "I think you should see the village."

Larabee nodded once and stood more smoothly than a man of his years had any right to. He fell in step with Joche as he moved past him, and walked silently past him. "How many people?"

Joche sighed. "About fifty."

"You have children here?"

Joche's jaw tightened. "No. Not any more."

Larabee simply nodded again. Joche wondered if he had heard the edge of bitterness in his voice. Of course the priest would ask about cybe kids. Didn't they always? He ought to refuse his help. And instead, here he was, walking with him about to take him into their sanctuary.

"You have a problem with priests, son?" Larabee asked, his voice soft.

Joche shrugged. "You have a problem with cybes?"

"I hear your money's good."

"I on the other hand know nothing of you. And yet I must trust you," he said, making a decision. He turned towards the cliff wall behind the pitiful little collection of huts and shacks and headed towards the opening that he knew was there. A split second before he hit the wall it parted and he walked through, the priest only a step behind and unsurprised. His eyes flickered around quickly. Joche would bet that he had a count of how many buildings, how many floors, approximate numbers of inhabitants and their probable threat level by the time he opened his mouth.

"Cozy."

Well, that was one word for it. Joche was proud of what they had accomplished. In secret, without anyone's help or permission they had built their own habitation, and hidden it with technology and the unthinking prejudice of those only too willing to believe that filth would live in filth, and concentrate their attention on the squalid little shacks left for exactly that purpose. The apartments had been carved back into the cliffs, but fronted with tinted glass and thin metal struts, taking in every scrap of sunlight that the narrow canyon let in. He walked forwards into the dark street and without a word, Larabee followed.

"You got many people here?"

"Fewer since Apman came through," he replied mildly. Larabee nodded silently, still taking everything in. The others followed behind, and he was pleased at their reactions, for all he kept it from his face.

"Dear God..."

"Ai ya huai le!"

"The Camp has done well for itself, gu lao," Josiah said, coming up to walk alongside him. Josiah still smelt faintly of vinegar and Joche couldn't repress an amused smile at the old priest

"Yu wan could not have achieved this much without your help," Joche said easily. It had been hard to realize that a priest, even a former priest with as many doubts as Sanchez carried could be a friend to cyborgs. A long lesson, that not everyone in the camp agreed they needed to learn.

Josiah was looking around, and Joche shook his head minutely, knowing what the man's next question would be. Trusting one priest did not mean trusting a second. His eyes slid to Larabee. He was in it for the money? Well, a good many priests were. The last thing he wanted to do was place further temptation in the honorable father's way.

"Pretty quiet," Tanner observed, and Joche nodded.

"We sent the non-combatants to safety."

"Good." Larabee pulled out a short dark stick and lit it, then inhaled the fumes through it. "How many combatants?" He blew the smoke away from their path as he exhaled -- a small thing, but Joche appreciated it. As he heard coughing off to their right he wondered if the man ever had just one reason for doing anything.

Joche shook his head. "Of the fifty, maybe thirty. We have some of our best people with the non-combatants; others are away."

"Away where?" Standish asked, and Joche eyed him thoughtfully. This one was sharp. Not even the PI had caught his hesitancy.

"Working," he said briefly, and hoped that would be an end of it. It was plausible enough.

"Off planet?"

"Yes."

Larabee sucked on his narc stick deliberately. "Tell me why the hell I should help a bunch of rogue cybes?" He blew smoke out and his eyes rested briefly on Tanner.

Joche looked at Tanner too, who stared back impassively.

*~^~*~^~*

JD sighed and chirped his hand in time to Buck's steady monologue as the man added prohibition after prohibition.

"Buck, you ever shut up?" he asked eventually. "I do know what I'm doing here, you know?"

Buck simply stared at him incredulously, and JD shook his head. "Never mind."

The trail led to a blind canyon, and JD stopped a couple of clicks away, pushing the bike out of sight, then covering it carefully. It was on standby, so in an emergency he could whistle it up, but the thermal blanket should take care of the heat trace that leaving it warm would cause.

He studied the map carefully, drilling down into it until the landscape matched what he could see with his meat eyes, and then back up. He traced along the route looking for physical barriers. A ravine meant he'd have to either go down to ground level or walk around, and he frowned, trying to decide. Something was nagging at him, and he tweaked at his net, throwing a thread back to the federal house to look for anything relating to the end coordinates.

A bounce returned immediately, followed by the chirp of his communicator, and he sighed. "Yeah?" he whispered into it. Buck clutched at his hair and stalked away, muttering.

"JD?" Casey asked in normal tones, and he curled his body around his wrist and frantically hit the volume control as her clarion tones floated out in the silence of the desert.

"Shh!" he hissed.

"Don't 'shh'! me!" she snapped, but noticeably quieter. "Travis is coming."

"What!" JD yelped, then repeated more quietly, "The Axe?"

"*Yes*, the Axe, who else?"

"Shit!" JD dropped his head for a second. "When's the lao tou getting there?"

"You've got about fifty five hours."

"What?!"

"It's not my fault if you don't check your messages," she snapped right back. "I'm a fed, not a secretary."

"Sorry."

"S'okay."

They were silent until Casey said curiously, "Is someone there with you?" Buck's irritated diatribe stopped abruptly.

JD looked up, straight into Buck's eyes. The man looked as surprised as he felt, and seemed to get the urgent message in JD's eyes and stepped silently out of the pick up range of the communicator. "No," he said firmly.

"You better find those guys quickly," she told him.

"I *know**, Case, I'm not stupid!"

"Well, all right then." The tone of her voice suggested she thought otherwise but wasn't up to arguing the point right now. He appreciated that. It was three in the morning.

"All right."

"Be careful," she said, he thought she sounded kind of grudging, but smiled anyway.

"Yeah. You too."

"I'm in town!" Casey said irritatedly, "What the hell's going to happen to me in town?"

"Nothing, I hope," JD said incautiously.

"You left me behind just to get all the fun to yourself!"

JD shook his head. "Case, I'm fuckin' freezin', I'm in the middle of nowhere, and I'm chasing three wanted men, who've just picked up a fourth. Yeah, I want all the excitement to myself."

"Ha. Sez you," And with that remarkably adult comment, broke the link.

"Ai ya!" he swore, and initiated the link again. "Case?"

"What *now**?"

"I'm going to need radio silence from now on."

There was a pause. "And you *radioed** me to tell me this?"

"Well--"

"Oh for--!" the link clicked off again, and JD pulled the communicator off his wrist and slid it into an inside pocket.

Buck was staring at him when he looked up.

"What? *What**?" he asked, but Buck just shook his head and walked away, muttering.

JD gritted his teeth. He needed to tell her because he couldn't leave it behind -- he'd need it for backup or to call the bike; and he couldn't turn it off. They didn't actually *have** an off switch. Federales were always on call.

"You coming?" he asked without looking at Wilmington.

"You're going to end up dead whatever I do, so I may as well be around so someone knows where to look for the body."

"Thanks. Not." JD shrugged his pack into place, and headed on out.

*~^~*~^~*

Chris didn't allow one single part of what he was feeling show on his face.

They were so small.

He'd found the kids.

He'd known that they had to be here. Even his relatively short time in the Church had taught him that the cybes valued nothing else more highly; would abandon almost anything else without a second thought, perhaps because their children were all they had left that were truly their own. There was nothing else worth risking. He suspected that there were other things here too - mineral wealth of some sort. Maybe a communications base. The housing alone suggested that there was a couple of hundred inhabitants normally -- a hundred and fifty more than Joche had told them. But of all this the only thing that would force cyborgs to make a stand despite hundreds of years of grinding oppression were their children.

Tanner walked in alongside him, and stopped. "Chris?" Chris glanced at him, and wondered if Tanner had been free or farmed. Not that it mattered. He ran his eyes over the pallets at the back of the apartment. It was probably a school hall of some sort in gentler times. Paintings hung on the wall, the work of childish imaginations and hands, for all that those hands had been seeded with alu-glass before birth.

Most of the younger ones were asleep -- little lumps partly covered by blankets, the tiniest banked by rolled bedding and pillows. Soft faces too thin; little hands showing glimmers of the grey that in the adults would become silvered musculature and bones. Older ones looked up from their beds, watchful eyes too old for their faces. Rigid effort of will held him from comparing-- no.

Teenagers and adults stood around the edges of the hall, hands on weapons until Joche appeared at his shoulder, and whispered something too low for human ears, and they slowly lowered the guns, but did not put them away, did not look away.

This was what the church had done. This was what made it unthinkable that the people of Camp Hugo tithe their treasure. Each child was seeded before birth with the need for cyborg components. Critical segments of genetic code replaced; metal implanted. Alu-glass, that required only a small supplement every day to grow with them.

Half human, half other. Infected from conception with nanites. Illegal as fuck. Valuable beyond price.

Joche waited.

"This all of them?" His voice tried to crack and he held it steady by force of will alone.

"No."

Larabee nodded. Didn't ask. He drew a deep breath through the burning narcotic, and breathed it out in a cloud, to the fascination of those children still awake. Joche seemed to see something in his eyes, and nodded slowly.

"You understand, priest, we would do anything--"

"I understand," he said curtly and turned on his heel. "Curtain wall: active or passive?"

"Passive. Active needs too much power, and would give exactly the wrong message."

"Passive won't keep the Sept out."

"I know."

Larabee looked at the opening thoughtfully. "You got anywhere else to put the kids?"

Joche tilted his head in question, and began to smile as Larabee outlined a possible plan.

*~^~*~^~*

It took JD about three hours to get into what his net assured him was the best place to get a good look at the lay of the land. He crouched by the mouth of the ravine and tugged his pack around to his front. He found his zoom lenses without too much digging around, and an energy bar too, which he ripped open and stuffed into his mouth as he lifted the binoculars to his eyes. An overlay let him line up with where the trail ended, and he ratcheted up the zoom until he could see the cliff face clearly.

"Well?"

JD jumped and nearly dropped the binocs. "Gou shi!"

"Bit twitchy, ain't ya." Buck stared into the distance. "Doesn't look like much."

JD rolled his eyes and looked through the glasses again. "I'm not getting anything at all. It's like the trail just cuts right out."

"Cloaked?"

JD looked around. "What for?"

"To *hide**."

"I know that, but why would people put it up all the way out here?"

"So people like you don't find it. Look how successful they're being. You didn't even know they were here."

"You reckon the kidnappers are there?"

Buck nodded, his face grim and serious as he shaded his eyes.

"Why'd you think they took him?" JD asked after a few minutes of staring at the blank cliff face.

"Who? Chris?"

JD nodded and Buck shrugged. "Could be anything. If I know my cai bao zi, he pissed someone off." Buck paused. "Okay, I *know** he pissed someone off, and I have three missing years of people to add to the list. Which was big enough already, thank you," he added sourly.

"Standish too?"

Buck shrugged. "That I don't know. Maybe they have a job for them."

"Maybe they both pissed off someone."

"Maybe they had a two for one offer on jailbreaks," Buck offered with a smirk.

"That's not helping!"

"Neither are you."

"I just want to get a proper look at the place before I get any closer in," JD said.

"Fine, fine. Don't mind me. I still think you ought to take off that stupid uniform."

"I'm a fed on official business, Buck I can't take off the uniform. Besides, I haven't got anything else to wear." JD looked up and saw a smug grin on the man's face. "Not that I'm getting changed out here, absolutely not. No way."

*~^~*~^~*

Vin wandered up to the head of the canyon as the sun rose. After the dim chill of the camp he was grateful to feel the sun on his face. He closed his eyes and tilted his face up.

A small sound to his left warned him, but he didn't move. He could smell that distinctive smoke of Larabee's and, as if that were not enough, their arfids confirmed it.

"Looks like a nice day."

Vin shrugged. "Mostly are, here."

He felt more than saw the smile on the man's face. Desert planets don't get much rainfall.

"You got a plan for when Apman shows?" Vin asked after the sun had climbed another five or so degrees. This time Larabee shrugged. He rummaged inside his coat and produced another of those pungent narc sticks.

"No, thanks."

Larabee nodded mildly and lit the thing, breathing in deeply. Vin breathed in, and cataloged the components. Nothing stronger than anshuli root and tabac. Made you wonder though, if Larabee liked getting addicted to things.

"Sure?"

Vin nodded.

"Figured we'd wait for Apman. See what sort of resistance he's expecting. Get an idea of what sort of force he's bringing, and then turn them into meatpie."

"Sounds simple."

Larabee snorted, and Vin ducked his head and grinned. "The old guy says there's not that many of them."

"Said Apman had about twenty to me."

"Hm." Larabee seemed to be as untroubled as Vin by silence. After another couple of degrees had passed, he added, "We sent the Doctor and Josiah up to talk to the non-combatants."

"Standish?"

Larabee shrugged. "I think Joche mentioned that they were hiding their treasure. The little weasel's probably off looking for it and trying to figure out if they'll notice if he stuffs it all into his pockets."

Vin grinned. He had a fair idea of what Joche meant when he said that Apman wanted a tithe; was pretty damn sure that the lack of children in the encampment was significant. Wasn't sure if Larabee knew that though. He slid a look at the man. The man was sitting with his back to the cliff, legs stretched out in front of him, his hair shining in the dawn light. He was about to ask him if he knew what the treasure was, when something to the west caught his eye. He frowned and sharpened his vision.

"What is it?"

Vin felt dizzy as his sight swooped across miles, his body settled against cool rock, and a curt voice in his ear. "Someone's out there, watching us."

A flash of grey, and he groaned, and brought his vision back to normal. "I'm betting we've got ourselves a little Federal company.

Larabee rose and stared out in the direction Vin indicated. His eyes couldn't possibly see anything, but Vin knew if he were a fed looking through a pair of binocs, he'd be feeling pretty damned worried about now. Then Larabee dropped his smoke into the sand and ground the butt end of it with the heel of his boot, and grinned.

"Well. Guess that'll add some spice to the day."

*~^~*~^~*

"How can he see me?!" JD whispered frantically. "I'm three clicks away, he can't possibly see me. God, he was looking right at me!"

Buck was still laughing.

"That's Chris for ya. You wanna catch the man, you better start thinking of ways to get in there."

JD peered nervously over the edge of his rock. "They've gone."

"You got an ID on the other guy?"

"No. But I bet he's a criminal; I couldn't get a fix on his ident, and only liuman hide that."

"And military," Buck said idly. "But you're probably right. He's probably a dangerous criminal. Wanted in twenty systems."

JD looked around sharply. "Maybe he's brainwashed Mr. Larabee!"

Buck's jaw dropped before he started laughing. "Yeah. Because it's so easy to brainwash Chris Larabee!" He sat down abruptly and JD looked away queasily as the man missed the ground and sank a few inches under it. He could go whole days without seeing that.

"Hey, it's possible," JD said, injured. He located the relevant manual and searched for victim stuff. Got it. "Stockholm Syndrome." He read swiftly through the file and then shrugged, "Well, it could have," he conceded, without actually admitting that he was wrong. "I don't think I can get much closer to the village without being seen."

"You've already been seen. I told you to get rid of that uniform."

"Buck, I'm not getting rid of my uniform!"

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra felt adrift. He'd been rescued from jail only to wind up in a jail almost as unpleasant, if with rather less chance of meeting Granot of Borealis. Though the chances of getting dead seemed pretty static. He looked around. Tanner and Larabee had gone off for another little chat. He rolled his eyes. Sanchez was communing with nature or whatever ex-priests did in their free time. He couldn't see Jackson.

He stroked absently at his nose. He wasn't exactly vain. It was no vanity to be aware that one had a fine, patrician nose. No vanity to use it in this day and age, when appearance was truly everything. He shook his head as his stomach grumbled. At least in jail he got fed regularly. Even if the other prisoners didn't.

A quick grin flicked across his lips and passed unnoticed.

He stretched his legs out, and closed his eyes, pretending to sleep on the bench in front of what he strongly suspected to be the main repository for their treasure. Mr. Mendeleyev could call it a dance hall until he was blue in the face, but whoever heard of cyborgs dancing? He snorted under his breath. No.

Clearly the cybes had some form of treasure. Probably not the stacked gold and jewels of legend. Something more mundane -- stock options, blackmail material, drugs, high quality xenobia-- ah...

Now that was a possibility. He wondered that he hadn't thought of it beforehand. Where else did Tanner get the stuff but from the cybes? Notwithstanding the man being a cyborg himself. Ezra frowned and then remembered he was supposedly sleeping. That made sense. Some sort of source here, in the canyons and ravines; a refinery concealed in those so called 'apartments', too many for a mere fifty cyborgs.

And the Apmans were probably in some sort of distribution dispute with the inhabitants of this place. Common enough. No honor amongst thieves.

Although technically, xenobia wasn't illegal. Just very, very desirable. He smiled. If they had a supply of the stuff, then getting a little extra -- to make it worth his time helping out -- would only be fair.

They could afford it. He could feel a cool breeze in his face, and the shimmer of light from the great glass windows. So, yes, they were living in a desert, but it seemed a very comfortable wasteland.

He swung decisively to his feet. Well, if no one was going to explain anything to him, he would simply have to obtain some answers for himself. He tugged his jacket straight and tilted his hat to a jaunty angle, then, fully prepared for all the world might fling at him, he headed off for fortune and favor.

It was something of a shock when he wandered, oh so casually, into the main building, perfectly ready to assure the gun toting natives that he had no ill motives in mind, just a quiet walk, no trouble at all, no sir, and found that mostly, the heavily armed cyborgs ignored him. It wasn't to say that they didn't see him, their eyes followed him, as he passed, but incuriously.

He started to feel mildly peeved, and then was amused. Maybe he had unexpectedly turned into a ghost -- although the party was becoming positively haunted with phantoms and specters. He ambled down a corridor, following the sounds of talking, and pressed his ear to the door.

He frowned, puzzled.

"And who can explain the coefficients of friction-- Yenna?"

A young voice piped up, but he had no time to draw the conclusions he surely would have reached before a hard hand gripped his elbow, and a cold voice said into his ear, "You looking for something, Standish?"

Ezra jerked minutely, and the man chuckled, a stream of foul smoke pouring into Ezra's face.

"Mr. Larabee," he waved his hand, batting the smoke out of his face. "I was merely looking for--"

"Looking for treasure?"

Chris Larabee pushed the door open, an iron grip still in place. "This what you were looking for?"

Ezra saw twenty or so children, ranging from toddlers to teenagers, sitting all over the floor, reading, writing, and four in one corner going through their lessons with one of the elders. All very normal and domestic, except that every last person in the room showed some signs of cybe traits -- streaks of grey dull and unmistakable under tender childish skin. Children. Cyborg children. And so many of them.

Treasure indeed.

He stared at them. In all his life he'd never seen such wealth in one place, and it tore at him to try to think about children that way. A pair of old reflexes at war, and he wasn't sure which would win. A small boy came up to him and smiled.

"Hello, young sir," he said easily, smiling back.

"Are you a dragon too?" the child asked, and Ezra blinked.

"A 'dragon'?" he asked carefully, wondering what breed of thing a cybe-child might call a dragon, and followed the boy's finger as he pointed and laughed.

"What a wonderful talent you have, son. Why, that is indeed a dragon, and his name is Chris Larabee." He laughed again, aware the child didn't understand, but he knew himself to have an infectious smile, and used it. "No, I am no dragon... but that doesn't mean I don't know some magic of my own," he added.

A small hand slipped trustingly into his, and he felt Larabee let go grudgingly as he was drawn into the schoolroom. He walked a few steps to the back wall and sat down, acutely aware of the pale, hostile eyes watching him. He smiled up at Larabee, who drew his hand slowly across his throat, holding Ezra's eyes the whole time, his message loud and clear.

And just in case it wasn't, he *heard** a whisper, in a way that his nightmares had promised for decades.

*Harm them, and there will be no where you can go, Standish**, Larabee whispered , and then nodded to him as though he had done no more than show him the way. Maybe that was all it was to Larabee. Ezra felt as though things were crawling over his skin, eagerly burrowing into him, seeking out his darkest secrets, and shivered convulsively.

"Are you cold?" The boy sat beside him and leaned against him, "I bet if you were a dragon, you wouldn't get cold."

"Ah, son, I think you'll find that dragons can be colder than any thing alive," he said quietly, then smiled easily into the puzzled little face.

He produced his second best cards, the ones with the embedded LEDs, and shuffled through them, whispering half to them, half to the boy watching the flicker of cards through his hands. The cards shone, danced in his hands, a ribbon of living color and form. Other children crept towards him. Here, a fan, there, a river, a bridge. Now pictures of the children, now one of the men he had traveled with, and others, strangers here, twisting and turning among the cards, find the lady, find the lady, where's the lady...

*~^~*~^~*

JD might get to swan off, enjoying the delights of chasing escaped felons -- okay, she conceded, maybe not so delightful -- but that meant she was stuck on duty, and with all the damn administrative paperwork for the escape.

Casey swore, long and vivid, and slammed her hand against the console. It hurt and she swore again.

"Miss Wells?"

Casey rolled her eyes. Oh, it needed only this. JD was enforcing radio silence while he searched for the escapees, the Axe was due in fifty two hours, and now his sept daughter, mother of the ni ta ma de system heir wanted to stop by for a chat.

"Hi, Mrs. Travis," she turned and smiled brightly. "How can I help?"

*~^~*~^~*

"Okay, I don't get what's going on," JD murmured. He peeked cautiously over his concealing boulder and ducked back down again. "There should be four of them -- I've got three. Is Doctor Jackson one of them or not? Or did he come out here separately and am I looking for five people?"

JD frowned as dust billowed suddenly and out of it emerged five men. "Who are they?" he asked, and looked from the new arrivals back to Larabee's group. "One two, three--"

"Four."

JD turned -- or rather, was turned, a hard hand on his collar jerked him around even as he twisted to see whose the voice was. A tall man with light brown hair half hidden under a deep brimmed hat, wearing faded leathers. His free held a gun trained steadily on him. "Kid, that uniform shows up against terrain like a redwing in a skydance." He jerked upwards with the gun, and JD slowly raised his hands.

"Now, move it. We don't have a lot of time for this, so I'll explain on the way down."

JD blinked a little at that, and climbed slowly to his feet, scanning the man swiftly. The leathers only hid so much, especially this close. A cyborg. Something about the patterns seemed familiar, and then he gasped.

"It was you!"

The man cocked his head in mild curiosity. "Probably. What did I do?"

"You kidnapped Mr. Larabee," he accused, sure he was right. The patterns matched from the pickup last night, and there was something about the way his net felt -- JD reached out, feeding shutdown codes into the cybe. "And that other guy," he added belatedly, trying to cover his broadcast. "Whatever he calls himself."

Agony sliced through his skull. He clutched at his head, uttering a pained cry as his knees gave way and he fell, barely saving himself from landing face first in the sand.

"Quit that," the man said mildly. "Fed codes won't work so don't even try it." He walked to a boulder a little away from JD's hiding place and picked up a fuckoff big tangle rifle. "If you try to run I'll catch you and cuff you," the man added casually over his shoulder. JD wiped away tears of pain, and nodded, silently fuming. Here he was, Larabee's last hope of a rescue, and he'd gotten himself rounded up by the guy he was supposed to be hunting. What kind of a lousy excuse for a fed was he anyway?

"Come on, get up. I didn't hit you that hard," he came back and held out a hand.

JD looked at it, and then back up to the face of the guy that hotwired his state of the art federal house like it was Bobby's First Firewall.

"You gonna be good?" the man asked insistently, and JD looked around for Wilmington, only to find the man -- ghost -- whatever, sitting on a rock, his head in his hands, laughing.

"Yeah. Fine. Whatever," he said sullenly.

"Your word on it?"

JD looked up into the bluest eyes he'd ever seen and stopped. "You mean it?" he asked uncertainly.

The man half smiled. "Sure, I mean it."

"Why? I mean, okay, yes, you got my word I won't run off, but --"

The man shrugged and held out his hand again. JD took it and a second later was standing, looking straight into eyes that showed no sign of grey, all blue, and the man's smile became a grin. "Vin Tanner." He squeezed JD's hand, and JD sighed resignedly and gave in.

He had no idea what the fuck was going on any more, but Tanner didn't feel like one of the bad guys.

"JD Dunne. Former First Federale of Last Chance," he said glumly.

"Aw, now kid, you don't know that," Buck said, apparently recovered from his mirth.

"I'm not talking to *you**," JD muttered, and then realized that Tanner must have heard.

"You talking to me?"

"No! Not you! Uh, I was... talking to myself!"

"Kid."

JD shuffled nervously, then sighed and met Tanner's steady gaze. "It's a long story."

Tanner simply nodded. "I'll swap you for mine one of these days."

JD smiled tentatively back. "Short version, I've got a ghost following me around." He avoided the 'n' word.

Tanner laughed humorlessly, "Ain't we all, kid?"

"No I--" and then he caught sight of Buck frantically shaking his head and stopped. "Look, all I wanna know is what the hell's going on? Oh, and how did you find me? Did Larabee *really** see me from back there? And, hey, *was** it you that broke my house codes? Because I wanna know how you did that -- because I'm going to stop you ever doing it again," he added swiftly, "Not because it was a neat piece of hacking, definitely not."

Tanner stared at him for a second, and then started chuckling helplessly. "Come on, san cun she," he said with cheerful mockery. "Daylight's burning. I'll see how many questions I can answer before we get there."

"Where's there?"

Tanner glanced at him, and shook his head. "Camp Hugo."

"Oh." *Oh*. JD blinked. That was the place where the cybes were supposedly... his thoughts diverted again, as his eyes fixed on Tanner's silver streaked hands. Yes, he knew that. Not a man. Well, okay, yes, legally speaking a man, you just had to look at him to see that, but technically a cybe, and --

"Kid, you run that hamster wheel any harder, your brain'll start steaming out your ears." JD jolted and looked up.

Tanner's face was still and watchful.

"No, I didn't mean -- I was just -- I didn't know this place was real. I thought it was just a story."

"A story?" Tanner looked confused.

"You know, among the netkids. When I was tiny they -- the big kids -- told us about a place where cybes got to go, and if we were lucky we might get there too, and--" He stopped, mainly because he'd walked into Tanner, who gripped his chin and lifted his face up.

JD swallowed as sharp eyes examined him, and a strangernet tried to access his own nets and softs. "No." He shut everything down, hard, closed his eyes even, and after a moment Tanner let go of him and walked away.

"Y'ain't no cybe."

Only because the alu-glass didn't take, he thought, but didn't say. "Nah. They wired me for sound instead." He turned slightly and pushed his hair out the way.

"What you doing out here?" Tanner asked after a glance, and JD shoved his hands in his pockets, abruptly embarrassed. He shouldn't have done that. One measly data port was nothing like getting seeded and sold.

He wondered if the man had always been free.

*~^~*~^~*

"Ridiculous," Nathan muttered as he scrambled up the steep, rocky path, "whose idea was it to put anything up here? What kind of fa feng di neng--" He squawked into silence as he walked straight into a phase wall. The more he struggled to get out the harder it became for him to move at all -- including breathing.

"Calmly, xiao di di," Josiah said peaceably. "Breath.... focus on the stars, the moons, the pretty girls..."

"Josiah!" An indignant reproof from a remarkably pretty girl, slender, with only the barest hints of metal at her eyes and jaw suggesting what her silver laced hands told loud and clear. She looked Nathan up and down and smirked. "I think this pretty girl did better than your stupid brother."

"Peace, mei-mei," Josiah said, "peace. Nathan, I'd like you to meet Zhou Yu." Josiah grinned. "She's their guerilla warfare expert. Nathaniel Jackson; he's helping with your little problem."

"Nice to meet you--" Nathan struggled to keep his eyes away from her hands. And the skin covered only by a combat pack and pants. He swallowed.

"Oh," she said contemptuously, "One of them."

"No, no." Josiah said quickly. "Just afraid he'll offend. Zhou Yu?"

The field released him abruptly and he stumbled. A strong hand caught his elbow until he regained his feet, then pulled away. He held out a hand and smiled straight into her eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She looked narrowly at him, and shook perfunctorily. "I didn't know anyone was coming up here." An oblique apology.

Josiah was wandering further up the path. "Zhou Yu, is there any ice up here?"

Nathan and Zhou Yu looked blankly at each other for a moment.

"Laotou, what do you want ice for?" she called, shaking her head.

Josiah glanced back. "Is there any?"

"It's a desert, Osanchez, what do you think?"

"Good!" Josiah rubbed his hands together happily. "Think I might need to put out a fire."

Zhou Yu frowned a little, and Nathan looked at her, bemused.

"Was that meant to mean something?" he asked. Two years of knowing the guy, and still, every now and then, just when you thought he was nice and sane he'd pull this.

Zhou Yu shook her head, not so much in denial as puzzlement. "I -- I don't know," she said finally. "When you look back on them they usually do, but at the time--"

"You coming or what?" Josiah called, reappearing in a cleft some twenty feet above them. "Or am I interrupting something?" he added with a leer.

Before either could deny it he'd disappeared from view again, a grin on his face like some sort of malevolent imp.

Nathan sighed. "At the time you wish he'd just speak without the code."

"And then there's times you wish he just keep on being cryptic," Zhou Yu said and they shared a look of mutual commiseration.

"You wanna help us set traps for Apman's people?" she asked. "We've got some low tech stuff as well as the walls." She waved vaguely at the place where Nathan had been caught.

"Sure. The uh, Joche said that there were non-combatants up here." He took a step towards the path and found himself stopped by a hard hand on his chest. "I--"

"That's right," she agreed easily. "And until I've confirmed your id with the chief, you aren't going one step nearer to them."

"Ah." Nathan nodded and took a step back again. "So, how do you find the weather out here?"

Zhou Yu grinned. "Monotonous. How's the weather back in town."

"Sunny." He paused a beat. "And monotonous."

"Dust's a bitch," she added.

"Yeah. Gets everywhere, messes up contacts, and--" his voice trailed off as he tried to think of a non-tactless way to end that sentence.

"Yeah. Gets into circuitry, and on a meat interface itches like a motherfucker." She scratched idly at the back of her hand, nails digging between flesh and the metal sinews almost hidden by the tanned skin. Nathan nodded.

"I hear that."

They fell into silence. About a minute later she straightened up from her slouch by the tree, and started walking. "Come on then?"

Nathan blinked, and then sighed. Clearly a private grid.

"The chief speak to you?"

"Nah, got a download off the fed grid," she said casually, and then cracked up at his dropped jaw. "Yeah, the feds talk to us all the time. They just love us out here," but it was no good, she was laughing too hard. "What do *you** think?" she said finally.

Nathan laughed reluctantly. "Guess the chief told you, huh?"

She glanced at him then looked away. "Nope. Not the way you mean it."

Nathan shook his head, baffled. "The way I mean it?"

"Never mind. I'm not here to open your mind to political alternatives. Come on."

They climbed for some time, and Nathan was breathing hard by the time Zhou Yu paused on a area of bare rock.

"Wait here."

Nathan nodded. The woman rested her hand against an unremarkable piece of cliff face, waited a few seconds, and Nathan could have sworn he saw light shining under her palm before she said abruptly. "Move!"

She walked straight through the wall, and Nathan shook his head. More cloaking. How the hell did they power all this? He paused and looked around. Zhou Yu was a good hundred meters ahead of him and as far as he could tell, running full pelt.

"Hey!" he yelled, and broke into a run. Try as he might he couldn't catch her, and even as he told himself that was hardly surprising he found himself resenting it. He'd lost out to cybes who had faster reflexes and steadier hands before.

"Move it!" she yelled again. "Defense grid only shuts for one min thirty, and we have to be out the tunnel before it re-engages!"

Nathan's eyes widened and he ran faster. As he sprinted his eyes could now make out the weapons ports let into the walls, and he wondered how he hadn't seen them straight off.

"Where, end?" he gasped out.

"Coming up!" She ran through another blind wall without pausing and he steeled himself and followed her, for all he was half convinced he'd bounce back and be trapped, some sort of cruel game.

He ran right through and skidded to a halt. The area was wide open, with a high wall about five hundred yards away.

"Why don't you bring everyone up here?" he asked, confused. "You've got a killing field, if you let them through one at a time--"

"Because that's not what this is for," she said simply. She was standing at the edge of the tunnel, and Nathan discovered that he could see down it as though there were nothing there.

"How--"

He reached out and touched the empty space where there had been a wall.

"No!"

He snatched his hand back. Nothing happened, and as his heart slowed again he said, "What?"

"We can't waste the power just to take a hand off someone too stupid to know the truth when he hears it."

"No, I--" She turned on her heel and stalked across the open area, and he gave up trying and followed again.

*~^~*~^~*

Steve Apman had spent a long time getting himself to a position in the world where he could get the maximum return for the minimum effort. He'd enjoyed it too. The easy days, with the occasional order to give, and the nights spent in clean sheets and pretty girls.

Which made him all the more *angry** that he was sitting in a truck that stank of piss and unwashed bodies, his ass aching because it had been a week since he'd seen a bed, he'd slept in this gorram chair, eaten in it, and right now he'd be willing to bet he'd end up dying in it, and it was longer than that since he'd been in a pretty girl. Or hell, even a downright ugly one. He shifted uncomfortably as the thought of pretties stirred him, then scowled and probed his ribs again carefully.

"You all right, sir?" Frances asked solicitously, and he forced a smile onto his face. Frances was one of the few original members of staff to have stayed loyal. Once she'd had a family and a home. He seemed to remember a couple of pretty children, they'd be about ten or eleven by now, and a man who had been introduced as her husband at a company picnic.

"What ever became of your family, Frances?"

She flinched, but he didn't really care. For that matter, he wasn't really interested. "Dead, I suppose." He looked morosely out of the window. The enemy were everywhere. Within and without, only two days ago he'd had to execute one of the juniors for recidivism. "One day Sept Apman will rise, Frances, you'll see. We won't always be stuck out here. We have strong true soldiers fighting for the clan. It can only be a matter of time before we prevail."

"Yes sir."

He grinned and slapped her on the shoulder. "I can always rely on you Frances."

"Yes, sir."

"Once the gorram cybes have been taught their proper place, we'll have all the money and tech we need." He grinned viciously. "Then we take apart Travis and his sept. Root and branch."

"Root and branch, sir," Frances repeated after him colorlessly, and it was probably just as well that Apman was so fixated on his dreams of a glorious future or he might have felt obliged to cleanse another recidivist from the sept.

*~^~*~^~*

"Mr. Larabee! Man, am I glad to see you!" JD dodged neatly away from Vin's grip in a move that made Larabee revise his estimate of the kid from urban to street, and raised the guns of a good dozen others. "Are you okay?"

Larabee raised his hand fractionally and the guns lowered again. "What are you doing out here, kid?" he asked in a dry, hoarse voice.

"Rescuing you," he said simply. His lips thinned into a white line of humiliated outrage at the general laughter. Larabee tilted a mocking smile at him.

"I'm not in much need of rescuing," he observed. "In fact, Mr. Dunne, it looks like you're the one with a problem."

The kid was looking around him and blurted, "But I can help you! I didn't understand but Vin explained it--"

Chris raised an eyebrow at Vin and Vin shrugged.

"--and I know I can help you if you'll only let me! I have resources and stuff, and if you'll just..."

Chris stared at the kid until he shut up, then looked him up and down comprehensively.

"You're not the type. Go home, kid."

"Aw, Chris, after all he's been through to get here--"

Chris was half turned away from the boy and his head snapped back around so fast it hurt. "Did you say something, boy?"

The fed shook his head, eyes wide with surprise.

"Hey, pard, you wanna turn it down a little. I think he's only got but the one pair of pants with him." He could almost see the half grin Buck was wearing as he said it, but Buck wasn't here, because Buck was *dead*, or he was *going** to be dead -- his guns were already in his hands as he turned right around, searching.

"Who said that?" he snapped.

"Chris--"

"Said what?" Standish looked from him to the boy and back again. "The only person here speaking is you, sir. Once more you seem to be losing that battle with sanity we mentioned earli--" His air was choked off along with his voice as Larabee's hand fisted into the collar of his shirt, gun jammed into the hollow of his throat.

"Is this your doing?" He shook him, "Tell me, dammit! Are you doing this!"

Ezra mouthed frantically unable to speak, his air closed off completely. Chris knew, in some coldly rational part of his brain that was assessing the odds of killing them all just to get to Buck that he was strangling the man, and then hard hands were on him, pulling him away bodily.

Dunne was there, peeling his hands away from Standish's throat finger by finger. Someone dragged one of his guns out of his grasp and he twisted wildly, trying for another, but it was gone, and so was the third, and his rifle, he could see it just two strides away but they wouldn't let him reach it.

"I'm gonna fucking *kill* you!" he whispered, and reached to gouge out Dunne's eyes, and an arm hooked around his throat, half choking him. His hands automatically grabbed at it, tried to pry it away, pulled it far enough to see the grey streaks of metalled sinews and bared his teeth. Tanner. And bit down.

"Get him down! Down!"

Someone was shouting, but all he could hear was Buck, "Stop it! Chris! *Chris**!"

Doubly betrayed. He jerked desperately from side to side, trying to break free of the hard grip around his chest. The kid tried to say something, was trying to force his face away from Tanner's arm where he was leaving long bloody gouges, and he looked up and spat blood into the kid's face, and as he blinked, blinded, Chris swung his legs up using Tanner's body for leverage and landed a kick squarely in the fed's face; followed with a second to the grey clad solar plexus, sending him flying backwards. He grinned ferally as the kid slammed into a boulder, crumpling to the ground like a broken raggedy then kicking back, but Tanner still wouldn't be moved.

"Calm the fuck down before I break your neck!" Tanner yelled. He shook him hard. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" Someone seized Chris's leg and he kicked again, but they hung on.

"Let go!" Chris shook his head wildly as much to clear it as to deny any understanding of it.

"Kid, you okay,?" Tanner called over Chris's shoulder. Other hands were joining the battle, gripping his wrists, dragging his head up.

"No--" Chris panted. He had to, had to--

He saw the fed crawl to his feet, then nod. "Winded," he said breathlessly and limped back into the fray.

"Keep back," Tanner warned and Chris snarled.

"I'm fine too, thank you so much for asking," Standish said acidly.

"I've seen him crazy drunk, and just plumb crazy but this--" Buck's voice said from nowhere, and Chris howled.

"Buck!"

"--I don't think I *ever** saw him get like *this**," Buck said, and he sounded confused, worried, gentle, and that didn't make sense, it didn't make sense! "Chris? Come on, baobei, what's wrong?"

It sounded too real, that gentle concern and anxiety and Chris screamed again, fire crackling in his brain, limning his sight, roaring in his ears, the heat beating on his face. Words tumbled around him, it didn't make any sense, none of it made any-- Buck was dead, or had to be dead, or--

"Chris, Chris, for fuck's sake, stop it!" Vin, yelling in his ear.

Standish, bizarrely cool headed and speaking urgently. "Where's Jackson? Someone needs to get the doctor here, right now! He's got to be sedated before he kills himself -- or one of us."

No, no, no, nonononononono -- not drugs, not drugs and needles and voices and the burning, god his head was exploding. He tried to rip the arms away from him, pull free, he had to get away. He gasped as he was thrown to the ground and pinned, a heavy knee in the center of his back. He rocked, desperately trying to get free, get to him, kill him, clawing at the ground to drag himself closer to that voice, desperate to find it, to have him back, god he needed him, Buck, Buck was back and he had to save -- kill --

Fire burned in his brain, and he screamed again. Someone gripped one of his hands and pinned it to the ground, kneeling on his wrist, flattening his palm and pressing on the back on his hand until all he could do was scrape futilely in the sand, and then only one hand was free, and then that too was stilled, a stranger holding it down, cold eyed and stern.

"Buck, what's wrong with him?" The kid sounded panicked, and for a moment there Chris could hold onto that, the clear blue strength of an emotion so close to his own, fear and not-knowing, and *why*, and there was some weird thing where he could *see* Buck; Buck was kneeling beside him, and Vin was kneeling on him, and he could see himself spread eagled on the ground but he could feel a hand over his mouth and he could hear himself asking, "What's happening?" except it wasn't his voice or his mouth or his hand and suddenly it was gone, that moment of freedom, and his face was hard against the ground again, sand grinding between his lips, pressing into his cheek....

A hard blow struck the back of his head and he fell into grateful darkness.

*~^~*~^~*

JD was watching, horrified. He'd never seen someone fall apart like that, going from sane to crazy without any warning at all. Joche and a couple of his guys were binding Larabee at wrists and ankles, and JD couldn't stop staring.

Buck was next to him, whispering in Chris's ear, and JD couldn't help thinking that Chris had been fine until Buck had spoken. But that was just crazy. He was infected with Buck's nanites. But why would Larabee be able to hear him? And if he heard him back in the cell, why didn't it have that effect on him back then?

He shook his head, frowning.

"What's up, kid?"

"JD."

Tanner blinked, and nodded, and waited.

"Nothing," JD said finally. All he had were questions.

"They're getting Jackson back off the mountain."

"I heard." Between the screaming and shouting it was amazing the entire *planet** hadn't heard.

Standish walked over slowly, and JD shielded his eyes from the sun and looked up at him.

"You got somethin' to say to me, son?" he drawled at JD.

JD sighed. "Sure, fine. You're under arrest."

"That wasn't what I had in mind," Standish said dryly, but he sat down the other side of Tanner, and his green eyes were dancing with amusement.

"Does that happen often?" he blurted, nodding at Larabee.

"What, Larabee losing his mind? Once a day on current form," Standish sniped.

Tanner shook his head. "Depends."

"On what?" JD turned around eagerly.

Vin shrugged again, his eyes on Larabee. "On what they did to break him open."

JD looked past him to Standish, who grimaced. "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them," he said softly.

JD rolled his eyes. "You know, once, just *once* I wish someone could manage to not be cryptic Kelly around here, okay?"

"This is neither the time not the place for an education in the realities of life in the Church of Humanity." Ezra said sharply enough that both men looked at him. "Or so I would conclude on present circumstance," he added, turning away.

*~^~*~^~*

Nathan was engaged in examining a small girl who seemed in perfect health apart from the little detail of a gap-toothed smile and a bio-molecular disorder that was eating her cybernetic enhancements from the inside out. He smiled at her, and stood, looking over her head to her parents.

"We can discuss this outside," he offered.

"She'll be safe outside," her mother said, "Nathalie, sweetheart, you can run along and play."

"kay! Bye Doctor Naffan!" She scrambled down from the med bed and skipped happily out of the room.

"It's true, isn't it?"

Nathan sighed, and stared at his hands. There were miracles he could perform, and miracles he could not. "Allamains-Nei syndrome is incurable, yes. I'm sorry."

"And she has it? You're sure?"

He nodded, meeting Mark Cheung's eyes. The man winced. "There is a way to slow it -- maybe even halt the progress, but it's not usually done; not usually recommended," Nathan said gently. He looked from one parent to the other, aborting the hope dawning in their eyes almost before it was born. "If I started a treatment to unbind the alu-glass..."

"She'll die anyway," Fenna said hopelessly. "You think we didn't look into *everything**? We know that."

"It might give her a little longer." Not much of course. Where the alu-glass went, bone and cartilage depleted. Take away the main component of cyborg endo-structures and their bones grew brittle, their muscles weak, and eventually, between the withdrawal and the depletion she would die. She was young. There was a remote, miniscule chance she *might** with support, grow to be a normal human being, but the oldest it had ever worked for were newly-borns. Whatever he did, that bright, active little girl was gradually going to grow less active, and less bright, and eventually, would be an immobile little vegetable. It was just a matter of how much time.

"Then why--" he began, confused.

Mark took his wife's hand and their fingers intertwined. "We wanted to know -- we wanted to know if there was a way to have it over with?"

Nathan's jaw dropped. They meant to euthanize-- "No. Absolutely not," he said harshly. "I can't--"

"Doctor Jackson!" The door slammed open and all three turned to glare at the intruder. "Medical emergency! At the village!"

Nathan looked helplessly at the two parents. "I'm sorry," he said, and fled.

"This way!" the guide said when he would have headed towards the outside exit. "There's a drop shaft."

Nathan nodded. ""Personal anti-grav?" Please let them have personal anti-grav, he thought desperately. He wasn't sure he was up for jumping into the unknown and trusting to a remote controlled a-g burst. She shook her head. Ai yi.

"Here," She skidded to a halt and waved him ahead of her, touching her palm to a security pad. A door shimmered open and he swallowed at the gaping hole waiting for him to jump. Somehow it seemed safer back on Maia, when there were hundreds of these around, and not one relied on remote a-g.

"Doctor Jackson?"

Nathan stepped forwards, hesitated for a split second on the edge of the abyss and jumped. It was over in seconds, and he stepped out of the exit at the bottom, his heart pounding and his adrenaline levels sky high. He'd *never** understand those crazies who insisted that it was too tame for words.

"It's Larabee!" Was enough to galvanize him into action. Twice cell stopped; he should have checked on the man sooner. Be a miracle if he was-- He came to an abrupt halt. "What the hell is going on!"

Larabee was tied down on a bed, struggling weakly against his bonds. The man was battered and bruised, there was blood drying about his mouth, and the restraints had marked his wrists. Nathan was there in two quick strides, examining first with scanner and then manually. "What the gui happened? He can hardly breath like this! Where are the keys?"

"I wouldn't, Doc," Tanner said, and Nathan turned around. "He's a little unpredictable right now."

"Unpredictable? He's fucking unconscious! You're the one who dragged him out of the federal house when he was in no fit state to go anywhere! I knew this would happen!"

"You knew he would have a complete mental breakdown?" Standish asked him pointedly. "His body is fine; a little battered about the edges, but nothing that won't heal."

"And you became medically qualified, when, exactly?" he snapped straight back. He read through the data as it downloaded, and pursed his lips. There was a good bit of congestion in Larabee's lungs, probably aided and abetted by those vile smokes he kept using, god knew where he'd found them. Granted, other than that he was remarkably fit for someone who'd been taken down with badly used cell stoppers, but he wasn't about to tell this pair of amateurs that. He paused as the readings stopped making sense. He shook the diagnostic slightly, but the figures just sat there. He shook his head, puzzled.

"Does anyone know when he became a psi?"

Both men shrugged, shook their heads.

"Is there anything useful you *can** tell me?" Nathan asked, and when they both shook their heads again, brusquely ordered them out.

"What the hell happened to you?" he murmured as he reviewed the data again. The congestion was easy enough; he could either give him a shot to break it up, or a shot to dry it up, and in this dusty atmosphere, either had its disadvantages. Hmm. Dry it up and keep him monitored, or break it up and get him walking and coughing. He glanced at the restraints. On reflection, Tanner didn't strike him as someone who did things without a reason, and he actually seemed to like Larabee. Now if it had been *Standish** saying keep him chained up he'd've been wondering just what the man had in mind for his captive, but... Dry it was then.

He patched Larabee, and sealed the medication carefully to the man's chest. A couple of wipes took care of the worst of the blood from his face and throat, although he couldn't find any cuts to account for it. Maybe he'd bit his tongue. Nathan was checked the man's lips and gums getting steadily more puzzled, until he shook his head and called out, "Did he *bite** someone?"

"Yep," Tanner called back from outside. He wasn't surprised that he hadn't gone far.

"Who?" Nathan asked impatiently.

"Me."

"Get back in here. You know how many diseases the human mouth carries?" He was already getting out more wipes and the tissue fixer.

Vin shrugged a little, and perched on the end of Larabee's cot when Nathan waved him there. "Won't hurt me much." He quirked a tiny grin and slid a sly glance at Nathan, "Surprised he didn't chip a tooth."

Nathan tried to frown and found himself laughing under his breath. "Let me see," he ordered. "*Go she**! If he was that hungry couldn't you have found him something to eat?"

Tanner grinned then winced as Nathan sprayed cleansing agent on the multiple bites. "Wasn't stopping to take orders," he said, watching the stuff bubble and spread out over his forearm.

"What happened?" Nathan carefully started wiping the nanites up, killing them as he went. Any that were needed would already be embedded in the wound, the rest were non-sterile and useless. He crumpled the wipe and lobbed it into the bin, then probed at Tanner's arm. Apart from the bruising darkening the arm there were at least five separate wounds. He sighed and settled in to gluing the edges back together.

Tanner shook his head. "Not sure, exactly. Brought in the fed--"

"Who, JD?" Nathan asked, surprised.

"Was tracking down Larabee's kidnappers," Tanner said dryly, but Nathan thought he saw a hint of approval.

"Guess he got a shock then," Nathan observed, and Vin chuckled.

"Reckon he did at that. Brought him down, and Larabee loses it."

"At the kid?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe?" Nathan looked up. "You prefer derma or alu seal?"

"Derma's fine."

"Did JD do something?"

Vin shook his head, and held still while Nathan sprayed on a flesh-tone skin layer. "Larabee wasn't even looking at him. It was like he was talking to someone, but there was no one there, and then he completely lost it. Took five cybes and two meats to hold him down."

Nathan looked sharply up at Vin. "Wait, JD was there -- Vin, was the *kid** talking to anyone who wasn't there?"

"What?"

"JD. When Chris lost it? Was the kid talking to thin air too? There, done."

"I don't think so." Vin fisted his hand then stretched the fingers out and waggled them, and nodded as the muscles in his arm moved under the synth without tearing it or pulling it away. "Nice job." He closed his eyes, running back through the encounter. "No, I --" he stopped dead, frowning, and looked at Nathan.

"What? Vin, this is important."

"Back when I found him. I thought he was just -- but he could have meant something else. You mean there really was someone else there?"

"What did he say?"

"'I'm not talking to you', or something like that." Vin looked down at Chris -- "Did the kid do something to him? Attack him somehow?" His lips tightened in a hard line. "Is JD dangerous?"

Nathan ignored this. "Blood. Did he get any blood on you?"

"*His** blood?"

"Yes, his blood?"

"I don't think so." Vin was shaking his head, and Nathan nodded curtly. "Why? What's wrong with him? And how does it affect Chris?"

"Blood nanites," Nathan said tersely. He was surprised that Tanner didn't react, but then again, he thought, the man was a cybe. They had odd ideas about nanites.

"Nanites in his blood?" Vin shook his head, "Nathan, either I'm missing something, or you're not making a lot of sense. *I've** got blood nanites."

"Not *in** his blood. *Replacing** his blood." Nathan shook his head. "I knew I should have done something when he came in."

"Wait -- he came in to talk to you? Professionally?" Nathan nodded, "And what, you sent him away with a pat on the head? When his nanites were, what? Playing up?"

"Giving him hallucinations," Nathan admitted quietly. "I thought -- I hoped that it was just him picking up someone's broadcast, you know, it happens."

"Yeah, but--" Tanner stopped, at a loss for words. "So if Chris got some of those in him --"

"From JD's blood, yes--"

"--then he's seein' whatever the kid's seeing, and it's driving him insane?" Vin was up on his feet and out of the room in a flash. Nathan stared after him for a startled second, and then followed at a run.

*~^~*~^~*

JD winced and tried to ease his face away from the rough bricks, but only succeeded in scraping his face further.

"What did you do to him, kid?" Vin whispered coldly into his ear. "He's a priest, and if you've infected him with those damn nanos you know what will happen, kid? Do you? They will come here, and they will start with you, and then me, and every damn cybe on this world and wipe us from the face of the planet." He shook JD, driving him harder into the wall. "What did you do?"

"Nothing!" JD said desperately. "I didn't do nothing! They're locked, okay? They're sealed to my fucking dna! They *can't** do anything, you gotta know that!" He winced as the brick ground harder into his bleeding face.

"Deenay lock?" Vin said.

"Yes!" All those horror stories about the strength of cyborgs, about how dangerous the genetic modifications were, how easy it was for them to regard humans as cheap and disposable; easy to break, easy to kill, short lived... God... please... He tried not to shake, but couldn't stop, half afraid that Tanner was going to rip his head off.

"Let me see," Tanner said softly, and JD swallowed.

If it was this or his life then -- "I can't let you into the federation stuff. I--"

"You're hardwired. I don't need that."

JD nodded, and ducked his head. A cold hand brushed his neck, and then he was no longer in control of his mind. Tanner was.

Vin was moving through JD's nets, looking for all the things he considered important enough to store out of the wetware and into his memory packs. JD stared at the wall as the man ran through picture after picture, his mother, dying; getting caught hacking; waking up at the age of two with no earlier memories, and an awareness of a universe of networks and connections that he'd never had before. Learning what had been done to him at nine years old. Getting the interview with Travis who had had his juvie record right there, for all it was supposed to have been expunged... Meeting Buck. The meeting with Nathan. These moved slower. Every moment of his interaction with Larabee.

The grip on his arm slackened a little and he waited, breathing hard. Vin was a cyborg -- he knew, better than anyone else in this motley group that nanites could be locked to host dna. JD wracked his brain trying to remember if there was any chance, any at all that Larabee could have been infected, but there was nothing. No cuts or scrapes; no swapping of body fluids; no swapping of hazardous materials.

And then, Vin was gone, leaving an odd taste of regret behind him, and JD feeling like he'd been raped in public.

The grip on him changed, he tugged his arm away and pushed himself against the wall. No wonder people feared cybes. Tanner's arm around his waist changed, loosened, becoming more of an embrace than the iron restraint it had been.

"Let me go," JD whispered hopelessly.

"I'm sorry," Vin said gently. JD shuddered. What was he sorry for? What he'd done -- or what he was going to do?

Vin swung him around, and considered him. JD stared back blindly until Vin stepped away from him, revealing an interested audience of Standish, Jackson, and Wilmington.

"Kid, tell them," Buck said softly.

"I *can't**," he said miserably. "It's not my secret."

"He already knows," Buck said, nodding at Tanner with a less than friendly look on his face.

JD looked away. "I would have told you what I could," he said, struggling to get the words out in an order that made sense. He didn't look up. He didn't want to see what was on their faces. Pity, or disgust, or anger. He wrapped his arms around himself, and then changed his mind and stuffed his hands in his pockets, out of sight.

"We need Josiah," Vin said quietly. JD nodded. "Whoever he is, Josiah wanted him found."

"I didn't know what he was looking for, until the engram got into the free nanites when I downloaded." He looked up guiltily. "I licked up the blood."

Vin closed his eyes. "Idiot child."

"I didn't *know**, okay? If preach had *said**, hey, JD, don't let this one cross the b-three because I've got an entire personality dumped into about twenty teraflops of data, you think I'd've done it?"

"And you think it's him, that Larabee is hearing him, or hearing the engram's thoughts --"

"I don't *know**!" JD shoved his hands in his hair and looked up for the first time. Vin was watching him, but not menacingly, or carefully, just waiting for his next words, like they mattered, and JD's head lifted higher. "Yeah. I think he knew him, before he got downloaded, Buck, I mean, got downloaded, and he's a psi -- the Church does stuff to people. PI's are meant to be able to pick a thought out of a head a light year away."

"Not quite that far," Ezra said, and JD glanced at him.

"I forgot you were there." He looked at Nathan, "It's true, right? The nanites can't cross to someone else. They're tied to me. They're no different to blood. They just dry up and die. I die, my nanites die and all that jazz."

The doctor had the look of someone agreeing against his better judgment. "Technically, yes -- but--"

"He's a *psi**," JD turned to Tanner again, "That means all bets are off on what he can perceive, right?"

He looked around hopefully. "Right?"

"Set a priest to catch a priest," Ezra said abruptly. "I suggest we arrange for Mr. Sanchez to perform whatever arcane little rituals are required when a PI goes insane."

"He's not insane," Buck growled, over Tanner and Jackson saying the same thing.

Ezra ignored all the protests. "Once that's done, Mr. Larabee can retire to a nice, quiet home, where lots of nice, strong, trained professionals can deal with him." Ezra rubbed at his reddened jaw pointedly. "Very strong."

*~^~*~^~*

Steve Apman waited for a moment around the rise of the foothills. The cybes might be rich, and strong, and once he owned them they would be his. But right now, they were free. Some were almost certainly militarily trained, and all of them would be fighting for their lives.

A pity really, because adults would be so much more convenient than children in many ways. For one thing, he could use the adults immediately.

The rest of his fleet of transport trucks waited behind him patiently, the soft thrum of their engines barely discernable.

He watched the sun on the mountainside. Another hour or so until noon. He'd promised them until noon.

"Hell with it." He picked up the communicator, making the decision that he'd known all along he would, from the second he told them to suit up ready to break camp half an hour previously.

"Well, folks, looks like they ain't rolled out the red carpet just yet, but we're a mite early. We'll just knock on the door, nice and neighborly." He grinned viciously. "And if they won't open it, then by God, we'll make a key of our own, and let ourselves in."

