DISCLAIMER: I, The Mad Poet, do not own any Star Ocean game, publication, or related character. I am a poor fan with too much time on my hands with no money, so don't sue me. This novelization is being written solely for my own sick, twisted amusement; and views expressed herein do not reflect those of the original creators. Do not expect a replica of the game - I am One Sick Puppy. By that token, the following fanfiction and all original concepts therein are my own; do not steal them because I will find out and beat you death with a crowbar. I know where you sleep.

Expect explicit violence, mature themes, politics, crude and/or ethnic jokes, lots of prejudice, more violence, mindgames, a reality check, and enough religious references to choke a Mormon choir.

Flames will be used to work on my tan.

Much credit, love, and general adoration to the great Lord Batpig, Osidiano, who has helped me with so much of this - including putting up with that awful excuse for an SO game long enough to start this.


THOU SHALT NOT

06

Fayt awoke to a feeling of overwhelming awareness: awareness that his entire body was screaming profanity at him for his exertions the day before, awareness that he had never in his life felt in so great a need for a shower, and most of all awareness that someone was crying in the next room. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, squinting in the piecemeal streams of light that filtered down through the patchy straw and splattered over his face. When he determined that the crying was not in fact his imagination, he rolled out of bed and hated every second of it.

The swelling in his feet made the bandages tight, and made walking feel as though he were limping along on a pair of wrapped balloons. The few stumbling steps it took to clear the small room and narrow hall beyond it felt almost as long as his trek through the forest the day before. His eyes were still hazy with sleep when they blearily cast about the other bedroom, not quite able to focus on the tiny huddled mass crying against one wall. He blinked a few times in an attempt to clear them. "Mn...Meena?" He blinked a few more times, until he was able to confirm that it was in fact the little girl curled up in a nearly fetal ball and crying into her hands. Perhaps the greater surprise was that her brother was not there to comfort her - he was, in fact, nowhere to be seen. "What's wrong? Where's Niklas?"

Meena gave another hiccuping sob, wiping at her face with a long sleeve as she looked up at him. Her eyes were puffy and her nose running: she had clearly been at it for a while already. She took a few deep breaths, then sniffled again and finally answered him. "I-I don't know."

"Did he go somewhere?"

"I-I don't know. When I woke up he was already gone." She sniffled for a moment, voice hitching higher. "Did he disappear? Just like Mama and Papa-"

The shrill edge to her voice, bordering on hysteria, cut right through any remaining tiredness Fayt might have felt. He plastered a smile onto his face as quickly as he could and shook his head, cutting in before she could begin to cry again. "No, no. Niklas would never leave you like that, Meena. It'll be all right. Look, I'll go out and find him, okay?"

She stared up at him blankly. "My big brother Niklas is gone," she said, as if she had not heard him. "Am...am I all alone now?"

"No, Meena-"

But the idea had taken hold, and the edge of near-hysteria she had teetered on crumbled out from under her: Meena's sobs became a high, screaming wail for her brother. Fayt flinched in the face of it, almost clamping his hands to his ears. Instead, he dropped to one knee in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders as reassuringly as he could. He tried to give them a comforting squeeze, but with his thick bandages managed to do little more than rattle her. "Meena...Meena! It'll be okay! I'll find him. I'll go find him right now, okay?"

The screams hiccuped into tiny, pitiful mewls instead as she attempted to gulp them back down. He chest hitched once, then twice, and he was certain that she was going to start screaming again. Instead, she asked him very quietly – so quietly he almost did not hear it for the ringing in his ears - "You...you really will? You'll really go find my big brother for me?"

"Of course I will." Fayt couldn't quite keep the relief out of his voice that she'd stopped crying, but he figured that was all right. Meena probably would not have known the difference even if she weren't still hitching and streaming a combination of tears and mucus down her face. He grimaced a little and reached up to pull away strands of her hair which had gotten stuck to her face by the mess. "Just as soon as you stop crying. So please...please stop crying, okay?"

She hiccuped again, still sobbing and snuffling pitifully, but nodded her head and let Fayt continue to brush at her face. He smiled at her. "Okay. Atta girl." He stayed like that with her for a moment longer. He was worried, just a little, that if he stood and stepped away from her too soon she would begin to scream again.

When she had calmed down a little – the hitches turning into quiet shivering and the gulping half-sobs softening back down to the audible but more subdued crying that he had awakened to – he rose slowly to his feet again, moving his hands from her shoulders only when he rose enough that he could not maintain the contact any more. "You're going to be okay, Meena. I'll be back with Niklas before you know it."

She nodded, but did not rise up from her huddled place on the floor. Her hand had come up to her face; Fayt suspected she might have started to suck on her thumb. Well, that was all right too. Some things, maybe, were universal for a reason.

Backing towards the door, Fayt kept an eye on her until he was in the hallway again, and then turned around. He rubbed his hands, now slimy with the discharge of Meena's misery, on the legs of his shorts for lack of any place better as he ducked back into the room that had become 'his'. There he sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Where would Niklas have gone, not only without Meena but without telling her? Only just the night before the idea of the grim-faced young boy leaving his sister alone had seemed wholly unimaginable.

He sighed, putting his face into his hands and scrubbing at his cheeks and closed eyes. Letting the harsh texture gritting over his skin wake him. "Just sitting here isn't going to solve anything," he told himself, and the still small voice in the back of his mind replied, neither will running off half-cocked when you can barely even walk.

He had nothing to say to that. Instead, he pulled his hands away from his face – the bandages, changed only the night before, now grimy – and bent to reach for his sandals. He wrestled them on over his swollen and wrapped feet and ham-fistedly tied the straps into ugly knots. They were not correct but, he thought, at least they would hold the shoes to his feet. Or should, in any case. How often had he been called on to tie reliable knots? It was yet another thing he promised himself he would take the time to learn later, when he returned home. Until then, he could only hope they did not come untied and trip him.

When he rose to his feet again, he stopped, hesitating. After a moment, he reached to the place beside his bed and picked up his sword. He held it loosely by the sheath, letting the straps dangle from his wrapped fingertips, and watched the pommel swing slightly. Niklas could not have gone far, could he? There was no way Fayt would need his weapon; no reason to bring it with him. He thought of the way that the villagers had watched him the day before, the things the village head and apothecary had told him. To bring the weapon, Fayt thought, would only be borrowing trouble. He did not even know for certain how well he would be able to use it with his bandages. He had still not yet drawn it to try; not as a weapon, anyway, instead of a walking stick. He told himself all of this, not needing to hear any of it from the small voice in the back of his mind (who did not, he thought, like the sword at all; not sounding as much as it did like Sophia's). But it was still the thought of Niklas and his dark, wary eyes that decided him. He closed his hand over the strap as well as he could for a moment, and then wrestled it onto his back. His stiff muscles protested; he was sweating by the time he finished and one foot had slipped in its sandal, so the straps pinched the arch through the bandaging. Grimacing, he wriggled it back into place, but he could already feel that his clumsy knot had been pulled slightly loose.

"I can't believe I'm doing this," he muttered as he knelt to re-tie the knot. He could not be sure if he was referring to taking his weapon out into town when the locals already saw him as a threat, or simply to going out searching for Niklas when the boy would, surely, be back soon on his own in any case. Reasonably Fayt knew that he could not, would not have gone far. He was at the apothecary's, maybe, or whatever local shops there might be, or dutifully helping in the field. Something benign like that. No reason for Meena to be upset and certainly no reason for him to run off all half-cocked when he could barely even walk.

He stood again and pulled his poncho on over his sword, covering it. The pommel still stuck up over his shoulder through the opening of the neck. He doubted it would fool anybody.

"Meena," he said loudly as he stepped back out into the hallway, "I'm going to go find Niklas. We'll both be back soon, okay?"

Meena did not answer, but her quiet sobs had quieted further so he could not longer hear them. He stuck his head into the other room to check on her and saw that she was still huddled down.

"Meena?"

She did not look up. "I want my brother. Where's my big brother?"

"I'll find him." He pulled back out of the room again, rolling his shoulders to settle the scabbard more comfortably over them. It was probably best to leave her at that and just come back quickly. He would ask around the village, he thought. Check the apothecary, look for any shop or market they might have. Niklas' absence might be as easily explained as wanting to buy breakfast for his little sister.

If you believed that, you wouldn't be wearing your sword. The small voice snipped at him. You shouldn't be wearing your sword.

He ignored it and half-strode, half-limped down the hall to the front room. Meena's music box still sat on the table, open and silent. If Niklas had eaten before leaving Fayt could not tell, but that didn't mean anything. He had seen the night before that Niklas was tidy; he would have cleaned up any mess he made immediately. And maybe he hadn't eaten at all. Hadn't he told Fayt that food was in short supply since Norton's arrival, and soon to be even shorter? Fayt shook his head. Standing around thinking, he reminded himself again, wasn't going to solve anything.

The good news was that moving around seemed to be loosening his muscles. By the time he was on the ground outside he felt a little less stiff; by the time he made his way up the uneven stone steps to the village proper (slowly, so slowly) some of the pain in his legs was actually starting to release as they unwound from their tight sleep-induced knots. It occurred to him belatedly that he should have stretched and that he knew better than not to have.

He stopped at the top of the steps again, as he had the day before, and looked slowly around the collection of ramshackle huts. Just as then, pale and dirty faces marked the landscape like misplaced punctuation. This time they did not seem to have noticed him before he them...but then, this time he was not gawping around like a foreigner seeing his first farming town, either. Watching the people rather than scanning the surroundings this time, he thought that they looked preoccupied, almost frantic, hurrying here and there as if on errands of great importance but not really seeming to go anywhere or accomplish anything. He frowned. The entire spectacle had a feeling of wrongness to it, left him with a sense of unease. He couldn't put his finger on it, but chalked the entire mood to the story Niklas had told him. The air of frightened urgency could almost certainly be traced back to Norton and the impending hard winter he had doomed them to.

