Disclaimer: This story contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: irrelevantrevelry@hotmail.com

Author's note: Yeah, another incredibly long wait. What can I say? I've been busy.

the Enigma of Flatness
Refuge Part XI
Inside a large circle of soft white light, Lirelle and Dreamer stood on opposite sides of the surgical bed with their young stowaway between them. The boy hadn't stirred since the sedative took effect, save for the gentle rise and fall of his chest. His skin was pale, as would be expected from the preciously scant rays of sunlight that managed to filter through Kion'Seg's clouds. Combined with his nearly white hair, one could be forgiven for thinking him an albino without having seen his eyes. "What is his physical condition?" Lirelle asked.

"Basically healthy; a few cuts and bruises, nothing major. There're signs of earlier physical trauma, but I can't say for sure what kind." Inspecting the boy's delicate face, Dreamer noticed something strange and brushed aside a few locks of obstructing platinum hair. "Huh, what's this?"

Lirelle walked to the other side of the bed for a closer look at what Dreamer was referring to. Just beneath the soft skin on the boy's right temple, near the hairline, there were a number of faint, reddish lines weaving a roughly comma-shaped pattern, with the tail pulled almost to the ear. "I have no idea," Lirelle murmured, her fingers tracing over them and not feeling anything unusual. "These look like blood vessels," she turned to Dreamer, "Some kind of surgical modification or genetic engineering?"

"If so, pretty damned sophisticated," Dreamer creased his eyebrows in thought, "I didn't pick up anything out of the ordinary on the medical scan."

"Is it dangerous?"

"To us? Prolly not. Can't say for him though." Suddenly Dreamer's head cocked to the side with an annoyed expression, as if something on far wall offended his attention. "Huh, looks like we've got company. A ship just took off from Kion'Seg on an intercept course. Weapons range in nine minutes." Dreamer displayed his sensor scans of the approaching vessel on the large sickbay screen. It was a 186-meter affair shaped like an asymmetrical double-ended cone, with a deflector on one end and an ion engine on the other, commonly encountered as patrol cutters in outlying worlds who don't bother to design their own spacecraft. This particular ship had been fitted with an appreciable weapons array, and none too subtly; Dreamer almost rolled his eyes at it.

"We're being hailed." Dreamer said, "I'm puttin' on the signal filter." Aboard the other ship, a computer-generated image of Dreamer standing on the bridge came through the open channel. Shortly afterwards, Lirelle recognized the face of Balarys, the man who had received their delivery, on the sickbay screen.

"Hello again," Balarys's visage kept his earlier good-natured and transparent courteousness, "I apologize for the imposition but we are here on behalf of the planetary authorities. We have reason to believe that a fugitive secreted himself aboard your ship during our cargo transfer. My sincerest apologies for the inconvenience."

Lirelle heard Dreamer's voice over the channel, "Fugitive? You mean the boy we discovered hidin' in our cargo bay?"

The calm facade over Balarys face slipped for a second, something neither of them neglected to notice. "You did... Ah, excellent. Where is he?"

A plaintive moan shifted their attention to the bed, where the boy's head lolling slowly from side to side. His unfocused green eyes opened slowly, then squinted instinctively in the bright light. "Hello, can you hear me?" Lirelle whispered softly to the boy. A few more incoherent groans emerged from his chapped lips, but there was no sign he understood her.

"In our sickbay, sedated," Dreamer's A.I. responded.

"Very good," the smile returned to Balarys' voice. "If you could prepare to hand him over to us--"

"He seems awfully young for a 'fugitive'," Dreamer noted skeptically of the other man.

"You're not considering returning him," Lirelle frowned, feeling suddenly protective of the boy lying on the bed. She was finding talking to Dreamer's avatar somewhat disconcerting, considering the A.I. was carrying on another conversation at the same time with the opposing ship.

"We're in their jurisdiction here, technically," Dreamer said, "And we don't really know anythin' about the boy. Balarys might be tellin' the truth."

"His appearance belies the crimes he's committed," Balarys looked displeased at their curiosity; it was apparent to Dreamer that he was not employed for his talents as an actor.

"And what would those crimes be?" Dreamer questioned.

"I don't find him particularly trustworthy Dreamer," Lirelle said haltingly while the prior exchange took place. She glanced at the face of the man on the screen; it seemed obvious he had a different agenda than the one he stated, and she recognized elements there telling her to be on her guard. When she turned to the boy, she had a hard time picturing the "fugitive" Balarys painted him to be.

"Yeah I know, he really needs to work on his 'citizen cop' routine but--" Dreamer frowned, "We don't actually have anythin' on him, do we?" Lirelle shook her head.

"You need not concern yourself with such matters," somewhere along the line the smile dropped from Balarys' face. Lirelle could almost hear the gears grinding behind that forehead.

"I think there's a need, since it involves this ship," Dreamer's etiquette never missed a beat.

"We can't deny his request based on nothing more than a hunch," Dreamer's image in sickbay reasoned.

"N-no..." both Lirelle and Dreamer turned at the boy's hoarse whisper. His emerald eyes were now opened wide in distress, though not looking at anything in particular, and he struggled to work his drug-numbed muscles. Though still not quite cognizant of the happenings around him, his mind had instinctually recoiled at the recognition of the voice coming through the channel. "D-don't send me back. I c-can't go back," he begged with more force at unfamiliar woman manifesting from the haze of his senses, "Please don't send me back."

"Dreamer..." Lirelle murmured as she attempted to calm the frantic boy. Her heart broke at the look of desperation and anguish on his youthful face.

"I understand your position, but the matter is classified," Balarys said firmly. His eyes held an implied force.

"Oh, okay. But you're sure that he's guilty of whatever he's bein' charged with," Dreamer replied.

"Quite," Balarys smiled tightly.

"I'll do anything, don't send me back to him," the boy feebly reached out and found Lirelle's wrist. Shimmering tears ran down his milky cheeks like tiny diamonds, "He's lying...I haven't done anything... Please don't..."

"Shh...it's okay..." Lirelle said soothingly. In the background she heard Dreamer say to Balarys, "The boy claims that he's innocent."

"No...no..." the boy shook his head vociferously, still only half-aware of his surroundings, "I won't go back to the machines...I won't..."

"Machines?" Lirelle caught Dreamer's eyes; Could this have something to do with that thing on his temple?

"You've spoken with him?" All of a sudden Balarys' voice changed, as though all his carefully crafted plans were suddenly thrown awry. Lirelle would've laughed at the look of dismay on his face were it not for the dire situation she suspected they were now in. Damnation on the irony of idiots with guns, she thought to herself.

