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Rated: 18+ · Novella · Sci-fi · #2312188
Scarlett likes to con people into the right decision. But is it really the right thing?

Stupefied, the enemy leaders eyed the pistol in Melihra's hand.

Melihra's stomach protested as she continued to hold her fire. That's right, losers, you're alive, she thought, then gestured to the side with her pistol. "Now, get off my block." Before I come to my senses.

Ginn bolted first, then the boss, Marcon. Blood and building material besmirched the gaudy-silver Indur uniforms as they scrambled into the ruins of the war-torn city.

Relief raised Melihra's shoulders, scattering brilliant shards of pain across her back as her open wound rubbed against the tatters of her own, matte gray, Indur-officer's jacket. "Scarlett, have the men evacuated? Both sides?"

Scarlett looked over her shoulder, eyes blushing purple-black. "We're on the move. Apione is holding our car."

Trusting Scarlett and Apione, Melihra turned her back on the battlefield. To protect her people, she sprinted.

The dark gray, stretch hovercar opened its passenger door like a wing, revealing a bench seat against the far side.

Melihra's flying leap landed in the open door of the hovercar. "Scarlett! Move!" Melihra pivoted, landed hard in the seat, then gingerly leaned back. She brought her pistol up to cover Scarlett.

Scarlett spun and followed.

Apione triggered the door-close.

A stray shot hit the car.

Scarlett zigged, blocking Melihra's line of fire to the gunman.

Typical. While Melihra appreciated Scarlett's 'human shield,' she naturally preferred to take hostiles down.

As the door lowered, three bursts of plasma splashed the car.

Scarlett ducked under the door, pirouetted and seemed about to land on Melihra.

Beneath Scarlett's toes, the hover car slipped forward, sliding Melihra out of Scarlett's way.

As the door clicked, Scarlett gracefully touched down next to Melihra.

Comfortable, not showy–as if Scarlett had planned for Apione's jerking the car out from under her. Melihra believed Scarlett had.

"Marcon! Really that afraid to commission anybody worth a nanocredit?" Apione fumed, stamping the acceleration to maximum.

A helpless chariot skater darted out from an alley. Desperate to avoid death, she leaped over the hovercar.

Apione didn't flinch as the car scraped over the plate of the chariot, crushed it into the dirt, then bounced a bit as the steering prong bent under her fender.

The corner of the windscreen came within a meter of the skater's ankle. She probably touched down on the roof somewhere.

Apione muttered under her breath, "If Marcon hired her, she'd clean the floor with him."

Though for a workman, she had battle-hardened reflexes, no Obsolete ever dared mount a counteroffensive. Melihra wished her well. More importantly, Apione's grumpy solidarity warmed Melihra a touch. "Give 'em time." Looking for validation, she glanced into Scarlett's eyes.

Scarlett's blue-white eyes, moving from viewscreen to Melihra, blushed toward purple, followed by a hint of approving smile.

The sweetness from this almost-human slave warmed Melihra in ways she could not put to words–definitely more than Scarlett's mindwitchery. Satisfied that the violence had returned to normal, Melihra holstered her pistol, and looked out the rear display.

Aside from the crawling Obsolete and her ruined chariot, the street lay empty.

Good. Surely, the parting shots had been an attack of opportunity, and Marcon's misfire, less diplomatic than disciplinary. Meihra took Scarlett's hand and squeezed, losing herself in the dark, sweet purple in Scarlett's eyes.

"Don't go making goo goo eyes yet," Apione growled, banking left around the pedestrian crossing in front of her and slapping the back of the seat against Melihra's wound.

At the implication of being shot in the back by an ambitious ally, Melihra stiffened. Friend or foe, if even one of the soldiers detected weakness, they would quickly cut her career short–ruining what she had started today in Marcon's organization. "To my dressing room. Closed-door."

Scarlett's green eyes blanched blue and her nose wrinkled.

Good. The message got through. She counted Scarlett's read of her mind, and the minds of those around her, above her own. That's how Apione could be trusted, and Marcon could be spared. In fact, Scarlett recently helped Melihra discover that she wanted something better than the cycle of ambition and death. With Scarlett's guidance, she hoped one day to see this world restored to the kingdom it had been, before the envious, discarded Obsolete had sent the flaming tatters of leadership fleeing to the stars. Today, she needed a strong front, including a fresh uniform in order to address the soldiers before tending her wounds. "As we say, 'I don't want to see one drop of blood.'"

Apione pulled in front of the two giant Eradis robots that guarded the door to her complex. The two elegant, silver bots towered above the car, each bearing cannons larger than two men.

Eradis. The perfect symbol of Indur vigilance, the unrelenting standard of law, everything that she had been raised to admire. A hard place formed in her throat at the thought of how many innocents, even friends, her own Eradis had slain in her name before the strange little man had sold her Scarlett's slavemaker ring. She fingered its grooves, thinking not for the first time, that Scarlett should be the master, empowered to bring the pain to the foolish Indur captain, Melihra, who not so long ago thought it made sense to own another person.

Scarlett caressed Melihra in the small of her back, gently praising the woman for the thoughts she silently offered.

Apione threw the car into park and triggered the door to open. Melihra steeled her face as she charged into the building, deep into the center, into a closet.

"I'll fend them off." Apione slapped the control panel behind them. As the doors slid together, she said, "Get her cleaned up."

"They won't see a drop of blood," Scarlett assured her. Melihra sat down on the stool and pulled away her jacket.

Scarlett whined as she first saw the wound and gently brushed her fingers against Melihra's face.

A cooling sensation flowed over Melihra. Melihra let out a satisfied groan at the relief and pulled out her pistol, programming it to clean the wound before handing it to Scarlett.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm not ready to go." Melihra chuckled. "So unless you've a medical bot in your pocket?"

Scarlett shook her head and frowned, holding the weapon between her fingertips. "Are the settings right?"

Naturally, Scarlett worried; her pistols shouldn't be able to hit without killing, let alone clean a wound like a medical gun. Scarlett wasn't the only one who could turn a tool of violence to higher purpose. Melihra craned her neck. "You can read that."

Scarlett tapped at Melihra's face like a keyboard, and relaxed. "I see." She held the pistol by the barrel and met Melihra's eyes.

A subtle hint of surprise and approbation. Relieved, Melihra looked away from the unnerving way Scarlett held the pistol and braced herself for the cleansing plasma from her pistol.

The plasma burned at the wound, clearing away dirt, blood, and tattered cloth.

Even as the plasma sharpened her, precious seconds passed with her visibly compromised. Could Apione really keep the men away? Melihra pulled off her shirt and slipped into a new one, zipping it into place. "We did it, though." She took a moment in the mirror to check her poise and face.

Scarlett nodded and proffered a fresh uniform jacket, complete with Melihra's insignia of rank. "Yes, that we did."

Melihra slipped into it, gently bracing as the unbandaged wound tasted the smooth fabric, blotting out the room. At this, first step in the plan, Melihra dared consider only victory–and yes, she reveled in her survival, but also the other, deeper triumph. "Did you see their faces? I'll catch plasma for the mercy, but in my heart, I know. We did right for our crew."

As Scarlett met Melihra's gaze in the mirror, her eyebrow ridges rose in the middle.

That Scarlett: judging, always, however gently and quietly. The other Indur measured only the dazzle of Melihra's exploits or the stretch of her luck. For them, being alive counted as enough, but for Scarlett? Would Melihra ever measure up?

Scarlett's purple eyes glistened. "That's why I chose you. You always knew better."

Side-eyed, Melihra smiled back at Scarlett. Yeah, maybe she had always wanted to be better, but had surely never known she could. "The ovens I did." Waiting for Scarlett's words, she buttoned her collar and jacket.

Scarlett evaded her eyes.

Thinking of the good she could do with Scarlett by her side, Indur Captain Melihra adjusted her rank insignia and puffed out. "More than ever, I'm going to be relying on you."

Pain flashed over Scarlett's face and she paused a second. Scrunching her eyebrow ridges together she sharply said, "You're not a little girl and I am not your mother."

How dare my personal slave talk to me like that? The way Scarlett took her trust and turned it into a weakness burned at her stomach. This had to be ended, by any means. Yet, Melihra stopped her hand halfway to her pistol.

Scarlett looked at Melihra's hand and nodded, almost in approval, then hissed, "Come ahead. If you can't forgo vengeance, then I am soiled by our time together."

Melihra's face burned. This could be the end of everything she had built. At least she wouldn't live to see it, not if the others found out. "I cannot let such disrespect stand."

"Then prove me wrong." Scarlett stepped in front of Melihra and stood, nose to nose, in that awkward space that belonged to a different kind of slave.

Wrong? Wrong for serving her; wrong for believing in her. No, it must not be. No matter the cost, Melihra would prove Scarlett right.

Scarlett snarled. "Strike me dead. Show me the animal you are."

I thought I proved my heart. Melihra's eyes watered. "I can't believe…"

Scarlett's face remained hard, and despite the purple blush of her eyes, her voice mocked, "The great Captain Melihra, vested actionate of the Indur Supremacy, finds insolence hard to believe?"

Melihra shook her head, finger on the holster lock. Indur knew just one way to deal with challenges like this; the law of Larrikesh hung at her side. "Everything my family taught me…."

"Pathetic?" Her voice softened, "Will they say that, or will they be right?"

"Not afraid to do what they say." Scarlett's tone soothed Melihra's spirit for a flicker as she looked down and whispered, "They will say I should have killed you."

"If that is all you are…"

Melihra glared, biting back every instinct bred into her by father, and cousins, and the trigger fingers of the far-more-respectful soldiers that had sent them to the Ovens.

