by David J. Batista

To break their eternal leash of service, two lovers must choose the ultimate escape.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E

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"Lo, Khan Tengri,
Master of Spirits, Lord of the Sky
Thou art fiery of visage,
Thy peak of perfect symmetry,
Emblazon'd by sunset's kiss.
Rise, O Kan Tau, the Blood Mount,
Above thy wintry kingdom
Standing majestic and Immortal,
August in thy snowy raiment.
Reign supreme above all Celestials."

Ancient Uighur tribute


Keru Tander stumbled into the Pleasure Palace wearing another man's body.

The lumbering biomass he'd usurped earlier that morning wobbled like a blind drop ship missing its docking port, nearly tipping him face-first down the three short steps. With quick effort the Conglomerate Knight caught his balance and coughed, hoping to hide his awkwardness. The patrons loitering within the lobby of the arcade paid him no mind, engaged as they were in the various flash-brain holo menus detailing the virtual amusements available for download that afternoon.

"Decided to kick the night off somewhat early, eh Jen?" a live bartender asked from atop her stool in the corner, apparently roused from boredom. Brilliant, prismatic patterns swirled through a free-floating order screen before her. She flashed him a quick grin of recognition. But as Keru neared, the young woman's features twisted with alarm from behind the translucent pane.

"By Yanluo's beard, Jen—you look like someone stole your soul!"

Wary of the unfamiliar establishment, Keru simply nodded and made to brush past her into the dimly lit hall beyond.

"Sure. Take booth eighteen if you like," the girl offered in an instant. "Your usual. Just make sure you clean up when you're done this time, yeah?"

She seemed to be on familiar terms with this body, Keru realized, but knew better than to chance prolonged conversation with a local. He didn't plan on being here long enough to raise trouble. He grunted in what he hoped was a reasonable approximation of the sack's original owner, then continued moving forward. The girl said something else, but the hall's padded baffles absorbed her voice as he stepped deeper into the arcade.

He passed several virtch booths on his way to number eighteen, the sordid fantasies being engaged within each room obscured behind solid bulkheads and steel-plated doors. Here customer's discretion curried top cred, but Keru had business other than pleasure on his mind that afternoon.

Booth eighteen's chair registered his borrowed ident tag when Keru entered. "Salutations... Mr. Zhang Jen-li. Welcome back, sir. Before we begin, shall I send to the bar for—"

Keru waved dismissal with a slice of his hand and verbally supplied the illegal override hack he kept handy for emergencies. The chair paused, shuddered, then dropped its aluminum arms to the impact webbing lining the booth's floor. Keru slumped into its dejected embrace with a sigh, then grunted additional commands at the room's directional mic. He squeezed his eyes shut as he waited for the deep-space connection to kick through, but quickly opened them again.

Even inside a stranger's head, her face still haunted his memories.

"Welcome to Kerotin Charismatics," an artibot's pleasant voice announced when the connection hooked. "The Confederacy's leader in tailor-made companionship..."

Keru circumvented the dummy corp's public façade with another flurry of passcodes, bypassing the protocols set by Artie a century ago, and kicked through a direct line to the man himself. An eternity's lag later, Art's ever-youthful features filled the aeroscopic display splashed across the booth's domed ceiling.

"I wondered when you'd contact me," Artie said, then grimaced. "By god, Roo! Where'd you flam that bloated meat sack, off a cheap discount rack? You look like slagged toast. What happened to your SCARF?"

Keru grunted, thinking his old friend looked worse for wear himself. Afraid, even.

"I lost the Frame, Art. Long story. Short of it is: the Duchon's ships are here. I need a tag disconnect—and fast."

"What? Gourds, Roo! I told you this would not end well. I wish you'd never laid eyes on that girl."

"Stow it, Art. Listen, you need to get to work right now!"

"Fine, you old farker. Fine. Just sit there and let me carryback onto your feed."

A few minutes later the chair's arms sprang back to life, swinging with guided purpose this time. The virtch mask dropped from an apparatus hanging directly above the seat, molding itself to his face. Keru could have done without the forthcoming theatrics, but the arcade had afforded the only venue along Ürümqi's main drag fitting his specific technical parameters.

So he sat back and tried to relax, clamping his jaw through the vertigo of the virtch dive under and surfacing within an antiquated maxillary surgeon's office. The recreation was authentic down to the parquet flooring and wheeled instrument trays arranged around the room in a broken circle. Artie leaned over Keru's chair sporting bleached scrubs, latex gloves, and wielding a nightmarish oral drill in his right hand.

"Art, what the hell?"

His friend spared a quick glance around the room and down at himself.

"Hey, I didn't have the time to program you a picnic, Roo. Had to take remnants from the booth's previous session."

