Disclaimer: No money is being made from this. The characters belong solely to Pet Fly, etc, etc. It is purely for enjoyment. All original characters and situations are the property of the author and may not be reproduced in any way without my permission.

Credits: OCs abound! Some of the characters in this fic are based on "originals" created by Susan Foster, Maedoc et al in the "GDP" & other series (see her website for these stories). Race Keegan, Trey Logan, Gage Butler, etc, etc, I have used in other fiction, but they wouldn't leave me alone and whined when I wouldn't let them play, so…Note: Dr David Rohl, Austen Henry Layard, Charles Darwin are all real people and the events described relating to them are all real and actually happened.

Summary: This is AU and set in the future when humans have colonised other worlds. (Italic words in brackets indicate thoughts), italics without brackets in the normal sentence structure are for emphasis. I'm a Brit, so all grammar and spelling is British, but I've tried to Americanise where I can. NB to American readers: I do not agree with, nor subscribe to, Political Correctness.

WARNING: At the request of reviewer Phoenix Flight, this story's rating was changed from "T" to "M" as of 2010. Having received from Phoenix Flight several perceptive and well-argued reasons for proposing the change, I agree with her opinion on this. Therefore, this story is now rated "M" for non-graphic, historic, but nonetheless extensive inclusion of and reference to mature topics such as rape/sexual coercion/violence (of main characters and of both sexes), human trafficking, enslavement, domestic violence, the sex trade, suicide, and the rape of minors. This story also contains intense emotional bonding, a few expletives, some
physical violence and sexual references – all gen, no slash. I repeat, this story is now rated M. Please be aware of these factors before you read it.


Chapter I – Fox Landing

The dark side of the moon, planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy…

Daric Slater moved eeeever so slightly back from Intergalactic Federation of Planets Special Forces Commander Hywl Storge, Interstellar Marines, 51st Spaceborne Division, 7th Company. Huge, bulky, with a bullet-shaped head, buzz-cut and a face like a well-scrubbed potato, Storge looked exactly what he was: a humourless, unimaginative jarhead. Equally unprepossessing was the man to Storge's left, Cecil Wildes, Oligarchy Mandarin Primary Grade: thin, prissy, possessing a narrow, sharply angled face with a long nose that only accentuated his unfortunate resemblance to certain Earth rodents.

As Captain of the USS Nimitz IV, Daric's position should have been that of standing right alongside these politically illustrious individuals. Daric had been Captain of the Nimitz for more years than he bothered to remember or would admit to, and had hand-picked most of her crew, going for brains over brawn every time; his slight withdrawal signalled to those sharp-witted individuals that their Captain was tacitly absolving himself of all involvement in this damned stupid waste of time…which was exactly what they expected from a man of his intelligence.

Even as he made the move, virtually unnoticeably, Daric got the uneasy impression that the third man amongst his "guests" could read his mind, but then, the Third Man had nothing in common with the pale reflections that were Storge and Wildes in the same way that the Sistine Chapel has nothing in comparison with a child's matchstick men drawing. Ramrod straight, topping six feet in height, he lacked the over-muscled "pumped-up" physique of Storge, even though his shoulders were broad enough to land light aircraft on, his arms corded with ropy muscle, thighs like tree trunks anchoring his long legs.

This man did not go to fancy gymnasiums to pump iron – he lived hard and worked hard, which was why his body was adamantine, for all his bulk. His short-cropped military haircut was dark oak brown in colour, as were his eyes, but they seemed able to bore into the soul. They were hard like pebbles and the chill of one glance left a man with a sudden irrational urge to confess every wrong he'd committed since the age of about three. Daric hadn't got to be the Captain of an Intergalactic Federation of Planet's warship, and the flagship itself no less, by being stupid or unobservant. He strongly suspected that the Third Man's appearance had been subtly, cosmetically altered – temporarily changing a person's hair, skin, eye colour and Body Mass Index at the genetic level was extremely expensive and actually physically painful, which was why it usually remained the purview of the "shadowy government black ops agencies" – in short, the sort of people with strong psychopathic tendencies who thought nothing of terminating people "with extreme prejudice" or whatever the current euphemism was. Daric treated him with the utmost courtesy, and tried to avoid him.

He was dressed completely in black. Some people can carry black off, others cannot. Wildes would have looked sallow, Storge fat. The third man on Daric's bridge looked absolutely terrifying even when he did nothing more than just stand there and breathe. (But he doesn't just "stand", he looms even if he isn't intending to). Highly polished black boots, made of actual leather, from a real animal, screamed his wealth as they moulded in a made-to-measure way to his feet and calves. The black trousers with scarlet piping down the sides had creases sharp enough for Daric to willingly attempt to use them if he lost his knife, and the thigh length tunic covering his torso and arms had clearly been made to measure, the cuffs ending precisely at the correct point of his wrists. Though dull, the tunic and trousers seemed to have a subtle shimmer, and Daric was in no doubt they were made from Black Widow Spider Silk, impervious to even close range disrupter blasts, bullets and knives, the exorbitantly expensive, near-perfect body armour that weighed virtually nothing and allowed total freedom of movement.

Such overkill did not surprise Daric one bit. The tunic buttoned down the right side of the body, not the middle. In the top left of the tunic were coloured bars, signifying decorations and medals – dozens of them – but above them was a gold pin: a crooked halo resting on a pair of long, stylised angel's wings, above an olive branch and a machine gun, crossed over each other. Officially it was the rather grandiose insignia of a very obscure unit of the IFP Ceremonial Guards; a small, "decorative" regiment made up of aging or 'deserving' 'crocks and codgers' from the regular military who couldn't afford or didn't want to retire but who weren't fit enough to be on active duty. They had nice crisp green/black/gold uniforms and 'guarded' Government and public buildings like museums and such like, whilst not actually doing anything much.

Daric Slater had had to resist the urge to snort like a water-buffalo with hayfever when he'd laid eyes on the thing, because he was one of those very few people who suspected that the official holders of that pin were merely used as a cover for those who really wore it "with intent", for the Third Man was neither crock nor codger. Dark Angel, the elite of the elite, the assassins of assassins, the plumbers who fixed leaks, the sweepers up of problems for the wealthy and powerful in the governments of the Intergalactic Federation of Planets. They inspired terror just by walking down the street, and were commonly referred to as the "Angels of Death".

On the same side of the Third Man's tunic with that ominous gold pin, a badge was positioned next to it that frightened Daric even more. The representation was of a large black feline, a panther. Such badges identified the wearer as either a Sentinel or a Guide; the fact that the panther was depicted as if in motion, rather than sitting or standing still, indicated that the Dark Angel (and if he's not a DA, I'm a pink-backed Quagg Duck) was a Sentinel, but, clearly delineated, a silver chain was wrapped around the panther's body and legs, effectively hobbling it. A Bondless Sentinel: Extremely aggressive, hair-trigger homicidal. Just what the bridge of a B-class Battle Destroyer needed brooding in the middle of it!

As if all that were not enough kudos to heap on one man, there could be glimpsed, encircling his neck above the base of the throat and below the Adam's apple, a thin, very narrow but highly ornate, multi-coloured tattoo. A tattoo that marked him as a member of the Oligarchy, scion of one of the Nine Ruling Families, the High Houses that comprised the Oligarchy, the powerful government-in-all-but name, that in effect ruled Earth Domain, Mars Domain, and dozens of other planets throughout the Inhabited Galaxies. Daric took a closer, sneak-peak at the tattoo and swallowed as his mouth went bone-dry. Such tattoos were individual, unique and impossible to replicate, every swirl and line depicting a precise rank or station. Even though he couldn't identify the Third Man's specific family, this Dark Angel bore the tattoos of a Firstborn and Body Heir to an Oligarchy High House.

Daric averted his eyes and prayed hard that the Dark Angel would not hold him responsible for the spectacular flop that was about to commence. Anyone with any common sense would surely have realised the stupidity of trying to sneak a B-class Battle Destroyer like the Nimitz within a hundred spatials of Earth or any Oligarchy world….

Oblivious, Storge gave his commands, smug satisfaction in his tone as they orbited over the chosen city, like a hawk hovering over a mouse, without apparently triggering any alarms. Finally satisfied, he rapped out, "Fox Landing, on my mark...Mark!"

Meanwhile, about five minutes before…


Captain Simon Banks of Cascade Police Department's Major Crime Unit raised his head at the weary word of his secretary, Rhonda. An attractive blonde in her early thirties, Rhonda was usually punctilious about the courtesies, calling him Captain, ensuring everyone addressed Simon Banks with the respect she had for the man. She pointed at his desk and withdrew.

Looking down, he saw a light flashing on and off in silent alarm. His desk was a hi-tech plastiglas effort that required only light touches to the surface to operate. After 15 years, Simon still wasn't entirely sure what some of the keys actually did. This however, he was conversant in. He pressed a key and in every room in the Cascade Central Precinct, the lights began to flash bright blue before he reset them to normal. On top of the Precinct building, one of the larger lights also flashed bright blue for thirty seconds. A certain group of people took it in rotation to do nothing but watch Cascade Central Precinct. When the light flashed it's warning, they hurried away, spreading the word, and soon that certain group of people weren't anywhere near central Cascade.

A Fox Landing did not refer to some complicated military manoeuvre, but rather to the effect caused by it. The massive bulk of the Nimitz plunged down over Cascade spaceport, sending other spacecraft, air skiffs, hover-cars and ground traffic scattering frantically out of its way, like squawking, flapping chickens that are suddenly pounced on by a hungry fox. The stabilisers shrieked as they absorbed the impact of the massive ship's touchdown and Daric mentally shuddered at the cost of how much fuel it was going to take to get Nimitz space borne again. A, B and C-class ships routinely orbited in space or went to space dock, their crews using either the smaller AUVs - Atmospheric Utility Vehicles - or shuttles to get them to the surface and back, since the colossal thrust required to lift such heavy ships through a planet's atmosphere simply weren't financially viable – A-class ships were so large that they were constructed solely in space and one that touched down on a planet never left, too huge to overcome the gravity.

Daric's protests had been overruled; Storge and Wildes had insisted on "maximum psychological impact" – the colours of the Oligarchy and the IFP front and centre, with an open display of power and threatening potential. Dark Angel Bondless Sentinel Icily Grim Whoever He Was, Daric noted, had remained silent on that issue.

Not needing Daric to issue any commands, his crew were already functioning smoothly in their assigned roles, performing the unique landing procedure flawlessly as if they did it daily. Abruptly the main forward screen flickered and Cascade Spaceport Station Manageress Ohlani Umbutu's beautiful ebony features appeared upon it. Her melted chocolate eyes were expressive, but displaying a singular lack of expected awe, fear or subservience. Irritation and exasperation overlaid a weary contempt.

Without preamble, she judged: "Unauthorised landing without CSS control tower permission, fine 10,000 galacs. Endangering spaceport vehicles and personnel – 20,000 galacs each offence; Landing forcing other craft into unauthorised manoeuvres with potential for possible fatal collisions, 50,000 galacs. You have ten Earth minutes to credit these fines to the CSS penalty account and then take-off or you will be fired upon. Attempt to re-launch without payment of fines, you will be fired upon."

Storge and Wildes had both swelled like balloons at this withering recital. "IFP Interstellar Marines, Special Forces – " announced Wildes with pompous grandeur, obviously expecting instant collapse of resistance.

Umbutu didn't even blink. "All fines are doubled with immediate effect."

Daric flinched; these idiots would bankrupt him as well as destroy his reputation. "Mesdame Umbutu!" He stepped forward and for the first time she showed human emotion.

"Daric?" Her, "what are you doing with these idiots?" remained unspoken but clearly shown on her face.

"The fine will be paid." The flat declaration, bleak as an arctic windstorm, cut across his drawing in breath to attempt to smooth things over. "Charge them to my private account."

Umbutu raised one eyebrow expressively. Daric knew her sharp eyes would have missed nothing, from the ridiculously high number of coloured bars through the Dark Angel pin and the tattoo, even to the barely visible black-on-black panther badge. Her slow smile would have turned a shark green. "Certainly, Sir. To what account shall I send the fine invoice?"

"James Joseph Ellison – BY7906ABVX Petty Cash."

Oh, crap. Daric closed in eyes. The only thing needed for his life to get worse was for a piano to drop on his head. Ellison, the oldest, richest, most powerful of the Nine Ruling Families, House Ellison, founder of the Oligarchy, who could destroy the economy of worlds and bring down the governments of solar systems with one languidly waved hand. Daric swallowed heavily and kicked himself for not putting it together – while several scions of the Nine Ruling Houses were rumoured to be black operatives, James Ellison was the only Body Heir whose face was not repeatedly splashed, instantly recognisable, across the Inhabited Galaxies media, which meant that he was a very covert covert operative. At that moment, Daric would have been willing to bet that the man's own parents didn't even possess an accurate – and therefore identifiable - physical likeness of him.