After a moment, he stirred himself to motion again and trudged forward, still half-limping, towards what he remembered to be the apothecary's home. He did not know any of the other buildings and, not wanting to barge into random residences aside, he thought it one of the most likely places to find the boy. He knocked even though it was, in its way, a place of public business; he wasn't sure of the local etiquette and didn't want to take chances.

The apothecary opened the door and immediately froze, her eyes jerking from his face to the place over his shoulder the sword hilt jutted up. He kicked himself for wearing it and held his hands out, open and palm up to show that they were empty. "I'm just looking for-"

"We told you to go," the woman said stiffly. She did not even glance down to see Fayt's hands. Her eyes remained fixed on the weapon. "Why are you still here? What have you done with that poor boy?"

The first question Fayt had expected, and he was even opening his mouth to answer it when the second one struck him like a fist in the gut. He stared at the apothecary blankly for a moment, jaw slightly slack, and then: "...What?"

"Niklas, damn you, and you know perfectly well! What have you done with him?" To his surprise he saw that her fists were clenched, and trembling with rage: armed or not, she was ready to strike him. "If anything happens...if anything happens I'll never forgive you! What you do is your business, but you leave those children alone. You leave them out of it."

Fayt raised his hands a little further, bringing them up near his shoulders, and took a step back. "I...I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't done- listen, I'm looking for Niklas. His sister is worried-"

The woman made a curt sound, then spat to one side. "Her and the rest of us!"

Fayt felt, suddenly, both colder than before and inexplicably more glad for the weight of the sword beneath his poncho. "...What do you mean?"

"I mean he's gone, we don't know where to! This time of day, he'd usually be up and working cheerfully. We know he's the one but he's nowhere to be found at the other." She paused a moment, eyes narrow and ears twitching slightly as she gauged his expression suspiciously. "...You really don't know, do you."

Wide-eyed, Fayt shook his head. He was as stunned by the idea that such a glum child could have been said to do anything cheerfully as by the idea that Niklas might be legitimately missing.

Spitting to the side again, the apothecary loosened her fists and tucked them into the deep pockets of her apron, still giving Fayt's face long up-and-down consideration, then lengthening the looks to encompass the rest of him. "...You're really going to look for him."

"Yes. I'm...I'm worried about him too. He risked a lot to help me."

Whether the woman was moved by his sincerity or simply accepted it, she balled up her shoulders and then dropped them, heavily. It seemed to be a monumental effort on her behalf. The look of suspicion was replaced by a plain scowl again. "Only right that you do, then. I've no doubt it's your fault, whatever's got him off."

Fayt bristled slightly, but bit back a retort. Right now he would take what he could get. "Where would he usually be right now?"

"The fields, most likely, unless there was something else that needed doing – and there wasn't, not for him. We even saw him setting off for them, but it seems he went on through and never stopped. They said he ran right past with a wild look on his face." Her eyes narrowed again – Fayt saw the motion just before he reflexively jerked his head away, swallowing hard. He thought of the way Niklas had watched him the night before. The way he had asked him that question, more than once in different ways: They said Norton's gang carried something off. Did it belong to you? The way he had quietly but clearly not believed Fayt's answer. "You tell me what's going on, stranger. And you tell me now."

"I don't know," he said, still not looking back at her; a half-truth. "I just...thank you for telling me this. I have to go."

"If anything happens to those children, we'll kill you." He jerked his head back up and around at the words, stunned: not only by the words themselves but by the cold, easy way she spoke them. The woman's eyes were hard when he met them, so that he had to look away again. "We've always struggled to scratch out a living, but we've always lived. We're tired of strangers taking it away from us. They're innocent children. They've suffered enough."

"I know. I mean I understand. I mean...I agree. I agree, they don't deserve-" He stopped, swallowing. It clicked in his throat and he realized that he was thirsty; he had left without drinking.

"None of us 'deserve' this." She turned away sharply, suddenly, and Fayt let out a long breath. He started to turn, but at the sound of one sandal scraping the porch the apothecary lifted a hand. "Don't move! Stay right there!"

Fayt froze in place, halfway through his turn. "I have to-"

"Stay."

A part of him, used to listening to his mother, to Sophia, to any number of female teachers or guides or authorities, locked into place completely. He would have felt more embarrassed about it except that this one had only just moments ago very flatly threatened his life. So he stayed right where he was and watched the woman rifle about in her pots and salves, picking up this and that and finally a roll of the thick, coarse bandages. She crammed all of these into an equally rough-looking sack on a long cord, the material unbleached and undyed, and marched back to the door holding it out to him at arm's length. He could hear the contents clinking and scraping gently against each other. "Here. If he's hurt, wherever he is, it's your fault and I expect you to care for him. If I see one scratch, one bruise-"

Fayt took the pack readily, winding the cord around his wrist and lifting his hand to let it hang carefully over his shoulder. "I will. You won't. Thank you."

"It's not for you."

"I know. Thank you anyway."

She eyed him suspiciously for a moment more, then withdrew back into the building and slammed the door in his face. Fayt blinked at it for a moment, then let out a long breath and slowly relaxed from his tense posture. He took a step back, waiting to see if she would return and add anything – information or ultimatum – and then finished his turn, slowly descending from the entry to the building. He took the steps slowly as much for his thoughts as his body.

It was true that he didn't know what was going on. But if Niklas had run past the fields, 'with a wild look on his face'... Well, the apothecary might not have told him which way past the fields Niklas had gone, but he could make an educated guess.

"Oh, Niklas," he sighed, shaking his head. "What are you doing? What are you thinking?" And it was his fault, he knew. The apothecary was right about that much. If anything happened, it would be on him.

He hitched up the sack of medicines over his shoulder, shifted to resettle his sword, and started slowly out of the village. He kept his head down, aware that many of the villagers paused in their searching as he passed, watching him. Sometimes murmuring among themselves. He knew what it was they were saying even without being quite able to hear or make any of it out - that he was involved. That it was his fault. Some of them, he knew, would be eying the hilt of the sword. He thought he heard Norton's name and set his jaw.

I am Adonis, he told himself. I am no-one's thug, but I will not be hurt if I am seen as one. I will raise my sword and prove them wrong.

So instead of protesting or trying to explain himself again, he simply lifted his head proudly and followed the road out of town, following the path he had taken before towards the village gates, to outlying fields and beyond.

Just as it had been the day before, the journey seemed shorter than his previous trip. He supposed (hoped) that this meant he was recovering. He felt as though he had been recovering forever; he had always thought of himself as fit and healing had never taken this long back home. Dangers of languishing on a primitive planet, he supposed. He wondered if this Norton had any proper medical supplies. Even if he didn't Fayt though he could probably synthesize some from his stolen pod equipment, even if he was not sure exactly what he would need.

He pulled his quad scanner loose from his pocket when he returned to the viney forest road and its welcome springiness. Flipping the small device open, he tapped at it until it was set to scan for humanoid lifeforms and kept his eyes on the screen. Behind his location he saw the collection of indicators for Whipple and its surrounding fields; ahead, the cluster he had first taken for the village and now understood to be Norton's hideaway. A few more taps narrowed the range slightly, pulling it in closer to his current location. He frowned slightly in surprise. Today, there was no detachment of three or four guarding the base. There were no indicators between himself and the larger mass of the base at all: the place he had met the bandits on the first day and been turned aside was devoid of life signs. Did it mean anything? He couldn't know. He closed the scanner and tucked it back into his pocket again. If anything did happen, he would need that hand for his sword.

The thought chilled him and he pushed it aside. He thought about each step instead: focusing on keeping his footing as he trudged over the vines, trying not to limp here where a dragging foot would trip him.

At the rock formation, there was no one waiting to tell him off or turn him aside this time. But with his mind not clouded by either despair or false optimism, he could clearly see what he had missed the day before both coming and going. The massive wreckage of the forest edge had not come from his passage and never could have. The gouges in the ferrous ground, some so sharply cleaved even the metallic shards of the rocks were scratched, could only have been made by something large and heavy being dragged through. The path passed the rocks and continued into the ruins beyond, passing where he could not see around one crumbling wall.

There were small footprints in the freshly overturned soil. They could have belonged to the youngest of the guards he had seen before, but they could also have belonged to Niklas. Fayt crouched for a moment to look at them before admitting that he could not tell either how long they had been there or who they truly belonged to and rising to continue forward. He paused again at the first crumbling wall of the ruins, but no one stopped him there either. When he tilted his head and held his breath, all he heard was the wind through the vines and the sound of running water. Not a soul was in sight.

The ruins were beautiful and, in a way, awful. There was a sense to them that had not been conveyed in all of his simulation games, something that Listia had not prepared him for. As he stepped from the shadow of the wall he turned his head slowly, looking up and around, and realized that the gap had once been a great gate. Beneath his feet, the soft whisper of vegetation alternated with the harsh rasp of stone: a glance down informed him that what he walked over had once been cobbled, even tiled. Once, the stones had been tightly fitted together, planed smooth, sanded and polished: he could still see the glittering sheen here and there in remote corners. Now, moss and weeds grew up through the gaps made by erosion, creeping over and covering the workmanship. The area was open, but collapsed pillars littered it, the sides carved in patterns worn shallow by time. Tumbled bricks from fallen walls littered the ground. The walls themselves, for the most part, were gone: either collapsed entirely or vanished under humps of vegetation. At least two structures had been demolished by trees growing out of the inside of them, ripping apart ceilings and walls to strew them across the surroundings. Mushrooms grew in the dark hollows, pushing up from the ground all bulbous and red.