Keru gritted his teeth. "Get done with it, then."

Roughly fifteen impatient minutes later, Artie stepped back and set the virtual tool down on a tray beside his right arm. Keru willed himself to believe the blood on the metal was fake.

"There, my friend. I was able to route this fella's tag, but I didn't have much time or the proper facilities to do a permanent job of it. The Duchon's lackeys should get a trace on that room only for now, but I suggest you vacate the premises. As in five minutes ago."

"Yeah, trust me. I'm already gone."

The mask lifted and Keru found himself back in the webbed virtch booth again. He checked the room's chronometer and stood up.

Time's wasting.

"Keru?" Artie asked. "Lavina, I take it she...?"

They stared at each other in silence, Keru resisting the urge to grasp the carry-bag and its morbid content strapped to his chest. Finally, he turned away.

"Thanks again, Art. For everything."

"Meet me at the usual spot when you get back?"

"Sorry, old friend. Where I'm going, I'm probably not returning."

"I see." More silence, followed by: "Any last instructions, Roo? For old time's sake?"

Keru paused at the door and glanced back at the display. "Yeah, there is the one. Deactivate my loop from the Duchon's storage banks," he said. "The next time I die, I want it to be the last."

* * *

Earlier that morning he'd found her at her favorite spot where he knew she'd be. From the western gate of the ancient Terran city of Ürümqi, he'd sighted the giant poplar tree perched at the crest of the hill. The augmented leg muscles of his Specialized Combat And Reambulatory Frame, or SCARF, made short business of the three kilometer distance there. She stiffened as he ascended to the edge of the bluff.

"Such a splendid beginning to a last day, yes?" she asked without turning.

He said nothing at first, not wanting to ruin the beauty of their solitude with the inadequacy of spoken words. Standing close to her now, he watched the Talimu river below wend its way southwestward in a sparkling, sinuous ribbon. Her sweet perfume drifted over to him on a light breeze, mixing freely with the heady scent of balsam and morning dew. He breathed in the intoxicating bouquet, closing his eyes and tasting the fragrance on his tongue. If he remained silent, the moment might last forever. But quick on the heels of the new day came hard reality, and decisions to be made.

"There's another way, Lavina," he said at last. "There has to be."

She laughed, a stifled, tortured sound caught low in her throat; dismissal behind the casual shrug of a bared shoulder. "If only wishes could turn into reality, my sweet Keru. If only." She turned, regret in her eyes. "Forgive me. That was unkind."

He ached to hold her in his arms again, remembering the feel of her against him. Seemed like an age ago, their moment of whispered assurances and entwining limbs in the dark room where they'd spent the previous night. The memory of their fevered lovemaking was nothing but a glimmer now in the revealing light of dawn.

"Please," he said, stepping forward and reaching out. But she stumbled away from the edge of the bluff. Away from him.

"No, Ker. Stop!" she cried. "There's no way out for me but what I must do. You know the master who holds our leash. He won't ever stop until he can possess me again."

Her eyes went wild as she groped at her blouse for the knife he knew she concealed there. Cold fear gripped his heart.

"Lavina, wait! We can do it. I promise you... we'll run together. Far away, where even his influence can't reach. I have friends who owe—"

Again she laughed, a sad sound. "No, my love. There is no other way." She withdrew her hands, empty, from the folds of loose fabric crossing her half-bared torso. She rushed toward him and placed those delicate hands on either side of his face, kissing him soft and warm. But too brief. A last kiss.

"I have to do this, Ker. While we're still outside his influence... before he can recapture my soul."

"He doesn't know you're here on this world, and I've been careful to cover my tracks."

She shook her head. "He'll find us. It's the Duchon's gift. He'll find us, and when he does... my darling, he'll hurt you bad. You have to leave while there's time."

"I'm not going anywhere. Not without—"

Not without you.

She smiled, the cosmetic copper-tinged sclera of her eyes watering as she stepped away from his attempted embrace. "You must go. This is your chance to be free of him also. You can disappear completely the way you've been trained." She backed up to the trunk of the poplar tree, ducking beneath the low-hanging branches. "You're smarter than me, Ker. Craftier. You're more resourceful without... when you're alone."

Without me, he heard her almost say. He shook his head. "We had such grand plans, didn't we?" he asked, trying one last line of persuasion. "I promised you a trip west, remember? To the land of your father."

She sighed and bowed her head. "Khan Tengri, yes." She remained silent for some time, kicking at the roots of the tree, before bringing her gaze back up to meet his.

"You'll keep your promise, won't you? No matter what happens to me, you have to take me there. But only after..."

