Songbirds by Liz Schechter
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By Liz Schechter

You know, I never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. I screw up. Occasionally, I screw up more than my share. Which is what led me to be here, instead of on my way home with the rest of the team. I’m still not quite sure what happened, but somehow, I managed to run into the one Galactor who knew which end of his gun was the business end. He got a bead on me long enough to get a clean shot and take out my left knee. They say you never hear it coming. I sure as hell didn’t. Whatever. I still managed to take out a half dozen or more before they disarmed me. Then someone got some kind of spray in my face and it was goodnight, Condor.

When I woke up, it was in a dark room that echoed. There was just enough light to see that I was incredibly screwed. Left knee, in huge amounts of pain, but not bleeding anymore. Thank God. Right leg, chained to a ring set in the floor. I was seeing all of this from flat on my back, because my wrists were chained together, and then fastened to a chain wrapped around my waist and locked; I could feel the lock digging into the small of my back. Still in Birdstyle, and I couldn’t figure out why, because my communicator was gone. I should have been back in civvies; the damn things can only go so far before we lose the change. I wasn’t trying too hard to figure it out, or complaining too much, because it was freezing in there! Birdstyles are supposed to protect us from temperature extremes. I said, “supposed to” because mine never seemed to work. If it was cold, then I was cold. Period, end of discussion. And at that point, I was freezing. Part of it was probably shock. I remembered enough from Band-Aid 101 to know that. And there was absolutely nothing I could do to help myself.

About the only thing that I could do was what I was doing: talking to myself. Actually, I was recording; there are pickups, tuned to pick up sub-vocalizations, woven into the throat of the Birdstyle. Most of the time we use them to communicate, but they can record, too. So, I was trying to record things that might help the others, since I really didn’t expect to get out of there alive. I knew that the only reason that I was still alive was that Katse had been in or around Utoland City the last time we had seen him, and I obviously wasn't anywhere near there. He’d probably left standing orders that if any of us were to be taken alive; we were to be left for him. Oh, goody. I just hoped he did what I expected him to, which was try and use me to demoralize the others. Hand them my head, complete with helmet, or something just as stupidly melodramatic. That way, everything I heard would get back to the ISO. And, if he just out and out killed me and fed me to the vultures, at least this gave me something to do while I was waiting.

I could hear footsteps, from somewhere over my head, where I couldn’t see. Not boots, though, so it couldn’t be guards. At least, I hoped it wasn’t guards. And there was a light coming closer.

No, definitely not guards. Four of them; a blonde man and two women- one dark, and the other red-haired- and a boy who looked like he was younger than Jinpei. All of them dressed in white, the women in sleeveless white robes, the man and boy in white shirts and pants. For a brief minute, I thought I was looking at angels. Impossible; there aren’t going to be any angels coming for me when I go. The man crouched down next to me and shone the light in my eyes.

“He’s awake. Glory, take the light. See what you can do for him. Are you hurt anywhere else?” He handed the lamp to the dark haired woman, knelt down next to me, and waited for me to answer. When I told him that I didn’t hurt anywhere else, I felt his hands on my shoulders, and then he was helping me up into a sitting position. The others knelt around me, and someone draped a rough blanket around my shoulders.

“Zan, this leg is bad,” Glory, the woman with the lamp, was leaning over my left leg, examining my knee. I made a point of looking elsewhere; I don’t particularly like looking at my own insides. So I looked at the man. He was older than me by maybe a couple of years, and very, very blonde. Long mane of hair that put me in mind of lions, and a full mustache and beard. And when he talked, he had an accent that I could almost place. He held on to my right arm, keeping me steady while Glory worked. There was a touch on my other arm; the redhead had come closer. She held on to my arm with one hand and slowly reached forward until she was touching my face with her fingers. Her touch against my skin was almost hot. She frowned.

“We have to get him off the floor. He’s shocky. Obi, go get some of the other blankets.” The boy got up and disappeared into the darkness at a run.

“Okay, Cat. Glory, I’ll need your help.” He looked at me, “This is going to hurt. Whatever you do, don’t yell. You’ll bring the guards if you yell, and we’re not supposed to be messing with you.” The boy came running back with a pile of blankets.

I nodded, and then bit down hard as he proceeded to pick me up. He was right; it hurt. Glory tried to steady my leg and keep my knee from moving. Didn’t work too well, but at least she tried. The redhead and the boy - Cat and Obi - quickly spread out some of the blankets, and Zan lowered me onto them. By the time I was on the ground again, I was shaking.

“Can you do anything, Glory?” Zan asked, once again holding me up in a sitting position. She shook her head, her dark hair swaying.

“Not much. There are bone fragments. And what might be shrapnel. I don’t think it’s the knee, though. I think it’s the bones over the knee. I can wrap it tight and hope that they don’t notice. Or wrap it and not care if they notice.”

“Glory, do what you can.” That was from Cat, the redhead. “They can’t touch us, Zan. He’ll be here tomorrow, or maybe the day after, and I can handle him if I have to. I don’t think he’ll object too much if I tell him that we’re trying to keep his prize alive for him.”

He; it didn’t take a genius to figure out that she meant Katse. “If that’s why you’re doing it, then forget it.” I said, glaring at her. That was when I noticed the collar around her neck, shining slightly in the torchlight. Each of them was wearing a collar. Slaves? I didn’t know that Galactor kept slaves. The woman laughed, putting her arm around the boy’s shoulders. She didn’t really look at me when she answered, and that was when I realized that she couldn’t see me at all; she was blind.

“That’s not why we’re helping you. But if we can get him to believe it, then we might get away with helping you, and not get punished for it.”

“So why are you helping me, if it puts you at risk?” I kept on talking, trying to ignore what Glory was doing. She’d come up with a roll of something, and was working on cleaning and bandaging my leg.

“Because you might be able to help us.” Zan answered, looking not at me, but at Cat. “This is the first time he’s ever taken us out of the main base. Security here isn’t as good. He doesn’t think we’ll try to escape anymore. And…they’ll come for you, won’t they? The others?”

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, then. I can’t help you. I can’t even help myself at this point.” I winced as Glory tied off the bandages around my knee. “My communicator is gone. I can’t contact the others, and they have no way to track me. And no reason even to think I’m still alive.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re not going to help you.” Cat smiled, “Are you warmer now?”

The blankets were helping, “Yes. Where are we?”

Cat shrugged slightly, “Don’t know. I’ve been in one base or another since I was six, and at the main base since I was nine, and I have no idea where any of them are. Up high is my guess. In the mountains. The air is thinner here. Makes it harder to sing.”

“Sing?” I had to have heard her wrong.

“Yes. He likes music. So, we’re his pet musicians.” There was heavy contempt in Glory's voice as she explained.