Frances touched his arm and he scowled for a second. "Remember, a million creds to every soldier that brings me a cybe-kid alive. Stun only. No stopping, no killing, and do not engage with the children at any cost. The kids are worth more than you are, dead or alive."

A rumble came back over the command net, and he nodded, pleased. He flipped the channel closed, and set his shoulders. "Well, then, Corcoran. Let's ride!"

*~^~*~^~*

Zhou Yu's head jerked up at the sound of a proximity alarm. The shrill bleat cut through every sound in the control room, silencing the muted talk. One by one, every head turned to the clan chief.

"Xiao nu," Joche said steadily. "Sound the alarm."

Zhou Yu nodded curtly, and hit the main alarm. There was no sound in the place. The alarm went out through the mountain, whispering directly into nets, waking those who slept, warning those who dawdled. Through the mountain came silence, eerie, waiting.

Board after board lit up in front of Zhou Yu. Passive curtain wall was up. Behind it, energy chains that read like cyborgs with hot weapons.

"Where's master Larabee?" someone whispered.

An image flashed through the network, bouncing from person to person until they had all seen the still figure of the man, restrained in a darkened room.

"If they find him here, they'll kill us," someone else whispered, and the whisper rushed as fast as the image through the tightly woven minds.

"All will be well," Joche said calmly. "Xiao nu?"

"Lao gu," she ducked her head. "We are ready."

"Then we shall begin," he said. "Walk with me, Osanchez."

Josiah rose to his feet, and moved, a hulking shadow beside the gaunt tan and grey of their clan chief. "I would be honored, lao peng you," he rumbled, and the two of them left the control room.

"Okay people, timing is everything on this!" Zhou Yu said, breaking the quiet again. "Let's be about it!"

*~^~*~^~*

"What the fuck?" Ezra looked around wildly. It was barely midday, yet the street was growing dark -- he looked up in time to see a canopy closing out the daylight high above them.

"Under attack!" Vin said, and at the same moment, Dunne gasped.

"Get weapons, they're coming!"

"Who?"

Jackson, swore, "Shit! What are we going to do about Larabee!"

"Never mind him," Ezra snapped, "what about *us**? I thought we were going out there as a team effort, seven against Thebes."

"I believe they all died, son," a large voice said, and they all turned.

"Josiah!" Nathan was fastest, "You've got to help with Larabee -- we think something's gone wrong with--"

"Never mind that," Josiah said curtly, "I need you, all of you, out the front, right now."

Ezra was shaking his head, and Josiah's hand came down on his shoulder. "The good priest inquisitor has a plan. Do *you** want to be the one to tell him, when he comes to, that you helped it fail?"

Ezra felt a hand on the back of his head, and despite his best efforts, it forced him to shake his head. "I thought not," Josiah grinned. The hand let go and Ezra turned a lethal glare on Jackson, who merely smirked at him.

"Don't get yourself killed," was all he said, not an ounce of compunction in him and walked towards the main exit.

"Doesn't feel right," Josiah murmured, and Ezra slanted a glare at him.

"That's because we're all going to die," he said.

""Don't worry, Elena," the fed grinned at him, his terror apparently completely wiped away by the prospect of murder and mayhem. "I'll protect you."

"I'm doomed," he muttered, and started walking.

*~^~*~^~*

"Where are they?" Apman asked.

Frances slid a glance at him from the corner of her eyes. Sometimes he wanted an answer, and sometimes --

"WHERE ARE THEY!"

--not so much. She tightened her jaw, trying to ensure that nothing showed on her face.

He slammed open the door of his aircar and pulled himself upright. He stood for a second, and she knew that he was trying to ignore the pain of his bruised ribs and ass, before stalking towards the area in front of the pitiful little village. His hand rose, but she was already moving, following him out of the vehicle and into the village.

"I don't like it, sir," she said softly. She'd been military herself in her time, had signed on for a peaceful stint of body-guarding. And now she was going into a fricking land war, on someone else's home ground, commanding mercenaries who'd never fought together en masse before.

She could almost *smell** the mines and traps.

"Cowards! Where are you!" Apman bellowed, turning in the center of what appeared to be the village square. A great burned area told her that a fire had been burned there. She sniffed, not wood though. Probably some sort of heat weapon.

"Sir, it's a trap--"

"Of course it's a trap! It wouldn't be any *fun** if it wasn't dangerous," Apman said. He sounded almost happy, and she bit the inside of her mouth. Working for a lunatic was sounding less and less attractive.

On the other hand, she had a contract.

On the other, other hand, the guild would rescind the contract on her behalf if she could prove he was clinically insane. *If** she could get back there alive. With Apman. And pay for a full psych workout on the man.

Maybe this wasn't all bad.

She wondered who exactly she thought she was kidding. Apman said she was still getting paid, but funny how she never saw a bank or a cred point to check that.

Frances was watching the cliff face as her thoughts churned, and so she was the first to see the curtain opening.

"Sir! Nine o'clock!"

Apman whirled, gun up and ready. She'd give him that -- he was fast and deadly accurate. A little trigger happy of course.

"Sir -- negotiate first?"

Apman scowled, and lowered the weapon.

"Mendeleyev," he said with reluctant courtesy as the village's oldest cybe walked up.

"Apman." Joche Mendeleyev inclined his head politely. His eyes flickered to Frances' and for a second she thought that he knew her for what she was, and then his eyes left her. She held her weapon loosely, watching as more men came out. To her surprise, they really were men.

Worse, one was in federal uniform, with the stripes of a First, for all he didn't look old enough to vote. If the feds were here, they were in real trouble.

Apman shook his head minutely -- trust me -- and she relaxed. A thread brushed her net, *Get someone to ID that fed. Check if he's real or not.**

She signaled okay, and passed his message back to Ops. She didn't know how they were going to find out fast enough to make a difference, and decided that was someone else's problem. If necessary, if the fed wound up dead in the heat of battle they could say the cybes did it. Once they were safe and in, they could program them to do whatever they pleased.

It might even help when they got to the inevitable confrontation with Travis if they'd 'avenged' his boy's death. She grinned. That seemed pretty plannish.

"Sir, got word, he's genuine," she said softly. Because there was no point in giving Apman an excuse to just kill the kid.

"New friends," Apman said coolly, looking carefully around the six men backing Joche. "A fed, a cybe, a priest even, I'm almost impressed, Joche, and a trio of nonentities."

The fed spoke up, "Sir, you should leave, now."

Frances winced. The kid really was going to get himself killed.

"I don't negotiate with children," Apman said snidely, and the kid flushed scarlet. He made an abrupt movement and without thinking Frances lifted her gun. The kid didn't move again, and she saw the cybe had a tight grip on his elbow.

"Mr. Apman," the speaker was a great bear of a man. "I am Josiah Sanchez, I have lived here many years, and there is no duty of tithe on this village to anyone, least of all yourself." He smiled, and Frances wondered what that smile hid. "If you leave now, it will be for the best."

"The best for you," her boss said easily. "Not for me. I've got a certain amount of pressure on me to succeed." He lifted a hand, and all around the village soldiers burst out of hiding, out from door, behind walls, under mats. "As you see, I like to negotiate from a position of strength."

There seemed to be some sort of sharp discussion going on between the cybe and Mendeleyev. Frances repressed a grin. This was always kind of fun.

Then Sanchez stepped up to the younger cyborg, and in tones that were clearly meant to be soft, but that carried nonetheless, whispered, "Trust me."

She had real sympathy for the man right then. Four sets of eyes met each others incredulously and she fought back a grin. Oh, this was going to be like taking sugar from a baby. Dissension in the ranks, elders playing a hidden hand, not telling their juniors.

"Sir, these gentlemen have suggested you leave." She blinked at the Borealean accent. A man of culture and education standing with these -- these *cybes**?

Apman was shaking his head, "And I suppose you will tell me too, that I should depart forthwith, and it would be for the good of my *health** of some such thing," the men looked startled, and she watched as Apman took them apart verbally.

"You have no rights here First Federale. Your duty ends at the town boundary."

"My duty goes wherever Travis's writ runs," the kid said firmly despite a hand on his shoulder. "If I say it runs here, it runs here. Get out while you can."

"Bravado. Always so delightful."

"The boy is impetuous, but he has a point."

"Get out." The priest spoke for the first time, and Frances shivered. There was something cold about his voice. Cold and hollow.

Hollow? Her eyes widened. "Sir! Trap! *Down**!"

Apman didn't question her shout, and dropped as she fired, not at the men standing in a loose semi circle in front of them, but at the holoprojector that had to be up on the cliff. The concussion jolted the cliff face. The images wavered and flickered and she bared her teeth in something that might, at a less violent moment, be a smile. "That all you got, boys?" she yelled, beckoning them on with one hand. "We tried knocking politely."

"I don't much like liars," Apman said casually as he backed under cover of her guns, "Kill them all."

"Except the children, sir," she said.

"Yes, yes, except the children."

"All quarters! By the ranks: First rank! Fire!" she bellowed, and the first line took careful aim and fired, then dropped to the ground, winding their way forward under their comrades covering fire. "Second rank! Fire!"

A cacophony of sound echoed from the mountain side. She watched carefully. Apman was safely at the command vehicle.

"Third rank! Fire! All ranks! On my command, fire at will!" She waited, waited ... a soldier dropped to the ground, and didn't rise. Another slammed backwards in a grotesque arc spattering blood as he fell. She held her hand high. Wait... A whistling sound warned her and she snatched it down, but lost the tip of her index finger nonetheless, involuntarily giving the free fire command as she snatched it out of the way.

"Concentrate fire on the lower back wall. Targeting will locate the entrance in approximately three minutes!" It was an order, and through her net came silent obedience. Ops was searching desperately. The projector was spotted, limned in yellow high on the cliff face and she leveled her point-S weapon at it, feeding in the distance, elevation as Ops gave them to her, as much one with her machine as any cyborg, a thought sternly dismissed, and fired. The men had scattered as the shooting began, and now vanished.

"Cease fire! She ordered. Another soldier fell. "Ops!"

Ops promised her the weapons ports.

"Cover!"

Her soldiers retreated, slipping behind rocks, into houses, into the lee of vehicles. Even as she shook her head at the last, someone on the mountain targeted a truck. It lit briefly in red to her battle enhanced eyes, warning of an enemy lock, shouts told her that others had seen it too, and she turned away, not wanting to see how many made it in time -- or how many didn't. The concussion of the vehicle exploding shook the ground, throwing up dust. The wind carried the carrion smell of blood and death and dust stung her eyes, got up her nose. She pulled her combat skin down into place, and her vision cleared instantly -- almost instantly.

"Ops!"

Data fed downstream, and she grinned. Circle after circle lit on the mountain, and then, jackpot, a great oblong reaching almost to the top of a high ridge lit. "Ladies first," Ops said, a rare foray into voice and she grinned.

"Thank you!" Tallis and Halloran's teams were entrenched, firing steadily up at the gun emplacements. As she watched, one of the yellow circles lit orange, pulsed, and blew, taking the next one with it. Idiots had packed them too close together.

Ngede's team were closest. She ordered them up with a whisper of an order through the command net, and in seconds they were around her.

"Okay, boys and girls, we got ourselves a nice door. Let's go play trick or treat," she said, and they grinned back at her, good guys all of them, Ngede, his second, Hafez, and the rest of them -- Wang, Reynolds, Glau, Wolf. They spread out as they moved up towards the entry, then took positions in a half ring around it. If there was someone behind it they were dead.

"Glau, Reynolds--"

They nodded and ran to either side of the wall, swiftly unpacking cenemite. Glau spray-painted the stuff over the wall side of the target area, and as she watched, Reynolds turned and raced back.

"Ready?"

"Yessir!" She nodded and the two of them fired off a single trigger shot each. There was a dull roar, and they backpedaled furiously. The side of the mountain seemed to be sliding down in one never ending cataclysm.

They got back as far as the buildings and watched as the dust cloud rolled upwards, higher and higher, dissipating slowly.

Ops was the first to warn her. "There's nothing there, sir."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing." Ops' tone told her it wasn't good even before the image patched through to her on the command net and she swore under her breath.

"Aw, *fuck**." There really wasn't anything there. Not even a village. Echo location, the last, lowest tech of the surveying options, kept for occasions like this when heat and virtually the entire visible part of the spectrum were unavailable, revealed a clear killing ground where they had seen houses, cliff face, people. There was nothing there but a half battalion firing madly into the air.

"Retreat!" she ordered furiously. "All ranks, by the book!

"Teams, call it!"

"Team three, five standing, all accounted for..."

And so it went, team after team calling their status. Ops kept a quiet running tally for her -- standing, accounted for, not accounted for. Later they would sort them into injured, dead, and combat able. She walked back to the aircar to meet Apman's glittering eyes.

"I won't be made a fool of twice," he said coldly. His hand twitched, and she wondered if this was it, and he was going to 'cleanse' her too.

"You did well, commander," he added, and Frances nodded. She hadn't done well. Someone, somewhere, had fucked up royally, and she was going to know the reason why.

A flicker of movement registered in the very edge of her peripheral vision, and she turned on her heel, and fired even before she really registered the grey uniform.

*~^~*~^~*

JD crouched behind a rock. He'd argued long and hard for this, but in the end, the very uniform that Buck had so derided was the clinching argument for him taking the camera out to where they could record Apman's approach. Zhou Yu had promised that the area was saturated with static, that no one would hear him, even as exposed as he would be, and he had been eager to prove himself to the skeptical men. The more Buck had shaken his head and protested, the stronger his resolve had become. He frowned, struck by a thought -- he was the one waiting out in the open, while the other watched from the safety of the cliffs. Maybe winning the argument hadn't been such a good idea after all.

JD watched, astonished, as Sept Apman fell for the ruse. It seemed so transparent to him -- he knew what the fractional lag between questions and answers was, as he and the others 'spoke' their lines and watched avatars of them voice them nanoseconds later. He bit his lip, held his breath, praying that Apman wouldn't notice it.

"People see what they expect to see," Buck said softly. JD nodded. Silence was the order. One word out loud, so much as a net microspike at the wrong moment would ruin everything. Probably kill him too, but that didn't matter so much.

He swallowed hard as Apman gave the order to move in, and watched, from far, far closer than was comfortable as a battle played out. It was almost like playing arena war games. Except that as soldiers fell, they were left where they lay. Sometimes, in the several places where they lay.

"Hold on," Buck said. "Just a little longer." JD nodded again, hoping his eyes said thank you where he didn't dare. He watched as the camera rolled on, dumping its feed direct into his wristband. He ignored the blood dripping slowly from his wrist to the ground, and soaking into the sand.

Dust billowed high, and JD watched sickly as a car blew up, taking at least three soldiers with it. One was moving weakly on the ground, and he gulped as he watched him clawing himself away from the wreckage, and then looked away swiftly, swallowing rapidly as his gorge rose at the sight of the bloody, ragged, stump of a leg, gouts of blood pouring out until the man stilled.

"About a minute and a half for the heart to pump your blood right around your body," he said quietly, not really realizing he was speaking out loud.

"Better him than you, kid."

"Better him than the kids back there," he said sharply in return.

Another huge boom, and JD watched in awe as the mountain came down. Next to him, Buck was humming.

He heard a woman's voice over the roar, and frowned. "Why's she calling a ceasefire?" he whispered.

"They think they're in and it's all over. She'll wait for the dust to clear, and then send in mop up teams. It's what I'd do anyway." He looked admiringly up at the vast dust cloud. "Pity they got the wrong mountain."

JD grinned. Smoke and mirrors, Ezra had called it, back in the hasty discussion, as JD called it, or argument, as everyone else called it before he got sent out here. A few cannily placed charges -- Nathan and some woman called Zhou Yu had been laying them all morning. A holoprojector. And a piece of smart tinkering with one of the pinpoint satellites which he suspected he should have been appalled by and in fact had been eager to learn the details of had completed the illusion. Apman would go where they wanted him, see what they wanted him to see, right down to the six men and Joche out there, arguing.

And it would buy them more time -- time to wake Larabee up; time to get Travis here. Time to get those kids -- JD ignored the fact that several of the 'kids' were not much younger than he himself was -- somewhere safe. Although he was questioning how the hell they were going to do that. Between Larabee's collapse and Apman's firepower, he was starting to wonder if any one was going to get out of this alive.

The dust cleared, and he took one last sweep of the area with the camera, and sighed.

"Reckon we can head back home about now, kid," Buck said quietly. JD spared a thought to wonder why he did that? Was habit that hard engrained that even knowing you were nothing but electrical impulses in someone else's audio-visual synapses, you still lowered your voice when it seemed necessary.

"Let me see if I can get a clear shot of them," he said in return, and edged around the boulder, peeking out cautiously between it and a scrubby little bush. Between the dust and the cover he should be pretty well hidden.

"Get back here, kid!" Buck hissed.

JD rolled his eyes and waggled his hand at Buck in a gesture that he hoped suggested that the man just shut up.

He slid a little further out, and spotted another bush. He looked around carefully, but no one was watching him. Move slow, he thought firmly. Nice and slow. Rushing was what always got him killed in arena games. Of course, in the arenas he didn't *stay** dead. In the arenas, up until his arrest, he'd been one of the top hundred planet wide some weeks. He sighed. It's not a computer game, he reminded himself, wincing a little at the remembered roar of outrage from Buck when he'd described the proposed recording expedition as being 'just like Phoenix Rising, without the monsters'.

Mom would have howled too, he thought, and snickered under his breath. Maybe that was why he let Buck bang on about stuff. Reminded him of Mom.

He edged out a little further. He wasn't quite at the right angle to get a decent line on the command vehicle. He bit his lip, and looked around again. Well, there wasn't anyone moving. He checked the nets and bands. Nothing much going on. Just a trickle from the military frequencies they'd been using. He grinned at the thought of maybe breaking their scramble code. He paused. That was a good point. He downloaded the data so far to a chip, and very, very carefully tugged it out of his neck, then slid it into a tiny pouch, sealed it, then swallowed it. He desperately smothered a cough in his arm as he choked it down. Better. One more. He dumped it out to his wristband, and from there to the nanites. Not all of them were needed to store Buck.

Even dead, they would still be able to get his information. In fact, even if there was nothing left but blood-- he shifted uneasily. Okay, no dying talk. Not good for morale.

Data safe, he peeked up again. It was no good. If he wanted line of sight he needed to be closer to the transport trucks. Not too close. He eyed a pile of precariously balanced rocks. He ought to get a decent view from there.

Very, very slowly he edged to his knees, and started moving towards them.

----------------------

"Don't get so close!" Buck ran, desperate to bring JD up short, but it was no good. "Get down! For Jeshu's sake, get down!"

A gun fired and Buck flung himself forwards, across. There was an instant of knee shaking terror but the bolt passed straight through his abdomen, not touching him. Relief eased tension from his shoulders and back for a second until a soft grunt and a thud turned him around, one hand on his belly where the shot should have blasted through him.

"No."

He knew what he would see when he turned. JD was sitting on the ground, lying awkwardly, half propped up against the rocks he'd been aiming for. His right hand was open, palm up, the gun fallen from it, his left hand lay across his lap as though he'd tried to cover the wound in his belly, and then given up. His eyes were open too.

Buck flinched.

"Kid?" he said softly.

JD didn't move.

Desperately Buck reached for him, seizing control of his net, then his autonomic functions, keep breathing, god, kid, keep breathing... systolic, diastolic... four chambers, in sequence, in, out, blood moving, in out, air moving, don't die, where *is* everyone?

He heard gunshots. Vehicles roared, the sound dwindling, and in some distant part of his mind he knew they had routed Apman -- for now.

Don't die. What if you die? Who's going to save me, kid? I don't think I'm up to the job.

Your nanites die with you.

Was he dying too? If JD died, would everything that made him 'Buck' simply vanish?

He didn't want to not-be. This wasn't much of a life, but he wanted it, clung to it. Breathe, come on, breathe. What good are nanites if they can't clot efficiently, come on you useless pieces of machinery, come on, come on...

Reality or perception? Was he only real because of JD... And what would happen if the kid was dead? Was he only real because JD perceived him? Would the nanites that held his engram die too? Would he die too? Would he wake to find the engram downloaded into yet another mind? Or would there just be -- nothing?

The kid would live. He had to. He, Buck, was still here, thinking, talking, moving. If JD had died surely--

Then people rushed past him, and he shook his head. No. No... Nathan was kneeling, hands first on the pale neck, shaking his head, and then down, ripping the blood soaked, tattered grey uniform aside. Vin was there, he didn't see him kneel down, just realized with a shock that JD's head was on the man's knees, lying him back gently. A tanned hand brushed over kid's face, and when it passed, the eyes were closed. No...please...

The shouting and shooting faded into a terrible silence. He turned. Chris was staring at him, standing tall and dark, motionless in a pool of silence and he walked to him. Chris's hand reached out, and to his amazement their hands touched. He touched, for the first time since he awoke, and felt another living creature.

"Chris," he said. If he could breathe the word would have been whispered on the breeze. If he could cry, the tears he felt would be there but he could not, and Chris would not.

No tears for Adonis.

"Chris--"

And all was black.

Chapter Text

"Boss, I've got a confirmation on the fed's emergency distress beacon."

Joche winced and turned away from the big screen in the command center.

"Thank you, Thom," he acknowledged. "Let me know as soon as there is any action from the town."

"I'll try to get a link to the fed grid," Thom acknowledged.

"Joche--"

He looked up wearily and found a dozen eyes on him. "Yes, Louie?"

"What are we going to do?" Louie asked, and Joche squared his shoulders. He had never really asked for this, had fallen into it. And now he was halfway to a battle commander.

"Any word from the Axe?" he asked instead.

"No, nothing. I've been sending the static burst every five minutes." Thom looked up anxiously from his comms board and asked the question they were all thinking. "Do we go to plan Medjai?"

It was too fast. If Travis had been in contact -- but he wasn't, and no point worrying what that meant.

"Joche, we have to do something -- the children..." Louie said. He was no doubt thinking of his own daughter, only four years old. And his son, who was still out there somewhere, sold away from his family aged eight.

Joche nodded once. "Execute Medjai. And get Doctor Jackson up here. I'll be in my office."

Joche sat down at his desk and with a tired sigh rubbed his hand across his face. How had one lousy little renegade from Sept Apman manage to send things to hell so fast? It wasn't even as if he had won; Larabee's ruse had worked astonishingly well. And all that -- the explosives, the power expenditure on the holoprojector, all for nothing.

"Someone get me word on Dunne's status," he asked through the command net and shut back down again after the instantaneous acknowledgment.

There was a beautiful inevitability to the entire thing. Of course the fed would get hit. Of all the things that could possibly wreck the entire operation -- not just getting out from Apman's grasping little hands, but the Foldpath itself -- it had to be Dunne who was out there, and of course it was Dunne who got shot. After that he could only watch the cascade effect, each event tumbling the next into action.

He was betting that Apman and his people were going to hole up somewhere, and hope like hell that no one gave chase. They'd be licking their wounds for a while. Of the fifty mercenaries fielded, nine were still lying out there, dead. Apman had abandoned the living and dying alike, like the profiteering monster that he was. He hadn't even stopped to pick up his injured. Four mercenaries had still been alive when the dust cleared, and had been taken into the camp. His lips tightened. They were going to have to decide what to do with them.

He shook his head. A headache for another day. Include them in the evacuation and worry about it when they were healed.

More worrying was Second Wells, and her reaction to Dunne's emergency message. Stupid fucking feds. It wasn't the kid's fault, exactly. But the second his heart stopped a flash burst had saturated every comms frequency going. Chances were, all the data currently stored in Dunne's temporary memory storage plus gps and biostats hit Last Chance within nanoseconds of being emitted. Which meant Second Wells was probably riding to the rescue right now, probably under the impression that her boss had died in some kind of ambush.

If they were lucky she'd take time to review the footage. If they weren't, she'd ask questions later...

He checked the time. Only fifteen minutes had passed. At top speeds she would be here in about thirty more minutes. They'd be lucky to get just the kids out. The adults were just going to have to scatter and make their own way to the reserve site.

Apman wasn't about to turn himself in. He was too busy running scared. Even if Wells caught up with him first, he was more likely to tell anyone who cared to listen that the cybes of Camp Hugo had run amok. And who would a fed be more likely to believe?

There was a good chance that that Dunne's Second would come in with every intention of letting God sort out the righteous.

He sighed. He'd gotten used to living in one place. They'd gotten used to somewhere that was technically in Federation space, but effectively outside of Federation law. He shook his head as a silent alarm warned him the doctor was on his way in. Funny how Travis's well intentioned addition of a couple of young feds to clean the place up had thrown a spanner in the works.

A tap on the door made him straighten up in his chair, and his face was carefully arranged into neutrality as the man walked in the door.

"How is First Dunne?"

"Not good," Jackson said bluntly, and grimaced. "I shouldn't have left him."

"We have other --"

"I know that. I'm just saying it doesn't look good. If you want a live fed at the end of today, I need to get back to him."

Joche nodded. "So it would be a good guess that you don't want him moved." Nathan shook his head, and Joche let no hint of his dismay show. If Dunne couldn't be moved then they were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. "And Larabee?"

Jackson frowned, puzzled. "The last time I checked he was asleep. I'm considering medication--"

"Not if it's going to affect his psi function," he said swiftly. "Sorry," he added at Jackson's irritated look.

"But," Jackson ignored the interruption, carrying on as though Joche hadn't spoken, "it risks destroying autonomic controls over his psi." He shrugged. "I don't even know what psionics he has. Medical science can't predict the exact effects of a specific drug on him even if I knew what he was capable of. If we know anything about the human mind, it's only that it continues to have more mysteries than we seem able to fathom."

Joche nodded impatiently. "Can he be moved?"

The doctor blinked. "Well, yes, but--"

"No buts. Get him ready for transport. Drug him if you have to, to get his compliance, but we are on a countdown--" he checked the time again "--and we're expecting visitors in about twenty minutes, max. That means you've got about seven."

"Visitors?"

"Federal visitors," Joche said grimly. Jackson still didn't seem to get it, and said patiently, "Dunne's emergency beacon activated when his heart stopped. Wells is probably coming down on us like the Eumenides themselves."

Jackson's eyes widened. "You're leaving? But Casey wouldn't -- "

"I don't have time to discuss it. You might know her, but I'm not willing to risk two hundred souls on your say-so. What I need to know is if Dunne is up to--"

"No! Absolutely not." The doctor looked away for a second and then back again, as though he'd made a decision. "It wouldn't make any difference. Wells can probably track him from space if she has to."

Joche nodded. He'd more or less come to that conclusion himself. Well then. "Are you prepared to stay with him?"

"Yes, of course."

"Good. I'll arrange for someone to give you a safe area to stay."

"Can't he--"

Joche looked at him, feeling too tired for words. "We're going to blow the installation. Your choices are to move him a small distance, and survive, or move him with the evacuation effort and keep him in a medical facility. You have about --" he checked the clock again, "-- five minutes to decide. If you'll excuse me?"

He walked back to the main command room, and was pleased to see most of the boards had already been stripped. As he watched, Gunhio ran in, scooped up another stack of boxes, and sprinted for the up shaft and the hangars.

Maybe something was going right.

Everything tagged as essential should already be leaving. He leaned into the grid briefly and smiled. Good. First transport was heading out. Drones were covering until it got into cover and then would split to the secondary decoy zone. The children were out.

He relaxed minutely. It wasn't over, but that was one good thing. Now to wait for Wells.

*~^~*~^~*

"Calmly, child," Nettie advised as Casey sprinted for the big emergency aircar, mentally running down the list of equipment. Emergency med stuff. Stass kit. Every weapon on the premises. Emergency activation codes for the 'car -- she'd not even gotten around to getting accredited on it, and now she was going to have to fly it into whatever killed JD.

She shivered. Up until about fifteen minutes ago the job hadn't been real. She'd thought it was as real as it could be, but it hadn't. She hadn't known anything.

JD was dead.

She screwed her face up, driving back tears, fears, everything. "Fall apart later," she ordered under her breath. "Any word from the Axe?" she asked, louder, and the Fed Grid AI was kind enough to overlook her almost breakdown.

"Nothing. I'm leaving a bounce signal for the Pentecost, if they open comms it'll pass on the situation."

"Situation! What exactly is the situation, Nettie?" Casey snapped, then drew a deep breath. "God, how can he be dead?"

"You don't know that," Nettie pointed out, not for the first time, and Casey shook her head.

"His heart stopped! You think there was someone on hand to get it going again?"

"Dr. Jackson's ident tracks to within one click of the First's last known position."

Casey nodded. "Any more data?"

"Still got jamming in progress."

"Larabee and the others?"

The AI hesitated. "I have a possible ident on the perpetrator of the escape."

"And?" Casey settled into the seat of the vehicle and slapped her hand on the activation pad.

"Authorization code?" Nettie asked immediately.

"Aunt Nettie! Oh, fine, right," she twisted her wrist to touch the Federal authorization chip to the pad. "There, happy?"

"Authorization accepted. Procedure is there for a reason, Casey," Nettie said sternly.

The car rumbled into life, and she hauled it almost vertically up off the ground. The engine whined with the strain and she reflexively eased back on the power, waiting for the red lights to stop blinking before pushing it as hard as she could. "Aunt Nettie, release full emergency measures. Authorization Wells, C. J. 2387 BX7T 538."

"Authorized. Limits off."

Casey took a deep breath and drove the vehicle up into the red on every telltale, manually locking in a path to JD's last known position. "Hold course, Aunt Nettie," she said.

"Noted. Estimated time to arrival, sixteen minutes."

*~^~*~^~*

Nathan hurried out of Joche's office, the man was clearly distracted -- and if he was afraid of the feds coming, Nathan was hardly surprised. He picked up his pace as he approached the drop shaft and seconds later was walking out again, towards the room where Larabee still lay.

"What to do with you," he wondered under his breath. To his surprise Larabee's head turned, rolling on the pillow until the man could see who had spoken. If Nathan had had any ill intent the man would already be dead. He spread his hands out.

"Where--"

"Where are you? Camp Hugo."

Larabee looked annoyed. "Where ev'one?"

Nathan looked at him, noting the slur in Larabee's voice, trying to decide how much information to give. Was he tired, or fighting the effects of the drugs, or had his mind been permanently affected by his break? What would he be able to cope with? Too much might overwhelm the recovering mind; too little would lead straight back to that distrust and anger ... He took too long, because Larabee attempted to push himself up, and was stopped by the restraints.

"What the -- let me go," he said, soft and clear.

Nathan hesitated again. The slur had been him waking then. So-- he winced, shook his head as pressure built inside his skull. He'd never felt anything quite like it, but that didn't mean he didn't know what it was. He gritted his teeth. "Fine. Give me a minute." He swiftly checked the corridor, then shut the door and locked it. He was under no illusions that the cyborgs would be happy that he had released the priest. A churchman -- a priest inquisitor no less. Nonetheless his hands remained steady, and it was the work of seconds to unlatched the restraints. "Can you get up?"

Larabee nodded and tried to sit up. It took him two tries to swing around so his feet were on the ground, but once he'd got that far it was as though he did the rest on automatic. "Clothes?" he demanded, looking around. "What's the emergency?"

Nathan glanced at him, "Drawer," he nodded to the cabinet by the bed. "Your guns are there too."

"Thanks," Larabee said grudgingly. He checked them swiftly, even as Nathan wondered at himself. Was it really entirely wise to release the PI? And give him his weapons?

"Nope," Larabee grinned a death's-head smile at Nathan as he turned, still wearing only an shirt and underpants. "Hands up."

Nathan stared at the live weapons in the man's hands, pressed his lips together hard, and then raised his hands. "Mr. Larabee, Chris, there ain't time for this nonsense. We got trouble coming."

"Apman? Face down on the bed, Jackson," Larabee ordered, stepping away from the bed.

"No -- I mean, no, not Apman!" he corrected hastily as Larabee's trigger finger twitched. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked up, hoping to persuade him-- "You can't--"

Oh, can't I? Larabee's voice whispered in his mind, and he swore. The damned PI had seized his mind.

"No, just influenced you," Larabee said cheerfully. He gestured with one of his guns. The other stayed rock solid pointing at his head. "Face down, Doc."

"Dunne died. The other fed is coming -- the children..."

Larabee paused and Nathan pressed the opening. "If she comes in all guns blazing, someone's going to get hurt."

"Kid's dead, huh?" Larabee said. "Too bad. I said --"

"No, he's alive. He just died until I got to him."

"Fucking doctors, never could leave well alone." He wasn't looking quite as determined to hold Nathan hostage though. "Where is he?"

"Safe." Which was an outright lie, and a bad mistake, he realized, as the gun came back up. "As safe as I can make him," he amended.

"Okay. And there's a plan? Or are all y'all just running around like headless frakken?"

Nathan suppressed his urge to smile. "The gu lao--"

Larabee's eyes narrowed, and Nathan winced. He hadn't meant to set the PI after Joche. Maybe he'd get a chance to apologize later.

*~^~*~^~*

Frances stared stoically ahead and tried not to flinch at spittle hit her face. Apman was in rare form.

"Thirteen! Thirteen top class mercenaries!" Nine missing. Four injured. Not a good start to a 'simple action'. She carefully didn't look as he stalked away and reached into the med box to slap yet another stim patch onto his wrist. By the time she looked back up, he was back in her face.

"What the fuck happened, Frances? This was a milk run! These were cybes for fucks sake. How the hell did they get the better of you?"

Ah. She kept her eyes on the middle distance. It was to be her fault. She wondered if her husband would ever find out what had happened, if Katie and Joshua would ever learn the fate of their mother. Shot by a renegade Clan boss after an illegal attack on an inoffensive cyborg camp, on some pissant little world off the wrong side of the Rim.

A hard edge slammed into her face and rocked her for a second. She resumed her blank face. Somewhere, deep inside some part of her was whispering, Corcoran, Frances, 57 83 29 50 TXW Human, 2569. Corcoran, Frances...

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra wasn't exactly sure how he came to be in the hold of a battered sub-orbital freight transport. It didn't even have the virtue of being in some way designed to accommodate humans. There were no seats, no boxes even, just a filthy floor and walls with hooks, straps and nets scattered in such a way that there was no chance to sleep comfortably anywhere. There was air, and he supposed he ought to be grateful that the living cargo meant they fully pressurized the hold, but it was cold, noisome and wretched.

The hold smelled of oil, or at least, that was the predominant scent and the only one he was prepared to identify; an acrid sort of tang that caught at his stomach and settled particle by particle in his lungs. He settled into one of the nets, leaning back against the wall gingerly, sparing a thought for the filth doubtless even now staining into his much abused clothing. The cargo net wasn't too uncomfortable, and he bounced gently. Perhaps they had planned for humans, or at least cyborgs, after all.

"Silly Ezra," Tors whispered, caught between delight at the bouncing and fear. He smiled down at the small, dark head ruefully. The children clung to him yet, warm and full of unsolicited trust, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that. Tors, elfin faced and slight, leaned against him and pressed a snuffling kiss to his cheek, while Hassan settled cross legged beside him and wriggled into his side until Ezra's arm was over the boy's shoulder. By their size neither could be much more than five or six. Considering cybes were bred for strength and looks, they could even be much younger.

The transport lurched and several of the children cried out, and Ezra wrapped a strap around his wrist, hooked a foot into the synthetic cables that made up the cargo nets and held on, praying that the death grip Tors had around his neck would suffice to keep her steady. Hassan's hands clutched painfully at him, snaring shirt and flesh alike, and he was reminded forcibly that these children were stronger physically than he was.

"Everybody okay?" Mareen asked, walking with improbable grace across the uneven floor.

"As snug as bugs in rugs," Ezra said with forced good cheer. Tors giggled into his neck, and from near his chest a small voice asked,

"How's bugs get in rugs, Mis't Ezra?"

Ezra blinked a little, "Well, you know what a bug is?" Hassan nodded solemnly.

"Sometimes we gets bugs."

Ezra gritted his teeth. "Well, these bugs are the kind that curl up in --" he paused, "soft floor coverings, so they are nice and warm."

"Huh." Hassan frowned. "Our bugs don't curl up. We get virus scans and blat 'em, splat! Splat!" He slapped Ezra's thigh to demonstrate and Ezra winced.

"Silly," Tors said, "he means insects."

Hassan glared right back, and Ezra raised his eyes to the ceiling for help. It was not forthcoming. "How about I tell you a story?" he said hastily.

"Yeah!"

Ezra smiled, and racked his brains for stories suitable for children. And cyborg children at that. Ye gods. He looked up to find Mareen grinning wickedly at him. He tried very hard not to let his annoyance show.

Here he was, with about three billion cred worth of untrained, malleable cybes cuddled up to him trustingly, and all he could do was tell bedtime stories. All the better, a small voice that sounded oddly like his dear, late Mama, to keep them under control when you leave. He pressed his lips tightly together. Not children, he told himself firmly, but the thought of what he could do with three billion lurked, why, even Granot could be bought off for that sum. He could live a life of luxury, far away from the smell of oil and the gritty feel of sand between his teeth.

"Once upon a time," he began, "There was a--"

And he stopped. No. His mother would have told that story, and he was not Maude. No carpenters called Gepetto.

"--a little girl, who lived with her Momma in a little village in the woods. Her grandmother lived the other side of the forest, near another village..."

Little Red Riding Hood, and the warning against plausible, kindly sounding, fair seeming strangers was much more appropriate. Children seemed to drift, without actually moving, towards him, until Tors crawled onto his lap, staking a claim. Hassan was asleep, and he was pretty much pinned by small warm bodies by the time the transport came to a halt, landing with a faint jolt and a distant whine that spoke of docking gear being engaged.

"You need a hand there?" Mareen reappeared, and held one out to him. He looked around him and smiled ruefully.

"Thank you, I believe I do." He shifted a little and Tors clutched at him.

"No!" she protested, but didn't really wake up.

"Let me," Mareen said easily, and gripped him under the arms, and lifted him to a standing position, Tors still held in his arms.

"Hush," Ezra said firmly, and Tors' thumb slid into her mouth, eyes still shut. He couldn't help quirking a smile at the small child, and hitched her up higher.

"We're here?"

"Yes," Mareen said. "Everyone, quickly and quietly. Silence is still the order."

Silent nods came all around her, and Ezra bit back his questions. Where were they? How far had they traveled?

"Group leaders, find you groups. Stand by a wall. Groups, go to your leader. Yenna, stay with Ezra. He'll need some help getting in." Mareen singled out one of the younger teenagers. The girl's fair blonde hair was bound tightly back in a long braid that she was chewing the tail of.

The girl nodded. "Hassan isn't in my group," she pointed out, and Mareen nodded.

"Okay. Who has Hassan?"

A brown haired boy waved from his group. "Me, Teach."

"Go on then, Hass," she encouraged. The boy scowled, but obeyed.

"Yenna will look after you," she said directly to Ezra, "She's in charge, listen to her. The security here is tight. Screw up and you die."

"I understand." He bowed to the serious faced child standing in front of him, never breaking eye contact with her, "I put myself completely in your hands, xiao nu."

"Follow me," she said simply, and walked towards the exit of the hold. Some kind of order was clearly in effect. The groups left one at a time, five children and a teenager, the littlest ones being carried. There was no talking, scrambling or arguing. As his group moved up Ezra saw the last of the previous group sprinting out of sight down a long corridor.

"Ready?" Mareen asked.

"Yes, sir." The girl touched her palm to a discreetly hidden identifier pad. Light glimmered for a second, and she drew a deep breath. "Can you run?" she asked Ezra with a mischievous look.

"Certainly, I--"

"Then run." And without signaling a hint of it she broke into a sprint. He followed instantly, wishing that he'd put Tors down. It didn't take him more than seconds to notice the discolored areas of wall, irregular distances, heights and all oval in shape. Weapons ports. He was gasping for air -- he hadn't really exercised since the last time he went skydancing two years previously -- and his throat burned, but he did not allow that to slow him. Tors woke. The tension in her body was clear and she struggled.

"Be still," he ordered. "It's not safe." And like that, she was quiescent. The child had clearly learned the necessity of silent obedience. His face grew grim, wondering how a five year old had learned that lesson -- and why.

He hastened after the rest of the group, Yenna's little klatch of cyborg children ahead of him and outstripping him despite his longer stride. He wondered how often they had run like this.

*~^~*~^~*

"What do you mean, you've evacuated everyone else?" Chris felt he was being remarkably calm, all things considered.

Joche smiled enigmatically at him. "Everyone except those in this rooms, priest," he corrected. "And the First, and the Doctor."

Chris waited a moment, but Mendeleyev made no further additions.

"There are six people in this entire place."

"Yes."

"And you didn't evacuate us with the rest because...?"

Joche sighed. "Because the doctor refuses to leave the fed. The fed cannot be moved. My esteemed old friend refuses to leave you. And you were unconscious."

"And Tanner?"

Joche looked at Tanner, who looked up from cleaning his nails out and shrugged. "Seemed polite."

"Polite." Chris's tone was anything but.

"Sure. I invited you to the party. Be rude to leave without saying something." Tanner nodded thoughtfully, and Chris felt the urge to smack the man rise up. Or possibly laugh.

"You've said something."

Vin inclined his head. "True." He looked at Joche, "Mind if I stay a while?"

"You're always welcome here." Joche looked more serious than Tanner's facetious comment had required, and he added, "You should know that, son."

Tanner's face closed up and he went back to digging under his nails for dirt.

"And it doesn't bother you that I'm holding you at gunpoint?" Because he had to admire the cool of a man -- cybe, whatever, who could simply ignore a pulse gun trained on his head. Jackson's eyes were on the fed; the fed was unconscious. Sanchez appeared to be meditating. At any rate he was smiling beatifically in the distance, his eyes shut. Somewhere along the line, the PR for PIs had been under funded or something.

Joche smiled at him. "What exactly will you do with it? Kill me? You do Apman's work for him. Not kill me? Why then I have no need to fear you."

Chris hated it when people did that to him. He smiled and put the gun away. "Okay. So. There's six of us -- where'd the weasel go, by the way? -- and Apman's on his way."

"Apman's been and gone. You missed that bit," Jackson told him, carefully adjusting med levels on the fed's patches. "Of course, you were out of your mind and hallucinating."

Chris blinked. "I was."

"Oh yes." Tanner casually pushed up a sleeve. "Took to chewing the scenery like a crazed dog." Chris looked, appalled, at the mess of bruises and clearly delineated bite marks.

"I--"

"Yup." Vin looked up. "You might wanna consider dentures. Caught Ez a good one too. And the kid." He looked around thoughtfully. "Actually, I'm not sure it wouldn't be quicker to list off who you didn't attack."

"Time is being wasted. You should come with me, or stay with Mr. Dunne," Joche said firmly. Chris shrugged.

"Where are you going?"

"To hell, priest, with all the rest of the damned souls that Apman seeks."

"Sounds good to me." Something about the kid made him very, very uneasy. Almost as though voices were talking right on the edge of his senses, voices he knew...

"Mr. Larabee?"

"Nathan, he's -- "

Chris drew a deep breath and shook his head. "Let's go talk to the girl then."

The others blinked.

"Chris, who said anything about a girl?" Jackson asked. One of his hands slid into his medical box, and Chris glared at him ferociously.

"You did. You said the other fed was coming. She is who you meant?"

"She is, but --"

"Leave him be, Nathan," Josiah said, and unhooked his legs from their half lotus. "Miss Wells will want to see that Jedediah is well, and that her erstwhile priest prisoner is safe. Then she will leave."

They all looked at him dubiously, and he spread his hands with an oddly impish smile. "Well, I can dream, right?"

Chris found himself staring at the man. "I know you."

"We met in Last Chance. A chance meeting."

Chris shook his head slowly. "No. No. That's not it."

"Not now," Josiah said softly. Chris tried to see inside the man's head, and came up against a wall the likes of which he couldn't copy, much less breach.

"And they let you go?" he whispered, almost to himself. Sanchez's lips twisted.

"No. Not let go. Fear too much to do that. Perhaps," he thought a moment, "perhaps, let be."

Chris opened his mouth to ask another question and Josiah shook his head. "Later. She's here."

A second later a rapid fire beeping sound started and Joche shook his head as though he'd been hypnotized into silence. Chris slid a surreptitious look at Josiah. Maybe he had been.

*~^~*~^~*

Casey drew a deep breath. Scan. Assess. Diagnose. Implement. She looked at the screen again. It had been much easier in the training reality, when she knew the bodies weren't real. Okay. She could do this.

"We've got a total of nine dead bodies?"

"Yes, Second," Nettie said formally, and Casey set her jaw. Right.

"You're sure about JD? It can't be someone else faking him or something?" She winced at the anxious tone in her voice, but the AI ignored it.

"Yes, xiao nu," Aunt Nettie said kindly. "I'm getting a steady update on his condition. There has been some damage but the healing protocols seem to have been implemented quickly enough to minimize long term damage. The prognosis seems good."

"Darn." She grinned briefly, "No chance of dead man's boots, then?"

"Cassandra Wells!"

Casey laughed softly. Nettie might not find it funny, but JD would. And even if he didn't, she did. Okay. She cleared her mind. JD was seriously injured, so that meant that she was going into not just a hostage situation, but one where she had to get complete control as fast as possible in order to ensure JD got the time he needed.

Current assets stood at her, the weapons and the vehicle. And Nettie. "Is JD going to be up to helping at all?"

"Federale Dunne appears to be unconscious."

"Frakken."

Okay. Maybe Doctor Jackson would help. She couldn't count on him -- and if he was in the other guys' side he would tell the rest of them before she had a chance to stop him. No. Best not involve him. Either way though at least someone had seen to it JD got treatment.

"Deducts a couple of months, I guess," she said absently. "Okay, got two unidentified cybes, the whirligig man, how much trouble is he gonna be?" She thought, and pursed her lips. "The tranq gun?" She didn't want to have another priest seriously injured because of her. Not if an Inquisitor General was on his way to check on Larabee. Hmm. Actually, tranqs might be best all 'round.

"Seems a good plan."

"Larabee's there, he might be on our side. But he might not -- after what happened he might prefer to take his chances with the bad guys."

"He's a priest," Nettie said reprovingly.

Casey rolled her eyes. AIs were all very well, but there were some glaring gaps in the education of the federal grid. "Yes, that's my point," she said patiently. "Who knows which way he'll jump? It'll be whatever suits him, the Church and the Alliance best. In that order."

"That's assuming he's up to jumping," the AI observed astringently, and Casey flinched. Okay. The guy probably wasn't going to be up to much after getting cell stopped, sick, and well. Everything.

"How many others?"

"That's it."

Casey looked at the layout on her screen. "There's all six in one little room. JD's not moving. One of the cybes is walking to and fro, everyone else is staying in position. Any defenses?"

"None on the area they are in. However, scanning the mountain face behind them is a different story," Nettie said coolly. "Passive indicates solid state explosives mined through the complex." In front of Casey's eyes the cliff face opened up. "We've got four layers here. Passive, active, mined, and then lots of empty space."

"Huh."

"You could go right through all of that and still not find anything."

"I get that, Aunt Nettie."

The AI sniffed.

"Okay. Hail them."

*~^~*~^~*

Travis gripped the edges of his seat hard, despite the webbing holding him in place, and the suit keeping him safe. He stared into the open vacuum facing him, hard eyed, determined not to say a word. A blow hit the ship and his hands tightened until he felt the bones creak. He'd never been so scared in his life. God, Evie, he thought, I'm so sorry. I'm so very sorry. He closed his eyes as another blow struck the Pentecost. They were breaking her apart, a life at a time.

"Captain, I've got Church tags coming up fast on tac -- zero seven five light years and closing!"

Travis looked up eagerly listening to the command grid.

"How many?" Captain Friedricks snapped. "Full report, lieutenant."

"Sir. Two; one light cruiser, one light gunship. They're moving at point nine c, they will close with the enemy vessel in less than half a minute!"

"Status?"

"Hot."

Travis frowned. A pair of church ships? Out here? Even as he realized that maybe the Pentecost had a chance after all, he worried. What were they doing out this far? Pretty convenient to show up right now, when the System Axe was under attack in his light cruiser.

"Cap, we can pincer them if we lay in this heading right now!"

Travis listened without comment to the traffic on the bridge net. Captain Friedricks let him keep a thread into it as long as he kept his nose out of command decisions -- she told him that it gave him something to do other than bugging her every ten minutes for status reports. He appreciated that; he'd dealt with overly curious superiors in the past himself, men who had no idea what he did, but felt they ought to contribute to him doing it. He returned the favor by keeping his mouth shut and avoiding telling the captain how to do her job.

"No," Friedricks said. "Maintain course. We're in no position to render assistance."

The captain's voice was dry with irony. They were in desperate straits indeed if she was refusing to join battle. Leah Friedricks had never been a coward.

He waited tensely but nothing came through. He missed the idle chit chat that Friedricks normally permitted. Not appropriate to battle -- he wasn't appropriate to battle. The time was long past that he wanted to roar into combat. He was old, he hadn't fired a shot in anger in sixty years, and even then he'd been in an orbital installation rather than out in space. Back then, no matter that he was as likely to die within sight of his home world as in the depths of space, it had been comforting to watch world-rise in the mornings, and see it setting in the evenings as the installation slowly turned.

No such comfort now. Celaeno was a million parsecs away. No quick visit home. Maybe no visit home, ever. Tianya was still a orange ball glowing dimly in space. Here on the outskirts of the system he had been prepared to accept they would die.

"Pirates still closing, sir. They haven't seen the Church ships yet."

"Or they don't care," someone muttered, and Travis shook his head. Strange to think that the pirates and the Church probably had the same motives in tracking his ship. Not so strange. But the Church would assist, had to under their charter.

Please.

"Evans, deploy fakers on my mark. Start with three. I want one high, one on our one-eighty, and one straight ahead with our tags, send her out first, then the others. Traize, can you jink us into stealth when the ringer goes?"

"Not for long."

"Long enough to give all four points a slightly different heading?"

"No prob, Cap," Traize said cheerfully.

"Good. Zeke, drop us to the new course the second we go into stealth. Evans, where are those ringers?"

"Aye, sir," Travis just about heard Zeke say as Evans replied over him.

"Two seconds, sir." A pause as the woman finished up programming the bots. "Good to go, sir."

"On my mark, people -- mark!"

"Stealth on."

"Fakers away, sir."

"Stealth off."

"New course on the line, sir." Travis could hear the jubilation in Traize's voice. "She's not following us!"

Travis didn't feel the course change. His whole body slumped. Thank God. Not just for him, but the youngsters on the bridge. And the cargo. In the privacy of his damaged quarters he could allow himself the weakness of relief. He hoped it wasn't premature, but it sounded like the damn pirates had been run off.

"Look at her go!" someone exclaimed, and Travis hastily reviewed the visuals, trying to figure out what the person had been talking -- his jaw dropped. The gunship was long and sleek, and it seemed to soar over the pirates as they followed the decoy bot away from the Pentecost. Faint puffs of light seemed to emerge and float weightlessly between them, and then the pirate ship was an expanding glowing sphere of fragments and burning gases.

There was silence on the command net.

Travis could almost hear the thoughts of the men and women up on the bridge of the ship, but no one said a word.

"Let the record show that the unidentified ship was destroyed with all hands, twelve eighteen, September third. May God have mercy on their souls," Friedricks said just as the silence was becoming unbearable. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Evans, can you pick up those decoys for me?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Good."

Orin Travis stared out at the emptiness and the thinning ring of dust that was all that was left of a living ship. "Leah?" he asked quietly, on a private thread.

"Yes, honored?"

"How -- how many --"

"Hours until we make planetfall?" Leah's voice was bland and easy as it interrupted his question. Only one who had known her for a very long time might notice the edge to it. Or would know that she was avoiding the questions Travis really wanted to ask. Later would be soon enough. It wasn't as though he could do anything about the dead.

"Yes."

"Quite some time, I'm afraid. Of course, you might be able to hitch a lift with our saviors," Leah added lightly.

Travis snorted, "A good thought, Leah, but I think I'll limp into port with the rest of you. No need for special treatment. Have we heard from them at all?"

No need to put a federal officer onto a Church vessel. No need to give them an excuse to board. He didn't need to say anything. The captain was a smart, politically savvy woman.

"Not yet, I'm sure that's an oversight on their part. If you'll excuse me?"

"Yes. Yes of course. Leah?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Any chance of a line to Tianya?"

"No, Honored. Only internal comms survived the second strike. Deliberately so, I imagine. Pirates don't like their victims to tell the universe about them. Spoils the surprise for the next ship."

"I see." He grimaced, but it couldn't be cured. "Notify me when you have external comms back. Oh, and could you send someone to handle the hull breach in my quarters? No hurry."

There was a moment of stunned silence, and he grinned. He might be old, but he had a surprise or two in him yet.

"Right on it, sir," Friedricks said, suppressing laughter. "I suggest you sit tight until Maintenance get there."

"Trust me, Leah. I'm not planning on going anywhere." He separated from the grid, and settled in to admire the starlight as the lamed ship drifted through the star system.

*~^~*~^~*

Vin walked through the silent village. The little houses always looked fake to him these days. No wear on the paths to the doors, not enough damage from anything but weather. Too tidy. The first time he'd come here, he'd been appalled that anyone could live in such privation. Water came from a communal well, filtered after it was pumped up to the surface; power was solar fueled, and insufficient to run more than twenty dwellings. There had been no grid set up in the community. He looked around shaking his head.

He'd been so credulous back then. Only too willing to believe the lies the Church told him -- cybes needed humans to survive. That without full humans, cybes would die out, revert to primitive barbarism, unable to cope in the real universe.

His lip curled. He'd learned differently here, even if he hadn't completely agreed with everything they'd tried to tell him. They'd seen that as evidence that he needed more education. He'd seen it as evidence that he'd learned to think for himself.

With time, he'd come to wonder if perhaps both sides had a point.

He wondered how Larabee was doing. He glanced at the little house where the priest was waiting. Friends with a priest. He shook his head. What business did a cyborg have caring if a priest lived or died? If a fed survived a cybe attack. But here he was, worrying.

He ought to go. He'd done what Joche had wanted. They'd run Apman off. And there was still that little problem of a want on him from the Church. He snorted. Hell, most of the people here were avoiding the Church one way or another. Even the priests.

Even the fed.

He smoothed his expression out. He didn't want to feel sorry for the kid, but somewhere in ripping his way through his hardware he'd realized that he was only one choice away from being right where the kid was.

How tempting would it have been to have had his freedom offered? The only price a regular job and wage, and employment with the Federation. Stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, maybe he'd make that choice too. Even if he couldn't be sure the Feds were any better, the Church was definitely worse.

He heard the purr of an aircar, and ducked back into shelter. The car drifted slowly to the ground at the edge of the village and stopped. A second later the other fed stepped out.

She looked remarkably small against the big vehicle. Not that he was going to make the mistake of letting that affect his battle planning. Body armor bulked her out, and a weapon in each hand gave her all the authority he needed to see, regardless of the Federation axe and circles emblazoned across her chest.

"Federation Agent! You got ten seconds!" the woman shouted. She kept her back to the car and swept quick eyes around the small compound. "Get on out here!"

Vin took a step back, and halted as her left hand came up and unerringly targeted his chest, even through the shadows cast by the wall.

"You! Show yourself or I shoot!"

"Easy, Ms Wells," he said, and walked out slowly, hands touching his shoulders, right to right, left to left. "I'm just--"

"You!" she spat.

Vin rolled his eyes, wondering what it was about feds. "Yeah. I--"

"Stop right there!"

Her gun was still trained on his heart, and he thought, on a thin thread that wound back to Joche, Some backup about now would be good.

"Federale Wells," Joche said. He emerged from another of the little huts, his hands spread low, palms up. "Welcome to our--"

"Where is he?"

Joche ducked his head, "Federale, I fear I do not understand--"

"Hah! Will this help you understand?" She took quick aim and fired, dust kicked up within inches of Joche's right foot, and he back-stepped.

"Second! You haven't said who you are looking for."

Wells paused, and Vin felt the muscles in his face begin to ache with keeping his expression blank. Didn't know who she was looking for, hmm? Disingenuous to say the least.

"First Federale Dunne," she said tensely. Her gun hand wavered a little, but neither man moved. "I know he's here."

"JD is in the care of Doctor Jackson, at present."

She looked at Vin, who had nothing to say and simply looked back at her, waiting for her to make a decision before Sanchez finished creeping around the buildings and got himself shot.

"I want to see him. Alone!"

"Of course, Agent." Joche gestured to the hut behind him. "He is through there."

She looked at the door suspiciously, and then back at Joche. "How do I know it's not a trap?"

"You don't," Josiah rumbled from behind her. He was leaning against a tree, and smiling as he turned a blaster over and over in his hands.