Not so different from Listia. But what Listia lacked was...it was...

"Life," he said quietly. He took another step forward. What he was standing in had once been a richly appointed courtyard. Here were the low barriers that had separated the entry walk from gardens, or hedges, now simply depressed pits filled with wild growing things. Here, its roof and walls collapsed into a heap, only a corner of interlocked yellow stones still standing - this, he was certain, had been the gatehouse. He touched the stones and found they were warm from the sun, warm enough to feel through his bandages. Except that maybe they were not; maybe that was only his imagination. Maybe that was only the sense of life, not only that which had passed but that which lingered on. Small creatures moved in the foliage. Somewhere, water ran. And once, he did not know how long ago, men and women had walked these paths when they were smooth and new. Who had they been? Why had they left?

Distantly, he heard someone laugh. The sound passed in the space of a moment but it was enough to remind him of why he was there in the first place. Shaking off the brief sense of wonder, Fayt set his shoulders again and continued on through the ruins, passing under decayed archways and over feral gardens reminding himself all the way I am Adonis Klein I am a rough-edged hero and a real man of the dark ages. Hekept one hand on the hilt of his sword, praying at the same time oh God oh God please don't make me have to use this. He used the walls and trees and formless piles of rubble for cover, trying to keep low and out of sight, not knowing where or when he might come across a bandit or four and unwilling to give up his sword hand to bring out his scanner and find out.

It occurred to him belatedly that the solution was simply to free up his other hand somehow. Rolling his eyes at himself for overlooking such an obvious solution, he unslung the pack of medicines carefully from his back, setting it gently down on a soft patch of ground and unwinding the rough cord from his hand. It was a simple matter to tie the cord into a loop he could hang from his shoulder like a proper traveling pack. It felt right; like something a traveler on an undeveloped planet would have.

He was still busy patting himself on the back for coming up with such a clever and appropriate solution when one of the bandits stumbled across him.

There was a moment where the two simply stared at each other, neither seeming to know what to do with the other. The young man – boy, whichever, Fayt still did not know for certain how to tell the difference – had simply rounded a bend in the sprawling grounds of the ruins and in doing so brought the two nearly nose-to-nose if not for the difference in their heights. He blinked up at Fayt; Fayt blinked down at him. He saw Fayt's strange clothes and ears; Fayt saw the knife in his hand.

Fayt leapt back, hand going to the hilt of his sword. The bandit leapt forward, jabbing out with his knife. It whisked the air in front of Fayt's face, and then over his head as he slipped, losing his footing in his poorly-tied sandals, and toppled onto his rear on the ground. He tried to roll but his limbs sang – no, shrieked – with pain when he did so and he pulled up short, dropping his hands to scramble awkwardly backwards, crablike, instead.

This isn't how it's supposed to go, he found himself thinking, wildly. I can do this. I know how to fight. I've done it a million times. This isn't how it's supposed to go-

The bandit let out a wild yell of excitement, seeing him helpless and probably imagining himself being applauded for taking care of an armed trespasser, maybe by Norton himself. Maybe rewarded somehow, he didn't know, possessions or status or whatever it was that they valued here; it didn't matter, why was he thinking about this when the bandit was charging forward and the knife was swinging down-

Fayt let his hands take the weight of his body, ignoring the way they howled, and kicked out and up with one leg. He caught the charging bandit squarely in the knee. The youth's eyes went wide and his mouth opened in a silent 'o' of pain and surprise as his charge became a fall. Fayt jerked his legs up out of the way, pulling them under himself as the bandit hit the ground face first. The air was smacked out of his body so hard that Fayt could hear it; a curious muted whuf. He did not marvel at it, but instead scrambled upright himself and yanked at his sword. He suddenly found that he could not pull it loose. He couldn't even grip it properly, his wrapped fingers slipping off the pommel. He realized he was trying to draw it too quickly.

The bandit was struggling to his feet. Fayt kicked him again, in the face this time, and heard a faint crunching sound. The bandit opened his mouth – to scream, certainly – and for a moment time stood still. If he screamed, Fayt knew, others would hear him. They would come.

And Fayt understood right now that he was not Adonis. He was not Adonis at all. This was not a game. And if they came at him in numbers, he would lose.

He grabbed the bandit's russet hair and jerked him up, pulling his head, and slammed his knee upward into the exposed throat. The scream became a clotty gag. The bandit's eyes rolled as his hands twitched spasmodically upward, clawing at his throat.

Oh God, Fayt thought, his stomach suddenly turning liquid. Oh God, please don't let him die. What he said instead was "Run away." His voice did not shake. He did not know how. He did not think it sounded like his voice at all. "Don't go to your friends. Don't go to your boss. Don't tell anyone I was here. Just leave."

But the bandit nodded, croaking weakly. It seemed to be the only sound he could make. When Fayt let go of his hair, he reached for his knife at first. Fayt kicked it away, and he did not chase it. He scrambled to his feet and ran back the way that Fayt had come, towards the entrance to the ruins.

When he was gone, Fayt dropped to his knees, doubling over so that his forehead pressed to the mossy ground, cool on his skin. He did not vomit, but he felt as if he would – almost as if he had to. There could not possibly be another reaction, another response. That was not how it was supposed to have gone. His hands were clammy inside of his bandages; his tailbone and his kneecap both ached with the impacts they had taken. His sword remained in its sheath, barely even unseated by all his mad grabbing. He was sweating, though it was not from the exertion, which even in his injured state was not really so much as all that. He had fought more strenuous battles, after all, as Adonis. He was supposed to have known how to do it. All of his time in the simulation games was supposed to have taught him. But when the knife had come towards him, all he had been able to think was, this is real, this isn't a game, this is real; and again, the same words when he had lashed out at the bandit. Who was, after all, just a boy, almost certainly younger than himself and with no martial training. No idea how to use his weapon. The fight, quick and clumsy as it had been, had been real, real like his sword, and if he had managed to draw the weapon after all, what then? It was not a blunt pipe. Its edges were sharp.

Fayt closed his eyes for a moment, gasping deeply at air with the damp, humid smell of the foliage just beneath him, then sucking it in in slow calming breaths, then lifted his head slowly from the ground. The knife lay nearby. A kitchen knife, like those of the guards who had turned him aside the day before. He reached out to it, shifting up to one knee, and picked it up. Pressing a thumb to the blade, he found that it was not even sharp, only indenting his bandages and not cutting the material at all. He would not have used it to cut a potato. What would have happened if he had drawn his sword after all?

Not so much fun any more, is it Fayt? Asked the small voice.

He dropped the knife again, simply opening his hand and letting it roll off to the ground with a muted clatter-thump. He remained on one knee for a moment, elbow resting over the back of his leg and head down, thinking.

"...But I can't be caught off-guard like that again," he said after a moment. He had to be in control. Unafraid. He had to be Adonis. And he told himself that he was, again, and then again, as he began to unwind the bandages from his hands. I am Adonis Klein I am a rough-edged hero and a real man of the dark ages. I am Adonis Klein and I can pretend this is a game if I have to. I am Adonis. I am Adonis. I am Adonis. I am not afraid to spill bandit blood. Not to protect the innocent. Not for Niklas. I am Adonis.

The wounds on his hands had reopened – probably when he had made his made crab-scramble away from the knife - and slightly pink around the edges. The color was not a good sign, he knew. He reached up to pull his sword from his back again – carefully, this time – and used it to cut the bandaging from what had been the middle layer of the wraps apart from the rest. It was not bloodied like the inner bandaging (or faintly yellowed; the yellowish, crusted look to parts of it made him uneasy but he could not know what they meant) or covered in grime like the outer, but comparatively clean. These new, smaller stretches of material he wrapped around his hands again, tightly and carefully, leaving himself the articulation of his fingers as best he could. Wasn't it a classic look? How many heroes in his games had wrapped their hands just so? He didn't know if it was for grip or just to look good; in his case, he would hope for the former, and also that it would do the job of about three times more material well enough without denying him his weapon. He sheathed the sword again, then snapped a hand up and tried to draw it quickly. It caught faintly on the edge of the sheath, but that might have been his own lack of practice at such a thing. Adonis wore his sword at his side, after all. And at least now he was able to grip it. It would have to do.

He remained on one knee a moment longer, to remove and then re-tie his sandals at least a little more securely, then lifted his head and rose back to his feet with a promise to himself to be more aware of his surroundings. To pay, at least, a bit more attention to which sounds were small animals moving through the ruins and which were sandaled feet scraping over the old stones. It had been careless of him not to do so in the first place. And, he determined, he would not walk quite so openly along them himself. He moved off the center of the broad walkway and into the shadow of an overgrown wall. Whatever the ruins had been before, he thought, there had been an awful lot of buildings scattered over the grounds. It would be – had been – stupid of him not to use them to his advantage.

When he pressed on, then, it was hugging the wall. He could hear a scraping and an unpleasant rattle from inside the pack the apothecary had given him. He was sure one of the fragile pots had broken when he fell, and he knew that he should probably check, but what would he do if it had? Throw out something he might potentially still need, even if it was spilled? He wouldn't recognize it, true, and he could probably (certainly) replicate better once he retrieved his escape pod's parts if medical attention was actually required. But there was still the UP3 to consider, and he had not so quickly forgotten the blessed numbness the primitive medicines had lent to his injuries. In the case of less than an emergency – or more than one if the replicator was not immediately available – primitive might be far, far better than nothing.

