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While a breeze from the open door chilled the back of his neck, John torqued Mary’s knife hand away, meaning to keep the blade as far from any mortal bits as possible.
Along his right arm a line of red welled, dripping onto the deck.
“A bit extreme, don’t you think?” he asked her, indicating the stolen knife.
“I take my work seriously,” she replied with a little pout. “Honestly, John, it’s not personal.”
“Ah, well, I’m pleased to hear that,” he said with a smile that had her eyes gleaming. He tossed the axe, still in his left hand, aside. The second it clunked onto the deck, Mary’s demeanor changed, every muscle shifting from rough-and-ready fighter to the demoiselle he’d first met in the Nike airfield.
She was, he thought, very good at her work.
Then he stepped back and delivered a left cross that knocked her senseless. He stood back and watched her slump to the deck. “That might have been a little personal.”
I beg to differ.
A deep, lyrical voice shivered through the bay—no, through John’s mind—sending a chill down his spine and freezing his limbs in place.
This is quite… quite…personal, Galileo's unvoiced judgment rang through John's skull.
“Turn around, John, if you’d be so kind, ” the sensitive added, speaking aloud.
John turned, slowly, as if moving through honey.
What he saw first was Colin, out cold on the deck, and, to Colin’s left, Eitan, on his knees, his head bowed low, and the staff hanging loose from the rope on his right wrist.
He saw Rory, still shackled, but John didn’t think it was the chains holding him frozen, not the way his grief-stricken eyes stared, fixed on some unseen point.
At last John faced Galileo where he stood, a bruise marring his jaw where John had struck him and, standing next to him, her small, capable hand draped unresisting in his, stood Jinna.
The young woman’s expression was neither fearful nor angry, but a terrible blank.
It looked to John as if no one was living inside.
“What’s wrong with them?” he asked. “What have you done?”
“I’ve done nothing. ’Tis you, John, who’ve done this. If you hadn’t resisted, they’d be fine and proper, but you did, so now they’re each living their personal nightmares. Over, and over, and over, again.”
“That’s not possible.”
And suddenly Galileo was at John’s side.
John hadn’t even seen him move, but he was there, and then he was picking up the axe and then turning for the door and John’s body would…not…move, no matter how he much he urged it.
And now Galileo was raising the axe and bringing it down, and the line holding Jagati parted, and John’s world tumbled a thousand feet down…
Seeing the line’s fibers fraying under Ysabel’s knife as smoothly as the patching tape had, earlier, Jagati was again forced to appreciate how smogging sharp the other woman kept her blade.
She also, luckily, was already on the return arc, and while her line continued to deteriorate, she swung up behind Ysabel so, in the same moment the line gave away, she was latching on to her opponent’s back.
As the line whipped away above, Jagati felt the return of her own weight. It was a sensation she generally associated with the end of the jump, when her boots struck ground to join whatever ongoing battle she and her team had dropped into.
This time, instead of being groundside with her rifle to hand, she was wrapped around Ysabel like a baby sloth while the two women hung from the one line.
Jagati had a fleeting hitch of anxiety while trying to remember how much weight the lines were rated for, then decided it was too late to matter.
Locking her arms and legs tightly around Ysabel rendered the other woman mostly immobile, but the knife hand was still free, and there was smog-all Jagati could do from this position.
Something Ysabel seemed happy to prove because, with a twist of the wrist, she reversed the blade and stabbed Jagati in the thigh.
“Sonofa…!” Literally howling mad, Jagati elbowed Ysabel in the skull, which distracted the other woman long enough for Jagati to remove the knife and hold it up against Ysabel’s throat. “Think fast. How do you want this to go?”
“Let them go.”
Inside the cargo bay Galileo left John watching the death of his delbar-am—he could not be certain, but he thought Jagati had died four times by now—to meet Rory’s angry, impotent glare.
“That would be foolish of me, wouldn’t it?”
Rory’s response was a furious shake of his chain, but Galileo dismissed the futile show of temper, turning instead to gaze at Eitan, who knelt, much as John’s nightmare had showed him, with his breath coming short and sharp as he waded through sweat and blood and death for the pleasure of his captors again and again and again.
From what little he’d seen after setting the phantasm loose on his ex-lover, it must have been quite the show.
Satisfied Eitan was as lost in his private hell as John in his, Galileo glanced Jinna’s way.
She lay curled quietly on the pallet, sleeping the sleep of the innocent and dreaming of holding her child. Despite her part in the attempted coup, Galileo could no more harm her than he could his sister.
A jerk of breath from aft told him John had watched Jagati die for the fifth time.
And that was the glory and wonder of the mind, for a man could die, or lose his dearest love, or endure tortures beyond imagining (but not, from Eitan’s memories, beyond reality) a thousand times in the space of mere moments.
“Hardly a wonder, Leo.”
Galileo looked down to where Syl sat, cross-legged on the deck, staring at him from beneath her tumble of red-gold curls with her serious gray eyes, so like Jinna’s.
But his twin had never seen her fourteenth year, so how could she be here?
“Not a wonder, then,” he said, dismissing his own question and crouching in front of her. “But for certain a necessity.”
“How can causing so much pain be necessary?”
He frowned and looked away, towards the door, through which he expected Ysabel and his calculator to appear at any second. “You’d not understand.”
“And why would I not?”
He turned back to her. “Because, Syl, you’re dead.”
“Dead I may be,” she said, popping to her feet, so he rose as well, “but your excuse I’ll not.”
“Excuse?” He looked down into her flushed cheeks, noted the rash climbing up from her throat. “For what?”
“For doing harm to good people,” she said over a short, sharp cough. “For breaking the law—”
“The law.” He waved that off even as he shuddered to see her body wracked again as it had been before. “The law’s nothing more than a way to keep the likes of us in our place.”