He shook his head, confused. "That's not what I meant, Lavina. I—"

But suddenly her eyes shifted left at a faraway sound coming fast in their direction. "Keru, go," she said suddenly. "He'll be here soon!"

He felt a moment's panic. The Duchon? Here? But how?

Then he remembered the threat Chen Yi had made against him the night before, and relaxed. The local flesh-dealer was a problem his special Conglomerate training was designed to handle, and handle well.

The tinny whine of engines coming in low from the north intensified. Keru turned and narrowed his gaze, his vision instantly focusing to eight-fold magnification. A busy procession of half a dozen assorted aerospeeders and dust-hoppers approached from the city. He could see right down to the garish emblems on each vehicle, marking their affiliation to Chen's gang. A head count revealed nine absurdly posturing thugs sporting pivved-off expressions to match their menacing rides.

Kittens all, he mused. Not corporate warriors bearing the Duchon's seal, no. Just a trumped-up local pimp and his cohorts.


"It's a trap, Ker," Lavina said. "Now that he's gone through the trouble of snatching me from under our liege Lord's thumb, Chen won't ever let me go back."

He felt the combat routine slam awake at the base of his skull. The formulated neurochem cocktail of adrenaline, anxiety inhibitors, and reflex boosters rushed through his veins, awakening his Frame with a delicious shiver in anticipation of the violence to come.

"Of course it's a trap," he growled, his tongue thick with bloodlust. "I guess the talking-to I gave this third-rate scag wasn't enough. A pity, really. He's about to find out why the Duchon pays so highly for my services."

* * *

Chen Yi's gang attacked the bluff in swooping drifts, circling beneath the morning sun. Pressing Lavina's back against the trunk of the enormous tree, Keru rushed out into the open, drawing the flesh-dealer and his men away from the crest. They took the bait.

With an ululating cry, one of the locals dove headlong from the sky atop a sleek speeder, firing from an old-fashioned projectile weapon. Keru's electrostatic shield easily deflected the crude ballistics as the rider swerved upward for a second go. Wasting no time, Keru tossed a cinder grenade from his belt with a quick flick of his wrist, arcing the compact sphere in the direction of the man's retreat. The grenade made a metallic thunk sound where it attached to the bike's rear chassis.

A few seconds later, the aerospeeder exploded into several messy shards, a few of them striking a nearby dust-hopper and causing its pair of riders to grope wildly for purchase. One of the two did not succeed, pinwheeling backwards off the craft and striking the ground with a heavy thud a few meters from Keru. The man's companion righted the craft just in time to miss slamming headlong into the side of the hill himself, but not in time to avoid the second grenade Keru tossed into his bucket seat. The rider glanced down, then back at him in comic fashion, before scrambling to pick up the incendiary.

Keru turned and pulled out his Displacer as the second flash erupted high behind him, his sight narrowing on the rider's downed compatriot. The focused particle beam made quick work of the broken man's head, painting the knee-high grass around him in dark, cauterized crimson.

Three down, six more to go, he counted with some satisfaction. The cocktail of endorphins coursing through his military-grade SCARF stirred to full effect, and his heart hammered in anticipation of more kills.

The remaining gang members ceased firing and disappeared from the sky in short order, but Keru heard the whine of their engines coming from further downhill. He turned and sprinted in that direction, thumbing the stock charge on his weapon along the way. Suddenly Lavina screamed out from behind him. As he spun around, rough hands grabbed his wrist and twisted sharply. Blinding pain shot through his right arm as the wrist broke clean. His numb fingers dropped the Displacer like a stone weight.

Sloppy, you dog!

The well-muscled gang member snarled something in Mandarin, trying to twist his arm off at the socket. Keru spun in the opposite direction, away from the man's pull, and slammed the elbow of his other arm hard into exposed ribs. The gangster grunted and let go, lunging instead for Keru's exposed neck. Reflex caused him to duck and spin low, hooking his attacker behind the knee with his left heel and dropping him to the soft ground. Cursing, the local lashed out with one fist, but the reckless blow glanced harmlessly off Keru's shin guard. Transferring his weight to his other foot, Keru slammed his boot into the thug's head; reinforced steel toe sinking into soft skull like crushed eggshell.

The man gurgled deep in his throat, thrashed his limbs once, and lay still.

Keru turned to recover the Displacer when a sharp pain stabbed into his side. The ground rushed up to him as he fell to one knee, suddenly unable to maintain equilibrium. His Frame's optic reader ran off an analysis of electrochemical imbalance, possibly caused by a modified vib-dagger.

Then Keru's vision went dark as his bioware failed.

A moment later, his cloned eyes took over. A familiar face stared down at him when he could see again—Lavina, brow creased with worry, straining to pull him back to his feet. Keru fought to oblige, but found it difficult to make simple motor movements. Then he saw her eyes snap to a point behind him.

