NOTHING STAYS THE SAME

Preed yawned and propped his head up with his hand, blinking tiredly. What he wouldn't give to just lay his head down on that metallic panel (which was looking softer by the minute) and enjoy a brief, well-earned little nap. But no. No, he was supposed to be watching for...er...what was it again? Stith had practically deafened him yelling it into his ear. 'Hostile enemy ships'? Who knew? Who cared? There was nothing out there. Maybe, if they were really lucky, they'd come across a Human drifter colony that hadn't heard about New Earth yet. It was more likely, though, that they'd fly for hours on end and come across a great wealth of absolutely nothing.

Rubbing at his eyes, the Akrennian got to his feet and ambled over to the navigation console. The bridge certainly was boring when no one else was up there. He wondered where Stith was--she was always good for an argument...as long as she didn't pull out that gun. The little sweetheart didn't realize how startling it was when she did that. Preed smiled slightly to himself. He did admire her. And it was cute the way she was so naive about...certain things. Of course, if she ever found out that he considered her so... His smile widened into a devilish grin and he actually gave serious thought to telling her, just because he knew the expression on her face would be priceless.

It was not so amusing, however, to merely think about the possibility, and he sighed at the dullness of it all, glancing out into space perfunctorily. To his utter astonishment, there was an actual ship out there. "Well, what do you know," he murmured. "Civilization at last." He quickly made his way over to the comm system controls and hailed the unknown ship with, "Ah, hello out there, this is the Valkyrie. We're not hostile; we won't shoot...unless you shoot first, of course, pal. Then we'll blow your brains out."

There was no response for a long moment, and then a voice crackled, "Valkyrie, you already did--last time we met. This is the Shakti. I attacked you without provocation about a month ago."

"Oh, yes, you. Well, no permanent damage done to us. I'm willing to forget it if you are." He stared at the ship for a second. "Why does your voice sound so familiar?"

"Why does yours?"

Preed tapped his fingers on the console. "You first, dear."

The other pilot snickered briefly before she stated knowingly, "Preed. What are you doing with a ship of your own, you bastard?"

"Well, well, well. Rin, do you really expect me to tell you a thing if you call me names?"

The Shakti fired its engines, and the pilot questioned, "I've got a favor to ask of you, buddy. Think you could spare some supplies? I'm kinda...out."

Glancing furtively over his shoulder, Preed replied a bit more quietly, "Anything for an old business partner."

There was a pause on the other end. "And you want in return..."

"I need your help, Rin."

"Do ya? Oh, that's cuuute, Preed. You almost sound sincere."

He narrowed his eyes. "Are you still in the indenture business?

"When it suits me."

"Then I have some prime merchandise for you." The Akrennian smiled deviously and depressurized cargo bay four, then said to Rin, "The doors are wide open, precious."

"Roger that." The Shakti disappeared from view, and several minutes later, Rin's voice said shortly, "I'm in."

Preed repressurized the cargo bay, cut communications, and hurried down to meet his former...associate. No one stopped him--Stith must have been in her quarters sleeping and Gune in navigation doing...whatever he did. So, when he reached the entrance to cargo bay four, he rather nonchalantly opened the doors and ambled in.

Inside, a rangy female Akrennian was struggling to get out of her ship, which was little more than a wreck. Preed crossed his arms over his chest and remarked, "Need any assistance, Rin?"

"Nope," she grunted, finally pulling her leg free and tumbling to the floor. As she got to her feet, she looked up at Preed. The black, jagged scar on her left eyebrow made her look as if she were perpetually machinating, and indeed, she probably was. Her pupils were deep and black and were surrounded by an almost sickly green-yellow color. She smiled shrewdly and said, "Preed, the years have not been good to you. Love the metal plate, though. That's a nice touch."

With a shake of his head and a small smile, Preed responded, "I thought it was rather dashing, myself."

Rin cocked her head and asked, "So is this your ship? Human design, isn't it?"

He gave her a semi-impressed look. "Very good. It was privately owned back on Earth, actually. But no, it's not my ship. I'm being held here against my will. Which is why I need your help."

"That merchandise you mentioned."

"That's right." Preed clasped his hands in behind his back. "A Mantrin and a...er...well, I don't actually know what he is."

"Oh. A Mantrin? Never brought one of those in..."

Preed smiled in a way that could almost be considered fond. "She's feisty. Can't beat her when she's holding a weapon. And she can't stand me."

"That must be rough."

"Oh, I assure you, it is. But I wouldn't hesitate to hand her over to an old friend such as yourself. As long as you can get me out of here."

"Hey, sure. Welcome to the slave trade."

