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Shaman

We decided to wait until morning, and that night I had a dream.

Something was wrong. I was alone on my ship. My crew was dead. The ship had no power. Nothing I did could make it move again. I tried to eject an escape pod. Nothing happened. I kicked as many pieces of circuitry as I could get my feet on, swearing at all of them. The radio came on and nothing more. Underneath the typical radio chatter, I heard voices. I couldnít understand what they were saying, but I was pretty sure it wasnít good. Then one blurted out, "Kill the boy!"

Somewhere near the back of the ship, I heard someone shout, "Donít let them kill me!"

I ran to where I heard the voice and found a teenage boy huddled in a corner with a wrench in his left hand. His long black hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail, and his big green eyes were wide and full of tears that he refused to let fall. I could see his ears under his hair. They were pointy.

"What the fuck are you?" I asked him.

"Please, Talon, donít let them kill me."

"My whole crew is dead because of you. My daughter is dead because of you! And Iím supposed to let you live?"

The boy shook his head. "I can fix it. I can. Really. I can fix it. I can fix it!" He started banging the wrench on the wall. It made a hollow, lonely echo through the dead hull.

I woke up to the sound of someone knocking on the door. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Cherry was standing in the doorway. "Are you ready?" she asked.

"What kind of aliens have pointy ears?" I asked.

"Excuse me?"

"Youíre a xenobiologist. Are there any pointy-eared humanoid aliens out there?"

"Not that I know of. Why?"

"Weird dream, thatís all."

"You used your power last night, didnít you? Thatís how you found him."

"Yeah. And I could probably do it again."

She smiled. "I knew you could do it."

"Is everyone ready?"

"Weíre waiting on you. Danelís coming with us, by the way."

"The more the merrier."

There werenít many ships at the docking bay when we arrived, and when we passed by all of the ones that were outside, I started to wonder if there was really a ship or if Danel was leading us all into a trap. As soon as I thought that, Danel looked over his shoulder at me and smirked. "Do you really think Iíd disappoint you?" he asked.

"Letís see what kind of piece of shit you got first," I said.

"Does it really matter? You can fly just about anything, canít you?"

"I donít want to boast."

We stopped in front of one of the larger hangars, and two mechanics pulled open the doors. I walked in first, before they hit the lights and I was already in shock. When the lights did come on, it seemed even more unreal than with the lights off. Ships were expensive. It had taken years and lots of dirty secrets to get the pieces of shit I had. Good ships were practically impossible to get, and the best ships were virtually unavailable. Unless you had a brother or two who could pull a few strings. The type of ship I had wanted since I was a kid was a nova class ship. Wallyís Violet Nova was one of the earliest makes of it. It was just the right size. It held a crew of five or six, depending on how the captain wanted to equip it. There was enough room for maybe two passengers. The cargo space was ample. What really set a nova apart was the shape of it and how it was made. One solid piece of sheet metal was super heated at the center until it could be bent into an arch so the whole thing looked like half a sphere. That type of ship was called a nova due to the star-like pattern left by heating the metal. Different colors could be obtained by mixing various materials with the steel when the sheet metal was originally pressed. This one was mostly blue with faint streaks of purple in the arms of the nova mark. It was the second most beautiful thing Iíd ever seen in my life.

I rushed to get inside of it, dropping everything I was carrying just inside the hatch where Danel almost tripped on it. I looked over everything with glee. Thatís a cheesy way to look at things, but thatís the only way to describe what it felt like to finally be inside a ship like that and have the opportunity to pilot it. It was well equipped with laser cannons, plasma rays, hidden missiles, all the things a good ship needs. There were plenty of supplies, and when I finally stopped running around playing with everything and sat down in the pilotís seat, it was as if that seat had been made for my ass. I was going to hate to give that thing up.

"So do you approve?" Danel asked as he came onto the bridge.

"Hell yeah I approve. How did you score this?"

"Irial has people who owe him a few favors."

"He could have saved those for something a little more important than this."

"Are you kidding? You have no idea how important this is."

"Whatís he gonna do with a ship like this when Iím done with it?"

"Not a thing."

And I knew what he was going to say before he said it.

"When youíre done with it, you can do whatever you want. Itís yours."

"Youíre fucking kidding me."