“He calls us his songbirds.” Cat added, “I was the first. He heard me singing and decided he wanted me all to himself. And whatever Katse wants, he gets.”

“Then he kidnapped the rest of us, to fill out the group.” Zan took up the story, “There were others, too. But they either didn’t work, or they tried too hard to escape. Obi’s the newest. Brought in just last year.” The boy smiled beatifically at his name, and then got up and scampered away into the darkness.

“He wasn’t simple when they brought him here. One of the guards hit him too hard; Katse killed the bastard when he found out. But they couldn't repair the damage. As long as he can play, then he can stay. If he forgets which end of a flute is which, then…” Glory stopped talking, and then looked away and frowned, “It is way too cold in here. What do you want to bet that Lieutenant what’s his name left the windows open on purpose?”

“No bet. Probably as much for us as for you.” Zan grinned at me, “They don’t much like having to cater to us. We’re going to have to sleep close tonight.”

“What about… what do we call you, anyway?” Glory wiped her hands on what was left of the roll of bandages.

“Condor. I’m the Condor. How does it look?” I nodded towards my leg, and she grimaced.

“Not good. If we had proper doctors instead of just me, proper equipment, you’d walk again. If you live that long.”

“Yeah, but will I ever play the violin again?” I tried to make it sound wistful, and I guess I got it, because she looked startled, and then started laughing. I could feel Zan shaking as he laughed, and Cat smiled. Okay, so when I’m under stress, I make wisecracks. It’s a survival mechanism I picked up somewhere. And it pisses off Ken to no end, which is a great reason to keep it up all by itself.

“Someday, I want to see you play the violin with your knees. Hell, I might want to learn.” Zan squeezed my shoulder, “Cat, what now?” Cat frowned and chewed on her lower lip. When she did that, she almost looked like…someone. Now it was going to bug me. Who did she look like?

“Condor, if we leave you here alone, you’ll freeze to death by morning.” Cat rubbed her bare arms; I could see goose bumps on her skin. “We usually sleep close when it gets cold, for warmth. We can move our nest over here. Keep you warm. Unless you want to take the easy way out.”

The easy way; to just let the cold take me. It was like falling asleep, they said. Definitely less painful than anything that Katse could have planned for me. And, boy, would he be mad! Tempting… almost. But, it’s not in me to take the easy way out. If it was, I would have laid down and died when I was six.

“The more the merrier, right? I could use the company.” Not that I was really planning on sleeping. I have a hard enough time sleeping with people I know in the same room, let alone with four strangers. When we were kids, I stayed awake for three nights running, until Hakase figured out that I couldn’t sleep in the same room with any of the others. I wound up being the only one of the lot of us to have my own room until we were in our teens.

Glory disappeared into the darkness and came back a few minutes later with Obi, each of them carrying more blankets and some battered pillows. Obi dropped his into a pile, took possession of one of them, and came over to curl up next to me like a puppy.

“What does your communicator look like, anyway?” Zan asked, taking a couple of the blankets from Glory and starting to spread them out. “Any chance you lost it when they took you down?”

“A communicator. About…an inch and a half, maybe two inches on the face. Pentagonal shield, with a stone set in it. And no, I had it when they took me down. It has to be close by.” Having my wrists tied was really starting to get to me. I talk with my hands; I can’t help it. It’s a genetic thing. Ken once challenged me to read “The Hunting of the Snark” out loud, with my hands behind my back. Couldn’t do it. Not being able to gesture was starting to tie my brain in knots.

Zan nodded and looked up, “Glory?”

She thought for a moment and then dropped the load that she was carrying, “If it’s around, I’ll see if I can find it.”

“Be careful, Glo.” Cat warned. Glory reached down and touched the other woman on the shoulder, then straightened up and started to twist her long hair up into a knot; she had already kicked off her shoes, and was standing barefoot on the cold tiles.

“Always. Zan, you want to come?”

“I probably should. Keep you out of trouble, and we can cover more ground. Cat, will you be alright if we go hunting?”

“I’ll be fine. Just make sure that Condor’s settled. I’m not sure I’d be able to do that without hurting him.”

“What are you doing?” I asked as Zan piled some of the pillows behind me and propped me up on them.

“You know how necessity is the mother of invention?” Glory asked. She had taken the hem of her long robe and rolled it up, tying it off to reveal her bare legs.


“Well, slavery is the mother of skills that would make your mother faint if she knew about them.” Zan finished. “We’ve gotten really good at being…sneaky, I guess you’d call it. Getting around behind the guards, finding things they don’t want us to find. Obi picks pockets. Cat picks locks.”

I squirmed around to get a better look at the blind girl kneeling at my shoulder, “You pick locks?”


“Can you get these damn things off me?” I pulled on the chains around my waist, and they clinked slightly. Why the hell hadn’t she said anything before? Stupid question, Condor. How did she know? She couldn’t see them.

“Zan? He’s chained?” Cat frowned, and started to reach behind her.

“No, Cat.” Zan stopped her, and looked down at me, “I’m sorry, but if the guards come in, it’ll be bad enough that we’re gone.” His eyes flickered over to Cat, and then back to me. “When we come back. It’ll be safer then.”

“If we cover his arms with a blanket, they’ll never know.” Cat protested. Zan sighed.

“And if they decide to play with the prisoner? Cat, you can’t stop them. And you’re not fast enough to get the chains back on him if they come in. You are not going to risk this.”

“Zan, they can’t touch me…”

“No, but they’ll tell him! And you know what he’ll do!”

Her shoulders slumped; he’d won the argument. “I know.”

“Wait for me, Cat.” He reached across me and touched her hand; she nodded. As he drew his hand back, I saw it for the first time. His right hand was missing three fingers; he had only the thumb and forefinger remaining. He saw me looking, grimaced, and held his hand up so I could see it clearly.

“The price of failure, Condor. This is what happens when he catches you trying to escape.” He laughed bitterly, “Only need the two to hold m' bow, according to him.”

I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I said the obvious, “I’m sorry.” Zan shrugged.

“Not your fault, not your problem.” He stood and kicked his shoes off into the darkness. “We’ll be back. Try and get some sleep.”

He walked over to Glory, and together they disappeared into the darkness. I had to admit, they did move well for being untrained. I almost couldn’t hear them. Cat sighed, and then turned slightly.

“Can you see where they left the blankets? I’m cold.” From the look on her face, she was more than cold; she was frustrated as hell.

“Behind you and to your left. About two feet away from where you are right now.” I watched her as she groped through her own personal darkness until her fingers found a blanket and she wrapped it around herself.

“You haven’t been blind for very long, have you?” Boy, way to be blunt, Condor, “Sorry, that’s none of my business.”