He moved through the ruins as quietly as he could, stepping on the weeds and moss when he could, avoiding the open and avoiding the broken cobbles. It was not long before he began to realize the sheer scale of the ruins: they seemed to sprawl on forever, and turn after turn brought him only more of the same, crumbling stairways only rising or descending to more walled gardens full of toppled pillars and collapsed foundations. Had it been a city? He did not think so. There was something about it that spoke of stillness. A river tracked through it, wrapping around one side of the ruins. It was not a wide river, but the water as dark and swift-looking; it was wide enough to stop him short in his explorations. Looking down into it he could see the light-colored stones of what had once been a bridge tumbled like a children's blocks far below, grown over with a slime of aquatic plant life. Small fish flickered in and out of sight, their scales flashing silver in the light. He could smell it, standing on the bank, sharp and metallic. His reflection on the surface of the water shifted and wavered with a life of its own, marred by the skittering of water insects or by sticks and leaves rushing by on the current.

He stopped there, for a little while, and found himself thinking that Sophia would have thought it was beautiful. Where was she? Had her pod also landed here on Vanguard III, or had its systems directed it somewhere else? Had she been picked up safely? It made him feel small and alone. He turned away from the water and continued his search.

More than once, he came across more of the bandits. Now that he was paying attention it was not difficult to avoid them; secure in their hideout and the villagers' fear of Norton, they made no effort to hide. They tromped along loudly talking and laughing amongst themselves, often nervously, in groups of three or four. It made Fayt realize how truly fortunate he had been to have only bumped into the one earlier. They were all armed. Sometimes the knives were kept shoved into their cloth belts, but far more often they carried them, turning them nervously, passing them from hand to hand. The same motions he had seen in the guards. Norton had been there for months but, it seemed, his henchmen were still not used to the role. When he heard them coming, Fayt ducked into the remains of the buildings and huddled down among the vines until they passed, but he thought that he simply could have pressed himself against the wall and gone unseen. The bandits did not turn their attentions away from their conversations, did not look around themselves. Blissfully oblivious.

Could he really bring himself to fight them, Fayt wondered? If it came down to it again, could he really draw his sword on people who didn't know any better, who had probably simply taken up the knives because the alternative was too frightening for them to consider?

Would Adonis have fought them?

He knew that he was asking too many questions. If it came down to it, if it really came down to it, four of them to one of him, he knew and understood what he had on his first day here on Vanguard III: that he could fight them, because he would have to, and that he would end up hurting them but that he would have no choice. So he did not test their oblivion. He stayed down and out of sight and as quiet as he knew how. More and more of them as he moved deeper and deeper into the ruins, and so his progress became slower and slower, eventually moving only from the buildings themselves, carefully squeezing through gaps in the fallen walls or creeping through the arcs of ancient windows while the local ruffians chattered outside. Even that though, he understood, was not entirely safe. As he entered the heart of their hideout, he began to find that the more complete structures, the ones still whole enough to offer shelter from the elements, were littered with signs of recent habitation: doused cooking fires, the refuse of meals, a blanket thrown over a dirty pad on the ground passing for a bed. Now and again he smelled new smoke and, peering out of one of the buildings, saw it emerging thin and white from another.

He slowed down again after that. Always waiting before moving to the next building, searching it with his eyes and ears as well as he could before slipping through it as quickly as he could without making noise. He was glad for how loud they were: he felt like he was still making enough noise to wake the dead. It was the kind of thing they didn't teach you in games: the way the items in your pack clicked and shifted, the creak and jingle of a sheath harness, the way tiny stones grit and ground beneath your feet even when you breathed, clicking and screeching on the hard ground beneath. The loudness of rustling vines when you brushed against them. His graceless clambering through the windows alone felt as if it should have brought the entire place down on him. Sneaking, he decided, was something that only really worked in fiction.

All the while he watched for Niklas – finding nothing, no signs of his passage; not certain the boy could have made it in at all without being seen and tossed out again – and for any clue of the location of his stolen escape pod parts. These were easier to spot. It was clear that the bandits had not had the strength to outright carry the heavy metal components so far, and had simply dragged them: they left deep, clear gouges on the ground through many areas that were easy to follow simply by glancing out of his hiding places every so often to confirm their presence.

They led him, eventually, to another wall.

It was larger than any of the others, and primarily whole as far as he could tell. Vines covered it entirely, giving it a bulging, shifting look as the breeze moved through the leaves, letting it whisper and murmur unsettlingly – enough so that there were no bandits near to it. Here and there, he could see odd shapes on the stone surface beneath that he presumed must be some kind of mural or relief carving, though he could not tell of what without taking a closer look. If he had wanted to, he could have brushed the vines aside and seen. But his focus went to the archway that broke its surface instead. It was whole, if worn. Through it, he could see an equally whole-if-worn looking building. One with an immense door. The perfect place for Norton to hole up and make his headquarters? Offering both privacy and shelter, Fayt thought that it just might be. He took one last look around to make absolutely sure no one would see him, and darted across the last stretch of open ground between himself and the wall, keeping himself low the way he had seen in movies. He slipped through the arch and pressed his back to the vines on the opposite side, looking around to be sure he had not stumbled into another group. But the area around the new building was empty. It only convinced him further that he would find Norton and his escape pod parts inside.

Pushing off of the wall, Fayt approached the building. It was not large in any real sense, but compared to what he had seen on Vanguard III thus far it was massive. Built, as near as he could tell through the moss and vines, of interlocking stone bricks, its height suggested that it might be two stories tall. However, the great door rose all the way up the front, flanked by decorative pillars on either side, and similarly large window frames marched either way along the building's length as well. Both door and windows were set deeply into frames of smoothly molded stone, and both were fitted with diamond-patterned metal lattice work. Made of iron – of course it would be, wouldn't it – it had long since gone to rust. When Fayt reached out to touch one of the door's handles, he could feel the surface layers of it crumbling beneath his grip. When he pulled he felt it rattle in the pitted wood, loose and no longer properly seated, but the door itself did not budge. He tried pushing as well, but made no more progress that way. Releasing the handle, he set his shoulder, leaned back, and then slammed against the door. He succeeded only in hurting his shoulder.

Rubbing at the new sore spot slightly, Fayt took a step back and tilted his head to look up. "Well...I guess I can't get in this way." The lattice in the nearby windows, likewise, looked solidly set despite some crumbling around the edges of the stone frames themselves. Up above, he could see that there were holes in the edges of the roof – another tree had burst through part of it – but there was no apparent way to climb up; the windows did not reach quite that high and were deeply depressed into the wall anyway. He also had no illusions about his ability to scale the wall without equipment, especially in his current condition. "Maybe around the back...?"

He went around to the right, skirting rubble from a collapsed corner high above and walking slowly to sweep his eyes up and down the structure, looking for possible entrances. The windows were all solid, as he had suspected – he even stopped to rattle a few of them to check. Looking in through the lattice pattern, he could see that it was not in fact only some of the roof, but most of it that was missing. The floor of the building was lush, the walls of its rooms damaged by weather. Objects he assumed to have once been furniture, at least the metal pieces, were strewn about haphazardly. Looking in through several of them, he felt no more the wiser as to the original purpose of the ruins at all.

Nothing on the front. Nothing along the side – though he found the building was not as wide as it was long; rectangular, where the other structures in the ruins had been almost unanimously square – but as he rounded the corner to the back, he immediately jerked back against the wall again out of sight.

Around the back, directly parallel to the large door in the front, he had seen the outline of another decorative pillar suggesting another, similar door. But in front of it had been three of the bandits.

He cursed under his breath. The wall followed the building all the way around, and far more closely at the sides and back than in the front: there was no way to approach the back door except along the narrow corridor the trio guarded. Had they seen him when he rounded the corner? He didn't think so, he hadn't heard their idle conversation change its tone, but it hardly mattered. Their presence there all but confirmed for him that there was a back door, that it worked, and that there was something there to be guarded – how, asked the small voice, since you've seen groups of them all over? - but he would have to go through them if he wanted to go forward at all. He took a deep breath, reaching up to touch the hilt of his sword again where it stuck up over his shoulder. Against three of them, 'go through' could become literal.

He thought of the bandit he had bumped into when he first entered the ruins and his stomach turned. He had tried to draw his sword not even thinking about what doing so meant then: in the impulse to defend himself, the idea that he could have murdered the boy hadn't even occurred to him. Just a kid, with no martial training, who had been terrified and hardly able to hold his knife-

He dropped his hand to his side abruptly. "Right. They're here because they're afraid of Norton. They don't know what they're doing. They don't know how to fight, they're used to scared villagers." And three of them or not, if an armed man strode confidently up and told them to scatter... Well. The other had certainly run when Fayt had told him to, and he had been taken for a friend of Norton's already. Maybe it was time to play the similarity.

He set his shoulders and, after a moment's hesitation, pulled off his poncho. If he was going to do this he might as well go all in. Lifting his chin and putting on what he imagined was the kind of face Adonis Klein would have worn in such a situation, he swung out around the corner and strode towards the small band by the door.

He took a moment to think that they were not terribly attentive guards—they did not seem to notice him even when he was practically on top of them. It might have been overconfidence as much as inexperience, though: after all, who would approach them here, in the depths of the ruins, through the camps of all of their fellows?