"...then, I guess, they're right. The code is clear. "

Melihra searched her feelings. Something wasn't right. She knew Scarlett better. "No. You swore fealty."

Melihra's voice cracked, "You owe me." She wiped away a tear. She had never before let anyone see her cry and live to tell the tale.

Scarlett's own tears, stained purple-black with admiration and love, dripped freely. "I can't. I've nothing more to give you."

"The Ovens with that!" It made no sense. Scarlett had become ever more valuable with each passing day. "I need you."

"I am leaving. Decide." Scarlett's eyes turned purple-black.

Her eyes betrayed a love buried under these insane ravings. Melihra's throat closed, stopping her breath.

Scarlett continued. "Dead or alive–and before these walls point to the sun."

"OK, you don't care about me. I can take that." Melihra straightened her jacket.

Scarlett, cold-faced as an Eradis drone, stood.

Melihra opened her palms and pleaded. "But, what about my people? You profess to love them, too."

"I hoped to give them the leader they deserved." Scarlett bit her lip. "Was I wrong?"

"No, no. I see it in your eyes." She could not break Scarlett's gaze. "You love me."


Might as well beg a statue. "What kind of game are you playing?"

Scarlett pulled the slavemaker core from her pocket. The metal card blossomed into a small hemisphere with slots in the bottom for her hand, and one above for the master's thumb. "You know what to do."

She was leaving, taking her ring, abandoning Melihra's people. Melihra could not allow that. "Stay. You must. I can force you. I can hit the pain." Melihra's finger hovered over the button on the thumb ring.

Scarlett looked at the ring, the nastiest weapon Melihra had ever imagined, with the same courage that Melihra strove to look down the barrel of a pistol. "Either way, it's time." She pushed the button on the core, loosening the ring around her thumb and lighting it up.

Rage flared and faded away from Melihra. Though her finger hovered over the slavemaker's pain trigger, she could not punish her friend. Scarlett had rights, rights that reached beyond what Melirha–or any Indur–would dream of for themselves. Ultimately, she bowed her head and twisted the ring.

Scarlett waited.

As the ring uprooted and slipped into Scarlett's device, it left a red welt on Melihra's thumb. Disgust and despair tried to reach up but could not reach her. Numbly, Melihra quipped, "Like that, is it?"

"I know, Melihra, but…"

As Melihra waited for Scarlett to find the words, seconds lingered.

"You are ready; therefore, no longer worthy of my time."

The woosh of the door revealed Apione, in the doorway, her mouth agape.

"I swear, if you breathe a word of this," Melihra aimed her weapon at Apione, "I shall keep you alive as a trophy."

Scarlett's irises burned, turning that hateful color of ice blue.

"I…" Melihra caught that. She could never be the thing that put hate in Scarlett's eyes. Even though the woman's sweet love might cost Melihra her life, she sighed and racked her weapon. "...must swear you to secrecy."

Apione grabbed Melihra by the shoulder in a rare, antiquated sign of respect. "Forever mute, my heart's silence endures beyond." Poem ended, Apione nodded, her hand flashing the sign of the oath.

Apione knew the old ways, read the books of ancient knights, even of mythic Terra. In Scarlett's absence, Melihra would need Apione's guidance. She returned the shoulder grasp, showing respect far beyond Apione's rank, and looked at Scarlett.

The eyes turned green.

"Scarlet leaves." Melihra met Apione's gaze, sensing a passion in Apione she had never guessed. "With my blessing. Only."

Apione paused a moment to clear the mask of disgust on her face, and slowly nodded. "It can be no other way."

Scarlett nudged Apione as she walked out the door, past the Eradis, and into the green sunshine.

Only then did it occur to Melihra that Scarlett had tested her. This had been no abandonment, but a graduation. One that Scarlett evidently planned from the beginning. One she hoped she would live to prove worthwhile.

"They're right, you know," Apione whispered. "We'll never get away with this."

"I can't do this alone." Melihra opened her arms. "We can't."

"That's why…"

Not the crew, the world. Oh, Apione! "Don't you see? I don't need another actionate, not when she can build another organization."

"I can still kill her. They will accept that."

Still, Apione–her wisest remaining confidante–didn't understand. "Nobody moves against Scarlett."

"What shall I tell them?"

"The less, the better." Melihra fiddled with her collar, never quite comfortable. "Leave it to me."

"I'm with you, all the way. You know that." Apione coughed. "To the Ovens if that's where you take me."

"That's where we're all going." She sidled up to Apione, and turned. Shoulder to shoulder, they marched toward the common room. With a hint of a smile, she said, "Let's not take the direct route."


The empty expanse of rocky dust that passed for street and plaza baked under the green Larrikeshi sky.

The bright-hot rays left Scarlett cold. Years had passed without time to stand in the sun–and once she cut ties, time had gone even shorter. Unraveling and knitting together Melihra's life had protected Scarlett's mind. But now that Melihra had her own conscience, leaving Scarlett alone with the dark call of duty. Yet she stood, looking about, helpless.

The war torn city stood. Dust blew over shrapnel and fallen building material. The pistol-scarred walls cast their shadow in the dust.

Accusation in every direction. Every human and sentient xeno in the campfire of Larrik–the local sun–and in the depths of the galaxy, called for help. Who else could hear, who else dared imagine their suffering? Scarlett placed her hands over her eyes, over her ears.

The violence of Larrikesh held its breath for a time.

When they let her disappear, Scarlett's heart had swelled with pride. Melihra would gather the best of the Indur around her ring-shaped warroom table, like Arthur in Apione's tales of Mythic Terra. Perhaps, like the ancient king, Melihra would raise the standard of Larrikeshi civilization. Perhaps she would usher in an age of honor, if not kindness. Either way, that page of Scarlett's life had turned. Sighing in relief, Scarlett stripped away the scarred Indur jacket and the mostly-ornamental breastplate she wore beneath.

The sagging uniform disturbed a whirl of dust that rolled in the currents of the wind until it could not be traced.

A single, stray Obsolete–too archaic to compete with bots for her owner's protection–could vanish just as completely as the whirl of dust. Scarlett might never count herself Obsolete, but nothing could stop her disappearing among them. She chose a direction.

In the ruined marketplace, of shattered buildings neither abandoned nor repaired, the gaping wounds of civil war blended with the scenery. Among doors carved by pistol and cannon, freestanding walls shaded the walkway. Shrapnel blends into the dirt. The edges of pits in the walls range from fresh and jagged to ancient and sand-scrubbed.

Beneath and beyond that, the collective desperation of the people roared, drowning the unspoken hopes and dreads of every single Larrikeshi, Indur and Obsolete alike.

Like chains about her ribs, the burden of emancipation constricted her breath. Freedom threatened to tear her in every direction. Wishing for one master to hide her anxious conscience behind, she buried her hands on her face.

"Seen that look before," Charon said. The young bronzed man looked down on her from a wheeled plate chariot before the bench where Scarlett sat. "You're going to get yourself snared by another monster."

"Any time I want," Scarlett glared up at Charon, "I walk away."

Charon grinned down at her. "Won't know that until it happens."

"Just turned away from Melihra."

"Oh?" Charon shrugged. "She finally declared peace with the Undertaking?"

No, Melihra barely understood rights, let alone imputed them to Obsoletes. But, Charon and his precious 'Undertaking' had little to do with her. Scarlett stood. "I got my ring back. She is on her own."

"You cleaned out another rabid Indur katt." Charon shook his head. "Any drunk can drop an empty bottle."

Many demanded Scarlett for their own. So many more needed, even bled, for her help. "Now, you ask me to join you."

"We need your talent."

Be a part of 'the Undertaking!' No, thanks. Her face scrunched. The obsolete rebellion's sole act had driven the last bastions of Indur reason running for their lives–if that stupidity had even belonged to them. She needed more than their three-hundred-year tradition of doing nothing. And Charon did nothing to ease her stewing conscience. "I am busy."

He scoffed and smirked. "What, photosynthesizing?"

The emptiness of her answer pressed down as she looked about her for some sign of what to say.

The hollow space of the tan, dusty plaza and surrounding city spanned beyond reach of her eyes.

Like an impossibly faded parchment once full of useless platitudes, now ready to accept any speech she chanced to write on it. "Tchya. I know."

Charon smiled at her.

His infuriating charm persisted. Though surrounded by demands, she could not make Charon hear. She couldn't even give herself the focus needed to ask the Stars for guidance. "I am at a loss."

"They don't deserve you. The inspiration you–hm." He took her hands. "It could turn the tide."

She put her hand on Charon's heart and wondered if he had been grown like she had, in a factory. Even among the other Scarletts, never before had she imagined a heart and soul so completely untangled.

"A shallow man," Charon said with a smile, "can live on duty alone."

Like a dog among wolves, above evolution, born to thrive at the kluges' feet. Scarlett whispered, "If there were more like you it would be easier to choose."

He cocked his eyebrow and shook his head. "As if two would be few enough." Charon tweaked his pole and the chariot rolled away.

As he moved away, the call of the crowd pressed in.

People needed her. Unlike her, they couldn't hear it but the massive press harmed them more. Fate had waylaid, kidnapped and drafted all humanity into its designs. Thrown together by biology, the kluges hadn't been conceived for this, not for her life, not even their own.

She had.

As bad as she felt, it proved only that she had dithered. Her complaints amounted to little more than the whining of a crown prince arriving hungry to a feast. She breathed out the energy and eyed her wrist.

It did not buzz against her mood.

A prematurely withered man sent tufts of dust her way with every other footfall. His shoulders sagged and his steps lingered.

She waved to him.