Storge bulled forward again, nodding approval at the monitors to where the dark-clad Special Forces Marines were decked out in full combat gear. "Search will commence!" He boomed over the Comm., making Ginelli flinch and lower the volume to his earpiece, "On the double, move out, Marines!"

The frosted glass – real glass, Daric noted – double doors of Cascade Police Department Central Precinct's Major Crime Unit flew back to thump the walls with shuddering frames as the Marines swept in like a surging storm wave over a seafront pier, taking point at all the defensive positions and pointing very big guns at the occupants as Storge and Wildes swept in after them with supercilious power, followed by the grim, stone-faced James Ellison and Daric Slater.

Their reception was clearly not what Wildes and Storge were expecting. Nobody panicked, attempted to flee, swooned or screamed. The non-police personnel, including collared felons, either looked at them with wide eyes or twisted in their chairs to look at the police officers as if waiting for their direction. The cops merely regarded them blandly.

"This building is in immediate lockdown!" bellowed Storge. "We are fully authorised by the IFP High Council, Department of Justice and LEO Commission to undertake a full Search of these premises under suspicion of aiding and abetting Sanctuary. Any opposition will be met with deadly force."

The half-glass (again real) office door marked: Simon Banks, Captain Major Crime Unit, in gold letters, was yanked open, and a tall, handsome black man wearing actual spectacles, with a real cigar made with tobacco, Daric realised from the scent, chomped between his teeth, stuck his head through the door way and looked the Marines up and down as if they were something foul he had just trodden in. "Conduct your Search, then get out. You're using up valuable oxygen."

The door closed with a bang, and Daric couldn't suppress a grin at the way Wildes and Storge's jaws dropped in unison. Everyone in this room should have been practically grovelling in terror before the military might of the IFP. As if this were their cue, the cops went back to their routine, noise filling the bullpen as if the Marines did not exist. Daric hastily wiped off the smirk, as he saw Ellison glance at him, but he knew the man had seen it. Placing his normal stoic mask firmly back on, Daric stood back and let them do their thing. It didn't take long, for the Marines were efficient. Ellison walked among them, covering every floor of the building. But twenty minutes later they were back in Major Crime; Ellison gave a single negative twitch of his head to indicate no success. Wildes flushed under the derisive scrutiny of Banks, who had come out of his office and was now standing silently, puffing on his cigar and glaring the Marines with a sulphurous expression.

The Oligarchy Mandarin puffed out his chest. "This is the third time that you have been reported as maintaining a Sanctuary, Banks. Consider this your final warning…."

The rest of his supposedly intimidating speech was never uttered as suddenly Ellison pounced on a young, handsome white detective, with stylishly cut oak tree bark-brown hair and eyes, who could have been no more than about twenty-five. This man had entered through a side door near the back of the Major Crime bullpen and was standing uncertainly as a big Marine blocked his path to a large, friendly-faced black man whose baggy "grunge" clothing was as casual as the newcomer's own colour co-ordinated silver grey suit, shirt and tie were smart. The detective tried to jump back as Ellison suddenly appeared next to him like a wraith materialising up out of the floor, but Ellison shot out a hand and gripped him. The black grunge-dressed detective jumped up angrily, ignoring the guns the Marines swung on him, only the barked order of Banks stopping him.

The Bondless Sentinel inhaled deeply; there was a scent on this man – not his, but still there, so faint, but detectable – a rich, faintly spicy scent, not sharp like ginger but mellow, like hot chocolate with cinnamon in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter night. Chocolate mixed with cinnamon, that was it, but the scent also had a musk mingled with it, something so negligible that only a Sentinel's olfactory sense could detect it, musk sweet and enticing. Ellison frowned in frustration – the scent was barely there and mingled with far too many others, some of which also carried the telltale musk of empaths, but none of other scents had the enticing lure of that faint one.

"I can smell them on him." Ellison said, releasing the frightened detective who looked towards the black detective, obviously his partner, for explanation.

"Where have you just come from?" Wildes demanded sharply.

Handsome looked at him and glanced at Banks. Not until the Captain nodded, ignoring the way Wildes' face turned beetroot, did the detective reply, "I take classes at Rainier University two days per week. I've just come back."

"What do you study?" Maybe there was clue to find the owner of that scent, Ellison thought.

"C-c-riminology, Scene of Crime Forensics, anthropology and uh, Law Enforcement and Order History." The detective - Rafe, Banks had called him - stammered out.

"We can go –" Wildes began to the Sentinel, but Ellison shook his head.

"No. They'll all have long gone by now. They were running the instant the Nimitz came down out of the sky. Let's go." Decisively he turned and walked out.

Faces red from more than exertion, Wildes and Storge ordered out the Marines. Storge's face turned purple as the black, "grunge" dressed detective barged past a Marine to stand protectively in front of his younger partner, then gave them a mocking little wave as they left. The ground car ride back to the spaceport was undertaken in grim, frustrated silence, though Ellison remained serenely calm. (They knew we were coming before we'd left the dark side of the moon and the empaths were long gone before we hit the atmosphere). The Sentinel didn't attempt to extend his hearing back to Major Crime, as he knew Banks would have a white noise generator on for the next hour; one thing was certain – the Captain, and several of his cops, were up to their ears in the Underground Railroad. As they had approached the building, he had looked up and used his enhanced sight to spot three large lamps evenly spaced on the precinct's roof, intermingled with sat dishes and weapons nests, but serving no apparent function. His Sentinel eyesight detected the heat from the middle lamp, indicating it had been used within the last thirty minutes, just before the Nimitz had landed. From the position of the lamps they would be able to be seen across a wide area of the city. (Oh yes, Simon Banks, I'll be back. You've managed to pique my interest.) Jim leaned back in the chair, his plan of action already decided upon. Of course, there was also Rainier to consider, and that elusive, tantalising scent that had sent shivers of electricity down to the core of his being. At least he wasn't a bondless Sentinel "on Search" anymore, always alert in each new place, seeking what he couldn't articulate. He knew where his prize was; now all he had to do was figure out a way to go and get him.

Considering the fiasco the whole venture had been, Daric was amazed when James Ellison smiled. It was a slow, pleased smile, almost sensual, and it did nothing to ease Daric's anxiety. He mentally began to scroll through all the available missions that would take the Nimitz to some nice, quiet low-habitation backwater of the Inhabited Galaxies, far away from the IFP, the Ruling Houses and their internecine politics.

Chapter II – Wherein Almost Everyone Finds They Have A Spanner In The Works

Everyone in Major Crime gave a sigh of relief as the Marines left. Simon spent several minutes with Henri Brown comforting Bryn Rafe, before leaving the younger detective in his partner's capable care. Henri had been the ideal choice to balance the younger man, who used his smart suit-and-tie attire and suave fashion style to disguise his lack of self-confidence. Big, boisterous Henri Brown knew how to listen and reassure, and encouraged Rafe. Going back into his office, Simon shut the door and picked up his private phone, entering a code and listening to the phone ring.

It was picked up and a calm voice said, "Blair Sandburg, Teaching Fellow for Anthropology, how may I help you?"

"They were on Search. They had had a Bondless Sentinel with them – James Joseph Ellison no less. He grabbed Rafe, said he could smell empaths on him, but it looked like he keyed into one scent in particular. Besides you, has Rainier really strong empaths, or ones that are in bonding heat?"

"No," Blair dropped the pseudo-telesales voice, "and I take the disguising injections daily, but I could up the dosage?"

"Do it." Simon decided, knowing the circumstances that meant Sandburg, unlike the other empaths, had to "hide in plain sight" and could not run and hide whenever a Search was conducted. He also knew that the security camera footage of Ellison's current physical appearance was useless; there was a strong possibility that the sneaky Sentinel would come back soon with his appearance completely different to what it had been today. "My spider-sense is tingling. I have the feeling that we have far from seen the last of James Joseph Ellison."

Eden was so-named because the terra-formers designed it emulate the biblical ideal. It orbited a G-type star near its sister planet, Federation, the political centre of the Intergalactic Federation of Planets, but whereas Federation was a global metropolis of embassies, palaces, council chambers and all the paraphernalia of governing the Inhabited Galaxies, Eden floated in a perfectly sub-tropical temperate climate. DNA-tinkerers had created artfully arranged, hermetically-sealed parks sectioned into different ecosystems, and residents could float around safely from one to another, in transparent force-bubbles strong enough to withstand thermo-nuclear detonation directly under them, admiring the exquisite beauty of recreated fauna and flora from any period desired. Woolly mammoths and rhinos, mastodons and sabre-tooths, roamed majestic tundra, Eocene basilosaurus swam in turquoise oceans and Jurassic stegosaurus battled Tyrannosaurus Rex. Here, in colossal ziggurats set amidst many acres of exquisite parkland and beautifully landscaped gardens, the fabulously wealthy and unimaginably powerful elite resided in splendour.

In William Ellison's private study, surrounded by priceless fixtures and fittings, his vidlink came to life. "Sir, I'm sorry, your son's Search was unsuccessful."

"Thank you, Mayes." William felt his heart sink.

"Sir, Lord James is making plans to return to Major Crime however, it may be worth monitoring the situation?"

"Do it." William ended the link and slumped back in his handcrafted genuine Earth-bovine leather chair. He had so hoped that this time….

A Sentinel needed a Guide, and Guides were strong empaths. Guides could sense emotions. William needed his son to find a Guide; he could approach the empath, go through him or her as an intermediary, to reach détente with his son.

His introspection was cut short as he heard a bellowed "Da! Da!" followed by the thuds of infantile feet utterly careless of marble and porphyry or priceless ornaments. The door of his study was already open and he saw the fearsome foursome racing towards him. In the lead his daughter Suzette, blonde hair flying behind, then his son Edmund, valiantly trying to keep up, followed by Kia and Jay, his grandchildren. Bracing himself, he opened his arms and soon found himself with all four children on his lap, talking non-stop excitedly.

Bittersweet joy squeezed his chest. His second marriage to Ehlan of Lesser House Van den Gaerde had been purely a business alliance, she wanting the Ellison business acumen genes going to her Body Heir so her thriving DNA research company, Gaerde Biogenetics, could prosper. Suzette had been designed to possess her parents' business ability, and her throat bore the intricate tattoo of Firstborn & Body Heir to Ehlan Van den Gaerde; already she accompanied her mother to board meetings and toured factories. Nevertheless, William had been scrupulous in his determination not to repeat the mistakes that had made his first marriage such a disaster and Ehlan had reciprocated. It was one of the happiest, and humblest, days of his life when she had suggested they have a second child, just for the child's sake. To have a child designed for no particular reason was extremely rare in the Oligarchy, and was a rare sign of matrimonial harmony. Little Edmund shared his siblings' genius IQ and was just as physically perfect, but he had been created without any drives towards any particular field of endeavour.

Via one of his monitors, William caught sight of Stephen approaching, and quickly hushed the children, ushering them out with promises of fun later as his son entered the study. Stephen flamboyantly ushered them out, hiding his wry smile as his own son and daughter ran off pell-mell with his half-sister and brother to the next new adventure. His semi-siblings adored dad, but William had never shown them any of the doting affection he normally did when he was in Stephen's presence. It had baffled him until his wife Karen had explained, "'It's the guilt that you Ellisons do so well. He's trying to be a real father, but he doesn't want to upset you by making you have watch him show Suzette and Edmund all the love and affection he should have displayed to you and Jim, but didn't.' "

William waited expectantly as his son closed the study door. Tall, less broad-shouldered than his brother, but blonde and handsome, Stephen Ellison possessed a calm and affable manner that was in contrast to his intense and grim brother. Many had been fooled by that laid-back affability and lack of temper, but Stephen had been designed to operate in the Ellison family's high-stakes business world too, and many had discovered his ruthless Ellison streak to their cost. He had already carved himself a career in politics as an Oligarchy Senator, now Oligarchy Speaker, when William made the decision to step down as CEO of Ellison Corp in order to further enhance his much happier second marriage and concentrate on his second chance at fatherhood. Under Stephen's direction, the company had continued to make record profits and was cautiously expanding, profitably, into new areas. There were rumours that Stephen Ellison was going to be elected to the High Council itself.

"I'm sorry, dad, I know you were hoping…" Stephen shrugged at William's sigh; nothing had ever been said, but Stephen knew why Jim's finding a Guide was so important to his father; emotional repression just didn't cover it – many claimed the Vulcan in that old twentieth century sci-fi show had been based on the Ellison family. William could emote to the Guide what he could never say to his son, and the empath in turn could persuade Jim toward a rapprochement with his family, such as the half-brother, half-sister, niece and nephew he'd never met. Unfortunately, there was still the problem of catching one….

"I need to make things right, while there's still time," muttered William fretfully.

Stephen snorted, "Dad, you're only ninety-six, you've got a good century in you yet!"

William's eyes flared, "That's what my dad and brother thought!"