He cleared his throat – impatiently and not nervously, he hoped – and they all three turned to face him. The leader of the trio was apparent immediately: he was smaller than either of the others, shorter than the one and less solid than the other, but the other two fell into place beside and just behind him. In a way, the image they presented was effective. It made both of them look bigger. All three had real knives. The tallest of them held his in one hand, stroking a finger along the flat of the blade without looking; staring at Fayt unsettlingly instead.

There's something wrong with them, he realized, and then, it's too late to turn back now.

"Who are you, kid?" The apparent leader spoke up before Fayt could. He was sickly-pale and gaunt; his face had a sunken look to it with black circles around his eyes. He twitched. It was not one particular facial tic but he seemed to cycle through all of them at random, one or two at a time, sometimes jerking the corner of his mouth up into a sneer and sometimes juddering an eye shut in a spastic wink. It made Fayt uncomfortable to look at him because of it. "What'dya want? This here's Lord Norton's turf, so beat it."

Fayt steeled himself, and then told the honest truth as calmly as he could. "I don't want to fight you guys. I'm just looking for some things." Three sets of eyes narrowed at him. He met them evenly. "You seen a little boy around here?"

That did seem to throw them slightly. "A...little boy?" Half suspicious, half surprised. Fayt simply nodded, and the leader – after a brief glance to his fellows – reached up to rub at his forehead in what Fayt assumed was a thoughtful motion. "You mean Niklas?" He looked back up, maybe to gauge Fayt's reaction. What Fayt wanted to do was to grab him and shake him and and ask him where Niklas was. Instead, he nodded and kept his face still. The thug grinned nervously, mouth ticking at the corner. "Yeah. Yeah, he was lookin' for some things too. Kid came 'round here, blabberin' 'bout getting somethin' back and wantin' to see Lord Norton."

"And then?"

One of the others shifted slightly. The ringleader let out a little laugh, dropping his hand to his knife. "We're good guys. Good neighbors. Kind-hearted fellas that we are, we gave him what he wanted. I bet Lord Norton's reducatin' the uppity lil' brat right now."

For a moment, Fayt felt nothing. Maybe it was the time that it took for the bandit's words to sink in. "...What?" He felt his performance falter as his head began to ache: deep and hot in the center of his skull, small but there like a heated needle lanced deeply into a single point. The sunlight seemed too bright. He wanted to bury his face in his hands and make it go away.

The leader must have seen him falter because he took a step forward, lifting his hand from his knife to gesture in a broad sweep. "It's the kid's own fault. Nothing good can come from messin' with Lord Norton. Don't worry – he'll learn it's better to join us than fight us." The pinpoint spread. Someone stirring the needle. Fayt clenched his fists as the thug went on: "It's a shame the apple don't fall too far from the tree. Stupid must run in the family."

Fayt lunged forward. He felt his mouth open and knew he must have said something because he could feel it pulling out of the constriction in his throat, but he wasn't sure what it was. He knew that he almost ended up throwing himself on the bandit's knife as the gesturing hand suddenly snapped down and whipped it out. He held it confidently, more easily than the others Fayt had seen before. He knew it better. Fayt stopped with the point of it holding steady only a centimeter from his nose. "Whoa there! Didn't I just say you can't come through here?"

He didn't move. It didn't matter that this wasn't what he had expected, wasn't what he had planned, was everything he had been afraid of happening and more. He stared up at the thug from the end of the blade, still half-bent from his forward lunge. "Get out of my way."

"Move me." The knife flicked to one side. Momentarily, Fayt felt a slight sting on the end of his nose. The thug had nicked him. "You wanna see the kid, you're gonna have to."

Instead of flinching, Fayt straightened up, slowy. His hand went to his sword. He did not notice the motion until he felt his hand wrap around the grip. "What gives you punks the right-"

"Just another village idiot in need of educatin', huh?" He jerked his head to the side. The other two closed in from around his sides. Fayt took a step back, and they grinned. The third pulled his knife as well as all three moved forward.

"I said-" The step had not been a retreat, but deliberate. Now, Fayt let his weight fall onto the foot in the back and drew his other leg up. As he had in his earlier fight, he kicked out, this time aiming high for the stomach of the lead bandit. His foot sank into the thug's gut, forcing the air out of him and knocking him back into his fellows. All three stumbled; the largest one lost his footing. He dropped his knife and clutched at the others for support only to drag them down on top of himself when he fell, hard, on his back. "-Get out of my way!"

Fayt went to go over the fallen trio, but this time he was the one who was tripped. The tall one stuck a leg out, sitting upright at the same time and making a hard upward jab with the knife. Fayt dodged the blow easily, stepping to one side, but it tangled his feet around the outstretched leg and he stumbled. His hand flew from his sword reflexively to catch himself on the close walls. The three on the ground broke from their tangle, each scrambling in a different direction. They used his momentary loss of balance to get back on their feet. The more solid of the three, now less his weapon after the fall, balled up his fists instead.

"Bad move," said the ringleader.

Fayt agreed, but it was a little late for that now. He put his back to the wall of the building and drew his sword, edging a step to the side. The ringleader drove from him to cut him off from the door and Fayt sidestepped again, back towards one of the windows this time. The solid one came at him from that side and he ducked between them, into the narrow walk, and turned to face them again. The tallest grabbed him from behind as he turned – he felt the knife, briefly, feather against his throat - and he shoved back with his legs as hard as he could, slamming the thug into the other wall. The thug gasped but held on; Fayt drove his elbow back hard into the youth's ribs and his knife dropped as well.

A punch hit Fayt in the gut. He gasped, stars bursting briefly in front of his eyes, and without thinking he thrust his sword forward, then jerked it upward. The motion came naturally, practiced in a thousand simulations, and the attacking bandit was forced to dive to one side, hitting the ground once again. Fayt brought up his other hand to the sword's hilt, reversing the blow, and brought it sweeping down again as he stepped off of the wall. His foot came down, hard, into the thug's gut, pinning him into place for the blow. He thought of Listia, of the beetles, their wire framework shining through, glistening green. When he brought the sword down on the thug's head, he wondered, would it too simply crash in and cease to be? Would he vanish into a blur of colored pixels?

He could not bring himself to think of it as terrible. The thought seemed natural, like the swing of the sword. His head was pounding. There was sweat in his eyes. Was it from the fight? Could it be? They had laughed about Niklas' fate. When he brought the sword down it would not be like the simulations, like the beetles, it would be real; real like the pipe, like the hallways, alarms blaring, the slick floors. But they had laughed and it all felt so natural and oh, the heat, oh god, his head, and it seemed just fine that it was not a game any more after all in the face of that.

The dark eyes beneath him were so wide and afraid. They stared up through hands raised in a useless gesture, either of protection or surrender. The sword came down.

Fayt turned the blade. The edges scraped along the thug's hands as the sword passed between them, and the flat struck him squarely in the forehead with a dull sound. A look of surprise crossed the thug's face momentarily before his eyes rolled up and he went limp on the ground.

Lifting the blade again, Fayt rounded on the other two. "One down."

Why had he said it? How could he have said it? How was his voice so even? He didn't know. The remaining thugs hesitated in the face of it, looking suddenly uncertain, and he forced himself not to. He stepped forward and drew his blade back to strike again. The remaining bandits' eyes flicked briefly to their fallen fellow, prone but breathing on the ground, his hands and forehead bleeding. Back up to Fayt.

Almost as one, they turned to run.

What should have happened then, Fayt knew, was that he would lower his sword and let them go. It was what he had planned for at last. He would sheath his sword and enter the building to retrieve both Niklas and, surely, his stolen escape pod components with no further trouble from anyone who did not clearly deserve whatever it was that they got. But these two had laughed. They had laughed when they spoke of Niklas' fate, and maybe that, ultimately, was why none of that happened at all.

Fayt swung his sword back out of the way, letting the tip of the blade drop back behind his shoulder as he lifted the weapon high, and he reached for one of the thugs as they ran. He caught the back of their loose outer vest at its neck and twisted his hand, wrapping it in the material for grip. He jerked his hand back once, hard, and caught a brief glimpse of the thug's panicked expression as he was pulled into range for the pommel of the weapon to slam down into the crown of his skull. The resounding crack sent a shudder down Fayt's spine, not a chill but a weird jittering warmth creeping down from the hot pinpoint in his head.

He shoved the thug on his hand forward again, unwinding himself from the rough cloth and releasing his grip at the same time. He didn't know if he had knocked his opponent unconscious this time, as he had the other, but it hardly mattered. The thug who had been their ringleader was thrown forward into his taller friend, tangling him with inarticulate limbs and knocking him to the ground. They went down in a heap of dull color, moaning, clutching and twitching aimlessly against the ground. Fayt watched them for a moment, the tip of his sword pointed down towards the two in case they tried to rise again as he reached up to rub at his neck. It too was warm, and it itched and tingled, faintly burning. When his fingers touched they felt wet; when he drew his hand back, there was blood on the outside of his bandages. Not much blood, certainly, because it little more than a shallow nick it came from, but still blood. His blood.

It bolted Fayt back down to reality hard and fast. He drew in a deep breath, then let it back out in a rush and quickly sheathed his sword again. His hands were shaking. His head still pounded but the heat was already dissipating. That the fight had been more of what he had expected the first time – that he had known what he was doing, that it had gone the way a fight should have gone, even that he had managed to fight all three without (he hoped) seriously injuring any of them - was somehow not as reassuring as he had thought it would be. He looked down to the thugs where they sprawled on the ground, then away again quickly.