Vin gave her credit, she snatched a glance at him and kept her hands steady, managed not to lose her cool. The speed at which she moved told him how very on edge the woman was, but that wasn't a problem. Unless she decided to run anyone's tags against the Church databases. Now that, he conceded, could be a problem.

"What's he doing here?" she asked Joche, who shrugged.

"Nobody knows where a priest goes, or how he gets there, or what he knows."

Children's rhymes probably weren't going to help matters. He still found it funny. Joche's expression was bland and unthreatening, and Wells pursed her lips together, then holstered one of her guns.

"My AI has orders to shoot to kill," she warned as she approached.

Couldn't fault her courage either. There were ways around that, but right now they were on the same side. Even if she didn't know it yet.

*~^~*~^~*

JD rose through darkness to silence. The world around him was quiet and warm. He ducked his chin a little and the clean brush of cool sheets pleased him, and he rubbed against it, cat like.

Distantly, someone was talking. Not to him. There were two voices, words rising and falling in low cadences. JD drifted and let the wash of lethargy drown him in sleep once more.

The darkness eased away. He could feel the pressure of sunlight on his face, and sighed softly, its warmth sweet on his skin. He moved a little, and a dull lump pulled at his belly. His hand felt its way to it, dragging over the synthetic cling of surgical dressings. He frowned a little. "Mama?" he whispered "Did it work this time?"

"JD?" The wrong woman spoke, and JD remembered she was dead, and let the sunlight fade again.

"He's awake, Agent. Just give him a little time. Not even a cybe would just walk away from getting caught by a point-s weapon."

He knew that voice. Doctor Jackson, who'd been afraid to touch him, scared that his nanites would infect him and turn him into a monster too. JD curled away from him, wincing as a weight on his stomach insisted that he lie still and flat. His hand reached for it and he traced the edges, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the ragged hole packed with something hard that seemed to reach into his gut and spear him with some mysterious sense that wasn't pain, but hurt none the less.

"JD, it's me, Casey." The woman again. He wondered if he was meant to know her. Something about the name tugged at his memory, something about the voice... Casey never sounded that nice before.

He pushed his eyes open. Casey smiled at him, and he simply stared for a long time, wondering why she never seemed that nice normally.

"Hey, First, how're you feeling?" she asked gently, and he shrugged, then shifted as the movement tugged dully. Nerve blockers. He knew that feeling. The sense that part of your body had been removed and still hurt, even though it was off in some other place, not attached. Nerve memory.

"Casey," he said, testing that he really did remember. Her face lit up.

"Hey, JD." She didn't seem to have anything else to say, and he let his eyes wander. The others were here too. Jackson was sprawled in a chair across the room, apparently asleep. Larabee looked grim and drawn, standing beside the door with his back to the room, weapon visible in his hand. Josiah was staring out of the window into the darkness. There was no sign of the cyborgs, and he wondered where they had gone. Did Apman get them too? At that thought, he looked back at Casey,

"Casey?" he said tiredly, frowning. "S'everyone else okay?"

She shrugged, "Define everyone," she said. "I'm more worried about you."

He blinked, and looked more closely at her, seeing the anxiety in her face. "I'm fine," he assured her, then hesitated.

"Don't want to see your definition of 'fine'," she said, but she was smiling, and if the worry hadn't gone from her face at least it was mostly eased. "Doctor Jackson says you'll be okay in another day or so."

As long as that? he thought, and looked around. Jackson was rummaging through a medkit. He hadn't noticed him get up, which more than anything told him how very tired and non-'fine' he was. He was going to say something and stopped himself. Casey was his junior. He was supposed to set her an example. He breathed deep, and drove all his questions down. They could wait for when half the world wasn't camped out in his hospital room.

"So, how come you're here?"

Casey smiled but the expression looked terrible. "Death trigger," she said.

Oh. Oh. "Really? But I don't --" He felt tentatively at his side. Had it really been that bad?

"You caught the edge of a point singularity weapon, Federale Dunne," Doctor Jackson said.

"Jeshu. " He swallowed. "And I'm alive?" He stopped at the look on her face. "I'm sorry."

"Don't thank me, thank him," she nodded at the doctor, "he's the miracle worker."

JD nodded, clenching his jaw to cover a yawn. "Tha--thanks, Doc," he said around another yawn. He blinked a little and looked around the room, taking in the unpainted walls and glassless windows. They were in the village, not in the main installation. He opened his mouth to ask, and paused. Maybe the cybes didn't want people to know about the other installation. His brain felt so slow. Casey was his second, she ought to know, but--

"JD?"

"Who'd you beat up to get in here?" he asked instead, the first thing to enter his head.

"Mr. Mendeleyev," she shrugged. "It wasn't so hard." She leaned back with a cocky grin, folded her hands behind her head, and rested her feet on his bed.

He laughed soundlessly, "Yeah, yeah, you and whose army?"

"Hey!"

"Nothing should be denied a lady on a quest," Josiah said and smiled at them before turning back to the window, "Even if she has no business here," he added, and the smile that had started on Casey's face vanished.

"Ignore him," JD said softly, and Casey nodded. Before he could say any more the doctor turned from where he had been working at the med bench and frowned at them.

"Federale, please, this is a sterile environment, and your shoes--" Jackson tailed off meaningfully. Casey rolled her eyes and dropped her feet back to the floor.

"Nah, they just let me in." She glanced at him, "I -- you know, xiao ge ge, I thought-- when I got the emergency message. I mean, I knew what it was, and I couldn't believe you were -- and I came here like a bat out of Hell's Gate, -- and, and--"

He could guess. "I am sorry, xiao meimei," he said into the awkward silence.

Jackson cleared his throat and JD turned his head slowly to look at him. "I'm sorry to interrupt," he said easily, "how are you feeling?" he asked. JD shrugged again.

"Okay."

"No hallucinations?"

JD blinked. "No. Why -- " and then he remembered, and reached, and couldn't find his nanites, and despite the hand on his shoulder and the pain in his side sat bolt upright. "What did you do?" he demanded urgently.

"I had to replace a lot of your blood with synthetics," Jackson said calmly. "Most of those nanites of yours are soaking the desert right about now." He pursed his lips and handed JD a glass of almost clear liquid. "Drink up," he said firmly. "You'll feel better once you've had that."

JD swirled the glass, and saw silver glimmer in the grey liquid and pulled a face. "Thanks," he said, and swallowed it down quickly, his throat protesting the large gulps he was taking. Experience taught him that faster was better. He gagged, and swallowed hard. Not fast enough.

"God. I forgot how bad it tastes," JD looked longingly at the water jug and Casey obliged with a glass. "Thanks."

"What is it?" Casey asked curiously, looking from him to Jackson and back.

"Silica-alu carrier," Jackson said. He reached over and plucked the grey streaked glass from JD's hand, and refilled it. "Here."

JD looked glumly at it and sighed. "How many did I lose?" How many glasses of that stuff am I going to have to drink, he meant, but didn't ask.

"About ninety percent."

Well, that explained that. Below critical mass the nanites were just motes floating in a maelstrom, incommunicado and focused wholly on replicating back up to optimum. "Are they rebuilding yet?"

Jackson nodded once, and put the glass down on the table by JD's bed. "You might want to consider whether you really want to do this," he said quietly, and JD shrugged.

"Don't s'pose I got much choice." He spread his hands out in front of him and sighed as they shook minutely, the tremors spreading up his arms much too fast. "Looks like they've already started cannibalizing." He folded his hands together and pretended not to see the look on the doctor's face.

Casey held up a peremptory hand. "Whoa! Wait. What? JD, what the hell is going on?"

JD yawned, covering his mouth with his hand. "Sorry." He slid down in the bed, and she tugged the blankets up around his shoulders. He smiled at her, "Thanks."

"Well?"

"My nanites dropped below critical mass; they need that stuff," he nodded at the glass on the side, "to rebuild. Otherwise they start looking for building materials elsewhere. Like me."

She blinked, and his respect for her rose a notch when she didn't ask any of the questions burning at her lips.

"Sounds bad," she said, and he looked at her. There wasn't a trace of the distaste he'd been expecting; instead, he thought he saw pity. It was better than fear.

"It's okay." He shrugged. You got to be pretty blasé about living with something that would eat you from the inside out if anything went wrong. And that was just if nothing worse happened. He glanced at the glass, and reluctantly reached for it. "Can you let me get at a net, Doc?" he asked, and took a gulp. Still tasted awful. Wordlessly Casey handed him another glass of water. He shifted uncomfortably, thinking of the growing pressure on his bladder, when a sharp pain twisted in his stomach and he actually felt the blood leave his face.

"JD?" The doctor was standing right there, a hand on his neck. Dimly he could feel the man nudging at his bio tags.

"Nanites," he gasped. "They've figured out the alu-glass is, is in my..." the word became a groan and for a moment he couldn't even think to get the words out, much less speak, the pain unbearable. The doctor ran a diagnostic reader over him and nodded.

"They seem to be accumulating in the stomach. Interesting." Jackson tilted his head curiously. "You've done this before?"

JD squinted a glare at him. "No, they got into me the first time by -- ow -- magic."

"Unholy magic," Josiah threw in, and JD blinked, then blinked again, and once more, struggling to keep his eyes open. His voice came from a vast distance, and JD vaguely realized he'd been drugged.

"Case -- go -- town -- Travis--" he whispered through the drifting distance, muzzy and uncertain. He had no idea if she had heard or not before the narcotic seized his mind in a stifling blanket and threw him far, far away.

*~^~*~^~*

Steve Apman dragged the cap off the bottle with his teeth and drank thirstily. His leg throbbed painfully just as he put the bottle down and his hand tightened on its neck. "Ops?" he snarled.

A moment later a tentative knock was instantly followed by Timmons peering cautiously into the van. "Sir?"

"What happened?" he fixed the man with a cold, hard stare. His irritation rose as he shifted from foot to foot nervously. "Dammit, Timmons, we can do this the hard way if you want?" He reached a command thread out to his net, and smiled grimly when he flinched.

"The area was mined, and their weapons systems were able to adapt to threat faster than ours." He squared his shoulders and met Steve's furious stare steadily. "Sir, we have mobile systems; they have fixed systems. That automatically enables them to rack more softs; they may even have a full blown AI up there."

"I don't care! Do you understand?"

"Yes sir. I'm sorry, but I can't make our system go up against a full blown AI." He spread his hands helplessly. "No more than I could go up against a Fed warship."

Steve drew a deep breath, and absently uncapped the bottle and took another dose. "You can't do this, you can't do that. What can you do? Tell me one reason to keep your worthless ass on board?"

Sergeant Timmons hesitated, and Steve scowled. "Fine." He pulled his gun and shot the man in the head. Corcoran came running, three or four people trailing her. He gestured at the body. "Get rid of that before it stains the carpet?" Francis looked from the corpse to her boss, and nodded, and gestured to two of the men who had followed her into the vehicle.

"Who would you like to take on Ops, sir?" she asked neutrally.

"Put it on automatic," he said casually. It couldn't be any worse. "Francis?"

"Yes sir?"

"Do you think they have an AI up there?"

He couldn't pick out any reaction from her face as she shrugged slightly and said, "No, sir. I think they were lucky."

"Hm." He gestured to a free seat.

She glanced at it, and refused with a soft 'Thank you'. Her face was bruising nicely, and he spared a moment to wonder how the bruises looked on the rest of her body.

"Lucky?" He invited her to continue.

"A big holoprojector, an automated weapons system. You remember how the holograms flickered once the targeting locks initialized? Their computers couldn't cope with paralleling that many transactions. Lost the lock on the animation."

Steve nodded. That was more like it. "So their systems could be overloaded?"

Francis looked thoughtful. "Possibly. If we gave it too much to focus on at once."

"Make it so," he nodded decisively. Her eyebrows flickered. "Is there a problem, Francis?"

He smiled when she shook her head and backed out of the vehicle. "I'll get a strategy optimized based on your plan, sir." He settled back into his seat and absently took another gulp of the morphate enriched drink. He checked in on the command grid and Francis was already discussing strategies with the team leaders. He smiled as she shut down Ngede as he asked about Ops. The rest of the grid was quiet, and he nodded to himself. None of that chitter-chatter that had clogged up the grid on the last attack and contributed to the attack.

Maybe he should do something about the point team too. They had failed to break into the tinheads' village. Something of an object lesson about failure.

He smiled as the memory of Francis's blackened eyes and cut face swam before him. His eyes closed. Sleep dragged at him, and he nodded. A nap, he'd feel better after a nap, and then he'd deal with it.

*~^~*~^~*

"Any sign?" Chris asked as Vin walked up to the door. Vin shook his head, and Chris looked around, wondering. He couldn't sense anyone either, but sight carried further than mind, and it was easy enough to shield against. Vin was waiting patiently for him to look back, his eyes narrowed against the sun even under the brim of his hat.

"You okay?"

Chris shrugged. "Yeah." He wasn't entirely sure why Vin was asking about him, he wasn't the one who got shot.

Vin grunted, and after a moment added, "And the fed?"

Chris shrugged. "No one's panicking any more." Dunne was quiet, and his junior fed was heading back to town, apparently Joche had convinced her all was well. He turned his head a little to hide a secretive smile. Joche spun a good line. Hell, he might have believed it himself if it wasn't for the little matter of Apman's attack, a number of dead bodies, and still not being able to figure out why he'd woken tied down in a hospital bed. But apart from that, Mere details he mocked himself gently, apart from that, things seemed to have straightened out pretty well. "Jackson says the boy can be moved in a day or so." Vin nodded, and said nothing further. Instead he leaned against the wall, tipping his hat back off his head, and turning his face to the sun.

"You ever figure out what was going on with that Buck guy?" Vin asked after some time.

Pain throbbed deep inside his head and Chris shook his head, trying to dislodge the deep itch, and rubbed harshly at the back of his neck. A few seconds later the silence around them seemed to work on it and the pressure gave way to blissful lack of pain.

"Sorry, what were you saying?"

"You okay?" Vin asked. Chris looked at him, surprised. "Face pinched up." A smile twitched the side of Vin's mouth. "Could be eating invisible lemons, of course."

Chris shook his head, squashing his own smile. "Head. Probably the sun."

Vin looked up at the sky, and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Maybe." Chris thought the cybe was going to let it go, until he sighed. "So. Buck."

The headache flashed back, and Chris closed his eyes against the light, far too bright. "What -- I don't--"

Vin looked at him narrowly. "You were married?"

Chris nodded, trying to push down the old, familiar anger. "Was. Until that bastard killed them."

"Who?"

"Sarah and Adam. My wife and son." Vin was still looking at him as though he'd failed some test. "What?" he snapped. "He walked in one night, and he tied them up, and he poured accelerant all around, and he burned them alive." Tears burned and he looked away until they should fade again. "Satisfied?"

"Nope."

Chris turned, his fist rising already, but it met Vin's cupped palm. The cyborg's grip slipped down to his wrist and grasped firmly; he took another wild swing with his left hand, and swore when that hand was seized too.

"What was his name?"

"I -- I --" He jerked his wrists savagely, to no avail. Vin shook his head.

"I'm not letting go," he said quietly. "I reckon they did something to your mind, priest."

"What the fuck are you talking about, tin man?" he growled. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the clawing pain in his skull.

"Enough!" Vin let go as Josiah emerged from the little building behind them. "Let him be, Vincent."

Chris stumbled back, the force of his own struggles unbalancing him when Vin let go. He reached down and palmed his weapons, his eyes flickering between the two men.

Vin was watching Josiah warily, and Chris couldn't figure it out.

Maybe he just hated all priests. That could explain why Vin had gone crazy on him. He straightened his back and glared, setting the weapons in their pouches, but keeping his hands just above them, resting above his hips.

Vin tilted his head fractionally. "You know about fixin' priests?" he said suspiciously.

Josiah shook his head, his shoulders slumped. "Can't put broken eggs back in the shell."

Vin paused a moment, then asked, "And cracked ones?" He grinned a little at Chris's protesting 'hey!'.

"I've looked for three years for the right kind of glue," Josiah confided, and stepped up to Chris, who held his ground. "Too much glue, not enough solvent." He cupped Chris's face in his hands. "I know a hawk from a handsaw." He looked troubled, and Chris jerked back away from him, feeling vaguely guilty when the man regarded him sadly, but made no effort to approach him again.

"What the hell are you talking about, crazy?"

Josiah smiled, apparently genuinely amused. "Oh no, you mistake me. My sister is the crazy one. I'm just waiting for the south wind." He sighed at the twin blank looks. "What do they teach in schools these days? Chris, I need to talk to you about Buck Wilmington."

*~^~*~^~*

Francis walked rapidly through base camp, thinking furiously. Ops was dead; she was going to have to find a replacement -- and once word got out, which she had no doubt it would, that was going to be nigh impossible.

She paused by the kitchen area, and called out, "Ngede, Halloran, can I have a word?" She kept walking. Somewhere out of the way. The grunts didn't need to hear any of this. She headed into her own quarters and busied herself setting out coffee. The real stuff. Even Apman didn't know she'd been hoarding beans. Her net warned her seconds before she heard footfalls, and said without turning, "Have a seat, gentlemen." She set the coffee to percolating, and took a perch on her desk. "Thanks," she smiled at them. Ngede and Halloran were sitting watching her, both faces blank and composed.

"We're going to have to come up with a revised strategy," she said steadily, looking from one man to the other. "Clearly, intelligence was incorrect about the cybes' village." Ngede snorted, and she allowed herself a brief smile, "Yes, okay, wildly inadequate, captain."

"We took nearly twenty five per cent casualties on that assault," he said in return. "We need more than a strategy, we need to seriously rethink whether this is even a viable target."

"No more frontal assaults, that's for damn sure," Halloran agreed.

"No," Francis nodded, agreeing. "Besides, Ops was reviewing the tapes, and pointed something out to me," which was one of the reasons Apman killed him of course, but there, we never claimed to have some exclusive deal on smart. Or sane. "We've got burn traces of at least three transports moving out from the mountain."

"Out the back door while we're knocking on the front," Halloran said flatly. He scowled and looked away, closing his mouth tightly before he could say any of the incautious words clearly burning on the tip of his tongue.

"Yup."

Ngede slapped his hand on the arm of his chair, "Now will you listen to us? You are merchants, not mercenaries--"

"I beg your pardon?" she cut him off sharply. He was caught in her cold stare and squirmed.

"You haven't had combat experience in ten years, ma'am," he added, reluctantly. "We do. That's why you brought us in. Ops was on the guild contract. When Apman murdered him, he voided the contract."

"Ops was on a support staff contract, and yes, we will be renegotiating that with the rest of staff."

Halloran laughed shortly. "Good luck."

She didn't let them see her wince; they weren't wrong. It was going to be damn near impossible to get anyone in the hot seat now they knew Apman would murder if there were any problems.

"However, the merc contract isn't touched by--"

"Guild law, twelve-fifty. Prima facie evidence of contract breaking behavior includes unlawful execution without trial or benefit of due process of any employee of the contractor, whether guild member or not, whether under contract or not." Ngede said calmly, and lifted an eyebrow at her. "There are exceptions of course, but Sergeant Timmons was neither drawing on Apman, nor under external control." Despite his words he didn't move, and she hoped that meant they weren't about to break contract. Although -- her own contract was guild. Just because she hadn't been back in a while didn't mean she couldn't go. And with Ops dead, Ngede was right, Apman had activated the mortal jeopardy clause. She could leave.

"So you're leaving?"

There was a long silence, until Halloran shifted uncomfortably, and she knew she'd won. All they needed to do was play out the rest of the dance.

"We contracted for a job; it's bad publicity if we walk out," Halloran said finally, not meeting her or Ngede's eyes.

"We have ten dead comrades to avenge," Ngede said, his dark eyes cold and hard. "We shall not leave until that honor is complete."

Ten. The troops were listing Ops as a war death?

"You will have your chance to avenge your fallen--"

"Yes. We will." And she knew that Ngede did not mean to count Ops as a casualty of war. The cybes would only pay for nine of the deaths. There would be a reckoning with Apman. She drew a deep breath.

"Very well. If that's the case, best we look at the information so far."

She offered both men a thread on the data so far -- the destination of the escape transports, the numbers still at the primary installation; enemy combatants --

"You shot a fed?" Halloran remarked. "Not always politic."

"He's a kid; got zero backup, and the local Axe isn't due for a month. We should be long gone."

"Taking evidence with us," Ngede said without looking up.

"Naturally," she agreed. No point setting Clans against feds when they didn't have to. Even if a small part of her wished she could. "The fed's dead by the way." The two men nodded, still running through the rest of the field data.

"The merch was in the transports."

"That would be my assessment, yes."

"Hmm." Halloran frowned. "Secure lock on the destination?"

"No. Tagged them with satcom. The pictures --"

"I see." Halloran nodded and glanced at his fellow team leader. "Ulim?"

"No data on the secondary site?" Ngede asked.

Frances shook her head. "We didn't know they had one until they took off."

He looked politely incredulous, "And no one thought to check?"

"We didn't realize how well prepared they were. Bad planning, bad recon," she didn't back down, "Now, who was on recon and intel?"

Ngede's dark eyes flickered for a second and Francis nodded. "Exactly."

"You have a plan?"

"Steve has a plan," she tried to keep her disdain for it out of her voice, with marginal success. "'Raze them to the ground'."

"Seems counterproductive. No merch left if we do that."

Her lips twitched. Well, the contract was fee plus ten percent of the profits. Steve was too angry to think clearly about this. No profits and the fee rose with penalties.

Ngede sighed, and she waited. "Send a team out for recon up here then," he double tapped a spot on the electronic map, and they both leaned forwards as the scale opened up. "Get a composition sweep off the satellites if we can. What was the analysis on the transports?"

"Hundred and fifty to two hundred passengers," Francis pulled up the relevant section of data. "Depending on body mass and age."

"Two hundred plus if there's a lot of juveniles."

"Yeah." She spared a thought for how it was easier to think of them as juveniles than children. Children were human. These -- weren't. "I was thinking of asking your team to go," she looked at Halloran, ignoring the sudden tension in Ngede's body.

Halloran nodded. "Okay."

"Purely recon. Any trouble, pull straight back out."

"Yes ma'am."

"And if you can plant any jammers or stoppers in the area, so much the better. Requisition 'em if you haven't got enough. I'll leave the quantity up to you, but you're going to have to go in by foot, so don't get too carried away."

"I think we'll figure it out," Halloran said dryly and she smiled.

"I'm sure you will too."

"And my team?"

"I want you to sniff out the primary installation. Make sure we haven't missed anything."

"Ops isn't-- ah," he stopped as she shook her head. Ops' team -- those remaining members of his unit -- were refusing to do anything but maintain pre-existing data streams, and she could hardly blame them. The last guy to show initiative had gotten shot for his pains.

"Okay."

The two men stood and she stood with them. "I'll look forward to your reports," she shook hands with them. "Good luck."

She sat down with a thump after they left, and dropped her head in her hands. The bruising on her face was hot and puffy, and she straightened and leaned over to her emergency med kit. Another go over of the tissue repairer should settle that. She ran the little pack over her face, and peered in the mirror, then did it again, ignoring the burn that was her cells protesting at the speed-heal. The bruises were faded yellow when she finished, and she turned her face to and fro, checking that they didn't show too badly, then put down the TR, mostly satisfied.

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra found himself part of the child-rearing team without quite being sure how it had happened. He'd smiled tentatively at Mareen, and allowed a couple of small children to use him as a substitute bed, and suddenly he was stuck with them.

He was in hell. He was supposed to sell merchandise, not get to know it. Tors tugged at his coat jacket and he forced a smile. "Yes?"

"Wanna go."

Oh good grief.

"Ezra?" Mareen walked up and grinned at him, "Down the corridor, first left." She tugged at Tors' nose, "And don't let her kid you, she's been looking after herself for this sort of thing for three years."

"Aw, Mareen," Tors complained, pouting.

Mareen laughed and turned her around, swatting her on the ass to get her going. "Go on, shoo!" The child ran to the door, turned and poked her tongue out at them, and then scuttled away, laughing.

"Have you eaten, Ezra?" she asked, a little shyly he thought, and he shook his head.

"I have barely had time to do anything but follow young Yenna's instructions."

Mareen nodded, a sad look in her eyes that faded almost immediately. Ezra forbore to ask. "Would you like to eat with me? I was just going to the refectory."

Ezra smiled and held out his arm. "I would be enchanted, my dear," he said gravely, and winked at her when she looked at him doubtfully. She laughed softly, and accepted his arm gingerly.

"The kids'll be fine. They've all stayed here before, they know where everything is."

"What about the younger children?"

Mareen sighed, her pace slowing unconsciously, "Most of the tinies are with their parents. We can't care for them under about three. They need too much attention."

"Children can be demanding little things."

"What? Oh, no, not that exactly." She wasn't going to elaborate, it seemed at first, then added, a little bitterly, "Medical necessity."

"Medical? But--" he looked back, but the door was shut and there was no sign of any of the kids.

Mareen's mouth twisted. "Here's something I bet you didn't know," she said, a hand absently rubbing at her flat stomach. "Half of all cybe pregnancies end before the first trimester. Of those who make it as far as birth, one in four die before the age of three years. Alu-glass poisoning kills another one in ten. Adverse reactions are about one in one hundred in a cybe's lifetime." She looked down into Ezra's face. "The 'attrition rate' of natural borns is half that of createds."

Ezra stared, appalled. "I didn't realize--" Had she lost one? He snatched a quick look at her. She couldn't be more than mid twenties, at most. Why would she have risked a child so early in her life?

"Most meat-folks don't," she said, a little bitterly.

"Do you create -- I'm sorry, it's none of my business."

"No. It isn't." She stopped and looked at him. "The only people still creating cybes are the Church. They have to. The second a cybe buys out, they leave. Gone. Never look back."

"I had no idea."

Mareen shrugged and started walking again. "Refec is this way," she said a minute later. "Take the elevator down to fifth, and turn right -- it's right in front of you."

"Aren't you coming?"

"I don't feel all that hungry for some reason," she said shortly.

Ezra shook his head, and tucked her arm closer. "I can't have that. You deserve a break from those little terrors. I will not mention so much as a hint of a word about any subject of any controversy."

Mareen snorted. "Think you're quite the charmer, don't you?"

Ezra turned up the charming smile and widened his eyes. "Who, me?"

Mareen laughed.

"That's better. Now, let us explore the delights of your refectory."

*~^~*~^~*

Delights were not exactly the right word, but he made no comment on the emergency rations, or on the glass of viscous, faintly glimmering liquid that she -- and most of the cyborgs eating there -- chose to drink with their meal. All the same he was not entirely sorry when a klaxon went off, deafening him. Mareen tilted her head for a second, then swore. "Playtime's over, Ez," she said and pushed her chair back. "Back to work."

"Of course." He grabbed up the energy bar and hurried after her. "Only, what exactly is happening?"

She glanced quickly at him, then slide a quick, cool hand over the back of his neck before he could duck away. "Huh."

"My parents' choice," Ezra said in response to her pursed lips.

"It's going to make things difficult for you. We might have an adaptor somewhere. I think we tried one on Nathalie."

"Adaptor?"

"Plug you into the grid."

"Would this not do?" He held out his wrist, and she shrugged.

"Maybe. I'd have to ask Teccy." She peered at the bracelet and shook her head. "How you people survive, head blind and mushy like you are." She shrugged again and let go of him. "Teccy says if you have the frequency 87.2 opened up, he can patch you."

Ezra blinked. "That was quick." He carefully concentrated on opening the named frequency, leaving a DMZ between the outside broadcasts and his own neural net, just in case.

That's better, Mareen said cheerfully, and Ezra stumbled.

"Telepathy?"

Mareen shook her head. "Short range radio."

"Thank god for that," he muttered.

"If you were a proper human being, of course, you'd have telepathy," she added casually, and he gaped at her before catching the twinkle in her eyes.

"What was the alarm about?" he asked, trying to forestall the flirting.

"We've got a mercenary group trying to survey this site and the main base."

Ezra's eyebrows lifted. "That was quick."

Mareen nodded grimly. "We didn't have a choice. We had to move the kids out." she smiled faintly. "Now they're here we can put the failsafe into action."

"Failsafe?"

"Ezra, I like you, I really do, but a girl has to have her secrets."

"Especially the ones relating to the safety of her family."

"Especially those ones, yes."

*~^~*~^~*

Once hooked into the public grid, Ezra was riveted by the ongoing traffic. Everything from systems to logistics seemed to route through public first. He wondered what exactly they considered too sensitive to share with an outsider. It was only when he tried to reach a thread out of the base that he found out.

"Sorry, Mr. Standish," a male voice said to him even as his thread was blocked. "No externals until you've been verified by the council." He didn't sound remotely sorry.

"Of course," he agreed calmly. Well, it was hardly surprising, even if it was going to make things harder. Okay then. He squared his shoulders. Mareen was nowhere in sight and he had work to do. He looked around thoughtfully. The thought nagged at him that it would only take two children to pay off his debts. Maybe even gain a little goodwill from the Church while he was at it. Restore errant cybes with proven genome to their eager embrace. He controlled his facial expression, his biofeedback keeping every autonomic system under steady, ruthless control. There was a relationship with little Tors already, he thought. It would be easiest to take her; her and maybe Hassan, or one of the tinies.

He shivered a little, and pursed his lips, telling himself it was the idea of genetic modification that crossed the germ line. Heritable cyborgs. Natural born. Natural. No. The tinies would require steady supplies of alu-glass, and Jeshu knew what else. Best stick to the ones more or less up to spec.

It was a pity he hadn't been able to call up his ship, but he could work around it.

The important thing was that he get the kids -- the stock, he corrected himself firmly. Bad enough that he'd made friends with it. He knew enough distancing techniques. Time he started using them, he told himself firmly.

Tors danced up to him and smiled, and he smiled back before he could stop himself.

"Ezra, come an' play," she insisted, and grabbed his hand. He blinked a little, and added another difficulty to the list. It looked like it might be harder than expected to forcibly move a cy-kid. Stock, he corrected, and closed his eyes. No wonder he had wound up on a dead end planet one step away from being a child minder. He really wasn't fit for anything else.

"Come on!"

"I'm comin', child, I'm coming. Good lord, a little patience wouldn't go amiss."

"Show us a game, Ezra," she insisted, and he smiled weakly at her.

"Have you ever played Olly-olly infree?"

She shook her head, along with several others, and he smiled. "Well, it's a little like hide and go seek..."

*~^~*~^~*

Josiah sighed. The hardest things in the world to say were also the shortest. He is dead. They lied. It's over. He walked away from Larabee and found a comfortable looking rock, and sat on the ground against it. "Join me," he said, and Larabee folded his arms.

"Talk."

"Drink first." He took a flask out of his shoulder bag and sniffed at it before tipping a mouthful back. His eyes watered, and he wiped at his mouth before holding it out. "Trust me, it's better this way." Reluctantly, Larabee sat down near him, and took the bottle. He too sniffed at it cautiously, his eyebrows shooting up before taking a generous swig.

The man had to have an asbestos throat, Josiah thought, watching with interest as Larabee showed no sign of discomfort, but instead took another mouthful before handing it back.

"Good stuff," he complimented, and Josiah inclined his head.

"I stole it direct from the monastery," he confided, and sighed. The fire dimmed in his belly and a slow, warm lethargy slid through his veins. The world slipped back a pace, and the voices became only whispers. Larabee laughed under his breath.

"Always go direct to the source," he agreed, and blinked owlishly. Well, maybe the man wasn't as tolerant of the firewater as all that.

Where to begin? There was the easy place, and the hard place. He sighed again, and considered the flask for along moment.

"Well, crazy-man?" Larabee asked, apparently tired of waiting.

"I'm thinking on it," Josiah told him, and frowned, chasing thoughts that seemed to swim away, the truth refracting just that little bit away from his grasp.

"I have a sister," he said. He was going to need more firewater.

"Congratulations. Did Buck kill her too?"

Josiah half smiled. Well, at least the firewater was working. "No. Contrariwise you might say." He pulled the cap off the flask and sniffed. Maybe in a minute.

He waited for the thought to percolate through Larabee's less than sober brain. When it seemed there would be no reaction, he shrugged and took a little sip. Hmm. He capped it again and put the flask down between them. "Hannah has some problems," he confided. "A little like you." He thought for a moment, "Well, if you were female, the daughter of a Church Inquisitor who sold you to a breed farm and then had you excommunicated when you tried to charge him with rape and unlawful imprisonment."

Larabee said nothing and Josiah stared at the flask. She won, of course. Their father had never been one to do things the legal way if there was a principle -- or a quick buck -- to be had.

Then the baby died. He'd never really gotten to the bottom of that -- if he'd been there maybe he'd have known, or been able to find out how and why. But by the time he heard and came tearing back, she was already in the hands of the Sisters. She was feeling much better by then.

Much better. Scarily better. Larabee wasn't the first PI to be recruited because of latent psi and a tendency towards incipient insanity.

"I asked a friend in the Sisters to look after her. They took care of everything." Court case, cyborg baby, lunatic teenager... Everything. The Little Sisters of the Compassionate, the Merciful. So compassionate, so merciful. Such good doctors.

A reaction. Larabee looked up, and away again.

"Yeah. You spent some time there too. Right after the fire."

Larabee nodded and his eyes drifted back to the firewater. "I don't remember much," he said as though to the ground, but Josiah heard.

"Have some more. It helps me think more clearly," Josiah told him sadly.

For a moment Larabee didn't move, then he leaned over and took the flask, tilted it back, eyes closed.

"Do you remember having a Calling before you went there?"

Larabee looked up silently but Josiah ignored him. "Hannah didn't. Six weeks there, and she was as sane as--" he hesitated. Perhaps sane wasn't the word he was looking for. "The sisters look for a certain sort of --" he stopped again. "The sisters maintain the breeding lines for cyborgs and some others." Which didn't say enough by half.

He held out his hand and Larabee passed him the flask. "Mendeleyev," he said with a snort. That stuff definitely improved on acquaintance.

"The cybe?"

"You know who Mendeley -Mendelee-- Joche's name comes from?"

Larabee shook his head and took the flask back.

"Peas."

Larabee blinked.

"Pretty peas. And monks."

The further elaboration didn't seem to produce enlightenment. "Genes; cross breeding." He eyed the flask and left it where it was. "Cybes are the Church's big success story. No offense, " he added, twisting around to look at Tanner, who looked bemused, and shrugged.

"Ain't all that of a success," he said laconically.

Josiah laughed silently, "Sure. How much is that want worth again, son?" and laughed again as Tanner turned away.

"Big success," he repeated. "And they weren't even looking for it."

Funny. The firewater didn't seem to make it that much easier after all. How to say it?

"They didn't mean to kill Adam."

Larabee froze. "Hannah told me. They were," he drew a deep breath, "they were watching the blood line. Your reaction times in the war were -- too fast."

Larabee shook his head. "What?"

"You got yourself flagged up, soldier. And then you married into a suspected empath line. Everything was fine, and then," Josiah shook his head, "I don't know what went wrong. Sometimes the sisters -- my sister -- are less coherent than they could be. You went away. A milk run. So you left them. And something happened to them, and when you came home, they were all gone."

"Sarah--"

"I'm morally certain no one was meant to die. Hannah tells me no one was meant to die." He didn't dare look up. It was bad enough that he could feel the maelstrom of Larabee's emotions, even through the double dulling of far too much firewater. "I believe there was some -- miscommunication. They were supposed to harvest Adam -- Adam's genetic code, get a sample for the records. From what I know, Buck suspected something was wrong at the clinic and took Adam home again, and--"

Larabee's face was white and motionless. "And they died."

"Yes." Josiah sighed. "Or, no, not entirely."

"What?"

"Buck isn't dead," he said flatly. "Whoever murdered Sarah and Adam, and I have no idea who it was, because someone a long way up the tree is protecting them, decided to scapegoat Buck. I believe they may even have seen it as the ideal wedge to take you into the Church and keep you there."

"Buck didn't kill them?" Larabee asked numbly.

"No, Chris. Your husband did not kill your wife and son."

Chris didn't move, his expression didn't change, and even the winter edge of his mind only shivered a brief second, a blade of ice, as sharp and as fragile, dissolving.

"But Buck killed them." He spoke it as an article of the faith.

"No." Josiah reached a hand out and pressed it to Chris's face. "No, son, he didn't. He couldn't ever have done it. Remember?"

And he pushed.

*~^~*~^~*

Chris fell.

tumbling into nothing /
Disappearing. voices, whispering, Buck's voice an undertrack to the roar, words indecipherable as he strained to understand. A child's high laugh, shrill over the waterfall of sounds, a scatter of glittering madness.

Sarah -- take care, Chris -- take care Chris --

bodies, rolling, tumbling, faceless, eyeless, screaming, black, hollow eyes burning

zhangfu...

fire, red dancing in the edges of his vision, flickers, turning, twisting, come out,
come out where I can see you!

Ah, Chris... Chris, it's okay Chris, you'll be fine... Chris, listen to me...

No one there. Blackened ashes, greasy, staining his fingers, acrid on his lips. oh, nothing, nothing, a rag, a hank of hair, bones roasted in a shell of emptied flesh, crackling underfoot, death, every, death...

He wanted those arms around him, that voice wrapping him, come back, Buck, please, come back...

words whisper on, not hearing, am I here? am I real? Am I dead?

Adam was tugging at his sleeve, "Dad, Dad, I want to come too!"

Buck scooped him up under one arm, "And leave your Mom and me?" he pouted.

"Daaaad!"

Chris laughed and ruffled Adam's hair, one arm wrapped around Sarah who was smiling at him.

"You be quick home, Chris," she ordered, and dragged him down for a kiss that left him gasping and aching for her.

"Hmm. Competition," Buck said cheerfully as Sarah let Chris go, and leaned down to kiss her too.

"Hey!" Chris protested, laughing, "I'm the one meant to be getting the farewell!"

"Hmm," Buck took his time, and then grinned at Chris. "I guess we can carry on after he's out the way." He put Adam down and wrapped both arms around Chris. "Gonna miss you," he whispered, kissing him as thoroughly as he had kissed Sarah, warm and solid. He didn't want to go, tightening his arms around Buck, then reaching out to pull Sarah in too. He leaned back from Buck a little, breathing fast, and blindly kissed Sarah's cheek, her lips, the two of them so real in his arms, bodies pressed against him, their love burning like a living thing. They stood like that for a long moment until Adam elbowed his way into the middle of them and glowered up at them. "Me too!" and they smiled into each others' eyes, and Buck reached down and Adam scrambled up and locked his arms around Chris's neck.

"Bye, Dad. Come home quick!"

"Out of the mouths of babes," Sarah smiled, and swatted at Chris's butt. "Sooner you're gone, sooner you're home."

Chris took a step back. Adam hung between him and Buck for a moment and then let go, leaning his head on Buck's shoulder.

Chris found a smile from somewhere for him, "I'll be back before you know it," he said, looking his son square in the face.

"Promise?"

"I promise."

"Okay." Adam gave a huge sigh.

"You still here?" Sarah teased. "Don't forget the coffee this time."

He snorted and swung into the pilot seat of their small transport. "Cupboard love. It's fine until you want something, but then it's go away, Chris; sell the foals, Chris; Chris, bring me flowers."

Buck grinned and called "Damn straight! None of your cheap bouquets either! Orchids and bellflowers!"

"And diamonds!" Sarah called.

"As well ask for the Moon!" Chris laughed.

Buck looked thoughtfully at the transport, "Well, if you think it would fit..."

"And chocolate!" Adam joined in and Chris shook his head, still laughing as the door closed. Buck's voice carried over the sound of the engine turning over.

"Coffee!" Buck was on his knees. "For the love of God, Chris, the coffee!"

He activated the external mic. "Remember that position for later," he called, and pulled up and away, but not before he heard Adam asking,

"What's Dad mean? Mom? Why's Dad laughing?" and nearly losing control of the control yoke he was laughing so hard.

The last thing he heard was Sarah Connelly yelling, "You just wait, Christopher Larabee!"

let me be dead...

want death...

"Chris!"

Fire burned his stomach and he swallowed trying to hold it back, but failed. A disgusted noise told him someone had been too close. The voices quieted to a murmur, the low rise and fall of unshielded minds whispering.

... madman, crazy, danger, danger, restrain him, drug him, hold him...

Kill him.

A low note under the babble.

A whisper in the storm. You're going to die, you know...

And his last thought was yes, yes, let me die...

*~^~*~^~*

JD stared, hand half outstretched, not knowing what to do, too shocked to do more than watch as Josiah and Joche dragged Chris Larabee into the little clinic, each man taking an elbow. Chris was struggling wildly, twisting, kicking, biting -- but completely silent.

Nathan turned sharply, took in the scene with one sharply indrawn breath, then with swift, efficient moves opened a case. He grabbed a patch from what looked to be a box of sedative doses and rushed over. There was no chance at first, Chris was struggling too violently and he was reduced to hovering near, the sedative patch flat in the palm of his hand waiting for the least opportunity to slap it onto Larabee.

"Do it!" Josiah snarled at him. The old priest had always sounded whimsical before, halfway mad some days, halfway sane others, but never quite to scary to JD as he was in that moment. Now he sounded like thunder, a whip-crack edge to his words that jolted even JD to move for all that his body refused more than getting up into a sitting position.

Nathan joined in the battle to control Chris. JD saw a glimpse of white eyes, rolling back as Chris's back arched -- one hand slammed out and Tanner caught it, held it. The cyborg crouched next to Chris, making the grip look effortless even as Chris's skin showed white around his fingers.

"Getting to be a habit, peng yu," Tanner said mildly, adjusting his hold on Chris, immobilizing that arm out full length. "Doc?" There was a confused struggle for supremacy, a ripping sound, and Chris's shirt was torn and Nathan's dark hand slapped hard against the pale skin of his chest, pressing and holding until the patch stuck. The dark hand lifted away, leaving a little white square in the middle of a red palm print, and then all the hands were pulling away, and Chris was crumpling in on himself, eyes closing. His lips moved words stumbling for escape, but no sounds came out, and JD winced at the look on the man's face, at the tears and the rough agony, and looked away, embarrassed to be a witness to such pain.

"He'll sleep now," Nathan said, and Joche nodded, letting go, stepping back.

"For how long?"

Nathan pursed his lips. "Couple of hours at least. The patch is unpredictable on psi."

Joche nodded. "We have enough time then."

"For?" Tanner asked before JD could.

"Getting out."

"I thought we were going to stay," JD blurted, and Joche threw him a glance and said simply, "No." JD subsided, reddening, feeling as though he'd missed something obvious, even though he couldn't imagine what it was. Which didn't improve things.

He shook his head, frowning, then felt the weight of eyes on him, and met Tanner's. The man's face was expressionless, and JD felt like he was being judged and found wanting. By the guy who'd mind ripped him, he reminded himself, but his eyes were drawn back to the still form lying on the floor.

"It's not fair," he said helplessly, his eyes on Chris. He didn't quite mean to say it, but Tanner's face softened a little, even if JD did feel like just finding a hole and pulling it in after him.

"Life ain't fair."

JD pressed his lips together tightly and nodded once, then again, more firmly. Yes. Life wasn't fair. "I meant -- I saw a picture," he said quietly, he wasn't quite sure who to. "They looked happy." He looked at Chris as long as he could bear to, then away again, and swallowed. It wasn't fair. Even Buck would -- wait -- where was Buck?

He froze for just a second and even as Tanner looked over, catching the minute change in his posture, remembered, and reached instead for his glass of medicine. A thin line drew itself between Tanner's eyebrows as he took in the alu-glass JD was drinking. JD ignored it and concentrated on getting the disgusting stuff down and keeping it down. He wasn't a cybe. This was medicine, and he wasn't a cybe. He unclenched his free fist and smoothed out the sheet.

"Does that happen often?" he blurted, nodding at Larabee.

"To priests?" Tanner asked, and JD nodded.

The man shrugged a little, and shook his head. "Depends."

"On what?"

Vin shrugged again, his eyes on Larabee. "On what they did to break him open." Something in his tone told JD to leave it, ask no more questions. Nonetheless, the questions teemed beneath the surface. Who were 'they'? 'Break'? Did someone torture Larabee, and for what? Why? Was that why someone had murdered his family? Did he know something or do something, or have something -- his imagination ran riot, a thousand mystery novels and conspiracy stories feeding it.

JD looked again at Larabee, and the man looked frail and broken, splayed out on the tiled floor.

JD jumped when Josiah walked around Chris and, to his growing unease, came over to JD. He leaned against the side of the bed, so close JD felt the urge to back up, and reflexively leaned away, obscurely threatened by his proximity. Josiah brushed a hand over JD's white knuckles where he unconsciously gripped the mattress, and whispered, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them." He nodded and walked away to stare down at Chris as he lay, sleeping, still twitching as he slept. "Good instincts."

Yeesh. JD rolled his eyes and spoke without thinking. "You know, once, just once I wish someone could manage to not be cryptic Kelly around here, okay?"

Joche turned sharply to face him. "This isn't the time or the place, even if I wanted to, to educate an ignorant little off-world fed," and it wasn't clear as he spat out the description which part offended him more -- JD being from Celaeno instead of Tianya, or his job, "in the realities of the Church of Humanity."

JD flinched then squared his shoulders. "Look, I can't help if no one will tell me what's happening," he said as firmly as he could. Was he the law around here or not? The thought slid through his mind that maybe he had better not ask that question out loud...

"You know what's happening, kid," Tanner said laconically, and leaned down to lift Chris easily onto the other bed. Nathan pulled the covers down and then draped them over Chris, covering him gently. "As much as any of us," he added almost to himself, tilting a look at Josiah. "Though maybe there's them as know more than most."

Josiah looked back at him, and then lifted his head to look around the room and meet all the men watching him. He seemed about to speak, and then laughed, pointing towards the wall. They all looked, but there was nothing there, and when they looked back at the old priest he was slouched on a chair by Chris's bed, seemingly asleep.

*~^~*~^~*

Night fell. JD slept noiselessly in his bed. The kid was improving with every minute Nathan had claimed, with a grimace that suggested that he wasn't all that happy about it either. Josiah reckoned Nathan preferred his clients to let him do the work, not have bio-mech medics on call in their very bloodstream, putting him out of work. Vin was outside, along with Joche, watching the approaches to the village. Josiah smiled as a grunt from Nathan attracted his attention. He lifted his eyes to where Nathan was curled up in the improvised bed on the floor. The man half woke himself up and turned over, mumbling unintelligibly, swatting at his pillow as though to beat it into submission, then subsided again.

Chris made some small, pained sound. To Josiah it sounded like "fire..." His face lost its mask and deep, wrenching grief tugged at him. He stood and turned away, walking to the single light burning in the night.

"I know," For a moment Josiah's body blocked the light, his shadow casting a terrible darkness over the room. He turned, and accepted it, the truth behind the lies. When he moved the shadow dwindled, and he was only a man, old, and sad. He walked back to Chris's still form. "I know."

Chris didn't move, and for a long while Josiah simply watched.

"I'm sorry, Christopher," he said softly. "Are you listening to me in there?" He touched the soft blond hair, brushed it back. "Or are you walking?"

He closed his eyes. This was -- not his fault, but his responsibility. He had chosen to make it so.

"Even if Buck had died," he said quietly, "it wouldn't be the end. Not for Buck at least. Maybe not for you either."

He waited, and then composed himself. Time to try again.

*~^~*~^~*

"Chris," A world suddenly laid itself out before them, a vast, white plain. Featureless. Empty. "Chris."

Chris turned. "Where is this?"

"You know where." Josiah looked around. "You just need to see."

Shapes formed under the surface. Curious he walked towards the nearest one, and it was as though a sheet, thin, insubstantial, and stronger than anything he knew, lay over the shape. He tugged at it, and nothing moved.

"That's not enough, Chris." Chris looked up. Josiah was in color. The reds and browns of his battered haphazard clothing made him look dirty, out of place, wrong.

"Violence wrought this," he gestured at the landscape that shuddered and twisted as his hand pointed at it, curving up in jagged lines that didn't quite subside. "You want it. You know the shape of it."

Chris shook his head. "You're crazy, old man."

Josiah nodded. "Yes."

Chris wound his hands in the white fabric and pulled, harder and harder until the fibers embedded themselves in his hands, but still they held, refused to tear. Nothing changed.

"It is not enough to demand change," Josiah said, walking towards him. He held out his hands. They were full of something black, that scattered and fluttered to the ground as though a wind lifted ashes and tumbled them -- no!

"You have to want to know. You have to want to remember. You have to want to change." He was standing by Chris now, and his hands turned over, and somehow the world was filled with ash, and it outlined the figure under the sheet, a woman lying on a bier, and somewhere in the blank, barren world a man screamed, "Sarah!"

The fabric tore apart, bleeding from its edges, and he was looking at a blackened, bloated face, and he dropped to his knees, incoherent with grief, the only word left a never ending, ever-echoing, unanswered, 'no'.

Ash drifted, gritty on his tongue, bitter between his teeth, stinging his eyes. He wiped at them and felt liquid smear. He pulled his hand away and there was blood on his own hands -- "Buck?"

"Remember the rest, Christopher--"

Chris looked at Josiah, and instead of the crazy old man saw a man, strong and powerful, hair clipped, clean shaven, immaculate in the robes of a Priest Inquisitor.

He stumbled backwards, and the man's face grew sad. "Ah. You begin to remember," he said softly.

"I know you."

"Yes."

"I--" and it was gone, lost, tumbling away into ash-stained night.

Chapter Text

The first thing he noticed was the silence. The second, almost simultaneous with it, almost certainly what woke him, was the hand over his mouth.

"Hush," a rough voice said very, very softly, and JD's eyes flew open to see a stranger in battle fatigues leaning over him. The man's other hand held a gun and JD swallowed and nodded awkwardly. "Good boy." JD tried to move and the man smirked as he saw him tug at the restraints binding wrists and legs.

"Who are you?" JD demanded. "Let me go! Don't you know--"

"JD, shut up!" Buck said urgently, and JD's head snapped up, eyes wide as he met Buck's.

"Buck?" His smile vanished as the gun pointing at him jerked up to press against his forehead, right above the bridge of his nose. He froze.

"I said shut up, fed!"

JD closed his mouth tightly, and risked a glare at Buck, standing across the room. Instantly the man pulled a second weapon and, without losing his lock on JD's forehead, looked around to see what he was looking at.

"He already knew," JD said as quietly as he could.

Buck shook his head. "Never, ever volunteer information. Especially when someone wakes you up holding all the cards and a gun to boot."

JD glanced at the intruder and back at Buck. He wanted to grin -- Buck was back, his nanites were back! -- and stopped himself. How long had he slept anyway? He looked for a clock or a calendar and then crossed his eyes in annoyance with himself, and checked in first with his internal chips. He sighed with relief, then held still as the intruder whirled.

"Don't move!"

He shook his head, eyes wide, and Buck sighed. "Kid, just lie there and wait for the real heroes to come and help." He looked around and hesitated. "Where are we anyway?"

JD glared at him. You want quiet or answers? he thought, irritated, and Buck's smile widened.

"There. Thought so," he said smugly, and JD clenched his fists in frustration.

"Thought what?"

"Thought they'd tried to make a cybe out of you."

JD felt the blood drain from his face, and shook his head. "No."

"Shhh," Buck said swiftly, but too late. The intruder turned his weapon and slammed the stock into the side of JD's face. "I said, shut up!" JD's head rocked, and for a long moment he could do nothing except blink tears from his eyes as the bruise puffed up and then slowly eased again.

Where are the others? JD asked silently once he regained control of himself. Buck shrugged.

"No idea," he said easily, and perched on the edge of the bed. "How you doing?"

JD stared at him, not understanding why the man was asking, then shrugged. Okay, I guess, he said hesitantly.

Buck looked at him oddly, then shook his head as if to say 'never mind.'. "Define 'okay'?"

JD closed his eyes, and shivered a little as Buck remained in view, reminding him that the man was a projection from inside his nanites, not the discorporeal ghost that he appeared to be.

"Kid?"

I'm checking, all right? Give me a minute. JD started sorting through his systems, sector by sector looking for updates on hard, soft and wet ware.

"Sure." But Buck was straight on to the next thing that occurred to him, without waiting, and JD felt oddly let down at that. "Can you get us in one of those virtual rooms again?"

JD shrugged, a little uncomfortable that Buck could read his mind or hear him thinking or whatever it was he was doing. Maybe he could. If he could get a line to a external processor it would be a snap -- if.

Buck waited, drumming his fingers until JD opened his eyes again and glared at him. to his surprise the soldier was standing at the doorway, almost exactly where Chris had been earlier, facing out, and talking to someone.

"...secured."

"Pity," the woman's voice was cool and clipped, and he shivered a little, closing his eyes to a slit. "Keep him quiet -- no mistakes this time, Nataweh."

"Yes, ma'am." The soldier saluted, hand to near shoulder, holding the position until footsteps faded. "Wasn't me made the mistake in the first place," he muttered under his breath. "And if Apman finds out, we're both dead."

JD and Buck looked speculatively at each other, then as the man turned to walk back into the clinic JD wordlessly closed his eyes again, and started feeding threads into the ether.

Buck was muttering next to him, and JD gritted his teeth, tuning out the man's voice as best he could. Everything was working just fine. The nanites poured data into his bios and he bit at the inside of his mouth to hide his smile. The patching could come off. The nanites were binding his injury, converting from blood cells to skin and muscle. He sighed a little. There was a thread... He reached out gently for it and was horrified when it wrapped around him and dragged him forcibly into some unknown grid.

"JD?" He knew that voice -- didn't he?

"Buck?"

"Nope." He blinked several times and slowly the room cleared -- if you could call it a room. The setting was open air, cool air seemed to flow over his face, and he looked around, horrified to see the cyborg. He backed away, reaching desperately for a way out.

"What've you done?!" He couldn't find a line out, and started to panic. Tanner had already gone for him once -- what if the cybe had changed sides on them, wanted to rip him again--

"What the hell--" Buck's voice was welcome, but JD didn't take his eyes off Tanner.

"Keep away from me!" JD said, but Tanner ignored him.

"Who the hell are you?" Tanner looked completely confounded at Buck's appearance and JD instantly tried to slam a thread back out of the room, taking advantage of his distraction. He nearly made it, finding his body with real relief, and dragging himself back towards it.

"Wait -- I need to talk to you!" Tanner said urgently. He grabbed at JD's arm. "Who the hell is that?"

"Let go of me!" JD jerked his arm away, but Tanner's grip simply shifted, and hard as JD tried, he couldn't break his hold. "I said let go!"

Buck grinned and stalked in close, "None of your business who I am, son. Now, I thought I heard my friend here ask you to leave him alone?"

Tanner barely gave him a glance and Buck smiled happily. "I have a theory," he said conversationally, and reached out. JD stared, then grinned as Buck's hands gripped Tanner's shoulders and dragged him away from JD.

"What d'ya know about that?" he added, and pulled an arm back and let fly. "Wow." He shook his hand out, still grinning as Tanner hit the ground. "That felt good."

Tanner shook his head dizzily, one hand at his jaw as he worked it slowly, and JD gripped at Buck in some way that he wasn't sure he understood, much less could describe, and dragged them back to the clinic.

"Wait!" Tanner said urgently. JD paused, shook his head, and slid away -- almost cleanly. A thin thread stretched out and over it Tanner called.

"Kid, kid. Don't you wanna escape?"

JD hesitated. A thousand things poured through his mind -- Tanner had hurt him; cyborgs weren't trustworthy, not ever; where were the others? What had happened? Why had he been left behind, abandoned? Was Casey okay? How had Buck followed him...

"Buck?" he asked.

Buck stood next to him. "Your call, kid," he said, eyes dark and solemn. His eyebrows twitched up for a moment. "I ain't apologizing though."

JD half smiled. "Wouldn't ask you to," he agreed solemnly, and they grinned at each other before he nodded. "Okay then."

He followed the thread held out and slid back into the virtual environment that Tanner had set up.

"No need to apologize," Tanner told Buck mildly.

"Well, that's real generous of you but-- "

"I'll take it out of you later," he added before Buck could finish, and turned to JD. "What the hell is he anyway? Private nanny?"

"Hey!" JD protested, simultaneously with Buck and they glared at each other briefly before JD turned the glare back on Tanner.

"He's Buck."

Tanner's eyebrows lifted and his eyes widened taking his face from sleepy calm to full alertness. "Wilmington," he said softly, nodding to himself. "Well, that would explain it."

"You know me?" Buck said, startled.

"Of. Know of you."

"And what do you know of me?" Buck asked. He slouched, his arms folded, looking as though he couldn't care less.