"Yeah, he started to wake up a few moments ago," Dreamer replied carefully.

"I...see," Balarys visibly regained his composure, re-wetting his lips. "Uh, please, have the prisoner ready for transfer when we dock. It is imperative that we have him returned promptly." The screen went dark, replaced by the image of the approaching warship.

"I don't like this Dreamer!" Lirelle hissed urgently to the android. "He's lying through his teeth about representing the Kion'Seg authorities and why he's here, and he obviously didn't want us learning anything from the boy. I severely doubt he has any intention of letting us go even if we relinquish him."

"Fuck, I think you're right," Dreamer narrowed his eyes, "He's transferrin' power on his ship and tryin' to be subtle about it. I'm calling Sabe and Tal up to the bridge. You should be there too; better re-sedate him," he gestured with regret to the still-disoriented teen.

Lirelle whispered an apology as she refilled the hypo-syringe and pressed it to the adolescent's lithe neck, then stepped back so that Dreamer could wrap a protective force-field around the body to preclude him from incidental movement. "How long until we are within their weapons range?" she asked as they rushing out of the room.

"We're in it now. But there is an up-side," Dreamer said off-handedly.

"What?" Lirelle asked.

"Balarys already signed the Confirmation of Transaction form," Dreamer grinned.


Upon first emerging onto the bridge, Tallas' gaze travelled first to the back of Dreamer's well-proportioned figure, standing at the aft center console with his hands crossed behind his back, then to the viewscreen floating in front of the forward windows, where the gray hulk of a warship was looming menacingly in their direction. Lirelle sat at her console, a concerned expression playing out over her demure features.

"They'll fire on us as soon as they figure out we're not gonna hand over the stowaway," Dreamer turned his head and said in the way of welcome.

"Um, who's 'they'?" Tallas found it difficult to transition his mind fully over to their current predicament, as much as he had tried when Dreamer gave a welcome interruption to his dialogue with Sabrin. Slowly he sank into his customary post at the starboard console, endeavoring not to pay attention to his sullen best friend as he walked quietly past and strapped himself into the pilot's seat.

"Not sure exactly," Dreamer shrugged easily, but his expression was serious. "Their captain's the guy who picked up our delivery. And before you ask--" the android motioned to the viewscreen, where the face of their unconscious guest now appeared. As concisely as he could, he summarized for them the relevant events, beginning from the completion of their mission on Kion'Seg.

"What'd they do to him?" Tallas said softly, to no one in particular. Pangs of empathy echoed through him for the boy, abandoned to his fate on this cold, distant world. Beside him, Dreamer caught his eye, an understanding glint behind the gold rings.

"Do you know that the kid was bein' honest when he said he was innocent?" Sabrin asked gruffly. Their imminent threat commanded his attention, but the turmoil caused by his unresolved situation with Tallas still raged within, casting a dark shadow over his thoughts. Part of it was directed at the warship bearing down upon them, and another at the boy in the sickbay, as unreasonable as he knew that was. In his state his mind, he couldn't help but conjure memories of another instance in the past when they were betrayed by someone they thought they could trust. Nevertheless, even as he said those words he could imagine the look on Tallas' face and his stance deflated immediately.

"No, but he's not the one with the ugly warship," Dreamer responded archly, "Which, as we speak, is gettin' closer."

"The instant we move towards the jump potential he will fire on us," Lirelle observed.

"He won't be able to destroy us before we jump," Sabrin said.

"Maybe not but he's close 'nough to scan our parameters an' tail us through just eight minutes behind us," Dreamer said, furrows appearing between his eyebrows. "We need to delay 'im somehow; gimme eighteeen minutes to recharge the vane and we can make a second jump before he can follow us through the first. Then we'll be home free."

"What's our destination?" Sabrin asked, calling up their data on the local system of jump routes. There were six systems known to be accessible from the nearby jump potential, two of them inhabited.

"Back to Vajrahm," Dreamer replied, "Just in case."

"Any chance of disabling his propulsion or sensor systems?" Lirelle inquired.

"Not when his shields are up," Tallas reported, twanging a few virtual controls with his slender fingers. "And those systems are heavily armored too. We just don't have the opportunity for a clear shot."

"I'll give you one," Sabrin said with cold determination, "They're moving to dock with us, right?"

More than twice the length of the farship, the retrofitted patrol cutter glided alongside the smaller vessel and rolled along its major axis to align one of its airlocks with the flank of the Dream. Unseen, its shields phased out of existence as thrusters on the two vessels fired, closing the distance between them. Just as the other vessel's docking tube began extending, the Dream's powerful ion engines roused and hurled the ship forward in a steeply curving trajectory away from the other vessel's hull, its spaceframe whining from the inertial strain. Its aft torpedo launcher sparked once, sending a fiery projectile backwards into a small junction just forward of the single large ion engine. The explosion tore a ragged hole through the armor, in time for the forceful white radiance of the engine to sputter and taper out.

"Shields up, bringin' full power to all weapons," Dreamer's image announced on the bridge. His avatar was returning from the aft magazine, where he had manually loaded the torpedo launcher so as to escape notice by the Balarys' sensors. The invisible bubble around the ship appeared just in time to absorb a lash of plasma unleashed by the other ship.

"They're definitely pissed off; they're throwin' everything they have at us." Tallas braced himself and winced as the ship rocked violently. All around the middle of the opposing vessel, six outboard weapons magazines threw forth dense barrages of concussion missile pods, detonating all around the fleeing Dream in a silently deafening fireworks display of blue and white. Fiery starbursts of plasma and tachyons exploded forth from raised turrets arranged in rows along the hull, adding their own green and yellow splendor to the deadly lightshow. The shields whithered beneath the assault of multiple projectile and energy impacts, but managed to remain intact. Tallas sent retaliatory tachyon beams back, harmlessly splashing gold against their enemy's restored shields.

"Their ion engine is offline," Lirelle noted off of her console in a pleased tone.

"Ow, fuck!" Sabrin felt anything but safe as an errant energy discharge spiked through the Dream's power grid, sending a shower of sparks raining over his console and stinging his hands. "Activating jump vane," his eyes celebrated the appearance of the glowing jump controls around his hands while they weaved frantically to guide the ship away from the incoming fire, "Jump potential in twenty seconds!"

"The aft shields aren't liking this," Tallas reported urgently.

"Two power conduits just blew out on deck four," Dreamer said at the same time, "Power to the port engine's down to 80%."