"I know that being a Falkenberg means nothing to you. Thatís perfectly acceptable. And certainly, we donít expect you to ever love us the way you love your adopted family. But Irial was fifteen when you were born. For the six months you were with us, he adored you. He fed you. He played with you. He changed your diapers. He read books to you. He showed you the stars. If you had grown up with us, youíd be in a much better position than either myself or Tirell. The girls are another story. But at least among the boys, you would have had a chance at more than what most third or fourth sons ever get because of Irial. He wanted to make up for all those lost chances. Besides, if you can catch Shane, you will have earned this. I apologize for waxing maudlin. Shall we get down to business?"

The nova handled like a dream. Unlike the Brechttarian ship, all the controls felt natural. I never once felt like I was going to blow myself up or fire a weapon I didnít mean to fire. The ride was smooth as silk, even on take off. There were no glitches. I had never heard an engine run so perfectly. Within ten minutes, I knew that ship as well as I had ever known anything Iíd flown. It even had a little surprise for me when I discovered a cloaking device of such advanced technology that the military didnít even have it. It was pure bliss. I was truly and madly in love. This ship was an enthusiastic five out of five.

Saint Dominic was a sparsely populated planet mostly because it was located in a region that was home to an enigmatic race of aliens that no one had ever actually seen. We knew they existed because they sent emissaries for diplomatic meetings and such. Whatever they were, they didn't seem hostile. But so little was known about them that it was hard to say. They were probably just waiting for all the rest of us to wipe ourselves out.

The other reason people avoided living on Saint Dominic was the healthy population of rats. There were all kinds of rats. Regular rats, cast off lab rats, rats that were invisible to the human eye and thousands of others. The ones that were of most concern were the ones people called the garbage disposal rats. They ate everything. Plants, animals, humans, dirt, glass, metal -- I mean everything. They were about the size of large tomcats. They didn't attack unless provoked or hungry. Fortunately, they were rarely provoked and almost never hungry.

Saint Dominic was also a good place to hide. There were lots of forests, swamps and mountain ranges. Thus, there was a strong military presence to keep the bad guys out. All of the military bases were rat free, and unless I wanted my ship to get eaten, I had to land at one. But I was still considered one of the bad guys. Of course, I should have known that Danel and Irial would pull whatever strings they could get their hands on to get the military to look the other way.

Then came the tricky part. Getting to Shane before the rats got to him.

We stopped to rest in a town called Shady. There were no trees there. They had all been eaten or incinerated. The inhabitants all carried pocket sized flamethrowers to use against the rats, but that didn't mean that a few of them weren't cackling mad pyromaniacs.

There were two inns in Shady. One was called Sunnydale and gave us all a creepy feeling. So we went to the one called Rest Assured. I'd have to say we would have been screwed either way.

The innkeeper was a tall thin man named Bob. The only one of us he couldn't stare down at was Dylan, and he didn't seem to notice that Dylan was there.

Danel went up to the counter and said, "Good evening, sir. We will be requiring four rooms for one night."

"I can give you three rooms," Bob said.

"I can sleep with Talon," Cherry said.

"I bet you can," Dylan said.

Raising a thin, grey eyebrow, Bob said, "Then two rooms."

"But sir, there are four of us," Danel said.

Bob pointed at Dylan. "That does not belong. Didn't you read the sign? No pets allowed. It sleeps outside. What is it anyway? A wookie?"

Dylan growled under his breath.

"He's a shavor," I said.

"Right. And Iím the emperor of the universe."

"I can pay extra for his room if you would like," Danel said.

"No animals allowed in here."

"Then maybe we should all sleep outside," Cherry said.

"Itís no big deal," Dylan said. "Iíll just go mark my territory and hunt for my dinner. Iíll see you in the morning." He walked out, and we were all silent for a minute.

"Two rooms for the night, then," Bob said and pulled two keys off the pegboard behind him. He reached under the counter and grabbed three pocket flamethrowers. "Just in case."

"Do you serve dinner here?" I asked.

Bob went under the counter again and came up with three Styrofoam cups in shrink-wrapped plastic. "Enjoy your meal," he said.

We took the flamethrowers and the cups of dinner upstairs. Our rooms were across the hall from each other, and there didnít appear to be any other lodgers. We heated up our noodle soups and sat in the hall.

"That guy needs to be slapped around a little," Cherry said.

"I canít blame him," Danel said. "There was a sign, and Dylan isnít exactly a cute and cuddly monster. No oneís seen a shavor in over a hundred years. What would you have done?"

"Told him to watch his claws and not bite too hard."

"Of course."

"Well, Iím worried about him."

"Heíll be fine," I said.

"I know, but that jackass hurt his feelings."

"I donít think heís been around a lot of people the last few years, and we havenít treated him any different. I guess he wasnít ready for that. But I know how he is. He wonít let it bother him."

