Section Four

 

"Wake up!" Zhyn says loudly, shaking me.  "Get up."

The little room’s suddenly bright with light streaming in from the corridor outside.  I’m dreaming of home.  I don’t want to lose it, squeezing my eyes tight shut to try and hold the images safe.  But he’s obviously not inclined to be indulgent.

"I said get up!"  He hauls me upright. 

There’s a couple of other Otori with him, and he signals to them to get me to my feet.  I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m not inclined to be co-operative.  I’m beginning to get mad.  I don't want to wake up.  Dreaming of them is all I have now.  I don’t want to wake up and lose Starbuck and Boxey all over again.  Dreams are everything to me now, and these bloody Otori have made me wake up and lose them. 

Zhyn glares at me.  "They are docking.  Hurry."

I get up slowly, my mind racing through the possibilities.  Absorb it, assess it, use it.

They’re docking?  Docking!  Dad hasn’t given up then.  They’re still looking for me.  And Zhyn’s rattled by this.  He wasn’t expecting it.  Sheba mustn’t have been able to warn him that the search party was on its way.

Or maybe she’s playing games.  No.  Sheba’s gone.  Maybe Iblis is playing games.  He would.  It would amuse him, I think, the godling playing with his toys.  And it would amuse him all the more because they don’t realise it.

They’re docking.  A shuttle’s docking.

Everything I’ve told myself for the last two sectons and more, about being quiet and compliant and watch for my chance to manipulate this, just goes.  Everything I’ve built up over the last secton of being the Lords’ Anointed, just goes.  Everything I’ve thought about this ship and the lesson Zhyn tried to teach me about how hopeless it is to try and escape with over a thousand fanatics watching me, wanting me, just goes right along with the rest. 

Because they’re here, and they’re looking for me.  This is another chance.  Kennedy’s mantra is to wait, conserve energy, be ready when the chance comes.  Well, a chance just arrived.  If I can only break free, make a run to deck seven and their shuttle, or even hide somewhere until the search party’s close; then this is a chance to get home, to get home to Boxey and Starbuck.  I’m weaker than I was, from lack of exercise and the fact I’ve eaten very little since Sheba, but I'm not on my knees just yet.

But there may be some things on my side, tonight.

With luck, given the unexpectedness of this search, not all my usual escort will be here.  I’ve given them absolutely no trouble since the day after I first woke up, however long ago it was, when I broke away from the Sagittarians and got to the shuttledeck.  I took a calculated decision to behave like the gentlemen Kennedy despised.  So with more luck, they’re secure about me now, complacent; not expecting me to act; not expecting me to take this sudden chance.

And, with even more luck, they’ve never realised just how good I am at this, just how good a pupil of Kennedy’s I am, and even if I am weaker, just how dirty I can fight.

The man on my left finds out in a very experiential way.  I’m left handed, and my left hand’s always been the stronger.  I go for the groin, grabbing and twisting, digging in my fingers, with every ounce of strength I have.  He screams, a curiously high-pitched squeal of agony, but I don’t stop, I twist harder, until he screams again and jacknifes forward, letting me go to clutch at himself.  He’ll need everything Jianne can do for him if he’s ever to be any good on a Sunstorm night.  I almost certainly ruptured a testicle for him.  There’ll be no sanctified joy for him for a while.

I snatch my hand away.  The other man doesn’t have the chance to see what’s happening before I’m jabbing my fingers into his face, into his eyes.  He screams, too, and staggers back, his hands to his face, knocking Zhyn momentarily off balance, and I’m at the door.

Shit!

They’re nearly all there, the other men from my escort in the corridor outside, six or seven of them.  When I explode through the door they stare for only the merest instant, then they rush forward, responding to Zhyn’s angry shouts from behind me.  Too many of them.  I’m not up for an extended fight, here.  Shit!  It’s my best chance.  My best chance, and all I can hope for is to do a little more damage before they get me.  But I’m going down fighting. 

But there’s something odd about the way they react.  They’re trying not to hurt me, to catch at me without causing any injury.  There should be too many of them for me to do very much, even using everything I’ve been taught, but I’m in the middle of them and they’re going down all around me, barely getting a finger on me.  I’ve my fist curled with one knuckle jutting, backhanding one man across the throat as hard as I can do it and he goes down, clutching at his throat and the bubbling screaming he’s making comes from trying to breathe through a broken larynx.  Another one’s got his hands to his nose, trying to stop the blood spraying from it.  His blood spatters me in the face. 

Whatever restraint they’re feeling, isn’t shared by Zhyn.  I don’t think that he even glances at the two men who I got back in the room, although both are screaming steadily.  He comes up from behind me and grabs one arm, forcing it up behind my back.  I kick back at him, but he’s well trained, too, and is slightly to one side of me.  He grunts with pain as my feet connect with his shins, but I can’t do a lot of damage in these soft Otori boots.  His other hand catches my hair and he pulls my head back.

I manage one more punch at one of the men in front of me before my head gets bounced viciously off the corridor wall.  That does it for me.  Everything blacks out, and within microns they’re hustling me along the corridor, but there’s still something peculiar about it.  They’re gentle but inexorable at the same time.  When my legs give way and I stumble and can’t walk fast enough for them, they don’t just drag me along.  The biggest one of them stops and with the help of his companions, picks me up and carries me. 

I’m not sure where we’re heading.  I’m having trouble seeing for the blood in my eyes.  When Zhyn used me to dent the bulkhead, he cut my head open.  It’s strange, but it doesn’t actually hurt.

Zhyn says something urgently in Gemonese, hurrying us on, until we’re passing through a storeroom.  A storage bin at one end has been unhooked from the wall somehow and swung to one side.  There’s a door behind it.  Liu jumps forward to get the door open.

We stop and the man puts me down onto my feet.  I’m pretty unsteady, and lean on him gratefully. 

"They will not find you," Zhyn says, cold.  "Not here."

He has me by one arm, and the big Otori who carried me has the other.  It doesn’t take much for them to get me through the door.  I’ve no fight left in me, and my head’s beginning to hurt. 

We’re in a water filtration plant.  I’ve been here before, I realise, as the bridge extends across to the filtration column.  This is where they hid me last time, before I woke up properly, before they began my religious re-education, before Sheba. 

Zhyn snaps one bracelet from a set of binders around my wrist, flicks the free end over one of the horizontal water feed pipes, and then gets the other bracelet around the hand that the big Otori forces up.  They push me off the bridge so that my feet are on one of the filtration plates and I’m hanging with my hands stretched above my head. 

Although the water flow is down to a trickle, there’s enough to get me wet.  The stuff stings in the cut in my head, and it smells very unpleasant, like stale urine.  Undoubtedly that’s part of what I’m now being bathed in, and I try to get as far out of the way as I can.

I am not comfortable, and I tell them so.  I try to be inventive about it, but all that happens is that Zhyn’s expression gets harder and the big Otori stares at me blankly.  At first, I think it’s like trying to provoke a reaction from the filtration column itself, but then he glances at Zhyn, uncertain.  He doesn’t say anything though.

"Let me in," Jianne says in a subdued voice.  She glances at me, and her eyes widen.  She says something very sharp, in Gemonese.  I think she demands to know what happened to me, because Zhyn scowls and answers her in Standard. 

"He chose the worst time to resist us," he says.  "It will not kill him.  You can deal with it later."

"I should see to it now." She touches the cut and I can’t help the yelp and the wince.  It’s really hurting now.

"There is no time now.  Give him the shot."

"Not again," I say, protesting, but Jianne sighs and does what she’s told.  The hypospray presses against my neck.

They’re going, the bridge retracting, and I twist to see the door clang shut behind them.  In the storeroom, they’ll be swinging the storage bin back into place, hiding the entrance port.  No wonder the last search missed me.  This one will too, unless I do something about it.

I think about what I can do, my head resting against my arm, my eyes closed.  I think about it for a long time, drifting in and out of sleep, shivering in the water streaming slowly over me.

[I think you’re in trouble, big brother] Zac says.  [You’d better try and keep awake and do something about this]

Zac?  Zac!  I can’t see him, but it’s Zac.

[Yeah.  It’s me]

[You don’t look too good] Cole’s voice is soft with anxiety.  I can feel his lips on mine, the ghost of a touch. 

Zac’s here!

[Well, I didn’t invite him]  Cole says.  [He just decided to come]

And that’s just like him.  Always bulling in where he wasn’t invited.

[Like that last patrol?]  Zac says, and laughs. 

I don’t say anything.  It’s true that I should have been on that patrol with Starbuck, and Zac insisted on getting his way and coming along in Starbuck’s place.  His first and last patrol.

I twist my head, the water from the tower running down my face, stinging in the cut above my right eye.  I’m not sure, but I think I can see him, looking just the same; young and eager, the way he looked when I came on him and Starbuck in the bachelor quarters and he persuaded me to take him along instead of Starbuck.  He’s like Cole.  He’ll never grow old, either. 

[There was no choice.  You had to leave me behind]

[He had to leave you?] Cole asks Zac.

The way I left you behind.  The way that the people I love get left behind and die.  That’s the way I kill them.

[My engines got shot to hell] Zac tells him.  [He had to go on to warn the Fleet]

I didn’t want to leave you behind.  I didn’t want to kill you.

[I know that, Appy] he says.  [But, hey, you’d have preferred it to be Starbuck?]

I choke on that one.  God knows, I feel guilty about having to leave Zac behind.  I loved my irritating little brother.  But God knows, too, that I feel even more guilty about how thankful I am that it wasn’t Starbuck.  How truly thankful.

[He would’ve had a better chance of getting back, would he?] Cole asks, and there’s something in his voice that reminds me that he doesn’t like it when I think about Starbuck.

[Who knows?  Academic question really.  Fact is that Appy let me bend the rules a bit.  I didn’t come back, and he never stops beating himself about the head over it.  Nothing to be done, but he doesn’t see it like that]

My fault.  It was my fault.

[He always took himself too seriously] Zac says. 

Cole laughs slightly.  [Oh, I know.  Apollo’s really bought in to all that Caprican duty and responsibility stuff.  We noticed that on An-Nath]

Stop talking about me as if I’m not here!

[Well, you aren’t really] Zac says.  [That’s why you can hear us.  Because you’re not really here anymore.  Get a grip, big brother.  You used to be smarter than this]

[Mmn] says Cole.  [You’re not very alike, you two]

[I’m the good-looking one] Zac says, instantly.  [And the smart one]

And the dead one.

[Yeah] says Zac, sardonic.  [And the dead one]

Are they all coming?  All the people I’ve killed?

[You didn’t kill me] Cole’s gentle.

I left you behind, too.

[That’s different]

[Not in my case] Zac reminds him.

I don’t need reminding.  I can never forget.

[Who else do you want to come?]  Cole asks, curious.

No-one!

[Sure?  What about her?]  Zac’s smiling, I can tell.

No!

[It’s all right, Apollo] Cole says, gentle.  [We only come when you want us.  We can’t come otherwise]

[You’re spoiling things] Zac disapproves.  [I’m supposed to tease him.  I always did.  That’s what smart-arse younger brothers are for]

[Not about this.  It’s too important.  And I don’t like it] Cole’s gently dignified about it. 

[Ah, true love!  We guessed there was someone on An-Nath, me and Thenie.  We wondered what you were like]

You knew?

[Let’s just say that Dad’s the only one who probably didn’t guess] Zac says and laughs.  [And I was damn sure when you brought Starbuck home that time.  Course Thenie closed her eyes to that one]

Cole sighs.  He really doesn’t like me to think about Starbuck, and this is twice in a couple of centons.  That’s too much.  I can feel him receding, leaving me to Zac.

Cole?

No answer.

[She made a good play for him] Zac says, as if it doesn’t matter that Cole’s faded back into my past.  [Pity I wasn’t in the running.  Otherwise Starbuck could’ve worked his way through the entire family]

In the running?  What do you mean, ‘in the running’?

[Nothing]

You aren’t jealous, are you? 

[Of course not!]

You are.  You’re jealous.

I hadn’t realised that Zac felt like that about Starbuck.  If he did.  I don’t know that he really did.  Zac loves teasing, and I was his main victim.  But I don’t know that I’ll ever find out if he’s joking, because he follows Cole into the far distance, fading away slowly. 

[You can’t be sure, can you, Appy?  Didn’t you ever wonder if Starbuck liked me?]

No.

[Liar.  And now you’ll never know]

It wouldn’t surprise me.  That you fell for him, I mean.

[Don’t want to disappoint you, big brother, but not everything revolves around Starbuck, you know]

Oh yes it does.  In my universe it does.  What else is there to revolve around?

[I’ll ask Serina.  She might have something to say about that]

I don’t care!

[She knows that] Zac says, very faint in the distance.  [That’s what killed her]

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^^*

Starbuck’s holding me so tight I can hardly breathe, kissing me madly, almost in a frenzy. 

Oh thank God.  Thank God.  I thought I’d never see you again.  Thank God, Starbuck.

He’s kissing me, kissing my eyes, lips, throat.  All I want to do is snuggle in, living his embrace, the kisses, the frantic murmuring as he holds me safe, his hands caressing me.  He’s telling me he loves me, that he’s always loved me, that he’s got me safe, that he’s never going to let me go.

"Are you awake, Apollo?" Dio asks quietly.

No! 

Starbuck’s holding me and kissing me, his mouth hot over mine, his hands sliding in past the rough linen to touch me.  And he’s telling me again that he loves me, that we’ll be together for always, that he’s never, ever, ever going to let me go.

I hold on tight.  He knows I love him.  I don’t know if he knows how much.  I have to tell him.  He has to know that I live and breathe for him, that I want my life to be lived with him.  I have to tell him that, at least.

"Apollo?"

Starbuck fades away into silence.  All I get is that quirky smile, a glimpse of blue eyes behind a fall of blond hair and he’s gone.

No!  Starbuck!  Come back, Starbuck.  Don’t leave me here.  Don’t leave me.

Starbuck?

"Please wake up, Apollo," says Dio.

Starbuck’s gone, and I’m still here.

They didn’t find me.

I’m back in my room again, my head thumping painfully.  The light hurts my eyes when I open them.  Dao’s leaning over me, looking anxious.  The search party has obviously been and gone, and they didn’t find me.

The disappointment almost stops my breath.

"I’m sorry, Apollo," Dio says.  "But you must get out of those things.  You’re soaked, and very cold."

I’m on the floor.  Dio’s right.  I’m really very cold, shivering with it, and wet and stinking from the filtration column.  They didn’t turn the water off completely this time, then.  They left enough running to get me seriously uncomfortable.  If I was a gambling man, the way my wonderful, beautiful, lost Starbuck is a gambling man, I’d take odds on it being Zhyn’s petty revenge on me for daring to defy him, for daring to reject his notions of holiness.

"Help me up," I say.

Between his old age and me being doped again, we’re each about as frail as the other, but with his help I manage to get to my feet and stagger through into the fresher.  I look terrible.  My face is ashen, tinged with grey, and there’s a nasty cut on my right temple, so washed by the water in the tower that the edges are white and bloodless.

Thankfully, Zhyn hasn’t turned off the water here to punish me some more.  In marked contrast to his prudish reaction the other day, Dio helps me out of the wet clothes and we fill basin after basin of hot water to wash me down, to wash the stink of that place off me.  It’s not enough to warm me though, and I’d kill for a real shower, hot as I can bear it.  The sonic shower isn’t anywhere near the same.  I do spend a couple of centons propped into a corner under the sonic waves, just to get clean, but I can’t get warm, even under the dryer.  The blast of lukewarm air just isn’t running hot enough.

Dio wraps me in the blanket from my narrow bed, and goes in search of clean dry clothes for me, the guard outside opening the door to his knock.  The Otori guard gives me a strange look as the door closes after Dio leaves.  I don’t much care, concentrating on my own misery.  I sit on the bunk and shiver, the trembling worse, my head aching savagely, like someone used it for a football.  Whoever it was, was wearing very heavy boots. 