"They are attempting to lock on a tractor beam," Lirelle took her turn, "I'm throwing them off for now."

In an instant the crackling light issuing from the slender blade beneath the Dream flared dramatically, outshining the weapons fire exploding around it. Fire still poured into the space from the warship for a few seconds longer, but the farship was gone.


Long, tense minutes passed as the Dream of Dawn hung in space at the star's sole jump potential, its crew waiting nervously for the still-extended jump vane to recover. Seventy million kilometers away, the red giant Vajrahm seemed to pulse angrily as its surface gases were shorn away by its companion and eventual devourer, the black hole Kasahl. The glowing hydrogen and helium billowing into space stretched into a thread towards the singularity's accretion disk, like the optic nerve of a titanic, malevolent eye.

On the bridge, Sabrin ticked away the seconds, trying to ignore the pressure building from the silence that was only exacerbated by the soft background noise of the ship and his own respiration. Aside from Dreamer, who left to attend to the minor damage they sustained, none of them had moved from their stations since the jump. The Dream was running continuous scans of the jump potential, searching for the telltale energy spike of another ship coming through. His eyes went back to the viewscreen and its enhanced-spectrum view of the binary star pair. Eons ago there had been a solar system here, either incinerated by Vajrahm's expansion or torn apart by Kasahl's fatal tides. Now only a few scant fragments of significant size remained, tumbling in erratic orbits around one or both ancient giants.

"How much longer?" Tallas finally asked, sounding disproportionately loud in the small room. Sabrin no longer shied from the small thrill that went through his chest at that melodious tone.

"Four minutes," Dreamer replied.

"How much of a chance is there of them repairing their engines in time to catch up?" Tallas asked, looking for reassurance.

"Beats me," Dreamer said casually, "Sensors can only tell ya so much. And you fired the torpedo."

"It was your idea in the first place to come to this backwater planet..." Sabrin instinctually leapt to his best friend's defense, before the irked look in the blonde's face reminded him that he'd given away the right to act protective. "And what if they do repair their engine in time?" he asked, more contritely.

"Feel free to come up with your own brilliant plan," Dreamer said dryly.

"I'm so flattered by your confidence," Sabrin murmured.

"I wouldn't jump the gun; let's hear the plan first," Dreamer shot back. A phantom smile graced Tallas' lips; despite the black look he flashed the A.I., a spark of warm energy spread throughout Sabrin's body. Dreamer simply looked as innocent as ever.

"I'm done bypassing the damaged conduits. Just sit tight; I'm headin' back to the bridge," Dreamer cut the comn.

The awkward silence resumed, like the universe was holding its breath, waiting for the next thing to happen. It's not gonna be this easy, I just know it, Sabrin thought cynically. Maybe karma's collecting her debt for our miraculous escape -- two miraculous escapes. Certainly trouble seemed always around the corner wherever they were these days, and this time it was just a simple delivery. He wondered about the boy lying unconscious in sickbay. Running, just like us from Astral-Ishasa. We're all being hunted by our separate demons...wonder if we'll ever be able to stop...

God damn it, Sabrin barely had time to think as warning klaxons filled the bridge.

"Shit!" Dreamer cursed as a space-time distortion appeared off the ship's port bow. "Sabe, full speed bearing 179 mark 274!" The ship lurched backwards and swung around in a sharp arc, diving towards the giant star with a ion engines blazing. Some light-seconds away, the warship paused for a few moments as though to regain its composure, and then turned in pursuit. A hail of fire poured from its forward guns, impacting against the Dream's already-battered shields. "Pull in the fuckin' vane!" Dreamer hollered as he physically returned.

"Sorry," Sabrin grimaced as he hastily punched in the commands to fold the ship's jump vane back flush against its belly. The Dream's shield envelope was far more stable when the vane was retracted, since it then enclosed a smaller volume.

"Head into the gaseous streamer," Lirelle said, guessing Dreamer's intent, "The interference'll hide us from their sensors."

"Incoming transmission." Balarys' face re-appeared, his face a picture of the struggle for composure. "That was a neat trick back there," he said tightly, "But did you really think you were gonna get away with it?" His thin lips twisted into a sneer, "I've got your little ship trapped and outgunned. Tell ya what; give us back the boy, and we'll pretend this whole thing never happened."

"I'm transferring more power from the fore to the aft shields," Tallas said, ignoring the message. He reacquired a weapons lock and fired the aft cannons at their pursuers, though at their distance only a few shots managed to connect. The ship careened to port and narrowly avoided an incoming torpedo, though the motion sent him into the wall.

"Throw in auxiliary power while you're at it," Dreamer told him, bracing himself on a console as another shock shook the bridge.

Crimson streams of gas began appearing on the viewscreen, as the Dream darted further into the insubstantial tether between Vajrahm and Kasahl, on a heading for the singularity. Its main deflector parted the nebulous density in front of the ship like the bow of an invisible ship, leaving a swirling wake. Behind the weapons fire grew less frequent, eventually ceasing altogether. "Active sensor range has dropped to virtually zero," Lirelle said as her sensor feeds dissolved into static, "Long-range sensors are also gone."

"That sounds 'bout right," Dreamer said, "They can't see us; we can't see them."

"Where d'you think they are?" Sabrin asked, filled with unease and a certain sense of dread at their game of cosmic hide-and-seek. He couldn't help but envision them blissfully unaware as a torpedo homed in on their position, and of their charred remains joining the other debris accrued by the black hole. Fortunately, the ship's passive EM and gravitic receptors still provided an accurate enough report of their location and orientation, even if he could see nothing out of the viewscreen but a diffuse field of red and orange.

"Prolly sittin' between the disk and the jump potential, waitin' for us to come out."

"We won't be able to remain in here indefinitely," Lirelle said, "Eventually all this radiation will overwhelm the shields." She gave pointed looks to the others.

"In around seven hours," Dreamer completed her thought. "We've got time to work on it."


"I don't need to reiterate my feelings on this interrogation Dreamer," Lirelle stated firmly; she and the android were back in sickbay, "It's bad enough we've already sedated him twice in the last three hours."

"No you don't," Dreamer spared her a sidelong glance, "but if he knows anythin' 'bout Balarys or whoever he works for that can help us..." Lirelle reluctantly nodded agreement and applied the hypo-syringe to the boy's neck. The stimulant coursed quickly through the adolescent's bloodstream, and within a few seconds he began to stir. Large, glassy eyes opened gingerly and struggled to focus on the two of them.

"Good to see you again," Lirelle smiled reassuringly.