"This stuff tastes like shit," Danel said.

"Iíve had worse."

"Well, here. Finish this. Iím going to bed. Keep the noise down, please."

"Sure thing. Good night."

I slept better that night than I had for a long time. I didnít have any weird dreams or visions, and I had slept alone for so long that I had forgotten how comforting it could be to have a warm body beside me. But as usual, my peaceful sleep was interrupted, this time by a tapping at the window.

When I looked, I didnít see anything. So I pushed the window open, nearly breaking the glass when the window decided to stop moving half way up. But I saw Dylan standing below the window, watching something to his left.

"Hey," I called down to him.

He looked up. "Did I wake you up?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"Sorry. Come out here. I need to talk to you."

"Okay. Give me a minute to get dressed."

When I got outside, Dylan was sitting on a little hill a few hundred feet away from the inn. His head was tilted up to the sky, but he wasnít watching the stars. He was smelling the air. I sat down beside him. "Whatís up?" I asked.

"Bounty hunters," he said.

"Blackstoneís little bitches, Iím sure."

"Worse."

"Worse?"

"I smell hell."

I glanced over at Sunnydale Inn. "Oh?"

"It smells like blood and shit and rotten eggs."

"Thatís bad then, I guess."

"But they arenít sure what theyíre after. They were sent to kill a star."

"Right, okay. Um Ė "

"You could have told me about the demonís bounty on you."

"It didnít seem important at the time."

"A demon wants you dead and itís not important."

"I was preoccupied."

"It canít hurt you directly. But thereís nothing to stop it from hurting everyone you care about."

"Dylan Ė "

"But they wonít find you. I wonít let them. Youíre not safe here right now. You should leave."

"Leave now? In the middle of the night?"

"If they find you here, Shane will have a chance to get away. I can smell him, too."

I looked up at the stars, and Shaman pushed me north. "He canít get away from me."

"Then go."

"What about Danel and Cherry?"

"Theyíll be fine. With any luck, the bounty hunters will be taken care of by morning. They wonít ever have to know. Then weíll follow you."

"I donít feel real great about going out there alone."

"Are you ever alone any more?"

"No."

"You have more to worry about staying here."

"Are you okay? Because Cherry said you were upset. Sheís worried about you. I am, too."

"What, you mean Bob?"

"Yeah."

Dylan sighed. "I forget sometimes how different I really am now. All the people Iíve been around recently havenít even seemed to notice what I am. Thatís nice, but itís not like that everywhere. It just takes some getting used to is all."

I felt stupid telling him that I understood how he felt. What made me different wasnít quite as obvious. So I just didnít say anything at all and went back to the inn to get my things. When I came back out, I didnít see Dylan anywhere. I heard a scream and saw flames leaping up from the roof of Sunnydale Inn. I saw a figure run down the dirt street on fire shouting, "It burns!" You know your friends love you when they set things on fire for you.

A group of bounty hunters spilled out of the front door in their underwear with their guns drawn. I ran north, following Shamanís lead.

It wasnít long before I found myself in a dense forest. I was on a path, but it didnít seem like the path had been traveled recently. The tree trunks were covered with mosses and fungi. Frogs croaked. Birds rustled in their nests. An owl hooted. It was cold in the forest, and a thin mist drifted along the ground like albino pythons. In the shadows along the path, I saw the eyes of creatures glinting out at me. I kept one hand on a gun and the other on the flamethrower. I was being followed. And it wasnít by a friendly beastie who was going to help me.

The shriek I heard sent chills down my spine. The ground shook. I turned around. All I saw was darkness. But the darkness moved. It flowed towards me quickly. I saw two little red eyes and decided I needed to get off the path. I hid between tree roots and dead logs. I heard it coming closer. And I could smell it. It smelled just like Dylan described it. I pressed my nose and mouth into my arm to keep from gagging. It bent down near me. Its black, skeletal hand rested on a log just inches from me. I wanted to run away screaming. I was shaking. My stomach was in knots. But my heart beat normally. My lungs drew steady breaths. Evil smelling mist rolled off the long black robes the thing wore. It turned its head towards me. There was no face inside the hood.

Suddenly it stood up straight then ran away, if it actually could run. But it was hightailing it out of the forest. I didnít want to move. I didnít want to meet the thing that had scared the scary thing. I just waited. A black owl with mismatched eyes alighted on the log in front of me. It leaned forward a little then turned its head to the left. Then suddenly, the owl was a man with long black hair and silvery blue skin.

"What kind of creature are you?" he asked.

