"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."
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, Jenyou
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,
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
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
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 disconnectand 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
"Yeah, trust me. I'm
The mask lifted and Keru found
himself back in the webbed virtch booth again. He checked
the room's chronometer and stood up.
"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
"Thanks again, Art. For
"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
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
"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 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
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
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
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 againLavina, 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
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,"
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,"
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
"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
"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."
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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
armywhere 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
"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,
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,
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. "II 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
"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.
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
"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
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?"
"No, but your friend
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
"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 nownew 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 outhis
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
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,
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
Remember your promise to
The station whistle blew the
arrival note. Time's wasting.
Keru opened his eyes and leaned
"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
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
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