“Now there’s a conceit.” She shook her head and took his hand in hers, which was burning hot. “T’think all those centuries past our forebears come to Fortune and decide, on the spot, they’ll make a law against tech because that’ll keep those wretched Kanes in their place, won’t it?”
“Syl.” He sighed over the laugh, for no one had, not once, made him laugh the way she could. “You know what I mean.”
“I suppose I do.” She pressed his palm to her cheek and looked up. “But I also know, just as you do, love, what you’re doing is wrong, and you’ll forgive me if I’ll have no part of it.”
“No,” he said, his voice catching in a sob. “Don’t go, darlin’. Don’t leave us, again. It’ll kill Mum all over.” But as he watched, she began to fade, just as she’d faded before. “Syl?”
“Syl isn’t here.”
“What?” Galileo blinked away the tears as he looked up and away from the empty space his twin had occupied, to discover Eitan standing behind him.
Shaking, yes, and with a line of blood slipping down his cheek, but Eitan’s eyes were clear and very, very angry as he added, “She was never here.”
To Eitan’s left stood Rory, holding his left hand close to his chest.
Galileo Sensed the pain of the young mechanic’s broken hand, and realized how he’d escaped the shackle Rory now gripped in his right hand.
No doubt it was the metal cuff Rory clutched that had caused the bleeding on Eitan’s cheek, for it would have taken a significant blow to wake him from the nightmare of Illyria.
“So clever, you are,” Galileo said to Rory. “So clever. I should have killed you in that alley.”
A low sound, more animal than human, emerged from Eitan’s chest.
Galileo looked at him, already diving deep, deep within his ex-lover’s psyche, to where the chains of Illyria waited to bind him again.
“No,” Eitan said. “Not this time.”
And as he spoke, the cage doors closed with a psionic thud that had Galileo rocking back on his heels.
“This time,” Eitan continued, taking a trembling step forward, “there is only you and I…delbar-am.”
In his hand the staff rose and, with a single, swift rap exploded against Galileo’s cheek as it sent him to the deck, and then it struck across his back, rolling him over to one side, and then cracked against his ribs, and then he was lying on his back, his body and mind a firework of hurts and the staff was hovering above his head and the next blow, he knew, would be the last.
Ysabel thought fast, then held her hands out from her side, signaling surrender.
“Good,” Jagati said, “great,” and she dropped the knife, which fell, occasionally glinting in the setting moons’ light, until it became one with the landscape. “Damn. Now I’ll have to pay a fine to the Keepers for littering.”
“We are battling over who gets to hold on to a piece of anathema technology,” Ysabel pointed out. “I doubt the Keepers will give a comb over one lost knife.” Still, bereft of her weapon, thoroughly tangled in her enemy and dangling from the Errant’s gondola, she seemed less inclined to continue the fight.
Probably because it’d be really hard to spend those starbucks when she was dead.
They swung in silence for a moment, listening to the sounds of action up above, quieting. “You better hope that your crew came out on top,” Jagati said, though as long as she hadn’t seen Eitan on the way down with the water barrel, she had hopes.
“Why?” Ysabel asked, her breath fogging the air. “Even if your people win, I doubt they will kill me—well, maybe the one-handed wolf,” she amended. “But I have confidence your captain can hold him back.”
John, freed from the waking nightmare, heaved a short hiss of relief that his order stopped Eitan’s attack mid-strike.
“Do not get in my way,” Eitan warned him.
“You know I have to,” John told him, moving so he’d be in the other man’s range of vision. “I have to because this,” he gestured at the fallen Galileo, “this isn’t who we are.”
“It is not who you are,” Eitan told him, every muscle trembling as if desperate to be unleashed. “But it is who I am. Leo reminded me of that, just now.”
As he spoke, he raised the staff again, preparing for the final blow.
John heard Jinna give a soft cry and Rory’s voice, murmuring, as if to soothe.
“He showed you shadows,” John said, nothing in his voice revealing the desperation in his heart. “Specters of the past.”
“Yes,” Eitan agreed. “My past. My actions. Things I’ve done.” He glanced up. “Things no one should ever do.”
“Then don’t,” John said, holding out his hands. “Be the man you chose to be. Not the man they made you.”
“Go on,” Galileo prompted, his voice thick with tears and blood. “Finish it. Don’t listen to him,” he said as he jerked his chin towards John. “Don’t play the coward now, love.”
And John watched, a small war took place in Eitan’s eyes. John had no idea which side was winning, not until Eitan raised the staff and, with a sobbing roar, slammed it down again.
“Maybe,” Jagati thought about the one-armed wolf, and trembled as a frisson of anger she now understood was not her own skittered down her spine. She didn’t know what it meant, and wouldn’t until she and Ysabel were back aboard. “Though if it were me,” she continued the debate, since really, what else was there to do while hanging on a line a thousand feet above ground, “pretty sure I’d take a clean death over Morton Barrens.”
Ysabel shrugged, setting the rope to swinging with a tired creak. “Even if your side wins, which of course they will not, I prefer my chances with the Barrens to no chance at all.”
Having seen what six years in the Barrens had done to Quinn, Jagati considered Ysabel’s position insane. “To each her own,” she said.
A thrumming on the taut line caused both women to look upwards. At the jump door a male silhouette was taking hold of the line.
Jagati squinted, but couldn’t make out any detail. “Can you see who it is?”
Ysabel’s head shook, no.
The shadow disappeared, and the line jerked.
A heart-stopping moment later, it began to rise.
“I have twenty starbucks that say it’s my team,” Ysabel said as they ascended.
At that Jagati laughed. “You’re on.”