"Iím ...Iím a star," I said. What a fucking ridiculous answer. I felt like I was dreaming.

The man smiled. "So thatís what heís after."

"Who the hell are you?"

"No one of consequence."

"What was that thing?"

"Demonís bounty hunter."

"And what are you?"

"I might be an angel. But I could be a demon myself. This is my forest. I donít like foul things in my forest."

"Iím only passing through."

"Not you. That thing."

"Thanks for running it off."

"Youíre the Shaman star, arenít you?"

"Um..."

"I thought so. You have no clue what that means, do you?"

"I saw God. I think."

"You think?"

"I was dead."

"But that has nothing to do with Shaman or the others."

"What others?"

"There are three of you. Shaman, Firefly and Yuusei. But donít concern yourself with that now. The rest of your passage through my forest will be uneventful."

The man turned into an owl again and was gone.

I stayed where I was for a while. I had no idea what the hell that conversation was about. I wasnít even sure I had had that conversation. It felt like part of a dream. But the more I thought about it, the more familiar it was, like one of those half remembered dreams from my childhood that could have been significant if only I could recall more of it. Whoever he was or whatever he was, I believed the man when he said I was safe in his forest. I continued my walk a little less uneasy than I had begun it. Small white shapes with large hollow eyes appeared along the tree limbs. They smiled at me and made unnerving noises with their necks. Somewhere in the distance, I heard a baby cry.

I didnít think Iíd ever get out of that forest. It seemed endless. The path began to twist and turn and slope downward. Above me, warm golden light filtered through the leaves. I was tired, but I had to keep going. Shane was trying to repair his ship, and if I stopped, there was a chance he would succeed before I got to him. Not that I wouldnít be able to find him again. I just wanted it over with.

Under my feet, the dirt path gave way to yellowing grass. I looked up. A vast grassland spread out before me, rolling over gentle hills and valleys. Beyond that was a mountain range of towering blue peaks with snow-covered caps. The sky above the mountains looked stormy. But that was miles away. The sky above where I was standing was a bright cheerful blue. Daylight had been so short on Gehgal that I had almost forgotten what the sky looked like. I sat down to rest for just a second.

Regan was sitting on the floor in a playroom with innumerable toys spread out before her. There was a castle made of foam rubber blocks. She had surrounded it with all the soldiers she could find. On top of the castle was a plastic dragon.

"Hi, Daddy," she said.

"Hey, kiddo. Howís it going?"

"I miss you."

"I miss you, too."

"Analaís worried. She says youíre not on Gehgal any more and no one knows where you are."

"No oneís supposed to know where I am."

"Why not? Is it because the senator thinks youíre bad?"

"Yep, thatís it. See, I have to get the real bad guy before I tell anyone Iím really the good guy because they wonít believe me if I canít prove it."

"Oh. So youíre not bad."

"No."

"Anala says I should pray for you, but I donít like being on my knees. The floorís wood, and it hurts. Besides, I donít think anyoneís listening."

"I donít know what to tell you about that. Itís kinda hard to explain. But we can talk about it when I get there. Youíre still on Brandenburg, right?"

"Yup. Itís spring here, and I sneeze a lot. So I stay inside. Look, Daddy, the dragonís defending his castle against the army. Heís got eggs inside."

"Then Iím sure heíll crush them all."

"The dragon always wins. But he needs help. One of his eggs is gonna be born and come and spit fire at all the soldiers."

"Good. Heís a lucky dragon. Iím gonna go now, Regan. The sooner I get to the bad guy, the sooner I can come and get you."

"Okay."

"I love you."

"Love you, too, Daddy."

I would have loved to sit there and talk to Regan all day, but I always felt like I had to keep those conversations short. It killed me to be able to see her and hear her so clearly and not be able to touch her. If I talked to her any longer than I did, I would start to cry. I didnít want her to see me cry. I didnít want her to be any sadder than I knew she was already.

In the daylight, Shaman was nothing more than a slightly paler spot in the sky. But I didn't need to see it to be able to use it.

It happened so fast that I wasn't aware at first that anything had happened. I was standing in front of a bonfire. Someone else was standing on the other side holding a sword. I could almost see his face. Then the chills erupted all over my skin, and I felt my body hit the ground.

I saw Leysa hiding in the mountains, watching Shane. I saw Anala sitting at Regan's bedside with her hand on Regan's forehead. I watched a ship explode. I saw a teenager leaning over a baby crib. "One day, you'll forgive me for this," the boy said. I saw the Senate reorganized to better serve the new emperor. I saw the official stamp of the new empire change my life forever.