I’m so concentrated on trying to think myself warm and cope with the headache, that it takes me a centon to remember, and a micron more to panic.  If they found it… what if they found it?  My fingers are almost numb with cold, despite trying to warm them in the hot water in the basin, but I manage to slide my hand under the pillow, looking for the sharp hardness of the data crystal.

It’s still here.  My little pictures of the people I love are still here.  Safe.  All that I have left of them is safe.  I sit and hold it for a few centons, letting the little warmth that comes from knowing I still have it, spread through me.  Not real warmth.  But it helps.

Dio comes back with Jianne.  He’s carrying a tray, she has my new clothes.  She looks very pale and strained, and she won’t look at me directly at first. 

"Tea," Dio says, pouring me a cup.  He has to hold it himself for me.  My hands are shaking so much that I’d spill it.  It’s very hot and aromatic and good.  He lets me drink the whole cupful before gently taking the data crystal from me and restoring it to its place under my pillow.  He puts the second cup into my hands then folds his own around them to stop me from shaking too much, letting the heat drive out the cold. 

"Thanks," I manage after the second cup.  I’m still cold, but it’s bearable.

He nods.  "Let’s get you dressed," he says.

His tone is so like me with Boxey that I have to look away and try not to think of my little son.  Boxey’s safe.  Starbuck will look after him.  For a micron I think about Starbuck catching my son safe from the cameras, sweeping him away.  It comforts me, a little.  They’ll take care of each other. 

Jianne, still silent, hands over the coarse linens and Dio helps me into the dry clothes.  I don’t need much persuading to get into bed, wrapped in the blankets again.

Dio looks at me consideringly.  "I’ll get more blankets.  Will you see to his head, Jianne?"

She nods and he bustles out.  I think he’s relieved to have something practical to do, but Jianne looks momentarily frightened to be with me. 

"What’s wrong?"

She looks at me sidelong while she gets her medical kit open.  "He died," she says, abrupt.

"Who?"

"The man you hit in the throat.  He choked before I could get to him."  Jianne’s hands are trembling.

That explains the strange look I got from the Otori outside.  He’s probably tense as hell, ready for trouble every time someone knocks on the door to be let out.

"Oh."  It’s all I can say, and I’m a little taken aback by how little that bothers me.  It should bother me.  I’ve killed Cylons and I’ve operated against pirates where they lost fighters.  But I don’t think that I’ve ever killed a man directly before, and known that I did it with my own hands.  I should feel more than this, I think.  I should feel sorry that I took a life, the life of someone like me, not just a hybrid of machine and a little unrecognisable organic matter.  Someone like me, who maybe had someone like Starbuck to love. 

But there’s nothing. 

After a centon I say, "I’m sorry.  They came on me and woke me, suddenly…"

It’s not true.  He was in the group out in the corridor, not one of the first two men I attacked, and I knew exactly what I was doing, reacting in the way I’ve been trained to react, getting my retaliation in first.  No, I won’t blame that, either.  I knew what I was doing.  I hit him because I’m angry and afraid and despairing, and I want to go home.  He was in the way.  He was there, between me and my chance of home.

But it seems to reassure her, and she nods and leans in to examine the cut on my head, her fingers gentle.  It still hurts, and I cling to that as something real and alive, while I think about my lack of reaction to the man’s death. 

"This needs suturing," she says, sounding a little more like her usual self.  "I will need to give you a local, Kinan, although I am reluctant to do it after you have had so many narcotics."

"What about the others?"  I ask.

"In the medical centre.  You almost blinded Li'in and I am still unsure about his right eye.  But the other two will be fine.  A little bruised."

"I’d hoped to do more with one of them," I mutter thinking about the first man I attacked.

She actually smiles, a prim little smile, as if that really amuses her despite everything, and I remember she’s a lot more earthy than I expected an Otori to be about sex. 

"Mu’s wife will be grateful that you did not completely succeed," she says.  She’s getting her little suture kit ready.  "Although you have given her a few sectons rest."

"I thought you Otori were more straight laced about sex than this," I say, mostly to take my mind off not feeling what I should.

"Ah, that is the priests," she says.  "And they, of course, are all men."

"You should convert, if it bothers you.  The Kobolians aren’t so exclusive.  The last Vicar General was a woman."

"We women work around it, Kinan.  Ready?"

I nod, and she takes my chin in her hand, holding my head still.  The hypo is pressed briefly against my temple, near the wound, and stings briefly.

"A centon or two to let that take," she says, as Dio comes back with more blankets.  He has a jug of something in one hand.  Steam curls up from it.

"More tea?" I ask hopefully.

"Soup," he says.  "Please try and drink some, Apollo.  You need food and this will warm you."  He pours it into a mug and hands it over.

It tastes good.  I can’t drink much of it, maybe half, but he nods, satisfied that I’ve had some and pours me the last of the tea from what’s left from the first tray.  That I can drink, and I can’t get enough of it, suddenly very thirsty. 

Jianne touches my head gently, and when I don’t jump, she puts four neat sutures into the cut, drawing its edges closed.  I don’t feel a thing, although I guess I will when the local wears off.  She gives me two aspirin for later.

"Try and sleep," she says, and puts the kit back together again, preparing to leave.

"What was his name?" I ask her when she gets to the door and the man outside opens it for her.

She pauses.  "Asan," she says, without turning.  "He was a good man.  He was married only last yahren."

"No children?" I ask, dreading the answer.

"No.  No children. Not yet.  Now there never will be."  She lets the door slide closed.

Dio sighs and sits down in his chair, in the uncomfortable little let-down seat.  "They told me what happened.  You took them by surprise.  Zhyn is furious about it."

"They thought they had me tamed?"

I remember thinking, more than a yahren and a half ago now, when the Council were playing games about the data in my head and Cantor was making his first play to control me, that they all looked on me as a tame little animal going through his circus act.  I’d had to remind them then that the animal could still bite.  Zhyn found that out now, too.

"Perhaps," Dio concedes.  "I don’t think he expected you to fight like that.  He thought that you’d accepted that there wasn’t a way out.  You’ve behaved yourself since you made that first attempt."

"It’s the duty of every prisoner of war to try to escape," I say.  "I hadn’t forgotten that.  I thought if I could just get to the search party…"  I pause, and shrug.

He nods, and says nothing for a centon.  He’s probably praying, maybe for the dead man’s soul.

Or mine.

"How long did they have me hanging in there?" I ask him, huddling into the blanket.  I’m slowly warming up.

"About ten centars, this time."  Dio turns his tired, faded blue eyes to me.  "I wish you hadn’t done that, Apollo.  Zhyn is dangerous, very dangerous, and now he’s angry.  I don’t know what he’ll do."

"I don’t think I care.  Anything’s better than this."

"Yes," he says, surprising me.  "Yes.  We’ve done a great evil here."

He closes his eyes and fold his hands quietly in his lap.  He’s obviously praying.  I stare and him and wait a centon, hoping he’s praying for guidance about helping me, and hoping that God’s on the side of His Anointed today.  It takes every ounce of self possession I have not to throw myself at the old priest, begging him to help me.   Patience and silence, that’s what I need here.  That and some of Anton’s wiliness.

"Dio?" I ask after a while.

He opens his eyes and looks at me, waiting.

"How long have I been here, on the Icarus?"

His lips move silently.  I don’t know if he’s praying or counting. 

"Almost three sectons," he says after a centon.  "Twenty seven days."

"Twenty seven days."  I say it in the dullest, flattest tone I can manage.  Anton-subtlety, not Apollo-histrionics are needed here.  But it’s not hard to sound dull and despairing.  Twenty seven days is longer than I thought.  I’ve lost some days along the way.  Maybe they’ve drugged me a few more times than I remember.  I think about twenty four seven without Starbuck, and shiver, thinking that I’ll never be warm again.  "Twenty seven days."

He sighs.

"I want to go home, Dio," I say.

He looks down at his hands, his face drawn.

"Dio."

"I know," he says.  "I know."

"It’s wrong, Dio.  Everything they’re doing is wrong.  I’m for everyone, not just for the Otori and Cantor’s few chosen."

"I know," he says, again.

"And I really want to go home."

"Yes."  He sits up straighter, twitching his long scarlet robes into place.  He still wears them around me, the scarlet ceremonial robes that signify he’s in the presence of something holy and revered.  He glances once at the locked door of my prison and nods slowly.  "Yes," he says again. 

"Help me.  Please."

He nods.  "Yes."

Thank God.  Oh, thank God.  I’m so grateful that I’m dizzy, everything whiting out for a micron.

"I’ll do what I can, but the Otori control the ship and I can’t get to the communications net without them knowing.  It may be a few days before I can get off this ship and get a message to your father."  He’s suddenly sounding very determined.  There’s an air of relief about him, like he’s glad he’s finally made a decision.  "I’ll have to think about how to do it.  But I will do it."

"Thank you," I say, and that’s all.  I can’t say very much.  I’m too tired.  But he knows how much I mean it.

He smiles at me and settles back in his chair, opening a small pocket version of the Book and is silent and still.

I lie still for a long time, trying not to hope too much.  I won’t hope until that door opens and Starbuck races in to get me, to hold me the way he was holding me in my dream.  And while I wait, I’ll lie here and think about him, and I think at last about Asan and the children who will never be born now. 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

"If I did not need the co-ordinates in your head, I would kill you now, out of hand," Zhyn says.

Dio was right.  Zhyn is angry.  And very dangerous.   He doesn’t threaten or bluster, but when he says he’d like to kill me, he speaks with a conviction that’s very, very convincing.

I expected to see Zhyn yesterday, but no-one showed all day.  It had to be early morning, ship’s time, when they took me out of the filtration tube, and once Jianne had left, Dio and me saw no-one else.  Even Liu didn’t appear with food and Dio was forced to go and find some for us himself.  I was supposed to go to the Temple last night, but no-one came for me.  It made Dio nervous, these breaches in routine.  Even more nervous than he already is because he’s trying to get himself ready for his rebellion against Cantor.

I wasn’t nervous.  I didn’t care.  I started feeling sick about mid morning with a stinking cold, almost ‘flu, and I grew steadily worse as the day wore on.  I spent most of the time shivering and hot, not able to do much except lie there and feel sorry for myself, sneezing and coughing.  Dio left me late, waiting in vain for Jianne to come, going to look for her himself.  He never came back.

I didn’t sleep well after he’d gone.  Every time I lay down I almost choked with coughing, and in the end I dozed the night away sitting up, the extra blankets Dio brought me around my shoulders.

Dio’s not arrived yet.  I’m not sure what time it is, but it feels early.  Either he’s in Chapel for the Morning Light service or trying to get off this ship to get help for me.  I hope to God that he’s gone to get help. 

And Zhyn’s here instead of Dio.  He doesn’t hit me; he just stands at the side of the bed and looks very much like he’d like to.  But when I sit up, slow as I am, he backs off a step.  It looks casual enough, but he’s giving himself room.  If I earned anything the night before last, it seems, it was a touch of respect.

I feel quite extraordinarily dizzy, and I have to swallow down the nausea.  I don’t think it will improve Zhyn’s temper any if I throw up all over him, tempting though it is.  He scowls at me as I get up slowly, and go to the fresher.  My knees are shaking so much that I have to do it by leaning up against the wall and using it to support me.  He doesn’t offer to help.  I’m not in there long: I didn’t eat anything that Dio brought me yesterday and there’s nothing to bring up.  

I feel marginally better as I get back to the bed.  All that movement, though, induces another coughing fit.  This time I cough until my chest aches.  This is one hell of a cold.

Zhyn’s still here.  And he’s still angry, but now there’s something else there.  Concern.  Oh not for me, not for me as a person, but for his Kinan. 

"What is the matter with you?"

"I’m sick," I say hoarsely, and huddle back under the blankets again, where I was warm.  Stupid bloody question.  What the hell does he think is the matter with me?  It’s not like I indulge in coughing paroxysms so severe that they leave me shaking, just for my own amusement.  Or his.

He scowls again.  "I will send for Jianne," he says and turns to the door.  He barks out some orders in Gemonese at the guard..

I wonder at the sudden solicitude.  Presumably he doesn’t want me to be sick in case it’s serious.  And only because I might die before the child – if there is one, and please God prevent it – is old enough to take over for me.  Or only because I might die before he gets the chance to kill me himself. 

"Jianne will take care of it," Zhyn says, in a tone that won’t accept argument. 

Obviously the cold germs are to take notice of this and behave themselves as good Otori cold germs should and obey the priests.  So I cough again, out of sheer childish defiance.    "I expected to see you yesterday," I say, hoarse.  My throat feels raw.

"If I had come to see you yesterday, I would have killed you then," he says grimly.  "You are not worth the life of one of the Faithful."

"Kinan," I say, with no breath for more after the coughing fit.

"I wonder," he says, still grim.  "I warn you, any more foolishness and I will have you shackled so you can’t do any more harm.  I have tolerated a good deal, but you went too far."

"Duty of every prisoner to try and escape."  It’s what I said to Dio, but this time there’s a wheezing breath between every second word.  I sound like an old fashioned bellows with a puncture.

"There will be no more attempts," he says, and stands aside as Jianne comes in.  "See to him, Jianne.  I want him in the Synod in twenty centons."

She smiles at me, nervous.  She doesn’t look too happy as she examines me.

"Well?" Zhyn demands

"I don’t know," she says doubtfully.

"It’s just a cold," Zhyn says, impatient.

"You should stop hanging me in water towers," I say, less breathless now.  The wheezing’s less.

 

Jianne frowns, and looks again at the little medical sensor.  "He’s very congested."

"Give him something."

She gets out a hypo.  "Antibiotics," she says to me, and presses it against my neck.  "I’ll get you something to help that cough, a decongestant."

"Tea," I say, imploringly.

"There will be some for you in the Synod Chamber."  Zhyn’s scanty reserves of patience are all used up.  "Get up.  But be warned, Kinan.  One false move and I *will* have you shackled."

"Don’t be stupid," I say, getting slowly to my feet.  Right now I wasn’t up to making any moves at all, much less false ones.

"Liu!" Zhyn says, and Liu comes in to help me.  Presumably Zhyn’s still so mad, that if he had to touch me himself, it would be with hands around my throat.

I accept Liu’s help, leaning on him all the way along the corridor, following Zhyn to the turbolift at the other end of the deck.  It feels like a bloody long way today.  I’ll be glad to get to the Synod room and sit in that silly chair and get my breath back.

Except not today.  I won’t be glad today.  The place is full, and there’s an air of revelry and celebration about.

Cantor’s here, smiling broadly, talking to Tomas at one end of the table.  The two other Captains are here, laughing at some shared joke.  Sheba’s standing talking to another warrior, who has his back to me.  There’s no trace on her face any more of that wild rutting, no bruises and contusions.  Dio’s in his chair, opposite mine, hunched in defeat and when he looks at me, there’s sorrow and an apology written in his face and he can’t quite meet my eyes.

Why does he look like that?

"Ah, here he is," Cantor says, and laughs happily.  "The Lords’ Anointed."

There’s laughter and everyone turns to look at me, priests, Captains, Iblis’ whore.  And the other warrior.

It’s Drake.  He looks self conscious and slightly out of place amongst people he doesn’t know very well, but he’s watching Sheba with barely concealed emotion.  What he feels for her is very obvious.  He sees her reaction to my arrival and turns to stare at me for a centon.  His jaw drops, and it’s almost comical.

"Captain?" he says, astonished.  He looks from me to Sheba, suddenly uncertain.  It’s quite obvious I’m about the last person he expected to see.  "Captain?"

I take a step towards him, managing to get enough air into my lungs to speak.  "What the hell are you doing here?"