"Well, mostly, what Chris Larabee told me when he woke up in chains about two hours ago."

Buck's eyes widened, and then he grinned. "Well, now."

JD rolled his eyes. "Oh, please."

*~^~*~^~*

Chris woke with the vague dissociated feeling that he equated with drugs. He wondered if he'd taken them intentionally, or if someone had given them to him. He didn't much like drugs, unless they were the kind he could drink down or inhale to forget the past. A stinging sensation suggested that a patch had been ripped off his chest recently, and he controlled his reaction. Drugged then. Probably by that damn quack.

"Chris?"

He didn't open his eyes. He didn't see the point.

"Chris -- are you awake?" He knew that voice. Nonetheless he didn't respond. Buck had talked to him when he'd been cellstopped, he remembered. Maybe dead people would come and talk to him again if he nearly died.

That sounded good.

He'd thought Buck would be angry at him -- he couldn't quite remember why he'd thought it, but he had. But Buck loved him. Loved him and Sarah and Adam. Was Buck dead? It was harder to control his face, and tears leaked from his eyes before he could stop them. He made no move to wipe them away.

She'd told him it was good to cry. Good to mourn and weep, and plan ahead. What was her name? Hannah.... Doctor Sanchez. Priest Inquisitor Sanchez. He wondered if she was any relation to Josiah, and found the thought funny. She hadn't had his heavy jaw, or his madness. Buck was dead? If he was dead it wasn't his fault. God. All of them gone...

The stink in his nose...

He'd buried them, but he couldn't remember if it had been three bodies or two. He remembered seeing Adam; identifying him, barely marked, dead of suffocation under Sarah's protecting body. And seeing Sarah, a long lock of reddish hair, the unblemished shape of a pair of fingers saved, half buried under her body as the flames roared around them. The rest of her blackened and blistered. His stomach churned, but for once he didn't push it away. He watched the memory, let it play out, and somehow it was less painful than it had been. And he wondered where Buck was. Where was his body, if he was dead.

If he wasn't dead, he killed them, something whispered and he held still, let the thought drift through, pretending not to notice it, not to hear it, and it spoke again, maybe Buck did it. Maybe he was jealous of them. Murdered them... Just him and Chris, like it had been once.

It sounded like him, and he waited. Maybe Buck killed them, it said again, and he grabbed the thought and dragged it into the light. Abruptly he was in a quiet room, listening to a woman whispering words he couldn't quite hear. The words drifted into his mind, sounding like his own thoughts, his own voice, drifting through the confusion and misery. At one and the same time he was speaking them, knew them for his own, and also heard them and knew they were a construct, that the whisperer was feeding his fears, his nightmares, the darkest horrors of his fractured mind; finding cracks and driving poisoned knives into them.

Where was Buck? Had he really heard him in Last Chance? Not imagined that soft voice? Not imagined the man himself, walking towards him, a shadow in sunlight. A ghost.

So -- dead then?

Nothing left to stay alive for, some part of himself said, slowly, and when he examined the thought he could find nothing to disagree with. His gut said, yes, let us die.

Buck dead -- then time to let revenge go?

Revenge for Buck?

How did he die, he wanted to know, he needed to know it was as bad as Sarah and Adam, but Buck hadn't killed them, or if he had, he was dead too, and his mind tried to shut away the thoughts, not true, it can't all be true, something is wrong, something is the lie--

where is the lie?

Who lied?

Liar!

"Chris!"

He surged up, and his hands gripped at the throat of the man next to him.

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Larabee, this is getting pretty fucking old, okay?" A strong pair of hands pulled his away from warm flesh. "We've got bigger troubles than your personal private fucking trauma."

"That's a little harsh," Josiah said and Chris blinked, deliberately relaxed. He did know that voice, though there was something wrong with it... he couldn't think what. He opened his eyes and met eyes that glittered with a scatter of tiny silver capillaries among the more normal red.

"You going to try to kill me again or can he let go?" Vin asked, faint grin on his lips.

He shook his head minutely, and Josiah released him. Not that he had much freedom of movement after. His eyebrows lifted as he felt the chains on his wrists and sat up. He lifted his hands, turning them.

"Don't knock it, Larabee," Vin said, and very gingerly lifted his own wrists. He couldn't see why at first, and then Vin shifted his hands slightly and hissed as a thin line of blood appeared and smeared on his wrist.

"Monofilament," he said. "Reckon they were more bothered by the idea of a cybe getting loose than a priest." He lowered his hands very carefully to rest on his thighs. "You feeling more awake now?"

Chris nodded once, and looked around. "Would someone like to explain?"

"Gas grenade," Vin said concisely.

Which explained why he, Josiah, Vin, Joche and the doctor were sitting in a line in a military style transport. Across the vehicle facing them were four mercenary guild members, guns trained on them. Clearly not under orders to intervene if the prisoners started fighting among themselves.

"Church has a standing agreement with the Guild," he started and Josiah snorted.

"I tried that." He lifted his manacled hands. "This was their concession." He nodded over to Nathan and Joche, who, like Vin, were sitting very, very still, the barely visible threat of monofilament wire holding them more securely than any manacles might.

They were moving, and Chris nodded. "When do we talk to who's in charge?"

"You don't," one of the mercenaries said.

Chris looked at him, and the man eventually looked away.

"What's our destination?" he asked, "Have you notified the Church you're illegally holding two of its priests?"

The lead mercenary gave him a disbelieving look, and Chris shrugged, smiling sweetly. "Just checking. Cybe testimony from encrypted memchips is still valid in court?"

Nathan laughed and tried to smother the sound with a cough. "Reckon it is," he said mildly.

Chris leaned back and closed his eyes, a small smile settling on his lips as the mercenaries shifted uneasily but said nothing.

The kid wasn't there. He wondered what that meant -- if it meant anything. No point asking. There was a chance the mercs didn't know about him. Not that he was much of a hole card. Though thinking of hole cards, that card sharp was with the cybes. Maybe he'd be able to help. No way this wasn't connected. Guild took Apman's money, they'd play the contract right out.

Seemed to him that they were most likely under death orders. Only reason that the Guild would refuse to follow standard terms.

But that didn't make sense. No one pissed off the Church. Leaving the kid behind sounded like someone, somewhere, was still operating on common or garden good sense. Strange. He was used to the Church outweighing the feds in terms of sheer terror. Although, this was a federal world. No church outposts. Apman was the closest to Hegemony interests. Maybe Apman or whoever was buffering his commands had had a bad experience with the feds and let the kid alone because of it. Not half as bad as they were going to have, he thought dryly. If they thought the Federation was dangerous, they had absolutely no idea what the Church was capable of.

If of course, they didn't just get paid off.

Shit. His jaw tightened, that could explain it. Sanchez was crazy; he himself was no prize. Less than a week ago he'd been pleased by the thought that the Church neither knew nor cared where he was or what he was doing. He hadn't sent in a report in nearly a year.

He wasn't exactly the most favored son when it came to Command. It took no effort at all to think of a dozen people in a position, and with more than enough motive, to disavow him.

He shifted his hands and the chains rattled dully. It had bought him something. Not enough. He drew a deep breath, and decided to try to sleep. Time enough to figure it all out later.

Maybe.

The craft's motion altered subtly, descending, slowing. They were about to land.

"What are you--" There wasn't long enough to identify the voice. His eyes opened just in time to see the mercs sliding nasal filters into place, and then the world darkened again. He hoped they had secured the monofilament carefully, or three of the prisoners would be hands free the next time he saw them.

*~^~*~^~*

Vin breathed slow and deep and lifted his hands to the female merc in front of him. She touched a tiny burner to the wire and it beaded for a second then slithered off his wrists, even that light contact leaving deep welts.

"Sorry," she said quietly. "Here." She handed him a tissue repairer and moved on to deal with Nathan's bindings. At the door her colleague watched them impassively, face hidden behind armor streaked in desert camouflage. His gun was set to disperse on a wide area. He'd probably catch her too if he had to fire on the room, but they could deal with that after the rest of them were incapacitated. Standard tactics.

He stared at his wrists as though fascinated by the rapid clotting and healing. He focused his attention on his peripheral vision, and the two mercenaries. Larabee was unconscious, or seemed so. He wondered. The man was unpredictable in too many ways -- it wouldn't pay to make any assumptions about him.

"Can I--" He silently passed Nathan the tissue repairer, but when the man tried to aim it at him, jerked away. "It'll heal faster," the doctor said, and Vin looked from him to his wrists.

"Yeah?" he asked, and casually wiped the still wet blood from his unblemished skin. "What makes you think that?"

Nathan swallowed visibly. "I, er--" He ducked his head and concentrated on using the tool on himself . Another meathead who was scared of cybes. Vin let it go. They were going to have to work together to get out of this.

He looked around instead, ignoring the doctor. The cell was about ten by ten. No furniture or fittings. Light came from solid panels in the ceiling. They might be able to get into them, but it would either be noisy or time consuming. Or both, if the mercs had wired the fittings.

He couldn't see any data ports, but he hadn't expected to. They'd planned on dumping the five of them in there; the last thing they'd do would be leave anything a cyborg could hook into. He wondered if they'd found the want on him yet, and if they'd turn him in. Depended on the terms on their contract, and he looked at the female merc who'd just finished burning through the monowire on Joche's wrists. The old man had better control than either Vin or Nathan, or better nanites than Vin. There was no blood on him.

The woman rose and backed away, keeping out of her colleague's line of fire until she was completely clear of them, then without a word, she left the cell, the other following her. The door clicked shut, and Vin heard the distinctive sounds of mechanical locks clicking into place. No chance to hotwire these.

He waited until the sound of feet walking away stopped, and closed his eyes to better concentrate his hearing. The worst part about enhanced hearing was the lack of filtering. The breathing around him suddenly sounded like the roar of free road traffic, and their heart beats like the uncoordinated beat of death drums.

He slowly, painstakingly picked out the ones inside the room. beyond that, one still remained outside the door. It could be worse. He ignored the guard too, and tried for the hum of electrical apparatus. His own body whined and he sighed and tuned it out. Joche was next, and the doctor, and he blinked a little at that. People who lived in alu-glass houses and all that. He let his eyes open and follow the sound to its source. At the very least a camera in the light fitting. Possibly -- probably -- a passive pickup or two as well.

Which would make making plans... tricky.

He eyed Joche thoughtfully, and wondered if the mercs had damped the cell. At least he might be able to talk to him. And if the rumors were true and PIs were full blown psi, maybe the two of them could talk. Which left them with no means of communicating between the two groups, and no way to include the good doctor.

This was why he'd quit running ops.

"So, how do we get out?" Josiah asked, and Vin closed his eyes briefly. So much for discreet. "Chris and I have been discussing the situation." Oh, they had, had they? Vin thought, glancing at Larabee, who looked about as happy as he was to have Josiah blithely sharing with the group and any eavesdroppers, "And we came to the conclusion that our best bet would be passive resistance."

Vin blinked. Chris Larabee offered him a faint smile that was barely more than a twitch of his lips and a crinkling of the skin around his eyes, and Vin let his eyes widen a little in question, fractional enough that any camera would have to be higher res than they had -- than he hoped they had -- to catch it. He got a minute nod back, and sighed heavily. "Typical fuckin' priests," he said, scowling, and rose smoothly to his feet. "There isn't going to be any damn rescue, you know."

"Peace, little brother," Chris told him, expression and voice so bland -- the tone so familiar -- that Vin could barely manage to stop himself from reacting.

He stalked away to the door, examining it closely, as though he didn't know anything about it, then hammered on the door. "Hey! Anyone out there! You gonna let us die or you wanna get us some water in here?" he yelled. First rule. Stay believable.

"Shut up!" the guard yelled back and Vin allowed himself a satisfied nod. A reaction was good.

"Hey! We've got rights, you know," Nathan Jackson joined Vin at the door, and Vin threw him a tight grin when he saw the sharp intelligence in the man's eyes. Good. They were all on the same page here. "I've got an injured man here -- I need medical supplies, nutrients and water!"

Vin tilted an eyebrow at him, when Nathan grinned at him, Vin nodded back, and backed away from the door, leaving him to it.

"You'll get what we say, when we say it! And Apman says you ain't entitled to shit!"

The five of them looked at each other, and at the lack of facilities. Vin laughed under his breath.

"Guess that steps up our plans to bust out and find a dunny." Josiah said solemnly.

Vin snorted, and turned away, walking idly around the perimeter. He concentrated on the echoes that his footsteps caused. He paused for the briefest moment as his processors generated a map of the rooms outside their cell -- and told him that they had an external wall. The wall where Larabee was sitting.

He leaned against the wall next to the man, and then slid down it to sit beside him.

"So, crazy-guy," he said casually. "Tell me about this Buck guy you keep screaming about."

Chris looked at him sharply, eyes hard. Vin waited patiently until Chris's face eased, accepting Vin's gambit as the distracting move it was.

Besides, if he knew people, Chris Larabee badly needed to talk some of it out before his brain fried on its own circuits.

*~^~*~^~*

"Hold your fire! Hold your fire!" Corcoran ordered angrily. The shooting abated, and she looked forward again, covering her anxiety with more anger. "Teams, report in!"

"Sethera, holding position."

"Tallis, holding."

"Ngede, holding." Ulim's voice was clipped and angry, and she tagged him for review silently. He was unhappy at getting the blame on the primary attack's failure. They should have had better intel, but she had no hesitation on putting the fault squarely at Apman's arrogance. He had assumed that the cybes were the helpless techno-dependent babes in the wilderness that the Church spun them out as, then got angry when they behaved like the battle-trained experts they were. Typical meathead.

She shook the thought away. It wasn't going to help anything, thinking that way. Instead she absorbed the data streams that each team leader fed through with their acknowledgement. Ngede still resented being sent to the primary installation. Nothing there.

Tight relief strained her lips for a moment as she struggled to keep the smile off her face. Good. Nataweh must have masked the fed's biostats. Maybe she wouldn't get exited for shooting a fed. She squashed her irritation that she had to waste resources on it, and moved on. Tallis had scouted the rear of the new, secondary install, Halloran the front. She blinked a little at that, viewing through Halloran's eyes their slow crawl up over a ridge, camo-suits blurring them into the sand. She tilted her head fractionally each way -- not necessary, but a reflex she'd never quite gotten rid of when reviewing video files internally. Yeah. Sounds, a trail, but no sign of the people causing them.

This was why Apman had hired in guild. Not for firepower and prestige, but for the experience and expertise. She just prayed that he stayed doped out of his head long enough to execute the advice they were giving her, instead of interfering and getting more people killed. People that they would have to pay for, big time.

Ops flashed across her mind's eye, and for a second she couldn't tell the difference between the wet memory, and the recorded video feed, ops smiling at her from the desert wasteland that the cybes had hidden themselves in. She blinked and the illusion vanished.

The track played on, but she wasn't paying attention any more, until something caught her astonished eye, and she reflexively nudged Tallis again.

"For real?"

Tallis confirmed, and the thread even managed to convey some of his sardonic amusement before she shut it down and re-ran the scene.

One adult male, two juveniles. Playing. Outside. She stared as the group popped in and out of sight intermittently, playing some version of hide and seek until one of the children seemed to win, and the trio headed back inside through an entrance that hadn't been registering on any equipment until it opened and shut.

"So that's how," she said softly, and this time she allowed the slow smile.

*~^~*~^~*

JD slid back into reality silently, and kept his eyes shut, focusing deep inside to keep the illusion of sleeping. As he waited he heard the rustle of clothing as the soldier shifted near him.

Buck looked at him steadily, then asked, "Well?"

JD didn't move. I've got an idea.

Buck cocked his head a little. "Yeah?" There was a faintly indulgent tone to his voice and JD had to work hard to snap at him out loud.

He didn't want me talking, right?

Buck nodded, and then began to grin. "Neat," he patted JD's knee, not that it connected, but it made JD smile happily, a broad grin, "That cybe stuff must be pretty useful, especially when you can pass," he added, and JD's smile vanished. Before he could say anything though the soldier spoke, startling him enough that he physically jerked.

"You awake, fed?"

"Say yes," Buck said swiftly. JD rolled his eyes, then opened them, eying the soldier nervously. He nodded once, biting unconsciously at his lip.

"How you feeling?"

JD shrugged. "Okay."

"No! Don't tell him you're well, tell him you feel sick -- faint, don't give him any reason to think you're a threat!" Buck glared at him and JD ignored him.

"Well enough to get up?"

JD hesitated, he couldn't help darting a look at Buck who ostentatiously turned his back on him. "I don't know," he said. "I haven't tried in a while."

"Try." The man gestured with his gun, and JD's eyes widened and he nodded. He looked at his sheet covered legs for a moment. Well, he'd been walking for a long time. What could go wrong? He swung his legs to hang over the side of the bed, and then edged forwards cautiously, growing less careful as his injury made no protest.

He stood, and grinned.

"Whaddya know," Buck said softly, smiling. JD looked at him but said nothing, still grinning.

"Good. Now, walk," the soldier said, and JD made a face and carefully shifted his weight and took a step, then another.

"My feet weren't hurt," he said smugly, and the soldier grunted. "Hey, what's your name -- I can't just keep on calling you 'you'?"

The man looked at him from dark brown eyes, his narrow face inscrutable. "Need to know," he said finally.

"But I--"

"You want to know," he said, his slight emphasis on 'want' telling JD that he didn't see any need and JD thought furiously, trying to come up with another tack.

"Look, you're the good guy on this, right? You're saving my neck from this Apman guy. You might at least want me to record that. So when the Axe gets here he doesn't void your contract and have you up on charges of unlawful imprisonment."

The soldier hesitated, and Buck nodded. "Easy does it, boy," he murmured, as though the mercenary could actually hear him. "Don't push too hard."

"Well?" JD insisted, and Buck swiped a insubstantial hand at him, which JD withstood without a flinch. He was kind of pleased about that.

The soldier nodded once. "You will speak for me and the Captain?"

"Captain?"

"I am Nataweh, and Captain Corcoran detailed me to ensure your continued good health and safety."

JD shrugged. "I can't promise anything, but I will mention it to the Axe when he gets here."

"So recorded," Nataweh said, oddly formally. Nataweh paused, an air of expectation in his tilted head and raised eyebrows, which confused JD until Buck made encouraging gestures at him.

"He's making it a formal mercenary guild contract. He wants you to repeat 'so recorded' back. Be careful," he added helpfully.

JD looked away for a moment, wishing for the gift of five minutes to himself. He reached for info on guild contracts, and came up with far too much information to take in before he had to say yea or nay.

"Uh--" he looked at Buck who shrugged eloquently. "So recorded. That I'll speak for you, not exonerate you from any crimes that I don't yet know about, and that's a private contract, not a federal one," he added, and Buck rolled his eyes, but Nataweh smiled faintly.

"Agreed." He held out a hand, the silver streaks startling against the mid-brown skin. They shook and JD sighed with relief. At least he was making some sort of headway here.

"What about the others?" he asked, and Nataweh simply looked at him. "Look, I'm not going anywhere -- you've got all the cards," he gestured at the weapon cradled in Nataweh's right arm. "I don't want to see them or anything, I just want to know they're okay."

"Ask about Chris," Buck said swiftly, but JD ignored him. It seemed more important to get the complete picture, not concentrate on one guy.

"They're fine. Being kept away from the action," Nataweh said, and JD smiled at him.

"Thank you."

Nataweh smiled back, and JD tried taking a couple of steps, concentrating on watching his feet until he was sure that he was fine. He reached for his uniform and froze as he caught the motion of Nataweh's gun in his peripheral vision. "I just want to get dressed," he protested, and the gun lowered a little, but remained on him. The clothes had been cleaned, but there was nothing that could be done about the small, neat crescent shape bitten out of the side of his shirt and jacket. He shook them out, and then sighed, and pulled the shirt on. He reached for his pants and hesitated. "You mind?" he asked pointedly, and Buck snorted.

"Yes, actually," Nataweh said flatly. He gestured again with the gun. "Get on with it."

"Kid, he's not gonna give in. And what've you got that's all that special anyway?" he leered, and JD gritted his teeth, and concentrated on ignoring the fierce blush that spread over his face as he dropped his pajama bottoms and swiftly pulled up his blue-grey trousers.

"Never mind," he muttered under his breath. "Why should Tianya be any different?"

"What's that?" Nataweh asked incuriously, and JD drew a deep breath and turned.

"What next?"

"We get the hell out of here."

"Wait -- where are you taking me?"

Nataweh shrugged. "Wherever the Cap tells me. Probably Last Chance," he relented, and JD nodded.

"Okay," he said, but looked anxiously at Buck.

"We need to lose him," Buck said quietly. "Gun ququ, and find Chris -- find all of them," he amended at JD's look.

JD nodded, and chanced a very soft, "How?" as he put on his jacket, shrugging it into place with a sigh of relief. Some of the uniform was more than just fabric, and the relief as he found his softs augmented again by a full Federal processing unit was immense. He hadn't even realised how vulnerable he'd felt without it until he found himself standing straighter, shoulders going back a little.

Buck shrugged minutely. "I'd suggest taking him out if I thought you had a fish's chance in a sandstorm."

JD threw him a look that even he knew was sardonic. "Thanks," he muttered.

"Anything you can do with your --" Buck waggled his fingers. JD supposed he meant JD's tech enhancements, but it looked almost like he meant magic. He slanted a surreptitious look at the mercenary, wondering exactly how the hell he could do anything to stop him. There was no sign of cybertech visible on him; the close cropped hair let him see the smooth line of Nataweh's neck and skull. Nothing.

He looked up to say as much and caught himself just in time. Waitaminute.

Soldiers had to have cybe enhancements. There was no way they didn't. They couldn't do half the stuff they were supposed to without 'em. So, Nataweh had them; they were hidden.

"What is it?" Nataweh had caught JD's sudden breath in.

"Side," Buck said even as JD said,

"My side," and clutched a hasty hand to it. "Turned the wrong way or something."

"Get your boots on," was Nataweh's only comment. He turned away and took up position to the side of the window. JD had an odd sense of déjà vu. Chris had stood there earlier, and before him, Vin.

He wished they were here. Still. He was a fed, right? He didn't need rescuing.

He jerked his boots on and waited the couple of seconds as the fastenings sealed, then straightened up again. Soldiers were kind of like feds. Nataweh had to be cybe, or at the very least, net enhanced.

A thought struck him. He was a fed. That gave him over rides on cyborg tech. Root level shutdown codes. His jaw hung open for a moment. He snapped it shut and could have kicked himself.

"You done?"

"Yeah," he said easily, and tried not to let any sign of his thoughts show. Buck must have thought of it too. For that matter, wouldn't Nataweh have thought of it as well?

He reached a delicate thread out and realized that it was as if Nataweh wasn't there, wholly invisible to all his technological enhancements.

Shit. He shook his head minutely at Buck, and Nataweh's gun was in his face.

"Don't try to hack me again," he growled. JD shook his head mutely, his hands reflexively lifting into the air.

"Leave it, kid," Buck murmured.

"I was just reaching for my counterpart," he blurted.

Nataweh didn't lower the gun. "Counterpart?" In fact, that seemed to make him more anxious, not less.

"My second," he tried to explain. "She's back in Last Chance."

The man relaxed fractionally, and lowered the weapon. "Don't."

"Okay. I get it. Okay."

"Good. Behave and you should get out alive."

JD clenched his jaw. He was a fed, not a kid. There had to be something he could do.

"Move!" Nataweh gestured with his gun and JD felt his hands curl into fists, and the tension rise.

"Don't, don't, JD," Buck urged, "We can take him down later. Easy."

JD ducked his head, relaxed his hands with an effort of will and walked to the door, trying not to see Nataweh's amused smirk.

*~^~*~^~*

Nathan took the offered canteens with a bright smile, and held a hand out for the medikit that the armored officer had clutched under their arm. In the armor it was impossible to tell man or female, height was no clue, neither was their voice, curt, and in that mid range that could be contralto or tenor. The kit was slapped into his hand, it was heavier than he expected, and there was a confused moment when he juggled it and the canteens before the medkit fell with a crash.

There was a blur of movement to his right and suddenly the mercenary was on the ground, Tanner's foot on his neck, and his gun already targeting on the backup in swift, silent bursts of hot light.

Nathan stood staring, jaw dropped as Tanner turned and nodded at the stuff on the floor. "Want to grab that? We could use it." He nodded hastily, still in shock as he dropped to his knees, sweeping the packs and vials together, and forcing them back into the field kit. They went in any old fashion, and he winced as sterile dressings tore and bottles kinked, losing integrity. Joche moved past him, and he watched, hands paused mid flight, as he swiftly stripped the armor from the downed soldier, taking weapons, communicator, emergency packs and chips.

A hand rested on his shoulder and he looked up. Josiah was looking at him, "Ready?"

He nodded once, and stuffed the last items into the heavy black bag, then accepted Josiah's hand up. He let go as he gained his feet and had to stop himself from reflexively wiping his hand on his pants leg. He couldn't stop himself from wondering if the priest taken that moment to scan his mind. It was one thing to think someone was halfway crazy, some sort of religious nut. But the others had pretty much said Josiah was a PI. Hell, the man had more or less said it himself, and he really didn't want anything to do with the Church.

He wasn't a phobe -- he wasn't, he insisted to himself -- he just liked to know that he only had stuff he really needed implanted. None of this tech-hancement for its own sake. He'd seen kids with spikes cresting their skulls, just to be in with the latest gadgets. He shuddered, then looked around.

Larabee was watching him, and he hugged the black bag closer to himself. He'd noted the seratinol; more than powerful enough to take down any troublemakers. Cybe or psi. Larabee's pale eyes seemed to look right through him, and he squared his jaw. "Can I help?" he asked quietly.

Larabee eyed him for a moment longer, then shook his head curtly.

"Opportunity knocks but once, boys," Joche murmured as he stood, tucking away his spoils. "Where to?" he asked Tanner, resting an approving hand on his shoulder.

Tanner nodded back into the cell as he spoke, "I give it fifteen seconds max before they realize there's a problem."

Nathan blinked. So little.

"Back in there." Tanner nodded to the cell, and Joche turned immediately.

"Wait -- we could get out--" Nathan protested, but urged by Tanner's glare, backed into the cell.

"Not through the complex we can't." Tanner's face grew calculating. "I reckon we should try the back door before we start wandering through a high security maze."

"Back door?" Nathan asked.

"Push the door shut," Tanner said, and grinned wickedly. "I thought I'd redecorate."

Nathan frowned, but Tanner's meaning became more than clear as he raised the weapon and fired. He cut low a space wide enough for a man, high enough to crawl through, no more. Nathan couldn't figure out why he was cutting about a foot off the floor. It was the work of seconds, the lines so straight that he could have spent hours drawing them in with laser sights instead of five seconds with a hand held gun.

Joche was at the blackened outline instantly, and kicked firmly. The piece of wall scraped, horribly loud, and then fell away, leaving a hole barely big enough to crawl through, maybe thirty centimeters deep, a meter wide and fifty centimeters high. Tanner slithered through immediately. Josiah followed with a sigh.

"My penance," he murmured before he wriggled his way through, arms first to pull himself through the space that looked far too small to accommodate broad shoulders and barrel chest. It took endless seconds and then he was safely out.

"Priest?"

Larabee nodded, looking almost sane, and scrambled through easily. Nathan drew a deep breath and looked at Joche, who held out his hand for the medikit. Nathan held it out, and then jerked when a heavy thud rocked the room.

"Go!" Joche urged.

Nathan saw smoke starting to rise, held his breath and pushed through, his skin scraping on the rough edges. Larabee and Tanner pulled him out of the way with more speed than care. He was barely out when the medikit hit him, thrown through, then Joche was crawling out, dragged by the others the rest of the way. He had something -- a kind of wafer in his hand and he turned before he had even got to his feet, and flipped it into the room. Smoke was curling out of the hole, and Joche rose to his feet with more grace than any man his age should be able to manage and started running.

"What--"

"Run!" Josiah said, and they fled after Joche. The man wove through buildings swiftly, around the back entrances of two, waiting for a moment at a third, then urging them on. Nathan wanted to ask how he knew where to go, what was going to happen, but no one stood still long enough to even think about opening his mouth, never mind the small fact that they were, by common, unspoken agreement, moving absolutely silently. The cybes were like mist -- their feet barely left prints in the sand, while his own twisted in the soft sand, gouging deep marks in his wake.

Tanner glanced at Joche, who nodded, then changed direction, slipping towards the perimeters, brightly lit and edged with the faint glimmer that he knew meant some sort of energy fencing. Tanner turned back on their tracks, and Nathan watched him for a second, uneasily aware that they must have agreed some kind of plan in that weird sub-ether connection that cyborgs had.

"With me," Joche murmured, and Nathan startled, then followed after him. Josiah and Chris were nearly at the fence, it was a matter of seconds before they caught up with them. Suddenly the encampment lit up. People started to pour out of tents and huts. Nathan looked around, panicked. They were going to be caught! Standing here like moths sitting by a light, brightly visible and perfect targets for -- the lights went out.

Nathan gaped, looked around wildly.

"We go!" Joche said, so absolutely that Nathan's feet were moving before he could start thinking about the energy wall. By the time he did, they were past where it had been. He didn't look back, but bit his lip. Vin had gone back to give them a chance to get out. What it--

"All right?" Vin was jogging alongside him. Nathan's mind was a complete blank, and then he beamed at him.

"Thank you," he mouthed, and Vin smiled back at him, an oddly sweet, open look, as though not many people smiled at him and meant it.

"No trouble." Vin picked up pace and joined Joche up front.

Maybe they didn't. Nathan felt his skin heat, and was grateful for the night and the color of his skin. He meant it now.

*~^~*~^~*

JD sat silently in the passenger seat of the two man air car. He had briefly considered jumping, but they were high enough that landing would kill him. He couldn't stop the scowl that tightened his face. If he'd been a cybe, instead of a failure, maybe he could have made the jump. Vin could have made the jump.

"We'll be at Last Chance in thirty minutes," Nataweh said out of the blue, then fell silent again.

There had to be something he could do.

"Don't do anything crazy, kid," Buck said right into his ear, and he jumped in his seat, getting a quick irritated look from Nataweh, who by now had probably decided that JD had some kind of version of Tourettes between the random bursts of speech and the twitching. He flushed red and hunched down into himself.

He might look embarrassed, but he could at least check to see if there was anything his carefully acquired federal access could help him out with. He flipped idly through files and files of access codes, flitting from one point to another, his fed grid access updating on the fly, for all the good it did him as he meandered from topic to topic. Still nothing about blatting mercenaries, he thought, with a sigh. Pass codes, security clearance codes, emergency shutdown codes, emergency startup codes. Nothing for a free cyborg.

There had to be something. He sighed, and then bit his lip, and stared into the darkness.

A slow thought crept in. Maybe he was concentrating too much on the technological. Mom had called it a crutch. Of course, at the time, she'd had a particular reason for saying it, but that didn't make it less true. He looked uneasily around. Maybe he was focusing on it too much. But what else could he do?

Crash the car. The idea came immediately and he discarded it as fast. No. Some way that didn't leave him dead too. Seize the car?

That could work. He didn't need Nataweh to cooperate if he could talk the car into listening to him. He thought it through carefully. He was stuck in the car with him for now. If he did anything radical he had to be sure that he could end up in control of the car, without Nataweh subduing him.

That meant Nataweh had to go. Involuntarily he looked down. It was a hell of a long drop. It really would kill anyone to fall that far onto solid ground. From somewhere his mind produced the necessary equation, worked it out, and offered a probable outcome. JD felt his stomach churn.

Strawberry jam. He swallowed. But there were the others. And the cyborgs needed his help. There were kids there.

He struggled with the decision. Helping the cybes might make up for being such an idiot at the outset. Plus, he owed Chris Larabee. He'd nearly killed the man. Not Standish, of course. That was different. Standish was on the run, and he would arrest him as soon as he got -- he remembered the warrant was from Granot. The first Axe in thirty years to be executed for crimes against the Hegemony. It didn't make his warrants automatically invalid, he tried to tell himself, but could only think of how Travis had looked at him after offering him the job. He'd waited JD's ebullient acceptance out, and said, "I'm taking a chance on you. You've got courage, and you're willing to do the right thing, and I'm hoping that's going to be enough. Listen to your AI, and temper justice with mercy. And try not to do anything in a hurry." He'd paused, and half smiled, "You're on your own out here. Own this job, or it will own you."

It had seemed an odd thing to say, but now, now he wondered if he was starting to understand.

He could just do the job. He could follow the rules. Nothing said that he had to help cyborgs. Nothing said that he should do anything but arrest and deport Standish.

But... Standish might end up dead without a trial if he got into the hands of the people in Granot's sept. Discredited, disbanded, forbidden to trade. They'd kill him. Didn't matter what he'd done, if it was Granot's last wish, they'd honor it. And what if Granot had done it illegally.

That would make JD no better than a murderer.

Which brought him back to the main subject.

He breathed in slow and deep, and let it out on the count of four. In again.

"Kid?" Buck asked. "What are you up to?" But JD didn't answer, just concentrated on breathing in and out. He wasn't going to be sick. He pulled his legs up, feet on the seat, wrapping his arms tightly around his knees. Nataweh gave him a scathing look. JD knew what it looked like. He was huddled in the seat like the kid Buck called him. Even as he thought it, Buck was speaking again, his voice gentle.

"You okay there?"

Thinking, he thought firmly, hoping that however Buck was hearing him, Nataweh wouldn't.

"You sure?"

JD tucked his head down and offered a Yes, and hoped Buck would leave him be.

He reached, gently, carefully, for the car's controls. Sneakily, sideways, he inserted a thread into the main processing unit, and buried his sigh of relief in his knees. Okay. One thing at a time. Get control of the car onto automatic so he didn't kill himself in the process. Seize the telltales first, so Nataweh wouldn't see him grab the controls. Unsecure the pilot door while leaving his locked. Harder, but doable. Deal with the harness. Was there an emergency release somewhere?

Goosebumps ran from the back of his neck out over his body. Was he really going to do this?

He tightened his knees to his chest. Twisted a little in his seat. Twisted one hand through the emergency strip, out of sight of Nataweh. Okay. He took a deep breath. Checked everything again. Okay. All at once.

He set up a cascade in the car computer, held his breath, looked up, and maybe Nataweh suspected something because he looked sharply at JD, seemed about to speak, and JD thought Now!

The controls flipped invisibly to autopilot, locking everyone but a federal officer out of access. The door unlocked, Nataweh's safety harness popped open, the door opened and JD rocked back on his ass then rammed out with his feet, the full strength of his legs behind the blow, and Nataweh flew out without a word the last thing JD saw of him his face, eyes and mouth round with surprise. For a moment JD thought that was it, and then the car lurched, compensating. He leaned over and saw Nataweh clinging to the edge of the doorframe. He stared, horrified, and automatically told the door to shut. He could hear Nataweh screaming at him.

The door wouldn't shut for a moment, red lights flashing on -- an obstruction it warned monotonously, please remove the -- and he didn't stop to think, couldn't let himself stop to think and overrode it, and the door closed, and the screaming fell away. For a moment the car tipped the other way, still compensating for something no longer there.

He was shaking, gasping for air.

"Kid! Kid!" Buck was shouting, sounded like he'd been shouting for a while, JD looked around to meet his eyes, it felt endlessly slow, the movement, and he met those blue eyes too soon. "You're okay, you did okay," Buck said insistently, "Come on, don't wipe on me. JD?"

"I'm okay." It was a lie. He reached blindly for the controls and clung to the comforting non-emotion of the guidance systems. "I killed him." His stomach churned.

"Yeah. Probably." Buck leaned over to peer out of the window, moving through the pilot seat to get a better look, half leaning out through the steel and glass. JD had no idea if he could see anything. Was it too dark? Maybe they needed lights...

He shuddered and looked away sharply. When he looked ahead at their route, Buck was back inside, and he smiled shakily at him.

"Hey, at least we're alive," Buck tried to cheer him, and JD shook his head. "Well, at least, you're alive. I'm -- "

Buck stopped and JD looked at him again. Buck looked -- JD frowned. The man looked uncertain. "We'll fix it," he said, and reached to grip Buck's arm. They both winced when his hand seized only air. "Sorry."

"It's okay." Buck looked up, his face brightening. "Hey, shouldn't you be thinking about turning this thing around?"

JD scowled at him. He'd been about to do that. He had.

"Where to?" he asked, and then grinned. "Got a tracker for PIs anywhere handy?"

Buck glared at him. "You're the fed, you figure it out."

JD nodded. The cybe's fake village then. Maybe they could track the others from there.

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra stared into darkness. He'd found a way out of the Medjai base of operations. It was cold outside, the heat of the desert long since evaporated into the cloudless night. Even so, he pushed his shirt sleeves up. His jacket was on the ground, barely cushioning his posterior from the chill of the mountainside.

The landscape was inky black. Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the night after the bright lights of the corridors and halls of the mountain complex. Far, far in the distance, half concealed by rising dark shapes, an orange haze huddled close to the ground. Last Chance.

He snorted. Some Last Chance.

Somewhere over there, beyond the black and the orange was his ship. He could still leave.

He'd put Tors to bed, under her father's watchful eye. As the child giggled and teased him the man had slowly thawed, joining in. He could see why Tors so easily trusted him -- she adored her father.

He'd brushed a kiss over her forehead, hardly even noticing the cool touch of metal, already starting to lay striations on the softly rounded little face.

He flinched away from the memory.

He'd smiled. Smiled, and smiled, and yet...

His eyes drifted across the landscape uninterestedly. Mountains, desert. Night. He tilted his head back and watched the stars. They lay in great swathes. He tried to pick out shapes and his eyes burned. Looking too far, he told himself. And it was cold here.

So cold.

He'd missed his chance. He should have taken them today. Stolen a car. He could have been at Delivery before they could stop him. Could have been out of system before anyone was any the wiser.

He shivered. Perhaps he should put his jacket on again. He didn't move. So much money. He could bring -- could do anything. Be free. Go anywhere. Even start to rebuild what they had lost. Two cyborg children would be nearly a big enough stake.

Two. As easily say, 'a hundred', or 'a thousand'. The stars weren't for wishing on. Children weren't for using. Not for selling to the Church or the Feds.

Not for selling to the highest bidder, who wanted the resilience of a cyborg, and the sweet innocence of a little girl.

He'd made his decision already. He'd made it hours ago. He just hadn't been willing to believe.

He closed his eyes, his shoulders dwindling under the sense of relief.

Only so far, Mother. Only so far.

*~^~*~^~*

Joche looked up into the night sky. The stars were clear in moondark, and it was easy enough to judge distance, direction and triangulate their position.

Not that it helped in the desert. The foothills were close enough that they had a fighting chance of losing themselves there. The mountains, and real safety, were too far to even think about, Last Chance hidden far away, more than seventy clicks. About the only good thing was that they were all reasonably fit and it was the middle of the night -- one person slowing them down, or trying this in the heat of the sun would lose them their chance before they ever really had it. He looked left, then right. Vin was still pacing him, and he nudged. Keep the pace, I'm going to back track.

Vin shook his head. "Better me," he croaked, and cleared his throat, spat, and tried again. "You know where we're going."

Joche shook his head, not meeting Tanner's eyes. The man was so young sometimes.

What do you mean, no? he asked, underneath.

Joche didn't answer. He didn't answer to a double renegade.

Vin fell back, and Joche let him, still calculating the best place to go. He could hear the dull drone of aerial vehicles -- someone knew their job. Vin's sabotage had been rough and ready. Blow out the generator, take as many vehicles on charge as possible with it. Kill the power long enough to give them breathing space.

Vin had a gun, probably grenades. He had two weapons, the gun from the solider plus a knife and a number of cenemol strips. With a little luck -- time, a defensible position, a last minute rescue -- they'd see the night out.

He became aware of heavy breathing to his right and looked over to find the older PI running. The man seemed to be running at his fastest pace, barely keeping up, and Joche thought longingly of stretching his stride, blurring his pace, the strength of alu-glass and nanite-oxychange giving more than human resources to draw on. And held his pace. The man had made the effort to catch up. He glanced over his shoulder, and found Vin running alongside the other priest, and his eyebrows flicked up briefly.

Priest and cybe? Their paces had mirrored and Joche shook the knowledge away.

"Josiah?" he asked, calmly, not in the least out of breath.

"We should go that way," Josiah gasped out, pointing with one hand, the other clutching at his side, feet slipping in the sand as Joche headed them up hill.

Joche followed his hand and shook his head. "Nothing there."

"We need to go that way," he said again, and Joche frowned.

"Why?"

Josiah stopped, and leaned his hands on his thighs, breathing hard. In seconds the others were with them.

"Are you all right?" the doctor asked. Josiah nodded speechlessly, and Joche noted that the man wasn't above playing up his lack of fitness as his breathing grew harsher.

"Here--" The doctor was reaching for the medikit, and Larabee slapped a hand on his wrist.

"Leave it," he growled.

Joche blinked. Larabee's eyes were dark in the moonless night, and his pale face unfathomable.

"He's--"

"He's fine," Larabee snapped, and let go of the man's wrist with a disdainful flick. Jackson rubbed at it, Joche noticed, like it hurt. Maybe Larabee had been rough. "We don't have time for this."

"Agreed," Vin said tersely. He was standing facing away from them, turned towards Apman's camp. "He's going to be on us in minutes."

Joche nodded. Well. They'd tried.

Then Vin shifted, looking more westerly, face puzzled. The sound of an air car grew and Chris moved abruptly.

"Let's go," he snapped, and headed south, away from their easterly course, taking them deeper into the foothills. Underfoot the ground firmed, sand giving way to scrub, little ragged bushes that caught and clawed at their clothing, tripped them up in unexpected hollows and dips.

Joche followed, bemused, a hand on Josiah's shoulder. Seemed the priest hadn't been faking entirely. He really was losing speed, and with it, his determination to get away.

"Is this the right way?" Chris asked suddenly, and Joche frowned, realizing that they were jogging along the old man's heading. The one he'd refused to take. He glared at Larabee, but the man refused to turn around, though a psi had to have felt the weight of his disapproval like a blow.

Josiah nodded, then seemed to realize that Larabee hadn't seen and said, "Yes." He caught his breath for a second, then carried on blowing like a broken pressure valve.
.
"Good." Larabee picked up the pace. A light blazed out to the north, maybe a thousand feet up. A second later it was joined by another, then a third, a fourth. The searchlights were evenly spaced, quartering the ground as they swept towards them.

"Shit," Joche heard Jackson swear, didn't respond. He heard a fifth one, coming up from the west. Surely they hadn't sent anyone out after him, he thought in horror, even as he pushed Josiah harder, ran faster, desperate to get to whatever place it was that the priests wanted. Maybe they knew something he didn't.

Many things a deeply unfamiliar voice murmured, and he stumbled, only long training keeping him moving. That didn't come over a thread, or over the radio.

"Out of my head, priest," he muttered. Josiah chuckled, and he couldn't tell if he was hearing it or--

A streak of light blazed down not a mile away, and he looked up, straight into Vin Tanner's eyes. They were out of time. They were raking the ground with lasers. Vin shook his head fractionally. And his eyes flickered to Larabee.

Joche looked away for an exasperated second. Orange fire blazed again, cutting closer. "We should contact them," he said grimly. He hardly recognized his own voice, so old and defeated. "Surrender."

Josiah shook his head, eyes oddly bright in the reflected searchlights. "Faith, lao peng yu," he said. He paused and Chris nodded as though he'd said something and turned sharply westwards.

"We're going to get cut to pieces." Jackson didn't sound panicked, just resigned. "We should--"

"Close enough, xiao gi gi," Josiah said softly. Joche sighed. If the man was going to break right now, they needed to act.

"Nathan -- " he asked. Nathan slid his hand into the medikit.

"Ni ta me de!" Vin swore when he saw. "We don't have time to listen to his plan," he snapped, "but you've got time to drug out the only guy who knows what it is?"

"Left! Left here, and down!" Josiah said abruptly, and dropped sideways, over the edge of the hill. Joche tried to grab him and nearly over balanced. "Here." Josiah reached up and seized Joche's arm and tugged him. Already off balance he fell, no more than six feet into a deep dry crevice in the hill face. Vin jumped in after them, landing lightly on his feet, his face upturned to the dim opening above them. A second later Jackson climbed down, probing with uncertain feet.

"Chris?" Vin called softly. The priest's head appeared briefly.

"You got anything I can borrow to cover up?" he asked. Joche shook his head.

"Get down here," he called. "You'll give our position away." Josiah chuckled, and pulled off the many-colored poncho and passed it up.

"It suits you," he said softly as Chris blinked at it, then pulled it over his head. He nodded and sat down, almost vanishing in the darkness. Chris's head disappeared again, and Joche held his breath, scanning as far away as he could.

"Go passive," Vin threaded, and he tightened his lips, but pulled back in. He couldn't even hear Larabee. Josiah's breathing had slowed to almost normal.

Jackson was rummaging quietly in the packaging, and Joche wondered how the man could tell what he was holding. Even cyborg eyes could barely make out anything.

Light flashed across the top of the crevice, revealing tense faces for a split second, staring upwards, frozen.

"What--"

Joche held up a hand, and no one spoke. The light swept again. This time he watched the shadows it threw. Elongated, pointing towards the mountains. The vehicles were still a good mile away. Vin had given them enough time. He closed his eyes in relief. If they sent foot soldiers out -- when they sent foot soldiers out, it would be a different story, but for now. He froze, felt like the blood itself halted. Orange light scraped over the edges of the rocks, He could smell the burning, feel the vicious heat of it.

Larabee was out there.

He moved convulsively, and it seemed Tanner had expected it, because he was stopped by an iron hard arm.

"He's okay," Vin said softly, face still upturned.

"How do you know?" Joche asked. How could he know? A priest?

Vin nodded at the placidly dozing Josiah and Joche nodded. Of course. Josiah would know if -- he paused. Vin had moved before he'd looked at Josiah. He'd known before--

He wasn't going to think about that.

"Faith," Josiah said unexpectedly, but appeared asleep when Joche looked at him. Maybe he was talking in his sleep.

Funny how much more sense the man made unconscious, he thought wryly.

*~^~*~^~*

"Only a fool fights a war on two fronts!" Frances yelled, out of all patience. She gestured at the air cars fruitlessly working a search grid across the desert. They were up to the foothills now, and there was no sign. They had probably had transport available minutes after getting out of the encampment. Worse, the old man was a native, he was going to know the country like no one else. Add two PIs into the mix and, "It's pointless!"

"What did you say?" Apman said slowly, one hand resting on the black box holding his narcs.

"You can either retrieve them, or win against the cybes, sir." She stood, ramrod straight. This was it then. "We don't have enough troops to do both." Especially not with all the dead.

Tanner hadn't been playing games. Both guards were dead. One larynx broken, right through armor. One shot in the head with her colleague's point S weapon. It shouldn't be possible. Somehow, Tanner had broken security on the dna locked weapon like it didn't exist.

Apman pointed at her jabbing the air angrily, "Enough! You're relieved of duty!" She drew a deep breath. Maybe -- "Put her in the holding pen," he ordered. "Shut her out of the nets or grids or wha'ever the fuck you're calling them. No, never mind -- " He grabbed a gun from the approaching guard, and she had the briefest moment of -- Jacob -- before he raised it and fired.

*~^~*~^~*

"Close your eyes," Joche said softly to Nathan as the drone of vehicles grew closer, and the sky above lightened in and darkened in rolling waves.

"What?"

"And your mouth," he added as soon as Nathan spoke. "Eyes and teeth show. Don't look up."

Nathan looked startled then snapped both shut, ducking his head to between his knees at the unseen ground. In the darkness all they could do was wait it out. Joche closed his eyes, absorbing the slower, safer data from his passive sensors. Vin was more or less invisible to Joche's -- visible to human eyes, of course, but fortunately for them, their pursuers were mostly cybes, and had the limitations of their kind. Josiah was muttering under his breath. Joche frowned, straining to decipher it as he listened but the words were a string of nonsense, a babble of syllables that meant nothing to him. Across the sandy floor he could make out Larabee, leaning against the rocky wall, seemingly asleep, unfazed by the imminent arrival of their pursuit. Even without guns a PI was hardly unarmed. The fair hair shone almost white as a bright light seared across the top of the canyon, and he frowned. Would they see-- maybe he should get him to cover up? He barely even shifted when a faint thread touched him despite the peril of communicating on the ether right now.

No, Vin whispered, and Joche drew a deep breath and looked away. Rumor had it that if a PI wanted to be hidden he would be hidden. And if not -- well, if not then he and his were doomed no matter what they did. Old fears died hard.

Footsteps up above.

The tumbling words spilling from Josiah's lips stopped. Joche concentrated on breathing as shallowly and lightly through his mouth as he could. The air was dry, dusty, tasting of sand, and he wondered if they would give themselves away by coughing. Easy. No sudden movements. Control the urge to look upwards. Don't see us, don't see us. Was that a prayer? Maybe he was praying. He wondered what a priest prayed to.

Closer. He slitted his eyes open as passive sensors saw a heat source. A light bobbed, swung into the canyon, sweeping over Larabee's tilted back face, picked out the back of Nathan's head, his face turned down, away from the light.

No one moved. The footsteps paused, and light pooled on the floor between their feet. He instinctively pulled his feet back, one two, away from the betraying light. He wasn't the only one. A minute scraping sound told him that someone else had moved, their feet less than perfectly cautious and careful. Breathe shallow; be hidden; nothing here; go away; nothing here...

The footsteps crunched, a careless step, maybe turning on their heel, and a barely felt burst of encrypted static. A cybe up there. Joche closed his eyes, pained. Another child missed, another adult hunting down sib. He couldn't save them all, he reminded himself. He had to accept, they couldn't save them all; and maybe this one was free. Maybe this one had chosen their life. He wished he knew what they were saying. It was almost more frustrating to only be able to hear the frequency, and not have the decryption software to understand it.

He wondered if Vin understood. He'd find out later, or not. For now, he breathed and waited. Waited and breathed.

The footsteps walked further up the edge of the crevasse, the light swinging along the floor and walls indiscriminately. Another burst of static, and the footsteps moved further away, the static dropping to a barely discernable hiss. They'd only caught the thread because the searcher had been directly above them. Out of line of sight, out of range, there was nothing to hear.

"Did--" Not even a whisper, but Joche could feel the tension rise near to snapping point even as he pressed his hand over Nathan's mouth swiftly, and the doctor subsided.

Wait. They haven't gone. Wait. Trust me.

He wished there was a way to say it directly, but Nathan made no effort to speak again and he lifted his hand away just a fraction, then all the way, hoping that his meaning was clear.

No one moved for what felt like interminable hours. He knew it to be nearly two hours before the search grid moved far enough away that they should get caught. Now they just had to hope that the mercenaries were too equipment conscious to scatter nanosensors in their wake.

Nathan shifted next to him, and he rested a light hand on the man's shoulder. It wasn't comfortable here, sat on cold, sandy ground, leaning against colder rocks. Vin gestured, waving his hand for attention then pointed first to himself, and then up towards the surface.

Joche nodded. They couldn't stay here forever. Maybe Vin, younger, newer, would be able to find any problems before they became disasters.

Larabee nodded at the same moment, and it was then that Joche realized Vin hadn't been looking at him for permission. He blinked again, and bit his lip. He was going to have to have a talk with the boy. Remind him of his proper priorities.

Vin rose soundlessly to his feet, then swiftly scrambled up the two meters of deeply pitted rock. Even Josiah would be able to make it out.

Which reminded him. He wanted to know how Josiah knew about this place.

*~^~*~^~*

Ngede kept directing the grid search, his face dark with anger. When the team leaders reported that the desert was clear for thirty clicks he didn't much care if they had turned over every grain of sand, or if they had peered outside with their eyes shut and their fingers in their ears.

He'd had an idea, before, of what Corcoran was filtering. He'd thought she was just keeping an eye out for her own position, making sure that she was the necessary go between.

He'd wished, from time to time, that they could cut the middleman and have the field officers talk directly to the client. He'd thought that surely Apman would understand their concerns better without the pussyfooting around that Commander Corcoran indulged in.

"Well? Where are they?"

"No sign as yet, sir," he said, voice and face neutral. Apman jerked away, a quick move full of angry energy. Out of the corner of his eye he saw hands twitch towards holsters, and shook his head.

Rate of attrition was going to get them if the cybes didn't.

"They must be somewhere!"

"Yes, sir."

"So find them!"

"We have not identified any hiding places in four hours, moving faster than any unenhanced human could. I do not believe that they could have outpaced us on foot."

"Then why aren't they here?" Apman demanded.

Ngede carefully didn't shrug or roll his eyes. These were the moments that the complete self control they had taught in the guild post-grad courses became essential. When the employer was a fuckwit, or insane -- or both. "Sir, we have deployed all combat fit personnel; and we have scattered out sensor tags over a one six hundred square click area. It is merely a matter of waiting for them to break cover." Or they've already been picked up by their own friendlies; were picked up hours ago and this was just a complete waste of time and effort.

"What if that whore," Ngede flinched microscopically at Apman's description of the Commander "freed them?"

"I do not believe, reviewing the tapes of the break out, that that was possible."

"You don't know everything," Apman dismissed his opinion with a wave of his hand. At least it hadn't been a wave of his gun, Ngede thought grimly. Everyone's attention was on the man's gun hand, and its periodic dives for his gun. Apman began pacing. "If she was still alive we could--"

Ngede gritted his teeth. Apman would have tortured her for non-existent knowledge. "The commander would never betray the contract."

Apman glared at him --"But we'll never know. It makes sense, how else could they escape? Cybes and priests and a medic."

"Tanner is a high functioning military cyborg," he said steadily, and as though he hadn't already said this three times. "His capabilities are Church classified. We have no data on what he can do." Which in his experience meant take all the 'nice to haves' that had been floating as rumors for the last five years, double 'em, and run away.

Apman grinned. "How much was the Church bounty again?"

Ngede tried not to let his distaste show. "Half a billion cred." And what the hell Tanner had done to make them willing to put up that kind of reward... "Alive. Half a mill dead."

"Dead would be easier..." Apman said thoughtfully, turning to look out the door of the small office into the desert. The search squads were still working their way methodically across the foothills, some were nearly into the mountains, and the terrain was so broken that they'd either have to slow way, way down, or call it off anyway. "We could take him alive. If I took him alive, we could see what makes him so special."

Ngede turned his head slightly, unable to conceal his disbelief any other way. The alive reward was compensation against level of difficulty. If he'd known before the teams went out he'd've refused to send them. His people were good, but going up against an experimental military cybe sounded like a fast way to end up dead. "Sir --"

"Find me Tanner," Apman said cheerfully, as though he hadn't heard the doubt in Ngede's voice. Maybe he hadn't. Sociopaths weren't all that good at picking up verbal cues.

"Sir -- we don't have the capability to --"

"Forty mercenaries against one Church cyborg?" Apman looked at him contemptuously. "I'll add a percentage of the reward to the prize."

"The money is not at issue, sir," he said carefully, trying to think-- "This is not part of the agreed mission. We will have to consult with the Guild before proceeding to renegotiate--"

"No! No negotiations! You have a contract! Take it or leave!"

Ngede could feel Glau's eyes on him, and he drew a deep breath. "Sir, you are in fact in breach of a number of points of our contract."

Apman stared at him.

"The unlawful killing of Sergeant Timmons, chief of operations. The unlawful killing of Commander Corcoran. The utilization of contracted mercenaries to attack a lawfully appointed federation officer. The utilization of mercenary resources to attack and hold Church representatives." He paused. A vein was throbbing high in Apman's forehead, and the man's face was slowly turning red with fury. And his gun hand was twitching again. "I should notify you that," he activated his personal shielding, and felt rather than saw the others around him do the same in quick succession. The power drain was high, but he wasn't going to meet Corcoran's fate. "I should notify you that you are in breach of Clauses twelve, seventy three, seventy six and seventy seven. We are within our rights to withdraw from the contract--"

How dare you!" Apman drew and fired, but the shot splashed harmlessly.

Ngede waited, his eyes steady on Apman's panting face as fear slowly built. The man's eyes flickered, looking from soldier to soldier, as though only just realizing that he was the only human in a company of cyborgs; a civilian who had killed two of their colleagues. And just tried to kill a third.

"Shall we try that again? Sir?"

*~^~*~^~*

JD finished the conversation with Casey, and dropped his head in his hands. That had been hard, telling her he'd killed -- He shook his head convulsively. Nataweh could have survived. Maybe.

"What happens to the contract?" he asked abruptly.