I was in front of the fire again, staring up at a starry sky as embers drifted up from the flames.

"You think you know what you are. You think you know what is to come. Do you really?"

I ducked a punch that came out of nowhere. "I knew that was coming," I said.

"Hmm."

An elbow slammed square into my face, smashing my nose. "I missed that one completely," I said. Blood poured out of my nostrils.

"Take a look around, Shaman. Things are about to change, and you're still playing space pirates."

"Who the fuck are you?"

"Daigoro."

"Nice to meet you. I'm -- "

"I know who you are. You do not know yourself."

"I don't think I like you. No, I really don't like you at all."

"Wake up, Shaman. Do you smell your own blood? Or is that your daughter's blood?"

That was about all I could take from that freak. I lunged at him, and he vanished. I opened my eyes and saw the bright blue morning sky. I tasted blood. It worried me that my visions were becoming tangible, but there wasn't a whole lot I could do about it. Not then anyway. Even if I was just playing games, I wasn't going to leave before I finished.

I stood up and looked around. There wasnít much to see. Shane was still trying to sequester himself inside his ship somewhere at the foot of the mountain range. It was a long walk, so I got moving.

As I walked, it occurred to me that I hadnít seen a single rat of any kind since we landed on Saint Dominic. To me, that seemed just a bit unusual for a planet that was supposedly infested with the nasty critters. I could understand not seeing any on the military base. They made an effort to keep rats out. But I hadnít seen any when we stopped in Shady either. I wondered if maybe that was just a myth or if the presence of the bounty hunters who smelled like hell kept them out. Then why, out in the middle of nothing with no one around for miles and miles, were there no rats? Maybe I shouldnít have thought that. After all, you get what you ask for sometimes.

I heard something rustle in the tall grass somewhere on my left. I stopped. I didnít see anything and didnít hear anything else. I started walking again. So did it. I drew my guns and followed the sounds. Which was exactly what they wanted me to do. There were six of them, and they had me surrounded. They were bigger than any pictures Iíd ever seen of them and scarier. Their teeth and claws glinted like metal. Their bodies were hard and scaled, more like armadillos than rats. They opened their mouths and made low growling noises as they pressed me onto a smaller and smaller piece of ground. Their noses twitched. I could only guess that they had smelled my blood and decided they were hungry. I thought about the stories I had heard of vicious sea creatures that went into feeding frenzies when they smelled blood. I saw the jaw of one of those things once in a museum. I had nightmares about it for days. This was by far worse than that. The rats were very much alive and whole. And it was my blood they were smelling.

I didnít want to shoot them. I knew that if I shot one, the rest would attack. The flamethrower would be no more effective. I put my guns away and sat down. They stopped closing. I felt that faint buzzing behind my sinuses and heard the wind chimes and the gong. I had forgotten to ask Ika about the other person who had been there when I was unconscious. I was pretty certain I wouldnít like the answer he gave me.

I rested my hands on my knees with my palms to the sky. There was blood on my hands. The ratsí noses twitched. "I am not food," I said.

Their beady black eyes twinkled. They didnít agree with me.

"The Way provides for all creatures." I felt like I did in the jail cell. I didnít know what I was saying or why. I just knew it was the right thing to say; that somehow my words were going to keep the rats from eating me. I wasnít even sure what the Way was. It had something to do with God and nothing at all to do with God. It made no sense and it made perfect sense. It made me want to bash my head against a wall.

One by one, the rats came up to me and sniffed my bloody hands. They looked at each other, looked at me then walked away and disappeared into camouflaged tunnels they had dug centuries ago. The buzzing in my head stopped. The wind chimes stopped. The gong continued to beat. I closed my eyes. I saw a man, probably about my age, maybe younger. He was naked to the waist and wore loose white pants. He had a sword in his hands. Behind him, I saw a building like Iíd never seen before. The roof curled at the ends. Parts of the walls seemed to be made out of paper. Behind the building was a mountain. Everything was green and fresh. White blossoms blew across the ground. I didnít know who he was. He didnít know me either. Then I realized that he couldnít see me the way I could see him. But I knew where he was. One day, Iíd pay him a visit.

I sat there for a few minutes, thinking about how things had made sense before I opened myself up to this gift or curse or illness I had in my brain. My life had been simple. Even after Petrine died, and I started taking Regan with me, it was simple. I took care of my baby. I took care of myself. I had been looking forward to getting back to that. Even once I handed whatever was left of Shane over to Irial, I wouldnít be able to go back. Something was going to happen to change not just my life but also the way of life of the whole universe. I missed my simple life already. But I could have run away from it all. I could have gone back to my ship. I could have gone to get my daughter. We could hide forever in that ship. With the cloaking device it had, no one would ever find us. And I almost did just that. I looked back at the forest. I heard Reganís voice in my head. "Donít give up now, Daddy."

