Author's Note: Please read the EXPLANATION that follows the end of this. Chapter XI – The Man Planet Federation, Dark Angels HQ, less than 48 hours later…

Trey Logan sat alone, sipping yet another cup of coffee in a large anteroom that was clearly a stratum lower than the suite aboard the T'Pau; it merely rated as "plush" rather than "opulent". Of course, Trey acknowledged, there was little point in pouring money into the décor of places you periodically abandoned, for this, while Dark Angels HQ, was not the same Dark Angels HQ that Gage Butler had made his escape from. Indeed, Gage had actually pointed out the gleaming domes over which he had done his gazelle impression to Trey as their shuttle brought them from the spaceport to…here.

Trey certainly had to admit the guiding principle behind the Dark Angels moonlight flits was rock solid. In the mid 21st century, in the decades after the pivotal 9/11, the Dark Angels had not been created, but had rather "just happened", growing organically. Originally comprised of a small cabal of men and women scattered amongst a variety of law enforcement and secret service agencies across the globe, the ephemeral cadre had become solid when one of these persons, possessing a goal-oriented drive and obsessive-compulsive approach extreme for even those who inhabited such shadowy occupations, had drawn the clique together with himself – or herself – as the first self-appointed (though carefully never self-styled) Supreme Commander. Who that was, and when, was unknown and forever would be, the Supreme Commander's ruthless hold on complete personal anonymity in place from the very start.

One of the early Commanders, perhaps the first one, had been an organisational genius, and had foreseen clearly the inherent danger facing the tiny, still unnoticed group. Many, many "covert operations" groups, such as the FBI; CIA; NSA; Mossad; KGB; MI5/6 and Sûreté had started off tiny, small and deadly, like a Black Widow spider, but had gradually, imperceptibly, ballooned until one day they were Public And In The Press, having all the lightening fast manoeuvrability of a Blue Whale. Bit by bit each of these organisations had acquired more secretaries, more desks, more forms, larger and more imposing offices, until they were ponderous bureaucracies just as too-slow-to-act and too-smothered-in-red-tape as the previous bureaucracies they had been created to supplant. This Supreme Commander was generally believed to have been British, since it was an English adventure-action series, called Professionals or something similar, which gave him – or her – the idea that was now Dark Angels Standard Operating Procedure. In one episode of the show, the organisation's "controller" had been the victim of an attempted bombing, and one character remarked to the other that it should have been impossible since the man didn't even have a "regular" office.

The Dark Angel's then ruler had taken that notion fully on board, and virtually from their inception, the organisation had had neither official nor permanent HQ. The Dark Angels leased a building under the guise of a legitimate business for weeks, months, sometimes barely a few days other times a couple of years, but would one day disappear as abruptly as they'd come in. It made the Dark Angels command hierarchy notoriously difficult to eliminate. Back when they were little more than rumour and growing legend in "spook" circles, more than one terrorist/fanatic group had expended unaffordable time, effort and money preparing bombs/death squad attacks that failed because of the Dark Angels completely unpredictable tendency to "move house" apparently on a whim. It also prevented the organisation's "bloating". Bureaucrats like order and regimen and routine; they like stacks of filing cabinets and bevies of secretaries. Having to uproot your entire office and filing system with maybe thirty minutes notice every few weeks did not do a bureaucrat's nervous system any good.

New technology like the Information Superhighway Global Grid, which had been a godsend during the early decades of human space exploration, had rendered a lot of paper work obsolete. Palm readers, ebooks, flimsies and so forth, re-designed and/or invented to make maximum use of the desperate lack of space on interstellar colonisation ships, had all come along and whittled down the "stuff to hump from place to place even further". Nowadays, secretarial college prospectuses proudly declared that "any competent secretary" could run an office like clockwork with nothing more than a chair, a foot square of flat surface, a computer, a reader and a couple of reusable flimsies. While the Dark Angels were now a much larger organisation than the 22 original founders back in 2007, they still moved HQ frequently and were totally devoid of the tedious paper shuffling that afflicted their more traditional covert ops brethren.

Trey blew out his breath in a bitter sigh as he dropped the cup in the discreet waste disposal unit and watched it get vaporised in a puff of molecules, morbidly realising that his future prospects were just about as optimistic. For a non-Dark Angel to be taken into Dark Angels HQ was officially a Fate Worse Than Death. Entire libraries worth of lurid legends existed about what occurred on the "inside" of the secretive organisation, extremely implausible and wildly far-fetched and often downright ridiculous. Since the entire ethos of the Dark Angels was to be invisible, "always present but never there", in the words of the 1st Baron Thatcher, husband of Britain's first female Prime Minister, publicly dragging people they wanted to "disappear" into an intimidating building was not the sort of thing the Dark Angels did. People who annoyed the Dark Angels were disposed of covertly and with total inconspicuousness and without anyone being any the wiser.

Since arriving, Trey had been treated with nothing but gentle kindness by the Dark Angels in the place, all of whom looked like nothing more than mildly affluent office executives, painfully aware of their silent but overt consensus that he had done the universe a favour in ridding it of Ruis. He had been placed in this anteroom by a dainty, pretty, five-foot-nothing blonde secretary with big blue eyes, who looked not a day over eighteen and whom Trey had no doubt knew a thousand and one ways to kill him with a blunt pencil, while the Great & Good – Saran, Race Keegan, Jim, et al - had traipsed off to make the Big Decisions and see that Ruis's corpse was deposited in the safety of the Dark Angels morgue many, many levels below.

Unfortunately, while his actions had been approved off at an individual level, Trey was aware that the ruthlessly pragmatic Dark Angels were considering their reactions in the light of the ubiquitous and iniquitous Big Picture. Every so often, Trey would pop out of the anteroom to get more coffee from the pot in the small office/typing pool area outside, just to give himself something to do, since he would invariably start pacing and end up disposing of cold coffee. On the last trip, he'd overheard one man walking down the corridor sardonically comment to his companion on how the scions of House de y l'Almonté were indecorously scrambling to check out their family genealogies in order to establish just how close their biological links to the Patriarch Alphonse were.

By killing Ruis, Trey had not just opened up a vacancy for Body Heir but had created a potential power vacuum and the possibility of "interested parties" being able to stir political instability in the Oligarchy, the IFP's most powerful ruling segment. Various warlords/tyrants on the Frontier Worlds would be watching with slavering interest to see what happened, and even the eye of that beautiful monster the Eternal Empress would be peering at them from the depths of the Atewam Empire.

Trey rotated his neck and glanced at his wristwatch. How long was this going to take? He was under no illusions. No matter how much they might try to protect him, Gage and Blair could in no way effect a wild shoot-'em-up escape attempt from Dark Angels HQ, assuming they would even try. They were Guides now, soul-bonded to two Sentinels who both happened to be Dark Angels. They would probably have no choice but to let him be Don Alphonse's sacrificial lamb. Likewise Simon Banks had no power outside his running of Cascade PD, and for him to go up against the Dark Angels in any sort of rescue attempt would be nothing less than suicide.

Trey freely acknowledged he was dreading laying eyes on Patriarch Alphonse de y l'Almonté, even though he had no compunction about killing Ruis; in that split instant before he pulled the trigger, he had been empathically linked to the other man's mind and had "seen" that Ruis was a sociopath. He was a drone bee, a parasite draining resources that could have been profitably used elsewhere; a user and abuser who had engineered no less than three murder attempts against Alphonse in the past two years, secure in the knowledge that success would give him the Patriarchy and sole access to the vast resources thereof, with no siblings to take shares out of it.

In what he knew to be a futile attempt to get his thoughts out of the weary, circular grooves they were scoring in his brain, Trey opened the door and headed for the coffee pot again…

Blair accepted the large mug of coffee handed to him by Jim with gratitude, and wished he had some painkillers to go with it as he massaged his neck wearily. For all Blair's preference for natural remedies, there were times when only drugs would do.

There were lots of colourful and profane ways of describing the current situation, but the simplest and most accurate would be "complete mess". Blair glanced around at the collection of glum and grim faces. Leaving Trey alone in that anteroom had been one of the hardest things he'd had to do, even though the Dark Guide part of him knew Jim needed his presence; ditto for Gage. By the time they'd gathered in this conference room, a virtual clone of the one aboard the T'Pau with a little less hidden gadgetry but probably just as many weapons, the tension between Gage and Saran was acute, with Race Keegan in the middle. The Sentinel was so tense that if you flicked him with a finger, he'd vibrate like a tuning fork. Blair had to admit that Saran, to the LEO High Commissioner's credit, was now clearly taking seriously the idea that Trey was more than a petulant wild empath playing for sympathy.

The coffee was strong and bitter and just what Blair's battered neurons needed. In the last hour and a half even his anthropological obsession had reached information overload as he was given a crash course into the inner working of the Oligarchy and the Houses thereof. Blair certainly did not envy any scion of House de y l'Almonté in the Body Heir scramble that would inevitably follow this debacle!

As Blair had learned, it was extraordinarily unusual for a Patriarch or Matriarch (or the Head of any House) to have less than three children. Generally speaking, the Patriarch or Matriarch followed the "heir and spare" philosophy of ancient aristocratic families of Earth. Generally speaking, the firstborn of the Head and his or her Consort was the Body Heir because usually the child was designed specifically for that purpose by the Patriarch/Matriarch; Jim Ellison and Saran van Den Mikhail were both the firstborn and Body Heirs of their parents (Hunter, being a natural, undesigned birth, didn't "count" despite being older than Jim).

However, there were still plenty of exceptions to the "generally speaking" rule. The current Patriarch of House Stantley, for example, had been a "spare" until being made Body Heir at age 17 when an air-skiff race collision on Kay Setaina had turned his elder brother and previous Body Heir into a charred smear on a mountainside.

The Heads of the Houses often also designed each of their children to be individually brilliant and scintillating, then picked a Body Heir later on in a "nurture over nature" decision. The late Patriarch Khan Syal had done this, choosing the current Matriarch Madjhuri as his Body Heir even though Saran van Den Mikhail's mother, the Vicereine of Olban, was his favourite child,one more example of the merciless pragmatism practised by the High Houses. The laws of inheritance amongst Houses - High, Lesser, Associate and Name – were complex enough without being thrown the "curveball" of a dead Body Heir who was an only child.

Technically, only one of the surviving children of the House Head and his or her chosen Consort could be appointed as a new Body Heir due to the death or attainder of the original, since the Consort's genome had been specifically chosen to produce 50 of the Body Heir. It was, very superficially, the way that the sons of the Sultana would inherit in ancient Earth cultures even though the Sultan might have other children by wives/concubines he was simultaneously married to, or the way the sons of the French Queens inherited, though the French Kings were notorious for having entire regiments of illegitimate (and sometimes more talented) offspring. Both the parents could have, even simultaneously, children by other Spouses, Co-Parents or Genome Contracts, but if these were not the children of the Body Heir Designate Parent's chosen Consort they couldn't in theory inherit.

Blair gulped more coffee as his headache throbbed. He knew there was a reason why he disliked lawyers. There were precedents of course, especially back in the days when the Houses were little more than clans of robber barons/shadily legal pirates/interstellar privateers. The 3rd - or maybe 4th – Patriarch of House van Zant had been chosen as Body Heir after someone inconsiderately and accidentally assassinated his elder brother (along with several other people) courtesy of a plasma bomb, a position of responsibility – and work - he did not want.

Within weeks of becoming the new Patriarch, Maxim had offloaded the job onto one of his half-sisters by the simple expedient of retroactively elevating her late mother to the status of his late father's "new" Consort. Since his own mother, the previous Patriarch's first Consort, was as deceased as her husband and the later Spouse who had unknowingly posthumously supplanted her, there was nobody to mount legal objections, particularly since Maxim and his dead brother were the only offspring of the Patriarch and his original Consort. Purists who argued that if Patriarch Otto had wanted to appoint a new Consort he would have elevated one of his subsequent Spouses during his lifetime were blithely ignored. House van Zant got it's first Matriarch, a truly gifted and talented ruler, that led to that House's tendency towards Matriarchal succession over male children, and ex-Patriarch Maxim got back to being a "man about town" idler.

As Blair understood it, the problem was that Ruis de y l'Almonté, like Saran van Den Mikhail, was the only child of the House Head and the Consort. There any similarities ended, of course. Much as Saran seemed to be one of the worst things that had ever happened to Trey (other than shooting a Body Heir), he could be in no way compared to the monster that Blair and Gage's empathic "readings" of the man had shown Ruis to be. While the Vicereine of Olban had had only Saran by her Consort Aleksandr van Den Mikhail, a situation Blair was sure would have changed had van Den Mikhail and his father-in-law not been killed so soon after the marriage, she had several other children by various Husbands, Co-Parents and even a couple of Genome-Only Contracts. Should the worst happen to Saran, the Vicereine had a respectable pool of candidates, any one of whose fathers she could elevate to the position of Consort. If she was really obsessive about having a child with Aleksandr's genome as her successor, she could design a new child using her and her original Consort's DNA, or clone Saran should she wish, from his stored genome if there was nothing enough of a body remaining.

Don Alphonse had no such options. Since the death of his Consort, he had had no subsequent Wives, Co-Parents or entered into any genome only offspring contracts; his Consort had been vaporised in the accident which turned her and several other travellers into statistics. In a dose of truly bad luck, her genome had been one of 117 irretrievably lost during the Cavalcade Riots when pro-anarchy protestors had destroyed the power supply to one section of the Adelphi Solar System Genome Repository in the Andromeda Galaxy Genetic Bank on President Abraham Lincoln Boulevard, not six blocks from where this building, unless Blair missed his guess, was situated.

Apparently cloning Ruis was also an unlikely prospect. Whilst cloning an embryo or infant was nothing to worry about, cloning an adult human was far from a sinecure under the most "ideal" conditions. Consistent dissipation and indulgence in alcohol and exotic narcotics had left Ruis with some interesting STDs and narcotic induced tissue damage; more trauma had been caused by Trey blowing a large hole in most of Ruis' prime cloning DNA. Finally, due to the way that the body needed to be stored aboard the T'Pau in order to bring it back to Federation, it incurred macro and micro-cellular damage to bone marrow. A clone of Ruis could be attempted if Don Alphonse insisted on it, but there was less than 20 chance it would work at all, and less than 5 chance that a healthy, viable clone would result, even if Don Alphonse accepted having a baby clone and not a mature adult. Attempting to do even the standard pre-embryonic designing of the genome to ensure no physical defects would proportionally increase the risk of failure, never mind programming in certain desired characteristics such as successful business acumen, accounting skills, leadership qualities, etc.

The one – very, very small – bit of positive outcome to this whole ghastly mess, Blair acknowledged as he felt the coffee doing more wonderful damage to his synapses, was that it had enabled another step to be taken towards achieving some rapprochement in the triangle between William Ellison and his two oldest sons. En route to here, Blair had been present in Jim's suite when his Sentinel and Hunter had used the vidlink to contact William Ellison. Despite the gravity of the situation, Blair had to repress a snort. Where else on the T'Pau would he have been? The presence of so many Bondless – and powerful – Sentinels had had Jim bristling like a porcupine; Hunter had only been allowed to enter the suite because he was Jim's half brother and had proven, as much as could be expected from a Bondless, immune to Blair as a Guide.

Despite interstellar distance, William Ellison had appeared on screen with the crystal clarity biotechnology provided thanks to the inherent superiority of the organic over the mechanic, in his private study on Eden. He spent most of the year on Federation, but his Birthday Ball was less than a week away and now needed his personal attention. William's usual expression of politic neutrality had become startled as he saw his two estranged sons, alike as to be twins, standing side by side. His surprise changed to grimness as Jim and Hunter related the current situation, and William had taken on the task of informing his friend of Ruis's death. Less than an hour later, William had contacted the T'Pau - Alphonse was leaving orbit around Solaris and would come to Federation to collect his body.

Alphonse's Flagship was travelling at normal speed and neither it nor his entourage displayed any signs of formal mourning. William had told Alphonse the truth about Ruis's death, and pointed out the political realities of ensuring that truth was hidden from the universe at large. Alphonse would have arrived for the Ellison Ball by stopping briefly at Federation anyway, so nothing untoward was seen by his departure. Alphonse would arrive at Federation just as his son would be "tragically killed" in a Firefly accident in the Maenads asteroid belt. Fireflies were small, one or two-person space vehicles used for localised solar system space travel, for example between a planet and it's moon or a near neighbour. They had originally been invented to journey between Earth and Halfway Station and then Earth and Mars. However, their small size gave them extreme manoeuvrability and the ability to achieve high speeds which, combined with being cheap to buy or even build yourself, made them an adolescent favourite. Fireflies were the hot rods of this era, and they were used in interstellar versions of the drag racing teenagers used to do centuries before in the 1960s, only these hot rods raced in space or for more daring ones, through asteroid fields. Year in and year out, often fuelled by alcohol and/or unwise ingestion of questionable narcotics, young people died as their Firefly collided with a big space rock and the favourite won. The Maenads asteroid belt, whose formation basically made it like a big racing circuit in space, was infamous for Firefly racing.

Hunter and Jim had taken this back to the Dark Angels, who were relieved at Alphonse's understanding of the issues, but Blair found he had a sour taste in his mouth. A man had lost his son, after all.

Gage uttered a sharp cry, leaping up and dropping his coffee mug to hit the floor. "Trey!"

"What?" Saran surged to his feet, people around him also rising in consternation.

Before anyone could demand explanations, the door slid back and a young woman entered, her walk a sort of hurried trot in the manner of someone who is moving as fast as possible whilst trying not to alert others that she is doing so. She addressed Brigadier Jackson in a level but urgent tone. "Sir, Trey Logan is armed and he's shot Nelson Turner."

"What!"

Several voices chorused the question but Blair didn't really notice, as he had gone after Gage Butler who had rushed from the room. Pain stabbed through Blair's skull as he felt the violent roiling of Trey's mind; the empath was lashing out all over the place like a psychic electric storm. Dimly Blair was aware of the corridor being thronged with others that he instinctively recognised as empaths. The mental Summoning by so a powerful empath could not be denied by lesser empaths, even if they had wished to disobey. Even the Dark Guide fell the insistence of the psychic pull and Blair Sandburg was mentally shunted to one side as the Dark Guide personality surged to the fore.

Jim followed, his own instincts triggered by his Sentinel side recognising the emergence of the Dark Guide. Jim was aware absently that other Sentinels were present with him as he followed his Guide. They were following theirs, except for…Bondless ones… Without breaking his stride, Jim turned his head and bared his teeth in a hissing warning at Hunter and Larabee who were pacing him; they inclined their heads down slightly in acknowledgement of the superiority of a Dark Sentinel. In the background, the rational Jim Ellison persona was completely baffled. If anyone had said that Trey Logan – a trained police officer – would flip and go homicidal even under such stress as these circumstances, Jim would have laughed. What on earth could have set him off?

Five minutes earlier, coffee maker outside anteroom G37a…

Trey didn't simply freeze. He stopped. His hand curled around the handle of the coffee pot paused mid-motion; his lungs hesitated between one breath and the next. He was like a frozen frame on a vid. His complete absence of movement was what prevented the three men strolling past deep in conversation noticing that he was even there, despite being hyper alert to their surroundings, unaware of Trey's eyes, wide with horror, tracking their passing

Trey's vision swam, and his world tilted. It was as if some gigantic hand had picked the entire planet Federation up and just twisted it 90° to one side. His stomach seethed and roiled with nausea and his skin was cold as if someone had just drenched him in ice water. It took several minutes before Trey could think rationally again.

What few people passed paid no attention to him standing by the coffee machine; he looked like another Dark Angel. Those that did know his real reason for being there couldn't blame him for stocking up on caffeine; he probably needed all the help he could get. Placing the coffee pot back on the machine as if he had just poured himself another cup, Trey saw that the small outer office area was empty. Trey had been a cop for several years and knew that all agencies connected to law enforcement tended to operate in certain basically similar ways. Sliding open the desk drawer of the work station nearest to him, he was completely unsurprised to find a Palm Phaser laying on top of the stationery. The Palm Phaser was the modern version of a .22 Derringer handgun, such as were popular on Earth during the 19th and 20th Centuries. In a lot of period drama vids the Deep South Gambler character would have one spring loaded into a contraption tied to his arm because they were easily hidden under jacket sleeves. The Palm Phaser had only two settings – Stun and Kill, carried only four "shots" of energy and had a limited range – but it would suffice.