Stephen inclined his head at the sharp rebuke. DNA design and modern medicine had extended lifespan, but could not protect against old age and death, illness and accidents. He had been only five when his paternal grandparents, Willard Ellison and Yvette Stantley-Ellison, had been killed in an air-skiff collision, and he had never known his Uncle James, William's identical twin brother in all ways bar one – he was a Sentinel who had zoned out and died at the age of ten. Holding out the flimsy he grasped in his hand, he turned the conversation. "We have a problem with Demos factory."

William took the flimsy and read it. Demos was one of the most profitable factories in the entire Ellison Corp group. The problem was the factory manager – Ruis de y l'Almonté. William scanned the flimsy. Sexual harassment of female employees, laughing at them when they warned him off, use of alcohol and narcotic stimulants in working hours, "business lunches" that started at 10:00am and finished at 3:00pm, a total lack of actual managerial duties or work of any kind. "What are you going to do, sack him?"

"No." Stephen vetoed. "That will only enrage his father and cause a serious rift in the Nine. I'll phone Alphonse privately, lay it on the line, and warn him that Ruis shapes up or we will sack him." Stephen shrugged. "Alphonse will be most unhappy, he does guilt almost as well as an Ellison, but he'll see the big picture."

William nodded acknowledging Stephen's comment. "He's spoilt Ruis rotten to the core and now the boy is so used to being the biggest fish in his father's pond that he doesn't realise he's in the big wide ocean."

William leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers habitually. Humanity's colonisation of space, initially Mars, had occurred at a time of enormous social, economic and political downturn on Earth. China, India, Greece, Turkey and Pakistan's infrastructures and governments collapsed almost simultaneously under the "Bride Crisis", as generations of pro-male child biased breeding came back to bite them in the ass, coupled as it was with a sharp increase in the number of educated women in those societies, who were waiting longer and having fewer/zero offspring. A descendant of the Chinese Emperor overthrew the Socialists and declared herself Empress, making polyandry legal. She had six children by her six husbands, enduring decades of turmoil and civil unrest, but left a strong nation to her son the next Emperor as practicality triumphed over ideology, since the only alternative was for the thousands of bachelor Chinese men to marry non-Chinese women, diluting their national and racial identity. The Maharani did it shortly after in India, legalising women to have multiple husbands and despite constant assassination attempts by Islamic, Orthodox and other religious fundamentalists, the desire to produce offspring with a mate of one's own culture and race won out, as the current Maharajah of the Indian Nations and the Chinese Empress proved.

Other countries had broken into self-governing city-states or territories, like America, whose populace had turned against the manipulation and propaganda of the CIA, FBI and NSA type "agencies" at the same time as a new racially-inspired Civil War broke out in the Southern and North Eastern States. California became a sovereign nation under its own President, the Bronx and Queens of New York joining together to expel all whites in a return to apartheid. Other splits along racial, social, economic and religious lines followed.

Those with enough wealth or influence had emigrated to Mars to forge new lives away from the strife of the battered mother world. In rapid succession, science fantasies like stargates, warp drive, hyperspace and stable wormholes had become science fact, cutting down the travelling time between galaxies from eons to millennia to centuries, to years to months and days and in some case hours. Great hypergates big enough for two A-class super-freighters to sit side by side were no longer the province of ancient Earth TV shows like Babylon 5, a stable wormhole nexus was no longer relegated to Star Trek, Stargate and Star Wars.

But it had been William's own ancestors the Ellison family, natives of Cascade, a city of the United States before it became a self-governing enclave, who had brought interstellar travel to the masses, offering cheap journeys to the general public. It had made them and the other two founding families, van Zant and al-Mahemi, fabulously wealthy, and from them had developed the Oligarchy of the Nine High Houses, ruling a wide empire.

Pertinent to their difficulties with the petulant Ruis de y le Almonté was that it was customary in the Oligarchy amongst the Nine High Houses, the Lesser Houses and Associate Houses to "apprentice" sons and daughters to each others' businesses, political establishments and social circles, an ancient innovation that had created generations of cosmopolitan youths with a fully rounded education and experience of the "real world", as well as enabling the Oligarchy to function with as little friction as possible between its individual members. High House de y l'Almonté was one of the ruling Nine, but Alphonse had unfortunately spoilt Ruis from babyhood. Alphonse's wife, for whom he had had a great fondness, had died in an AUV crash on a business trip she only went on because Alphonse had promised to personally look after their colicky firstborn. Alphonse's guilt-driven, dramatic over-compensation for the loss of maternity had resulted in an offspring who was still a spoilt brat toddler for all his twenty-two years of age. Sacking the boy, however, would broadcast his incompetence to the entire Oligarchy. That in turn would make it doubly difficult for Alphonse to arrange the customary marriages and business alliances with the other Houses on his son's behalf, therefore creating ill-will between High House Ellison and High House de y l'Almonté.

"There's another matter, too."

Alerted by Stephen's serious tone, William sat up straighter. "What?"

"Hunter is Captain of Cascade PD Internal Affairs, appointed by Simon Banks."

"What!" William exclaimed. "But he's a Bondless Sentinel, and Simon Banks et al are up to their ears in the Underground Railroad!"

"I know, but Banks did it. He got around that problem though – Internal Affairs can only investigate what an officer does during his working hours as a police officer. So if Banks clocks off work at five o'clock then spends the next two hours blatantly assisting wild empaths, Hunter can't touch him, because he's acting as a private citizen, not during his work-time as a cop. Neat, huh?" Understanding his father needed time to digest this new development, he quietly left the study, heading for the kitchen where Sally the housekeeper would have baked her famous cakes and hopefully saved a few from the hungry maws of his two children and his half-brother and sister.

William sat back in his chair as another of his regrets was placed front and centre. Simon Banks, whose family was a cadet branch of the High House Mbaogo, had attracted a great deal of attention over the last decade and a half. William felt the need for some cognac, and poured himself a restorative snifter as he contemplated the intertwining threads of the new events.

Earth had been left to its own devices, though it now had in the main political, social and economic stability, some of the independents rejoining to re-form the old nations, as California and New York had. However, there was still much lawlessness and many "frontier" areas. Cascade Enclave, in what had once been Washington State, was just another such place, until a young man by the name of Simon Banks looked out one day over the ancient ruins and decided enough was enough. Miraculously, he'd found the ancient Cascade Police Department Central Precinct virtually undamaged behind the hoardings covering it and still containing a lot of the equipment. Simon Banks had recreated Cascade PD, an act that was initially ignored utterly. First it had protected only itself and the block, but Simon Banks had used a whole array of begged, borrowed and jury-rigged surveillance, tracking equipment and weaponry to expand - two blocks, then three, then six, a spreading pool of law and order. He had ejected the undesirables but, crucially, had seemed oblivious to the poor, the ordinary citizens and the much-desired and hunted "wild empaths". They returned the favour when five crime-lords banded together to exterminate the troublesome Banks; broadcasting their vengeful thoughts unwittingly to the wild empaths, the criminal army and its leaders walked straight into a PD ambush and were taken down.

Simon Banks had found undamaged library discs and books, and had painstakingly begun to restore to Cascade many of the ancient social structures – jury by peer, judges, Miranda rights, though no one had any idea who Miranda had actually been. Another precinct had opened up, then another. Banks had even created a Commissioner of Police, Mayor and City Council, though carefully ensuring the autonomy of the PD. For the first time in centuries, Cascade was more re-built than in ruins, commerce, business and traders with families moved into the city – it was even now a thriving tourist destination! Washington DC Enclave had followed suit, though the President of the United States was still struggling to become more than a figurehead, and now others had joined the two Enclaves like Seattle, New York, Vancouver and San Francisco in a large trading bloc that shared political and social unity also.

But for Simon Banks to actively create an Internal Affairs department to police the organisation he had run without interference for fifteen years was stunning, and to choose to Captain the department none other than Ellison Vincent Hunter, whom some of the most dangerous people in the Inhabited Galaxies justly feared was astounding! William's attempts to contact his firstborn and illegitimate child had been savagely rebuffed, but just as William kept constantly informed of the activities of his estranged eldest legitimate child, so too he kept abreast of Hunter's life.

William and Grace had designed Jim to take over Ellison Corp as Patriarch of High House Ellison, as William had taken over after his father, hence his business acumen and genius IQ, but they had not specified a Sentinel. William's personal physician, a man of towering repute and wealth, had laughed at William's protestations. Genetic Engineering was 80 successful, but it was impossible to 100 design the required child, and part of what made the Ellison family so wealthy and powerful was that they produced a Sentinel and/or Guide every generation, not the normal two-three generations, " 'Two of your five children are Sentinels, and Hunter was a natural birth, not a GE one, one is a Guide, and both your grandchildren are Sentinels. Your twin was a Sentinel. What did you expect to happen?'" the doctor had pointed out.

Edmund would not be a Guide. After the doctor stopped him from choking on a chicken bone at age three, he had decided on paediatric medicine. With the programmed decisiveness and IQ he had been given, he had the brain surgery that would maintain his empathy, but would not enable him to bond with any Sentinel; already he studied anatomy, biology, chemistry and surgical techniques, he would be a wealthy and brilliant paediatric surgeon. Kia and Jay were strong Sentinels, who would soon begin their training, but not as strong as Jim and Hunter. Those two were twin sons of different mothers; they looked alike, had the same cold-hearted, hard-ass personalities and were extremely powerful Sentinels. However, William had the secret medical report on Jim – Dark Sentinel, stronger, faster, more powerful than a normal Sentinel, more aggressive. Hunter was not a Dark Sentinel, but he was not far behind Jim in his hyperactive senses.

Nor had Jim reached his full potential as a Sentinel, even as a Dark Angel, William knew. Sentinels could work with any Guides, but could bond to only one, and vice versa. Only when a Sentinel bonded did his or her enhanced senses achieve their full potential, stabilised by their Guide, and only then did the Guide's empathic powers peak, enhanced and stabilised by their Sentinel. Hunter employed temporary Guides, as did Jim, but both were far older than most Sentinels were when they bonded, and time was running out. Since his sons had hit thirty, Hunter the elder by two years, they had gradually become more prone to zone outs, mood swings and unpredictable, volatile surges of aggression. Hunter did not suffer as much as he was not a Dark Sentinel despite his "Dark Side of the Force" nickname, and Jim kept his senses ruthlessly controlled, but he was beginning to slip more and more since his abilities were more powerful and primal.

William was genuinely and deeply worried, especially about Jim. Normal empaths lacked the mental and emotional power to truly "mesh" with a Dark Sentinel, not being able to go deep enough to break the mental blocks when the Dark Sentinel zoned, nor could their minds handle the awesome mental power of a Dark Sentinel bonding. Jim had captured Wild Empaths on previous Searches, but they had freaked when he'd gone anywhere near them, nor had he felt any bonding urge. "Ferociously aggressive, psychotically possessive, anal-retentive control-freaks" was the kindest description William had ever seen written about Dark Sentinels, and he was uncomfortably aware that it was the dictionary definition of Jim, with Hunter not too far behind. If Dark Sentinels were as rare as hen's teeth, then Dark Guides were as common as a basilisk, the lizard hatched by a serpent from a cockerel's egg on a dung heap at full moon!

William sighed deeply. The Oligarchy protected a careful image of omniscient omnipotence, but the reality was they could really screw up, and they had! It had been a geneticist, Dr Langehur, working for the Lesser House of Alzo, who discovered so long ago that he could genetically engineer Sentinels with a 70 success rate. Unfortunately, so entranced by what he could do, he forgot to consider whether he should do. Too late, Langehur discovered that he was completely unable to GE empaths. No one had managed it down to this day, and no one knew why empaths could not be engineered. The only empaths were natural born empaths, but nature created balance, a balance that the Chinese and others had damaged in their preference for male children, and one that Langehur and his followers' reckless actions also damaged. The artificially high number of Sentinels had outstripped the number of guides. It had gotten very messy.

Nowadays, any empathic offspring of the wealthy and powerful hired themselves out, at exorbitant fees, as Guides to Sentinels, but they injected themselves daily with a chemical suppressant and refused to work with any Sentinel to whom they might bond; those young enough when their empathy was discovered had the brain surgery Edmund had had, which enabled them to retain empathy, but crippled their ability to bond. They were sleek, professional and bland. The only way to get a Guide capable of bonding was to catch a Wild Empath, the term used to describe those who lived outside the society of the Oligarchy or the governments, on frontier worlds, or those who hid amongst the population on planets like Earth. When a Bondless Sentinel sensed their guide, they became a Stalking Sentinel, and would track their prize relentlessly. Unfortunately, though theoretically protected by the rights of all citizens, empaths had found that bonding had a lot of advantages for the Sentinels and few for the Guides, who found their careers, marriages, parenthood and entire lives disrupted by bonding to someone who was inevitably much larger, more aggressive and more possessive than they. The bland, inconspicuous meekness of Professional Guides that Sentinels were used to were utterly lacking in Wild Empaths. If captured and bonded they were ruled by no one bar their Sentinel; they took no prisoners and kicked ass.