To a certain degree, what happened to them didn't matter. He hadn't wanted to hurt them, hadn't even wanted to fight them in the first place, and what injuries they had sustained should be superficial – cracked skulls and bruised ribs. Those, they deserved. Anything worse...well, he hadn't wanted to fight them. He had told them to get out of the way. And they had come at him with the intent to...

He touched his neck again and shivered. To not pull any punches, at least.

But the door was right there. It was what he had come for. Stepping around the largest of the three thugs – he was already stirring slightly again – Fayt went to the much smaller door set into the back wall of the building. It was not criss-crossed by metal like the front, but only accented with smaller, more utilitarian bands, as if to reinforce the wood. It was not, however, aged like the front door either: it was clearly either new or repaired and strengthened with so much new material it might as well have been. When he took the handle, it swung open easily. A stairwell descended into the darkness before him, light splashing over the first few broad, stone steps. Further down, he could see a yellowish glow that suggested torches. Strange smells wafted up to him: musty, old smells; something pungent and sickly-sweet. He could hear a quiet humming, distant and faintly hollow-sounding. Water dripping somewhere inside.

Fayt spared one last look back at the trio. None of them had risen, either because they were not yet able or they did not dare. He paused and bent down to pick up one of their knives. Unlike the others, they were sharp and felt balanced in his hands; not kitchen knives at all. He stuck the small weapon under the strap of his sheath, near his sword itself, then rose and looked back down into the darkness below.

"...Don't worry, Niklas. I'm coming."

He entered the building, and pulled the door shut behind him. The blackness of the place enfolded him; the smell a part of it as much as any actual decrease in light. The taste of the air changed palpably without the faint breeze that had drifted through the ruins, thicker and older. It reminded him vaguely of the apothecary's home in its sharpness. He found a part of himself wondering if that meant that something had died down here. He didn't know if he had meant the thought as a joke, but it wasn't funny anyway.

He stood for a moment longer, letting his eyes adjust from the bright daylight to the faintly smoky darkness, and then moved carefully down the stairs. Here and there he could feel a loose stone shift faintly in its setting, but the stairs for the most part seemed to be in good condition, and by keeping one hand to the wall he did not lose his footing. Part of the way down the stairwell he came to a tiny alcove carved into the wall slightly below his eye level – at that of the local peoples, it appeared to be – and a lamp set into it, burning dimly. He peered at it for a handle, squinting slightly, and when he found one picked the light up by it and held it out in front of himself to light the way.

Air currents whirled around his legs strangely. He almost felt as if the building were breathing all around him. It was a stupid thought, but it made him draw up his shoulders a bit anyway as he moved forward. The way the lamplight flickered made the shadows jump and move in ways that left it seeming...less stupid. Anyway, on an underdeveloped planet, who knew what might lurk in abandoned buildings? Norton at least, and who knew how many more thugs. The ones at the door had been better armed and better trained, but still essentially cowards looking for easy prey. Fayt did not think that those kept close in Norton's hideout itself would be quite so soft.

Eventually, the stairs ended. The hallway continued forward a short ways after that, punctuated by more lamps in more alcoves, before ending suddenly in a larger, open room. Fayt stood in the doorway blinking around it in surprise.

The room was filled with...things. His mind could provide him no better single word: things, objects and tools and possessions of all kinds, littered it throughout. Once it seemed that there must have been some form of order to the collection. Boxes and barrels where stacked and grouped together; weapon stands lined one wall, while another seemed to be dedicated to some kind of shelving which rose to the ceiling, accessed by a sagging, rotted wooden ladder. But at some point in the past it had been ransacked, and now tapestries had been torn down to lay across the floor and drape over the humped forms of furniture and even what appeared to be some form of cart. Rusted weapons were scattered here and there like jackstraws; spears strewn from one end of the room to another, swords jutting up from between piles of rifled detritus, shields propped up or laying flat at random. Broken pottery was scattered about like carpeting. Fayt heard it crunch underfoot when he stepped forward, staring around the room slightly slack-jawed. What was all of this stuff? What was it for? From one upended chest he saw a spill of what he imagined to be rotted clothing. It seemed like a collection of everything one might have needed in life and more. Wine bottles lay in broken drifts against the corners, stains marring the dirty rock floors in long meandering trails from them to thick metal grates set in the floor. He stepped closer to one, cocking an ear at the hollow sound of running water from below, close but not loud.

After a moment, holding his lamp above his head and moving it slowly as he turned to survey the room – a gratuitous effort; the room itself was lit by several such lamps of its own already – he lowered his light again and shrugged. Though it looked as though it had been riffled through fairly recently, it was clear that neither Niklas nor his escape pod parts were in the room. The thugs had said that Norton was probably dealing with Niklas right now; it meant that Fayt was not far behind, but also that he could not afford to stand around gawping at things. If he still wanted to explore the ruins after, there would be time for it then. He continued forward, stepping around the drifts debris as he moved deeper into the room towards where, on the far wall, he could see the dark square of another doorway.

The humming was louder here than it had been in the upper hall – or, not louder but more pervasive, more tangible. Fayt could feel it against his skin, tingling, not quite lifting the hairs on his arm. It felt familiar to him, but in such a generic way he could not quite place it. He paused for a moment where the hall forked off in two different directions, gentle curving around each, to simply listening. He quickly realized that the sound was close enough to see the source of: a soft, bluish-green light reflected back at him from the faintly damp stones on the wall down the right fork. He lowered his lamp and slowly stepped towards it, peering around a faint bend in the hallway before turning it himself.

The room that greeted him was not occupied, but it was far from empty, and its contents filled him with a rush of familiarity and relief. The interlocking stone of the walls and floors alike had been covered almost in their entirety by cables, wire bundles, and gleaming metal sheets. It was not a primitive metal, but the same as that of the Federation ship interiors, with the same muted finish. The glow that had lit the hall outside came from arrays of mounted consoles and pale, suspended light screens scrolling with letters and numbered data. A stack of sealed supply boxes sat against one wall, beside a displaced flight chair. Clearly all of these parts had been taken from a ship – more than one, in fact. The metal supply cases were not marked with the Federation's insignia, but another, unfamiliar one. Against one wall, hastily wired in to what must have been the primary control console, Fayt saw the distinct, familiar shape of his stolen portable generator, and his replicator as well. Federation communications equipment stood out in sharp contrast against another console array of some other, not immediately apparent origin.

If Fayt had still harbored any doubts at all that this Norton was also an off-worlder, they were now gone.

"But what is he doing here...?" Fayt murmured as he cautiously moved further into the room. Was Norton also a refugee from another crash? It seemed like the most likely possibility, but still told him nothing. When he paused to look at the scrolling letters and numbers on one of the consoles, he could not immediately recognize the characters, but that told him only something else that he already knew; that Norton was not terran. It was nothing that the appearance of much of the equipment did not already tell him, which was that he was also probably not a member of a Federation-allied race, which really did more to open the possibilities than to narrow them down.

He paused partway into the room. He thought that he could probably reactivate his distress signal from the console his communications array was currently attached to – knew that he could, in fact – but if he could not read the console, it would take time. Would the language settings change as easily as those of a Federation computer?

If Norton really did have Niklas, did he have the time to find out?

He looked around slowly, then shook his head and took a step back. "...There'll be time for this after," he said, and turned his back on the familiar technology. It was hard, but not as hard as he thought it would be. At least now he knew where it was and it would, after all, still be there once he was certain Niklas was safe again.

You should at least take care of your wounds, the small soft voice warned him, but he told it, later. There would still be time for that later, as well.

Back out in the hallway, with the soft glow and pervasive hum behind him, Fayt lifted his lamp again and looked around. Peering around the curves of several corners, he could see a sliver of a grate set in the wall this time, upright: it took him a moment to recognize it as door constructed of metal bars. The kind of thing one expected to find, really, in some dank dungeon in a fantasy simulation game. It was almost laughable, and when he passed it on his way to explore the left fork he reached out to touch it almost wonderingly, a pang of regret striking him for the bandages on his hand that kept him from feeling the cold metal or its texture. How many such dungeons had he rescued nobles and princesses from in his simulations? Had they felt real there? Would it be the same? He peered in between the bars but saw nothing of note, and after a moment continued down the hall again.

The right fork ended in a massive pair of wooden double doors, cracked slightly open. He stuck his head between them to peer cautiously around, but saw only another large room littered with old, rotted crates and their spilled contents. The far wall, barely visible in the poor lighting, was punctuated with the dark gaps of more barred cells. He was about to withdraw and go back to look for another path when he heard a faint sound issue from one of them. It was a small sound, and at first he could not be sure he had heard it at all, but it was enough to make him pause in place. He waited a moment, and then it came again: a faint scraping sound from the far side of the room.

"Hello?" He said quietly, and immediately kicked himself. It was probably a rat – or whatever this planet had in place of the vermin – but what if it was one of the bandits? Was he so eager for another fight he had to go around announcing himself?

But it was not a call for him to identify himself that came back from the darkness of the cell. Instead, it was a small, weak moan. The sound of a child in pain.

Forgetting caution, ignoring the snap of pain that sprang up his legs when he did so, Fayt broke from the door at a sprint, scrambling across the floor to the far wall. He could not find the purchase to stop; he slammed into the bars, skidding, and kept himself from falling only by gripping them tightly. Somewhere in all of it he had dropped his lamp but it didn't particularly matter; pressed up against the bars as he was, he could plainly see the tiny, prone form of Niklas' body crumpled face-down on the floor inside.