Buck hadn't been paying any attention to him, standing outside the aircar, peering into the distance instead. JD followed his gaze, and slid out to lean against the cool metal of the aircar. The sun was starting to illuminate the backs of the mountains, giving them that peculiar outlined glow that made them look close enough to touch, but too hot to dare.

"Huh? What contract?"

"The mercenary 'so recorded' thing," he said impatiently. What other contract was there?

"Oh, that." Buck shrugged and turned back to the mountains. "Carry out your part of it, and you'll be fine."

"Fine? He's dead, if you haven't noticed. How'm I supposed to carry out a contract made to a dead man?"

Buck sighed. "The mercenary guild take the long view. If the man dies with the contract fulfilled, they don't have to come after you; if you go back on it and don't speak for him when the inquiry starts, they will."

"But I killed him!"

"That's a federal matter," Buck spread his hands as though it was obvious. Maybe it was to him, but to JD, whose only experience of contracts was buying goods with cred, Buck's insouciance was getting on his last nerve. "The Axe will rule on it, and either sentence or exonerate. Nothing to do with the Guild."

"They won't care?" JD asked incredulously. That didn't sound like the Guild of Mercenaries shown in Arena entertainments, or in newsthreads. Fact or fiction, the Guild looked after their own.

Buck looked away, then back, not meeting JD's eyes.

"You're lying!"

"No, no, son. I wouldn't lie to you." Buck's face seemed to be developing a twitch, which he covered with a hand rubbing thoughtfully over his face.

"No?"

Buck glared at him. "Okay, what do you want me to say? They're going to hunt you down and take it out of your hide? There's nowhere you can go, no place you can hide, no price you can pay to escape their justice?"

JD felt the blood drain away from his face. It was the most peculiar sensation.

"Oh for Jeshu's sake, boy!" Buck rolled his eyes. "Joke!" JD tried to hit him but got the side of the aircar, which just made Buck laugh the harder.

"You wait," JD scowled, "one of these days, Buck."

"Yeah? Yeah? You and what army?" Buck leaned back against the aircar, tucked his hands behind his head and grinned happily.

"Buck! This is serious! Even if you can't die, I can, okay? And then where'll you be?"

Buck lifted his eyes towards the mountains, and then back at JD. "Kid, trust me, it's okay. You fulfill the letter on the contract and they are going to be perfectly happy. Mercs aren't supposed to lay a hand on feds. One of them shot you. The Guild's just gonna be praying you don't come after them."

"Really?" It didn't seem right, somehow.

"Now, course, if he's got family -- maybe a sib; maybe a distraught companion, desperate to avenge their poor, doomed lover," Buck began, and JD couldn't help laughing.

"Okay, fine. They aren't going to care."

"They might care, but there's not a damn thing they can do about it." Buck's face sobered a little. "You're a fed, kid. That means a hell of a lot more than you seem to realize."

"I realize!"

"Yeah?" Buck looked a little sad. "Well, maybe then it's just I'm not used to a fed with a conscience."

JD ducked his head, a little embarrassed, not quite sure why he should be.

"Or a fed whose so fresh green the paint smears."

"Buck!"

"Now, what are you planning on doing about finding the others?"

JD walked away from the aircar, away from the little building that he'd spent three long days in, out towards the open desert. Sand crunched under his booted feet, and he kicked at a small rock, grinning as it sailed away. It startled some small creature that bobbed up for a second, then skittered away into a burrow before he could get a good look at it. This was as far as he'd thought. Get back here and there'd be a note, or a message, or some way of finding the rest of them. "I don't know," he said softly, scanning the grey-purple horizon. The distant mountain tops cut ragged lines into the paling sky, almost clear at the peaks, still shrouded in night at their feet.

Were the others out there somewhere?

"Maybe you should head back to town," Buck said. "There's nothing you can do here." He stood next to JD, in that silent fashion that was the only thing that reminded JD, from time to time, that the man wasn't really real. "Ain't really federal business."

JD shook his head. Not that he hadn't thought it himself. The cybes -- Joche's people -- didn't want him around. He could take a hint, and no forwarding address was a pretty big hint. Which he didn't get, not really. Feds were the law, they were meant to help people. He wanted to help. And in any case, "Mr. Larabee and the others were kidnapped. That makes it federal."

"Then get help," Buck said emphatically. "You can't take on a mercenary company by yourself, or even with that little girl of yours. Not even an Axe would fault you."

Well. Maybe. "I'd fault me." he said finally. A thread of light slipped between the jagged planes of the mountainsides, and stretched a long hand across the desert, the sun a bright bead caught in the crook of the southernmost pass, the fingertips bright lines on the ground. "Range wars are everybody's business." He'd heard someone say that in the saloon a while back. Right before a brawl broke out between two groups of hired hands. He and Casey had had to resort to gassing the lot of them. The bosses had paid the fines, and he shivered a little, remembering the cold enmity they'd not cared enough to hide from him or each other.

"This ain't a range war, kid." Buck said seriously. "You better pray you don't never see any kind of war."

JD grimaced. The edu-dramas had been very hot on the horrors of war. Their stories stung a little more now he knew-- Well, no need to dwell on it.

"Still. I took on the job. There weren't any limits on protecting and serving. Besides, I can't leave them to Apman's people. I've got to help if I can." It tugged at him, and he could see it in Buck too. "Don't you?"

Buck kept his eyes on the bands of golden light spreading steadily across the dark sand. "What good's it going to do?"

"You were the one who was so mad to go after Larabee!" JD protested. "And now you've changed your mind?"

"Ain't a game, kid. You've gotta learn to accept when you're outclassed. Folks that don't learn that, end up dead." But JD could see the look in his eyes, still looking out into the desert.

"If you're chicken, then stay." He grinned humorlessly, "Except oh, that's right, you can't. I'm making the travel decisions around here. Besides, cybes are federation citizens too. Even if it wasn't a federal crime to kidnap people, I'd still have a duty to try and help 'em, stop Apman."

Buck actually looked startled at that, then his expression settled into a sort of speculative satisfaction. "How'd you buy out?" he asked casually.

JD frowned. "Huh?"

"Out the Church?"

"And again: huh? I've never been in, how could I buy out? Why would I buy out? Why would I need to?"

Buck scratched at his head. "You make no sense at all, boy."

"I don't make any sense?!" JD shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I'm going after them. You're along for the ride, like it or not."

Buck actually laughed at that. "Well, kid, you've got sand, I'll give you that. Now, where are you going to start looking?" He swept an arm out at the vast expanse of the desert. "Any ideas?"

JD smiled smugly. "Actually, yes."

*~^~*~^~*

Travis sighed with relief. The maintenance crew had finally brought a portable airlock to his cabin, and once they'd gotten inside and had a good look at the damage, they'd helped him out, assuring him that he wouldn't know they'd been there once they were done.

He shook his head as the airlock door shut, leaving him trapped in the little plastic cocoon until the air pressure light by the second door blinked green and the door opened.

"I rather hope I will be able to tell you've been there," he said to himself. "I'm not entirely keen on coming back to find that I still have my one eighty star field viewing platform."

Leah chuckled, and Orin frowned a little. "Orin, have a little faith in my boys and girls."

Orin snorted. "I leave faith to those foolish enough to trust in our friends out there." He could almost feel Leah's eyebrows lift. The captain made no comment, but changed the subject.

"If you aren't leaving us, would you do me the honor of dining with me this evening?"

"Of course," he agreed. He'd been heading to the tiny mess hall, and paused, "I was actually on my way--"

"I'm in my cabin at present -- if you would like to come over?"

He nodded. "I'll be there in a moment. True enough, it took barely two minutes to walk around the curved corridor to the door at the ship's bow, only a floor below the bridge. "Leah?" He called softly. The door slid open and he stepped inside.

The main area functioned as an officer's mess as much as her own living quarters. A sofa, upholstered in utilitarian dark blue, piped with the gold trim that recalled the symbols of the Federation, sat in one corner, a desk with a small fold out chair leaning against it occupied another. She had pulled out a larger table, and set a chair on either side.

He breathed in deeply, and smiled. "Dinner smells delicious," he said.

Leah shook her head at him. "You know as well as I that military rations only go so far."

"Military rations supplemented by Federation Justice department subsidy however." Orin pulled out her chair and she shook her head.

"Orin--"

"I can pull it away if you prefer?" he teased, and she pursed her lips disapprovingly. "If my staff could see you--"

"They would see a display of good old fashioned manners," he said brusquely, and settled himself in the other chair. "These really are very uncomfortable," he added and she snorted with laughter.

"Astonishing good manners!" she murmured, and rose to get a cushion from the sofa. She handed it to him and he tucked it under his behind with great dignity.

By mutual , silent agreement they ate first. Orin didn't ask what exactly the variously textured lumps in the brown sauce were, though the white fluffy doughy thing was almost palatable, and he chased the last piece around the plate through the gravy before popping it in his mouth with a sigh.

"That was --" he paused, and she grinned. "Edible."

"I'm disappointed Orin. You are usually so much more inventive."

Orin sighed and pushed the plate away. Truth be told his stomach was feeling a little tender. Something about coming within merely inches of death in the void of space, either by vacuum breathing, or by drifting out of the ship, or by being impaled, blown up or otherwise injured had clearly had a poor effect on his digestive system.

"I'm not feeling at my best."

"I'm not surprised." She pushed her plate back and wiped her lips with her napkin. "Orin--"

"Captain?"

She frowned. "I have a couple of squirts from Tianya for you." She handed him a splinter chip. "Standard fed encryption, so--" she paused and he nodded. So the Church vessel sailing on ahead of them to Tianya was probably busily reading them too. He tapped it to his wristband and started reviewing. He stopped almost immediately.

"I'm going to have to take some time for this, Leah," he apologized.

"Fair enough. It's not like we don't have plenty of leisure at the moment," she added ruefully. She pushed her chair back and started to rise to her feet.

"As you say, no hurry," Orin shook his head. There was a third message embedded in the first, better encrypted than Federale Wells' message. She'd flagged it emergency, but the AI had changed the tag to death notice. The girl probably hadn't known that was an option. He made a face. He'd hoped Dunne would last a little longer than two and a half months.

"Bad news?"

He nodded absently. "There's no way to speed things up?"

"No," she said regretfully. "We're going flat out as it is, and I have a limited amount of staff to spread around."

"Anything we can skimp, do so," he ordered, and then sighed. "My Tianya first federale is dead."

"I'm sorry." She had met JD -- had brought him out from Celaeno after he'd accepted the job. "He was a nice kid."

Orin felt old. He was only sixty, barely halfway through his life, he wasn't old. But JD had been so young. But there had been no other applicants that he was willing to accept. A Church backed federale was unacceptable for Tianya, and that cut out almost all the applicants right there. Anywhere else it wouldn't matter.

And selecting JD had had other benefits. It deflected interest from Tianya; those whose business it was to know his business might be led to think that he thought Tianya was unimportant. That he wasn't connected to the FoldPath.

Now, though, the kid was dead, and the circumstances as he knew them worried him. He should have picked someone older, meaner, better able to cover their own backs when faced with conflicting factions. Well, he'd have that chance now.

"I'll leave you to read," Leah said softly, and he barely noticed as she removed the remnants of dinner.

Maybe Miss Wells would be able to handle a promotion. He frowned. She didn't have half the advantages of JD. Some of those could be rectified -- and some could not. But she was next in seniority, such as it was, and on the spot. He would read the rest of the messages and decide how urgent it was that he tell her -- whether he could wait to do it in person, or if she needed the authority sooner.

If she needed the authority sooner, then it might be too late by the time they got there, whether he gave her the promotion or not. And how would he be able to face her mother?

He leaned his head in one hand and closed his eyes. He needed to read the reports. He could make any decisions after that.

*~^~*~^~*

Vin scowled at Chris. There really wasn't space to pace; if anyone had a right to feel cramped it was him, or Nate, or Josiah. Larabee was just pissed because he couldn't do anything. And why he was bothered about that now, when he'd spent the last six hours asleep, or near as dammit, was anybody's guess.

"What the hell bug's got up your ass anyway?" He squinted up at the man, who paused and probably was glaring down at him, although with the sunlight behind him his face was entirely in shadow.

"We should move," Chris snapped, and Vin looked away. This again?

"Not yet," Joche repeated from across the way, and Vin rolled his eyes. Yep. This again. Even against the bright light he could see the sudden bunching of muscles in Chris's shoulders.

"Not yet! Yet ain't never going to come, the way you're going." He didn't sound angry, which was, in its way, scarier than if he'd yelled. Vin wondered if he really was that tightly wound, and decided, with a second glance at Chris, yes, he probably was. Maybe he should tell him about 'meeting' Buck. Maybe not.

"If we don't move, we're gonna die. How long is that canteen going to last, Doc?"

Jackson looked up. "It isn't." He looked around, "Larabee's got a point. The sun's climbing. By the time it hits noon we're going to be too dehydrated to know up from down, never mind walk out of here."

Vin sighed. "I'll go."

He stood and turned to look at the wall. It would be easy enough to climb up. Rock, not compacted sand. He gripped a handhold and tugged, relieved when it didn't break away. Weathering might have made it friable and unsafe, but this seemed a pretty good bet.

"Vin, it's not safe," Joche said, and Vin bit back his first retort. Joche seemed to think that he had the right to tell cybes what to do. Well, Vin had made it here without Joche, or any of the foldpath bleeding heart saints, and Joche didn't have that right. He hadn't even known about them before he got here. Not for sure.

"That just makes it more interesting," he grinned over his shoulder, and stepped up lightly, testing another hand hold before trusting his weight to it. The rock face wasn't high, and it took him little more than a minute to reach the top.

"Don't go too far," someone whispered, and Vin gritted his teeth. Was there anyone down there who didn't feel obliged to tell him the blindingly obvious?

He twisted around slowly, peering over the edge, letting battle tech sensors survey further than any mere human could. The infra-red glow of tiny power sources was everywhere, like millions of tiny red eyes staring up into the early morning. Okay. They were trapped. He dropped lightly back into the hole in the ground, stumbling as a stone shifted under his foot. Larabee looked at him expectantly as he settled himself.

"Vin?"

Vin shrugged.

"We set foot out there, they're going to know it and come running."

"We can't stay here!" Jackson seemed agitated.

"Got another way to get us out of here, I'll be glad to hear it," Vin said, but he was watching Larabee, who was watching Josiah.

"Well, Osanchez?" Chris gave Josiah the honorific, but it sounded mocking. "You going to get us out of this hole?"

Josiah clasped his hands in front of him and looked up at the gash of clear blue sky above them. "I used to come out this way every now and again. Fell in here once."

Chris turned his head to look straight at him. "That so?"

"Yes, jiao shi," Josiah said quietly. He looked up at the sky, and sighed. "Home isn't so very far away, Christopher. You will return there one day."

Chris's face was expressionless. Maybe the words meant something, maybe the lao tou was just sideslipping off the sanity track again.

"Home's all very well," Nathan said, with some irritation, "but that's not getting us out of here, or me any nearer to Delivery."

Vin glanced at him. Delivery, the landing port -- not Last Chance? The doctor was planning on leaving then? He wondered why the man had come with them at all, if he was so all fired keen to quit Tianya. Nathan shifted, uncomfortable at being the center of attention, and muttered, "Well, we all want to get out of here, right?"

"Any ideas?" Chris said, coolly sweeping the others with greenish-grey eyes. There was no reply, and Chris paused, his eyes on Vin. "Tactical advantages?"

Vin shrugged. "Right now, virtually nothing. We got a couple of weapons; no water--"

"There's still a little left," Nathan sounded surprised. "I thought you knew?" He lifted the canteen from where it was hidden by his side, and passed it to Joche, who took a long draught and passed it on.

"So we've got water." Vin said dourly. The canteen slapped into his outstretched hand and he took sip of the warm hyper-sterile stuff.

"I snagged some cenemol from one of the mercenaries," Joche noted. Vin grinned abruptly. Cenemol and a laser could make a pretty sort of exit. One way or another.

Chris was grinning too, a glint that was as mad as anything he'd seen so far, but a controlled madness. On second thoughts, cenemol and this guy were going to be a bad, bad idea.

Looked like being fun.

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra stared at the group waiting for him as he left his room. "Mareen?"

Mareen didn't smile back, and he started calculating the odds of getting out. Poor. Very, very poor.

"This is Zhou Yu," she said, her face and voice as blankly indifferent as any mask he could produce. A tall Asiatic looking woman nodded unsmilingly at him.

"We have some questions, Mr. Standish," she said. He inclined his head.

"Of course."

She turned and walked away, apparently in no doubt that he would follow. Considering the two armed cybes who fell in behind him, he took no issue with her assumption.

"Am I under arrest?" he asked mildly, pacing her. She glanced at him, slightly taller, and blue eyed. It was a strange experience. Twice under arrest in a week. he was definitely losing his edge.

"No, of course not," she smiled.

"So if I chose to depart --"

"I would urge you not to make that choice."

"I see."

"I'm sure you do, Mr. Standish."

He wondered where he got that name from, but forbore to ask. In its own way, Standish was as much of an alias as any of his names. The mere fact that it was the one registered with his dna actually had very little bearing on its legitimacy. It wasn't as though it was the only one so registered.

She held open a door for him, and waited for him to go through. A swift survey of the room revealed nothing extraordinary. Some sort of office. A round table, four chairs arranged three and two.

"Mr. Standish, we understand that you left the complex last night."

Ezra tensed muscles -- what good it would do against cybes, he didn't know, but maybe --

"Take a seat, Mr. Standish. We have a proposition for you."

*~^~*~^~*

JD drew a deep breath, and reached, as lightly as he knew how. This might not be an arena tournament, but he'd been the best three years running on stealth in the planet games. How different could it be?

"What are you doing?" Buck asked.

JD shook his head minutely, closed his eyes.

The desert lit up.

"There's sensors everywhere," he murmured. "Where -- there you are."

There was at least one cyborg he was never, ever going to forget the scent of. Tanner wasn't moving. Wasn't doing anything. "I see you," he whispered, and opened his eyes again. "Tanner and at least one other is out there."

"Chris?"

"Is he a cyborg?"

Buck shook his head, then paused. "Church doesn't usually do adults."

JD shrugged. "Don't ask me. I'm not the one married to a PI."

Buck rubbed absently at his throat, and JD rolled his eyes. He shouldn't have reminded him. "Not in this lifetime, I'm not," Buck said softly that JD wasn't sure if he'd heard right. He thought about asking, but Buck looked almost sad. He didn't know what to say, so said nothing.

He jogged back to the air car, and eyed it thoughtfully, then nudged at the federal transport Casey had left behind when she'd gone back to Last Chance on his two man vehicle. If he slaved the mercenary four seater to the fed six seater, there'd be room for everyone without squashing anyone, or having to throw stuff out. Assuming that the rest of the men were out there with Tanner. And then he could go after Standish. Maybe.

The fed transport purred quietly up to him, and parked itself beside him, ready to go. He told it to slave the mercenary car, and left the two machines to figure it out.

"What do I need?" he asked as he hurried back into the building that had served as a small clinic. He looked around. The medical supplies were still here, including a densate pack of alu-glass. He thought about ignoring it, but he probably wasn't up to full strength, and if Tanner -- any of the cybes got hit, they'd need it. It wasn't like they could eat dirt and hope to extract it from the ore.

"That the doctor's kit?" Buck nodded to a dark pack on the floor, and JD nodded. He opened it. It seemed mostly empty -- no vials or packs of drug patches -- he figured the mercenaries had cleaned it out when they attacked the second time, leaving him and Nataweh -- he ducked away from the thought even as it formed. No time to think about that.

"Water."

JD nodded,. The water itself was easy enough, but how he was going to carry it... Oh. He ran back to the fed transport and rummaged in the back. The equipment box shifted and moved as he asked the car AI for water carriers, and three flat plastic packs slid into view. He ran back with them and filled the first one, then the other two at the faucet. He had to carry them back one at a time, the ten liters sloshing awkwardly, knocking him off balance with every step. They went on the back seat; he threw the remains of the doctor's kit in, then frowned. "Buck?"

Buck shrugged. "I didn't see any weapons in there."

JD shook his head. "I guess anything the cybes didn't take, the mercs did."

"Where are they?"

"I don't know if your Chris is with 'em," JD reminded him, and Buck grinned at him infectiously. JD smiled back.

"Oh, he's out there," Buck said comfortably, the brief sadness gone. "Just gotta find him, and get my body back, and I'll be done."

JD walked away to his transport. That was all, huh?

Buck followed him as he sat in the pilot seat and powered up. The mercenary vehicle powered up too, and JD ran through the pre-flight, frowning a little.

"Problem?"

"Boards are lighting up..." JD ran a hand over the tracking screen, and the display blinked, then showed two red spots on course to his position. A third blinked into view, and he slowly smiled.

"Kid--"

"It'll be fine, Buck."

"That's five hostiles there!"

JD's grin spread wider. "Bet it's easier than getting past Derenquin of Maia in the tri-system games."

"Oh, no, now, kid--"

But JD ignored his protests and took off, screaming along as close to the ground as he dared. The sensors on the ground might report him moving, but the radar wouldn't see him, and -- he reached away up to the satcoms -- neither would planetary gps. There really were days he loved this job.

He whooped as he skimmed a dune, picking up speed.

"We're gonna die," Buck said morosely, but when JD spared an irritated glance he was grinning, hands behind his head.

"Make your mind up," JD grouched, but he was smiling again when he turned back to the business of hedge-hopping sand. Not too close to kick up a cloud. Not too high to get picked up by their instruments.

One eye on the converging pursuit, one on the sensory fuzz that he'd tagged as the good guys. One eye on the ground... Not enough eyes.

A fireball blew past and he was already twisting upwards, then curling up and over to dodge the follow-up intended to catch him as he evaded the first. The plasma ball exploded and the vehicle shook. It felt like the arenas.

"One life, though," he whispered to himself, concentrating. Just the one life, and if he lost it there was no way to reset this game. No prizes for coming in second.

The AI nudged him sharply and he told it to evade the incoming electrical fire. Even as he did the whole car faltered in the air and he felt cold. Buck flickered out of existence for a second, then everything came back.

"Fuck!" The car couldn't stop all of it, but it had stopped enough.

"What the hell was that?"

"EMP," JD said. "It's the only -- but that means they've got dirty weapons." He twisted and tried to get a visual on the nearest incoming attacker.

"The ground! Eyes front!"

The car swooped up and over, and JD whipped back around just in time to see the front screens blacken briefly. A concussion shook them, and he could feel the heat as they went straight through an explosion.

"Ai ya, wo mun wan leh!"

"Ya think?" Buck snapped. "Left!"

JD yanked the car over, bit his lip as their second, slaved vehicle swung around and caught the edges of the missile intended for him. "Why are they --"

"You smell like cybe, boy!" Buck said sharply. "I don't know what / are, but they think you're a legit target."

"What if I put up the fed beacons--"

Buck looked torn. "Too late. Should have thought of that sooner. How close are we?"

"Nearly there.."

"Don't get them killed."

"You mean don't get him killed."

Buck acknowledged the jab with a nod, and added, "How much hell do you think your life will be if you kill him, and I'm still stuck in your nanites?"

"You ever thought of doing motivational talks?" JD muttered.

"You feeling incentivised?"

"Put it this way." He jerked them over hard, and the harness bit into his shoulders as they rolled through three-sixty while yawing through one fifty. The ground flashed far too close above his head, and he fought to straighten up, corkscrewing back onto the level as he got to the place where the others ought to be waiting.

Tanner?

Kinda late, aren't you, kid?

But I brought company, if that makes you feel any better, he said brightly. You want out of there or what?

"Doors -- open the doors --JD! The doors!"

JD nodded, and dropped both the cars as close down as he could.

Scant seconds later every seat was filled. JD winced as Tanner slid into the seat where Buck was, the overlay deeply weird, as though the cybe had a ghost wavering over his shoulders.

"Go!" Larabee snapped.

"I'm going, I'm going," he muttered, the car was so much heavier now -- "Some of you should have taken the other car--"

"What, the burning lump of shrapnel that's following you?" Joche asked mildly. JD spared a glance over his shoulder at the slaved vehicle and shook his head. It must have caught most of the shots that had been intended to hit him. Just that fraction behind him, the vehicle's responses a split second after his own -- He was amazed it was still running.

"Where to?"

"Can you lose them?"

JD shook his head. "Too many."

"Let me," Tanner said quietly, and JD hesitated before nodding.

*~^~*~^~*

"You--" Ezra shook his head, entirely unable to process their standpoint. It was like his own decision, the decision that he'd spent the night angsting over was completely worthless. He couldn't bring himself to sell the kids -- but they would kill one?

"She is failing, Ezra," Fenna said quietly.

"We have a chance to strike against these people. Nathalie has a chance to help. Would you deny her a way to have her death have meaning?"

"She's six years old."

"Six years old does not mean she doesn't understand that she is dying. It does not mean that she does not understand that her family -- not just her sibs and parents, but her wider family, if you understand this, ha Standish -- may die if we do nothing. And she can do something that none of the rest of us can. You can do that."

"No." He shook his head again. "I can't believe you would do this, I can't believe that you would ask me to do this."

"How is this different from using a friend to break the Ex Corp? How is this any different to abandoning your mother to die under Granot of Borealis?"

He stared at them, brain moving desperately fast. Maud might be dead. He thought she was probably dead. But it wasn't like that -- they'd both betrayed each other, if you wanted to put it like that, but it wasn't like that. It was more complicated than that -- and she had never tried to stack him with high density explosives and send him directly to her enemies to obliterate them. At least, never in quite such a literal manner. And never when he was younger than about eight years old.

Okay, so maybe the difference wasn't that great.

"She's too young, she can't possibly know what she's getting into." Better to ignore the side swipe about him and his betrayals completely.

"She's going to die, no matter what," Zhou Yu said softly. Ezra glanced at her. The woman looked sad, and it bothered him. She was the person who had come up with this idea, she was the one that had been callous enough to suggest that it was acceptable to pack a child with cenemol and send her out to their enemies. And she looked soft and sorrowful, her strong, decisive face clouded.

"No. I won't do it," he said, and stood, pushing his chair back more violently than he meant to. It gave away more of his feelings on the matter than he wished... but dammit, it was monstrous. Inhuman. At least what he had contemplated would have left the children alive, fed, clothed, warm.

He shied away from the little voice that asked, for how long? Until they got too old to be of use? Until they were too worn out to be interesting? And what if federation or church chose to test their capabilities with a zero sum protocol?

He'd decided not to do it anyway.

Zhou Yu looked away. "We're not monsters, Ezra Standish. We are people driven to the very edges of existence." She rose also and leaned her hands on the table between them. "You think we choose to live like this? That we choose to hide on Tianya, away from civilization, away from every good thing that makes life easy? No money, no work, no resources. No hope? You think we wouldn't go back if we could?"

"There are laws--" He was cut off by her short sharp snort of laughter.

"Law. Yes, of course." She turned away from him, folding her arms. "The law has always been such a well observed part of your life."

There wasn't much to be said to that.

"Law is for the very rich, or the very stupid. A fairy tale for children, nothing more. Like justice and equality, and all those things that our ancestors believed in and we paid lip service to back there. We wouldn't go back if we wanted to. And we don't want to." She stopped, breathing hard, and started again, more quietly. "You think we're monsters. Not human."

"No, I just --"

"Yes, what we want to do is monstrous, but so was what was done to Nathalie -- to all of us. Experimented on before we are even born, our dna manipulated and twisted in an attempt to make a brighter, stronger, better cyborg," she spat out bitterly.

Ezra frowned. He'd never really thought about it much more than that the Church owned and ran breed farms, where they created and grew cyborgs. If anything, he'd thought of them as the happy, well adjusted servants of the state that they were created to be, without individual will, without individuality. It was as though the whole world shifted on a single axis. The federation guaranteed the freedom of the individual.

"They redefined individual."

"Yes." She nodded curtly. This was clearly nothing new to her for all it was an epiphany for him. But he still wasn't going to help them commit infanticide no matter how noble the cause or well informed the child.

"Nathalie was a high risk for rejection," Fenna said quietly. "I'd already dropped one who rejected in the first six months."

"But -- "

"They wanted to have children who would potentially reject the adaptations," she went on, as calmly as though it was some other thing entirely, a shopping list, a recitation of the daily arena scores. "They couldn't cure it without having test subjects. It was a peculiar kind of honor."

Ezra couldn't think of anything to say.

"So they bred her, knew she would reject, and then experimented on her until they knew they had failed." Fenna glanced across to one of the men watching impassively. "Until we had had enough."

Zhou Yu leaned forward, and Ezra was vaguely surprised to remember that she was even in the room. "Nathalie is dying. There is nothing we can do about it. And she wants to help. In her six years she has suffered more than any person should. She wants to get a little revenge."

Ezra's stomach churned unpleasantly. Six years old, and a terrorist. They were all terrorists. Thieves and kidnappers and 'freedom fighters'. Flip a coin -- pick a cause, be a hero; be a martyr; be a fugitive, a criminal, a wanted murderer.

"And what do I get out of it?" he asked easily. Because in the end, it was all just semantics and spin.

"Freedom. And our gratitude."

Ezra snorted. "Freedom to get arrested for child endangerment and manslaughter; gratitude of outcasts and terrorists. That kind of fringe benefit I can do without."

"You really won't do it?"

He shook his head, with an odd feeling of freedom. Maybe they would still kill the child -- he stilled his fleeting impulse to try to save her aborning -- but he was better than that. Better than them.

Zhou Yu laughed under her breath, and Ezra's head snapped up.

"This was a test?"

She shook her head. "No. If we could have persuaded you, then we would have done it; but you were our last hope." She shrugged, "We had hopes that the man who left his own parent to be executed on Borealis would be willing to help us out."

Ezra blinked at the second reference to his mother, actually hearing it instead of wrestling with the idea of using child as suicide bombers -- how did they know what had happened to Maud? Besides, "That was different," he couldn't help the small amused smile that stretched his lips. "Besides, If Maud Standish is dead, I'm a cyborg."

"She was executed publicly."

Ezra's smile became a grin. "I make it a rule to never underestimate my dear, departed mother." He sighed, and sobered. "So, if the child is not an option, what else can we do?"

Zhou Yu's smile turned feral, and Ezra's heart sank. "Oh, now, no, you can't be serious --"

*~^~*~^~*

Lose the slave, kid.

JD nodded, and untangled the second, destroyed vehicle from their own. "I can hold it like this."

"What for?" Buck asked, as Vin glanced at him and nodded once.

JD concentrated on keeping the machine behind them on course when all it wanted to do was tumble to the ground and die. He didn't blame it, it was a fucking mess. He was way impressed that it was even moving. "This military stuff is tough," he mumbled, and got an amused look from Vin and a snort from Buck for his pains.

"No shit, Sherlock," Buck said dryly, and JD had to squelch an urge to stick his tongue out at him -- not least because he'd have to explain it to Vin, and sticking his tongue out at Vin didn't seem like such a good--

"Keep your mind on the job, kid!" Vin snapped, and JD grabbed control back from the faltering aircar behind them.

"Sorry." He could feel his face reddening, and kept his eyes straight ahead, hoping no one would notice. "Shut up, Buck," he muttered as softly as he could. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Vin tilt his head, frowning. He kept his eyes forward.

"I think you an' me are going to have a talk soon, kid," Vin said as though to nothing in particular, quietly enough that no one else would hear. JD looked around nervously. Larabee was frowning directly at him from his seat behind JD, tightly wedged between the side of the car and Josiah's bulk. Behind them fire burned, and he gasped silently, taking in the burning vehicle, and the dots of light that were incoming attackers in one swift look, forgetting Larabee.

JD turned hastily forwards again, "Vin, behind--"

"I see 'em, kid." The car jinked high and right and JD dragged the spare behind them, swinging it wide and catching the worst of the incoming fire. "Good work. Can you keep it up?"

JD could feel the strain pulling at him -- his shoulders tightening, the weird blood nausea of over taxed nanites, but said jauntily, "Yeah, no problem," and hoped that he'd be able to hold on long enough.

"You're never going to be able to hide with that thing stringing along," Buck said casually. JD sighed. This was going to be so much fun. Buck without any curb -- or the chance to explain to everyone how insane he really was.

"Buck?"

JD froze. That wasn't him. He snatched a look at Vin, who hadn't moved, his eyes on the readouts before them, his hands lying lightly on the controls.

"Chris?" At least this voice he knew. "Chris, do you hear me?"

Behind him, Larabee's voice dropped to a whisper. "I hear -- Buck? Where...?"

"Right here... Chris--gods, Chris I've missed you--"

His voice faded out of JD's awareness as an explosion ballooned, brilliant white and orange within meters of them. The mercenary's car behind them slammed out of his control, tumbling towards the ground, and he closed his eyes to better absorb the data streaming from it into his net.

"JD, let it go."

He didn't know the voice, and didn't care for the moment. "I've dragged it around this long -- needs to count--"

Two attackers approaching on nearly the same vector. If he could just -- he slowed the engines, let it fall back. He risked a quick look back. Everyone else was looking back too, watching the rapidly closing aircars. The vehicle between them was no more than a ball of flames. Insistent warnings told him that explosion was imminent, the fuel cells were over heating rapidly. He grinned tightly and laid in a course for it, turning it, letting it tumble and swerve as though completely out of control.

Slowly...

"They're closing in, Vin--" One of the older guys... concentrate, concentrate.

"I know. We're good."

"Good!" The doctor. JD flinched a little at the man's squawk of outrage and nearly lost control of the faltering car behind them on it's wild trajectory.

"Hope you know what you're doing, kid," someone muttered, and JD thought it was Vin, but it might have been Buck -- he really couldn't spare the brain power to figure out which of the two men sitting on top of each other was talking.

Just a little more, and the course was set, drifting away from them, tumbling, and up...

He let go the threads that held it and turned in his seat to look back, just in time to fling his hand up against the glare as the burning car slammed into the lower of the two attackers and the momentum carried both up into the upper one, and all three exploded.

"Yes!" he whooped.

"More coming," Vin said calmly, and JD slumped a little. Vin slid a look at him, "Not bad though," and he brightened.

"Anyone got an idea on somewhere to hide out?" Vin said casually as he wove a route through more incoming fire.

JD shook his head. "Last Chance?"

"Follow the crows," Josiah said abruptly from behind Vin, as wedged into his corner, between the door and Joche, as Larabee was between Jackson and his side of the car.

Vin and JD looked at each other, and to his surprise JD saw in the cybe's eyes the same faintly rueful amusement that he felt -- Josiah never could say something straight if there was a screwy way to do it instead.

"What's that supposed to mean," Buck asked, and JD shrugged.

"Dunno. Hey, lao ye zi, what's that supposed to mean?"

Joche laughed suddenly, and JD sighed. Great, another one had lost his mind. Give it enough time and Josiah would have driven every last one of them crazy.

"Laogua Pass. You sly old bastard." There was a note of respect in Joche's voice that JD didn't get until the map on the screen changed res and shifted focus. Vin nudged at the federal aircar and they turned towards 'Crow pass', still covered by the smoke from the explosion. That wouldn't last of course.

There camo on this thing? Vin asked on a thread, and JD shook his head.

You think they'd give me anything worth having out here in the edge of the universe? he said, a little bitterly.

"Thought so." Vin pushed the car harder, redlining the speed until JD's hands clenched into fists with anxiety. He shook his head, it felt like someone was talking -- arguing really -- in the back of his skull, and it was fucking distracting.

"Shut up," he snapped abruptly, and as quickly shook his head. "Not you!"

Vin shrugged. I didn't say a word.

"Someone is." He glanced at Buck who pulled an innocent face, a ghostly image out of step with Vin's presence: confusing as all hell. Talk about your fucking cognitive dissonance. When this was over he was going to hide in a nice dark room, with everything unplugged, and enjoy the damned peace and quiet. He grabbed at his seat as they swooped down, lower and lower. The rocky ground was coming up scarily fast.

"Vin?"

"I have--"

"Federal vehicle, are you in need of assistance?"

"What the--"

JD laughed, more from sheer relief than anything else. "Standish?"

"I have that honor, Mr. Dunne. If you would care to move a little...?"

Vin dropped the car and jerked it sideways. "Ni ta ma de!"

A bolt of light roared past.

"Mei guanxi," Standish said dryly.

JD twisted again to see the result. "Holy -- you got their dropboat! That's amazing!"

"I'm an amazing sort of fellow, Mr. Dunne. Now, since I've been so kind as to save your life, perhaps we can come to some sort of--"

"Federale Dunne?" A woman's voice.

"Zhou Yu!" Joche exclaimed, and leaned forwards to better listen in. "Xiao nu, I am glad to hear your voice. If a little surprised."

"Not as surprised as I am, believe me, lao weng."

"Can we skip the family reunion till we're out of the firezone?" Chris said tersely, and everyone fell silent for a moment, then JD looked back at his board, trying to smother a grin, while Vin silently set a course heading in line with the coordinates that were sent, as silently, by Standish's signal.

The coordinates seemed to lead to a solid wall, and JD drew a deep breath, trying to reassure himself that if they'd wanted to kill them, they'd've left them to the mercenaries outside. The tangle canon shot searing light past them again, and he didn't even look this time.

Then they were through the apparently solid stone wall, and landing, staggering out of the overcrowded vehicle, and Chris Larabee was standing in front of him, a look like the end of the world on his face, and Buck standing next to him, and it felt like his brain was being torn in two, and he blacked out.

*~^~*~^~*

Chris barely noticed JD collapsing on the ground; he was too torn with conflicting impulses to move, or speak, or even think until Buck seemed to flicker and vanish for a moment. "What the gui --"

"I'm all right--" The kid was protesting as Jackson and Tanner helped him to a sitting position, and Buck flickered back again.

Chris shook his head, trying to dislodge the phantasm. "I'm seeing things!" He closed his eyes and turned away, but Buck was still there until he slammed down shields and shut down his psi awareness of the external world. The constant murmur of other minds faded and so did Buck.

"What the fuck is going on?" he snarled, and in two quick strides reached the fed and dragged him to his feet. "What are you doing to me?"

"Nothing!" Dunne looked pale and as confused as he felt. He shook him, hard enough to make his teeth rattle. Hands grabbed at him, trying to drag him off, and the effort to push them out of his awareness grew exponentially.

"Get off me!" He took a couple of long steps and backed the kid against a wall, one arm across his throat. "Well, fed," he said softly, "Want to play games? Try this one."

Dunne shook his head, "Get off me," he choked out, and Chris just grinned into his face. Dunne's breath was hot on his skin, and he could feel the kid's thoughts battering at his worn defenses. He reached in, trying to break through.

"Tell me," he ordered softly. "Tell me now, or you won't live to regret it."

"It's not me," Dunne tried to say, the thoughts rather than the words coming through. He stared into the hazel eyes, but the kid didn't give in, or look away. His concentration flickered, surprised. Maybe he wasn't playing games.

"Not game--" Dunne whispered, as though he heard Chris's thoughts. Maybe he did. This kind of proximity, with his control frayed like it was it was a wonder that the entire planet wasn't overhearing him. "Nanites."

Chris blinked, and loosened his grip on the kid's throat. "What kind of a trick is this?" he demanded. He looked suspiciously from side to side, and found Buck beside him, a ghostly layer woven over the crowding others. He let their grip on his arms pull him away from Dunne, and the sharp focus softened, Buck's face becoming a little less immediate beside him. In a daze he reached back, touched a hand to JD's face without looking at him, and swallowed as Buck came into full focus. "How is this possible?"

"I don't know, Chris--" Buck said softly, and reached out to touch him. It hurt, actually wrenched his soul in a way he thought would never be possible again after they had told him on Resantia, when his hand passed through Chris's instead of touching flesh and bone. He'd known, but still hoped.

He shook. A distant murmur of voices, Josiah telling the others to let go, argued protests that he wasn't safe, demands to see to JD, and he didn't hear a word of them. "I missed you so much."

It didn't even sound like his voice.

"Chris..." He couldn't even begin to name the emotions staining through Buck's aching voice, his dark eyes, his whole world. So close. So close, and still he couldn't have him. This was almost worse than finding a grave at the end of it.

"Are you alive?"

Buck made a small sound, even he, who had known him for longer than any man in that place, longer than any person yet living, couldn't tell if it was a laugh or a sob. "I don't know, Chris. I don't know."

Buck's hands surrounded his free hand. There was nothing there. Not even a chill of air, or a breath of wind to hint that this wasn't some sort of hallucination. "Have I gone mad?" he breathed, staring down at their hands. He twisted his hand, and it might as well have been cupped by empty air.

"Not mad." Chris looked up into Josiah's face, and waited. "Or if there is madness, it isn't yours alone."

"You see him?"

"I see him."

Chris looked over his shoulder at the fed. "And you see him." Wisely, JD just nodded, rubbing cautiously at his bruised throat.

Chris turned back, and Buck was still there, a tentative smile on his face, "It's not the kid's fault."

"But he's doing something. What?"

"Nothing," Josiah said gently. He stood behind JD and held Chris's eyes until Chris looked away. "It's you." he paused, and added, "And a little him." He pulled JD away from Chris, and Chris suppressed a protest as Buck's image lost clarity again as he lost contact with JD, and stepped to follow after him. Josiah turned the kid towards him and shook his head. "I told you to dump the data."

"I didn't think it would matter." Dunne protested. "You can't just ask me to do stuff like that and not ask any questions. And besides, you never said to dump it. Not exactly."

"I assumed you'd be smarter than that!"

JD reddened, the color startling on his grayish skin. "Smarter? Smart would have been saying, oh yeah, JD, you're slicing an entire person for me, don't store it in a cascade medium. Because that might result in a coalescent personality, and you'll start seeing avatars in your head!"

Chris stared at him, and then back at Buck. "An avatar?"

"If you hadn't--" Josiah paused, watching Chris.

Buck nodded, ignoring the others. "Not real, Chris. I don't even remember them dying -- first I knew was when the kid went looking for your history, and we found --" his voice roughened. It was hard to believe that there weren't any vocal cords, no tear ducts, no lungs, no breath to hitch in just that way...

JD jumped in. "That whole 'secret file thing', and you wouldn't tell me what it meant, and--"

"That should have told you it wasn't safe to keep!" Josiah snapped, and JD grinned recklessly.

"That made it interesting enough to hang on to, old man, I thought you knew me well enough to know that."

Josiah ran a hand over his face and groaned. "Stupid."

"Stupid? Stupid? San-shi liu ji, zou wei shang ce," JD said sourly and dodged the hand that came up to clip him.

"I'll give you 'quit'!" Josiah moved suddenly and JD visibly flinched and tensed.

"Not out here," Vin held his hand up sharply. Chris nodded. The people around them tried not to look riveted by the proceedings.

"We need to talk," he said. "In private." He looked at Joche, who nodded.

"This way."

*~^~*~^~*

Casey chewed at her lip uneasily as she reviewed the daily landing data. No flight plans, so whoever then hell he'd been, it had been an illegal flight that dumped him out onto the desert.

"Why the hell would a Mercenary Guild private get out here? And why did he end up dead?" She fiddled with the end of her braid, absently sticking the end of it in her mouth and gnawing on that instead. "I'd understand if he'd been with the rest of 'em--" her pile of bodies in the cryo morgue was threatening to get out of control, but they were under mercenary contract, and Guild law, not her problem, in the long run, more of a transient courtesy. "--but I got nothing on him." Until this last set of messages she'd been looking forward to passing the whole damn mess on to Travis. Let him rule on who the hell got jurisdiction and whether there was a criminal case or if it all sat under Guild law.

Now, it looked like even if he got here, and there were no longer any guarantees about that, she was still going to have some major shit to handle. "Wo da ma," she dropped her head in her hands and tried to think.

"Federale, there is a more immediate issue," Nettie said finally, and Casey threw her an irritated little glare.

"I know, I know." Delivery pretty much ran itself. Butterfield had a actual person manning it part time but his job was more CYA for the staging corp insurance than actual work. So the daily reports were automated, and uninteresting, incoming traffic, outgoing traffic... And they only sent a report on once a day. Especially when it was from a Church ship; encrypted, not marked as urgent so no one knew to flag it to her. Nothing important, leave it to last. And when she opens it, it's word of a pirate attack on the Pentecost, with unknown casualties, and no word on the status of the Axe himself. Typical. Co-operation at its least co-operative.

"It's your job, Casey--"

"I know!" She closed the document, pushed her chair sharply away from the desk and ran her hands over her face. There was too damn much for one person to handle. And this last thing... "God, what am I going to say to her?"

The AI shrugged. "Federale West said fast was better than slow."

Casey gave her a sour look. "Federale West is dead."

"I never said it was foolproof."

She sighed and stood. "I packeted the whole shebang to Celaeno." Nettie nodded encouragingly. "Everything -- the cyborgs, the Guild being out here, all those dead people..." She slumped in her chair. Being in charge sucked. "I shoved in the news about Travis, tagged the Manassi's report in there as is, that should stir some shit up. JD too..." Her throat closed up. How annoying was that? She'd been irritated the whole damn time at him, running the damn show when she knew this place better than any smart ass central-worlder could. Then he goes running off like that, leaving her behind; when she thought he was dead she hadn't known what to think, half furious half terrified, and now he turned out to be alive after all, and god help her, that pissed her off more than any of the rest of it. She didn't like thinking that it would have been simpler if her so called boss had turned up dead.

She flicked back to the latest dead body. "Nataweh." She bit down on the band holding the end of the braid and worried at it. "How soon before we hear back, you think?"

"Could be weeks before we hear anything." Nettie shrugged. "Could be the Guild will send a team out to investigate."

Casey looked sharply at her. "Really?"

"Unless you can come up with more information on why Guildsman Nataweh wound up dead from impact injuries, and missing all the fingers on his right hand, I'd say almost certainly." She added dryly, "They like to discourage independent contractors."

"I know." She brushed herself down nervously, the uniform was pretty resilient but after a day and a half on duty... "Should I change? Before I go see Travis tai tai?"

Nettie walked around her, frowning. "Probably best. You got food on yourself, couple of days ago looks like, and the creases -- you could lose whole armies in some of them and never notice."

"Nettie!"

"You asked." The AI put her hands on her hips and glared right back at Casey, who looked down herself, and then sighed.

"Fine." She stripped swiftly, and decided at the last moment to shower before getting into clean uniform. The shower was hot and beat the sand and dust off her until she could almost forget the news that she had to take to Travis' sept-daughter.

Shouldn't be her job anyway.

She glared hotly in the direction of the comm station. There was no rounding JD up to do the job for her, even if she could get through to him. She bit her lip. The way JD had looked the last time she saw him... No. He was in no state to help. Best she let him get well with the cybes out at Camp Hugo. That left just her between whatever the hell was going on out there, and the town. Nettie kept saying that she should leave the gang war going out in the desert for Travis to deal with. But if Travis wasn't coming...

She started making inventory of the remaining weapons in the building. If she was the last line of law when the gangs decided to come through Last Chance, then she was going to go down fighting.

*~^~*~^~*

Josiah frowned as he eased himself into one of the flimsy memplas chairs. He hated these things. Hit the wrong point and the damn things folded themselves up underneath you. Very funny in the arenas. Less funny when it was your rear end getting bitten off by over intelligent furniture.

The others were still arguing among themselves, and he narrowed his eyes at Chris, who was still riveted on that damn avatar. He ought make JD close it down... but the kid had been so excited, and then there wasn't time. And it wasn't as though he had any authority over the boy.

JD still looked pale. Paler. Two months in the blazing sun and he was only a milky color. If he rolled his sleeves up you could see a faint tide mark showing the disbelieving that yes, he really had tanned. For a certain value of 'tan'. Josiah cocked his head at Nathan, who was still watching the kid, though JD had waved off his help. Josiah wasn't the only one keeping an eye on him, which pleased him, and he smiled faintly.

The smile evaporated as he looked at the map of the area that dominated the table. The damn mountain was on Crow Pass. Far too close for comfort.

He traced the distance to his little sanctuary, barely a stretch of index and forefinger apart. Maybe a click, a click and a half. Why hadn't Joche said something?

Why hadn't he?

Too close.

He pursed his lips. Maybe the battle would overlook the little chapel. Or maybe a stray crater-maker would obliterate it entirely. He winced. Measured the distance off again. Considered the odds. "My poor house," he said, and sighed. No use repining.

"It'll be fine, old friend," Nathan said, a comforting hand on his shoulder, and Josiah patted it. Nathan meant well.

"Ah, well. One way or another, we'll all end up cheek by jowl with the dead. A grave matter to be sure."

"Oh, I'm so glad we have an optimist along," Ezra muttered. Josiah smiled beatifically at the wall.

He could leave, go watch over the sleeping souls buried in the quiet of the old, half ruined sanctuary. Or he could stay and take his chances. At least here, he had a chance to fulfill some part of his penance. If Chris died, that would be an end of any chance to fix this. And there wouldn't be much point bringing the other one back at that point.

Chris's face was strained and grayish, bones tight against lined skin, and his eyes were wide, fixed on an unseen vision, like a man in the first throes of ecstatic revelation.

Two dangers, alike in risk. A cascade of misery.

No. Better not to say, better not to make any hint of where, how close, how much danger there was.

Though if the worst happened, if all that was left was the avatar and a blood marked splinter in a hidden pocket ... he'd feel responsible for what happened to the boy.

*~^~*~^~*

Mary smiled at the video and pressed her fingers to her lips and then to the middle of the screen. "Love you, baby," she said softly. "I'll see you in a couple of months." She flipped the recorder off without even looking, and sat back in her seat, her eyes closing. In some ways, it was as bad as talking to a grave, though she had to hope that he heard her whispered words, and somehow, Stephen didn't ever send back dutiful weekly letters, with pictures, smiles, scrapes, bruises...

She closed her mouth tightly, the pressure on her lips so painful that tears started to her eyes. That was what hurt. Truly.

She wiped carefully at her eyes, and turned the screen off decisively. She wasn't going to give in to missing Billy. He was safer with his grandparents and cousins on Celaeno than out here in the middle of a quiet war. And anyway, Orin was due in any day now. She frowned. In fact -- she checked his schedule, and her frown deepened. Shouldn't he be insystem by now, and contacting her again?

The door warned her of a visitor, and she opened it with a thought, and rose to her feet, automatically straightening her tunic with a tug at its hem.

"Casey--"

Casey wouldn't meet her eyes, and somehow, the petite red-headed girl merged with Federale West, holding his gloves in his hands, twisting them, unable to meet her eyes either, and even their words blended in her memory... I'm sorry...

"... there's been an attack on the Pentecost about two days out."

Mary nodded, keeping her face calm, stoic. Caesar's wife was never so straight backed and steady as she. "An attack?"

Casey looked confused, as though she'd expected -- something else. "Yes. Um. The -- I received a message from the Church ship Menassi. They uh, they engaged approximately fifty AU out, and--"

"Wait, wait, a Church ship attacked--" Oh god, no... God, he'd been talking about bringing Billy out; what if he and Evie--

"What? No! No. They saved them. The Church -- the Manassi -- drove off some pirates or raiders. They thought they were pirates of some sort."

She sat down abruptly, her heart slowing gradually. "Orin's not dead?"

Casey shook her head. "Not as far as I know, ma'am. They -- the Pentecost was severely damaged, and The Axe refused to leave it -- they said they'd offered, but --"

Mary shook her head immediately. "No, he'd never leave his ship." Or its cargo. God, the thought of the Church Guard finding-- Jeshu. "No, Orin's old fashioned like that. He'd be the one standing on the burning deck as it sank into the waves." Casey looked blank, and Mary rolled her eyes and bit back a sigh. "He'd never leave while there was life in the Pentecost." While there was life in him -- but she wasn't going to think about that.

"Oh." The fed clearly found this incomprehensible, and Mary felt contempt, and a little pity -- the girl had never been space side; never seen the stars unfiltered; never put her hand to steel-glass and known that the vacuum of space, glittering and dark was a scant twenty centimeters away. "The comms officer on the Manassi said it would be at least another day on present speed, before the Pentecost arrives." She looked doubtful, "He said they were pretty beaten up, and they haven't managed to establish full communications with them yet, so they don't know for sure if -- how many --"

"I understand." No way was Orin dead. Leah would never go to these lengths if there was... nothing to hide. "Is he -- do you know if anyone was injured?"

Casey shrugged and shook her head. "I don't know," she said, a little impatiently, "they haven't got communications. Captain Averill promised he'd call as soon as ship to ship was restored --"

"Yes, I heard you the first time." Mary stood and walked swiftly away, her path blocked only by the walls of her little room. Communications damaged? Or blocked? "Have you asked Federale Dunne--"

"Federale Dunne is -- unavailable," the girl said roughly, and her knuckles whitened on her clenched hat.

"What?" She gasped. Again? Another ? Once was bad enough, but twice was definitely starting to look like -- "Dead?"

"No!" The girl's head snapped up. "God. No. I thought -- but he's going to be fine. Doctor Jackson said so." Mary wasn't in the least reassured, and waited, braced for the news. "He was shot by some guys out in the desert."

"Who?" She was already composing a version of this to log, maybe even load up to the inner worlds in her head as she spoke. "Why? What was he doing out there?" she frowned, "Why aren't you going after them?"

"I -- we're working on that, ma'am --" she said, and Mary thought she saw a crack, a way in.

"On your own? Casey," she stepped closer, smiled, pushed inside the girl's comfort zone, "Can I help at all?"

Casey stepped back, "Thanks, but it's a federal matter. We'll be just fine."

"Can I see him?"

"No!" Mary blinked at Casey's panicked near-shout, and waited, sure there was something else. Big. Dunne taken out. Travis 'incommunicado' and under Church control... and Wells? Suborned? Covering up something? But what?

"Why not? I'd've thought he'd like a visitor -- must get pretty boring on your own in a med box."

"He's not -- he's fine where he is, I just can't say where that is." Mary gave her that much: she recovered nicely, and dodged the question with a hint of 'federal security'. Well, well.

She was going to need to talk to Joche before their scheduled chat. Tonight.

*~^~*~^~*

"JD? You okay, JD?" The doctor's insistent voice broke Chris's reverie, and he glanced over at the man, wishing he'd shut the hell up. The kid didn't seem to appreciate the attention any better, for all he meant well. He shrank in on himself, stepping away from Nathan though even Chris's disinterested eyes could see him shaking. The room wasn't all that warm. Maybe the kid was cold.

"I'm good," JD insisted. He hesitated, then added, "Can I, is there anything to eat?" Nathan dug into a pocket and produced a wrapped candy bar, which he wolfed down.

"Now that's stretching the truth if ever I heard it," Buck muttered as the kid disposed of the chocolate in two gulps. Chris had to work to prevent his amusement showing. It didn't work so well -- Buck grinned at him. "I knew you were in there," he said softly, and Chris glanced away, then back, unable to look away for long.

"What happened?" he whispered. He wasn't even sure which 'what' he wanted first.

Buck shook his head. "I don't know, Chris." He looked as serious as Chris had ever seen him, solemn and worried. Chris flinched -- it was like memory grown cruel, too close to brush away and too far away to touch. He rubbed his hand rubbed over the scars at the base of his throat without really thinking about it, watching Buck. Buck frowned. "Chris, what happened to--" He stepped closer, his hand reaching out and brushing unfelt over Chris's skin. He looked up sharply. "You burned it?"

Chris flinched at the betrayal in Buck's eyes. "I..." He let his hands drop, and Buck laid an intangible hand over his double scar, his eyes closing.

"Oh, Chris." Chris couldn't help looking down at Buck's other hand; his left hand. His index finger, for all it was illusion carried a bone ring still. "You fucking moron. What good did you think that was gonna do?" he breathed, the tenderness in his voice was without end. Chris tried to move the shirt out of the way, and his hands slid through cool space, empty of the body he wanted to be there.

"Here." Buck undid the couple of buttons at the collar of his shirt. The scars there were white and thin, a pair of overlapped circles only barely visible against the tanned skin. "You always had the worst way of over reacting." He reached out again, carefully laying his hand over Chris's throat. "You do that yourself?"

Chris tried not to answer, looked around him. The others were watching him warily, and for a second he saw himself as they saw him, a gaunt man in black remonstrating with thin air.

"Chris, what's going on with you?" Nathan asked quietly, looking worriedly at him. His hands twitched and closed again, the good doctor wanted to help. Of course. He flicked a look at JD, who was leaning against the wall, his eyes half closed, Vin lurking close enough to catch him if he fell, as he seemed likely enough to do.

"Nothing," he said tersely, and turned away, his eyes still on Buck. This was what was important.

"Since when was I nothing?" Buck said. The soft tone did nothing to hide Buck's hurt.

"Since you left me." He hadn't meant to say that and Chris wished he hadn't at the instant pain on Buck's face.

"I can go away."