A dark shape pushed her aside and leered into his field of vision.

"Does it hurt, sir Knight?" Chen Yi asked with mock concern. Keru snarled and reached for the pimp's throat, but managed only a weak swipe with his good arm. The flesh-dealer tittered like a child and reached down. Ripping pain flared through Keru's side as the gang leader jerked the knife free. He stood and held the still-vibrating blade up to the sunlight, as if for inspection. Blood, vermillion-tinged from the neurochem mix, coagulated along its edge, causing electric sparks to flash down the center where it met the dagger's charged groove.

"Nifty little sticker, don'cha think?" Chen grinned from behind gleaming white teeth. "Able to slide right through a pesky shield, when thrown properly. And drop a filthy Conglom cloner from over ten yards away." He stood up and gestured with the knife. "Take a good look, boys. Come see the Duchon's dog grovel at my feet."

Laughter sounded from behind him.

Keru felt the rage boil up inside, and this time got both feet under him ready to pounce. Immediately a pair of large, blocky hands pressed down on his shoulders, forcing him back to his knees. Keru growled in frustration, too weak to offer much resistance. His Frame's combat link refused to re-establish, content to take a back seat while his body's most basic functions kept him breathing.

Chen Yi tossed the vib-dagger to one of his underlings, then reached down and lifted Keru's head by the chin. "Keep him there, Jen," Chen said to the big man holding him down. "He should get used to this view, I think. Let it be the last thing he'll ever see." Someone handed Keru's Displacer to the flesh-dealer and the man's small hands wrestled with the exotic weapon.

"Leave him alone," Lavina said.

Chen Yi feigned surprise, as if becoming aware of her presence for the first time. "Ah, my sweets. Here to say a tender goodbye to your rescuer?"

Keru gritted his teeth, willing himself to move. The pressure on his back felt like a mountain bearing down on him, making it difficult to breathe. Lavina's eyes found his.

"Please, don't hurt him," she said.

Chen's men laughed at this. A few of them stepped forward to lead her away, but the flesh-dealer made a tch sound with his tongue, shaking his head. The thugs stood off to one side, focusing their attention on Keru instead.

"Let her stay and watch," Chen said, flourishing the Displacer in a wide circle before him. The charge indicator on the stock glowed green, active. "My sweet Lavina, seems the Duchon wants you back after all. But he didn't have the gonads to come fetch his favorite bone himself. I want you to see what happens to the Duchon's dog when he comes sniffing around what ain't his. Threatening what's mine."

"I didn't just threaten," Keru rasped. "I took her from right under your nose, you impotent eunuch! And I'm not done with you yet."

A slight flush crept past Chen's collar, blooming in bright splashes across his cheeks. "Yeah? What you think you're going to do, Keru my man?"

The other men standing around the clearing laughed again, but this time it sounded forced. Worried. Too many nervous eyes flashing in Keru's direction, unsure how to deal with a Conglomerate warrior.

Good, he thought, remembering his training mantra: Fear presages victory.

"You let me up, and I'll show you what I can do."

Now Chen laughed. "Lavina, my dear, wherever did you find such a buffoon?"

"I said leave him alone, Chen. You don't need to do this."

The pimp's face transformed angrily, hardening.

"Yes. I. Do!" He wrapped both hands around the Displacer and lowered the muzzle until level with Keru's head. "I'm going to take you out, sir Knight. Put you down like the dog you are. The break is, there's no Conglom ship nearby to recycle your soul, my man. This time you die for real."

"Chen!" Lavina's voice cut through the warm air like a knife's edge. "It's me you want, isn't it?" She backed away from the poplar tree with her arms wide, staring at the small man with an icy directness. "Well, you better come get me before I throw myself off this cliff."

One of Chen's men rushed forward, but the flesh-dealer hissed for him to stop.

"Nice try, my sweets," he said, turning back to Keru, "but if you had the piss to take your own life for real, you'd have done it when I dragged your harlot's ass back here from across the stars."

Keru's eyes locked onto Lavina's as her resolve appeared to harden. She stood outside the tree's draping branches, her fine features framed by the diffusive morning light spilling through them. Tears slid down her cheeks, but he read the message clear in her eyes.

Remember your promise, Ker.

She broke eye contact and turned, facing west. Her hands slid beneath the loose folds of her blouse once more. But instead of pulling out the knife Keru expected, she revealed a different, entirely more deadly instrument.

"No, stop her!" he screamed at once. But the flesh-dealer reacted too slowly, frowning first at his kneeling captive before swinging his narrow head in the direction of the tree. With a desperate surge of adrenaline, Keru wrenched one arm free and surged to his feet before being subdued by the big man once more. A sickening pop sounded where his left shoulder dislocated.