"Niklas! You okay?" It was a stupid question. If he were okay he wouldn't have been lying there like that. But at the sound of Fayt's voice Niklas stirred slightly again, making that faint, soft scraping sound once more as his sandal scratched against the ground for purchase. His hands shivered in place for a moment, the fingers opening and closing, and then lay flat against the ground as the boy attempted to push himself upright. He succeeded only in lifting his head, arms and shoulders quivering visibly with the effort, and could not even look up immediately at that. "Fayt...?" His voice was thick and faintly slurry; the translator fed it back on a delay. "Why are you here...?"

But Fayt did not immediately answer. He had drawn in a sharp breath at the sight of Niklas' face, and did not – could not - immediately let it out again. The boy had been beaten, and badly. He was not bleeding, somehow, but his eyes were well along in the process of swelling completely shut, his cheeks puffy and red. Bruises both forming and already black littered his skin. One of his ears quivered faintly, bent alarmingly part of the way down.

I'm going to kill him, were the first coherent words that burst into his mind, hot like brands, somehow not at all horrible. The second: "That's what I wanted to ask you. You should never have run off like that!"

"The...the music box parts. I wanted to get them back." Niklas' swollen lids twitched faintly, as if he were looking away beneath them. "I...I could not ask you to do this for us."

"But that's crazy." Fayt stopped, shaking his head. "Niklas...you didn't ask me. I offered-"

"Stop," the boy said, raising his voice with obvious effort to do so, and so Fayt did. One of Niklas' hands twitched, gripping at the floor, and his body shivered as he pulled in a breath. It was faintly wheezy-sounding and left Fayt wondering if the rest of the boy's body was in a similar state. "It is...dangerous here. You...must leave, quickly! He'll...get you..."

It was all that he could manage. The boy's eyes rolled upwards, the exposed whites flashing alarmingly in the darkness between his lids before they vanished entirely. His body slumped to the floor again, forehead dropping to the stone floor with a soft crack.

"Niklas?" When the boy did not answer, Fayt slammed himself against the bars, a note of hysteria creeping into his voice. "Hang in there, Niklas!"

Niklas did not answer. The heat in Fayt's skull spread downward, drying his throat. He tried to swallow around it. "Hang in there, Niklas. I'll get you out. I'll hurry and get us both out." He released the bars and took a step back, trying to stare at them instead of through them (except he couldn't stop staring through them, how could he stop staring through them at the terrible thing that lay beyond); trying to think. The doors had metal locking panels, primitive, the kind of thing his simulations had lead him to expect, but he had not seen any keys in the previous rooms. Of course, he had not been looking, but he also did not know how close that Norton might be. Was he here, in another room the entrance to which Fayt had simply not seen? If he left Niklas to go and look for a key that might or might not be there, or even to replicate one – knowing he couldn't without knowing the inside of the lock, the idea was still tempting in its simplicity – would Norton return and finish what he had started?

'Finish what he had started'. It was a terrible though, terrible in its vagueness. Fayt was not sure what he meant by it but found that he didn't want to know at all.

He reached up to touch his sword, but dropped his hand back to his side just as quickly. The lock was too heavy, too solid-looking, and he did not think his grip was strong enough to break it even if his arms turned out to be. If he tried, he might succeed only in jamming the door closed permanently. So, what options did that leave him?

His hand snapped up suddenly, on a half-formed thought, to his breast pocket, smacking against something hard and circular inside. "My- of course!" He fished inside the pocket, pulling his communicator out. The small device nonetheless had a powerful battery: by simply crossing a few internal wires and shorting it out, one could easily make a small makeshift explosive. It was the kind of thing he had seen on the news sometimes, like the war itself; always distant, always removed from his life and his world even more than the breezy fantasies of movie and simulation. But it was also the kind of thing that a teenage boy might look up on the net one day when he was bored, just because it was strange and forbidden and resulted in explosions; he had cared about it like he cared about the Aquaelie being reoutfitted for continued duty. Just a little bomb. A little mayhem he could carry in his head and tell himself he carried in his pocket, just enough to make himself feel rough and dangerous, to keep the adrenaline up.

Just a little bomb, but, he now thought, maybe just big enough to get the job done. He started to pry the casing off of the device, fumbling slightly in his hurry. If I lose my communicator I could be stuck here, he thought, and then, no, I can fix the communications array from the shuttle. I can turn the distress signal back on, then, again, horribly reasonable, horribly simple, what if I can't?

His fingers froze. What if he couldn't. Hadn't he just wondered about whether or not he would be able to readjust the settings again now that they'd been tampered with? And he didn't know for sure that Norton had even turned it off...but...what if he had? What if he had, and Fayt couldn't fix it? He could be stuck there, maybe forever. For a moment he almost closed the case again, when he heard Niklas blearily moan his sister's name from inside of the cell.

He shook his head hard, as if shaken from a stupor. "What am I thinking? There's no time for this..." He jerked his head from side to side again, and then, louder: "Don't worry, Niklas. I'm not leaving you."

If he got stuck, he supposed, he got stuck, and he would learn to live as Adonis after all; or something like him, anyway, knowing he had done the right thing at least. He tucked the casing between two fingers and his wrist in the hand holding the communicator, picking out internal components and wires with his free hand and reattaching them in the places he thought he remembered, thankful all the while for the anarchic tendencies of the online community. He snapped the casing back on when he was done and punched in a series of commands and settings, then jammed the entire device into the minute crevice between the door itself and the rest of the bars, as near to the lock as he could lodge it. He stood there for just a moment, watching to be sure that the external lights began to flicker out of sync, and then bolted off to one side to take cover along the rock part of the wall. He had never actually done this before. In happier circumstances it might have been more fun, but it still got his heart racing just a little. Would it actually work? He watched intently, as much for the excitement as the urgency.

He could hear the faint beeps and blips of the communicator as it attempted to reset itself according to his new parameters grow faster and more erratic. Sparks spit from under the hard casing, and then a bit of smoke trickled out of it. Leaning out from the wall, Fayt frowned slightly. Was that all? Had he made a mistake? Was that-

The device made a jarringly loud electric crack of sound, and then burst in a ball of flame and plastic shrapnel. Fayt ducked and covered his head with his arms, letting out a faint yelp of alarm, even though none of the pieces made it as far as his location. After a moment, he let his arms dropped and hurried to his feet again, moving quickly towards the now-smoking door. This time, when he reached out to the bars the door creaked open at little more than a touch, taking only a light shove to scrape inward along the floor. For a moment Fayt held his breath, thinking that some of the plastic shrapnel might have hit Niklas, but it did not appear to: the smoking, faintly acrid-smelling fragments stopped almost half a foot shy of the boy's arms. With a sigh of relief, he entered the cell and went to Niklas' side, crouching down and placing his hands gently on the boy's shoulders. He could feel his breathing, shallow and faint, a little uneven. How badly had he been injured? "Hang in there, Niklas."

Gently, carefully, Fayt took hold of the tiny shoulders and rolled Niklas off of his face and onto his back. He winced at the sight that greeted him, so much more awful-looking up close; the face beaten within an inch of bleeding. It was enough that he looked away quickly, swallowing hard, but then he propped Niklas upright, one hand behind his head as he felt for bumps, and forced himself to examine the boy's face more closely. Actually inspecting him – touching the bruised cheeks lightly – Fayt was surprised to find that while the damage looked grotesque, only very little of his probing caused Niklas to show any sign of pain or even discomfort, moaning softly only when Fayt touched his crooked ear. As hard as it was to believe by looking at him, he did not appear to be too badly hurt at all: simply traumatized, and possibly in slight shock. His face was certainly still swollen of course, especially his eyes, but the damage seemed to be largely superficial, and would probably be mostly recovered by the next day. Either way, it was relief. He had feared for the worst.

As he looked down, focusing himself on the task of working his other arm up under the boy's knees to lift him, he heard a curious series of sounds: a voice, but a nonsensical one, uttering pure gibberish. Blinking in surprise, Fayt lifted his head and looked around. Only himself and Niklas were visible, the boy's swollen eyes now opened again – though whether slightly or as far as they could, it was hard to say. Then Niklas opened his mouth, and the strange sounds came again, ceasing when the boy slipped back into unconsciousness and went still in his arms again.

It occurred to Fayt belatedly that his translator had been built in to the communicator. He grimaced. "No time for regrets now I guess," he told Niklas, even though the boy could not hear him and would no longer have been able to understand him even if he could. "We'd better get out of here first." He slid his hand down from behind Niklas' head, settling it behind his back instead, and pulled the boy close against his chest as he rose slowly back to his feet. Mindful of the faint slickness of the floor and poor lighting, he walked just as slowly for the cell door again, watching every step he took from over his comatose cargo of the young boy.

He heard the hard metallic click and the voice at the same time. A man's voice, hard. "Freeze!"

Terran. His head jerked to the side at the sound of it, stunned to hear the familiar language, and for a moment he did freeze, one foot half off the ground still in the shelter of the cell's doorway. He could not see the speaker around the edge of it, but he could see the source of the clicking sound. It took him a moment to process exactly what it was that he was looking at, but when he realized, he went cold.

The barrel of a gun: a phase rifle, like those held by the Federation soldiers before. It was not pointed up, not pointed to the side or the floor, but pointed at him. At them.

Suddenly, he did not want to meet Norton quite so much after all.

Though he froze – though it felt as if he had stood there frozen for minutes – it only lasted a moment, less than a beat. When Fayt moved again, it was to take a step back into the cell once more. He turned, stiff, automatic, and slowly lowered Niklas' body back towards the ground within the safety of the stone walls. He heard the weapon, but more than that he felt it fire, the sudden heat rushing by his back, the air-sucking miniature shock wave as the warning shot struck the open barred door behind him. The material suddenly radiating with it like power rods, stinking of hot metal. Tiny chips of stone struck his back, bouncing hot off of his exposed arms and shoulders, where the blast must have hit the stone beyond. They chattered onto across the floor around his feet. He turned his head to watch them and told himself I am Adonis, not thinking of the bodies in the evacuation facility hallway, or trying; their shriveled, smoking black eyes.