"C-can't move..." the boy whimpered hoarsely, his muscles twitching against the nearly skin-tight force-field that still bound him to the surface of the bed. However, the frightened panic of earlier was replaced with a note of resignation. Dreamer strongly suspected that his system was crashed from the adrenaline high and the repeated sedation.

"There's a restraint field, to protect you," Dreamer said, "I'll release it in a sec, but don't freak out on us okay? We won't hurt ya."

The boy nodded weakly, and in the next moment there was a flash over his slim body as the force-field deactivated. His arms hesitantly moved upwards, reassuring him that the barrier was indeed gone, before returning to the table and wobbling in an attempt to prop up his torso. Intuitively, Lirelle retrieved a glass of water from the sickbay dispensory and brought it to the boy's chapped lips, as Dreamer helped him into a sitting posture on the edge of the bed.

"Where am I?" the teen asked timidly, after looking at the liquid dubiously and finally taking a few tentative sips.

"You're in the sickbay of the farship Dream of Dawn," Dreamer answered. "The ship you stowed away on," he clarified after a moment and grinned. "Hi, I'm the ship's artificial intelligence. You can call me Dreamer." He began to reach out his hand and the blonde shrank back apprehensively, undoubtedly recalling elements of his captor in the cargo bay. Seemingly unperturbed, Dreamer withdrew and indicated to his left, "And this is Lirelle Wice. She's one of my crew."

"Greetings," Lirelle smiled and extended her hand, which the teenager took cautiously. Dreamer resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Her and not me? What is it with me and first impressions? "What is your name?" she asked.

"F-Fennic," the boy answered in a steadier voice, glancing nervously between the two of them.

"Do you remember what happened, Fennic?" Lirelle asked.

"Bits and pieces," Fennic knitted his eyebrows in effort, "I was hiding, and then you found me--" he peered at Dreamer, who shrugged and put on his most non-threatening face, "--and then not much after that. I think I remember you two talking to him--" The grimace on his face left no doubts as to who he was referring to, "--but it's kinda hazy..."

"We're bein' hunted by your ol' friend Balarys," Dreamer interjected when Fennic trailed off. "We're hidin' right now in the accretion disk of a black hole but we can't stay 'ere forever."

Fennic blanched at the news; he didn't understand exactly what an "accretion disk" was, but he definitely knew what the android was telling him. Tears gathered along his soft lashes as he felt his chance at freedom slipping away: he was a liability to these people, and therefore expendable. "Are...are you gonna send me back?" he asked softly, afraid of the answer.

"No," Lirelle cleared her throat, "No, we're not."

Surprise reached Fennic's face before he realized it. "W-what?" he stuttered, attempting to process the information.

"We're not givin' you up to him," Dreamer smiled, "Not without a fight anyway."

"Why?" Fennic asked incredulously.

"Let's just say I trust you more than I trust him," Dreamer answered casually. "Though speakin' of which, we 'ere kinda hopin' to get some info from ya. Why're ya runnin' away?""

The boy froze, confronted by the dreaded moment of decision; should he tell his apparent saviors the truth, along with whatever consequences therein? What if I told them and they change their...no, I have to tell them the truth. I can't lie and still accept their help. Fennic took a deep breath and said, "They had us locked up, took us one by one and used the machines on us. God, it hurt so much...I had to get out," his voice deadened in his effort to hold his composure, "Some of the others never came back...he told us he sent them away but I know he killed them," hatred sparked in his green gaze.

"Balarys?" Lirelle asked.

"No, the doctor who runs the lab -- I don't know his name," Fennic said quietly, clenching shut his eyes in painful remembrance, "Balarys works for him."

Dreamer's mind spun out the possibilities: it sounded like Fennic was being kept at some kind of illegal genetic engineering laboratory, feeding the pervasive black market for "enhancements" in the seedier parts of human civilization. Poor kid probably got jumped on a field trip or somethin'... I think we just found out what Channing was shipping, he thought, He and the doc on Kion'Seg must be business partners; no wonder Channing can afford a custom courier job so easily. A look to Lirelle told him that she had arrived at the same conclusion.

"Did he do that to you?" Dreamer indicated the strange pattern on the boy's temple.

"No," Fennic subconsciously grazed it with his slender fingers. "No, this is..." Here we go, "This is the reason he wants me so bad."

"What d'you mean?" Dreamer raised an eyebrow. Huh, there's more goin' on here than I thought...

"The guys on the ship found me with this in my head, and sold me to the lab," Fennic's voice wavered, "The doc's always raving about it -- about how it's the 'most sophisticated work' he'd ever seen, and how if he could just 'decipher the anomaly' he'd hit the jackpot. He tried everything on me and never got a thing." There was a disturbing glint in his eyes, like he derived some obscene pleasure from denying his captor his prize through the torture. "He was all excited this week, said that he was getting new equipment and he'd finally have his break--" Dreamer and Lirelle glanced at each other briefly, both thinking the same thing "--I didn't think I'd live past that, so I ran." Fennic let out a deep, tired breath.

A soft whistle blew past Dreamer's lips, "If you're that valuable to this guy, his lackeys might not be so easy to shake."

"You could sell me back to them y'know," Fennic spoke the fear chewing away at his gut, "I'm sure the doc'll pay a lot."

"Do you believe that is our intent?" Lirelle asked gently.

"I don't know," Fennic looked up, his emerald eyes shining with latent tears. Lirelle opened herself to the boy's despair, the pain that defined the very center of his being. She reached out with her mind and almost imperceptibly soothed the churning currents, allowing her own tranquility to rain over them. She gauged the right moment to gather the shaking teen into her arms, holding him protectively against those who would seek to do him harm.

"We would never do such a thing," Lirelle whispered, placing a soft peck behind Fennic's ear, "Don't worry; we'll keep you safe."

The trembling boy broke into ragged sobs at that unfamiliar act of compassion, draining the terror and anguish and fear of his past weeks into Lirelle's shoulder. His arms closed so tightly that Lirelle thought he'd crack a rib. Behind her, she felt Dreamer pulling in closer to both of them, running his hands calmingly through Fennic's silky hair and down his neck. "Thank you, thank you, thank you..." Fennic mumbled the words over and over through his tears. Lirelle felt the boy's relief and gratitude shining into her mind in a glorious torrent, spreading a warm sensation throughout her body.

"C'mon, let's get ya cleaned up. Maybe some food? I know how you humans like to eat and...stuff," Dreamer said after a while. Fennic pulled back and wiped his eyes somewhat sheepishly. He managed a weak smile, the first that they had seen from him. Dreamer thought it was beautiful.