"Just remember--she's a terror with any weapon."

"Well," Rin began, pulling a sizable gun out, "I guess I'll just have to take her on when she's unarmed."

Looking cautiously out the doors, Preed informed her, "I'm reasonably sure she's sleeping at the moment. And even if she's not, she doesn't carry a weapon when she's in her quarters."

"Good. Then let's go."

As she strutted past him, Preed grabbed her arm and demanded, "I want a share of the profits."

"Sure. Next slaver we come across, I'll ask the going rate for Mantrins. It's bound to be enough to keep us both happy. And this other guy..." She shrugged. "...whatever."

Preed grinned nastily. "No, no, no. I've seen too much of your work to be satisfied with a 'sure', Rin. You don't keep promises and you never pay your dues. When you sell these two, I want to be there."

The female was silent for a minute before she raised her eyebrows and said, "Preed, you're substantially more cunning than you were six years ago."

"I'll take that as a compliment. Now. Do we have a deal?"

Rin smiled sweetly. "Of course, Preed."

"Hm." He let go of her arm and followed her out the doors. "For some reason, I don't trust you when you use that tone."

"I don't ever trust you."

The two Akrennians made their ways up two decks to the floor where Stith's quarters were, and Preed knocked softly on her door. "Stith...Stith, darling, are you awake? Oh, lovey...? ...no?" His eyes glinted. "Good." The door slid open for him and he stared for a moment at Stith's sleeping form. The Mantrin looked almost sweet that way. For a moment, he nearly regretted--no. He clenched his fists and looked away from her. That Mantrin bitch deserved everything she got.

"Wake her up," Rin suggested in a low tone, aiming her blaster.

Preed reached out and tapped Stith on the head, and the Mantrin awoke with a bleary blink and a slurred, "Whaa...? Preed, get outta my room."

"Not likely," Preed murmured.

Rin released the safety on her gun. "Hey, kiddo, hands up in the air."

Stith's ears shot up and she leapt to her feet, but Preed put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't do anything foolish, dear."

Jerking her arm out of his grasp, Stith growled at Rin, "Who the hell are you?"

"Oh, just your typical mercenary trader," Rin answered easily. "Slaver when it's profitable."

The Mantrin's eyes narrowed to slits as she turned slowly to face Preed. "You dickhead," she spat.

"Now, now, there's no need for harsh words..."

"I am going to kill you," Stith said in a voice tight with barely controlled fury.

Wisely, Preed backed away from the livid Mantrin and crossed his arms over his chest. "I told you, Stith. I told you someday someone would hold your life in his hands."

Stith moved slightly and Rin squeezed the trigger on her blaster--not enough to shoot, just enough to threaten. "I'm not afraid to blow your head off," the trader warned. "So don't do anything stupid like trying to fight me."

Glaring daggers at Preed, Stith raised her hands above her head. "I'll get you for this, Preed," she snarled.

Rin rolled her eyes. "Right, right. You two can go at it later. Preed, is there any place on this ship where she can't kick down the door?"

"One of the cargo bays. Three is empty."

"Right. Let's go, Mantrin."

The Akrennian marched her captive out the door with her gun pressed into Stith's back, but Preed remained in the room for a minute. For some reason, this moment didn't feel nearly as good as he'd thought it would. Disconcertingly, it reminded him of the moment in his not-too-ancient history when he'd double-crossed his longtime friend. That had hurt. When he'd trained that gun on Korso's head... In truth, it had almost been a relief when the Captain had snapped his neck. He wouldn't have to deal with shooting his comrade.

Preed shut his eyes tightly for a moment. Now Korso was dead, and he was still alive. Only a fool didn't look out for himself, and that was exactly what he was doing now. And Stith...well, she deserved it. But if she deserved it, then why did he feel as if he'd just done something infinitely more loathsome than simply killing her?

He shook his head and sat down on Stith's bed. It was still warm, and that realization sent a quiver down his spine. Suddenly, he wasn't at all sure what he felt towards her. But he knew it wasn't hatred.

~

She couldn't believe it. That jerk. That creep. That...that...argh! There wasn't even a word strong enough to describe him! Stith glowered at the ground. Just when she was beginning to warm up to him a little and believe that maybe--just maybe--he wasn't as bad as she'd thought, he had to do something like this. No, obviously he was the same old Preed. Black-hearted, cold, ruthless, and totally capable of turning on everyone.

The most disturbing thing was the crushed feeling it had given her. To know, for sure, that behind all his affectionate, annoying little nicknames, he really thought nothing of handing her over to some unscrupulous slaver. Stith didn't like that feeling. She didn't like that tightness or that aching in her chest. It scared her to realize that Preed actually meant something to her...because, for one thing, he was Preed, and for another, the only thing he ever cared about was money and his own worthless life.