He screamed again, but the sound was absorbed in the roar of the cinder grenade activating. A bright sun erupted before his eyes, searing the horror of her last moment into his memory forever. He twisted his head away, but the hot ozone aftertaste of the blast caused him to gag.

When the ringing in his ears subsided and his vision cleared, Keru saw the grisly aftermath. A cloud of ash and tiny bone fragments ghosted in the wake of where Lavina once stood, mixing freely with hundreds of singed poplar leaves above bare, scorched ground. Keru knelt rooted through his knees, his heart ceasing to beat. A chill reached deep into the pit of his stomach, remaining there and hardening. His lungs labored to breathe in air.

My beautiful love, what have you done?

Chen Yi screamed Mandarin curses in fitful bursts, slapping wildly at his right sleeve where the edge of the blast radius had set it afire. Through a daze, Keru became aware of the same huge hands weighing down on his shoulders again, pressing him forward onto his palms. Pain shot through both damaged arms, forcing a red-tinged clarity to his vision.

"She was mine!" the flesh-dealer yelled, standing very close to him now. "She owed me her father's debt! You're going to pay for this, my man."

Keru knew his death would come now, and welcomed the release. What did he care anymore? It was a fate he more than deserved. Here on this dusty, forgotten birthplace of humanity he'd finally achieve balance for all the blood he spilled over his lifetimes.

Yet, despite the pain it caused him, he could not vanish the memory of her eyes or the words behind them. Now was not the time to give up on his promise.

"Chen," he forced himself to say. "Not yet..."

The pimp either did not hear his words or ignored them. Someone handed the man the Displacer he'd dropped during the blast, and Chen Yi once again brought the weapon to bear down on him. Keru felt the cold lip of the gun press against his temple. His pulse quickened, but his thoughts slowed to a calm. He composed himself, ready to let go.

"Hold him secure, Jen," Chen ordered the big man. The muzzle of the weapon pressed deeper into Keru's flesh.

I'll find you, my love, he offered up in silence. On the other side. We'll travel to the Heavenly Mountains together, and join your father there.

Then his world ended.

Immediately Keru's mind plummeted through a dizzying whirlpool of sensation, muffled sounds rushing past and lights blinking throughout his consciousness. He cursed at the familiarity of it all.

This would not be his day to die.

His awareness coalesced into a shocking wetness as Keru Tander emerged reborn behind a stranger's neural tag.

"No!" he screamed from an unfamiliar throat, the sudden shift in vantage point revealing his combat Frame sprawled out before him, headless. Chen Yi stood off to the side, gripping the Displacer and staring up dumbfounded at his man's sudden outburst.

"Jen-li, what the—?" Then the flesh-dealer's eyes grew wide, comprehension alight behind them.

With blinding speed and a viciousness familiar to the newly transferred, Keru pounced. Chen Yi tried to beat him off with the butt of the Conglom weapon, but Jen's bulk absorbed the blows easily. Keru caught Chen's head in both meaty paws and applied pressure. All around him, the gang leader's men hollered and cursed in sudden confusion, but Keru's anger made quick work. Chen Yi's shrill scream cut off sharply as his cranium collapsed into a bloody mash beneath Keru's new hands. He fell over onto the flesh-dealer then, pummeling his face with repeated blows that did nothing to alleviate the murderous rage within him.

He felt a pinprick's stab where someone threw the self-guiding vib-dagger, but the specialized weapon had little effect on Jen's unmodded form. Keru immediately launched the overgrown body into a clumsy roll, snagging the Displacer in one huge fist as he did. He emerged in a half-crouch with the weapon fanning the clearing ahead. His speed caught two of the men rushing towards him off guard. He squeezed off several charged blasts before either could evade his aim, taking them out quickly in a bloody spray of atomized flesh and displaced air. He stalked towards the last remaining gangster, who made choking sounds as he stumbled backwards to avoid a similar fate as his friends.

Dropping the now-spent Displacer, Keru grabbed a wicked double-bladed billshank from the slack grip of one of his victims. Seeing opportunity where a shrewder criminal would have fled, the gang member stopped and pulled out his projectile weapon, grinning at the perceived advantage. He got off one erratic shot that went wide of its mark before Keru was on him, running the jagged blade through the man's abdomen with a primal snarl.

Blood erupted outward as the thug's mouth opened in a drowning scream.

Keru let him go. The toll of the transference hit him like a fist to the chest, and he dropped to his knees. His eyes flicked to the lowest branches on the poplar tree, stripped bare of outer bark. Ashen remains collected near the buttressing roots, spread across the earth like clumps of clotted sand. The neurons of Jen's brain made fast new connections to the digital memories downloaded through his imbedded cranial tag, and suddenly Keru remembered it all.