“No. It’s fine. And you’re right. It’s only been about six months. I’m still learning what I can and can’t do.” She ran one hand through her hair, pushing it back off her face. “I hate having limits.”

I let the silence grow, and then had to break it, “How’d it happen?”


Why was I not surprised? “You tried to escape?”

She shook her head, “No. He wants me in his bed. And... I can't.”

Now I was really confused, “But...”

“But he could force me. I know. When he first asked me, he made it very clear that he could do whatever he wanted to me, and I wouldn't be able to stop him, “ She shivered, and I wasn't sure that it was only from the cold, “No, he wants me willing. And... whatever he wants, he gets. I’ve said no one too many times. He did this to me after the last time.”

“He blinded you for turning him down?” I knew he was crazy, but this was a bit much even for him. She nodded again.

“He thinks that if he pushes me far enough, I’ll give in. The first time, I spent six weeks chained naked in the middle of the Hall at the main base. He's had me beaten, put in isolation, starved. He gave me to his men, once. Then changed his mind and stopped it before it went too far. So, I don't think he'd try that again. But…I don’t know what he’ll do now. If he takes my hands, or my voice, I’m useless to him as a songbird. The only thing I have let for him to take…”

“…Are your friends.” I knew that feeling, even if I never could bring myself to admit it to the others. She nodded, burrowing deeper into the blanket.

“Zan promised that he’d find a way to get us out of here before that happens. I have to believe him, or I’ll go insane waiting for it.” She smiled at me, “It’s like believing in fairies. I have to believe really hard.”

Believing in fairies? My God, how long has it been since I’ve heard that reference? Mama used to read Peter Pan out loud to us; it was her favorite book. When I was really small, I believed in the fairies, too. In Never-never-land and the Lost Boys. Until I became a Lost Boy myself. The first six months after I got out of the hospital, and went to live with Hakase and Ken, I did my very best to believe that the next day, my parents were going to come find me, and we’d all be together again. Believing really hard, like I was trying to save Tink. Just like Mama said. Of course, by the end of those six months, I didn’t believe it any more. I didn’t believe in fairies anymore, either. Peter Pan was just a story, and I never listened to it again.

I dozed off at some point. And for the first time in years, I dreamed about her. Mama. She used to sing, all the time, and I could hear her again. I wasn’t quite sure when I woke up, because I could still hear her singing. Wait…

It was Cat. She was sitting next to me, combing out her hair, and singing softly in Italian. She stopped and turned towards me, “I’m sorry. Did I wake you up?”

“No. I don’t think so. How did you know I was awake?”

“Your breathing changed. And you snore, a little.”

I snore? Why does no one ever tell me these things? I tell Ken that he snores. “What were you singing? I think I’ve heard it before.”

“You might have. It’s an old lullaby. I’ve known it forever, I think. How do you feel?”

“About the same, I think.” Actually, I was starting to feel sick; my head felt like it was pounding in time with the throbbing of my knee, and I was feeling hazy, confused, and more than a little thirsty. I took a look around; there was no sign of Zan or Glory. Obi had disappeared, but I could hear him moving around in the darkness.

“How long have they been gone?”

“A long time. But there are lots of places to look for something so small. Do you sing, Condor?”

Non-sequitur society; we don’t make sense but we do like pizza. “What?”

“Do you sing? Play an instrument?”

“No. I never learned.” I thought for a moment of Papa’s mandolin, buried in the back of my closet and almost forgotten. Hakase had gone to a lot of trouble to get it for me, but I could never bring myself to learn how to play it.

“Pity. It gets dull, after a while, hearing the same voices all the time. He hasn’t added anyone new since Obi.” She cocked her head to one side, “They’re coming.”

I could hear their soft footsteps, coming closer. Zan and Glory emerged out of the darkness and dropped to the ground next to us, Glory on my left, Zan on my right. He looked at me and shook his head.

“We couldn’t find it. Are you sure that it has to be somewhere close?”

“It has to be somewhere within a hundred yards.” We tested that damn thing on a football field once. From one goalpost to another was the furthest any of us could get without reverting back to civvies.

“Okay, we’ll have to look again. If they’ve got it, then they’ve hidden it really well. We looked everywhere that they would put something small and important outside of pulling the stuffing out of Katse’s teddy bear.”

I didn’t think I was capable of taking serious mental damage anymore; Jinpei thinks of some pretty twisted things. But I don’t think even he’d ever come up with something that was just that wrong. Katse’s teddy bear? I’d bet even money that it was purple, too. With leather.

Okay, maybe I just wouldn’t think about that too hard. Some things are just too painful.

“A hundred yards? In any direction?” Glory asked, “Do walls and floors matter?”

Damn, my head was really starting to hurt. “No. Not unless they’re shielded.”

Glory nodded and pointed across me, “Those walls don’t matter. They’re outside. Unless someone threw it off the roof, which I doubt. There’s nothing above us.” She stood up and pointed down, then started slowly bringing her hand up in an arc, “So… everything directly underneath us to the fifth level, fourth level to the medical labs, third level to the…officer’s quarters, second level to the…armory, and everything on this floor to… the hanger, I think.”

‘We couldn’t get into the armory, but it’s shielded, so it can’t be there. None of the officers would have it, if they wanted to live. It’s possible that it fell off when they brought you here from the hanger, and maybe got kicked into a corner.” Zan yawned.

“Yeah, and it’s possible that the First Cavalry might come riding to the rescue at any minute. It’s not likely, but it’s possible.” My usually smart-ass behavior, but it didn’t get the reaction that it usually gets from the rest of the team. Instead, Zan cocked his head to one side and looked at me. I mean, really looked at me.

“How much pain are you in, Condor?” He asked quietly, and surprised me enough that I really answered him.

“On a scale of one to ten, about a ninety-six.”

“Just the leg?”

“No. Major headache. And I could use a drink. How’d you know?”

Glory headed off into the darkness without a word. Zan grinned and nodded towards Cat. “Same kind of thing that she pulls. It doesn’t work for her, and it sure isn’t going to work for you. I’m going to sit you up again. Does that helmet come off, or is it attached?”

“It’s attached. Two catches, on either side along my jaw. You have to get them at the same time or it won’t release.“ I wasn’t happy about taking the helmet off, but what did I have to lose? And it might make my head stop hurting.

“Let me do it. My hands are smaller.” Cat came over as Zan helped me sit the rest of the way up. For some reason, none of my muscles seemed to want to work.

“They’re tiny. How can you manage these?” She asked, running her fingers under the edge of the helmet and pressing both catches. I felt the helmet release, and then Cat took over bracing me in a sitting position while Zan removed the helmet. And damn near dropped it.

“Holy Mother of God.” He was staring at me. No, not at me, at us.