"You need to work on your bedside manner, Dreamer," Lirelle chided, as the two of them helped the fatigued boy to his feet.

"Whatever," Dreamer turned to their newest acquaintance and grinned radiantly, "Welcome aboard, Fennic. I'm glad t'help ya escape." His black eyes flickered to the side for a second, "Well, assumin' we do actually end up escaping." Lirelle struck his arm, but Fennic efforted a feeble laugh. He looked at the man and woman standing beside him, practically strangers, yet somehow he felt more connected to them than he had to anyone in his brief past. There was something in their demeanor, an aura of camaraderie and openness that he'd never seen in the cruel, guarded recesses of the Kion'Seg laboratory. They looked at him like they cared about him, like he was worth something more than just cash. Safety was yet far away, but Fennic felt he was already free.

Fennic leaned against Dreamer's solid frame as the three of them made their way from sickbay. He felt the handsome man squeeze his shoulder affectionately and a rush ran through his body, but then reality struck him again. "He won't give up," Fennic intoned apprehensively. Dreamer tensed momentarily, then pulled him closer.

"We shall see about that," Lirelle promised with quiet menace.


Sabrin fidgeted anxiously in the pilot's seat, struggling to keep his attention focused on the limited telemetry provided him. He could feel the presence of his best friend behind him, watching the sensors from merely a few meters away. Every fiber of his being ached for him to walk over and finish what he began in Tallas' quarters, but he remained rooted in his seat, incapable of rising or even turning his head. He felt gripped by some unsettled energy vibrating in the air of the room, keeping them trapped as though in amber. It was almost like being forcibly interrupted in mid-intercourse except even less pleasant... Damn, where did that analogy come from?

The fact that they were perched next to a black hole and being pursued for reasons that Dreamer still neglected to elucidate definitely didn't help matters. Every time that Sabrin began gathering the courage to speak, his Academy-trained professional self would remind him of their situation and that his talk with Tallas could and should wait. All well and logical, except at the moment they weren't doing much of anything, and sitting with nothing but the wall between himself and Tallas was absolute torture.

"Hey guys," Sabrin breathed a sigh of relief when Dreamer's face appeared on a nearby screen, "What's the situation?"

Why does he ask when the sensors are connected to his mind? "You know nothing's changed since you left," Sabrin snapped; he hadn't meant to be so short but the A.I. crooked an eyebrow.

"Did you get what you wanted?" Tallas interjected.

"Sort of," Dreamer shrugged, "I found out that our friends out there are chasin' after 'im 'cause they think that that physical mod on his forehead's worth a lot."

"How much is 'a lot'?" Tallas asked levelly.

"Enough that they're still gonna be there when we're forced outta this cloud," Dreamer answered seriously.

"Fan-fuckin'-tastic," Sabrin remarked caustically, "Find out anything else?"

"Nothin' relevant to our present situation," Dreamer's image was replaced by his real person, "Lirelle's settling him down in quarters right now; the boy's kinda tuckered out."

"I'll bet," Sabrin recalled how he'd felt like after he and Tallas escaped onto the Dream. "So... Does this help us or not?"

"Maybe," the A.I. answered unhelpfully.

Sabrin was about to prod for more, when Dreamer and Tallas simultaneously frowned at something. "Ugh, great," Dreamer muttered as he braced himself; his two crewmates took that as a cue to do the same. "Brace for impact!"

The deck beneath them groaned with a growing tremor; at its climax the bridge shook violently forward as the ship was struck by the shockwave of a massive explosion behind them. The entire ship seemed to resonate like a tapped wine glass as its very structure keened in distress. More than that, the sound seemed to rush through the very material of bodies -- the sensation was like suddenly falling forward and stopping a few meters of where they were; thankfully Sabrin was already sitting or he would've undoubtedly toppled over. This told them that it was not a concussion wave in the traditional sense, but rather a front of elemental force. "They're using graviton warheads!" Tallas called out, running analyses furiously through the incoming sensor data. "Shields down to 43%!"

"Damn it, I just got them back above fifty," Dreamer said irritatedly. Behind the ship, a second glowing blue orb descended from their unseen attacker and exploded, sending another massive shockwave rippling through the scarlet gases and the ship. Sparks exploded from several screens, causing the two Orions to duck instinctively.

"That took another 6% off the shields," Tallas reported with worry.

"They must be tracking us from our wake," Dreamer said. The Dream's deflector and engines left behind a pattern of ionized gas visible to simple EM receptors, though finding a disturbance so small in the total volume of the accretion disk required considerable luck. Dreamer cursed fortune for being so impartial as a third explosion blew out five minor power conduits across two decks. His ship self appeared to Lirelle and called her and her charge to the bridge, since her efforts to calm Fennic down didn't seem to be working. "Incomin' transmission," he informed Sabrin and Tallas, "Audio only; it's on radio."

"Might's well hear it," Sabrin said, taking the ship in another random new direction.

Balarys' cold, static-filled voice had lost all pretensions of courtesy and was seething with barely suppressed anger, which to an extent pleased Dreamer because it meant they had irritated the bastard. "Alright, listen up you fucks. Give me the boy, now, and I'll consider not blowing your pathetic scum asses out of the sky. You little sons of bitches are out of your league. Surrender, before I teach you how much." Shortly afterwards the barrage started again, fortunately slightly more distant thanks to Sabrin's maneuvering.

"Take us deeper into the disk!" Dreamer turned to see Lirelle and a wide-eyed Fennic appear, glad that the youth had not heard Balarys' ultimatum. The blonde-haired youth glanced nervously at the two strangers, visibly clinging to Lirelle for shelter. Sabrin was occupied by the helm, but Tallas turned mometarily at the new arrivals and gave a brief smile before returning to his displays. The black-haired woman took her station, steering the boy into the chair behind hers. Dreamer came up beside them and placed his hand on Fennic's shoulder, contributing a note of security. Just in time as another shockwave shook through the small ship.

"Another few thousand kilometers and their sensors will lose us," Lirelle said as Sabrin laid in a new course. She held herself steady through the next shockwave and began repairing the bleedthrough damage to the lateral sensors.

Suddenly the deck shuddered alarmingly, and Dreamer barely had time to draw Fennic close as the entire ship wrenched forward wildly. He saw Lirelle shield her face with her arm as a number of monitors exploded in brilliance. A dozen alarm klaxons appeared in his artificial mindscape and he winced instinctively from the damage. Dreamer noticed Fennic's grip tighten at the apparent look of pain on his face, and so flashed him a reassuring smile.