He willed himself to disbelieve it, but his eyes refused to turn away. The memories came hard and fast, almost too much to handle at once. Long-term made it through first; centuries-old, set in stone. Newer memories always came last, stealthy and quick like a dockside thief, but hitting with tremendous impact. And decanting into an unconditioned meat sack like this one only made the familiar process hurt ten-fold more.

The full reality of the transference slammed into Keru with cold danger flashing through his veins. To find himself alive meant the Duchon's forces had tracked him down at last. And if Conglomerate ships now hung in orbit above this backwater corner of known space, his was not the only soul to be captured by the automated memtechs onboard.

He stared at the scorched clearing with this newfound realization.

She's alive!

Trapped inside a Conglom storage tank, no doubt aware her bid for freedom had failed. But alive. And feeling so alone, waiting for the Duchon to decide her fate. Keru's elation roiled over into anger. He leapt to his feet knowing he would have to act quickly. First, he needed to contact Artie before this stranger's tag could be back-traced by the Duchon's retrieval squads.

Keru found the decapitated remains of his SCARF among the other corpses that littered the clearing and tugged his carry-bag free. He retrieved the vib-dagger and tucked it into his belt for safe keeping. If his fellow Knights tried to take him back, he'd give them a nasty surprise for their trouble.

Finally, Keru walked the slight incline to the tree looming above him. He knelt to gather up her remains, intending to see through his promise one way or the other.

* * *

Art's rerouting of his new body's tag gave Keru roughly six hours to get out of the city before the Duchon's men locked onto his trail again. Stepping outside of the virtch arcade, he decided to leave Jen's aerospeeder parked in its charge slot and foot his way across town. This was a mistake. Under the midday sun his larger frame labored to keep to the SCARF's pace to which Keru was accustomed. Sweat poured off him as he slogged his way past tiny boutiques, cha bars, and greasy slop shops, pushing through street vendors and swarms of adventuresome tourists visiting from the coastal cities.

Worse yet, Keru realized he'd picked up a tail while detouring through the Grand Bazaar in the city's Old Quarter. Despite his labored breathing, he picked up the pace and continued onward to the ancient maglev station, his ultimate destination. Better to deal with any would-be pursuers there, where he could put a solid wall to his back and have as few witnesses around as possible.

The station appeared derelict from across the broken street, but this was a deception. Keru knew that the outdated trains still made scheduled stops along the Beijing-Almaty line, and headed straight for the depot's old-fashioned turnstile entrance. A sophisticated traveler would've opted for the flashier skimmer transports tethered across town, but experience had tutored his preference for lower-tech escape ventures. Though cumbersome and slow, such transport would be less likely to leave a digital ident trail behind.

Inside the station, a ramshackle lobby served double-duty as both an arrivals and departures lounge. A dated plexiboard schedule informed him that the next maglev heading west to Kashgar at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains would be arriving in ten minutes, give or take thirty. From there it would be a day's hike, Keru reckoned, to reach the forbidding lower slopes of Khan Tengri.

He found a small café tucked into one corner of the lobby, its autochef spinning in the charge slot by the counter, waiting to serve. He ignored its offerings, although his prodigious gut rumbled in protest. A mangy stray peeked in from the far exit to the platform and growled in Keru's direction, then sauntered off past the portal without a second glance back. Save for the dog, the station was devoid of any other life.


He dragged his tired, fat body to a wooden bench propped against the lounge's far wall, well away from the exits. With a sigh of relief Keru dropped like a dead weight onto the hard seat, stinking of a stranger's sweat and itching in unfamiliar crevasses he dared not explore. He kept his carry-bag close to his chest, trying hard not to linger on its contents. Though weary, his eyes stayed open, as much to avoid the memory of Lavina's last moments as to keep watch for his tail. Overhead, an artificial personality announced in dulcet tones the arrival of an east-bound train to Turfan, Bayanhongor, and Ulaan Baatar. He tensed and waited.

The train slid into the station on silent magnetized rails, caked in the dust and grime of the northern steppe. Less than a dozen passengers disembarked from the antiquated transport. They filed quietly into the lounge dressed in shabby attire, pulling stumbling carts filled with woven goods behind them; no doubt heading for the bazaar up the street. Keru studied each individual with a Knight's trained eye, but no one made any sudden movements or stole so much as a furtive glance in his direction. The train chimed twice before sliding its doors shut and pulling out of the station, making more noise in the leaving than it had with its arrival.