So I didnít. I was closer to my goal than I had been in a long time. Iíd made a bad habit out of doing things halfway. I refused to live up to my potential because I was comfortable where I was. I did just enough and nothing more. The only thing I did right was take care of Regan. Well, I probably didnít do it right, but I did it fully. That had to count for something. But halfway shit was a habit that was going to change. I had more potential than I deserved, and it was time to start acting like I deserved it.

As I got closer to the mountains, I could see the gleam of metal where Shane had set down his ship. It had gotten dark. A small fire burned near the ship. I could hear the rats chattering, but as long as I was close by, they would stay away. Besides, they werenít very fond of fire. I was starting to get a little nervous. My fingers tingled with adrenaline. Even my fake heart started to get a little pumped up. Shane was sitting in front of his fire with his arms wrapped around his shins and his forehead resting on his knees. He looked pitiful, but I had no pity to give him.

I dropped the knapsack I was carrying. Shane looked up, startled. "Fuck, itís you!" he shouted. He pushed himself away from the fire, looking around for somewhere to hide.

"Hey, buddy. Long time no see," I said.

"How the fuck did you find me?"

"I followed my nose. It always knows."

"Looks a little broken right now."

"Itís not broken. A little sore, but not broken."

"Hey, listen. Iím really sorry about all this. I mean, I was pretty freaked out. And I just Ė "

"You tried to kill a senator, and you got caught. Why the hell did you have to go and tell them it was my idea?"

"I donít know. It just ...you were the one who had the ideas, not me."

"Thatís bullshit."

"Youíre smarter than I am."

"I wonít argue with that."

"I messed up, Talon. Iím really sorry."

"You know, I didnít even know what was going on until you were almost out of time. If I hadnít had to crash land on Gehgal, I would have never known. You would have run out of time and been sent off to melt away on Boil."

"She would have kept after you."

"I donít think Irial would have allowed that. Thereís no evidence against me other than the fact that I borrowed a Republic ship to get out of there."

"You messed up, too, you know. You ran away."

"Yeah, but I didnít lie about my best friend."

"What was I supposed to tell them? That I was trying to stop a war? That I didnít want to lose my job? Like they would have believed that."

"So why did you do it?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Because Iím going to kill you and I donít want you to die before I know the truth."

"Youíll let me live if I tell you?"

"I didnít say that, did I?"

"No. Look, canít we just forget about the whole thing? Theyíre after both of us now. We would be a lot safer if we stayed together."

"I donít think so."

"Youíre buying your innocence with my life, arenít you?"

"Iím doing what I have to do to keep myself alive and free so I can take care of my daughter."

"What a convenient excuse."

"Regan is not an excuse."

"All right. Fine. Sit down. Itís a long story."

"And it damn well better be a good one. We are being watched, by the way. Leysa was a little upset that you left her."

"That creepy bug bitch? God, Iíd rather let you kill me than be anywhere near her. Thatís just not natural."

"Donít let Dylan hear you say that."

"Fuck him."

I sat down and leaned back against the side of the mountain. "Tell me a story."

"It really started right after Dylan left. I mean, that tore me up pretty bad. Iíd never gone more than a few hours without seeing him. And I could always tell where he was and how he was feeling. I knew something was wrong, but he wouldnít tell me. He told you, but not me. Iíll never understand that. Then I met Senator Falkenberg."

"Where did you meet him?"

"At the Wheel actually. It was kinda weird. He knew who I was, who I worked for, who my friends were. He was the one who told me about the guild meetings. I asked him why he was telling me all that shit, and he said he just wanted someone to know who might want to do something about it. I didnít think he really meant me. Thatís why I told you about all that. Because he told me he was your brother. He told me how he had you kidnapped when you were six months old because he wanted you to have a better life. I thought that was stupid, but if you really are the youngest of six kids in a noble family, you had no chance at anything. I didnít even believe him at first. But he showed me proof."

"What kind of proof?"