The Palm Phaser was totally concealed in his palm when Trey walked across the office as if to re-enter the anteroom with another cup of coffee; the male Dark Angel didn't even blink as a shot stunned him. Dropping his coffee and catching the collapsing form, Trey stepped smoothly back into the sanctuary of the anteroom doorway, taking his unconscious hostage with him. Trey raised the Phaser and pointed it directly at the heart of the female Dark Angel. "Get me Blair Sandburg and Gage Butler up here now." He reinforced his words with a strong mental push for her to obey, and simultaneously sent out a mental call to his friends…

Dark Angel HQ anteroom G37a, planet Federation, right now…

Well aware of the acute sensitivity of the situation and the fact that he had a Body Heir's corpse in the "basement", Brigadier Jackson had ensured the T'Pau's contingent were in the most sparsely populated, and highest security protected, part of the HQ. Thus it was there were barely more than a score of people around the anteroom, and the vast majority of the building remained unaware of what was going on, and even some that did merely continued with their own tasks. A Dark Angel was not the type of personality to have hysterics even when such a situation as this occurred inside his or her own HQ; their fellow Angels on the scene were quite capable of dealing with the problem without having others gawking, rubber-necking or forming a peanut gallery.

Blair and Gage stepped inside the anteroom together. Trey was backed up against the far wall with the phaser pointing directly at the doorway. Lying on the floor in the recovery position was Nelson Turner, the steady rise and fall of his chest and flush to his cheeks indicating he was merely stunned and would soon wake up. The two empaths were aware of Jim, Gage, Saran, Jackson, Hunter and others fanning out either side of them, but nobody made any moves. At this range the Phaser's Kill setting would still be lethal and though Logan only had three shots left, nobody was particularly interested in being one of the unlucky trio.

Blair looked at Trey - he was no wild-eyed, sweating, ranting hysteric. Trey was deceptively relaxed yet battle-ready, balancing lightly on the balls of his feet and the hand holding the phaser was as solid as concrete. Apart from white lines around his mouth, he appeared completely normal to the casual observer, but Blair's own empathy saw clearly the storms of emotion, fragilely held back.

"How long, B.?" Trey's tone was light and soft, only a barely audible tremor indicating any stress.

"How long what?" Blair fought to infuse something of himself into the Dark Guide persona. Like the Dark Sentinel, a Dark Guide was a distilled, concentrated, purely instinctive essence whose reactions could be unpredictable. The last thing they needed right now was unpredictable. Blair's body hair was prickling as if from static electricity and his stomach churned with nebulous, prescient dread. A line from an old Earth soft rock song popped into his head…"in a powder keg and giving off sparks…" Yes indeed, unpredictable had to be avoided at all costs.

"The four of us – me, you, Gage, Simon – how long have we been trying to find The Man?"

"Years," put in Gage. "Ever since we rescued you, buddy."

"Haven't you ever thought it odd how he always managed to slip away? Kind of like mist. We could see him, but he just slipped through our fingers." Trey's tone was still casually conversational. "Makes sense when The Man – his real name is Kessler by the way - is protected by the most feared organisation in IFP history."

For fraction of a fraction of a second, it didn't register, didn't connect. Then a sort of ripple went through the gathered empaths. Not so much physical recoils or retreat, more a sort of emotional shockwave. Gage twisted his head to look at Race, his face not so much angry as pleading. "Tell me he's wrong."

Jackson spoke, his words level, "Leo Kessler doesn't work for the Dark Angels, but he has been a civilian consultant on a recurring basis for quite a few years."

The Dark Guide struggled to come forth, to punish by death these creatures who had harboured the monster; Blair closed his eyes and held on, speaking with hoarse stress, "We could never take The Man down, never make a solid connection with anyone. He was like smoke…"

"Now we know why." Gage's laugh was rasping humourless sound too loud for the room. "I knew there was something evil about him that day when he came into the medical room at the old Dark Angel HQ. I just couldn't put my finger on why he put me on edge. You and the doctor hustled him out of there pretty quick." Race paled at the thread of distrust underlying Gage's words as his Guide uttered the last sentence.

"Didn't you recognise him?" Saran put in.

Gage bared his teeth. "Trey is the only person to have seen Leo Kessler up close and personal – "

" – and he was using an assumed name, Leonard Keith." Trey's tone was flat

"Ashleigh, Lily," Jackson spoke to two female Dark Angels, the young, cute blond who looked no a day over eighteen and a brunette who looked only slightly older and equally as naïve. "I want Leo Kessler in an interrogation room within the next ten minutes. Maximum discretion."

"Both of you have to go now," Trey's addressed his two friends as if the three of them were completely alone, and though his tone didn't change, Blair's churning stomach suddenly went cold and still.

Gage went utterly white and stricken. "Trey –"

"Sentinels, you need to take your Guides away from here now," Trey instructed again, an undercurrent of urgency in his tone. Empaths could be rendered catatonic or even killed by the backlash of Death, especially if the deceased was a loved one.

Neither Jim nor Race moved; the anguish in the room was suffocating.

"Trey, it will be all right…" Saran kept his own voice calm and clear only with a major effort of will as realisation began to dawn all around of the empath's self-destructive intent.

Trey smiled, incredibly a genuine, gentle, sad smile. "I've lost the job I loved, killed a Body Heir, I'm a captured Wild Empath and the people who caught me have been harbouring the biggest mass murderer of empaths in history. I think "all right" has left the building. I think this is probably what they were imagining when they coined the phrase "gone to hell in a handbasket". I won't be your slave, Alphonse de y l'Almonté's scapegoat or Leo Kessler's victim and the chances of me being able to return to active duty at any precinct this side of the Horsehead Nebula are slim to none." Trey swallowed and suddenly looked distraught instead of his previous façade of unnatural calm. Speaking directly to Blair and Gage he said regretfully, "I'm sorry, but it just hurts too much. I'm so tired of hurting."

Blair was unaware of the low keening sound he and the other empaths were making as he felt Trey's mind withdraw from his, Trey protecting him from the psychic devastation of impending mind-death.

"Trey!" Saran took a step forward, his tone sharp and desperate though knowing it futile. He could never reach Trey in time to prevent –

Fzzhiszz.

Pure reflex enabled Saran to catch Trey before the young empath crumpled to the floor, his conscious mind only catching up to the distinctive sound of a stunner as he pulled Trey to him. His expression one of bland neutrality, Chris Larabee ignored their stares as he calmly put his own stunner back in his pocket, then turned his ice-green gaze upon Hunter, whose hand was under his jacket, wrapped around his own half-drawn weapon. Hunter gazed back steadily for a long moment, then put his gun back in it's holster and removed his hand from his suit jacket.

"This has gone far enough." Saran's voice was arctic. He looked at Jackson, "Can you contain Kessler?"

"Certainly."

"Good. I'm going to bond with my Guide and I'm going to find out exactly what the hell is going on here – not necessarily in that order. I need the nearest bonding suite, please – and a medic."

Understanding showing plainly in his eyes, Jackson nodded assent.

Trey wasn't a lightweight, but Saran found him worryingly easy to carry; clearly Trey hadn't been eating as he should, something that was going to change from now on. There was suddenly a dearth of Bondless Sentinels in Saran's vicinity, indeed of many people at all in Saran's vicinity, which did not surprise him in the least. Standing at the door of the bonding suite was a doctor whose nametag read McCoy. Being extremely sensible, McCoy made no attempt to assist Saran as the Sentinel took the hypospray from him and awkwardly injected himself then Trey with one hand while supporting Trey's unconscious form against his chest with the other arm. McCoy accepted the hypospray back, then promptly stood aside as the door slid back and Saran stepped into the bonding suite, not even glancing back.

The door locked automatically at Saran's voice command and double security locked again when he gave the code that ensured only he could open it. The suite was large with an en suite bathroom whose luxury bordered on the sybaritic; the carpet was deep and soft, the décor in soft complementary pastels that soothed the eye, while soundproofing and odour filters ensured that nothing would upset or spike the Sentinel's senses during the crucial bonding period. Saran ignored it all as he placed Trey on the bonding "platform", which resembled nothing so much as a nest, with big pillows, cushions and thick quilts piled on it.

Taking a step back, Saran closed his eyes, sucked in a deep breath and focussed all his formidable willpower on subduing his most dangerous opponent – himself. The Sentinel persona was already pushing forward, aggressive, restless. Once sure he'd got a grip on his instincts, Saran opened his eyes and released the breath. The hypospray's anti-suppressant cleanser would remove all the suppressants in both his and Trey's body, but with the "rebound" side-effect, like a rubber ball bouncing back faster than it is thrown, the bonding urge that had been held down by the suppressants would violently surge up with artificial intensity. In such a bonding frenzy, bordering virtually on psychosis, Sentinel and Guide could easily injure or kill the other. Already Saran was experiencing sudden hot and then cold fluctuations of body temperature, his skin was prickly and extra-sensitive and his fingertips tingled with the need to touch his Guide.

Trey gave a muted groan, but didn't move and Saran began to prepare. Thehypospray would take longer to work on Trey due to the effects of the stunner, but he would come around soon. Saran grabbed the pillows, cushions and quilts and hauled them into a pile before placing the biggest cushions and pillows in the corner of the platform where the suite's two back walls joined. Then he bundled the remainder, all bar one quilt, in a wide semi-circle around, creating a comfortable, secure nest. Sliding off the platform again, Saran kicked off his shoes, stripped off his socks and then removed his jacket and shirt so his torso was bare. Saran repeated the procedure with Trey, who was now twitching as he began to come out of his unconscious state, but he ignored his Sentinel side's urging and left both his own and Trey's pants on. The exchange in the anteroom had made it pretty obvious to all concerned what Trey must have suffered because of Leo Kessler, and coming around to find himself nude in the presence of a Sentinel in Bonding Heat would probably be a sure fire way of doing nothing but terrify Trey.

Carefully Saran bundled Trey into the thick remaining quilt in a such a way that the empath was snug, but could still have total freedom of arm movement; again, coming to and finding himself swaddled and unable to move would not do Trey much good psychologically. Manoeuvring himself and the bundled up Trey back to his corner, Saran settled himself comfortably on the cushions against the back wall, then parted his legs in V-shape and pulled Trey in the quilt up against his torso so Trey's head rested against his chest before tucking the quilt in so they were now cocooned in soft warmth. Trey's skin was cool against Saran's exertion warmed chest, but his heartbeat and pulse were steady and growing stronger. Wrapping one arm around Trey's shoulders, Saran gave in to temptation as he stroked Trey's hair with his other hand, lowering his face and rubbing his cheek against the silky dark strands, inhaling the scent of his Guide and waiting with ruthlessly self-controlled patience.

Trey snuffled and twitched, blinking blearily as he pulled away slightly from the warm pillow and tried to assimilate his current surroundings, looking up at Saran with confused, innocent bewilderment. Saran didn't release his grip on Trey, but kept it light as the younger man blinked rapidly. Memory flooded back, stark terror flashed in Trey's expressive eyes and an involuntarily shiver went through his body. Trey dropped his eyes from Saran's face, interlocking his fingers and staring at them as if they held all the secrets of the universe, his body tense. Yet again Saran was reminded of the puppy his cousins had tormented.

Gently Saran pulled Trey back against his chest, stroking the fringe of hair out of Trey's eyes. He didn't know what would work, so he settled for a direct, sincere plea. "Tell me, Trey. Please?"

Trey remained silent, staring at his hands and Saran felt a hitherto unknown emotion rise up in his own breast – inadequacy. He was his mother's firstborn, her favourite child, and the responsible one. His semi-siblings had never had any qualms about asking for his opinions; his employees and subordinates had never had any nerves about asking for his direction. Saran realised he had no idea how to reassure and draw out Trey.

"T-T-Tracey." The word, whispered against Saran's chest, was so soft it was barely more than a whisper of sound that even Saran's turned-up Sentinel hearing had to focus on to hear. "M-m-my name isn't really Trey Logan. I'm T-T-Tracey Logan…the Fourth."

With perfect recall and an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the Great & Good in the Inhabited Galaxies, it took Saran barely an eighth of a second before his mind's eye presented himself with the correct ID and a mental image. All the discrepancies about Trey being able to speak pure Earth French while being the child of asteroid miners were suddenly cleared up. "As in Tracey Logan of Logan Industries, head of Associate House Logan?"

"Yes, G-G-randfather," Trey whispered again.

"You don't favour him," Saran commented gently.

Trey gave a hiccoughing chuckle and a weak blink-and-you-miss-it-smile, but more importantly he finally raised his head and looked at Saran instead of cowering. "H-He is pretty hard to miss." Trey gave a little sigh, beginning to rub his thumbs together nervously. "He – he's actually my great-grandfather, but everyone calls him Grandfather…or Sir." This time the smile didn't quite come off.

"Tell me," Saran encouraged again.

Once again Trey found his hands fascinating. "Grandfather's a workaholic. They'll find him dead at his desk, I'm sure. He was orphaned by the age of eight and grew up on the frontier worlds with various relatives. They were a big, brawling sprawling clan and he'd been around most of the Inhabited Galaxies by the time he was twelve. Grandfather was a self-made millionaire at twenty and a multi-billionaire by twenty-four. He still works fifteen hour days, but he seems to thrive on it."

Trey fell silent again, but Saran didn't push; any pressure would only rebound.

"When he married my great-grandmother genetic engineering was still quite erratic so near the Frontier Worlds and uterine replicators had a nasty habit of suffering power failures at critical junctures. They did the basics for their first child: no physical defects, high IQ, business oriented, then reinserted the embryo in utero. My grandfather, Tracey Logan II was a body birth. He was a carbon copy of Grandfather. All their children were…" Trey's tone became sly, "even the girls."

Saran obligingly chuckled. "I'm willing to bet a flurry of cosmetic nasal surgery for your grand-aunts?"

"Oh yeah." Trey snickered. "My grandfather was just the sort of heir Grandfather had dreamed of, same when grandfather married my grandmother. My father, Tracey Logan III, and my uncles and aunts were all like Grandfather in looks and mostly in personality. They all made money for Logan Industries hand over fist and produced the next generation of peas-in-a-pod Logans. So, when father married mother…"

Once again Trey trailed off and Saran waited until he restarted, noting that the stutter was back. "N-n-nobody even thought about advanced genetic design. Uterine replicators were standard by then and Grandfather hadn't made his money by frittering it on unnecessary frills. G-G-Grandfather ended up being a-a-arrested at the hospital when I was born."

"Arrested?" Saran repeated, feeling a trickle of alarm. All paediatric medical facilities, particularly maternity hospitals, had ferocious security measures.

Trey gave another weak chuckle. "I-I-t m-m-m-made the local papers. My father was the eldest of Tracey Logan II's children and the heir, but the last to have an heir of his own. So Grandfather came with him and my mother to the hospital the day I was taken out the replicator, but they got held up in traffic so the midwife had already taken me out and put me in the newborn ward." Trey again looked at his hands, which he was continuously rubbing together in what Saran realised was a warning flag of deep-rooted anxiety and distress, along with the stutter, which itself indicated Trey was broaching a subject unpleasant or distressing. "G-G-Grandfather went to the ward, but he would never admit to needing ocular readjustment for short-sight due to his age, and he couldn't r-r-read the n-n-n-ame tags. In the cradle next to mine was a big, red-haired Irish baby bellowing it's lungs out and Grandfather just a-a-a-assumed –"

"Oh my," Saran put in, hoping to elicit a response.

He was rewarded by another tentative grin from Trey, and for a precious instant the two men smirked at each other before Trey took a breath and continued on, "He got nearly to the entrance lobby before the alarms sounded. The O'Quinlans were pure Earth Irish back to the High King Niall or Brian Boruma or whatever. Saoirse was the first girl born into the family in five generations and she had nine older brothers. There was nearly a toe-to-toe fight between Grandfather and half her family; he came within inches of being hauled off to jail before it was all sorted out. I-I-I d-d-d-don't s-s-s-s-suppose I c-c-can b-b-b-blame him. It w-w-w-was an easy m-mistake, c-c-considering…"

Instinctively Saran moved his hand and began to massage the nape of Trey's neck as the younger man's stutter became so pronounced and his voice trailed off. Unfortunately, he could imagine the fury and chaos of the hospital scene all to well as his memory reproduced an image of the formidable, original Tracey Logan. Six feet six inches tall without shoes, a rangy mass of solid muscle topped off with a wild shock of carrot-hued hair and piercingly blue eyes set either side a huge hooked beak of a nose that, like the rest of his weathered skin, was a mass of conspicuous brown freckles. Saran had met the original Logan; the old man didn't speak, he barked out words like weapons and as far as he was concerned, there were two viewpoints, his and the wrong one. Saran had no doubt that Trey had been a tiny baby, a little scrap of humanity quiet even then; it must have been a hell of a shock for the old man to be confronted by this tiny kitten of a human being with soot-black hair, alabaster skin and honey-brown eyes.

"My mother and father separated a few months later." Trey's voice was stronger now, though still quiet and curiously unemotional. "It was an arranged marriage for a business alliance between House Logan and Name House Duvall; my mother is Melissa Duvall. She and my father were both content with the agreement, but it never occurred to her father or Grandfather to check that my mother's life plan for herself matched theirs for her."

"She left?" Saran asked the question gently, deliberately omitting "you" from the end of his question.

"O-O-Oh yes, but she b-b-b-blackmailed Grandfather in the process." Trey's tone of voice was a clear mixture of admiration for anybody with that much audacity and a lingering bitterness that told Saran without words exactly who had ended up paying the bill for Melissa's actions.

"How?"

"Melissa knew my father was a step up the social ladder from Name House to Associate House. She loved being the hostess of House Logan's heir. Her family and mine had her life as the next gracious matron to join House Logan all mapped out, but Melissa had no intention of staying in our hick little backwater solar system of low-technology Frontier Worlds, and Grandfather made a mistake. Up until a baby is twelve months old, chromosome scans are illegal unless for medical purposes and require parental permission and Melissa found out that my Grandfather had had me scanned at three weeks of age to determine if I was my father's son. Before twelve months, there's a microscopic chance of immune system damage to the infant, and Melissa hit my father with divorce papers. When Grandfather tried to play hardball with Melissa's alimony demands –"

"She told him she'd got the goods on him for the chromosome scan and the scandal rag tabloids would be the first to know unless he paid for her to live the lifestyle to which she intended to become accustomed?" Saran finished.

Trey looked at him with wide eyes and spoke in a tone of mock awe, "Wow, so that's why you're the LEO Commissioner."

"Not just a pretty face." Saran preened, slightly over the top, but he was willing to do anything to bolster Trey's confidence and give his Guide a sense of safety. Unless he missed his guess, they were swimming directly into shark-infested, storm lashed emotional waters and Saran knew he needed to be ready. If he said the wrong thing, reacted the wrong way, Trey would fight him instead of submitting as his Guide and that option was unacceptable. Again he tamped down on the agitated Sentinel that wanted to bond now and talk later.

Trey was speaking again, explaining how his father had retained sole custody after his parents' divorce, his manner casual as if speaking about a "nodding acquaintance". "I've seen Melissa a few times in the last few years – she's sometimes come through Halfway Station en route to various places."

Saran said nothing because he could find nothing to say. The Vicereine of Olban would win first prize in any competition for the maternally undemonstrative, but despite this, Saran had never ever had any doubt that his mother loved him completely. The picture of casual disregard painted by Trey's words was utterly incomprehensible to Saran. He knew his mother would kill for him, die for him or any of her children. She would obliterate entire solar systems without batting an eye in defence of any of her children; it was inconceivable that she would wilfully abandon any child of hers.

"I was an empath from birth," Trey admitted, "but I couldn't articulate it until I was about four or five, and by then I was sensible enough to keep my mouth shut." Once again bitterness tinged his tone. "When I six, Grandfather arranged my father's second marriage…" Trey's voice became sarcastic, "…Joan is six feet high and nearly as wide with green eyes and tomato-red hair. Their son weighed in at ten pounds. They called him Terry."

"You're not close to your brother?" Saran ventured carefully, acutely aware of the way Trey always referred to his male parent as "father" and not "dad", and how Terry was "their son" and not "my brother".

Trey shrugged. "I never saw him much. I was seven when he was born and a few weeks later…Grandfather's lawyer was going over some old Logan documents and came across some family holographs; one of them was of Grandfather's father's brother Todd Logan. Grandfather had never known him because he died at fifteen in an epidemic of Meridian Fever on Mars before the Logans left for the Frontier Worlds. It was a bad outbreak, nearly 10,000 died and almost everyone on the colonies had lost somebody."

"Why did that upset Grandfather?" Asked Saran perceptively.

"Todd Logan was my mirror image – or I was his, genealogically speaking. Put Todd's holograph and me side by side and you thought you were looking at identical twins. Grandfather had always taken refuge in blaming the Duvall family for my looks, no red hair, no freckles, no height and brown eyes instead of blue. After Terry was born…" Trey shrugged again, "Deep, deep down inside, Grandfather had this like, little fantasy, that the chromosome scan results were a mistake and that Terry was the real heir. He never even admitted it to himself, but it was there."

Saran allowed his hands to trace soothing strokes up and down Trey's arms. He couldn't begin to imagine what it must have been like for Trey, cursed due to his empathy by being able to see the truth of his family's feelings behind every spoken lie or insincere facial expression.