He’s still confused, uncertain.  He looks from me to Sheba again, seeking some sort of direction from her.

"Er…"

"What are you doing here?"

He swallows hard.  "We got here last night," he says and makes the direct appeal.  "Sheba?"

Sheba smiles.  "At about midnight, Apollo."  She pauses to savour it, to roll the words around like wine, taking every bit of enjoyment from it that she possibly can, knowing just what it will do to me.

I know then.  I know, and I’m numb with it.

"After we left the Fleet.  After we *all* left the Fleet."

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

Liu must have got me into the chair.  I don’t think that I quite passed out, but I must have come close, and I don’t remember getting here on my own.  It strikes me that my memories of this ship are fragmentary, and there’s been a lot of moments when I don’t remember how something happened.  Probably the most important moments.

Cantor has turned away again, back to his conversation with Tomas.  Sheba’s standing to one side, smiling but keeping her distance.  Dio has his arm around my shoulders and Jianne is here, making me swallow something thick and foul tasting.

"It will help, Kinan," she says.  Then to Dio, anxiously,  "He has some fever."

"I’ve got bloody ‘flu, that’s what I’ve got," I say crossly. 

Dio sighs slightly.  "You look worse than yesterday."

"I am worse.  Did you…?"

I know the answer before he shakes his head.  I know what that sad, apologetic expression means.  His failure, and my despair.

"I didn’t get the chance," he says sadly.  "I’m so sorry, Apollo.  I’m so very sorry."

"Captain?"  Drake is hovering.  He looks bemused.  "What in Hades are you doing here?  We thought… I mean, everyone was beginning to think that you were dead."

"I wish," I say, still lost in the dark that’s irrevocable separation from everyone I love, and Dio’s embrace tightens.

"But why are you here?  How did you get here?"

"I’m here because your bloody girlfriend arranged it," I say.  "And I’m here because they want the route to Earth for themselves."

"Earth?" he repeats, blinking when I accuse Sheba.  "But we’re going to find Cain!"

"Yeah?  And who told you that?"

"She…" he starts, then stops abruptly, biting off the rest of the name.  He turns to look at her where she’s standing smiling on us.  "Sheba."  he says, in a puzzled tone.

"The same Sheba who shot me down on the Rising Star?"  I ask.

He opens his mouth as if to say something, maybe to refute it, defend her, but no words come.  He stands there, looking utterly bewildered and confused, just looking at me helplessly.

I choose simple words.  He’s not exactly the brightest star in the constellation and I don’t want to confuse him any further.  I don’t have enough breath for anything multi-syllabic anyway.  "Cain’s been gone over two yahrens, Drake.  They’re not going after him.  They wouldn’t know where to start looking.  Besides, look at them.  Otori, Kobolian priests and other assorted religious fanatics.  Why would they go looking for Cain?  And why in hell would I?"

He still looks shell-shocked and shakes his head.  He glances at Sheba then back to me again.

"They want to go to Earth, but they want it for themselves.  I’ve got the route in my head, so that’s why they kidnapped me."

"And Sheba arranged it?"  he asks, disbelieving.

"She was the one who used the stun bolt."

"Why?" 

"Ask her," I say, knowing she’s listening to us.

We both look at her.  She smiles at us, mocking, and lays a delicate hand on her midriff, glancing down and letting the smile grow broader, as mysterious as some monstrous madonna.  The gesture’s quite unmistakeable.  Drake looks at me sharply.  What else can I do but let him know it’s true?  I nod, and he chokes and turns away abruptly, almost stumbling in his efforts to get away from me to the other side of the room.

Sheba’s smile grows broader.  She shrugs her disdain of both of us, and walks across to Cantor.  She slips her hand under his arm in a possessive little gesture that I see clearly.  So does Drake, I think.

"We had better begin, if the Kinan is quite finished with the histrionics," Zhyn says, from his end of the table. 

The man has presence, you’ve got to give him that, no matter how much you fear and dislike him.  In many ways, he reminds me of Dad, although I’m not sure either would relish the comparison.  But both have the power of command.  At his hint, the Synod comes to order almost immediately, with the people who haven’t any right to stay scurrying away.  Liu is beside Zhyn, but Jianne gives me one more wave of the medical scanner and leaves quietly, looking a little anxious. 

Well, if I do collapse they’ll just have to find their own way to Earth.  It’s their own bloody fault for hanging me in cold water for ten centars at a time.

Cantor takes his seat opposite Zhyn, but Dio is still crouched beside me, his arm around my shoulders.  Cantor raises an eyebrow at him, but Dio ignores him.  Quite a revolution, for my quiet obedient priest, to disobey the command of that raised eyebrow.

"I’ll be all right," I tell him.  "Go and sit down."

He nods, gives my shoulders one more squeeze and does as I say.  Cantor’s eyebrow goes up again, and the look he gives my poor priest is not friendly.

"Well," Cantor says after a micron of displeasure, evidently dismissing thoughts of Dio completely.  "We’re well away, and no sign of pursuit."

"We’re well out of scanner range," Sheba says.  "And the ion storm will be disrupting isometrics for days."

"Although our patrol will be missed," Drake mutters, religiously not looking at either me or Sheba.

"Not that they can do anything about it," shrugs Sheba, indifferent. 

"We’re on our way," Tomas murmurs.  "Thank the Lords, we’re on our way at last."

"And all we need are the new co-ordinates," Cantor says, speaking before Tomas finishes. 

Some things never change.  Tomas’s inability to command, his lack of presence, hasn’t changed.

Cantor and Zhyn both look at me.  Everyone looks at me.  I look back at them, solemn as I can make it, and then I can’t help it.  I’ve never felt less like it in my life, but I start to laugh. 

They all stare at me.  Cantor with icy offence, Zhyn with decided menace.  Tomas, Drake and the two Captains look astonished.  Dio’s anxious, Liu’s calm and inscrutable, but Sheba… ah, Sheba looks amused.  As amused as me.  Iblis knows, of course, and so she does too.  She knows the joke he’s playing on them all, the trap she’s baited and sprung on his behalf so Diabolis can laugh at mortal folly.

I really can’t help it.  The joke’s priceless, priceless!  And I warned them, I told them sectons ago and they wouldn’t listen.  He hates them, these religious ones, almost as much as he hates me, and he must be laughing almost harder than I am at the way he’s tricked them into wandering alone into the wilderness.  With one stroke he destroys them, and he aims to destroy me.

The laughing gets quite impossible for me to control, the more I think about it.  Quietly at first, then with increasing helplessness, I laugh until I can barely breathe.

Iblis and I laugh together until we cry. 

Alarmed, Dio darts back around the table.  "Apollo?"

"He is hysterical," Zhyn says, coldly contemptuous, with the air of a man watching a something that disgusts him almost beyond endurance.

I’m coughing now, and laughing together.  Dio soothes me the way he would a child, calms me enough to get some water into me.  I lean up against him and laugh more quietly, the amusement dying away as the effort brings on another fit of coughing.

"Have you quite finished?"  Cantor asks coldly when I’m quiet.

I’m not usually given to giggling like a schoolboy, but I’m still shaken by the occasional snigger.  I manage to nod though.

"And what was that all about?" Cantor demands.

"You’ll see," I say.  "You’ll see."

Cantor’s sigh is theatrical.  "One can only wonder at the choices the Lords made," he says, nastily.

"But make it they did," I say, straightening up in my chair.  I regret the outburst a little.  It’s tired me out, and I don’t have a lot in reserve today. Stupid how a heavy cold can knock the stuffing out of you.

"If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll have you restrained," Zhyn says, quiet, meaning it.

Tormas and the two Captains look both outraged and startled.  It almost makes me laugh again.  Did they really think that my captors treat me with any dignity and respect?  I have to ask them.

"But you’re the Anointed," Tomas squeaks in his quiet unheard way.

"Yes," I say with conviction.

"Until we have the Shield," Sheba says, amused, hand on her stomach again.  "Then we won’t need you any more."

"You need more than me, now," I say, and look from Zhyn to Cantor.  "You want me to recite the data, don’t you?  You want the route to Earth that the Lords have given me."

"If it wouldn’t be too much trouble," says Cantor with what he thinks is withering sarcasm.

"Not at all," I say with equal politeness.  I close my eyes and summon up the numbers.  For a micron I can’t see golden numerals, but deep blue eyes, and it takes some effort to push thoughts of all I’ve lost aside.  That sobers me, though.  There’s nothing there to make me laugh, although somewhere unimaginably distant, Iblis is almost hysterical with it by now.

The numbers start their slow scrolling.  "Elliptical course 195.1 gamma, by epsilon 56.31, 366.839; course change to 781.352 delta by alpha 92.7. 67.881; course change to 428.44 omega by theta 89.016, 579.112; course change to 355.009 alpha by …" 

"Hey!  Wait a centon!"  It’s one of the captains who interrupts.  The one who runs the Danae. 

"What is it?" demands Zhyn impatiently.

"That’s the course we were on before!  The Galactica gave us the first couple of co-ordinate clusters a yahren ago.  That’s the course the Fleet’s on."  The man looked outraged, like I’ve stolen something from him.

Well, I suppose I have.  I’ve stolen Paradise from him.  From all of them.

They’re all staring at me, and I can’t help it.  I try not to start laughing again.  My chest hurts too much for that, but I bestow a smile on them, as triumphant and malicious as I can make it.

"Remember the day I woke up, Cantor?"  I say it soft and quiet and hope they can hear the laughter in it.  "I told you then.  I told you that the numbers in my head only change when the whole Fleet changes course, not when I do.  I told you I wouldn’t be able to give you a new route to Earth."

"You were lying!" Cantor snaps back, but he looks stunned, his eyes wide with shock.  He hadn’t believed me.  "You’d say anything to get us to let you go."

"You should have listened to me," I say.  "You’ve led these poor fools out into the wilderness and you don’t know which way to take them.  You’ll never know which way to take them."

Zhyn’s on his feet, beside me in two strides.  "What of the prophecy?" he demands, his usually calm face dark with fury.

"He's lying," Cantor says.  "He’s recited those co-ordinates so often that he’s memorised them.  He’s lying to make us think we have to go back and give him up."

Zhyn’s mouth twists and he leans down until his face is scant inches from mine.  "If I have to turn back, Kinan," he says in a dreadful voice.  "I swear by the Lords that you will not live to see the Fleet again.  I will kill you myself."

"Zhyn!" protests Tomas.

"Shut that fool up."  Zhyn’s hard brown eyes are staring into mine and don't even flicker in Tomas’ direction.  "Do you hear me, Kinan?"

"I hear you.  Recite the prophecy, Priest."

His eyes narrow, as much at the disrespect in that bald title as anything else.  "What?"

"Recite the prophecy."

He says nothing, but takes a step back from me.  He’s watching me closely, his gaze flat and unfriendly. 

My life’s not worth much right now.  I am the Kinan, I am the Lords’ Anointed, but I can’t do what they want of me.  That makes me worthless to them.  So they either kill me or we go back.  The Lords alone know which way this’ll jump, and they aren’t telling me.

They don’t tell me much, actually.

Zhyn doesn’t seem like he’s going to comply with my order, so I recite it for him.  "Mai Aekestre Sem-ve, Rhamminadth, Kobol-galathdh Kinan gesinthe-ka voi, fro-sa Aekestrennt mai Citrudth voi.  Bystre Kinan sen-za, wei sen-zi drydtha Inspel, mai gardhe drydtha Rhinn.  Gesinthe Kobol-galathdh Kinan, tha-lei phosasdth."

He glowers at me.

"You know what it means, Priest," I say to him.

"Which is more than I do," Drake says, scowling.

I don’t turn to look at him, keeping my eyes on Zhyn.  "It’s my prophecy, Drake.  Thousands of yahrens ago, and Xuian knew I was coming.  ‘And the Redeemer chosen by the Light, Star Seer, the Anointed of the Lords of Kobol walks with thee, bringing thee Redemption and Peace.   Mark well the path of the Anointed, for in his path lies Salvation and in his seed is thy Shield.  Walk with the Lords’ Anointed or be silent.’  That’s what it means."

"Oh yeah," he says, sarcastic.  "Stupid of me to forget."

"The way to Earth *is* in your head." Cantor takes a deep breath and tries to resume the calm, religious manner.  "You’ve just memorised the old one.  It’s a trick."

I shake my head.  "All it says is ‘Walk with the Lords’ Anointed’, your Eminence."  I give the last two words as much scorn as I can manage.  "It doesn’t say anywhere at all that you can force the Lords’ Anointed, that you can force *me* into a new path, one of your choosing."

Zhyn turns to Liu and jerks his head towards the door, saying something harsh and sharp in Gemonese.  Liu gets up quietly and goes out.

"Then what do we do?" asks Tomas, fearfully.  "Does it mean we have to go back?"

He looks scared, and well he might.  My father is not one for revenge.  He’s a great stickler for justice, my Dad, and will see that’s exactly what they get.  But in this case, I think he is very unlikely to temper justice with mercy.

"Of course not," Cantor snaps at him.  "He’ll give us what we want.  We’ve got it out of him once.  He’ll do it again."

"In the Temple," I say.  "Did you record it?"

He looks at me and, like Zhyn, finds he doesn’t want to talk to me.  Yes, he recorded that drugged recitation.

"Then all you have to do is record me again, Cantor.  It takes me five, six centons to recite the entire route.  Compare the recordings.  Do you seriously think I can memorise five or six centons of complex course co-ordinates and never make one mistake?"

"We shall see," is all that Zhyn will say.

"Sure," I say and lean back in my chair.  I’m very tired.  "Any time you like."

"He’s sick," Dio says in protest.  "This should wait."

"It will work more quickly," Zhyn says, as Liu reappears.  He carefully takes something from Liu and comes back towards me.  "You can either take this, or we can be a little more forceful about it."

It’s not much of a smile by now.  But I give it all I’ve got.  "Oh, I want you to know, Zhyn.  I want you to realise just how futile this has all been.  I’ll take whatever you want."

"You will regret this," he says, very quiet. 

"Or you will," I say, and let him touch the needle to my neck, the needle full of the serum that will make me tell the truth.

But then, I’ve always told the truth. 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

"I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me what this is all about?" Drake says.

"Why?"  I look up at him.  "Won’t Sheba tell you?"

He reddens and mumbles something, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.  He won’t look at me, looking instead at the blank screen on the wall, resolutely not meeting my eyes.

I think I understand.  "Cantor?"

He sighs and nods.  "I haven’t seen her since that meeting.  And that was centars ago."

"Was it?"  I only woke up about a centar or so ago, back here again.  Whoever they’ve appointed to carry me about the ship has virtually a full time job these days. 

"She just went off with him!"  Resentment and disbelief are fighting for supremacy.

I say nothing, giving Drake a centon or two to get himself together.  He walks about the room a bit.  Well, three strides to the side wall and three strides across to its opposite.  Short strides, too.  I suppose he’s thinking about Sheba.

I’m thinking about Starbuck and Boxey.  When I woke up, and remembered that we’d left the Fleet, I cried for a centar and nothing Dio could do or say could comfort me.  He’s only just left me now I’ve managed to calm down a bit, to find Jianne because he’s getting really worried about me and the way I can’t stop coughing, and the totally disgusting crap that I’m starting to cough up.  He’d only been gone a few centons when Drake came in.

"I talked with some of the others, the captain of the Calliope and a couple of the priests.  We aren’t heading after Cain.  We’re heading for Earth, like you said."  Drake sounds aggrieved, as if he’s looking for someone to blame, and I’m handy.

"I know," I say.

He’s quiet for a centon or two, then stops pacing and stares around.   "Not very big," he says.

"It’s home," I say wryly. 

"They lock you up in here?"

"I’ve been locked in here ever since she shot me down.  Twenty eight days now."