"He had a picture. But all babies look alike to me. So he showed me DNA samples. Like I know any better. But I got the sense that he was threatening me in a backhanded kind of way. I talked to him a few more times after that. And just in talking to him, killing Blackstone came up as a solution. Without her, the guild has almost no voice in the Senate. If they arenít heard, then nothing happens. I guess that doesnít make sense, does it? Without her, the only voice they have is war. Which is what Irial wanted. He wants to be emperor. I wasnít supposed to get caught. Kaylan ratted me out. I thought Irial was planning something else, so I figured Iíd get back at him by telling them it was your idea. That kinda messed up whatever he had planned for you. I donít know about all their political games. But I do know I was used. So were you. And itís not over. Things are getting done to help out the guild, but Iím out of a job anyway. And Iíve trashed every friendship Iíve ever had. No oneís gonna help me."

"You were fucking stupid, Shane."

"But Irial knew about Dylan and me. He knew we were both experiments."

"What was done to you, exactly? Do you know?"

"Nothing, really. I was control. Dylan was experiment."

"You do realize thatís a lame ass story, donít you?"

"Yeah, I know how it sounds. Which is part of the reason I decided against telling you everything right away."

"I wish you had. I would have laughed at you, told you it was bullshit and you would have done nothing."

"But it would never change the fact that I lost my yin."

I almost felt sorry for him. It wasnít his fault that he felt threatened by what Irial said to him. It wasnít his fault that he was just dumb enough to do pretty much what Irial expected him to do. And I had to admit that blaming me was a smart move given Irialís plotting. Still, that didnít make me any less inclined to beat the shit out of Shane. It didnít change the fact that I was obligated to do something either. The question was what was I going to do? Shane wasnít lying to me. I didnít like the situation I was in.

"Are you hungry?" I asked.

"Arenít you going to kill me?"

"After youíve eaten."

"Yeah. I ran out of food yesterday."

I opened my knapsack and pulled out two noodle cups Iíd taken from Rest Assured. "Itís a little salty, but itís got some protein and loads of vitamin A," I said.

We ate in silence. It sort of felt like old times. Weíd never talked a lot while eating. Eating was far more important. We saved the talking for drinking. I thought about the situation. The only thing I was sure of was that Irial couldnít become emperor. I didnít like the idea of an emperor whoever it was. Blackstone wasnít a better choice. I wondered about their little reindeer games. They must have been lovers at some point. I didnít think it would have gotten quite so vicious otherwise. I did have one thing neither one of them had. I had Shane. I had the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Granted, it had some gaping holes in it, but that wasnít my problem. I had enough to go on. But who would I take it to that I could trust? That was why I was glad Danel had come along. He knew more powerful people than I did.

I finished my noodles and drank the yellow, salty broth. I crushed the cup in my hand. "This whole thing fucking sucks," I said.

Shane nodded.

I tossed the Styrofoam cup over my shoulder.

It hit something other than rock. "Ouch! Damn you, Konstantine, Iím not a trash can."

"Why donít you come and sit by the fire, Leysa? Itís warmer down here."

Leysa crawled slowly down from her hiding spot. She crouched next to the fire a few feet away from me and stared a hole though Shane.

"Talon, keep her away from me," Shane said.

"I could take you both in and never have to work again," Leysa said. "The bounty on you two combined is enormous."

"But thatís not what youíre going to do," I said.

"Why not?"

"I canít let that happen. You heard his sob story, didnít you? What you couldnít hear that I did hear was that itís all true. If Irial becomes emperor, weíre all screwed. And if you turn us in, heíll win. Not that we want Blackstone on a throne either."

"Do we want a throne at all?" Shane asked.

"No, probably not. But itís not something we can stop. Thatís where things have been headed for a while now. We can, however, get rid of both Blackstone and Irial."

"Irialís your brother. Look at all the things he can get done for you."

"Heís been using me since I was born. How great would that have been for him to say he found his poor little kidnapped brother after twenty-five years? I donít think I want to give him that kind of credit. I was never really lost."

"So do you have a plan?" Leysa asked.

"No. Weíll wait for the rest of my crew to show up and weíll talk about it. In the meantime, itís time for a fight."

I stood up and pulled Shane to his feet.

"What the fuck? Are you nuts? I thought we were straight now," he said.

"You still pissed me off. I havenít seen my daughter in over a month because of you. You have no idea how that makes me feel."

"You donít have to beat me up."

"No, but Iím going to. You can fight back if you want."

He grinned. "How is your wrist, by the way?"

"Letís see." I held up my right hand and curled it into a fist. "So far, so good." I punched him in the nose. "Hey, that feels pretty good. I guess Iím all healed now, huh?"

"Goddamn it, motherfucking..." Shane pushed himself away from me holding both hands over his nose. Blood seeped through his fingers. "The fucking rats..." he mumbled.