"No! Don't go!"

"That might not be a bad idea," Nathan interrupted. "Going. If that's what you were suggesting?" He looked uncomfortable at acting as though Chris's hallucination -- shared with JD and Josiah or not -- as a real thing., but he stood his ground. "This isn't good for him."

"I'm fine," Chris said tersely, but Nathan was already shaking his head.

"Not you. The fed."

Chris blinked. "That's not my problem."

Nathan raised his eyebrows at him, "No?"

"Don't we have more important things to worry about?" He waved at the map and the milling people. "Shouldn't we be making plans, not coddling the children? If you're that bothered, send him off to bed early."

Nathan gritted his teeth and walked away.

"Zhangfu, the kid is the only reason we're talking," Buck said softly. "Don't you think--"

"No. I don't," he snapped. "Don't, Buck. Just... don't."

Buck smiled sadly. "I can't change who I am. Or what I am."

"What are you? Answer me that, Buck." His voice cracked, and he looked up into Buck's eyes. "Tell me what are we going to do?"

Buck's smile faded. "I don't know, Chris." The silence stretched out between them, no ending, no meaning, nothing but a vast divide, void of hope.

*~^~*~^~*

Garen leaned over Joche's shoulder and murmured, "You've got a call."

Joche looked at him. Garen wouldn't say any more in front of strangers, and he held his eyes for a long seconds, then nodded. "Ask them to hold, I'll be right there."

Garen nodded, and slipped away.

"Josiah, gentlemen, a local problem has come up," he said calmly. "It shouldn't take long. May I suggest you make use of our facilities? We can reconvene in," he made a show of considering the time, "let us say, an hour?"

"We don't have time to--" Larabee started, and Joche raised a hand.

"Not all of you are so -- hardy -- as yourself to survive on neither food, nor sleep, nor good health." He looked around them. Dunne was visibly wilting, and Jackson looked like he was torn between saying something and biting back his own yawns. Josiah's eyes were burning, and Joche reminded himself to talk to him. Soon.

Garen had found him an empty room a couple of doors down, and saw him settled, complete with a plate of sandwiches and a glass of water.

He eyed it with distaste and keyed the terminal.

"Mary?" He took a quick look at the corner of the screen. The lock symbol promised a secure line, but-- "Now's not a good time."

"I know," she said grimly.

"You know? What do you know?" Word was out already?

"I heard about Federale Dunne getting injured."

Joche stared at her blankly. "Mary, what does the damned fed have to do with anything? We've got more pressing worries right now than three day old news." Was that the latest news she had? Because --

"Yes, I know, Casey told me about the mercenaries -- you're under attack again?"

"Not right at this minute but, Mary," he hesitated and she broke in before he could tell her to go away and quit bugging them for the latest story.

She shook her head sharply. "Joche, I've got some bad news, I just heard -- it's Orin." She looked angry, like she was itching to do something, but didn't know what.

He froze. The Axe? "What about him?" he asked. Dead, discovered, arrested...

"Pirates. They attacked the Pentecost about three days out. Leah fought them off, but..."

"Oh, thank god," he whispered, but she wasn't finished. "But you've heard from them, Captain Friedricks has been in contact?"

"No." She looked away, then back up, clear blue eyes meeting his gaze steadily. "Joche, I haven't heard anything from Orin or Leah -- I haven't been able to contact them since they crossed into the system. The news came from the Manassi. It's a Church gunship out of Resantia."

It only took a second for the name to register, and they just looked at each other.

"The Church homeworld? What are they doing out here? Where's the Pentecost?"

"Limping home. They won't be here in less than four or five days, Casey tells me."

And the Manassi, unfettered by battle damage, could be here in a couple of days. Maybe even less. A Church battleship, here. He felt like his brain was creaking at the attempt to think. This day was bound to come, but now? It couldn't be coincidence. Could it?

"No communications with Leah at all?" he asked, hopelessly, hoping. "Nothing?"

She shook her head.

"It's over then," he said. He looked around, wondering what there was left to do. To come so close...

"No! They might not know. It could just be coincidence. Joche, not even the Manassi can get here in less than two days -- and they're probably pacing the Pentecost. If they are, she'll be another four days at least. We've got time."

"No we don't." He hesitated. If the Church had broken this encryption and knew to listen to this frequency, then they were in more trouble than he could cure with mincing his words. "We had to move to the back up facility. We're surrounded. I'm expecting an attack any minute."

"What? Who?"

"Apman."

She shook her head, not following. "I don't know the name -- "

"Cross it with Hou."

Her eyes widened, and he wondered if she'd made the connect herself or found it on a secondary thread while talking to him. It didn't matter really, although it fascinated him, wondering how meatfolk managed to function without cybernetic implants. "Sept Apman. Why here?"

Joche shrugged. "Revenge. Random boredom. Kidnapping and slavery for fun and profit. Take your pick."

"The children." She sat heavily back in her chair and Joche shrugged. No one ever said Mary wasn't sharp.

"Probably," he said. "How's Billy?" Not on the Pentecost? And that was as close as he dared get to asking the question that tore at him, that couldn't be said, not even if this were secure, and there were no enemies at the gate.

Her face tightened. "Well away from here. I hope." So. She didn't know anything about -- the cargo. He passed a hand over his face, trying to wipe away the horrors behind his mind's eye. They would have seen an explosive decompression. They would have mentioned bodies, if there were any...

"No word on the condition of the Pentecost?"

"No. Nothing. They lost comms and their sublight system took a hit. This is all third hand, Joche," she cautioned him. "No pictures -- Casey didn't say anything about pictures anyway." She paused, "I've put in a newsreq for the official report. Should get a copy under FOI."

He nodded. Hit comms and engines -- silence them, disable them, and unpack them at their leisure. "That makes sense, if it was pirates. Though, the Manassi might say that anyway."

"I know."

"You have word on who's in charge up there?"

She shook her head. "I can find out."

"Do that."

"Is there anything else I can do?"

He started to say no, then paused. "Pray."

A reluctant smile broke out on her face, appreciating the irony. "Just in case there's someone out there, listening?" she said dryly, and cut the connection.

He laughed softly, then sat back in the chair. Orin on his way, but delayed. Possibly injured or incapacitated.

Would it even matter if Apman's people prevailed tomorrow? The Church could sweep in to find nothing but a crater, the children gone, the adults killed. He'd always known it might come to this, but not now, when they were so close to getting some real good done here.

He shut the terminal down, setting the deletion protocols off, waiting for the promise that the system had erased the conversation. And he tried very hard not to think about the Pentecost, bringing its first run of federally assisted emancipated cyborgs to Camp Hugo.

*~^~*~^~*

God, he was cold. Surely the benefit to living on a desert planet was getting to be warm. He wrapped his arms around himself and shivered, one hand clutched to the heat that was the bandage over his side, half grateful for the heat coming off it, half afraid of it. A hand held a jacket in front of him and he took it gratefully, only looking up after he'd pulled it on. The owner was leaning against the wall beside him, facing the room, his arms folded, seemingly uninterested in his actions. "Thanks," he said softly, appreciating the warmth.

"You're welcome." Tanner spared a second for a quick look at him. "You look about ten seconds away from crash and burn, kid. You sure you're okay?"

"Yeah. I'm good." He shut his eyes and tiredly forced his biostats into view. It took forever for them to run, scrolling against norms like semi-liquid coolant, viscous and slow. Half the tell tales were lit up with warnings of one sort or another. Blood sugar was climbing after the candy he'd wolfed down, though he knew it would crash straight back down again, lower than ever in half an hour or so. Plus, his stomach was churning as nanites tried to locate more alu-glass, and failed. The nanites were in the wrong place -- not in his blood, and in turn that was flashing urgent warnings for anemia and a calcium deficit that was going to bring down the whole house of cards if he didn't get it sorted pretty soon. And oh yeah, his side still hurt. Just peachy, apart from that.

Next to him Tanner chuckled. "Funny definition of 'good' you got goin' there."

Shit. Was he listening -- "Are you reading my mind?"

"Leave that for them," he jerked his head towards the priests. "Just adding up the bill. Reckon you're going to be cashing it in pretty soon."

JD straightened. "I'll be fine."

"Best get some rest."

JD shrugged.

"Away from him. Both of them." Vin was watching the space in front of Chris. JD could see Buck there, but wondered what Vin saw, if he was just following Chris's line of sight, or if there was something... else.

JD looked at Vin and then at Chris, who was still talking urgently to Buck. "Why?"

"Haven't you figured it out yet?" Vin turned his head to look at him, and the faint thread that hadn't really gone away since -- since Camp Hugo -- tugged at him. How much power do you think running that avatar takes?

"You can see him?"

Vin shook his head. "Nah. Chris can. That's good enough for me. Come on, how much?"

JD shook his head. "I -- I don't know." He hadn't thought about it like that. His voice tailed off as he started thinking about the numbers. "I used to need to lean in on the bio generators for anything in the arenas -- at least, back on Celaeno I did." He stared blindly across the room, really thinking this through, figuring out the power draw needed to run a coalescent program containing twenty teraflops of base data, and accumulating information every second. Shit. No wonder he felt tired and hungry the whole damn time. And sick.

"The nanites run my hemoxychange too," he said absently. "They ain't just extra processing and memory." Among other things, he thought again, and shivered. Which would explain the anemia, and the blood sugar, and--well, everything. It had seemed so cool at first. Buck, his own in house friend, a guest avatar hooked to him. And then there was the story and the mystery, and dammit, having Buck around had been good when he was light years from home, and further than that from the only person who'd ever cared if he lived or died.

"And soak up your glucose and eat the 'glass bases." Vin pointed out with an air of someone using small words to get through to the idiot.

"I know that." JD gritted out.

"So? What are you going to do about it?"

That was pretty unanswerable. Except -- "Look at his face," he said softly. Both their faces although Vin could only see one of them. Taking Buck away from that was -- unthinkable.

"You better start thinking it or you ain't going to be no good to anybody when Apman comes back. Come to think of it, you're not doing Chris any favors either. Not really." Vin glanced at Josiah and JD shook his head, thoroughly confused.

"Comes back?" he repeated, dizzily. God, it was as bad as being drugged. He just needed to think. There was something important... "But Apman--"

"Oh, he'll be back. He's not lost enough to give it up. He probably reckons that if he just gets a couple of us he'll re-coup all the losses." A lop-sided grin slid across Vin's face -- for a man predicting an armed incursion of unknown ferocity, he sure didn't seem too bothered.

JD stared at him. Frowned. Wasn't there something, something else?

Didn't he have some kind of -- "Wait..." Tanner's face slid across his memory, and he blinked. What the -- oh.

"There's a Church want on you!"

"Hell, tell the universe, kid." Tanner didn't seem too troubled by this either. "I haven't got enough people out there trying to take me down already."

JD shook his head. "Don't you care?"

"Sure I care, kid. That's why I'm out here in the back end of beyond, where Church writ don't run, and Fed writ is ..." he hesitated, to JD's surprise, "Fed writ -- is different out here." He slid a look at JD.

"I don't understand."

"Hmm."

"What do you mean, 'different'? I follow the Federation rules and Laws."

Vin's smile slipped a little more. "You follow Travis's version of 'em."

"What -- but -- " JD smothered a yawn and tugged Vin's jacket more tightly around himself. He was starting to feel a little warmer. The thin leather wasn't exactly insulating, but it smelled good. "Travis is the System Axe. What difference does it make -- his rules, Fed rules? It's all the same thing. Isn't it?"

Vin turned a long, steady look on JD, seeming to weigh his words. He shook his head once, and instead of replying, said, "Go to bed, kid. You're asleep on your feet. It'll make more sense after a meal and some downtime."

"I'm fine." But he didn't protest when Vin shifted to guide him out of the meeting room, and he tumbled gratefully onto a narrow, utilitarian bunk with a sigh of relief, and closed his eyes, drifting almost instantly.

"Come on, you need to drink this." A dark hand shook his shoulder after some unmarked time -- it felt like eons, but it could have been mere minutes. He blindly reached for 'this' and a glass was guided into his grasp and then to his lips. Alu-glass, sugar and salt, other stuff -- drugs, anti-bact, stims, vitamins... whatever it was, it was glutinous and foul tasting. He pulled a face, swallowing hard to keep it down.

"Gimme a minute."

"All of it," the doctor insisted.

"Yes, Mom," he muttered, but struggled the rest down. He was rather more than half asleep, curled up on his side, when something brushed lightly over his cheek, then the light dimmed and the door closed.

Chapter Text

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra settled back into his seat and watched the bickering begin again as one by one the room filled up again. Chris was off in some hazy dreamworld, the sort of place that crazy people went when their meds weren't adjusted quite right, he thought acidly.

The others in this deeply unlikely band of heroes were gathering quietly. No sign of their daredevil federale -- Ezra mentally tagged him as 'mostly likely to die young' and decided to not worry about him. Tanner had slunk back in -- a neat trick, considering Ezra's training in observation, that the man -- cybe -- managed to sneak in under the radar just about every time. The wall was empty, and a few minutes later, Tanner was there without seeming to actually take the time to arrive. He wondered if the man had had fun putting the fed to bed, and made a note to ask at some socially awkward moment.

Jackson was another matter entirely. He hadn't seen a glimmer of humor from him. The man had done his job without allowing his prejudices against technology to stop him, but...

Ezra sat back and enjoyed as the man worked his way slowly through the cyborgs, politely smiling and nodding, his discomfort tightly tamped down. In a way he could admire the commitment to his calling that allowed the man to consult with cybes as though they were real people while almost certainly not thinking of them that way. He wondered briefly how the man stood on cyborg ownership. Maybe he'd be a good partner if Ezra ever changed his mind about looking to the future -- his financially secure future. Or maybe not.

All there but the crazy old guy. A heavy hand dropped onto his shoulder and a low, deep voice said, "Good evening." Ezra jerked in his seat before he could stop himself. His irritated glare over his shoulder met a knowing, unsmiling look from Josiah, and he jerked his shoulder away from that dangerous touch.

What could a priest learn from a touch? Too much. Priest Inquisitors had been his downfall once already. For a moment he was back on the Church Justiciar's ship, in high orbit above Borealis Ultra, damp sweating hands pressed to his face, his mind wrung dry and still tumbling helplessly...

Josiah stepped back, took a seat, and then, only then, let his pale gaze disengage from Ezra's, looking deliberately away and down, some hint of shame perhaps. What was he trying to say? Anything? Nothing? Was he a renegade priest or was he watching, reporting, telling the Justiciars his every thought...

Ezra wasn't ungrateful to have his line of thought broken when Joche walked back in, his face stern and clouded. The room seemed to grow bigger as everybody took their seats, conversations tapering off as people noticed him, turning to wait for whatever he had to say. Under the pressure of external distraction the nagging sensation of unseen eyes dwindled, the tension fading from his body despite the impending violence. Ezra watched him thoughtfully. Here was the core and crux of it. Joche held both the prize and the failure in his hands.

The old man looked tired behind his closed off expression, and Ezra wondered what had worn him so in the hour since they had last seen him.

"Bad news?" he asked impulsively across the murmuring conversations.

Joche looked at him sharply then visibly shrugged off the grim pall surrounding him, the lines smoothing, the -- fear? -- vanishing behind a mask. "News of an old friend." He dismissed it and rapped his knuckles on the table. "Can I have your attention?" he said quietly.

Ezra was impressed. Joche's voice seemed soft, but it brought every last person in the room to silence in seconds.

"Thank you." Joche looked around slowly, folding his hands before him on the table, meeting each person's eyes in turn. Ezra felt as the dark eyes settled on him that he was being weighed and found wanting. "We are on our own here. Those present right now, everyone currently in the mountain, are all that we are likely to have in the way of allies," he said. He made no differential between cybe and human, between adult and child, even though Ezra had expected some sort of comment. But then -- he thought of the child who supposedly was so willing to suicide in the cause of saving her friends and family -- this was a battle for every one of them. Their lives and sacred honor, the few, standing before the storm. Joche spoke again and he shrugged off the flight of fancy, and wondered just how many other clichés he could cram in. He bit down on a grin.

"Steven Apman demands a tithe of us," Joche said. "We--"

"Call it what it is: he wants slaves; docile, sellable slaves," one of the cybes muttered, and Ezra noted his face.

"Slaves. Yes." Joche looked down for a second, and back up, and Ezra found himself admiring the old man, even as he wished he'd just get on with it. "This is not your fight." He looked at Chris, Ezra, Nathan, then Josiah. "Lao peng yu, you do not have to stand with us."

Josiah shook his head. "No better place to be."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Whereas I have any number of better places to be, and a tragic inability to reach them," he said lightly. "A last stand in a lost desert in the arse end of nowhere doesn't strike me as my first choice in the exciting things to do with my evening options. And yet, how can I resist?"

"We'll make up for the lack of entertainment shortly," Zhou Yu said with a quick smile and Ezra grinned back. Well, better to put a good face on it, than do the right thing and complain about it the whole damn time. Although, there was nothing to stop him doing both, given sufficient time and incentive. Hmm.

"You need me. If my hands can help, then you've got them, for as long as they can do some good," Nathan said after a quick, irritated scowl in Ezra's direction. Ezra smiled mockingly back and lounged as best he could in his chair, ignoring the discomfort, and enjoying the frustrated annoyance on the good doctor's face. It didn't make up for the rough and ready nose job, oh no. But it was a beginning.

"I stay," Chris looked challengingly around the room, daring anyone to speak.

"Chris, it is just a matter of time," Josiah said. "You don't have to --"

"I stay," he said flatly. "Buck's here. I'm here."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Buck's here." He looked around ostentatiously, "And yet, rather like the emperor's new clothes, I persist in seeing only thin air." He waved a dismissive hand before Chris could speak. "No matter. The enemy dies regardless of the sanity of those shooting at them. As long as you remember to point the gun the right direction, we'll get along well enough," he said dryly.

"I could make an exception," Chris said, dry as dust, and Ezra caught a hint of amusement in the cool grey eyes. Well now. He nodded fractionally, acknowledging the hit.

"One thing at a time, di di." Josiah spoke softly but his hand on Chris's shoulder showed white at the fingertips and knuckles. Ezra spared a moment to be impressed that Larabee didn't even seem to notice.

"All this jawing's getting us pretty much nowhere but in circles. We agreed a deal, remember?" Chris flashed a scathing look at the other four. "Let's be about it."

Ezra examined his fingernails, "For a reward."

"You'll get yours," one of the other cyborgs muttered, and Ezra glanced at him. Garen.

"That's what I was afraid of," Ezra replied pointedly and at a sudden, abortive movement from Josiah beside him, subsided. "As you please."

Joche looked up at Vin, who took a chair, turned it, and sat, resting his folded arms along the back. "Apman," he agreed. Interesting that Joche didn't question whether Vin would stay or not. Of course, they were both cybes. Some sort of familial trust in the sanctity of Vin's 'deal', Ezra supposed. It made men do the most inconvenient things sometimes. He felt himself fortunate in the lack, really he did.

"Who's out there?" Vin asked, and the tenor of the room changed.

"Our most recent data suggests that," Joche touched the table and a map lit on it, "he has surveillance teams here--" he tapped a red spot and it lit brightly, "here, and here." The teams were spaced about 120 degree angle on a circle around the Medjai site. "Externals show their main forces are on the move. There is a skeleton staff at their primary base," he glanced up at the others, "where we were held, and the bulk of their forces are aiming towards what we believe will be their final position here." He swept his hand in an arc outside the mountain, to the rear of two of the surveillance teams.

"What sort of condition is the primary base in?" Garen asked.

Joche smiled and directed attention to his colleague. "Zhou Yu?"

"Satellite pictures show several buildings have been seriously compromised." She tilted a smile at the questioner, "I think we can safely call it their former primary base, Garen."

Chris shook his head. "You've forced their hand. I'm not so sure that's a good thing."

"I don't remember you complaining about breaking out of the damn place," Ezra muttered.

Chris's eyes were hard and unrelenting. "They've got nowhere to retreat to, and nothing left to lose. That's not a good enemy to be facing."

Josiah shrugged, "We don't know that." He stared at the map. "There are other places that we might yet regret overlooking."

"Such as?" Zhou Yu asked. Josiah shrugged.

"Home of the damned."

Ezra caught Zhou Yu's eye and he rather thought she found it as hard as he to keep a straight face.

"If we can maneuver them into approaching up the gully again," he traced a line into the main entrance of the base, "we might have a chance to pin them," Garen said into the awkward silence. "Up here." He tapped the front door of the complex, and Ezra frowned. Impossible they should fall for that twice, surely.

"They'd never do it, they already know the cannon's at the other end," Vin drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the table. "We should move the cannon. Can give ourselves more of tactical advantage if they aren't expecting it."

"Are there any other ways in?" Chris asked. Ezra thought of the multiplicity of tunnels leading to the surface and winced.

"Several, from what I could judge," he said. "I've visited one or two myself."

"Don't worry about them," Zhou Yu said.

"Don't neglect your rear. Last thing you want is a war on two fronts. And corridor fighting is a damn sight less fun than it looks in the arenas," Chris said sharply.

"Oh, they can come at us from behind if they want to," she grinned, a cold expression, bright with anticipation. "I'm going to enjoy seeing them try."

"We have -- negated -- certain routes up into the mountain," Joche said mildly. The reproving look that the cyborg leader bent on his guerilla tactics commander made Ezra rub his hand over his face to conceal his sudden grin. Insane military risk-taking and crazed blood lust. Very rational. Why was he on their side again?

"Negated?" Jackson was leaning in, half fascinated, half horrified.

"Blind alleys; booby trapped chicanes; mined corridors; deadfalls; surprises galore," Zhou Yu counted off, eyed them -- the non-cybe outsiders -- as though she'd just thought of it. "I'll need a deenay print off each of you before we let you wander as you please." Ezra winced. She wasn't -- she *was* implying that his moonlit walk could have ended in his death. Bombed to bits by his own side. "Not yours, Standish," she added, with a crooked smile, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking. Great. He was in no danger -- except of being cloned against his will. Or having a bio-agent tailored to his dna. Lovely.

"And on our side?" Vin asked.

Joche looked at Zhou Yu, who sighed and perched one hip on the arm of a chair rather than sitting in it. "We -- have finite resources."

"What sort of resources?" Vin asked, as Ezra spoke.

"More to the point, how 'finite'?"

He wasn't entirely sure what lay behind the intent look she turned on him. "The generators only carry so much power," she said blandly. "We have hydrogen cells, of course, and alternate sources, but much of the off/def gear is resource heavy."

"That jaunt of yours just now ate through two cells," Joche added after a pause. A pause Ezra strongly suspected had included a swift conversation on cyborg levels that he had no access to despite the transmitter they'd lent him.

Ezra blinked. That fast? "I only fired three times."

"The anti-combat shields run very hot. And the tangle cannon eats cells for breakfast."

"It shouldn't get through one in three shots," Vin said. "What else have you got?"

"We have twelve levels; seven under, five above ground level," Zhou Yu began briskly. "Every level has at least four exits. Two external, two internal. The majority are unoccupied, and non-combatants have been moved to the safety zone in one of the deeper levels." An image of an octagonal tower, broader at its base than its tip appeared on the table. "Level one and two are the hanger and weaponry areas. The majority of action is expected to take place there. We have placed charges here," a corridor lit in the lower areas, "and here. By collapsing sub level one into sublevel two we believe that we can successfully conceal the deeper layers from Apman's attack."

Ezra swallowed. Don't be on sub levels one or two, he noted.

"There a signal for clearing the levels?" Chris asked.

Zhou Yu shook her head. "If it comes to hand combat in the corridors we don't want to give any warning. It will occur in concert with any incursion into those areas, we hope to suggest that the floor was mined to take out invaders and that the lower floor collapsed due to the mines, rather than just to conceal the underground levels."

Chris simply nodded. "The fed needs to go with the non-combatants," he said abruptly.

"That's his choice," Joche held Chris's increasingly angry glare until the man looked away. "I'll talk to him."

"There are other diversions in place," Zhou Yu went on, ignoring the side argument. "Each group should take their assigned blocks. We have finite resources, use them thoughtfully. Personal weapons will be issued with power packs immediately after this briefing. Tanner, your group will come with me."

Vin nodded again, and although the others, Ezra included, moved uneasily none of them protested the cyborg's leadership.

"We don't know how much weaponry they have themselves. Joche took what he could while held, but their security was good. Very good."

"Get the kid on it," Vin said unexpectedly. "Dunne."

Zhou Yu raised an eyebrow at him, and then nodded. "Noted. Limited time frame for this information, so don't expect it. We have some ballistics, but mostly, we're operating off powered weaponry, primarily tangle and laser. You will be issued with extra power packs for your assigned toys. You know the drill -- dump for recharge as soon as you take it out. There are no extras beyond what we are issuing. Don't lose them."

"What about the fixed guns?" Ezra asked. "The cannon." Was he going to get to fire it again? And surely they had more than one?

Zhou Yu simply smiled enigmatically, which stuck the problem under the tag of things that had been classified out of his need to know. Very well. "Perhaps one of us should go wake our fine federal friend, start him on slicing the data Mr. Mendeleyev brought back," he said directly to Vin, hoping to push him a little off balance. Vin smiled at him.

"Best he sleep for now. He'll have better luck once he's rested," he said simply, and looked back to Joche. "What's their rate of approach?"

"Zhou Yu?"

"We've got some time yet. Taking out their drop boat seems to have given them to think," Zhou Yu said, and Vin nodded.

"You got an approximate time yet?" another cyborg asked, and Zhou Yu nodded.

"No sooner than oh four hundred. Nine hours. We're watching closely, and by the time they are within effective ground range, we can eyeball then, not rely on EM."

"Best to sit tight and let them come to us then," the cybe sat back, looking satisfied. "If they try to come in in the dark we have the advantage, and regardless we have the high ground."

"Not that we could go anywhere if we were so minded," Ezra muttered.

Zhou Yu favored him with a bright, cheery smile. "Well, there is that."

Chris leaned forwards and ran a finger over the leading edge of the advancing troops. "Can we do anything to help keep them back?"

"What sort of thing did you have in mind?" Zhou Yu asked.

Chris leaned back and smiled slowly. "I was just thinking about how my Momma always said waste not, want not." He dug in his pocket and produced a half dozen strips of cenemol.

Ezra's eyebrows twitched up, even as Joche's hands slid into his pockets and came up empty. "You picked my pockets?"

"You weren't interested in the cenemol back in that hole, now were you?" Chris gave a tiny grin, and picked up one of the brightly colored, die stamped strips. "Pretty things. I figured we'd need 'em if those guys got too close."

Ezra gaped. "They walked above our heads. Just how close would too close have been?"

"Oh, closer than they were," Chris drawled, flipping the cenemol from hand to hand. Ezra wasn't the only one whose eyes followed its arc anxiously. "They've got finite men."

"We estimate no more than a hundred, and possibly as few as forty. Full Mercenary Guild complement, which means cybes, which means we're fighting our own, but we knew that." Zhou Yu looked down for a second, and Joche's hand brushed her forearm. "Better yet," her voice firmed, "they know that. If we can slice their comms, we may even be able to deal direct with them."

A murmur arose, the idea seemed to please the cybes, and Ezra shook his head. Somehow, he'd been more comfortable with the idea of them as blood thirsty monsters. Though seeing the children had gone some way to dispelling that, they were children. not old enough to be indoctrinated. Cyborgs were bred to fight. Somehow, it didn't seem natural for one to advocate a peaceful resolution. Like a donkey learning to fly.

Or a grounder learning to sky-dance, he thought, and half smiled. Let them rise up against their training. If it irked their creators half as much as his own small rebellions had irked his mother then it was a task well worth the endeavor.

"Further briefings will be directly with your team leaders. " Zhou Yu dipped her head in a small gesture of respect. "I wish you all luck." She stood and there was a general scraping of chairs. "Dismissed."

*~^~*~^~*

Chris shifted uncomfortably in his chair as the room cleared. The meeting was over, and the others were waiting, Tanner and Standish in their sets, Josiah talking quietly to the old man; Jackson standing, waiting nervously, shifting from one foot to the other.

Do or die. Even, do and die.

He reached with his mind, unwilling to let go of the dwindling contact with Buck. With whatever it was of Buck that that damned fed had locked in his brain. Less than Buck's avatar, but still a lingering sense of the man.

The scent of him was faint, almost lost in the morass of minds that had filled the meeting. He'd had to shut down so far to stop himself from being overwhelmed that he'd almost lost that Whatever it was that JD's sleeping mind was generating, he was soaking it up with desperate urgency. Buck, Buck, Buck...

"He's not real, you know," someone whispered, and Chris jumped. He suppressed the motion almost before it happened, but Vin's sharp eyes had caught it anyway. "No more than a ghost."

"A little more than a ghost," Chris countered. A whole lot more than a ghost. It was almost like having him back. If he could get JD to just co-operate it could be like the old days. Almost like. He wondered what he could use to persuade the fed. Drugs... money... mind pressure.

So tempting. So, so tempting. So close, but without touch it was -- Buck had meant touch. So much so, the thought of him was like a touch to the soul, every memory seemed to include a tactile element. And now he had something more than a vid, something less than the real thing. He fingered the burns at his throat, foolish extremism. Back then, he hadn't cared. It was all gone. The interlocked rings were meaningless without the people he had cut them for.

Fire for fire.

What was Vin saying? He tuned the words out. The kid would be fine. He was still recovering from that shot a couple of days back -- puzzlement stirred him briefly -- it was only two and a half days at the most. Even with synth repairs he shouldn't be walking around. But when he was better, Chris could use him to keep Buck with him for good. Hell, maybe he didn't even need the kid. A little of his blood, and he could keep Buck for himself.

"Nate, could I get some of those nanites of his?" he asked. The room was quiet, confused as he talked straight across their strategizing. It didn't matter. As long as he lived, then he had Buck back. And if he died, well. He'd have Sarah and Adam back. Win -win.

"I--" Nathan hesitated, looking for inspiration from Josiah, of all people.

Josiah said nothing. Chris couldn't gauge the meaning of the blank face, those pale blue eyes like ice. He pushed, and found himself pushed back, hard.

"Stay in your own head, Chris," Josiah said, very, very softly, and Chris backed away. "Leave the nanites where they belong. Jedediah has his own part to play."

"You -- am I understanding this right?" Nathan said slowly, "You're surely not proposing that he keep on using JD to access that, that thing?" Jackson said. Chris blinked a little at his disgust. A doctor who was a techphobe? "Don't look at me like that!" he snapped, "I don't know what the hell's going on, or how you're doing it, but those damn nanites of his are eating him alive." Jackson glared around the room, daring anyone to gainsay him. "Well. I think they are," he added more temperately. "He's losing strength faster than he can recoup it." He let his eyes settle on Josiah and Chris watched the priest shift uneasily.

"It's necessary."

"Necessary? Necessary! You told him he shouldn't have done it! Make up your goddamned mind!"

Josiah sighed, and folded his hands in his lap. "Death comes to us all."

"Better it come quick than get eaten away molecule at a time," Vin said, blue eyes narrowed.

"One crow at a time," Josiah spread his hands.

"Well, I suppose on the bright side, the boy will probably die in battle before the nanites finish their meal," Ezra said brightly, and Josiah grinned at him happily.

"Just so."

Jackson looked up abruptly. "It doesn't matter anyway." He smiled broadly, "It can't be done." Ezra shook his head, then dropped his head into his hands; Vin winced. "They're bio-locked to his deenay. And there's no way to obtain undifferentiated nanites for you."

Chris stared at him until the smile dissolved off the doctor's face. "That makes you happy, I guess," he said softly. Jackson flinched, and a small, distant part of Chris saw it and was pleased.

Jackson seemed to catch the undertones, and shook his head. "Of course not. I'm just saying--"

"How convenient for you," Chris growled. He shook his head. It didn't matter. He would think of other ways. All things were possible, for a price. It just depended on what price he was willing to pay. Kidnap the fed, take him to Church space, get them to unlock the nanites. Get someone to build his own nanites, load Buck into them -- his own avatar, half his soul restored. Get the kid to let him have permanent access to his brain. Something. There must be some way...

"If you would like to come with me?" Zhou Yu said impatiently. "We don't have all night, and I have a couple of things you might like to see."

*~^~*~^~*

Vin smiled with satisfaction as he carefully laid the cenemol shards on the ground, then sprayed the catalyst over them. A couple of squirts left the chemical misting in the clear night air before it settled, glimmering wetly for a second. The cenemol flushed a deep green that faded to beige, and he dusted sand back over it, scooting back swiftly, just in case he'd mistimed it. He hadn't, of course. Very nice, he thought to himself, just try stepping on that, you fucker.

He straightened up; Chris was waiting, a dark figure, almost indistinguishable from the deep shadows save only for the dull glow of heat in the ir range cast by his face and hands. He was perfectly still in his position at the lip of the gully, his eyes shut, watching with his mind. Vin stared for a long moment, memory biting hard, but when the man's eyes opened as though sensing his gaze -- almost certainly sensing his gaze, he told himself -- he saw that glimmer of kinship, a stubborn soul still striving in spite of the universe. Whatever that echo of his own soul was, it eased the crawling fear. This man wasn't like any priest he'd known.

He shook himself, shouldering his thoughts aside. Now wasn't the time. He looked critically at the area, dipping into wider ends of the spectrum than most humans could use. The cenemol still showed hot, visible to the right eyes despite being concealed under dirt, sand and lumps of rock. The ground itself looked normal, untouched by human hand -- or anything else, he thought, suppressing his amusement. Good enough. He turned away. In minutes even the heat of the initial reaction would fade, and all that would be left was cold, unmarked sand, waiting for the weight of a foot or a vehicle.

No room for regrets.

"Good job," Chris said quietly, and walked away, heading further up the mountain. "Got any wire?" Vin tilted a surprised look at him, but nodded. "Good. Saw a good place to use it."

Fifteen minutes hard climbing later, Chris paused. "There." He gestured towards a cut at their feet, a dark hole in the mountainside. Vin nodded and dug in his pockets for the reel of monowire that Zhou Yu had given him, a replacement for the reel taken by Apman's cybes.

Vertical or horizontal, he mused, patting his pockets again. Something to hold it up. Aha!

"Yes." He settled in the lee of a boulder, and looked expectantly at Vin. "I leave the method to your discretion."

Vin shook his head. "A little faith, Larabee," he said mildly, "I know what I'm doing." He deliberately relaxed his tensed shoulders. It was just the usual arrogance of the Church. No one could ever manage anything unless a priest was hovering over it every step of the way.

"Buck would tell you," Chris said softly, his voice light and almost teasing, "that I was always an arrogant son of a bitch. Church didn't have nothing to do with it."

"Don't suppose it helped none," he threw back with a quick smile.

"Don't suppose they did, son," Chris said softly, and Vin looked sharply at him. Was this the real man, then? Almost sane sounding, a heard smile unreflected on his face, but, yes, there.

He hesitated, and then said casually, "I'm looking forward to meetin' this Buck of yours." And maybe offering a little payback on that punch he threw, come to think of it. VR or not. He rubbed at his jaw absently.

A real smile softened Chris's face for a second. "Not half as much as I am," he said.

Vin paused for a moment, ducked his head briefly. "Guess that's so," he allowed, and walked noiselessly to the dark gash in the mountainside. Below him it opened up into a space big enough to fly a good sized machine into. Unseen from the side, too narrow to approach straight on, but from above, a good place to drop a ground force. He checked their surroundings against his map of the installation below them. Not an immediate danger. Enough rock between this and the complex to allow for some pretty robust measures.

"You were right," he called softly, pitching his voice to carry no further than Chris's ears. Man could probably pick the words out the air if he thought loud enough. "There's enough space for a landing team. If they're stupid enough to land this far away from any of the entrances."

Chris's teeth shone briefly. "Never underestimate the other side's willingness to be stupid when there's a clear path."

"Point."

After a good look at the terrain and a moment or so waiting for his nanites to catch up, he pressed his left hand carefully to the rock face, and when it stuck, grinned and swung his weight onto it, slapping his other hand further down before the left released at a thought, finding toeholds to balance on, but mainly using the tech induced adhesion as he scrambled down. He dabbed a spot of mil-grade adhesive into a narrow crack in the rock face, tagged an end of monowire into it then ran a half concealed UV light over it. A moment later it was harder than the rock it was welded to, bonded deep enough to hold against anything, and he grinned.

He jumped to the ground, letting the wire unwind as he dropped. He repeated the procedure on the other side of the open area, and then again, until he'd made a three dimensional lattice some meters above the ground. It was lower than he liked, but he wasn't taking any chances on it being seen.

If the mercs were smart, they'd be scanning the ground, but that wouldn't necessarily pick up the wire. He smiled at the thought of Apman's men settling their transport down, and down, and gently, carefully slicing the vehicle -- and probably themselves -- apart as they did so.

He scooped a stone up off the ground and tossed it at the lattice, and grinned as it bounced and then fell, sliced into a dozen pieces.

He looked up. Chris was watching him from the edge above him. He flicked his eyebrows and Chris nodded once, expression cool, approving, unblinking. Not a friend. Vin wondered when the man would sleep; he would last longer than a human bound priest, psi gave no edge over weariness. Worse, the more Chris used it, the deeper he would dig into reserves they needed for the morning. But Chris, like all the priests he had ever known, refused to allow a hint of it to show through.

"You okay?"

Vin smiled ruefully. "That was going to be my line." He let the silence turn the question back on the questioner.

"We'll win." Absolute confidence that insisted that he was well; that Vin would survive; that Buck would return. Storming hell's own gates with the arrogance of the devil himself.

He looked away. He almost thought that if he could just hold out, not look -- he could breathe his own thoughts when he wasn't looking into those cool eyes. What of the others? What of the bodies left in the wake of Larabee's obsession? What of the free cyborgs trailing in his wake, sucked into the maelstrom he had brought down on them. And what of JD, trapped by Chris's madness? But when he was looking, when Larabee was standing right there... he had no doubts that they would win.

He knew better than to fall for it. Cheap tricks. Body language and psi force twisting the mind into fear. And yet --

He gathered himself and leapt for the edge of the gully. Chris dropped to one knee as he jumped, and grasped his wrist. His hand automatically wrapped around the priest's wrist, locking tight. The extra boost swung him up next to him easily and they paused. Vin slanted a look at Chris where he crouched beside him.

"Xiexie."

Chris shrugged. "You're welcome." He leaned his hand on Vin's shoulder, pushing himself to his feet wearily. The illusion of invulnerability, the omniscient, omnipotent priest shattered. Chris was just a man. Tired, scarred, eyes lined with worry, pain gouged deep into his mouth.

"Let's go."

He nodded and stood. "Got a plan?" he asked. It would work out. He'd figure something out, get rid of the avatar that was killing the kid; figure a way to save the cyborgs. Find Buck. Fix Chris.

All that, before breakfast, he mocked himself. Save the world, destroy the evil invaders and marry the princess while you're at it, why don't you?

Chris nodded, and with a sigh set off again. "Got some thoughts."

"Yeah?"

He wondered what it would be like if they ever found Buck. This narrow focus -- tightly wound rage harnessed to a purpose... would it be like that? Or would the anger leech out of him? And -- the thought struck him suddenly -- when had it become 'their' search, and not 'his'?

And was it for the priest or the fed that he had joined it?

"You should leave the kid to me," Chris said softly, and the illusion was broken.

"What? Why?"

Chris looked at him, but said only, "You going to get on with this or not?"

"Don't get the kid killed."

"Funny. That was going to be my line," Chris said coolly. Vin watched him, but there was no further comment, and he shrugged.

---------------

"These." Ezra tapped the screen in front of him. "Can you make them?"

Zhou Yu nodded, a faint smile on her face. "The extrusion facility should be able to do something with that."

Ezra smiled cheerfully. "Low tech, but an ancient and inglorious tradition of warfare has often found these to be somewhat entertaining for the besieged forces."

"I bet," Zhou Yu said. She sighed, and settled back into one of the hard plastic chairs. "You should get some sleep."

Ezra shrugged. "I suspect it would take a pharmaceutical intervention to put me to sleep right now."

"I can arrange that."

"Thank you, but no." He sighed, and let his mind drift. Seven against Thebes. Except they'd been on the outside of the fortress then. Hold the high ground, Ezra. Work with your strengths. Stay sharp.

Maud. Goosebumps ran over him, the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck rising. She wouldn't approve of this. Dear god, she would be infuriated at his lack of self control, his failure to seize the opportunities offered to him. His presence in a last stand with those whom she believed to be little more than mechanical toys, programmable, biddable. Less than human.

Ah. So that was why he was staying.

*~^~*~^~*

He'd walked this path before. The long night.

Josiah silently paced Garen as they scattered spikes and caltrops on the ground. Plastic, invisible, painful.

Pitiful.

He looked up, tilting his head back. "Where are you, meimei," he murmured. He squinted thoughtfully. "I hear you. You're a long way from here."

"What?"

"Just talking to the blind," he said. Garen grunted, somehow conveying a world of eye rolling intolerance. Well, cyborg and churchman was not an easy mix. Probably why Zhou Yu had put them together. Tomorrow they would be side by side, but with death itself as their companion. Not the little night, with its dawn, but its greater sister, closing eyes into the long sleep. "The dead are a little closer." He looked to the north. Yes. Close.

He breathed deep, letting the sanity of the stars fill him. Muscles relaxed, creaked as they let go of long held tension.

Win or lose, tomorrow was the end of it.

Or the beginning.

*~^~*~^~*

JD woke. He reached blindly for the glass, and drank deep, then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and the back of his hand on the blanket.

"Can't take you anywhere, kid," Buck whispered, and JD smiled. It was oddly comforting to not even have to open his eyes to see that friendly smile. "You need a damn keeper."

The job's taken, he thought, and then squashed it before it could be heard. What's going to happen? he asked, not even pretending to speak out loud.

"Ah, kid. If I knew that, why, I wouldn't be stuck here in your brain with you. Not that there isn't plenty of room."

JD laughed softly. With an ego the size of yours, it's just as well.

"Ego, schmego. That's one hundred percent justified Buck Wilmington, accept no substitutes."

Gege, you ain't nothing *but* ego and a bunch of alu-glass specks running around in my blood.

"Now, that's just getting picky."

Buck paused. As the silence grew, JD felt tension pulling at him. He opened his eyes. Buck looked just the same, only the backdrop changed, but somehow it was easier to glare with his eyes open. "What are you thinking, Buck?" he asked anxiously.

Buck shrugged a little. "This and that. Meaning of life. Nature of reality."

"The easy stuff," he quipped, but the joke fell flat. "Buck--"

"That's not -- I'm the dead guy," Buck said lowly. He looked at JD helplessly. "The ghost at the feast."

"No. No, Buck, it's not--"

Buck's face was serious, intent. "I'm killing you and half killing him." He gestured at the glass in JD's hand, and JD abortively moved to hide it, as though making the glass disappear would make it less true.

"Buck, don't-- he'll -- we'll find you. Put you back together. It'll be okay," he promised urgently, panicked by the strengthening resolution in Buck's face.

Buck laughed under his breath. "Hey, two Bucks, that's pretty much guaranteed to cause some sort of disaster. Buck and Anti-Buck. Next thing'll be the complete destruction of the universe from all that concentrated animal magnetism."

"So -- so wait for him to go, they'll leave, you know they will. You can stay once they've gone. Don't go, Buck."

Buck struggled to put on a smile. "Don't make it harder on us, boy." JD bit his lip, hard, and shifted sideways without thinking about it, into a virtual environment, perforce pulling Buck with him. You *know* what this," he gestured at himself, "is doing to him. And if putting an end to this is the only way..."

"Buck--"

"Don't take on so, JD. It won't be no different," Buck said gently. "You'll see. You're just making this harder on us all."

JD shook his head, and took a hesitant couple of steps towards him. Buck shook his head and wrapped him in a huge hug, and JD clung, tightly. " What'll I do without you?"

"I'm going to be right there."

"It won't be the same." What if we don't find you, what if you're *really** dead? What if it doesn't work?

"No. It won't." Buck agreed. JD cleared his throat, then had to clear it again. "It'll be better. And I guess you'll get used to me making contact when I hit you." He swiped at JD in demonstration, the slap to his back as real as anything in a virtual environment could be.

"I'm sorry." He didn't mean to grudge Buck his chance of happiness. But -- what if it didn't work?

Buck squeezed tighter. "Don't be sorry. Get back out there and give 'em hell, boy. Remember to watch your six."

"And you gotta promise me something?"

JD nodded, bracing himself.

"Quit making eyes at that pretty boy and do something about it."

"What?"

"And change out of that goddammed oh-shoot-me-now uniform."

JD laughed despite everything. "Buck, dammit!"

"See you on the other side, kid," Buck nodded, and turned away, and JD closed his eyes, closed the virtual room. Closed down everything.

It was just him, in an empty bunkroom, and the loneliness of his own head. He dropped his face onto his knees and didn't move for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

*~^~*~^~*

The sun was heavy on his back as he crouched behind the rock, perched high above the desert. Light moved, and he narrowed his eyes it, squinting, wishing he could see more clearly, then slapped his head.

"Idiot," he muttered, and almost lost his balance pulling his zoom lenses from his belt. He dialed the range up, and saw them, advancing in slow order, not attempting to hide.

Vin?

Yeah?

The cybe's tone carried a hint of, 'what is it this time?', and JD threw back his shoulders, despite the fact that no one could see him. Got movement on sectors D and F...

I see it. Vin's thread came back with barely a hesitation, and JD sighed. Maybe he shouldn't have bothered, Vin probably knew it all already. Thanks. Tanner out.

"And don't bug me again until you've got something worth saying," he muttered to himself. He ramped the lenses up higher, moving in closer. They seemed to be in vehicles, in some sort of formation.

And they were about to go right into the first trap.

JD grinned happily, and squirmed a little closer to the edge of the cliff. A little closer... a little closer... The lead vehicle was almost over the target square...

There! The action went with the thought, hitting the initiation order faster than he'd ever made it in the arenas, and he saw the plume of dust and the flying specks of black before the sound reached him. "Hah!"

One down!

I saw, Vin said mildly, and JD tried to tone down the sheer glee he was feeling, and no doubt, transmitting.

He leaned forward, watching fiercely, waiting for the dust and sand to clear, ready to trip the next improvised landmine. Instead there was a second detonation, and then a succession of dull booms, and he counted them -- five, six, seven, all of them? Not -- nine, ten, eleven. Aw shit..

I'm coming down, he told Vin, not asking. He'd taken this post because he'd been given it. He suspected he'd been given it because it made Larabee happy that he wasn't about to get himself -- and therefore Larabee's access to Buck-- killed. But if there was nothing up here he could do except watch the mines Joche's people had spent careful hours setting go up in smoke, then he might as well get back down to the real action.

He grinned happily, checked his weapons (lit, ready, locked so they wouldn't go off unexpectedly) and slid down slow and easy. The grey of his uniform blended well enough in the pale rock and sand, as long as he stayed low and didn't do anything -- oh shit! His foot shot out from under him, and he fell a good ten yards down the steep path, finally fetching up hard against a huge boulder. He gasped for air, pain pulling from every part of him, unbearably relieved that the falling had stopped.

Move!

He jerked into action, obeying the edge in Vin's voice without a second's hesitation. He scrambled, half on his feet, half on hands and knees, too desperate to get out of the way to worry about getting up. A dip between a trio of boulders caught his eye and he instantly sheered off for it, heart pounding, the world blurring until the only thing he could see was the sand and scattering of rock grasses lurking in the dim hollow. He sank into the cover provided by the biggest boulder, then huddled down deeper, wedging himself into the small space between, either safe or trapped and not sure which it was going to be. What had Vin seen? How long had it been? A time check told him mere seconds -- only three or four, even though it had seemed far, far longer, and he leaned his back against the cool stone, looking up into the pale sky framed by rocks. Something flashed past, not ten feet above his head, and he stopped breathing, waiting. A round, metallic object bounced off the rock face, rolled rattling down the path grenade and onto the spot he'd landed not three seconds before.

He stared at it, maybe three meters away, nothing between them --

"Fuck!"

-- and he moved faster than he knew was possible, hurling himself up out of his hidey hole, scrambling up and over, desperate to put as much hard, thick rock between him and the grenade as possible. He fell, lurched on, dragging himself rather than stopping moving, his torn knees, shredded hands and aching ribs suddenly of no importance whatsoever as the grenade blew. His eyes shut tight, but he was still getting away, and now he was on his feet, tight in to the cliff face, hidden by the overhang and the clouds of dust, his eyes shut, one hand on the wall to keep himself oriented, testing each step blindly before putting his weight on it incase the next one turned out to be the end of the path.

He wiped at his face, bringing away wetness. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, stinging his skin. He rubbed at his eyes, trying to clear then of sand and dust.

The rain of fragments stopped. He kept moving, stumbling on, his eyes on his feet, glancing up at the sky every few seconds. Were they going to fire again? How long had it been?

A rattle of stones on stones; something disturbed by the grenade rolled off the side of the path and bounced and echoed for a very long time.

He stopped, pressing himself back into the cliff face, hoping he was hidden well enough for now, deep in shadows. The sounds fell away until all he could hear was his own breath rasping through his open mouth. One by one his cuts and bruises started throbbing with his heart beat, raw, aching, stinging. Alive.

Seconds became minutes. The sound of his heart beat dwindled in his ears, and his breathing slowed to something like normal. He was okay. Nothing serious. He was okay.

...Come in, JD. JD? Come on, kid, talk to me--

He shifted slowly, creeping carefully back onto the path, keeping crouched close to the ground, close to cover. He was probably leaving a blood trail, he knew, but it couldn't be helped. He swiped a drip out of his face, and glanced at his smeared hand, uncertain whether the blood was from his head or from the cuts and scratches on his hand.

It didn't matter.

JD! JD, answer me! Jeshu dammit, if you don't answer in the next minute I'm gonna---- Vin sounded impatient, angry, like he'd been calling for a while and JD had only just noticed. He'd've noticed if he'd heard him sooner, right?

Hey, Vin,, he whispered, vaguely pleased that someone had noticed he was missing.

No words came through, instead something stronger, like the rush when your team won in the arena -- you weren't supposed to be able to go deeper than direct thought speech, but when it was strong enough...

Thanks, man, he mumbled.

You okay?

Yeah, I'm good. He just needed a power up and he'd be fine. He shook his head. No, that was wrong, that was for games. This was for real, not just bio-feedback off the Arena. He stared at the trickle of red running down between his knuckles, and then licked at it thoughtfully. Huh. He liked the games better.

He shook his head again, sharply, but the fuzziness didn't go. He put a hand to the back of his neck and gingerly felt at the chipset seated in his 'port. They weren't all straight, and he gently eased them back into place, and the world came sharply back.

I'm fine, he said again, his head clearing rapidly. Nanite activity rising, he noted absently. Silver striations were coagulating over the worse cuts, and he grimaced. Well, they should be gone by the time he ran into anyone. I'll be in touch.

Distant agreement, and then silence in his head. He drew a deep breath, and started moving again, slower this time, taking more care to stay out of sight. He still had a job to do.

*~^~*~^~*

"How many down?"

"Four; two seriously injured, two dead," Ngede said. But Apman wasn't going to care about that, he knew. He didn't even bother enumerating the details -- Gani was down. Niel was going to need regen before he walked again. And Glau and Bann were past repair. They couldn't keep this level of attrition up.

"For?"

"We believe we have five kills. Sir." Only two were sufficiently certain that he'd stake his life on them being dead. The others -- well, maybe, maybe not, but he'd rather guesstimate up and be wrong than have this lunatic turning trigger happy hands on his own people again. On his military commander. Again.

Apman pursed his lips. He'd lost weight rapidly these last few weeks and the folds lined his face unpleasantly. "Unacceptable. Get out there and eliminate the lot of them. Filthy rotorats."

"Sir?" Ngede was politely non-committal. "The plan was to extract maximum value--" he stopped at Apman's glare.

"I don't care any more. No. Kill them all; destroy the mountain. Wipe them from the face of the planet." His hand chopped graphically, and Ngede looked at him, his tanned face unreadable.

"Yes, sir." He paused, rapidly weighing his options. He had to say something, he just -- he made sure his shield was up again: power drain or not, he was taking no chances. "We are down to seventeen combat-able crew, sir. I'd like to recommend that we withdraw and regroup. We can obtain further support from--"

"Shut up!" Apman slammed a gun filled hand across Ngede's jaw, it skittered over the shield, close enough to his face to make him jerk back.

"Sir, I would recommend--"

"You can't use that damn thing all the time! I replaced her. I can replace you! Get out and do your job you fucking coward!"!"

Ngede watched him, face carefully impassive. A coward would just agree with you and leave, he thought, watching Apman's face suffuse with anger. "We will need reinforcements if we are to get through. If you want anyone left alive at the end that is."

Apman looked at him like he'd lost his mind, "If they're all dead there's no profit to be had, you idiot!"

"Yes, sir." I'll just ignore every alternate order you give then, shall I?

Apman looked slyly at him. "Besides. I have reinforcements coming. They should be here soon."

"Sir?"

Apman smirked. "Need to know, Commander. And you don't. Not yet."

Not Guild then. He'd've heard before Apman. Besides, if anyone at Guild was willing to come out here they'd either been lied to about the profits, or lied to about the casualties. Most likely both. So who the hell had Apman recruited? Free mercs? People too mean to join the Guild, or too dangerous to be accepted in. Not the Feds. More clan? But Hou was licking its wounds still, that was the whole point of Apman's stupid exercise. Who else was left?

"Yes, sir," he said, and took a step back. "Do I have your permission to take any measures necessary to make advances against the enemy?"

"Yes, of course, you idiot!" Apman snapped. "Just go and do as you're told."

"As you wish, sir," he murmured, and took the last step backwards to let himself out of the tent, never taking his eyes off of Apman for a second. Do as you're told seemed a remarkably fluid sort of arrangement, considering the contradictory orders he'd been given. He walked back to ops, giving serious consideration to invoking the emergency break clause. The Guild wouldn't fault him. Not with Frances dead by Apman's own hand.

"At ease," he said as conversation stopped when he walked in. "What've we got?"

"You know everything we do, Cap."

Ngede nodded his thanks. Nothing more. He stared at the tac screen for a long moment then shook his head. "They've got the high ground."

Tallis grinned at him, "But they haven't got the best team of mercs the Guild has fielded in twenty years, eh boys?" His sidelong glance at Ngede gave away his anxiety, but Ngede appreciated the effort.

"We got numbers?"

Ops shrugged. "No fucking clue. We're getting zero intel out of there. Black as a priest's heart."

"We've cleared the remaining mines," Halloran said, appearing at his other shoulder, staring at the tac screen too. Ngede nodded, and there was an uncomfortable pause. Someone -- and it was easy to blame the dead -- hadn't checked the ground before walking across it. And that was just the basic stuff, the things that had been laid as a first line of defense. They probably wouldn't even have killed anyone, not battle cybes, if they hadn't been in a vehicles that flipped and pinned them.

"Sorenson and McKenna are making headway here," Tallis added before the pause got any longer, and tapped the screen. The four teams, two per team, were approaching from irregular angles to the cybe base. There had been six teams.

They were all going to end up dead.

He absently noted that he needed to make sure that Apman died too, if they didn't make it. Although, maybe the enemy could be relied on for that. After all, they were sane.

*~^~*~^~*

They waited in the shadows by the foot of the mountain. Larabee's hands hung loosely by his sides. Every now and again his fingers would roll up into a fist, clench for a second, and then stretch out again. Vin saw only from the corner of his eye, and was oddly relieved to see some normal sign of battle nerves. He'd wondered if the priest had any really human feelings left at all. Chris's obsession with the Buck-avatar wasn't exactly the welcome in the hills Vin would have been looking for from a three year missing husband.

The kid better be okay.

Movement caught his eye, and he focused in, squinting to get a better look. His eyebrows flicked up in surprise. It was a smaller group than he'd expected. Maybe the mine had taken out more than he'd hoped.

"You got something?"

"Three coming up on F. Guess they think with that mine out, it's a safe path through." He grinned, and dropped to one knee, leaning forwards out of the shadows of the overlooking hill. "Got three more on B or C, I reckon."

Chris looked absent for a moment, then nodded once. "Josiah says they can see 'em."

Vin kept his eyes on the landscape and his gun sight, and hoped that his distaste didn't come through too obviously.

He shifted the tangle rifle in his arms, settling the stock more firmly in his shoulder, letting the automatic sighting take control of his eyes, until it seemed as though he was staring straight down the barrel, distantly aware of the overlay of reality, about six inches left and up, letting it go, ignoring the Doppler effect, letting visual processing revert to the most basic motion detection. If anything moved, he'd shoot it before he saw it.