He looks shocked.  "In here?  It’s smaller than a barge cell!"

I nod, already getting tired.  I’ve got to take this slow and easy.  My chest feels very tight, hurting with every breath.

"Shit," he says, so painfully bewildered that for the first time I feel sorry for him.  "And she did this?  And you and her…?"

I nod again and he turns away to kick at the wall in frustration.

Well, at least it’s the wall and not me.

I think about where he can sit.  Dio will be back in a centon, and the only chair in the room is his uncomfortable drop-down seat.  I sit up slowly and turn so my back’s against the side wall of the bed niche.  When he’s finished kicking and turns back towards me, I wave a hand at the free bit of mattress.

"I’ve only the one seat and that’s Dio’s.  He’ll be here in a micron.  This is all I can offer you."

He shakes his head.  "I’d rather stand," he says, voice thick.

But he walks about a bit more first, kicking at the walls each time he reaches them and turns.  It’ll be a bit difficult when Dio gets back here.  He’ll have to trample on my poor priest every time he gets to that wall, or curtail his pacing by a third. 

He wants to talk about me and Sheba, I know it, but I want Dio here for that.  There’s little enough that frail old priest can do if Drake turns nasty about it, but I’d rather he was here.  At the moment Drake seems more stunned than nasty, but that might not last.

"What happened up there after they drugged me?"  I ask, keeping him away from the topic for a bit longer.

"You just kept giving them the same numbers." He stops pacing to talk to me, leaning up against the wall.  "They got pretty mad with you."

I touch my face gingerly.  It had hurt like hell when I woke up, and between that, the crashing headache from the head injury and feeling like shit from the cold, I’m feeling pretty miserable.  But I’d had so much more to be miserable about that I hadn’t bothered asking Dio about it.  "I wondered about that."

"Cantor," Drake says, then adds in considered judgement:  "It’ll bruise some."

"I thought it might," I say gloomily.

"He lost it with you on about the fifth time of getting the same course.  He hit you a couple of times before the old priest stopped him."

"Did he?  There’s hope for Dio yet, then."

"Sick," Drake says.  "I mean, what the hell’s the point of hitting someone when you’ve drugged them unconscious?"

"Quite." I’m momentarily touched by his concern, before wondering if it’s the waste of energy that he’s bemoaning rather than the fact of Cantor hitting me.  I won’t ask. 

"Do they do that often?  Drug you up?"

"All the time," I say.  "I’m Zhyn’s favourite pin-cushion.  Something to keep his needles in."

"Shit," he says, and runs his hand through his hair, frowning. 

"Quite," I say again, sounding like Anton, which amuses me a little.  "What are they going to do?  Do you know?""

He shrugs.  "For the moment, we’re running on a parallel course to the Fleet, out of sensor range."

It’s the only thing they can do, I suppose, and it means it’s easy to navigate back.  You just plot a convergence course.  "At least they can’t get it wrong.  A first yahren cadet could do those navigational calculations." 

"I did ‘em," Drake says.  "At least, I checked the calculations the captains did.  We’ll be okay as long as the Fleet doesn’t change course without us knowing"

"Don’t worry.  I’d know."

He stares, then makes a funny sort of snort which I think is meant to be ironic laughter.  "Oh yeah.  The Prophet."

"The Anointed."

"Does it matter?"

"It does to me.  It’s bad enough with the job I’ve got, without speaking in tongues."

He shrugs again, indifferent.  "Oh well.  Whatever."

He steps smartly out of the way as the door opens and Dio comes in with Jianne.  Both of them look surprised to see Drake here but all he does is nod some sort of greeting at them, and goes back to leaning.  It makes the room crowded, with the three of them here.

Jianne gives me another shot of antibiotics and more decongestants.  If they make me cough up more of the disgusting yellow phlegm that got Dio so alarmed, I’m not sure I want them.  Jianne, though, seems mildly pleased.

"Better than it clogging up your lungs.  Have you eaten?"

I shake my head.  I’m not hungry, only thirsty and Dio, thank God has the inevitable pot of tea for me.

"You should try.  Just rest, Kinan.  I will be back later tonight to check on you."

She nods to Drake and Dio, and the guard lets her out.  Dio makes me get back into bed and hands me my tea.  He perches on the end of the bed, beside my feet and looks curiously, but amicably, at Drake.

"If you pull down that seat, Lieutenant Drake, we can be comfortable while we talk.  I’m sorry I can’t offer you tea, but I want him to have as much fluid as he can take."

I sigh slightly, wondering what sort of monster I’m creating here, and having doubts about previously scoffing at the theory of reincarnation.  "Drake, meet my mother," I say.

The look I get from Dio is both long-suffering and forgiving, and I almost find myself apologising.  "He’s not well," he says to Drake.

"He looks like shit," Drake says with brutal honesty, finding Dio’s little chair and perching on it.  "You know, Apollo, everyone thinks you’re dead.  No one could believe that you were hidden in the Fleet anywhere, that we wouldn’t find you.  I didn’t believe it myself.  What the hell’s going on?"

I have a memory, fleeting and gone before I can grasp it, of telling someone that they could never hide in a Fleet this small, that I’d find them.  Boomer, maybe?  I can’t really remember, but I’m conscious of the irony.  "In a centon.  Drake, I’ve no idea what’s been going on back home.  Starbuck, Boxey, my Dad… are they all right?"

Dio’s hand closes comfortingly on mine.

Drake looks uncomfortable.  "I guess so.  I mean, Starbuck’s not been seen much since it happened…"  he pauses, then when I ask him, he starts from the beginning, and tells me what happened when everyone realised I was missing.  "The commander made the wedding speech, of course.  Everyone was wondering where you and Bucko had got to.  I mean, I wasn’t the only one who saw you sneaking away with him and we could all guess why, but it was pretty odd that you hadn’t got back before the commander started talking.  I can see Bucko not wanting to stick around and listen to speeches, but that wasn’t like you."

"I was otherwise occupied," I say, with truth.  By Starbuck, in those pleasure-boy turboflushes, but I hope they think I mean by being abducted.

He gives that funny little snort of laughter again, and nods.  "When the speeches were over, the party went on, but I could see the commander was getting mad.  Everyone could see he was getting mad.  Me and Sheba laughed about it a bit."  He looks apologetic.  "Making jokes, you know, about what you and Starbuck were up to."

"I can guess," I say, hoping they’d mistake the blushing for fever.  I cough, to add to the effect, then regret it.  It’s about four centons before I can stop, and I’ve spilled tea everywhere, Dio’s fussing worse than my mother ever did and I have to lie there and take it, gasping for breath.

"You look terrible," Drake says when I manage to get the coughing under control and Dio’s mopped up the tea.

It’s exhausted me, and all I can do is lie back on the pillow and gasp.  My chest’s aching with coughing and I decide that next time, I’ll keep the double entrendres to myself and just blush when someone else does it.  When I can talk again, I’m as hoarse as a crow.  "I feel it.  What happened then?"

"He must have sent Security to look for you, because after maybe half a centar, Reese comes in and talks to him, quiet-like.  Me and Sheba weren’t close enough to hear what Reese said, but it obviously wasn’t good news: of course, later everyone figured it out.  Reese told him they’d just found Starbuck and you were missing.  The commander went and talked to Boomer for a few centons, and Boomer took Athena away.  Your father left the party and that was it.  No-one knew anything until the next day when there were rumours flying all over the place that Bucko was dead and you were missing."

"Dead!"  It’s stupid of me, because I know he’s not.  I’ve seen him on the screen and I know he's not dead, but it frightens me anyway.

Drake doesn’t seem to notice, or care about my reaction.  "Quite a few people thought you’d caught him with someone else and killed him in a jealous rage, then topped yourself."  He means that’s a rumour he liked a lot and probably passed on joyfully.  "Later in the day we heard that Bucko was alive but in Life Centre, and you were still missing.  Council Security were taking the Rising Star apart looking for you, and the commander had Trent’s people combing through every shuttle that had docked with the Star over the previous twenty four centars, and then every ship that the shuttles had touched down on afterwards.  They didn’t turn up anything, and then we started on the entire Fleet.  We searched every ship twice.  Shit, they only did the Icarus again a couple of days ago.  How’d they miss you?"

"The Otori drugged him and hid him inside the water filtration towers," Dio says. 

"Where I caught this bloody cold," I add, aggrieved.

"Neat," he says, with momentary admiration, but I’m willing to bet that the expression on my face is not encouraging, and he goes on, quickly: "Bucko had taken a bad hit.  They said that it was a stun bolt and he must have taken most of the force, and since his lung’s still a bit weak from that time he went missing after the last fight we had with the tinheads…" he pauses, and grins slightly.

"I know.  I know" I say impatiently.  "We take it in turns to go missing.  Is he all right?"

"Sorry.  Yeah.  Few mild laser flash burns and he was pretty sick for a few days with pneumonia, Cassie said, but he’s okay.  Honest, Apollo."

I nod, not able to speak, so grateful, so very grateful that the Lords had spared him.

"We haven’t seen much of him, really.  He’s still on sick leave and he spends most of his time looking after your kid.  Who’s also okay, so far as I know."

"They think I’m dead."

He looks uncomfortable.  "I guess," he says.  "Everyone does, really.  I mean, no-one has any real idea about how or why, but they all think you’re a goner.  And you were here all the time."

"Every last centon of it," I say.

He pauses, and looks down at his combat boots.  "Was it really Sheba?"

"She says so," I tell him.  "And I believe her.  All I know is that it was a woman.  You’re right.  Starbuck took most of the impact of the stun bolt.  I wasn’t quite unconscious, although I couldn’t speak or move.  I didn’t see her face, but I know she had long hair and she’d been at the party."

"How?"

"Her hair touched my face at one point, and I could see her party shoes.  Black shoes with crystal buckles."

He winces, then nods.  "But why does she care about the numbers in your head?" he demands.

"I don’t suppose she does, poor girl," Dio says sadly.

"Then why?" And there’s real pain in his voice, a real need to understand.

I look at Dio, who lets his breath out in a long, soft sigh, and looks right back at me.  I can almost hear him saying it :  it’s your theory, Apollo.  You explain it.

"What do you remember about Count Iblis?" I ask.

"Not a lot," he says.  "I was with Bojay on that patrol, remember, and we lost a couple of days.  I’ve never really understood it all, and, to be honest, I decided I was better off that way.  I might not like the answers if I probed too deep, so I let it lie.  I know what the rumours were, that he was really the Evil One, but I don’t think much of that.  And that’s when we ran into those Light Ships, of course, and you got those numbers in your head."  He pauses and adds, thoughtfully:  "I didn’t think much of that, either, until now.  It was really weird listening to you recite all those numbers, over and over, and not one mistake."

"I don’t know if Iblis was the Evil One," I say.  "But he was evil.  Very evil, and very powerful.  Look, Drake, it’s only just starting to make sense to me as well, and it’s all tied up with that crazy prophecy.  The Ship of Lights was looking for me to put the numbers into my head and Iblis was looking for me to kill me first.  He couldn’t win me over – he got my back up with the way he talked to Da… the commander, and I wouldn’t listen to him.  But he got under Sheba’s guard."

"How?"

I shrug.  "I’m not sure.  By being paternal and reassuring, reminding her of her father, maybe even promising she’d see Cain again.  She was pretty shook up about Cain leaving her behind when he went after the base ships, and I think that’s how Iblis got to her.  Look, Drake, it’s pretty obvious you care for her.  This is going to be really hard to hear."

"Go on," he says steadily.

"Sure?  Okay.  He really is evil, Drake.  I think that it’s not really been the old Sheba since then, that she still looks the same, but Iblis controls and uses her."

He’s very powerful, is Iblis.  Because through her, he controls the priests and the religious faction, exerting his influence over them, making them believe whatever he wants them to believe..  And through her, Iblis has controlled Drake.  I don’t think I’ll say so, though, just yet.

"Oh, come on!"

"She hasn’t been the same since," I point out.  "She changed a lot."

"Well, yes, but…"

"An awful lot," I say, not wanting to spell it out.

"She was settling down with me," Drake says sharply.

Ah, yes.  That’s why she’s presumably screwing Cantor’s brains out as we speak.  But I don’t say it.  He glowers at me for a centon, and I guess he’s thinking the same thing.

"Get on with it," he says.

"All right.  The Ship of Lights got rid of Iblis.  I don’t understand how, but they seem to have put some sort of restriction on him, so he can’t come to us direct.  He has to work through others."  I don’t say it again.  He knows what I mean.  "And the people of the Ship gave each of us something to do, to make sure we get to wherever it is we’re going."

"Earth," says Dio, with a quiet conviction unshaken by anything Cantor and Zhyn have done.

"Wherever.  I’ve got the routemap, so my job is to be their messenger; Starbuck’s job is to look after me; and Sheba…"

"Well?"

Oh dear.  He isn’t going to take this well.  I lie back on the pillows and try to look extra pathetic.  I’m really not up to anything energetic if he takes exception to what I’m going to tell him, and I’m not sure if his distaste for hitting people when they’re unconscious also extends to hitting them when they’re sick. 

"She says that they told her she’s to be the mother of my son, who will also have the numbers in his head."

He stares at me for a full centon without speaking, his expression fixed and unfriendly.  Then he takes a very deep breath.

"And did you?"  he asks, calmly enough.  "Did you fuck with her?"

I nod.  "They made sure of it," I say, and give Dio a look that reminds him I still haven’t forgiven that.

Dio flushes.  "It was part of the deal she made with his Emin… with Cantor.  If you listened to the prophecy you’ll remember that it talked about Apollo’s seed being important.  Everyone was willing to go along with it, to ensure that Apollo has a child."  He pauses then says diffidently, "Everyone except Apollo, that is."

"His tastes run in different directions," Drake says with a sneer.

"I love Starbuck," I say to him.  "The way you love her."

He just shrugs angrily.  "So they gave you something in a needle?"

"Yes." I look at Dio, not wanting to talk about it.  I still can’t think of what I did to Sheba without hating everything about it, her and me.

"All that mattered to her was getting pregnant by him," Dio says gently.  "The Otori didn’t mind, once they’d got over the initial disappointment that one of their own girls wasn’t chosen.  They know Apollo has to have a son."

Oh, well, that’s all right now.  Zhyn’s offered me one of his virgins.  But I don’t say it aloud.  I don’t think Drake will take too kindly to it.

"The drugs Jianne gave Apollo were really very powerful."  Dio’s looking very uncomfortable now.  "And very effective."

"This was, when?  A couple of sectons ago?" Drake asks, his face still unfriendly.  "She had a couple of days furlough and came back all beat up.  Was that you?"  There’s flat menace in his voice.

"Yes," I say.  I can hardly deny it.  "The drugs were *very* effective."

"And that’s your excuse for what you did to her?"  The menace goes up a few notches.

"The reason.  There’s no excuses."

But he isn’t mad.  For a micron I think it hangs in the balance, but he just looks down at his boots and I wonder if he’s thinking where she is now, and whether there’s really any point in getting mad over her when he knows, and knew all the time, how she’d spend a few days off. 

"I knew she’d been with someone," he says, his voice sad.  "I wish she wouldn’t do that."

"I don’t want her, Drake.  I never did."  I’m sad, because she’s warped him so completely, that he’s no pride left, nothing but a dependence on Sheba that’s almost inexplicable.  Except that it’s a dependence on Iblis, on the warped presence that lives in Sheba.

"Pretty powerful stuff then," he says.

I take a risk.  "I’d have screwed the shit out of *you* if you’d been there.  So, yeah.  Bloody powerful."

He looks surprised, then works it out and grins slightly.  "It’s mutual, Captain.  Can’t see what Bucko sees in you, myself."

Dio sighs gently.  I guess he was a bit worried about where this conversation was going, but he also sees what I see.  Drake’s a mess, but he obviously loves Sheba.  Just as obviously, he knows her.  She must have been screwing around all the time they were together, and he knows it.