"The holograph put paid to his daydream and to his being able to blame the Duvalls because I didn't look like a "real" Logan," Trey explained. "A few weeks after that, Terry was about three or four months old I guess, Grandfather decided to send me to boarding school – Bryston Academy."

Saran bit down on several vituperative descriptions regarding the old man's malice and spite towards a defenceless child whose only crime was not to be a carrot-topped clone of the old man with a nose like a vulture's beak. Saran had been to boarding school – all his family had – but not until he was eleven and then his mother had given each of her children the same get out clause. She wanted them to try boarding school; she hoped they liked it, but boarding school was not for every child, and if they decided they would prefer not to do it, she was more than happy for them to attend a regular school if that was their preference. Byston Academy's avowed aim was to be a combination of Earth schools like Eton and Harrow and boot camp, to produce graduates with "brains the size of planets and the bodies of Special Forces soldiers." For a seven year old, powerful empath, already rejected by his family, it must have been nightmarish. "Was it very bad?"

"Bad?" Trey looked momentarily confused, then his face lit up with a smile so happy that it went straight through Saran's heart. "No, no…it was wonderful. I loved school! It was the happiest place I ever was…except for when I was Halfway being a cop-" Trey broke off his expression suddenly wary as he glanced at Saran, the man responsible for him no longer being a cop.

Saran decided to address the cop issue later, and focussed on the school. "It was good?"

Trey smiled in reminiscence. "I was scared. It was so big and built out of stone. There weren't many other seven year olds there and at first I was lonely, but the library was great. Then there was a boy a few years above me – Steel Kyros, the son of the Kyros."

Saran nodded. The Kyros and his son owned vast tracts of known space and were making the Frontier Worlds an interesting place to live. The LEO Commission had great interest in Kyros, but his son was an unknown quantity. "He was friendly?"

Trey nodded, then looked around as if afraid that someone would overhear him, a highly unlikely event considering the risk of being ripped apart by an angry Sentinel should the person be discovered. Leaning against Saran's chest, Trey confessed, "We started the Bryston Quidditch team together. He was Captain and I was the Seeker; he never cared that I was younger and he said that being smaller was an advantage in a Seeker. We won nearly every game we played. We got detention forever when the staff found out, but it's an official game there now."

"I bet it is," Saran laughed. "I was Captain of my Quidditch team for four years, and we won the Hermoine Cup twice. Wait a minute, wasn't Steel Kyros the kid who wrote that letter to The Times when the Moral Readership Caucus was going to ban the Rowling books and movies because they told kids how to play the game?"

"Yeah. He let me read it before he sent it," Trey confirmed. "That's when the teachers found out about it and gave us detention, but it was great."

Saran snorted. "It was bloody brilliant, especially for a teenager. I remember reading it. At the start it seemed like he agreed with the MRC until he started on about how irresponsible Rowling had been when writing the series not to consider that two hundred years after she was dead a bunch of bored colonist kids would have the technology to make Quidditch real, and how absolutely dangerous she'd been in naming the lead female character Hermione. Made the MRC pretty much a laughing stock."

Trey grinned again and Saran smiled down at him. Along with Firefly racing, Pod racing and sundry other recreations and sports, Quidditch was amongst the many fictional pastimes invented by an author or movie that had become a reality due to modern technology centuries after the original creator was dead. It would probably have been a mayfly sport, a passing fad, had it not been for it's almost prescient perfect suitability for places like the Frontier Worlds, pioneer planets newly colonised by humans. Colony outfits had only room for necessities, not luxuries and not only was it far too expensive to turf ground and erect stadiums, but the land was far too valuable for producing food or buildings to waste on a football field or sports track – in the opinion of the adult colonists at least. Their children were not so sanguine without any recreational outlet, since going out to play on a largely unexplored colony planet could be a death sentence.

Quidditch had been made real by two twelve-year-old twin sisters, Hermione and Hypatia Copeland, now dead themselves over a century. Too young to legally do real work for the colony and fed up of being stuck with make-do jobs to keep them out from under their parents feet, Hermione had retreated to the colony library and made a fateful choice – instructing the library to download into her palm reader any fiction stories in which the lead female character was named Hermione. The rest was history; it had taken the sisters all of two minutes to grasp the opportunity presented by Quidditch, which they had quickly shared with their own circle of friends who equally loved it. It was extremely fast, very dangerous and on a planet where every millimetre of land was at a premium, a totally aerial sport was ideal. It took maybe an hour to attach nacelles to one end of an old branch and plonk a saddle on it; the "wizard" robes the kids had played in were ideal for concealing remote steering mechanisms and the "bristle twigs" could be replaced by antennae for a protective force shield. As long as they had somewhere for the hoops to go, Quidditch could be played anywhere on the planet. Every so often there were moves to ban the dangerous, fast moving sport, but by its very nature it was hard to locate those breaking any ban. It could be played over mountains or above forests, and the voluminous robes traditionally worn by the players not only disguised them, but enabled them to secret jamming devices and other toys on their person.

Trey looked down at his hands again nervously, but Saran had to bite back a purr of satisfaction. Trey was leaning against him now; he was almost boneless. It was an unconscious but profound revelation of trust.

"T-T-The first time it came to term break, there was a measles outbreak." Trey glanced up at Saran as if seeking reassurance. "I contacted home and suggested I stay at school, because Terry was only a baby. The next term break, I pretended I'd been invited to stay with a school friend."

"What did you really do?"

Trey shrugged. "Stayed in school. It was wonderful – really. I used to go and read in one of the big armchairs in the library, and Mrs Gowan the Housekeeper used to bring me tea and sandwiches. After a while the excuses got easier on both sides. I loved school, loved being there. It was the happiest time of my life, except –"

He fell silent again, but Saran knew the ending, except for when Trey had been a police officer on Halfway Station, a life Saran had ended for him. Soothingly Saran again brushed back Trey's hair fringe out of his eyes, grateful that Trey had had some happiness in his childhood, and also that the Academy teachers had been perceptive enough to realise that Trey was a lot better off in school instead of being forcibly repatriated to his "home" by some misguided social worker type. Saran steeled himself; it was time for major unpleasantness, unless he missed his guess. "How did you meet Blair and Gage?"

A shiver went through Trey's entire frame and he pressed himself closer to Saran, as if seeking shelter. He didn't stutter, but his voice was soft and fragile. "I'd never had any problem hiding my empathy. I'd been doing it since the cradle, but when I was thirteen, well, some of the other kids started to come online. Some were empaths and some had heightened senses, and the Careers Tutor started testing for ones and twos, those kids who wanted to be accountants and stuff. But some of the heightened sense kids were real Sentinels, and they started…you know…"

Saran did know. A person had to be an Empathy Rating of 11 or above to be considered a "Guide strength" empath, but ironically whilst most people did their best not to be part of that band, the lowest Ratings - 1 and 2 - were highly desirable. ER1 and 2 people had just enough talent to be able to detect deceit or distress in people, but not so much that it impacted negatively on their own lives. They were in high demand as magistrates, accountants, IRS auditors, counsellors, therapists and other such careers.

Unfortunately, Sentinels didn't make any such fine distinctions. People with heightened physical senses were genetically predisposed to seek out people who were empaths, regardless of whether that empath was an ER1 or an ER20. Likewise, empaths were drawn towards people with heightened senses, whether those people were merely Sentinel Sensitives or full-blown Alphas.

Trey's whisper was so soft that even Saran's hearing had to strain to hear it. "At first I could hide…I'd been doing it all my life, but it got more and more difficult…"

He was twisting his hands tighter now, leaving red marks and Saran carefully covered Trey's hands with his own, stilling their agitated motion. On IFP worlds, a lot of Sentinels and Guides were identified at birth and trained from infancy. He himself had been known to be a Sentinel since coming out the Uterine Replicator and his mother had arranged the finest Sentinel-tailored education for him. However, a lot of the time the child showed no ability under testing until they hit puberty, or sometimes until they were in their early twenties or thirties when a crisis triggered their abilities. Out on the Frontier Worlds and the non-IFP planets, testing was again a lot laxer than that.

Saran had been authoritatively told that puberty was the most traumatic time for a previously "numb" child to develop either heightened senses or empathy, to the extent that medical professionals increasingly advocated either triggering a suspected sentinel/empath child's abilities before adolescence, or else suppressing them until after the age of twenty. Children had enough problems with growth spurts, rampant acne and adolescent hormones without poor kid A suddenly finding he could hear X masturbating five floors down, or kid B being swamped by the anguish and despair Y was feeling over her parents' messy divorce.

Saran's own Sentinel senses had actually increased during puberty – again something quite common - and Saran could easily tell that Trey's must have likewise moved up a gear or two. Only being forced to hide his empathy from his family from toddlerhood had saved Trey from exposure, and he wouldn't have been able to keep it up for long. An empath as strong as Trey amongst a bunch of "numbs", sensitives and budding full Alpha Sentinels would have stood out like a sunflower in a field of daisies.

Trey was explaining, "The Sentinel kids started being real possessive about the empath ones, following them around, stalking them, intimidating them. It wasn't just the school, either. We used to get older people too, Sentinels in their late teens, early twenties, sometimes adult men and women; they used to loiter around like wolves watching a herd of deer. There were fights and stuff." Taking a deep breath, "Leo Kessler helped me at first. He got me suppressants – for a price. But after a while he said I was too powerful an empath and if I didn't want to end up forcibly bonded to some of the Sentinels hanging around, the best thing would be for me to get out of Dodge. His "cousin" could get me on a fast transport out of the solar system … for a price."

Trey vented a bitter laugh. "I never suspected a thing. I was just so desperate to get away. I could feel the emotions of hundreds of people all around me, the suppressants made me ill, and Sentinels – I couldn't deal with their hunger. It ate away at my mental shields like acid. I just wanted to escape. Kessler fooled my family into thinking I was still at school and the Academy into thinking I'd finally gone home for a vacation; by the time anyone figured out that something was wrong the trail would have been cold for months. I went out of school one evening and met Kessler in town in the guise of going to a club and that was it. I felt a sharp pain in my back and woke up to find myself centre stage at a sex slave auction."

Saran wrapped both his arms tightly around his Guide. "You were a virgin?"

"No!"

Under any other circumstances, Trey's indignant rebuttal and the way his head snapped up so he could glare at Saran, making the latter jerk his chin up, would have been funny.

Saran made conciliatory noises, ensuring he kept his face clear of his true thoughts. He would have bet every last penny of his considerable fortune that Trey's lack of virginity was a mere physical technicality. Someone with Trey's naturally shy nature coupled with the need to protect his secret would have made him the very last type to womanise. Saran had no doubt that when Kessler kidnapped him, the sum total of Trey's sexual experience would have been about one-and-a-half-minutes in the back of a car or a frantic fumble at some party. However, one thing he did understand was male pride and for Trey to have to admit that he was still virginal in all significant ways if not the biological sense was not an issue worth pursuing.

"I'll need to know their names," Saran said gently, but immovably.

Trey looked at him.

"The names of the people that…hurt you." Saran inserted the euphemism for the uglier truth; he was already making plans for the mayhem that would be unleashed once he had those names.

Perhaps some of his lethal intent leaked through in his eyes and voice, for Trey's eyes widened fractionally and he a made hesitant "ungh" sound. Saran dipped his head to inhale his Guide's scent on the young man's silky hair, carefully broadcasting protectiveness, devotion and appeal. Seasoned Guides found it hard to resist such blandishments; Trey who was already beginning to flush up with Bonding Heat now the effects of the stunner were wearing off, had no chance.

"I-I-I was l-lucky." This time Trey's stammer was not fear, but because he was finding it hard to resist the urge to rub his face catlike against the broad, warm chest that supported his cheek. "I – have Sentinel allergies." He looked in trepidation at Saran for some would call this a defect.

In his mind's eye, Saran could see faintly glowing silver tendrils stir and begin to reach out psychically towards the deep, still quiescent lavender-coloured essence that was Trey and he promptly eased more reassurance and affection towards his Guide. Sentinel sensitivities were not as problematic as they once had been centuries ago, as the legendary Guide Diaries showed, but there was still need for awareness. All Sentinels had their own peculiar metabolic quirks that meant certain substances needed to be approached with caution and treated with respect. Sedatives and stimulants particularly required judicious handling.

Bolstered by Saran's subtle encouragement, Trey began to speak, "M-m-my f-f-f-first o-o-o-"

"Sshh, sshh." Saran hugged him close, immeasurably distressed by the return of the stammer more violently than ever; his own upset broadcasting to Trey.

Instinctively Trey tried to comfort his Sentinel, sending out waves of reassurance and soothing calm, unaware that the lilac/lavender tendrils from his own mind were stirring for the first time and reaching out across the void to the glowing silver. In the far corner of the room, unnoticed by both men for the moment, a snow leopard was growing ever less translucent and more solid as it nuzzled and petted a very small, extraordinarily rare African Black-footed Wildcat, who bore the lavish affection with stoic patience.

" 'S'Okay," Trey finally murmured, taking a deep breath and letting it out again in a gust. "I think I need…to say…anyway, m-my first owner couldn't touch me, b-b-b-because the drugs didn't make me quiet. They just made me s-sick. Even the m-most disgusting p-p-pervert tends to lose the urge w-when their victim is projectile vomiting over e-everything in range." Despite what must be horrific memories, Trey managed a ghost of a smile. "My second owner…I…killed." His voice trembled then strengthened. "The drug didn't s-s-sedate me, it just made me want to throw up. H-He didn't bother to tie me and I'd managed to get a r-r-razor from the bathroom. When he – when he – c-cr-crawled on top o-o-of me I sss-lit his throat – and – c-castrated him. Hedidn'tdieIjustcuthisvocalchordsandsohebledtodeathhe wastryingtoscreamthewholetimeIwascuttingoffhisballsbuthecouldn't." Trey uttered the last in a single gasp that was basically just one word.

Saran bit down the urge to assure Trey that the younger man had just saved him the trouble of killing the bastard, but knew that was hardly the right approach at this juncture – slow and easy. "Did you escape to Blair and Gage?"

Trey shook his head negatively. "N-no. H-his wife made out he'd died of a heart attack and sold me on. My f-fifth owner was the one who sold me back to Kessler; Kessler w-was furious because the guy insisted on Kessler buying me as if I was f-f-fresh because of all the trouble I'd caused. Word got around that I'd managed to kill my owner and that made a l-lot of people nervous. But Kessler was t-t-too s-s-stupid to learn the lesson; he just hit me with a hypospray of sedative that he should have known wouldn't work then threw me in a cage. He had a shipment of empaths for the vivisection labs and I was going to be one of them. Our cages were in a warehouse when Blair, Gage and Simon came bursting in with the rest of the Underground Railroad. All I was doing was puking in a corner of the cage so when one of the goons came past, I grabbed him." Trey took another breath. "Pulled him back against the bars, snapped his neck, grabbed his gun and shot out the lock of my cage, then went to help. Kessler got away, but I'd been conscious and aware the whole time he was holding a business meeting with the buyers, so I could ID everyone. I helped Gage with one of the gunmen and he and Blair helped me get back in the world."

Saran read between the lines; he had no doubt that "helping Gage" meant the youth had saved Butler's life, probably at incredible risk to his own. "They got you into Halfway PD then?" Saran asked.

Trey shook his head, his expression becoming a sort of wary embarrassment that Saran had mentally flagged because it was the one he got when talking about his so-called family, Associate House Logan.

"N-No, I was only s-seventeen at the time. They took me back to Earth. Blair got me a job at the university and he got me in with a r-really good counsellor. S-she w-was helping me with…everything…"

"What happened?" Saran couldn't help the edge to his voice; he had a feeling he wasn't going to like the answer.

"Grandfather came."

Two words, so simple, so bare, yet so revealing. Saran could imagine big, hook-nosed Tracey Logan I bulling in and causing hurt where there had been healing.

"H-he took me h-h-home." Trey shrugged. "Not even Simon could prevent it. I was still a minor at the time, and under psychiatric care to boot. It would have seemed eminently reasonable to any judge that I be cared for by my family, especially since Blair nor Gage had much money, and Simon had a wife and son to support…"

Saran waited in dread.

Trey shivered again. "It was very…difficult…for them. There were rumours flying about everywhere and Grandfather was embarrassed by the media attention…"

Only by a major effort of will did Saran prevent himself from exploding with fury. Difficult for them? Embarrassed? What the hell was wrong with these people? When barely more than a child, Trey had been kidnapped and repeatedly raped and tortured – and old man Logan's focus of concern had been the modern equivalent of "what will the neighbours think"!

Mistaking Saran's silent shocked rage for encouragement to continue, Trey admitted, "G-Grandfather forbade any counselling; he said it w-w-was a family matter. N-nobody would talk to me, they didn't know what to say…Joan didn't want me near Terry in case I had…you know…infections. W-W-When I'd been m-m-missing for two years, G-Grandfather had me declared l-l-legally dead. When they found out I was on Earth, Grandfather was in the m-m-m-iddle of changing Terry's name to Tracey Logan IV and making him the heir. I-It m-m-messed everything up when they found me…"

Saran swallowed a solid ball of absolute rage that had lodged in his throat; forget bonding, the Sentinel was screaming to kill. House Logan had barely waited for the dust to settle before moving on, and they hadn't even had the courtesy to make Terry Logan into Tracey Logan V, which would have at least acknowledged that there had been a fourth – I bet it was "difficult" for them, Saran snarled savagely to himself, having your inconvenient relative turn up again just when you're so close to airbrushing him from existence must be a real spanner in the works.

"I spent most of my time in my suite on Grandfather's estate anyway." Trey shrugged. "I didn't want to be around people, couldn't cope with their emotions. I had good food, comfortable shelter and all the books and vids I could want. I didn't want to be around people anyway." He sighed, "I suppose I would have just drifted and drifted like that for years, but when I was twenty-two, something happened. Grandfather had a health scare. It turned out to be heartburn, but when he had what he thought was a heart attack he was piloting his personal lightflyer, with my grandfather, father and Terry on board. It was a major scare – he nearly crashed."

I bet it was a scare for the old thug! Saran could well imagine old man Logan's panic as he must have thought, at least for a few seconds, that he was about to kill himself and all the supposed "real men" in his family, leaving House Logan under the control of a defective heir.

"They knew I'd been kidnapped for empathy, but they didn't really get how strong I was," Trey was saying. "I'd always been able to come off at around ER8 and my family didn't really understand. Grandfather wanted me to agree to go to a psychiatric hospital and to cede my right as heir to Terry."

"What did you do?"

"I agreed. If Leo Kessler could disappear me for nearly half a decade, then I could certainly disappear myself permanently. Basically, I just worked both sides. I relinquished my heirship rights to Terry and agreed to become a permanent resident at the Bellevue Care Home Grandfather had chosen. I hacked into Grandfather's secretary's computer and diverted everything via my own PC so I could control the communications. I presented myself as Grandfather's secretary and tightbeamed Bellevue with a holograph of a dead cousin and claimed he was Tracey Logan IV. I asked Grandfather for a lump sum to get myself settled in and took it with me when we went to Bellevue, making sure I wore my best suit. Grandfather let me out at the gates, we said an awkward goodbye and he left after making sure I was walking up the drive. I put a wad of money in my jacket pocket, threw my holdall under some bushes and just walked into Bellevue as Tracey Logan's secretary. I explained to the manager that the family had decided to continue caring for "me" at home as my condition had suddenly begun to improve and gave him the cash with the explanation that Mr Logan appreciated Bellevue's efforts and it was an apology for taking up their time. Then I left, retrieved the holdall and just walked to the local spaceport where I got on a series of shuttles out of the solar system. I had enough cash to buy me enough temporary ID to get to Earth and find Blair. Simon wangled me into the Police Academy and both he and Gage wrote me references when I graduated to go to Halfway Station. Thanks to those old movies, Trey Logan is still a common enough name that nobody would think to look for Tracey Logan IV under it. Bellevue thought I was at the Logan estate, my family thought I was at Bellevue. To be honest, I'm not sure my disappearance has been uncovered even now." Trey finally wound down and slumped against Saran, as if exhausted by the verbal purge.

For a long moment, Saran just hugged Trey, thanking God for giving him such internal strength. Trey had suffered so much hurt and pain, yet had found the will and emotional strength to hold on when all he must have wanted to do was crawl into a corner and curl up. It would take time and probably professional counselling, but Saran swore he would heal the damage inflicted on his Guide.

He tilted Trey's chin up with two fingers, his tone gentle with affection, "We're going to bond, my Guide, then I'm going to destroy those that hurt you."

Trey blushed to his hair roots. Now that the effects of the stunner were long gone, every inch of his own body itched with the craving to bond with the Sentinel, but he looked at Saran with shy eyes and his voice was a mere whisper of nervousness, "Y-Y-You're the LEO Commissioner…you could have a proper Guide…someone from a respectable family…an IFP empath."

Saran spat out several strong epitaphs, basically consigning respectable IFP empaths to eternal damnation.