One, two -- the third one turned, fired, and he shot twice more, catching first the missile -- another rattle grenade -- and then the cybe who'd launched it.

"Not bad," Larabee said at his shoulder, and Vin looked at him then smiled tightly.

"Sorry to spoil your fun," he said lightly, and Chris's teeth flashed in a smile that looked genuinely amused.

"I'll get a chance later." He turned back to watching the approaches to their vantage point -- from the right and from above were the only real options.

Vin nodded, and focused back on the area before him.

The next attack came from above. Vin was only half turned at the sound of a stone clattering before he felt the heat of Larabee's Church issued weapons searing the air. The oxygen burnt out as the flame scorched upwards and then collapsed into itself, a cloud and a faint vapor trail were the only signs that a second ago there was a human being thirty meters away from them. A breeze from the inrushing air soon cleared even that.

"Guess they got the problems with those things fixed," he said mildly. Last time he'd seen one of them in action it had burned the tester's hand off. Matter of twelve years or so though, so it was understandable they'd got better.

Larabee tipped his hat back and squinted up into the clear blue sky. "Guess so."

Vin settled back into position. Let them come in a little further… Get well out of their safe fallback zone before he took any action. He waited. he could wait for hours. Absently he checked on the others, looping through to the command post.

Zhou Yu? he asked.

Garen, sorry, Zhou Yu's busy. Any news?

We've been under fire. Holding position. You?

Got teams working in from five points we think; small infiltration. Fire up high.

Got two out on F, JD called one on B as well.

Yeah, he said. Took some fire, but he's fine.

Vin nodded even though he knew already. Anyone else?

We're three down.

Who? he asked quickly.

Maviss, Thom, Strek, Garen said tersely. Vin dipped his head briefly. He remembered most of them from his time living with the cybes at Hugo, back when he first got to Tianya. He'd been too wary to make any friends, had left too quickly to feel more than a kind of passing regret; they were his kind, they'd done something good, and now they were dead.

Injuries?

None reported. Which meant nothing, he knew, and Vin focused back on the here and now, watching the field.

Idea on their strategy?

We're still trying to figure it out.

Vin shook his head in resignation. Call me when you're done.

I'll do that. Garen sounded like all Vin's commanders ever had -- sarcastic and off balance. Vin smiled happily to himself. Free cyborg here. No more jumping to orders.

"Well?" Larabee growled, and he looked back over his shoulder at him.

"Nothing."

"Gou shi."

Vin's smile widened. "Nothing worth knowing. Couple of ours down; couple of theirs down, everyone else is fine."

Larabee grunted in answer. "Sanchez says they've got more pairs creeping up on their backs."

Vin nodded, relayed it back. Garen didn't seem grateful.

"You going to do something about them?"

Vin shrugged. He wasn't in any hurry to give up their position -- if Larabee's last shot hadn't given it away already.

"Wonder how much more ammo they have," he said idly, eyes still fixed on the small targets in the distance. He could make the shot, but he might not make it twice. And leaving one alive wasn't any good. Although, given the choice between one or two alive, he'd take the one.

Maybe he should kill the first one now. He'd probably make the other shot.

It would be tricky. He settled in closer, distantly appreciative that Larabee had stopped talking.

There. He brushed at the trigger with his mind, and then shifted the targeting lock fractionally, fired again.

A small smile pulled at his lips as he saw the two of them crumple to the ground within split seconds of each other.

"Took you long enough," was all Larabee said.

He called in the double kill.

Great, he got Zhou Yu this time, who sounded coolly appreciative. It was a nice change, all things considered. Pull back, she ordered, and Vin shook his head, disagreeing before she even finished speaking.

"What?" Larabee asked.

"They want us to go back up into the base."

"Find you a better sniper position," Larabee said mildly. Vin blinked. It didn't quite mesh with his idea of a priest, to have the man suggesting a better way to kill… on second thoughts, it was just like the Church.

"I can do more damage here."

Maybe so, Zhou Yu said sharply, but they're doing damage up here. We've got a second line coming in from topside.

What? Vin looked up, a second later, Larabee was looking up too, as a small, sleek gun ship, no more than a six man carrier, shot noiselessly overhead, missiles streaking away. It took nearly thirty seconds before the crack of the sonic boom followed it. The sound merged with the sound and shake of missiles hitting the mountain. Fuck!

They looked at each other, cold recognition in both their eyes. Without a word, they both turned, and headed back up the mountain.

Garen? Zhou Yu? Anyone? There was no reply. Maybe comms were out. Vin gritted his teeth, not thinking about the others who'd been outside on the mountain.

Anyone who's listening, we're heading up.

Let there be someone left to hear them.

*~^~*~^~*

"Screw this," Nathan muttered as the world shuddered distantly above them, and rose to his full height. He needed to be out there.

"Doctor?"

"Don't keep me here. I can fight. You need everyone they can get." He couldn't stay hear, listening to the world falling apart around them. The last blows had felt like the mountain was falling down around their ears.

"We need a medical man--"

"Where?" He gestured violently at the makeshift infirmary, filled with pallets and children, not an injury among them. "No one here's hurt. What good is a medical man buried under a million ton of rock, woman?"

Mareen looked away, "Don't," she whispered, and he tried to remember that she was only a girl, maybe not even out of her teens, certainly no more than early twenties for all her poise and confidence with the children.

"I need to be out there. Triage, helping who I can right on the spot, fighting --whatever is needed. You need every body you can get with a gun in each hand." He scowled and added more quietly, "And I have a bone to pick with anyone out of Apman."

Apman, who'd been one of the lead clans in the Hou Corp, back on Borealis... Didn't seem much like they'd changed in the five years since he'd been 'liberated' by DeeGee Four-Ten and the Feds. Liberated. Free to starve; free to sit out on the squit end of nowhere and do a job that an AI would've looked down its nose at. He'd gone from a respected job and a safe home to being a refugee, waiting for the day he could put a bad turn the way of them who'd fucked his life over. And them, the ones who'd been responsible for it all, they'd never suffered, gone hungry, been considered unemployable or unsafe, or unclean. Nothing changed.

Mareen looked up at him, silver grey eyes steady for all they were young. "They're only kids," she said. "Someone has to stay with them. They'll die on their own." It was his turn to shrug.

"You're doing fine." He gestured around the room, the children were quiet and orderly, safe as possible given the situation.

"And if they get this far? What then? Just me and the children to fight off Guild mercs?"

"What good can I do here? I could do more good out there making sure the others are fit to protect you."

She looked away. "Go on then," she said softly, and he flinched at the disappointment in her tone. "Leave us be."

Contrarily, he didn't want to. He wanted to stay. Small faces were watching them without understanding; the older ones looked resigned, bitter. Sure that a norm was going to walk away from them and leave them to die. He wasn't -- they'd live longer if he helped their protectors, couldn't they see that?

He'd already taken a step towards the door, when he heard her say, as though she didn't expect him to hear or answer, "Who are you going out there to save, Doctor Jackson? Us? Or you?"

"I can do more good out there--" he said again, uncertain. "I should be--" I should be what? he wondered. Avenging old scars? Killing more cyborgs? Was killing them better than saving them?

He stopped, cold to the core. Was that it? Would he rather be out there killing them than trapped in here, in danger of helping cyborgs to live? Even cyborg children. He looked at the clustered kids; Mareen's young-old face. Was that --

The hurt on JD's face when he'd backed away from the kid when he realized he was carrying cybe-based nanites flashed momentarily before his eyes. He'd even lied rather than have to touch him.

Was that really him? He'd been so proud once, that he would treat without thought for free or slave, human or cybe; no matter what Hou Corp had said, he was better than they were...

He was better than that.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said, not turning around. He glared at the doorway as though it had been his target all along, "Maybe we better build some better defenses than what we got, though."

The girl smiled at him, and he smiled back, abruptly only seeing the pleased approval, only her, letting the grey alu-glass pooled in hollows and joints fade away.

They stood like that for a second too long, and then Nathan squared his shoulders. "So. How many of them are big enough to be trusted with moving things?" he looked inquisitively at her, and her head went up, standing taller.

"All of them," she looked at the children with pride and conviction in her face. "If they're big enough to understand, they're big enough to help do something,, even if it's just make sure the very tiniest stay put."

His smile stretched wider. "Good. Good. You know this place -- how can we barricade up?"

She tapped a fingernail twice on the table, and after a momentary flicker it responded with a map of the level they were hidden in. "We're here." She picked out a point about halfway around the circle. "There were entry points here, and here, but those have been blown. There's a trap door up to the next level over here," she indicated a point a good distance from the door to the infirmary, "and the stairs are still open right here." She touched the point on the map, and pointed behind her to a door that he'd barely noticed. "There's two levels down, but they're trapped up, and blocked off."

"We don't have a way out?" he asked.

Mareen shook her head grimly.

"Okay." He looked at the map again. "What do you recommend?"

*~^~*~^~*

JD clung to the side of the mountain, torn between awe and horror. A V813 soaring overhead... He could recite without once checking his bases its tonnage, complement, weapons load. Had flown them in arena games -- they'd told him he wasn't cybe enough to make it into pilot training, but in the games it hadn't mattered, and she flew so, so sweet. Sleek, gleaming, faster than the human eye could follow --

and then there was the way she was bombing the crap out of everything in her path, a string of dots trailing a long parabola behind her under gravity's demand and

-- the mountain shook. A huge boom exploding through everything, him, his bones, the floor jolting beneath his feet, flinching away from him for a fraction of a second before pushing up and rocking him off balance.

He dropped to one knee, arms over his head as debris showered down over him. He was on the wrong side to get a direct hit -- it looked like she'd gone all out for the main entrance -- but that was no reason to hang around. Depending on the payload she could fell a mountain.

He breathed in, and waited, holding his breath as his nanites swarmed, testing the air. He could wait about a minute, and tried to, carefully not focusing on the weird lump in his throat. It faded after a bare ten seconds though, and let him breathe deep, easy; no rasp to suggest an emergency filter. It smelled clean, no gas, no viral load. The dust didn't carry foreign nanites. None of his tags were lighting up for radiological hazards. And, the best clue that she wasn't using her planet killers -- he was still standing.

Just in time he thought to clap his hands over his ears. The double crack of the sonic boom was tangible, jolting his skin as it carpeted the V813's back path. He had a minute, maybe two before she swept back over. If they were lucky, the pilot would wait to fire until he was facing the target. If they weren't...

Two minutes. Maybe three, max. He ran. He needed to be down with the main weapons array, right now. He could do something real with that. He'd taken these fuckers out in the game. He could do this.

If he could just convince them of that.

*~^~*~^~*

"That's a Church ship, Larabee," Zhou Yu said coldly. "You want to explain what they're doing here?"

Chris's face was just as chill. "You want to know what they're doing here, ask 'em. I ain't got to justify myself to you--"

"Yes, you do." Her face was tight, skin tight over sharp bones. "How do I know you didn't call them down on us?"

"How could he," Vin said, looking from one to the other uneasily. "Nearest Church base is what, three systems over? Would take weeks for them to get here. They'd've had to leave long before Larabee knew anything."

"Someone knew," she said implacably. "Can't trust psi."

"Apman could have--" one of the others began and stopped when both Zhou Yu and Larabee glared at her.

"Go on," Vin said, half smiling, and she swallowed, began again.

"Apman. He's got Church involvement already, he has to if he's got genuine Guild out there," she gestured vaguely towards the sound of enemy fire. "Why wouldn't they come sniffing around? 'specially if they know about us."

"Oh, they know," Larabee said softly. He looked around, then met Zhou Yu's eyes. "They know."

"Because you told them?"

He laughed under his breath, shook his head. "They don't need me to tell 'em. You think I was the first they sent out here?" He turned and looked at Josiah. "You think I was the first to go rogue on 'em?"

"You--" weapons were up everywhere, and Larabee just grinned, like a death's head, eyes narrowed, teeth bared.

"They don't know where I am. They don't know where Josiah is. They don't care. But they sure as fuck knew that someone was siphoning off cybes; getting them free." He looked at Vin squarely. "You really think that Church bounty was just going to fade away?"

Vin shook his head, smiled faintly. "Done all right so far."

"Travis."

Vin didn't know who said it, and Zhou Yu shook her head sharply.

"He's the only one who--"

"No one's beyond question," Larabee snapped out, and Vin shook his head. Not Travis.

"He's clean." He hesitated. "He got me out here. Did all this." He shrugged a shoulder at the mountain, meaning the freedom, not the battle.

"Tanner--"

"Runs a bunch of escaped church cybes out every now and again, not too often, don't want the Church figuring it--" Vin stopped, horror dawning as Chris shook his head slowly, never once breaking eye contact with him.

Chris jerked his chin sideways, as though to say, clever boy, and Vin felt like his mouth was dry. Someone whispered, "They know?" And Vin had no idea if it was voice or thread, him or someone else, but it didn't matter, he wasn't going ever back, none of them were --

He could feel the panic underneath.

"It doesn't matter. Trust me," Chris said, "I have every intention of making sure they don't succeed."

"Why should we trust you, priest?" someone yelled, and Chris shrugged.

"Because he's lost as much from them as any of you," Josiah's voice rumbled through the growing discontent and anger. "Wife, husband, child -- all gone."

Vin saw Larabee freeze in his tracks.

"What do you--"

"He's a priest!"

"Cut his throat and throw him out the door--"

"Idiots! They're listening through his head right now! Knock him out, kill him!"

"The old fool's a priest too -- of course he'd speak for him!"

Josiah and Chris were facing the crowd, Vin could see minute tremors drifting through Chris's back as he held himself away from any action.

"I speak for him." He stepped forward, in front of them, between the priests and the crowd.

"Me too!" JD was gasping for air as he skidded up to join them. "Like they're going to care," he added, "but for what it's worth, federal, and Travis --"

"Travis what?"

JD tried to steady his breathing, "Travis wouldn't want this."

"He doesn't have to know," someone called from the back, and JD swallowed visibly, then stood up straight.

"I'd know."

"Killing Federale Dunne would seem rather counterproductive when the Federation appear to be your allies. Your only allies," Ezra added reflectively, ambling forward and coincidentally, it seemed, finishing up also between the mob and the priests. "But as you please," he stepped to one side, waving them through grandly. "At least we won't have to worry about who's going to go first when the feds and church start fighting over the remains."

"It doesn't matter," JD said looking frantic, then again, more loudly, "You idiots, it doesn't matter!" and everyone stared at him, and he flushed brightly, and stood his ground, "We need to get rid of the damn ship. Not fight about whose fault it is!"

There was a pause that seemed to last forever, and then the mob was scattering. Ezra said, "With me, son," and gripped JD's elbow, dragging him to the weapons array.

"Can you--"

"Yes! Ez, get the--"

And they were getting into position, battle tech and tech seer, the weapons array shifting around them, closing up over them, half concealed behind a smoky bubble. Panels lit, and Vin watched JD settling in place. He reached to his neck, pushed at something, then leaned back into the weapons base, plugging directly through the neural interface. JD's face contorted for a moment then went blank, mind no longer registering anything except the war inputs.

Luck, kid, he said. He'd need it. One kid and a cannon against Church shipguns? Madness.

I can do it, I can do it he heard JD whispering, and whispered back, you can, yeah, and the thread pulled at him. For a split second he was high on the mountainside, watching through a hundred mechanical eyes as the V813 streaked towards them, outrunning its own sound trail, and then there was a glittering arc of fire --

....target acquired

--and a trail of debris searing through the sky, tumbling steeply.

I knew I could do it"!

"Second target on inbound course!" Ezra was up to his wrists in the weapons, hands moving among the fine filaments like hair in water, tangling, clinging, "acquiring--"

Have it, JD sounded distant.

"Third target -- and the mother is coming in on geosync -- she's matching to geosync on line of sight."

I don't have -- anything -- that ----

Fire poured out again, "Target three destroyed, fuck, fuck, trajectory gone ballistic for the mountain--"

"Shields can take it," someone else called swiftly, and they waited, JD's voice still threading through targeting, ranging, firing. Debris spattered on the shields, and Vin watched for a moment, then turned away. Rain was prettier.

High orbital target one is out of range ----

"I have three more inbound, and two more mothers. Third mother registers as," and Standish looked up, a tight little smile, and Vin was half afraid of what he'd have to say, "Federation ident, ladies and gentlemen, I'm reading the Pentecost--" he was still speaking but it was lost under the cries of "yes!" and "Oh, Jeshu, Jeshu," and "Travis! Travis!" as though the Axe was some sort of god in a crudely thrown together pantheon.

"Captain Friedricks requests Zhou Yu and Joche Mendeleyev in conference," Louie confirmed, a huge grin on his face as he looked up from the comms bench.

Joche pushed through, "I'll take it here, Louie. I think my daughter is a little busy at the moment." Louie nodded him to a corner of the bench, and Joche pressed his hand into the private interface.

"People, we need you at your positions, not cluttering the place up in here," Zhou Yu said sharply, mostly everyone was already moving away from the scene of the confrontation. She waited until the crowd had dissipated, and said softly, "Don't make a liar of your friends, Larabee."

There was no need for 'or else'.

Vin waited a moment, but no one seemed to feel the need to say more.

"Tanner, we've got a gap on the north face, now. If you and your priest want to help--"

He nodded. Never mind that the breach was because of the first V813. JD had taken it down, would take the rest down. "Got any extra recharge?" he asked, eying the power bar on his rifle. Zhou Yu shook her head once.

"All going on the cannon and the shield," she said quietly, and Vin nodded. It was only a matter of time in that case. Without power, they would be dead far too soon. He didn't ask.

He checked inventory -- he still had a couple of batteries to slap in. Should see him alive to the end of the day. Assuming the bombs and mercenaries didn't get him.

"Guess I'll be seeing you," he said, and glanced at Chris. Chris was waiting silently at the passage up to the outside of the north side of the mountain. They'd walked it the night before. He'd been looking forward to the battle then, tired, but ready to move.

Now, the passageway was dusty, unstable underfoot, stone twisting and sliding as they edged up towards the place where there had once been an airlock.

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra was sweating like a pig. It was disgusting. "Easy, son," he murmured, and JD's head moved slightly.

I got it. JD's thoughts were blandly mechanical, translated from neural impulse to words by machinery. It didn't sound like him at all.

He'd thought he was good at this -- and for a barely enhanced human, he was, incredibly good. The Church and Hou Corp had seen to that. There were only the quick and the dead left after what happened on Borealis. He would expect a cybe to be better, but this kid wasn't -- didn't look like -- a cybe. He was something else again to watch though. Distantly his mind turned over the thought of a cybe that didn't look like a cybe...

He half wished he could see into the virtual war room that he was sure JD had constructed. It would be more spacious than the dim, close area enclosed by the forcefield. They were probably in the safest place on the mountain. Of course, if the Church scored a direct hit on any part of the array, they'd be obliterated by backwash -- but only them. The shield wouldn't buckle from the inside any more than it would from the outside. A trap as much as a shield.

The fed couldn't do all of it, though, and the cybes didn't have a full fledged battlecomp to take the burden up, so here he was on tac again, wondering how he ended up in these positions.

He watched the tac screen numbers flare, data pouring in bright streams across the board. That one -- he moved a hand fractionally and it bumped up into the foreground, "Another one JD, 23Y 19Z."

Got--

"JD?"

The data streams coalesced, thin lines of information banding into thick bars, then broke apart again. "Here." He dragged another one out.

I see--

The bands moved, shifting in response to JD's shot, "Nearly," he said, "watch that Z axis."

Got -- got it--

And he did, two of the ships blew into pieces in quick succession, and Ezra grinned momentarily. "Good for you, now, let's see what we can do about those orbitals."

Yeah?

"Oh yeah." Ezra grinned. JD might have technology dancing to his tune, but Ezra ha'Standish had more than a couple of cards to play in that game yet.

*~^~*~^~*

The passage forked, and they paused. The upper passage was lighter, somewhere up ahead the bombardment had broken straight through. Down was dark and silent. Down was where the non-combatants had been sent. He gestured towards Tanner and then towards the upper route. He'd go down. Tanner should head up. He could do more damage short range if anyone had made it through the gap. Tanner and his tangle rifle had the range, might be able to do some damage to anything overflying the gap in the shields that must be up there now.

Vin nodded, and Chris turned away without glancing back.

He moved soundlessly through the dark, blinking slowly until his eyes adjusted. Stones clattered underfoot as he walked, rolling his feet as the ground shifted and twisted under him. He kept to the walls, it wasn't cover, but it would do. He pushed gently, looking for anomalies in the silence. A nearby mind moved sluggishly, and he pulled away. It was close to death, not safe to follow it, not worth finding it, not when there might be others who could be saved. He kept moving. A hundred yards down the corridor he stumbled over something soft, and caught himself on the wall. Just a lower leg, sticking out of rubble, the rest of the body hidden under the fallen wall.

If he were a different man, if he were who he had once been, then maybe -- He stared at the floor, waiting until the mind behind it faded out of all reach. He crouched for a second, "I'm sorry," he whispered, touching a hand lightly to the corpse's ankle, then stepped past it. More bodies ahead, none alive. In the distance the buzz of the non-combatants tugged at the edges of his mind. They didn't feel quite like cybes; maybe it was because they were younger. He shoved the thought away. These weren't children. Not real children, like --

He rolled the glass splinter between his fingers. A new habit. Better than oblivion, he thought dryly, Buck would approve. Rubbing Buck, running him through his -- no.

He wondered if they'd be able to put him into a virtual environment with Buck, let him live out his life there instead of just tasting and leaving, tasting and leaving, both bitter on the tongue. It hit him like a blow to the gut, leaving him breathless, that he would be able to touch him, feel him, fuck him, hold him. Almost real. Better than a dream; more than a memory. He stamped it down hard. He'd ask the kid. Later. Maybe.

The moment vanished as he felt two minds ahead, fully awake, fully aware, angry, calculating with the odd disjointed shift that warned of not-quite-human. Little gaps in the mind where the interfaces ran through machine instead of brain and disappeared for fractions of seconds from his sense. He reached out a little, smiled. See, there are worse things than being set on your own kind, he thought cruelly, and pushed. It was hard. They resisted for longer than he'd expected, and it was so difficult, so difficult to remember to just squeeze gently, breaking the shell, not the yolk.

One fell first, and he let her tumble free. It was easier with just one and that one fell too, tumbling into sleep easily. Better than codes and keys, they'd told him back in training. They were right.

He moved quickly, and crouched over the two bodies sprawled limp and silent on the floor. This was what they'd trained him for. Both were in camo suits, blending almost into the background. If he'd been merely human, he'd never have seen them. He took their weapons, emptied their pockets. He could do more, and for a moment he itched to reach deeper, break them to him, shatter their minds, kill them where they lay with never a mark on them. Cyborgs. He clenched his hands, and the glass pricked at his hand. A whisper, less than a thought, only the merest scent of a sound, Chris, and he drove it down, words, sound, scent, rage.

Names. Halloran and Andrews. He considered them, then dragged them bodily, one by one, a little further down the corridor, to where a door hung half off its hinges. He could tie them up, he supposed, but what was the point? If he couldn't deal with this then what good was he.

(You could at least pretend to plan on staying alive, a voice said tartly in his memory, and he grinned over his shoulder at her, red hair short and wisping out of her combat hood. Sir, yes, sir, Major Connelly, sir.)

He didn't flinch. The voices came and went. (Daddy! Daddy! Tell me about when Dadda aksdently shot Mommy!)

"Wake up," he growled. This hurt; burned in his mind. Like live wires running too close to each other, memory arced and spat sparks.

Andrews woke first, feigning unconsciousness until Chris kicked her hip.

"I know you're awake, girl," he said. His voice slid without really meaning to into the cadence of priest-trainer, priest-inquisitor. It might have been a long while since he'd walked with the Church, but that first year had taken hard, burned deep.

"Sir." The mercenary was utterly still: mind; body. Nothing moved. He could feel it, her hate seething, reflexively held in, deep underneath, buried so well that Andrews probably thought she didn't care. Cyborgs always cared about priests. One way or another.

"Who sent you?"

"Guild contract, sir, Clan Apman, underwritten by Hou."

"And Hou is underwritten by the Church," he finished, not quite a statement, a small lift in his voice requiring an answer.

"I don't know, sir." Literally true. Another drawback of mind control. Slippery sort of stuff, and now Halloran was waking up and it would be twice as hard.

"It's okay, Andrews," he shifted, making himself smaller, less menacing, turning his face into the light. Hooded, hidden, hanging over them like a bird of prey he could make them fear him, hell, he could raise fear just by breathing, just by catching an eye, or indulging in a sweeping look. No point. He'd moved half across the galaxy to escape what the Church had tried to make him. Not this way.

(Chris, come home safe -- bring coffee!)

"We can do this easy or hard," he said softly, and smiled at her flinch.

Crazy priest. He knew what she was thinking, didn't know what to do. Couldn't save them -- but they were doing a job that they were trapped and bound to.

Halloran moaned and he hesitated, then told her, "You can see to him."

He could feel her gaze on him, confused and uncertain. He settled his shoulders against the wall, and waited. He trailed his mind outwards again as something shook the mountain, dislodging clinker. Nothing outside but friends.

He hesitated for a fraction of a second. Friends were -- no.

Tanner was moving up high, bird's eye view on the mountain, moving from position to position. He'd clipped the wings of at least one fighter, not killed but pulling up and away, looking for safety. Dunne was sliding deeper into the battlecomp, guided by Standish, and who would have thought that the little cheat had this in him? He'd have made a good priest--

"Sir?"

He waited to answer. No point letting her think that he had control here. "Andrews?"

"Are you-- is--"

Chris waited her stumbling words out. Not long in service then.

"You're what, nineteen?"

"Sir."

She would probably have been given the choice of breed or fight her way out of indenture at her first menses. She knew he was a priest, and he could feel the resignation, the patient expectation of orders.

"How long?"

Ten years, she thought, but only said, "How long, sir?" as though she didn't know what he was asking.

"I left them years ago. Don't lie to me." Her confusion irritated him, and he pulled back. Maybe this -- whatever he could do here wasn't worth it. Too much of what they had made him into and not enough of him.

(You always were a mean son of a bitch, Larabee...)

"You don't get to leave," Halloran; his voice was hopeless, not even trying to pretend that he didn't understand. He thought it was a trap; a double bind. Damned if they agreed, damned if they didn't. Well, maybe that was so. Maybe that was the point.

"Sometimes, you get to leave," he said flatly, and felt a flicker of curiosity. Push, push harder. "You like killing free cybes?"

"I like getting paid."

"There are more important things." But don't think about what they are... don't think.

"Easy for you to say, priest," there it was, said out loud.

He moved, noiselessly, clouding their minds a little so that when he leaned his weight on Halloran's throat, hand across his windpipe, both of them jerked with shock. "You don't know anything, cyborg."

Andrews' breath was fast, a little shaky. Halloran was perfectly still. Training held even as he suffocated.

He leaned in, whispering, crouched close against the cyborg's skin, lips brushing over soft metal and tense flesh. "Don't ever say that again." The cybe managed a fractional twist of his head, no, never burned in his mind, almost louder than the panicked animal need for air.

He increased the pressure for a second, and the mind went out, puffed silent. He lifted away and stood.

"Even if I let you go, you'll just keep on killing," he said distantly, considering options.

"That's what we are."

"That's what you do. There's an difference, girl. If you don't know it, maybe you better start thinking about it." She had no answer to that. Maybe the Church had succeeded in isolating cybes from the rest of the universe except when they sent them out to kill bits of it. The thought made him cold. Maybe he should just kill them. It was tempting. He could do it, here in the dark, just put their light out as though flicking a switch. One wipe of his hand and they would be statistics. They'd be free. And he could get back to figuring out a way to keep Buck forever.

*~^~*~^~*

Vin was moving faster and faster as he reached the end of the rock cover. Larabee had headed downwards, following some need that Vin didn't ask about. Safer not. He stopped at the ragged edge of the passageway, looking up into blue sky.

He wished he had someone with him. The feeling shook him; unnecessary, not normal, not safe. Larabee was a priest. Standish had rubbed him the wrong way with every comment; Josiah couldn't keep a thought straight with two steel rules and a plumb line; Jackson would glower and frown; JD would bounce and stumble over his own feet but there was an odd sort of reassurance in it all. Six of them, and the sum greater than its parts. If he'd been about to make a bad choice, even in the short time he'd known them, he'd already come to feel that one of them would call him on it.

Maybe it was just as well they weren't here then, he thought uncomfortably. The sooner he got himself together the better.

He looked cautiously around the corner of the rocks, taking it as easy as he could, moving up from cover slow, slow, slow. He half expected the top of his skull to get blown off before he got close enough to see anything worth the seeing, but nothing moved, nothing happened and he found himself staring out into the desert.

The sun was hot and heavy on his head, beating even through the weight of his hat, wishing for airco. Something buzzed overhead and he held still. No point moving. If they hadn't seen him, they needn't be alerted to his presence. Besides, not even he could lock onto a target moving that fast when his rifle was still at hip level. He reached up to his right shoulder and found the teat of his water bottle, sucked on it thirstily. The water was lukewarm and acrid, heat and time in a survival blister did it every time, and every time he was too grateful for the liquid to remember how much he hated the taste and he gulped it eagerly, then stopped himself. He didn't know when he'd get more, and even five liters in the back of his survival jacket wasn't going to do him much good if he drank it all in a day.

He closed the nozzle and sighed, eyes closed for a moment. He wished --

Well, that didn't matter. Hell, at least when he was fighting for his life he knew he was alive. And even if it came down to the Church bounty, well.

He shied away from the thought. He wouldn't go back. He didn't know what he could do about it, but he couldn't go back.

Maybe if Travis got down here soon enough, it'd be okay, he could just slip discreetly out of sight. He grinned faintly. Maybe he could sign up to be a fed too. Seemed like they were taking all sorts these days.

"Boo!" Someone whispered behind him, and he jerked, twisted and fired. To his everlasting relief, he didn't recognize whoever it was who had crept up on him, but behind him was another soldier, looking coldly at him over the end of a tangle rifle. Vin had automatically resighted. He rolled, keeping his eye on the target, firing rapidly. Shots trailed him, one searing at his hip, and he clenched his jaw, but there was no time to think and he was still moving, still firing, until the warning flicker of low charge in his weapon stopped him, and he lay gasping for breath, staring at the two dead cyborgs in full combat gear on the ground in front of him.

He forced himself to his knees first, and then automatically crawled over, checking first remotely and then directly for signs of life. Nothing. He'd killed them. Of course he'd killed them.

He stared for a long moment. He clenched his fists tightly, shuddering away the shame. They would have tried to kill him. They were the guys who'd been trying to kill these people. His friends. His kind.

His breath shuddered out again.

He'd let himself forget the smell of burnt flesh and voided bowels. Strange, the tricks even a trained mind could play. Especially a trained mind, the thought slid in.

He half laughed under his breath.

Maybe I could have changed their minds. He looked them over, wondering. I changed mine, he thought, quietly, deep down. I chose to walk away. You could have chosen too -- but they had made their own choices. Nothing that he could have done. Maybe if he'd been faster -- "Yeah, sure. Because a coupla mercs would have come along quiet if you'd'a just asked them to stop and consider the moral implications of what they were doing," he muttered.

He carefully turned the bodies, lifted half of the tags, and carefully unseated the black chips from each cybe's neck. The fed could rule if it had been a good kill or not.

He paused a moment, and then carefully checked them for water, rations and weapons. He looked at the little heap and frowned. He couldn't carry all of it, but he could probably square away the weapons and most the water. He shrugged, took what he could and dragged the rest, along with the bodies, into the shadows of the rocks and then dropped a survival blanket over it all, weighing the edges down with stones.

Maybe they'd've just shot him and left him for the scavengers, but he just couldn't. It might be a waste of time, but -- no.

He stepped back, and looked around, carefully.

Hello? Anyone?

He frowned. He didn't recognize the name that flashed up with the thread, but it was tagged for the Camp Hugo cybes.

He was about to answer, when he caught a tiny flicker in the link, like a line of fuzz where a watermark had been ripped, and he froze, cut the connection cold. Without another word he moved, heading swiftly away from where he'd been. A dark crack opened up to become a hollow passageway. He scanned it but saw no traps, hoped that he was right, trusted his instincts and kept going, eyes adjusting painfully rapidly to the dark. Something glittered at chest height and he froze, mentally comparing his map of the mountain and its traps with his path. That was probably monowire. Great. Caught by their own damn traps.

He turned to head back out, just as the gap in the wall darkened.

Gou shi!

He looked at the monowire, and then drew a deep breath and ducked low, stepping under it, one pace, no further. He stared into the darkness, quartering it over and over, then took a tiny step forwards, then another, and another. He didn't dare move any faster. He could walk straight through monowire and not know it until a limb fell off or his heart stopped, sliced through the center. His heart speeded up and he ruthlessly held his breathing steady, long, slow, easy breaths through his mouth, as silent as he could make them. A glimmer of light and he stepped over it, and half over, spotted another one, ducked, twisted, pivoted on one foot, and shuffled sideways with what felt like a horrendously noisy scraping sound. Something moved at the end of the crevice and he froze half crouched, one hand on the ground, listening intently. Nothing. He moved cautiously past the wire then dropped to his belly and wriggled forwards.

No one had thought to put the damn stuff horizontally across at floor level. If it had been him, he'd have had someone's badge for it, but as it was, he wasn't ungrateful. The web grew thicker, reaching to the ground but he found he could eel around it, sliding his torso and arms past, then pulling his legs up, not daring risking just dragging behind and trusting that they'd go where it was safe. Monowire didn't leave room for mistakes.

Footsteps followed him in, quick at first, then whoever it was stopped. There was a distant muttering, it tickled in his head and he absently set a decryption protocol on it, it probably wouldn't have any effect, but it was always worth trying...

The steps resumed, slower and much more careful. He wondered for a moment why they weren't using a light, then shook his head. They were already backlit by the daylight, they weren't going to give him additional targeting information.

Thinking of which. He slid a hand into one of his pockets and smiled as he armed a grenade by touch. He set the range, timer and triggered it, then gently rolled it back to the enemy position, counting carefully. It was wrapped in soft rubber, and was entirely noiseless even on the shale floor. -- seven light years, eight light years -- He moved quicker, grabbing a stone and waving it in front of him -- when the end sliced clean off he knew to shift around another strand of wire, and kept moving, --twelve light years, thirteen light years -- kept waving, moving deeper in and deeper until the countdown ended and he -- twenty light years! -- curled up tight, arms over his head, legs tucked up into his chest, face buried in his knees.

The grenade boomed, the flash brilliant even through his flesh and bone, rattling his teeth, and rocking him where he lay. He pushed more tightly into the rock, praying that the wire didn't come down on top of him -- still, if it was a choice between possible monowire slices and definite capture he was taking the possible injuries.

*~^~*~^~*

"Yes!" JD startled himself -- for hours he'd been barely speaking, using threads almost exclusively to talk, to Ezra, to the cybes, to the weapons and systems. His voice was loud and cracked in the middle, but he didn't much care. Ezra nodded at him, a crooked smile on his lips.

"Not bad, son," he agreed, and JD grinned at him, and rocked forwards from the hotseat. The harnesses and uplink tugged on him for a second then popped free at a single, irritated thought.

"We did it!" He stretched and wriggled, pulling out the kinks from hours of sitting almost motionless except for small movements of hands and eyes. Ezra said nothing, and JD paused to look at him. "Ezra?"

"We've cleared the skies, for now." He looked up at the tac screen. "The ground forces are making strong headway against our people." He traced out the lines with a finger, and JD felt his euphoria dribble away, leaving him cold and faintly nauseous.

"Where is everybody?" The hangar was deserted; he and Ezra were the only ones left.

"Holding the line, JD." Ezra said gently. A cluster of lights on the tac screen blinked out, and JD flinched.

"Who--"

"One of Zhou Yu's strike teams." His lips thinned, and he tapped the screen. It twisted and shifted around to show the level more clearly. "They've almost got through."

"What's this?" JD leaned forward, and touched at a dense cluster a scant two floors above the advancing troops, eight floors below the hangar.

Ezra frowned, "I don't--"

JD poked at it, and a data tag flipped up briefly. "Oh Jeshu." Horrified, he looked at Ezra, "It's the kids."

*~^~*~^~*

Vin kept still. Another breach in the mountain was pouring sunlight across the tunnel. He could see the monowire against the blaze of light, but it had killed his night vision and would backlight him beautifully for anyone following him. He slowly moved pebbles out of his escape route, stacking them to one side. He could wait here all day, and they knew it.

They weren't moving either.

He slowed his breathing further and further, his heart slowing with it. Slower. Slower.

It would take a while for the heat to dissipate out of his body, but if they didn't know better, he'd look, well, he'd look like a dead, cooling body. Backup systems would keep him alive without a perceptible heart beat for hours, nanites driving themselves and his blood, collecting oxygen despite the near halt of his breathing. If he had to he could go completely anaerobic, but it shouldn't be necessary.

Something itched at his thigh. A moment later the itch faded, suppressed by more nanites.

"Winged him, I reckon," someone muttered, and Vin didn't move at all. Yeah, you go right on thinking that, he thought to himself.

"Probably took himself out on his own grenade," the other said, and added, "You got a flame?"

Vin would have shaken his head if there wasn't a danger that he'd either accidentally slice it off or give himself away to the pair of them. Of the two possibilities, the monowire seemed rather more probable, and he was pretty sure he wasn't going to get ripped apart just yet. If they'd been his soldiers he'd've reamed them out for sheer carelessness and wanton stupidity in the face of the enemy. He'd known captains who'd have killed them for being that noisy.

"Here." A soft click and a bright flame flickered then focused into a tight blue streak of hissing light. The light moved, held and then seared up in a long bright white line as the whole strand ignited. One strand of monowire gone. Maybe twenty or thirty to go? And if they thought he was dead they could take their time. Another line went, illuminating the cave to almost daylight brightness for a split second. Vin didn't have time to shut his eyes, and the shadow of the two mercenaries was burned onto his retinas. Full combat camo, no hints to capabilities, but they were cautious and smart enough to take the time to get rid of the monowire, even if they couldn't manage stealthy even with the camo.

He tried not to flinch as the crackle/sear of another line burned out. It must have been close enough to a sequence of lines that they went too, and for a couple of seconds, maybe as many as five or six, the cascade of combusting wire kept the cave brightly lit.

The two mercs were looking away, idiots. Anti-flare was built into camo for a reason; he felt no compunction at shooting them in the backs they were dumb enough to turn to him. They collapsed in place and Vin rolled carefully under the nearest wires, then pushed to his feet in the newly cleared area and sauntered over. He searched them swiftly, examining them for weapons and weak points.

The camo wasn't proof against him, and he sliced the first battle-comp in micro-seconds, and locked the joints in place. Try moving anywhere now, he smirked, and repeated the process on the second just as the stun wore off, judging by the muffled protests.

He took his time riffling through their equipment. There wasn't much he took -- a couple of generic recharge packs for their dna locked rifles, a dump of their blackboxes. The weapons were no good to him, but the charges would work fine in his guns. A couple of rat-packs -- he snapped one open and grinned at the Guild-issued candy, popping one in his mouth and sucking on it happily. Only Guild mercs seemed to understand how good these were. All the more for the cybes.

Vin could just about feel the glares from behind the tinted helmets. The joint-lockdown wouldn't kill them. Eventually, if they were smart enough they'd break it anyway. If they weren't of course, it was just another sort of long death, but hell, they hadn't cared when they thought he was dead. It meant they could see him, but couldn't do anything about him. A little dangerous, sure. It made him enemies, but it kept them alive, and there was no point killing unless he had to. Just plain wasteful.

It was the work of a minute to finished the job they had started. The wire burned into fine ash that floated down slow and soft and he padded silently through the now-safe cavern.

"No hard feelings," he called back softly. "I'll let the Guild know where you are." Eventually. Maybe. If I remember. If I'm still alive.

But he didn't need to depress them more than they were already.

*~^~*~^~*

Chris was sweating as he watched the two cyborgs stumbling away. He wiped the sweat away from his eyes and breathed carefully. They'd feel his doubt if he let them. Go on. Go. Think..

They didn't look back. Couldn't. He could just take his weapons and...

He closed his eyes for a long moment, torn between what he wanted and what was right.

And let them go.

He waited until they were well out of sight, and walked to the cave opening. The sunlight was good on his face, warm and somehow easing his rage, just a little. His hand slid into the pouch containing the download of Buck's personality, and he twisted it between his fingers, smiling faintly. He leaned against the edge of the cave wall, and looked out across the desert. The two small figures of the mind-bound cybes had long since disappeared from sight. He waited patiently, pulling a narcstick from his other pocket, and crushed the tip, ignoring the pain as it self-ignited. A moment later he took a long contented drag.

Well, maybe Buck would be pleased after all. Letting gou shi cyborgs go, unharmed. He knew Sarah would be. Mercy. He looked away, disgusted at himself. Sarah hadn't been granted mercy; Adam and Buck had been stripped of mercy's compassion. He waited for the usual turmoil to drag at him, but it didn't come. Instead, he held the small shard of memory gently, almost as peaceful as though he'd been given the man himself. Mercy.

Mercy.

"Where did you come from, old dog?" he murmured, and breathed the drugged smoke in deep. "Who did this to you?" Maybe Buck would even have the answers, once he found a way to access him.

His hand clenched around the splinterchip, then loosened as quickly. That would be the trick. Find a virtual environment; maybe get the kid to fix one up. He'd understand, maybe, a little. If he could he'd just download him direct, but it wasn't possible. He could see himself now, as much a junkie as the rest of the netheads, locked into a virtual world that was the only living he wanted. He didn't much care.

He closed his eyes, a bitter little smile on his lips. Give him back a bare third of what he was missing: a virtual entity, unable to do more than give an illusion of life. Shades and shadows haunted him yet, now, now, some would talk back under daylight hours, while he was still awake. And it was still burning at him, still urging him on, in, deeper, willing to take the virtual ghosts over a reality that cast only strangers' shadows.

Someone had a very cruel sense of humor.

He wondered if it was Josiah, or some other. Wondered whether if this were all he could have it would be worth it, if it would be bearable. Or if it would be worse than believing them dead, separated by the gap between soul and tech. To be so close--

He slid the chip away into the pouch and reached instead for one of the grenades hooked to his waistband, and strolled back up the path he'd come down. When he'd gone far enough he primed it, and chucked it over his shoulder, listening to it bounce noisily. One-one hundred, two-one hundred, three-one hundred and the mountainside groaned, shook. He kept walking, ignoring the way his coat-skirts flapped forwards, his hat dragging against its string. Dust stung at his eyes, fine fragments of rock blown upwards as the tunnel collapsed behind him.

Forget being nice. He considered the rest of the ways in, and nodded to himself. If they had to, they could close them all. Air vents, escape hatches, the lot.

If he didn't try, he'd never know.

Chris picked his way back up the mountain, sure of what he'd find. Even with his ears pricked for any sound, his mind reaching into the dark for any signs of life, he still was surprised when Vin slid out of the darkness . He held his startlement in, and when Vin said: "Nothing much up this way," nodded.

"Route down is closed and safe." He didn't offer details; didn't ask about the scuffs and dirt on Vin's face and clothes. Time to finish this.

*~^~*~^~*

Ezra ran down the stairs, two, three, five at a time. They were deep in the center of the mountain and no one stopped him, no one heard him. The only sounds were his feet ringing on the open metal of the treads, and his harsh breaths.

"Come on, Ezra," he gasped as a stitch stung at his side. He wanted to clutch at it; stop; catch his breath; think; go back; not die...

Instead he gripped his guns tighter and kept running. JD wasn't the only kid on his own.

*~^~*~^~*

Nathan had a gun in his hands, heavy and unfamiliar. His vibra blade would be for later, in close quarters, if they weren't all dead by then. Mareen and the children, some barely to his waist, stood waiting, armed with whatever they could improvise or find.

He looked at Mareen, who smiled at him, and pushed her shoulder against his arm.

If he'd had a free arm, he'd have hugged her with it.

Dull thumps filled the air, shaking the walls. They didn't shake the ground, and Nathan couldn't think what they were for the longest time, and then realized. "Battering rams."

She nodded. "Not close, though," she murmured, and they waited, eyes on the door.

*~^~*~^~*

There was a cyborg in the stairwell. A ragged strip of green around her arm, no combat gear, and Ezra took a chance. "Friend!"

"Prove it," the cybe snapped, and she reached for Ezra's weapons.

Ezra jerked away. "I've just come down from level one. They're going to break through to the infirmary."

The cybe glared at him, then nodded briefly. "Jenna."

"Ezra." Formalities seemed inappropriate in the here and now. Oh, how Maude would have wept for the collapse of the proprieties. He added that to the running list of things that made him happy, and said no more.

"Two floors more. You came down them stairn like a thousand head of cattle. 'Mazed no one heard you."

Ezra shrugged. "I was in a hurry. Now if you would be so kind--" he looked significantly a the stairs, and she held out a hand.

"You first, Ezra."

Ezra shook his head even as he started down the stairs, Jenna right behind him. "The lack of trust is painful."

"Not as painful as it could be," she mumbled and he ducked reflexively, the blow glanced off the top of his head instead of plowing squarely into it. "Lying bastard."

"I'm on your side!"

"Couldn't prove it, could you? Just wanted your cut of the kids."

"Strangely enough, no. You'd think I'd been better brought up than to display this sort of gross selflessness and altruism, but on the positive side, my late parent is almost certainly reaching several thousand rotations per minute even as we speak." He was still moving, backing away from her. At her blank look he added, "I want to help."

"By leading them to the children."

"No," he rolled his eyes, "by protecting the children and leading the mercenaries away from them."

She still looked suspicious, "Who are you working for?"

"No one! You! Tanner if you insist on it, and if that half breed is going to get out of paying full whack even if I'm dead he's got another think coming."

Jenna jumped the banisters and landed lightly on her feet behind him. He whipped around.

"For god's sake, ma'am--"

She looked at him, and he paused, waiting. Not anxiously. Perhaps, yes, a little warily, but that was understandable.

"If you do anything--"

"Yes, yes, you'll kill me, naturally, how could I ever have imagined otherwise? Now can we go?"

He stepped around her and they were at the landing between levels, the door in front of them marked with a huge greenish 8.

"Ready?"

A dull thump resounded in the distance, and Jenna nodded, and put her hand on the door handle.

"Let's go."

*~^~*~^~*

JD waited in the hangar. The power in the cannon would get off one more shot, but that would kill the shields. Meteors -- debris from the three killed ships -- were still ricocheting off of them in dazzling bursts of sparks and sound. Keeping the shields was more important than one last potshot. He knew that.

Which meant about all he had left was his personal weapons, and he held them, one in each hand, trying not to grip too hard, not to tighten up too much. He could be patient.

He amused himself by generating the illusion of enemies on the rocks above the hangar, and would have smiled as their fire diverted upwards. He played that game for a while, breathing hard at the effort of maintaining remote holograms, even ones that popped in and out as unpredictably as these. Someone must have caught on, and fire recommenced on the shield's stress points, but they'd wasted some of their precious firepower first.

How much more could they keep pouring on?

He ran the numbers, no different to the arena, he told himself, except the numbers said he'd die when they broke through in ten minutes. Shields were failing. No saved game; no second life. Game over.

His breath was kind of shaky, and he didn't think anyone would mind that what he wanted, really wanted, was to go find a nice quiet bunk and hide in it. Or have someone here. Just to not be alone right now. He --

He could see figures the other side of the shields, moving around at its edges, looking for a crack. Blinding light glared up, leaving spots on his retinas. Maybe another three of those, and the shield would be overwhelmed, the power unable to maintain integrity across the whole. It would collapse in minutes.

General warning, we're losing shields in five, the battle comp told him mildly, and he flinched. Ran the numbers again, and watched time slip away faster than the clock.

He took a deep breath. "People, shield's down in five standard minutes and counting." No response.

Vin? he whispered, and heard nothing. "Buck?"

His weapons slipped in his sweat-slick hands, and he carefully laid one down and wiped his palm on his pants leg, then picked it up and did the same with the other one.

This waiting game was hard. He carefully reached out, looking for one of the people he knew. No sign of anyone.

Zhou Yu? Josiah? Anyone?

He reached further, and caught the edge of something familiar...

Federale Dunne? I was told you were dead. Someone on a closed fed frequency!

JD jerked away from the contact, but the other didn't let go. Federale Dunne, this is Lieutenant Jefferson of the Federated Alliance Carrier Pentecost. Federale Dunne, this is a secured line, please respond.

JD hesitated, then reached back. Um. Hi?

*~^~*~^~*

Halloran stumbled back into camp supporting Anderson. Or maybe it was the other way around. They were both covered in blood, looked like they'd been cut up and chucked off the mountainside. Watch called in help as soon as he had a definite ID, but quietly.

He eased Anderson's weight from Halloran's shoulders and lowered her to the ground. "What the 'ing hell happened to you boys?" he asked, fumbling for his emergency med kit.

"Priest," Halloran said hoarsely. He was bent forward, his fists clenched, eyes squinted shut against pain. "That blighted fucking priest."

"Hal?" Ngede walked up, the camp doctor right behind him.

"Prioritize Andy, she's gonna need some help moving." He met Ngede's eyes, and a moment later Ngede nodded.

"We'll move this somewhere more private." He put a discreet hand under Halloran's elbow and turned him towards the ops tents. Watch knew what that meant -- they would debrief privately before going to Apman. He frowned a little and Ngede's head turned sharply towards him. "Stevens?"

Joe Stevens saluted crisply, and took up position. "Sir?"

Ngede smiled thinly. "Good man."

Watch didn't reply, but kept looking out towards the dust cloud surrounding the mountain. Guild looked after its own.

*~^~*~^~*

"We should never have taken that damn contract."

"Hal--" Ngede said warningly.

Halloran pulled away from the medic running a TR over his skin, leaning up on his elbow to nail Ngede with a hard look. "I'm serious, Jack. Those are free cybes. Kids. They've got free kids in there. They've got a doc who births 'em, a whole infirmary for them. We shouldn't have taken the damn job."

"But we did." He shrugged, as if to say, and that's all we can do, when Halloran knew better. But gently, carefully--

"Cap--" Anderson was holding a wad of gauze over her side. There had to be something there to repair in the first place, and the tissue repairer had been next to useless. The skin tearing had been so extensive that they'd have to try again over the next several days, maybe even weeks to get her fully back to strength. She licked at her dry lips, and looked sidelong at Ngede and then away again. "Cap, you know we could--"

"Anderson!" Halloran snapped, making the name into an order for silence. she ignored it.

"Cap, Sarge, you know -- he killed Colonel Corcoran; he killed Ops, dammit, how many more of us does he have to murder before you get us out of here?"

"Anderson, you're not well."

"I know what I'm saying, sir! And I might be shot and drugged up but I still know that he isn't right in the head. He's the one who broke our contract; he's just going to keep on until we're all dead unless you stop him. Please. You have a duty to us, sir. Company's gotta survive." She subsided, pale and sweating, her hands gripping tightly at her side. Ngede shook his head, and tugged the blanket up from the foot of the cot over her. She just looked at him mutely, her strength spent.

"We'll speak in the morning, Corporal." He stepped towards the exit and paused but didn't turn as she spoke again, her voice faded almost out of existence.

"Break it, sir. Please. Break the damn contract."

"Night, Andy," Halloran said softly, and followed the captain out of the medtent.

"You said you met a priest down there?" Ngede asked.

"Yeah. Priest inquisitor. Name of Larabee."

Ngede nodded barely perceptibly and they walked on in silence. It took a couple of minutes to realize that they were pacing something that wasn't quite a perimeter, but was close to the fences. A few moments of observation told him that they were more or less out of sight of any watchers, that the only things out here were the desert and the security cameras. Somehow he didn't doubt for a second that whoever was on the other end of those was Ngede's man through and through.

"Did he go in?" In to your head, he meant.

The euphemism didn't make the thought any more easy to stomach. "Could be," Halloran said cautiously. "Maybe. I don't think so, but the way I heard it, he was one of the best. I don't know that I'd know."

He chanced a look at the man walking beside him, and saw the fleeting grimace. Well. Better to be honest. Probably. He didn't looked at Ngede's hands. He'd never see it anyway. Best to trust that he was saner than Apman.

"You think you've been compromised?"

He nodded curtly, "Think it's best to work on that assumption."

Captain Ngede just shook his head slowly, and Halloran swallowed back any other response. He hadn't been ripped, even if he had been read. He had a functioning brain, and as far as he knew, was still his own man. But he was out of the fight, as surely as Andy with her torn up gut.

"She's right," he said abruptly. "We've got it all chipped down. The Guild's only question will be why we waited so long."

Ngede's lips twisted in a cynical smile, "And to sue OIC for endangerment not contractually covered."

"That goes on Frances' shoulders." He carefully didn't look up, kept his face expressionless. Frances had been a good company commander. Not flawless, but smart. The only reason they'd survived Apman this long was her. Scapegoating her seemed disloyal. And yet, if she'd been one thing, it was pragmatic. "She would've taken it if she was alive. Whatever gets the kids out safe."

Ngede made no reply, but something eased in his body language, and they kept walking the perimeter, the silence easy between them.

Chapter Text

*~^~*~^~*
Chris waited until they were well out of sight, and walked to the cave opening, a little angry, mostly with himself. The sunlight was good on his face, warm and somehow eased his fury, just a little. His hand slid back into the pouch containing the download of Buck's personality, and he twisted it between his fingers, smiling faintly. He leaned against the edge of the cave wall, and looked out across the desert. The two small figures of the mind-bound cybes had long since disappeared from sight. He waited patiently, pulling a narcstick from his other pocket, and crushed the tip, ignoring the pain as it self-ignited. A moment later he took a long contented drag.

Well. Maybe Buck would be pleased after all. Letting goddamned cyborgs go, unharmed. He knew Sarah would be. Mercy. He looked away, disgusted at himself. Sarah hadn't been granted mercy; Adam and Buck had been shown no compassion. He braced himself for the usual turmoil to drag at him, but it wasn't there. Instead, he held the small shard of memory gently, almost peaceful, as though he'd been given the man himself. Mercy.

Mercy.

"Where did you come from, old dog?" he murmured, and breathed the drugged smoke in deep, shoulders loosening, pain blurred just far enough away to forget it hurt. "Who did this to you?" Maybe he should talk to Josiah. Maybe Buck. Maybe Buck would even have the answers, once he found a way to access him.

His hand clenched around the chip, then loosened as quickly. That would be the trick. Find a virtual environment; yes, get the kid to fix one up. He'd understand, maybe, a little. If he could he'd just download him direct, but it wasn't possible. He could see himself now, as much a junkie as the rest of the netheads, locked into a virtual world that was the only living he wanted. He didn't much care.

He threw the narcstick on the floor of the cave, and ground his heel into it. Enough. He closed his eyes, a bitter little smile on his lips. Give him back a bare third of what he was missing: a virtual entity, unable to do more than give an illusion of life. Shades and shadows haunted him yet, now, now, some would talk back under daylight hours, while he was still awake. And it was still burning at him, still urging him on, in, deeper, willing to take the virtual ghosts over a reality that cast only strangers' shadows.

Someone had a very cruel sense of humor.

He wondered if it was Josiah, or some other. Wondered whether if this were all he could have it would be worth it, if it would be bearable. Or if it would be worse than believing them dead, separated by the gap between soul and tech. To be so close--

He slid the chip away into the pouch and reached instead for one of the grenades hooked to his waistband, and strolled back up the path he'd come down. When he'd gone far enough he primed it, and chucked it over his shoulder, listening to it bounce noisily. One-one hundred, two-one hundred, three-one hundred and the mountainside groaned, shook. He kept walking, ignoring the way his coat-skirts flapped forwards, his hat dragging against its string. Dust stung at his eyes, fine fragments of rock blown upwards as the tunnel collapsed behind him.

Forget being nice. He considered the rest of the ways in, and nodded to himself. If they had to, they could close them all. Air vents, escape hatches, the lot.

If he didn't try, he'd never know.

Chris picked his way back up the mountain, not really caring what he encountered, ahlf hopeful that he could kill something next time. Even with his ears pricked for any sound, his mind reaching into the dark for any signs of life, he still was surprised when Vin slid out of the darkness . He held his startlement in, and when Vin said: "Nothing much up this way," nodded.

"Route down is closed and safe." He didn't offer details; didn't ask about the scuffs and dirt on Vin's face and clothes. Time to finish this.

---------------

"Oh my god," JD said out loud, too shocked to thread it for a moment. You can do that?