"How did you get here, Lieutenant?"  Dio asks, changing the subject.

He sighs.  "It was Sheba’s idea, really, but you know that."

Me and Dio both nod.  He’s so clever, Iblis.  All of this is his idea, really, using Sheba, and through her Cantor, and through him, Zhyn and Jianne and Liu, and even my priest Dio.  And now Drake.  He has a long arm, has Iblis, that he’s been able to set up this long chain of pollution. 

He’s winning.

"She said, oh sectars ago now, that she really wanted to go back and find Cain and there were a few of us that agreed with her.  Not all the old Pegasus people, but a few of us."

"Her own flight," I said, thinking of the half dozen pilots who’d refused to integrate.

"Yeah.  Those of us who never fitted in."  He gives me a tight smile.  "It was so different, Apollo.  You thought differently on the Galactica and some of us didn’t like the change or the way you looked down on us.  She said she thought she could get us back to where we left Cain…"

"Two yahrens ago!"  I say, a twinge of conscience about the way he says we looked down on the Pegasus crew.  I’d thought it was the other way around.  But how could he fall for this?  He isn’t *that* stupid.

"I know, but it all seemed possible.  I mean, it’d be a lot faster with only three ships to nurse along and we’d not have to be as cautious as you are about mapping out new systems.  We’d be going back the way we came and we know what we’d be facing."  He must be reading the expression on my face because he sighs and frowns.  "We’re tired of running, Apollo.  She said that there were others in the Fleet who felt the same way wanted to stop running and go back and fight the tinheads, to retake the Colonies."

"Retake the Colonies?"  I can hardly believe it, but then I remember that they hadn’t been there.  "They’re cinders, Drake.  Ashes.  There’s nothing to retake."

"Well, I don’t know that," he says, making it sound like a reasonable objection, and because I scent a faint whiff of alliance here, however unwilling, I refrain from suggesting that if Cain hadn’t deserted, Drake would have known it.  He’d have been there with the rest of us. 

"Sure," is all I say.

"Well, look, there’s still some of us hate the idea of leaving Cain behind.  He’s the best, and we left him."  He shakes his head as if not believing that he’d ever accepted that.  "We all said yes; me and three or four others from Sheba’s flight.  We were careful who we asked, making sure we only talked to those who hadn’t changed."

"So Bojay didn’t know?"

"No.  He’s gone soft, not one of us any more.  Cain would’ve run him off the Pegasus."

Lords, but he’s proud of that!  Cain really did warp these pilots.  No wonder Sheba was such easy meat for Iblis.  I reflect that we really are what our parents make us, the inescapable result of genes and nurturing.  It’s useful to have Dad to blame.  I’ll have to remember that, and I hope I get the chance to tell him one day.

"We wanted to get back to Cain, to the good old ways of doing things and fighting the tinheads.  So we started planning it.  Sheba acted as contact with the civilians who wanted to come with us.  We had it all worked out.  When there was a chance, they’d make a break for it.  But we all remembered what happened the first time the Danae took off.  Our job was to protect them when they did it, make sure that we were the flight on duty at that part of the Fleet so we could be, you know, sent after them to turn them back.  By the time that the Galactica worked out that we’d gone too, it’d be too late."

"Neat," I say, echoing his comment of a few centons ago.

"Yeah," he says with a flash of self-deprecating humour that surprises me.  "We thought so.  Hasn’t quite worked out that way though.  She had me fooled."

Damn right, she did.  All the way.  I guess it was seeing all those religious types on the Icarus that gave him a clue, but I say nothing.

"They’ve spent the last few sectars gradually getting everyone onto the right ships and making sure the ships were grouped together.  Sheba said it had to be done carefully and slowly, to avoid suspicion.  We almost went round about the time you disappeared, but it got delayed.  Some technical problem.  Then, a couple of days ago, Isometrics warned us we were heading into a mild ion storm.  Nothing serious, but enough to scramble the Galactica’s sensors for a few centars.  Sheba said that was the best time to go, and she set it all up.  And that’s all, really."   He looks from me to Dio.  "She really used us, didn’t she?"

"Yes, my son," Dio says gently.  "She really did.  I’m sorry."

Drake makes a big effort to sound indifferent, but I think he’s some way to go before he’s over her.  "I’ll get over it.  And I don’t have to stick around."

I frown at that.  "They won’t let you go anywhere," I say.  "They won’t let you go back.  If you tell Dad I’m here, he’ll come after me and they know it.  They’ll not you go."

He stares at me.  I’m sorry to spell it out to him, but if he’s to be of any help to me and Dio he has to understand, he has to realise it.  Absorb it, assess it, use it.

"Your prison may be a bit bigger than this room, Drake,"  I say.  "But get used to it.  You’re as much a prisoner now as I am."

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

It’s worse when Dio leaves me for the night. 

I don’t think that he really wanted to go.  He’s been increasingly anxious about me all day, fussing to the point where I’d have yelled at him if I’d had enough of a voice to do it with.  He’s worried about the fact that I’ve got worse, not better, despite everything Jianne’s given me, and that my temperature’s climbing steadily.

By the time he leaves, hurried out by Liu, everything’s in a mist and I barely realise he’s gone.  I’m incredibly hot, sweating all the time, the sweat stinging my eyes. My chest hurts with every breath, and although he settled me in before he went, tucking me up as if I’m about five and he really is my mother, I have to struggle to sit up not long after he goes and Liu locks me in.  I just can’t breathe at all lying down.

I can’t sleep.  Not just because I’m hot and uncomfortable and can’t breathe, but I daren’t sleep.  If I sleep, I might just dream.

I don’t want to dream tonight.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

"We’ve given your problem some thought, my son," Cantor says.

It’s two days since we left the Fleet.  I’ve not left my little room since then, unable to shake this damned cold.  Bronchitis, Jianne thinks, but she keeps saying that she’s a medtech, not a doctor, and she’s not entirely certain, a bit worried about why my temperature climbs every night.  Not typical, apparently.  Well, whatever it is I’ve got, the antibiotics don’t work and I can’t stop coughing.

Typical of this lot, that they can’t even bring a doctor along with them.  The only conclusion I can come to is that they’re so convinced of their holiness that they believe that sickness will be kept away by divine intervention, that they’re too righteous and saintly to be ill.

Which speaks volumes about what they might think of the state of *my* soul. 

Not that I care much.  Worse than being sick, by far, is the bleak and dark depression that’s almost overwhelmed me since we left.  I don’t know that I can even begin to describe how I feel. 

I’m never going to see him again and it’s worse than death.

Eighteen sectars ago, I thought I’d lost him to the Cylons.  I’d thought I’d been broken hearted over Serina’s death, although now I think that was as much guilt as grief.  But when I thought Starbuck was gone…  that was desolation.  Not just my heart was broken, everything was, fractured into piercingly sharp shards.  Everything hurt.  Light, silence, noise, darkness, people talking to me, people being considerate and leaving me alone: it all hurt because he wasn’t there to share it with me.  There was something offensive about the way that everything went on around me, uncaring and indifferent, something indecent in the way that everything refused to stop, the way that my life had stopped, desolate as death itself.

It would have been a mercy to put my laser to my head and follow him.  In the blackest moments I would have done it, but for Boxey.  It was my fault his mother was dead.  I couldn’t deprive him of the only father he’d ever known.  However inadequate I am in that role, he needed me.  Boxey was my touchstone, the only thing in the desolation that made breathing possible.

No Boxey, this time.  No touchstone to keep me here.

Starbuck will take care of him for me.  Maybe he’ll be Starbuck’s touchstone.  I hope so.  All I know is that there’s nothing for me here any more; nothing that blunts those sharp shards, nothing that makes this existence even a little bearable.

So nothing they can do to me to deal with whatever problem it is they’ve decided I’ve got, bothers me much.

"We’ve decided on a course of action to remedy it," Cantor goes on.  "Then the Lords will forgive you, and provide you with new co-ordinates for us."

I just wait, huddled into a chair in the anteroom to the Otori Temple.  Dio’s here, of course: my priest, my nurse, my shadow, my only friend in this black pit.  Zhyn’s at Cantor’s shoulder, his cold slanting eyes watching me, assessing me.  Sheba and Tomas are here, and I’ve just watched a few dozen Kobolians go in.  They seem to be encouraging some sort of strange ecumenism; sharing services daily, Dio tells me.  He hasn’t been to one of them.  He’s been too busy nursing me, and he’s fallen out of whatever slight favour Cantor held him in. 

Drake’s over by the far wall, his expression sullen.  Surprisingly, he’s been to see me a couple of times, and although he doesn’t talk much, he at least knows Starbuck and isn’t quite as helpless as Dio when it all gets too much for me.  He may be less patient, but his brusque presence is more likely to get me to calm down than Dio’s mute sympathy.

"You are mired in sin," Zhyn says when I don’t react.

*The Otori punish sin*  Dio said once.  How long ago now?  A long time ago, when I was alive enough to care about it, when I still hoped that I might find a way out of this.  But now I hunch a shoulder indifferently.  I really don’t care.  It might only matter if you’re alive and desperately want to stay that way. 

"You are mired in sin, and Lords will not speak through you until you have made sincere penance," he says.  "There is the abomination with that creature who you allowed to use you, and Asan’s blood.  Both need expiation."

"He’s sick!" Dio protests.  "For the Lords’ sake!"

"Shut up," Cantor says, without even looking at him.

"This is a special service tonight, Kinan."  Zhyn almost spits out the title, his contempt and disgust almost taking physical form.  "Tonight we hold a Service of Contrition in your honour."

Sheba comes in close, and puts her hand on Zhyn’s arm.  She smiles at me, and I can see the redness in her eyes.  I wonder why no-one else can, not even Drake who knows her so well, or Dio who fears her. 

She owns Zhyn too, then.  No doubt she’s allowed him to plant some of that seed he’s so keen on, and that’s how she established title and ownership.  Odd.  He was almost as contemptuous about her before as he is about me now.  It’s clever how she’s stolen their souls from them.  Drake's luckier than he knows, that he’s relatively unimportant, that she never thought him worth bothering with to the same extent; that all she wanted to do was influence him to help her get these ships away from the Fleet.

Cantor frowns slightly.  I don’t know whether he’s put out about Sheba touching Zhyn or my lack of reaction to anything they’re saying.

"You are lucky, Kinan," Zhyn says.  "We have chosen only twenty to administer the chastisement.  For perversion and murder, it should have been many more."  He turns the cold eyes to Dio.  "But as this old fool says, you are sick.  We are not unmerciful."

That makes me almost smile.  They wouldn’t recognise mercy if it had them in a stranglehold.  I don’t say anything to protest, or even to wonder what form this chastisement will take.  Speech takes too much of the breath I’m getting into my lungs so painfully, and nothing I say will make any difference.  They’ll do what they want because they can, and I can’t stop them.

I can only endure it. 

Or not.

"Ten Otori, ten Kobolians," Cantor says.  "From each of the ships, so they can represent all those who’ve put their trust in you."

Well, I didn’t ask them to.  For the first time since Liu and the others half-carried me here, I’m interested.  I wonder if Cantor’s told them all that he’s betrayed them, if they know that all they’re doing is running parallel to their old course, that there’s no special course to Paradise for them.  Somehow I doubt it.

"How have you explained it, Eminence?" Dio asks him. 

"Explained it?  Explained what?" Cantor sounds almost outraged at the thought that he might be called upon to explain anything.  Obviously that’s the gravest of social solecisms.

"Why we’ve spent sectars telling our people that he is the Anointed, touched by the Lords.  How do you explain that he’s now so sinful that he’s in need of chastisement?"

"Why, he was touched by Iblis, Father Dio," Sheba says, wide eyed.  "And bemused by the creature, Starbuck, that Iblis sent to ensnare him."

Cantor’s so unconscious of the irony that I could almost laugh.  He looks approvingly at Sheba, at the creature of Iblis sent to ensnare me.

"They won’t stand for this," Dio says.  "They believe in him."

"Don’t be a fool," Cantor says savagely.  "All they need to know – all they’ve been told - is that he wants to atone for the terrible, accidental death he caused the other night.  They believe he’s asked for this act of purification.  Only we know it has a deeper purpose."

"This is a common service amongst us," Zhyn says. 

I bet it is.  He sees sin in a lot of things, I guess, and they need some service to deal with it.

"I have undergone it myself," Zhyn says, virtuous.  "To ensure my purity is unsullied."  He gives me a hard look.  "It is an honour we grant you, Kinan, as if you were one of our own."

Zhyn may even believe this nonsense.  I don't think Cantor would ever have fallen for anything this simplistic, except that I don't think, either, that Cantor does his own thinking these days.  I think Iblis does that for him.  The influence that devil's been able to bring to bear is frightening.

Dio looks from one to the other of them, and then at me.  "God forgive me," he says quietly, remorsefully. 

Ah well, I’m not the only one who can have an epiphany then.  Dio’s revelation has been slower than mine, but is complete at last.

"Time to go."  Cantor offers his arm to Sheba, who drops Zhyn’s with a little pat of approval and a sweet smile. 

Dio puts a hand on my shoulder.  "And will you forgive me?"  he says.

I nod.  There’s no reason not to forgive Dio.  He stands between me and them, and frail as he is, he’s all I have.

"Dio," Cantor says coldly.

"I’m staying with Apollo."

"You’ll do as you’re told, or I’ll have you thrown out of here altogether."  Cantor’s tone is flat, brooking no argument, and Dio looks disconcerted.

"I’ll be all right.  I’d rather you were in there.  Go with him," I say, and after a centon’s more fruitless dithering, he allows himself to be hustled into the Temple, looking at me anxiously over his shoulder as he goes.  Drake trails along behind them.  He gives me a puzzled, questioning glance.

"Can you walk?"  Zhyn asks abruptly.

I just want to get this over with, so I can go back to my cell.  This is a distraction from grief, something to catch at the edges of the black pit and mock at me with that indecent offensiveness that is everything refusing to stop when your life has stopped.  I want it over and I want the quiet of my little room again.

And because I just want to get it over with, I push myself to my feet without answering him.  Zhyn has to put out a hand to steady me, but as soon as the dizziness passes, I shrug him away.  Impassive as ever, he turns to the big double doors, the acolytes grouped around us, and we start the processional entrance.

It’s a long, long way to walk.  I never noticed before how far it is.  The Temple’s dark but for the light on the altar a million miles away, a golden glow that fades and flickers as I struggle towards it.  It advances and recedes on me in the oddest way.  It’s disturbing, disconcerting, and I don’t like it.  At least, my chair’s there, that I can rest in.  That’s all that keeps me going. 

Zhyn's hand is back on my arm after we’ve gone a few steps and this time I don’t throw him off.  It takes me a centon or two to realise he’s doing it, and maybe it’s only when I stop to catch my breath that I see that he has an arm around me now, holding me up.

"Liu," he says, very quiet, breaking that living silence.

But that’s unprecedented!  Except in that Sunstorm service when he invited Cantor to speak, I’ve never heard Zhyn say a word here in the Temple.  I look at him, surprised, and lean against Liu when he comes up to the other side of me.  I wonder if Liu’s surprised, too, at this break with tradition.  I notice that he gives Zhyn a strange look, almost disapproving.

"I will help you, Kinan," Liu says in my ear, and I let him take my other arm.

We start off again slowly.  It’s such a long way to walk, and the blood’s singing in my ears, drowning out the pained, watchful, anxious silence; the sweat’s stinging in my eyes so that the golden altar light dances, ebbing and flowing until it makes me dizzy with it.  We have to stop a couple of times so I can rest.  It’s just so far to go.

There’s no chair.  No chair?

One of the acolytes comes up and takes over from Zhyn, another replaces Liu.  For a micron I meet Liu’s eyes and he’s not comfortable with this.  It’s worrying him, and I’ve an irrational urge to reassure him.