"Hey. Hey, Mantrin. Yo. You there?"

It took Stith a minute to realize the slaver was talking to her, but when she did, she grumbled, "What?"

"Are you scared or something? I thought Mantrins didn't ever get scared."

"Huh?"

"You're shaking."

Stith endeavored to quell that, but since she couldn't feel herself trembling, she was positive it wouldn't work. She hated Preed. It was his fault. Jerk.

With a sigh, Stith conceded that that wasn't exactly true. She didn't hate Preed. After all he'd done, she didn't hate him. It was just plain bizarre. After all, she'd met plenty of worthy males in her life. Honest, selfless, basically good males. But did one of them catch her attention? No. That dubious honor went to Preed. And he was...himself. So it didn't matter how much she detested him, or how much she liked him. He was always the same. Totally uncaring.

"Here we are!" the slaver promulgated.

Stith looked up. Cargo bay three. Prison. Oh, joy. "How'd you find it?" she asked deadly; not at all curious. She just needed to say something. Anything.

"Akrennians have good memories."

"Oh?"

Opening the doors, the slaver graciously informed her, "I expect your friend will be joining you soon."

Then the metal doors slid shut, and Stith was alone in the silent cargo bay. Preed wasn't dumb enough to put Gune in here, too. The little navigator could figure a way out of just about everything...she just hoped the two Akrennians wouldn't hurt him. He was no match physically for either of them and he didn't like to kill.

Stith shrieked and kicked the wall savagely, which only resulted in a sore throat and a bruised foot. The wall didn't seem to be affected. Clutching at the smarting appendage, she muttered, "Dammit!" Then, with a sigh, she leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. "I am supposed to be a fighter," she groaned. Yeah, some fighter, most of her mind snorted. Let some slaver bring you down here and you didn't even throw a punch.

She would have shot me an a second, the rest of her consciousness whispered meekly.

Stith closed her eyes. "But...at least...I wouldn't go through the humiliation of being..." She twisted her face. "...sold."

This was one of life's vicissitudes that she had certainly not anticipated. Slavers were nothing new to her--she'd grown up on Solbrecht, and the planet was crawling with them--but to be brought in by one? Stith had seen the slave posts. They were filthy, same as the slavers. If you were being held in one of those pens, you prayed that your god would either get you out or have mercy and strike you down. Slaves waiting to be sold underwent some of the most repulsive treatment in the galaxy, and, as always, females got the worst end of it.

Shuddering, Stith wiped the images from her mind. She'd managed to keep out of the slave pens through her wits and her ferocious attitude when she was younger. It was mildly ironic, she supposed, to go through her entire childhood fully expecting to wake up the next day in bondage, only to finally be brought in when she thought she'd escaped.

"Damn you, Preed!" the Mantrin yelled suddenly. "Damn you."

Well, she'd show them. She'd fight till the very end. No filthy pervert slaver would touch her, and the bastard that bought her would find himself without the part of his anatomy with which he undoubtedly thought with if he so much as tried. As for Preed and his vile friend...she'd make them regret this, too. No one--no one--treated Stith as anything less than what she was.

Unfortunately, at the moment, what she was was very frightened, and very, very confused.

~

"Okay, so the nearest trading post is Trak-C80," Rin stated.

"Oh? Good selling, is there?"

Rin shrugged. "S'okay."

"Ah." Preed stared distantly out at the stars and didn't notice when the other Akrennian gave him an odd look.

"Hey, are you okay?"

For a moment, he didn't answer, but then he turned to her and replied, "But of course. Never better."

"You're acting kind of strange. That Mantrin have you drugged or something?"

Preed smiled faintly. "No. Stith doesn't operate that way. It's much too covert and devious for her tastes."

"Ooh, that's fascinating. I didn't need a summary of her opinion on drugs, y'know."

"Many apologies."

There was silence in the bridge as Preed quietly contemplated his day thus far. Wake up. Look for ships. No ships. Pester Stith. Lose hearing due to Stith screaming in ear. Look for ships again. See ship. Betray crewmates. Become confused due to conflicting emotions. Begin to regret betraying crewmates.

He thought it over once again, just to make sure he was thinking semi-straight, and then began to wonder about one little thing.

What was wrong with him?!

Normally, he'd be leaping for joy right now. The fact that he wasn't could be blamed on one of two people. He chose the easy way out.

