Evgeniy Lotosh

The Corrector

Book 1: Strays


Translated from Russian by Edward Porper, 2015-2016

Lyrics translated by John Amor


"And what is our superstar up to this time?" a grumpy voice came from behind Surash' s back.

The Head of Security let the air out through his half-shut nostrils testily but he did not answer. The Head of the Third Lab knew perfectly well that the subject-matter of Doctor Kasatana's work was highly classified information that required sixth level security clearance. Only four living beings in the whole Seventh Department of the Ministry of Defense knew the answer: the Department Director, his first deputy and two hulcies assisting the doctor - if the very concept of knowing can be applied to a human-like cyborg, that is. Even the Head of the Lab had no clue what Doctor Kasatana was doing - using the observation platform, that only he and Surash had access to, would by no means help to raise the veil of secrecy. A spacious laboratory unit located on the building's fifth floor below the ground was packed with mysterious machines devouring enormous amounts of energy. Even an expert in vortex fields would find it impossible to make sense of those machines off the bat - or ever. It looked like nobody at all was able to perceive the machines' purpose and principles of operation - nobody but the inventor herself whose encrypted reports went straight to the Department. That was the very reason behind the Head of the Lab's spleen.

"As always, aloof and mysterious," Taramis went on with his grouching. "As always, she cares about nothing but her work. And as always, she wouldn't bother to send her regular report in time - and of course, nobody else but I will be blamed for that! Why on Tekira can't you stop ogling her, Surash? The broad isn't even of your own kind! As if this bluesto cared for her own kind..."

Once again the troll exhaled through his nostrils. For a human, Taramis was not so bad but when in a bad temper, he could drive just about anyone mad as quickly as the worst of orcs would. Fortunately, Doctor Kasatana, deeply engaged in calculations, could not hear his words through the thick glass panel. Otherwise she would be quick to retort, and a long heated argument would inevitably ensue. For the umpteenth time the Head of Security asked himself, why on Tekira he kept coming there - and for the umpteenth time he found no answer. There was something stirring and incomprehensible about that young human female whose fiery hair was neatly arranged in a ponytail at the back of her head, and that mysterious something would draw fascinated Surash to the fifth floor below the ground like a magnet. That she was the only one in the whole Lab without a comprehensive profile, piqued his curiosity even more. To be precise, there was no profile whatsoever: her personal file contained but a few pages created during her tenure at the site he was responsible for. A civilian, she had been personally appointed for the position by the Minister of Defense - and that allowed her not to give a hoot about anything if she so chose.

"Magnificent Lady Kasatana," the Head of the Lab activated a two-way communicator and bent over the microphone, "Good morning. I have to remind you that you have once more forgotten to send your due report."

The woman turned away from her screen and got up. She came right up to the bullet-proof glass, stretched with gusto (at that instant it seemed to the troll that Taramis' heart's beating became quite audible) and leaned against the wall next to the window.

"Good morning, Most Splendid Sir," she winked at him playfully. "My bad, sorry. I did forget. Or maybe I didn't. Maybe I chose not to send it."

"You chose not to?" the Head of the Third Lab asked warily. "But you must..."

"The research is almost over, and in a couple of days I'll send the Department Director a full account of its results alongside with a working prototype. I just have to fine tune the system interface and test the whole thing - first on dummies, then on volunteers."

"Hard to believe," Taramis muttered "But what else can I do? I guess, it would be unforgivably rude to even wonder what is it you are creating in my lab?"

"For someone who came through the ranks to become a colonel, an improper question, indeed!" The doctor snorted. "But the demonstration is near at hand, and you both will be invited to it, anyway. May as well see it right now. Maruka!" She waved to one of the hulcies. "Activate the prototype on stand 2." He nodded, connected a plug attached to his forefinger-pad to the console panel and froze.

In a few seconds the surface of a large low pedestal right in front of the glass panel began to glow softly. Doctor Kasatana came to a small table littered with bits and pieces of metal, picked out a long iron pipe and placed it on the pedestal.

"Watch my hands and the stand." The woman attached a pair of shining bracelets to her wrists, and the detector lights on the bracelets began to flicker. "Something like that..."

She moved her hands as if trying to scoop something from below, and suddenly the pipe started to float in the air. Then it froze as if held by invisible hands. The doctor swung her palms, and the pipe swirled like a wind stick. Finally she cut the air down sharply with her right hand, and the pipe broke in two halves crashing onto the surface of the pedestal.

"Something like that," she repeated taking off the bracelets. "Impressive enough, Colonel?"

"Mighty myst!" Taramis was visibly shaken. "What was that?"

"A combined reactive vortex effector," Kasatana was clearly basking in the glory of the moment. "They learned how to generate short-lived vortex impulses about five years ago but no further progress has been made. My device can support up to three power manipulators made of stable vortex complexes that are both gravitational and electromagnetic in nature. When I finish fine tuning the neurointerface, the operators will perceive those manipulators as natural extensions of their own body.

"My Lady, you have made an outstanding discovery!" The colonel's admiration was sincere. Surash nodded, clearly of the same opinion. "It will lead to a breakthrough in both the production sector and the art of war! My warmest congratulations!"

"Thank you, Colonel," unexpectedly, the woman's reply was quite icy. "However the effector is not fully finished yet. The bracelets are but a temporary solution. When everything is done properly, the effector should be able to connect straight to the operator's cerebrospinal axis. You see, my dear Sirs, this effector has an additional ability..."

What happened next would haunt the vice-colonel Surash Tamarei in his nightmares for years to come. While talking, the woman incidentally passed her palm over the pedestal. Suddenly something whipped her across the forearm with so much force that her gown's sleeve got torn to pieces and her arm was thrown back. Then her body was jerked high into the air where it started to whirl like a giant spintop. A monstrous whirlwind seemed to be ravaging the lab and crushing its equipment. Three mighty explosions went off all at the same time and turned the room into an ocean of fire. The bulletproof glass splintered into tiny fragments, and Surash barely managed to drop to the floor and pull Taramis with him. He felt an invisible force cutting through the air above his head. The next instant the force knocked down the massive metal door of the observation room and burst through the reinforced concrete walls leaving cracks all over them. The warning whistles of the fire alarm died away completely silenced by the roaring flames, and the general alert siren was barely audible.

 "What is there to blaze like that?" A fleeting thought crossed Surash's mind while he was crawling toward the exit of the room and gasping for the red-hot air. "There are no combustibles there. It must be plasma, hot plasma, but how did it get there?" Half-conscious and dizzy because of all the heat and smoke, he finally scrambled out of the observation room and sprawled helplessly on the concrete floor. Soldiers with fire-extinguishers were running down the corridor, two other people were deftly uncoiling a fire-hose. The lamps flickered and went out, and immediately the reddish light came to life: the switchboard attendant obeyed the regulations and cut off power in the area lest the melting wire result in a short-circuit. Somewhere in the lab protective gas pumps must have been fizzling in a hopeless attempt to tame the fire but there seemed to remain only one solution: to wait until everything that could burn would burn out.

"Vice-Colonel!" Somebody shook him by the shoulder. "Vice-Colonel! Wake up! Here, take oxygen."

With an effort the troll raised his head. A medical man was leaning over him, a mask in his hand. A tube attached to the mask was connected to a small pressure tank. The Head of Security pressed the mask against his face and took several deep breaths in quick succession. He felt somewhat better and somehow regained his feet. Propped by friendly hands coming from everywhere to prevent him from falling again, he looked around.

The unconscious Head of the Lab was being carried away on a stretcher. The soldiers with fire extinguishers were nearby, ready to act, but there was nothing left for them to do: strangely, the roar of the blaze was rapidly fading away, and in less than a minute it died out completely. Has the fire safety system prevailed, after all? Visibly staggering and clinging to the wall, the troll peeped into the charred doorway. It was pitch dark inside, and the room smelled of smoke and burn.

"I need light!" The Head of Security bellowed hoarsely. "Let the techs turn the light on. And bring in lanterns, quick! I bet, there isn't a lamp left inside!"

To enter the lab, soldiers had to cut the door out with a welder. Surash decided not to wait until it was over. He took a powerful battery lamp and warily stepped into the observation room, glass crumbs crunching under his feet. He moved the lamp to illuminate the lab, looked into it through the hole that had been a window but minutes ago - and froze in stupefaction.

Within mere two fathoms Kasatana Hamayara's naked body was writhing in agony. A human male would probably even now find it hard not to whistle his appreciation at the sight of the woman's perfect curves. However, it was something completely different that riveted the troll's attention. Her clothes had burned to ashes but not even a scratch or a sore could be seen on her tender skin. Neither did the ravaging fire touch her ginger hair flecked with cinders: in fact, nothing but cinders could even hint at the recent rampage. The woman's body was twisting and twitching, her mouth was producing some inarticulate sounds. The ashes beside the body would fly up as if scourged by invisible whips.

"Is she alive?" somebody muttered in shock. "What the myst is going on here?"

Surash jumped through the opening into the lab and approached the woman cautiously - or rather tried to approach her as something quick and invisible swished through the air right in front of his face. He sprang back hastily but even so he felt a sting in his neck and dodged as if trying to avoid a knife. The pain was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.

"Nobody enters the room!" Surash shouted. "The fire squad and the security unit, return to your barracks. Bring the special ops here right away. And I want to see the research director in five minutes."

He jumped back to the observation room and almost threw out of it several men with lanterns looking dazedly at the devastation. I have to inform the top brass in the Department immediately. a thought flashed through his mind. Immediately!

His brain was already sorting out options but he was getting sicker at heart by the minute. The lab is ruined, the enormously expensive prototypical equipment almost utterly destroyed. Doctor Kasatana is irresponsive and literally untouchable. The Head of the Lab is unconscious, and surely, he banged his head against the floor hard enough when he fell. And the experiment data - what's left of it? Did the reports contain enough details to reconstruct it if necessary?

And the main question: how did the woman manage to remain unscathed amidst the fire storm that melted even the metal parts of the equipment and incinerated the assistant hulcies?

Who is she...No, what is she - Doctor Kasatana Hamayara?


10.05.843, Goldenday


"How is it going at work?"

Tsukka shrugged imperceptibly. She was in no mood to answer trite questions. Surely, Stepmother doesn't not even expect an answer. What can ever happen to a department-store salesgirl at work? Nothing but customers, shelves, shop windows, legs tired by the end of the day, and ever-hurting lips because of that artificial smile I have to wear all the time.

Absentmindedly she pushed the rice around the plate, picked a shrimp and put it into her mouth. How should I tell them? Dad really cares about me, and so does Stepmother - to an extent. Of course, Tanna's own children come first but she is genuinely trying to take care of me as well - insofar as it might be possible to take care of another person's child who has already come of age. Isn't it funny? It seems that the real challenge is not to make up my mind but rather to tell parents about your decision.

Stop this self-torture, she scolded herself. You have to tell them, and it has to be done today. So just bite the bullet and get it done. You have decided not to remain a burden anymore, haven't you? Good. Now just behave like a grown-up person you are.

"Dad! Mom!" she raised her head and put the fork on the table with a clang. "I want to tell you that..." She felt a lump in her throat and stopped short. One more sentence, and I shall be fully committed.

"Yes, my dear." Father took his eyes off the newspaper. Rinrin and Tars stopped elbowing each other and were staring at their sister expectantly. Tanna did not react in any way as she kept chewing the rice. The stepmother seemed as exhausted as Tsukka herself. The girl felt a pang of guilt: after all, Tanna was the one assuming responsibility for the household.

"I...Well, I decided it's time to move out. I am a grown-up and I earn my own living. Yesterday my sales manager said that my allowance would be raised...a bit. So...Well, I decided I could afford to rent a room."

"Don't be silly, dear," father shook his head in disapproval. "You already have a room in our apartment. Why waste money?"

He put the newspaper aside.

"I told you, Tsu: you aren't imposing. Yes, you a big girl - time sure does fly! But it doesn't mean you have to leave or we should throw you out. I know, you still can't get over this university flop. Never mind, a year will pass soon enough. Next winter you'll be accepted for sure!"

"Dad, you don't understand!" on the brink of tears, Tsukka clenched her fists. "I mean, I am really an adult. I must assume responsibilities. If I keep relying on you and Tanna, I won't be able to prepare for the exams as I should. I'll be doing nothing but drifting through life - your house, my husband's house, kids, kitchen, shopping... I want to become self-reliant!"

"But you are already self-reliant," father shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "You don't touch our money, on the contrary: you help us to pay rent. Does independence mean to cut loose from your family and just leave for the sake of living?"

"Among other things," Tsukka was staring at the table, to avoid her father's eyes. "Dad, I love you. I love all of you very much but I must go. I'll call, I'll visit but I have to start taking care of myself. I...I've found a room. Today is the tenth, still 14 days before the end of the thriceweek but the landlord agreed that I could pay for but a week in advance. It means I'll stay there for whole six days for free, almost a week! But he insisted that I should move in today.

I hope they will believe this fib. In fact, she already had to pay for a full thriceweek in advance.

"You mean, you are leaving right now?" Father asked perplexedly. "Tanna, tell her!"

"I can but repeat what your Dad said: don't be silly, Tsukka," the stepmother gave her a weary look. "True, sooner or later the young must leave the nest but there is no need to decide in such a rush. Even if you want to be on your own, you don't have to plunge headlong into your independence. Stay at least until tomorrow - it will be easier to move on your day off. Or maybe you'll give it another thought and decide to stay. Really, there is no urgency there."

That's exactly what scares me: that I might think better of it and decide to stay. That I will run out of courage and give in to Dad's persuasion.

"No, I won't change my mind," the girl shook her head. "Rinrin and Tars are already big enough to occupy separate rooms. Rinrin can move into mine, my bed will suit her well, and there is a desktop there, too. Me, I've packed my bag - took some bedding to last me at first, ok? - and I'll go now. Tomorrow I have a bonus day-off, I have earned a few by working overtime - that will help to settle down at the new place. If I stay until tomorrow, I won't get there before noon. The landlord won't be happy about it."

"But Tsu..." Father blinked helplessly, and the girl shuddered suddenly realizing how old and shattered he was looking today. Oh, Dad, I hope you aren't struggling at work...

"No, Dad," the girl moved her plate aside and got up with a look of determination on her face. "I have to. I am sorry it happened so...so suddenly but my mind is made."

She went out of the kitchen, down the short hallway. The door to the left leads to her room. Her former room. Nothing has changed inside since yesterday but somehow the room was foreign to her. Not hers anymore.

She looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time. A low bed by the wall. A desktop right next to the window - looking orphaned now, without its usual stacks and piles of chaotically scattered paper and stuff. An ancient terminal - not even a terminal but a real computer with at length unused software once built into its bowels. Shelves with old and long forgotten paper-books, mostly juvenile - just in time for her siblings to start reading them - and some equally old textbooks clinging to each other: Physics for Undergraduate Applicants, Principles of Mathematics, Integral Calculus. I should pick them up later. Or should I? I have already failed once as a result of using them for preparation: university training programs are different now, and modern training aids are all computer-based. So I'll have to save for a new terminal. On the floor, an old, threadbare carpet depicting a yellowish-green rhomb on a white background. A couple of chairs. A half-empty closet.

And a bag. A big travel bag, fully stuffed: several dresses, bedding and lingerie, a metal-plate engraving - a silver tree on a hill with a golden sunset in the background - shoes, a pelephone, and all those bits and pieces you are so unwilling to part with. An out-of-place foreign object that has turned her long-time shelter from life's trials and tribulations into a barely familiar room.

Stop it! Enough of that rubbing-in and self-torturing. What's done - done. Tsukka picked up the bag and, half-bent to one side because of its heavy weight, went out to the hallway. Her parents were already waiting there. Brother and sister, in a much quieter mood now, peeped out of the kitchen.

"Tsu," her father put his hand on her shoulder and looked at her sadly. "Maybe you'll reconsider? At least, stay until tomorrow."

"No, Dad."

The girl put the bag on the floor and kissed him on the cheek. After a moment of hesitation she kissed the stepmother, too. Suddenly Tanna reached out and stroked the girl's hair tenderly.

"I must have been a bad mother to you," she said pensively. "I guess, your real mother wouldn't approve of me. When I married your father, I was but a little older than you are now. I had no idea how to deal with a seven-year-old daughter coming out of the blue. And later on... well, it just hasn't happened. You were so upset with your mother's death that I didn't succeed in making friends with you. Pity. I really mean it. And I want you to remember: here is your home. You can return wherever you wish if something goes wrong. We won't use your room for now."

"Yes, Tsu," father drew her closer and embraced her. "I knew you would leave us sooner or later. You are just like your mother, as stubborn. It's just that... it's all so sudden."

He drew back and looked into her eyes, "You won't forget us, will you? You will visit? Call?"

"Yes, Dad," she nodded fighting off impending tears. "I will, for sure. And you come to visit me, too."

She put her sandals on quickly, flung the door open, picked up her bag and went out. On the stairs she turned her head to look at her family one more time. Her father, stepmother, brother and sister were looking at her through the door-frame - as if from a different life, one that was sweet and reassuring.

In that life the child that she was could run to her father, climb onto his knees and, weeping bitterly, show him her finger with a black shadow of a splinter under a nail. In that life the golden light coming out of the windows in the evening darkness promised a safe shelter from miseries and foes. In that life the morning sun would dazzle her sleepy eyes, and the ticking alarm-clock on the table would lull her gently to slumber.

It's all gone. The future is cold and unsure, and, to begin with, I will have to learn how to live alone. I will return to my dark and empty room in a big house, greet my neighbors - lonely girls like myself – in the hallway of our shared apartment, pay my rent once in a thriceweek to the indifferent landlord, and pay my bills. That's the future I'll have to get used to.