"It’s all right," I say, quiet, a wheezing breath between the words.

His eyes widen and he glances at Zhyn, hesitating, then he looks away from me and steps back into the shadows.  I think he goes over to stand at the end of the front row, near where Dio’s sitting beside Cantor.

The acolytes, each holding one of my hands step away from me, to each side.  They hold me taut, strung out between them with my arms outstretched.  They pull hard to hold me upright, to stop my knees from giving way.  It makes me cough, and my chest hurts.

Zhyn’s speaking.  Not Gemonese or Kobolian, but Standard.  Odd, unless he’s doing it for the benefit of the non-Otori here tonight.  I’d never thought he’d compromise to that extent. 

In that strangely formal speech pattern so typical of the Otori, he talks about my sorrow at inadvertently causing Asan’s death, my need for forgiveness, the contrition I’m feeling.  I’m not really listening, looking up only when he mentions Starbuck by name, telling everyone that my lover is a perverted monster whose pollution I’m casting off, that I’m reaching for a recognition of my own sin.

"No!" I say. 

Or maybe I don’t, because although I think I’ve protested loudly, nobody reacts to me, nobody says anything. 

They’re all looking at me, watching me, threatening me with their demands on me, the silent demand that I be their Kinan, pure and sanctified and unpolluted.  They’re all listening to Zhyn calling those who’ve been chosen to bring me to contrition and repentance, and if they heard my protest, it’s disregarded and falls away into that watchful silence.

The first one’s an Otori girl.  Young and pretty, her face paint accentuates high cheekbones beneath beautifully clear brown eyes.  She comes up to me, her face set with a kind of nervous determination.  She won’t quite meet my eyes, glancing full at me only for a micron before looking away again, blushing a little.

The acolytes pull my arms even further apart.  It hurts.  Oh Lord, it hurts, and I can hardly get my breath.

The silence is almost alive, visible, hovering over every one us here, heavy and oppressive over our heads, expectant and waiting.  This is a silence that’s clamouring with menace.

In this ominous silence, she comes and stands before me.  She puts one hand on the back of my neck, and the other she lays lightly over my heart.

"Jasthine voi," she says in a clear voice, and somehow it doesn’t break the silence.  It intensifies it, and the oppression grows heavier.  "Aekestrennt.  Jasthine voi."

I forgive thee.  Redemption.  I forgive thee.

The hand over my heart rises and abruptly lands on my chest again.  It’s a light blow, but it’s enough to drive the air out of my lungs with surprise.  She taps my chest again, and even as I’m coughing desperately, trying to get air, she leans forward.  Steadying herself with the hand on the back of my head, she kisses me lightly on the lips.  I cough all over her.

"Aekestrennt," she says again.

Redemption.

Mai Aekestre Sem-ve, Rhamminadth, Kobol-galathdh Kinan gesinthe-ka voi, fro-sa Aekestrennt mai Citrudth voi.

And the Redeemer chosen by the Light, Star Seer, the Anointed of the Lords of Kobol walks with thee, bringing thee Redemption and Peace.  

Redemption and Peace.

She kisses me again, her lips light as gossamer on mine, then steps away, her eyes bright with tears.  She looks down at her feet, as if she’s the one who’s sinned and is ashamed and can’t look anyone in the face, as if she’s taken some of that from me with the kiss, and Liu puts out a hand to guide her back to her seat in the row behind Cantor.  As she sits down, tears running down her face now, the man, a Leonid Kobolian, I think, stands up from his seat next to her and walks towards me, his dark face solemn.

Eighteen more of them follow him, one by one.

And every one of them forgives me, offering me redemption.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

Somewhere, Dio’s protesting in an angry, sibilant whisper, arguing with Cantor.  It’s been growing as the acts of contrition and forgiveness go on, a buzz of sound that contrasts with the silence above our heads.

"Aekestrennt," the old Otori says to me softly.  His lips are dry and cool as they touch mine. 

He rests his forehead against mine for a micron, almost as if he relishes the contact, then steps away, back to his place.  Liu waves him to a chair, watching me, not him.  Liu stopped looking at them an aeon ago, more intent on keeping his attention on me.  He looks as if he’s struggling with something, offended by something, and I wonder what it is.

"Aekestrennt," Zhyn says, and it’s over.

Whatever this was, it’s over.

The two Acolytes move in closer to me, letting my aching arms relax, holding me so I don’t fall.  My chest hurts above my heart, the place where twenty hands hit me, some harder than others.  Everything aches.  I really want to go back, to get away from the hundreds of pairs of eyes watching me.

I look at the front row, searching it in the dim light for the figure I want.  "Dio?"

He’s here in an instant, pushing past Cantor and shouldering one of the acolytes out of the way to get his arms around me.  I sag against him.  I won’t be able to hold up much longer, and I’m scared that if I go down, this frail old man won’t be able to stop us both from falling.

But Drake’s at the other side of me, holding me up.  "Let’s get the fuck out of here," he says, not bothering to lower his voice.

Zhyn flushes with fury and takes a step towards us, his hand raised for a blow that won’t be the gentle tap from the pretty Otori girl.  He’s saying something in Gemonese, spitting the words out, and suddenly I am so tired of him, so tired of this hypocritical cant that he’s full of, the righteousness that he wears like a banner. 

"Phosasdth!"  I shout at him.  It takes a every molecule of air in me to do it and Drake, muttering something patently uncomplimentary, moves in close to support me.

Be silent, I order this priest.  Be silent.

Walk with the Lords’ Anointed, or be silent.

The whole temple instantly goes coldly silent, like everyone’s frozen in time.  Zhyn’s so shocked that he actually stops, his hand still raised.  He lowers it slowly, eyes wide as he looks at me, astonished, I think, that anyone dare challenge him in his own place.  I glance over at Cantor.  He’s stilled himself in the act of getting up, to stare at me, half out of his chair.

"Be silent, Priest," I say, when I can speak again, and I mean both of them. 

Cantor falls back, looking like something bit him.  He and Zhyn look at each other, and I can see the indecision in their faces.  Neither of them know what to do, what I’m going to do, how they can stop me, maybe only just realising their insane mistake in building up this legend then letting me out in public.  In front of all these people, there’s not much they can do.  It’s good to feel the power shift, however fleeting it might be.

"What are you doing?" Dio hisses in my ear, frightened.  I can feel him trembling.

"Just hold me up."  I take two shaky steps forward, Dio and Drake supporting me.

They’re all staring at me, Otori and Kobolian alike, all staring at me in astonishment.  I’ve not thought about what to do here, but it has to be something.  And I have to be careful.  Very, very careful.

I close my eyes for a micron and will the numbers to appear.  Slowly, carefully, my voice breathless and difficult, I recite the first half dozen co-ordinate clusters.  The congregation sigh, like one satisfied animal, when I stop, and like the first time, there’s an animalistic keening, low and vibrant, as they begin to look for the ecstasy they think is theirs by right. 

"Ask them to be quiet, Dio," I say.  "I can’t shout again."

"Quiet!"  Dio says loudly, over the low humming noise.  "Phosasdth!" 

The old Kobolian word, sacred with history, catches their attention as it got Zhyn’s a centon or two ago.  The humming and muttering dies into a silence that’s strained with apprehension.

"That’s the route to Earth," I tell them, hoping they can all hear me.  "That’s the route that Lord Aerion gave me, because I’m his descendant, his heir.  That’s the only route to Earth.  I can’t give you another.  You left the route, and I don’t know what that will mean for us."

They’re stirring out of that perfect Otori stillness, looking at each other and me in consternation and fright.  The Kobolians are looking to Cantor, who’s staring at me.  If looks could kill, I’d shrivel on the spot.  But he and Zhyn are the only angry ones.  The others are all just frightened and bemused.  I don’t know what message they expected to hear, but this maybe isn’t it.

"I am the Kinan.  I am the Redeemer chosen by Light, Star Seer, the Lord’s Anointed.  All that is true.  I’m here to give you the path to Earth, to be the Star Seer.  But you’ve changed things.  You’ve changed the conditions of the prophecy.  I don’t know what the consequences will be for denying Aerion’s words and Xuian’s vision, for forcing me from the true path.  I just don’t know."

"Apollo!" Cantor’s half up again, threatening.  Beside him, Sheba’s eyes are wide, glittering with excitement, her mouth curving into a smile. 

But he doesn’t get the chance to get near me.  Liu’s there, blocking the way, his face deferentially lowered, but his protective stance unmistakable.  Slowly, one by one, the rest of my Honour Guard come from wherever their places are in the Temple, and range themselves to each side of Liu, between me and Cantor.  One of them limps uncomfortably, and one is wearing a patch over the eye I damaged the other night. 

Garth.  Li'in.  That’s their names.  Even the ones I hurt come to help.  I don’t understand this.

When they’re all in place, Liu takes a couple of diagonal steps to stand between me and Zhyn, ignoring the High Priest’s almost incandescent glower.  He gives Zhyn a respectful bow, but stands firm.  Zhyn’s hands are clenching and unclenching, the only sign of what he’s feeling.  His face is expressionless, all his anger confined to those clenching hands, but the flat brown stare threatens retribution.

Strange.  I never expected that the Guards would do this, that they’d act to defy Zhyn like this, especially after the other night.  But I let them, giving them time to get in line, and giving me time to breathe until the iron bands around my chest ease at little.  When they’re all there and Cantor has sat down again, pale faced, and Sheba’s smile has grown wider and the glitter in her eyes more feral, I go on.

"I think you had better all think about it, and how you’ll repent,"  I say.  "Because not even I can help you now.  The Lords forgive you, but I really can’t help you."

Please God, but that should be more menacing than bluster and anger.  Please God I’ve scared them.

"Can we leave now, please, Dio?" I ask, very quietly.

"I really think we’d better," my poor priest replies, nervously.  "And as fast as we can do it."

"I don’t know that I can do fast," I warn him.

"I will carry you, Apollo," Liu says, calling me by name for the very first time.  "If you will permit it."

More words than I’ve ever had from this silent man.

"I’ll help, Skipper," Drake says gruffly, and he’s never called me that either, the nickname I earned with the Galactica’s crew.  Not one of the Pegasus people have ever allowed me that.

As Liu lifts me up, I hook an arm around his neck and look around at the mass of frightened, uncomprehending faces.

Tonight, it seems, is a night for epiphanies, for revelations.

Let’s hope it’s universal.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

They take me to the Kobolian part of the ship, to Dio’s own small, austere set of quarters near the Chapel.

"I don’t want him where Zhyn can get at him too easily," Dio says to Drake.  "I don’t trust that man."

"I wish I knew what the shit was going on," is the only answer he gets from Drake, who is, I guess, as amazed as I am that he’s sided with me.

But Liu is in agreement.  "We can guard him just as well here," he says, as he carries me in and puts me onto the bed.

"What did you think you were doing?"  Dio asks from the door.  He’s asked one of the guards to find Jianne and bring her here.

"I don’t know," I say.  "It just seemed…  appropriate."

"That’s one word for it," Drake says with that snort of laughter.  "They looked like you’d grown an extra head.  I thought you’d lost your mind with all that weird shit.  What in hell was it all about?"

"I don’t really know," I say.  "Thanks for helping."

He runs a hand through his hair until it all stands on end, looking bemused.  "I’m damned if I know why I did it.  You annoy the shit of me, mostly.  But this is all wrong.  All that crap was wrong.  Sick."  He sighs heavily.  "She’s acting really strange.  She’s screwing both those priests."

Dio makes some anguished sound.  Shocked, I guess.  Priests tend to shock easily.

"I’m sorry," I say, and Drake shrugs again.

"I’ll get over it,"  he says, and then in more surprise:  "But it’s having the damndest effect on me.  A couple of sectons ago, given half the chance and I’d have slapped you around myself."  He sort of grins when he says it, and I hope he doesn’t mean it.

"Not while we protect him," Liu says, serenely.

"Will you get into trouble with Zhyn for this?" I ask Liu.

Liu looks faintly surprised.  "When Zhyn told you we were your Honour Guard, what did he tell you?"

I search my memory, trying to remember the shuttledeck, me hanging in Liu’s grip, the breath knocked out of me; the ten men stepping forward to be the reminder of the futility of escape; Zhyn telling me that they’d protect…, no that they’d *sworn* to protect and guard me.

"You took an oath," I say, understanding.

"We take such oaths very seriously, and only you can release us from it.  Even if you are not an Otori, you are the Kinan.  My people understand this, and Priest Zhyn will remember.  It is an honour to serve."

Zhyn said that once, mocking me.  Liu means it, I think. 

Well, well, well.  If that sentiment is a little more widespread, I might be able to use it.

"Thank you," I say,  I lie back and let Drake tug off my boots.  Dio tucks an extra pillow behind me to prop me up so I’m half sitting.  If I lie flat , I choke.  I’m so tired, so very tired that I may even be able to sleep.

Liu nods and turns to go.  I put out a hand to stop him.

"Liu, I’m sorry about Asan.  I didn’t ask for tonight, but I don’t regret what was done in his memory.  I wish I hadn’t killed him, or hurt the others."

Drake raises an eyebrow.  Either no-one’s bothered to tell him, or he hasn’t bothered to ask what tonight was ostensibly about.

Liu knows that nothing tonight was really done in Asan’s memory, but he looks fleetingly pleased.  "I will tell them.  I will send in Jianne when she comes."

"Thank you," I say again.

When he’s gone I sigh, feeling sleep catch at me.  Dio goes into mother hen mode, and wraps me up until I can barely move, clucking gently at my protests.

Drake watches absently.  "I hope you know what you’re doing, Apollo.  I think you’re in a fair way to being torn apart by that High Priest.  If he gets hold of you, I wouldn’t give that much for your chances."  He snaps his fingers expressively.

I wonder if I care.

I think about it while I drift into sleep.

No, I don’t think I do. 

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

"Did you see her?" Drake asks.  "She just sat there and laughed all through it.  I mean, there’s you doing this menacing prophet routine – pretty well, too, although it’d look better with a few props…"

"What sort of props?" Dio asks with interest.  Drake amuses him, I think.

"I dunno.  A beard, or something, maybe?  Not wash for a few sectons?  A miracle or two?"

"No way," I protest.  "I look dreadful hairy, I hate dirt, and I’m right out of miracles."

Drake grins at Dio, and winks, and I have to give them credit for their little cheer-up-Apollo double act.  I’ve slept for a little while, dreaming of home, and wake up in a state that Dio describes as lachrymose.  If I had a dictionary handy, I’d find out what he means by it.  Drake, who walks in a few centons later, says he doesn’t know either and aren’t I supposed to be the educated one around here, but tells me to stop snivelling and he and Dio put themselves out to cheer me up.  They seem to have decided that it’s not good for me to be allowed to get too depressed.

"Whatever," Drake says.  "But it was pretty weird.  I guess that they expect their prophets to rant at them…"

"Speaking in tongues," I say.

He nods.  "Yup.  And you just being sad and almost conversational scared them silly.  It was bloody convincing, I’ll say that much.  But Sheba…" He returns to his original theme, and I can’t blame him.  He really does care for her, and I know how hard it is to think of anything else.  "She just sat and laughed.  You’d think that she’d be as mad as Cantor and Zhyn are, at you spiking their guns like that."

"Iblis enjoys chaos," I say, thoughtful.  "It’s where he’s strongest."

I wonder if I’m playing into Iblis’ hands, by provoking the very chaos and madness he delights in.  I have to do something; but no matter what it is, he wins something out of it.  Countering delusion with disillusion, that’s what I’m trying to do, and he’ll win a great deal of satisfaction out of the disappointment and heartache, especially multiplied by over two thousand disenchanted souls.  A little Fleet of the damned, afraid to go on, afraid to go back, will be the height of delight for him, letting him feed, through Sheba, on the unhappiness and terror and misery.