The Sentinel could in reality basically put an end to the Guide's career, marriage etc., and understandably many empaths preferred having control of their own lives, thank you very much. By law, all persons had to have an Empathy Rating and be re-tested every five Earth years, but there were many frontier worlds where the IFP was nothing more than a figurehead. Test scores rated from 0-20: 0-5 was "negligible", 6-10, "low", 11-15 "medium" and 16-20 "high". Only those from 11-20 had the ability to be Guides, but with a little practice, empaths could consistently fool the test, repeatedly scoring an 8 when they were really an 18, or if they found that a little difficult, expertly forged ECs, Empathy Certificates, were available at a relatively cheap price, complete with a function that updated the date on them automatically when the next five year test should have happened.

William was too wise to attempt to gain access to too much of his son's Dark Angel activities, for that would lead to uncomfortable nocturnal visits from grim people with stern warnings, but he'd found out through his agents that all the wild empaths Jim had captured on previous Searches had either phoney ECs or falsified ones; the certificate of one registered her as 7 when she was 15, another had been listed as an 8 when he was 16. Since only medium and high empaths had the mental power to be Guides, it was estimated that millions of men and women were walking around with Empathy Certificates that listed their Rating as half or less than what it actually was.

As if that little scam were not enough, there were the highly illegal designer suppressants that an empath could ingest or inject, which muted their signature "empathic scent" to the extent that they could live and work around Sentinels for months or years without detection. Some acted by nullifying their empathic abilities altogether, but the really expensive ones enabled the empath to retain ability while eliminating from their pheromones the "musk" that would alert a Sentinel to their empathic strength. As fast as the IFP Law Enforcement and Order – LEO – Commission produced legislation to ban one empath-friendly narcotic, a new one popped up. Demand for them far outstripped that for recreational drugs such as heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, mellow or vibe, indicating just how many wild empaths there were out there. The biologists theorised that Nature had finally caught up and "redressed the balance", producing more Guides for the excess Sentinels.

(Which doesn't do the Sentinels one damn bit of good if they can't find them!) William grunted aloud in his irritation, and where on Earth was Jim going to get his Dark Guide for heaven's sake?

Deliberately, he pushed his morose musings out of his mind and stood up. Ehlan and Karen were back, and his wife had that special twinkle in her eye. Since babies could be engineered, then the blastocyst placed in a gestation chamber, physical contact between spouses or two people desiring to have a child was unnecessary. His marriage to Grace van Zant had been unsettled from the start, and she had been disgusted when she learned he had a bastard "natural" son born of a woman's own womb with no designing whatsoever, so there had never been any intimate physical contact between them. William had tried hard to be a good husband and father with his second marriage, and he and Ehlan now shared a deeply enriching physical intimacy. He would stop fretting about what he could not change, for now at least, and go and enjoy the day with his family.

"NONE!" With a frustrated curse, Leo Kessler terminated the vidlink and stood up, glaring out of his office window, not seeing the curved domes of the Capitol, Federation's seat of interstellar government. He ground his teeth in futile rage. Ellison had found not a single freak on his Search in Cascade, though everyone knew that oufey Banks was up to his neck in the Underground Railroad, those pathetic do-gooders that offered Sanctuary to the unregistered wild empaths (snivelling freaks!) as well as all the other whining, human refuse that came their way.

Kessler tried to calm himself down. His tenure with the Dark Angels was far from sinecure, for those grim assassins demanded consistent results from their people, and Stone-Faced Ellison's failure to obtain any empaths when Kessler insisted that Cascade was packed to the rafters with the freaks would reflect badly on him. Kessler liked the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed during his career in the shadows of government operation, and, at least for the moment, he needed these military morons. Searches swooped up wild empaths of any ability, and though he lost the medium and high strength ones as Guides, the others inevitably fell for his carefully projected façade of friendly concern, enough to follow his directions when they were re-rated and released, only to find themselves sold into slavery to prostitution and pornography rings or as laboratory specimens to illegal researchers trying to do what Langehur had failed to do and genetically engineer empaths. Empaths made highly pleasing sexual partners due to their mental ability to feel their partner's needs, and combinations of the right drugs would destroy their barriers and make them highly suggestible. Kessler had made millions from providing certain individuals with their own private sex toy that could be lucratively sold to a lab once the novelty of them had worn off. Access to the Dark Angels files had initially been profitable for Kessler, but the freaks were always getting better at hiding, obtaining more effective suppressant narcotics and his customers would not wait around if Kessler could no longer deliver. Since he knew where the bodies were buried, literally, he would also be viewed as a liability.

His stomach churned with new anger, self-directed as he cursed his own mouth. It had been one slip, but it had been enough to get the attention of Evil Ellison: Dark Guide. A cruel smile briefly twisted Kessler's lips. Most Sentinels went into search and rescue, medicine, law enforcement or fire-fighting work, but the more aggressive Sentinels, usually the more powerful, were encouraged into the military. There were currently no female Sentinels amongst the Dark Angels, since such aggressive female Sentinels were rarer than male, but there had been.

If only he could have found Alexandra Barnes young enough to mould her into his personal killing machine, Kessler could have been ruler of all he surveyed. Alex Barnes had been a Dark Sentinel, and Kessler had heard, from his reputable private sources, that she had actually found and captured a genuine Dark Guide. Not her genetically compatible one, since they had been unable to bond – but one whom she was able to subjugate. Kessler grinned to himself, feeling the tingle in his loins. Alex had known how to treat freaks – she had tortured and raped the guide into subservience, using him to increase her abilities to steal and murder, for she had been the original psychopathic serial killer. Unfortunately she underestimated the power of a Dark Guide, and her slave had killed her.

The Dark Angels tracking the mass murdering, psychopathic Dark Sentinel had found her bludgeoned to death in her apartment, but the entire place had been micro-cleaned then irradiated, destroying any slight trace of the Dark Guide. Kessler's most frequent customer had offered a truly fabulous sum of money if he could locate the Dark Guide, whose empathy would make him a truly outstanding sexual slave, and deliver him without the Dark Angels being any the wiser. Unfortunately, Kessler had accidentally mentioned the Dark Guide too close to the Sentinel-enhanced ears of James Ellison who had demanded an explanation, forcing a reluctant Kessler to reiterate the Barnes case. Now alerted to the fact that there was at least one living Dark Guide in the Inhabited Galaxies, with the bonus of knowing the Guide's gender, Ellison - and the Dark Angel hierarchy - were constantly on the look out during their missions.

Kessler's customer was not happy, for he was used having his whims indulged, but Kessler's own frustration was reaching boiling point. Simon Banks had to have rigged up some sort of undetectable early warning system, for Kessler's well paid informants in Cascade vowed that you couldn't move in the Enclave without tripping over someone with empathic ability, albeit of varying strengths. Empaths were getting harder to catch, and with more and more areas on Earth and other frontier planets following the "Banks Model" and setting up relatively incorrupt police departments, Kessler's lucrative sidelines were suffering the pinch.

Already the LEO Commission and the Dark Angels had destroyed several empath-centric slave traders, pornography rings, and illegal research laboratories, and the high number of Sentinels in both organisations meant they dealt mercilessly with any such that they found – the most powerful instinct a Sentinel possessed was protect the Guide, and in some instances slavers and others had been literally ripped apart by enraged Sentinels fuelled by the fear of the imprisoned and/or abused empaths. Kessler was himself having to take greater personal risks, with the attendant dangers of exposure, in order to equal the profit he would have made much faster and more easily only five years ago. He was under no illusions, if the Dark Angels discovered, or even suspected, that he was using their organisation as a cover to slip vulnerable empaths out of the system so they could be enslaved safely, they would kill him instantly and brutally.

On the desk behind him was plastic proof of his trouble, his expenses sheet for the past month. It highlighted the unpleasant reality that in the last three weeks, the Dark Angels had captured one, one damnit! Wild Empath, and that had been a pure fluke on the part of Race Keegan, the Dark Angel Sentinel who now waited to bond with his prize. If not for that serendipitous accident of Keegan's, Kessler's return would read an embarrassing zero. Indeed, for one mad moment, Kessler had seriously considered sneaking the freak out of Dark Angel HQ and selling him to his customer as the coveted Dark Guide, before sanity prevailed. Assuming he could have managed it without Race Keegan discovering him red-handed, going into Blessed Protector mode and trying to smear him on the walls, there was no way he could have prevented the Dark Angels discovering his actions after the fact, at which point all his other little activities would come under scrutiny and his life expectancy would be about as great as that of a chronically depressed lemming.

He would have to try and turn a negative into a positive. If he waxed lyrical in his monthly report about the freak, maybe it would ease some of the bosses' ire when he told them how…the supposedly captured wild empath was nimbly crossing the great opaque domes towards freedom.

(WHAT?) Kessler's attention snapped back to the actual view out of his window, to which he had been paying not a whit of attention. The wild empath who should have been securely locked in the isolation cell next to Race Keegan's bonding suite was carefully but quickly making his way over the massive opaque domes of IFP Special Forces HQ, heading towards the seething city centre of the Capitol, where billions of bodies would hide him from even the keen, enhanced nostrils of his Sentinel. Choking with shock and rage, Kessler frantically whirled and banged his hand down on the desktop, finally managing to press the general alarm, sending the klaxon through the building…

Dark Angel Race Keegan of the Lesser House of Keegan poured himself a large mug of filter coffee, trying desperately not to smirk in satisfaction. The mirror reflected a tall, muscular, hawk-faced man with keen, storm-grey eyes, strongly reminiscent of that ancient TV actor Basil Rathbone, to the extent his fellow Dark Angels had nicknamed him "Sherlock", though his oak-brown hair was much more prevalent. He was dressed casually in comfortable, soft faded denim jeans and a loosely buttoned shirt. The formal black uniform with blood-red piping did exist, but was only rarely used. The whole point of Dark Angels was "covert" and "black" operations, not parading around in fancy gear. Their pictures appeared in no files and they were trained to blend in, like ancient Soviet sleepers, to have normal lives that they could temporarily "step out of", clean up the problem, and then slide smoothly and unsuspected back into in total secrecy and invisibility. The whole point of the Dark Angels was that they could be absolutely anybody – your wife, boss, brother, friend or lover – and you would never, ever know. The James Ellison who stepped aboard the Nimitz for that PR exercise against Cascade Enclave had had temporarily genetically altered hair, eye and skin colour and some padding which added to his already buff frame. Not a single man or woman aboard the famed destroyer or at Cascade PD, including Commander Storge, Mandarin Wildes and Captain Banks, would be able to provide an accurate description of him.

Race got on very well with taciturn Jim Ellison, indeed all his colleagues, which was why he was trying not gloat where his fellow - still Bondless - Sentinels could see it, but damn, life was good…and he hadn't even been looking for wild empaths!

Three weeks earlier…

Race carefully studied the blueprints to the basilica on Sentrus IV, determining the best stratagem for his kill. The Intergalactic Federation of Planets, its President, High Council and various Commissions had originally been a paper tiger, but certain far-sighted individuals and organisations, such as the immensely wealthy and powerful Oligarchy, had seen the potential. If the Inhabited Galaxies were stable and united under the Federation banner, then consumerism and capitalism could bring great profits. A population that did not have to worry about planetary invasions, or space piracy, or even more basic problems like finding enough food and shelter, could spend their money on the latest vids and flimsies and expensive consumer goods. Taxes and inflation could be kept low, manufacturing and service industries like tourism would grow.

Already the Oligarchy had brought their worlds, including the Mother World, Earth, into the IFP, as had the Free Planets Trade Alliance and the Altair Confederacy, with more and more frontier worlds joining. Unfortunately there were many who liked the lawless freedom of having their own planetary playground; many warlords and crime lords forcibly crushed the populace who wished to join. Showing his contempt for the IFP, one such crime lord, Istvan Daerjic of the world Sentrus II, had murdered two LEO police officers, an IFP Department of Justice Supreme Court Chief Judge and two Oligarchy Mandarins Primary Grade, and then swaggered about with great braggadocio to anyone who would listen. The word had come to the Dark Angels – eliminate Daerjic, make it public and pointed. Such action would temporarily subdue the lordlings and keep them unprepared for the near future, for it was a little known fact that the IFP would, within the next Earth year, mobilise a massive military campaign against the tyrannical warlords and crime bosses who blighted so many parts of the Inhabited Galaxies with space piracy, slavery, murders, extortion, racketeering, prostitution, narcotics and numerous other felonies.