He looked at Niklas and felt the hot words digging into his head, I'm going to kill him, all but glowing, something felt and almost seen that drove the cold feeling away more effectively than any delusion or false platitude. He brushed the hair from Niklas' bruised face and made sure that the boy was settled against the wall, half-sitting, in such a way that he would not fall and hurt himself further, then rose to his feet. He found that he did not have to steel himself before stepping out into the open. The heat in his head steeled him, as it had in the hallways before. It pounded like a second heartbeat, roared like an engine. I'm going to kill him. I'm going to kill him. I am going to kill him.

A second shot fired, this one cutting closer – over his shoulder, searing the tips of his hair. He could smell it burning. Somehow, he did not flinch. He simply stopped, inclining his head faintly to watch a stack of wooden crates against the back wall where the shot struck. Those that were hit by the faint orange heat-flare of the weapon were outright vaporized. Those stacked on top of them collapsed or were tossed aside by the shock wave of its impact, the heat sucking the air in and the pressure tossing it back out.

"No funny moves if you wanna stay alive," the man told him. A little lilty, half patronizing half playful now that he could see his intruder clearly; maybe amused that it was just a skinny kid in tourist clothes after all. Grating. Petty. It made a dull, numb part of Fayt's mind think of a school bully and that, maybe, was fitting. "You hear? Play nice and I'll let you live a little longer."

"That was a phase gun," was all Fayt said, and the dull, numb part of his mind wondered at its detachment. He took his eyes off of the back wall and the collapsed stack of boxes and turned them towards the village's tormentor at last. "So you must be Norton."

The man laughed. "Yeah, that's me! Norton the great!" From toe to chin, he was covered completely by a suit of thick-looking but tightly fitted synthetic black material. A coat with what appeared to be military insignias was thrown over the top of this, but it did not look to be his size and had probably belonged to a crewmate. His ears were indeed rounded; the short, spiked hair that left them exposed a sickly shade of blond. He might have passed for human, and Fayt could certainly see where the villagers had found them similar, except for his eyes. They had no white, no iris, no pupil. They were the same color as his skin. For a jarring moment Fayt thought they were not there at all, until he saw the dim light of the lamps glistening off of their wetness. "Nice to hear some genuine Terran being spoken again, huh? None of this translator delay crap. Seems like ages."

Fayt stood very still. "Why are you here?" His voice, when he spoke, remained detached and was very still; he realized that it was just as when he had spoken in the ruins above in the way it did not sound quite like his own. It conveyed none of the horror, the disgust, the rage he felt boiling and snapping through his head, making it pound with fire; none of the way his stomach lurched at those sickening wet flesh-colored eyes. "You're not from this planet, are you."

It hadn't really been a question – he absolutely could not have been – but Norton sneered as though it had been, exposing the contents of his nearly lipless mouth: a jostling nest of grotesque lamprey teeth; sharp, uneven, unnaturally white. One more glaring difference between them. The dull part of Fayt was glad for it. "I'm from Rezerb, boy."

Rezerb. He had heard of that planet – hadn't he even seen it make the news only just before the attack (and how strange that he should remember that of all things, a news clip he had not paid attention to even then; a small, detached part of his mind wondered at it, the way the human brain latched on to the tiniest of things)? "Right. That planet full of joy-seekers who keep rejecting Federation membership." What else did he know? What of it was useful to him now? Ultraviolet and other short wave light was harmful to them. They had amazing natural regeneration. He had heard a story – the kind of gross-out tale young men pass around a school campus – that if you cut off all their arms and legs, they could grow them back in half a year (and then come after you, ha ha, it had seemed so funny at the time). Injuries that would kill a human times over would only make a Rezerbian sore and angry: it was why their riots, he supposed, always turned into massacres and made the Federation news. So fighting him, especially down here in the dark, would be out even if Fayt hadn't brought a sword to a phaser fight.

They fed on the fluids of other organisms. He thought of it suddenly; thought of Niklas, beaten but so carefully without breaking the skin, and felt suddenly sick. The fact that he had not seen any food tucked away in Norton's lair itself. He swallowed the sudden urge to vomit. "...So what are you doing here? This is an underdeveloped planet you know. Federation or not they'll lock you up for this."

"Not much to tell." Norton shrugged. The barrel of the phase rifle bobbed with it, but stayed trained on Fayt. "I...was involved in this...er, let's call it an 'unfortunate accident'. Came out a bit much even for Rezerb. So, I ended up sentenced to life in exile on a deserted planet. The escort ship they were transporting me on had engine trouble and ended up crash landing here." He paused, thoughtful, and then suddenly gave Fayt a manic grin. "Can ya believe it? All I had to do was mess with their engine codes, and those stupid pilots ended up frying their own engines! I mean..." His hand snapped up, coming over his face as it to stuff down the hysterical cackle that bubbled up out of him, and for a moment Fayt braced to throw himself into action. But the moment passed as quickly as it came. Norton's hand dropped again. His fleshy eyes fixed back on Fayt, the rifle twitching as if he knew what had gone through Fayt's mind. His snide cheer did not abate in the face of the knowledge, if he did; his smile only ticked up at the corner. "Ohhhh, man! All I was trying to do was cause a distraction so I could make my escape. But now here I am, no ship, and this planet's become my prison instead."

"And the others?" Fayt asked, some part of him knowing, or at least guessing. All of him not wanting to know. It filled him with another, sick warmth in his stomach to even think it. "Where are the others, Norton?"

"Huh?" Two more shots were fired – one on either side of him. Norton grinned. "That's 'Lord Norton' to you."

"There must have been others. Crew, other prisoners, things like that. What happened to the other people on the escort ship?" Remembering what he knew about Rezerbians. Remembering what they ate.

"Oh, those guys?" Norton spared him the details. He even had the decency to imply a less gruesome end. "They're dead, the poor suckers. They were trying to send out a distress signal and, you know, a bolt of light just flew out and smote 'em where they stood. Bam!"

Norton took a moment to laugh again, enjoying his own humor; hell, simply seeming to enjoy the sound of his own voice. But after a moment he stopped, sounding almost serious. "...That crash part was unfortunate. Not part of the plan. But as they say on Terra, 'no use crying over spilled milk'. I've been devoting myself to making this planet my new kingdom. Ya get my drift?"

"So that's why you've been raiding Whipple." He sounded so calm. How could he possibly sound so calm, all while thinking, the signal is out no one will ever find me; all the while thinking, I'm going to kill you?

"Something like that. You're a smart kid." He grinned again, full of teeth. The gun dangled casually from one hand. "It's why I've been raiding Whipple and it's why you're gonna have to die. Sorry."

I'm going to kill him. The words were still pounding in his head, as if on the end of a smelting hammer. Fayt realized that he was sweating. The heat, that awful hot feeling, was not just in his head: he was sweating, his eyes stinging and burning as it dripped into them. He did not wipe it away. He let it blind him, blurring the room. Norton became a black smudge against the lamplight splashed on the wall, no sickening eyes, no lamprey grin. Anonymous except for his gratingly cheerful voice yammering glibly on:

"But, hey, you'll be happy to know I plan to make the most of those parts I stripped from your escape pod. I was starting to worry, you know, 'cause a guy's gotta eat. Makes it easier on me to keep everyone fat and happy."

I'm going to kill him. Fayt took a step forward, but the weapon snapped up to the ready again and he stopped, though he found that he was not afraid of it. He could hear a low, strange sound, harsh and rattling, and only distantly registered that it came from his own throat. Everything in the room seemed brighter, sharper, clearer, where moments before it had been a blur; his vision going bright with heat so that he thought for a moment he must be about to pass out again. "It's guys like you..."

A distant part of his mind wondered at the clarity of it, the bright, clean blue; when you were angry, games had taught him, your vision went red. The color of rage, of heat, was red, not this star-hot pale blue that cut through the haze of sweat, cut the lines of the phase rifle from Norton's hand, cut Norton's lines from the haze of the wall, the lines of his face going from jeering to puzzled to alarmed, with such laser-like precision. He could pick out the very particles in the air itself, atoms flashing and glittering like sparks from a fire that was not there, swirling around him on its heat. But not really thinking about that, any of that, with most of his mind: the nearest he still had to a coherent thought I am (the heat I am the fire I am the heat I am the fire) going to kill him. Not really thinking anything at all.

"Ah-hah! There you are!" The sudden crow of triumph did not come from Norton. The now wide-eyed Rezerbian's head snapped towards it in alarm even as Fayt's did in alertness. It was not a conscious action – not the choice of a thinking, independent being – but neither was it instinctual or at all natural; instead a jerking, almost mechanical motion that filled the distant part of him with revulsion.

It was that revulsion which jerked him from his distant state. The clarifying blue cast to his vision snapped out, leaving the room dull and dark in its wake. Norton and his gun faded back into each other and the wall, no longer carved out like stark targets. The flashing lights of the atoms died around him. Fayt realized the immense humming sound that had filled the room only because of its sudden absence. It left him feeling strangely empty and disoriented. The feeling was that of waking up from a long dream and he stood in it, then, weak-kneed, hazy, puzzled; shivering in the suddenly realized contrast of the underground air on his skin, turning his sweat to ice.

It was in this state, vulnerable and dazed, that he realized he was now surrounded.