"What about your mother…and your aunt…the Matriarch" Trey faltered at the prospect.

"They will adore you," Saran stated with total confidence – they'd better. Abruptly he slid himself down so that Trey, distracted, was sprawled on top of him as he lay on his back. "Bond, Guide." It was a low growl as Saran finally let the impatient Sentinel come out to play, but only a little. There would be no pouncing and pinning; Trey needed to know he was in control here.

Tentatively, Trey relaxed against Saran; though equally flushed, somehow contact with the other's skin soothed Trey's own irritated flesh. He could hear Saran's heart beating more rapidly than usual against his ear as he laid his cheek against the warm ribcage, could feel the controlled strength in the muscles flexing underneath his body. In his mind's eye, Trey saw glowing silver strands reaching out to enwrap the lavender-hued threads reaching out from his own psyche, but the silver did not engulf or smother the lavender tendrils. It slid under and around them, supporting, cushioning and cradling them as Trey's mind felt the devotion and caring the Sentinel felt for his Guide.

Reaching up a hand, Saran cupped the back of Trey's head as he dialled up all his senses and began to map his Guide. Ultra-sensitive fingertips massaged Trey's nape and he murmured with pleasure as the muscles relaxed, then they traced down the back to the waistband of his jeans and back up the side of Trey's torso, testing for any injury or condition that threatened his Guide. Here on the right, the fingers pressed lightly into the flesh as they felt the uneven two ribs and through their strengthening link, Saran "saw" and "felt" the young child Trey hit the grass and break two ribs even as the kitten he had been trying to rescue from the tree bounded gracefully down unharmed. He chuckled aloud and Trey grinned up at him.

Trey found himself rubbing his face against Saran's throat invitingly, but it was only a very tiny, detached part of his brain that protested; the rest of him was far too interested in exploring the powerful creature that was his to command. For the first time in…for the first time ever…Trey felt truly safe and protected. His Sentinel was hugging him to him, holding him in place; Trey disappeared as the Guide laughed tauntingly and braced his hands either side the Sentinel's body, arching his back and tilting back his head so his throat was totally exposed…and totally beyond the Sentinel's reach.

Saran's good intentions - and the rational man - were swamped by the Sentinel's sudden surge forward as it snatched control from what had been holding it back, holding it down and preventing it from taking what belonged to it. The Sentinel rolled over trying trap the Guide who dared taunt him with his exposed throat, but the infuriating creature wriggled and laughed, suddenly acquiring an elastic body that writhed it's way free and batted cushions around the nest into the Sentinel's face. The Sentinel lunged but was off balance and ended up face first in a feather cushion that made him sneeze and shake his head. The Guide thought this entirely too amusing, and even as he dared crawl out of the cosy nest he was sniggering at the Sentinel.

Sniggering too hard to escape, the Guide went over on his back as the Sentinel gleefully lunged again, this time his aim true. The Sentinel measured his own length and smirked down at his captive smugly; the Guide wrinkled his nose back at him, unsuitably impertinent. Irritably the Sentinel shifted as rough cloth hurt his legs. Removing one hand from the Guide's shoulder, he pulled at the irritating garment on his lower body, tugging and twisting until he shed it. The same irritant was obstructing his full exploration of the Guide, so he divested him of the annoyance.

The Sentinel turned his attention back to the Guide, but both paused. The Guide felt something new – fear. The removal of the cloth from his lower body had triggered things in his mind, dark, terrible things that were seeping into the Guide's need to bond and diluting it. With no rationality left to direct either of them, Sentinel and Guide teetered on the edge of disaster.

The Sentinel rose to the challenge. It lacked coherent strategy, thanks to the artificial intensity of the Bonding Heat neither Saran nor Trey could even verbalise anything more basic than growls or purrs, but what the Sentinel had going for it was absolute devotion. It's Guide was the centre of it's universe; the Guide was loved, cherished, protected, nurtured; it would never, never hurt the Guide, it wanted only to bond. Was the Guide going to reject it? Anguish seared through the mental link.

Instantly the Guide began to croon, twisting and arching so it could rub against the Sentinel in reassurance. This was the Sentinel, no other would be tolerated. The silver and lavender began to pulsate and intertwine so tightly together that it was impossible to state where the strands began and ended. The Guide enticed the Sentinel with the heady musk of Bonding, on the metaphysical level their souls united. The Guide wanted the Sentinel to claim him…now…he arched back his head, exposing his throat.

Lowering his head, the Sentinel found the rapid, vital pulse where the shoulder and neck joined, nipping it and revelling in the whimper of delight that shuddered through his Guide. For a heartbeat he paused then bit – hard. Easily he controlled his Guide's spasm, savagely exulting in the cry of capitulation. He tasted the copper tang of his Guide's red life and soothed the wound with a lick of his tongue. The Sentinel continued his exploration, growling his own pleasure at his Guide's trembling submission. The Guide was his, all his!

The Sentinel gave a huff of displeasure as he found smooth, white, hairless skin on the Guide's abdomen, relic of a blaster at close range. His Guide would be protected and not allowed to take such risks! The Guide hastened to reassure his over-protective Sentinel that the wound had been minor. Slightly mollified, the Sentinel continued his mapping.

The Sentinel would have ignored the Guide's intimate anatomy and returned to feast on his Guide's throat, but he felt the return of that alien fear every time he inadvertently went too close to his Guide's groin. The Sentinel considered – his Guide would submit, but it was anathema that the Guide should be afraid of his Sentinel, who would always cherish him. Carefully he lay down next to the Guide, pulling the smaller man close; he would never hurt his Guide and was pleased when he burrowed close to his Sentinel, seeking comfort. The silver tendrils eased along their lavender supports, merging deeper as the two minds became joined. New neural pathways were opened carefully and slowly to give time to adjust. Then the Sentinel found a small spot that his Guide had "encouraged" him to "pass over"; then another such spot – memories: dark, powerful, painful. The Guide shivered again, but not from delight. He was embarrassed by the memories, ashamed and afraid the Sentinel would not want him. He had been hurt by evil, cruel men, creatures unworthy to be called human, fit only to be hunted down and culled like diseased animals.

The Sentinel crooned wordlessly, petting and stroking his Guide. The Sentinel would hunt them, he would kill them, but his Guide was not to blame for the atrocities perpetrated against him. He was a brave Guide, a strong Guide to survive so much and yet maintain his sanity. His Sentinel was proud of his strength and courage. Millimetre by millimetre, soft breath by soft breath, the Sentinel joined his mind with his Guide. He followed the spiralling neurons into the dark places, dragged the ugly memories out into the brightness and banished them with tender affection and admiration. He rooted out shame, scoured away fear, banished trepidation and embarrassment. Finally he bent his head once again to his Guide's throat where lavender and silver spun in glowing harmony, irrevocably merged forever, gutturally growling his claim, "Mine. Claimed and Marked, Guide."

"Yours," the Guide moaned in delight as he was claimed. "Claimed and Marked, Sentinel. Yours forever…"

Interrogation Room, current Dark Angel HQ, a short while later…

"Embezzlement."

Lincoln Jackson blinked and raised one eyebrow as Leo Kessler uttered this apparent non sequitur with no apparent concern as he leaned back in his chair.

The two female Dark Angels had done their job perfectly, as Jackson intended when he sent specifically them. He'd never liked Kessler, and his Dark Angel side noted that the man always made the same mistakes – one of which was to continually underestimate women, simply because they were women. Kessler knew the two women were full Operational Dark Angel Agents, as lethal and as honed as any of their male counterparts bar the Sentinels and perhaps the elite Hunter-Killer agents, yet when they had appeared at his office with news of an urgent meeting, he had gone with them without qualm because they were just women, where even the most innocent looking male agent would have risked arousing his suspicions. Looking back, Lincoln Jackson discovered himself wanting, subconsciously he had noted also Kessler's subtle contempt for empaths and the greedy look in his eye whenever he looked at one, but had put it down to discomfort. Many people were uncertain about what exactly an empath could do and were too embarrassed to ask. That mistake had probably resulted in terrible suffering for many empaths.

Kessler had known that it was "game over" the instant he entered the room. He lounged in a chair, his suit crisp and his face calm, with Jackson sitting directly opposite him. To one side, Dark Sentinel James Ellison leaned back against the wall, his arms folded across his chest and the Dark Guide pressed against him, neither man taking their eyes of him for a second. Sandburg regarded him with undisguised hatred. Alike enough to almost be Ellison's twin, Captain E. Vincent Hunter of Cascade Internal Affairs – and soon no doubt to be co-opted into the Dark Angels - lounged in a chair with apparent relaxation, his gaze also unblinking like a tiger deceptively lazing in the sun as the foolish got too close to it. In another chair to the left was "Hellhound" Larabee, coiled and oozing deadly menace, his eyes ice-green pits leading straight to hell; his black clothing seemed to absorb all light, all hope and throw back an almost visible aura of concentrated menace. Outside the room and around Kessler were various Dark Angels, including Bonded Pairs.

Nobody moved and nobody spoke. Kessler had not expected Lincoln Jackson to be anything other than proactive, nor was he disappointed.

Dark Angel agents basically fell into three categories – Control, Operational and Field. Field agents were those who worked far from Dark Angel HQ, so deep "under" they were on nobody's radar, often for months or years at a time, living real lives that they stepped out of to accomplish some task before slipping discreetly back in again. They were Watcher agents, Wanderer agents, and also included the elite Hunter-Killers or just plain Killers whose sole mission was Death. Ellison was a Hunter-Killer, and Larabee had been a Killer status agent for longer than any other Dark Angel, to the extent some wondered who would be able to take him out when his Sentinel senses finally drove him insane after being unable to find a Guide who would bond with him. Despite his supreme self-confidence even now, Kessler could not quite dare smirk at the brooding, black-clad assassin as he recalled how several captured Wild Empaths had gone berserk with terror and loathing when brought anywhere near Larabee. Kessler could only hope the man took a lot of Dark Angels with him in his final homicidal dementia.

Operational agents, including Watcher and Searcher agents, were equally those who slipped in and out of superficially ordinary lives, like the two women who had tricked him into this room. Unlike Field agents, they remained always on the same planet as the current Dark Angel HQ, which contrary to popular belief had often removed itself from Federation to other less conspicuous worlds. Due to this need for "proximity with secrecy", the majority of Operational agents tended to be females, with a strong smattering of Beta Sentinels amongst them, just as Field agents leaned towards males and a strong tendency towards Alpha Sentinels. Control agents worked with Dark Angels HQ itself; they directed the organisation, including Central Command and, many believed, the current Supreme Commander, whoever he or she was. Control agents rarely included Sentinels, whose preference was to be active.

Within minutes of Kessler sitting down, Brigadier Jackson had had Control agents sifting through every tiny thing Kessler had ever done with or for the Dark Angels; every Field and Operational agent had been contacted and apprised of the situation and were either back-tracking Kessler's every breath since birth or waiting on Jackson's word. Jackson had sent for Chief Justice Aman, her Sentinel police officer son Jared Aman and his Guide Tommy Osaki. In the meantime, he had had all the Dark Angels' currently captured Wild Empaths brought into visual range of Kessler. Most had shown no reaction other than their desire to be somewhere else, but two had immediately reacted with such terror and hatred that they had had to be sedated and the two Sentinel agents waiting to claim them forcibly held off with Phaser pistols. The unconscious empaths had been removed with the Sentinels, but their reaction had been enough. The concentrated rage emanating from Blair Sandburg had been joined by that of others – the Dark Angels did not take kindly to be used as a shield by Kessler.

Footsteps sounded unnaturally loud in the preternatural quiet. Dressed in an immaculate silk suit, as if he had just come from a high-powered government meeting in his role as LEO High Commissioner, Saran Van den Mikhail strode along the corridor to where everyone was gathered with a smooth, confident walk. At his side, dressed in soft leather boots, black dress pants and a silver genuine cashmere sweater was a smaller figure with thick, soot-black hair, alabaster skin, and eyes that normally would be the soft golden brown of pure honey; now as they looked at Kessler they were pitiless pebbles in Logan's face. Around Saran's neck was the intricate tattoo of designs and colours that marked Van den Mikhail as unique – Body Heir of High House Syal and the Viceroyship of Olban. The tattoo now bore new bands of colour – deep, bright lavender. The pale pearls-and-milk skin of Trey Logan's was similarly fragmented at his neck, for around it was likewise a new tattoo that featured a lot of silver and lavender, but which did not quite hide the bite marks proclaiming a Guide who had been recently and thoroughly Claimed. Kessler doubted Logan's new tattoo, nor the changes to Van den Mikhail's, was more than fifteen minutes old. On Saran's jacket, his old pin – a chained snow leopard - was gone and an unfettered running one was depicted instead. The pin on Trey Logan's sweater depicted a similarly unchained, very small cat, only sitting down.

Lincoln Jackson had risen gracefully as Saran entered, stepping aside as the LEO Commissioner sat gracefully down in the chair opposite Kessler, Trey stepping silently but without fear to one side, near Sandburg and Ellison. At this point, Kessler had uttered his first word since being corralled here. Like Jackson, Van den Mikhail, apparently totally calm, raised an enquiring eyebrow as they waited for Kessler to elaborate. He wasn't fooled; he knew exactly how dangerous Saran Van den Mikhail was, and the man's dangerousness increased in direct proportion to how quiet he got. It was part of the reason Kessler had tried, ultimately in vain, to hire someone willing to assassinate the then new LEO High Commissioner several years ago. The Vicereine of Olban would have destroyed worlds to find her son's killers, and in the end it hadn't been worth the trouble, a decision Kessler was coming to realise had been a miscalculation.

"That's what you're going to send me to the prison planet Styx for," Kessler expounded dutifully. "Not sex crimes, I have no intention of being sent there for those. You will have me convicted of embezzlement – possibly tax fraud – I will serve a couple of years on Styx then I will retire gracefully to a nice little backwater paradise."

Saran Van den Mikhail regarded Kessler for a long moment then replied, his voice conversational and polite, "And in return for this extraordinary consideration, you will give us…?"

Kessler smiled. "Everything."

Chapter XII – Desiderata

And he did.

It was quite simple really, each side existed into two completely different "realities". The people who were Kessler's customers never believed that he would "dare" to betray them. They were rich, powerful; to them Leo Kessler, polite and deferential, was a mere servant. Kessler on the other hand viewed his customers as cattle; his only focus was profit. As long as they were profitable, they would retain his absolute devotion. The instant he had walked into the interrogation room, they had become less profitable than betraying them to the Dark Angels.

It took hours; to Trey, time soon stopped having any real meaning. He remained with Saran while his Sentinel listened with seemingly sphinx-like imperturbability as Kessler revealed atrocity after atrocity, every word documented, every statement verified with multiple evidences: documents, vids, flimsies, banks accounts – and graves. A lot of Kessler's names were not a surprise, some were unexpected, others astonishing – rapists, murderers and so-called scientific researchers who had murdered by vivisection. A very few were unwitting accomplices, unaware of what part they played. Under normal circumstances it would have amused Kessler to destroy the innocent along with the guilty also, but he was too wise to know that anything other than scrupulous honesty would negate his prized "embezzlement" deal.

Jackson had brought Chief Justice Aman, her Sentinel police officer son Jared and his Guide Tommy Osaki into play. The instant Osaki clapped eyes on Kessler, he had snatched at his Sentinel's firearm with intent to kill. Being a not entirely unexpected reaction, it was the work of a moment to disarm him, but it took a lot longer to calm the pair down. At the end of it, Aman was signing warrants with a ferocious determination at a rate of several a minute. Many, many families would finally know the fate of their loved ones. Kessler gave details of popular "disposal sites" for vivisected remains and/or unwanted slaves and also every location where kidnapped empaths were being held prior to sale or re-sale. Orders were issued to the Dark Angels and also to the Underground Railroad on Earth via Simon together Cascade's Major Crime Unit, most of whom were Railroad members, Banks arranged all he could on Earth, the Moon, Halfway and Mars so they were ready to strike in a carefully choreographed concert.

Daric Slater's USS Nimitz was given new priority orders to allow three men and two women on board. The senior agent took command to the new destination, quietly reporting that the ship's hold was crammed with Wild Empaths; fortunately none of the five were Sentinels. Old Dimitri on Halfway Station glared with rheumy eyes and a fully charged blaster at the men who materialised on his docking bay. After thirty seconds of explanation, the old man was undocking and quite happy to take them halfway across known space had they wished it. William Ellison, Madjhuri Syal and Kristijana Akureyri personally put the full power of their Houses in the service of the Dark Angels.

Even Kessler began to flag, his suit limp, his voice hoarse, but Saran remained serenely calm and indefatigable. Dimly, Trey overheard that Patriarch Alphonse had arrived in secret to collect his son's body, but was too exhausted to be afraid and after the Patriarch left without ever coming anywhere this section of HQ. He suspected that Saran had intervened. He was too numb to feel anything much, even relief.

Finally it was done – everything annotated, documented, verified, irrevocably proven and tracked. On Federation, it was barely dawn, but for possibly the first time in it's history there were virtually no Dark Angels on the planet. Even Operational and Control agents had been sent out to join the carefully orchestrated strike teams. Like simultaneous missile strikes, the guilty would be taken down only minutes apart despite whether their planets were neighbours or separated by entire galaxies. Ships and shuttles full of extremely angry Dark Angels were hurtling through space at fastest possible speed to reach their strike destinations. His voice finally dwindling to a weary cease, Kessler slumped in his chair, rubbing his hand tiredly over his face. For him it was not over. He now had to go and be "framed" for embezzlement, but strangely the Dark Angels who escorted him felt no sympathy for his weariness.

Feeling like an old man, Trey stiffly got up out of a chair he'd been convinced he'd set into and left the room, instinctively going where he felt the most safe – the Bonding Suite where Saran had claimed him. Within minutes Saran also entered, the door sliding shut behind him.

"I thought I'd feel elated, at least relieved," Trey murmured as he sat on the bonding platform, fighting the urge to yawn massively. "I don't feel anything – just numb."

"Too much to take in at once," diagnosed Saran, coming to sit beside him. "It's the Headline Syndrome – a single child drowning is a tragedy, a million people killed in an earthquake is an interesting news item. On a personal level you suffered terribly, but in the wider picture you're not a drowning child, you're one of a million victims. You can't absorb the enormity of it."

Trey nodded, his head feeling like a lead ball. "I know. It's just…I don't know…terrifying that it's only Kessler. Just one man, only one single human being, that's all out of billions of billions of us, but he's caused so much suffering, so much pain…been responsible for the death of hundreds, the torture and…rape…of so many more." He swallowed, old insecurities and shame rising up to attack him.

A strong arm came around Trey's shoulder and he was pulled into a comforting embrace. "Nobody will ever hurt you again." It was a sacred vow. "Kessler's vile web has been destroyed."

Trey nodded again, his eyes fluttering closed. He gave a loud, gaping yawn and then blushed with embarrassment.

Saran chuckled. "I can take a hint. Come on, let's grab some sleep. I can set my body clock to wake us when it's time."

"You'll stay?" Trey hadn't meant for his relief to be quite that obvious, or his insecure neediness, and he flushed again.

Wisely Saran ignored his embarrassment and instead gave an aggressive snort of derision. "I'm in a building haunted by Bondless Sentinels with my Guide. You will not move from my side, clear?"

Trey stretched out on the pillows and cushions, still blushing as he took in the rather wrecked chaos caused by their bonding. "Of course not…" He yawned again.

Kicking off his shoes and discarding his jacket and tie, Saran lay down next to Trey, allowing the smaller man to snuggle close and letting his own weary eyes flutter closed.

"…though Captain Hunter's a lot nicer than I thought he'd be." Trey couldn't resist testing his Sentinel's response.

It was immediate. Saran's eyes snapped open and he glared down at Trey, who looked back with perfect innocence apart from a tiny, betraying upward curl of his lips. Saran growled and rolled over, pinning his Guide, carefully hidden joy – and relief – swelling his heart when, apart from a brief flicker of his eyes, Trey showed no distress at the action. "Since when have you been noticing how nice –" Saran made the word an epithet, " – Bondless Sentinels are?"

"They're not. Hunter just seemed okay…" Trey mock-reassured, hungry excitement rising in his chest, knowing that his focus on one particular Bondless Sentinel would provoke Saran far more than a general liking for Bondless Sentinels.

Saran knew exactly what Trey was doing, but it pushed his buttons anyway. "Be careful, Guide." He lowered his head to nip warningly at the base of Trey's throat. Trey laughed softly, confidence in his power flowing through him for the first time in his existence. He was more than an inconvenience, an irritant to be tolerated. He belonged to a Sentinel, a Sentinel who would never abandon him or get tired of him or wish him gone. He pressed the back of his head into the pillow, allowing Saran access to his newly tattooed throat, which had been done en route to the interrogation room by a Dark Angel doctor at Saran's insistence. The Sentinel did not hesitate to take the invitation, nuzzling and nipping his Guide's throat and growling in delight at the soft sounds of need his Guide made; strands of intertwined lavender and silver glimmered and scintillated as Sentinel and Guide united in psychic harmony.