She waved her farewell and trudged down the stairs.

Surprisingly, she arrived at her new apartment much quicker than she expected. The streetcar she had to take, came almost right away, and her fleeting temptation to show off by taking a taxi was therefore nipped in the bud. So she found herself on the Hillside street around five in the evening when the sun already touched the crest of the hill but has not disappeared behind it yet. Well, now to let go of the bag, unpack it and go out again – to explore the neighborhood and find grocery stores and such. Come back and turn in early, at seven or half-past-seven, to rise tomorrow morning with the sun. Then settle in properly: clean the room through and through, buy some food to last you for a couple of days, and some cutlery, too. You may even buy and an old, bulky TV-set in a second-hand shop. Meet the neighbors and stretch your legs once more to make yourself better acquainted with the area: you have to know where to take a bus or a streetcar - or even a taxi if you need it - where different banks are, and all that... Oh, no, you can't meet the neighbors tomorrow as it's a Soilday, and they will be working. Some other time, then. And the day after tomorrow you have to work again, and it's back to your old routine. The difference being that you won't return to a welcoming home but rather to an empty room with a cold stove and the landlord's rattling fridge.

She sighed and started towards a three-story building, 50 fathoms or so away from the streetcar stop. Her bag was pulling her down, and Tsukka regretted not having left half of her belongings at home. After all, I will have to return at least one more time - to pick up the textbooks and to tell my parents how I am faring.

She stopped at the entrance door to grope for her card key and inserted it into the slot. To her surprise, a red light flashed above the slot, and the door remained locked. She tried again - with exactly the same result. What's the myst?! What has happened to the key since yesterday when she checked it?

Utterly confused, she pressed an intercom button next to the landlord's name.

"Who is that?" A hoarse male voice asked a few seconds later.

"Sir Yanusi," Tsukka said quickly. "It's me, Tsukka Merovanova. I rented one of your rooms yesterday. I can't enter. My key doesn't work."

"Lady Tsukka?" the voice asked. "I am coming down. Wait."

A minute later the door flung open. Tsukka sighed with relief, lifted the bag from the ground and tried to enter the building but she was forced to come to halt. Against all expectations, the landlord kept filling the doorframe, and it did not look like he was going to move aside.

"May I come in, Sir Yanusi?" the girl asked in utter confusion.

"You see, Lady Tsukka," the landlord scratched his head, clearly embarrassed. "The matter is, I've taken in someone else. I am sorry it happened this way. Here..."

He thrust a tightly wrapped bundle into the girl's hands – she accepted it without thinking - and took the key out of her unresisting fingers.

"But I paid you..." She said weakly.

"So what?" the man shrugged his shoulders. "That guy paid more. His needs it more, I guess. I gave you your money back, so that's it."

"But where should I go?" the girl almost wept in desperation. "It's almost dark. It's late. I have nowhere to go."

"Your problems," the man shrugged again. "I've heard that up the street, in the old grove there is a hotel. Take a room there for one night and look for another lodging tomorrow."

The door slammed with a bang, and Tsukka felt tears running down her cheeks. Her world seemed to be coming to an end. Where could I go now, home? Impossible! First to talk a big talk - independence and all that - and then come back with her tail between her legs? Not on your life! I'd rather stay where I am and sleep on the stones under the sky. Or even better, I will go to the police and tell them! We had an agreement, I paid the money!

An agreement, heh? And where is your contract? There are no signatures, no witnesses, nothing. You just paid the money, and that's it. The money...She took a closer look at the bundle – all the money seemed to be there. At least, something. He could have kept it, too, if he so chose.

Get a hold of yourself, you fool! She reproached herself angrily. Stop whining! He didn't let you in - a big deal, indeed. As if he were the only landlord in the whole city. You will find another lodging and be done with it - in particular, since you don't even have to work tomorrow. Just buy a paper and look over the "For rent" section. As for today, you need a hotel. It's still early enough to find one if I stop procrastinating. And if not...well, the fifth thriceweek is surprisingly mild this year, and there is a warm jacket in the bag. A night on a bench is an option, then. Or take a streetcar and go to the Central Station where you can doze off in the waiting hall.

What did this bastard say about a hotel up the street? It's worth looking at - maybe it's cheap enough to check in for one night. The girl shoved the money into the lapel pocket of her blouse, heaved a sigh, picked the bag up with the other hand and began to walk up the street.

In about thirty fathoms the road started climbing sharply. Thirty more fathoms, and the bag grew even heavier. With the sun already half-hidden behind the hill, the dusk was rapidly descending upon the city. House windows lit one after another, dim street lanterns were getting brighter by the minute. She glanced at her watch - fifteen minutes after five. By six darkness will take over - and how will I find the hotel? On the other hand, the hotel sign must be illuminated.

In twenty minutes she finally ran out of puff - and road. After yet another sharp turn the street ended, and the nearest lantern spotlighted a stony platform separated from the precipice on the other side by an ornate metal fence. The road went on but from here on it was guarded on both sides by massive trees. Judging by their white candle-like flowers peeping out of the thick foliage so uncharacteristic for a springtime, and by a rather distinctive fragrance, the trees were marons. So that's where the street ends? But where is the hotel? I must have missed it in the dark unless this rascal landlord got it all wrong. Or did he simply lie to get rid of me?

Wearily she dropped the bag on the stony floor of the platform and leaned against the railing. Upon recovering her breath, she suddenly realized what a stunning view was overlooking the bay far below. The sun, now blocked by the mountains, could not reach the bay surface any longer, and instead the whole area was drowning in an ocean of lights. The lights raced down the slopes all the way to the tsunami zone that remained pitch black as always in the evening. They reappeared on the other side of the zone merging seamlessly into the opposite bank of the Masaria bay where they met the last receding sunbeams of the day. Numerous speedboats scurrying to and fro on the bay waters abounded in blinkers. Two bulky freighters and a tanker loitered along to get unloaded at piers flooded by searchlights. Flickering sidelights marked mighty shutters of boathouses whose nightly duty was to guard elegant yachts, now frolicking somewhere in the middle of the ocean, in case of a storm or a tsunami... Although it was rather late, things around the bay were in full swing - and right behind it, visible through the bay's gullet, there spread the ocean still lit by the sun. Never ending red-and-golden ripples were dancing on its vast surface. Salty sea wind was coming from there to bring with it a taste of the sea and to offer a most unusual ride. Just soar up, embrace the wind and fly like a seagull ever higher, towards the dark-blue sky where the Star Pond was out and glowing. Aites, Purralakh, Mutaera, Double Crab, Nazina's Fibula, Dolphin, Ruby Rhombus and other constellations were shining like precious stones scattered on the black velvet of the outer space, and Tsukka gave a gasp of delight that was both familiar and pristine at the same time.

Whatever it takes, I will be admitted to the University," she promised to the sky. "I'll continue studying mornings and evenings, I'll keep going to the library and reading textbooks - and next spring I will become a University student. I'll become an astronomer and study the Universe - and maybe I'll have the good fortune to discover alien civilizations occupying the Galactic core or its outer frontiers. And maybe, if I only dare to dream, I will be the very first to actually meet our likes from another planet - and on behalf of our whole civilization, I'll tell them...

Her reverie was interrupted by wailing sirens. She listened. It was a tsunami-warning: the big wave was expected to arrive in two hours and seventy minutes. The lights on the water started to shift indicating a change of direction as the speedboats were adjusting the course in order to reach in time the safety of the boathouses. The tanker and one of the freighters slowed down and began to turn around. The other freighter tooted its horn three times in a row as a confirmation but it kept moving towards the piers: the captain must have hoped to unload at least some of his cargo before he would have to rush out to gain the offing and meet the wave, still slow and low, and not so dangerous in deep water.

Less than three hours left, and he still have to moor, unmoor and distance himself from the shore by at least three verst - let alone shelter the ship cranes behind protective walls. Or is the ship half-empty?

The girl sighed. My concern is not to avoid the approaching tsunami but rather to somehow plod all the way back. Well, at least, this time it will be down the street, not up. A whole hour will be wasted. The prospect of spending the night at the Central Station seemed to loom ever closer...

"Great view, isn't it?"

She spun around quickly and saw a rather short young man – barely older than herself judging by his appearance - standing a fathom or so away. His black hair was neatly combed back, the narrow eyes above high cheekbones were studying her quietly. He was wearing a short-sleeved loose shirt and light shorts that seemed too light even for the unseasonably warm weather. The man remained motionless, and Tsukka somewhat relaxed.

"I apologize for having frightened you, Lady," he said shyly. "I love coming here occasionally in the evening to feast my eyes on the bay. Wherever you look, there are stars - in the sky, on the water, around the hill. Isn't it beautiful?"

"Are you a poet?" the girl asked. "Your conversation is so beautiful..."

"No," he half-smiled. "Rhyming isn't among my numerous talents. My name is Dzinton. Dzinton Muratsiy. Pleasure to meet you. I seek benevolence."

"I am Tsukka Merovanova." She felt her cheeks starting to flush with embarrassment. Hardly anybody would talk to her so politely. "My pleasure, Sir Dzinton. Benevolence granted."

"Thank you, Lady Tsukka," he nodded. "May I stand beside you?"

"I..." Tsukka's embarrassment only grew. "Actually I am leaving. I need to return downtown."

He gave her a searching look.

"You are with a travel bag, Lady Tsukka - and you came all the way here in the evening. I presume you have a good reason to be in a hurry. Maybe I could help? I could carry your bag to the streetcar or help you to catch a taxi."

"Thank you but no," she shook her head. "Sir Dzinton, do you know by chance if there is a hotel nearby? I was told there must be one up the street but I probably missed it."

"A hotel?" he gave her a look of surprise and hesitated. "Actually, Lady, there is one nearby. Up the road right through the maron grove. But it's closed down."

"Closed down?" she groaned. "Well... doesn't matter. I'll find another one."

"They say, it closed down years ago. But I..." he paused again as if about to make a shameful confession. "I live there."

"What do you mean, you live there?" Tsukka asked, agape with surprise. "Haven't you just said it's closed?"

Well, it is. It just so happened that I was hanging around, and the entrance door was open.

So I decided...Well, if the owners aren't there, why waste a good house?"

Has he blushed? My word! Just like in a mystery novel: an abandoned house and an enigmatic stranger.

"Lady Tsukka," the young man continued upon a slight hesitation. May I invite you to spend this night in my hotel? Don't worry, I won't make a pass at you," he added quickly. "It's just that it's quite late, and you might be hard put to find another hotel. Or, if you prefer, I can take your bag to the streetcar."

Suddenly Tsukka felt how tired she was. Six hours in the store, then going home, coming here - and all this climb, to boot...She was completely disinclined to go anywhere else. Should I accept? Alone, with a stranger in an abandoned house? Who cares! Even if he does make advances at me, so what? I wasn't born yesterday and I know a thing or two about the birds and the bees. This Dzinton doesn't look like a maniac who will cut me to pieces to have a late supper. Anyways, he is rather polite and good-looking.

"How far is it?" She asked hesitantly.

"Close at hand," he answered pensively. "Depends, of course. As for me, it's about a five-minute walk. Let's go, I'll show you."

Without waiting for her reply, he grabbed Tsukka's bag from the floor, waved to the girl inviting her to follow, and started towards the grove. She sighed inwardly and staggered after him. Five more minutes of struggling uphill - or rather ten, considering her fatigue.

"And what's your hotel's name, Sir Dzinton?" She called out to his back.

"Where it is, is what it's called," he shrugged his shoulders turning his head slightly towards her. "The Maron Grove."

They seemed to have been walking for ages. Dzinton left the main road and went straight down the path. In the rapidly falling darkness trees and bushes were gradually closing in on the path, thus turning it into a narrow strip of land under their feet and blocking out even the sparse light provided by the Star Pond. Tsukka's heart was about to miss a beat or two (what if the guy is a maniac, after all?) but at that moment her companion said succinctly, "It's here."

The entrance door opened with a lengthy groan, and a bright lamp above the flimsy wooden gates illuminated the entrance to a small patio surrounded with a fathom-high solid wall. At the same time, another lamp came on at the other end of the patio - right above the entrance to a squat two-story building.

"Come in, Lady Tsukka," he supported his words with an inviting gesture. "The switch is right here, to the right of the entrance. There is also a twin switch inside the house, by the entrance door. Any of them will do the job."

He closed the gate behind Tsukka and went to the steps. Another switch clicked, and there appeared light in the hallway.

"Cool!" she said sincerely while lingering at the threshold. "A real hotel. Even the windows are intact. I thought an abandoned house should be crumbling and tumbling everywhere but this one looks as if it has just been renovated. A bit dirty but not too much."

"That's hardly dirty," the young man shrugged and kicked off his shoes stepping on the elevated floor. He put Tsukka's bag on the floor. "I sweep here...sometimes. A bit dusty, so what? What's really important, there is no draught in here. So, there are ten rooms per floor but the first floor is essentially the utility area. Over there is the dining-room, next the kitchen and the pantry. Further on are the staff room and several store rooms. Only five rooms at the far end are habitable on this floor but on the next one they all are. There is a bathroom and a toilet at both ends of the hallway on both floors. There is hot water, too. My room is on the second floor, by the staircase. You can choose any of the rest. If I were you, I would take one on the second floor, as sometimes there are field mice on the first. They must have gnawed through somewhere."

"Don't they cut off utilities if the house is empty?" the girl asked while thrusting her head into the kitchen to satisfy her curiosity. "Wow, what a stove! Electric?"

"Yep, it is. No microwave, though. And they did cut off water and electricity but the water valves are regular ones in the basement. Power is no trouble either: you just re-wire a couple of cables in a right way to bypass the lock on the electric service panel," he shrugged. "And the computers in charge of the electricity and water consumption couldn't care less who lives where - they just prepare bills that end up in our mailbox once in a thriceweek. They even charge the hotel, not the owner. Just pay in time, and nobody is the wiser."

"Great." Tsukka scratched the door-post absentmindedly. "And what happens if the owner comes back?"

 "I'll apologize and be on my way. He won't kill me, you know. After all, I've been pretty careful, haven't harmed his property in any way. Within about five versts there are several more abandoned hotels, so I'll just settle down there. They all closed down in 831. I read that it was quite typical back then. Remember, when a whole bunch of new volcanoes appeared out of nowhere in the Coral Archipelago - at least four on the surface, and myst knows how many underwater? The area was never quiet, a big wave kept coming even as far as here every day - and not just once a day. Beaches for surfing would never open to the public. Within half-a-year there was no trace of any tourists here, so most local hotels went bankrupt and closed down. The authorities would even provide them with tax exemption to keep them afloat. Some did recover and re-opened later but several of them have been derelict ever since."

 "I know, my dad told me," she sighed. "He is an accountant at the port, and I was but six when it happened - can't remember a thing. He said, both shipping companies almost went out of business. Bulk freighters wouldn't even be able to finish unloading: every time they were halfway through or even less, there was a tsunami warning, and they had to stop and rush out of the bay. They would be forced to idle days if not weeks away waiting for a chance to unload their cargo - and every day would cost a little fortune. So most of the freight was transported by railroads, and the port almost came to halt. The companies had to fire half of the personnel. It's a miracle my dad managed to keep his job.

"Hrpmh." Dzinton scratched the back of his head. "Happens, I guess. Well, Lady Tsukka, take your time, settle down. If you are hungry, there are boiled potatoes in the fridge...I think. And some sausage, too. There was also a long loaf somewhere on the fridge, shouldn't be stale yet. I am off, still need to work a bit."

He waved his hand and went upstairs taking two steps at a time.

Tsukka giggled silently. Men, indeed! Sausage...I think. She mocked the guy inwardly. Unwashed piggies, that's what men are! How is it possible not to know what's in your own fridge? Well, tomorrow I'll show my gratitude to him by cooking a real tsurme, with chicken, rice and spices. Too bad, the shops I know are rather far away - and I still need to find a lodging. So the plan is as follows: get up early in the morning, go shopping - and don't forget to buy a paper with the "for rent" section - come back and cook a gorgeous meal. Then concentrate on finding an apartment and leave yourself enough time to move there.

She took the bag and went to the nearest residential room. The room looked almost empty: a bed with a bare dusty mattress, a lonely chair and a small wardrobe. At least, there were a pillow and a blanket in the wardrobe, and she brought her own bedlinen from home. She made the bed and went to take shower. The girl was relishing in the spray of hot water for several minutes before it occurred to her that it was Dzinton who would have to pay for her pleasure. So he rolled herself up in a bedsheet , stole along the pitch-dark hallway and slipped back into her room. I wonder, is he going to hit on me, after all, or isn't he?

Even if the guy did have any indecent intentions, he was in no hurry to make them known. Slightly disappointed, Tsukka slipped under the blanket and fell asleep surprisingly quickly.


Pitch-black suffocating darkness. Fever enwrapping the body like a shroud. That familiar pain in the crease of her elbow where the injection needle bit. An unpleasant sensation in the lower body where tubes are slipping out of her. A clinging blindfold and this remote immaterial droning in her head that breaks her concentration and prevent her from feeling her invisible hands.

What's my name? I don't remember.

What's my name? I must remember. I must not forget. My name is my last possession. What's my name?

I am Karina. Kara. Karichka. Mom, take me away from here! I don't want to stay! It hurts! It hurts so much! Please! I am Karina.


"What are you staring at her, halfwit? Never seen a naked broad? Go to a public bathhouse and gaze there, you half-baked sex maniac! Watchpost, holdfasts open, catheters out. Start moving your ass, idiot!"

