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God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
By Dark

Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind

Chapter thirty six
Gear Dock Raid

     It was odd that this was his first cell. All the years he had been a prisoner, he'd been free to walk, free to wander the dismal flatness of D-Block, free to use his brawny body and uncompromising aggression to become the king pin of the whole place, striding like a rogue Gear about the compound, garnering nervous glances from inferiors and minions. All in all, it'd never really felt as if he'd been in prison. Even the dull bronze strip about his thick throat hadn't convinced him --- after all, a quick tearing rise through the ranks of the Gear Tournament had solved that problem nicely.
     But now, there was no denying that he was a prisoner. The clammy heaviness of the shackles on his ankles, the blank steel door with its single barred window, the walls of craggy pitted concrete that pressed in on all sides, everything seemed a reminder of what he was.
     He stretched, feeling the uneven hardness of the floor digging painfully into his back, even through the thick material of his leathers. He gazed unseeingly at the single hard electric light, white bulbous and glaring like an intrusive fungus. It had been a foolhardy thing to do after all; he was a battler, not for him the slow calm stalking of the assassin, hiding darkly in shadows, creeping from behind. He liked to face the people he killed, meet them eye to greenish reptilian eye, feel his big calloused fingers reaching for a soft warm windpipe.
     His body quivered as the rage rose in him like a reddish tide, a hard brittle bite of fury. He hated them! All of them! living out their soft comfortable lives, looking at him with sly glances of wincing disgust, as though he were an animal not quite clever enough to warrant their concern.
     It had always been like that, right back to when he was a kid.
     He gritted his teeth, the slow intrusive warmth of the smell of the palace bedroom moving softly into his thoughts like a purple spring breeze. His mother's smell, a sweet warm human scent of comfort, reminding him of the nights he'd slept beside her beneath the patched brown blanket, the thin mattress rustling under his weight.
     Slowly the images formed, the narrow wooden room with it's domestic clutter, his few small belongings squeezed onto the shelves beside their battered kitchen appliances and meagre food stores.
     He remembered scraping precious lumps of expensive coal into the heavy bronze maw of the stove, the smoke blackened pipe of it's chimney rising high above his child's head.
     The hate had started slowly, gradually, an insidious tide of numbing roaring cold that froze his insides bit by bit, casting a thin vale of ice between his eyes and the world around him, gradually changing the people he saw into distant threatening monsters. He could almost remember the day it had begun, late in the afternoon, thin slivers of sun setting dust motes dancing across the wooden boards, to settle on his patched clothes.
     "Where's my dad!?" His child's voice had been strident, accusing, a liquid claw of the hatred stabbing from his green eyes to splash against his mother's care worn face.
     "Your father --- er ---- you see, he --- "
     "Jenny's got a dad! So's Miyo -- where's mine?"
     His mother's eyes moved aside from his, thin wisps of auburn gold hair falling around her face. "Your father's a very great man, you'll grow up to be great to and --- "
     The child's face broke into a scowl, his small body tense with annoyance. "But where is! He!"
     His mother had sighed, a deep exasperated sound, running calloused hands across the thin fabric of her dress. "He can't be with us right now Ricardo. He's got lots of important things to do and ---"
     The child had stamped one foot petulantly, his thin soled clog making a slight tapping sound against the floor. "He! Should be here! Jenny's dad's in the army but he still comes home!"
     "Now, Ricardo --- " She'd stretched out one hand, green eyes full of warmth, but he'd turned away, hair bristling like a little wild animal.
     "No! If he's my dad! I want to see him!" And with out looking back,s he'd ran, one arm brushing a small plant off a shelf with careless cruelty.

     The big man shifted his weight restlessly, but it wasn't the cold knobs of uneven stone that forced him to move, but the harder, colder jibes of a flowing thread of memory, running through his consciousness like a real of film on a remorseless projector.
     He remembered Miyo's face, thin and accusing beneath a scruff of blond hair, as he raised his scraped bare arm with petulant annoyance. "Using nails isn't fair in arm wrestling, Rico."
     Rico had shifted his weight nervously, somehow knowing that the victory over his friend hadn't proven anything. "I didn't mean to scratch you ---"
     Miyo had shot out one quick hand, seizing Rico's wrist and pulling it forward, his sharp eyes scanning the fingers like a merchant looking for quality in a purchase.
     "Your nails are freaky! No one has nails like that." The child's face had twisted into a combative snarl, rounded shoulders hunched protectively. "So! My nails are long? --- Your face's ugly!"
     Miyo threw himself forward in a tackle, but Rico had seized his shirt in two hands and twisted, hurling his sometime friend to the floor.
     Miyo had stared up at him, resentful and dusty beneath his untidy hair. "Mutant! --- That's why you've got long nails, your a DH!"
     Rico had frozen, feeling his child's insides shattered with shock. Him? A DH? But everyone said Demi-humans were no good! And Miyo thought he was one.
     He'd thrown himself forward, fierce and vicious, fists and feet pounding at the body of the boy who would never be his friend again.
     No! He was no DH!
     Then later had been the doubts, slow and poisonous. He'd looked at his ears in his mother's cracked mirror, watching the greyish daylight outline the dagger pointed lobes. He'd watched his slow flat eyes with their pale, rapid lids --- a Demi-human? Him?
     And slowly, almost painlessly it had started. An over violent jostle in the crowd, a word of insult dropped by a drunken guard, a kick from a stranger, a slogan chanted by groups of youths outside their narrow wooden house. Then the brick had plunged through their window, falling with a hollow flat sound onto the floor in a spill of broken glass.
     "Get out! Mutant child!" The words hammered through the broken window with abrupt stony force, more powerful than the heavy chunk of masonry that had come first.
     The projector in Rico's head seemed to shatter, images and sensations quick and jabbing like glass spears.
     His mother coughed blood into a basin, her long hair sweaty and dishevelled.
     More words falling like bombs into the house.
     Running frantically through streets, scraping for food or money.
     His mother lying thin and pale on the bed, her face drawer and pinched with lines, her warm scent muted to something cold and pale.
     His mother ---- still!
     "Get out of here! Damn mutant!"
     He'd ran, skittering past the crowd of men and women, a drop of spittle falling cold and sticky on his orange hair as if to mirror the slow trickle of tears down his craggy child's face. Half blinded he'd dashed up the alley, a hale of curses bottles and stones following him, some cracking with astonishing pain across his back and legs, sending him stumbling forward into the tear soaked mist of the streets.

     "Oh dear --- master Ricardo." The slow sardonic voice trickled through the cell's grating, heavy and thick with false sympathy. The big man sat up quickly, pulling his thoughts back from the half-remembered greyness of pain and tears, arranging his hard adult's face into a stony mask. Through the grating on the barred cell door Rico saw a long pale face, hooded eyes gleaming calmly beneath thinning hair. All he could see of the man's clothing was a dim strip of sweeping red cloth bordering the bottom of the bars as the man outside leaned nonchalantly against the door. "Would you like to make peace with the Lord for your life of sin?"
     Rico gazed levelly at the priest, stretching out the silence as though breaking an arm. "Which sin do you mean?"
     The priest shifted, moving his head a little back from the thick steel bars. "Oh, there are many sins you may have committed ---- I come to you out of good will to accept your confession and --- "
     "Shit!" Rico dropped the expletive across the priest's stumbling lecture as though it had been a rock. "You just came to tell me what a bad boy I've been for not doing your dirty work."
     The priest smiled slowly, ignoring the current of dull resentment in the Battler's voice. "It is certainly a sin to disobey the will of God." His voice was mild and sweet, as though he were addressing a theological seminar. The small concrete box echoed to Rico's short bark of laugher.
     "Seems to me as the will of god is remarkably similar to the will of you guys in fact ---"
     "We carry out God's work!" The priest leaned forward, face intent. "Anything that stands in the way of God's plan must be removed." He raised his thin eyebrows, self-satisfaction radiating from him in waves. "--- And even a crude tool may do the lord's will."
     Rico smiled, a slow watchful bearing of his pointed teeth. His voice was almost contemplative. "And they don't come cruder than me right?"
     The priest pursed his thin lips, the supercilious expression of sorrow masking his face again. "Yet --- too crude it would seem. And we had such high hopes of you --"
     "Shit!" The Demi-human's voice dripped with slow resentment. "I was just a good cover up. The mad Demi-human champion suddenly going berserk. And your stooges on the IBC could deny everything."
     The priest stepped back, the hard light of the bare bulb catching one pale finger as he fastidiously wiped his lips. "You would have been well rewarded --- indeed you have already received some recompense."
     The narrow stony walls echoed a second short shot of Rico's laughter. "Steir was just another part of the plan, and as for afterwards ---" Rico leaned up on one elbow, his green eyes distant. "--- The wise new rulers of Kislev execute the evil DH who killed the Keiser."
     The priest's hooded eyes darkened into an icy righteous cruelty. "Think what you will of our motives. It doesn't matter." He leaned forward, smiling. "We have a special execution planned for tomorrow"
     Rico hunched his shoulders stonily, his face as expressionless as the cell's wall.
     "It will not be an easy death."
     The battler snorted with a hard bitter derision. "I ain't had an easy life."
     The priest leaned forward further until his nose protruded through two of the bars in the grating like a caged animal coming to the door for food. "It will hurt."
     Rico shrugged dismissively, his black leathers making a soft scraping sound against the floor. "Probably."
     The priest's voice was a husky bit of death. "You will scream!"
     "Probably." For one moment tension crackled in the cell, a slowly mounting pressure almost like a physical force. The hard white bulb became harder, a small pointed star in the stony ceiling. Rio's big body tensed, hunched and menacing even lying prone on the uneven stone floor. From somewhere in the quiet prison distance there was a soft thud of falling water, punctuating the tension in three remorseless rhythmic drops.
     Drip ---- drip ---- drip.
     Then the priest turned angrily away, a quick violent rustle of red cassock. A second or two later, with a dull vindictive tang, the bulb in the ceiling flashed off, leaving nothing but the heavy oppressive darkness of old stone, and the continual drip of water.
     Time would be slow, a dead road of black solitude and ever repeated thoughts. But time would pass. Each small drip of water ticked off a tiny instant, and the instants mounted like a thousand short dark steps until at their end lay tomorrow --- and the execution.