“Zan, what is it?” Cat sounded worried.

“I think I might be losing my mind. Glory, come here?” Glory came towards us out of the darkness and handed Zan a cup.

“What is it?”

“Look at them. Really look. Tell me what you see.”

She looked at us and frowned, then bent and picked up the light. She handed it to Zan and told him to hold it closer.

“He…looks like Cat.” She sounded hesitant, “Sort of. They have the same eyes. Cat’s chin is sharper. Same bone structure, though. Same nose.”

“That’s what I saw. You two look close enough to be related.”

“That’s not possible.” Cat sounded very final. I wasn’t so sure.

There are two things about me that I have never told anyone, not even the rest of the team. I think the only person who knows is Hakase. The first is my full given name. I know that he knows it, because he signed my death certificate. And he re-named me with a variant. There was a family tradition in the Asakura’s for naming your first-born son; and my father stuck to it. So my full given name is Giuseppe Georgio Asakura. The sixth, thank you very much. The only time I ever heard all of it was when I was in trouble; Mama called me Georgio.

The second thing that I never told anyone was that I was a twin.

Hakase told me that they never found her body.

She was five minutes younger than I was, and we were the first twins ever in the Asakura family. So Papa, with his perverse sense of humor, decided to follow family tradition, with a twist. Since I was named after him, she had to be named after Mama. So she was Katarina Julia Asakura. But everyone called her…

“Gattina?” Sicilian for kitten. Of course, what else do you call a little cat? No wonder she looked familiar; she looked like Mama. She jumped, letting me go, and I wound up back on the pillows. She backed away from me on her knees, her face dead white.

“No. You’re guessing! You can’t…I watched him die! I watched them all die!” Zan moved quickly and caught her by the shoulders; she spun to bury her face in his shoulder. I watched her, suddenly feeling very tired, and turned when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Glory had come in next to me; she helped me back up and offered me a cup of what had to be the best tasting water I have ever drunk.

“So, you’re Georgio, then? She’s told us, about what happened.” She whispered. I nodded.

“Prove it.” Zan had his arm around Cat’s shoulders. I took a deep breath. Taking the helmet off hadn’t helped. My head was still pounding.

“Your full name is Katarina Julia Asakura. Our birthday is November 15th, and I’m five minutes older than you are. We lived on the beach on BC Island in the summer, and we spent winters with Nona Asakura in Palermo. She’s the one who started calling you Gattina.” She turned back to me as I talked, staring off over my head and biting her lower lip. “One of the cousins gave us a kitten for our birthday. We were four, and we couldn’t keep it. We were both allergic to it.”

“What did we do on our fifth birthday?” She asked. I grinned.

“First one we split up for. We fought over that for months. Mama took you to the ballet. Papa took me to the car show. You came home and told everyone that you wanted to be a dancer when you grew up.”

“And you wanted to drive fast.” She was crying now, and smiling at the same time. “What happened? How…?”

“Long story. I’ll tell you when we get out of here.” If we get out of here. How the hell was I getting us out of here?

“Georgio…” Zan started. I shook my head.

“Stick to Condor. You don’t know who’s listening.”

“He’s right. Why hand them another weapon? As soon as you finish this, we should put your helmet back on.” Glory offered me the rest of the water, and the cup shook in her hand shook as she yawned. She was starting to look wrung out, and so was Zan.

“Condor, we can look for it more tomorrow, but we’re all going to need to get some sleep.” He yawned again and hugged Cat’s shoulders, “Today started a long way from here for us, and a long time ago.”

“How long?” Whatever he answered might give me some idea of where the main base was. While he thought about it, Glory replaced my helmet and carefully lowered me back down. Cat curled up on my right and pillowed her head on her shoulder.

“Five… maybe six hours in flight. Hard to say, really; we were hooded for the trip, so we couldn’t see the people or the bases where we stopped. We took off and landed a couple of times.” He tossed a blanket over Cat, wrapped himself up in another and stretched out on the floor next to her, “Obi, get over here and settle down!”

The boy came running out of the dark and threw himself down next to me with a big grin. He dropped something that glittered on my chest, and then crawled over to sit next to Glory. She reached over and picked it up; it was a chain of ordinary silver paperclips.

“He likes you.” She laughed and ruffled the boy’s brown hair affectionately ”Our little magpie doesn’t share his treasures with just anybody.” She laid the chain down next to me.

“Condor, how close do you want us to get?” Cat asked, “I mean, we usually tend to sleep piled on top of each other, but we’re used to it.”

“How about close enough to stay warm, and far enough away that we don’t all smother?” That seemed to satisfy them, and they ranged out next to me. Glory stayed on my left, curling up to avoid hitting my knee, and resting her head on my shoulder. The others were still on my right; Cat next to me, and Zan on her far side. Obi had decided to curl up with his head on my right shin, and was already asleep.

“If you two decide to talk all night, keep it down, okay?” Zan grinned at me, then kissed Cat on the forehead and rolled over. Cat pulled the blanket up over her shoulders and rested her cheek on my arm.

“I’m still trying to convince myself it’s really you.” She said softly after a few minutes.

“Same here. I don’t understand how you wound up here, though. I made you hide.” I tried to keep my voice down, so the others could sleep.

“Under the porch. You told me to stay there, but I couldn’t. I saw her shoot you. That was when I came out. I got caught in the blast from the rose bomb, and I hit my head, I guess. When I woke up, I was in a car trunk. She took me with her, when she left, and I ended up at the main Galactor base. They put me into training. She…Georgio, she wanted me to be like her. A Devil Star. A murderer.”

I felt a wave of nausea wash over me, and it had nothing to do with my injuries or my headache. My sister, my twin, a Devil Star? God, if Katse hadn’t pulled her out, I might have been the one to kill her someday!

“They start the training young. I had finished some of it before he claimed me. I…” She laughed, and her hand on my arm shook, “I had this insane idea of finishing the training and finding her, so I could kill her myself. It didn’t seem to matter much that I’d be dead, too.”

Ah, a good Sicilian girl, with vendetta coded in her genes. Papa would have been proud.

“And then Katse found you?” Never thought I would be grateful to Katse for anything.

“Yes. I had no idea what was happening. All I knew was that one night, they came and moved me, and the next day, I started with new teachers. Voice teachers, and for instruments. I can play just about anything with strings. So, here I am now. Will you tell me your long story now?”

“Not yet. Not when anyone can walk in and hear me. I have people to protect. I’ll tell you when we get out of here.”

She was silent for a while, and I thought she’d fallen asleep. Then she spoke again, her voice quiet.

“Georgio, are we going to get out of here?”

“You still believe in fairies, Gattina?”


“We’ll get out of here.”