Saran woke Trey an hour later, and Trey realised he felt as refreshed as if he had had a full night's sleep. Someone had provided fresh clothes and food for both of them and Trey showered while Saran ate; his Sentinel would then do his ablutions while Trey had breakfast. Laser depilation meant men had to infrequently shave; Trey knew he could go another week before he needed to shave again, and he blushed as caught sight of his neck in the mirror. It showed he had been a veritable Smorgasbord for a certain Sentinel, but Trey didn't care if the entire universe knew the wonderful reality. He was no longer alone - he belonged to a Sentinel!

The raids were the intergalactic equivalent of a domino effect, utilising whatever military or local law enforcement personnel were needed in situ. There was no warning, only shock. By mid-morning the news media was glutted with images of senators, princes, politicians, parliamentary under-secretaries, presidential staff, Oligarchy Mandarins, MPs, businessmen and women, doctors, teachers, clergymen, counsellors, criminals, accountants, bricklayers and trash collectors being marched away in restraints. Again and again the words "Judicial Bypass Act" were uttered as transport ships thundered straight towards Styx with cargo after cargo of prisoners.

Trey sat in a chair in another anonymous conference room, watching events unfold on a giant vid-screen. He felt no satisfaction, only weariness. People came and went; he ignored them all. He did turn as Blair Sandburg and Gage Butler entered and he felt their empathic approval at his "restraint". "What?" he challenged his friends, uncaring that Sentinel ears could probably hear and their conversation – like probably every word ever uttered in this place - was doubtlessly being recorded by someone somewhere. "You thought I would be gloating over this?"

"No," Gage denied the charge without rancour, handing him a mug of coffee and taking the seat next to him. "But if it were me, I'd have to admit to a certain vengeful pleasure."

Trey shook his head. "There are too few winners here, and the price we're paying for victory is a terrible one…" He gestured at the screen.

"People fear the Dark Angels - and wisely so," put in the soft voice of Brigadier Lincoln Jackson unexpectedly from nearby, causing them to look at him. "They call us the Angels of Death – and rightly so. But we are not monsters, we do not rejoice in what we wreak. We seek only to protect those who have no protection against those without honour and decency. We walk a fine line between being a terrible good and becoming the abominations we seek to destroy, without soul or compassion for others. With the help of Trey, here, we have just cut out a vile, stinking infection in our society, but we have damaged good, healthy tissue around the wound in the process, which is never a good thing. I am relieved that you feel no delight in what you are seeing, Mr Logan. Gloating at the suffering of others, no matter how justified your pain, is to step on the road towards irretrievable darkness, towards loss of soul. It is the path that leads you to become, eventually, another Leo Kessler. In the Good Book, God Himself states that He created each of us and that we are all the sheep of his pasturage…each of us is the Image of God, and never should we rejoice at the destruction of one of us, for we are all made less."

Silence blanketed the room as Jackson inclined his head to Trey and left, the door hissing unnaturally loudly as it slid back after his departure. Race Keegan, who had inevitably followed Gage just as Jim and Saran had come with Blair and Trey, murmured in awe, "The Brigadier hasn't said that much at one time in years."

"The Image of God…it's a poem?" Blair muttered, straining for the memory.

Jim nodded. "Yes, it was written by a twentieth century soldier who fought in several terrible battles in what became World War I – Gallipolli, Ypres and the Somme. Somehow he survived the war, but it left him terribly mentally scarred. It's very popular in all branches of the military."

"I just wish there was another way," Trey admitted, shaking his head at the vid screen where another family wept in shock as a loved one was taken away in manacles.

Saran squeezed his shoulder in comfort. On dozens of worlds, including the Free Planets Trade Alliance and the Altair Confederacy, whose governments had immediately acceded to the Dark Angels explanation and request for assistance, the same scenes were played over and over again. Bewilderment, shock, denial, protest, horror: It was impossible…there had been a mistake…not my husband/father/brother/son…not my wife/mother/ sister/daughter…not my best friend…not my neighbour…it was wrong, he/she was a highly respected scientist/pillar of the community…a humanitarian/tireless charity worker…a dedicated paediatrician/family doctor/surgeon/psychologist. With infinite variations upon the ghastly theme, the designations changed but the disbelief remained. Confused, angry families came clutching galacs for bail bonds and deeds to property as surety to secure the release of loved ones, only to collapse as they found that the person was already en route to Styx due to the Judicial Bypass Act. The Act only used when incontrovertible and multiple evidences of beyond-doubt guilt were available. An Act that had to be co-signed by a Chief Justice, the LEO High Commissioner and a Patriarch or Matriarch of a Ruling High House, so serious was invoking it viewed. Anger and confusion turned to shock and grief: Chief Justice Aman, Saran Van den Mikhail and William Ellison had signed the Judicial Bypass Act Invocation Order; it was impossible to deny, unthinkable to accept.

Not even High Houses or the IFP Presidency remained unscathed or untouched. Trey was able to find a glimmer of positive outcome to his killing of Ruis de y l'Almonté, thank God. Of all the High House children, Ruis was the only one knowingly involved in the vile corruption; had he lived, he would have been en route to Styx. One of Patriarch High House al-Mahemi's younger sons had skated perilously close and was currently under house arrest with his father on the verge of disowning him and shipping him to Styx. Two of Jim Ellison's High House Stantley cousins were already on their way there for their part, relative "minnows" though they were. Other High House scions found the beady eye of their current Matriarch and Patriarch upon them. Trey didn't know what he would have done had any of Saran's half-brothers or sisters been involved.

My loyalty is to my Guide, Saran said firmly in his mind, the first time he had done so since their Bonding. First, last and always – you're welfare will be considered above all others. Besides, the mental tone became grimmer, I doubt my errant semi-sibling would have survived to be sent to Styx. Mymother's rage is fearsome, and her justice savage. Being her child would not save such a monster.

Trey blushed, privately thrilled by the mental affirmation of his Sentinel's devotion.

Come on, Saran encouraged with a glance of dislike at the vid screen. We're both tired and it's time we started looking forward, not back…

Trey took a sip of his wine and relaxed slightly as he realised he was completely dwarfed by the juxtaposition of potted plant and Corinthian column; inconspicuous and downright unnoticeable was exactly what he was aiming for. Despite his nervousness, he bit back a soft smile as he recalled that draining, shattering day after Saran had decided they needed to move forward. Had he known what that entailed, Trey would probably have refused to move, despite his distress and exhaustion. Trey was rapidly realising that Saran was what people meant when they used terms like "a force of nature". He got it from his mother; she was the person Saran had decided an unwitting Trey was going to meet, giving him all of ten minutes warning in the event!

Trey acknowledged that the previous five days would go down as some of the bleakest in IFP history; the destruction of Kessler's vile empire had rent great tears in society, leaving no class or stratum unscathed. For many waiting families, the knock on the door was a double-edged sword – finally closure but also loss of hope that somehow, somewhere, some way, their loved one had survived. Guilt and horror was the lot of the few unwitting pawns in Kessler's vile trade. Strike teams had rescued many empaths from their unsuspecting owners or cages in illegal research laboratories, but many were almost catatonic from weeks, months or several years of systematic torture and molestation. A lot were terribly injured or critically sick; many were so incurably insane that they would spent the remainder of their lives in mental care facilities, or were so diseased as to be terminal. For these, their loved ones found them again only to be faced with their loss in a short while. It would cost millions of galacs in hospitalisation and therapy, and realistically not all would make it. There would be suicides, divorces, breakdown of friendships.

Knowing their fate, the peddlers of flesh had fought back and both sides had had fatalities and casualties; Simon Banks was currently in hospital on Federation with blaster burns and several Dark Angels had been interred as "civilians" caught in the crossfire, their real purpose hidden from even those closest to them who were grieving over their relative or friend "unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time". It was said that one of the earliest Supreme Commanders – maybe even the first one – had built somewhere on Earth a secret chamber in which he – or she – had decreed would be a shrine to the Dark Angels' fallen, the single place where their faces and names would stand. It could be true or not, nobody knew.

As he had accompanied Saran out of the conference room and away from that depressing vid screen, Trey had been possessed by an overwhelming desire to simply escape, to get as far away from the almost Pyrrhic victory he had wrought. Nobody was paying them any attention in the furore, so they slipped away from Federation in Saran's personal cruiser. Happy to be quiet and peaceful, alone with his Sentinel for even just a day, Trey had given no thought to their destination until Saran had informed him they would be landing on Olban in ten minutes. Not only his mother the Vicereine, but her sister the Matriarch Madjhuri Syal herself being en route to the spaceport to meet them! He had wasted precious seconds howling at Saran like a banshee before diving into the fastest sonic shower in history and frantically yanking on and discarding clothes with feverish terror. His soot-black hair had decided to stick up as if he'd been electrocuted and would not be tamed, his skin suddenly looked washed out instead of just pale and why had he never noticed his crooked tooth…?

The Vicereine was stunning, her eyes glowing with her awesome intellect, and the Matriarch not much less overpowering. Somehow he got back to the Vicereine's Palace without collapsing in a blubbering heap and was introduced to the family. All of Saran's semi-siblings were beautiful and brilliant and beautiful, witty and charming, so were their cousins the Matriarch's offspring, and the other scions of the clan. He was caught between the need to run as fast as possible and to throttle the life out of Saran Van damn Mikhail! Trey flushed again as he recalled how he'd plucked up the courage to ask the Vicereine her name, commenting with puzzlement how Saran had never named his mother by any other description than her title. The room had erupted into gleeful laughter and Trey had frozen with terror, sure he had angered them and embarrassed Saran.

As if sensing his anguish, the Matriarch had spoken across the din, her voice soft as a breeze yet commanding instant, respectful silence. "My sister finds her name something of a burden, Trey." Her easy use of his name was a sweet melody to his ears. "When my sister was born, our father decided to name her Bethanne after his late mother, the Matriarch Bethanne Syal."

"Bethanne is a nice name." Trey was baffled.

There were muffled snickers; the Matriarch continued, "Our father tightbeamed his father a message asking his permission, which he gladly gave. Unfortunately our grandfather then tightbeamed the instruction to the Natal Registry on Federation, because usually a child is named long before it is birthed from the uterine replicator, not after. The problem was that when he received the tightbeam, our grandfather was on vacation on Earth in the city of his birth…Byzantium. In the twenty-first century they changed it back again from Istanbul, which wouldn't have been a problem."

Trey couldn't think of anything to say.

Saran smirked and interposed, "Someone at the Registry misunderstood or misread the message. It wasn't until my grandfather ordered the Natal Registry to send her Birth Documentation so he could declare her his Body Heir that the family discovered the baby they'd been calling Bethanne for eighteen months was named Byzantium."

The Vicereine gave a delicate maternal sniff. "For some reason it continues to amuse my family decades after anyone with sense is bored rigid by the anecdote."

That had caused more sniggers. However on an individual level, Trey found the Syal and Van den Mikhail scions all seemed to be genuine in their liking for him, even though he knew they must have been aware of his past. For example, none of Saran's jaw-droppingly gorgeous half-sisters or cousins had embarrassed him with overt sexual flirtation, so clearly they had some awareness that he had been sexually abused. Trey hadn't known whether to feel humiliated or grateful and indeed was still diffident on the issue. He had had a few sexual relationships since escaping Kessler, and each had ended amicably with his partner of the time, but Trey knew he had had to "push" himself into these physical relationships, and knew that he might never recover to the extent where sex was something he was really interested in.

However it was clear that they were working hard to put him at ease and Trey reciprocated by glossing over the occasional verbal faux pas from the younger members of the family. In truth, he was privately eager to see the "real" Saran – the man behind the LEO High Commissioner and the Alpha Sentinel. Contrary to popular public belief, man and Sentinel were not always necessarily the same thing. Trey had already fathomed that Saran favoured his long-dead father, Aleksandr Van den Mikhail, and none of his semi-siblings resembled Saran bar superficially.

The closest perhaps in personality was his half-brother Falcon Syal Sinclair. Equally tall, with jet-black hair and ebony eyes, Falcon was aloof and indifferent to everything around him, though not rude, disappearing inside the Matriarch's superb library, filled with real books, not downloaded palm readers, whenever he got the chance. Also in common with the Saran, he was the only other of the Vicereine's children to have no full-blood siblings. When Trey had shyly said good morning to him the day after arriving on Olban, Falcon had regarded him with considered detachment for a moment, then uttered what passed for glowing commendation, "You've been Bonded to the man for less than three days and you've already managed to turn him into a human being, which is less that we've managed in nearly half a century. Keep it up, will you? He's much easier to deal with when he's not doing his Winter King icicle thing."

Mumbling some response Trey had beaten a strategic retreat, privately a little stung by the implied criticism of his Sentinel. After a lifetime of hiding his empathy, he had tentatively tried to reach out to Falcon's mind, but there was no hidden agenda or spite, just Falcon's considered opinion coupled with a relief that someone was around to occupy Saran's attention and divert his irritating "firstborn and eldest son" officiousness. However, buried very, very deep Trey caught a flash of ingrained anguish, a pain present so long Falcon himself no longer even noticed the burden he carried. Trey left it alone. Falcon's approbation had reminded him of the considerable age gap between himself and Saran. Trey had forgotten all about it, particularly since the age difference between Race and Gage was negligible, and that between Jim and Blair not many years. However, he and Saran were separated by a full twenty years; Saran would be forty-six on his next birthday, Trey was only twenty-five. Falcon had been dealing with his "issues" since before Trey had been born, and would doubtless not be happy with interference from someone a lot younger than him.

Besides, it had been obvious to Trey almost from the moment he stepped on Olban how much…less…Tracey Logan I really was. He had never felt easy within his family, had never felt comfortable on his family's estates, but as he compared Grandfather's trappings of power with the reality of High House Syal, Trey realised that Associate House Logan was a candle next to a star. Nothing was tacky or ostentatious, yet everything was palatial; real marble, wood, silk, linen, wool, fur, ivory, jewels and crystal adorned the sumptuous surroundings, framed by exquisite gardens crammed with rare species of flora and fauna to delight the eye – and this was only the Matriarch's guest palace when she visited her sister on Olban! Trey's mind reeled at what her official residence on Federation must be like, or her main palace on the High House Syal homeworld of Syaline Prime, or her ziggurat on Eden, where each High House was allowed to build a single ziggurat dignifying their house. Blair had said that the Ellison Ziggurat covered an area as big as Cascade had been at the beginning of the twenty-first century! Trey found his memories – and fear – of Grandfather as a hard, unyielding giant dwindling rapidly beside the sheer power radiated by most of the people now surrounding him; even the least of Saran's cousins had more money than Grandfather could ever hope to acquire in a dozen lifetimes of being a dedicated workaholic. Perceptively Trey wondered if that was why Saran had taken the sudden decision to bring him so abruptly to Olban. Had his Sentinel thought to blow away the last lingering ghosts of Trey's fears and insecurities? Trey knew that he would certainly never be afraid of Grandfather again.

Trey didn't have much time for introspection on Saran's motives. After those first harrowing days, the news media searched for some relief from the unrelenting grim accounts of lives shattered and families torn apart, and they found it in William Ellison's Birthday Ball that would take place on Eden at the Ellison ziggurat; the very place the late, unlamented Ruis de y l'Almonté had been happy to completely disintegrate with a plasma bomb just to get his twisted revenge on Jim Ellison, though of course nobody new that. The fact that for the first time ever all five of the Patriarch's children would be in the same place at the same time, including his formerly bitterly estranged Body Heir, Lord Sentinel James Ellison and bastard son Captain Ellison Vincent Hunter of Cascade PD Internal Affairs, was the sort of speculative soft news item that could be expanded and built upon; it was seized eagerly.

Trey knew that the "real" party had already taken place. The immediate Ellison family, William, his second wife Ehlan, children Steven, Edmund and Suzette, along with Steven's wife Karen and children Jay and Kia, had privately met Jim and Blair and Hunter. Blair had tightbeamed both Gage and Trey with a hilarious - but with an underlying seriousness – account of how he had directed the emotional traffic, easing everyone over the awkward spots and sotto voce threatening Hunter will all manner of improbable bodily harm if the guy didn't unclench and let it go.

The Birthday Ball was a pageant, a show for the masses, Saran had irritably explained. When called upon to arbitrate for the thousandth time between a half-sister and a cousin who both wanted to wear the same colour, he ended up being yelled at by both for calling the "damn thing" a dress when it was a ball gown. Normally the heads of the High Houses passed days of celebration without such public displays, but William Ellison's 97th birthday was also his Golden Jubilee – the 50th Anniversary of his Ascension to Patriarch following the deaths of his parents, Patriarch Willard Ellison and Consort Yvette Stantley, in an air-skiff crash.

Everything had nuances, and layer upon on layer of meaning. Anybody who was anybody had sold solar systems and sacrificed their own mother to any listening deity on the off chance just to get an invite. Each of these Balls was literally a Power Play, and everyone wanted to be in on the action. Everything from the seating arrangements to the flowers decorating the tables was graded to a precise art and the smallest cheque William Ellison would have written to cover the event would have had six or seven zeros on it. Some Houses, like High House Ellison, were easy to accommodate, with others there had to be "balance", and Trey soon came to understand Saran's irritability.

Of the late Patriarch Khan Singh Syal IX's seven children, the Matriarch Madjhuri and the Vicereine were the only two girls, but they were half-sisters. The Matriarch Madjhuri's mother was the Dowager Consort of High House Syal, but the Vicereine's mother, though only Dowager Wife of High House Syal, had been Singh Syal's most loved wife. The Matriarch Madjhuri had three sons by her Consort, though Saran was her Body Heir, and four daughters by her two Husbands and a Co-Parent contract. Her middle son Nazir Syal Istvan was her Consort's Body Heir. The Body Heir of the Patriarch or Matriarch of a High House took precedence over siblings of the same parentage and any semi-siblings, and also outranked any Body Heirs of the Matriarch or Patriarch's spouses/co-parents. One of the four daughters, Sameyyah Ibn Hussan, was Body Heir to her father, so she outranked all siblings bar Nazir, but Nazir's parents were Matriarch and Consort, whereas Sameyyah had only her mother as Matriarch, her father not being a Consort, just husband. Saran was the Body Heir of the Matriarch and so out-ranked Sameyyah and Nazir, but neither of his parents were the Matriarch or her Consort…Trey had taken a flimsy and started drawing lines connecting each person "dot", but when he had to begin factoring in the multiple degrees of relationships, intermarriage, genetic contracts and so forth, he had just given up when an hour's solid drawing of lines from dot to dot left him with something that looked like an army of drunken spiders had fallen in an ink vat and then danced across the page.

Sadistically deciding that his Guide needed to "embrace the pain", Saran had come down to breakfast one morning and loudly despaired the state of his Guide's wardrobe. Trey swore he could see every female within a mile radius come to attention, like a pride of lionesses scenting a deer. Perhaps spotting the stark terror in Trey's eyes, the Vicereine had mercifully interposed at that juncture, announcing she would take Trey on a party outfit buying expedition. Others were conspicuously not invited.

Taking him to the most exclusive tailor's in Albion, Olban's planetary capital, the Vicereine had picked out some "smart casuals" – dress pants, shirt, collarless jacket – that would not make his pale skin looked sallow or washed out and would enable him to "blend" at the Ball. She assured him that "eccentric" attire was a sort of traditional competition amongst the younger element at these things and he would certainly not be out of place if he didn't wear formal evening dress. Apparently at one High House gathering, somebody had come in a bio-engineered "living" feather thing that made "her look like nothing so much as a Christmas turkey" only to end up being attacked by the clothing of another guest who had had the same idea and whose garment was a bio-engineered "live" fur. Still somewhat embarrassed over the size of his Guide Allowance, Trey had paid for the clothing and she had given him a mini-tour of the city's interesting spots before they stopped for lunch at a café so rarefied they charged you to breathe the air; the Vicereine was obviously a regular. She simply ordered double her "usual", before turning back to Trey. He kept his face bland, wondering if this was going to be the part where the gloves came off and he was told to know his place and stay in it.

Instead the Vicereine gave him a stunning smile. "Consider this my formal welcome. I'm so pleased that Saran has finally found you."

"Thank-you, ma'am," Trey answered. "I won't deny it's been a little difficult, but I will do my best to be the Guide Saran needs –"

He blinked when she gave a most unladylike and highly derisive snort. "I've no doubt about that whatsoever. My darling boy, you seem oblivious to the fact that you sweat integrity. Just you make sure that my son is the best Sentinel that his Guide needs!"

"Saran's all right, really," Trey found himself saying, only to be met with another disdainful sniff.

"Huh." Giving him a considering look, the Vicereine expanded, "I know Saran too well, and to be honest, I have to accept that I'm partly why he's so…"

"Officious?"