We can't do much, Federale, not in our current condition, but we can clear your sky or clear the ground, or maybe get you ten more minutes on the shields. You're on the ground -- just tell us what you need.

He swallowed. His call. No time to ask around, just him. He closed his eyes, frowning, pressed the heel of his hands into the sockets. How was he supposed to decide? The ground force was close, bare meters away from him, hazy through the shield. If they were gone he'd be safe. But the bombs would keep on coming as long as the V813 was in the sky. She was already returning, another strafing run, and the shields wouldn't survive another bombardment. The second or third from now would just pound straight through the mountain, and even if the shield held out another ten minutes it was just a matter of time. Sky, he said, and immediately wanted to take it back. He felt sick. Less than two minutes to shield collapse, and they'd come pouring through, kill him...

Good luck, son, Travis said through the net, his voice almost kind. Try not to get yourself killed.

Yes, sir, he replied firmly, as though it would be possible to survive.

We'll speak later. Travis out.

Thank you, sir. Dunne out. Over and out, all the way out. The shields flickered, like a bad holo. If there was a choice between waiting for the shields to go and taking one last shot...

Let's go down fighting, he thought. And added, real quiet, deep underneath where no one would hear him: Shit. We're all gonna die.

There was another thought after that, but he didn't let himself think about it.

Time to be doing.

---------------

Footsteps echoed in the stairwell, and Ezra and Jenna both spun, guns trained on the door leading to the stairs, waiting for the invaders to roll them up from behind.

They were so focused on the door that JD's sudden yell through an open channel, "Incoming! Ballistic! Fifty seconds to impact! Shields are gone, I repeat, shields are gone!" shocked Ezra cold. All around him people flinched, then turned, rushing away desperately, heading deeper into the mountain in an attempt to escape the onslaught.

For a second he couldn't move, and Jenna's hand was on his elbow, pulling him away from the doorway, lowering her own weapon as she did so.

"Move!" she said urgently, "Come on, we need to fall back. We've got--"

"Forty seconds," he said, his feet ungluing, and then the numbers flooded in, and they were running behind the pack, fleeing for safety.

Thirty-four, thirty-three. It was an old trick, the easiest thing in the world to count it down.

"Can we go lower?" someone asked, desperate, kicking at a door, and Jenna shook her head.

"No time! Move, move, move! Everyone, deeper. We need to be central before it hits. Run!" As they could outrun a missile.

"JD, what kind of incoming?" he asked, then bit his lip. Don't distract him.

"Sorry, Ez," Ezra let it pass, this once, one last-- not thinking about it -- "not missiles -- ships, two ships. They're gonna crash pretty close -- maybe right on us, I don't --" he hesitated and said, a little more steadily, "It's a Church gun ship, and a fighter. Impact in seventeen, sixteen, fifteen..."

Ezra felt cold. A Church gun ship about to crash into the unshielded mountain?

"JD, I get it." They were going to die. No last stand, no good looking corpse. No hero. Obliteration and a mountain falling on his head. He wondered if he'd die straightaway, or be crushed, or suffocated, or die of thirst or hunger, whole but trapped... For a moment he wanted to be where JD was, waiting for a fireball to take out the wide open hangar, and flinched.

"What happened to the shields?" he asked, even though he knew.

He could almost see the kid's bright grin even over the mere radio link. "Got enough juice for one more shot."

"Good hunting, son--" There were more words but they stuck in his throat. Then the mountain juddered, everything rocking away and then back and up, and he fell, everyone fell, the world collapsed around him.

---------------

He should have been shooting, but all he could do was stare up into the firmament. Clear blue sky, warm sunlight. Perfect.

"Ora pro nobis, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae," Josiah whispered. "Mother of god and the cavalry."

Two distant stars tumbled, streaming flame and he reached out a little, but the screams of the dying were gone, gone, evaporated in temperatures high enough to melt metal, dissolve bone, sear clean. Stars tumbling down and down. A great light exploded below him, spilling out from the side of the mountain, heat prickling his skin moments later even here, as the ground jolted beneath his feet. Minds screamed, and blinked out. A second explosion followed mere seconds after, and the sound rumbled across the plain. "She puts off her Sunday clothes, and wears rags to the market," he whispered, and couldn't look away. Josiah watched the two ships burn, and turned his face away, laughed a little into his poncho, muffled his tears. Dead, dead.

"No one gets out alive," he whispered to himself, or perhaps to Chris. "Average death rate remains a nominal one hundred percent."

Even if the Church thought they could circumvent that.

One little thing at a time.

He hugged the great gun to him, and pitched it carefully. A dim glimmer of a targeting frame shone in front of him and he squinted through it to the encampment. Smoke trails drifted up from it yet, and he grinned. They'd left a little mark of their own then.

"Great troubles are good for the soul," he said solemnly, and fired. "A little trouble such as I will be followed by a greater." In a smaller man the recoil might have done serious damage. He muttered a plaintive, "Ow!", and carefully lowered the great gun to the ground. He shifted his arm cautiously, and frowned. He could put it back himself, or wait for Nathan's hand.

In the distance the missile detonated, scattering fire, illuminating the encampment by the light of the burning buildings. Josiah paid it no mind, still considering his shoulder with a certain amount of reproach.

"No one's going to die if I do," he said tiredly, and eyed the mountain. They might if I don't.

He weighed the odds, sighed, and positioned himself carefully, a hand cupped over the displaced ball joint, and rammed his elbow into the mountainside. His eyes glazed over, scrunched up tight, and after some seconds had passed he drew a deep breath, and let it go. On the tail end of it he said mildly, "Ow. Again." It took a little longer for the color to come back to his face, and for him to stop pressing his lips together so hard they hurt.

"Well, that's a comfort at least," he murmured. One of the encampment's buildings was obliterated, and he could see them churning like disturbed ants. Perhaps best to move. He crept away from his position towing the great gun in his wake.

Scattered fire in his direction made him move faster. He had some secrets that should not go to the grave. Maybe he should have told them sooner, not waited for this to play out to the bitter end. If he died, then it would be bitter indeed. The boy, or the priest he'd helped make. He sighed. Ah, Hannah. I thought I was helping you.

In memory -- he hoped -- he heard her voice, sly and weighted with unclean knowledge: You did, elder brother, you did. Long practice drove the memory, the voice away, and with it the burn of bile at the back of his throat. They were all driven by their own ghosts. He just wished his were dead.

Memory, reality; graves and dances. It would all come to one in the end.

Not just yet. He reached out, stretched a little, and felt Nathan's only-human panic with real relief. His mind was clear and focused on a task, and Josiah retreated gently. Ah, and here was the boy; JD's fear and excitement muted by his nanites, but joyful despite the danger. Children. He chuffed a faint laugh and moved on, cyborgs, cyborgs, more -- ah! Ezra was a blur of cool, calculating concentration, thoughts obscured, the edges glimmering blood stained and ice cold. And Vin and Chris... were hidden.

Chris, he understood, but Vin... Vin. He smiled. Vin had come a long way from the center worlds. A long, long way.

A rock exploded into shards above him and he dropped, covering his face, wincing as hot sharp fragments riddled his clothing. Nothing penetrated, but it was unnerving.

JD took something out of the sky, bright star rising, green and gold, and he grinned, almost seeing the boy's exuberant glee. He wasn't sure if he was actually feeling it or not, the edges of JD's triumph and fear echoing in him as a Church gun scout tumbled out of the sky in a great, burning arc straight down the throat of the shot that downed it. Then there was just fear, and then silence.

Three ships down.

Time to make a stand then.

He nodded again, and continued on his path down the mountain, hefting the gun to his uninjured shoulder. Time and past.

---------------

The hammering had gotten closer; Mareen and Nathan and ten of the oldest children -- ranging from nine to fourteen -- had positions behind the first line of barricades, nothing more than stacked beds. Behind the barricade, smaller hands held smaller guns, waiting for that line to be breached also. And at the very back, one of the children was carefully leading the very youngest down through the air vents, only big enough to take the ones less than about eight years old. The very tiniest, the babies, were barricaded away, just three little, little forms, too small to save themselves. If it came to it, he knew what Mareen would do, rather than let the children serve the Church. He tried not to think about it.

He'd tried to argue, until she'd finally said, you don't understand. You never will. If you cannot agree, then at least respect our ways. He winced, remembering. She'd hit him right square in the middle of his Center Worlds trained tolerance.

And perhaps, if he fought, they'd make enough of a difference that the children would live.

His grip on his gun tightened reflexively as the hammering stopped. The silence held outside for long moments.

"Look: the door," one of the children whispered, and Nathan rested a comforting hand on the thin shoulder. He stared at the door, his eyes burning -- what was he meant to be seeing? The others could see, he could tell by the way they shifted. A patch near the hinges shimmered brighter than the rest of the metal, and he stared harder. Was it just his eyes or -- a small core of the shiny area started to show red, and he knew.

"Has everyone who can gotten out?" he asked distantly.

"Almost all of them," Mareen said. Next to her a small girl held a gun, a bulky combat vest incongruous on her small frame. Mareen's arm was over her shoulders, and Mareen said softly, "Soon, Nathalie, darling." The small girl nodded, face as solemn as a priest's and Nathan felt cold.

So young, and more of a warrior than he ever claimed to be. What did this place do to its children? What had they become? What had they been forced to be?

Another boom, more distant, and the whole mountain shuddered as though it were coming down on them, and Nathan held his ground, held his ground, held onto the children and held his ground as dust showered down and metal groaned under intolerable pressures. And all the while, a cherry red patch grew around the hinges of the door in front of them.

---------------

Ezra waited in the blackened corridor for Apman's troops to break through the gaping hole in the mountainside. The far end was open to the sky now; a hole punched through forty feet of solid rock, the payload small enough to stop after going through another two walls, both made of rock, neither less than two feet thick. They'd been purely lucky that it had clipped the mountain at an angle, not driven straight in.

"Will it hold?" he asked, and Marc shrugged.

"Maybe." Marc's hands were plunged deep into a morass of wiring, and he itched to be doing something.

"Are you sure it's--"

"No! I'm not sure!" Marc snapped, "It's not like I've got someone on the outside to tell me if they can see a fucking enormous hole in the side of the mountain, or if the holoprojector is holding up and it all looks okay. If you have a contact on the outside you're not sharing, now's the time. Otherwise, shut up!"

"JD?" he asked over the radio, and Jenna glanced at him.

"He the kid on the battle station?"

Ezra nodded, and she shrugged. "Haven't heard anything from anyone on the threads. I'm guessing one of the explosions knocked the comms down -- the comms or the cyborg tech."

Marc shook his head, "Atmospheric EM saturation. Those ships had sub light drives of some sort. That would disrupt everything for a while if they went." He shrugged. "I'm guessing they went."

"For how long?" Jenna asked before Ezra could.

Marc shrugged. "Until I know the size and nature of the explosions, I can't tell you. Hours, days. Could be minutes. I don't know."

"Why's that working then?" He nodded at the machine.

"Because I'm not a moron, unlike you, who apparently has absolutely no clue about light imaging tech," he said tersely, and turned back to it, eyes closed for a long minute. He sat back on his haunches and gently pulled his hands out, wires disentangling themselves from his skin as he eased out. "There we go."

"But it's definitely working, right?" Jenna asked, and Marc sighed.

"Yes. Look."

If Ezra tilted his head he could vaguely see the shimmer of a hologram across the opening -- theoretically showing only a deep gouge in the mountainside rather than the gaping hole that was unprotected and open to anything at all. It was hard to make out through the dust and smoke; he rubbed at his eyes, and coughed, trying not to breath in too deeply. "What if something comes -- tries to get through?"

"Nothing's coming through there for hours," Jenna said coolly, and climbed the fallen rocks to peer further down the blasted corridor. Rock still glowed red hot, crackling sharply as it cooled again. "If it's this hot in here, imagine what it did to the outside. The explosion's got to have scoured the side of the mountain clean of pretty much everything living."

Marc grinned up wickedly, "And if they do try coming through in the next few hours, they're gonna singe their toes." He straightened up with a groan. "That should hold a while."

"What do we do while we're waiting for them to come through?"

Jenna and Marc glanced at each other, and if Ezra hadn't known comms were down he'd have been wondering just exactly what they were talking about behind his back.

"We should head for the infirmary," Jenna said, and Marc nodded.

"What's in the infirmary?" Ezra asked.

"Mareen's got most of the kids in there." She hesitated, and added, "We built it to be the most secure place in the complex. For obvious reasons."

A cold shiver ran through Ezra. Yeah. Obvious all right. Jenna was looking at him dubiously and two days ago, she'd have been right to do so.

"Let's go see what we can salvage for the future, then, shall we?" he managed to say casually.

Jenna nodded, and took point. "Marc?"

"Right here," he said from behind Ezra, who found himself flanked. They were willing to accept his help, but didn't trust him. Smart cybes.

The corridor was empty, and much to his relief, the further in they went, the cooler it became. He mopped at his face with a pocket cloth, and began, "How far--"

Jenna put a hand up sharply, and he stopped, unsure of her meaning, but not willing to chance it.

Marc slipped past him and then forward, padding silently to the bend in the corridor. He leaned around, and ducked back instantly.

Jenna might have said it was too hot for anyone to follow them in, but he watched their back trail carefully anyway, ignoring the faint smell of scorching human flesh rising with the smoking connections and white hot metal.

He shifted from foot to foot, waiting for Marc to rejoin them. Strange company he kept these days. He wished he could call Zhou Yu, or JD, or any of the others, find out if they'd survived. Instead, he was shoulder to shoulder with cybes. Three of them strolling through a war zone like idiots. Surely Apman had to be running out of drones to expend by now?

Marc shook his head, held up three fingers, and managed to convey that of three unfriendlies up ahead only one was looking their way. Jenna nodded, glanced at Ezra, cocked an eyebrow. Ready?

He grinned back brightly, and lifted both weapons, a tilt of his head throwing the question back -- I'm ready, you?

"Down to the bend, then on one," she mouthed noiselessly, and held up her hand, three fingers extended. Marc and Ezra nodded, and crept after her.

A dull thud, and a rush of hot air, and Ezra held still, his eyes narrowly on the dark ahead of them, blinking against the bright flash of the explosion, the dust burning on his exposed skin. A quick glance at Jenna, the cybe caught the movement, flashed a reckless smile, gone almost before he'd registered its presence.

At the bend, and they paused, counted -- thee, two, one -- and moved.

Into the corridor -- something turned and he fired in exact synchrony with the cyborgs beside him, but though their initial reflexes were almost of a pace, he couldn't keep up, and simply held down the trigger, spraying the area. Marc stopped, Jenna a fraction of a second after him as he lifted one hand; Ezra stopped too, listening. The corridor was too filled with ash and dust to see anything.

Was that -- he almost fired, finger tightening. If his palms had been sweaty the kid would have died. Slippery fingers on triggers were messy. Ten years ago he had the sweat glands cut in his palms; one at a time, the nerve cluster for it buried deep in his chest, so far in they had to deflate a lung to reach it. He can't imagine what it would be like to try to control a weapon with your hands slick. With your hands wound tight with metal.

The gray and cream of Marc's hands moved, flashed in the dim light behind the barricade and Ezra's hand closed the trigger again, firing blindly. A series of thuds, not explosions. Maybe. Marc sniffed beside him, and smiled whitely. Ezra took a small breath in, and smirked. As though they hadn't planned for this. He breathed deeply through his nasal filter, and --

"No..." he whispered, as he saw the child again -- he'd half thought it was a mirage.

A small figure, bouncing a ball in the dust off to the side. "No, no--" he rose to his feet. "You promised, you promised--"--"

Ezra didn't need to see the child's face to recognize her. He didn't need to see the future to know what was going to happen with terrible inevitability as he sprinted up the corridor. "No!"

---------------

The door blew and Nathan fired, a wall of energy beating into the door and the soldiers beyond it. He could see them jolt back, and then from near Mareen one of the children slipped through.

"Get her back!"

Mareen just shook her head, wouldn't look around, wouldn't do anything but grip his arm tightly as he stepped forwards.

"Let her be, Nathan," she said. "We all have our part to play. Nathalie understands hers."

Nathalie. He wanted to look away, wanted to cry, or scream, no, not children, but of course children. Why shouldn't they fight when they were the target? Sick at heart, he fired again, half tempted to take aim at the small back. All the arguments he could make ran through his head, but over and over again he came up against the memory of all his research, the look in the parents' eyes, the way that they had accepted what he had to say. Nathalie was dying. Perhaps this way was better. To make that death count for something when it seemed impossible that anything more could come out of it.

Perhaps this was better. Die fighting. Make it count. Rebel against something that meant something, not just die by inches from the revolt of her genome against tech.

Someone took aim at him and he shot them down, stepped forwards. Mareen moved with him, firing steadily. They were out of the doorway, driving them back, and Nathan grinned, maybe they could do this, maybe they could do this--

Someone moved to the right, and Nathan instinctively turned towards it. He could feel Mareen step into his back, guarding it so that they were standing back to back as he aimed, fired.

"Shit!" He swore and jerked his hand up hard, trailing a line of fire up the wall, completely missing anything worth hitting. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Standish rolled with the child out of the line of fire and came up with a hard little smile on his face. "I know you don't think much of cyborgs," he said viciously, "but I thought better of even you."

"Let go of me!" Nathalie was kicking and squirming; for all he'd thought of Standish as being lazy and effete, the man must have had a grip of iron, because his grip didn't budge despite the child being cybe enhanced.

"No," he shook his head. "We can find a better way." He dragged them both to the side of the corridor, favoring one hip, Nathan noticed.

"Get her in here, Standish," Nathan said sharply. "We'll cover you."

He fired blindly down the corridor until Ezra was behind him, through the door, and he and Mareen were retreating, step by step. Two figures came up through the dust and dark, and Nathan took aim -- then Mareen grabbed his arm.

"They're ours!" she said urgently, and he pulled up, pointing to the ceiling until the two cybes were there, and then they backed slowly the rest of the way into the infirmary. No one fired, and Nathan breathed out with relief. He turned to Mareen and grinned.

"I think we did it," Mareen began, smiling back, and then convulsed, the brilliant glow of a pulse shot illuminating her from behind for a fraction of a second, before it faded, and her knees folded under her. Nathan whirled, snapped his hand down to activate his blade and bring it into his palm, and then back and release, three sharp swift moves, and a solid, meaty thunk as it hit dead center. Someone hit the ground outside, and he waited tensely, one of the new cybes at his side.

"I don't see any more," the man said softly, and Nathan looked over at him.

"How can you be sure?"

The cybe smirked. "Battle tech," and tapped by his eyes. "See in the dark, see through most things, as long as it's not hot."

"Nathan," Ezra called urgently, "Nathan, quickly."

He turned, startled to recognize one of the cybes -- Jenna -- cradling Mareen's body, and stopped.

"Can you help her?" she pleaded, "Doctor Jackson? Please, you, you have to do something--"

"I --" He dropped to his knees beside him, and brushed his empty palm over her open eyes, closing them. He couldn't speak, and bit his lip, trying to keep calm, swallowed hard. "I'm sorry, Jenna, Mareen..." He shook his head, and said helplessly, "I'm so sorry."

"Oh." Jenna looked down at the girl in her arms and pinched her lips tightly together.

"Jenn?" The other cybe crouched beside her, and she blinked away tears. I didn't think they could cry, Nathan found himself thinking, and shook himself.

"How is everyone else? Ez? You okay?"

Ezra looked up, and his eyes were dark. "They're just kids, Nathan," he said softly. "How the hell do we fix this?"

Nathan had no answer for him, too uncertain that it wasn't his fault, in some deep, obscure way. "We get them all out, Ezra," he said firmly, and was faintly surprised to hear himself. Not as surprised as Standish looked. He rose to his feet and looked around the room. There were still eight kids -- three babes in arms, and five older children, including Nathalie. Two cyborgs. Him and Standish.

"Quit panicking, and help me tally up what are our assets."

---------------

They'd met in the deep tunnels, heading back down. Chris seemed as calm as he ever was, that is to say, itching for a fight, but willing to wait for the chance to wade into a really vicious one. Vin hadn't been able to raise anyone in the fifteen minutes since JD's last call had pretty much blasted his ears.

They had to crawl through the entrance way to the hangar, and they both burned hands and clothes on the hot rocks and metal. Vin scrambled down, batting absently at the scorched patches on his leather pants as he looked for any signs of life. Nothing moved.

The main entrance, once big enough to take a good sized gun ship, was impassable. Fires burned everywhere, making the place unbearably hot, leaving him choking on ash and dust. Even if the fires hadn't blocked the exit, great pieces of rock and masonry had fallen to the ground, and the sheets of metal which had covered them were hanging loose, torn from their shorings. The memplas walls had fallen too, some, those up front near the biggest fires, were denaturing rapidly and just dripping in long warped runnels across everything in its path -- including bodies.

The smell was terrible.

"You see anyone?" Vin called. The priest didn't respond, and Vin turned his head sharply, half afraid of what he'd see. Larabee was picking his way through the rubble, his eyes fixed on the fire at the front of the hangar, his face as hard as stone.

"Larabee? There anyone left?" he tried again. The last thing they needed was Larabee to finally lose it.

"No one," Larabee called back a few seconds later, and it was as though he'd never drifted. "I'm going to check this side. You wanna--" He jerked his head towards the place where the battle station had stood. Now the whole thing was gone, buried under a tangled swathe of metal and burning plastic.

No. Not really, he thought, but there was no point leaving it. He tried threading again, (JD? Come on kid, tell me you bailed in time--) but there was no reply -- comms had to be down. That was all, and he wasn't listening to the cold little lump in the pit of his stomach that insisted that there wasn't anyone left to hear.

"JD?" Vin shouted. "Hey, kid, you here?" JD? he tried again over the cybe frequencies. Nothing, and the silence was unnerving.

He picked his way through the mess, and as a path opened up in front of him, picked up the pace until he was jogging toward where they'd left JD. He shoved one last piece of memplas out of the way, careless of his burned and skinned hands, and stopped dead.

Half a fighter ship was embedded in the remnants of the battle station. Pieces of both were scattered everywhere. The impact zone was clear of organic material; plastics evaporated; living tissue dust and ashes. Some metals had survived the conflagration, seared bare and fractured clear down to rock in places, blackened and cracked with the extreme temperatures that came with the implosion of a sublight ion drive.

"JD?" he said again, not quite meaning to say anything at all. Chris gripped at his shoulder, and he was surprised at it, distantly.

"Vin! Hey, Mr. Larabee! Jeshu, I'm glad to see you guys," JD called out with evident relief, as he scrambled down from behind a huge pile of rocks. "I thought I was a goner -- I thought we all were goners. Seriously." He eyed the burning debris at the hangar exit, and actually bounced despite a cut trickling blood down the side of his face, visible bruising and burned patches of skin and clothing. "Didya see? One shot! Straight out of the sky." His hand mimed the curve the fighter had taken down to the ground, whistling and finishing up with a low exploding sound. "So cool!"

Vin looked at him, speechless, then laughed under his breath. "Damn." The irrepressible indestructibility of youth: he almost felt old just watching. He shook his head and ambled over to give him a friendly shove. JD's excitement was palpable, and he couldn't help responding to his bright grin, smiling back at him. He hooked an arm over JD's shoulder and scrubbed at his head with his free hand. "You start the party without us, qin ài de?"

JD ducked away from his hand, and grinned up at him, a bright, joy filled, reckless grin. "Guess I figured I'd never a get a bite at the cake if I didn't start before you lot got here." He shook his head. "Man, that was something."

Standing in front of an exploding, crashing sublight engine, complete with trans-atmospheric fighter. Yeah. Something. Vin's arm tightened, and when JD looked at him, his grin fading, said, "You could be a bit more careful, okay, kid? Luck won't hold forever."

JD nodded, wide eyed, and Vin hesitated, then pulled him in to press a quick, embarrassed kiss to the side of his forehead; when JD stared at him, he added, "Later, okay?" and let go.

JD's face lit up and he bounced again. "Cool." He hesitated, then newly confident nodded once and grabbed Vin's shoulders to tug him down. He returned Vin's kiss a little clumsily, holding it for only a couple of seconds then pulled back a little and looked up through his lashes shyly. They were standing far too close together, and Vin wanted to pull him in tight again. The thought fitted to the movement, and his hands curved around to JD's back, tugging him in closer. He found himself smiling down into JD's bright eyes, watching shyness dissolve into sheer happiness. Oh, he thought. Oh. He thought he might be grinning as wide and reckless as JD.

"If you boys are done with the touching reunion," Chris said, dry as dust, for all the faint smile that flickered across his face, "we got company." He jerked his chin at the conflagration at hangar entrance and the shadows beyond the flames. JD looked around sharply at the entrance and Vin could feel all the muscles that had relaxed on finding him alive tighten up again, battle ready. He kept one arm around JD's shoulders as they stood side by side.

"Them Apman's fellas out there?"

JD nodded, apparently untroubled by the notion, and leaned into Vin's body. "Prob'ly." Vin felt a hand hook into his belt, and squeezed slightly, not wanting to let go just yet, even though every instinct told him to prep for battle.

"Don't you think we oughta be doing something about them?"

JD shook his head. "Nope. Just wait."

Chris and Vin looked at each other dubiously "Dunne," Chris began, and JD interrupted.

"Travis said --"

Chris scowled. "Travis? The Pentecost made it in one piece then?"

"Yup! She's matched orbit with the Manassi."

"They comin' in?" Vin asked practically, and JD's face fell, high glee shading to mere excitement.

"Not exactly."

Chris eyed him sardonically. "Not exactly would be 'not at all'?"

"No! Or. Um. Well. They took two of the light gunships out, and they're holding the rest back."

"And Apman's forces?" Chris said sharply. JD looked uncomfortable.

"Um. They told them to stop," he finished hopefully, looking from one to the other. "It was a federal order," he added at their skeptical looks.

"And they threw up their hands and said oh my, a federal order, we're such bad, bad men, our mamas would be ashamed, and decided to go home," Chris said acidly.

JD flushed a dull red. "Not exactly."

"So what good are the feds doing us up there, exactly?"

"Well, for one thing," and Chris and Vin both snapped around to find a holo of System Axe Travis staring at them, arms folded, eyebrow raised. "For one thing, we're holding off the Church in the form of the Manassi. Not a small matter, all things considered."

Vin shifted to look around the hangar, hoping to conceal his involuntary wince. All things considered. A Federation gunship at standoff with a Church gunship. Oh yeah, he'd just bet there was a hell of a lot of considerings going on uplevel now.

Chris's face twitched, "Well, that's a weight off my mind, Axe. Being's we're expecting a small mercenary army to come through the hole in the wall over there." He jerked his head towards the fires.

"I can stand down if you'd prefer to see them off yourself?" Travis offered blandly, and Larabee shrugged.

"Wouldn't want to steal your thunder, sir," he said almost as drily. The two men eyed each other for a long moment, then Travis half smiled.

"And your file said you couldn't play well with others." Travis looked away for a brief moment. "I have other problems right now, Larabee. Please try to at least pretend to have some respect for Federal Code."

"And them?" Chris jerked his head towards the shapes outside.

Behind the hologram a dim figure emerged from another half crumbled corridor, battered and holding a huge gun over his right shoulder. Josiah stumped across to Chris, Vin and JD, walking straight through Travis's image with a grouchy sound that might have been a hello.

"And hello to you to, Osanchez," Travis just seemed amused.

"He has a point," Josiah said coolly, and JD wasn't the only one to blink at the old man. "What exactly are we supposed to do about that lot while you swing safe in orbit, Axe?" He jerked a thumb towards the mercenaries waiting at the edge of the hangar, waiting for the shields to fail.

"I sincerely hope you wasn't planning on beginnin' without us, gentlemen," Ezra called, and Vin looked back to find him and Nathan off to the far side, approaching with a limping gait, Nathan hovering by Ezra, Ezra bloody but grinning wildly, Nathan apparently scolding with each step. "That would be downright unneighborly, leaving us before the party starts."

"We was waitin' on the canapés just for you, Ez," Vin said grinning crookedly. They'd all made it so far.

Travis waited until they were all there, and crooked an eyebrow, a faint smile on his face and said, "I've given you clear skies. The rest is up to you." He looked at them, one by one, and each of them straightened up, felt a little battle-faded confidence seep back into their bones. "I have every faith in you." He nodded at them, and with a last, "Gentlemen," blinked out of sight.

---------------

"So are we just gonna --" JD was looking anxiously at the burning entrance.

Vin shook his head, and Ezra laughed.

"Not unless Mr. Larabee is a significantly poorer strategist than I am inclined to believe he is." He took a step back and waved at the hangar, cluttered, dark, full of obstacles and dangers. "What better killing field than one that requires no further effort on our part?"

Ezra watched the kid glance at Vin before turning to Chris. Interesting. JD was leaning against Tanner, who didn't seem to mind in the slightest, indeed, his right arm was slung over JD's shoulder. Ezra hid a smile. Well, and well and well.

"Thanks, Standish. I reckon I could probably strategize my way out of a paper bag if I really put my mind to it," Chris said mildly, and Ezra let his grin emerge.

"I knew you would rise to the occasion, sir."

Chris eyed him and Ezra swept a mocking sort of bow at the priest. A long hissing sound came from the entrance, and Ezra froze.

"What's that?" JD asked.

"Fire suppressants." Nathan said. "They'll be coming in there, then." He nodded at the cloud of white, and Chris grinned a shark's smile.

"Let 'em."

Ezra raised his eyebrows, and Larabee collected the five of them with one sweeping gaze. "This is how we do it--"

---------------

Chris waited. There probably wasn't time for a narcstick, but he wanted one. It would give him something to do with his hands.

He rubbed absently at the double ring scar at the base of his throat. Funny. He hadn't wanted Oblivion in days. He thought about checking on the splinter chip that Sanchez had given him, but he knew it was still there in his pocket, and didn't move.

A flicker of something across the hangar caught his eye, and he rolled his eyes. "Someone want to tell the baby Fed that staying hidden works better when he's not bobbing up and down adjusting his panties every ten seconds?"

There was a muffled snort of amusement from Vin's position, and JD's head bobbed up above the detritus that was meant to be his cover for a second. He met the kid's indignant glare and watched it drain away into awkward awareness, then vanish. He kind of hoped the two of them made it. That would be something good. Something good out of fire. Wouldn't that be a thing to see. His hand strayed to his pocket until he caught himself.

He sighed and leaned back against his artfully arranged killing field of ex-hangar, broken mountain and corpses. A little luck and Apman's people wouldn't realize that the bodies were dead. Tanner had pointed out that the heat rising from the fire would wreck any heat sensing equipment. Any bodies that were actually cold would probably register as being in camo or shaped shielding rather than dead. The mercenaries wouldn't be willing to take the chance. He hoped.

The bombardment began again. Without any shield to ease the blows the place shook, rocks tumbled in, loose materials clattered and fell.

It eased off, and he held position, tensely waiting for the right moment.

He could hear the roar as the mercs charged. Wait. Wait.

They broke the line JD had set up, the laser catching the ones at either end and slicing clean through, separating arms, legs, torsos and then going deeper into the line as the outer ones fell. At the same time, carefully randomized automated fire erupted from the walls and mounds of rubble and dead. It was unpredictable enough to give the impression of rattled, planless, living gunmen behind it, and Chris let a small smirk slip through as the mercenaries wasted firepower on unarmed batteries.

A little further in, come on, a little further --

A shape shadowed the smoke and rising dust, and he didn't really move, he was just standing, drifting up, sideways on, aim, and fire, fire, fire. The shadow fell, and the one behind it.

He could see the others, a thin last defense, knee deep in the rubble. It was all so slow. Something came towards him and he swayed out of its path, stepped up, onto the rocks and debris and slid down, riding it to the other side, shooting two handed into the killing field until the energy packs ran dry.

He let them fall, reached over his shoulder for the plasma rifle. Walked towards the shadows, his face tight with reckless battle fever. The line followed, the others forming a flying wedge, with him at the apex, fanning out, walking through the hanging shroud of smoke and ash, pulverized rock and powdered sand.

Something exploded, the heat scorching his face. He grinned. Ahead of them, somewhere in the smoke he could make out shouting.

"Fall back, fall back!"

And another voice

"Stand and fight! Fight you fucking cowards! Kill them all! Stand I tell you! Stand!"

And a step. And a step. Pick a target. Let it tumble away, step over it, and again, and again, and--

sunlight flared in his eyes

--Out.

---------------

JD was between Josiah and Vin as they walked out into the blazing sunshine. They were going to die, probably, but it didn't seem to matter. It didn't seem real that they'd even made it out this far, even with the protection of the killing field. None of it seemed real, and he was ignoring the voice of horror telling him it was all real, he'd really eliminated living human beings with as little hesitation as if they were just game pieces, and they in the Arena.

They kept walking, the arrow flaring out into a line. Just six of them, but they'd cleared the mountain, were out onto the plateau in front of the entrance, and he could hear Apman screaming, swearing at his mercenaries.

In the back of his head, a ghost whispered, 'go get 'em, kid!', and the crunch of footsteps in time with his own was like a shield in itself. Four, five, six ...

The cybes were regrouping, moving back in slow clusters, laying down covering fire. Retreating. JD grinned.

They don't seem real keen anymore, he threaded to Vin, and felt amusement and caution flick back at him.

Eyes on the field, kid, Vin told him, and JD focused, pacing with the others, pushing as far forward as they could, weapons up, moving like they didn't know how to retreat.

Even watching as close as enhanced senses would allow, even reviewing the battle tapes afterwards, JD didn't see the shot that triggered it all, but suddenly they were scattering, the first move -- Larabee's hand snapping up and shooting down a cybe on the hillside above them -- only an afterimage as they sprinted forwards, guns blazing. It was a mess; melees always were.

A flash of tan leather, pull up-- Vin, and a turn and Vin yelling Down! and he ducked, rolled, heat searing past his cheek, a gut shot if he'd not moved, and then it was automatic. Fire, cover, move, target, fire...

Josiah flashed past, serape flaring like a banner behind him, and JD saw him pick up one of the enemy cybes and throw him down. JD looked away, and saw Nathan slit the throat of another, blood pulsing out, spattering on the ground and the healer's hands. No new life here, and he saw something out the corner of his eye, a greasy, gray-haired man maybe forty or fifty, his hair lank and straggling, a Clan Apman strap hanging from his shoulder.

No one else was near, and he knew that face.

No one else was near, and this was his job. This was his.

He looked around swiftly, then took a deep breath. And shouted.

"Federal officer! Cease fire!" He walked forward, guns up, exhilaration and a sense of rightness -- his job, his right, his reason to be walking with these men in this place -- carrying him onwards. "Surrender your weapons! Put down your weapons. This is an illegal military action. In the name of the Federation and the System Axe, put down your weapons!"

He was halfway to Apman before anyone paid any attention to him, and he was starting to think, maybe he was--

"Apman! In the name of the Federation--"

Apman looked at him, and raised his gun, and JD was committed, couldn't turn aside. His fingers tightened on the trigger of his weapon. If Apman fired he'd be killing a fed, he'd go away forever: JD didn't matter, Apman was going to go down forever, but JD wouldn't know it, but it would be worth it, it would, only he could see the way Apman's finger closed on the trigger, and the way the air scorched, and he was going to die, it hit him hard, so hard --

he hit the ground, rolled twice, and automatically came back up to his feet, unharmed, bemused, which didn't make sense and he looked down, already knowing

--and time slowed back up to normal, and Vin was sprawled motionlessly on the ground in front of him. Face down. Not moving. A broad black scorch mark smoldered across his back, little flames flickering up from the tattered edges of his coat, raw skin showing through.

JD lunged back across the rocks, oblivious to the sand and shards cutting his hands, knees, already skinned raw from hitting the ground so hard, and he tore away the burning pieces with his bare hands, "What did you do that for?" he was saying, over and over, "Vin, oh my god, oh my god, Vin. Why did you do that?"

Apman was standing over them, and JD looked up.

"Steven Apman, Sept Apman, you are under arrest," he said hoarsely, his hands motionless on Vin's back, he had no weapons left, except the last, most important one: "Surrender your weapons and stand down, by order of the Federal--"

Apman's chest exploded, a plasma stream ripping him open from behind, and as he fell, a short dark haired man -- cybe, mercenary -- appeared behind Apman, lowering his gun.

JD watched the gun, not willing to believe that it might be over like this, it couldn't, it didn't make sense. This was it. He would die and then Vin would die too, and then the cybes would all die too and it would be on him, all those deaths. He stretched a hand across Vin's back, Not him, leave him. He didn't look down, kept his gaze steady, staring straight into the eyes above the muzzle of the weapon trained on him. Not fair, not fair, not fair. A footstep crunched behind him, and a hand brushed his shoulder, then a second. He didn't need to look up to see the shadows ranged alongside him, over him.

The silence went on and on. Vin shifted slightly and moaned with pain. JD gripped his shoulder, held him still, wished he had something to lift him off the ground. Kept his eyes on the mercenary's face.

The man lowered his weapon slightly, pointing it away from them all. "Captain Ngede, Mercenary Guild."

JD just stared blankly up at him. Yes, and?

Footsteps crunched behind him in the silence, and Ngede straightened to parade rest.

"Captain," Larabee said laconically. Ngede looked like he'd received some sort of message in the single word. At any rate, he relaxed a little. Maybe he was just faking them out...

Ngede drew a deep breath and glanced around the gathering crowd. "Camp Hugo, we offer Guild terms for cessation of all hostilities."

"You are authorized to surrender?" Nathan said sharply, and Ngede's eyes flicked to Apman's body for a fraction of a second.

"The Guild contract with Sept Apman has been terminated."

"With a certain amount of emphasis," Ezra said dryly from JD's left. JD ducked away an unexpected grin.

"As you say." Ngede glanced around the group, apparently not sure who to address. "All further negotiations will be undertaken by the Officer Commanding. Which would be me," he added with a sudden grin. "There've been a certain number of field promotions."

"I think the rest of this is my problem, Priest Inquisitor, Federale," Zhou Yu said, stepping forward. "Zhou Yu, Battlemaster for Camp Hugo."

"I'd say it was a pleasure, but--" Ngede shrugged, and held out his hand. Zhou Yu looked at him thoughtfully, then stepped forward, her feet crunching across the sand, and they shook.

"I'll require all your weapons," Zhou Yu said. "And IDs."

"Of course, ma'am."

"Then we accept truce under initial Guild conditions and subject to Federation law, for further negotiation on reparations and repatriation."

"Ma'am." And Ngede held out his plasma rifle, laid flat across his outstretched palms. Zhou Yu took it and sighed with relief.

"Well, thank Jeshu that's over," she said, her shoulders slumping a little.

"Can't disagree with that." Ngede tucked his hands behind his back, then eyed the lineup of the six ill matched combatants, and the free cyborgs arrayed alongside them. He gave them a half smile, and added, "Good fight though."

He half saluted, turned on his heel and walked away. JD stared, open mouthed as the other mercenaries fell in behind him, the injured helping the crippled, none of them whole.

"That's it?" JD said in disbelief.

He twisted to look up at the five men standing behind him, and at the free cyborgs behind them, and repeated, "That's it?"

Josiah grinned abruptly. "Well, if you're feeling bored already, I can call them back."

Nathan snickered; Ezra turned away, a smirk spreading across his face. Chris grinned outright, and at JD's knee, Vin said, "Don't worry, kid, I think you ran 'em off." He paused a beat, "Scared 'em half to death of being arrested." He shifted a little, far enough that JD could see his eyes laughing up at him.

"Bastards," he muttered, and then laughed, one hand gripping Vin's shoulder tightly. "You're a bunch of miserable bastards, you hear?" but even JD was grinning as he said it. Nathan crouched down to check over Vin who was grumbling that he was fine, dammit and go treat them as needed some nosy old medic poking at 'em, and Ezra was wandering off to loot the bodies, and Chris pulled a packet out of his coat and lit up another narcstick, and JD's laughter faded into an incredulous smile, and he looked around them.

We made a pretty good team, he thought contentedly, and then, I wonder what's for dinner?

The End   

Chapter Text

Nathan glared at Josiah.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Josiah tried, rather meeker than he'd meant to sound.

"A good. Idea."

"At the time," Josiah nodded earnestly. "What with the gun and the approaching mercenary troops and the prospective bombardment from on high at the hands of our beloved Church."

Nathan made an incoherent noise.

"I'm sorry?"

"You should be sorry! You'll be lucky if you don't end up needing surgery on that shoulder! Look what you've done to the muscles! And your rotator cuff! I suppose you thought knocking bits off that wouldn't matter?"

"Not in the short term, Nathan. And for the long term, I'd have you!" He smiled brightly. Nathan scowled at him and ran the tissue regenerator over his shoulder and chest again.

"Don't talk to me."

"Certainly, brother Nathan."

"I mean it!"

"Of course. Will it be fixed soon? I don't wish to rush you, but the Lord's work waits for no man, and I have a schedule--"

"Josiah!"

Josiah subsided, his eyes twinkling under the appearance of humility. "I do have one small task to complete, a silence to break, still and fast."

"I'll break something myself if you don't sit still and let me do this!" Nathan waved the tissue regenerator threateningly under Josiah's nose. Josiah put a careful hand up and guided it away.

"I have enough problems without you accidentally growing my nose," he said. "I've been a real boy for a while now."

Nathan stared at him, then gripped his neck firmly in one hand. "Be as crazy as you like, just *hold still**."

Josiah laughed. "The work to fit the work. Strengthen my arm, di di. My good right arm."

Nathan sighed, and shaking his head, bent to the task of fixing muscle and ligament. He couldn't repress a faint smile though.

---------------

Chris settled himself into one of the few remaining chairs and lit up, breathing deep. Bliss. Or at least, a decent approximation. The sun was setting again, this time in a blaze of red and green, the atmosphere heavy with dust from the battle. Beautiful. He took a long draught of the firewater Standish had scrounged up from somewhere, and let it burn its way down.

Buck was in the palm of his hand. A tiny splinter chip, the closest he'd get to the old days. It glinted red, as though stained with blood, and he wondered whose. He crushed it into his hand and felt the sliver pierce his own skin. A little more blood to add to the buckets full shed here. Here and elsewhere.

He'd almost made it to a happy ending. He could sink into VR, take the chip and fall into the cracks, buried in a world almost good enough.

He'd find the kid later, get him to set him up with a virtual home. He snorted softly, and poured himself another glass of firewater. Maybe much later. He'd last seen the kid tucked into the curve of Vin's sleeping body. The cybe was rebuilding from the scorch of a tangle rifle, taken when he knocked JD out the way. He lifted his glass and toasted the two of them. He knocked it back, then topped it off again. Lucky kid. Kids.

Be lucky, kid. Don't settle for almost.

His eyes burned a little, but that was just the firewater. He took a long drag on the narcstick and sighed, watching the smoke curl away, then dissipate in the evening breeze.

"Xiao di di?" Sanchez cut off the sunlight and Chris squinted an eye open.

"I was enjoying the sunset," Chris said mildly.

"I have a sunrise for you," Sanchez said with a solemn nod. He leaned in as though to say something else, then deftly snatched the splinter chip out of Chris's fingers.

"Hey!" He grabbed Josiah's wrist, and squeezed tight. "That wasn't the deal."

"This," Josiah waved the chip, apparently indifferent to the bruising grip Chris had on his wrist, "this isn't the deal."

*You promised**, he said, underneath, and then stopped cold.

Josiah smiled slow and deep. "That's so."

Chris rose to his feet, eyes on Josiah. "*What** did you promise?" he whispered harshly, and Josiah nodded.

"A good question, brother. And the answer -- the answer is that I have a church, a quiet place, where good men lie sleeping. A good man lies sleeping."

"No riddles!" Chris snapped. Josiah's returning smile was wild and bright and full of knowledge.

"He is not here, he *does not sleep**."

Chris set his jaw. No, not possible, not -- not true, not-- He pushed, reaching out with his mind, and Josiah's mind opened before him. And Chris felt the world rock out from under his feet and catch him again, solid and still a moment later.

Buck wasn't dead.

Josiah headed for the flyer. "Come wake the dead, brothers!" he shouted, and whirled, "Come wake the dead! Brothers! Ring out the death of death!" He pulled open the door and looked expectantly at them all.

Chris was already on his feet heading for the pilot's seat.

"That's my Federation vehicle, you know," JD said from where he and Vin were leaning against the vehicle. He caught Chris's glare and smiled rather weakly at him, "But I can fly you where ever you want to go," he added brightly, and startled at Josiah's heavy hand on his shoulder hoisting him to his feet.

"Little brother, xiao di di, Jedediah, take me home, take me to the church, and we will unpick imagination and make reality our footstool."

JD sighed, and settled into the pilot's seat. "Whatever you say, Osanchez," he said resignedly. Vin slid in next to him and a moment later Chris was crowded by Ezra on one side and Nathan on the other in the back.

He glared at them and Vin grinned back. "What, you thought we weren't going to see this right to the bitter end?"

"No bitter endings," Josiah said cheerfully, and wedged himself in next to Vin. "Home, Jedediah, and don't spare the horses!"

---------------

Chris dropped to his knees, nails digging desperately at the mortar sealing the unmarked stone slab in place. He was barely aware of a pair of knees thudding down across from him, a knife scraping along the sealed cracks with no thought for its dulling edge; to his left, a dark pair of hands wielded something that hummed blue light and left cement crumbling sand in its wake.

"Careful," he said, but that was all.

As the edge of the stone appeared he jammed his fingers into the emerging gap, tearing his nails, leaving his fingers bloody and ragged, but the stone didn't budge.

"A lever," Ezra said abruptly. "Give me a lever and I can--"

"Crow bar in the back," Vin said instantly. No one questioned his knowledge, and JD was on his feet, darting away and back to hold it out. Vin and Chris's hands both reached for it, and after a second, Chris withdrew. His lover, his right, some selfish, greedy part of him whispered. But Vin was stronger, might be able to lift the thing, Buck might be real if he ceded his pride. He stared at the pale sandstone, willing Josiah's promise into solid truth, desperate for it to be true.

"In a minute, Chris," Nathan said, and Chris nodded. Vin stood at the edge of the living tomb, working the end of the metal into the narrow gap. JD rested a hand on Vin's back, and Chris knew a split second of bitter envy; it was nothing to those two. They had no idea what they had -- Vin looked up, and Chris accepted that Vin, at least, knew. And from the steadiness of JD's hand, and the intentness of his gaze past his lover at the grave of the man he thought of as some sort of father and brother and teacher in one, perhaps the kid knew too.

"Ready?" Any of them might have said it. Vin nodded, and drove deep, his back bowing and shoulders filling with the effort.

For long, long seconds nothing happened. Chris was already halfway to reaching for his weapons, ready to simply blast in, delicate machinery be damned. A hand gripped his wrist and he looked to see who dared --

"Patience," Ezra whispered, although his eyes, too, were on the grave. "A little longer."

Vin gasped for air, veins and sinews corded and visibly straining in dark gray lines, more alien than ever although his hands didn't waver.

"A little more," JD whispered. It didn't sound like an instruction but maybe Vin took it so. He grunted and dug deeper. Stone and metal scraped painfully, then the stone slab, the lid was lifting. Chris couldn't see, was afraid to look, couldn't tear his eyes away.

"Props," Vin said, and in moments they were finding stones, bricks, anything. Little by little the great stone lid moved, rising higher with each push by the cyborg's bleeding hands, held there by the five men pushing anything that could sustain the weight for even a little while into the growing gap.

"It's him!"

Chris didn't hear. He dropped to his belly and reached under the precariously balanced stone, reaching down to the much loved face. "Buck..." he said, as though his mere voice would wake the sleeper. Buck's eyes stayed closed.

"Chris, Chris! Get out of there!" Urgent hands pulled at him and he struggled until they dragged him out.

"Let me go!" he said through gritted teeth, softly although he wanted to scream it out, "Let me go!" Arms wrapped around his body and he twisted madly to see.

Nathan was crouched by the opening, blocking Buck's face, and Chris held his breath. God -- what if... so close and--

"Have faith, xiao di di," Josiah rumbled into his ear, and he hung there, waiting, breathing hard. "Have faith."

"Nathan? Is he--" JD asked, and Chris was both grateful and furious. What if Buck was dead? How could they come so close and fail? How could he bear it if he was alive, and his ghost had been wrong. An engram... anything could happen. He might not be real. None of it--

"I've got life signs," Jackson said. Cheers erupted; Josiah let go after squeezing Chris hard in something he vaguely recognized as a hug, but which just constricted him, held him away from what he needed to be near.

"I can't--" Vin, arms shaking. Josiah grabbed a corner of the flagstone -- not a gravestone -- and held, a second later more hands were there, and the stone was cool against his skin. They pulled, all six of them, lifted, twisted, and stone groaned on stone as they dragged it up and out, sweat beading at the weight of it, desperate to get it up and away from what lay within. It teetered on one edge for long seconds, on the edge of the grave. Chris didn't look down, watching the great slab balanced finely enough that it might still tumble back. Then the hands retreated, Josiah and Vin stepped out from behind it. It wobbled then crashed to the ground beside the grave with a vast, echoing boom.

Jackson lifted a hand for quiet without looking back. He got it. Chris wiped absently at his face, saw in the periphery of his vision Vin, hands on knees, gasping for air; Josiah, great chest heaving, eyes closed, lips moving soundlessly; Ezra wringing a handkerchief between his hands until it was little more than a rag; JD watching the grave, his attention as fixed as Chris's own, one hand on Vin's back. But at the center and heart of it was Nathan, tapping at the console, making little 'hmmm' noises that he didn't want to ask the meaning of. And a pale, pale face, a shock of shaggy black hair...

"Chris? You wanna come here?"

Chris was there, two quick strides, dread biting his heels.

Nathan looked at him, then smiled, dark eyes kind. "Here," he gestured to a worn green button at the foot of a keypad, "press it."

His hand shot out, but he held back a second, looking up. "Will it--?"

Nathan's smile broadened. "Reckon so Figure if it's anyone's right, it's yours."

"Come on, Chris," JD agitated. Chris looked back over his shoulder, how dare he -- jealousy seething, then saw Vin's arm wrap around JD, holding him back. JD moved restlessly then settled. Good. Keep him away. He met Vin's eyes and nodded, grateful, a little ashamed.

He wouldn't want to give Buck up either.

"The button, Mr. Larabee," Ezra urged, "press the damn button."

He nodded, and turned back, and touched a finger to the pad.

He wasn't sure what he'd expected. It wasn't a blast of cold air, and the strong smell of sterile atmosphere. Moisture from the outside froze into a cloud of ice, obscuring Buck completely for too long. Chris rocked back on his heels, glaring into the white mist. Something flapped and he saw Josiah swing his poncho back over his shoulders and the mist dissipated as fast as it had appeared.

Things moved. He tried to reach in but a clear field stopped his hand, leaving it resting bare centimeters above Buck's still chest. Chris held his own breath, waiting until he had to gasp for air. Why wasn't he breathing? Needles retracted smoothly from skin and hid beneath the coffin walls. Tubes withdrew.

The field dissolved around Buck.

His skin was warm. He let his hands sit there, a little left of center, right where he would feel -- did feel -- the slow double-drub of a beating heart.

He closed his eyes, pressing against the waxy skin. It warmed under his touch, and he opened his eyes to see the pallor recede under a wave of palest pink, blood pouring through a circulation system, cryonic fluids draining away.

Still no hint of movement anywhere else. Surely the cryotech would remember to make him breathe. He stared at the shimmer of a medical field over Buck's lower face unblinking, all his will bent to this one thing. Breathe. He closed his eyes tightly; they were dry, but somehow they felt as though something would break if he didn't close it all off.

"Chris, let me see him." Nathan. Chris nodded, but didn't move, and Nathan edged warily around him, eyes darting between the readouts and the still figure lying in its faux grave.

"Can we get him out of here?" He was pleased at how steady his voice was. It didn't matter that none of them were fooled.

"Sure. Just let me have a look and we can decide the best way." Nathan soothed, and Chris tamped down his sudden anger. The doctor wasn't patronizing him, he was trying to do what was right for a patient. He drew in a deep breath and let it go slowly. A hand settled on his shoulder and he looked up into Tanner's eyes.

"You wanna step back a ways there?" he said softly.

Chris nodded jerkily, and shuffled back a little, far enough for Jackson to slip in at Buck's head and reach a hand to the data pad beside the tomb. Chris tensed every muscle, holding himself in, holding himself back. He would not betray himself. He would not -- Buck wasn't breathing, dammit, and all Jackson was doing was reading through the pad. Hadn't he read all this already? What was the delay? What kind of quack was he?

"Do something!" he ordered, and Jackson glanced at him.

"When I know what's happening and not before," he said calmly.

"He doesn't have time --"

"Brother." Josiah was waiting for him to look up, and only spoke again when Chris's eyes met his own. "Patience. There is no hurry except in your own mind. Buck has waited three years for you to come here. A few minutes will hurt no one."

He wanted to snap and snarl, growl that it was hurting Buck, hurting him. He refused to say what he was thinking; Buck was dead, dying, not breathing. He reached out, trying to find him, surely that terror was Buck's, trapped, undead, not-asleep ... Or maybe that was just his own fear, and the rest was silence. Worse than fear; nothing at all, the silence of -- death? Even sleeping, people thought, dreams, fragments, wishes. Vin's hand on his arm gave him the edges of his own calm, centered patience. He glanced at him. Vin cared, it just didn't show.

God. Get him out of there! The thought of being sealed, living, breathing into a glass casket, drugged and frozen, buried, not quite alive, shook him, his chest straining, trying to breath, choked.

He was lost in the sudden image of the great stone lid slamming down, muffling the silence of near death, trapping Buck under the weight of a ton of stone, dark, trapped, alone... He shook his head once, sharply, and watched. Another hand touched his shoulder tentatively and he knew without looking up that JD was there, lending uncertain support.

"He'll be okay," the kid said under his breath. "He'll be okay. You'll see."

"Have you done this before, Doctor?" Standish asked coolly. Vin nodded, and stepped back, not touching him any more.

Chris didn't want to hear what Jackson would answer, and glared at Standish for asking it. He wanted to believe that Nathan knew the procedure. He wanted to believe that the machinery had worked perfectly, that Buck would wake in minutes. That it would be back to normal, the clock would change direction, time itself unwritten.

Jackson shrugged and kept reading. "Got a couple of ideas. Saw it done was when I was training back on Maia." Ezra nodded, and even from where he was crouched Chris could feel the measured relief all around him. He himself clung to it. All normal. This was supposed to happen.

"So... you're saying you ain't actually done it before?" JD. Chris had been trying not to think about that. Of course it was JD who came out and said it.

Nathan shook his head. "Nope, that's what data packs are for," he said dismissively. JD ducked his head.

"Sorry. I was just--"

"Just let me concentrate, and it'll be just fine." Chris could see that JD was the only one who didn't really catch the underlying anxiety in Nathan's sharp words. Who didn't wonder just where that data pack was -- in a box somewhere? Back in Last Chance? Still on Celaeno, abandoned as unnecessary baggage?

He wondered what it was like to have shared mindspace with Buck Wilmington, and a reluctant smile slid across his face, too quickly to be seen. Sharing home and bed with the man had been terrifying enough. He waited for Buck's usual reply to jibes of this sort, and winced as the silence bore in on him.

"Nathan?" Josiah asked softly, and Chris held his breath until he had to breathe, and still Buck's chest didn't move. He wiped at a trickle of blood on Buck's arm where a needle had withdrawn. Someone pressed a cloth into his hand and he wiped at it, but more welled up.

"Nate?"

"He's bleeding," Vin said softly, and Chris couldn't figure out why he sounded so happy until he realized that he hadn't told them.

"His heart's beating," he said as though it was the obvious thing in the world, and felt it for the victory it was. He looked up. "Nate, his heart is beating!"

Nathan grinned at him. "I know. One more step, and we'll have a go."

"What step?" JD asked, and Nathan started to talk, something about cryo fluids and drainage -- Chris tuned him out, his hands scattering touches over Buck's head, arms, slowly warming skin, lank hair, boney ridges, anywhere he could safely reach.

Nathan lifted Buck, tilted him and suddenly Buck's chest jerked, heaved, and then he was coughing, vomiting up clear liquid, and a dozen hands were there, pulling him up out of his tomb and onto blankets, coats, anything. Nathan rolled him to his side, and someone hissed at the sight of his back. Chris didn't look, his eyes were fixed on Buck's face, kneeling in the puke and filth, hands cradling Buck's head, waiting...

A flicker of dark, dazed blue.

"Buck?"

Dry lips moved, no sound emerged, but Chris knew what he said.

And if his face was wet, only Buck could see it.