*  *  *  *  *  

     It was late as Fei and Citan made there way through the chilly sodium lit maze of alleys and roadways back to D-Block. Occasionally the night was broken by a dim ripple of voices or a burst of music, but these were only distant tiny islands in the great moaning sea of stillness and chill steady wind. As they drew further from the palace, the sound of C-Block's machines grew more obvious, echoing their footsteps down the blank stone alleys of the city. Fei remembered the bustling night time streets of Dazil, the open tavern doors with the cry of revellers and bursts of dry pulsing music carried on the desert wind along with a thousand enticing perfumes. But here there was none of that. Perhaps the occasional distant tang of voices was laughter, but it might have equally been the sound of fighting.
     Perhaps the colder the city, the less lively the inhabitants, Fei thought, and there couldn't be anywhere less lively than this granite, clammy place.
     A perfect place for a man like Rico.
     "Doc --- I was wondering about Rico ---" Fei's tone was hushed and uneasy, almost as if the darkly reflective windows of the closed shops they passed were full of listening spies. "When you saw the paper, you said something about assassinating the Keiser ---"
     Citan quickened his pace, pumping his shoulders against the chill blast blowing towards them. "That was only a speculation, Fei --- I admit Rico's presence in the palace does seem to confirm ---"
     "But why would he want to do something like that ---?"
     Citan shook his head tiredly, his glasses kindled to fire by the street lights they passed. "I don't know, Fei ---- that is of course assuming our speculation was correct --- " Citan gestured helplessly with one hand, the sleeve of his jacket blowing out in a short fan behind his arm. "We know nothing whatsoever about Ricardo or his motives."
     "That's true." Fei thought of the huge Demi-human, his devastating strength and combat skills, the hard world-weary arrogance that shone from those cold reptilian eyes. yet hadn't there been times ---- in the Sewer facing the huge mutated creature, after their match earlier that day and strongest of all, in the palace, times when the facade had slipped, like a million tonnes of concrete sliding an inch to reveal a hidden treasure. "If Rico's in trouble, shouldn't we ----"
     "Hey, Dudes!!" The hard twangy voice rebounded up the street, pinging from wall to wall like an errant sound wave. A second later the voice's owner careered up the pavement towards them. As if in compensation for the cold, the little Demi-human seemed to be moving even faster than before, his tiny feet in their long leather boots clacking exuberantly along the road, the glossy tails of a black plastic rain coat whirling around him with his arrogant speed. "D-Block's number one fixer has done it again! I got the contacts! I got the skill! I got the info!!" Hammer capered to a halt next to them, small spectacles glinting showily.
     Citan turned to face the diminutive fixer, thrusting his hands vigorously back into the pockets of his jacket. "May I suggest Mr. Hammer, that this is not really the place to discuss top secret information --- perhaps we should make our way back to D-block --- ?"
     "But guys!" Hammer's voice had descended almost to a whine. "--- I've found your G --- "
     Abruptly Citan lunged forward, seizing Hammer's jacket and lifting him bodily off his feet, then beginning to jog brusquely up the street, his legs moving in long smooth strides.
     Fei followed, enjoying the feeling of the hard concrete pressing against the balls of his feet and pushing him forward at each rapid step. "Doc? --- You're not really that worried about us being overheard or anything, are you?"
     Citan looked over one shoulder, and Fei thought he could make out a wicked grin splitting the Doctor's lined bronze face. "It is possible ---- but I am more concerned about catching hyperthermia if we stand around discussing plans in this wind for too long."
     At their newly increased pace, it took only a few minutes to get back to D-Block. Hammer's slight weight didn't seem to inconvenience Citan at all, he ran with the cool well timed speed of a practiced athlete. Fei followed in his wake, swerving around lamp posts and potted plants, his boots skidding dangerously on the chill concrete as he rounded corners, the wind whipping his pony tail out behind him and painting his face with moisture.
     It was good to run, Fei thought, even in this cold night deserted city where only occasional voices split the chill air, and house after block-like house reared up silent and grim on either side.
     The gates into C-Block were shut, thin bands of metal criss-crossing the wide street in a continuous cordon, a sleepy guard leaning off to one side, heavy rifle drooping tiredly. To Fei's surprise Citan didn't slacken his pace but took three quick steps and launched himself upward, using one free hand to grip the rust flecked bar at the top of the gate and leaver himself over, his feet smacking firmly on the other side.
     The guard looked after the hurtling Solarian in consternation, abruptly he jerked up his rifle, the heavy end seeming to waggle out of his control as though it too wished to escape into the night. "---- er --- hey!"
     A second later Fei reached the gate, and before the astonished guard had a chance to turn round, the martial artist had grasped it's top and vaulted upwards, tucking his feet under his body as he flew over the five foot tall span of metal. As he pelted down the narrow throbbing C-Block alley behind the gates, he dimly heard the guards befuddled voice, but almost instantly the sound was swallowed up in the continual clank and roar of the huge smoking factories.