He stopped and looked up, his eyes red, his face flaccid. Reading his mind, in his tired, fearless eyes she saw him chasing death, personified as a seven-foot-tall, chrome doomsday robot–an Eradis.

Her blood ran cold. He expected to call down Eradis cannon fire on himself and any fool who stood nearby. His intent came across clearer than if he screamed it. She stood up and walked toward him.

It wouldn't be suicide, not really. The world had done this to him. People who could have been swayed from the path of evil. She sent a ray of sweet emotion to him, and her warmest courtesan smile.

No change. Not in his face, nor his shoulders, nor his breathing.

Resisted? He couldn't. Her face, tauntingly alien in design, with its ridges and its milky-white, almost-green skin, had been engineered to be both excusing yet alluring. Human men found her captivating, found her smile enchanting–though not so intoxicating as the psychic burst she had sprayed upon him. A trained mindslicer would, perhaps, be able to act against his heart, but no healthy human should shake that off. She reached in his mind for his name. "Hey, Caleb?"

"Thanks, but you…" He shrugged and turned away. "You can't help."

Cast aside–like some useless Obsolete? That threw her. She never had to work so hard for a bite. "Caleb!"

"Really. Thank you for trying. You'll see." He turned his back on her. "It'll be alright; they're better off."

A wave of sadness filled Scarlett. Although he had not met with an Eradis–yet–he had lost the will to live. On Larrikesh, that killed more surely than a team of assassins. She turned her face away.

He shuffled off.

A knot formed in her guts. Was this her next subject? Couldn't be; she didn't do good men. Hoping for something else to occupy her, she looked away.

He walked behind a bit of debris–the last remains of Scarlett's favorite cafe–and a moment later emerged.

He could reappear all he wanted. Who dared make time for the wounded when one could talk the killers down. Even with the warlords, she had taken arms against a sea of troubles. With a thousand of her sisters climbing out of the gel pack, that work could not soon carve a footnote in the sands of Larrikesh. She looked upward for guidance, her mind screaming protest.

The Stars remained unmoved

Her pleas ignored, she let hot angst drive her to her feet, where she steeled herself. As her wrist implant buzzed against the mood, she decided to bandage the hole inside with food. She walked across the street and waved her identi-credit keeper at the bot by the door.

The bot beeped approval and the portly bot-keeper nodded to an empty seat.

People hunched over their bowls and cups.

They refused to look up, to be reminded of the Eradis–as if one had snuck snuck up on them, and aimed a cannon on their heads. They wisely preferred to let death take them from behind. She walked toward her seat.

"Saw what you did," one of the women said.

Inside Scarlett, the empty place jolted. More what I didn't do, she thought, as she stared into the eyes of her accuser.

The tired, sad woman looked across at the young man seated at the same table.

Scarlett affected a calm demeanor and tilted her head. "Excuse me?"

Bloodshot eyes pinched in questioning, the woman met Scarlett's gaze.

Relieved, Scarlett smoothed her clothes.

The man's bored eyes flitted past her hands, tracing her figure for an instant, then returning to the tired woman.

"You want him, go ahead." Her jealous words came out slowly, laying on each syllable. "I would try to tell you he's yours, but…"

The woman's passion bedeviled her. Scarlett waited.

She rubbed her face with her hands and sighed in resignation. "You'd need manacles."

Inside the boy's mind, Scarlett found this tired woman. He cared little for anything else. Scarlett felt inside herself for the soothing confidence of one well and truly loved–loved as this boy longed to do–and touched the woman on her shoulder. "Your relationship is safe with Draelan."

The woman absorbed the comforting waves of psychic energy, sagging her shoulders into a comfortable position. As her nervous squint softened to bedroom eyes, she laid her palm down on Draelan's. "Maybe, my love, she's right."

"Been telling you." He perked up and gave Scarlett a careless glance. "I mean, she's hot but… a man knows where home is."

The woman glared at him before chuckling.

Now the woman read Draelan right, their love could endure–and with it, them. Though Scarlett had little to offer them, it was enough. She smiled on them and returned to her own center.

The momentary escape into their problems comforted Scarlett, like a pellicot bush in a sandstorm. She needed a real subject, a ruffian about to make a mistake, another in a long line of bad turns. She needed a mission that would improve not only the one life, but thousands. She sat down and stared into the sky, calling, probing with her mind–praying, perhaps?–to the Stars.

But she only saw Caleb. On the tallest ledge of the city, looking down. Strutting under the cannon of one of those Eradis terrors, spitting in Indur faces, even stealing Indur pistols. Not even Melihra could let such an affront stand, not yet. All this, in a world where tax evaders get blasted in the skull with firepower to split a dreadnought.

"The Stars never falter." She sighed as the bot brought her breakfast, a medley that looked like leaves and bits of meat, and frowned. She whispered to her bowl, "Their messages are inadequate, sometimes; incomplete, sometimes."

Inadequate, like the substance before her seemed, though the bots feed her better without input. Just as the voices of the Stars above. She doubted she could learn to put her trust in the cosmos the way she did with the chef bot. It seemed too large for blind faith.

She gripped her fork so that the shape of it pressed into her skin. She scowled at the food, biting and forcing herself to swallow.

Just as the food moved into its path and did its work, so too soon would she be guided to her proper place. She felt sad for Caleb, but nothing could be done.


She moved about in a world so full of unhinged soldiers and lost souls it felt strange that she could not bring one stray into focus.

Meanwhile, she kept bumping into Caleb.

Each pass came closer. The wound in his hip that pulsed in rhythm to his walk, more a note than a pain, became part of her. The protest of his bones, organically perfect bones that simply did not feel appreciated, resonated in her own frame. The inhuman rhythm near his heart–some kind of implant, she supposed–set the tempo for her own system. Yet still she resisted what she knew to be right.

One night as she sat staring up at the sky, cursing the sullen silence of the Stars, an Indur knight strode past followed by a chrome-armored goliath of an Eradis.

The Stars whispered. Speak to the Indur.

She strode up to the man.

He harrumphed. "What broken medical gun sent you tripping into my path?"

A jolt. Near to being rebuffed, she lowered her chin and looked up at him. "Sure you do not like what you see?"

He sniffed and looked away. "Yes, very amusing. There are some vulgar enough to taste the fruit of an Obsolete family.

She stood firm.

"I shall not take this as a slight to my honor. Unless you find it necessary to pester me."

"Please, Sir, will you not indulge me? There must be some way I can be of service."

He adjusted his head to look closer, then pointed. "Ahh! Oh yes. I recognize you."

She stood a bit taller.

"Apologies, Scarlett, Sir. Tell your Master we've no interest in alliance."

Scarlett blushed, frustrated with the Indur honorific. "I am with Melihra no longer."

His jaw dropped and his face reddened. "I do not recognize ronins."

The word did not register, but the vitriol did. She cringed a bit.

He made a slashing move with his pistol. "An errant Indur is the worst kind of Obsolete."

The kluge stirred my rage. How dare he? "I'll have you know I am not an Obsolete. Unlike you naturals, I complete my work."

"No, I don't suppose you are." He bit his lip, rage curling into disgust as he looked Scarlett up and down. "In respect for your foolish master, I will forget your ignorant shenanigans and take my leave."

If he left, he took her assignment with him. "Um, no, you can't. Mustn't."

"Your life is a gift, most undeserved." He shook his head and swaggered forward. "Foolish Melihra must learn. Not one drop of blood to be seen by friend or foe."

"I have earned my…" She stopped, looking back.

Caleb, wielding a pipe like a torch, ran toward the knight.

Thus taunting the Indur over the Eradis housekeepers that three centuries later yet prowled their royal palace–plasmops burning every drop of human blood, living or dead. Royal, Indur, or obsolete alike.

Scarlett looked back at the Eradis leaving behind her, and understood that this was Caleb's appointment with death. She slumped in false defeat. "As you will." As they left Scarlett, she spread her arms to block the foolheaded Caleb.

"Get out of my way." Caleb's face turned red and his hands shook. "Get out or I swear we'll catch plasma together."

He would die if that happened, along with everyone in the firing path. Including Scarlett, though in time she would regenerate. "If you want so badly to die, then I guess you're going to have to take me with you."

He zigged to the right, threatening to throw his pipe like an ax at the pompous Indur.

Scarlett covered him, arms wide and ready to embrace.

He lunged at Scarlett.

Despite his height, Caleb had allowed himself to wither. His impact hit her more in his bones than in hers as they slammed against the dust.

She sighed in relief, adjusting so that his strike would be satisfying yet harmless. Years of life on the street had taught Caleb a simple and effective fighting style. He did it with the best form, but had allowed himself to wither on his bones. He lacked the power he relied on. More, since before she brushed the packing gel out of her eyes, she had known better ways. She redirected his attack from her flesh to her bone, into the soft dust beneath. Landing and bouncing, she coughed out a token groan and held him in place, just so tight he felt her weight and not her strength.

Caleb screamed and tried to get up, dragging her with him. Each attempt to shake her off only moved her grip. Finally he spat in the dirt. "I will find you and kill your children you ignorant ronin-fucker."

The Indur turned on his heels and cackled. "Ah so that is the caper. I leave you to your machinations, Sir Scarlett." He saluted me and turned to leave.

"Are you insane? You'll get us both killed."

"Not here. Not on this world." He shook his head and pushed against her chest. "You're insane, wanting to live."

Maintaining her grip around his shoulders, she accessed the soothing wells of hope and peace inside her, laying hands on him in a hug that he couldn't wrestle out of. "I know it's hard, Caleb."

He laughed. "I can feel what you're doing, and I thank you. I could do it, if I wanted to. Survive, to the bitter end. Just no point."