That constant pressure on her neck, wrists, ankles and waist is suddenly gone but her skin remains raw and it hurts. I don't want it! I don't want to go to the test bench! I am in pain, I am suffering! Please!

She opens her mouth, and nothing but a throaty croak comes out of it.

Cold, hard hands grab her legs and shoulders, and her body soars up for an instant before it lands again on a rigid surface. The droning in her head gets louder.

"Is the blockirator in the 'sarcophagus' active? Check it again."

"Get off my back! Of course it's active. I checked it yesterday."

"You moron! Don't you grasp what will happen if it turns off in the hallway? Too lazy to test it again, even to save your own hide? Shut up and do what you are told or I'll report you."

"Why don't you relax, Jock! One could think you've never taken the monster to the lab before."

"We transported her tons of times. She is as tame as it gets, not like those others."

"Couldn't care less, how many times! I want to stay alive, got it? I am not paid to kick the bucket with my head torn off my body! Now, stop being a pain in the neck. First that smart alec decided to experiment after midnight, and now you start acting up! Is the test on?"


The sound from within intensifies and turns into a giant wave that engulfs her, and she drowns in it, her mouth open helplessly as if she were a fish out of water and gasping for air. What's 'fish?' What's 'water'? I don't remember. I remember only what's most important: my name is Karina, Karina Serenova. And my Mom won't come for me. She'll never come because she died many years ago. I don't want it, not again! The wave recedes but the droning stays - it is always there when she is not tied to the test bench. If only it disappeared for a minute or two, to let my invisible hands reach those, at least, who are nearby...

The box lid falls with a thud, and the voices become more remote but they do not fade away. She swims in black void but somewhere on the fringe of the void a multicolored rainbow is spinning and dancing. It is always thereabouts but she can never see it, no matter how quickly she moves her eyes.

She can not even catch it with her invisible hands because on the test bench she is always in pain, and when in the dark room, the droning prevents her from feeling the hands.

"Watchpost, Team Three is moving out. Direction - test bench number five."

The box gives a jerk, and her shoulder is forced against something cold and hard. Now her real hands are free, and she could touch the iron of the box's inner walls. She will not. She has no more strength left.

The box vibrates as its wheels are rolling on the floor – then silence.

It's such a pleasure...Silence...The droning is gone...The droning is gone? Silence?

"Jock, the red light! The blockirator has gone dead! Look!"

Now she can feel her invisible hands again. They are compressed into tight lumps...

"Watchpost, we have an emergency here: the sarcophagus blockirator has failed. Turn it around, quick. Back to the cell before she comes to herse..."

Her invisible hands uncoil fiercely, and the box lid, knocked off its hinges, flies away with a loud clank. Her real hands, bent with an effort, tear at the blindfold - to rip it off and throw away, and to see!

But now she can also see with her non-eyes. Light grates on her eyes; two blurred forms in lab coats are backing away; with her non-eyes she can see terror distorting their faces; her invisible hands are thrashing right and left like a bundle of infuriated snakes; a body rams into the wall and slumps to the floor; the head of the other form cracks and shatters; warm droplets are all over her body, salt taste on her lips - up! Get on your feet! Stand up!

Her stiff body refuses to obey. Stand up! She holds onto the edges of the box and pulls herself up using every last smidgen of her strength. Towards the light. Towards freedom.

Stand up! Her legs fail to obey, the floor jumps at her, and there is a dull pain in her battered elbows and palms. Stand up!

They will regret it! They will so much regret what they were doing to me! I'll tear them to pieces until I am killed...her body feels as if it were made of wood, her feet fail to hold her. No. No. I must escape before they realize what's going on. I must run away and recover, my revenge can wait.

A step. Another step. The third one. Where am I going? Forward. She is in a house. In a big house. I must find a door or a window and get out of here. I must find a door. Windows aren't good: too far from the ground, and they are full of glass. A door. Where are those doors?

On both sides of the hallway there are doors, doors, doors. The nearest one has 7 on it. I can remember that this is digit 7! I remember very little but I do remember digits. The familiar droning sound comes from that door - I can't go there, I shall lose my invisible hands once again.

"Team Three, why aren't you moving? I can't see you, the surveillance camera has gone dead. Team Three, answer the watchpost. Team Three..."

Down the hallway. Move forward down the hallway. The direction doesn't matter, just keep moving.

Wheels' squeal is coming nearer. Another box appears from around the corner, two people in lab coats at its handles.

"...so this newbie should be secured for now in cell 20, and then she..."

An unfinished sentence. They are far away. They'll call for help. No time to stop them. Her legs are feeling wooden, her skin is crawling with fury. The pain shoots from her feet at her every step. Speed up! Move faster.

She is out of time. One of them reaches into his pocket, and an instant later a muffled wail fills the hallway. The siren keeps wailing, and the two disappear around the corner. No way to get to them, catch them.

The siren. The box in the middle of the hallway. Are they torturing somebody else? Not only me? I must help... A blow rendered by her invisible hands, red lights' blinking, the box lid sent flying - its steel hinges torn into pieces - and a crouched creature whimpering softly at the bottom of the box. Once again this familiar buzzing in her head - smash the box to silence it forever. The siren is wailing.

"Get...up," her parched throat does not obey. "Let... us...go."

Stomping boots around the corner. Two people – flickering shadows conceal their faces. Clueless blue eyes are looking at her above the pistol muzzle. A finger is trembling on the trigger. The dilated pupils are filled with confusion and incomprehension, and the invisible hands are crashing into the man's face, shattering his nose and cheekbones, his skull cracks as it is rammed into the opposite wall... In an instant the second man collapses beside like a broken doll.

The siren is wailing. Pistols. They'll start shooting. I can stop the iron balls one by one but if there are many of them, I won't be able to cope alone. I need a cover...the box's lid? It's also iron, the bullets will bounce. I could carry it in front of herself but then I won't be able to kill clearing the way.

That girl in the box! Get her on her feet.

"Listen..." she controls her voice better now as her parched throat is somewhat moistened by saliva. "We must run. Take the lid. Shield us from bullets. You understand?"

The girl's eyes are full of fear. She can barely stand on her legs, cowering and hugging herself. She doesn't understand...Jerk the iron plate off the floor - how to make her take it and keep it?

"Hold it! Tighter!"

The girl keeps whimpering but her invisible hands dart forward and grab the lid strongly.

"Good. Hold just like that. Let's go..."

Suddenly she sees with her non-eyes - farther on, there is a door. Behind the door - a staircase. Four flights up - and another door. Then there is a lot of glass - and on the other side of the glass there is freedom. She does not analyze how exactly she sees it, she doesn't care now. What counts most is that she knows the way.

The siren is wailing. Stomping feet in the hallway – ever closer.

I will not return to the dark room - whatever it takes.

"I - hate - you!" an anguished cry rebounds off the hallway walls.


11.05.843, Soilday


 Tsukka woke up because a stray sunbeam, upon finding its way through the foliage of the tree outside the window, was now caressing her eyes. Unidentified birds were chirping loudly. She stretched out contentedly and rubbed her eyes. Then she cast a glance at her wristwatch lying on the windowsill. Whoa! It's already past eight o'clock! That was oversleeping big time! And I planned so much for this morning...

She jumped off the bed and started rummaging in the bag looking for the morning gown. Just go through the morning motions as fast as you can - and get busy! Her stomach rumbled. And I'd better not forget about breakfast either. But she had no food because the plan was to buy food yesterday evening. Oh, well.

I wonder if Dzinton still has any sausage with boiled potatoes left?

She ran out to the hallway, and the stomach rumbled even louder when she caught a breathtaking smell of fried meat and an omelette coming from the kitchen. She stole to the kitchen door and peeped inside cautiously.

"Howdy, Lady Tsukka," Dzinton said cheerfully. "You are quite some sleeper! I was already considering to sing the "Rise and Shine" beside your door. I guess, you are hungry?"

Tsukka nodded but checked herself quickly and shook her head. It just won't do to eat him out of house and home! It was me who was supposed to treat him to a dinner, to start with.

"Come in, then." Dzinton forked a slice of fried ham. "I bought some food downtown earlier this morning, so sit down and help yourself. Just freshen up before you start eating, Sleepyhead."

Tsukka opened her mouth to refuse politely but emphatically when her treacherous belly rumbled for the third time, and louder than ever before. The stomach contraction was so strong that she felt hunger pangs, and saliva almost dribbled from her mouth.

"Err...Thank you, Sir Dzinton," she answered unhappily. "but..."

"Freshen up and come to the table," he summed up decisively. "Your food is getting cold."

She sighed and resigned to her fate.

During the breakfast she somehow, almost without realizing what she was doing, told Dzinton everything about herself, her parents and siblings, her failed university exams (he whistled his appreciation when she mentioned the Department of Physics), her job as a salesgirl...The window was open, and birds were chirping outside; the wind smelled of fresh grass and flowers; the spring was in its prime, and she did not feel like brooding over her problems at all. But it was surprisingly easy to talk to Dzinton: he neither interrupted her, nor laughed or offered any unwanted sympathy. He just nodded and sometimes yessed - so words seemed to gush out of her of their own volition.

"I see," he said finally. "Don't sweat that university flop. Your Dad is right: you will be admitted next winter. You'll get a library card, go to the library in the evenings and on weekends, study properly and pass the exams."

"Yeah." With no napkins in sight, Tsukka wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and rose from the table. Well, at least I'll do the dishes. "Thank you, Sir Dzinton, it was a real treat. Time to get going, though. I still have to find a lodging before the day ends."

"Why?" the man was surprised. "What's wrong with this place? It's a good spot. A bit far from the streetcar but two versts is not that bad. Fifteen minutes on foot, and you are there. Could you stay? Please. It's..." he paused. "You see, I am just bored alone."

Tsukka froze in hesitation.

"But the property belongs to someone else," she said finally.

"So what? I live here, why can't you?"

"But how is it possible to stay in somebody else's house without paying a rent?"

"Entirely possible, trust me," Dzinton winked at her. "Besides, you can always pay the owners - if you manage to find them, that is."

Tsukka hesitated. Why not, after all? If Dzinton can, why not me?

But it's illegal!

So what? Nobody needs the house, anyway. And I could look after it together with Dzinton - to make sure it would attract no thieves or vagabonds, and in any case...

"Silence gives consent," Dzinton summed up. "Okie dokie. Listen, Lady Tsukka, would you mind skipping formalities? I don't like being called "Sir". Just "Dzinton", and that's it."

"OK, I am just Tsukka, then," she replied. "Hey, wait. When did I agree to stay?"

"Just now," he shrugged his shoulders. "Relax, it's all right. You can always leave if you feel like it. However, there is one condition: we take turns cooking supper. Me today, you tomorrow, and so on. Whoever doesn't cook, is responsible for shopping and for doing the dishes. And we chip in on groceries. Deal?"

Tsukka's jaw dropped. Such a cheeky guy! However...why not? It makes almost no difference, to cook for two people or just one. On the other hand, you'll have to cook but every other day instead of doing it daily.

"Deal," she tossed her head.

"Great. So today you do the dishes. All right, then. Make yourself at home, and I'll keep exercising my little gray cells. There is an interesting trend..."

"What?" the girl looked surprised. "What's 'trend'?"

"It seems like a certain stock is about to go up at the stock-exchange. Time to buy into it. I play the market to earn my living, you know. As an amateur rather than a pro. It's primitive and boring but if you do it a couple of hours a day, you needn't worry about money any more. Peanuts but good enough for me. Besides, when I am done programming an artin, I won't even have to bother ever again: he'll do everything on his own. But first I have to make sense of the modern stock-exchange. I haven't followed it for quite a while. OK, I am off to my room. Drop by if you feel like chatting."

Dzinton slipped out of the kitchen. Tsukka stayed behind staring after him. Boy oh boy! That's not a human being, that's a hurricane! In a jiffy, everything is sorted out and clarified - just follow in his wake and be happy.

That said, why does he live alone in an abandoned house, after all? It's unfair, too - I told him everything about myself, and he? Next to nothing! You just wait, I'll get to the bottom of it soon enough.

She rubbed her cheeks with her palms and uttered a squeal when her face got sullied by fat she had never wiped off her hands. You'd better stop chillaxing and get busy. Never mind that there is no need to look for an apartment any more - you still have a whole lot to do!

She rolled the sleeves of her gown and began picking up the dishes.


The girl huddled to Karina who could feel her shivering. The sun was already quite high but their shelter in the thick of the bushes was covered in deep shadows. A light breeze broke through the foliage and made the girls chatter their teeth and huddle even closer together.

We need to find some clothes. We need to eat.

Karina was obsessed with those two thoughts all through the night. Her stomach would get hit by hunger cramps time and time again; her nose was beginning to itch. I am cold and I am hungry. A dense fog was gradually filling her head, occasional waves of pain brought by the fog washing all over her.

The foliage is thick but not too thick. Which thriceweek is it now?

"What's your name?" Karina asked very slowly moving her numb lips with an effort.

The girl gave a start and clung to her even tighter.

"Yana," she said softly. "Yana Paraka, Lady. Pleasure to meet you. I seek benevolence."

Seek benevolence? It' was so long since I heard those words! They remind me of my Mom and they taste of a homey home. But I am not home. What's the proper answer? I don't remember - and I don't want to remember.

"Don't call me 'Lady'," she said hoarsely. "My name is Karina. How old are you?"

"I am ten," Yana replied in the same soft voice.

"How long were you in the Institute?"

Yana paused considering the question.

"What's the 'Institute'?" she asked finally.

Karina was taken aback.

"Well..." she said without conviction. "That's the place we escaped from. Can it be you never-ever heard of it?"

"They brought me there yesterday evening. I think I was on a ship." She shivered violently as she felt a breath of wind. "I didn't see, they didn't let me out of the box, and I was asleep almost all the time, anyway. But when I would wake up, the floor was heaving."

"Lucky you," Karina sighed. "I was there..."

How long was I there?

"What's the date today?" she asked her companion.

"Yesterday it was five-eleven... I think," the other replied. "Or five-ten. I am not sure, I slept for such a long time."

The fifth thriceweek? When did they catch me? I don't remember. I think it was the third thriceweek. What was the date? Not sure. Doesn't matter. Really, only two thriceweeks?

"And the year? What year is it?"

"Forty third," Yana gave her a puzzled look.

Forty THIRD? 843?! Two years! Two full years...Why don't I remember those years? All I remember is an endless chain of awakenings filled with pain and horror, and a long series of nightmares not so different from reality. Her fists clenched helplessly as her invisible hands began to tear around her body ready to crush and destroy. She had to use her willpower to calm them down and force them to curl up lest she hit Yana by accident.

"Are you hungry?" she asked. Yana just nodded.

There is no food in the forest. We must look for it. But they are looking for us!

Doesn't matter. They already looked for me. My mind is foggy and I don't remember much - but I do remember how to hide and how to steal food. But first we need clothes or we'll freeze to death.

She looked at Yana dubiously. Should I leave her here? Or should I take her with me? It will be easy to find us if we are together. But if I leave her, someone might stumble upon her. Or the kiddie will get out, and they'll catch her anyway and bring back to the Institute. No way! Besides, there are two of us now, and it's easier together. Even at night we can take turns to keep watch. We don't want them to take us by surprise. We'll go together.

We go to the city," she explained to Yana. "First we find some clothes. Surely there is some laundry drying on ropes on the city outskirts."

"But it belongs to someone else," the little one squeaked.

"Soon it will belong to us," Karina snarled. "Do you want to freeze to death? No? Then shut up and do what you are told! Then we'll find food. We could find an empty house, force the door open and empty the fridge. Just do what I say or they'll catch us again. Got it?"

"How can you force the door?" Yana was scared. "It's strong."

"Like that!" Karina put out her invisible hand and lashed at a thin tree with savage delight. The tree erupted in tiny slivers of wood, and its trunk started to tilt but almost immediately it got caught by the nearby trees' branches and hung upon them. "And if anybody tries to stop us, I'll hit them, too.

 "No!" Yana shouted suddenly as she drew away from Karina. "No! You may not!"

"What may I not?" Karina asked in confusion.

"You may not hit people! Never! You will hurt them, they might even die!"

"So what? You pity them? They didn't pity you. They sent you to the damned Institute the moment the caught you. You know what they did to me there. I wished I were dead million times!"

"No. Mom told me I may not hit people," Yana tossed her head stubbornly. "She said that my special ability was a gift, not a monstrosity. That it should be used to help people, not to hurt them."

"Mom?" Karina was stunned. "You have a mom? A real mom?"


Suddenly Yana's eyes filled with tears, and she whimpered softly burying her face in her knees. Karina was looking at her perplexedly, completely clueless how to react.

"Hey..." she touched the girl's shoulder with a finger. "What's wrong?"
"No...thing," the other replied weepingly. "Just recalled my mom. And dad. They died. I was told they had moved away but I know they died."

"Really?" Karina said obtusely. "Pity. Me, I don't remember my parents at all."

Yana raised her tear-stained face, "Not at all?"

"Not at all," Karina sighed. "Maybe my mom, just a tiny bit. I don't remember myself before I was in orphanage, at seven or so. My mom died of an illness, and I think I had no dad. Or maybe he died, too. Now, stop sobbing, time to go."


"'No' what?" Karina asked, puzzled.

"I won't come with you unless you promise not to strike at people," Yana said stubbornly as she was sniffling loudly. And I won't strike at them either."

"You fool! What if they hit you first? You think they'll pity you?"

"Well...if they hit first, then I guess it's ok to hit back," Yana said doubtingly. "But we may not attack first."

"All right," Karina sighed. "I won't start it. Let's go."