     Only a second or two later it seemed to Fei, he was skidding into the D-Block compound, his pace and pulse both slowing to a comfortable saunter as he followed Citan through the darkened cafeteria and up the wooden steps to the Champion's suite. Fei settled himself onto the huge throne-like couch up the three steps, while Citan slowly removed his olive jacket and draped it carefully across the back of a chair.
     Hammer brushed down his green velvet coat and plastic mac with quick, fussy movements of his paw-like hands. "You guys're fast!"
     "We try our best, Mr. Hammer."
     Fei stretched like a comfortable cat, feeling the soft upholstery give pleasantly beneath his weight. "So --- you say you've found where Weltall is, Hammer?"
     The little Demi-human nodded, pulling his plastic mac off with a twirling flourish as if he were unfurling a black banner.
     "Yep! Like I was sayin' before, you can always count on Hammer to come up with the merchandise!"
     "So ---- where on earth is it?" Fei tried to keep his tone level, but Hammer's self-congratulation was beginning to be slightly irksome.
     Hammer dropped the mac onto another chair and came to stand in front of Fei's sofa, like a jester about to perform. "Not on! Earth, bro! ---- More like, under earth!"
     Citan leaned forward, resting his bronzed forearms on the arms of his chair.
     "So it is in some kind of subterranean storage?"
     Hammer tilted his ratty nose towards the doctor, his dark eyes puzzled.
     "Don't know where this Subterranean place is doc --- bro's Gear's still in Nortune"
     He turned back to Fei, black button eyes gleaming. "It's in the Battling arena complex, in an underground Gear dock quite close to the main fighting arena."
     The young man suddenly sat up, liquid eyes anxious. "How do we get in there, Doc? --- There must be guards ---!"
     "Relax, bro!" Hammer danced a few steps, his long boots leaving scuffs in the red carpet. "--- Your ol' pal Hammer has found the way! ya' can get into the complex through the train tunnels here in D-Block, then all ya' have to do is follow the air vents down to your Gear"
     Fei's mind flew to the long concrete towers of the overhead monorail that Citan had been so interested in when he'd first arrived in D-Block. He remembered the unfriendly old man with his growling tone and heavy ready gun. "But, Hammer ---- isn't the train guarded?"
     "I do not believe that will be a problem, Fei." Citan steepled his fingers, his glasses glinting in the electric light. "Guards can always be bribed or rendered unconscious. But it seems to me that the trains are a somewhat obvious escape route from D-Block, are they not guarded at the other end Mr. Hammer?"
     "Sure ----" Hammer's tone was almost surprised. "---- But you wouldn't be goin' that far. ya' can get into the arena complex's ductin' from the tunnel. You'd have to jump off half way - "
     "jump!" Fei imagined a heavy speeding train, wind rushing past his ears as the sides of a rugged tunnel hurtled past.
     "Relax bro! ---" Hammer trotted up the three steps to Fei's couch and patted the young man's shoulder companionably. "The train don't go that fast"
     "I still fail to understand, Mr. Hammer ---" The solarian's voice was gently persistent. "--- Why this escape route has not been tried before?"
     Hammer shook his head emphatically, almost sending his small spectacles flying to the floor in his excitement. "'cos, no one'd want to get into the arena complex that badly. The only ways outta the place are through the doors or the main arena itself. Sure there's guards in the cargo bay in C-Block where the train winds up, but they don't bother with the tunnel or the ducting much"
     "Hmm." Citan abruptly stood, his lined face wearing the same intense expression he wore when contemplating a new and complex engine, the expression Fei had once called his "I'm going to tinker" look. He began to pace slowly back and forth, his curled ponytail swinging slightly. "---- A method of egress to the arena, which nobody suspects we will use ---- excellent." He rubbed his hands together excitedly.
     "But Doc! ---" Fei's voice was almost plaintive. "---- Even if we can get into this Gear dock, how're we going to get Weltall out? ---- We can't put it on a train ---"
     The Solarian stopped his restless pacing and turned to face Fei, hooking bronzed fingers into the waistband of his black corduroy trousers. "That, Fei, is the least of our problems."
     Fei shook his head numbly; it didn't seem that sneaking a sixty foot gear out of the arena was in any sense a small problem. "---- But doc --- "
     Citan held up one bronzed hand, a teacher explaining to a favourite pupil. "--- Mr. Hammer said that the dock where Weltall is hidden is in close proximity to the main fighting arena. We can simply fly out utilizing Weltall's jets."
     Fei thought back to the battling arena, the wide turf covered expanse surrounded by its heavy steel walls. He remembered the stark shapes of the guns protruding from atop the massive walls into the sky, their outlines hard and uncompromising as rocks. "I thought they had half the Kislevian army hanging around there to stop Gears from escaping during the battling."
     "Ah, Fei, an excellent point, but one which is, I fear, unnecessary given current information." Citan grinned a slow gleeful grin that set his onyx dark eyes dancing. He crossed to the chair where he'd hung his green jacket and pulled a slip of paper from an inside pocket. Bending to one of the low brown tables, the Solarian gently spread the paper out as though it'd been a wounded bird's wing he was setting. Fei leaned forward and caught a glance of regular, bold figures marching steadily across the page in thick black columns. "A plan of troop deployment in and around the city of Nortune."
     Hammer bounded towards the table and squatted reverently beside it, casting an admiring glance at the Solarian. "Wow! Doc! ---- that's cool!"
     "I'm glad you think so ---" Citan smiled a warm smug smile. "I thought it would be of more use to us than to the Keiser."
     Fei leaned back, his eyes darkening anxiously. "Doc! ---- You stole that!" A pink burst of mild shock blossomed in his mind. He didn't know why, but the thought of his old friend so casually taking to theft bothered him. Even though it had only been a mild form of theft, it still seemed somehow wrong.
     Citan flashed him a roguish grin, one naughty conspirator to another. "I prefer the word appropriated. But Fei ---" Abruptly the Solarian's tone became brusquer, more serious. "I do not believe it will cause any great harm to the governing bodies of Kislev to be with out this paper, and it will be immensely useful to us, not only in rescuing Weltall, but also in getting Weltall and Heimdal covertly across the border to Aveh."
     "Heimdal?" Fei was startled, he remembered the powerful green Gear Citan had used in Bart's attempted coup, but somehow he hadn't imagined that the doctor would have brought it here to Nortune.
     Citan waved one hand airily. "I hid it in a warehouse of scrap Gears in C-Block"
     "Oh." Fei lay back full length upon the couch, reaching up to unfurl his long damp hair so that it spilled upon the sofa's arm in a mass of dark strands.
     "So! Our plan is settled." Citan swept the troop roster off the table with a magician's speed and folded it quickly back into his jacket. "We enter the battling complex via the train here in D-Block ----" He held up one bronze hand and began ticking points off on his fingers, as if teaching a child to count. "We get into the ventilation system of the complex and find the dock where Weltall is hidden. Then we fly Weltall out through the main arena area. We can hopefully land somewhere in C-Block and I can collect Heimdal, then we make for the border."
     Fei nodded tiredly, there was a blocky matter-of-fact simplicity about the operation when Citan laid it out so starkly, but he was sure that each step would be far harder in the doing than the saying. He remembered Bart's plan to rescue Margie from the Citadel in Aveh, and the desperate fight in the sunlit tower room with the fierce golden eyed Ramsus. No! Plans never went as planned. "So, if we've got to use one of those trains, we'll need to know when they're running?"
     Hammer grinned a hungry rodent grin, his two firry fists pumping the air exuberantly. "No problem, Bro! There's a feller in the transport burro what owes me a favour. I'll ----"
     "Hay --- Champ --- can we have a word?" The hard female voice that floated up the stairwell was unmistakeably a Battler's voice, it had the harsh twangy accent that seemed to characterize everyone in D-Block, and Fei suspected that only a higher ranking battler would dare to disturb the new Battling Champ. But unusually, there was something uncertain about the voice, a slight edge of nervousness, almost of worry.
     Abruptly, Fei became aware how late it was, the thick orange spattered night seemed to press in on the windows like a dark liquid that had been poured and was slowly solidifying. Fei tensed, his liquid eyes clouding warily. Slowly he sat up, brushed the long unbound hair back from his face with steady fingers, fixing his eyes on the dark maw of the stairs. He tried to keep his tone level. "Come up."
     The two Battlers that walked slowly up the stairs were both people Fei new, yet seemed almost to be strangers.
     Suzarn's leathers were just as brightly crimson, the flashing metal patches and gaudy rings just as dazzling, her scythe had lost none of it's deadly lustre. Yet somehow she was a million miles from the proud street-wise warrior Fei had met at his baptism. She moved with the slow fumbling gate of a child carefully trying not to give offence, and her face was creased with a worried frown so that even the scar on her left cheek seemed to have diminished.
     Behind her Vargas stalked sullenly in his brown leather costume, his thumbs plucking nervously at the red cross belts that covered his chest, the cap on his crew cut hair slightly askew, his angular eyes lowered to the carpeted floor.
     "We're sorry to disturb ya' champion Fei ---but we just -----" The girl's voice trailed off, and she began to turn one of the big showy rings on her left hand in a series of quick, nervous jerks.
     "We got somethin' to ask ya'." Vargus finished for her, his usually strident voice reduced to a mutter.
     "What you people want?" Hammer moved forward to stand protectively in front of Fei, his tiny fists balled on his hips, his nose jutting aggressively.
     "It ain't none of your biz, DH!" Vargos snarled, abruptly reverting to his old manner.
     "Perhaps --- " Citan turned curiously to the two battlers, inclining his head in a slight bow. "--- you would like to be seated, so as to tell us your business more comfortably." He swept one hand towards two of the armchairs that flanked the room. The two prisoners exchanged a long questioning look, clearly wrong-footed by the doctor's sudden politeness, then slowly they crossed to the two chairs and lowered themselves into them, all the time keeping a weary eye on Fei and Hammer, as though expecting an attack.
     Suddenly, Fei remembered the respect bordering on reverence that these battlers had shown towards Rico when they had brought him to the Demi-human for inspection, subjects appealing to a king for judgement. But now, the situation was reversed, he was the king sitting upon the dais in Rico's former thrown, and the two Battler's were uncertain as to the new rules of the game.
     He let all the tension sink slowly out of his body, his shoulder muscles relaxing beneath the rough red fabric of his jacket. He turned to the two battlers and gave them his shy winning smile. "What is it?"
     The two battlers exchanged another uneasy glance, like children called up to explain away a misdemeanour to a teacher, then Vargos began. "Well there was this broadcast on the dorm's vid ----- about the cha ---"
     Suzarn's arm moved in what was clearly supposed to be a surreptitious dig in the ribs, but either through nerves or a miscalculation of her own strength she caught Vargos a blow that sent him rocking back in his chair, one hand pressing against his clearly bruised ribs.
     Fei tried to suppress a grin.
     "The ex-Champion, that is ---" Vargos' voice was a little horse from the blow he'd taken. "He's in trouble and we were wonderin' ---"
     Suzarn abruptly leaned back in her chair, her back ramrod straight, and her bony shoulders jutting through the crimson leather. She gazed steadily into Fei's liquid eyes, her disfigured face suddenly beautiful and stern as a queen's. "We were wonderin' if you could help him"
     Fei crossed his ankles carefully, looking steadily into Suzarn's grey gaze. "Tell me what's happened."
     Abruptly the two battlers relaxed, Vargos hung one heavy studded boot over the arm of his chair, and suzarn leaned back and stretched gracefully. The tension flowed out of the airy room, and the liquid night outside the windows seemed to suddenly soften until it was merely the sky again.
     "They said on the vid that Rico'd been arrested for tryin' to kill the Keiser, and they're gonna execute him tomorrow."
     "Execute!" The shock hit Fei like ice cold water flung suddenly into his face, water so cold that it left his mind numb and frozen like a lake in mid winter. "Why? --- He didn't do anything."
     "It's the Ethos." Vargos's voice was dull and heavy as a ball of lead. "Ya know that they basically ran the place before Sigmund took over as Keiser. But Sigmund started interferin' with the war, makin' his own laws and puttin' his own people on the Batlin' committee."
     "That Miss Kohan ---" Suzarn chipped in quickly. "She's one of his."
     Citan pulled off his glasses and started polishing them on the hem of his black shirt, his bronzed face full of that familiar concentration. "So the Ethos wish the Keiser out of the way and employed Mr. Banderas to carry out the task"
     Vargos nodded heavily, sending his small leather cap skittering slightly across his crew cut. "Pretty much. We reckon that was where he got his Gear from and all those special parts for it."
     Citan replaced his glinting gold spectacles on his face and gazed intently at the two battlers through them, his eyes dark and distant with calculation. "Therefore, Rico's crash into the Keiser's box this afternoon was an assassination attempt."
     Vargos nodded again, his hard bitten face lined with a heavy, serious concern. "That's right, the Ethos tried to cover it up but ---" He waved both hands in a helpless gesture, as though dismissing the entire conspiracy as too much for him alone to deal with.
     Fei played nervously with the thick hem of his overall jacket, pulling small strands of thread from the rough loose material. "But even if the Ethos were paying him, why would Rico want to assassinate the Keiser?"
     Suzarn let out a harsh bark of laughter, and for a second she almost seemed a female version of Rico himself with her straggling yellow hair and hard implacable gaze. "Rico hates this city and everything in it, but the Keiser especially. You must have noticed the way people round here feel about Demi-humans --- " For a second her grey gaze strayed towards Hammer, standing silently beside Fei's couch.
     "---- The Kaiser's fairly to blame for that. He's never gone outta his way to be nice to DH's"
     "That's sure true --" The little fixer scampered forward, the dark mac wrapped about him like a protective cloak, almost as if he were chilled. "And it aiin't just people's attitudes either. The Keiser's passed some pretty nasty laws over the years"
     Fei thought of the small clever man, his neat hair and well clipped beard, and the way he had screamed "Mutant!" his voice a dry, brittle dagger of disgust. He remembered Rue Cohen's disdainful "this ---- person" and a flash of human pain in grim reptilian eyes.
     "And that ain't all ---" Suzarn leaned forward, the electric light flashing on her glossy leathers and metal trappings. "---- Rico was born in Nortune, but he left when he was young. I don't know the whole story, but I reckon he was chased outta here when people saw he was a DH."
     Fei turned to Citan, his eyes flashing with a shy deep sympathy. He thought of Lahan, of what he himself had done, of Dan's face radiating bitterness like a negative sun. Whatever had happened in the past, here was a chance to do something right! "Doc? ---- Is there a way we could help Rico?"
     The Solarian nodded slowly, as though Fei's question had confirmed something, his mouth creased in a line of solemn thought. "I don't know, Fei, it might be difficult breaking in to a prison ---- "
     "Hold on a moment, Doc --- " Fei turned to the two battlers, suddenly animated, the new idea hammering into his mind with shocking brilliance. "Where are they going to execute Rico?"
     Vargos twitched his eyebrows in surprise. "Same place they execute anybody, the main Battlin' arena."
     "Okay! ----" Fei suddenly relaxed, leaning back upon the heavy couch once more, a slight smile playing about his lips. They could help Rico after all. "Well, couldn't we wait for them to bring Rico up to the arena and knock out the guards or something?"
     "Hmmm ---" Citan fixed his onyx eyes on the wall over Fei's head, there look distant. Clearly his subtle chess players mind was going through the strategy, testing different moves and alternatives as though looking for replacement gear parts. "It has distinct possibilities, Fei. Of course we will have to make a somewhat precipitous departure after waylaying Mr. Banderas execution party."
     The two battlers exchanged a covert glance, as though a theory had been confirmed.
     "We thought you was leavin' --" Vargos grinned suddenly, lending a wistful look to the hard planes of his face. "---- Your not the kind of guy to stop in a place like D-Block."
     "I'm sorry ----" Fei dropped his gaze to the carpeted floor, an obscure tendril of guilt wracking him. He was leaving while Suzarn and Vargos would stay here in the dull grey compound, possibly for the rest of their lives.
     "Don't worry ---" Suzarn abruptly rose and came towards Fei, her movements full of the old easy grace. "We figured you were leavin' ---- one of the reasons we asked ya' about the Champ. Now here ---" Reaching into her leathers, she produced a thick bundle of crumpled notes which she thrust roughly into Fei's unresisting hands. "Take these ---and don't argue."
     Fei opened his mouth to protest but she curtly cut off any argument with a fierce grey stair.
     "You guys'll need it."
     "Thank you."
     She shrugged carelessly, her unbound hair swinging in its dishevelled tendrils. "Don't mention it"
     With a quick ballistic twist the girl turned, and headed towards the staircase, Vargos rising to follow in her wake like an obedient hound. "Good luck to ya, champion Fei"
     But before he could answer she had gone.
     "Okay then ---" Hammer tripped forward, his mac floating around him. "Ya' gonna need to catch a train that'll get ya' in plenty of time before ----" Abruptly the little Demi-human faltered, the gleam of his eyes and silver badge seem to dim slightly, then quickly he regained his poise and continued, capering an energetic little jig.
     "Before ya're too late! I'll fix that, you 'n' the doc go get some shut-eye."
     "Thank you, Mr. Hammer, that would be most helpful." Citan yawned hugely, muscles moving beneath his black T-shirt as he stretched. "Now if you will follow a Doctor's advice, Fei, I suggest you follow Mr. Hammer's advice."
     Fei grinned cheekily and stood up from the couch. "Well with all these people giving me advice it'd be rude of me not to take it. And anyway ----" Abruptly he sobered his mind filling with the familiar light grey of expectation. "It's not going to be easy tomorrow"