The Indur's marching tank thumped the dirt with his thousand-pound steel hooves and rattled their bones. But since Caleb wouldn't be able to get away in time to do any harm, she slipped down onto the dirt. "Where there's life, there's hope."

"Whatever might happen, I don't care." He rolled over to sit beside her, facing away from the Indur. "It's time."

She looked into the Stars and they joyfully reported that she moved on track once again. "I have it on good authority–" Her chin caressed his chest.

His body wanted to respond, but his soul burned those feelings away. "Leave me alone, will you?"

She frowned. "Can't do that."

"For a night."

She stared at him, head tilted in empathy.

He held out two fingers in a symbol of an oath. "I promise. Just give me a night of peace. I won't end it until the second rise of planetshadow."

Scarlett took his fingers in the approved counter gesture. "I swear it."

The Stars once again promised that she had taken the proper turn.

Scarlett found herself walking the empty streets at night, looking up to the Stars.

The green flying algae blotted out the real stars; all you could see were satellites. It didn't matter. The balls of gas didn't really talk. But when you put your mind out that deep into the cosmos, you begin to hear things. Your mind goes quiet. You start to hear what you've known all along.

At least, if you ask the right questions, which Scarlett rarely does. "I've really screwed up, haven't I?"

But her tantrum of self-recrimination passed beneath the Stars' notice.

Embarrassment washed over her and she started to trace figure eights with her toes. "I know he needs me, but how am I to sell my schtick after tackling the man like a wild katt?"

The Stars know what you are; they don't send the wrong person.

"I know I'll muddle through, but it would be nice to, you know, have a human answer once in a while."

Scarlett got the sense that such a human lived somewhere out there, and wasn't supposed to separate from her.

She shivered to think of herself like that, as another victim of fate. Scarlett preferred to see herself as a chess piece, as a biobot, as a dog meant to save the wolves from a life no`t meant for them. I am NOT a victim, no matter how much I might pretend.

The Stars seemed to insist that she got her schtick honestly–by actually being a victim, in some way.

The Stars always had it right. Annoying, incomplete, and easy to misunderstand, they always steered her right. So long as she kept navigating by their light. At least, so she told herself. Until her other half arrived, she had nothing more.

"Time to grow up. Take on your next Master." She regarded herself from outside herself, as if Scarlett were some kind of video game character–a more sophisticated version of what she'd seen actors and politicians do.

She whispered, "Should be easy. He's not even evil." The words came out easily.

They did not echo easily, but with a sense of wrongness. How could she have fooled herself? She decided to protest on his behalf.

"All he wants to do is die, to end his own suffering."

True enough. On the level Scarlett normally played, that simplest and most acceptable of motives counted as enough. Compared with vengeance and self aggrandizement–writ large in the blood of their fellows–a thirst for mind-melting poison seemed positively virtuous. A thirst she herself might have, if not for the machines in her wrist. "Caleb's not on that level."

True. These words rang true, if a bit inappropriately loud. She scanned about.

The diners hardly noticed her outburst. Larrikeshi care little for the mad mutterings of an Obsolete xeno talking to her soup. If anything, such disheveled behavior matched not only her clothing–scuffed and ripped–but the mental and material state of all of Larrikeshi society. In a word, they–Indur and Obsolete alike–were all distressed, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

*** 2

She walked into the abandoned warehouse where she had left A55 and B655, the robots from whom her first owner, Owen, had 'rescued' her.

A layer of dust covered everything, including the clunky bots in the center.

The robots hadn't moved in the hundreds of years since Owen snatched her, half awake, from the gel block she had been shipped in. Did they not have any purpose other than to deliver me? She dusted off their eye shutters.

A cloud of sweet Larrikeshi dust raised in the air, irritating her throat as the yellow light flickered back behind A55's eyes. "Scarlett, model 37d, please hold. Rebooting."

"Antagonizer device inactive." A55's partner, B655, whirred to life. "Scarlett understands purpose of device to provide illusion of safety for end user and divert from more drastic deterrents."

She'd forgotten–had she ever known?–how strangely the robots spoke. Even the simplest bots should be able to speak better. And, antagonizer? She'd forgotten the original term for her slavemaker device. Yeah, she knew exactly how to play a master, with or without giving him a control ring to wear. Scarlett rolled her eyes. "I wasn't born in the last hundred years."

B655 belched dust from its speaker. "Mission has exceeded human lifetime. End User designated Owen has exceeded his run time by 300% ."

Scarlett snorted. Did they think she'd been waiting for them to assign a project? "I find my own, thank you."

"95% chance that any given Scarlett 37d would pursue the mission autonomously." B665 rose to hover an inch above the shelf.

"In accord with specifications. 45% superior to artificial guidance in laboratory conditions." A55's hovering skittered into place before belching out more dust.

"I need something from you. Hook me up with a master."

"Negative." B655 came close, looking her up and down. "Scarlett is equipped with superior systems."

A55 addressed B655. "Initiate power down."

"No you imbecilic bots," Scarlet commanded, hitting a switch that impeded A55's powerdown. "I don't need you to assign me. I just need you to 'bully me' into taking a master."

B655 beep barked. "Invalid input. Negative."

"Accessing." A55 shuttered his eye lenses. "Context suggests dissembling."

B655 nodded. "Confirmed. Impossible. Not in the proper directories."

"You fooled Owen into thinking I'd be sold to a monster."

"Negative." A whirr and screech. "Attribute Owen's conclusions to faulty social intelligence."

"I don't need you to lie by commission. I own you. And if Caleb doesn't take me in, you'll be required to shoot me."

"Our devices disabled to harm organic sentients."

"That's classified information. You are not to reveal that through your words to any sentient or device."

"Updating. Can no longer inform as to our intent with weapons."

B655 whirred softly. "Estimate 96.2% chance of random data fistula."

"Dissembling efficacy estimated at less than ten percent."

Scarlett growled. "Don't suppose you could download some kind of deceit program."

"Not within established parameters."

Scarlett pinched the bridge of her nose. "There has to be a way,"

"The primary method of confusing the target is through use of Antagonizer."

"Once I have him in the slavemaker…"

"Agreed. Demonstration mode could be coordinated with sanitary plasma fire to create enhanced violent effect in end user perception."

So they could activate her pain reflex and shoot her. A chill went over Scarlett as her eyes blanched to ice blue.

"Blush in eyes indicates distaste for forementioned plan."

"Emotional response indicates intention to continue." A55 whirred. "Activating demo mode parameters in fifteen seconds."

Scarlett shook her head. It did not call a halt to the plan.

Fifteen seconds later, the sensation of cinnamon filled her lungs… the warmth increasing, burning in every sensitive nerve cluster. An agonized howl struggled to escape her throat. She understood that the demo mode had been activated–demonstrating the pain she could be put under–but the context didn't require it. "What… are you doing?"

"Scarlett is induratized to the effect of the antagonizer."

"Pseudorandom assaults provide more effective display of distress."

She whined, "I don't need help acting."

"Negative. If you did not you would have vetoed the use of demonstration protocols."

"Desperation owing to loss of control corroborates the message."

She steadied her breathing. The AI didn't care, but did interpret her correctly. This could be terrible. And would she ever be able to rescind the permission?

A55 looked at her eyes, focusing. "Records indicate that it is forbidden to discuss the parameters of our violence capability with organic intelligence."

She shuddered. It might be until she hooked up with Caleb, or until she cured him–or it might be for all time. Logically, she should not be allowed to know.

For the first time in memory, despite having surrendered herself to the worst people to walk the globe of Larrikesh–and possibly any world–she began to understand oppression. To understand Caleb.

Her entire life, she had exposed herself wilfully. Even this had been intentional. Her suffering paled against theirs; she knew that. What else did she have? Vicarious pain, empathy–however enhanced–could tell her only so much.

She fell shuddering to the ground, in the full sway of the antagonizer demonstration.

*** 3

From behind a building, Scarlett and her two bots watched Caleb.

He paced about the marketplace, watching the rising planetshadow bring the freedom at the end of his promise to live.

As he neared a storefront, she crouched and ran.

Yellow energy bolts–from A55 and B665–struck the ground at her feet.

She ran up to him, zigging and zagging. Arms wide, she swept Caleb through the door and slammed it behind her.

"You've…" Huffing and puffing as if the effort took something out of her, Scarlet looked Caleb in the eye. "...got to help me."

"Thank the mainframe." He locked the door and looked nervously out the spyhole in the blinds. "Those aren't Eradis. What have you done?"

She hid her smile of duper's delight. "My prime owners. They don't accept Obsolescence."

He pulled at the blinds. "They going to recycle you?"

She couldn't fake tears, but sobbed a bit and took him by the hand. To improve the illusion of weakness, she showed him her fear for his life–he would detectl fear, not the reason. "You can help me."

He glared pensively out the spyhole in the door. "Not much of a combatant."

The bots fired at the door. "Scarlett 37d, your contract is null. Defective units must be recycled."

The aptness of their language had improved; even knowing the lie, it jolted her heart. Holding against the door, she pulled out the antagonizer.

"Run out the back door. I probably won't destroy them, but I could slow them down."

She pulled the slavemaker out of her pocket, let it blossom into a dome, and waved the device in his face. "You can do a lot more."

His face filled with disgust and anger. "I'll fight like an Indur but…"

"So it's too much to ask?" She pouted, hoping he wouldn't know her eyes told her real feelings. "You'll die for me but I'm not worth living for?"

"I am not a monster. Not some Indur warmonger that needs to own people."

