Section Five

 

 

"I will leave the catheters in place," Jianne says.  "If you do not show some improvement, Kinan, we will need to do this again."

"Will we?"

"If we have to," she says firmly.  She closes off the valve to the catheter in my stomach, carefully taping it flat, and pulls away the tubing.  She gently tugs up the sleep-pants again.

"Can I get up?"

She nods and steps back, watching as Drake helps me get upright and to the sofa.  It takes us a centon or two.  I can’t be bothered to get dressed, so Drake takes one of the thinner quilts and puts it over me.

Jianne nods her approval.  "Rest today," she instructs me.

I nod, although what does she think I’m up to in here?  The maximum exercise I get is moving from bed to sofa, all of eight feet.  I’m not exactly running a marathon the micron her back’s turned.

She collects her equipment into a bag and snaps it shut.  Sighing, she pushes back her hair as she straightens, stretching her back carefully.

"You look tired." Dio says.

He’s in pastoral priest mode today, probably provoked by his morning visit to the Chapel.  The priests Cantor brought with him still allow Dio to go into his own Chapel, although he’s no longer allowed to take the service himself.  But we don’t know how long it will be before Dio’s banned as a renegade, for being too far under my influence to be even marginally trusted not to spread the contagion of my anti-Cantor heresy.

I look at him and I wonder what he feels about that.  He’s a good man, this priest, and religious in a way that even I can accept, someone who truly lives what he believes.  He’s parsecs away from Cantor’s cold worldly ambition; a little naïve and innocent, unworldly.  That’s how Cantor got to him, of course, preying on that very naïve goodness.

I resented him fiercely at first, but I’ve learned to appreciate my priest.  I know he’d like nothing better than a quiet Chapel somewhere, people to work amongst who need him and where he can lose himself in service.  He regrets bitterly that he ever listened to Cantor, that he let himself believe that the end justifies the means.  He knows good can’t come of evil, and he feels guilty because, really, he always did know and allowed himself to be persuaded.

The knowledge is wearing him out.  He looks tired and old.  The flush on his cheeks isn’t healthy.  He’s spending all his time nursing me, now, caring for me, and I think that’s taking its toll on him, too.  It’s beginning to worry me.

Jianne sighs again.  "There is an outbreak of sickness," she says.

"Serious?"  Drake looks up from the chessboard where he’s steadily demolishing Dio’s pawns.

"I do not know," she admits, and looks at me.  "But it worries me.  They have some symptoms in common with the Kinan, only worse.  Some of them have succumbed to it very quickly and are not responding to treatment.  One or two are very ill."

"I didn’t think bronchitis was contagious," Drake says.

"It is not.  I do not know what it is." Jianne shakes her head.  "I am not sure that is what you have, either, Kinan."

"A chest infection seems pretty obvious," Dio says.  "He’s still coughing, and his temperature still fluctuates a lot."

"He", of course, not being in a fit state or mentally capable enough to speak for himself, you’ll notice.  It’s one of the consequences of silence, that people think you’ve lost the capacity for speech.  I haven’t.  I just choose to be silent. 

I sigh gently, and reach carefully for Xuian.  All my glands are swollen, even those in my armpits, and stretching too far pulls on them uncomfortably, so I’m very careful.  I settle the book on my knees and start reading from the beginning.

"Analysis?" Drake asks.  "I mean, I thought the medical scanner would help you diagnose whatever it is."

"The equipment here is not nearly as sophisticated as that on the Galactica, friend Drake.  The scanner can only record the symptoms and point me towards a diagnosis.  It cannot make one for me.  I am not a fully qualified doctor and I am not confident that I am reading the information correctly."

"You’re a good medtech, Jianne," Dio says, comforting.

She smiles at that.  "Well, I am all we have, so I must return to the others."  She hesitates, then says diffidently: "Kinan, may I take some blood for analysis?  It may help me discover what this illness is."

Dio looks slightly surprised.  "Do you really think that’s there’s some connexion?"

"I just need to check," she says, even more diffident.

I hold out my arm without taking my eyes from the book.  "Try not to take too much."

"Thank you."

A moment later she draws a little blood from the inside of my elbow.  I watch for a micron as she tapes over the little puncture wound.

"Thank you," she says again.

"Who’s sick?" Drake asks her.

"Quite a few people who were at the Temple for the service." Jianne’s gathering her things together and doesn’t look at me again as she hurries out.

Dio and Drake look at each other and Drake’s lips purse in a silent whistle.

"Well, now," says Dio, and he coughs, uncomfortable.

"I wouldn’t do too much of that, if I were you," Drake says to him

"What?"

"Coughing.  She may be after some of your blood next."

Dio shakes his head, and Drake takes advantage of his slight distraction to move a bishop and take a couple more of Dio’s pawns.

I look at the chessboard, struck momentarily by the significance of the pieces, then turn back to Xuian, wondering which I am.

Bishop or pawn.

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

It’s a whole secton since they held the service in the Temple. 

I had to ask Drake, to be sure.  I know that I’ve been here a long, long time, but I really have to concentrate, to work it out.  It’s been almost five sectons, I think, since Thenie’s wedding.

Five sectons; fifty days; fifty long nights since making love with Starbuck in those dark turboflushes.  I try hard to remember; I close my eyes and remember how it feels to have him pushing slowly up inside me, filling me, making me feel the way no-one else ever can. 

I’m scared that I’m beginning to forget, that this half-life is overwhelming me.  So, in the night, with Dio wrapped in his quilts and sleeping on the sofa, I stay awake and think of Starbuck. 

And sometimes I think about what he’s thinking and feeling now, wondering if he’s missing me and mourning me, the way I mourn for him. 

Somewhere, I don’t know where, Starbuck’s sleeping, or thinking, or caring for Boxey.  But he’s alive and breathing, and I try to be glad about that.  The last time I thought I’d lost him I thought he was dead, but although I do try to be glad that he’s alive and well and take what comfort I can from that, somehow this is more terrible.  I’m a selfish man, I think, because something in me doesn’t want him sleeping or thinking or caring for Boxey without me. 

I don't like to think that his memory of me will fade away.  I have a vision of him in a few yahrens, seeing someone, tall and dark haired, and wondering who it is the stranger reminds him of.  I have a vision of him only belatedly and regretfully remembering me, having to try hard to remember how I looked and what I was like, how I felt to touch and love.  I have a vision of him forgetting because he’s living and moving on, and I’m gone.

I know, I know.  If I love him the way I should, I would be glad that he’ll remember how to be happy, rather than always remember to be sad.  But I can only love him the way I do, maybe not the unselfish way I should. 

And I don’t want to be a fading, regret-filled memory. 

I want to be at home, with Starbuck, with him not having to remember me because when he opens those blue eyes, there I am, reflected in them.  I want to feel his hands moving on me, touching in all the places that make me hot for him.  I want to feel that hard, strong cock fill me the way no-one else can.

But more than that, I want just to be with him. 

I want to hear his voice, laugh with him, smell that cologne he likes so much, touch his hair, argue with him about cleaning up, cooking dinner with him, sharing a day out with Boxey; all those little things and ideas and words that make what we have much more than just the sex, that make him and me what we are. 

I want him to be here and make me complete.

And all I can do is get out of bed, slowly and carefully so as not to disturb Dio.  The data crystal’s under my pillow.  Liu knew about it all the time.  Without anyone asking, he retrieved it and solemnly handed it to me the day after they moved me here from my old room. 

Dio’s not sleeping too well at the moment, so I move quietly in the dark room to the screen.  It’s not far but I take my time, supporting myself on the furniture as I make my slow way across the room.

Dio gave me the password when Liu brought me the crystal.  So, here in Dio’s room, the sound turned off so my priest doesn’t wake and worry, I can watch the flickering screen, moving close to it as if it would bring me closer to them.  There’s a table underneath the screen that I can lean on.

I’ve watched it so often now that I know exactly where to put my hand on the screen so that when the camera outside the school catches that fleeting glimpse of Starbuck enveloping Boxey in his arms, my fingers are resting against Starbuck’s face.

He can’t feel it.  I’m as much a ghost to him now as Cole or Zac are to me, but I touch him, trying to let him know how much I love him, letting a finger trace the line of his cheek.

Just for that fleeting micron.  Over and over again.

That’s all I have now.

 

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

When the guard – Garth, the very big one - opens the door to Drake, there are fewer guards outside than usual. 

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Li'in for a couple of days, and now one of the others is missing, too.  I’m getting to know them at last, and it’s Tan, I think, who should be there and isn’t, who’s usually on duty at this time.

Drake waits until the door closes behind him.  "Well now, I’ve got news."

We both look up at that.  Our day lacks incident, and Drake’s bringing us a diversion. 

"Good or bad?" Dio asks.

"Is anything here ever good?"

"No," sighs Dio.  "What’s happening?"

"I heard that a couple of people died in the night."

"More riots?" I ask, wondering if this explains why Cantor and Zhyn haven’t made a move against us.

Drake shakes his head.  "No.  Things are fairly quiet.  I mean, the ship’s still tense and the people I meet are jumpy, but Cantor and Zhyn seem to have put the lid on it.  I heard that there’s a lot of sick people, a lot more than I realised from what Jianne said yesterday.  The rumour is that some of them have died."

"What is it?"

"Jianne doesn’t know."  Drake looks at me thoughtfully.  "I just came from the flight deck.  The techs down there were saying that it’s spread to the other two ships."

"Shit," I say.

But it’s hard to think.  Instead I watch as Dio carefully sets out the pieces.  He’s concentrating on setting them onto the board, setting them just so on their squares and his fingers are trembling.  It strikes me that he was at Morning Light earlier.  He has to know about this.  It’s just not feasible that the people at Chapel wouldn’t have been talking about it.  So he knows and said nothing.

"Dio?"

He looks at me, and I think he’s self-conscious, because he flushes.

"Did you know?"

He sighs and sits down heavily, his hands grasping the edge of the table to ease himself down.  "Yes."

"And you weren’t going to say anything?"

Dio’s hands carefully straighten up the board, lining up the edges in a neat parallel to the table rim.   "I didn’t want to worry you with rumour, Apollo.  And that’s all it is.  I don’t know for certain if it’s true."

"The Otori?  What about them.  Are they sick too?"

"No-one knows," Drake says.  "They keep things like this to themselves, but I’d say that Jianne’s run off her feet trying to keep up with it all.  I saw her on the way here and she looks beat.  She said she’ll be along later this morning."

Well, there’s nothing we can do about this, although I remember that yesterday when she came and took away the drip, Jianne looked pretty worried about this outbreak.  I ask what the rest of Drake’s bad news is.

Drake’s expression becomes grim.  "Our Chief Guard is down the corridor talking to Zhyn.  Very seriously talking."