*  *  *  *  *  

     There was no dawn. No moon, no stars, no sun. The cold ranks of chilly stone pressed the darkness hard and firm into Rico's eyes, numbing his mind and crushing time to a thin wafer. Had it been an hour ago the priest had come to taunt him? Two hours? ---- Ten minutes? Or had his time already run out, was he to hear the slow measured footsteps of the guards, blink suddenly in the uncaring light as they dragged him up to his final agonizing meeting? The big man abruptly stood, pushing himself firmly up from the cold uneven floor. He moved two stumbling steps to the moisture soaked wall and leaned heavily against it, his arms spread wide into the black on either side, as though trying to press himself inside the wall and away from what was coming.
     But no! He wouldn't give them the satisfaction of being afraid, either of the undoubtedly painful manner of his death --- or of the death itself. Balling one huge fist he ground his knuckles hard into the jagged powdery rock of the wall, clenching his teeth at the jabbing gritty pain. He had lived with pain, lived with a hard steel hatred against all those who spat at him, and he would die the same way.
     Dimly, the question of life after death sidled into his mind. After the execution what would there --- but what did that matter? He would find out when it came. Slowly he sank back down to the floor, leaning his broad back against the stone, his eyes staring sightlessly into the dark. He was a creature of the present, of quick reactions and blazing reflex, if there was anything to be found after what would inevitably be a slow road of tearing agony, he would deal with it when it came. Right now the execution was enough to worry about.

*  *  *  *  *  

     There was little light beneath Aveh's citadel either. There two a host of ancient stone and metal barricades stood hard and firm against all light. True, there was always the bright glow of electricity to bring dimension into darkness, and the dim numerals of an electric clock stood as comforting regulators to black time, but still, Elly often wished she could see the sky.
     She lay, curled like a cat in her narrow bed, hair falling in soft silken folds across the thin pillow, her slim body still, the pale sheets moving regularly in the darkness as she breathed. But despite the peace of her position, her mind fretted and paced restlessly, a host of dim ideas flashing about her like dancing sparks.
     She thought of the military, but not of its powerful weapons or destructive Gears, of its organization, the warm steady rhythm of night and day that soothed her existence, a parent's heartbeat next to hers. It was a precise family, a warm machine into which she fitted. Her unit smoothly in step about her, each working for the common goal.
     But what was that goal? A spark prodded, a current of images flowing about her like dark water. Houses destroyed, flames and blood ---- but there had to be order?
     But did there? She thought of the drone like main force of the army, their almost bovine obedience to superiors. Order? They were Lambs but ---
     A memory of her father swept into her mind. She had been standing proud and full of childish knowing, her tiny hands on her hips in imitation of a general. "---- An' the Lambs aren't like us --- they don't think as well ---- an' their sort of bad --- like animals but sort of worse -coz animals don't know what their doing, and Lambs know what their doing but do it anyway even when they know it's wrong."
     "That's what you learned in school, is it?" There had been a heaviness about his voice, a dull exhausted sound that frightened her. "Yes daddy."
     "Do you think nanny is bad?"
     She had thought hard, her chubby child's face screwing into a serious concentrated expression. Finally the answer slipped almost involuntarily out of her mouth. "No, nanny's nice"
     "Well, Nanny's a lamb. And if you'd been born on the surface instead of here, would that have made you such a different little girl?"
     Elly shifted uneasily, the question needling her. Were the lambs so different? And did she have the right --- even to protect her place, her family, did she have the right? At that cost?
     Abruptly something jogged at her, a pain, a memory, a dream. Fire and destruction and tears falling ---- and Fei!
     She smiled suddenly, remembering the shy earnest young man with his liquid eyes and honest expression --- but wasn't he a Lamb?
     She huddled down in the blankets, pulling them close around her as though in warmth of memory. Her eyes closed, and for a time she dived into a smooth sea of warmth, fantasy, dream and desire all combined into a single mass of pink and golden softness like a dawning sky. But she knew, even as she swam and dived and felt and thought, she knew that whenever she surfaced the questions would be waiting.