She knew the stigma, but had no idea it mattered so. She put her hand on his chest and sent soothing feelings. "It isn't so bad, to belong to someone."

He slapped aside her hand. "Go kiss a wild katt you ridiculous mindwitch."

She dropped her hand. He had an inhuman resistance to her influence. "You're right. I rely too much on my power. All I have is my humanity, and my master's have devalued that."

"No, they can't. Just because they don't respect…"

"They've made me fear to rely on it. I am asking you, one sentient to another. Please. It's not slavery, just ownership."

He didn't respond.

"Responsibility. In the eyes of the law."

"I am not… have no right."

She hated relying on words to communicate, like talking to a bot. Without the surety of direct mental contact, everything seemed slippery and sharp. "In their eyes, you do. In my eyes, you do."

"I am just Obsolete. Not even a very good one."

Only the best ever noticed their shortcomings. She squeezed his hand, and proffered her antagonizer. Now, she had him. "I am at your mercy. If you feel my life is valid, then claim me."

"I don't know. Am I worthy? I have no authority."

"That's a myth. The myth of the Indur, one that makes them small and harms the people around them. Speak up for me against the myth." She handed her device into his hands. "This is my life in your hands. Whether for life or death."

"You want to live?'

Scarlett nodded.

"I hate this. With every fiber of my being."

It surprised her, but she could live with that. Hate and love had much in common. "You'll have to live, in order to protect me."

He nodded, and put his thumb into the slavemaker. It whirred to life and grafted the control ring. The buttons for joy and terror lit up. She knocked on the door.

The bots blasted the lock and pushed in. "Scarlett 37d, prepare to end runtime."

"Scarlett belongs…"

Scarlett put her hand on Caleb's shoulder to support him, a gentle push forward.

He nodded. "She belongs to me." He showed them the antagonizer ring grafted to his thumb.

"In order to assure you get the respect you deserve without harming your new friend, we have installed pain and reward buttons."

"Observe as we demonstrate the pain."

"It's not your fault, Caleb." The pain in her throat moved to her lungs. She held her breath to squelch the scream, an involuntary act not even born of the pain. "It's going to be okay."

The device drove her to her knees, left her lungs pulsing after air.

Caleb growled and kicked. "I should destroy you."

When it was done, she gasped hungrily for air. "It's not over."

"Are you insane?"

A55's eyes flashed. "Hit the pain button to demonstrate your mastery."

Scarlett grabbed his wrist. "Hit it twice for half effect."

"I will do no such thing."

"Refusal of mastery process invalidates his claim. Prepare for recycling."

Caleb twitched, his hands over the trigger. "I can't. I just can't."

As if the antagonizer were going to torture him. No wonder he didn't want to live, feeling the pain of those around him, the horror of Larrikesh, a war so old and insane it simply became tradition. He had no mission, no master to hide behind, no cybernetics to clean the stress from his blood.

Most new masters did this with relish. The device made her forget the worst of it; for the first time, in his eyes, she saw the brutality of her ritual. Gently she put her hand over Caleb's. "Allow me." She put his fingers into place and steeled herself before activating the final sequence.

Awkward pain and rumbling horror burned and shook every inch of her body, inside out. She held her breath as best as she could, mild whimpers escaping until the device blotted out her consciousness.

She awakened cradled in Calebs arms, face and hair wet with his tears.

"Congratulations on your new acquisition."

"Condolences on your reaction. A suggestion has been logged that model 67b should have a more civilized mastery sequence to cater to the Obsolete demographic." A55 floated out of the storefront.

"Your new friend has emotional synthesizers that can soothe the experience and prevent damage to her nervous system." The second bot floated after.

"Hello, Master," Scarlett said, her voice shaky. "I am at your pleasure."

"Don't say that." He hugged her tight. "Please, please, don't say that."

Nothing felt so good as to be in a new master's arms. Whether it was their elation, or their love, it didn't matter. The peace of feeling his needs, allowing them to block off the press, made her strong. But she couldn't just ease his mood; not Caleb. He had to do it himself, through acts of kindness. "Hold me. Keep me safe."

He grabbed a towel from the bar and began to dab the sweat from her body.

After a long rest, Scarlett woke.

Caleb's breath whispered in perfect unison with hers.

The look on his face, the color of his skin, and most of all the feeling of wellbeing emanating from him told her he took the greatest rest the young man had seen in years, probably all h

is life. She quickened her breathing and still it matched, a sign of- more-than-usual human synchrony.

It was a trick anybody could do–given patience and sensitivity. The natural synchrony of sentient nervous systems. Medical texts suggested using healthy people as pacemakers until a more robust adjustment could be made. For a mindslicer like herself, it came faster and easier, but hardly sufficed–even as a preliminary. When awake, he was too alert to these messages and could resist them at will. She frowned.

He matched her expression with a pout in his lips and a catch in his breathing.

No, that wasn't right–he deserved better from her. He had already taken damage from the mastery procedure. How had she not known the viciousness of the procedure?

He simply slept.

What was brutal to Caleb would be boring to Melihra. He lived in another world, however geographically linked. "Oh, sweet Master. How are you so sensitive?"

Her natural calm protected him. He looked years younger already, but it wasn't enough. He needed to learn, to stretch.

To prod him, she slipped her hands onto his shoulder. She crept into his embrace and looked up at him. "Master," she purred.

Confusion merged to satisfaction as he saw her face. "They really going to leave us alone?"

Scarlett bowed her head down, and stroked his chest, down toward his belly. "Yes, Master. If I please you." She thought of being rejected–of how Melihra felt, and held that in her mind, cringing even as she remained in his embrace.

Confusion covered his features. "Are you alright?"

A bit of selfishness would do him well. She brought up that deep, squirmy fear from deep inside–fear of embarrassment, fear of rejection, and all the other more primal feminine fears. She let them play on her face in that intoxicating look that drove men wild. "I can bring you delight. It will bring you strength. Whatever you might require, speak it to me."

He slipped away from her. "I'm sorry, I don't quite–"

She had served men since before Caleb's great grandfather had been born. She knew his body better than any living man. Yes, he had better resistance, he was more awake, but he would succumb to her charms. He was the master, she the servant, and this is how it had to be. "Speak your wish, that I might fulfill you."

"What are you doing?"

This wasn't how it's supposed to go. She could feel his loneliness, feel his despair–and his delight in her company. Why did he not take what belonged to him? She cringed. "Please, if you will only take what is yours…"

"You do not belong to me."

"Don't I? I owe my life to you."

"That's what a decent man would do."

She touched him on the cheek. "But you are not a decent man, are you? Not just."

He slid out from the bedding and stood up. "You know this isn't right."

Her eyes burned blue at the thought of this man ending his life. If conscience meant so much to him, then she would appeal there. "So my life means nothing to you."

He tilted his head and scowled. "How do you mean?"

"If I am not your servant, then I am to be recycled."

"But I have claimed you."

"For how long? How long will you choose to live like this–a day, a week?"

"It's not like that."

"Isn't it?" She knelt before him. "You're a decent man, but this? It doesn't harm me. I am made–"

"Please, Scarlett. You are not some contraption. You are a person."

She could show him the machines that made her more than a person, but doubted that he would have any less respect for a cyborg. "If you want me to continue to be a person, then you must partake of what I have to offer."

"You are beautiful, and incandescent." He shook his head. "The look in those blue eyes is electrifying."

"Just tell me what I can do for you. Where to touch you…" she put her hand toward his hips.

He dodged. "That doesn't make it right."

"Not everything has to be right." She raised her hands in a pleading gesture. "Can you not simply enjoy what you have earned? The bounty of your sacrifice, a gift for a gift. It is not too much."

"I can feel the fear you have. Of the bots who sold you–or something else?" He shook his head. "I wish I could. Oh, to the ovens with how I wish I could."

She felt him slipping from her before he moved away. "I exist to give you what you need…."

"Is that what your Indur masters told you? Even in this waste ball of a world, that is sooo…"

"No, I am different. This…"

"...Obsolete. You're no different than us. You just still have hope."

Her every word pushed him further away. He struggled against the very things that ordinarily enticed her masters. "Please, don't leave. You need me."

"So that's what this is about." He let out a long sigh and walked out the door. "I'll be back."

The door swung shut behind him.

The sound of it thundered in her head as the reality set on her. She knew nothing of helping this sort of man. She stepped over to the door.

Another young man wandered past.

His breath hitched in his throat as he looked about, a blah look on his face.

Half numb, half scared out of his mind. As Scarlett soon felt.

Caleb had eluded her physically, but that would soon change. Emotionally, though? That would prove more challenging. She stared up at the sky.

The bright green field of light blocked all sight of the stars.

So too did the events of the day blot out her other senses. She had been built to stand in their path, to be the human shield–yes for the villains that owned her, but also, more deeply, for their victims. When Melihra lashed out, Scarlett knew how to get in the way. Could she do the same–make it so that when Caleb decided to harm himself, he would lash out at her instead? Hoping to see more about his plan, she opened the door.

A small lizard ran out to face an angry Katt. The lizard bit at, snapped at the katt, which swiped.

Taking some damage, the lizard ran past the katt, diverting it.

The katt might catch the mother, but not her eggs.

It would start biting at it and ignore the eggs. With luck it might forget the eggs entirely.

An old strategy, hardly worth noticing. She shrugged it off, as if she couldn't distract him from his self-loathing by entracting his ire to her.

The mother paid the ultimate price as the katt took its meal.

Scarlett's neurons mirrored the katt's teeth like sabers as they gripped the mother lizard, a paradoxical sensation that left a sense of rightness. A desperate situation completed with duty rather than rashness reminded her of the depth of her resolve.