"Donít worry about them." I grabbed the front of his shirt with both hands. "Worry about me." I head butted him in the face. I heard his nose crunch.

"Son of a bitch!" he shouted. It sounded more like "Son un a binth."

"Fight back, asshole."

He took a wild swing at me. I stepped back out of the way. He lunged. I caught his midsection with my knee. He folded over then grabbed my legs and dumped me to the ground. My teeth snapped down on the back of my tongue. I spat blood in his face. He punched again, catching me right on my jaw. The world went grey for just a second. I got my feet on his chest and shoved him away. But he managed to get one of my guns. He fired before I could stand up. The shot grazed my left arm. I got to my feet and drew my other gun. We stared at each other. Blood poured thickly from his nose. I wiped blood and spit from my chin. He knew I was a better shot than he was. If I fired, he was dead.

I heard the sound of feet running towards us.

"Stop it!" Cherry shouted. "What the fuck do you think youíre doing?" She stood between us, looking back and forth at us. Neither of us moved. "Put the guns down," she said. "Now! Both of you!"

"But he started it," Shane said.

"Put the fucking gun down, Shane."

Shane rolled his eyes and dropped the gun. He turned his back, folding his arms across his chest with a sigh.

"Talon."

I put my gun back in its holster. "I wasnít really gonna kill him," I said. "I didnít even want to shoot him. Heís the one who pulled the gun."

"Itís your gun."

"And he shot me with it, too. How fucking embarrassing is that? I get shot with my own gun and donít even get to shoot back. Canít I knick him just a little?"

Cherry grabbed my injured arm and looked at the wound. "Thatís nothing," she said.

"Relatively speaking."

She slapped the wound, not hard but hard enough. It was all I could do not to scream. "Behave yourself, children." She picked up my other gun and gave it back to me.

I sat down against the mountain where I had been sitting before.

"Nice job," Leysa said. The firelight shined on her multi-faceted eyes. I saw myself reflected a thousand times and wondered what I really looked like to her. I wondered how Anala would react to her. Leysa didnít strike me as a brainwashed mutant like so many other altered Brechttarians. "What would you have done if your girlfriend hadnít shown up? Would you have killed him?"

"No. I thought about it. I could have put a nice hole in his head. Or just in his hand," I said.

She smiled. "Youíre good. I like you."

"Uh, thanks, I think."

While Cherry attended to my and Shaneís wounds, Danel and Dylan checked over the ship. Rats had eaten too much of the ship for it to ever get to space again, but with a little time, we could get it moving again so we wouldnít have to walk all the way back to the docking bay. Leysa turned out to be a rather handy engineer, and I was taking a liking to her.

"You have your motherís hands," I said as we patched wires and used the pocket flamethrowers to solder pieces of the ship back together.

"My mother?" she asked.

"Sheís a healer witch."

"I remember her. Barely. I was four when they took me."

"I thought they messed up your mind when they messed up your genes."

"Most of the time, they will. I was lucky. I guess I was too smart anyway. They trained me differently than the others. Thatís why I can do this."

"If you want to come with us, youíre more than welcome."

"That would be nice."

"And if you want to see your mom, I know where she is."

"That would be nice, too, but I canít. What would she think of me? Iím a mercenary. Iíve killed people. And I donít exactly look like her daughter any more."

"She still loves you."

"Iíll have to think about it. But thanks."

When the light from the fire began to die down, we stopped working on the ship. We talked about what to do, but we were all too tired to think. In the morning, weíd have a better grasp on things and could come up with a better plan.

I couldnít get to sleep for quite a while. I lay awake and watched the sky. I was given a spectacular meteor shower that lasted about ten minutes. At first, there were only a few of them. In a few minutes, there were hundreds, streaking across the sky in thin arcs of gold and green. People used to wish on falling stars, or so I heard. Why they would want to do that, I had no idea. If falling stars were literally falling stars, I would have been just a tad bit concerned and not really in the mood to make up romantic stories about why the stars fell. But that was thousands of years ago. A lot had changed since then.

I watched Shaman for a while and tried to ask it for help, but it didnít make decisions. I thought for a second that I could see two other stars almost hiding behind Shaman. One was Firefly, my daughterís star. The other was the one the man in the forest had called Yuusei, the one I knew nothing about. But I think I had an idea who it belonged to. As I drifted off to sleep, I imagined what it would be like to finally meet Irial. I would walk up to him and punch him as hard as I could and hope that I made my point very clear. If he bled when I hit him, I would walk away. If he didnít bleed, Iíd hit him until he did and then walk away.