*  *  *  *  *  

     "Good morning, Fei ----- well I say morning, but as the time is close on one PM, I suppose that is incorrect."
     Fei peered sleepily from beneath a corner of blanket at Citan, his hair hanging in night time tangles about his face. "Doc?" His voice was fuzzy and distant.
     Citan jogged lightly into the small bedroom dropping delicately down to sit on one corner of the huge bed with it's heavy brown covers. "Indeed Fei, it is I!"
     Fei shook his head tiredly, trying to shake the thick fuzz of sleep from his brain. "That's not what I meant Doc. You say it's one O'clock?"
     The Solarian pulled back the sleeve of his olive jacket, glancing quickly at the watch that winked upon his wrist. "Two minutes and twenty five seconds past one, to be exact."
     Fei stretched, a tanned arm protruding out of the heap of heavy blankets and sheets that covered the bed. "Why did you let me sleep so late, Doc?"
     Citan hooked his fingers into the russet sash about his waist. "I would think that was obvious, Fei. You have had a strenuous few days, and this evening's escapade isn't likely to be easy. And anyway, it gave me an opportunity to go into Nortune and gather some supplies."
     "Supplies?" Fei was interrupted by a sudden blast of thick sound, quickly he turned his eyes to the bedroom's small curtained window. Through an arrow shaped gap in the curtains he could dimly see huge drops of rain clattering out of a leaden sky to slam hard against the glass.
     "As you see Fei, it was lucky I was able to gather supplies this morning. I fear that going outside this afternoon will require an ocean going vessel. Not to mention warm clothing ---" The Solarian hugged arms across his chest, giving an exaggerated shudder that set his glasses trembling. "The temperature has dropped significantly."
     Fei pushed aside the heavy material and swung his legs out of bed. As the cold air struck his naked body he shivered realistically, goose pimples rising across his heavily shoulders. "It's freezing!" The young man danced energetically on the spot, hugging himself reflexively.
     Citan raised one bushy eyebrow quizzically. "Not quite freezing Fei --- but cold enough."
     "Will that cause problems with tonight?"
     The doctor shook his head worriedly. "I'm not certain Fei, if this torrential rain continues ---- but let us cross one bridge at a time."
     Fei pursed his lips, arms still wrapped protectively about his body. He thought of the reduced visibility and slick footing the rain would cause.
     "We will be inside most of the time anyway Fei. But to other matters ---" Citan clapped his hands suddenly, a short brutal sound. "I saw an interesting sight in the Wildcat bar window today"
     Fei walked distractedly around the huge bed to the locker at one side, looking for his hairbrush and razor. "What, Doc?"
     The Solarian grinned sunily. "A very large photographic representation of yourself, enjoying a steak, and written above it was the legend "the Champion eats at the Wildcat"
     Fei laughed a quick sudden laugh, his liquid eyes gleaming with warm humour, for a moment the iron grey numbness of expectation that shattered his mind lifted as he remembered the friendly bear of a barman who had given him a free steak. "Well it is true ---- the Champion did eat at the Wildcat --- and we didn't pay for the steaks."
     "One of the compensations to being famous, Fei." Citan paused, raising one finger like a teacher about to deliver a clever and incisive lesson. "Free steaks, nice young ladies wishing to play chess ---"
     Before Citan had a chance to continue, Fei sprinted out of the bedroom and across the main sitting area to the bathroom door, ignoring the sting of the chill air on his skin.
     The day passed slowly, dull grey hours of monotonous rain and electric light gleaming down upon the rust coloured floor of the Champion's suite. Fei did a few exercises, chatted idly with Citan and Hammer, and tried to relax every muscle and tendon ready for tonight. Even though he had won the battling tournament, it still felt as if he would be expected to march Weltall out into the arena, eyes probing for a weakness in his opponent's strategy while from some unseen vantage point thousands of Kislevians watched with mild interest.
     As he lay upon the wide heavy couch that had once belonged to Rico, Fei's thoughts turned towards the big Demi-human. Probably locked up in a prison cell somewhere, he couldn't help feeling a constant throbbing awareness of what the Demi-human would be going through, counting minute after horrible minute, waiting for the execution. Fei wasn't certain precisely how Kislevian prisoners were executed, some quick and efficient manner he supposed. A firing squad maybe, a line of dull faceless guards in their leather combat masks and greenish uniforms, heavy rifles held to their shoulders.
     He imagined facing a hundred gaping rifle muzzles, listening to the first crisp command, his body trembling, his heart thumping with panic.
     "Attention!" There would be a slight jingle as the soldiers shifted position, their hands moving brutally on their weapons. The second command, "Take aim!" then, only a second or two later ---- the third command! That would suit Kislev, he thought, an impersonal bullet from the gun of a nameless soldier.
     It was at those times when he felt the tension thrumming in him like a plucked guitar string, hard and yellow, that he would remind himself that whatever anticipatory agony Rico was going through, it would be for nothing. He, Fei, would be there to help. The firing squad would stand dumbly, their rifles drooping uselessly, robbed of their terrified target.

     The sky was dimming from a sullen lead grey to a sullen battleship blue when Hammer said it was time to go. The steady cold rain that had battered down on the granite walled compound still fell, the air between the drops suffused with a bone numbing chill that bit at their faces as they crossed the expanse of concrete to the long narrow shape of the squat stone peer that held the cargo train track.
     Fei looked up anxiously, waiting to see the two unfriendly eyes of the train guard needling down at him. But to his surprise, the head that looked over the top of the dripping steel ladder was a girl's head, platinum blond crew cut running with moisture. She waved one forest green arm invitingly down at Fei.
     "Come up Fei, it's all safe."
     "Catrina!" Fei felt the hard expectant haze lift as he grinned up at his friend, tanned hands dug into the pockets of his midnight blue battling leathers which he wore like an outer snake skin over his old Lahan clothes. "What're you doing here?" Fei shot out both hands and seized the chilly steel of the ladder, climbing with a quick furious motion rain slapping at his ponytail and running down inside his collar.
     "Suzarn asked for a volunteer to get rid of the guard up here and see you off ---" the girl put out one small hand wrapped in a green leather glove and grasped Fei's shoulder, half pulling him up onto the flat roof of the concrete peer. She looked up at him, her eyes wide and sparkling as ever in her rain washed face. "I wanted to say goodbye."
     Fei shrugged uneasily, stepping away from the ladder to allow Citan room to vault onto the roof. That morning the Doctor had bought a long moleskin overcoat in a light chocolate brown which fell to his knees in thick folds, wreathed in beads of moisture. Under one arm he carried his familiar medical bag, though now it bulged heavily with a hundred useful articles. "Oh Catrina, this is Citan ----"
     The girl nodded amiably at the Doctor, but her round liquid eyes were still fixed on Fei. "It's good of you to help Rico out"
     Fei looked down, rain dropps trickling down his face. "Well it's on our way --- and Rico helped us out before."
     "Well it's still good of you, Fei. Anyway, ---" The girl wiped gloved hands down her forest coloured leathers, sending rain drops cascading down her slim figure in a miniature waterfall. "The train's coming in soon. You're best starting from just over there." she waved one hand casually at a section of flat scarred concrete a few feet from the twin regular snakes of the metallic train tracks.
     Fei looked out into the downpour, dimly he could see the shadow of the tracks curving away from the building and out into the gloom towards a distant block of darkness that might have been the wall of the Battling Arena HQ in C-Block.
     "I take it you have indulged in this type of escapade before Ms. Marrin?"
     "Oh yes ----" Catrina turned to face Citan, an almost wistful smile playing across her pale oval face. "Me and my brother used to jump on the train and steal some of the cargo when we were little ---- you can sell just about anything in D-Block."
     "Look ---" Fei's hand moved almost of it's own accord, fishing inside his leathers to the pocket of his warn combat trousers from Lahan. In imitation of Suzarn's gesture the previous night, he wrenched the bundle of notes from his pocket and thrust them into Catrina's gloved hand as though passing on a secret sign. "You take this."
     The girl stepped back, her eyes wide and almost shocked. "But there must be almost 2000 G here! --- you can't give it to me!"
     "I can." Fei said stolidly, squaring his shoulders against the rain and Catrina's protestations.
     "But ----" Before the girl had another chance to object a steadily rising roar cut through the continual batter of rain striking concrete. Fei and Citan moved a few steps to the area Catrina had indicated. The tracks stood hard and stark in front of Fei, twin lines of dim ridged shadow in the increasing gloom. "But Fei, you don't have to ----"
     The dim vibrating roar resolved into the steady clacking and shushing of wheels on rails, coming gradually closer. Leaning forward Fei could see an unblinking white light approaching through the curtaining rain like the eye of a wild beast moving through a forest.
     Catrina's protestations behind him were squeezed out by the screech of wheels and the hungry roar of the engine.
     "Just! Take it!" Fei turned his head around to yell, then focused his attention back on the tracks. The light was much closer now, and behind it he could see a chain of long square flat shapes following along behind the engine. It was only when the track actually reached the tower where they were standing that the dim rectangles resolved into a series of long heavy trucks draped in some kind of material. At their head a small box like engine chugged and belched, the acrid smoke from its exhaust clouding the rainy air like the breath of a small impatient dragon.
     Fei waited until the engine was passed him, the small cone of its headlight whirling on into the gloom ahead. One truck passed, rattling and clanging with terrible speed, rain pelting from it's surface. Then another ---- then another.
     Behind him Catrina had stopped protesting, either because she was resolved to taking the money, or because she knew that Fei and Citan needed all their concentration.
     Fei took a nervous step backwards, even though the train was several feet away he could feel the vibration of its passage through his boots. He imagined what would happen if he slipped, then instantly tried not to think of those heavy steel wheels rolling mercilessly across his body.
     Another truck passed, and another. Even though it seemed to be a long train, Fei knew that he had to jump, that if he missed this train he was condemning Rico to an execution. He bent his legs, trying to slow his breathing, feeling his body vulnerable beneath it's leather and cloth coverings. Like a hunter sighting prey from cover, Fei's eyes scanned the row of clanking trucks in front of him, trying to gage their speed. He felt a slow dizzy nervousness swell up and threaten to overwhelm him. Fighting was one thing; in a fight there was always a chance to think to plan but this ----.
     He didn't remember making the decision, didn't remember bracing his legs or taking the two balletic steps forward, all he knew was that one moment he had been standing on the pitted concrete of the roof, the next he was flying through the rainy night, arms and legs spread wide. Then he fell with a heavy smack onto the rain slick canvass that covered a truck, his arms and legs spread eagled to either side, the breath whooshing from his body as the top of the truck struck him hard in the stomach. He lay for a second, feeling the throb of the train's motion through the wet canvass beneath him like the heartbeat of a fierce animal. There was a sudden clanking lurch as the train careered around a bend, and the tarpaulin surface was suddenly a slick and dangerous slope. Frantically Fei scrabbled at the material, feeling a fingernail tare as he clawed at the canvas covering. Then one flailing hand slipped over the side of the truck and he felt the coarse tautness of the rope fixtures that held the canvas cover in place. With a desperate strength he clung on, bracing his arms against the motion of the swaying train.
     He lay on his face, breathing heavily, bracing his limbs and shifting his weight against the side to side motion. Like a soldier nervously squinting from cover he raised his head, but the streaming buffet of rain and wind that struck stingingly at his face made it almost impossible to see where he was going.
     He didn't know how long his fingers clung to the wet strands of the rope, his body stretched out beneath the hammering rain and howling wind, his face pressed into the wet, dust smelling canvass of the truck's covering. Then there was a change in the sounds of the trucks in front of Fei, a dark ringing background to the steady rattling of the wheels. Fei scarcely had time to wonder what this was when abruptly the rain and wind were cut off in a sweep of hollow sound.