Daerjic fancied himself a patron of the arts and a man of culture, thus he had invited himself to the Great Exhibition held at the Basilica in Anselmgaard, Sentrus IV's capital city. Unlike her blighted neighbour, Sentrus II, Sentrus IV had recently joined the IFP and the planetary sovereign was keen to show that her people were cultured, civilised and worthy of their place, so she had arranged a grand exhibition of the alien artefacts recovered from the strange ruins that dominated the southern continent. Several worlds had such non homo sapiens ruins, which xeno-archaeologists practically swooned over; no-one had found any biological alien remains of any sort, but the fact that the ruins and artefacts were always on M or L-type worlds, the only two types that humans could colonise, and that they seemed to indicate bipedal physiology, were enough to send the science types into raptures. The Exhibition would be attended by a head-hurting list of dignitaries, potentates, ambassadors, plenipotentiaries, monarchs, rulers and the generally Great & Good of the IFP. Daerjic felt safe because the place would be crammed wall to wall with bodyguards, private assassins, secret agents and so forth. Race grinned, wolfishly. It would be a cake walk, and since his other choice of assignment was to get togged up in a full-dress uniform and meet the bureaucrats who wanted a Dark Angel to accompany the USS Nimitz on a doubtless futile Search against Simon Banks' suspected Sanctuary on Earth, Race happily prepared his weaponry. Face like a thundercloud, Jim Ellison walked past the room; he had been late in this morning, which was how he now came to be lumbered with the Nimitz. Ellison had two expressions: grim and really grim. Right now his mood was about as tense as a DefCon 5 situation.

"Enjoy!" Race murmured, under his breath, knowing the other Sentinel would hear him, and grinned when a whispered but heartfelt expletive drifted back to his own enhanced Sentinel ears. Oh well, the early bird and all that….

Race stared wistfully at the canapés as a tall, English Country House butler type straight out of P. G. Wodehouse swept by bearing them majestically on a solid gold platter. The problem with "finger buffets" was that, no matter how much you ate, you always seemed to be hungry. Race was wearing a stylish, very expensively cut black tuxedo that dovetailed perfectly into his public persona as a wealthy playboy and bit-part player in the circles of intergalactic politics. A brief, genuine smile touched his lips. Long ago someone had labelled the Dark Angels the "Bruce Wayne Fan Club" for the similarities between their public lives and their much more dangerous, highly secret lives and those of the 20th Century cartoon hero, Batman. A small, stylised symbol of a bat had even become a traditional gift to every new Dark Angel.

He wandered around the Exhibition, addressing certain people by name, others more respectfully by title. Automatically they responded and within an hour would have convinced themselves that they had known the personable, obviously wealthy young man for ages. The whole place was packed to the ceiling with Money and Power. Some people, not all female, glittered so brightly with gems that Race wished for his sunglasses. There were Bonded Sentinels present, also Bondless ones, and a plethora of Professional Guides, all suave and raking in galacs by the second for what they were charging tonight. The Ivory Tower mob, archaeologists, xeno-archaeologists, biologists, historians, societal philosophers, forensic pathologists and the like also swanned about with very earnest expressions as they tried to explain to their rich/powerful but clueless patrons and patronesses exactly what it was all about, though in fairness many of them had the tanned features and buff physiques that indicated they spent a lot time actually working out in "the field" as opposed to broadening their butts behind a desk. A great number, though, were pure stereotypical absent-minded professors. He saw one jovial, galactically famous historian spend ten minutes gazing around him in bemusement as if wondering how he'd got here.

As a point of fact, it wasn't half bad, since the dictates of polite society meant the noise level wasn't too much for his Sentinel hearing, plus the lights were not over-bright, being soft-focussed and trained on the exhibits. The exhibition itself was quite interesting, and Race amused himself by trying to decipher the strange markings, christened the new "hieroglyphics", on some of the stonework. If you looked at them in a certain way, the markings seemed to move, like those very early 20th Century black-and-white cine films – all jerky movements and stilted action, but if you really concentrated, you could almost grasp the meaning, as if the marks were telling a story. Wary of giving himself a zone out, Race carefully moved into his position. First there would be the diversionary shot, and whilst every head turned that way, Race would be operating this way.

Casually he edged back towards another discreet alcove filled with more of the finger buffet, as if taking a break from the hustle and bustle. Daerjic was there, holding court with his coterie of cronies, working his way round the lower level, shoving food into his maw with meaty fingers and no finesse. His face, once superficially handsome, was beginning to bloat from years of excess, and his well-cut tuxedo couldn't quite hide the definite paunch or the saggy butt. (Come into my parlour…)

Race was directly near the waste disposal unit, which conveniently vaporised anything thrown into it. Unfortunately for one of Race's favourite scenarios, whoever designed them was either safety conscious or not criminal-minded, since they were not large enough to fit a person into. Disintegrating Daerjic from the feet up had been a fun idea –

His head snapped around so fast he almost dislocated something, every sense alert. What was that? Tense, he tracked the throng, opening his senses up higher, trying to discern what had alarmed him. Nothing – the bodyguard gorillas, secret agents and suchlike were oblivious to him, and no one else was a threat, so what had triggered his internal alarm…?

There…something negligible, woodsy, faintly like sandalwood, contaminated with a bitter chemical taint…indefinable...what..? MINE. The thought surged through Race's brain so suddenly he almost rocked back on his heels. His breathing accelerated and his heart pumped as his rational brain identified the scent: musk. It was not the sterile scent of these wan, neutered Professional Guides. He parted his lips slightly, breathing in, letting his taste buds analyse. There was an earthy, like soil, tint, a woody quality to it, someone who spent a lot of time outside, a faint sweetness like crushed clover to it, and also the stink of suppressants, but interwoven through it was that irresistible musk, the scent of a wild empath, an unbonded wild empath. Suppressants required upping the dosage periodically to maintain effectiveness, and the empath had either forgotten or not realised. He – it was definitely male – was "leaking" only slightly, but to a Sentinel it was noticeable. It was…

His Guide. Race, who had captured dozens of wild empaths without so much as a flicker, felt pins and needles down to his toenails! Every cell in his body seemed infused with static electricity, and instincts he didn't know he had were screaming at him to find, claim, possess, mark, brand, take….mine, mine, MINE!

Closing his eyes, Race hastily ran through a Dark Angel meditation mantra to centre himself. (Terrific, the calm cool assassin has just become a Stalking Sentinel and now wants to scatter these pigeons so he can claim his Guide – does my timing suck or what?) First the mission, then his Guide, control, breathe in, breathe out. Shoving the Sentinel back into its lair with promises of "in a minute", he concentrated hard on his objective even as his eyes tugged to look around. He could follow the scent trail as if it had been emblazoned in scarlet thread through the basilica. In a minute, he assured his inner Sentinel, he would follow it and claim his Guide, but not now! Letting out one last focussing breath, he counted down, five, four, three, two, one…

The loud bang jerked everyone's heads around in time to see a large vase tilt over the balustrade of an upper balcony. Simultaneously, the gas-propelled bullet sped from Race's specially designed wristwatch to hit Daerjic between the eyes; though of small calibre, the bullet was a dum-dum, designed to mushroom on impact and cause more damage. Before the projectile knocked back its target's head, the wristwatch was neatly flicked into the vaporising waste unit. Moving casually around the people watching as the vase toppled, Race micro-cleaned the area with the pin-sized irradiator that he then popped in his mouth, knowing his stomach acids would destroy it totally. Within five minutes the crowd would have overlaid the waste unit area with so many new body scents, perfume, aftershave and such that forensic examination was pointless.

Held up briefly by the bodies of his underlings who hadn't noticed a thing, Race was on the other side of the room when Daerjic slumped bonelessly to the floor, obviously shot to death, and the yelling started. The creature had ceased to matter to Race the instant the bullet left the wristwatch; what mattered now was his wild little empath. Unaware that he was softly crooning under his breath, Race scanned the crowd, but the dozens of milling, fluttering, flashing colour-splattered people made it –

The roar of a big cat made his jerk his eyes upwards. A full grown male leopard, with eerie grey eyes, was on the level above, somehow exuding a pleased satisfaction in the manner of a pet who has just woken the family to the fact that their house is on fire. Purring impossibly loudly over the din, the leopard sat down and gazed up at the man it liked….

Storm-grey eyes locked with bright, intelligent eyes that were an unusual reddish hazel-green, and all else ceased to exist. There was an utter silence as if someone had hit a cosmic mute button; their gazes were locked to each other for eternity, seeming to draw each other into them.

Crash! A gargantuan matron stumbled back reflexively into line-of-sight, and the spell was broken. The leopard was gone, and a second later, so was his Guide, going utterly white-faced, then he whirled and disappeared into the throng. Race followed - he couldn't not follow. He didn't shove or barge but glided through the shrieking sheep like an eel, his sole focus on his prey, subconsciously cataloguing his objective. About five feet ten, six inches shorter than Race, slender but well-muscled, tanned, but with only a few crinkle lines round the eyes, indicating his age about thirty-two to four, six to eight years younger than Race's forty. The shaggy auburn-gold-chestnut hair had been tucked behind his ears displaying a simple gold hoop earring, his clean shaven face depicted a stubborn jaw and slightly flat nose, with just a hint of Native American or Polynesian blood in there too. He was dressed in sturdy leather boots, tough jeans, long-sleeved shirt and multi-pocketed sleeveless waistcoat – standard attire for a field archaeologist. At computer speed, Race's mind calculated, recalling the blueprints to this place effortlessly. Did his Guide know about the secret entrance at the back, down there? More than likely, since a wild empath always had multiple escape routes, but if Race went down these stairs, he could short cut…

Moving rapidly down the stairs to the basement level, Race jogged round the circumference of the massive building to the back parking lot, crammed with cars, just below the kitchens. Near the bottom of the stairway that exited the kitchens, a panel of the brick wall suddenly spun open and closed, a black shadow on winged feet bounding through it. Race timed the intercept, taking him behind the knees, bringing them both down on the plasti-crete with twin "oomphs!" Instantly the other man kicked out wildly and Race found himself fighting a thrashing demon. He had only seconds, if that. Carefully limiting his power, he cold cocked the empath and caught him as he slumped. Standing quickly, he pulled the unconscious man up and placed on arm around his shoulder, walking quickly back up into the kitchens with his greater strength. With this close proximity, the tantalising scent was washing over him with every breath and the Sentinel was screaming its hunger to claim the Guide. A well-dressed English butler type hurried forward. "Oh my goodness, is Dr Butler ill?"

Race managed an embarrassed grin. "Ah, no, he was feeling a little, uh…unwell. I'm going to take him home."

Accepting the euphemism for "drunk", the man retreated, and Race exited the kitchens to the next parking lot one level up, where his own air skiff waited, a dull, inconspicuous vehicle that was anything but. Easing the young man into the passenger seat, he almost stumbled back as the leopard stuck it's head inquisitively over the back seat, purring approvingly as Race tucked the man's legs into the front of the car. A furious yowl caught Race's attention. Firmly grasped by a leopard paw was a smaller feline, larger than a domestic cat, obviously feral, but not a lynx or ocelot…a margay, that was it. The smaller, golden creature was protesting vehemently, but was easily classified as a Spirit Animal Guide by the fact that it possessed strangely human, peculiarly reddish hazel-green eyes.

Race had never given credence to the claims of Sentinel and Guide Animal Spirit Guides, and he nodded in silent apology as he quickly took out a phial of sedative from the glove box and carefully administered it, not a moment too soon, as the man began to groan. Once his head nodded down again, Race checked to ensure no one had yet come outside, and filched the wallet from the Guide's pocket. Dr Gage Butler, Associate Professor of Xeno-Archaeology, Rainier University. Rainier University - Cascade Enclave again, mused Race; did all roads lead back to Simon Banks? Using the on-board computer, he hissed a query, and was rewarded by the machine's dulcet-toned answers. Thirty-three years old, no family, a highly respected xeno-archaeologist despite his youth after partially decoding the Altair Runes. Though a professor at Rainier, he had actually been out in the field for the past three years on several important xeno-archaeological digs. He had written several xeno-archaeology books published for the mass market, which had become bestsellers within weeks of hitting the stores.

"End report." Closing the door, he ordered the skiff to lock down and deepen the tint on the plexiglas so nobody could see inside, then gracefully reinserted himself back into the mayhem that ensued after Daerjic was shot. The sedative would hold for at least twenty-four hours.

It took less than an hour for Race to extricate himself. There were no witnesses, forensic evidence, or murder weapon and practically everyone in three solar systems had a solid motive for wanting Daerjic gone. The gathering dispersed in groups as everyone went home, gossiping excitedly about the events of the evening. Race drove his air skiff to the spaceport sedately, not wanting to be stopped by the police for speeding, after using a voice synthesizer to leave messages for Butler's staff that he'd be non-contactable for a fortnight. A quick hack into his Guide's – no, Gage's – personal files at his office and home showed that he was known to wonder off on "some dig" for days or weeks at a time. Race shook his head. Some people were amazingly non-safety conscious. Every year people died through accidents, illness or foul play because their nearest and dearest were used to them going off and not leaving any way to contact them. Technically he had kidnapped Dr Gage Butler, but nobody would suspect a thing for two weeks!

His shuttle was again small and dull, disguising a truly awesome capacity for speed and tremendous firepower that would put some destroyers to shame. Strapping his unconscious Guide in, Race's hand moved of its own volition to cup his jaw and cheek, below the earring ear, the pads of his fingers feeling the growing bristles. He moved to the hair, combing through the silky strands, drifting in a haze of sensation…NO. Not yet. He would not grope and fondle while Gage was unconscious. The Sentinel's protective instincts surged forward.