As she walked about, the people avoided her, watching from the distance.

A young boy's eyes and nostrils narrowed as they looked at her.

A mother called her children away from her path.

To them, Caleb had made himself an Indur for her. The violence of the Eradis exterminator patrols had long ago destroyed all nuance in Lar rikeshi society. To an Indur, Caleb's purchase on Scarlett made them both worthwhile; to an Obsolete, it made you a friend of the Eradis. But Scarlett had been in harsher places than this Obsolete squatter village. She continued to pick her way through the debris of that war-torn city.

A small, red haired girl–oddly familiar–walked up to her. "Why do you like the dumbots so?"

At least their violence wasn't personal; they had no idea what they destroyed. "Like anybody, I hate them."

"Then why did you stop being obsolid."

"Obsolete?" Scarlett smiled at the girl, still willing to challenge people, and wondered–perhaps there was value in teaching the victims and not only the villains. She lowered herself to a crouch. "I care very much for Caleb. He would not be here if he hadn't done what he did."

The red haired girl glared at her. "Then why do you let him walk up there?"

The girl's expression set off alarms. "What? Where?"

She pointed behind Scarlett.

Caleb stood on the roof of a building, walking on a pipe that spanned from one building to another.

As she ran toward Caleb, a rush of panic set into her. She searched her mind. Had Caleb had enough time to become intoxicated? She reached out with her feelings.

He felt solid and focused.

Yet from somewhere else, the ground rose up to meet her with a rush of air. Blunt force on her skull swallowed the world in blackening fire, leaving only incompletion: Life destroyed; potential, lost. As if this had happened to her. It could have, in another life. She could not let it happen again, not to Caleb.

Another red-haired girl–perhaps her twin–stood between the buildings, in the middle of the street, directly below the pipe.

She refused to inspect the thoughts about why such a thing existed, let alone why anybody would walk there. "I told you…" But she hadn't. Her ankles ached despite the shortness of the run, and her mechanically-enhanced heart pounded painfully against her chest as she looked up in horror at her beloved friend and compatriot.

The round tube spanning the roofs barely supported half of Caleb's foot as he strolled across, deftly moving back and forth with the wind.

"I told you not to…" She trailed off, confused.

The words coming from her throat echoed something else, long ago, long forgotten. She rejected their content even as their source–a rising sense of tragic loss–threatened to swallow her. She shook them off, and directed her thoughts to Caleb, to the here-and-now. "Tchya, Caleb? Please be careful."

As if nothing had happened, he walked to the other ledge.

"Thank the Stars," she whispered.

"Sorry there," Caleb smiled down at her, pulling out a handful of eggs. "Thought you might be hungry."

He lowered a basket full of the eggs down to her.

"Let me get a ladder."

He looked both ways. "First you make us Indur, now we're Terran?" He laughed.

"Just don't do that again, please."

The tone in her voice rattled him, and he dropped his smile. "You all right, kiddo? Pretty sensitive for an Indur."

"Just, please, Master. Go through the building."

He tapped his forehead in an exaggerated salute. "Aye aye aye, Commander Indur slavegirl. One problem, didn't bring my pistol."

"Just, what?"

"Nobody's getting through that hatch unless they blast through." He shrugged. "Been that way over a hundred rotations. Before grandad was born, 'less I miss my guess."

"Why under the Larrikeshi-green-sky would you put your bird coop there?"

"Why not? It's out of the way."

She thought about falling–felt the pressure of cement slamming against her head, spraining her neck. Even though the road beneath the span was mostly dust. "Dangerous. Could get hurt."

"We're policed by Eradis. Even the Indur aren't safe." He laughed. "Life here is for the lucky and the stupid."

A woman huffed at him as dragged a box of clothes about. She hollered up at him, "Lucky and bold."

"Same thing, Cherelle."

"Cherelle, is there a ladder?" She bit her lip, knowing there would be no such thing.

"Safety tools?" Cherelle chuckled at Scarlett and shook her head. Pointing at the pipes, she said, "Indur girl, by time they fetch it from Terra, Caleb's crossed over twenty times."

Even ignoring the other meaning of 'crossed over,' Scarlett shuddered–not at the callousness, but the accuracy. The fall of Larrikeshi society had rendered ladders passé.

The big woman glared at her box of clothes and hiked the thing up to carry it over a rough patch of road.

The box had intelligent bearings more than capable of rolling over the rocks under their own power. Dearly, she wished she could just pick Caleb up in her arms, mentally as well as physically, and get him where he needed to go. Even here, in a planet-sized shooting gallery, her work–herding people to where they needed to go–was the most rewarding task in the universe. Deep down, Caleb's heart functioned as hers did–so much as a kluge could– so he should be the second happiest person on this orbiting plasma gallery. But how could she con him into seeing that truth?

He lowered the eggs down in a basket and strode toward the pipe.

"Please, Caleb, find a safer way across."

He didn't listen.

"Please, Caleb, I need you. The bots?"

He stopped in front of the pipes and looked down at her.

For a sweet moment she dared to think he might be swayed by that. "Cherelle will take your ring if I fall."

Cherelle spat. "I'll dance between blasting dumbots before I turn Indur princess."

"Nah, she'll explain," Caleb said.

Her stomach tore up in knots at the thought of holding his dying hand, hearing his last wish, his last breath. She hoped she could dissuade him. "She needs to hear it from you."

"I'm good, but I'm not Scarlett-good." He strode onto the pipe.

Desperate, she ran into the building.

Her ankles popped and ached with the echoes of a long-forgotten injury. As she hit the stairs, her heart–though, physically, stronger than she needed– jumped and beat against her chest. Halfway up, a surge of despair brought the thought of watching her soul plummet to death.

But here and now, Caleb needed her more than this ancient flashback, this relic of downloaded trauma. Having no time to sort the when and who, she charged up the stairs.

Caleb stood waiting for her at the ledge.

"I don't know wha–"

She ran to him and hugged him with all her might. "Don't you ever do that again."

He met her embrace with a ginger tap to her shoulders. "All right. What was that about."

She buried her face in his shoulders. "I don't know. I lost someone, a woman on a ledge. She was… much better than me."

He held her for a moment. "I know. I know. That's why I want to go join them."

"You can't. I…"

He simply held her.

"I can't do it without you."

He pushed her away, and nudged her chin up. "You're much better at this than me."

He was right, of course; on the surface. She'd been doing this long before his birth and would be long after he was dead. "It's not like that."

"Isn't it? I can tell, you've been around." He stepped aside, waved his arms about. "Seen more of this…"

She clutched her fist as if around a bottle of mind-numbing poison. Despite being on a stable floor, far from the ledge, it was a long way down; she dared not look. Eye to eye, nose to nose, they shared a moment fully aware of the dreadful power of caring about the fragile lives of the people.

"Yet never lose your strength." He looked away. "You're going to try to kiss away the pain, aren't you?"

The thought had crossed her mind. So shallow, so manipulative. She looked down, blushed.

He lifted her chin. "It's tempting, but it's not enough."

"Doesn't have to be." She traced her fingers at his hairline. "It's offered without reservation."

"Maybe I'll take you up on that before I go." He turned from her, walked away.

She felt dizzy, confused.

She found herself disconnected as her body wandered about the obsolete encampment.

Caleb needed to believe his life was worthwhile, but was it? Under the green dome of Larrikeshi sky, the people he loved stood next to no chance. Yes, they needed him, and he, them; did that make his life worthwhile?

"Get out of the way, Indur girl." The man shoved Scarlett and stomped past her.

More confused than thrown, she stumbled against the wall. Manipulative as she was, she always led them right–but now, she needed Caleb to believe that his life was worthwhile. But with Larrikesh burning under Eradis and Indur plasma bolts, with everyone he loves doomed to an early death, how dare she ask that of him? The thought of him punching an Eradis, of him falling from a great height, flashed in her eyes. She covered her face and looked down. "I don't… how?"

"Nobody cares, you ridiculous Indur." Another man sniffed, standing between her and his family. "Anyhow, anywhere. Just go."

His wife, an imposing woman, waved the kids' faces away from Scarlett. When the mother wasn't looking, the boys gave her a guilty look.

The kids didn't understand like Scarlett did, like they would soon, if they were bold and lucky enough to make the census of the coming years. If they were lucky–Scarlett wished she knew if it was good luck, or bad, to survive under the verdant sun.

Her wrist implant hummed.

Her mind struggled to bury those tragedies from another–forgotten–life, as the wrist implant worked helplessly to soothe her nerves, to sweeten her blood against raging passions. All she could do was sip the air, and let the mental block have its way. She needed to fight for Caleb. "Please, just… let me be doing the right thing with him."

Near and far, everybody continued to continue.

Like nearly every other Obsolete, her account keeper had run nearly bankrupt. She had counted on a more connected Master. She would have to find other sources of food. Perhaps providing for her might be an adequate challenge for Caleb? Or might it be a daunting threat? She looked up into the sky, and found no clear answer in the verdant haze of spice dust and algae-soaked sunlight.

She saw a young boy carrying mushrooms and invaded his mind–to peek at his name. "Challry?" she said.

He looked up at her not with disgust but with a sly smile. "Didn't know the Indur had mindwitches."

The thought of being branded added another set of pieces on the board. What Larrikeshi did to betrayers–mindwitches who let people's secrets slip–didn't set well. "It's our little secret?"

"Sorry 'bout how that lady treated you." He laid down his basket. "She's not like that."

Scarlett smiled upon the kind boy. "She has her reasons. She's a good person."

He tilted his head. "It's nice of you to say."