Oh.  Very bad news.

"About what?" Dio gives me a quick look.

"I don’t speak Gemonese, Dio.  But I’m not viewing this as a positive development.  Anything that has Liu cuddling up to Zhyn again worries me."

"Oh dear."  Dio says.

"I might put it a tad stronger than that," Drake agrees.  He picks up a chess piece and looks at it carefully, almost studying it as if he’d never seen one before.  "I think we’d better be ready to do something."

"What?" I ask, impatient.

But before they can say anything in answer, Liu opens the door.  He doesn’t come in, just puts his head in to speak to us.

"Kinan, Priest Zhyn has spoken to me.  The Synod require your presence today."

Liu doesn’t know how to break bad news gently, that’s for certain.  We look at each other in consternation.  It’s over a secton since I last saw Zhyn, in the Temple at the Service.  I’ll be more than happy if that turns out to be the last time.

Dio’s been looking frightened ever since Drake mentioned Zhyn’s name.  Like me, he’s been operating on the principle of no news being good news.  For the last few days, they’ve ignored me.  Dio’s said that Cantor hasn’t been at Morning Light, although the other priests are sure to have reported back on Dio’s presence.  I know that Drake sees Sheba every day, but he makes no secret of it.  No-one sees Zhyn.

So I’ve got used to being neglected.  It’s become normal.  It’s even become to feel safe.  This isn’t a development that I welcome, to be reminded how unsafe we are, how vulnerable.

"The Synod?" Dio quavers.

"They want you at the meeting," Liu says, still looking at me.  He looks slightly apprehensive under the normal Otori mask.

"Do they now," Drake says.

"I’m not going anywhere," I say.  I’m scared by this though, and I think they are too, but, to my astonishment, Drake intervenes.

"Let’s not be too hasty about this.  Can he get out of it, Liu?"

Liu looks hesitant.  "He is the Kinan, friend Drake.  But Zhyn is priest."

"You don’t let him in here," I say.

"I refused him entry when he was angry with you about the Service, and I would have had to choose between honouring my priest and honouring my oath to you to protect you.  He has not attempted to see you for some days."  Liu shrugs.  "He is cooler now."

I suppose I thought all along that Liu had denied them entrance so as not to bring two opposing loyalties into conflict, rather than from any real commitment to me, and I’m a little worried about how things will go now Zhyn’s moving against us.

"The Priest has put it on me as a duty to the Temple," Liu says with obvious discomfort.  "I can only ask you to consider it, Kinan.  If you agree, we will leave in ten centons."

"And if I don’t agree?"

"Then we stay here," Liu says, as if slightly surprised I could doubt that.

That’s comforting, anyway.  Maybe those opposing loyalties aren’t equal, after all, and his commitment to me isn’t totally illusory. 

Drake looks at Dio, and nods slightly.

Dio’s voice is shaking.  "Let us talk about it between ourselves, Liu, please."

Liu ducks his head, and steps back, letting the door close.

"What’s to talk about?  I don’t want to go."

"Maybe this sickness is nothing to bother them, if they’re feeling secure enough to move."  Drake’s sounding very thoughtful.  He and Dio are still looking at each other, not giving me much attention.

"Are you sure?" Dio asks him.  "Is this a good time?"

"There never is a good time, Dio.  We need a distraction," Drake answers him.  "Something that means that Cantor and Zhyn…"  He hesitates and sighs.  "..and Sheba, are occupied.  Only a few centons could make all the difference."

I look from one to the other.  "What are you two talking about?"

Drake turns his attention to me.  "Look, Apollo, me and Dio have been trying to think about what to do.  We’re really in the shit here."

"I’m quiet and I’m sick.  I’m not retarded.  I know that."

"Fine.  Then you’ll know that there’s no help for us here.  A couple of thousand people who think that you’re their Messiah… no way in hell are they ever going to let us go.  We’ve got to get back to the Fleet, but there’s also no way in hell that I’m going to be able to get you to the flightdeck to get you off this ship.  You’re sick, and it’s slowing you up.  You can barely walk, and for this to work, we’ll have to move fast.  And that’s assuming that I could get you away from Liu.  So far I’ve drawn a blank there.  He doesn’t respond when I talk about the need to get you to a doctor, and there’s no way I could fight off eight or nine of them."

I nod agreement at that.  No faulting his reasoning so far.

"So Dio and me agreed that when the chance comes, I’ll take my Viper and make a break for it.  We’re still running parallel to the Fleet.  I can plot in a convergence course back and get help."

"It may be our only chance, Apollo," Dio says.

"I go down to the flightdeck at least twice a day, to check out the Vipers.  They’re used to seeing me there, and used to seeing me around the Vipers.  I could be in one and half way out of the deck before they realise that this time it’s more than me just checking on my ship’s status."

"He’s been careful to get them used to that," Dio says, sounding approving.  "We thought it would increase the element of surprise, lull them into a false sense security.  Drake’s presence on the deck is something familiar and unthreatening, and they’ll be too taken aback to stop him.  They won’t be expecting it."

"But how will me being at the Synod give you the chance to get away?"

"Well, every little helps, Apollo.  If you can make sure that you have their attention in the Synod, then that means everyone in any authority will be there.  It may just take a little bit of time for the alarm to reach them and they can do anything to try and stop me, and by then I’ll be well away."

I think about it.  It’s hard to think clearly, but I can see a couple of snags.  Big ones. 

"She may come after you unless you can sabotage her Viper."

Drake scratches his nose, looking thoughtful.  "I’ve not had a chance to damage her ship, and I won’t get the opportunity now.  There’s no time.  That’s where you’ll have to buy me a few centons at the Synod."

"Once they know you’re gone, they’ll just change course again.  Even if you get back to the Fleet, you won’t be able to find us."

"We’ve thought about that," Drake concedes.  "But I don’t think they’ll want to stray too far.  Once they start diverging, they’ll lose their lock on the course co-ordinates in your head.  I can bring scouting parties back here.  It may take a while but we should be able to find you"

"Lots of ‘thinks’ and ‘shoulds’ in there."

"It’s a risk," Dio says quietly.

I nod.  "But if we don’t take it, then there’s no hope for us, right?"

"I don’t think so."  Drake says.  "And I’d rather we tried something."

Well, Plan A and Plan B are both shot to hell.  Maybe Drake’s come up with Plan C.

"Me, too," I say.  "Let’s do it.  Is your Viper ready to go?"

"Fuelled and primed." 

"It’ll be a hell of a flight," I say.  Not just because of the danger, but we had to be at least twenty four hours in hyperspace from the Fleet to be out of scanner range, and that’s not fun in a Viper.

"I’m a good pilot."

I nod.  "One of the best."

He looks a little startled, then grins his acknowledgement.  I hope he can see I mean it.  He is a good pilot.  I should maybe have let him know that before now.

"Now?" I ask.

Drake takes a very deep breath and nods.  We get up, Drake giving me a hand to get me to my feet. 

"We’ll be praying, my son." Dio’s very quiet, and he raises one hand to trace a blessing on Drake’s forehead.

"I may need it," Drake says, with a wry grin.

"Good luck."  I’ve kept his hand in mine.  To my complete astonishment, he uses it to pull me towards him and hugs me briefly.

"Take care, Skipper, and hang on," he says, gruffly.  "I’ll be back with reinforcements as soon as I can do it."

I grin at him.  "I know you will.  I can’t thank you enough."

"You owe me a drink.  And few flying privileges will help, when we get out of this mess."  He draws back, and in the same gruff tone adds, "You still annoy the frack outa me, but I guess you aren’t so bad."

"Thank you!"  I say, amazed.  "Just the kind of language guaranteed to get you privileges."

"Cleaning the turboflushes with my toothbrush, knowing you."  He straightens his shoulders.  "I’ll be off."

"Tell Starbuck..."

He nods. "I know."

Yeah, he knows.  He’ll tell them for me.   "Yeah."  I say.  "Take care, Drake."

He shakes hands again with me and Dio.  "Give me a couple of centons, and then get started for the Synod.  Fifteen centons, and start thinking about buying me that time, Apollo."

And he leaves me and Dio to give him his chance to get away and get help to us,

For a centon or two, I think about how ironic life is.  My only chance of getting home has just been entrusted to someone I’d have barely given the time of day to a secton or so ago.  Once I’d have committed murder to get out of spending time in his company.  But I’ve spent the last secton with him and, I realise, I like the man I never bothered to get to know before now. 

Once I think Drake would have murdered *me* to get out of spending time in my company.  And yet I think he’s got to know and like me, too. 

Adversity changes all of us, I guess.

"Well, Dio," I say.  "When you come to write your "Life of Saint Apollo", you can log that farewell as my first recorded miracle." 

Given what Drake and I thought of each other once, I’m not joking.

Dio laughs, then coughs, his hand on his chest.  "I can’t somehow see you as an appropriate subject for hagiography, my son," he says when he gets his breath back.

The door opens and I glance at Liu and the rest of the escort.  Those calm faces belie the passionately religious natures, the devotion they apparently feel. 

"Wanna bet?" 

And I’m still not joking.

 

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

Not everyone’s here in the Synod.  Cantor, Zhyn and Sheba are, of course, and Tomas.  But the captain of the Calliope is missing, his seat occupied by one of Cantor’s priests.  Dio’s seat, too, is taken by another priest, a clear signal that Dio’s fall from grace is absolute.

"I don’t believe we need you here, Father Dio," Cantor says, unpleasantly, as Dio and Liu help me into the canopied chair.  "You may leave."

Dio straightens, squaring his shoulders against this public dismissal, the calculated humiliation.  He stands beside me and rests a hand on my shoulder. 

"And I don’t believe that I acknowledge your authority any longer," Dio says with a calm dignity that has the other two priests gaping with shock.  The lack of any honorific probably shocks them as much as the defiance.

Sheba smiles, the dark creature that owns her enjoying conflict.  Zhyn looks indifferent, even bored, but Cantor flushes with annoyance.

"Ah yes," he says.  The usually smooth voice has a rasping edge to it.  "You’re sharing quarters now, I believe."

The implication is crystal clear.  Zhyn frowns and looks sharply at Liu’s placid expression, relaxing after a micron when Liu doesn’t react.  Sheba’s smile widens, a flicker of red in her eyes, and Tomas gasps in outrage, but I’m not sure whether at the thought of me and Dio, or at Cantor’s obscene sneer.  I catch Dio’s eye, amused, and start to laugh.  After a micron’s indignant spluttering, he sees the funny side of it too, although laughing ends up making both of us cough.  Cantor’s flush deepens.  I really don’t think he was expecting this as a reaction.

Liu shakes his head and goes to get his own chair, where he used to sit at Zhyn’s right hand, and puts it beside mine.  "Priest Dio," he says politely and waits until Dio sits down.