Turning resolutely away, he pushed the shuttle to its maximum capability to get back to Federation, landing with far less than his usual finesse at Special Forces HQ. Ignoring everything but his precious charge, Race scooped his unconscious form into his arms as if carrying a baby, marching inexorably forward. The personnel who had come in to see what had put a bug in Race Keegan's pants backed down and away the instant they saw his snarling face and the man he cradled in his arms. The silent alert went through the building. Jim Ellison and the other Bondless ones who had been waiting to welcome him back made themselves scarce. Sentinels did not like other Sentinels near their Guides at the very best of times, never mind Bondless Sentinels who might get funny ideas….

Twenty-four hours later…

Gage woke up to white. Not bright white, or cream white, but pale white, bland white, boring and tedious white. His mouth was very dry, but apart from a slight heavy headedness, he felt okay but disoriented, and very confused. He'd been at the Exhibition, some idiot had knocked over a vase and….storm-grey eyes, piercing his soul, calling to him, such hunger, such need….


As if waiting for the wearily voiced cue, the door to the small, white cubicle – no, Gage realised savagely, cell – slid open. Two men entered and Gage glared at them warily. One was tall, blond haired, blue eyed and handsome, projecting a friendly demeanour, but something lurked at the back of his eyes that made Gage's instincts screech warningly. The other man, older, grey haired, was obviously a doctor.

"It's alright Gage, we're not going to harm you, we just need to check you over." Blonde smiled, showing a lot of gleaming teeth.

(Just like a junkyard dog before it goes for your throat) "Who are you; where am I?"

"My name is Leo Kessler, this is Dr Hone. You're at Special Forces HQ, Dark Angel section."

"Where!" Gage stared. Dark Angel, Special Forces, what was going on?

"Your Sentinel is Dark Angel Race Keegan –"

"No." Gage retorted flatly. "Look, I'm Dr Gage Butler of the IFP Xeno-Archaeology Institute, seconded to Rainier University, Earth. I'm no Ellison, but I'm no pauper. How much is it going to cost me to get out of this mess?"

Leo shook his head with apparently sincere regret. "I'm sorry, it doesn't work that way. You forgot to up your dosage – we will have to know where you got the illegal drugs by the way, and Sentinel Dark Angel Keegan keyed into your pheromones. You're linking."

"Then he can damn well unlink. I'm an archaeologist for heaven's sake!"

Kessler looked regretful. "Are you refusing to co-operate and bond with your Sentinel?"

"Oh yes," Gage snarled back, "in spades, pal."

"I told you he was feisty when he was awake," drawled an amused tone.

Gage whipped his head around to see Storm-eyes – Race Keegan - leaning against the doorjamb, the light glinting off still damp oak-brown hair. Arms folded across his chest, dressed totally in black boots, jeans and T-shirt that emphasised his buff physique, Race loomed large and subtly intimidating in comparison to the shorter, more slender archaeologist.

Gage's lips curled in an open sneer at the choreographed appearance, spitting out "I am nobody's Guide, especially not for a jarhead military goon assassin!"

Race simply smiled slowly, watching the temper ignite in his Guide's eyes and the fingers twitch, doubtless in a desire to wrap around his throat. "Is he okay from the sedative?" His tone was said in the protective growl of the Sentinel.

Gage backed away further into the cell. "I am fine. I don't need prodding and poking."

Race sighed. "Sedate him again, then check him out and make sure he's alright."

For an instant the three men thought Gage would explode with sheer fury, but then he released the breath in a frustrated gasp. He couldn't beat the odds. In mutinous silence, resolutely ignoring them, he was led to sickbay and examined. He refused to even glance at Race in gratitude when he sent the strangely unpleasant Kessler out of the room, but Keegan stayed, acting as if they were already bonded Sentinel and Guide. (Not bloody likely). Kicking himself for not realising he had needed to up his dosage, Gage answered all the questions – bar those about how he'd obtained the drugs, which he ignored - submitted to all the tests, and was finally pronounced in good health. Then he was led back to the isolation cell, but not in anything as dangerous as his own clothing – bland white pyjamas of soft cotton - and the door shut on him. The place had a bunk bed, compact toilet, washbasin and shower, all in tedious white, and that was it, just a basic narrow rectangle of a room. On the right wall above his bunk was a grill opening with bars, but one glimpse through it made him turn away. Through it he could see what was obviously a sound-proofed room dominated by a large, bed-like structure with quilts and cushions that brought one word to mind: nest. Obviously Keegan's bonding suite, designed to carry his scent to the Sentinel. It was time for an escape plan.

Five days after that …

Leo Kessler shoved his hands in the side pockets of his expensively tailored conservative suit pants with moody frustration as he glared at out of his office window. His trip to his office's personal washroom just two minutes ago had involved his usual self-admiring check in the mirror, only to discover his first grey hair (and I'm only 71!), he sulked, unaware of the petulance that made his face look rather silly. Altogether he was fed-up and miserable. Iceman Ellison was due to spring a "surprise" Search on Cascade in a few days that would yield at least a dozen wild empaths, if Kessler's informants were right – as they'd better be, considering what they were paid. The chances were only two or three would be Guide-strength, but Kessler had already got customers lined up for the weaker freaks. The presence of the wild-empath-soon-to-be-Guide Gage Butler had set all the Dark Angel Sentinels, especially the Bondless ones, on edge, and each one was hoping his personal "miracle" would be found in Cascade.

Sulkily wallowing in self-pity, Kessler threw himself in his equally expensive office chair and glared around him generally, pouting how things had gone downhill since his youth. (Grey hair, for pity's sake!) He was only middle-aged. High and Mighty James Ellison's hoity-toity bastard of a father, Patriarch William Ellison of High House Ellison, was still brown haired, and he was over ninety-five!

He couldn't even sexually ease some of his frustrations by watching freaks being put through their paces anymore, as such things had gone by the by years ago. He had grown masterful at inserting peepholes and a small standing space into bonding suites so not even Sentinel senses could detect them, but he'd barely ever used the one in Dark Angel HQ.

Society's "awareness" of Sentinels and Guides had risen and fallen over the millennia. The Aztecs and Incas had used theirs to drive off the gold-hungry Spanish, and now the Azca Unity was one of the richest nations on Earth, but knowledge of Sentinels had become generally low, limited to rural/agrarian/non-technological societies like the Aborigines, Native Americans, Inuit, etc., until the 1990s, when there was a resurgence of Sentinels and Guides in the then continental United States, centred on Cascade and featuring the damned Ellison family. (Who else? They're like rats, everywhere!) But after the mid-21st Century they had gradually stepped into the background, relegated to the hindbrain of the public consciousness again.

Until humans threw themselves into space - Sentinels were supremely qualified to assist space-exploring humans in all manner of ways. Sentinels came into their own once more, but by that time empathy was seen by many, particularly those who actually possessed it, as more trouble than it was worth, so Sentinels found themselves very much out on their own without back-up. However, then primeval instincts had kicked in, first a few then many Sentinels going searching for whatever it was they needed, even if they couldn't articulate exactly what it was they were looking for – they just knew that something was "missing".

Towards his or her Guide, a Sentinel's strongest instincts were possessiveness and protectiveness, but without guidance and only their own instincts, barely understood even by themselves, to go on, Sentinels had turned those instincts on the Guide, instead of using them for the Guide. When he'd first started out in this shadowy world and found a secure way to manufacture the peepholes, Kessler had climaxed often in his little hidey-hole to the sobs of the pathetic freaks vainly pleading not to be mind-raped into the Bond, their helpless cries as they were brutally beaten, or the screams of the worthless whores being violated at their Sentinel's pleasure. But all that was long gone now. Popularly termed "wild empaths", the sluts so often murdered their "abusive" Sentinels, even though they knew that they would face a long decline of empathy-induced insanity before death, that Sentinels grew more wary, less willing to coerce and more inclined to coax.

In the middle of this Sentinel-Guide crisis, as the situation teetered on the edge of calamity, some snotty do-gooder on Earth made the find of the millennium. Much information had been lost through disinterest and simple abandonment as humanity fled to the stars during the decades of pan-global economic, social, political upheaval and crisis on Earth, but many historians and others were trying to find what was lost. One lucky amateur, scrabbling about in the basement storage units of an ancient, crumbling apartment block, had made the find that netted his fortune and eternal fame - the now-legendary "Guide Diaries", whose author detailed his life with a Cascade Sentinel in the opening decades of the 21st Century. Besides the anecdotes and social commentary on the era, were scientific, specific details regarding the "proper" symbiosis between a Sentinel and his or her Guide, most importantly, how to achieve that relationship.

With the find sensationally reported on every intergalactic news channel, cyber-paper, and even the restrained hard-copy broadsheets of the intelligentsia, the released Diaries had been the Inhabited Galaxies' first multi-trillion bestseller, and Sentinels were first in line for copies. Since 99 of Sentinels were generally operating without clear understanding, as opposed to deliberate malice, the vast majority of abuse halted rapidly. The Diaries were blunt: bonding between Sentinel and Guide was meant to be both intense, and, yes, very, very intimate without being sexual, but deliberately frightening and hurting the Guide would cause him or her to erect mental barriers against the Sentinel.

Most Sentinels sexually abused their Guides, not out of lust, but rather out of a desire to "connect", with the frustrated instinctive realisation that there was something "not right" with their mental bonding. Kessler's voyeurism became less and less satisfying to him as the namby-pamby Sentinels began to bond in the so-called correct manner with their Guides. Sentinels who understood the proper way to treat the freaks, such as Alex Barnes, were as rare as one out of every 1,000 Sentinels. More or less simultaneously with the discovery of the Guide Diaries, some freak-loving chemist had invented Priadix, curbing the trend of coercion even further. Using Priadix meant the empathic abilities of a Guide would be destroyed, but the former empath could live a normal, long life unfettered by insanity, a normal human being. An abused, mistreated Guide who killed his or her Sentinel would no longer face slowly going nuts because the mental "meshing" had been destroyed. Since those momentous events, empathic suppressant drugs had become even more sophisticated, enabling the freaks to live "normal" lives without destroying their empathy.

(Which is how we come to this tedious excuse of a process.) Kessler snorted inside his head contemptuously as he thought of the past five days. There were still just enough "Alex Barnes" style Sentinels out there, and just enough perceived disadvantages to being a Guide, for empaths to decide to pass on the job. The offspring of those with enough wealth or power, like the scions of the Oligarchy or the Altair Confederacy, who turned out to be strong empaths had turned their abilities into profit. If the empathy developed early enough they had the brain surgery that kept them empathic but crippled their ability to bond, otherwise they used the most expensive, virtually nil side effect suppressants. As adults they hired themselves as Professional Guides on a "case-by-case" basis, charging handsomely for the privilege. Sleek, meek, neurologically neutered, perfectly blending into the background and avoiding all that up-close-and-personal stuff.

Unfortunately, while a Sentinel could work with any empath, and an empath could work with any Sentinel, each could only bond with one of the other side of the equation, the kicker being that it was a life-bond – a bonded Sentinel whose Guide died could not re-bond, and vice versa. It was considered a mercy that the devastated, grief-wracked survivor often died also within a few days, either committing suicide or simply ceasing to function.

What made bonding necessary was that a Sentinel's powers would only stabilise and increase, sometimes to double what they had been before, when he or she finally bonded to "their" Guide. Likewise, a Guide's empathy would only stabilise and increase, once he or she bonded with "their" Sentinel. Until that happened, both were like an old radio, frequently drifting off station with abilities that fluctuated wildly, working at 120 one day and "gone" the next before flirting back again. The stronger the Sentinel and more powerful the empath, the more control they had, but that control gradually began to deteriorate as time went on, making them exponentially more dangerous both to themselves and those around them.

So, when a wild empath was captured, the idea was to trigger him or her into bonding heat, but without the physical, mental and sexual brutality that the confused Sentinels had initially used. To do this, one simple premise was used: that the brain abhorred a vacuum. The mind needed something to occupy itself with. Thus, the captured empath was placed in a small, drab white cell, with a drab white bunk and drab white bathroom, containing drab white towels, soap, toilet paper, shampoo and other accoutrements. Their clothes, jewellery, possessions, etc., were removed and they were dressed in – no prizes – drab white cotton pyjamas, then confined to the cell. No books, TV, vids, web, phone calls, visitors or conversation; even the food was designed to be as bland and tasteless as possible. The only thing to look at, through a small barred grill on the wall, directly above the bunk, was what little they could see of the bonding suite belonging to the Sentinel who would claim them.