Rin was a longtime acquaintance who he'd met in the Soros trading colony when he was barely old enough to leave home. She, being older and more experienced in many of life's pleasures, took it upon herself to show him a thing or two. And he, being not quite as shrewd as he was now but still quite calculating, had recognized an opportunity for business. They'd become partners and remained so for several years before going their separate ways--mostly because one annoyed the other, and vice versa. The most recent run-in they'd had with each other had been on Solbrecht, six years earlier.

"Hey, pal, wake up."

Preed looked at her dryly. "Was I sleeping?"

"No, just really zoned out. What's going on?"

Looking away from her again, Preed considered what he was about to say. It would sound idiotic. But he had resolved to do this. "Rin, do me a favor. Don't hurt Stith."

Her expression was blank. "Who? What? Stith?"

"The Mantrin. Don't hurt her."

Rin burst out laughing, and when Preed glared at her, she sputtered, "Don't hurt her? Um, hello, I'm about to sell her off into servitude? She's gonna get hurt!"

"Fine!" Preed snapped. "Just as long as you don't do it."

"Y'know, if I didn't know better, I'd say you're having second thoughts about this."

He narrowed his eyes and replied vaguely, "Maybe I am, maybe I'm not."

"Because I could always just take the two of them off you hands--"

"No!" he interrupted vehemently. "No, you're not doing a thing without my presence. I cannot trust you." Shifting slightly in his seat, he added in a quieter tone, "Besides--if I decide I don't want to sell them, there's not a chance in hell that I'd let you do it."

Her eyes flashed. "Y'know, I thought you wanted my help, Preed, and now you're giving me this shit? Tell me now, do you wanna do this or not?!"

Preed just gave her a cool look. "I don't know, Rin. I really don't know."

She scowled. "Well, you'd better make up your mind quick."

Ignoring her, the Akrennian drummed his fingers thoughtfully on a console and stared out into space. "She saved my life, you know. And she allowed me to remain here, against her better judgment, I'm sure."

"She should've known better than to trust an Akrennian," Rin said breezily.

"She never did trust me."

"Then it's no big loss on your part."

At this, Preed looked sharply at her. "Au contraire, Rin."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Preed got to his feet and stared down at his former business associate, who met his eyes unflinchingly. In response to her question, he said only, "I wish I knew." Turning away and exiting the bridge, he murmured, "And something tells me the answer won't come easily."

~

Preed knocked lightly on the doors of cargo bay three. No answer. Well, he hadn't really expected one. But she had to be in there, so he knocked again and called, "Stith?"

There was silence for a long moment, and then her sullen voice replied through the doors, "Go away. I hate you."

"And this is a new development?"

"No. I've always hated you."

"Well, at least nothing's happened to your head."

"Be quiet. And go away." Any other time, the Akrennian would have laughed at these words. But somehow, sighed, as they were, they evoked a different response.

"You know, Stith, one would think that you'd show a little more respect."

"Why should I show you any respect?"

Damn, he wished he could see her face. "I could have Rin let you go."

She didn't reply for a second, but then she said, "Why are you talking to me?"

"I think the real question is why are you talking to me?"

"You don't know how much I wish I knew the answer to that."

Preed waited for her to add something, and when she didn't, he blinked in semi-bemusement and inquired, "Is there something you want to say to me, Stith?"

"I don't know," she shot back. "Is there something you wanna say to me, Preed?"

"Absolutely not."

"Well, same here."

"Fine."

"Fine."

Both were silent for a minute, until Preed said hesitantly, "Stith, I..." He took a breath. "What I wanted to say was...I...regret this. Slightly."

There was more silence, and then Stith questioned, "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"No, it's supposed to make me feel better."

Yet another silence ensued--though this one was brief--before Stith said, "What? What's that--Preed? Preed!"

The Akrennian, however, had already walked away.

~

Stith put an ear to the door just in time to catch Preed's retreating footsteps. That figured. The creep says something...un-creepy...and then he runs away! "Preed!" she attempted one last time, with no result. With a sigh, she kicked the door to her prison distractedly and began pacing back and forth, pondering the Akrennian's last words. Why would he need his conscience soothed? He didn't even have a conscience!

Grounding her teeth together, Stith plopped down on the ground again. Ooh, he just infuriated her. Every time she thought she had him figured out, he went and confused her some more. And it didn't help matters that she herself was completely baffled by her own feelings. "What a jerk," she grumbled for the umpteenth time. "If I get out of this..." If she got out of this...what? She knew what she should do--blow him to kingdom come. But what did she want to do? Kill him, or...or...kiss him? At the moment, Stith wasn't even sure if Preed was evil incarnate anymore. How many times could he betray his friends before it started to sting? She smiled wryly to herself as a Human expression Akima had been fond of came to mind--"third time's a charm". Puzzling as Preed's words had been, the fact remained that they'd come from him, in person, when he knew full well the antagonism she'd be feeling towards him. So what was going on? "Thanks a ton, Preed," she mumbled sarcastically. "You've confused me enough for the rest of my life." Could it be possible that he actually did regret doing this? That there was actually something that passed for a heart beneath the cold, sarcastic, duplicitous exterior? Unless she'd heard him wrong or misunderstood...it would appear that she knew the Akrennian on only one level.