He glances around the table, and without asking, but with a casualness that Tomas seems to find unbearably insolent, he relieves the former Councillor of an unused water glass, fills it and brings it to me, holding it steady to help me stop choking.  Tomas’ protest dies away almost unheard when Liu glances in his direction.  The expressionless face must be pretty intimidating, and I wonder if I’m the only person who, when Liu’s glance catches mine for an instant, can see the amusement he hides under it.  He steps back so that he stands at my side, calmly competent, watching the proceedings throughout and never once looking at Zhyn.

Zhyn doesn’t, I think, seem as indifferent to this as he is to Cantor’s insults to me and Dio, although it’s only a flicker of annoyance under that calm expression that gives him away.

I try to think of how long it’s been since Drake left us.  *Fifteen centons*, he’d said.  *And then let’s hope that their attention is fixed on you, and that gives me the chance to make a break for it.* 

I’ll have to try and make sure of it.  I need to provoke a fight. 

"I hope that you’re all well," I say with awful politeness, thinking of the sickness, and looking pointedly at the seat where the Calliope’s captain usually sits.  Then just as pointedly at Cantor.  "You don’t look at all well, priest."

Cantor’s flush hasn’t completely faded, and he’s wiping at his face with a tissue.  He pushes it hurriedly into a pocket when I speak, and scowls.  One of the other priests, the one in Dio’s seat, is coughing into a handkerchief and chokes slightly, raising her head to stare at me.  I know her from somewhere. 

"His Eminence," the woman corrects me, scandalised.

Of course!  The day that Starbuck was missing, she was the priest at the altar in the Galactica’s chapel, the one who took me in to see Cantor when I was ready to beg to be allowed to go and find Star; when I was ready, metaphorically, to sell myself to Cantor if he’d only call his dog Tomas off and get the Council’s restrictions on my movements lifted.

Later it was a woman’s hand who put the phial of blessed water to Starbuck’s bloody lips and recited the prayers for the dying, while Salik battled to save his life and I could only watch helplessly, Dad holding me safe in his arms to one side.  It may have been her, then, too.  I can’t say that I had eyes for anyone but Starbuck right then, so I can’t be sure of that.

"It’s disrespectful to call His Eminence by any other title," she goes on, earnestly, as if she’s correcting a wilful child.

I do not respond well to being patronised.  "Disrespect is fine by me," I say.  "After all, you can’t respect Iblis’ leavings, can you?"

She looks aghast and Cantor goes red again.  I’m not sure whether it’s anger or whether he really is sickening for something.  There’s sweat beading on his hairline, and he pulls out the tissue and mops it away, and there’s still the slight edge of breathy hoarseness to that usually smooth voice. 

"Shut up, Apollo, until you’re spoken to," he snaps at me.

I smile at him.  I love provoking him.  It’s a day well-lived if I’ve crossed Cantor in some way.  "Well, Cantor, I’m like my priest here.  I don’t acknowledge your authority either."

"Your priest."  Cantor’s mouth is in that familiar hard line, and he gives Dio a cold look.  "You have your own priests now?"

"Just the one, and I made sure I got the good one."  I say.  "I prefer the ones who haven’t screwed their souls away with Iblis’ whore."

"The way you screwed with her?" He’s getting pulled into the argument the way I want, forgetting even to deny Sheba’s connexion to Diabolis.

"The difference is that I had to be drugged," I say.

Sheba laughs.  "You loved it, sweetheart," she says, and quite deliberately she runs her hands down from her shoulders over her breasts, pausing to massage her nipples,  She moistens her lips.  She’s still wearing Galactican uniform, though her flight jacket’s over the back of her chair, and the tunic and pressure suit fit her like a glove.  "I couldn’t give you enough, remember?"

It leaves me cold, but Cantor stares and Zhyn is moved enough to glance at her.  The little priestess in Dio’s seat reddens and shifts uneasily.

"An experience I prefer to forget," I say, and enjoy the flicker of anger in her eyes.

"You never will, lover," she says.

No.  I won’t.  I won’t ever be able to forget what they made me with those drugs, but I don’t think she really managed to touch me the way she’s touched Cantor.  And maybe the way she’s touched Zhyn, although I think her influence over him is less certain.

"Enough."  Zhyn’s voice is quiet but forceful.

In front of him, the light on the comlink is flashing, and his hand is reaching for it.  I can’t let him pick it up.  I’ve got to win a couple of centons grace for Drake if I can.  We’re relying on Drake to get out, and he’s relying on me, and I don’t have a lot here.

"This is an important theological debate, priest."  I say sharply, giving him the same scornful title as I’ve given Cantor.  Beside me Liu stirs uncomfortably, but says nothing.  It makes Zhyn look at me and forget about the comlink, and that’s what I want.  "Am I the Kinan, the Anointed?"

His hand’s hovering over the comlink.  His face is set and the eyes that are studying mine are unfriendly, but Sheba hasn’t been able to touch the essential honesty of the man.  Mad as moonshine he may be, but he’s still the High Priest of the Otori, and, as I thought long ago, a man of truth and integrity according to his own lights.  Of course, those lights aren’t any I or anyone else sane could share, and both truth and integrity are corrupted by his extreme religious views, but they’re there. 

He nods curtly.  He wishes it wasn’t true, but he won’t deny that.

"And the Lords’ Anointed most definitely and positively rejects the Lord’s so-called priests.  Everyone should know that.  The poor fools you deceived into following you should know that."

He scowls at me.  "I have better things to do than listen to this childishness."

"Coping with riots and sickness, maybe?"  I drag my eyes from the flashing comlink light to look at him. 

He stares at me fixedly.

"I hear they’re dying out there now.  Sick and lost, Zhyn, that’s what you are."  I glance at Cantor and pour scorn into my voice as I give Cantor his full honorific.  "His Eminence over there looks like he’s sickening for something, don’t you think?"

"No more than Dio," Sheba says with a sweet smile.

I turn my head sharply, shocked, to stare at Dio.  To see, for the first time, that he’s weary and tired, that’s he’s running a temperature, that his eyes are slitting against the light, that he’s coughing... 

She’s right.  Dear God, she’s right.  Dio’s sick.  Dio’s sick and I never realised it.  For a centon he looks at me, then shakes his head slightly.

Absorb it, assess it, use it.  Kennedy’s mantra fails me for once.  Right now, all I can do is absorb it and leave assessment until later.  Right now I’ve got to keep Zhyn’s attention off that comlink.  Silently begging Dio’s forgiveness for my selfishness and blindness, for being too caught up in my own misery to notice his, I can’t spare the time from Zhyn to react to this as I should react to it.  I have to concentrate on Zhyn.

"You’re not doing too well without me, are you, Zhyn?  Riots and sickness, that’s all you get, because I’m not with you.  I never will be with you."

"I could kill you now," Zhyn says and means it.

There’s a murmur of shocked protest from the Kobolian priests and Tomas.  Cantor says nothing, I notice, glowering at me from the other end of the table. 

"You’ve wanted to kill me ever since I got here.  What’s stopping you?"

"Just the numbers in your head, Kinan."  And he gives my title every bit of the scorn I used for ‘priest’ earlier.  "That’s all you’re worth, until I can teach your bastard to talk.  Then you’re worth nothing."  His finger jabs onto the button on the comlink, and he snaps something out in Gemonese.

I fall back into my chair in chagrin and exchange a look with Dio.  I hope I’ve given Drake enough of a chance, a few centons to get away.

"Are you all right?" I ask him quietly.

Dio smiles, but he looks tired.  "Fine.  Don’t worry.  You did well."

Sheba’s listening intently to the exchange Zhyn is having with the Icarus bridge crew.  I’d forgotten.  Cain was from Gemon.  That’s how he knew Cassie when she was a socialator, taking up with her after his wife’s death.  Gemonese is Sheba’s first language, of course, the way that Caprican is mine, so she knows before anyone else in the Synod what Zhyn’s being told.  She looks at me sharply, the redness flaring deep in her eyes with anger. 

"I’ll take care of it," she says, leaping up and grabbing her flight jacket.  She leaves at a run.

"Wha…?" Cantor asks blankly.

"It seems that Lieutenant Drake has taken his Viper and left the ship," Zhyn says, and he’s looking at me with a very unfriendly gleam in his eye. 

Beside me Liu tenses slightly, ready.  That’s a little reassuring.  I don’t think Zhyn will be allowed to kill me, just yet.

"He’s left?"  Cantor’s jaw drops.  "But where will he go?"

"Back to the Fleet, I imagine."  Zhyn is imperturbable.

"Back to the Fleet?  But… we can’t let him do that!  He’ll bring Adama back here!"  Tomas is whining, thinking, no doubt, of the justice untempered by mercy that he’ll get from my father.  He looks at Cantor.  "I thought you said he was safe, that he was on side?"

Cantor scowls and says nothing.

Tomas’ voice is a wail now.  "What will we do?" 

"Nothing."  Zhyn is immovable.  "Sheba will deal with him."

If she can catch him, and please God she won’t be able to.

Zhyn turns his attention to me.  "You are most definitely not as stupid as I first thought," he says.  "That was cleverly done, to distract me."

I don’t say anything.  I don’t feel particularly clever, and it’s taken all the stuffing out of me.  I’m tired and sick, and whatever sickness it is I’ve got, I’ve think I may have given it to the only friend I have here.  People are dying, and maybe that’s my fault.

"What shall we do?" Cantor says quietly.

"Nothing.  There is nothing we can do.  Only Sheba can deal with it, and I have every confidence in her.  We will carry on without her."  Zhyn’s not human.  It’s not human to be so calm.

"I’ll warn my ship," the Danae’s captain says.  "We’d better go to red alert and get those two pilots ready."

Somer and Antiope are alive then.  That’s something.  Not much, but something.

"I do not think that they are to be trusted, any more than Drake," Zhyn says.  "I gave orders for your second-in-command to be told about Drake and the Calliope warned.  They will hold the pilots until further orders."

The captain nods and sits back down, but he’s evidently twitching to get back to his ship and take charge. 

Zhyn turns his attention back to me.  "We have had a difficult secton because of your foolishness at the service," he says.

"We all have our cross to bear," I say, thinking about Drake, and wondering if he’s got clear.  Sheba will launch any centon, I guess.

"Things are back under control," Cantor says.  "No thanks to you."

"Amazing what the truth will do."

"The only truth is that you’re deliberately withholding the course co-ordinates from us," Cantor snaps back.  "That you’re lost …"

"In sin," I finish for him, weary of it.  "Yeah, I know.  You told me."

He closes his mouth and his lips thin down again. 

"You will recite the co-ordinates, now," says Zhyn.  "We will see if the Service of Repentance has been enough to intercede for you with the Lords.  If not, then we shall have to take some more rigorous measures."