Keru's eyes followed the last passenger out the lobby, and fell on an old beggar standing near the turnstile. The small man's gaze locked onto his. Keru hesitated, not sensing a threat, but remaining wary all the same.

The old man approached in a shambling half-gait, listing awkwardly on a twisted left foot and pulling the gutted remains of a server bot on tripod wheels behind him. Various items peeked out from the cracked drum of the bot's central compartment, none of them familiar. The shabby newcomer examined him with wizened eyes as he approached, and Keru found himself shocked by the man's advanced age. Coming from the rank and file of the Duchon's private corporate army—where company insurance policies covered against so-termed "corporeal temporal degradation"—the presence of the elderly and decrepit was yet another reminder of this world's removal from the civilized influences of the Confederacy.

"Have a minum, friend?" The old man's voice came cracked and weathered, befitting his age. His tone carried the rehearsed timbre of one used to indulging on the charity of others.

"Move along, friend," Keru emphasized the last, instantly suspicious of the beggar's sudden appearance at the station. He did not put it past his peers to have paid off a local decoy to distract their target, having used such a tactic many times himself in the Duchon's clandestine employ. "I'm not interested in your wares, old man."

For a while the vagrant said nothing, but scratched at a persistent itch at the nape of his neck. Then the vagrant's eyes went large as they settled on Keru's carry-bag.

"You some sort of spacer, young man?"

Keru sensed the man's querulous tone digging deeper than the scope of his words, revealing insight a bedraggled street solicitor should not have possessed. His pulse quickened.

"Who are you, old fool? Who's paying you to follow me?"

The man backpedaled, bringing his hand down from his neck and sliding it across his chest towards a dirty pocket. "I—I don't mean no offense, no sir. Just trying to—"

Keru's hands moved quickly, flashing the vib-dagger from his belt and pressing the point of the blade to the other man's throat. The beggar's hand froze inches from the pocket while Keru tore at the flimsy fabric. A silver contact disc fell into his free hand, emblazoned with the cobalt and gold arms of the Duchon's official sigil.

"How did you get this? Who sent you?"

The old man hesitated as if needing to think before replying. Finally, with a sigh and a drop of his shoulders, he met Keru's gaze with unexpected acuity.

"Sir Tander," he said in an altogether different tone of voice. "I knew it was you." The local accent once affected by the old man had vanished, replaced by an inflection and cadence all too familiar to Keru.

"Lord Verlick?"

The other man straightened and squared away his shoulders, no longer the feeble vagrant, but a man used to giving orders. "Good to see you again, son. Though you sure picked a pathetic sack of blubber to decant into this time. What a waste of corporate property. You must've been in a rush."

"You should know, it was your ship that ran the transference." Keru slid the dagger back into his waist and handed the contact disc back, sensing no immediate danger from his old mentor. He tried to mask his confusion even as a hundred different questions formed out of the swirling vortex of his calculating mind.

Verlick dropped onto the bench beside him without asking permission. "Point taken, sir Knight. But you appeared to have found a way around that. I'd be obliged if you told me how you managed to circumvent our security net."

Keru forced a smile. "Little trick a friend of mine conjured up for such an occasion as today."

"I see. Still, I imagine you're itching to get out of that lumbering meat stack and back into a proper SCARF."

"Yours seems rather worse for wear, my lord."

Verlick laughed and rotated his head from side to side, then cracked the gnarled knuckles on his leathery hands. "Yes, it's certainly strange being in an unmodified form again after so many centuries. But it was the fastest way to drop down to the surface and get to you before the Duchon's teams did."

Keru's eyes narrowed. "You—?"

The café's autochef appeared at Verlick's elbow just then, projecting a free-floating menu before it and beeping for one of the men to make a selection. Keru waved the bot away, but Verlick restrained it with a wrinkled hand and placed an order for a large bowl of chu-wheat noodles.

"I'm starving," the supervisor explained with a crooked grin. "These naturals need constant upkeep to keep them running, eh? This beaten old form in particular."

"You knew I was here?" Keru continued.

"No, but your friend Artie did."

Keru cursed, but Verlick cut him off with a raised hand. "Don't worry, son. He's under my protection. For now. The Duchon's more interested in you and his precious trollop."

So that's what had been chewing at Art the whole time.

"You got the big man in an uproar, Tander," Verlick went on. "You should be permanent dead now, son, and all your memory files expunged clean."

"Let me guess, but you interceded on my behalf?" Keru didn't hide the sarcasm behind his words. Verlick's posture went stiff.

"You watch your tone with me, sir Knight. I'm still your ranking senior. Yes, I convinced the Duchon to take a different stance with you. As much as any single man can persuade our liege Lord, I suppose."

"And just how did you manage such a tremendous feat, my lord?"