     Raising his head, Fei saw that they were running down a broad brick tunnel, orange lights whizzing passed on either side like hurrying comets. Now that they were inside, the motion of the train seemed smoother, with less rocking and swaying, either because the train had slowed or because the tracks lining the thick tunnel were in better repair than those which crossed the compound.
     Fei was able to get into a sitting position, bracing his back with spread fingers. Shifting his weight carefully he turned to face the trucks that rattled along behind his. The wind of their slipstream caught Fei's ponytail and set it streaming out behind him like a dark banner.
     Fei's mind flooded with relief as he saw Citan, looking like a bedraggled beaver in his heavy great coat, perched calmly a few trucks down the train.
     "Doc!" Fei bellowed into the wind, not daring to raise one hand to shield his eyes from the blast for fear he would be shaken off the juddering truck.
     The Solarian shifted his weight on the truck so that he was leaning forward and Fei could catch a glimpse of his damp bronze face beneath it's bedraggled hair. "We need to quit this train!! ---- We'll have to jump!"
     Fei peered nervously over one side of the hurtling truck, noting the uneven brick surface of the tunnel rushing past like a ruffled stony stream only two feet from his nose.
     "Other side!"
     Obediently Fei shuffled around until he could look over the opposite side of the truck. He saw a narrow brick platform extending out to the tunnel wall some six feet away. Even though there was more room on this side, Fei could still make out a hundred small cracks and valleys in the crumbling brickwork, gaping jaggedly in the orange light.
     "Look out for an opening!" Citan yelled, his voice thin above the clank and roar of the engine.
     Fei scanned the wall ahead of the hurtling train, but the shifting shadows of the orange lights they passed made it difficult to see the back wall across the platform. For a few minutes the train forged ahead burrowing deeper into the dim throat of the tunnel, it's two unsuspected passengers swaying rhythmically to it's rocking motion. Fei wasn't sure how much time passed as he sat on the juddering truck, watching the monotonously regular train of lights pass before him, squinting frantically at the wall beyond the narrow strip of platform.
     "I believe that is it!"
     Fei turned and saw his friend gesturing up the tunnel with one arm, the sleeve of his brown coat flapping like a damp heavy flag. Fei followed the gesture but could see nothing in the dim light.
     "Get ready to jump, Fei!"
     Nervously Fei shifted his position into a tense crouch, his feet in their heavy boots planted firmly on the taut canvas, his hands splayed to either side, muscles flexing and relaxing as he continually shifted his weight. He tried not to think of the bristling craggy bricks waiting for him when he jumped, tried not to think what would happen if he jumped too far and hit the wall ----- or not far enough --- but then Citan's voice cut through the noise and tension, a note of reassurance clear despite the Doctor's need to yell. "I'll count to three ---- and we can both jump.
     One ---" The train swayed alarmingly, Fei felt his knees shift with it's motion.
     "Two ---" Fei screwed up his face in concentration thinking back to that warm square in Nisan and Sigurd's gruff friendly advice: "When you're falling, always try o hit the ground on your shoulder and roll ---" Then Citan yelled again, and this time the pitch of his shout altered as the Solarian launched himself into space.
     Fei took a deep breath, stilled his muscles, then pushed as hard as he could with legs and hands.
     The young man whirled through the air, twisting with the grace of a dolphin, swinging his weight around as he fell, dark hair whipping about him like a comet's.
     Then suddenly he was rolling on hard bricks, their sharp edges jabbing uselessly at the double covering of cloth and leather that draped him.
     He felt one ankle strike a hard unyielding surface and was tossed backwards, lying in a crumpled crouch on the platform while he heard the steady clanking music of the train retreating off into the distance.
     "Well --- we have arrived Fei, or so I hope."
     Fei curled into a sitting position, rubbing his stinging ankle vigorously with one hand. A few metres away Citan was climbing gingerly to his feet, smoothing down his long heavy coat.
     "What do you mean, Doc?" Fei leaned against the hard craggy wall for a few seconds, letting his racing breath still, feeling his tense muscles relax.
     "As you undoubtedly noted Fei, a moving truck does not make the best vantage point to spot possible egress from this tunnel --" the Solarian smiled ruefully. "I merely hope that we have found the right exit"
     Fei scrambled to his feet, his liquid eyes pooling with worry. "You mean there might be more than one exit?"
     "Indeed ---" Abruptly, Citan shrugged, as though throwing a weight from his shoulders. "But no matter. Where there's a will there's a way, as the saying goes."
     Citan turned and began walking up the tunnel.
     Obediently Fei fell into step behind him, his still damp leathers creaking as he moved. A few paces down the main brick tunnel they came to a dark narrow slot gaping in the side of the passageway like an expectant mouth waiting to be fed. Fei peered nervously into the dark beyond the slit, remembering the noisome sewer with it's vicious mutated inhabitants --- but surely the access passages of such a cool efficient and well used structure as the Battling Arena complex couldn't house such creatures.
     Citan stopped by the side of the tunnel and unzipped his bag. After quickly rifling through the contents he pulled a heavy metallic flashlight from the bag and thrust it at Fei. Fei weighed the heavy metal tube reassuringly in his hand, feeling it's solid stabilizing presence. Pointing the torch down the tunnel like a gun he flicked it on, sending a warm piercing beam of white into the brick maw. A second later the beam of Fei's light was joined by one from Citan, and holding their torches out in front of them like shields, they moved steadily into the dusty blackness.

*  *  *  *  *  

     He was dozing when they came, not asleep, in all the timeless eternity of hours since the priest had smothered the cell in darkness he had never slept, not truly slept. He had left reality though, flying through a fog of memory, speculation and tension that swirled and eddied about his mind like clinging mist. But the instant the footstep echoed softly over the watery backdrop of the cell's silence he was alert as a hunted animal, he shifted his body into a ready squatting position, his big head moving from side to side like a radar scanning for enemies. But all his efforts were wasted, with a hollow tang the light bulb clicked on, and abruptly the cell was brought back into focus, exposed and deluged with a hard rain of light. The Demi-human instinctively raised big calloused hands to his eyes, shielding them from the luminous painful assault.
     But with an unconscious urgent cruelty other hands seized his thick wrists, pulling his paws away from his face. He blinked dully in the renewed flood of light, for a few seconds as helplessly compliant as a drugged child. The guards dragged his arms firmly backwards, jerking a grunt of pain from his lips as they fastened heavy cold steel bands about his wrists. Then the hard muzzles of rifles were prodding him to his feet, forcing him to rise and walk towards the open cell door, and what lay beyond it.