Drake just sighs.  "I don’t know that I believe all that shit, but you were right about one thing.  She’s not the old Sheba."

"I’m sorry," I say, feeling awkward and not really knowing what to say.

He shrugs, and changes the subject.  "Did you plan all that?" he asks.

"Me?  I winged through it without the slightest idea of where I was going with it."

"Well, it was pretty effective.  You’ve got this ship completely spooked, and it’s spreading to the other two as word gets back."  He sees my raised eyebrow and explains.  "There’s only me and Sheba on the Icarus, Apollo.  She sent the others over to the Danae and the Calliope, and spread around the armed shuttles, so that each ship now has some sort of defensive capability.  But I’m keeping in touch with them.  They’re as pissed off as I am about being cheated and lied to, and we’re trying to work out what to do.  Hector just called from the Calliope to say that there’s virtually a riot going on over there.  He and Janna have locked off the flightdeck, trying to guard their Vipers.  I haven’t heard from Somer and Antiope on the Danae, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s not trouble there too."

"Is that why you came back?" Dio asks.  "In case there’s trouble here?"

Drake left as I was falling asleep, but came back fifteen centons ago, armed.  Liu looked hard at the laser, and they talked together quietly for a few centons before he let Drake back in.

"The Otori may be good in a fight but they’re unarmed," Drake says, and looks sheepish.  "You piss me off no end, Apollo, but I won’t sit back and let them kill you."

"Thanks,"  I say.

"Don’t mention it.  Only the next time you decide to mouth off about prophecies to a ship load of religious nuts, think it through first, all right?" 

"Promise."

"Good.  How the hell you got to be a Captain without getting through the military strategy and planning course is beyond me."

"I was always top of my class, I’ll have you know."

He grins.  "I know.  I was there.  Not that I moved in the same exalted Academy circles as the commander’s smart-arse son, but I was there."

Yeah, well the Academy was a big place, and he wasn’t in my particular study stream.  Not many were, and I don't really know that many who were in my yahren.  I mean I didn’t know Starbuck or Boomer there, either and they’re the same yahren as me, too.  But they were all mainstream Academy and, well, I wasn’t.  I went to SSI, the Strategic Studies Institute, technically a part of the Academy but definitely different.  This was the bit of the Academy for smart-arses, the ones the high-ups expected to shoot up through the ranks, the ones they moved around a lot.  My posting on the Galactica was the longest I’d had anywhere and they were just about to move me off to my own command - a fast little frigate called the Firefly - when Cimtar happened.  The Firefly lived up to her name and went up in flames with the rest of the Fleet.  I never even set foot on her.

I never wanted to, although I didn’t probe too hard then into why I was so unenthusiastic when the posting notice arrived.  The promotion would be okay, I suppose, but I’d have had to leave Starbuck behind, and now I look back on it, I already loved him more than anything in the world.  I just wasn’t ready to admit it.  But it does explain why my muted reaction surprised my father when he told me the posting had come through.

"And here now," Dio says, pulling me out of retrospection and smiling at Drake, patently delighted that he’s been able to get me out of lachrymose mode.

"I wish I wasn’t," Drake says with a rueful glance at the laser.  "I never wanted to be a hero and I’m hoping I don’t need to be, but I don’t trust the priests."  He grins at Dio.  "Present religious nut excepted, of course."

Dio inclines his head graciously and smiles when I say that I trust him, too.  Strange what a change three or four sectons of my company will provoke in priests and sinners alike.

There’s noise outside, the sound of raised voices, and it wipes the grins off our faces.  Drake, with a glance at me, draws the laser.

"Uh-oh."  He gets up and gets between me and the door, the laser held in his right hand, his left hand around his right wrist to lock it steady.  He doesn’t look around to see me struggling to get up, but he knows anyway.  "Stay where you are, Apollo.  I’ll take care of it."

"It’s Cantor," Dio says, his head slightly to one side as he listens.  He goes to the door.  "Do I open it?"

"I’d rather know what we’re up against," Drake says to me.  "It could be nothing, but if it is trouble, we won’t last long locked in here.  It’s not like we can withstand a siege."

I nod, agreeing that we go down fighting if we have to.  Which means I ignore Drake’s advice and at least get to the point where I can get to my feet if I need to.  I’ll fall over, but if I’m lucky I’ll fall on one of them and take him down with me.  A novel combat move even Kennedy never thought of.

"Okay," Drake says.  "Stand to one side of the door, Dio, and open it on my say so.  Slap if shut if I tell you to, and don’t take your time about it.  And, for God’s sake,  keep out of the way.  I’d rather not shoot you."

Dio gets into position and, on Drake’s nod, hits the door mechanism.

It’s only Cantor and a couple of his priests, yelling furiously at Liu, who seems, from the bland expression on his face, either to be afflicted with sudden deafness or have conveniently forgotten every word of Standard he ever knew.

"You will let me in, right now!" Cantor is yelling as the door opens.  He glares over Liu’s shoulder at Drake and I can almost see him swelling with indignation. 

When I was a kid on Caprica, the lake Dad had made when he redesigned the gardens was a haven for wildlife and every spring we’d see the male frogs swell themselves up just like that, just before croaking out their challenge or mating call.  Comparing Cantor to a bullfrog amuses me, but it had better be a challenge he’s after.  If it’s a mating call, he’s right out of luck.

Liu turns slowly and comes to the door.  "It is only the three of them, friend Drake," he says placidly, and waits until Drake re-holsters the laser. 

I can hear Drake sigh with relief and I know how he feels.  I’m quite pleased to stop being a brave hero and get back into bed.  Even Dio’s looking like a condemned man given an unexpected reprieve and smiles at me shakily.

"Priest Cantor seeks audience with you, Kinan," Liu says.  "Do you wish me to admit him?"

Oh, but the expression on Cantor’s face as he absorbs what Liu says, is one to savour.  I’ll bet that rankles.  Then I nod agreement. 

"Just him."

"I’ll bring in my priests," Cantor snaps at me from the corridor, having to speak over Liu’s shoulder.

Oh, and I’d like to see him try and get past Liu.  So would Liu, apparently, because the Otori turns that placid, bland expression on him.

"You will not," he says, flat and inarguable. 

Lovely!  I take a micron to savour that, too, and let Cantor realise it.

Cantor splutters again, but sullenly waves back the two other priests.  He’s even more put out when Liu and another of the Guard follow him in and stand right behind him, watching him carefully.  These Otori take their oaths very seriously.  And am I glad of it.

We don’t offer him a chair, which doesn’t improve his temper any.  Dio’s set his bed ready on the only sofa, and sits on it, defiantly not offering to move the quilts to make room for Cantor.  Drake lounges over the back of the only chair, more than slightly menacing.  Well, I’d think twice about asking him to move so I could sit down, especially since he has one hand brushing oh-so-casually against the laser hilt.  His intention to back up Liu is obvious and I notice that Liu nods at him.  Those two seem to be coming to some sort of understanding.

After a brief battle of wills with Dio, Cantor comes closer to me and says what he’s come here to say.  He looks almost impossibly angry, his face red and eyes glaring.  His self importance has taken a couple of severe knocks tonight.  I don’t suppose that he’s been made to wait outside anywhere since he became Vicar General, and now he has been allowed in and wants to talk to me alone, Dio flatly refuses to leave, even when ordered.

In fact, my meek little priest somehow finds the courage to break with God knows how many yahrens of meek reverence for the church authority, not only to disobey, but to tell His Eminence the Vicar General that he isn’t fit to enter a Chapel, except on his knees in penitence after being stripped of office.  Dio’s voice shakes when he says it, but he does say it.  I’m impressed, and Drake grins in appreciation.

I think Cantor will burst a blood vessel, but he bites it down and ignores Dio loftily all the time he’s in here. 

"That was unbelievably foolish," Cantor says, speaking to me direct as if there’s no-one else in the room.

I grin at Dio, and repeat what I said to him earlier.  "It seemed the appropriate thing to do at the time," I say.  "Caused you a bit of trouble, did I?"

"You know exactly what it was you tried to do," Cantor says, almost spitting out the words.

"Yes," I say.  "I know, Cantor.  An almost alien concept for you, isn’t it?  Telling the truth, I mean."

He takes a deep breath.  "I’ve just had to spend the last centar calming them down."  He smiles thinly.  "We’ve put it all down to mild delirium from your illness.  They’re praying now for your continued good health."  He pauses, then says, silky smooth, "As should you, my son."

"His safety is assured," Liu says quietly, and Drake ostentatiously lets a hand drift to the holstered laser.

The thin smile on Cantor’s mouth fades into a tight line of anger again.

"It’s a problem, isn’t it?" I say.  "It was a mistake, Cantor.  You made a huge mistake, building up the legend of the Anointed.  It’s trapped you as much as it’s trapped me."

"The legend would have built itself!"

Well, he’s right there.  Aerion saw to that.

I nod.  "Perhaps.  Yes, maybe you’re right.  Maybe I can’t escape that one.  But you and Zhyn deliberately encouraged it, used it for your own ends.  And now it’s blown up in your faces."

"Not yet it hasn’t," Cantor says.

"Oh I think it has.  I don’t suppose that you regret anything so much as kidnapping me.  I think you’d space me if you could."

"They’d have to get past me and Liu first," Drake says.

"Oh don’t worry about it, Drake.  They can’t do it.  They’ve invested too much spiritual capital in having the Anointed with them, and the people they’ve conned into coming on this pilgrimage will tear them apart if they kill me."  I begin to laugh.  "My holiness is all that’s keeping me alive."

"Yeah, very ironic." Drake rolls his eyes, unimpressed.

"You over estimate your importance, my son," Cantor says, through tight-lipped fury.

"I don’t think so.  What do you think, Liu?"

"You are the Kinan," my Guard says, simply. 

It’s the same simplicity of complete certainty that Zhyn showed before Sheba took a personal hand in his corruption.  I recognise it.  So, from the expression on his face, does Cantor.

"There’s nothing much else to say, is there?  It’s over, Cantor.  You can’t control me the way you need to and you’re losing control of the faithful.  They’re rioting on the Calliope, aren’t they?  I bet the Danae’s going up as well."  From the look on his face, I’m right and I spare a micron to hope the two Viper pilots are safe.  "You’ve lost it.  You’ve lost.  You may as well head back."

He shakes his head.  "Don’t pin your hopes on that, Apollo.  We’re continuing on our voyage.  After all, we can navigate our way there on this parallel course, and still get there first.  There’s no going back."

"And they say I’m stubborn?"

"You’re still necessary to us, Apollo.  This is a little glitch in our plan, nothing more.  The Faithful will listen to their priests again, and have faith in us and you.  And you will be the Anointed, the symbol of everything they’re striving for."

"Over my dead body," I say.

He smiles.  "Well, my son, Liu and the lieutenant notwithstanding, that is not impossible.  You are necessary, but not necessarily alive.  And believe me, a Redeemer who sacrifices himself for his people is a powerful religious emblem.  We will have the son Sheba carries, and you can be just as potent as symbol dead as alive." 

I stare at him, and his smile grows broader. 

"Maybe even more potent.  Of course, you won’t be around to test the theory, but we all have to make some sacrifice, now don’t we?"

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

It seems like a very long time since they first abducted me.  I’m not sure how long.  It was almost four sectons later when they took advantage of the ion storm and left the Fleet, but I’m not sure how many days ago that was or how long it's been since the Service of Repentance.  Three or four, I think.  We lose track when every day’s the same as the one before it.

They leave me alone now.  After the Vicar General’s less than subtle threat, Liu was extremely firm about escorting him from the room, and wouldn’t let him comm back.  Both Cantor and Zhyn have tried to reach me, but I’ve told Liu not to admit them.  The Guard stand firm and although one or other of them have tried to get in, they stop arguing after a while and go away.  The Honour Guard are a permanent fixture outside Dio’s door now, the way they used to be outside my little cell.

I’m grateful.  I don’t know what would happen if the Guard weren’t there.  On one of his frequent visits, Drake says we’re still on a parallel course with the Fleet, and that there’s still a lot of unrest.  Quite a few died.  The riots in the Calliope reached the shuttledeck and Hector went down, with Janna injured.  The Vipers were trashed.  Drake says he doesn’t know what’s happened on the Danae, but he’s lost contact with Somer and Antiope, not even able to raise them on the inter-Viper frequencies.  For all he knows they could be dead too.  Drake’s quietly furious when he tells me, particularly with Sheba’s indifferent reaction to the news.  They were her flight, and they followed her, and now they’re dead or dying. 

Word is that the rioting is over, that the ships are calmer.  Drake says that although things got very tense here on the Icarus, there wasn’t any real trouble.  Despite everything, Zhyn’s grip on the Otori is still firm and I don’t think they’ll defy him.  But it means that Sheba and Cantor and Zhyn don’t have much time to spare for me.  They’re too busy trying to steady everyone’s nerves. 

I’m still sick.  I still can’t shake off this chest infection.  I don't think it’s any worse, but it’s not much better either, the antibiotics that Jianne aren’t having much effect.  The coughing has eased a bit, that’s one thing.  Well, got less frequent, anyway.  I’m still coughing up that disgusting crap, but it’s not as easily provoked.  I'm pretty tired all the time.  I don’t mind being locked up.  It doesn’t require much energy and Dio’s room is bigger and, austere as it is, more comfortable than the old one.

I spend a lot of time when I’m awake, reading the Prophecies.  Mostly they’re really obscure, and something in me tells me that Xuian was faking it.  Of his or her thirty or so prophecies, only the tenth matters.  Only the one Aerion gave her - or him - about me, matters.  The rest is camouflage, something to hide the tenth, true prophecy in. 

I’m absolutely sure now that I am the Kinan.  Now all I have to work out is what it all means.  Xuian has the answers for me, speaking for Aerion.  The Aerion who knew, five thousand yahrens ago, that the Colonies were doomed, and did nothing to prevent it, who may even have colluded in it, who would tell me that many necessary things are uncomfortable to experience and that all we are is collateral damage in the endless war the Lords are waging against Iblis.

I’m coming to the conclusion that all that I am, really, is a sort of apology from the Lords for that, a walking Reparation.  I wouldn’t count on too much remorse, mind, and I expect that they feel they’ve done enough for us to save a few thousand of us and send us towards Earth. 

I wonder, sometimes, how the church will deal with the disillusionment when people work this all out for themselves.  Or I tell them, one day.  One day.  But in the meantime, I go back to the prophecy about me and worry away at the final verse, trying to work out what it really means. 

Gesinthe Kobol-galathdh Kinan, tha-lei phosasdth.
Walk with the Lords’ Anointed or be silent.

I’ve been practising silence for days now.

Dio sighs and settles down beside me to his own silence.  I don’t know what he thinks about.  He still spends every day with me, and sleeps on the sofa near my bed.  He says he likes my company, though I don’t talk to him much. 

I don’t talk much to anyone.  It takes too much energy and breath to talk, and it exhausts me very quickly.  You’d think that I’ve just smoked about thirty of those fumerellos that Starbuck used to be so fond of.  One after the other, I mean, or even all at once: my lungs sound like they’re tarred, or something.  When Drake comes, he and Dio do the talking, quietly to each other.  They’ve discovered a mutual love of chess, and play endless silent games, leaving me to read or think.

They’re afraid.  We all know that this is only a respite, and as soon as they can, Cantor and Zhyn will turn their attention back to us.  We don’t know what they’re planning, but we’re so few against so many that Dio worries and Drake frets.  I’m not so worried.  It’s too much effort to be worried, even if I know, as well as Cantor does, the value of a dead Messiah. 