She grinned. "Indeed, good word. Saran has always been aware of his responsibilities as my firstborn child, and acutely aware of the fact that he is my favourite child…" For a moment her voice petered away and Trey caught the feeling of old grief; the Vicereine loved Aleksandr Van den Mikhail just as much now as she had over forty-five years ago, the fact that her husband had been dead for more or less that long having no impact on the emotion…"When my sister decided to make him her Body Heir over her own children, that added to his responsibilities. Saran's main trouble is that he is too used to being in control. He is brilliant, he is incisive, he is innovative. Unfortunately those attributes have given him a tendency to think he can control the cosmos to his liking."

"I'm not sure I follow?" Trey obfuscated in the manner of Blair Sandburg, deciding it would be impolite at best to give a heart-felt agreement like, "'Yeah, he's is a control freak, isn't he!'" to his Sentinel's mother!

Her lips twitched as if she discerned his intent. "God is our Father and the Universe our Mother; both are beautiful but unyielding parents. Saran tends to make plans way in advance and then expects the Universe to re-order itself to comply. He expected to have a Guide long before now. It will do Saran good to have someone not afraid to rein him in when he gets going on some idea of his!"

Keen to learn more about his Sentinel's background, Trey admitted, "I was very surprised when I bonded with Saran. I always assumed that Saran's Guide would be…"

"One of those bland IFP neurologically neutered empaths?" the Vicereine grinned with a hint of malice and her voice became pompous and clipped. "So did Saran. He had it all worked out. His Guide would be someone who attended an IFP empathy-centric school, perhaps Fontein Academy or the Roslyn School. A young man of similar age from a good, middle-class background, sensible and efficient and someone who had the brain surgery to render them unable to bond when they were young enough and egotistical enough to be glad to be rid of all that "bonding urge" nonsense." Her tone went back to its normal musical lilt as Trey chuckled aloud, "Sounds like someone wanting to buy an air-skiff, doesn't it? Saran went to dozens of mixers, but nothing worked, no spark at all; bunch of meek milksops the lot of them. All they were interested in was his bank account, but he wouldn't even consider any of the Wild Empaths that were caught. Didn't fit in with his life-plan to be that emotionally dependent on anybody."

"What did he do?" Trey found himself feeling a sudden surge of anger at the thought of Saran surrounded by Bondless Guides – Saran was his Sentinel!

"He didn't know what to do!" The conversation paused briefly while the food was brought and they made decent inroads on it, then she went on, "It wasn't according to his timetable, you see. He expected to be "Guided up" by the time he left university. When he didn't have a Guide at twenty-five, he was confused. By thirty he was exasperated, at thirty-five downright annoyed, and at forty he decided to give up on the entire idea and spend the rest of his life on suppressants – sulking is what I call it."

Trey laughed as he could actually imagine Saran jacking the whole Guide idea in during a fit of Sentinel pique. He started when she leaned her hand over and touched him lightly on the wrist – the Vicereine was not given to physical demonstrations.

"I'm delighted to welcome you as part of my family, Trey Logan. You will be an excellent Guide to my most precious son." She ignored the way he flushed to his hair roots. "But don't let Saran intimidate you. Your hopes and dreams are just as valid as his, and there will be times when you'll need to apply a firm boot to his posterior. For example, what have you done about joining Federation's LEO Commission as a detective?"

"Uh…?" Trey had never considered that going back to police work, much as he had loved his job, would be an option for him.

"I thought as much. Put your application in a.s.a.p. – and don't tell my son about it. You are a person in your own right, not his adjunct or servant. It's clear from the way you speak about it that you loved being a detective and there is no reason why you should give up your dream." Her tone was stern, but her face kind.

"Thank you," Trey whispered, amazed at such kindness. Had it been Grandfather sat opposite him and he Guide to a Sentinel Logan, he would have been bombarded with a long list of "don'ts" designed to emphasise how unworthy he was to associate with Grandfather's Sentinel heir and to "mind his place" as a glorified servant…

Trey came out of his reverie when he spotted Gage expounding something to two well-dressed men he recognised as wealthy business moguls. Trey experienced a pang of envy; Gage was far more comfortable in this setting – he just viewed it as a major networking opportunity. Gage the Guide had been replaced with Dr Butler, genius xeno-archaeologist and Final Authority on the aliens of Hyperion. Without bombast, Gage nevertheless held his own with polite but firm authority. Still secure behind the cover of his potted plant, Trey searched for Blair and finally spotted him way over the other side of the "room", though to call this massive vaulted rotunda a room was like saying that St. John the Divine was a "big cathedral". Marble columns soared so high you got a crick in the neck following them up to the ceiling, which was decorated in fabulous murals. Indeed, Blair was so far away that Trey could only make out his halo of wild curls. He wondered how Blair was coping. Unlike his own rather mundane background, the Dark Guide victim/killer of the evil Dark Sentinel Alexandra Barnes had been media fodder for several years, and Trey doubted there was a person here who didn't know at least some of the facts liberally laced with salacious media speculation. Although Blair was animated enough, even from this distance Trey could discern Blair's usual effervescent "bounce" of manner…

Blair the Dark Guide was watchful; Blair the man was deeply nervous. Blair the anthropologist was…fascinated.

Like Trey, though not really "hiding", Blair had placed himself discreetly next to a convenient pillar and watched the rulers of the universe at play. The real birthday celebration had been held privately yesterday, unique for the presence of both William's estranged sons Captain E. Vincent Hunter and Lord James Ellison, both not twenty feet from his self-appointed observation post.

This wasn't a party however, but a display, a ceremonial parade. As wine so rarefied it would cost a solar system just to look at the bottle flowed like water from a faucet, Blair could practically see the fog of political machinations that hung almost visibly over the entire assemblage. Political deals were made over the hors d'oeuvres, economic policies by the consommé, trade agreements and military treaties done and dusted by the time dessert was served. As part of his Golden Jubilee Patriarchal Address, William Ellison had announced that the Ruling Nine High Houses had accorded House Sengupta, House Voissoin, and House Bingham the status of Associate Houses and Associate House Mahdjpur had been elevated to the rank of Lesser House Mahdjpur. These had caused nothing so gauche as excited gossip, but Blair could practically see the energy burn pouring off some people and was grateful for the quick briefing session Jim had given both him and Hunter yesterday so they didn't inadvertently make some ghastly faux pas that would be the present-day version of an "international incident".

Jim had explained the founding Three High Houses – Ellison, al-Mahemi and van Zant - had rapidly become aware of the usefulness inherent in numerical asymmetry. In the 20th and 21st Centuries, the Western hemisphere of Earth had moved away from monarchy to "rule by committee" during a long period of flirtation with the doctrine known as political correctness. Unfortunately the experiment hadn't worked as the PC doctrines that "competition" was "bad" for children and conformity was "God" led to several consecutive generations of people obsessed about claiming their rights and shirking their responsibilities, all thinking they were natural "chiefs" and refusing to be "Indians". Consequently important national concerns like, for example, the British rail network and transport infrastructure, got bogged down in endless circles of committees and working groups that existed primarily to pass the buck onto the next committee. The subsequent political shift back to monarchs with "real" individual power in countries as diverse as China, Russia and France came not out of a desire to have a king or queen, but out of wanting stuff to just get done, to have one person who could stop the buck and direct traffic.

Therefore, the Founding Three High Houses had created one inviolable rule – there would never be an equal number of Ruling High Houses, with the disastrous potential for "decision deadlock" if the Heads were split evenly on some issue. Due to this, Houses were only elevated to the status of Ruling House in pairs. It had been over three hundred years since the Ruling Seven became the Ruling Nine, and the miasma of barely suppressed thrill when William Ellison made his announcements was there because it was "known" that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Ruling Nine Houses had unanimously agreed to become the Ruling Eleven High Houses. Millions of every currency you cared to name was changing hands and would continue to do so as interested parties scrambled to get the inside track on which two Houses would be Elevated. Usually the procedure was Name House, Associate House, Lesser House, and maybe, possibly, fantastically, High House, but there had been enough precedent setting exceptions to that rule in the case of clearly extraordinary talent in a particular family. High House Stantley, who had produced Jim Ellison's paternal grandmother Yvette Stantley, had themselves leapfrogged Lesser House status.

Blair glanced casually around, playing his own personal game of "spot the killing machine". Despite the solid mass of Semi-Divine Great & Good types all around, there were no bodyguards/Personal Protection Officers, Security agents, etc and so on. Such would have been an unforgivable slur on House Ellison, a shocking insult that would suggest the Patriarch could not keep his guests safe or even worse might be an assassin.

Except, of course, the Dark Angels. The whole point of being a Dark Angel was that nobody knew you were one; a Dark Angel had a "real life" and stepped into being a Dark Angel to sort things out before returning to that life unnoticed. Thus, a janitor who was a Dark Angel was still a janitor. As a consequence of the lack of personal protection that most of the guests enjoyed, Blair was willing to bet that a large number of the chefs, waiters, waitresses, servers, butlers and other attending staff were a bit snazzier than usual in the weapons-wielding and kicking-ass departments.

Blair looked around again, anxiety on Trey's behalf nagging at him as he knew that the Patriarch Alphonse de y l'Almonté was "around", though he couldn't spot him. Blair felt a hollow at the pit of his stomach. There hadn't been a High House ruler in half a millennium who'd had only one child, and even then, Matriarch Aislinn van Zant's Body Heir had been her brother, not her son. Already the scions of High House de y l'Almonté were beginning to manoeuvre into the vacuum left by the death of the Patriarch's only child and Body Heir. Blair knew it was going to be unpleasant, particularly as no weakness could be shown under the avid gazes of this august assemblage, comprised of presidents, warlords, emperors, empresses, kings, queens, plenipotentiaries, ambassadors, sultans, Prime Ministers, viceroys, diplomats, representatives, businessmen, frontier-world planetary tyrants and a dozen other assorted men and women of vast power and/or wealth. Even the "Atewam" Empire, scrupulously referred to in the correct manner as "Noble Reflections of the Eternal Empress of the Atae-uha'am Empire", had sent representatives to the Patriarch's event, their sky-blue skin startling amidst the throng.

Blair had looked at the pair, one male and one female exactly identical in a manner that proclaimed them to be clones, with curiosity. The original settlers of the Atae galactic cluster had possessed a nasty tendency towards embracing "eugenics" and neo-Nazism type philosophies of a radical kind. Their Empire's internal politics still embraced a zesty enthusiasm for brutal and spectacular assassinations of political opponents; bioengineering was the norm and GELFs – genetically engineered life forms – for the sole purpose of slavery was Standard Operating Procedure. Over the centuries genetic, manipulation had been turned into a form of art by the Atewam, the sky-blue skin hue being a fashion fad that had endured for the last 80 years or so. It was true humanity had made contact with no "other" sentient species in their centuries of interstellar exploration, but the Atewam, though still human, were clearly well on their way to Something Else. Despite his misgivings over Patriarch Alphonse, Blair bit back a grin, The real sign of final species divergence would be when the Atewam and their IFP "neighbours" were no longer inter-fertile, or could only produce sterile hybrids like the ass, offspring of donkeys and horses or tigions, produced from lions and tigers, though these had thanks to some radical GE become two self-reproducing species.

Blair had no doubt that the Atewam and their brutal mistress the Eternal Empress, one of whose official titles was Lady of Blood Vengeance, were eyeing the possible power vacuum in the IFP keenly. At the moment, the universe populated by humanity could be split into three circles near to each other – the Intergalactic Federation of Planets, the Atae-uha'am Empire and the Non-Aligned Free Worlds, the last being comprised of such as the Altair Confederacy, the Free Planets Trade Alliance and the multitude of mini-empires in the Frontier Worlds. At the moment, there was no conflict between the three. The IFP, the Atewam and the NAFW were all expanding at a phenomenal rate, but space was so vast and resources so immeasurable that conflict was nil. However, Blair knew that none would pass up the opportunity to strengthen itself at the expense of the other two. Sometimes he had idly speculated what would occur if Humanity eventually met up with another sentient species and was forced to curtail it's outward expansion. What would happen if the three cultures ended up competing rather than co-existing for resources? He had no doubt it would be brutal with an astronomical body count.

The sky-hued clones wandered off, their faces inscrutable; Blair wondered what they would report back to the Starfire Court of the Eternal Empress,and would they be killed afterwards, deemed "contaminated" by exposure to genetically "inferior" humans, or allowed to live? He saw the clones heading towards Gage and grinned. His friend was in full Dr Butler mode. Blair just spotted Trey hidden by a truly Triffid-esque potted plant and a soaring marble pillar; he thought he might be smiling at him so nodded his head in response, though he couldn't really see that far across this…this… "expanse" was the only suitable word. Naomi's unplanned pregnancy at the age of eighteen had meant that Blair, like Hunter, was a body birth and not a uterine replicator one. Naomi had had – still did have – firm beliefs on Man "interfering" with nature (plus, Blair suspected, a serious cash-flow problem) and once a scan had confirmed the health of the foetus, she had left well enough alone. Completely without genetic enhancement, Blair had been born with an IQ off the charts, and having low blood pressure that made him susceptible to cold was not that much of burden. Quite often, however, Blair heartily wished Naomi had taken steps to correct the hereditary myopia that lurked in his maternal genetic tree and reasserted itself every so often.

Automatically Blair checked on the positions of Race, Saran and Hunter. He already knew where Jim was, could make his way to his Sentinel's side blindfold, and also the Ellisons. Aware of the potential for disaster, Blair had done his best to ease the meeting yesterday between William Ellison and his estranged sons. As they had approached Eden via Dark Angels transport, Blair hadn't been above letting his own "wistful" longings for a father colour his empathic "tone" as he cajoled and appeased Jim and especially Hunter, who was increasingly morose the closer they got to the meeting.

Jim had been estranged from William since he abandoned Federation at eighteen to join the IFP Army, quickly establishing himself amongst the elite Rangers. Hunter had similarly worked his way up to a much-decorated, greatly admired and even more feared "veteran" police officer despite his relative youth, still in Homicide when he had crossed paths with his half-brother. Unwittingly investigating the same murder-espionage case from opposite ends, it was colleagues of the pair who had become agitated when the "same man" appeared in entirely different clothing in the same place a few minutes apart, only to deny any knowledge of being there before and declaring his name was Jim or Hunter depending on the situation. The same man would vid-phone forensics in the morning then contact them again for the "first time" in the afternoon. The guy had removed evidence from lock-up and then turned up again to collect it becoming furious when told he'd already taken possession of it. One of Hunter's superiors, a Chief Mannion, had had the intelligence to arrange a Joint Taskforce meeting and see who turned up. The entire room had done a double take when two identical men had entered simultaneously through two different doors and stared with equal astonishment at each other as their colleagues were showing…

"…and it went downhill from there," Jim had confessed, his words echoing anew in Blair's head.

Blair could understand it. Both were Alpha Males as well as Bondless Sentinels, and from a psychological viewpoint, it would have struck devastatingly at the core of each man's sense of "personal identity" to be suddenly confronted with a doppelganger, particularly since Jim and Hunter really did share a lot of identical personality traits and preferences, a stark comparison to Stephen Ellison, with whom the only thing Jim really had in common was the fact that they shared the same parents. The two men had developed a distant "nodding acquaintance" relationship and then tried to steer clear.

Blair's subtle manipulations had had help; William Ellison was painfully eager to be reconciled with his second son and to get to know his firstborn. Stephen Ellison's welcome was equally as obviously sincere, and Edmund and Suzette had broken the ice by converging on the two men like Seeker missiles and bombarding their half-brothers with questions. Stephen's children had been similarly entranced. There were no hugs and soppy weeping, but Blair had been gratefully relieved when last night passed with a definite warming of the filial atmosphere, which was all to the good. Unless Blair was much mistaken, Hunter and Jim now had another thing in common – the Dark Angels. Blair would have bet his curls that Hunter had been co-opted into the lethal organisation. They weren't the sort of people you said no to…

"Uh-oh." Blair stiffened and put down his drink. Jim! Jim! Alert!

What's up? Casually putting down his own glass of wine, Jim straightened up slightly, his face maintaining it's blandly polite expression; Blair knew that in reality, he was coiled and ready. Within a second, like an invisible ripple, Blair saw Race, Gage and a wide variety of guests/serving staff similarly shift their balance in a very, very tiny yet significant way as they picked up on the Dark Sentinel's stance.

Please tell me what I thought I saw wasn't what I thought I saw? Blair indicated across the room.

Easily increasing his Sentinel sight, Jim cursed softly, Sorry Chief – uh-oh, Saran's spotted him too. Let's go see if we can damp down the explosion.

Saran Van den Mikhail was drifting with nonchalant but deceptive speed towards the graceful arch that led into another section of the ziggurat, his face bland but somehow warning against approach.

The party was now winding down as guests had begun to drift in ones and twos towards the guest suites prepared for them – the Ellison ziggurat could easily accommodate a "cast of thousands". Blair had seen Trey begin to amble off towards the suite he had with Saran as soon as was politely feasible and the young man was now walking across a vaulted rotunda towards the sweeping curved staircase. What Blair had also seen was a tall, rotund, grey haired older man making his way towards the party, though the distance was great some instinct told Blair that the older man was Alphonse de y l'Almonté and neither he nor Trey was paying much attention to where they were heading. Blair realised the two men's path would intersect more or less at the shadowed alcove where the staircase swept around in a curve. Carefully making his way across the room, Blair had no heightened senses, but his empathic resonance with Trey suddenly changed colour from magenta to burgundy as the empath suddenly became agitated; linked always to Jim's mind, Blair felt his Sentinel react to the way Trey's heartbeat and pulse suddenly spiked. The potential for Extreme Nastiness was almost palpable, and Blair increased his pace, thankful that most of the guests had retired and those that remained were too young and too silly with wine to pick up on nuances of atmosphere…

For a long moment, Trey Logan and Alphonse de y l'Almonté just looked at each other; a quick polite exchange of glances as both moved to avoid collision had precipitated this frozen moment. Alphonse's brows drew down into a heavy frown, his black eyes fixed on Trey's face and for a moment Trey wondered if the man was going to whip out a blaster and shoot him on the spot. He said nothing. He couldn't have spoken had his life depended on it; his throat was desert dry and his lips seemingly glued together.

Abruptly Alphonse gave a deep sigh. "Stop looking like a frightened rabbit, boy. I mean you no harm."

As if someone had suddenly oiled his vocal chords, Trey managed to stammer out, "I-I-I'm s-s-sorry. I wish I hadn't had to…"

"…but you had no choice," Alphonse responded heavily. Looking at Trey's frightened face, he sighed heavily. "At first I hated you, at first I was going to…well, never mind. I wish with all my heart that it was otherwise…but I knew exactly what my son was, Mr Logan. After all, I made him the rabid dog you had to put down. I shall try and avoid you if at all possible, considering you are the LEO High Commissioner's Guide, but there will be no Vendetta from me. I am too old, and as Bill pointed out, I should take my own advice."

"So you do listen to me after all, Al'." William Ellison's words were light as he stepped out of the shadows but his face was serious and strained, his hand tight around that of his wife, Ehlan Van den Gaerde.

Trey became aware of Saran walking to stand just behind him, and knew that Race, Gage, Jim, Blair, Hunter and Stephen and Karen Ellison were shielding them from view, as if this were just a family/friend casual chit-chat. He relaxed against Saran's solid, comforting bulk. His Sentinel was here; he was safe. In his mind he felt the reassuring touch of Saran's mind, the assurance that he was secure.

"I could hardly contradict my own counsel, could I?" Alphonse charged with a hint of acerbity. He gave a measuring look at Trey, then addressed him directly. "I went to school with Bill - and James…"

…For a moment Trey wondered who he meant, then wondered what it would be like to be so powerful that you could call the Patriarch of High House Ellison "Bill"…

"James was their pride and joy." There was a slightly censorious note in Alphonse's tone as he explained, "Patriarch Willard Ellison and Yvette Stantley designed James to be a Sentinel, to be their little Perfect Super-Sensory Body Heir. They were most surprised when the blastocyst split, but didn't really have any problems with an identical twin, though he wasn't a Sentinel of course."

Trey found himself nodding. The famous Guide Diaries had explained that even in multiple births of identical twins or triplets, children developed from the same egg, only one was ever a Sentinel, though all could be Guides. The diarist had theorised that it was connected with territorial imperative; a Sentinel tended to develop this about the geographical area of his birth, and since two Sentinels could not co-exist in the same territory, having identical twin brothers or sisters who were both Sentinels would cause nothing but trouble.

"James was their golden boy," Alphonse was explaining, "their Chosen Heir. They had no problems with William being Billy, but James always had to be given his full dignity, no diminutive name for him."

"Now, Al…" Soothed William, looking rather embarrassed at being defended over what must have felt like a painful parental rejection to him as a child, especially as he was being overlooked in favour of a child genetically identical in every way, except that James was a Sentinel.