I wasn’t expecting to get any sleep, but I somehow managed to doze off again. I woke up real fast when I felt someone running their fingers along my jaw. I jumped, and scared Glory badly enough that she squeaked. Kind of cute, actually.

“Sorry. I thought it might make you more comfortable if I got the helmet off. You were pretty restless.”

I was, hm? Not too surprising, considering that I felt worse than I did before. When I went to sleep, I had a headache and my knee hurt. Now, everything hurt, and it felt like it was even colder than before, even though the sun was streaming through the high windows of the room.

“Go ahead. Any chance of more water?” I closed my eyes, and even that hurt.

“Whatever you want, Condor. They brought us something to eat, if you’d like.” I felt her fingers at my jaw again, and then she was easing the helmet off.

“No, thanks. No food.” The thought of food made my insides feel like they were in open rebellion. And now that the helmet was off, I felt cold air on my face and realized that I had been sweating heavily. Glory looked at me critically.

“You’re awfully pale. How are you feeling?”

“Like hell.” I didn’t want to open my eyes again. I felt her hand on my forehead, brushing back my hair

“Zan, could you come over here, please?” She called out, and I heard two sets of footsteps approaching, “Help me sit him up? I need to go and get some water.”

Hands on my shoulders, and again they helped me up. Actually, they hauled me up; I really couldn’t move under my own power at that point. Then another hand on my forehead; Zan’s, I think, because when he spoke, he was right next to me.

“Jesus, Condor, you’re burning up.” That explained it. Fever…shit, that meant infection. Either that, it I had picked a rotten time to catch the flu.

“He’s sick?” Cat’s voice, from my right.

“Yes. I don't understand, though. He can't have picked up an infection that fast.” Glory was back, and I heard something metallic tinkling, and then a cool something was passing over my face. A wet towel, I think.

“I think I know why.” Cat said, “Galactor seeds some of their bullet casings with modified viruses. They’re harmless unless they get in your bloodstream.” .

“How do you know that?” It was almost too much of an effort to get that question out.

“It's... mainly a Devil Star trick. One of the ways they operate, if they don't want to kill their target outright.” She answered quietly.

The towel was removed, and a moment later I felt hands on my leg. I forced my eyes open to watch Glory as she unwrapped the bandages and examined my knee.

“Infected?” I asked; She sighed and nodded.

“It’s bad?” Another nod. Shit.

“How long, Doc?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know. Zan, we’ve got to find that communicator.”

“Alright. Still… what? Half an hour to shift change? Condor, what do you need before we go out?”

He had to ask.

“Bathroom run might be nice. If you can get me there.” When the ISO brainiacs had designed the Birdstyles, it might have been nice if someone had kept the suggestions of the people who were actually going to be wearing them in mind; Ken and I had both just finished reading the Dune books, and we were all for adding some of the features of the stillsuits to our new gear. Like the waste processing features. Especially the waste processing features. They thought we were joking.

They didn't want to put a bathroom on the GodPhoenix, either.

Zan turned beet red, “Oh…jeez. Condor, I’m sorry. I didn’t... Cat, I need you to get his leg free.”

Cat nodded and knelt down, reaching to her left shoe. I fought back a laugh; she kept her lock-picks in exactly the same place I keep mine. She went to work on the ankle cuff, and in a minute I was free of it.

“Arms, too?” She wanted to know.

Zan looked at me, running his eyes up and down my torso, “Umm…yes. I don’t think I can figure out how to open the suit, and somehow, I don’t think Condor wants that much help.”

I hadn’t thought about the logistics of this before I’d asked, and I was glad someone else had a clue. Cat nodded and crawled up to kneel next to my waist, and ran one hand down my arm to find the chains around my wrists. I have to admit; she was fast. Under a minute, and she had both locks picked.

“Hurry up.” Glory headed for the door leading out of the room, and Zan looked down at me.

“Okay. I’m going to need your help so that I don’t hurt you.” He crouched down next to me, “You’ll need to get your arm around my shoulders, and I’ll try and keep your weight on me. If you can keep your leg up, do it.”

He managed to get me up without having me scream, but it was a near thing. Once he’d gotten me up, it was a long, slow walk to the room that they called their nest: a tiny closet hidden behind the back screen of an elevated platform that held a single large chair. Storage space, probably, that had been cleared out for them. The floor was bare, mostly, except for a small pile of blankets, and a chemical toilet in the corner. Obi was inside, playing with a pile of things that chimed together metallically; more paperclips, probably. He looked up to see us, and then gathered them up and ran out past us into the hall. Another few feet, then Zan braced himself next to me and made a point of looking away.

I wasn’t looking forward to the walk back, or to being chained up again. I heard a whistle from outside, and Zan froze.

“Guards. This is going to be bad. If they catch us…”

“Don’t let them. Do what you have to.” I gritted my teeth, knowing that I’d let myself in for a few minutes of sheer hell. I was right. Zan locked his arm around my waist, muttered an apology under his breath, and half carried, half dragged me back to the ring in the floor. The blankets were gone. As he dropped me back onto the bare tiles, I grabbed my helmet and pulled it back on fast. The last thing I wanted was for a Galactor guard to really see my bare face.

“How much time?” Zan called out.

“They're chasing Obi around the corridor. Two minutes, maybe less?” Glory called back from the doorway.

“More than enough time,” Zan grabbed the discarded chains, looked at me and hesitated.

“It's not far... to the hanger. We can get out. We can all get out.” He was talking fast, trying to convince himself, I think. He stopped when I grabbed his arm.

“Zan, I can't get us out of here. Not like this. On two feet, and armed, maybe. Not now. So get it over with. We don't have a choice.” I let his arm go, offered him my wrists. He sighed and replaced the chains, locking me back into immobility.

Sometimes, I hate it when Ken rubs off on me like this. Then again, I'll have to remember to tell him that his job is completely, perfectly, without a shadow of a doubt, safe. Usually, I did my job, made a pain in the ass out of myself, blew things up when they'd let me, and got the others out of trouble when I could. Teamwork, right? Now, I was the one in charge. I had to come up with some way of getting us all the hell out of here, and I was definitely not enjoying being responsible for the safety of four other people.

“Cat, get the ankle chain.” Zan called over his shoulder as he ran out to the door. She had been kneeling by the ring, and picked up the chain in one hand. Then she frowned, and turned to me. When she spoke, her voice was pitched low, so it wouldn't carry, and she was speaking in Sicilian.

“Georgio, watch what I do.” She whispered. And she did something to the manacle; I have no idea what. But when she put it back on my ankle, it closed, but didn't lock. She demonstrated, opening it for me. Then she closed it again, so that it looked perfectly normal. I didn't get a chance to ask why, because Zan came running back, grabbed Cat and pulled her to her feet and off towards the dais. Glory came running to meet them, with Obi on her heels, and they all disappeared behind the screen.