*  *  *  *  *  

     Fei was never sure precisely how long they walked through the dark brick passages, the beams of their flashlights cutting a path before them. To his relief there didn't seem to be any creature in this dark dusty maze of jagged bricks. Nothing larger than a rat anyway, judging by the occasional skittering sounds they heard coming from the corners and junctions of passages. The narrow entry from the long train tunnel had almost immediately split into three even narrower ways, Fei turned his torch from one path to another, seeing the thick dust on the jagged brick floor soft as a carpet of moss.
     The hunched form that was Citan had paused for a second, and Fei could see the doctor's glasses winking as he surveyed each passage. "Do you know where we are doc?" Fei had half whispered, his voice a dry husk that matched the dusty unused tunnels.
     "No." Citan had replied brightly, not bothering to lower his voice at all. "We can but guess, Fei."
     Fei had felt a mild sense of shock digging at the edge of his mind, for some reason he had always expected his friend to know the way, but before he had a chance to object Citan had scampered down one passage, shoulder's thrown back and damp coat swinging as though he were taking a pleasant stroll down a sunny street.
     Fei had followed nervously, keeping his torch beam probing ahead of him, his foot steps hesitant in the soft blanketing dust. Several more times they had found a number of criss-crossing passages, and at each junction the Solarian had unhesitatingly turned a corner, resolved in his random choice.
     Several times Fei had seen a looming brick wall at the end of a passageway, it's surface hard and uncompromising in the torch light, but Citan didn't seem worried, he merely turned aside and took another path, his ponytail swinging like a jaunty shadow. But at each block Fei couldn't help thinking of the minutes that were slowly slipping by, and every time they stopped to choose another path a hard note of worry rose in Fei's mind, creasing his face with a tremulous anxiety.
     Finally they walked up a long narrow passage, the walls constricting inwards so that they were forced into single file, snags of brick grasping at the shoulders of Fei's damp leathers like twigs in a forest.
     Then abruptly Fei saw Citan's lean back before him stop, the folds of his heavy great coat scraping a last tattoo against the walls.
     They had reached another dead end Fei thought ---- then abruptly gave a mental start of panic at his own thoughts. It was Rico who would be looking at a dead end if they ---- "Doc? ----"
     Citan wriggled around in the passage, until he faced Fei, the narrow trap of the constricting walls grasping at the folds of his coat and holding it up like an invisible butler.
     "Is there anything we can do? We're just wandering around in the dark here."
     Even in the gloom, Fei could see his old friend lift a bushy eyebrow. "Given our singular lack of either light or direction, I fear that is all we can do Fei."
     Fei sighed, clasping his hands in front of him, his voice suffused with a plaintive panic. "But doc! ---- Rico! ---- What if we're too late?"
     Before Citan had a chance to reply, a low dim noise crept slowly into their brick prison. It was a dull muffled sound, almost inaudible through the layers of dusty distance, but nevertheless Fei recognized it as the sound of a human voice.
     Wordlessly he turned, and began squeezing his way back up the passage, trying to still his breathing and cursing the creak of his midnight blue leathers and the scraping of his boots across the uneven floor.
     For a few heart stopping moments all was black silence, then as he felt his shoulders leaving contact with the jagged teeth of the bricks Fei heard the noise again, echoing dully from somewhere off to his right. Extending the beam of his torch in front of him like a stick digging through dark soil, he saw another passage gaping invitingly, wider than the brick crack they had come from, but with a ceiling only one metre above the floor. Crouching down on his hands and knees Fei made his way into the tunnel, his head scraping unpleasantly on the brick roof, his hands moving softly through the dust and broken mortar on the floor. Behind him he heard a slight rustle and he knew Citan was following at his heels.
     Then the voice came again, sounding from further down the passageway, and this time Fei was able to catch the words.
     It was a slow drawling male voice, filled with a note of whining exasperation. "---- I ain't waiting for you Rod. You can stay here and polish that thing if you like, but I want to see the fun!"
     Fei balled a fist on the dusty floor, a few grains of grit catching in his palm. So they thought executions were fun did they? He redoubled his crawling speed, ignoring the scrape of the ceiling across his back and the beginnings of a throb in knees and forearms.
     "And wouldn't this be the perfect time for someone to steel it eh? ---" This voice was a thin fussy thread of sound, the voice of someone who knew very definitely what was and was not important. "---- I've spent too much time and trouble collecting them to risk my super, ultra delicious, beautiful ---"
     The first voice cut in tiredly, "yeh, we all know about your damn mini-gear --- now are you coming or not?"
     Somewhere in front of him Fei could see a dim wash of light spilling into the tunnel from one side. He didn't need the slight warning tap of Citan's hand on his heel to tell him to switch off his torch.
     Once his light was out the passage was reduced to a dim black hole, only the slight ripple of light up ahead giving any form to the darkness.
     As he moved forward, Fei heard the second voice, the fussy voice that had been identified as Rod speak again in a tone of reverence. "My beautiful dynamite bomber, transforming DX constantly updating and evolving undefeatable mini-gear deluxe! ---" There was a shift in pitch as though Rod had turned to face the other man, and from the tone of his voice, Fei could almost see the collector's eyes glowing with furver. "---- And you tell me no one'd try and steel it!"
     Fei could see the source of the light now, a heavy steel grating set into one wall of the narrow channel, with electric light streaming through it. Cautiously he edged his way to one side of the grille and hunched down, peering nervously between the bars.
     He needn't have been so cautious, the massive gear bay on the other side of the grille was almost empty, only two guards stood at one end near a rickity table and both had their backs to the grating.
     Both were dressed in the usual blue and green uniforms of Kislev soldiers, and both had long heavy rifles slung across their backs. One of them, Fei guessed it to be Rod, had a windswept thatch of light brown hair, falling untidily about his neck like un-mown grass. He was waving his arms frantically towards a small plastic box sitting on the table amid a mess of dirty cups and papers.
     The other guard sighed, running hands through his own more conventionally neat black hair. "Well if you'd rather sit here and drool over it than go and watch the X-champion's execution that's your look out. As for me ---" He turned on his heel dismissively, the rifle swinging in an ungainly sweep at his back. "---- I'm off!"
     Without a backward glance he strode towards the opposite end of the hanger, his arms swinging jauntily.
     "Fei." The young man shifted his weight slightly so that the doctor could lean past him and look through the grating into the hangar. "Excellent" Citan hissed and even though his voice was scarcely above a whisper, Fei heard a note of triumph.
     "Only one guard. Now Fei, this grating does not seem to be solidly lodged in place, I suggest one concerted push will be enough."
     Fei looked down to where the corners of the heavy black steel entered the crumbling brick, noting the patches of flaking red adorning the metal. Slowly, he shifted his weight until he was resting at the far side of the grating, one leather clad shoulder braced against the bars. Citan shuffled to the other corner, a patient mole in his dusty overcoat.
     Before the Gear collecting guard had a chance to turn round, Fei and Citan braced their feet against the back wall of the narrow duct and extended their legs in one violent heave.
     Despite the rust and decay, Fei had expected some resistance from the grating, perhaps they would have to wriggle the corners slowly from their nests of brick, tug and pull in a furious struggle with the iron bars in an effort to remove the grating before the guard had a chance to make an alarm.
     He had not expected the entire grill to topple easily downwards like an opening door, carrying him and Citan atop it, passengers on an ungainly raft. It struck the floor five feet down with a resounding clang, and Fei winced as the shock of the fall vibrated bruisingly through his shoulder.
     Rod turned slowly, every line of his body radiating shock like a physical force. Citan climbed to his feet, smoothing down his long coat as he stepped free of the grill. "Please excuse our somewhat precipitous ---"
     But Rod was plainly in no mood for curtsey. As Fei got to his feet he saw the guard's angular Kislevian eyes wide with terror, and his mouth beginning to form a round O of panic. Slim hands fumbled for his rifle, swinging the heavy gun around to his chest and rummaging frantically for the trigger.
     Citan took two rapid steps forward until he stood beside the guard. "Please excuse me --" With a gentle, almost tender movement he raised a hand to Rod's neck beneath the mass of straggling hair and pressed. Abruptly the man sagged, the panic on his face crumpling into unconsciousness, nerveless hands slipping off the smoothly polished rifle.
     Citan deftly caught the man as he fell, and lowered the guard's body softly to the floor, pillowing the head gently in it's nest of tumbled hair.
     "How did you do that, Doc?" Fei's eyes glowed with a summery admiration, he knew his friend was skilled in combat but that had been something else.
     Citan shrugged modestly, sending a heavy ripple down the thick fabric of his coat. "Simply a matter of applying pressure to the correct artery. He will awaken in an hour or so ---" Citan's onyx eyes flashed towards the recumbent guard with an almost paternal expression. "I believe some sleep will do him good."
     The young man's tanned face split into a grin as he stepped across Rod's body and followed Citan towards the wide wooden doors at one end of the room.
     As he passed the littered table, Fei's eyes glanced off a small cheap plastic clock, it's digital display glowing shyly from behind the dark box Rod had so prized. Abruptly awareness of time sluiced back into Fei's mind like a spray of cold water.
     "Doc! --- have we still got time?"
     Citan pealed thick brownish cloth away from his wrist until he unearthed his watch. Abruptly he quickened his pace, forcing Fei to break into a loping trot to keep up. Fear rose in Fei, a cold chilling wind that blew him rapidly forward as though it were a hard gale, pushing at his back on a winter's day.