"Just lost aft shields!" Tallas reported frantically.

"Hull breach on deck four, section seven," Dreamer said. Scanning the chaotic situation about him, he sensed that he needed to take control as an avatar and keep his crew on task. "Get the shields back up before you guys get radiation poisoning," he snapped at Tallas while striding purposefully to Lirelle's side. A nasty plasma burn covered her right forearm, though to her credit she still seemed lucid through the pain. "Sickbay, now," Dreamer said imperatively, examining the wound.

Lirelle was about to object, when she must have tensed a muscle in the damaged arm and let out a sharp gasp. Turning to Fennic, Dreamer locked his black eyes with his green ones. "I want you to go with 'er. I'll give ya instructions on how t' treat the burn once you're there. Can you do that?"

Fennic bit his lip anxiously, looking between the two people who'd pledged to defend his life with theirs, and nodded. Dreamer beamed at him and ruffled his hair playfully. "Good. C'mon." He and Fennic helped Lirelle to her feet, and then Fennic pulled her undamaged arm over his shoulders and shuffled slowly along the wall towards the lift.

"Shields are back!" Tallas thumped the console in triumph.

Sabrin's heart filled with pride at his best friend's accomplishment, then skipped a beat back to reality when the helm controls flickered with another jolt and his hands flew out of position. "Sorry, radiation spike in the network," Dreamer said behind him. At least they sound like they're getting farther away. He took a deep breath and re-inserted his hands, feeling the comforting caress of the three-dimensional interface again. All this firepower for a single teenaged boy, Sabrin shook his head.

Wait! he momentarily forgot the controls as the proverbial light came on in his brain, That's it! As quickly as he could he ran the scenario through his mind, checking that it was even reasonable. "Guys, I got an idea on getting us out!" he turned and announced excitedly. Both Tallas and Dreamer turned to him with curious expressions.

"Those son-of-bitches want the kid alive more than they want us dead, right? So, we launch an escape pod towards the black hole and tell them he's on it. They go after him and we run like hell in the other direction," Sabrin said, less eloquently than he would've hoped. At that moment he noticed that there had not been any explosions for several minutes and set the autopilot to hold their distance from the singularity.

"Huh, that might actually work," Dreamer eventually commented.

The android keyed out some calculations on the viewscreen to flesh out the plan, though Sabrin was only half paying attention. His gaze had shifted over to Tallas, his gracile frame reclining against the wall, peering at him from behind the inactive console. His rosy lips were curved into a beautifully genuine smile, leaving Sabrin all but frozen. Slowly, inexorably, the corners of his mouth tugged into a happy grin as his mind rejoiced at the wondrously simple expression of feeling. He smiled at me!


Lirelle didn't know if it was the Dream's sickbay itself, but somehow sitting on the padded surgical bed she felt sheltered from the battle being waged outside. The searing pain was gone, courtesy of the flexible bandage now wrapped around her injured arm. Fennic stood next to her, wielding a regeneration stimulator over it with excessive care. Locks of fine silver hair dropped over his downcast face, obscuring his eyes. The youth hadn't spoken a word since Dreamer's image explained to him the use of the simple medical instrument.

"Hey, don't worry," Lirelle said reassuringly, "We'll get out of this safe and sound. We're professionals at it."

"Sorry," Fennic said in a barely audible voice.

Lirelle creased her eyebrows. "For what?"

"For getting you guys into this," Fennic mumbled, still keeping his head down. "If I hadn't come along this wouldn't've happened."

"This?" Lirelle raised her arm slightly, "Barely a scratch; I've experienced much worse, trust me." She smiled broadly, trying to catch Fennic's eyes. "All that's important is that you're no longer in that lab. The fact that you're here is worth all of this, and much more. Understood?" Lirelle stroked Fennic's arm gently with her good hand and smiled. She smoothed his hair over his forehead, revealing a pair of alert green eyes. "Y'know, I used to have a little brother," Lirelle said nostalgically, almost in a trance. "He wasn't much older than you the last time I saw him."

"When was the last time you saw him?" Fennic asked.

"More than five years ago," Lirelle said, her eyes betraying her sorrow. "He was twenty years old then."

"Where is he now?" Fennic asked in a concerned tone, sensing something was wrong but not knowing what.

"He died...not too long ago," Lirelle said quietly. She still thought of her lost Emder every day, though time was slowly closing the wound. Nonetheless, she knew that some part of that hurt could never heal, as long as Nenzeth was alive. Glancing into Fennic's wide-open eyes, she reprimmanded herself for bringing up the subject when she was supposed to be caring for Fennic. It's just, the way he looks at me...like I could never do him wrong...

"I'm sorry," Fennic said timidly.

"Stop apologizing for things that aren't your fault," Lirelle managed a small smile and diverted the conversation. "What about you? Do you have any siblings?"

A strange, pensive expression came over Fennic's face; the arm holding the instrument paused. "I...don't remember," he said softly. "I don't remember anything before waking up in the ship three months ago." Moisture gathered in his eyes but didn't fall, "I have dreams about before that sometimes..it's like I'm a whole different person living somebody else's life. But it's all gone when I wake up."

"You'll find that life again," Lirelle pulled the adolescent into an embrace, rubbing circles over his back with her good arm. "I promise."

"Hey," two sets of eyes turned to the large sickbay monitor, where Dreamer had appeared. Lirelle noticed Fennic withdrawing his arms shyly and turning his attention back towards tending her arm. "How're y'all holdin' up?"

"Better, now that we are no longer under direct attack," Lirelle responded.

"Yeah that'd help," Dreamer said dryly. "Good news; we've got a plan on how to escape."

"Let's hear it."

Briefly Dreamer outlined the plan and detailed their progress. Lirelle listened attentively and raised her own points, wishing she could provide more direct assistance to their efforts. The A.I.'s projections showed that they had 88 minutes until total shield failure, and another seven until the last of his crew succumbed to radiation poisoning; thus, there was precious little time to waste.

The sickbay doors slid open and Dreamer's avatar replaced his virtual alter ego. "Hi," he smiled warmly at Fennic, eliciting a tentative smile in turn. He walked to one of several blue crates and retrieved a complex instrument. Dreamer noticed Fennic's emerald eyes widen in alarm when he turned around, and smiled warmly in an effort to assuage his apprehension, "Don't worry, this won't hurt. It's just a kind of medical scanner."