Just in time, too, as a small herd of guards poured into the room. Eight of them, I think. One of them, who looked like he was trying to be in charge, came over to me and stuck his foot into my ribs. I ignored him, so he did it again. Harder. When that got no response, he decided to stop being what passes for nice here and kicked me in the knee. Which got a reaction, although I don't think it was the one he was looking for. When the room stopped spinning and I could see again, he was standing over me, not looking happy.

“What did you do with it?” he demanded.

“Do with what?” What the hell did they think that I had? Unless...

“That!” He leaned down and grabbed my bare left wrist, “Where did you hide it?”

I hope that he thought that my not answering him was sheer stubbornness. In truth, it was shock. No wonder Zan and Glory hadn't been able to find the communicator; the guards didn't have it!

First thing that passed through my mind was: we're dead. There wasn't time for a second thing, because the guard decided that if I wasn't tell him immediately, then he was going to beat it out of me.

Now, they tell you in basic that if you get caught on the ground in a kicking fight, curl up. Protect your vitals. But, they never seem to mention what to do if you can't curl up. If, for example, you have one leg blown to hell, and the other is chained to the floor. Oh, and if you can't use your arms, either. Funny how they leave that part out. I did the best I could, and tried to roll with the blows. Didn't work too well, though. I felt my ribs give, actually heard them break, which has been added to the extremely long list of things I never ever want to experience again.

It could have been worse. Would have, if Zan hadn't come out of nowhere and tackled the guard from behind. They both went flying; Zan landed off-balance and wound up sprawled on the floor with the wind knocked out of him. He started getting up slowly. Too slowly; the guards surrounded him like jackals on a wounded lion. He never even had a chance.

And I had to watch everything that happened next.

He had the sense to curl up when the kicks started landing. From off by the dais I heard someone shout, and then Glory threw herself into the fray, trying to pull the guards off Zan. Glory, who if I could stand up would come maybe up to my chin, and who I could probably pick up with one hand. Two of the guards pulled her off, laughing. One of them held her arms while the other slapped her across the face, hard. A third came over, smiled coldly, and then gestured over to the dais. At Cat.

She was holding on to the edge of the dais with one hand, with her other hand locked into the back of Obi's shirt, trying to keep him with her. He was fighting her pretty hard, which was probably why she didn't hear the guard coming until he grabbed her. Obi tore free and ran; the guard ignored him. Instead, he shoved Cat towards the others, hard enough that she stumbled and fell, landing hard on her hands and knees. The guard was on her in a minute, grabbing a handful of her hair and dragging her, struggling and cursing, back to her feet. The last guard came forward and started to reach for her. There was nothing I could do to help any of them, but I had to try something. I ignored the pain in my ribs and dragged in a deep breath, thinking that I might be able to get their attention back on me, when a single gunshot echoed through the room. The guard who had been reaching for Cat stopped in his tracks, and then slowly crumpled to the ground. The rest of the guards froze and dropped to their knees. I could see past them, then, clear to the door. And I could see the familiar figure standing in the doorway, holding a gun.

Katse had arrived early.

He said nothing as he walked into the room. He didn't need to, apparently. The guards all knelt motionless, waiting. Glory picked her way through them and went to Cat, putting one arm around her shoulders and helping her to kneel. Katse stopped in front of the one who had started it all, the leader of the squadron.

“Present yourself and your men for discipline.” was all Katse said. The man went white. Based on what they told me later, I guess that was shorthand for “Make out your will.” At that point, all I could see was that this was not something that they wanted to hear. The guards stood silently, bowed and marched out of the room. Katse looked around the room, taking in the kneeling women, me, and then Zan, who was flat on his back at that point. He walked over to Zan and looked down at him.

“You're not kneeling, Alexander.” He was laughing. I swear to God, he was laughing. Zan shook his head and grinned up at the most dangerous man on the planet.

“Sure I am.” He tapped his temple and grimaced, “Up here. The rest doesn't seem to want to cooperate.”

Katse reached down and pulled Zan to his feet, “Go to the Medics, Alexander. I want you able to play tonight.” Zan bowed slightly and limped out of the room, and Katse turned his attention to Glory and Cat.

He turned to Glory first, helping her to her feet and taking her chin in his hand, examining the swelling on her face that was slowly darkening into a bruise.

“Is this all that they did to you, Gloriana?”

“Yes, my lord. If you hadn't come when you did, it would have been worse.”

“So I see. Do you want to see the Medics?”

“No, my lord. I'll be fine. Thank you.”

Katse nodded, then frowned and looked around. “Where is Oberon?”

At the sound of his name, Obi appeared from where-ever he had been hiding and ran up to Katse. When he was about a meter away, he jumped, flinging himself into the air like he expected to be caught. Katse snatched him out of the air and swung him around like a doll, his laughter mixing with the boy's. Apparently, this was a regular greeting for them. And after everything that he had done to us, after all of the atrocities that Katse had been responsible for, it was the very last thing that I expected to see. I was not expecting to see him behaving... fatherly.

And it told me a lot about what I could expect if we didn't find the damn communicator. I was definitely going to die. No way he would want anyone to know that there was an emotional weapon that we could use against him. And if Nambu found out about this, he wouldn't hesitate a minute to use it.

Katse swung the child around and settled him on his hip like a toddler, “So, Oberon, have you added to your collection?” The boy nodded, “You will have to show me. I have some coins for you.” He swung the child down to the ground and smoothed his hair. Then he turned to Cat, who was still kneeling nearby.

“Katherine.” He held out his hand, and she found it easily and let him draw her to her feet. She stood in front of him, and I could see her shudder as he ran the back of his hand over her cheek, “What happened here, Katherine?”

“They were trying to kill him, my lord.” She was whispering; I could just barely hear her, “They left him here last night, with us. They left the windows open, so he would freeze to death. We kept him alive for you, my lord. Today, they tried to beat him to death.”


She turned her head slightly into his touch, “And Zan stopped them, my lord.”

“I shall have to thank him, when he returns. And have you reconsidered your answer, my dear?”

“The answer is still no, my lord. With respect.”

He smiled, and ran one finger down her throat, “Of course. Always with respect.” He turned away from her then and started towards me.

I could play dead; he didn't know I was awake. But that would probably get me kicked again, so I turned to watch him walk over. And I proved that I was probably reaching delirium, because some crazed part of my brain kicked in.

“You know, you're even taller from this angle.” Condor, someday you are going to have to put a governor on your mouth. It stopped him, though. I guess he wasn't expected wisecracks.

“Very brave, Condor. Although you are in no position for jokes.” Katse looked down at me, his eyes a mystery behind his mask. Just for the record, I hate not being able to see a person's eyes.