Drake’s in a strange position, and he frets over that too.  He came here with Sheba, but sided with me publicly in the Temple.  He sees Sheba every day, although they’re not sharing quarters.  Sometimes she’s her usual self with him, but most times she’s so abstracted that he says he can barely recognise her.  He can’t work her out.

At first, none of us could work it out.  We couldn’t understand why he hasn’t been locked up with us.  Then Cantor found a spare half centar to talk to him.

He had to sit through a long lecture about the rightness of what they were doing, about the religious imperative behind taking me and then leaving the Fleet.  Drake says he just nodded and kept quiet, except to apologise profusely for the Temple thing.  He says he does a nice line in bewildered warrior-of-limited-intellect who’d be far more comfortable following orders.  He says that not even a priest – saving Dio’s presence – should have fallen for that, but Cantor seemed satisfied. 

They know that Drake comes here, of course.  They haven’t stopped it because Cantor wants an independent view on my state of health.  He doesn’t trust the Otori, apparently. 

Him and me, both. 

But how useful it could be, this dissent and distrust amongst my enemies.  If I could only work out how to use it.

So Drake reports back on me, and has the licence to come and go, although he had to hand over his laser.  He did it without arguing, and that, he thinks, did a lot to increase Cantor’s confidence in him.  On balance, he thinks his freedom to wander the ship is more important, and he thinks he can maybe lay his hand on another weapon when he needs it. 

When Drake goes away to report, Dio stays.  He doesn’t try to preach at me and I won’t let him read to me from the Book, the way he used to in those lessons of ours.  I won’t have anything to do with a Word that Cantor and Zhyn have polluted and perverted, and he has no answer to that, no argument to make.  He reads to himself a lot, looking for something, I think, and he prays a lot, but he’s learned to pray silently and not disturb me.  Most of the time he sits silent, watching me read the Prophecies, or watching while I sit and think about them, or while I sit and think about Starbuck.  After the first couple of days, the only times he makes a real effort to get me to talk is when Liu brings food.  Then he always tries to coax me to eat.

I ignore that too.  I’m not hungry.  I haven’t been since the morning Sheba was here, although I forced myself to eat.  But since I got sick and they took me away from the Fleet, I’ve stopped eating altogether. 

I’m getting thinner.  Starbuck need never worry about putting me on a diet.  I’m definitely less sturdy than I used to be and those pants would be far too big for me now.  It’s not deliberate.  I just don’t want to eat.  And now, if I try, I throw up.  It’s been the same since I was kid, since I was sick all those yahrens ago when Dad had to come home because they thought I was going to die.  I was sick for sectons, not eating at all.  It got me into a bad habit about stopping eating when I get stressed.  The psychiatrists would tell me that stopping eating then meant I got Dad’s undivided attention, and subconsciously that’s what I’m after again. 

Well, maybe.  It usually works out that way: Dad usually notices and worries about it.  He thinks that I’ve got some kind of eating disorder, but really it doesn’t happen all that often.  The last time was when I thought Starbuck was dead, all those sectars ago.

And there’s worse ways of coping with stress.  Ask Asan, if you can.

I drink lots of the tea, though.  I can handle that.  So although Dio coaxes and cajoles, all I ever take from him is the tea.  He’s got into the habit of pouring it and offering it to me, jumping up to perform this small service whenever I reach out to the tray and the little teapot.  Some form of apology or expiation, maybe.  Who knows?

I think they outsmarted me yesterday though.  I've slept very heavily, waking very late.  Like most soldiers, I’m over-trained and my internal clock goes off when I’m supposed to get up and start the duty shift.  I know I’ve overslept this morning, there’s needle tracks in my left arm, and I’ve a dull headache.  I don’t think that this is the first time, either, but it’s getting difficult to remember.

Dio sees me checking on the needle tracks again as I’m pulling on my shirt.  "Jianne wanted to get some stronger antibiotics and vitamins into you," he says.  "I was here all the time, Apollo.  That’s all they did, I promise."

"They drugged my tea," I say.

"A mild sedative.  They assured me it wasn’t harmful."  He puts out a hand to steady me on my slow, feeble progress to the sofa.

"You’re a man who’s easily assured, Dio.  Because you want to be, I expect." 

He sighs, and nods, apologetic. 

I curl up at one end of the sofa and turn back to the Prophecies. 

Liu arrives at the same time as Drake, bringing food.  He puts down the fresh food beside the untouched tray he brought last night.  He doesn’t say anything, but he looks at me and then at Dio.  Dio shakes his head.  Drake sighs.

"You should eat," Drake says.

"I’m not hungry."  I take the tea that Liu pours for me.  "I hope this one’s undrugged," I say to him.

Liu’s unrepentant.  "We do what we must for your sake, Kinan."

"You’re ill.  You’re getting very weak," Dio says anxiously.

I just shrug.  What’s the point of arguing?.  The tea’s good though.  I sip it and watch as Liu takes away the first tray.  Drake settles down in the chair and pulls the small table to a place between him and Dio, and they play chess, quiet and unobtrusive, not disturbing me.

Silence.  The Otori make a virtue out of it. 

I don’t have many virtues, but this one helps.  This one helps me think about the prophecy and wonder and worry about the third verse.

Gesinthe Kobol-galathdh Kinan, tha-lei phosasdth.
Walk with the Lords’ Anointed or be silent.

They didn’t walk with me.  They tried to make me walk another way. 

There’s no action without its opposite and equal reaction.  That’s an elementary law of physics. 

So what is the silence that will be the reaction to their failure to walk with me?

I really wish I knew what it meant.

*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*

  

[Time to wake up, Apollo] Cole says, voice soft in my ear.  His tongue traces around the edge of my ear and down the side of my neck, making me shudder; a delicious, anticipatory kind of shudder.  I used to love him doing that.  I still do love him doing that.

I’m not on patrol this morning.  Let’s just stay in bed and screw each other senseless.

Cole laughs.  [But I’m on duty.  The Chief would be after me]

Tell him you’re mine, and he can go after someone else.

[I don’t think that would get me off report.  Sorry, Sarge, I’m late because I was screwing with the captain…  Nah.  Can’t see it.]

I’ll tell him I’ve put you on special duties.  Very special duties.

"Apollo?"

[He wants you to wake up]

Well, I don’t want to.  Stay with me.  You keep leaving me.

[You’re the one who keeps leaving me] He sounds sad.

"Come on, Apollo.  For frack’s sake, stay with it this time."

I could order you to stay with me, Cole.

Cole?  Where are you, Cole?

Cole?

"No!" Drake says sharply, as I come up out of sleep.  "Don’t try to move."

He puts his hands on my shoulders and presses me back against the pillows.  It’s an effort to get my eyes open.  They feel like they’ve been glued shut, my mouth’s dry and my head’s thumping.  When I lift my hand to rub at my eyes, it feels oddly heavy and something’s draped over the back of my arm.  I can’t work out what.

"Just relax," Drake adds as I focus on him, trying to sound reassuring now. 

It takes me a couple of centons to work it out.  They’ve bloody well done it again.  And this time there’s a drip on a stand by the bed, a couple of heavy-weight polythene bags attached to the cradle.  Tubes from the bags join an intravenous line in the back of my hand, the tube snaking up over my arm.  So that what it was.  Other tubes disappear under the waistband of the thin linen sleep suit I’m wearing, carrying an unpleasant looking apricot-coloured liquid.

"Wha...?"

"Jianne was getting a bit desperate to get you fed," Drake says.

He nods at the drip cradle.  I look at it for a bemused centon or two.  There are two drip bags, and the label on the biggest clearly says that its murky contents are some nutritious but unappetising mixture of proteins and vitamins.

"Awake?" he asks after a centon of watching me carefully.

"I’d say so," I admit, after thinking about it. 

"It’s just that you’ve been in and out all morning.  Every time I think you’ve surfaced, you fade out again."

Well, I’m staying awake this time.  "I don’t feel wonderful, but I’m definitely not fading out anywhere." 

Drake grins.  "I think you might stay with it.  Feel okay?"

I look a bit helplessly at the drip.  "I wish they’d stop drugging me."

"Like I said, Jianne was getting really worried about you."

"I thought Cantor and Zhyn didn’t care if they had a dead Messiah or not," I say.

"I guess they thought better of it.  Things are a bit too dicey for you to die just yet.  There’s no way they’d get away with it."

"That’s reassuring."  There’s a measurable pause between each word.  My chest feels tight, like there’s an immensely strong elastic bandage around it, stopping me from inflating my lungs properly.

"It is for the rest of us.  How long do you think me and Dio would last?  So just let Jianne do what she has to, all right?"  He pauses, watching me until I can breathe easier again.  "Although I see your point about the drugs.  How do you feel?" 

"Thirsty."

"Jianne said you could have some water when you woke up.  Want some?  "

I nod, and he gets an arm under my shoulders, helping me sit up.  There’s a tightness over my abdomen, a slight soreness that has me wondering what they’ve done this time.  The water’s cold and wonderful.  My mouth tastes a bit less like a boray used it for a winter den.  He takes the opportunity to pack more pillows behind me, to prop me up and help me my breathing. 

I notice that Drake’s given me a measured dose of water, and he records it diligently on a datapad. 

"Where’s Dio?"

"Chapel.  He wanted to check on his flock, or something, see how they were coping.  He’ll be back in a centon."  Drake puts down the datapad.  "Who’s Cole?"

Cole.  My lover, Cole.  My first real lover, the one I lost yahrens ago. 

There’s something catching at my memory, like a half remembered dream: Cole’s voice in my ear, his lips on my throat.  I wonder if I’ve been dreaming of him.  And nagging even fainter, is Zac, laughing and teasing me.

Maybe there’s something about the greatest loss of all that reminds me of these others, of Zac and Cole and Ser… no, not Serina, I realise.  I don’t know why, but her voice isn’t in my head, her lips don’t touch mine the way Cole’s do... have done? may do? are waiting to do?  I don’t know.  I don’t know if I’ve been dreaming or been haunted and it doesn’t matter which.  And I don’t know why Serina isn’t haunting me.  Maybe that’s a guilt too far.

"Someone I knew," I say. " Why?"

"You were saying his name when you woke up." 

And not Starbuck’s, you mean, and you wonder why?  But that’s easy, Drake.  Starbuck’s everything of love and life, and I’m far away from him.  Ghosts call to ghosts, because I think that’s all that’s left of me when he’s not here to make me feel and live.

I don’t say it, but Drake must have seen by my expression that he was treading where I don’t want anyone to go, because he gives me a quick look, then turns his attention to the drip.  He pokes cautiously at the bag of liquid food.  "I hope this stuff tastes better than it looks."

My free hand traces the other tube, pauses at the sleep-pant’s waistband.  "Do I want to know what’s going on down there?"

"Not especially."  He’s watching me carefully, but trying not to look as though he’s doing it.  "Looks like a Viper accident.  Tubes everywhere."

"So where does this one go?" 

"You really don’t want to know that."  He grins when all I do is look at him.  "Okay, but don’t blame me if you freak out.  Straight into the stomach."

I don’t react.  I’ve been there before and I’m not that surprised.  The doctors did this when I was sick that time when I was a kid, although none of the not-eating episodes I’ve had since then have got quite to this extreme.  I’ve been threatened with it, though.

Drake looks faintly disappointed.  "Grossed me out completely.  It was a closer acquaintance with your nether regions than I ever wanted or dreamed of, I can tell you."

Despite myself, I laugh at that.  By some miracle, it doesn’t start me coughing.  "All you have to do is ask," I say.  "You don’t have to go ferreting down there on flimsy medical pretexts."

"Closer than I wanted, I said."  He grins at me. 

"That’s okay.  If you ask, I’ll say no anyway.  Why did you stay while she did it, if things like that gross you out?"

"Dio insisted on it.  He can be very insistent.  The only comfort I got out of it was that he was a helluva lot queasier than me."

"He’s a decent human being, my priest." 

Right on cue, Dio bustles in.  He’s wearing his ceremonial robes, the crimson glowing in the lights.  They must be hot, because he’s looking a little uncomfortable, his face flushed.

"Meaning I’m not?"  Drake says, with a nod of greeting for Dio and a widening grin for me.  "And when did you start your own church and get your own priesthood?"

"Cantor set that one up for me.  He just hasn’t realised it yet." 

"Set up what?"  Dio asks.  He comes straight over to check on me, making a faint clucking of disapproval, his hand against my forehead.  I’m still running a degree or two of fever, and he sometimes acts like he thinks I’m doing for some sort of perverse entertainment.  But his hand’s warm, not as cool as it normally feels.  I don’t think the fever can be so bad today.

"The church of Saint Apollo," Drake says with a snort of derision.

Drake clucks again, and moves on to safer topics.  "How do you feel?"

"No different than I felt yesterday." 

"Except that he’s remembered how to talk," Drake says.  "I’ve had more conversation out of him in the last two centons than we’ve had in the last two days.  I’m not sure if that’s an improvement."

"I’ll be good and quiet.  Can I get up?"

"No."  Dio says.  He’s getting out of the robes and his voice is muffled in the folds as he pulls the chasuble over his head, but he sounds unusually firm.

"Not even for the flush?"

"Come on, Apollo," says Drake.  "You have to eat and drink before you need to excrete anything.  Why in hell would you need the flush?"

"Tea’s a diuretic," I remind him, lying back on the pillows, already too tired to argue much further.

"Wouldn’t know.  Never drink the stuff, myself.  You won’t be drinking it either, until Jianne’s a bit happier about you.   Besides, they’ve got more tubes down there than you want to know about and the more revolting bag is hidden away where you can’t see it."  Drake’s grin widens at the expression on my face.  "Oh, so that’s what grosses you out, is it?  Jianne’s orders, Apollo.  We’ve got to measure what goes in and what comes out, a trip to the flush would screw that up a bit.  You’re confined to bed for today, at least."

"We’ll look after you," Dio promises, folding his robes and hanging them carefully over the back of his chair.

Somehow, I refrain from saying that’s what worries me.  If nothing else, this half-life is teaching me patience.

Drake glances at the door and lowers his voice.  "It’s put a bit of an stop to our plans, actually."

"What plans?"

He sighs suddenly, the careless manner dissolving away, and the poor sod that Sheba used and hurt is more evident.  "I’m really pissed off about all this stuff."

Somehow, I refrain from demanding to know what the hell he thinks I am.  The patience is almost superhuman and so unlike me, that I’m impressed.  Maybe the divinity is starting to show through at last.

"There’s nothing for me here, with or without her.  I can’t raise any of the others on the Calliope or the Danae, and I’ve no idea what’s going on there.  The tension on these ships is scary, Apollo.  They’re about ready to blow.  So we’ve been talking about trying to get you to the flightdeck.  I’ve been planning on just bundling you into the space behind the seat of my Viper and making a run for it back to the Fleet.  But this lot’s in the way."  Drake waves a hand at the drip cradle.

"Unless Liu allows it, you wouldn’t be able to get him out of here, anyway," Dio says.

"I’m working on Liu.  He might be persuaded to let me get him to a proper doctor."

"I doubt that.  They’re committed to his protection."  Dio shakes his head, and I realise that this is a continuation of an argument they’ve had before.

"That’s what I mean.  They might see me getting him back for proper treatment as an extension of that."

"And I very much doubt that," Dio says.  He takes off the gold-embroidered skull cap, flattens it carefully and fans himself vigorously with it.  "Even if you could persuade them to allow him off this ship, they’d want to go as well."

Drake scratches at his chin.  "That’d make the Viper a bit crowded," he concedes.   "Besides, we can’t leave you to face the religious nuts alone.  Maybe we can get to the armed shuttle and take you and Liu with us."

There’s something a little damaging to the ego about being talked about as if you aren’t there, or as if you’re slightly retarded or something.  Xuian’s not within reach, but I really don’t need the book.  I know the prophecies off by heart now, so I lean back on my pillow and let them talk, the sound of their voices drifting away from me as I filter them out.



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