Well, that sounds unpleasant.

"They’ll be exactly the same as last time, but I’ll be delighted to recite them for you, Priest."  I make my tone honey-sweet.  "It is the duty of the Anointed to lead the way for you to follow."

This time even Zhyn has to take a deep breath.  Oh good.  I’m beginning to get to him.  "Do it now," he says, tone flat.

I take my time about it.  First a drink of water from the glass Liu purloined for me, then a centon to make myself as comfortable as I can.  Dio gives me what my mother always called an old-fashioned look.  He knows what I’m doing, is silently warning me about provoking Zhyn too far. 

I close my eyes and think about the numbers.  I think about the Ship of Lights, and wonder again what it is that they did to change me, what it is they’ve made me.  I think about what and who I am.

I am Aekestre Sem-ve Rhamminadth Kobol-galathdh Kinan.

And I’m Apollo, Starbuck’s lover.

I know which one is more important to me, but I also know which one is keeping me and Dio alive right now.

"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 epsilon, 66.8; course change to…"

"Enough," Zhyn interrupts me.  He’s looking at a datapad.

"It’s unchanged." Cantor tosses his own datapad aside.  He looks hot and flustered and he coughs into a handkerchief.  I wonder if he’s sickening, like Dio, for whatever contagion is seeping through this ship.  I bloody well hope so.

Zhyn stands up and comes towards me.  There’s nothing urgent about how he does it, nothing threatening, but Liu blocks him.  They talk together quietly in Gemonese, Zhyn showing something to Liu as they talk.

After a centon or two, Liu nods and turns to me.  "Priest Zhyn wishes to be certain that you are..." he pauses, looking, I think for words that are not insulting.

"That I’m not lying."  I help him out.

Liu’s mouth twitches into the smallest grin.  "This will not harm you."

"Because you won’t permit it?"

"As you say, I will not permit it.  Will you allow this?"

I can see Zhyn’s fury at the way that Liu’s deferring to me.  It’s intriguing and makes me think about what it is I’ve done, stealing a priest from Cantor and what from Zhyn?  Another priest, maybe?  That very first day, Zhyn said my Honour Guard came from the priestly families.  Whatever.  Liu was certainly someone who had his confidence, was his lieutenant.

And is now mine?

"I trust you," I say to him, and watch his eyes widen before he nods in acknowledgement.

"Apollo," Dio says worriedly.

"It’ll be okay."

Liu bows, and lets Zhyn through.  Zhyn seems calm enough, hiding whatever annoyance he feels.  He has a tiny needle in his hand.

"I gave you this in the Temple, at the Sunstorm service," he says, his voice curt.

I remember.  The night they went through that pretend marriage with Sheba.  And that reminds me of where she is now, and I start worrying about Drake and whether he’s got clear.

"This is a reduced dose.  Just enough to ensure that whatever blocks you are putting up in your memory are broken down."

"Do it," I say.

I remember feeling the sharpness of this needle against the side of my neck back in the Temple.  It’s a pinprick, no more.  For a centon or two nothing happens.  I don’t feel any different, everything is just fine.  Maybe it’s not working, but then that’s hardly my fault, is it?  Why should I worry, when everything’s fine and quiet and it’s warm and this chair’s comfortable and I don’t feel any different, I don’t feel anything at all.

Someone’s stroking my hair, the way my Dad used to.  He always used to do that, whenever he first saw me when he got back on leave, or when he was especially pleased with me, or just when he thought I needed it.  Ever since I was little, that time I was sick, and he spent centars soothing me into the sleep that the doctors said I needed.  It was a special thing, for me alone.

"The co-ordinates, Kinan."

The voice booms and wanes.  It’s odd, and strangely compelling.  So I give them the co-ordinates and I remember at last why my Dad stopped doing it, when I first realised that I wasn’t the one in control of my life.

I was seventeen, and bursting with the news that the Kobolian Institute had offered me a research grant.  At seventeen!  Almost unprecedented, it was an honour I could barely believe had been given me.  I hadn’t been able to go with my mother and the kids to meet him at the spaceport – the summons from the Institute had come only that morning and Mother said it would be all right to go - but he was waiting for me when I got home.  We hadn’t seen him for nearly a yahren, and he jumped up when I came in, to catch me in a hug that left me breathless.  A huge hug, and his hand stroking my hair, and me asking Mother if she’d told him, and when she shook her head, I told him myself about the grant and what I was going to do with it, and how wonderful it all was.

And his hand fell away.  He let me go, and his face was stern, his voice cold, as if I’d done something that offended him deeply.  But you’re going to the Academy in six sectars, he said.  How can you even think about this… this hobby of yours when we’ve already decided what you’re doing?  I’m really very disappointed in you, Apollo.

And that was that; the last time I remember that he ever greeted me like that.  Because the next time he came home I’d given in after sectars of being frozen out, given up the grant, and gone to the Academy.  It was even better, from his point of view, because I passed the tests to get into SSI and not even he’d done that.  I was back in favour again, but when he hugged me hello I stepped quickly back out of the way before he could offer that little gesture that once used to be for him and me.  I don’t know if he intended to.  I never gave him the opportunity, then or ever. 

I didn’t entirely trust him any more, I think, if every speck of regard could be snuffed out because I wanted to do something he didn’t approve of, if I was only worth that regard if I followed the path he mapped out for me in my cradle, if I moulded myself on him.  If anything that was important to me was as unimportant and worthless as a hobby to him, then maybe I was essentially unimportant and worthless to him.  I never forgot that lesson.  And I never forgot, either, that if he could distance himself from me, I could do the same to him, that I could hide the real me and the real life I led because that, too, would be unimportant and worthless to him. 

If there was price to be paid for me going to SSI, we both had to pay it.  Mine was the life I wanted for myself.  His was that the closeness he thought he had with his son was a largely a sham. 

Trouble is, I’m not entirely sure that he realised that he was paying anything at all.  He never realised he didn’t really know me at all.

And now maybe he’ll never get the chance.

 

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

It’s Dio who’s stroking my hair.

"All right, Apollo?" he asks me as I slowly realise that I’m huddled into the chair.  My head’s resting on Dio’s arm, and I’ve been sleeping, I think. 

"Yes." I croak it out, my mouth like ashes, but I’m too tired to move. 

A micron later and Liu has an arm around me, gently straightening me in the chair so I don’t slide out of it altogether.  He keeps his arm about my shoulders, holding the water glass to my lips.  I drink it greedily.  There has to be something in that drug that leaves you dehydrated, and I’ve a bad headache, but otherwise I do feel reasonably okay.  Unlike last time, I’m not too disorientated, or dizzy.  Zhyn wasn’t lying when he said it was a mild dose.

Liu lets me sit back.  Cantor and Zhyn are away in a corner, talking to each other.  Cantor’s arms are waving passionately, but Zhyn’s as controlled as ever, drawn in upon himself.  Dangerous.  Zhyn is very dangerous.

The rest – the priests, Tomas and the Danae’s captain - are crowded together at one end of the table, dividing their attention between me and the little Cantor-Zhyn cameo.

"No change, I guess?"  I say.

"None that I could tell," Dio says. 

He’s looking tired.  I twist around in my chair and catch at both his hands.  "Are you all right?  Was that bitch right?  Are you sick?"

"I’m just tired.  Stop worrying."

I look at him doubtfully.

"Honest."

"All right," I say, still doubtful.  "Any word on Drake?"

"Nothing.  You’ve only been under about thirty centons.  So far as I know she’s still out there hunting for him, but there’s been no communication from her."

A sigh of relief.  Some hope, then.  He may get back, he may be able to bring help to us, we may be able to get home.

Just don’t count on it.

Zhyn comes back to his seat and Cantor, moving a little slowly, returns to his.  Maybe he is sick, the evil minded bastard.  I hope so.

"We will consider what to do about the Kinan later," Zhyn says, and there’s an unmistakable promise that I won’t enjoy whatever it is they decide on.  "Now we must consider this illness that seems to be spreading.  Liu, Jianne is waiting outside.  Please bring her in."

I think it’s an attempt to re-establish control over Liu, a little power play.

So does Liu, I guess.  He looks at me.  "With your permission, Kinan."

Well, now.  That seems to make it pretty clear where his first loyalty lies, at least as long as the oath holds.  I watch Zhyn’s expression darken as Liu asks me for permission to obey a command he would once have leapt to obey.

I say yes, and keep watching Zhyn as the priest’s eyes follow Liu’s unselfconscious exit.  When Zhyn turns his attention back to me and our eyes meet, I just nod.  I don’t need to do anything else.  He knows.

Of such tiny victories is my revenge made up, such tiny pinpricks against the implacable enemy that holds me prisoner.  Dio’s hand closes on my arm, in warning, I think.  He’s warned me before that they may not be such tiny things when you’re as helpless and as vulnerable as we are, that those who have power over us are not exactly unwilling to use it.

Well, I’m fast getting beyond caring, and Drake’s on his way home.  It’ll all be over soon, please God.

Jianne looks exhausted.  She stands before the Synod on the other side of the table to me, swaying slightly.  Liu doesn’t come back to stand with me, but stays close beside her.  Someone else he feels protective towards, then. 

Absorb, assess, use.

"Find Jianne a seat, Liu," I say before anyone else can speak.  "She looks tired."

"For heaven’s sake!" Cantor sighs in exasperation, but Liu’s already moving to obey, guiding Jianne into Sheba’s vacated seat and it’s another few centons before everything and everyone’s settled down.  When he makes a slightly hesitant move towards me, I shake my head, and he stands stiffly behind Jianne’s chair.

Zhyn hasn’t taken his eyes of me, even to watch this little byplay.  "Jianne."

"It is spreading," Jianne says wearily.  "We have sixty-seven confirmed cases on this ship, more on the Danae and the Calliope."

"Sixteen on my ship," the Danae’s captain says.

"Five dead here since yesterday, and more who may die."  Jianne puts her elbows onto the polished table top and rests her chin on it.  "They all have similar symptoms: severe chest infections, loss of appetite, lassitude, swollen glands in groin and armpit.  All symptomatic of a bacterial or viral infection.  I have the laboratories working at full capacity, but this disease is not responding to non-specific general antibiotics.  It is something very specific."

"You Otori are the best pharmacologists," Dio says.

Jianne glances at him, and her eyes narrow slightly.  "When we know what we are dealing with, Priest Dio," she agrees.  "But I am still uncertain.  I have some suspicions, but I need more data."  She sighs.  "And I am a medtech, not a doctor.  This may be beyond me."

"He was sick first," Cantor says, with a wave of the hand in my direction.  "Don’t you know what he’s got?"