"Yeah right," she snapped suddenly. "Then why am I still in here? If he's really such a great guy, why doesn't he forget about the money for once? And why am I talking to myself?"

~

"Forget it."

"What?!"

Preed made a show of studying his blaster while Rin looked on in astonished fury. "You seem to have more difficulty understanding me than ever before, Rin. So let me put it in terms you'll understand." He smiled nastily and casually pointed the gun in her direction. "I do not want my two crewmates on the slave market. And I'm sure you'll agree that it's really quite reasonable for me to request that you leave the Valkyrie immediately."

Her ears twitched slightly as she stared at him. Then, slowly, she said, "You've changed, Preed."

"Nothing stays the same. You, of all people, should realize that."

Rin's eyes flashed, betraying the fact that she was nowhere near as calm as she seemed. "I never said I liked the change." She narrowed her eyes. "Fine, I'll go."

Preed didn't lower his blaster. "Oh, I'm so glad you reached that decision."

"But I still need supplies."

"What supplies?"

"Food. Fuel."

Staring at her, Preed replied, "Done. Oh, and Rin? It would be a great help if you'd hand me that weapon you're reaching for. Otherwise, things could get messy."

The other Akrennian snarled and slapped the gun down in Preed's outstretched hand. "You're not getting on my good side with this stunt," she growled.

"I'll remind myself to weep gently into a pillow later. Now let's go. The sooner you've got your supplies, the sooner you can be off."

She glared murderously at him and began walking. "You haven't seen the last of me, Preed. And you're definitely gonna regret this."

"How mind-numbingly cliche. Just keep walking."

~

Preed smiled slightly to himself as he watched the Shakti shoot off into space. He'd dealt with Rin rather neatly, and it would be awhile before they crossed paths again. And when they did...well, she was a terrible shot and an even worse pilot. Her ship was testament enough to that. Now he only had Stith and Gune to deal with. He wondered how long it would take them to figure out that the cargo bays were unlocked.

"Preed," Stith's voice said abruptly from the entrance to the bridge.

That had been fast. He remained where he was--in the Captain's chair--and didn't answer. It wouldn't take the Mantrin long to discover he was there.

"Preed, I know you're here."

As she sounded astoundingly calm, Preed relented and informed her, "I am." He heard her take several steps into the bridge, but she halted when he warned nonchalantly, "I've got a gun, Stith. I don't want to use it, but for some reason, I foresee that you'll make me."

"I'm not armed."

"Oh, you're not? I must say, that would be rather commendable if you weren't lying."

"I'm not lying, you bastard. The only reason I came in here was to ask you a question, okay?"

"Oh, not to kill me?"

"No! Now will you listen to me?" She drew a breath. "First you hand us over to a slaver, then you let us go. At least...I assume that was you..."

"It was, dear girl." Preed slowly put his blaster down. This wasn't at all what he'd expected.

"Well, you can't blame me for wondering what's going on."

Preed holstered the weapon, got to his feet, and studied Stith for several long moments. Not only did she sound calm, she looked it, too. After a second, he said, "Would you be terribly disappointed if I told you I wasn't quite sure myself?"

"Kinda, yeah."

He shrugged. "Sorry, then." As he descended the staircase, an extremely interesting idea occurred to him, and he looked at Stith, a small smile on his face. "If you don't mind, though, I could test out a theory."

She gave him a suspicious look but nevertheless responded, "Sure."

Preed moved close to her, tilted her chin up gently, and kissed her.

Stith's eyes widened, but still, it was a moment before she pulled away. "What was that?" the Mantrin demanded.

"That, my dear, was an experiment." As he exited the bridge, Preed grinned over his shoulder at her. "And I'd say the results warrant more testing, wouldn't you?"

Stith swatted at him. "You're a pervert, Preed, you know that?" However, when she was sure he was gone, she touched a finger to her mouth wonderingly. Who did that Akrennian think he was, anyway? More testing? Well...maybe she wouldn't mind too much...

For a moment, Stith considered the problems that were going to arise from this new development, but she shrugged them away immediately. Nothing else ever stayed the same, why should she?