“Seems like a good position to me. Cramped, though." I moved enough to make the chains on my wrists jingle. If I kept it up, he'd either kill me right out, or keep me alive for comic relief. Somehow, I didn't think it would be the latter, but you never can tell with maniacs.

He said nothing in response, and I started thinking that I might have blown it from the get-go, when he turned to look back at Cat and Glory, “And what would you have done, Condor, if you were freed? Would you have allowed my songbirds to be hurt?”

Sometimes the best story is the truth, or at least part of it, “Of course not. You know us well enough to know that!”

He looked down at me again, “Then you'll live long enough to hear them. It's a rare honor, Condor. You'll thank me, before you die.”

Why do maniacs always have to be so damn melodramatic? Is it something they learn in maniac shop? “If you manage to kill me, then sure, I'll thank you. But you have to get it right, first. And you haven't managed it yet.”

That got a laugh, and he prodded my leg with his foot, sending a wave of pain shooting up my left side, “I don't think it will take much longer, Condor. Six hours, perhaps less. You see, I know what was in the bullet casings. I created it. You will be begging me to kill you very soon.”

So that was why he wasn't in any hurry to kill me. Shit. He left me alone at that point, and walked back to the dais. He gestured at Glory, who bowed slightly and disappeared behind the screen with Obi. Neither of them reappeared, leaving us alone in the huge, empty hall. And, for all that Katse was ignoring me now, he might as well have been alone with Cat.

He took her by the back of the neck, and led her up onto the dais, settling her onto the floor next to the chair. Then he sat down and ran his fingers through her hair; she sighed and closed her eyes, leaning in closer to his leg and resting her cheek on his knee. Watching her, I was disgusted; how could she fawn on him like that?

“Why do you say no, Katherine?” He asked her, twining her long hair through his fingers, “I thought that you loved me.”

“I do love you, my lord. As a father.” Everything she said was the truth. I could hear it in her voice. God, what have you done to us? What have you done to her?

“Then why do you refuse me?”

“Because... you are my father. It would be wrong, my lord.”

“But I decide what is right and what is wrong, here.” I could hear the edge in his voice; he tightened his grip on Cat's hair, and she whimpered as he shook her, slightly, “You will come to see that, won't you, my dear?”

Anything that Cat was going to say was interrupted by Zan's return. He stopped in the doorway and saw them there, and all the expression left his face. He bowed slightly and waited in the doorway.

“Alexander,” Katse acknowledged him, and waved him into the room, “And what do the Medics say?”

“Bruised ribs, my lord. Perhaps cracked, but they won't know until the swelling goes down. They've given me something for the pain, and told me not to do anything too strenuous for the next few days. I will be able to play, if that's your pleasure.”

“You will be more careful, Alexander. I appreciate that you wanted to keep my prize alive, but I value your life more than his. Remember that.”

“I will, my lord. Shall I leave?”

“No.” Katse stood up, and came down off the dais; Zan dropped to his knees. “I have some matters of my own to attend to. I will return later, and you will play for me then.” He left the room, and a door that I hadn't known was there hissed closed behind him, sealing us in. Zan waited the door was closed, and then another good thirty seconds or so before he scrambled to his feet and dashed to the dais. Cat was still kneeling next to Katse's chair, and didn't move until Zan touched her shoulder and softly said her name. Then she collapsed into tears, letting Zan wrap his arms around her and crying into his chest. He just sat there, and held her, and finally I looked away, feeling like I was seeing something that I really shouldn't be watching. I stared up at the ceiling, and thought about nothing in particular; eventually, the sound of Cat crying stopped, and I heard footsteps. One set of footsteps, fading away. Then several steps, coming closer. I turned to see Zan, Glory and Obi, who came over and sat down around me.

“She... just needs to be alone right now.” Zan said as he sat down, setting a cup down next to him. He shook his head, and sighed, “He tears her up when he does this to her. She really does love him.”

“How? How can she?” She wasn't the only one that was torn up about this, “If I got that close to him, he'd be dead.”

“He didn't raise you. He's had her since she was ten, and he brought her up out of hell. She's told me about the Devil Star training, and trust me, this” he gestured widely, “is a paradise compared to what they did to her before.” Zan ran one hand through his hair, and then started, “Oh, right. I forgot. I got these for you.” He tugged his shirt out of his pants and untied a knot in the fabric; two small white pills fell out onto the floor.

“What are they?” I asked as he picked them up.

“Painkillers. I palmed them when they gave them to me. Figured you might need them more than I did.”

I started channeling Ken again, “You know, that was really stupid, what you did back there. You could have gotten yourself killed.”

He looked at me, surprised, “You're welcome.”

“I'm serious, Zan. They wouldn't have killed me. Katse would have them for breakfast if they killed me before he had a chance to gloat.”

“They were going to beat the shit out of you!” First time I'd heard profanity out of him; I must have gotten under his skin.

“Yeah, and that's where it would have ended. So what? We would all have been alive. If you wound up seriously hurt, we would all have been screwed. We need you, to have any chance of making it out of here. The girls aren't strong enough to lift me, and right now I can't move myself.”

I could see from his face that he hadn't thought about that. He'd reacted, instead of thinking. Just like I do. So that's why I piss Ken off so badly.

“Thank you, by the way.”

“You're welcome. Do you want the pills? They'll probably make you sleep. That's what they do to me.”

I was tempted. Really tempted. I hurt, everywhere. And they might help with the fever, too. Give us all some more time.

“Let me have them.” He helped me up and fed me the pills, and then held the cup so that I could swallow them. Once I was back on the floor, he muttered something about going to check on Cat, and headed off to the room behind the dais, leaving me with Glory and Obi. Obi had a cloth bundle in his lap, and was holding onto it tightly.

“His collection. Katse wanted to see it.” Glory said by way of explanation. “Obi, do you want to show the Condor what you have?” Obi smiled and unwrapped the bundle, spilling the contents into Glory's lap. Lots of shiny things. Coins, paper clips, pins; Glory was right when she called him a magpie. She stirred them around with her finger and froze, her eyes wide.

“What is it?” I asked, trying to see. She was too far away for me to get a look at what she was reacting to. She shook her head, and tried to talk. Nothing came out, and she tried again.

“Zan.” Her voice was shaking, “Zan!”

He came running, “What?”

Glory looked up at him, and held out one hand. Holy... the communicator!

“Obi had it? The whole time?”

“He must have found it. Or maybe stolen it off you.” Zan took it and crouched down next to me, “How does it work?”

“It won't, for you. Give it to me.” Zan put it into my hand, and I turned on the homing beacon, the signal that would tell them to come in fast and quiet, and not to try make contact. They'd find us, now.