"I thought it was bronchitis," Jianne says.  "A chest infection because you had him hanging in the water filtration plant for so long, and he was cold and wet.  Now I am not so sure.  Like the others, he is not responding to antibiotics."

"The blood tests?" I ask, wondering why what she’s saying doesn’t frighten me.  It should, because she’s suggesting I’ve got whatever everyone else has, and five people have died.  In fact, what she’s suggesting has already crossed my mind once already today: that I was the first one to be sick and it’s spreading from me.

The smile she gives me is sardonic.  "The medical equipment here is as old as the ship, Kinan.  It is still analysing the blood samples I took from you and from the others.  I should have an answer soon.  Until then, I can do very little, but I do need help.  I cannot see to almost seventy patients alone."

"Helpers will be assigned to you."  Zhyn takes his eyes off me at last to look at her.  "Report to me when you have more information."

She inclines her head in acknowledgement.  "Then I had better return to my duties."

But she doesn’t have the chance to get up.  The door opens and Sheba comes in. 

The reaction’s almost comic.  Everyone freezes and stares at her, making her the centre of a strained attention.  The room’s completely silent.  Dio’s hand on my arm tightens to the point where he’ll be leaving bruises.  Cantor stares at her over the top of the handkerchief he’s coughing into genteelly.  Tomas looks like he’s about to burst with tension.  Even Zhyn stares.

She loves it.  She walks over to where Jianne’s sitting, shrugs out of her flight jacket again and hangs it carefully over the back of the chair.  She says nothing.

I watch her, trying not to shake too much.  She’s keeping it all bottled in, whatever she’s done and whatever she’s feeling.  She’s milking this moment for all she’s worth.

She walks around the table to where Cantor is sitting, and her hand trails across the back of his shoulders as she walks, making him shudder.  Zhyn’s eyes narrow at that, but she doesn’t stop.  She comes down to where I’m sitting in this preposterous throne, and she leans down to brush her lips against mine.

I exhale quickly to make sure she catches my breath.  If this sickness is something I’ve started, then this is one infection I’d collude in.  Gladly.

She smiles and stands back.  Her eyes are glittering with excitement, a tiny spark of red in their centres, hidden deep, but there if you know what you’re looking for.  She hands me a data crystal. 

"You’ll enjoy this," she says, and walks on to do a circuit of the table.  This time, it’s Zhyn’s shoulder that she touches as she passes, and Zhyn straightens under her touch, as if reaching up into it. 

And back to her seat.  "I believe this is my chair, Jianne," she says pleasantly, and Jianne starts up out of it, stumbling in her eagerness to get away. 

I close my hand on the data crystal, its sharp edges hard on my skin, feeling sick.

Sheba settles herself into her place and smiles around the table.  "All taken care of.  What’s next on the agenda?"

 

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

The images of hyperspace are taken from the forward scanners of a Viper.  Sheba’s Viper.

Hyperspace.  The space that isn’t quite real, that’s caught between the two realities of here and there, where we can bend the laws of physics that say you shouldn’t be able to breach the barrier that’s the speed of light.

It’s a strange place.  I don’t think it’s ever looked the same twice for me, and I’ve been a pilot for nearly a decade now.  Each time is different.  Each time it’s beautiful and deadly, a place of swirling light and shadow, a place where normality is left far behind.

The swirling light on the screen in Dio’s room is a pale peachy orange shot through with red and gold.  The red’s significant, maybe, given what I see in Sheba every time I look at her.

Far ahead is a bright light, Drake’s rear thrusters, gleaming white.  She’s locked on to him, coming up fast, and she opens fire without warning.  The laser tracer cuts through the orange light like steel through mist.

Drake doesn’t stand a chance.  Not because he doesn’t know she’s there - he’s too good a pilot not to be watching his rear scanners, especially since he knows that’s where the danger is – but, I guess, because he can’t bring himself to believe that she’ll really fire on him, the one lover she’s had in the last two yahrens who really wants her.  Drake’s does turn and fire as she comes up on him, but he fires a warning shot, shooting wide of her.

She doesn’t give him that same chance.  She’s aimed right at him.  It’s a strike that shows an almost surgical precision.  She doesn’t shoot to kill.  Oh no, not our Sheba.  Not our lovely, beautiful, compassionate Sheba.  She shoots to disable, to get his engines so badly damaged that he’s floating helpless, trapped in hyperspace until his air runs out.

And that’s when the sound cuts in: her voice taunting him with the terrible death that awaits him, and Drake, poor sap, using precious air to tell her that he loves her.

And that’s it.

Somewhere out there Drake’s dying by inches, suffocating to death, trapped in the tiny cockpit of a Viper.

Somewhere back here his murderer is screwing Zhyn or Cantor, maybe both of them, to celebrate destroying him. 

And we’re here, Dio and me, watching the data crystal over and over again, knowing that’s it. 

No way home.

 

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

"I think it is Cholassian fever," Jianne says.  She’s a pretty girl, usually, but she doesn’t look pretty today.  Fear doesn’t make people look pretty.

It’s evening. 

Right about now, on a normal day, Drake and Dio would put aside the chess board and Drake would look at me, assessing how I was, how much help I’d need to get ready for bed.  Usually he’d get me into the shower, leaning almost casually up against the fresher wall, talking to me about nothing much, but ready to dart in and catch me if I got too dizzy with standing.  And then into the sleep suit and his arm supporting me across a room that is only a few yards across, but some nights could seem like light yahrens, to the bed that is very welcome after a day’s tiring inactivity.

Not tonight.

Somewhere out there Drake’s sitting waiting to choke to death, eight centars or so after the love of his life deliberately engineered his killing.

Jianne’s a welcome diversion from that thought.  But she’s not exactly brought cheer and solace with her.

Cholassian fever.

Plague. 

It’s always the danger when you go planet-side, that you’ll bring something back with you that we have no resistance to.  When I sealed with Serina, all my pilots were in life support, ill from a bacterial infection that Jolly and Boomer had picked up on a Cylon moon.  That’s why the flightdecks are double sealed from the rest of a ship and decontamination procedures are so rigorous.  They have to be. 

The sorry history of Cholassa demonstrates why.  It was an agricultural colony, under Virgonan governance.  It has to be almost three hundred yahrens since Virgo colonised the planet, and although the farmers she sent there acclimatised to almost all the microbes on the planet, there was one virus that acclimatised all too readily to them.  It took a few sectars for the virus to mutate and adapt until it was infectious enough to cause the outbreak of disease that wiped the colony out, and by that time the colonists had spread it throughout the star sector, as supply ships came and went. 

Thousands died then.  Countless thousands more since, when outbreaks happen.  It’s a terrible disease.  I know.  I’ve seen it.

"Are you sure?" Dio asks, grey faced.

She shrugs helplessly.  "I am just waiting on confirmation from the blood tests, but I am almost certain, yes."

"But it can’t be," Dio protests.  "Not if this started with Apollo.  He’s a warrior.  They’re all immunised against it."

"Do you think it started with me?" I ask them.

Dio sighs and takes a deep breath, as if steeling himself to say something unpleasant. "I don’t know, Apollo.  The two people who died last night were both Kobolian, and they weren’t the first.  A man called Janus died the night before.  He was one of those chosen to take part in the Service."

Oh.

"Which one?"

"He was from Leo.  The second to administer chastisement."  Dio looks down at his hands, avoiding my eye.  "I was told in Chapel today that others in his family are ill now."

I think back.  "I remember him, I think.  And the two who died last night?"

"Yes."  He answers the question I haven’t quite asked.

"And two Otori," Jianne says sadly, and I think of the pretty girl, very young, who was the first to carry out the Act of Contrition, her lips on mine as I coughed all over her.

"The people who touched me at the service?" I ask, dazed with it, trying to see what it means.  "They’re all ill?  And it’s spreading from them?"

Jianne nods.

"It seems so," Dio answers.  "But that’s got to be co-incidence."

"Has it?" I say.

"You’re a warrior.  You’re immunised against Cholassian fever."

"I’ve had it," I say.  They stare at me.  "Just after I joined my first ship, ten yahrens ago.  We were set to Regis, to help with an outbreak there, a humanitarian mission.  Sure they immunise us, but it was a bad batch of vaccine.  It only gave us partial immunity, and we all came down with the fever."

"Dear Lords," Jianne says, paler if anything.

"But we were protected enough by the vaccine.  It was like having a bad dose of flu, that’s all.  We were lucky."

We were bloody lucky.  Cholassian fever takes several forms, all painful and usually deadly, characterised by grossly swollen glands in the armpit and, sometimes, the groin; huge purple swellings full of infected blood and pus.  The worst is pneumonic plague, where you can add pneumonia into the mix and cough your life up in bloody sputum.

A dose of flu was very welcome in comparison.

Dio shakes his head, looking at Jianne.  She stands up and comes to me.  "Please, Kinan, let me check this." 

She eases open my shirt and gentle fingers probe the glands under my arms.  It hurts.  I can’t help but gasp as her fingers run lightly over my skin.  She pulls the shirt closed.  "The glands in your groin?"  she asks quietly.

I know I go red.  I’d really rather she doesn’t want to test those, too.  "Sore," I say.

Thankfully she takes my word for it. 

"The buboes have not formed yet," she says, sitting down again, her tone practical and unemotional.  "I suspect that you have retained the partial immunity and it has significantly slowed the infection.  The others do not have that immunity, and it is attacking them faster and with more virulence."

"I’ve got Cholassian?"  It’s like a kick to the gut.  "But… but I thought you could only get it once!  I mean, I thought I’d be immune now."

She shakes her head and sits and thinks for a few centons while we watch her and look at each other and try not to think about what an outbreak of Cholassian will do in three crowded ships with minimal medical facilities.

"If you are right, Kinan, then I think that you have been a carrier for ten yahrens," she says, her voice still flat.  "In all probability, for all that time it has been dormant, not present in your bloodstream in sufficient concentration to incubate, and you have been no danger to anyone.  But we had you hanging in the filtration plant for centars, freezing and wet.  We reduced your resistance to it ourselves.  It was not a heavy cold that turned to bronchitis.  You were in the first stages, the most infectious stages, by the time Priest Zhyn had you taken to the Temple".

"Dear Lords," Dio says

"But I’m better than I was then," I say.  "I’m not as sick.  I’m not coughing so much.  It can’t be Cholassian."

"You are no stronger," Jianne’s analysis is pitiless.  "And you may get worse.  If you have some immunity to the disease then it will be slowed, but perhaps not stopped entirely.  But you have a better chance than most to survive this, Kinan.  They do not have even partial immunity."

"Coughing," Dio says, thoughtfully, picking up on what I said.  He’s been coughing all afternoon, and he’s flushed with fever now.

"It is the pneumonic form," Jianne confirms. 

The worst form. 