Needless to say, boredom was virtually immediate. Not allowed any suppressants to conceal it, the grill in the wall carried their scent, complete with signature musk, straight to the Sentinel who slept in the suite for however many days the procedure took to work, thus triggering his or her own bonding heat. Empaths, of course, lacked the enhanced senses of Sentinels, but with nothing else to think about, the brain focussed on what was available, and the empath's own senses did become slightly heightened, in the manner of blind people who had very acute hearing, or the deaf that had perfect vision. In this manner, the empath picked up the pheromones given off by the Sentinel, and since it had nothing else to do, their brain began to subconsciously process them, dwell on them, take note of them, even if on a conscious level the empath was firmly rejecting all overtures. That in turn triggered the empath to go into bonding heat, at which point they were taken into the bonding suite and bonded with the Sentinel.

Kessler bit his lip as he glared at the clock on the wall, which also gave the date. The more powerful the empath, ipso facto the more powerful a Guide they would eventually be, so the process took longer. Gage Butler had been there five days, when even quite strong Guides usually lasted only till about four, and he still hadn't started to go into bonding heat yet! If Kessler had been able to get such a prize to his customers, he would have made a million galacs easy – such a strong empath would probably have lasted a couple of years until the constant violation of his body with the attendant risks of sexually transmitted disease made him worthless to anyone but the research labs. Kessler could have afforded two or three of the latest model Tamasaki air-skiff convertibles, or that penthouse in the exclusive Colonnade area….

Two days ago….

Race showered briskly in his quarters after an invigorating two-hour session of Physical Training; it was only 08:00am Earth Standard Time – EST – but he felt great. Coming out of the bathroom, he was towelling his hair when his vidlink "pinged", "Incoming message."

Going to the wall he ordered, "On screen," then valiantly tried to bite back a grin as Jim Ellison's definitely lugubrious face stared at him. Relatives, since Jim's maternal grandmother Matriarch Kristijana Akureyri of High House Akureyri was Race's maternal aunt, they got on very well with each other anyway, and with plenty of space between them, the Bondless Sentinel was no threat to Race's possession of his Guide. "Oh my."

Jim snorted. "From now on, Keegan, I am getting up and coming into work at 0300 hours every day, because if I'm ever stuck with a job like this again, you won't be able to move for corpses."

"That bad?" Asked Race in sympathy.

Jim sighed. "Some low-ranking BBB is obviously trying to score points with my father by trying to fix his son's problem of bondlessness. Since Cascade is reckoned to be the largest Sanctuary on Earth for wild empaths, some genius came up with this idea."

BBB was shorthand for "bureaucratic bean-brain". "You don't think it'll work?"

A derisive snort, "Storge is a jarhead who wouldn't know initiative and originality if they bit him on the ass. Wildes is pure politician – as useful as building a lion cage out of spun glass!"

"Leopard," murmured Gage.


"Nothing. You're sure it's going to be a bust?"

Jim's frustration was clearly evident. "Daric Slater and his crew are really on the ball, but nobody is listening to him. He thinks we'll be detected on the approach but Wildes has this genius plan to "sneak up on them" from the dark side of the moon."

"Sneak? In a B-class Battle Destroyer?" Race was suddenly reminded of the hippopotamuses' dance of Swan Lake from that old 20th Century cartoon, Fantasia. A B-class Battle Destroyer would be just about as inconspicuous.

Jim shrugged, but despite his pessimistic attitude, he couldn't disguise the faint flare of hope in his eyes. Race signed off the call, feeling slightly guilty about his own ebullient mood, remembering all to well the conversation he and Jim had had with another close acquaintance, Saran Van den Mikhail of High House Syal, Viceroy of Olban, favourite nephew of Matriarch Madjhuri Syal, and High Commissioner of the LEO Commission.

"High Commissioner" was one of those titles that sounded slightly less grand than Admiral or General; the reality was far different. The High Commissioner answered directly and only to the Intergalactic Federation President, ruling absolutely over all IFP police, judiciary, legal, national guard units and so forth, outranking all everyone with the exceptions of the Lord High Admiral of the IFP Admiralty, the Chairman of the IFP Joint Chiefs of Staff and the IFP Prime Minister, who alone were his equals in rank. Saran was the youngest person ever to hold the office, but while acknowledged widely as "brilliant" and "incisive", he was about the only person that could out-Ellison Ellison. Icy, detached, bleak, he had no room for any emotion. He too was a powerful Sentinel, but ruthlessly controlled his senses by suppressants and sheer willpower, having no time to "waste" on Guide searches. Privately, Race had considered it a good thing, for he'd have pitied the Guide bonded to the barren, emotional desert that was Saran Van den Mikhail.

Unfortunately, for all his brutal bluntness, Saran had accurately pointed out the dangers of Jim pinning all his hopes on Leo Kessler's "Dark Guide", "'This man was captured by Alexandra Barnes, a lady whose peccadilloes we are all too familiar with,'" Saran had pointed out ruthlessly in his dry, cool manner, "'and thus spent months being subjected to almost daily mental cruelty, physical torture and sexual abuse that has to have left him at the very least severely traumatised. Even if he really is a genuine "Dark Guide", he's of absolutely no use to you if he's a basket case.' "

After that conversation Jim had done a little research, contacting therapists and counsellors; Race had seen the grim results. The problems enunciated by the psycho-whatever professionals had been endless: eating disorders such as anorexia/bulimia; manic depression; suicidal tendencies and self-mutilation had topped the list, followed by obsessive-compulsive mania; phobias; alcoholism and/or drug addiction; insomnia; night terrors and anxiety attacks. To ice the cake they had also pointed out the possibility of either extreme sexual promiscuity – particularly gravitating towards physically and/or sexually abusive partners because he was "unworthy" of a decent person – or extreme suppression of his sexuality to the point where he could not cope with the intimate, albeit non-sexual, nature of bonding.

Still, Jim hoped, and Race couldn't blame him, he admitted as he dressed and hurried up the corridors. He, Saran and Jim were all several years older than was normal for Sentinels to bond, yet he had found his prize! His face insisted on grinning again and this time Race let his happiness out to play. This morning, Race had been awoken by the heady scent of musk, so powerful as to be almost intoxicating. Gage himself had awoken definitely grumpy. Of equal import besides this sudden mood shift from silent stubbornness was the fact that Butler's body temperature had risen by two degrees. He was just entering the first stages of bonding heat – slightly elevated body temperature and irrational irritability. Over the next forty-eight to sixty hours, depending on how pig-headed he was, he would swing between lethargy and irritation, his body temperature would also rise by another few degrees, then, whoom! in the space of moments he would go into full bonding heat, and then he would no longer resist the bonding. Race found that he was humming to himself and he fancied that he could faintly hear the approving growl of a leopard….

Right about now….

Race dropped the coffee in shock as the leopard appeared right in the middle of the break room, roaring in fury. Simultaneously, a klaxon howled throughout the building.

He had no memory of racing back to the cell to find the door open and his Guide gone. But the scent trail left was as visible to Race as glowing scarlet thread, and he ran on, out into the huge solar where you could sit and watch the double suns rise. Out through the clear plexi-glas dome he could see a pyjama clad figure making its way quickly but surely towards the central city. Of more immediate import however was the much closer figure of Leo Kessler leaning a tranquilliser rifle through an open pane, lining it on Butler's back.

Race's bellow startled everyone, Kessler jerking the rifle up and sending the trank harmlessly away. The man spun around and, for a split second, an almost inhuman rage and hatred twisted his fast, before confused protest masked it. "Why did you…?"

"He could have fallen to his death!" Race rebuked savagely, his mind whirling at the speed of a battle computer. His wily Guide would be caught with guile, not force, guile and his own overriding instincts, unless Race's nostrils lied.

Grabbing the small, heavy round metal disc that was handed to him, he moved forward and eased out of the window until he was on the domed roofs also, ordering everyone to stay inside, then he set off in pursuit.

Gage risked a glance behind and saw a familiar figure some way behind him. He was coming nearer, but Gage still had a considerable distance advantage, one that he could utilise more if he could pull himself together. He paused briefly against one of the domes, dragging air into his heaving lungs, wiping away the sweat across his brow. Damn, he thought he was fitter than this, he was panting like a dog under a summer sun and sweat dripped off him. (I am definitely going to work out more after this), he promised as he began to pick his way along again, determinedly not looking back.

Race moved as quickly but safely as possible into position, his nose almost seared with the aroma drifting to it. Gage was in full bonding heat, Race could literally taste him on the air, but without the suppressants to mask it, Gage could not be allowed to reach the central city area. Scent of a Guide in full bonding heat would draw Sentinels from ten blocks in all directions, and the one that managed to catch him would bond with him by brute force – "mind-rape" - as the ancient instincts inevitably kicked in when he or she faced off so many other challengers who would snatch the Guide away if he was not Bonded immediately upon capture. Fortunately Gage was not watching him, so he quickly ran the portable holo-scanner over his body, then ducked behind a support pillar and programmed it.

Gage moved carefully, for these domes had tiles not plexi-glas and were therefore wet and slippery –


The choked off cry had him whirling round in time to see his pursuer slip down a dome, but Race managed to come to a jerking halt at the supporting ledge of a roof. As Gage watched, the other man managed to get to a sitting position, but no way was he going to make it back up the smooth domed surface to the workman's catwalk without assistance. Gage turned forward again, but only took two steps onwards before, almost involuntarily, he looked back. Race was standing, leaning against the dome, but he could get no purchase on the plexi-glas. True, the Dark Angel appeared uninjured, however, the fall had been considerable.

If he turned his head he could hear the dull roar of freedom in the everyday sounds of the central city, where not even Race Keegan's Sentinel abilities could track him, not amongst the teeming billions there. Conscience however, was awake and clearing its throat meaningfully. Gage vacillated uncertainly. On only his third ever archaeological dig, a student volunteer, only two years older than he himself, had fallen six feet down a trench onto some rare stone carving artefacts protruding out of the soil. With no apparent injuries, the student was hauled out with a scolding for the damage he might have caused. Naturally cheery, the student had soon regained his bounce except for not eating dinner as he felt a "bit queasy". The next morning he was dead in his bunk after his unsuspected internal injuries killed him as he slept; the fact that Keegan looked fine meant zilch.

Assessing the situation, Gage began to move back along the catwalk. Perhaps because of some "Sentinel prerogative", Race was his only pursuer and the blobs of watching faces he could barely see were far too far away to catch up with them. As he expected, the catwalk had thin loops of climbing cord attached at regular intervals, to allow the repairers to move up and down the domes without having to build a maze of catwalks to take them there. He could throw one down to Keegan and still be long gone by the time the Dark Angel reached the catwalk.

Coming to the appropriate section, Gage loosened the cord and threw the free end down over the rail, watching it arc slowly through the air, slap against the dome roof as it passed straight through Race Keegan's body!

Scrunched into a ball under the catwalk's thick support prop, barely breathing, Race had moved with the stalking grace of a leopard as the slow footsteps passed over his position, up and sliding between the rails as Gage threw the rope. The younger man had only time to glimpse a big black flicker out of his peripheral vision before he was suddenly grabbed in a bear-hug, pulled back against a torso as two arms wrapped tightly round his front, pinning his arms to his sides. Before Gage could even tense up from the attack, Race bent his head and bit him, hard, at the precise nape of his neck.

Butler's whole body jerked, and he uttered a high keen that electrified the hair on Race's body before he suddenly slumped in his captor's grasp. Switching off the holo-scanner and re-pocketing it, Race held onto Butler with one arm. Ignoring dignity for the practicality of a "fireman's lift", Race began to hurry back with his Guide's limp form over one shoulder, fighting valiantly against the Sentinel who was screaming with hunger. Biting like that at the nape when the Guide was in bonding heat had sent Gage into temporary "sensory shock", a short-lived daze, almost catatonic. It had also nearly unleashed the Sentinel; Race expended every ounce of will to stop himself from simply slumping to the catwalk and bonding immediately.

The ugly snarls issuing from Keegan's throat were enough to keep the most insensitive away, though Leo Kessler remained slightly too close, the part of the brain that was still clinging to the analytical Keegan noting his too avid eyes. Knowing his control was fading rapidly, Race slid Gage off his shoulder; already the man was beginning to blink and shake his head, although completely pliant as Race plastered him to his side, the pair "running" in a sort of drunken shuffle-stumble back from the solar to Keegan's suite, along tactfully deserted corridors.

Shoving the still out-of-it empath into the bonding suite, Race slammed the door and threw the bolts, then whirled back to where Gage, swaying from side to side, stood in the middle of the room, blinking fuzzily. Twin, urgent growls snapped Race's head around; on the floor near the door, his leopard stood guard with the smaller, golden feline next to it. With an answering, silent roar of intent, the Sentinel came out to play. Scooping up his Guide like a babe in arms, he deposited his prize on the huge cushions and pillows, tugging them around to create a secure nest. Then he pounced.

Pinning his Guide to the divan, the Sentinel gave a low, rumbling growl as he buried his face in the juncture of his Guide's neck at the shoulder and inhaled his scent deeply. Heat of bonding was pouring of his Guide and the sweet musk was cloying. Sliding his fingers through His Guide's fringe, he tightened them in the scalp, tilting Gage's head back and exposing his throat.