How do we get to the city? Last night they ran blindly until Yana was completely exhausted. Then Karina, herself stumbling and falling, was carrying her for a while using the invisible hands but soon enough she wore herself out as well. Now the girl was desperately trying to find her bearings. Could we indeed get lost so close to the city?

Stop panicking and use your head. We are clearly on a mountain slope. So one way is uphill, the other one is downhill. Cities are usually built near foothills but not by the seashore, close to water.

The seashore? Yana said they brought her on a ship – so there must be a port in this city. Ports are on water - so if we go downhill, we'll come to the port. The city will be close by. That's it, quite simple.

"Let's go" she pulled Yana by the hand and crawled out of the bushes moving the branches apart with her invisible hands. Then she staggered to her feet. Cut by glass shards and pricked by branches, her bare feet hurt all over but she managed to stand upright.

Yana squealed rising.

 "My feet...they hurt!" she complained.

"Put up with it," Karina replied. "This way," she motioned downhill.

Quite soon they reached the outskirts of the city. The treeline thinned significantly, then disappeared, and the girls found themselves on the edge of the forest, fifty or so fathoms away from two- and three-storied houses surrounded with a sea of green lawns and bushes. Just as Karina expected, clothes were drying on ropes in front of the houses. Karina spotted a couple of seemingly fitting dresses, waited until there was nobody in sight, and - shielded by the fence of greenery - plucked the dresses from the rope. In fact, both dresses were somewhat oversized but beggars can't be choosers. Unfortunately, this solution could not provide them with any footwear but that was not their biggest problem right now. Much more important, her hunger pangs intensified so much that she was beginning to feel sick, and her thinking became progressively foggier.

Food! Where can we find food?

At night we could break into a small shop but in the daytime it's impossible - the owners will call the police, and then...We can't sneak into someone's apartment : sometimes people pass by even empty courtyards. If they see us, they will catch us and return to the Institute. Karina was on the verge of weeping with despair when she discerned the roof of a lone one-storied house under the treetops.

The house looked utterly dilapidated but all its windows were intact, its entrance door was padlocked, and its courtyard - or rather what was meant to replace it - bore all the signs of a human presence. The house was therefore not abandoned, and one could find food inside - or money that would buy food.

Karina's invisible hands broke the lock with ease, and she pushed Yana inside and slipped through after her closing the door carefully behind them. The house was definitely inhabited - even though the hallway was heavily cluttered, and the rooms furniture seemed to be crumbling from age. Yet Karina could not care less about furniture. The kitchen was all she needed.

The kitchen stank as if it had been turned into a scrapyard. In fact, it had: the garbage can had not been taken out for, at least, a week, and both the table and the sink were littered with dirt and leftovers. However the fridge did contain a perfectly edible food! Cooked rice and fish, small sausages, butter... There were also quite a few sealed bottles labeled 'Beer' but Karina ignored them. She had happened to taste this bitter muck once in the orphanage - and she felt sick for quite a while after that. How on Tekira can anybody drink it?

She swept the leftovers off the table and dumped the fridge's contents onto it. For several minutes the girls were gorging and washing the food down with tap water until their seemingly boundless hunger was finally gone. Yet Karina's colic was not gone. If anything, it only aggravated, and the girl was barely able to force herself to keep swallowing while fighting off paroxysms of nausea.

"Karina, I can't eat any more," Yana tugged at her sleeve. "Let's go, shall we?"

"Just a moment..." the other muttered through her clenched teeth suppressing a moan. "We need to take some with us as supplies...Wait..."

She grabbed a big, dirty rag and began to pile the dinner remnants onto it. She was about to tie the rag ends into a knot when the front door slammed loudly.

"What's the fuck?!" a hoarse male voice boomed from the hallway. "Murki, you just look at it - what sort of a mother-fucker snapped our lock like that, heh?"

The girls froze, paralyzed with fear. Karina was feverishly looking around - nowhere to hide! The window? I won't be able to open it right away, they'll hear me.

"Some bastard broke in, for sure," the second voice was as hoarse. "Go scan the rooms, he might still be around."

Dart for the window? No time. No time!

 No time.

"Whoops, and who do we have here?" a heavyset man appeared in the doorway, surprise in his voice clearly exaggerated. His paint-stained coverall looked as untidy as his stubble-covered face. "Look at them, Murki! That's who our burglars are!"

"Sure thing," the second man echoed in a deep voice. He looked like his companion's twin brother. "Breaking in, I guess. Stealing brats."

"We teach them a lesson, eh, Murki?" the first man inquired scratching his belly lazily. "Like giving them a good spanking, maybe? Or just hand them over to the police?"

"Nope, Sakira, no police," the man called Murki smirked. "Guess, you aren't eager to meet the police, brats. Heh? Speak up or has the cat got your tongues?"

"Sure, they aren't," Sakira snorted contentedly. "No worries, we are good people. We won't call the police. We'll punish you ourselves."

He stepped forward, gripped Karina's shoulder and bent towards her, his breath reeking of alcohol.

"Yep, pussycat, we'll deal with you quite informally. You might like it, too."

With an unexpected agility he reached for Yana and pushed her towards the second man.

"Make sure she doesn't escape," he grinned wryly. "I'll deal with this one."

The man seized Karina firmly, turned her around and pushed her forward, onto the kitchen table. Forcing her tightly against the tabletop, he flipped the hem of her dress over her head.

"Your father surely disciplines you, and then some!" he muttered feeling her buttocks. "The back is nothing but bruises. Guess, he has to, with such a thief for a daughter. Doesn't matter, I'll teach you an even better lesson..."

His words roused Karina from her stupor as she suddenly realized what he was up to. Older girls in her orphanage would whisper what an evil male adult could do to you if you were to fall into his hands. Back then their stories barely made any sense to her but now she somehow knew: something bad was about to happen. Something really bad - even worse than what had been happening to her in the Institute. Horror-stricken, she struck backwards blindly with her invisible hands.

There was a disgusting squelching sound, and the pressing hand disappeared from her neck. A short scream died almost immediately – even before the man's body slammed into the kitchen opposite wall tearing down several shelves with a crash. Karina pushed her body away from the table, straightened up and faced the second man. He kept switching his stare between her and his companion's rubbish-covered body without realizing what had just happened. The very moment a gleam of comprehension finally lit in his eyes, Karina's invisible hands struck again crushing his ribs and turning his face into a bloody mess.

A short-lived groan, a soft thump of the head against the doorpost - the wood cracked with a distinctly audible crunching sound - and the second body slumped to the ground bringing Yana along with it, her shoulder still in its vicelike grip. The girl thrashed around and squeaked faintly. For a few seconds Karina was looking at her, as if in a haze. Her heart was beating madly, and she could hardly breathe. At last, she recovered enough to bend towards Yana slowly and help her to her feet.

"You killed them," the younger girl whispered, terror in her voice. "You killed them!"

"Serves them right!" Karina answered hoarsely. "I would kill them again if I had to! You think they wanted to caress you?" she yelled suddenly at the top of her voice, and Yana shrank back. "To caress, right? Don't you understand, you fool, what they wanted to do?"

Tears appeared in Yana's eyes, and she sniffled loudly.

"Stop wailing," Karina said gloomily. "Let's get out of here before somebody else drops by..."

She took Yana by the hand and dragged her along.

Only outdoors did Karina realize that the food bundle she had prepared was still in the destroyed kitchen. However, she was in no position to worry about food in any case: her temporarily retreated colic came back, and fighting off nausea was becoming more difficult by the minute. We must run, run to the forest, before somebody else comes...

Two hundred fathoms farther into the forest, already among the trees, she dropped to her knees and threw up unchewed food - once, twice, three times...A bitter taste of bile was filling her mouth. She remained on all fours for a while fighting off a sudden onset of weakness and dizziness. The she regained her feet slowly. Yana was watching her horror-stricken and overwhelmed with anxiety, seemingly herself on the verge of fainting.

"Let's go," Karina whispered. "We have to go."

She staggered around navigating between tree trunks. The mist over her eyes grew ever thicker, her mind was racing as if her thoughts were performing a wild an exotic dance. Familiar and strange faces swam before her eyes. Her ears were full of buzzing and irritating voices shouting out unintelligible words. Sometimes her colic would force her to double up but every time she willed herself to straighten up and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Eternities later she fell to her knees and vomited once again - this time but acid fluid. Beside herself with panic, Yana shook her.

"Karina! Kara!" she called out, almost in tears. "Are you ill? Ill, aren't you? Kara!"

As if from a distance, Karina felt something rough and thorny coming at her side. I must have fallen to the ground. I must rise...I must rise and go... Then the world spun around her, and she fainted.

Yana was looking at prostrated Karina in complete confusion. She was shivering, even though the noon was warm. She hugged herself trying to keep warm but it did not help.

She did not know what to do. She was somewhat afraid of this tough and utterly determined Karina but she had no clue what to do without her. Only a few days ago everything was so simple and clear: there were her parents who loved and protected her - and there was everybody else who she had to hide her gift from. Then there came strangers with yellow lying eyes who told her that her parents would not return. Her head suddenly felt as if it was squeezed: an unbearable buzzing sound inside kept her from thinking and from lifting objects without using her hands as she had been able to do.

Her whole world turned into a nightmare: she was being transported somewhere, kept in soft padded rooms without windows and even without beds, hurt by needles, then shoved into a dark iron box and transported once again.

Then the box began to rattle, and it burst open. The droning in her head disappeared but the nightmare persisted. First she ran somewhere following a strange girl, both were naked but shielded by a big metal slab floating in front of them as she supported it with her non-hands; something small but strong was constantly pounding at the slab like a downpour trying to wrench it out of her non-hands and throw it aside; some people smeared in red - was it blood? - were lying side by side by the walls the girls were running by; a big beautiful cylinder in a large hall - they combined their efforts to break it off the floor with their non-hands and hurl it through a glass wall; her smarting bare feet hurt by glass shards.

And later on - trees, a cold night, a flight without a destination and the warmth of the other girl's body she was cuddling up to trying to stay warm.

She was afraid of this strange girl because she could see terrible feelings raging in her head. Yana herself had never experienced or understood those feelings but would sometimes observe them in adult men and women in the street - and sometimes these men and women would fight with each other or exchange rude words Yana's mom forbade her to repeat. However, Yana saw in Karina other feelings as well - the feelings her mom would have when she was crying and hugging Yana, the dad staying beside, silent and perplexed. Yana was more familiar with those feelings - they were called 'fear' and 'despair'. And Yana pitied Karina.

Now, that she had nothing left in her life but Karina – even her dress was stolen! - and Karina was lying prostrated, motionless and emptied of all feelings, Yana was at a loss. She had seldom gone out even before her gift revealed itself - only to school, and she would always hurry home after the classes. And then she found out that she was able to lift things without using her hands and see feelings in other people's heads. The revelation happened a week after her ninth birthday. Yana remembered quite well how mom's cheerful and carefree attitude gave way to a sudden wave of terror. After that day mom would not let her out of the house at all. Yana knew how to prepare meals for herself using groceries in the fridge, how to call a fire brigade, or mop the floor, or do her homework (dad insisted that she should continue reading textbooks even after she had been forbidden to go to school). However, she did not have the first idea, what to do with a friend helplessly prostrated on the ground in the forest when there was nobody around to call for help. And she was scared.

Should I go look for someone? But Karina was hiding from people. Probably that's how it should be. Probably, people shouldn't see us now. I don't know what's this Institute, and what exactly happened last night but probably it was something really terrible. And just now in the house...no, I shouldn't think about that, not at all. And I can't call for help. But Karina is very ill. Very, very ill. Even now I could almost touch this pain filling her through and through with my hands. What should I do?

Let's think logically - or, as dad would say, let's think as adults do. We've eaten and we have clothes. So, for now, we should hide somewhere. Maybe Karina will recover on her own if she is allowed to lie down quietly for a while. With stomach pains, one should stay in bed. But mom would always forbid to lie on the cold and wet ground. So we must find a house or a shed. Something with a bed in it but no people. Hay would do too - like in that village I went to the winter before last. But how should I carry Karina there? She is big and heavy. Can I lift her without using my hands?

Yana sighed and concentrated. As always, when she tried to lift too heavy an object, something between her shoulder blades tensed up and began to vibrate. Yet Karina's body rose slightly above the ground. One more effort, and Karina was already quarter of a fathom up in the air. Her hands and feet were dangling lifelessly touching the ground but Yana was already exhausted. She would not be able to lift her even higher. Luckily, very little energy was needed to simply keep the body where it was.

All she had to do now was to move and push Karina ahead of her. But where should I go?

Yana sighed heavily, wiped a few tears from her eyes and began to move at random. Where can I find a shelter?


Tsukka just finished putting away recently bought simple utensils when Dzinton dropped by the kitchen.

"How about taking a stroll in the vicinity?" he asked.

"A stroll?" she looked at him in surprise.

"Yeah," he nodded. "You know but one route to the city, and that's quite a detour. You don't like detours, do you? Housewifing can wait a bit!"

Tsukka hesitated. Still lots to do. I have to organize the clothing in the closet, do the room, clean the kitchen, plan my expenses. I surely should call my parents and let them know I am fine (without too many details, that is!). And what about ironing my blouse and skirt? Oops, and what do I iron with? Buying an iron seems like a good idea, I guess. And a wash-basin, too - or I won't be able to do the laundry until there is a washing machine. I wonder what was I thinking when I went shopping! And I need an extra key - Dzinton mentioned that he had changed the door lock himself, and there were only two keys.

"So, are you coming?" Dzinton repeated his question impatiently.

"Ok, you've talked me into it," she smiled. "Just remembered I have to buy something. Let's combine business and pleasure."

"Women!" Dzinton rolled his eyes. "Nothing but shopping on their mind."

"Better than men with nothing at all on their mind," Tsukka retorted. "How should I iron my clothes without an iron. Btw, I am supposed to look neat at work."

"There is an iron," Dzinton waved his hand unconcernedly. "In my room. I'll bring it here later - feel free to use it. Ok, let's go or it will be dark soon. The sun is about to set. Change if you need, I'll wait outside." He turned around and dashed out of the kitchen.

Tsukka smiled again - that's a hurricane rather than a man! - and followed him. I really wonder if that's his idea of courting? Or he is just bored alone? And I still know next to nothing about him. Doesn't matter, I'll ask him now.

The young man indeed showed her a couple of routes she would never discover on her own. It turned out that the surrounding marons had used to be a part of a big and probably beautiful park belonging to the hotel. Now the park, full of thick undergrowth, was quite like a wild forest. A light wooden fence around the park remained mostly intact - even though its tikurin poles had here and there given in to the rain and the wind, and fallen to the ground, splintered.

It emerged that there were no less than three exits from the courtyard next to the entrance: one of them led through the main gate, the other two - through the wickets in side walls. Several roads started at those walls, ran through the remnants of the fence wickets and beyond. One such road twisted between the trees and ended up at a precipice facing the bay. A steep stone stairway with occasional crumbling steps led all the way from the precipice down, to the city. A cliff protruding above the precipice, nicknamed by Dzinton 'an observation rock', provided a breathtaking view of the bay and the city - an even more gorgeous view than that offered by the observation deck where Tsukka and Dzinton had met.

"Stay away from here in the dark or you'll never be found in one piece," the guy warned her. "I should install some kind of lighting here when I have time. During the day it's a very convenient shortcut – you get to the public transport twice as fast. Down there is the Lilac Boulevard, it's served by the monorail."

There was also a dirt road that led to the precipice as well. After that it dived down to the stony screes of the ocean shore covered with creeping birch. Tsukka would not think of taking this trail even in broad daylight - unless somebody secured her with a rope attached to her waist. On the other hand, the view of the ocean, shining and sparkling under the sun, was absolutely magnificent. Tsukka promised herself that she would come here at the very first opportunity to watch a tsunami - when a giant wave of twenty or even thirty fathoms heaves all over the shallow waters, accelerates and tumbles down on the rocky shore crushing and scattering stones. That must be a spectacular show - way more impressive than in the bay area where the wave is weakened by the long and narrow estuary.

The third road - a paved one - also led to the outer shore but it did not descend to the ocean. Dzinton said, it ran on for three or four versts, passing by a number of functional hotel resorts, before it merged with a network of mountain walking trails built in particular for the vacationers.

One could also ignore the established roads and go straight through the park aiming at the fences of one- and two-storied houses wherefrom narrow paths slithering between the houses led to some bigger streets in the neighborhood.

"How do you know all that?" Tsukka wondered when he led her to a quiet street overgrown with grass. "As if you had a map in your head."

"I've lived here for half-a-year," he explained. "More than enough time to explore the area. I am not too busy, either - so I just hang about."

"Half-a year? And where had you lived before that?"

"You are as curious as a cat," he laughed. "About everywhere. Actually, I am from Okanaka but I didn't like it there. So I just ran away."

"You didn't like Okanaka?" Tsukka was astonished. "But it's the capital, not like our neck of the woods!"

"Masaria is anything but your typical neck of the woods," he shook his head. "It's a major port responsible for about seven percent of Katonia's sea traffic. Its geographic location is near perfect, and if it were not for tsunamis...As for the capital, so what? A big, noisy, dirty city with a crazy pace of life nobody needs, including the residents. All people think of is money and careers, and how to have the most luxurious vacation possible, the farther from home is the better. Cars everywhere, never ending traffic jams, stinking air - and winter snow that can't even linger on the ground. It melts right away, then freezes in the night, and there is black ice. Then they have to apply chemicals that later get washed away onto lawns and kill trees and grass. In short, it's quite bad."

"But..." Tsukka was perplexed. "Okanaka is nevertheless the capital."