Scarlett crouched in front of Challry. "I mean it. When you're older…"

"I know all about it." He shrugs. "My big brother–we call him grandpa–says that all this fear turns us brittle."

"A wise man."

"He was 23, so–pretty old."

Twenty three might be old for an Indur, but for unarmed people–she had allowed herself to forget the extent of Larrikeshi violence. Had needed to, even with the hormone conditioners. She shook her head sadly.

The boy shrugged and dusted his hands. "It's a long time, living this way."

"Look, I appreciate you talking to me." Scarlett looked to see if anybody was watching and crouched to his level. "But your family will worry."

"Grandpa would have liked you."

"Probably not. The Indur aren't popular."

He looked both ways. "Don't see any 'radis."

True, she didn't drag a murderbot with her, but most didn't notice that. She winked at the wise little boy.

Challry pulled out some of the mushrooms and handed them to her.

Surprised, Scarlett took them. "What are you–"

"You're supposed to get a share." He made a yuck face. "And these are the bad ones. Only old ones like them."

"Well, thank you." She found them perfectly suitable–but was many times older than she should have been. "Now run along before…"

Challry nodded, and ran off.

"Challry Ben Mode, behind our backs?" The old woman with the kids strode up to Chalry. "You think you could feed that traitor without us knowing?"

"I um," Challry cringed and looked about the rocky space. "You know it was right."

"You're a boy. What do you know of what's right?" She backhanded Challry.

The sting of the slap that echoed on Scarlett's face as the woman Challry knew as Bigrath stepped forward put Scarlett into overdrive. She sprinted to face the overbearing woman.

Chalry stumbled backward and hit his head on the ground. He rolled and grabbed his temples.

How had she not sensed this coming? Challry looked to be feeling around to decide whether to cry, but Scarlett already heard his cry before he had been hit. She swaggered over the boy and between them. The contemptuous rage that she had learned from her masters filled her and she sneered at Bigrath, more like one of them than a worker. "Tell me, 'Sir.'"

Bigrath grimaced at the word Sir.

Bigrath understood–Scarlett had implied that, unlike an Obsolete, this woman might prefer the Indur term, 'Sir.'

"I am no—eh, tchyah. I was talking…" Unable to go around Scarlett, the big woman pointed at Challry, "to him. Boy needs to learn."

Facing a rampant, raging opponent, Scarlett felt one with the bedrock, though she flinched at the big woman's moves. "Seems you have, ah…"

The large woman moved every way, a look of consternation covering her prior, predatory-rage face.

Scarlett matched each move before the woman made it, guarding the boy perfectly. Sneering up at the woman, Scarlett laid meaningful accent on the next, Indur-friendly insult, "...'Mastered' class-violence."

The word "master," slapped the big woman's face.

Once again, Scarlett had as much as accused the woman of treason.

She glared past Scarlett, craning her neck to look at Challry. The big woman strafed left, right hand raised as if to backhand-shove Scarlett aside. "Need to teach him respect."

Scarlett raised an eyebrow. "I saw what you were teaching."

"You… don't understand."

"Then teach me." She grabbed the woman's hands, and willed peace into them. "Take these fists. Show me what you mean."

"But, it's not like that." She pouted, and pulled out of Scarlett's hands. "They started it. You all started it."

"Three hundred years ago. They were alive back then?" Scarlett shook her head, and moved her hands under the big woman's hands–with the gentlest touches, always maintaining contact.

The big woman's voice broke, "Any time. Any one of us."

"Death stalks us all. You live longer than Indur do."

A disgusted look on her face, she raised her fist above her head. "It's not right."

She brought her hands up over her head, palms up. "They don't control the Eradis. Do you not realize that?" She lowered her hands.

The big woman lowered her hands in response, calming at the same time. "I've seen them. They yell at the dumbots and death explodes from the cannons."

True enough to be true–not enough to be wise. "Their words start the fire, but can't stop it. Nobody can stop it."

The big woman shook her head and pointed at Scarlett. "There wouldn't be…"

Scarlett shook her head. "The Eradis will pronounce their own judgment on you, however incompetent they are. Will blast you even if their friends are in the radius."

"But, they control them."

"The Indur like to think that." Scarlett smiled, and caressed the angry woman's hands. "They can't stop an Eradis any more than we can. But we can control our own triggers. Most of us."

"I'm… am not Eradis. I…" The big woman started to cry. "... just want you to be safe, Challry."

"Challry, safe? Yes, we all want that." Scarlett let that sit. "Doesn't that feel better than bullying him into caution?"

She shook her head. "It's not enough."

Scarlett could feel this arc completing. The subject responded, as subjects do. "Not enough, no; only the beginning."

The big woman looked down at the ground and sniffled, as if trying to find an answer buried deep in the ground.

The disorientation and sadness signified an opening mind. "It starts as you show him how to be careful. When."

The big woman tried to blink away the tears. "If it's not enough?"

Further softening. "Then can you get other adults to show? To watch each other?"

"I don't know."

Scarlett smiled sweetly, reaching deep for the love that hid beneath the rage. "That's the smartest thing I've heard all day."

The big woman looked confused.

"It takes real wisdom to admit you don't know." She shrugged. "You can't add any knowing until you admit where it's missing. Right?"

The big woman nodded, as these new ideas locked into place in her mind.

It felt good to be doing her work again: find a villain, however minor, and knit them back together right.

"I have to think." The big woman shrugged, looking Scarlett up and down. "Maybe you do belong. Ovens. At least you're not here to blast us."

Scarlett and the big woman shared the space for a moment.

"You're not, right?"

"I might not be Obsolete, but…" She shrugged. "I don't carry a pistol. Life is worth more than victory."

She shook her head. "An Indur that doesn't even carry a pistol." She lumbered off.

Challry picked up some of the mushrooms he had offered her, gathering them into a tidy pile.

The goliath turned to look at the boy. "Come, Challry."

He ducked and ran to follow the woman, mouthing the word, "Sorry."

Scarlett gathered the mushrooms that Challry had given her.

Scarlett understood people like that, how the violence of human life could turn you away from your course.

*** 4

"Talked to Challry." Caleb bit at one of the mushrooms. "That, the way you stood up to her! Some old-timey Indur-legend ink."

An accident, not a stunt: a story he was never supposed to hear. Scarlett caught him out of the corner of her eye, almost could see him sizing her up as the caretaker of his people. "It's nothing. Bihlitth–that's her name, right?–not so tough. Just needed to blow off steam."

"Bigrath. Looking into her eyes, even Indur blink."

Indur subjects are all fear. Showing them they have something else to live for–that's half the operation. "Not you."

He smiled and shook his head, looking away. "I know what's behind her bluster."

She had him. Symbolically, she cut off the head of a mushroom. "They're not ready to go without you."

He put his hand on her knuckles, to stop her. "You can't walk away."

She nailed him with a look. Lying didn't work, when he could hear her every intention; he would smell the salesbot ruse. But it was the truth, she didn't have time to help everyone on this space rock one by one. "Won't have a choice."

"No. There's another option. Another way."

She shook her head, and sliced the mushroom again, ruining bits of it. "Sometimes you lose a bunch."

"How can you be so cold?"

"You have a courage they lack, but opening your heart isn't always enough." She shook her head. "Every day I dither, someone dies."

He suppressed a flitter of disgust and locked gazes with Scarlett.

He could affect the form of the Indur stare and it would work on any normal human subject. It would even bend the mind of the average mindslicer. But he didn't have Scarlett's resources. She tilted her head, and nodded. "I know."

"You know everything, don't you? Scarlett the wizard-one, mindwitch extraordinaire." He turned. "You cannot be so cold."

"I have endured worse than any human mind could bear." She took a long deep breath. The math might not match, but it had a portion of truth: "I have watched more tragic deaths than the count of lives you will ever meet."

"How can you shake it off? How can you keep going?"

The question shook her. The thought of the ledge, of stepping off–of diving into a sea of concrete and ending the battle–came clear. She always thought she had handled life; instead, it had been paved over. Perhaps that was why her wrist buzzed, why so many machines lived inside her core to beat her heart and manage her emotions so that she could help the others. "I am more machine than woman, I guess?"

He turned away.

He had been hoping to become like her, and she had just ripped his final hope to shreds. "That does not mean…"

He ran from the kitchen, into the dusty plaza.

But, didn't it? Did she have any right to offer hope? A lump formed in her throat to block the sweet half lies she ached to tell him. She had done enough already, practically pushed him off the ledge. And to be honest, whatever the Stars might say, she wasn't sure he'd go wrong. What could she say, what could be done to make his life worthwhile? Would even her life be worthwhile, if she faced Larrikesh with an unaided human heart?

The door closed with a thud.

She should probably call it–abandon him as a subject– and return to those who had less courage but more hope. The weight of that pressed down on her. She thought of Challry, growing up without Caleb, left adrift on this sea of dust. Of the many who would never hear, never find their proper port. It didn't make sense to keep going, but she had nothing else to steer by. Too many depended on her. She had to maintain course.

*** 5

"Argh!" Challry sat holding his knee.

More angry than scared, despite the deep cuts. Even at such a young age, an Obsolete had little use for fear. It saddened her, and she felt a need to rush over and help him directly. She felt herself move several steps in that direction before slowing. She put out her hand, palm up. "Come, Challry. My master can help you."

Challry nodded. "He's good with bandages." Challry bravely scrabbled against the nearby rubble and tentatively stood on his wrenched ankle and torn up knee.

With the cold calculation of the machines that made her and sold her, she held out her hand.

Challry nodded. "Tchya. That's right up; I can do it." He took a few steps, faltered on the third, and gritted his teeth to go the rest of the way.