She looks at him with compassion.  "You are ill, friend Dio."

"Shit."  It’s all I can say.  Dio’s nursed me for over a secton. 

He puts out a hand and takes mine, comforting.  "It’s all right."

Oh yeah.  First I let Drake go and get killed by that she-devil, and now I’ve infected the ship with the most contagious, pernicious viral infection humanity has ever encountered. 

Of course it’s all right.

 

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

We’re quarantined now, me and Dio.

They stay away from us.  Whatever Zhyn and Cantor had planned, none of it matters any more.  It’s all too late.  Liu says that the Fever’s going through the ship like wildfire, and that the Danae and Calliope are plague ships too.

The death rate’s in the stratosphere, even though Jianne has the Otori laboratories manufacturing the only antibiotic known to have any effect and is immunising everyone who hasn’t yet succumbed.  Liu says that in the last two days, the number of cases has tripled, quadrupled, with a terrifying suddenness.  Quiet and still himself with anguish, because these are his people, he tells me that over a hundred have died here on the Icarus, and more are dying.  He doesn’t know how many have died on the Danae and the Calliope.  He just knows that it’s a lot.
 
It’s blossomed so fast.  It’s as if identifying the sickness has given it a licence to burst on us like laser fire.  As if it’s saying to us, You know my name, now I’ll take you and know you.  I’ll know you to death.

A hundred dead.  That’s ten percent of the ship’s population, and it won’t stop there.  I don’t know what the death rate’s likely to be.  Four or five times that, I suspect, from what I remember from briefings from almost a decade ago.

This is going to be a ship of the dead.  It’s all too late, far too late.

Liu hasn’t deserted us, although the Guard have been infected too.  Li'in is dead from it, and Tan and Mu, and Kau and Wing, and big Garth is sick.  Liu seems untouched so far, and is the only one who will come into this room where Dio and me are.  He brings water and tea, all that Dio can take now.

Dio looked after me for so long, and now it’s my turn to try and care for him.  I do what I can, but Jianne was right.  Whatever little immunity I had is wearing away, a little more every day. 

My poor priest is burning with a fever no cool water pack can help, the fever leaving him as helpless as child.  He’s coughing up bloody froth now, his breathing harsh and difficult.  His eyes are glazed and his mind clouded, wandering aimlessly in delirium.  Mostly he thinks he’s in Chapel and his weakening voice tries to sing the services.  He only quietens when I crawl across the room to him, and find the Book that’s never been far from his hands, and I read it to him as long as my eyes can see and my voice lasts.

Until the evening comes and my fever with it, until my voice fails into paroxysms of coughing that leave me in a heap on the floor, too exhausted even to crawl back to my bed.

In the Beginning, there was the Word. 

And in the End, there is no Word. 

There’s only silence.

Gesinthe Kobol-galathdh Kinan, tha-lei phosasdth.

Aerion’s words to me, his instructions passed through a crazy Otori prophet of six millennia ago.

Walk with the Lords’ Anointed, or be silent.

Now I know what it means.

Now we all know what it means.

 

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

 [You look terrible] Zac says, tone critical.  The sort of tone he uses when I’m bringing shame on him and all our house, even unto the tenth generation, by insisting going out somewhere public in clothes he designates as terminally unfashionable.  A bit of a fashion victim, my little brother.

[A Cylon victim] he says, crossly. 

*Because of you*, hangs between us, unsaid.  *Because you left me behind.*

[And if I have a sense of style, it’s more than you have, big brother]

I can’t be bothered to argue with him.  I can’t be bothered to keep my eyes open, and even when I do, everything is blurred and hazy.  I can’t be bothered with anything.  It’s not worth it.

I’m hot.  So hot, that my sleep suit’s wet with it.  My head’s aching savagely, the glands in my neck so swollen that my throat’s almost too constricted even for Liu to get the water to trickle past. 

The coughing’s back with a vengeance.  Constant, wet-sounding coughing that makes the bed shake with me; and sometimes there’s the taste of blood in my mouth.  My back’s aching, a savage aching low on my spine, somewhere around my kidneys.

Someone’s holding my arm out, away from my body.  They’re speaking in Gemonese, and it’s making me cross, that I don’t understand what they’re saying, but they take no notice of me when I complain at them.  It’s rude.

[It is] Cole agrees, kissing me lightly.

[Don’t know how you can do that, with what he’s been coughing up] Zac says, disgusted. 

[I love him] Cole says.

Zac says nothing to that.  He’s behind me somewhere, a looming presence that I can feel rather than see, just at the head of the bed.  When I open my eyes a woman is bending down to peer into my face.

I think it’s Sheba.  Or Serina.  Or Athena.  Or my mother…

"I can only give you a local anaesthetic for this, Kinan," Jianne says.  She’s wearing a surgical mask and all I can see are her eyes.  She has pretty eyes.  "And I do not think it will be enough.  Please try and bear it."

Strong hands hold my shoulders flat to the bed.  For a moment I think it’s Zac, but it’s Liu.  Liu’s holding me down.  Jianne leans one hand on my upper arm, holding it still, and there’s a terrible burning pain carving its way into me.

The screaming fills the room.  There’s a stink of something rotting, something thick with contagion. 

[They have to do it.  They have to do it] Cole says, frantic, trying to comfort. 

[Bloody hell] says Zac, reverently, when the screaming stops in choking coughs that mean I can’t breathe.

Oh fuck!  Oh fuck, I can’t breathe…

Liu lifts me up to help me.  I fight to get enough air into my lungs, and Jianne busies herself cleaning up the wound she’s made.

"I have to do the other arm, Kinan," she says softly.

She does, too, despite me begging her and pleading to be left alone, and there’s another terrible pain, and more of the thick stink of corruption.

"That will help," she says at last.

[Be grateful the glands in your groin aren’t in the same state] Zac says sombrely, listening to me sobbing.  He pauses.  [So far]

I’m cradled up against Liu’s chest, shaking helplessly as she dresses the wounds she’s just lanced, my head on his shoulder.  He’s here all the time now, I think.  He’s the one nursing me now.  I can remember he’s the one cleaning me up, getting the water into me, holding me up like this when I’m almost too congested to breathe.

I don’t know where I am, I realise, but not in Dio’s rooms anymore.  And I don’t know where Dio is either.  When I turn my head to look for him, I can’t see him.

"Dio?"

No answer.  I wonder if I’ve really managed to ask it, or if my voice has failed me entirely.

Or if he’s dead yet.

"Where’s Dio?"

[Can’t see him] Zac says. 

[He’s not here] Cole agrees. 

His mouth touches mine again, and water trickles into the back of my mouth.  It’s almost unbearably painful to swallow, but I have to swallow or drown.

"You are in the hospital that Jianne has set up on the tenth level, Kinan," Liu says, tilting the feeding cup of water to my lips again.  "We moved you here yesterday.  It is the Synod’s orders, that everyone who is sick is brought here, to isolate them.  Dio is in another room, with some of the others."

I’m in here on my own.  It’s a dim place, and my bed’s a camping cot.  It rattles every time I cough.  There’s nothing else in here but the cradle carrying the intravenous drip Jianne’s fixing into my hand.

"Dead?  Dio... dead?"

"No, no," soothes Liu.  "The Synod ordered you were to be kept here alone, Kinan.  For your security.  That is all.  Priest Dio is alive."

Jianne says something in Gemonese, and Liu sighs. 

I can’t speak Gemonese, but I can guess.

For now, she said.  For now, he’s alive.  But he’s dying like all the others, like me.

I wonder how long it takes?   

 

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

"You do not look well," Sheba says brightly.

Liu comes and lifts me up, sliding in to sit on the bed behind me, cradling me against his chest.  I’m a little stronger, a little more alert than the last few times I was awake, but not strong enough to sit up without help.  I lean back against him. 

"Why… here?"  I’ve no breath for more.

She pulls a face.  "Dear me.  Reduced to baby talk, are we?"

I don’t answer that.  I won’t waste precious air on her.

She smiles, allowing her hand to rest on her stomach.  "Would you believe I just wanted to see how the father of my child is?  No?  Then, let’s put it down to curiosity.  I just wondered what it would be like to watch you die, Apollo.  I want to watch you die.  I’ve wanted it for a long time."

"I… know."  I say it to the dark presence that owns her.

"Yes," she says it soberly, the smile fading.  "You do know, don’t you?  Because you’re the Anointed, and I failed to turn my brother from his purpose, there."

This is the first time Iblis has spoken to me direct, through Sheba’s mouth.  The first time.  And I’ve no breath to defy him.  All I can do is look and make sure that she – that he – knows I’m aware of him.

The smile’s back and the darkness in her recedes again, until there’s just that faint glint of red to betray his presence.  She sits down on the edge of the bed, and takes my hand in a ghastly parody of wifely solicitude. "And, of course, I came to share the news with you."

I’m surprised when Liu speaks.  "You do not fear infection?  This may not be wise."

"I’m a warrior," she says, not looking at him.  "I’ve been inoculated."

"Me… too," I say, hoping to worry her.

"Ah, but I’m immune.  The plague can’t kill *me*."  It’s him talking again, amused by our human frailty.

"Shame."

She smiles again, and leans forward to kiss me on the lips.

I don’t know how she can.  Liu knows how much I hate being dirty and unshaven, and to keep me from fretting, he spends a few centons each day cleaning me up, no matter how weak and difficult I am.  But he’s stopped shaving me.  The sores that have broken out around my mouth, like those on my hands and feet, are raw and painful.  They crust over, but the crust breaks and they’re seeping blood constantly.  I don’t know how she can bear to touch them. 

Except, of course, that Iblis delights in corruption.  Even this.

But I hope to God that the contagion leaking out of me is enough to make Iblis’ boast of immunity a hollow one.  Please.  If ever there was a reward for making me the Anointed, let this be it.

"But it can kill you," she says, sitting back.  She pats my hand in spurious, sickening sympathy.  "As it’s killed so many others.  Even the best of us can be taken."

A sweet, sweet smile.

I don’t know what she’s talking about, but I think I can guess. 

"I’m so very sorry, Apollo."

Behind me, Liu stiffens ever so slightly.  Then I know.

"He was too old, I guess." She’s almost purring.  "Too old to survive the sickness you gave him."

Dio.

Oh, my poor priest.  My poor Dio.

"And Cantor’s almost dead, did you know?  I just brought him down here.  I’m sick of him lying there, praying all the time and making that moaning noise.  He might as make it down here with the rest of the pathetic corpses."  She leans back, stretching and looking completely at her ease.  "Zhyn’ll be next.  He’s sickening, too.  That should please you."

I lean back against Liu and the arm that’s encircling me, holding me up, tightens fractionally.  He was keeping this from me, his unexpected remark to Sheba an attempt to frighten her into leaving before she could say anything.