Alphonse snorted and fixed his gaze again on Trey. "After James died when he was ten, Bill blamed himself deeply and unnecessarily and his parents were worse than useless, moping about as if the cosmos had come to an end. At the time I told him that he was beating himself up unnecessarily. I told him the unpalatable truth, " 'James was born a Sentinel. He knew what he was; he knew the risks inherent in being a Sentinel. Your brother had free will. He had a choice. He knew exactly why that spinning top was a forbidden toy, he knew the risks involved in playing with it and he alone made the choice to not only to play with it but to do so alone somewhere he was unlikely to be spotted quickly should he zone.'" Alphonse shook his head mildly. "I never thought that advice would come back to haunt me. I loved my son, Mr Logan, but I know that he had choices. I bear much of the responsibility for making him what he was. I didn't take my own advice. I spoilt Ruis and indulged his every whim to assuage my own guilt over his mother's death, when my Consort made the choice to attend that business meeting. By the time I admitted to myself what Ruis had turned into, he was irredeemable.

"It's always easy to make the right decisions in hindsight," Blair put in quietly, his voice carrying clearly to the small group but no further. "I got myself to be captured by Alexandra Barnes because I wanted to believe she was a confused woman needing help; it fed my ego that a beautiful woman was relying on my expertise. There were plenty of warning signs, attitudes and things that she let slip inadvertently that sounded warning bells, but I didn't want to listen, so I ignored them. You loved your wife, and you overcompensated with Ruis out of your grief and guilt, but in the end, each of us has to make a personal choice whether to walk in the light, or walk in the darkness. Ruis was designed to be the Body Heir of a Patriarch. He had the intelligence to change his lifestyle and attitude when he became old enough to understand the repercussions of what he did in his life, but he chose not to. You aren't to blame for what Ruis chose to do when he was an adult." Blair leaned back into his Sentinel as Jim placed a comforting hand on his shoulder – talking about Alex Barnes for any reason distressed him.

Alphonse gave a weak smile. "Yes Mr Sandburg, that's exactly what Bill said. I don't exactly like you, but I don't bear you any animosity, Trey Logan. I know you didn't have any choice about killing Ruis. I am aware for a fact that my son engineered two assassination attempts against me in the last year, but I never did anything about it because that meant I would have to accept that Ruis was an amoral sociopathic waste of space and oxygen."

"I was a detective, Sir," Trey said softly but firmly. "I've had to kill criminals, but I have never taken any pleasure in taking the life of another human being – we are all God's children. Ruis was aiming at my friend Gage Butler; I had no choice but to shoot to kill. I'm sorry for your sake that I had to do so."

Alphonse nodded wearily. "I know, I know. There's no need to worry about my reaction, and I am grateful that Ruis's death is being passed off as an accident. Now I wish I had listened to you, Bill, when you kept urging me have more children even if I didn't choose a new Consort. The sharks are circling and even that beautiful monster the Eternal Empress is sticking her nose in."

"Surely it's too soon for you to decide on a new Body Heir?" Karen Ellison put in, showing her distaste for such an idea since Ruis – unlamented though he was – had been in his grave only a few days.

"Unfortunately not," Alphonse disagreed grimly. "There is an old Earth saying: a week is a long time in politics. The longer I leave it without assigning a new Body Heir, the more unstable the situation will become, and people will quickly begin to claim that I am too feeble to maintain my power or position. I need to display the ruthless pragmatism credited to a High House, but…"

"I know many capable people in your House," Jim offered. "In fact one of the detectives I work with in Cascade, Bryan Rafe, his mother is one of your nieces."

Alphonse spread out his palms in a helpless gesture. "That is my problem. The capable, honourable members of my House – very sensibly – don't want to touch the Body Heir position with a…what's that saying?…bargepole…and those that would happily take it tomorrow are too indolent, youngsters who've been quite happy to reap the rewards of being a High House member without putting in any of the work. They see the power, but don't want the responsibilities that go with it. Whichever one of them I pick will be like choosing the lesser of two evils. There is little to choose amongst my plethora of nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles and aunts. It would be different had I several other children to choose from, but -"

"E-Excuse me," Trey made a tentative hand gesture to get their attention. "In that case, Patriarch Alphonse, Sir, what about Ruis's daughter?"

"HIS WHAT!" Shock made Alphonse's exclamation echo and several people nearby turned to look at them; instantly Gage and Blair began broadcast happy, soothing feelings that were the emotional equivalent of saying "move along, don't notice us, nothing of interest happening here."

Trey's already pale skin blanched to grey and he cringed back against Saran reflexively. Saran's arm came around his waist and pulled him back against solid support, anchoring him like a steel band. Saran's eyes blazed and he almost bared his teeth at Alphonse; the tension suddenly ratcheted up several notches.

Alphonse de y l'Almonté hadn't been a Patriarch for so long nor survived two assassination attempts by his own child by being an idiot. Saran and Trey Logan were newly bonded, and he knew a Sentinel on the verge of going feral when he saw one. This was not the clinical, detached LEO High Commissioner, this was papa bear protecting his cub.

"Forgive me." Alphonse kept his tone low and apologetic.

Trey did not move from the comfort of Saran's supporting embrace, but he relaxed and colour came back to his face, Saran calming down in exponential proportion. "I-I'm s-sorry, Sir. It's just that Rosetta's daughter attends a girls' boarding school on Mars that's a bit expensive and we just thought…"

Cutting in expertly, William Ellison said, "How do you know Ruis de y l'Almonté is the father of this little girl?"

"I- I- I know her mother. I was there when it went down…" Trey cast an anxious look at Alphonse.

Correctly interpreting the glance, Alphonse sighed. "I am only too well acquainted with my son's activities over the past few years, Trey Logan. Tell us what happened."

Trey gave a little shrug, clearly uncomfortable. "Rosetta Montalban is one of our civilian employees. She works as a Legal Executive in Halfway Station's Prosecutor General's office?" They nodded to indicate their knowledge that Prosecutor General was the equivalent of an American District Attorney or a British Crown Prosecution Barrister. "That's where she m-m-met R-R-Ruis. But Rosetta wouldn't date him. She's very traditional, comes from a respected local family…so Ruis began to…court her. It was a game to him." He shot a quick glance at Alphonse's bleak face and hurried on. "He used an assumed name, and at the time I had no idea who he was either. He pretended to be a management executive in one of House van Zant's companies on Federation. I guess he didn't want to use his own House in case somebody checked and found out who he really was. He did all the right things, said all the right things – chaperoned dates, gifts for the family, asking her father's permission to date her formally. He built an entire life from the ground up. It never occurred to anyone, not even me, that he wasn't anyone other than Eduardo Vasquez, a wealthy, upwardly mobile young executive from Federation. He went the whole way; he bought Rosetta a beautiful antique engagement ring, booked the Montalban family chapel for the wedding, had a stag party, the works –"

"So when Rosetta found herself pregnant, nobody really minded that much, even her family," Ehlan Van den Gaerde spoke for the first time, her stunningly beautiful face downcast with wise sorrow.

Trey sighed. "When she told him, Ruis – or Eduardo as we thought – seemed delighted. A week after that, Rosetta had the embryo removed and scanned to remove genetic defects and increase IQ, but there was a shortage of uterine replicators at the time due to a baby boom caused by the Great Martian Winter Storm – remember that?" He asked them rhetorically. "Anyway, Rosetta hadn't been having any problems with gestation so she had the embryo implanted back in her womb for a body birth. That was the day she told Eduardo the embryo would develop into a girl. He threw her a big baby shower and we all asked for the sex so we knew what colours to buy. A few days later, Eduardo was recalled urgently to Federation for a big contract his company was working on and would be gone for three Earth weeks. When she didn't hear form him after four, Rosetta started trying to get hold of him. When she couldn't, she asked me as a favour to find him."

"What did you do?" Saran's tone was gentle as he mentally cocooned his Guide with reassurance and affection.

Trey found he couldn't look at Alphonse's sad, weary eyes any more. "I couldn't find him. The van Zant personnel records for their companies on Federation showed no employee by the name of Eduardo Vasquez. House Stantley had one a few blocks away from where Eduardo claimed his office was, but when I checked, that Eduardo Vasquez was a 115 year-old-grandfather and a Doctor of Biochemistry who hadn't left Federation in over five years. Then Ruis came back to Halfway…I don't know what happened, only he and Rosetta were present…I found her – distraught – in one of the docking rings."

Trey felt Saran's arm tighten around his waist and felt the encouragement from Gage and Blair as they like his Sentinel caught the slight pause on his word and gleaned from his sad memories that Rosetta had been in the process of attempting to kill herself when Trey came across her. "The upshot of it was that Rosetta saw him and went across to ask what had happened. He basically admitted his real identity, told her that their engagement was meaningless, and walked away with some drinking buddies laughing his head off…" Trey fell silent. Rosetta had been a lot more explicit in what Ruis had said, how the man had gloated over taking her virginity, though he'd expressed it in much more vile terms, and how he'd "taught" her not to be such a prissy little slut, and she could just abort that whore in her belly; Alphonse didn't need to know those things.

Trey clung to the feel of Saran's mind in his – he wasn't alone. "Rosetta decided to have Rosehannah anyway. Her family and friends were all very supportive. After all, Ruis had suckered all of us, so who were we to point the finger of blame?" Trey wound down.

Alphonse blew out a breath. "Seven years ago, Ruis went to Halfway Station and remained for two solid years, bar a few weeks. It was the longest he'd stayed in any one place and I was pleased; I hoped it was time he was finally buckling down…Thank you for this information. I will right my son's wrong." Alphonse gave a jerky nod of acknowledgement to William Ellison and strode off without a backward glance, his back rigid.

"We'll see you all in the morning." Saran's tone brooked no argument as he began to lead Trey towards their suite.

There was none. The group of pallid, weary-eyed people separated and began the business of retiring with heavy hearts. The past week had brought little in the way of positive things and tonight had been no better. Alphonse was basically a decent man who had made the mistake of being an overindulgent parent.

Saran locked the door of the guest suite behind them automatically even though such a precaution was unnecessary in the Ellison ziggurat. As long as they stayed, their safety was the personal responsibility of the host Matriarch or Patriarch and it was unthinkable that any harm befall the honoured guests of the House. Trey simply crawled into the huge antique four-poster bed, having removed all his clothing bar a pair of boxer shorts. Saran saw that he was shivering slightly beneath the covers and rapidly removed his own clothing so he too was clad only in boxer shorts before ordering the lights to dim and climbing into the bed.

Trey huddled close, trembling, his skin cool. Saran immediately tugged the thick bedclothes around them into a cocoon and held Trey, stroking his hair, pleased when the younger man rapidly relaxed now he was safe with his Sentinel. Saran picked up the distressed memories that he had previously missed during their initial Bonding when he was busy banishing the feelings of inadequacy that Trey had over his kidnap and abuse; flashes of a pretty, clearly pregnant young Spanish-descended woman collapsing against Trey in a storm of weeping as he forcibly removed the blaster from her grip, holding and comforting her despite the fact that her storming emotions nearly sent him into overload and were like acid against his empathic connections.

"S-Sorry," hiccoughed Trey, mumbling against Saran's chest and sniffing wetly.

"Sshh, it's all right."

Trey looked at him. "It's just that I was a detective, you know...I kind of knew there was something off about him, but I just never gave it a thought…if only I'd checked him out at the beginning…"

"If only wishes were horses, beggars would ride," Retorted Saran, quoting the ancient Earth proverb. "You had no rational reason to doubt that Eduardo Vasquez was exactly who he claimed to be. Besides…" he lowered his tone to a growl, "I learned this morning that you will be a detective again."

"I applied for a detective's slot with the LEO Commission," Trey acknowledged with no hint of apology in his tone, pleased to be veering away from the unpleasant memories.

Saran was pleased with his Guide's increasing confidence, but far from happy with his career choice. "I see my mother's hand in this."

"She's a great woman," Trey replied blandly.

Saran snorted loudly and glared down at him. "Oh, is that what you call it?"

Trey grinned back up at him, then sobered. "I love being a police officer, even if it is often a harrowing job. I've proved to myself that I'm not the useless weakling mistake Grandfather believes me to be. I know you're my Sentinel and you will protect me, but I won't be a victim any more. I need to have a foundation for my self-esteem, especially when Kessler gets off Styx. Six years for embezzlement is nothing."

"If being a detective makes you happy, that's what you'll do," Saran promised him, sending a subtle command to sleep.

Trey gave a sudden cavernous yawn, his eyelids drooping; Saran hugged him close and continued to lightly comb his fingers through Trey's hair as the young man slipped into a deep, peaceful slumber, but his face was at odds with his gentle actions. Over the past days, since the very public implosion of Kessler's loathsome network, Saran and quite a few other people, including Dark Angels like the previously unsympathetic Chris "Hellhound" Larabee, had been given an uncomfortable insight into the subtle prejudice and negative attitudes faced by many empaths. Though mercifully in a minority, some people amongst the angry, distraught families of the guilty had actually uttered the words, "but they're only empaths", often in a tone of confusion that showed they genuinely, sincerely could not understand what all the fuss was about. Starting now there was going to be a sea change. Once back at work, Saran was going to go through the legislation with a fine-tooth comb to ensure anti-empath loopholes were closed and to bulk up protective laws.

Curled next to him, Trey gave a snuffling snore and Saran waited until his settled down again. As Saran allowed his own eyes to finally close, a wide, cruel smile curved his lips – Leo Kessler would never be a problem again. Eventually of course Trey would find out and Saran would be scolded by his Guide, but he could deal with that.

Saran's Sentinel sight easily penetrated the night when he felt an indentation at the foot of the bed. An unusually large snow-leopard with unnaturally human blue-silver eyes was curled up atop the covers, a small African Black footed Wildcat sleeping peacefully between it's front paws; the Wildcat was definitely larger than the first time Saran had seen it. As if in full knowledge of his thoughts, the snow leopard gave him a look of vicious approval. Saran winked at it and then resolutely closed his eyes for sleep. He just wished he could be there about three Earth hours from now to see the look on Kessler's face…

About 0500 hours Earth time, USS Nemesis on temporary prison transport duty, above the planet Styx…

The Nemesis settled nicely into synchronous orbit above the prison planet. Her Executive Officer – XO - Cody Baines checked the meteorological readings and was unsurprised to see it was raining; it was always raining on Styx, which was largely why it was such a miserable place.

An M-type Earth sized planet also the third rock from it's sun, Styx had five medium size continents and a wide scattering of small islands and atolls across it's surface. The two most temperate-climate continents in the Southern hemisphere were used for minimum-security prisoners, men on one, women on the other, and so forth. Another two landmasses about the size of Australia straddled the equator, their weather patterns to violent for habitation, but conveniently there were two large, cooler and wetter landmasses in the North Eastern Hemisphere that housed the maximum-security prisoners. About a century ago, a land bridge had formed there allowing male and female prisoners to intermingle, but compulsory contraceptive implants in all prisoners ensured no children were born on the blighted world. The land bridge, however, was far from stable and would probably disappear within the next few decades, courtesy of the raging ocean.

That was why Styx had no ground-based life forms larger than an Earth fox and why each continent was perilously close to a hermetically sealed ecosystem, bar the avian species. Due to the orbit of three moons and it's sun, Styx's weather was given to almost constant wind and rain. The oceans separating the land were in constant tumult, an endless vista of raging seas, tsunamis and tidal waves – solid "walls" of water over one hundred feet high were a daily occurrence. Trying to move from one landmass to the other across the surface was synonymous with suicide; the only way to traverse Styx was via the air, and if you controlled the air, you controlled the planet – it was why it was such a perfect planet for a prison. There was nowhere for the inmates to escape to once they were on a particular continent.

At the moment, Cody Baines had more important concerns than Styx's weather as he checked the instruments one last time – then left. To leave the Bridge completely unmanned as he was doing was one of the Navy's biggest No-Nos and he was laying himself wide open to all manner of charges. Such an eventuality was unlikely; prison transports were lightly manned and all the crew bar himself and the Captain were asleep in their cabins. In fact, the Captain was why Cody was making his way along the Nemesis' deserted corridors. The man was Up To Something.

Nobody ever wanted prison transport duty, but it was IFP Navy Standard Operating Procedure that everyone at some point do a "tour of duty" on a prison transport ship, particularly those men and women who had ambitions to be officers or who were officers seeking to advance. Only certain special forces units, such as the SAS, SBS and the United States Navy SEALs – who still bore their country of origin's designation despite having been seconded to the IFP at the latter's inception centuries ago – were exempt.

Physically the duty wasn't that onerous. All prisoners were placed in cryogenic stasis prior to being loaded aboard the ship. All the names of the guards and cryo-technicians were placed in a hat, drawn out in pairs and randomly assigned to a particular cryo-tube on the off-chance that a prisoner might successfully have tried to bribe somebody to "fake" the procedure. Each prisoner's tube was stored in a small locked cell containing shower and toilet facilities. They were awoken once the prison ship was in orbit above Styx, allowed to shower and change into their durable prison uniforms and boots, then rendered comatose with sleep gas while being loaded onto basic floater-pads that were ejected from the transport at about twenty feet above the surface of the relevant continent's drop-off/collection post. The pads lowered themselves down to the surface and the prisoners woke up to find themselves safely on the ground.

Psychologically, the duty was stressful. Understandably a prison transport was hardly a cheery, upbeat place. The low crew ratio in respect to the transport's relative size meant each crew member could isolate him or herself with long periods alone, which was what the Navy brass wanted to see. Cody knew prison transport duty was compulsory, because it was a tool used by those "up top" to assess a person's suitability for promotion and/or officer candidate school; they were on the lookout for those who coped well with the depressing duty. It showed those who displayed negative or abusive tendencies towards the prisoners in general or towards certain categories of prisoners, which indicated a bigoted attitude or a bullying one – something hardly desirable. Catching more flies with honey than vinegar was a truism. A commanding officer who inspired fear, resentment, anger and mistrust from his or her subordinates would be divisive, disruptive and detrimental to the Navy. Some prisoners also did try bribes for various reasons and the brass wanted to know if anyone proved unscrupulous enough to accede, since such a person was less likely to balk at selling or stealing classified military information for money.

Cody caught sight of his reflection as he neared the monitoring room for the cells; Danish on his mother's side he was tall, well-built, fairly good-looking with blond hair and deep blue eyes. Ruefully he accepted that the colouring hadn't done him much good in the Navy and not especially with Captain Kendrick. Cody had always intended to be a career officer, finishing up as a something-star Admiral, and as he sneaked closer to the door, he acknowledged to himself that he had often been somewhat untactful in allowing his ambitions to manifest. Nevertheless, his work had been exemplary and he had shown innovation and initiative. All he got from Kendrick, however, was a series of dour looks and monosyllabic orders, though the man showed complete faith in his ability to be left in sole command of the Nemesis bridge.

Now however, Cody was sure that something was going on. Kendrick had been even more reserved and uncommunicative since they had taken charge of this latest consignment of prisoners; in a departure from the norm, the rest of the crew was largely made up of young, inexperienced ratings rather than the able veterans Kendrick usually – and stridently – insisted upon. Kendrick's passive acceptance of being fobbed off with untried youths was what had first ignited Cody's curiosity. Then he went to engineering to correct a mistake one the engineering trainees had made entering data in a computer console. Entirely by accident, he found traces of deliberately erased tightbeams that someone had been sending to Kendrick's personal palm reader via an unlicensed bio-crystal hidden in the engine core, which meant that the tightbeam messages would not be recorded on the Nemesis' computer logs as arriving or leaving – another violation of Navy policy. Surely Kendrick couldn't have been bribed by a prisoner?

Like all the ship's doors, that of the Cell Monitor Room was designed to slide open and shut automatically, recording all who entered and exited. Now however, the door was three-quarters open, the monitoring mechanism having been disabled so that a person could enter without being recorded. Leaning against the corridor wall, Cody had a clear view of the room and he looked towards where Kendrick was standing in front of the monitor for cell 36, his arms folded across his chest. Lights were flashing on the console indicating that the occupant of cell 36 was being defrosted. Cody frowned. It was an hour too early.

About six feet high, Kendrick was in his early fifties, his hair just beginning to go "salt-and-pepper". He had a craggy, square face and perceptive nut-brown eyes, now narrowly focussed on the screen in front of him. The occupant of cell 36 had extracted himself from the cryo-tube and was now wavering on his feet slightly as he sought for his balance and looking around him with acute distaste. The man headed towards the washbasin and Kendrick flicked on the intercom with anticipation obvious on his face.

Cody strained to see then jerked back reflexively as the prisoner let out a blood-curdling shriek and leapt back from the small mirror as if he'd been bitten! Disgust twisted Cody's face as he saw the mark on the prisoner's forehead. Each prisoner had a tattoo marked on their forehead which symbolised their crime and ensured that mistakes weren't made when dropping them off on Styx – say a minimum security prisoner due for release in two years accidentally dropped on the maximum security/life-without-parole area. Prisoner 36 bore the mark of a sex criminal, the rare "multiple" mark indicating paedophilia, rape and sex slavery. He began to rant and swear as he crashed around the room.