*  *  *  *  *  

     The rain had slackened to a steady dismal flow as the four guards herded the big demi-human out into the centre of the Arena. Rico's thoughts were slow and sour, his mind still full of the cell's eternal waiting. Just another date in the Arena for the Champion, but he knew that wasn't the case. Despite the titanic muscles that still bulged from his heavy frame, despite the cold glare of reptilian eyes, he was not the same man who had skilfully piloted Steir to victory upon victory before the adoring crowds. His leathers were creased and water stained, his bright orange hair dulled with a due of stony dust that the dismal rain was now pounding into mud. Never before had he stood so alone and small in the centre of the emerald turf, spotlights playing on his defenceless Gearless body. nor had he ever fought with his big calloused hands clamped behind his back by the cold heavy grip of steel handcuffs.
     But still, he supposed he would give them a good show just the same.
     The guards quickly retreated, turning smart uniformed backs and walking coldly away, their job done. Rico stood alone, as always, the black sky above murky with clouds, the great rock pillars sending huge shafts of shadow across the arena floor, the water sparkling prettily in the spotlight's penetrating stream.
     Everything was quiet, expectant and hushed, the almost invisible wall off in the distance a black horizon pocked with silent witnesses to the spectacle.
     Then abruptly, the silence shattered like precious crystal as the massive steel door whooshed upwards with a hiss of hydraulics. For one more instant everything was painted in glass, the battler waiting with calm resignation, the huge angular shadows and glaring lights, the massive yawning black of the open entrance.
     Then the beast pounced violently forward, it's jaws and claws glittering with hungry malice.

*  *  *  *  *  

     Fei and Citan's footsteps echoed across the cavernous space of the Gear dock, they ran as they had run a few hours before, smoothly, coolly, swerving around benches and equipment, their feet casually flicking past oily Gear parts and rust spattered on the concrete floor. But there was none of the previous night's errant joy, none of the freedom. Fei felt the constricting band of time tugging at him like hard elastic, pulling him towards the titanic midnight shadow standing at the dock's far end. Even as he took a flying leap to Weltall's ladder, he couldn't help noticing that the scratches and dents of his fight with Rico had been removed. The dark purple skin was as seamless and perfect as that night ---- years before it seemed, when the blood red fires burned in Lahan. But Fei wasn't going to think about that, this was now, the present, not the past and he had a job to do.
     The young man shimmied up the ladder into the cockpit, his battler's leathers creaking. He felt his body settle smoothly into the grips, felt the thrum of igniting fuel, saw the small friendly glow of the lights on the control board wink as he powered up the Gear. In a smooth ripple of motion he stood Weltall to it's full height. Looking down he could see the dim brown figure of Citan standing beside a gigantic pair of metallic doors, his hands moving in quick jerky motions across the control panel. Then suddenly the doors opened, and the long steely box of the Gear elevator yawned before him. With three quick strides Fei had moved Weltall into the elevator and the doors had closed noiselessly behind them.
     There was a brief pause, a slight sensation of motion, then the heavy doors whooshed upwards revealing the wide familiar expanse of the Gear bay with it's heavy shutter leading out into the arena.
     For a moment Fei's heart rose ----- the bay was empty, That meant ---- then he saw the wash of harsh alien light bursting intrusively through the gaping arena door. But before he had a chance to feel the numbing tearing coldness of disappointment engulf him, he saw Citan waving frantically towards the arena entrance, the heavy brown cloth rippling like clumsy wings. Fei edged his Gear forward, straining his gaze into the glare. But still the wide expanse of turf seemed empty, the bars of angular shadow from the rock pillars falling across it like black rivers. In the distance Fei saw the diamond glow of the watery section, the tan stains of the desert environment ---- all seemed empty. But no! Suddenly he saw a tiny black shape racing clumsily across the green, lights winking on spots of orange as though it were on fire. That was Rico! They weren't too late! But before the tide of relief had a chance to rise, Fei saw what was following the demi-human, dodging with a cruel unearthly speed in and out of the pillars.
     A Ranker Dragon, bigger even than the one he had fought in Blackmoon forest. It's heavy head was lowered like a charging bull, It's long clawed feet pounded across the ground as it plunged forward, the burning mad coals of it's eyes were fixed upon the demi-human who dashed desperately away from it. Fei remembered the battler's uncanny speed, but as he watched the giant green predator hurl itself at it's victim he knew that speed wouldn't be enough.

*  *  *  *  *  

     Rico was tired. He was almost surprised, he had probably been going for only about five minutes, maybe six, but still, he felt tired, a dull searing ache creeping insidiously into his slab like muscles, the wrenching pain of his cuffed hands beginning to flare through his back and shoulders. Damn them for that, he thought savagely, if his hands had been free ----- but they weren't, just like the rest of his life his final fight was unfair.
     The creature wheeled ahead of him, a forked tong flicking between it's scaly lips. For a second Rico caught a glimpse of the long, wickedly sharp fangs inside the heavy jaw, then it was coming again, green limbs moving in a blur.
     Rico threw himself sideways onto the damp turf, rolling clumsily with his chained hands, but still it was enough as the creature hurtled past half a metre away. Then he was up again and running, if he could make it to the nearest pillar ---- but he knew even as he started that the beast was behind him, long lithe legs pumping the earth, eyes fixed on his back. Repeating a manoeuvre that he had used time after time he threw himself sideways again, so that the creature skidded ponderously passed. But this time he had forgotten the tail. A length of scaly green coils flicked out, a constricting noose that tightened about his legs, causing him to stumble. Then a huge clawed leg swiped at his body and the big man fell, sprawled at the monster's feet like a mouse helpless before a cat.
     The Ranker moved slowly, almost gently, it's sulphur scented breath cascading over the demi-human and making him feel faint. Almost lovingly it laid a massive clawed limb upon the big man's chest, the thick nail of the claw digging painfully into the black leather. Then slowly, like a lover beginning a kiss, the creature began to lower it's heavy head, the mouth opening to reveal the long rows of greedy fangs. But there was no hurry, it's meal wasn't going anywhere.
     Rico stared dully into the Ranker's reptilian eyes, watching as they slowly narrowed, sparking with a malicious, insatiable hunger. Every bit of the monster's attention was focused upon it's meal, like a conseure tasting a fine wine. Rico lay still, the weight of the claw constricting his ribs, wondering how long it would take him to die.
     Neither of them heard the rapid roar of the Gear engine, the urgent tramp of metallic feet across the arena's turf, both were concentrated, predator and prey. Only when the huge dark fist slammed into the side of the creature's skull did either of them become aware that they weren't alone.
     The monster was catapulted sideways by the blow, the claw on Rico's chest ripping a shallow bloody gash as the force of the blow carried it away. But the ex-champion hardly noticed the pain, with his old grace and speed he rolled sideways, massive leg muscles pumping him to his feet and sending him dashing across the arena, out of the way of the new battle.
     The Ranker was a large specimen, eighteen or twenty feet high at the shoulder, yet as Fei looked down the creature seemed only as big as a moderately sized dog. The Ranker jumped upwards, claws raking out viciously, just as the creature in Blackmoon had done. Fei backed up, quickly bringing up one of Weltall's knees to connect wincingly with the creature's skull in mid air. The green body hurtled backwards, flailing limbs and twitching like a broken insect. Almost before the creature had landed Fei was moving, hammering the jets to bring Weltall a few meters above the arena then plummeting downwards, both fists crunching into the Ranker's body.
     For a second the creature convulsed, deadly teeth gnashing uselessly at the air, then it lay still.
     Fei felt his trembling muscles relax, the hard instinctive vision of battle leaving him to be replaced by a warm flush of relief, it was done! Rico was safe. Now they could ---
     "You!" The harsh voice echoed in Fei's ears like the percussion of artillery. "Turn around ---- slowly, with your hands up!"
     Obediently Fei turned Weltall around, raising the massive Gears arm's.
     At one side of the arena ten or twelve Gears stood, glinting in the still bright spotlight. Some were huge powerfully armoured models, some, like Weltall, of the shorter faster build. There armour was a range of colours; white, green, grey blue and brown, but each Gear had two things in common. Fei could see flashes of yellow from each Gear's back, and knew that they all bore the bright sun symbol of Kislev, and each Gear was levelling it's armaments straight at him.
     "We want you to power down your Gear now ---- slowly! --- no tricks or ---" Abruptly, the voice stopped, and for a second Fei thought that Weltall's radio might have stopped working. Nervously he flicked his eyes down to the glowing line of indicators, but everything seemed fine ---- no problem.
     The Gear engines throbbed and hummed, a constant black music, steadily rising. The floor of Weltall's cockpit started slowly to vibrate, sending slight ripples through Fei's tensed body. Fei remembered his first battle with Leonardo, the spike of horrible sound as Weltall's engines overheated. Frantically he scanned the control board again ----- but nothing! The air throbbed heavily in his ears, echoing his nervousness.
     Then suddenly, almost as though a switch had been thrown he heard it and a note of panic resounded through him. A heavy dark sound, a dull uneven rhythm growing and growing --- the sound that he had heard in Citan's work shop so long before. A dull remorseless pound of droning engines, a heavy base crump and whirr of cannon with the crackling hiss of etheric discharges sounding in counterpoint. Here and there was a metallic clank and the grind and fall of broken masonry resounding through the main theme like ruinous accidentals.
     This was a music Fei knew, the music of an approaching attack.

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~ End of Chapter 36 ~

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