"He is very tired," Liu says, quietly.  "You had better leave."

"When I’m ready," she snaps.

I close my eyes so I can’t see her mocking face, trying not to think about anything very much, concentrating on breathing.  But it’s no good.  It’s no good.  What she says really kicks home.

My poor priest. 

Someone else I killed.  Someone else who was fond of me – who grew to love me, I think - and I killed him.  That’s quite the pattern.  So far only Starbuck’s broken it.  Only Starbuck’s immune.

It’s like the whole world wrenches at me.  I feel very sick.  Very, very sick.  Shock maybe, but I can’t do anything to stop it.  A pain lances through my head like a knife behind the eyes.

Someone’s crying out. 

"Kinan?"  Liu’s voice is harsh and shaking.  "Kinan?"

I can’t answer.  It’s like someone’s taken me and twisted me, like wringing out a wet rag.  There’s a sense of wrongness, of something tilted off its axis, spinning crazily, erratically. 

It’s wrong.  It’s all changing and it’s all wrong.

"Apollo?" says Liu.

There’s a high pitched, thin screaming.  It’s horrible, filling this little room.  It’s almost unendurable, like an animal in some gross pain, hurt beyond endurance.

And across the inside of my eyelids, the numbers shoot like comets, golden arrows trailing glittering sparks. 

They hurt.

Oh God, they hurt.  They’re burning!

[You’re in trouble] says Zac.

But Cole’s more comforting, as usual.  [Just hang on, Apollo.  It’ll be all right.  Just hang on]

Aerion’s golden arrows are burning their way into my brain, into every neurone.  They’re burning their way into every cell.  I can see it.  I can see what they’re seeking out.  I can see the way they’re seeking it, inexorable; the way that every chromosome is invaded and overwhelmed; the way the numbers wind around the molecules like a third helix, gleaming gold, clinging like ivy.

His voice sounds in my head, reciting the words of the prophecy, directing the flight of those burning arrows.

My heels are kicking against the bed, and the thin screaming’s become a harsh barking noise, like a dog frenzied with fear and rage.  I can feel myself shaking.  More than shaking.  The bed’s rattling and Liu’s shouting for Jianne. 

[You’re convulsing] Zac comments, and he sounds worried.  [Not good, Appy.  Calm down.  Calm right down]

[You know what’s happening] Cole says, urgent.  [Let it happen.  Ride it through]

Not like this.  It’s not been like this before.

[You weren’t sick last time]  Zac says.

"Is he dying?" Sheba asks eagerly.

Liu’s holding me, trying to fight me to a standstill, soothing me and keeping me safe, stopping me from hurting myself as arms and legs thrash as if they’ve been galvanised, as if the electrical current is pouring through me.

The numbers are screaming through my head now, flicking across the back of my eyelids in a sequence so fast that human eyes shouldn’t be able to see it.  But my eyes see it.  Even with my eyes closed, I see it.  The sequence is part of me now, inextricably bound into every atom of me, clinging to the very essence of me like a second skin.

The numbers slow, steadying.  The flaming arrows become slow and almost sedate, slowing.  Slowing.

Stopping.

And Aerion’s voice fades into silence.

I stop shaking, and my heels stop drumming madly. 

[Better] Cole says, and ghosts his lips against my forehead.  [That's better]

[You scared us, Appy] Zac sighs and fades away, taking Cole with him.

I’m lying quiet in Liu’s arms now, exhausted.  When I open my eyes, I almost expect to see the new sequence scrolling across the dim ceiling, but all I see is Jianne bending over me, her face anxious.  Sheba’s over by the door.

"Is he dying?" she repeats.

"Not… yet."  I  say.

"You always were a disappointment."  She looks disappointed, disconsolate.  A child denied a treat. 

"Good."  I can’t say anything else.

Jianne only makes an inelegant snorting noise and tells me to be quiet.  She works fast, getting another intravenous line in, fitting it skilfully to the permanent catheters she inserted into my arms days ago, turning the little valve to let the liquid drip through into my veins.

"Is anything going to happen?"  Sheba asks 

Jianne ignores her, speaking to me.  "You are very dehydrated, Kinan.  That is only to be expected with the fever you are running.  This is merely a sugar and salt solution, to replace what you have lost.  It will get your electrolyte balance back to normal."

"What caused him to have a fit?" Sheba demands, coming closer again, and I can see the feral red in her eyes, the spark where Iblis hides himself.  She looks suspicious, somehow, and I wonder if Iblis can sense what happened.

"He is very ill," Jianne says.

"Oh, is that all."

Well, maybe he can’t sense it.  Maybe wearing the shape he is, controlling her from whatever unimaginable distance it is, he can’t see the whole truth.  If he could, I think he’d make Sheba do something about it.  But all he makes her do, is be unpleasant.

"I’m bored," she says.

"Then you had better leave," Jianne says, focused mostly on checking me over. 

"Well, if he’s not going to make my day…" and with one final disappointed look Sheba does go, letting the door close behind her.  She’s done what she came to do.

"I do not know what caused this seizure."  Jianne’s looking puzzled.  And well she might, because I think I just presented a unique symptom.

I don’t think true visions are a normal symptom of Cholassian fever. 

I manage to raise a hand to catch at hers.  "Dio?"

Liu says something in Gemonese, and the look Jianne gives the closed door is less than friendly.  "I am sorry, Kinan," she says, gently.  "He died a few centars ago."

"Didn’t…suffer?"

"No.  I promise you that.  I made sure of it.  I made sure that he was… " she pauses, and I remember her habit of always trying to look for the right word, the one that expresses best what she wants to say in the language that isn’t hers by birth.  "I made sure that he was comfortable."

"Book."  I say, hoping she understands.

"The Book?"

"His…with him."

"Ah yes.  I will make sure that he travels with it, Kinan.  I promise."

I let Liu lay me back against the pillows again, too tired for anything else.  I manage to say that I’m grateful, and she nods.

"I liked Priest Dio," she says, and leaves quietly. 

There must be a dozen others she has to make comfortable in the next centar or so, the way she eased Dio’s passing.

May the Lords help them.

May the Lords protect my poor dead priest.

May the Lords do a better job of it than their Anointed did.

 

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

I sleep a lot now.

I don’t know how long it’s been.  I sleep, wake briefly, sleep again in torment of heat and sweat and blood.  The pain in my lower back’s the worst.  That’s almost unbearable.

Liu’s always here with me.  He’s as good a nurse as poor Dio was.  He’s almost as devoted.  It’s astonishing, really, given that I brought this plague on them.  In his place, I think I might, to quote an Otori of long ago, jettison me with the dead.

He doesn’t seem inclined to do that, for whatever reason.  He even still talks to me.

"Why did you do this?"  There’s a measurable pause between each word now, each pause a laboured breath to try and fill lungs that are already half filled with fluid, that feel like lead weights in my chest.  "You, I mean.  You, personally."

Liu’s got me into clean things and has been trying to feed me.  He gets more lukewarm soup into me, before answering.  It looks unpleasantly like that stuff Jianne used to feed me intravenously, days ago now.  But it doesn’t taste of anything.

"Priest Zhyn convinced us that we would not reach Paradise if you were not with us, Kinan," he says.

I look at him, then at the dim room in the hold where we’re living.  Well, all I can say that this is the best it has to offer, then there’s trouble in Paradise. 

"We wanted to believe."  Liu, too, is looking around the room.  "I wanted to believe you could take us to something better than this."

"Wrong."

"Well," Liu says, and puts down the cup.  "I think that we were wrong in the way we went about it, but you *are* the Kinan."

Well, some revolutionary thinking going on at least.  Although much good it’s doing me; about as much as good as being the Kinan is doing me.  I’m still here in this hold with the dead and dying.  Until they come to their senses and jettison me too.

"I still believe that you will take us there," he says, with that quiet certainty that scared me when it was what I saw in Zhyn, but which, oddly, comforts me now.  Liu isn’t Zhyn.

"If Earth is a paradise," I say. 

"It will be."  There’s no doubt in his voice.

Well, I hope he’s right.  I close my eyes and let the numbers come.  For a micron I’m tempted to tell him, to give them to him, a parting gift from the dead to the dying.  But not yet.  Not yet.  I’m not dead yet. 

Later, maybe, if there’s time.

"How long here?" I ask him.

"Six days, Kinan."

I nod.  Six days.  It seems a lot longer.  I wonder how long it is since Dio died.  Two or three, I think. 

Or Drake?  It must be almost a secton, eight or nine days, since he choked to death, poor bastard, using his last breath to tell Sheba that he loved her.  Well, I can understand that.  I’d use mine to tell Starbuck that he’s been the breath of life to me.

Won’t get the chance now.  He knows, anyway, but I’d have liked the chance to tell him, and to tell him that I wanted nothing more than to feel the Sealing chain binding my hand in his. 

"It’s taking a hell of a long time," I say.

"What is?"  Liu spoons in more soup.

"Dying,"  I say when I’ve swallowed it obediently.

Liu grins slightly.  "Jianne thinks that you are a little stronger.  You may live yet, Apollo."

Frankly, I am not sure that is welcome news.  A lifetime trapped here with Sheba is not an enticing prospect.  I wonder how much Liu can protect me from.

"You like Jianne," I say, getting tired.  "Hope you both stay clear."

"She is well inoculated, and I seem to be immune," Liu says, placidly.  "I will speak with her when this is over."

"Good."

"I am surprised that you care about these things."

I grin at him.  "Card-carrying romantic, that’s me.  Ask Starbuck, if you ever get the chance."

"I will," he says, and puts me back down amongst the pillows again.  "You should sleep now."

"Don’t do much else."

But not today.

He’s standing up to put the feeding cup of soup aside and gather together all the soiled linen, when the door bursts open, waking me up just as I’m drifting off.

Zhyn looks terrible.  He’s glittering with fever, eyes so bright that they look like shiny brown glass marbles, red rimmed and weeping with pus.  He staggers, rather than walks across the room towards me, only will power keeping him on his feet.  Behind him is Sheba, her face twisted with fury and baffled malice.  Perhaps it’s her will keeping him on his feet.  Perhaps it’s Iblis’.

Liu drops the linen and catches at Zhyn.  I don’t know whether it’s to stop him or support him, but it doesn’t matter.  There’s only a glimpse of something flashing silver as Zhyn’s hand connects with the side of Liu’s neck, before Liu, his eyes widening with surprise, drops to his knees and slowly falls over onto his side to lie on the heap of linen.  His arms and legs twitch slightly, and he’s still.

Sheba yanks viciously at the drip in my arm, pulling it free.