“We have to hide it. They know you don't have it. If they see it now...” Zan looked around the room, “And we have to keep it away from Obi.”

“How long, until they come?” Glory asked.

Good question. I had no idea where we were. Figure, halfway around the planet, at the God Phoenix's top speed...

“Three hours? Four, maybe?” I couldn't think right now; the relief was overwhelming.

Glory reached out and took the communicator out of my hand and looked at me for a moment. Then she grinned and reached over to slide it as far down into my right boot as she could reach. Which was bit surprising, to say the least. I'm really not used to having a strange woman running her hand down the inside of my thigh while I'm tied up. Not my kink, okay?

“I think you'll notice if Obi tries to get it out.” She said. Then she looked at me; I must have had one hell of a look on my face because she immediately collapsed into a fit of giggles, ending up with her forehead resting on my stomach. Zan, standing over us, just shook his head.

“Condor, you look like someone hit you with a brick.” was all that he said before he turned and started back towards the dais. I wasn't really inclined to turn and watch him at that point, because Glory had reached up and started working on the catches on my helmet.

“What are you doing?” I asked her as she pulled the helmet off and set it aside. She smiled, and knelt up so that she was leaning over me; her hair falling down on either side of my face like a curtain. She had the most incredible hazel eyes.

“This.” She said, and leaned in to kiss me, taking my face between her hands so that she controlled how long it went on. As if I was going to try and pull away; that girl could kiss! I don't think I've been kissed that... thoroughly, in a long time. If ever.

Okay, so maybe there is something to this kink after all.

“What's so funny? What's going on?” I could hear Cat's voice from off to my left.

“Nothing much. Obi had the damn communicator the whole time. And now Glo's molesting your brother.” Zan's answer sent Glory into another wave of giggles.

“Not that I mind.” I called out; that was it for Glory; she fell across my chest, shaking with laughter.

“Wait. Stop. Obi...” Cat had stopped by the edge of the dais.

“Had it the whole time. Condor's called for help, Cat. We're getting out. Tonight. We're getting away from him.” Zan covered the pace between them in a few long strides, and scooped Cat into his arms, “We're going home!”

Glory shifted around so that she was curled up against me, with her head on my chest and her arm wrapped around me. And we watched as Zan started dancing Cat around, with Obi laughing and jumping around them. The last thing I remember before the painkillers knocked me out was Zan singing. Mist covered mountains of home...

I'm not sure how long I slept, but I woke up because I felt someone watching me. Sure enough, Katse was standing over me, looking like he wasn't happy. Of course, I'm not sure what he'd look like when he was happy. But the reason he wasn't happy now was kind of obvious; Glory was still draped over me, fast asleep. I could hear music, off to one side. Flute, and... harp, I think. Muffled slightly, because someone had apparently had the sense to put my helmet back on while I was out cold. I never even felt it. Not good, Condor.

That described a lot about me right at that moment. Not good. In addition to everything else, now my vision was fogged, and even without Glory lying on me, I don't think I could have drawn a full breath; my chest hurt when I tried. The painkillers hadn't helped. How long had I been asleep? And where were they?

Katse walked around me and reached down to run one finger over Glory's bare shoulder. She sighed in her sleep and cuddled in closer; I shook my head and gave Katse a “what-do-you-expect-me-to-do-about-it?” look. Which got... not quite a laugh. More like a snort.

“Gloriana.” That was it. He said her name. And she jumped! Zero to eighty in under a second. She sputtered, and spun so that she was crouched on her knees in front of him, her forehead almost on the ground.

“Gloriana, what are you doing?” He didn't sound angry, and Glory sat up, slightly, so that her eyes were level with his knees.

“Sleeping, my lord. He... was warm.” She faltered, and blushed, hard. Yeah, it was a really lame excuse.

“And he is male. And you, my dear, have all of the morals of a cat in heat.” Now I've heard everything. Katse lecturing someone else on morals? Hello, pot? It's the kettle You're black.

Katse gestured;Glory stood up in front of him, and he walked around her before looking down at me, “Perhaps I should give him to you? A last meal for a dying man?” He whispered over her shoulder; I didn't think that someone could get that red in the face, “You wouldn't mind, would you, Gloriana?”

She looked down at me and smiled shyly, “No, my lord.”

Oh, really? Damn. Time for me to be noble again. I can't believe I'm going to say this...

“Do I have a say in this?”

Katse looked down again, smirking, “Do you have an objection, Condor? I wouldn't have thought so.”

“No objections. But whatever the hell it is that you've done to me has made sure that I'm not in any condition for... a last meal. So, thank you for the offer, but no.”

“You don't want her?” He was either baiting me, or being dense. Probably baiting me; the man may be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them.

“Didn't say that.” I gave Glory my best lady-killer smile. And if she blushed any harder, she'd spontaneously combust. It was the truth again; I definitely wouldn't mind bringing Glory back to the trailer and getting to know her a lot better. I didn't add that I was not going give Katse the thrill of his sorry little life by letting him watch. “But given the shape I'm in right now, it wouldn't be fair to her. So, no thanks.”

Now, it's hard to read a reaction when you can't see a person's eyes, but I think I surprised the hell out of Katse. He definitely stopped and stared at me for a minute. I don't know, maybe no one ever told him that it was a good thing to care about what your partner wants, or if they are enjoying it or not. Of course, I really shouldn't be surprised, given what he wanted from Cat. What did surprise me was what he did next; he sent Glory off to join the others, and crouched down next to me.

“You surprise me, Condor. I did not expect you to be a gentleman.” He reached out and ran one hand down my chest; I froze, fighting not to react. Whatever else I was thinking might happen, this wasn't it!

“There's a hell of a lot that you don't know about me.” I tried to keep my voice even, when what I really wanted was his hands off me. Right! Now!

“I know someone who could learn everything about you before you died. You should be thankful that she's not here. I would kill you quickly. Onna would not.” He kept on touching me, running his hand up my arm, and then back down my chest; I bit the inside of my mouth until I tasted blood and didn't move.

“Perhaps Glory is not to your taste? Perhaps you'd prefer another partner? Zan maybe. He's very good. Or perhaps I should... see to you myself.” That damn hand stopped moving again, and all I'm going to say about it is that he was getting just a little too... familiar. Okay, make that a lot familiar. Time to stop being polite.

“Go to hell.” Condor, that was lame.

I got another laugh-snort out of him, and he removed his hand, “So, the hole in the Condor's armor! A pity that you'll be dead soon, and that we have no time to explore that.”

He started walking away, towards the dais, and then turned back and looked at me again, “For your concern for Gloriana's pleasure, I will kill you quickly.”

Oh, thanks. Where the hell are you guys? I'm running out of time.

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