"And so what? What is there that isn't here? Expensive pubs with sluts where you can squander your salary for a whole thriceweek in one evening - and not even enjoy it properly? Such nests of vipers as the Assembly, and the government offices? All those artists and pop culture stars that make you feel sick when you get to know them? Thanx but no thanx!"

Tsukka was at a loss for words. For her, the capital was a faraway city of lights populated by friendly and cheerful people whose live was easy and fun. Nests of vipers? Pubs? Traffic jams? Dead trees? Sure, Dzinton knows what he is talking about but...

"So why did you leave Okanaka?" she asked finally. "Just because you didn't like it?"

"Just don't like staying put for too long," her companion shrugged. "I have no family, and I don't have to be next to my buddies to talk to them. I make my living by playing the market, and all you need for that is a terminal and a couple of programs. On the bright side, a vagrant like me has lots of opportunities to see the world."

"I see..." Tsukka sighed. "I would love to see the world but I have no money to travel."

"You'll travel enough." Dzinton hummed. "You are still quite young to worry about that. You'll graduate from the university, get a well-paid job in some observatory and travel to your heart's content."

"Graduate...Wouldn't be bad to get admitted first. I already failed once, you know."

"And why?" Dzinton asked in an unexpectedly harsh voice. "Now then, tell me, why did you fail?"

Tsukka raised her shoulder slightly.

"Not enough preparation," she admitted reluctantly. "I began taking part-time jobs when I was in school. We've never been doing too well. Dad's allowance is quite modest, Tanna - my stepmother - is a housewife. Her work is to take care of the kids. I couldn't even afford proper textbooks, had to do with the old stuff."

"Old doesn't necessarily means bad," Dzinton remarked pensively. "How relevant they are, that's a different matter. We'll fix this problem, I should be able to pull some strings. Let's leave it at that for now, I need some time to think. By the way, I am quite hungry. There is a nice cafe not far from here, cheap enough and surprisingly good. Let's take a walk in its direction. It's my turn to cook today, so the dinner is on me..."


Yana came across an abandoned house hours later, already in a state of utter despair. It seemed, she had trudged for ages carrying Karina's unresponsive body ahead of her and only sometimes stopping to give a rest to her achy feet. Sometimes Karina would regain her consciousness and moan softly, then drift off again. Sometimes she asked for water but Yana had no idea where to find it. She also felt hungry and thirsty. Sunlight could not penetrate the treetops any longer, and the forest was getting darker by the minute. Driven by anxiety, the girl would look around nervously whenever the gusting wind made branches creak or any rustling sound reached her ears. The temperature was dropping rapidly - the spring had not completely taken over yet, and sometimes it would give in to the old winter's cold breath descending from the mountains.

A big two-storied house stood on a roomy glade still partially lit by the setting sun. It looked completely forsaken - its tikurin fence had fallen apart; its windows were nothing but gaping black holes with occasional shards of broken glass; once white, paint on its walls had turned into untidy tatters of dirt mixed with some indefinable color; its door was hanging on but one hinge; burdock stalks and grass tufts were sprouting through a formerly paved but now cracked walkway running by the house.

A house. A shelter. It's possible to hide there. Moving her heavy legs with a great effort, Yana started towards the door. She pushed away the hanging door leaf with her hands and squeezed through the doorway while going backwards lest she hurt Karina. She found herself in a big hallway, in front of a large staircase leading to the second floor. Yana lowered unconscious Karina on the floor carefully and looked around. In dim evening light she spotted an old bed littered with old clothes in one of the rooms. It smelled distinctly of damp and lingering decay. Yet the empty window aperture was carefully filled with veneer, and there was no draught. If I close the door, we won't freeze at night.

Yana lifted Karina laboriously, carried her to the room and put her on the bed. Then she covered her with clothes for warmth, sat beside hugging herself to fight off the cold and began to think. Alone, next to an ill - or maybe even dying - friend. There is no food, no water. What should I do? It's so unfair! I am still a child, and I need an adult to help me! Tears filled her eyes, and she started sobbing.

She stopped sobbing and froze when she heard a low creaking sound. The sound came again, and she looked up. Something looking like a shadow cut out of black paper was standing motionlessly at the door. The girl was scared out of breath - what if an evil obaka came to visit her out of the depth of the forest? He'll kill me and then eat my body! But I will fight! I shouldn't strike at people but obaka isn't human!

"Hey!" the shadow asked, surprised. "Who are you?"

"I am Yana. And you?" she replied warily.

"I am Palek. I live here...for now. And how did you get here? Have you escaped, too?"

 What a strange name...Escaped? How does he know? And why 'too' - is he also...

"Why are you sobbing?" the shadow came closer. Now that the shadow was not blocking the light, Yana realized that it was a boy of about her own age standing in front of her.

"I am thirsty," she sniffled. "And Karina is ill, she is dying. I don't know what to do. I am scared."

"Dying?" his jaw dropped "How is that possible? Why don't you call adults? The last time I ran away I fell into a ravine and sprained my hand - so I came back right away. I am not nuts, you know. Which orphanage are you from?"

"Me?" Yana was taken aback. "I am not from an orphanage. I..."

She fell silent. At this moment she would not be able to explain where she came from - even if she wanted to be honest. And she could not be honest with the boy - or anybody!"

"You don't have to tell me if you don't feel like it," the boy did not seem to mind. "Thirsty, you said? Wait a moment."

He turned around and ran out of the room but returned almost right away.

"Here," he squeezed a big plastic bottle into Yana's hands. "The water is quite clean, from a quality spring. Go ahead, drink. No fears."

Yana did not need a second invitation. She pressed the bottle neck against her lips and began to swallow the cold water greedily until her throat was sore. She stopped suddenly as she realized that Karina also was thirsty. She forced herself to break away from the bottle and shook her friend's shoulder cautiously.

"Karina!" she called out. "Kara! I have water. Are you thirsty? Kara!"

The other moaned softly but did not move. Yana froze in confusion. What should I do? How can I make her drink? She tried to pour some water straight into Karina's mouth but the liquid just trickled down the girl's cracked, tightly closed lips.

"You don't know how," Palek said confidently. "Let me do it."

He took the bottle, bent over Karina and applied pressure somewhere under her lower jaw thus forcing her mouth slightly open. Then he poured several drops of water into it. The girl swallowed spasmodically, and he immediately poured some more.

Karina had a coughing fit and then suddenly she sat up in bed.

"I don't want to go back to the bench," she cried out. "Please, Sir, don't. I don't want to."

She fell on her back and drew a groan, then turned to her side and curled up into a ball drawing her knees to her chin. Yana darted towards her and started to shake her.

"Karina!" she shouted. "Wake up, Karina! I don't know what to do! Kara!"

Something soft and invisible slid down her cheek, wrapped around her neck and disappeared. Then there came guttural, gasping sounds - Karina was vomiting once again.


Yana felt tears welling up in her eyes.

"Hold on," Palek said level-headedly. "Stop yelling. Let me go find some adults. They'll bring a doctor, take her to a hospital and help her there."

"She can't go to a hospital!" Yana shouted at him. "We have escaped! They'll take us back to the Institute, and she'll be tortured again! No hospital, don't you understand?"

Suddenly she felt an overwhelming desire to find herself thousand versts from that place - at home, with Mom sewing on the sofa and Dad rustling a newspaper in the armchair, the chandelier glowing under the ceiling and she herself cuddling up to Mom and blinking sleepily at her picture book... I am scared! I don't know what to do!

The girl jumped to her feet and dashed towards the door wailing. She ran across the hallway, darted out of the house bumping her shoulder painfully against the dangling door and began to run blindly. In a few moments she rammed into something soft and warm. A woman gasped quietly.

"And where is the fire, my young Lady?" a male voice asked, and Yana felt a firm hand on her shoulder.


"Tired of wandering?" Dzinton asked.

"A bit," Tsukka nodded. "And drowsy, too - must have eaten quite well. A good cafe, by the way, I really liked it."

"A good one, for sure," Dzinton agreed. "I chanced upon it on my very first day in Masaria. I even chose the hotel because it was almost next to it. OK, home we go. That trail over there runs through the forest and leads to the city but if you know where to turn, you'll come straight to the southern wicket soon enough. Ten minutes, and we are home."

It was already quite dark, and the Star Pond continued to brighten up in the east illuminating the trees with illusory bluish-yellow light. A firefly flashed and disappeared, another one followed. A lone balm-cricket started its song but hushed up right away as if it felt ashamed of its premature performance. Tsukka was quietly walking next to Dzinton over a crumbling asphalt road and breathing in the cool evening air with great relish. An amazing day is over. Only yesterday I was achingly groping for words, to explain my decision to Dad and Tanna, then leaving with a heartrending feel of an irretrievable loss. Then this landlord's inexplicable change of mind, and Dzinton, and settling down in the old hotel without the owner's permission. Today it was all about shopping, doing my room and strolling around...Indeed, more has happened to me during the last day than it would during any regular thriceweek. But tomorrow it's back to the old routine - work, work and more work. Counters, shop windows and a never ending stream of customers. Not to forget the textbooks. Doesn't matter it's still a year before I have to take the exams - that's not a good reason to ignore preparation and keep idling my time away. In particular, my dear, she reminded herself, because all your complaints about the outdated textbooks are nothing but self-deception. They would be good enough, too, if you actually took time to study them. Physics will be a good starting point. Or should it be math?

"Look," Dzinton touched her shoulder. "A derelict house. Been abandoned for quite a while. For some reason, the owners didn't even mothball it properly, unlike our hotel."

Left of the road an old house with a gabled roof indeed silhouetted against the evening sky. A gust of wind brought a smell of decaying wood.

"Do you know why they abandoned it?"

"There are many like that in the area," Dzinton explained. "It's just too expensive to live in a detached house. You have to pay for the water pipes, the sewer system, versts of electric cables, all that...To heat the house in winter you would have to either install a personal oil or gas boiler, or use electric devices that consume a lot of expensive energy. Maintaining car accessways is also quite a headache: any hurricane, not even a major one - and the road will be littered with branches or even trunks. You might have to rent a tractor to unblock it. Living in cities is much cheaper - in particular if your apartment there is connected to a central heating and power plant. However, those CHPPs are much more popular in the north than here, in the south. Mark this spot as a reference point, by the way - in about fifty steps we have to turn..."

Suddenly he stopped short and froze on the spot.

"What..." Tsukka began to ask but he interrupted her by raising the palm of his hand.

"Hush up. I think I have..."

He interrupted himself and listened.

"I thought I heard a child crying," he explained in a minute. "Must have been wrong."

And suddenly a ringing voice came from the old house but the words were unclear. Something small, quick and light-colored darted out of the doorway and crashed into Tsukka at full speed. She gasped involuntarily in pain. A little child? A girl? What is she doing here at such a late hour? Why is she crying?

Dzinton squatted quickly and put his hands on the girl's shoulders turning her onto him.

"And what is burning, my young Lady?" he asked.

"Karina is ill!" the girl cried out. "She is dying! Help us, Splendid Sir! I am humbly asking for help!"

"Now, now, little one," Dzinton said soothingly. "We'll help. Who is Karina and where is she?"

"There, in the house," the kid managed to reply choking with tears. "Help us, Sir, I'll do whatever you want me to. I can't deal with it alone anymore!"

"Now you aren't alone," he smiled at her while wiping off her tears with his fingers. "We are here too, aren't we, Tsu? What's your name, young Lady?"


"Very good, Yana. Now calm down. We are here, and everything will be alright," Dzinton straightened up. "Now lead us to your friend."

Yana sniffled and trudged back towards the house, her eyes seeking them all the time. Tsukka and Dzinton followed.

The smell of decay became much more distinct when they entered the house. This place feels quite unsafe - even a sneeze might cause this roof to collapse. What is the City thinking about? Should have taken down this ramshackle structure a while ago. Tsukka shrank as the damp and stuffy air enwrapped her like a bedspread. How could anybody choose to stay here?

Dzinton took his pelephone out of his pocket and turned it on using its screen as a source of light. Shadows began to dance on the walls. Yana approached one of the gaping doorways and slipped inside.

A sour smell of vomit dominated the room. When they entered, a slip of a boy leaped to his feet and flattened himself against the wall. A pile of old clothes was scattered over the bed.

"So then," Dzinton muttered. "That's really bad."

He came to the bed and dumped the clothes on the floor. Suddenly Tsukka realized that a little child in a stained white dress was curling up on the bed. Dzinton moved the girl from her side to her back cautiously and studied her face.

"Yana, what's wrong with her?" he inquired placing his powered pelephone face up on a ledge on the wall. Then he pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket, raised Karina's eyelid and illuminated her pupil. "What happened?"

"We..." Yana was obviously hesitant how she should reply. "We ate in the afternoon, then she had stomach ache and started to throw up. Then we went on, and she became sick again and fell..."

"Got it," the man nodded. "Did you both eat the same food?"


"Then it's not poisoning."

He unclenched the girl's teeth and looked into her mouth still using the flashlight.

"Yana, tell me the truth," he turned to face the younger girl who was flattening herself against the wall next to the boy, clearly frightened. "Have you taken any medicine? Pills? Herbs? Say, those that make you feel lighthearted and carefree?"

Yana shook her head, "I don't know, Sir," she said quickly. "Not today."

"And what about yesterday? The day before yesterday?"

She remained silent.

"Well," Dzinton exhaled through his clenched teeth. "Tsu, help me. I have to get to her belly. I'll lift her, and you take off her dress."

Tsukka nodded. I wonder if he is a doctor. He is acting so confidently. The thought was nipped in the bud when she started taking the girl's dress over her head. There was no underwear, not even simple panties, under the dress, and her whole little, poorly developed body was covered with bruises distinctly visible even in the dim light provided by the pelephone screen. Occasionally there appeared small round scars as if caused by burns.

"Was she beaten with a buckle belt?" Dzinton muttered. "Her father must be a drunkard. Probably that's why she escaped..."

He put Karina on her back and pressed different points with his fingers several times. Then he paused to think.

"I need her conscious," he said finally. "I can't check her belly without a feedback. Well, I'll have to..."

He put his fingers on her solar plexus and made an imperceptible motion either pressing or stroking it. The girl groaned heavily.

"It's all right, poppet," Dzinton murmured stroking her hair. "It's all right. You are safe, you can relax. Do you hear me, Karina?"

"I don't want to go to the bench," the girl mumbled. "I am in pain. Please..."

Dzinton gave Yana a strange look but he did not ask anything. Instead he said gently,

"You won't go to the bench, little one. I promise. But I need your help. Tell me, does it hurt like that?"

He pressed her belly cautiously, and she gave a shudder.

"Yes," she whispered.

"And this way? And now?"

"It hurts," she whispered again breathing in spurts. "I didn't want to kill them, honestly! It was an accident! I won't do it again, just don't hurt me! Please!"

"I won't hurt you again, dear," Dzinton said soothingly. "Now sleep."

He raised the girl's head slightly and pressed her neck at some point with his fingers. Her delicate body twitched and came to a standstill but her breathing was relaxed and quiet now.

"She is asleep," Dzinton explained to Tsukka returning the flashlight back to the pocket. "But she has to be taken to a hospital quite urgently. There is some strange reaction I can't make sense of. On the one hand, all the symptoms point at acute gastritis. On the other hand, she seems to be suffering from a residual of some powerful neurotropic drug - but I can't say for sure. We need a professional doctor.

I'll get her dressed and carry her to the nearest street. There we hail a cab and go to a hospital..."


Yana rushed off from the wall towards Dzinton. Tsukka gave her a surprised stare.

"Don't take her to a hospital! Sir, Lady, please! I beg you, don't!"

"But why?" Dzinton squatted in front of her and looked into her eyes. "They won't hurt her. Just the opposite, they'll help her and cure her. Doctors are really good and efficient in dealing with stomach pain, do you understand?

"But she'll be taken back to the Institute!" Yana shouted and stopped short.

Tsukka pricked her ears up. Back to the Institute? What's the Institute?

"To the Institute of Man?" Dzinton double-checked. "That's what it is, Yana? The Institute of Man, right?"

"I don't know, Sir," the girl whispered avoiding his look. "I was brought there only yesterday....oops!"

She clutched her mouth with both hands as children do when they just blurted out the truth unwittingly while intending to lie.

"Yana," he said soothingly, "Please, believe me, I don't mean you any harm. I want to help both of you but you must tell me the truth - were it the two of you that escaped from there yesterday night?"

She let out a labored sigh and nodded.

"What do you know!" Dzinton muttered. "No hospital, indeed. But what should we do?"

He let go of her and straightened up. For a while he was deep in thought rocking up and down on the balls of his feet. Then he tossed his head.

"Tsukka, unlock your pelephone and give it to me, please."

Tsukka looked at him uncomprehendingly but took the small device off her neck and passed it to Dzinton after having punched in the code. He immediately began typing something, and Tsukka could not take her eyes off his fingers flying over the keyboard at an enormous speed - so that individual clicks confirming each sylletter's input merged into an uninterrupted crackle. Then Dzinton took his own pelephone - shadows immediately renewed their dance on the walls - and performed some manipulations with it.

"Here," he held her pelephone out to her. "I've entered a list of medications we'll need and transferred a bit of cash to your pelephone account. That's all I have in my wallet right now but that should be enough. Worst case scenario, add some of yours - I'll give it back to you. There is a pharmacy at the corner of Lilac and Fair - could you find it?"

She shook her head.

"Haven't really settled in yet," she said somewhat embarrassedly. "You know how it is..."

"True, true," he muttered. "Bad luck. Hm, how should I explain?"