"You knew!"  She’s so close that spittle sprays me in the face, her eyes a gleaming red now.  It’s Iblis spitting at me from wherever he is, Iblis who’s consumed Sheba entirely until there’s nothing of her left.  Even her voice is deeper, more resonant.  She even sounds more like him now.  "You knew!"

"Knew?" 

"You knew!" She’s pulling me upright, far stronger than she ought to be, far stronger than a slight woman could ever be.  Zhyn, breathing like a distressed bellows, helps her.  Between them, they haul me to my feet.

The whole room whirls and I have to cling to her, otherwise I’d go right over. 

"Lords..." I say, half in protest, half pleading to be left alone.

She hits me with her free hand.  It’s not hard, but enough to rock me back on feet that are already unsteady.  "Shut up and walk!"

Zhyn falters a little as he takes more of my weight, and, quick as fire, her free hand touches him, crackling with energy.  He sighs and straightens.

"I may have lost this round, Anointed," she says as she starts for the door, and her voice is dripping with venomous contempt as she calls me that.  "But you won’t be around to triumph over me.  You’ll be very, very dead."

I don’t know what the hell is going on. 

They drag me out of the room.  Outside is a bigger hold, lined with cots on each side, full of the dying and the dead.  Jianne is drawing a blanket over a dead child’s contorted face, tears in her eyes.  She looks up in astonishment as we emerge from the little inner room.  She can’t have been there when they came in for me.  Our appearance now has caught her by surprise.

"Liu!" she says sharply, and starts towards us, calling out something in Gemonese.

Sheba’s free hand swings round abruptly to stop her.  The bolt of energy fair crackles through the air, and just in time, Jianne drops and rolls away.  Sheba doesn’t pause to get her, but we stumble on.

"I’ll come back for you, friend Jianne" she promises, doing no more than shoot a glance over her shoulder, her voice thick with malevolence.

God, but this is killing me, pulling me along like this.  Why not just kill me where I was?  Why not just kill me here?

I haven’t spoken.  I’ve no breath for speaking, needing every atom of oxygen I can draw into my lungs just to keep breathing.

But she hears me anyway.  Iblis hears me anyway.

"But that’s too easy, my love.  Too easy. "  She laughs slightly.  "And we can’t have that, can we?  Oh no.  We can’t possibly have that."

 

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

 [You need to be awake for this, Appy]  Zac says urgently.  [Wake up, Appy.  Wake up]

I don’t answer him.  I’m too tired for this and I’m fed up with trying to work out why they’re here, haunting me.  Because I loved them?  Because I killed them?  But I never killed Cole, I just had to leave him behind.  And really, I never killed Zac.  I just had to leave him behind. 

I always have to leave them behind.

[Let me try,] Cole’s voice is closer, his breath warm on my face.  [They’ve hung you in here again.  Why?]

Don’t know.

He puts his arms around me, holds me close and sweet the way he used to all those yahrens ago when we were young and he loved me and nothing could touch us, not even death and loss.  I turn my face towards him, remembering.  There’s the feather-light touch of his mouth on mine, so ghostly and insubstantial that for a centon I wonder if all I’m feeling is the mist of water coming up off the filtration plates a few centimetres from my face.

[Think about it.  Why’d they put you in here last time?]

Don’t know.  Can’t think.  My head hurts.

[I know it does, but think.  They put you in here to hide you from the search parties, from the warriors looking for you.  Now why’ve they done that again?]

"Ages ago," I say at last.  "When we were with the Fleet."  I tip my head back and let the cold, cold water run over my face.  It feels so good. 

[Right.  More than two sectons ago, nearly three.  Before you got sick.  Before everyone got sick.  So why now?  Why’ve they done it again?]

Don’t know.  Don’t care.  The water’s cool and it’s making me feel better.  I’ve been so hot for so long.

[Listen to him, Appy] Zac says, cross and impatient.  He’s been impatient with me a lot over the last few days, because the sickness has made me slower than he is, not as sharp.  [They’re hiding you again.  So maybe Drake made it back after all… ]

[And the Fleet’s chased them and caught them]  Cole finishes the sentence, and I smile, because he’s faster and sharper even than Zac, and that’ll annoy the frack out of my smart arse little brother.

[He’s so slow] Zac complains

[He’s sick] Cole says and gentles his mouth against the side of my neck.  [He’s very sick.  Listen to me.  Try to understand.  It means that there’s people on board that Zhyn and Sheba don’t want to find you.  This is it.  This is the only chance you get]

I’m hanging in this shit hole with no chance of getting out.  What the hell can I do about it?

There’s a long sigh from Zac and Cole’s arms tighten on me.

[They’ve got to find you.  Make them find you]

"How?"

[Noise] says Zac.

[Damage this thing] Cole says.  [Watch]

I don’t see him do it, I don’t understand how he does it, but he makes my foot swing back and kick forward hard.  One of the filtration plates shudders under the impact.

[Again] Zac whispers, close on the other side of me.  [Again]

Again.  This time the plate shatters, the thin glass bursting into sharp-edged shards.  The shards fall slowly in the half light, catching the glimmers of the emergency lighting inside the filtration tube as they spiral down.

The rippling music made by the water changes, the pattern broken by the broken plate.  The droplets have further to fall to the next plate down, and they hit harder, noisier.  There’s a petulant note to the sound now, as if the water resents the extra work it’s having to do to reach the next plate.

[You see?] Cole says.  [They’re easy to break.  Get as many as you can.  The alarms will go off, and someone will hear.  Someone will come and get you down]

[If you can break enough of them the sensors will pick it up and the bridge monitors will go off]  Zac tells me.  [Someone might want to find out what’s suddenly going wrong]

Might.

[Just do it, Appy] he says with another long sigh.  [Pull yourself up a bit and do it]

[Please] Cole says.

I look down between my feet.  They’ve manacled me to the usual place, near the top of the filtration column, and the long pillar of glass plates drops away for a good fifteen metres below me.  There’s the filtration plate that I have my feet on, the one I can’t afford to destroy, but I can maybe take out a metre’s worth above that.  I try, balancing on one foot and hanging for a micron on the manacles.

[Good] Cole says softly, as another plate goes.  [Good]

[Get as many as you can]  Zac says.  [More!]

So I do.  I have to have to think about which one I get next, using feet and knees to push the plates up and out of their settings, letting them fall past my body to smash their way down the column, hoping they’ll take more with them.  All the time I’ve got to keep my balance on the one plate I can’t afford to kick away.  And everything I am aches and shivers with a heat that even the cold water can’t cool for ever.

[Not enough] Zac’s frustrated, angry.  [Not enough.  You’ll have to wriggle around and get more]

I’ll fall.

[No you won’t]  Cole’s arms are around me again, and his voice is soft in my ear.  [Listen to me.  You won’t fall, but you can slide.  If you can get the manacles free, you can try and slide down the column, taking the plates with you.  That’ll get the alarms going.  Everyone will hear.  You can do it]

I’ll die.

[You’re dying anyway] Zac says.  [And believe me, big brother, you really don’t want to do that.  Stop whining and get on with it]

Fuck you!

[That’d be incest] the smart-arse says and I can almost see him smirking.  [Dad’ll have a fit]

I can’t get my hands free.

[You aren’t bloody trying] says Zac with a snort.  He makes me look up at the place where the manacles are held, and study it.  [It’s not so hard.  They’ve got you tied to one of the horizontal filtration tubes, and it’s already bending under the weight.  You can make it snap if you try]

[Be fair] Cole admonishes him.  [It won’t be that easy]

[He could at least try]  Zac’s unrepentant as usual.  [Listen, Appy, I’ve got it worked out.  That tube will go if you hang off it and swing on it.  Just make sure that you swing onto the column when it goes and like Cole says, you’ll slide all the way down]

"I’ll get cut to ribbons," I say aloud. 

[No pain, no gain] Zac and me look up at the tube again.  [Can’t see any other way, big brother.  Reach up and get your fingers over the tube.  That’s it.  Now let it take your weight.  Twist if you can while you’re swinging, and go down with your back to the column]

I’m bloody sick!  I can’t do sodding gymnastics!

[And you love this?] Zac asks Cole.  [Pathetic]

[He’s sick]

[Or you are]  As usual, Zac thinks he has a good line in snappy retorts.  As if.  He could use a few lessons from Starbuck.

Cole pulls away a little, the way he always does when Starbuck comes between us.

[Zac’s right] he says.

I am not pathetic!

[No] Cole soothes me.  [Of course you aren’t.  I didn’t mean that.  I meant that he was right that you should try to twist as you swing, and you won’t get hurt]

"Oh, all right," I say, cross, because my head hurts and my body aches too much for me to come up with anything better.  And I should be able to because I’m the captain and they aren’t.

[Only an ensign] Zac says.  [But a smart one.  I’d have been treading on your heels, big brother]

But that isn’t why I left you behind!

[I know] Zac’s surprised.

[Now] is all Cole says.  [Do it now]

I take a deep breath and let my feet slip off the plate that’s holding me up.  I swing free for a micron. The fingers hooked around the metal filter tube are all that’s holding me now.  I can see where the tube’s welded to a vertical, and the metal’s bending under the strain.

[Yes!] Zac says, excited.  His breathing is loud and harsh, each breath rattling in his throat.

Except that’s me breathing.  Zac’s dead.

[Do it] Cole says, close and soft in my ear again.  [Pull yourself up, just like that exercise Sergeant Kennedy has you doing in the gym on the bars, and let yourself drop and swing]

So I do it.  I pull myself up and swing, and swing, and swing, and the pain is making me cry with the effort, and all the time we’re watching the welded joint flex and strain, and then there’s a sudden jolt and we’re falling, falling, and our feet hit the plate we were standing on, and then we’re slithering and sliding down the column, dropping fast and hard from plate to plate, smashing them underneath us.

[Yes!]  Zac’s screaming in delight and terror.  [It’s working!]

[Twist!] Cole says, soft, compelling.

When my feet hit the next plate down I have a split micron to jerk around fast so that I have my back and shoulders against the column.  I have to lean back into it so I don’t pitch forwards.  That definitely would kill me, nothing between me and the floor to break the fall.  At least this way, each plate is slowing me, so that I fall in series of hard little jerks.  But the shards are still tearing at me.  The alarm’s shrilling now.  I can hear it even inside the tube.

[Almost there] Cole says.  [Almost there]

We hit feet first in a shower of glass shards, hitting the main filter bed and sending up a fountain of water.  I land badly, one leg snapping underneath me.  The screaming echoes around and around the tube, around and around.

It’s me that’s screaming. 

[That’s enough] Cole says to me, and his mouth is on mine, trying to kiss away the pain and quiet the screams.  [Enough]

And he and Zac are gone, and I’m still falling down after them into the quiet darkness where the pain is a long way away.  So far away that I don’t have to worry about it any more.

Maybe dead isn’t so bad after all.

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