Lowering his head, Race nipped the vulnerable flesh in the dip at the base of his throat, and was instantly rewarded; with a low moan of delight, Gage raised his hands to clamp the top of Race's arms at the shoulder, not pushing him away but pulling him closer. The Sentinel paused momentarily in irritation at the coarse, rough cloth that separated his Guide from him. One hand still locked in his Guide's hair, the other grasped material and jerked once, brutally, discarding the ripped shreds with a careless toss of one hand. Now he pinned the Guide down totally, locking his own gaze with the dazed, huge eyes, the pupils totally dilated. Gage's barriers were totally down, the only thing protecting him from the emotions of the city's billions of citizens was his Sentinel.

The brilliant orange of Race's mind pushed forward, meeting and overlaying the iridescent green of Gage's personality. This was the true Bonding: exchanging memories, emotions, thoughts and knowledge, meshing together, interlocking irreversibly in the split-second between one heartbeat and the next. From now on, no matter where they were in the universe, neither man would ever be alone, for the other half of them would only ever be a thought away.

The Guide uttered a gasp of pain as new neural pathways were forged, his mind stretched like a strained muscle being reintroduced to exercise. Instantly the Sentinel began to croon wordlessly, petting and soothing. Orange pushed firmly but gently, not crushing the green or obliterating it, but slowly the two seeped together, surging down the pathways into the very core of both of them. At Gage's core, something shifted, and he released the pheromones of Bonding; Race inhaled the scent, imprinting it on his senses, his brain chemistry irrevocably altering. MINE!

The Sentinel buried his nose in his Guide's hair, stroking the silken strands and nuzzling, before moving to his Guide's face, rubbing his thumb across a cheek before lowering his head again to the throat, growling in pleasure as he elicited little yips of delight by gently biting down, marking his possession. Hypersensitive senses of touch, taste and scent activated as Race "mapped" his Guide: touching, nuzzling, sniffing, tasting. His Guide squirmed under him, growling, also trying to do his own mapping, but the Sentinel pinned him firmly – the Guide must be submissive. He ran his fingers along one collarbone, down a strong, tanned arm to the wrist, rubbing his thumb in the soft palm and over the work-callused fingers, lightly stroking the skin over the rapidly beating pulse-points at the wrist. He repeated the gesture with the other arm, but this time, he stroked from shoulder to wrist more firmly, growling as his heightened touch detected old healing of two breaks. His Guide must be protected.

He worked his way down the torso, revelling in the heat radiating from his now obediently quiescent Guide, nipping the smooth flesh, pleased at the shivers of sensation it sent through his Guide. Below one nipple was a horizontal, smooth cut that the "Dark Angel" identified as "knife" and he growled again. He traced the ribs, carefully, noting the two old breaks, plus the texture of the muscles, hearing the faintest capillaries sending blood to vital organs, the crowning dub-dub-dub of his Guide's heart. A Sentinel used his Guide's body as a baseline against which all other sensory input was measured; the bonding constantly re-affirmed that sensory baseline as the Guide's scent, taste and vital signs were imprinted on the Sentinel.

A round puckered hole near the abdomen at about the site of the appendix was identified by questing fingers as a bullet hole, and the Sentinel drew back teeth in a soundless snarl. His Guide was entirely too occupied in digging up dirt to look after himself; that would change. Protect the Guide. Carefully, he examined his Guide intimately, pleased when Gage, understanding there was no sexual intent, did not flinch away, but murmured reassurance, moving a hand to stroke his Sentinel's hair.

Abruptly there was a rumbling, happy growl right next to the Sentinel's ear, and he glanced up to see the leopard poking its face over the barrier cushions. At the same time, his hand brushed over four old scars, deep, parallel grooves that ran diagonally down Gage's hip from right to left, starting at the juncture at the top of the leg, where the fleshier inner thigh met the genitals, down to below his hip bone on the outer thigh towards the knee. Race traced them with his fingers, anxiously, they were very deep, the healed skin over them thick and coarse. With a small sound, Gage covered the restless stroking hand with his own, locking eyes with his Sentinel.

Race received a blurred sequence of memories, still jarring because of the newness of their bond. A much younger Gage, with a half-glimpsed other youth, skinny, with long curly-brown hair, were both perched precariously up a large tree somewhere in the African veldt. Race just had time to subconsciously register that the other youth was also a powerful empath when a violent impact shook the tree. An enraged rhinoceros was charging it again and again, butting the base powerfully. Gage tried to scramble higher and with an enraged yowl, the half-grown leopard cub that had taken refuge in the top-most branches swiped out at the intruder with one paw, slicing through cloth and flesh. The image disappeared, but Race continued to croon wordlessly, the Sentinel growling in atavistic delight that his spirit animal guide had branded his real Guide. He moved on, down the legs, to the toes, then back up again, no centimetre of skin missed in the bonding. Finally, he moved carefully to completely cover his Guide's body with his own larger one, instinctively using himself as a shield against any possible danger. "Claimed and marked, Guide." He rasped the ancient ritual.

"Claimed and marked, Sentinel." Gage returned the vow.

Their eyes locked and the Sentinel allowed himself to be pulled in, to drown in the cocooning warmth and bliss of union with another soul…

Rainier University, shortly after Jim Ellison's Search…

Blair hurried away from Chancellor Hammond. Chancellor Edwards had hated him for not having the right social pedigree or affluent blue-rinse parents, his Jewish heritage and his long-haired neo-hippie style. She used to stop him to harangue him. Chancellor Hammond was a genteelly clueless focus-group/think-tank type who had taken a maternal shine to him, so she stopped him to gossip for ages. This morning he had already run overtime with his first lecture as students arriving late interrupted the class. Those students had been the ones conspicuous by their absence the instant the USS Nimitz had blasted out of the sky.

Blair took the deserted stairs down to Artefact Storage Room 3, a.k.a. his office. No one used stairs anymore but the old buildings still had them as per fire regulations. Dr Wentworth, Dean of Anthropological Studies, was still a field-man at heart, spending most of his time finagling ways to go "observing" with students on digs; because of that his department was left to be run by his secretaries, Teaching Fellows and Teaching Assistants. Dean Edwards had been snidely responsible for his "temporary" office in ASR3, but Blair rapidly realised she'd done him a favour. He came and went as he pleased, unbothered by frequent visits from colleagues begging favours. It was ideal, especially for its current use.

Entering, he threw the bolts, dumping his stuff on the desk. The old waste disposal units were larger than the current safer models, so he was able to haul up the plastic wrapped body of Holtz and ease it inside, letting go and hearing the deep hum as the unit vaporised the corpse. Acting quickly but carefully, he micro cleaned the entire room, including himself, aware that musty books and the general entropy that always seemed to be going on would eradicate any trace of Holtz ever being there. His usual smiling and ebullient face was grim as he sat at his desk. He'd had no suspicions until purely by chance, going out of his way to purchase his favourite herbal tea, he saw Holtz holding court at an exclusive eatery in the most expensive tourist area, something that should have been an annual treat on his salary, yet from his attitude, it was obvious that Holtz was a frequent, big spending customer.

Blair's investigations had turned up exactly what he expected. Blair the man hated these situations, so the Dark Guide had simply taken charge. A stiletto inserted at an angle between the third and fifth ribs cannot avoid striking the heart. Holtz was dead before he hit the floor and there was virtually no blood loss. Fortunately, Holtz had kept records of his payments and dealings with "The Man", the mysterious monster who was responsible for 90 of the illegal trade in kidnapped empaths to brothels, pornography rings or research labs. Blair's hope of an actual ID was dashed, but he was able to access all of Holtz accounts. Carefully he transferred the money to various charities, including the university, and the highly secret fund administered by Simon Banks as co-ordinator of Cascade Sanctuary, laying a trail to make it look as if Holtz was a greedy embezzler fled to live the high life in the sun.

Working with even greater patience, he had removed the list of empaths that Holtz had identified – over two hundred of them, with names, holographs, addresses and times when they would be most vulnerable to capture. All those who had "disappeared" during Ellison's Search were on the list, but Blair was not. Every instinct he possessed had always screamed to flee, but rationality won out. Disappearance marked you out to anyone with the slightest intelligence, so Blair had had to stay put and hope that his suppressants worked, even if he had to keep upping the dosage frequently. Certainly Chancellor Edwards would have wasted no time in pointing him out and then gleefully watching him be dragged off, to be forcibly bonded with some Neanderthal military goon.

Destroying the identifying parts of the lists, he had sent details of the buyers for the empaths using the encrypted tight-beam that Trey had set up for him, even though using it worried him. The tight-beam was a bio-technical invention, and part of the biology involved using the creator's DNA. Should Blair ever be captured and be unable to destroy the tight-beam, the DNA would lead them straight to his friend. But Trey had insisted and despite him being the quietest and most self-effacing of the "Terrible Trio", he in fact ruled them. Gage had not replied, but this didn't bother him, for Gage was with archaeology what Blair was with anthropology – give either something fascinating to study and you could have marched right past them with a brass band and seven naked dancing girls and they wouldn't have noticed. He also sent a list of the "buyers" to Simon, knowing it would be sent immediately to Saran Van den Mikhail, the LEO High Commissioner. Van Den Mikhail might eschew having his own Guide, but he was merciless in crushing those that abused them. Over a dozen empath-abusing prostitution rackets, pornography rings and research labs had been smashed under his power, their overseers now doomed to life forever on the fog-shrouded, rain-lashed prison planet of Styx. But even as he hurried to his next class, he vowed to himself that one day they would find The Man, and they would destroy him….

The morning after the night before…

Gage's neck itched, and he blinked sleepily as the irritation forced him to abandon Morpheus' embrace. He was also very hot and cuddled against something big, warm and ...snoring?

Now fully awake, he blinked to clear the sleep from his eyes. He was tucked against the large frame of Race Keegan, who slumbered beside him, one arm across Gage's chest, one tree-trunk thigh thrown across his lower torso. With digital clarity, the events of the previous twenty-four hours came back to him, but Gage's bladder was having a more immediate crisis.

Slowly he eased out from next to Race, moving a hand to stroke the other's hair as instantly the Sentinel frowned, twitching anxiously; under his ministration the Sentinel settled back down. Gage's skin tingled and looking down he saw the bites and scratches he had expected, but Race's flesh was equally as marked – the Guide had claimed the Sentinel as much as the other way round.

Heeding his insistent bladder, Gage padded to the en suite bathroom of the bonding suite and relieved himself. Going to the washbasin, the mystery of the itching was instantly solved when he looked in the mirror. Around his neck just below his Adam's apple was a very thin, multi-coloured tattoo that incorporated the designs of Race's own, but which was unique to Gage as his Guide. Usually Guides were given temporary collars and taken to a professional body artist, but his Sentinel was obviously far too impatient and had been busy while his exhausted Guide slept! Strangely, Gage felt no resentment and even a sneaky contentment at the flaunted branding of himself.

Then he looked at the wall clock, which also showed the date. Closing his eyes, he ground his teeth and mentally exhausted every expletive he knew, including those in languages extinct for millennia.

After possibly the fastest shower in history, he stalked out of the bathroom ignoring his nudity, furiously towelling his hair. Now awake, Race watched his progress across the room with lazy satisfaction, a smile of unashamedly smug satisfaction curving his lips. Instead of the pyjamas, Gage's laundered clothing and holdall had been placed there, near Race's own freshly laundered apparel. Studiously ignoring the Sentinel, Gage pulled on his socks, pants and boots, tying the laces with considerably more force than necessary, imagining them tightening around a certain person's blasted neck!

He caught and flicked on his pager as it fell from his shirt pocket and as he expected it began to shrill with strident alarm. Again disregarding the fact that Race was blatantly eavesdropping in violation of a whole raft of privacy laws, Gage answered it, putting it to his ear with one hand as he pulled his T-shirt and baggy over shirt on with one hand.

"Hello – Morris – yeah, Morris. Morris – yeah, Morris." Holding the pager away slightly as his second in command continued his semi-hysteric rant, he slid that arm into his T-shirt and then his shirt, placing the pager back to his ear as Morris wound down. "Look, I'm on way, okay. Yeah – I know, Morris." He glanced at the smirking Sentinel. "Uh, um, something came up – I'll tell you when I see you. Yeah, yeah, yes, Morris. Calm down, man!" He ended the call ruefully; Morris was a heart attack waiting to happen.

"Problem with the "new dig"?" Race asked innocently, having picked that much up from the hysterics.

"No, I'll handle it when I get there." Gage ran harassed fingers through his hair as he tossed his pager into his holdall.

Once again that superior smirk drifted across Race's features. Mine, all mine. "What about me, Guide?" he challenged softly.

Gage didn't have time for a pissing contest with Race Keegan; he was the guy's Guide – Keegan one, Butler nil; now he had more important things to do to pander even further to the SOB's ego. Exasperated beyond caution, he yanked up the holdall and walked towards the door, tossing flippantly over his shoulder, "I'll send you a postcard!"

To be continued…

© 2001, C. D. Stewart