"I know that pharmacy, Sir," the ringing voice belonged to the boy who dared finally to leave his corner and come closer. "I could take the Lady there."

"Great," the man smiled at him. "Maybe you know an old hotel called 'The Maroon Grove' too?

"I do."

"Even better. Take Lady Tsukka to the pharmacy and then to the hotel. I'll carry Karina there. But be quick - she is very ill, and we must hurry. What's your name?"

"I am Palek Brin, Sir. Pleasure to meet you. I seek benevolence."

"My pleasure, my young Sir. Benevolence granted. I am Dzinton. Let's do it, Palek. I rely on you."

The boy approached Tsukka and looked at her, a question in his eyes. Dzinton nodded to her, and she nodded back and moved towards the door. Seems like the day is going to be even more adventurous than it seemed to be ten minutes ago...

Dzinton watched the boy and the young woman leaving, then dialed a number and put the pelephone to his ear.

"Good evening, Doctor Karsaki," he said. "It's Dzinton calling, Dzinton Muratsiy. I apologize for disturbing you at such a late hour but I need a professional advice. Yes, right now. Yes, strictly confidential. My humblest apologies but it's a matter of life and death, literally so. I have a child here with acute gastritis, a low blood pressure and something else, too – possibly heart problems. No, I can't call an ambulance, it's quite a delicate matter. I'll pay you twice the standard amount because of the time and the urgency. Well, it's a long story - just call a taxi and ask the driver to bring you to the 'Maroon Grove' hotel, his navigator should have it. Yes, I am waiting. Thank you."

He switched off the device and turned to Yana.

"Karsaki is a good doctor, and he won't go to the police," he explained. "Help me to get Karina dressed, and we'll take her to my place. She'll be safe there."

He scrutinized the girl.

"What about yourself, Yana? Not sick?"

"No, Sir Dzinton," she shook her head. "Just hungry."

"This problem is easy to deal with, little one," Dzinton smiled. "All we need is to get home. Just hold on a little longer because I won't be able to carry both of you. It's not far at all, about a ten-minute walk. Can you make it? Good girl! Now we have to get Karina dressed lest she freeze while I carry her. I'll lift her, and you put the dress on her. Keep it like that, ok?"

It grew completely dark outside but the path between the trees was somewhat illuminated by the light coming off the rising Star Pond and seeping through the treetops. Burdocks and grass cast dark deep shadows hiding potholes and clefts, and barefooted Yana kept stumbling barely able to keep her feet. Finally she caught hold of Dzinton's shirt while he was carrying Karina. It facilitated her progress for a while but soon enough he left the path and moved to the forest floor. Walking became a difficult task once again. Her tired feet would not miss a single root, and in no time her hurt toes began to sting. When they finally made it to the dim courtyard of the hotel, the girl was utterly exhausted and she could barely move.

 "Here we are," Dzinton exhaled with relief and laid Karina on a bench in the courtyard. "Almost ready."

He switched on the entrance lighting, opened the door, picked Karina up from the bench and nodded to Yana.

"Come in."

Then Dzinton kicked off his sandals and stepped up onto the high floor of the hallway. Yana froze in hesitation. Dzinton sensed it, turned around and wondered in obvious surprise,

"Anything's wrong?"

"My feet are dirty," Yana explained embarrassedly. "I'll mess up..."

"The rest of you isn't much cleaner," the man grinned. "Come in, never mind. If you mess up, well tidy up. The bathroom is at the end of the hallway, get in and soak as much as you wish. As for clean clothes...hm, that looks like a real problem. I don't have any that might fit a girl your age. Maybe Tsukka will come up with something - she should be back by the time you are done with bathing. If the worst comes to the worst, you'll have to wear your raiment a little longer. Now bathroom, on the double!"

He went down the hallway, kicked one of the doors open and disappeared inside with Karina.

Yana sighed, stood on her tiptoes not to soil too much and stepped onto the high floor. She followed Dzinton and peeped into the room. Karina's dress, completely spoiled after today, lay on the floor. Her naked body was stretched on the bed's empty mattress, and Dzinton was palpating her belly carefully.

Yana shuddered. What if he is a pervert that likes to molest little girls like those two men? No, impossible. He is so kind and determined.

She went on and found the bathroom at the third attempt. She opened the hot water, entered the bathtub and began to rub herself eagerly with a sponge at hand.

Tsukka and Palek appeared at the same time with Doctor Tarsaki. They were approaching the door when they heard a car engine behind the bushes. A door shut with a slam, and a tall lean man with gray temples and a bulky bag in his hand inquired,

"Is that the 'Maroon Grove' hotel? I must see Sir Dzinton. Where is the patient?"

"Dzinton must be inside," Tsukka replied. "We have been to a pharmacy to buy medications." As a proof, she showed to him a paper bag marked with the pharmacy logo and filled with drug units. And you, Sir..."

"I am Doctor Tarsaki. He called on my communicator. I see he hasn't wasted any time," the doctor uttered dryly. "I wonder why call me at all if he diagnoses and writes prescriptions all by himself? Well, let's enter."

However, by Karina's bed his resentment evaporated immediately giving way to professional curiosity.

Like Dzinton before, he raised Karina's eyelid and looked into her pupil and checked her pulse. Then he unpacked his bag deftly, took a portable diagnoser out of it and began to attach its sensors to the girl's body. On having attached three of them, he looked over his shoulder discontentedly.

"Sir Dzinton, I would appreciate if nobody breathed down my neck while I am examining the patient."

"Sure, Doctor," Dzinton nodded. "Well, folk, let's leave the room for a while. Anyways, I have something urgent to do." He put his arms around Tsukka's and Palek's shoulders and half-led, half-forced them out of the room. As he was leaving, he took several drug units with pills and vials from the pharmacy bag along with him and closed the door behind him.

"Doctor Tarsaki is a very skilled physician but not exactly an easy-going person," he murmured as if apologizing. "He is right, too: a medical examination does require privacy, and there should be no onlookers. In particular, boys," he added looking askew at Palek.

The boy blushed.

"As if I never saw naked chicks in a bathhouse," he muttered. "Anyways, time for me to go, Sir Dzinton. Good evening to you."

"Wait, you touchy hedgehog," Dzinton laughed. "No need to curl into a ball, I don't bite. Tsu, Yana is splashing around in the tub – try to think of some clothes for her. That dirty rag three sizes bigger than hers just won't do. Maybe you have a spare nightgown? Let her have it for the night, be so nice - tomorrow, when better rested, we'll figure something out. Palek, could I have a word with you?"

 As he was saying that, he led Palek towards the kitchen where he sat on a stool and looked at the boy attentively. The latter scowled and turned away.

"Palek, I really appreciate your help," Dzinton said earnestly, "You've just salvaged the day for us. We'll talk more about it later but for now just tell me: do you have any shelter? Any place you'd like to return to?"

No answer.

"I see," Dzinton sighed. "Have you escaped with Karina and Yana from the Institute?"

The boy shook his head.

"From an orphanage, then? Have I guessed it right this time?" Dzinton raised Palek's chin slightly and looked into his eyes. "I have. That explains your northern name, too! Listen, hedgehog, today you aren't going anywhere. There is lots of space here, and spending a night under a roof is so much better than staying outdoors or in this rotten shack. Besides, we'll concoct something for you and Yana to eat. You must be hungry, I am sure"

"I better go," the boy answered brusquely. "Thanx for..."

"Palek," Dzinton interrupted, "I know what you're thinking about. You are afraid that tomorrow morning I'll call the police, and you'll be taken back to the orphanage. It won't happen, I promise you. Like any adult, I don't like to see children left to their own devices - you'll understand why when you grow up. I will not betray you, on my word. And one more thing..." he rose from the stool, went to the window and peered into the darkness. "This girl, Yana. She is afraid and lonely. Don't leave her during the night, ok? She needs a friend, at least, for a while. Help her, will you?"

"OK," Palek nodded. "But that's for sure you promise you won't call the police, Sir Dzinton? And your wife won't too? "

"First of all, Tsukka isn't my wife," Dzinton smiled at him. "Not even a girlfriend. She is her own person. Second, let's skip the formalities: call me Dzinton. And third, that's absolutely for sure, I promise I won't call the police. And you can stay here as long as you wish. OK, then. Now I'll tinker a bit with all that..."

He spread the pills and vials out on the table, turned on the kettle, pulled a little mortar out of a table drawer and began to grind the pills moving his hands quickly and deftly. Then he poured the resulting powder into the cubicles of a plastic ice tray, filled a small glass with warm water from the kettle, broke the vials - a strong odor of medications immediately permeated the kitchen - and started pouring the powder and the liquids into the glass. Sometimes he would decant the mixture into another glass using a gauze and spilling the sediment into the sink. Palek was watching him, spellbound.

 "What are you preparing, Si...Dzinton?" he asked finally unable to contain himself anymore. "A drug?"

"Yes, a drug," Dzinton agreed absentmindedly. "A special drug you wouldn't find in pharmacies. I am afraid, Karina won't survive without it. Now we'll add a bit more..."

He poured the content of a vial into the glass with a seemingly lilac liquid, and the new mixture gradually became light blue before losing its color altogether.

"Almost done. Now get rid of what's superfluous, and that's it."

He poured some liquid from the glass into a metal dipper and placed it on a hot stove. A new, sickly-sweet smell filled the kitchen. Dzinton nodded, satisfied.

"Ready now," he reported. "Couldn't care less about sterilizing it - any germ able to survive in such a potion would deserve no less respect than an icicle holding its own when challenged by fire."

He swept the table and threw the leftovers of the medications into a trash can. Then he rinsed the used containers, placed the dipper with the liquid on a cabinet and covered it with a glass trivet.

"Hey, men!" Tsukka entered the kitchen followed by Yana who was dressed in a long nightgown sweeping the floor. The girl's wet hair was sticking up in all directions. "Have you turned the kitchen into a chemical lab? Or are you busy discussing important matters? May silly women join in?"

"Silly women may not," Dzinton winked. "Neither may stupid men. But you both are smart and beautiful , aren't you? So you may, indeed. Not hungry yet after your pharmacy shopping?"

"No, not yet. But our guests must be fed. Yuk, all that stench! What have you been doing here?"

"We must still have some cooked food left." Dzinton came to the fridge and looked inside. "So...boiled potatoes from yesterday, some bacon from today, half a cabbage head but that's for later...

What else? Sausages, eggs, mayonnaise. And here..." he looked into the breadbox. "Half a loaf. Should be good enough. Hey, young folk, how is this for a menu? Now we'll warm it all up and slice - and you'll have a delicious meal."

"I've bought a couple of yogurts and milk," Tsukka remarked. "Take them, too."

Yana and Palek attacked the food. Dzinton was watching them with almost a fatherly smile, and Tsukka giggled inwardly. Men like nothing better than regarding themselves as valiant defenders of helpless children and damsels in distress. However, he clearly knows his way around children, and they like him as well...

A couple of minutes later the doctor dropped in the kitchen.

"I have finished my examination," he announced. "Sir Dzinton, can I have a word with you?"

Dzinton looked at Tsukka, suggesting with his eyes that she should join him, and followed the doctor to Karina's room.

"So," the doctor sounded as drily as before. "but for my habit not to interfere with something that doesn't concern me, I would definitely call the police and have you - or the girl's parents - charged with child abuse. Her whole body bears traces of maltreatment, and I can't even interpret most of the traces. The circular scars look like cigarette burns but bruises and scratch marks must have been left by

a belt with a big buckle, like what they wear in the army. Besides, the sores on her ankles and wrists are typical of handcuffs and manacles..."

 "I am not interested in external marks, Doctor," Dzinton interrupted him harshly. "I can see them myself. What's inside?"

"Well," the doctor folded his hands behind his back and strode the room. "Undoubtedly there is acute gastritis as you already presupposed. The reason is unclear but if we consider the fully developed atony of her intestinal tract, I could presume that she has eaten a lot of hard and fibre food that caused the irritation of the mucosa. If she were an adult," he added after a slight hesitation, "I would venture to say that she was held unconscious for a long time - a common practice for some prisons for dangerous offenders and for mental health institutions. Such inmates or patients are kept immobilized and fed with liquid mixtures injected into the stomach through nose tubes. This practice is very detrimental to the intestinal tract. The traces on her feet and hands looking like typical marks left by gripping appliances - as well as skin irritation in the nostrils area and sores normally caused by frequent insertions of anal and urinal catheters - support this version. So do the expected parameters of limb muscles, provided that they were permanently subject to an electrical training. If someone, who has been bound like that for a long time, begins to eat hard food all of a sudden, acute gastritis that we can observe here is inevitable. However, Sir Dzinton, the law forbids utterly and completely to treat underage children this way because such measures have a catastrophic impact on a growing body.

 "I see," Dzinton said slowly. "And what's the prognosis?"

"I have injected medications that should reduce inflammation. Generally speaking, her body is in good condition - if you disregard a pain shock. By the way, there are no heart problems, either. Acute gastritis can sometimes produce symptoms that are typical of a heart attack, and it might well confuse an amateur..." his voice became laced with self-conceit. "like yourself. What she needs is rest, ideally in bed, warmth and at least five liquid meals a day - something like low-fat broth with crumb and flavorless grated gruel. Gradually that should be replaced with normal food – first soft, then hard but neither fatty, nor spicy one. Administer the drugs according to the schedule I am going to leave for you - and in about a thriceweek she will be up and running. Initial constipations are very probable, so make sure you have enough laxative. Buy it first thing tomorrow. As for the rest, my dear Sir Dzinton, I am inclined to approve of you set of medications. Naturally, I would prescribe brand names rather than generic drugs that are cheaper but also of a lower quality. However, all in all, they should do. And of course, she must see a doctor once again in about a week - to make sure she is recovering as expected."

 "May I count on you again, Doctor Tarsaki?"

"Yes. But, for the sake of all gods, not at such a late hour."

"Goes without saying," Dzinton took his wallet out of his pants pocket. "Do you prefer paper money, as usual?"

"Of course," the other man nodded. "I don't believe in those modern electronic coins that you can't even touch."

 "Here," Dzinton passed several notes on to him. "I hope the total makes up for the trouble?"

"Yes, it does," the doctor agreed putting the money away. "It's a pleasure to deal with you."

"Likewise. I have already called a taxi - should be here any minute now."

Tsukka glanced at Dzinton with suspicion. I haven't seen him using his pelephone even once after Tarsaki's arrival. How did he do it? And just think of the money he paid! Four thousand - not bad for a physician 's consultation, not bad at all!

 When the hotel door closed behind the doctor, Dzinton returned to Karina's room, the dipper with the medication in his hand. He took a syringe out of the pharmacy bag and filled it with the liquid.

"Two cubes should suffice," he said pensively. "Depends on the dose, of course, but I doubt she received too much."

He strapped the girl's arm with a tourniquet, stuck the needle into her vein, removed the strap and injected the drug slowly and with precision.

"What did you inject?" Tsukka asked.

 "An antidote. And you don't want to know which poison it should neutralize - because you aren't going to like what you hear."

He threw the empty syringe on the table and covered the sleeping girl with a blanket taken out of the closet.

"There," he said thoughtfully sitting on the chair. "Looks like we have a new resident. Or rather two or three residents because Yana and Palek also have nowhere to go. Now I am a lonely wolf - and now I have quite a company if not a real family. We should buy bed linen tomorrow. And some clothes for the girls, too. They don't even have any underwear."

 "Are you sure you don't want to call the police?" Tsukka queried taking a seat on the edge of Karina's bed and tucking the blanket up carefully. "Remember what the doctor said? Those monsters that brutalized her - they surely belong behind bars!"

"Didn't you hear what Yana said? They had escaped from the Institute of Man."

"The Institute of Man?" Tsukka was obviously surprised. "Never heard of it."

"It's quite notorious in certain circles," Dzinton explained frowning. "Formally speaking, the Institute is a non-governmental organization engaged in conducting philosophical researches, supporting certain kinds of writers, developing and financing social projects and so on. They actually have a department working on theoretical models of artins functioning. In fact, this Institute is a brainchild of the Most Splendid Sir Toy Karatsiy – ever heard of him?

 "The leader of the Humanist Party?"

"Exactly. And since his party has for decades controlled from forty to fifty percent of all votes in the Assembly and been therefore – together with the Progressists - instrumental in creating a qualified majority, Sir Toy Karatsiy holds sway both in the Government and in the Presidential Administration. From behind the scenes he directs very considerable financial flows, and some of the money finds its way to the Institute where it is spent on anything but philosophical essays. In particular, by order of..."

Dzinton fell silent.

"What?" Tsukka asked when the silence became uncomfortable.

 "You'd better remain in the dark," he shook his head. "The less you know the better you sleep. But I won't let them have the kids again, not after I've seen what they did to Karina."

She considered his words.

"It's quite expensive to support three kids," she said finally. "How do we manage with the money?"

"We?" Dzinton smiled, and his smile seemed to send waves of warmth down her spinal cord. "Thanx, Tsu, but I don't intend to get you involved in managing those expenses because for now you have indeed no way to cope with them. Me...well, I'll have to play the market three or four hours a day rather than two. Besides, I've invented a new heuristics - so maybe I won't have to work even that much. I'll turn on my automatic player and let him earn money for me. One way or another I'll manage. The real problem is that children should be taken care of - and in that area I have no experience whatsoever. If you could help me with that, I would really appreciate it.

"Of course, I'll help!" Tsukka said fervently.

"That's great!" Dzinton smiled again. Suddenly he got up noiselessly, crossed the room in three strides and flung the door open. A loud double shriek followed as Yana and Palek, whose prop had suddenly disappeared, tumbled into the room.