"No!" Unfortunately his words had little effect as Fennic flinched away from his advance and darted to the other side of the table. His eyes bore an almost feral quality as they searched frantically for an escape route. "Stay away from me with that!" Instinctual fear radiated around him like a black cloak, so thick that Lirelle could almost see it. Though she loathed exercising her telepathic abilities, she knew there was no other hope of calming Fennic enough to complete the procedure. Gently, Lirelle focused her mind on soothing thoughts and emotions as she said "Please relax Fennic; Dreamer won't harm you in any way." Using those words as her inroad, she gently reached out and allowed that calming influence to flow around and encompass the anxiety-filled boy, where they slowly dampened the panic seizing Fennic's mind like ocean waves lapping on a beach. Noting that the adolescent had visibly stilled, Lirelle discreetly signalled for Dreamer to continue.

Cautiously, Dreamer reached out to the slim youth and maneuvered him so that he faced away. "Just relax and hold still..." he murmured words of comfort as he placed one hand on Fennic's tense shoulder and used the other to press the scanner against the blonde's back, between the spine and the left shoulder blade. This was the keystone of their entire plan; he needed to ascertain the exact broadcast parameters of the tracking implant lodged there, whose omnidirectional signal was blocked by the dampening field generator he brought with him. Unfortunately, the bead-sized device was booby-trapped to release a lethal toxin should they attempt removal, so it would have to be a skillfully duplicated tracking signal which will hopefully convince Balarys that his quarry was aboard the escape pod. Something easier said than done, Dreamer discovered.

"This won't be perfect," the black-haired man grumbled.

"Any inaccuracies in the signal could be attributed to ambient distortion from Kasahl," Lirelle noted. Dreamer released a grateful Fennic and downloaded the information into the computer. Once Fennic was free she subtly pulled back her mental touch; she doubted Fennic realized what she'd just done. I'll talk to him about telepathy later. "How's the retrofit progressing?"

"Sabrin can make himself useful when he wants to," Dreamer shrugged. Rather than using one of the Dream's own escape pods, they had elected to sacrifice the battered Altairan version that had saved Sabrin from the Telemachus. They were repairing the pod's life-support systems and installing additional thruster units to propel it towards the black hole with the appropriate haste. "I'll give 'im a hand after I'm done with this; we need to be finished while I can still take a few shots."

"Dreamer, I had another thought," Lirelle said, "If we had a better fix on Balarys' position we could minimize his firing window." -- The trickest part of the plan was when they emerge from the accretion disk to launch the pod, while still inside the weapons range of the other vessel. There would be a window of some seconds when Balarys could still direct fire upon them, and Dreamer had little doubt he would take it. With his shields nearly gone, the possibility of them sustaining severe damage was significant. Dreamer had dispatched Tallas to reinforce the structural integrity field and double-check the emergency response systems, but any opportunity to reduce the amount of fire he would sustain would greatly better their chances.

"I can pilot my shuttle out to scout his coordinates and relay them back to the ship via tight-beam. Its wake is too small for them to track."

"That's a good idea but you're not takin' it out; not in that condition," Dreamer replied firmly, "I'll go."

"You're needed here," Lirelle said critically, while Fennic gazed at him worriedly.

"The boys can handle things here," Dreamer said, "Sabe's getting good at piloting; we'll need that on this one."

"Can't you fly the ship?" Fennic ventured uncertainly, "I mean...you are it...him... right?"

"'Cause I don't have direct control over my propulsion systems," Dreamer answered, "A.I.s like me need orders from our crews to move -- it's a basic part of our programming."

"The engineers who designed these starships meant it as a precaution to keep their fleet under control," Lirelle added. "One of many," she glanced at Dreamer, who simply raised an eyebrow in response.

"Does it bother you that they did that?" Fennic asked, frowning slightly.

"Not really," Dreamer felt the warmth of the boy's concern and smiled, "It's just the way things are. And it means I get to have a crew, like you." Fennic blushed shyly and Dreamer found it too cute for words. He gave the boy a friendly pat on the arm and took a step back for the door. "Alright, I gotta get back to savin' our lives," he said with exaggerated misery.

"You don't sound so pleased at the prospect of our escape," Lirelle said wryly.

"You kiddin'? Sabe actually came up with a plan. I'll never hear the end of it," Dreamer rolled his eyes theatrically and departed.


>From the chaotically swirling gases descending towards the black hole, the small elliptical vessel darted upwards from the plane of the disk at full speed. Abruptly it swerved and rolled nimbly into a different trajectory, taking it away from the two massive stars. Seconds after it cleared the interference, the far larger ship on the other side of the disk lumbered after it in pursuit, performing an awkward half-axis turn along its flank. Scattered fire poured from its forward turrets, relatively few scoring hits so far as its sensors were still impeded.

"Alright, let me and the signal filter do the talkin'," Dreamer's image reminded Sabrin and Tallas. "Openin' channel."

The scowling face of their nemesis, Balarys, appeared on the viewscreen, though on his side he would see Dreamer's avatar standing on the bridge like before. "Not surrendering huh? I thought you avatars--" he said the word like an insult "--were supposed to be smart. You really thought this little stunt'll save your sorry asses?"

"You haven't won yet," Dreamer said, allowing a measured amount of anger to seep through. "You'll pay for the damage you caused."

Balarys looked positively delighted when he thought he'd finally provoked a response from the stoic android. Like handin' candy to a kid, Dreamer thought. "Oh really?" he sneered more condescendingly, "and how's your weak little ship gonna manage that? Listen pal, howabout we hand over the boy, and I'll make it quick?"

"They've crossed the plane of the disk," Tallas reported.

"You want the kid so bad Balarys?" the corner of Dreamer's lips curled wickedly, "Fetch!"

At that cue the escape pod barrelled through the force-field over the Dream's shuttlebay entrance, rocketing towards the pitch-black maw of Kasahl at the center of the accretion disk. Aboard, a small transponder unit sent Fennic's locator signal into space.

"What's it gonna be?" Dreamer's eyes were as cold as the darkest vacuum, "Chase that pod and you might still have a chance to tractor it."

Balarys' look of callous superiority transmuted quickly to a visage of fury as he received Dreamer's words through the transmission. The man clenched his fists as he glared ferociously at the voice of the smaller ship; his entire body shuddered with rage, veins standing starkly in relief. "This ain't over you mother-fuckers," he hissed through clenched teeth, "You hear me?!" The channel cut off to show the warship turning away from them, towards the pod. Bon voyage you sons of bitches, Sabrin cursed. Their triumph was short-lived however, as the other ship's movement was accompanied by a fresh display of firepower aimed squarely at them.