Oblivious to anything behind him, Kendrick spoke into the intercom, "Hello, Kessler."

The man glared up at the intercom, rage twisting his face. "WHAT IS THIS? I was sentenced to six years for EMBEZZLEMENT! ARE YOU PEOPLE STUPID!"

Kendrick laughed, a sound without humour. "I know what you were sentenced for, Kessler. However Saran Van den Mikhail asked me for a little favour; something more appropriate for the man who for decades has been kidnapping defenceless young people and selling them as sex slaves or to illegal vivisection labs. You're not going to the minimum security camp to serve six years for embezzlement; you've been branded as the sex criminal you are and you will spend the remainder of your life on Styx's maximum security facility." Kendrick tone became hard. "Just like your many victims, Kessler, you've been well and truly fucked."

Like a spotlight on a dark stage, it all suddenly became clear to Cody Baines. Like the rest of the known universe, he had followed the news media as an intergalactic empire of organised sex slavers and rogue scientists was ripped apart by the Dark Angels, with multiple arrests and convictions of dozens of prominent and high-ranking individuals as well as ordinary Average Joes. There had been rumours that a single person, the semi-mythical "The Man", had also been captured by the Dark Angels, but nothing had come of it and not even the most hard headed journalist was dumb enough to starting demanding answers of the Dark Angels!

However, offensive though it might be, Kessler had obviously brokered a legitimate deal for a lesser embezzlement charge upon giving evidence against his clients, and that deal had to legally stand. If it became known what Saran Van den Mikhail had done to Kessler, he would be publicly disgraced and definitely indicted by his own Supreme Court. Kendrick as an accomplice before, during and after the fact would be in the dock with him, his Naval career in ruins.

Kessler had gone very still. "How much?" he finally rasped to the camera. "I can triple – hell, quadruple – whatever Mikhail is paying you for this."

Kendrick considered for a long moment. "There's only one thing I want…"

"It's yours," Promised Kessler instantly.

"Really? I thought only God could resurrect the dead," Kendrick said coolly. "Can you bring my brother back to life, Kessler? That's my price – resurrect Tony Kendrick." He clicked off the intercom.

Kessler went berserk; though unheard, his screaming and yelling were obvious. Watching him with deep satisfaction, Kendrick reached out and pressed the pad that flooded the cell with sleeping gas, sending Kessler crumpling to the floor.

Exiting the room, Kendrick faltered a moment as he saw his XO, then carried on. The two men walked in silence before Cody ventured, "I have a decent brandy in my quarters. Would you care for a glass, Sir?"

Kendrick shot him a sidelong look. Both men knew it meant that Baines had no intention of revealing what he had observed, which would have destroyed both Saran Van den Mikhail and Captain Kendrick. "I think I will."

As XO, Cody's quarters were second in size to the Captain's stateroom, but Kendrick had never been inside until now. A strong, tightly knit crew worked much more efficiently and smoothly than a disunited one, thus saving time and money. Nowhere was this interdependent relationship more important than between a Captain and his or her XO. Each needed to rely and trust the other implicitly; if there were discord there, the entire crew would suffer and eventually fracture. There hadn't been crew changes – or openings – aboard some ships for some time, like Daric Slater's USS Nimitz IV.

The confined quarters of a spaceship, where a crewmember could not even go on deck to feel the wind or sun on their face for a few moments of relief, meant that rigid protocols for privacy had become Navy policy. Nobody, not even an Admiral, could enter the cabin of a ship's lowest Rating unless specifically invited. Only a search in a criminal investigation permitted unsanctioned entry. Baines and Kendrick's initial interaction had been rocky, and the invitation had never been extended – until now.

Kendrick made an appreciative noise as his sipped the fine cognac, and Cody decided to take the bull by the horns as it were.

"Do you need any...ah...help...at all, Sir?"

Kendrick gave him a measuring look, then shook his head. "No. I think it best just two people be involved in this, though your…discretion is appreciated."

Cody nodded. "I'm sorry about your…brother."

It was a gamble and for a moment he thought Kendrick was going to put him down, but then the older man leaned back, his face suddenly very tired and looking a lot older than his fifty odd years. "I'm the only one who remembers him now." He took another sip of cognac. "Your family come from Earth, don't they?"

"Denmark."

Kendrick began to speak again, his sentences short and abrupt, with long pauses in between. "Hmm. Mine were farmers on Lithonia – not rich but we could afford with reason what we wanted if we worked hard. Lithonian beef is the finest in the Inhabited Galaxies…my little brother, Tony, was special. There was a big age gap and mum and dad had always wanted a big family but they only had us two. He was brilliant. Could do things with circuit boards you can't imagine. He only had to look at a machine and it would start working again. We had such big plans for Tony. He went to the best school on Lithonia; mum and dad worked all hours so he could sit his entrance exam for one of the colleges on Federation. We were so proud when he passed and we celebrated for a week when he got a full Agronomy Commission Scholarship to the Herriott School…"

"He never made it," Cody guessed softly.

"No. He was an empath. He was an ER9, too weak to be a Guide. It was never a problem at home; there'd been ER3s and 4s in mum's family way back to the dawn of time, though it often skipped a generation or two. We all waved him off at the spaceport. It hurt that he only sent us the odd postcard every year or so, but we were so proud of him…I joined the Navy on a five year Service Contract to earn enough for us all to go and see him on Federation…that's how I found him. We heard that the Underground Railroad was planning to rescue some Wild Empaths from an illegal vivisection lab; we wanted the Railroad, the empaths and the scientists. The Railroad weren't there, but we got the rest…I found my brother in one of the labs…tied down to a hospital bed…he looked like a skeleton. He was more dead than alive, but somehow he recognised me and realised what was going on…kept croaking for me not to touch him. He was carrying every STD known to man and crawling with lice…he was too weak to even cry…we got them to sick bay aboard ship but a lot of them were terminal…including Tony. I sat with him to the end…he'd got off the transport on Federation and been snatched immediately by Kessler. Kessler sent fake messages to the Herriot School and made sure their messages to Lithonia never got through. He paid some guy in an alley a hundred galacs to send our family a postcard every ten to twelve months…Tony's one wish was than mum and dad never found out what happened. They must never ever know the truth…"

Kendrick wiped at his face and took a big gulp of his brandy. "I know it sounds crazy, but the worst of the whole experience was when I went back to my family. When Tony died, I had a cremation and brought the ashes back home. I made up a story about a car crash and I faked up some holographs of the riotous three-week vacation I'd had with him on Federation. My family were devastated, but they were helped by the "knowledge" that Tony had Made It. I spun tales about his great apartment; his flash air-skiff; his beautiful girlfriends; his wonderful life. I ought to have won the Booker Prize…It was sheer hell every day. They were so proud of Tony, they put the holographs of us together on the walls. Some days the pressure was like an anvil sitting on my chest. I just wanted to jump up and scream out the truth at the top of my lungs…but I couldn't do that to them. When my immediate family died – my grandparents, then mum, then dad – I destroyed the holographs, moved Tony's urn to the family cemetery and went back to the Navy – full Service enlistment. The Navy physician was the same one who'd examined me the first time round and he nearly had a fit. I was thirty pounds underweight due to persistent ulcers, ate food so bland it was literally milk pudding because of chronic heartburn, was on the strongest legal medication for stress-induced migraine and had the blood pressure of a octogenarian…"

"But you did your job," Cody said, not flinching when Kendrick looked at him. "Your job was to protect your family and you did that. You kept your promise to your brother."

Whatever Kendrick might have said to this was never heard as a loud digital bell sounded throughout the ship. It was time to send the prisoners to the surface. Sharing a new trust, Kendrick and Baines acted. By the time the crew were at their stations, Captain Kendrick was in the monitoring room and XO Baines was on the bridge with nobody any the wiser that he hadn't been there all along.

Even the inexperienced crew made short work of placing the unconscious prisoners on the pads and launching them. Then the Nemesis turned and began to accelerate through the atmosphere…

Kessler woke abruptly and first to find himself laying prone on a grassy hillock having rolled off an airbed. He stood groggily and blinked to focus – there were people surrounding him. They look at him with raw hostility and he glared back, then the wind whipped up the fringe of a brassy blonde woman directly in front of him, showing the bright red brand of a multiple murderess on her forehead and reality came crashing in as Kessler recalled the Nemesis.

"I've been set up – I'm an embezzler –" He got no further.

Scum of the earth, killers to the least of them, sex attackers and above all paedophiles tended not to survive beyond landing on Styx – too many of those now here, especially in the maximum-security section, had been childhood victims themselves. Something heavy smashed into his back and sent him sprawling. He struggled to rise and talk his way out of it, but another blow sent him back down. Boots and fists stamped and kicked; hands ripped and tore at clothing, fingers digging into flesh as they vented their hatred and lust. He struggled vainly, yelling and cursing and finally screaming. Unlike his victims, he had no buffer of drugged befuddlement as he experienced what hundreds of helpless men and women, most barely out of adolescence, had suffered because of his lust for wealth.

As the sun went down in a watery, rain-obscured pink glow, the night denizens out slowly – owls, rats, voles, foxes and other native Styx mammals such as one type that closely resembled an Earth badger. Cautiously they approached the bloodied, battered pulp of a thing that bore no resemblance to a recognisable species, but it was clearly dead.

The sun rose again and the inhabitants of Styx began their dreary existence once more, while far away the USS Nemesis was heading for Deep Space Eleven station. So well had natural scavengers done their work that only a few red-stained patches of grass and some torn scraps of cloth showed that anything had ever been on the hillock…

Epilogue

Simon Banks sat back in his deckchair and puffed contentedly on his cigar – his genuine, Cuban Havana cigar. If anyone had told him a few years ago that one day he would be sat on Eden at the personal invitation of the Patriarch William Ellison, he would have laughed himself silly - and then had the speaker committed to the nearest lunatic asylum.

The sky was a clear Peridot blue with tiny fluffy-wuffy snowy clouds scattered here and there. The winding river was wide and deep and crystal clear, the massive stately oaks currently shading him from the sun softly going wisha-wisha-wisha in the light breeze. Simon grinned to himself; Joan had certainly changed her tune about his job now! His blaster injuries had almost healed, though he'd nearly had a relapse when he'd received the heavily embossed personal invitation to recuperate on Eden, courtesy he had no doubt stemmed from his three friends and former co-leaders of the Underground Railroad.

Simon knew that times were a-changing as he looked at the six men nearby. On the other side of the bank, Gage and Race were holding fishing poles but bickering good-naturedly with each other like brothers. They were the most equal of the Bonded Pairs in that Gage carried the least emotional baggage and related to Race's High House position most readily. Soon they would be gone – aboard the Nimitz as part of the expedition setting out to track the aliens' route out of the Inhabited Galaxies and maybe even catch up with them. Gage was studiously diffident, but oozed excitement from every pore.

Jim Ellison was returning as a Lieutenant to Cascade PD Major Crimes Unit, his cover story now real. Simon was sure that being Jim's superior, at least most of the time, was going to be a real barrel of laughs. Brigadier Lincoln Jackson had had a worrying smirk on his face as he met Simon, explaining how the Dark Angels operated now that Simon was to be "in the know". Following the destruction of Kessler's empire and William Ellison's personal endorsement, every state in the Americas had "signed up" again and the President found himself once more a tiger with teeth, but weeding out the corruption would be a mammoth task. At the moment, the only known living Dark Sentinel was scoffing at his Guide's peculiar fishing spear, a contraption that Blair vehemently asserted would catch more fish than Ellison's modern hi-tech pole. Simon inwardly rejoiced as Blair waved his arms about enthusiastically as if conducting an invisible orchestra. Gone was the guarded politeness, the subtle but definite withdrawal from all around him that had existed previously. He would always carry the burden of his suffering at the hands of Alexandra Barnes, but he had finally begun to live again.

Last but by no means least, LEO High Commissioner Saran Van den Mikhail, a man declared to possess "all the warmth of a polar ice cap", was currently giggling like a schoolboy as he and his Guide tried to untangle two fishing lines. Simon knew that Saran had made a very quiet, very private visit to Tracy Logan I, and had had that entire House shaking to it's foundations. He had proposed a comprise that, to his disgust, they had eagerly accepted – his Guide would officially take the name Trey Logan, leaving Tracey Logan IV for Terry on condition that his family did not attempt to contact him again unless via Saran. Trey was currently unaware of the visit, for Saran had been so contemptuous of Trey's family's desire to disassociate themselves from him, even though he was now the LEO High Commissioner's Guide, that he could not bring himself to speak civilly about them.

Saran also ensured that Trey was credited with averting House de y l'Almonté's Body Heir crisis. The arrival of the Patriarch Alphonse on her doorstep had been a great shock for Rosetta Montalban, but she had put aside her own anger and looked beyond the surface, recognising him as a genuinely contrite, kindly man. Wisely recognising that Alphonse had been just as much a victim of Ruis as they had been, the Montalban family had accepted the extended olive branch. Little Rosehannah Montalban de y l'Almonté was now the Body Heir of that High House, but her both her mother and Alphonse ensured that the parenting mistakes which turned Ruis into a monster were not being repeated, though Alphonse was putty in the child's hands. By one of those poignant coincidences that occur daily in real life, Rosehannah was the spitting image of the grandmother she'd never known, Alphonse's dead Consort.

"Are you saying this is my fault, Guide?" Saran's tone was a loud mock-growl that brought Simon back to the present and he watched as Saran glared down at Trey while tugging futilely at the hopelessly tangled lines.

"Duh, yeah!" Trey retorted cockily.

Saran stepped into Trey's personal space but clearly struggled to hold the glare; Trey leaned against him and smirked up at his Sentinel tauntingly, inciting him to Bond. Saran growled and stepped back, aiming a light swat at Trey's backside which the Guide nimbly dodged before moving away laughing through the water, leaving Saran with both rods to untangle or give up on.

Simon smiled to himself. Despite Hunter having prudently excused himself from this little trip – having been finagled into the Dark Angels courtesy of some heavy wheedling by Jim and Blair – on the grounds of a Bondless Sentinel being surplus to requirements, Simon knew that there would be some intense Bonding tonight, the presence of two other Sentinels triggering a possessive streak in the third. Trey was more the traditional "subservient" in-the-background Guide, but he was naturally shy and lacked confidence. However, when it came to the important things, he could be as formidable as Blair Sandburg or Gage Butler any day. He was also not above a little manipulation – Saran Van den Mikhail visibly preened under the obvious devotion of his Guide and Simon was quite sure he knew exactly who had whom twisted around his little finger.

He took another puff on his cigar and bent his head back to his book while around him the "children" played…

In a galaxy quite far away…

Stars innumerable glittered like blue-white diamonds on black silk, a vast and immeasurable expanse. Various planets in this area of space were L- and M-type planets, but while there was lush vegetation and abundant fauna, no sentient life existed. Therefore it was unnoticed that if you looked closely, certain patches of the star-spangled vista were slightly fuzzy and out of focus.

Slowly colossal shapes wavered into existence. White, ghostly translucent, a myriad of rainbow-coloured pulses twinkled and faded and danced along the breadth of them. They were almond shaped with long trailing tendrils; they expanded and contracted like colossal interstellar jellyfish, but were clearly space-going vessels of some kind. They floated unmoving in the depths of this uncharted space, communing in some silent manner. From far, far behind a signal had finally come through, emitted from long-abandoned planets. The vessels/creatures remained still. Little brothers and little sisters were different; they were special. But the very young were often easily distracted and liable to grab at every new toy that came along before returning to their original focus. No matter – their patience was eternal, their vigilance indefatigable.

In the depths of the universe, they waited in majestic patience for their siblings to come and find them…

THE END…

FOR NOW…

© 2003 C D Stewart

Author's note – The Image of God was written by Martin Gilbert Rhynd Stewart (1892-1973), who fought in and somehow survived all the terrible battles so named; it left him with an abiding hatred of war.

Cat explains it all…

I was first introduced to THE SENTINEL at the MAGNIFICENT 7 GLOBAL GATHERING in Chester, England, 2001 by a Scottish lady who had every episode up to "Sentinel Too, Part I" and who loaned me these. Though a successful non-fiction writer, The Sentinel enabled me to write my first fan-fiction – I was very nervous and felt that I couldn't do justice to The Magnificent 7 because of the plethora of main characters (though I am now writing Magnificent 7, Stargate SG-1 and Angel fan-fiction). The Sentinel's smaller group of three central roles - Blair, Jim, Simon - worked much better for me. So I began to read a lot of The Sentinel fan fiction to get some idea of what to do and how to ensure my stories at least aspired to these wonderful tales – Cascade Library, the wonderful Wolfpup's Den, Starfox's Mansion, Faux Paws Productions and Black Panther Productions, Mackie's Idol Pursuits, etc.

Then I came across Susan Foster's site. Particularly her GDP series, along with the Dark Guide, Dark Sentinel, Learning Curve and the Mirror Series she was writing with Maedoc set my neurons on fire and a whole avalanche of ideas came pouring in. As Linda Stoops so aptly put it in her New Kid In Town (on Wolfpup's Den site), "…entire scenes, with dialogue," popped up fully formed in my cerebellum in what became Bear Necessities – GDP version.

Unfortunately I hit a major problem – not a paucity of ideas, but far too many. Every sentence I wrote seemed to spark off a dozen new story threads (and not just for The Sentinel either) and no matter how fast I typed or how many scraps of paper I frantically scribbled on or how much I gabbled into my Dictaphone, I simply could NOT keep up. My imagination was like the M25 at rush hour – so much traffic that everything just ground to a grid locked halt.

Like Bear Necessities – non GDP version (95 finished honest), and my "Telempathy" series (a third through story #3, Perspective), Walking With Dark Angels was meant to be SHORT. It was a way to unblock the build up of some of my story ideas and get them out of the way so I could go back to Bear Necessities – GDP. No problem I thought - four chapters maximum, take about two months to write…but it grew and grew and GREW!

What made it so easy was that no cross checking was necessary. With Bear Necessities – GDP I was torn between wanting Susan/Maedoc to write every story NOW or leave it long enough for me to finish Bear Necessities – GDP. I had to keep going back to her site, mainly to ensure I got names and physical descriptions right and also to see how much I wanted to expand on scenes that Susan/Maedoc had left ambiguous, perhaps for later plot development.

For example Susan/Maedoc published Mirror #6 in August 2003, and Susan said she was about halfway through Throwback, the third in the Dark Sentinel series (not to be confused with her stand-alone story of the same name). In Mirror #6 there is still no hint of the reason for Hunter's deep hatred for William Ellison. Another example is in the GDP story where Blair's father is revealed to be a GDP administrator, one George Goodman. We learn Goodman impregnated two women before Naomi, had one child Thomas Goodman by his first marriage after Naomi and at least two children by his second marriage as revealed in this story. This means that Blair has as a bare minimum five semi-siblings, though only Thomas Goodman is mentioned by Susan. As I genealogist I couldn't leave those links unexplored, so wrote these semi-siblings into my story, giving Blair two elder half-sisters, his half-brother Thomas Goodman of course, and three younger half-brothers by Goodman's second marriage, plus a nephew – Thomas Goodman's son, just for good measure.

My final mistake was to post Destined Part I, Walking With Dark Angels and Seven Dials in rapid succession on my site in the casual belief that I would finish them and post in short order – forgetting that pride cometh before you find yourself flat on your face in front of everyone. Obviously the major part of it was my granddad's stroke, though he has made a brilliant recovery, but other factors have played their part. I also suffer a chronic muscle disease which means that sitting too long at a computer typing serious pain. There is also my imagination, which is far, far too active. I have a small pool of regularly browsed sites like Wolfpup's Den, Susan Foster's site, Starfox's Mansion, Cascade Library, Idol Pursuits, etc., and am always coming across somebody who makes me realise that I could write it better, tighter or expand it – I look at people like Linda Stoops, Susan Foster, Maedoc, Rimilod/Dolimir, etc., etc., and despair of ever reaching their level.

To be honest, I may never finish Bear Necessities – GDP but I posted it because it was the genesis for Dark Angels and for the Telempathy Series, as well as Bear Necessities – non GDP.

Your comments are welcome. You will notice how the story peters out into "detached" individual scenes at the end which was me trying desperately to get as much down from my imagination as possible.

As I've said before, there WILL be a sequel, but it will take a while and will NOT be posted until the story is 99 finished as I have learned from my mistakes! I didn't realise until I checked back that I wrote Chapters I & II of Walking With Dark Angels in 2001 and it is now September 2003! Sincere apologies for making you all wait so long!

Finally, I'm glad so many people seem to have enjoyed the Dark Angels – and they'll be back!

© 2003 by Catherine D. Stewart