"Eavesdropping, aren't we?" Dzinton asked reproachfully. "Little piglets!"

The children sat down on the floor rubbing their hurt palms and elbows and looking away guiltily.

"OK, I'll forgive you this one time," the man summed up. "But if I catch you again, I'll turn you into cats and let your curiosity kill you! Well, pipsqueaks, have you eaten your fill? And have you done your dishes? Somehow I am not surprised. That won't do: no cleaners here - so you'll have to clean after yourselves. To the kitchen on the double! Do the dishes and go to bed. Morning brings solace: tomorrow we'll find our bearings. Tsu," he addressed the young woman, "You'd better go to bed, too. You still have to work tomorrow."

He picked up the frowning children under their arms one after the other, put them on their feet and left the room with them. Tsukka could not help giggling once again: that's really a hurricane, not a man!

I really wonder, how come that Dzinton knows everything? About Toy Karatsiy and the Institute of Man, for instance? How come, he knows about medicine as much as a real doctor? And where does he know that weird doctor from? It's quite obvious they have met before!

Maybe he is a spy? Tsukka hummed. Sure, a Four Kingdoms' spy who has nothing more important to do than taking care of stray children. Crazy thoughts are always ready for a sleepyhead. She suddenly realized that her eyes were literally closing on their own. Indeed it's time for bed. A quick shower, and go to bed. I'll think tomorrow morning. Dzinton is right, morning brings solace.


Yana woke up in the middle of the night as if because of a shove. Palek was breathing quietly not far from her, on a bed brought from another room. Starlight was fighting its way through the rocking treetops to stream into the uncurtained window. It was surprisingly warm and cozy under the bristly blanket. The girl was lying in the darkness, her eyes directed towards the ceiling, and she felt that fear had remained somewhere out there, beyond the hotel's walls. And here there are Dzinton, and Tsukka, and Palek, and nothing threatens Karina anymore. Dzinton must be a great man because he knows about the Institute - and yet he isn't going to return us there, despite the police. Earlier, when I was eavesdropping, I didn't feel any insincerity or dishonesty in him - only his quiet confidence, his light smile, a slight concern and somewhere deep-deep inside a hidden spark of the same fury I felt in Karina this morning. And Tsukka - there was anxiety in her, anxiety like Mom's, and compassion, and concern and a bit of fear. She must be a good person, too.

And she said it's expensive to support three kids. It's impolite to make strangers pay a lot of money but what can we do? I am still too little to take a job but I can do chores and help with everything – washing the floors and sweeping the courtyard, cleaning, shopping and doing the dishes. Mom and Dad taught me all that. And later, when I grow up, I will for sure pay Dzinton back all the money he spent on me.

And what about my gift? Should I tell Dzinton and Tsukka? I don't know. It's not fair not to tell them. Mom and Dad died but Mom always said I shouldn't tell strangers about my gift. Or they will take me to a bad place and hurt me with needles. But Dzinton and Tsukka aren't exactly strangers – haven't they helped Karina? And if I stay with them, they won't be strangers at all.

So be it, then. I'll wait just a bit and tell them. And if they don't get scared and don't return me to the Institute, everything will be fine. Forever.

That was her last thought before she drifted into a refreshing, unperturbed sleep.


Palek woke up because his blanket had slipped to the floor. He tossed and turned making himself comfortable and listening to nearby sleeping Yana's breath. Girls, he thought patronizingly. Always afraid of everything and trembling for no reason. This one has clung to me like beggar's lice, couldn't even sleep before she clasped my arm. Must have escaped from her orphanage for the first time. I wonder, what's this stupid name for an orphanage, ‘Institute’? But well, escaping is quite a feat for a girl - so Yana did well on that. We could even travel together for some time. One day the cops'll catch us anyway - and then we'll be back to the orphanage. But who cares, we'll escape again, and that's it.

Surely, they won't chain us...

It's weird about Karina, too. She couldn't move at all - so how did they make it to that abandoned house? I am sure, I was already taking a nap in my room there, and only squeaking floor boards woke me up. Who could think anybody might come to this wreck? Pity I didn't see how they made it. Could this feeble kiddy actually carry Karina? That would be something...

I guess, I should stay here for a while. The headmistress surely put the cops on their toes, and now they are all over the bus and train stations. Dzinton must be a pretty good guy: his talk is friendly, and he didn't call the police. He was fair even about the dishes - we should clean up our own mess. But he seems to see right through you: how else could he guess about the orphanage or catch us at eavesdropping? Doesn't matter. What's important, we can stay here for some time before moving on. And I won't be "expensive to support", not me! Maybe the chicks will but I can take care of myself. And maybe of someone else, too. Tomorrow morning I'll chance a short visit to the city to look around.

Probably, this fat Seal still operates his junk shop...

He drifted into a refreshing, unperturbed sleep before he was done thinking this thought through.


12.05.843, Dayday


The morning sun was beating down on the windows as if it decided to melt them through and through. Yana and Palek, their eyes screwed up, were munching fried eggs and sausage when Dzinton dashed into the kitchen.

"That's it. Tsukka is off to work, and the house is our responsibility now. Finish your meal, pipsqueaks, there are several things we need to discuss."

He took a small water jug from the table and almost emptied it in three deep swigs.

"Phew," he said contentedly. "Mighty myst, isn't it a hot morning! Or maybe I've just been working too hard." He straddled a stool, his elbows propped against the table, his hands supporting his chin, and watched the kids hurrying up with their breakfast.

"So," he said when the last crumbs of toasts were gone, "to start with, out of the blue we have a commune here. To live in a commune, you have to abide by certain rules - and the rule number one is to be quiet inside the house," he raised one finger. "That is, not to run, not to shout – in particular, when Karina is asleep. Which is going to be almost all the time in the next few days. The second rule: when I am working in my room, make sure not to distract me," he raised another finger. "Since I don't work just for fun but rather to earn money - including for you, loafers, from now on - idle questions asked at a wrong time might well mean no ice cream for you. Finally, no scroungers here. I can earn enough to support you but I'll be very upset if you just take it for granted. If you live here, you will have responsibilities."

 He paused and looked at the children. They nodded.

"One big problem is cooking as it's boring, tiring and time-consuming. And I am no hired hand here. Neither is Tsukka. So from now on we are going to take turns in the kitchen. Today is my turn, ok, but tomorrow it's the two of you who are on duty there. Then Tsukka, me, you again - and so on. When Karina is healthy again, she'll join in as well but for now she is a bedridden patient. Providing recipes is either my concern or Tsukka's - yours is to put them to good use. When you get a feel of it, we might come back to the topic. Next, shopping. That's altogether your chore. If anybody asks, you are siblings, my children. I'll provide you with shopping lists and cash - if anything is left, you can keep it as your pocket money. Don't count on it too much, though - I am no millionaire. Got it?"

Once again the kids nodded simultaneously.

"Great. In addition, once a thriceweek or two we'll be cleaning the house from top to bottom. Everybody joins in. Finally, the next two-three days Karina stays in bed - her stomach needs some time to recover. That means that her meals will have to be served in bed as well. While we are at it, I've seen a potty somewhere. We'll put it in the room, and it will have to be taken out. Both are your duties. Yes?"

 "Yes," Palek grumbled. "But nobody made us cook in the orphanage."

"Nobody asked you to escape from there, traveler," Dzinton shrugged his shoulders. "You chose to - so face the music now. Life is rough, you know - somebody has to pay for everything, either you or the others. In the orphanage the state pays those who take care of you. Here we are on our own, so it's up to us to manage our own affairs. Now back to more pressing matters. Yana," he examined the girl critically. "Tsukka's nightie isn't exactly the best dress for you. Yesterday night I washed those dresses you and Karina had worn, and they are dry by now, hanging on a rope in the courtyard. Take yours or just run around naked if you aren't cold. Later we'll think about some clothes for the two of you. The problem is to get you to the store, and for now I don't feel like leaving Karina alone. We'll have to postpone shopping for clothes for some time."

He rose from the chair swiftly.

"I'll cook bouillon, and you find yourself something to do in the meantime. We'll feed Karina, and then you'll go shopping.

While Dzinton was busying himself with a piece of meat taken out of the freezer in the morning and thawing ever since, Yana got into her dress quickly. It had become much shabbier but still looked decent enough. Even though it remained oversized and would slip off her shoulders every now and then, the dress was quite efficient in protecting her against the morning chill still hanging under the trees. Palek ran his eye over her and hummed.

"Your orphanage is kinda weird," he said. "They don't even give you normal clothes. So which one are you from? I am from 'Sunshine'."

"I am from far away, from another city," Yana lied. She had absolutely no wish to tell him, where they were from and what had happened to them. She was afraid Palek would pelt her with questions but he spared her. Instead he led her to investigate the unkempt garden surrounding the hotel. Almost right away the children found the path leading to the cliff over the bay, and they kept admiring the view until Yana finally remembered about Karina and Dzinton.

They raced against each other all the way back to the hotel. When they arrived, fragrant bouillon mixed with small leaves of some edible greens was ready and waiting in a big clay cup featuring an image of a comical little man. The smell was so enticing that the children could not help salivating.

"Patience, you loafers," Dzinton winked at them. "Our meat for dinner is a real treat but the bouillon is the only for the bed patient. Time for Karina to eat. Let's go."

He took the hot cup using a grimy dishcloth and left the kitchen. Yana began to follow but suddenly stopped in her tracks.

What if Karina attacks Dzinton upon awakening? What if she hits him like she hit those men? What if he dies? No, it's impossible, she is not like that but...what if she is too confused to realize what's going on?

She sprinted forward as fast as she could and managed to squeeze between Dzinton and the door of Karina's room at the very last moment.

"Hey," he called out unhappily, "Careful. I almost spilled the bouillon on you."

"Sir Dzinton, may I wake her up?" the girl asked, clearly agitated. "To make sure, she doesn't get scared?"

"Sure, you may," he nodded. "And let's skip the formalities. Go ahead, Yana, do it."

The girl cracked the door open and slipped into the room flooded with morning sunlight. Karina was still sleeping uneasily: every now and then her head would roll over the pillow, her dry lips were whispering something inaudibly.

"Should be more cautious with soporifics," Dzinton muttered from behind. "Tarsaki must have overdone it yesterday. Go ahead, Yana."

She nodded and tapped Karina's shoulder cautiously.

"Karina!" she called. "Kara! Wake up. It's me, Yana. Karina!"

"Just a moment," the other muttered without opening her eyes. "Just a moment... we need to hide somewhere... hide, Yana, they will see us... they are shooting at us!"

"Karina, we don't need to hide anymore!" Yana shook her shoulder once again. "Wake up, Kara. We've brought you some food."

Suddenly the girl sat up in bed. The blanket flew aside, and Yana felt that her temples grew heavy. Karina's utterly mad eyes were just in front of her, and something invisible, slippery and supple squeezed her throat so that she could barely breathe.

"Karina!" she squeaked. "It's me! Me!"

The pressure on her temples and the grip on her throat disappeared as suddenly as they came. Karina, her breathing heavy, looked around the room focusing on Dzinton and Palek for a brief moment before her eyes were back on Yana.

"We have to hide..." she said doubtfully before she tossed her head and rubbed her eyes with her fists.

"Where are we? Can't remember anything."

"Kara, it's Sir Dzinton's house," Yana hurried on. "He found you yesterday and brought you here. He called a doctor, and the doctor examined you. We've brought you some food!"

She looked at Karina entreatingly. Please, don't start a fight, please!

"Well, my beauty," the young man said cheerfully, "Let me introduce myself. I am Dzinton. Now then..."

He placed the cup with bouillon on the table and put his hands on Karina's shoulders applying some pressure so as to make her lie down. Then he picked up the blanket from the floor, covered her, felt her forehead, held her wrist for a while and finally tousled her hair.

"You'll survive," he promised. "You'll survive and be just fine but first you have to recover from acute gastritis. To put it simply, you have a stomach inflammation - so you'll need to stay in bed for a few days and take medications to help your stomach to come back to normal. Are you hungry? Good. Go ahead, drink the bouillon."

He adjusted the pillow deftly and helped the girl to recline in bed. Then he placed the cup wrapped in the dishcloth into her hands delicately.

"Drink," he ordered. "But be careful, don't scald yourself."

The girl, her eyes riveted on Dzinton, put the cup to her lips automatically and took a sip, then another one. Suddenly, as if regaining her consciousness, she start swigging the fragrant liquid, sometimes scalding herself and sucking the air with a hiss. A minute later the cup was empty, and Karina looked at the man inquiringly.

"That's it for now," he said gently. "You shouldn't eat much. Don't worry, soon you won't feel hungry anymore. In three hours or so you'll eat gruel. Yana, could you please fetch a glass of water from the kitchen?"

He took several pills from the boxes that were on the table and told Karina to wash them down with water brought from the kitchen by Yana. He forced her to chew the last pill that looked like a brown cake half-a-palm in size, and tasted awful.

"You have to do it this way," he explained. "It's very efficient despite its bad taste. You'll take it for a week, then we'll see. And now, my little one, let's lie down again."

As deftly as before he helped Karina back to horizontal position. Then he covered her with the blanket and stroked her head.

"It's all right, dear," he said softly. "Don't be afraid. You are safe, nothing threatens you anymore. Try to take another nap until lunchtime, will you?"

He rose and went to the door.

"Yana," Karina whispered. "Stay with me. We need to talk."

Yana started towards her, then moved in Dzinton's direction. He nodded to her.

"Of course, you can talk. Let's go, Palek. We still need to find the potty in the attic." He winked to Yana and went out taking the boy with him and closing the door.

"Yana," Karina whispered, "Where are we? Not in the Institute?"

Yana shook her head sitting down on the edge of the bed.

"It's a hotel called 'Maroon Grove'," she explained. "Dzinton lives here. And Tsukka. They are good people. They found us yesterday night, us and Palek, and took us in. Dzinton says he'll never let us be taken back to the Institute."

"Good people..." Karina smiled crookedly. "How do you know? Because he said so? He lied!"

"No, he didn't," Yana stated firmly. "I...I can feel when people lie. He is a god person, honestly, he doesn't lie."

Karina sighed heavily.

"What happened yesterday?" she asked. "I remember how we were escaping to the forest from...from that house, and my stomach hurt. I can't remember anything after that."

"You fell and you stopped moving," Yana knitted her brows trying to recall. "And you vomited. Then you were just lying there, and I didn't know what to do. Then I lifted you and carried you until we got to a house, and Palek was there. He gave me some water. Then Dzinton and Tsukka came...no, the other way around: I was sobbing and I ran out and straight into them. Dzinton carried you here and called a doctor - and the doctor examined you and prescribed medications. Tsukka and Palek went to fetch them. Kara, what's 'anal catheter'?"

"Was the police here?"

"Nope," Yana tossed her head. They didn't call the police, only the doctor - and he won't go to the police either. Does your stomach still hurt?"

"Only a little bit. Yana, did you tell Dzinton I...you...we aren't like others?"

"Not yet. Mom said not to tell anybody."

"Your Mom was correct." Karina grabbed her arm with a sudden force. "Yana, you silly girl, d'you understand he'll call the police for sure if he learns about it?"

"I am not silly," Yana took offense. "And Dzinton won't call the police. But I won't tell anyway."

"Good. We'll have to go..." Karina's voice grew weaker, her eyes were closing. "Don't tell anybody...ever...I'll rest a bit more and we'll move on..."

Her breath became deep and even. When Yana made sure Karina was asleep, she came off the bed and tiptoed to the door. Silly Karina! Why go anywhere if we are treated so well where we are?


Dzinton entrusted money to Palek. Yana felt somewhat upset about it - I am not a little kid and I have been shopping on my own many times - but she cheered up considerably when the man handed her a shopping list.

"The money will be more secure with you, Palek," he explained, "but girls are better at choosing what to buy. We, guys, just don't have this ability," he winked at the children. "Off you go. And don't linger in the city - for now you'd both better avoid being seen. I'll work in the meantime."

He waved to them and ran upstairs, two steps at a time.

Palek knew where to look for the shops. To be precise, he knew how to get to the meat and fish market and to a greengrocer's store – and any supermarket would sell bread, of course.

The children were racing against each other merrily under the warm rays of the morning sun, and their bare feet were caressed by the almost summerly grass on the edges of the path. Then Palek jumped onto a low stony fence facing the precipice and, playing the goat, started to hop on one foot. Treetops could be seen far below.

 "Palek, you fool!" Yana yelled at him. "You will fall!"

"Want to bet, I won't?" the boy stuck out his tongue. "Lots of room here. If you only saw where I cli..."

And suddenly time slowed down. As if in a nightmare Yana saw how Palek who had lost his footing was flapping his hands trying to regain his balance. She saw how his disobedient body refused to stay upright - and how the abyss below burst open to receive him while exposing its protruding teeth-boulders in a malicious grin.

Then time came to a halt. Palek was hanging in the thin air over the abyss, his body bent unnaturally, and Yana, her fists and teeth clenched in defiance, was holding him lest he collapse all the way down to the abyss. The wind roared wickedly with laughter trying to wrench the boy's body from her non-hands' iron grip, and the skin between her shoulder blades stung more and more painfully. Then she pulled him desperately - and immediately fell to her knees skinning them against a rock, and Palek fell upon her, and they both fell to the ground panting for air and trying to recover their breath.

They had been sitting for quite a while, still panting and recovering, their backs against the icy stone of the fence, and finally Palek asked hesitantly,

"It was you, right?"

"What was me?" for some reason, Yana answered in a whisper. That's it, he knows. He'll be scared and run away. Or he'll tease me, or maybe tell Dzinton who will kick me out of the house.