The first to arrive were the faster-than-light tachyon bolts, smashing into the Dream's weakened shields and enveloping the small vessel in fireworks. The coherent energy fields flashed and contorted, as though in pain, while the shield generator struggled valiantly to hold them. A few seconds later, plasma bolts struck the aft sections of hull, their blazing power searing through and leaving angry black marks on the silvery alloy beneath. A torpedo drove itself into the Dream's belly, tearing out a significant chunk of metal and narrowly missing the jump vane housing.

Sabrin forced his hands to be steady over his console, running the engines at over standard limits to increase the distance between them and Balarys. He heard monitors exploding behind him, but bite down on the urge to turn around and check on Tallas. Dreamer'll take care of him, he kept telling himself, You need to get us out of here..

"Watch that torpedo to starboard!" Tallas shouted.

The bridge shook to the left from the impact, causing warning sigils to flash wildly over the consoles. "Hull breach on deck three, section eight," the A.I. told them urgently, "Atmosphere's contained but there's serious damage to the plasma transfer system. Tal, go down there and manually shunt the flow away. If a primary conduit ruptures that close to the antimatter tank we might have a containment breach."

"No, wait!" Sabrin protested vehemently, twisting around and fumbling with the buckles across his chest. His protective instinct burst through his mind, overriding any thoughts he had of propriety. But Tallas had already nodded to Dreamer's image and left his station. Out of the corner of his eye, Sabrin watched his love grace him with a small it'll be alright smile and vanish.

"Sabe, stop!" Dreamer's thunderous voice shocked Sabrin back into the chair. He hadn't even realized that he'd successfully disentangled himself from the irksome straps in his frantic efforts to reach his best friend. Now he was confronted by the ship's intelligence on the nearby screen, whose black eyes burned into his as fiercely as those of any real person. "Let him take care of it!" Dreamer enunciated every word, drilling the point into him that Tallas was far from incapable, "You need to be here. Now sit the fuck back down and get us the hell out of their weapons range!" Sabrin looked up to the viewscreen just in time to see the glow of another incoming torpedo.

The young man blinked to clear his head, then swung the ship on sharp ascending curve. The projectile sailed past them and exploded colorfully, inflicting superficial damage; Sabrin released the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. An aft view of the other ship was still clearly displayed on the main screen, its single ion engine alight against the diffuse vermillion of the accretion disk. Sabrin watched the other ship for more weapons fire, his muscles aching from tension.

"Looks like they've caught up," Dreamer narrated with just a hint of dark amusement when the other ship had dwindled to a distant silhouette. "They're not so far from Kasahl...bet Balarys' pretty happy with himself right now..."

Twenty-two light-seconds away, aboard the Altairan escape pod being towed by the intangible grasp of a tractor beam, its portable tight-beam transceiver received a final signal from the Dream of Dawn. The signal triggered a pre-programmed sequence of commands running through the master processor, switching on mechanisms newly installed throughout the interior. These events went unnoticed by the patrol cutter, whose sensors were blinded by interference as it slowly pulled the pod into its launch bay. The nameless operator of the beam had no time to regret his mistake as the small vessel suddenly flared in brilliance.

For an instant the purest white light poured from the midsection of the warship, giving way to a colossal explosion spilling outwards from beneath the armor plating. Molten fragments of metal and composite flayed outwards from the flaming wound, as secondary detonations tore through the spacecraft's power distribution grid. The skeletal framework buckled in a mass of twisted girders and splintered joints, breaking the ship in two. The darkened engine section spun away, trailing plasma and debris behind for a few seconds until its antimatter containment collapsed, consuming it in a massive fireball. The longer forward hull drifted towards the accretion disk in silent anguish, powerless to resist the black hole's influence. Almost leisurely, the hulk descended into the gaseous whirlpool, sinking deeper until it at last yielded to the unforgiving maelstrom in a final, mute coda.

"Sabe," Dreamer said gently, "Lay in a course for the shuttle."

Sabrin complied quietly, then turned to the A.I. with bleary, beseeching eyes. Please, I need to know if he's alright.

"Go," Dreamer said understandingly. The dark-haired man shot out of the chair and ran to the ladder.


Sabrin's heart seized in convulsions as he gingerly entered the starboard aft section of deck three. The scene before him was one of absolute carnage; a few emergency lights flickered feebly in the darkness, contributing a haunting blue glow along the walls. An assortment of broken rafters and cables sagged from the ceiling, obstructing his way. Showers of sparks rained down from various damaged circuitry with a faint crackling sound, skipping off the dark metal surfaces like tiny glowing fleas. The hull breach itself appeared on his left, the infinite field of stars winking through the unnatural gap.

"Tal?" Sabrin called out desperately as he sifted his way through the wreckage. Dreamer's internal sensors were off-line in the damaged section, so Sabrin could only rely on his hand-held scanner. He felt his heart teetering over an abyss, every moment growing more precarious. He has to be okay. God, please let him be okay. The scanner was confused, mislead by the debris. "Tal? Can you hear me?"

"Over here," a faint voice, distant or perhaps weakened. Nevertheless it was the most beautiful sound Sabrin had ever heard as he scrambled towards its source. He ducked beneath a fallen support beam, almost tripping on the fallen debris in his haste. He rounded a corner, and there, slumped against the bulkhead next to the power control station, was the vision of perfection who never failed to capture his breath. Before Sabrin's watery blue eyes, the young man turned his head and gave him an unrestrained smile of relief and jubilation.

Unsteadily, Sabrin dropped to one knee at Tallas' side, fighting to suppress his trembling. His blonde hair was matted with sweat and there was an unsightly bruise on his cheek, but otherwise he seemed uninjured. Instinct took over as Sabrin carefully wrapped his arms around his friend. When he felt the other man reciprocate rather than pull away, he joyfully tightened his embrace and revelled in the closeness that his fear had denied them for too long. Yes...this is where I belong.

"A-are you okay?" Sabrin whispered when they pulled apart.

"Yeah, just a little banged up," Tallas replied breathlessly. His warm brown eyes searched out Sabrin's face, pulling him into their infinite depths. Sabrin detected a touch of nervousness in the other man, sparking a twinge of guilt in his own heart. He took in his best friend: from the few locks of hair carelessly falling over his forehead, down over the soft cheeks that always bore the subtlest rosy hue, to those full lips, parted slightly when he was thinking or waiting for something...

Light as a feather, Sabrin grazed Tallas' undamaged cheek with his curled fingers. Ever so slightly he felt the other man lean into his touch, even as his face remained pensive. I can't wait any longer.

"I love you," Sabrin said in an unwavering voice.