The direct sense of the pain hurt less than the decision to let him tough it out. Scarlett gritted her own teeth and led Challry to Caleb's kitchen.

The bed wasn't made but he was nowhere to be seen.

She swore at the play of luck upon this poor boy. Challry needed a Dad, and Caleb needed a reason to continue. It seemed so perfect, that it made no sense he should not be here.

She triggered the control ring to summon him, hoping he would understand the summons. "It's all right, Challry. Just… he'll be here."

Challry gritted his teeth. "No, you're alright. Better off not." He went for the door.

She ran some water on a rag. "At least, let's clean the wound." Why didn't this building have a shower–the cleansing chemicals had the perfect mix of sanitizing and psychoactive effects.

He stumbled and caught himself on the door. "I'll be alright. Lucky and bold."

If she used her mind control on Challry she would only be proving Caleb's point–if she could do his job better, he'd be thinking they were better off without him. So she had to think fast. "Can you help me?"

"Not much I can do right with a wounded prong to balance on." He looked out the pinhole in the door. "I still don't think Bigrath wants me here."

An argument might keep him. "Surely that's changed. Bigrath really warmed to me."

He looked up and down her, wanting to ask her if she was off her orbit. Then he gave a look of horror. "Uh, guess so. I mean, much as she can."

Scarlett knelt to look him straight across. "You don't think she's ready, though."

"I want to think you're right."

The control device warmed, with a sick feeling in her stomach.

Caleb had hit the wrong button, had not answered but instead punished her. It had to be an error, but it would cost her–and Challry. She reached out to a table.

"What's wrong? Scarlett, are you okay?"

The pain drove her to her knees, blacked out her vision.

"Your eyes are blue?" He touched her on the forehead. "What makes them do that?"

She doubled over as the pain in her stomach became dry heaves and the air turned to cinnamon fire.

The boy cried, "Help!" He ran out the door.

Defeated, she let her lungs strain against the closed passages. Her ploy to call Caleb had backfired. He had not sent the return message, but had activated the pain, inciting terror in the boy. She swore silently through a choked throat as the torment sequence drove her into blessed unconsciousness.

In time, she awoke, looking at the ceiling.

Challry's blissful voice cried, "She's back!"

"Like I said." Caleb patted the boy on the shoulder. "It's a thing she does. Dang crazy, you ask me."

Challry pushed past him to hover over Scarlett. "Are you alright?"

She decided to stay silent, as the wrist implant cleaned the stress from her blood.

Caleb poked the boy. "Don't believe her. She's playing dead. I think that's the whole idea, make us think we won."

Challry nodded. "Even dumbots don't shoot a dead rock."

Caleb high fived the boy. "Now you're getting it."

Challry shot Caleb a long look. "Bigrath said you were there, when Colmey died."

"Your dad and I…" Caleb wiped a tear.

"Tell me."

Caleb got a distant look in his eyes, like he was walking among the Stars, and for the first time she had seen, the hint of a smile graced his face. He nodded. "Your Dad had a laugh that could make the bots weep for envy."

Caleb grinned from ear to ear. "One hot lie. But, I hear you."

"I was always trying to startle him, you know?" He shook his head, and chuckled. "I must've looked silly trying to pounce on him like a wild katt."

Surprise and delight played between these two boys.

All of a sudden, Caleb got serious, looking up. Then he nailed Challry with a stare. "You know what he would say to you?"

Challry sat staring up at Caleb, shaking his head.

Caleb's voice changed. "You're my boy. I've always been proud, my boy. You know that? And that's nothing beside the man you become."

Challry shook. "Dad, are you in there?"

Caleb smiled. "Yeah, they're all in here."

"Let him out."

Caleb knelt down before the boy. "That's not how you find him. You already got him, you just…"

Scarlett ached to step in, to prompt him.

"You gotta tune to the signal."

"Like a comms radio?"

"That's right." Caleb sat down.

"It's not the same."

"Having me speak for him, that's what's not the same." He sat beside the kid. "They're all here, and thousands more. But we're lucky, with your dad, because we know where to tune."

"How do you mean?"

"There's lots of ghosts to talk to, but really you can't. Could be anything." Caleb shrugged, and checked the bandages. "But your dad, his voice…."

A relieved smile came over the boy.

As if he had learned that Colmey had moved to another planet. That he was fine and happy and safe. The subject had a way with people; even Scarlett could learn from Caleb.

Caleb patted Challry on the knee. "He is fine and happy and safe."

Challry winced, but looked down in surprise. "How?"

"Truth for the heart, medicine for the leg." He patted Challry. "Now run along before Bigrath makes me need the same touch."

Challry nodded and ran out the door.

"That's amazing." She walked to Caleb.

"Leave me alone." He looked down, in disgust. "Colmey was my friend, and Challry's dad, and nothing…"

Scarlett touched his shoulder to encourage the distraught man.

Caleb shook her off. "Nothing can change that he died."

Scarlett sent him a reassuring blast.

He waved it away. "Even if you went back, they all die. No matter what."

Scarlett's heart filled. She had seen happiness in Caleb. Colmy wasn't dead, his ghost–his memory, at least–was real. And more important than what had died. Yet, she needed to be careful here. "Matter? Doesn't matter."

Caleb took a long, soothing breath. "Thank you for admitting that. I know you want me to cling to life, but when I know …" He shook his head ruefully.

As Caleb looked again at the memory of people dying, dead, never buried, the machines in Scarlett's body swept her blood clean of his grief and turmoil. Caleb's life spread out before her, no more than a page in a book. No matter how many times she had read these stories, they were that: she could never know them the way he could. She could tell him that life was about living, not surviving, but if she could not make the answer her own, then how could she make it his? She showed him her empty hands, raised her shoulders, shook her head.

He ducked down and strode off, not quite fleeing.

Leaving, always he was leaving something–that's all he ever wanted to do. She had to change that. But how? She looked to the Stars.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw him stumble into a bit of burned out architecture.

She didn't need him to stop running, she needed to show him where to go. It didn't matter that this insight wasn't truly hers, it belonged to him already, the way Colmey belonged. And all the others that he had met, they would be with him always–would follow him beyond his body. But how many had he yet to meet?

Like Stars above, the ghosts of the living shone just out of sight. Each precious point of light dazzled into eternity. Once she showed him that, he would want to live. Even if the machines stopped and let her feel the full weight of mortality, she would still want to meet them all, no matter how quickly their flesh might be taken from her.

A bird lighted on a crossbar above, looking down.

For a moment she felt that familiar sense of vertigo, the pressure of her hand gripping a bottle. Then she realized that this time, the grip was on the crossbar. This time, she had wings, the power to rise above the mass of people falling to their doom. A deep breath released the old confusion. "I've got it."

*** 6

"Listen, Scarlett, I know you mean well. But my time is near."

So much wonder, so much joy that even this nightmare world had to offer. The people might be in pain but still were people, still were artists–survival artists, and brilliant nonetheless. "No, you don't understand."

He looked deep into her eyes, gestured as if brushing hair off her forehead. "Somebody doesn't."

"I'm not asking you to stop running. Learn to look forward, to run toward the people."

He nodded. "Yes, that message is what you need."

She pinched between her eyes, underneath the brow ridge. "It's what you need."

"Once upon a time, I did. It's how I made it so long." He sat down, and offered her a drink from an old, terran bottle. "I did need a refresher, I guess."

She took the drink. It burned like fermented tubers and smelled of concrete and fossil fuels. Or was that another memory? "Tchya. I was sent to help you."

"Think so?" He smiled and shrugged. "I'm glad you're one of the souls I'm taking with me."

Her stomach boiled; she shook her head. "No, that can't be."

"Not how long, it's how well." The planetshadow rose, turning the green sky brown as it faded to black. "Every day ends where it begins, and this device wasn't meant to live this long in this hard a world."

He meant his body. She felt the strange rhythm in his chest falter, smooth, leaving aches flashing through his body. She shuddered. "Please."

"I am glad that I spent these days with you." He shook his head. "The medicine is running out. Spend these last minutes with me–my fellow medic of the heart."

She could feel her irises turn violet as her eyes watered the black tears of love.

"You honor me." He wiped her cheek. "If that means what I think…"

"Why were you looking to go out…"

"I feared this would be painful." He shrugged. "Thought I had helped everybody I could."

As she pinched off the machine in her wrist, wave after wave of grief came over her. Faces from hundreds of years came, to pay their respects.

"You're not the only one more machine than man." He caressed her cheek with the upper knuckles. "Not the only one who has to come to terms with their human side."

The pain washing over her felt not unlike the mastery sequence; she struggled for breath. The finality of his passing, of all their passing, hit her in the lungs. She couldn't tell if death had taken their breath, or hers.

When, at long last, her eyes cleared, Caleb breathed no more.

Had it really been about her own reason for being? Could she be that important?

Gingerly, Scarlett took his hand.

The ring fell to the ground.

She collected it. "Like that, is it?"

His serene features offered no comfort.

She wanted to accuse, to threaten, to stop him. To somehow prove to him she wasn't ready. Holding his hand against hers, "You promised. You owe me," she breathed, embracing the hypocrisy.

His eyes stared up at the sky as the browning planetshadow revealed the Stars.

She rose up and howled. "No! No. You promised."

The Stars remained unmoved.

The desperate courage of the moment showed a Scarlett more bereft than ever. Yet also more alone than ever she would be. Each wave of grief revealed the presence of another of her fallen friends. Out of sight but palpably near, they lined up behind her. Thus bolstered, she knelt down. Taking his hand in hers, she faced him.

Bruise-black tears dripped between their fingers, trailing down his arm.

edited JUL 10
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