"By example of your stellar employment record, believe it or not. By proof of the many successful campaigns you've led in his service. He knows you well, Tander. 'Course, I suppose the sordid mess you made with this courtesan has more to do with that than anything else. But it appears he was already willing to forgive you your transgressions before I ever set foot on Ferral's Prime."

Keru sat on the bench in confusion. "That doesn't sound like the Duchon we serve."

"No, that's the point. He's too busy preparing for war now—new developments since you left. And I mean big this time, son. Not these little trade skirmishes we've been engaging in for the better part of three centuries. Word's come down the feed that some of the other Congloms are teaming together to take us down. Several board members have already met unfortunate ends, slagged and wiped by an unknown ops entity."

"What the blaze does any of this have to do with me, Verlick? I'm no more than a glorified hired thug in the corporate scheme. The Duchon's pet dog, they call me."

"I don't rightfully know," Verlick admitted. "I was called in to persuade you back into your contract. To stop you down your current path of doom and bring you into our Duchon's good graces once more. With certain provisos in tow, of course."

Keru didn't like the sound of that. "And those are?"

"For one, to reaffirm your undying loyalty to our Lord Duchon by checking yourself into a clinic for an overdue cleansing. These aberrant rebellious snags in your personality matrix must be weeded out—his words, not mine."

Keru had no intention of doing any such thing. "And?"

"And two," Verlick continued, "bring the girl back to Ferral's Prime in person, and renounce your... love for her before the Duchon himself."

Keru stared in silence at the other man.

"Yes," his old mentor nodded. "We caught her right before you slipped through. I'm sure she's in stasis by now, although I transferred down in a hurry to get to you first."

Keru gripped the carry-bag closer to his chest. "She can't go back to him," he said through clenched teeth. "She wants to be free, damn you!"

Lord Verlick appeared taken aback by the vehemence in his words. "Keru... I'm sorry, but that's not being realistic. You were sent to track her down, not run off and live happily ever after together. These are the Duchon's orders, son. Don't make it personal. What he does with his private menagerie is within his own purview. There's nothing either of us can do for her."

"I'll stop him," Keru hissed, sliding imperceptibly closer. "I've gotten past him before, and you bet I can do it again."

Verlick straightened up and stared hard at him.

"You will accept the Duchon's terms; his lenience extends only but so far. Don't make me call in the drop teams, son." Verlick held up the contact disc.

Overhead, the station announced the next arriving train due west. Keru sighed and closed his eyes.

Remember your promise to me, Ker.

The station whistle blew the arrival note. Time's wasting.

Keru opened his eyes and leaned forward.

"Fuck the Duchon's lenience," he said, and snapped the old man's neck in one fluid movement. The autochef wheeled to a sudden stop before the bench, supporting a steaming bowl on a tray and warbling reproach. Keru rose to his feet and took some care in repositioning the old man's body to make it look like he was simply taking a nap. Keru didn't have much time before the techs poured Verlick's memories into a fresh clone and alerted the drop teams to his whereabouts.

"Don't mind him," he told the waist-high bot. "He's had a long day."

The bullet-shaped train pulled into the station. Keru secured the carry-bag to his chest and quickly crossed the room to meet it.

* * *

The marbled peak of Khan Tengri caught the light of the setting sun like a blood-drenched spear stabbing the sky. Keru stood before the Lord of Spirits, watching the dusk settle around the icy landscape like a comforting shroud. Fierce winds struck ice needles into his exposed flesh, but he paid it no mind. Staring up at the snow-capped pyramid above him, he prayed for the lost souls of this ancient landscape to accept their daughter, to protect her memory and carry her spirit Beyond. She'd taught him the words of mourning to speak, the proper movements to make when placing her remains beneath the stone cairn he'd carefully built at the base of the peak. Nothing left now save to make his peace and move on.

He watched the sun set behind the majestic point as the wind kicked up around him, howling like an enraged beast let loose. He chose to accept this as a good omen. Her soul would be allowed passage into the Celestial Kingdom.

Only one more duty remained before he, too, could join her there.

Keru stepped to the edge of the precipice and stared down at the dizzying drop below him, visualizing his borrowed body lying twisted and broken down among the jagged low hills. He raised his eyes to the darkening sky, imagining a Conglom ship hovering far above the clouds. Somewhere up there she waited for him to set her free. Up there he'd find her and cast down her prison in a fiery inferno.

He smiled in anticipation of their reunion.

We'll travel together now, my love. As I promised.

Closing his eyes, Keru Tander stepped off the cliff and abandoned his weary soul towards ascension.




Copyright © 2009 David J. Batista

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

David J. Batista is a 32 year old data manager working and residing within New York City.

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