"You stopped me from falling down?"

She raised her head and met the boy's glance, a strange mixture of disquiet and wonder. Should I lie? It won't work. Well...

"Yes, it was me," she nodded. "Mom said I am a deviant."

"WOW!" the boy exhaled in admiration, and Yana was somewhat taken aback. "And you can kill with this invisible thing of yours, right? Mighty myst! I always wanted to have one like that! So, you are a deviant, for real?"

"For real," she nodded again. She expected almost any reaction but nothing like that. "Please, don't tell anybody, ok? You won't?"

"I won't," Palek ignored her concern. "Have you killed many people?"

Yana frowned.

"You are indeed a fool," she said angrily. "I haven't killed anybody. I have never even used my gift before. And I just saved your life, if you didn't notice!"

She turned away and sulked.

"Hey, don't get mad!" Palek touched her shoulder placatingly. "They said on TV that all deviants are crazy, they kill everybody they see. That's why they should be kept apart from the others."

"I should be kept apart too, right?" Yana retorted without turning. Sure, he is just like everybody else.

"No way," Palek sighed. "You ain't crazy at all, just a normal chick. I am sorry, ok? And...thanx for helping."

Yana looked at him suspiciously. Then she reached out and looked inside his head. The boy was indeed sorry he had blurted without thinking, and she decided to forgive him. In fact, boys themselves are crazy – by Nature, as Mom used to say. They shouldn't be blamed for what Nature did to them, they should be pitied instead.

"You are welcome," she said, still somewhat dryly. "Palek, you promise you won't tell anybody? If you do tell, they'll take me back to the Institute, and then..." She gave a shudder. She did not know what could happen to her in the Institute but she could feel Karina's horror of it very distinctly. It must indeed be a terrible place.

"What's 'Institute'?" Palek asked. "Dzinton said something about it yesterday but I didn't understand...Oh, I am sorry," he checked himself. "It must be rude to ask, I guess. Just don't be trigger-happy, ok?"

Yana clenched her fists, about to give the jackanapes a good beating but he just laughed gleefully, stuck out his tongue, jumped to his feet and ran off. Not much I can do. I can't fight him for real using my non-hands, that's out of the question. She also jumped to her feet and ran after him.

A few minutes later the children were chatting lively, well hidden by the roadside bushes. Yana told Palek, how a year ago she had suddenly found out that she was able to move objects just by looking at them – and that she began to see what people around her were feeling; how her parents got scared when she told them. She would often hear on TV a harsh and cruel word "deviant" but she had never applied it to herself before she happened to overhear her parents' conversation. Then she stopped going to school, and the family even moved to another city. For quite a while Yana would have to self-study using nothing but textbooks. Then scary strangers with bad thoughts began to follow them at a distance, and Mom and Dad were frightened all the time. One day two scary men somehow entered their apartment through the shut door, attacked her and attached to her neck a tight collar that was producing a never-ending buzz in her head and ears. She was told that her parents had gone away and would never come back - but she knew they were lying because she could see inside their heads, and also because she overheard their conversation in an adjacent room. They undressed her, pricked her with needles and removed her collar but immediately put her into a solid iron box that was producing even more buzz than the collar. They were probably transporting her somewhere but she could not say for sure. She was asleep almost all the time but for the short intervals when her captors would wake her up rudely to feed her with tasteless oatmeal porridge and some other disgusting stuff. Only sometimes she would come around on her own - the last time it happened before Karina shattered her box. Yana was lying awake for a very long time, surrounded with rocking, sultry darkness - and finally she got scared and began to cry. At that moment something hit the box, and then again and again - and then she saw Karina.

However, Yana did not relate to Palek what had happened afterwards. She did not feel like recalling and reliving her terrifying flight along the hallways of a big and incomprehensible house, through stones and glass shards of a vast room and into a pitch black night forest where tree roots seemed to throw themselves under their feet. She felt even less like recalling those two loutish men Karina killed in that house. They probably had it coming - Yana did not understand what they were about to do but she remembered quite well that wave of fear and disgust that Karina was feeling at that moment. It did not matter: she shared this secret with Karina and could not yet divulge it to anybody.

So she said simply that they had escaped by shattering a big glass wall and hidden in the forest until the morning when they went out to search for food. Then Karina became ill, and she, Yana, brought her into that abandoned house where Palek was.

Palek must have noticed that her story was incomplete but he never bothered her with questions. Instead he uttered a couple of dirty words that even Dad was forbidden to use in Mom's presence - and suddenly patted her on the shoulder.

"All adults are bastards," he said passionately. "Well, maybe some like Dzinton or our headmistress aren't but Dzinton is actually quite young, too. Say, my parents just left me in the birthing hospital. Don't cry because your parents died. Think of all those happy years that you lived with them. They could die earlier, you know."

Yana looked at him suspiciously and, suddenly, buried her face in his shoulder and burst into tears. Palek stroked her back awkwardly. He had no idea what to do with crying chicks and it made him feel way out of his element. Quite soon Yana forced herself to calm down and draw away.

"Let's go shopping," she said sniffling. "Dzinton must be worried by now."


"I can therefore state a very simple fact, Splendid Sir Major: the Institute Security Service is utterly incompetent. Well, it happens..."

The Director of the Institute of Man's Masaria branch folded his hands so that his finger pads met and smiled at the Head of the Institute Security amiably. Kayin shivered involuntarily. This stately, silver-haired man was most dangerous at the very moments he was smiling like that. The major suspected that experienced psychiatrists would find quite a few instructive aberrations if they were to examine Splendid Sir Joi Mitera. However, all local psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers and other experts on spiritual matters worked for Joi himself. And even if they did have a professional opinion concerning his personality, they clearly preferred to keep that opinion to themselves - at least, on the Institute grounds.

"Sir Director," the major said dryly, "I am afraid, you are judging us too harshly. No security system can possibly cope with such a chain of most improbable coincidences. A failed blockirator of the transport container, jammed locks of the emergency door, a short circuit in the surveillance cameras' power distribution system, the security squad scheduled to exercise at a remote shooting range, a second container appearing at the most inappropriate time...Remove any of those factors, and the runaways would by now be back to their cells - or, at least, dead."

"Of course, of course," the director nodded. "I would even add to the list the two frozen, starved and disoriented children who managed to vanish without a trace in a densely populated area; and the police that hasn't been able to find them for almost two days; and the police dogs that refused to pick up their trail. And even that this underage bitch Karina's corpse is nowhere to be found - despite the fact that she should have kicked the bucket in no more than a day without an antidote!" he bellowed suddenly.

"I am not responsible for police dogs," the major snapped. "I haven't trained them, you know.

And why would a regular tracker dog pick up the trail of a deviant permeated with all sorts of medicinal smells - in particular, if we can't tell the dog handlers who we are looking for, and why? As for the poison, don't ask me, Sir Director. This question is for those smart alecs from the Ministry of Defense."

"It's up to me whom and what I ask!" the Director hissed, his whole appearance changing drastically. His eyes behind the steel rims of his glasses became completely insane. He smashed his fist down on the table and rose to his feet. "As for you, Sir Major, hold your tongue. If you ever again dare mention the Ministry even to me, let alone to anybody else, I'll..."

 The desk communicator rang, and the hulcy secretary said without waiting for Mitera's reply,

"Sir Director, Lady Deputy Director Ehira requests an immediate meeting."

The director hissed, enraged. He was clenching and unclenching his fists for a few seconds before he managed to pull himself together.

"Let her come in," he said through his teeth.

Kayin knew exactly what his boss was feeling. That bitch has spent but two weeks in the Institute but managed to make enemies about everywhere - with those persistent demands of hers to let her inspect the laboratories and give her access to the secret experiments data. And this razor-sharp tongue, seemingly able to slice granite into tiny pellets... I wish I knew whose political influence has helped her to become Deputy Director, and what on Tekira she is doing in the Institute - but in any case, if it were up to me, that crazy bitch would long ago have been found somewhere in the mountains, an unfortunate victim to a fall from a cliff. However, when she appeared in the doorway of the Director's office, his stony face did not betray even a glimpse of emotion.

"So, Sir Joi, your investigation has brought no results whatsoever," the Deputy Director came straight to the point. "I presume, your remarkable Head of Security has already provided you with a detailed list of utterly objective circumstances that prevented him from finding two children that escaped from your custody. Haven't you, Sir Kayin?"

The major just ignored her. She was not worth bickering with!

"However," she turned to face the Director, utterly unperturbed by the major's silence. "I hope that the Institute's senior management, as personified by Sir Joi, will tell me a little bit more than it told the press. So, the tree toppled by the wind is already forgotten. The other explanation is that the entrance hall of the laboratory building was blown apart because someone mishandled his weapons. Will anybody be kind enough to explain to me, since when security guards are equipped with fragmentation hand grenades or something like that? Or have I missed something, and now any pistol bullet can send a hundred-kilogram surveillance camera flying ten fathoms if not more?

"Lady Ehira," Mitera's face twisted angrily. "I have explained to you countless times that only carefully selected, utterly reliable people have access to the laboratory building. You are not one of them, and will never be. Any information concerning this building is as forbidden to you as it is to the press. Your responsibility is the Ethical Philosophy Department, so limit your curiosity to its affairs."

"Oh, really?" the woman purred. "So be it, I'll follow your order. Would you care to find out what ethical philosophy says about experiments conducted on underage children? Those harmless experiments ordered by the Ministry of Defense's Seventh Department?"

The Head of Security twitched involuntarily. How did she...

"Silence!" the Director barked. "Lady Ekhira, I have no idea where all this nonsense about the Ministry comes from but there is no more truth in those tales than..."

"...in the official version of the yesterday night's events?" Ehira interrupted venomously. "Well, well. So, Sir Director, there is nothing - I mean, nothing at all - you would like to tell me?"

"Please, leave the office immediately, Magnificent Lady!" Mitera roared. "Immediately! Or I'll tell the guards to see you out!"

"Of course," his antagonist scoffed. "Yourself, you aren't man enough to cope with a small child...Splendid Sir Joi Mitera."

She turned around and left the room, her head raised proudly. The door closed automatically behind her. The Director approached the Head of Security unhurriedly and took him very carefully by the knot of his uniform neck string with two fingers.

"Where. Does. She. Know. About. The Seventh Department. From?" he emphasized each word very distinctly. "Just don't tell me, Major, that information leaks from within the Institute. If that's the case, you won't come out of here alive."

The major looked into his mad eyes and immediately believed it was not a joke. I might be able to leave the office in one piece but surely not the Institute ...

"She is under constant surveillance on the Institute grounds," he croaked, his throat parched. "Uninterrupted surveillance. She has never talked to anybody privy to any sensitive information, never!

She must have her own sources. I can seize her today and..."

"No," the Director interrupted him letting go of his neck string, and the major immediately felt an immense relief. "No. For now we can't, she is too well connected. For NOW," he put a vocal emphasis on the last word, "we can't. Then we'll see. Everybody who is able to move will be sent to search for the runaways. I don't care if they are alive - I need both of them in whatever condition they are. Corpses will do, if nothing else. Keep in mind, major, one can testify in court starting from the age of fourteen - unless the deeply touched jurors make an exception for a thirteen-year-old, like Karina. Got it, Major? If the worst come to the worst, we'll be buried side by side. So you'd better keep looking for those snot nosed kids until they are found - dead or alive. Dismissed."

"Yes, Sir," the major saluted and left the office treading heavily. A little butterfly was fluttering its cold wings deep down his stomach. He was not sure if the Director meant what he said but sometimes idioms can be taken literally, too.


The bags Yana was carrying up the street were heavy, way heavier than she expected them to be. Leaning to one side, she was courageously trudging along the path that ran between the bushes and panting heavily but still refusing to accept Palek's help.

Dzinton was waiting for them in the courtyard, semi-reclined on the bench and tapping his fingers on its iron cast armrest.

"I didn't think I would see you again," he snorted. "I am almost at my tether's end. What took you so long - problems in the store?"

"Nope," Palek shook his head. "We...were playing a bit. Sorry."

"It's ok, just try to stick around when playing your games, agreed? To make sure I don't have to worry. By the way, talking of games..."

He straightened up and poked at a big flat box next to him.

"Here. It's been with me for quite a while. Don't have the heart to throw it away but too bored to play it anymore. Have you seen something like that before?"

The children dropped the bags right on the ground and drew closer to the box almost touching it with their noses at the same time. Dzinton grinned, clicked something and threw back the lid revealing a flat, gray screen.

"144 is the name of this game," he explained. "There are 144 chips, 36 sets with four chips in each set."

he touched some spot, and the screen featured a chip with an intricate pattern. "34 sets consist of identical chips, the other two – of different ones. You can connect chips to create different shapes. For example, this shape is called 'classical'."

He quickly entered three digits on a built-in side panel, and a number of chips on the screen arranged itself into a complex three-dimensional formation.

"The main idea is that you have to remove identical chips in pairs. Each removal is one game turn. There are restrictions, though: you can't touch a chip if it's blocked from above by another chip. Besides, at least one side - right or left - must remain open. Say, this chip can be removed but that one can't. In a one-player game the goal is to remove all the chips. It doesn't always work because the shapes are random, and sometimes the task is objectively impossible. So the player loses. With two or more players, you have to remove the last available pair to win, doesn't matter how many chips are still left - if any. Got it? Give it a try, then - find several pairs of available identical chips.

Yana and Palek exchanged glances and stared at the screen knitting their brows. Yana was first to react.

"Here," she poked at a chip with a semi-round mark. "Oh, no, it's not available. Here and here."

The two chips on the screen blinked and disappeared.

"Good job," Dzinton praised her. "Palek?"

"Those two."

"You are also a genius. OK then, the game is at your disposal. Enter three digits here to receive a starting setup. This button is for resetting the game and starting the same setup from the beginning. Here you can see how many legal pairs are still available. Below there is the battery indicator: don't forget to charge it in time or the game will turn off at the most exciting moment. The power cord is at the back. Have fun."

He rose from the bench, picked up the bags and went to the house.

"Hogwash," Palek said discontentedly. "Not even a 3D."

"I think, it's cool," Yana disagreed. "Look, two more pairs. And another one."

 "Sure...cool," Palek nodded absentmindedly. "Stay here for a bit, ok - I need to do something."

"Something?" she gave him a baffled look. "What something?"

"This and that," the boy replied vaguely. He turned around and exited through the courtyard gate waving his goodbye. Yana watched him leave, surprised. I wonder where he is going? Those naughty boys with their secrets..."

She looked at the game and sighed. Couldn't Dzinton give me a doll instead? Well, adults don't usually have dolls. And just look at all those chips with their marks - my eyes almost hurt! Well, if there is nothing better to do...


It was easy. Very easy. That bloke in glasses never saw that his pelephone had just moved from his pouch to my pocket. He never realized he didn't have it anymore until he was at the checkout counter. Pity I couldn't stay a bit longer to enjoy this expression on his face when he was turning out his pockets trying to understand how to pay now - obviously he didn't have any paper money on him. Also pity his phone is code-protected – some suckers wouldn't do even that. And their electronic wallet becomes as useful for other people as a real one. And Walrus would add 50% of the wallet's contents to the phone's regular price if it were unprotected.

Never mind, there are enough suckers in the world. And none of them pays any attention to a ten-year-old like me. All I have to do is to slip my hand into a pocket or a pouch, snatch money, a pelephone or some trifle and take off quickly but without drawing attention to myself. Piece of cake!

And just imagine, Dzinton is concerned with 'supporting children'. Ha! I'll bring them more money than they can spend!

The boy pushed open the door of a small shop, its window featuring pelephones of all sorts, models and colors, and sneaked inside. Walrus who was standing behind the counter spotted the visitor and immediately switched off his fake smile.

"How can I help the young Sir?" he asked looking through Palek.

Without answering the question, the boy reached into his pocket and pulled out just enough of the pelephone to make its edge visible to the shop-owner. The latter nodded toward a side door leading to the back office, and Palek darted there. Walrus cast a quick glance to the street through the window-shop and followed.

"What have you got?" he asked closing the door behind him.

"Here," Palek passed him the pelephone.

"A piece of crap," the dealer made a face. "It's not only cheap but uncommon too - you won't find any accessories for it. And it's protected. Two hundred."

"That's not fair!" Palek protested. "It's not uncommon at all, I saw one just like that in a shop-window on Park street. And it's not a cheapo - you can get five grand for a new one."

"Exactly, for a new one, with a full set of accessories," Walrus retorted. "Ok, four hundred, and that's the last offer. Take it or leave it."

"Deal," Palek agreed reluctantly. He hoped to get at least five hundred but he knew from experience that Walrus would never raise the price more than once. He shoved the money into his pocket, where he kept the 18 mayers left after shopping, and slipped out the door.

A shadow of a scornful smile touched the dealer's face.

"It should make three-and-half grand or so," Walrus muttered. "I wonder, how much money is in its wallet? Well, my little friend, now we'll get you unblocked..."

He entered an inconspicuous door, reached into a cabinet and rummaged up an interface cable that he plugged in the pelephone. Then he attached the other end of the cable to the terminal that was on the table and let his fingers dance over the screen to activate a hacking program.

"That's it," he nodded contentedly. "Hopefully, it'll be done by tomorrow morning."

He returned to the back office upon closing the door carefully behind him and stopped dead in his tracks. A complete stranger was sitting in his own armchair twiddling with a flick knife.

"Who are you?" the dealer asked harshly. "What are you doing here?"

The man raised his head slowly and gave him an indifferent look.

"I am sitting here," he replied in a flat voice as if talking to a moron. "Waiting for you. And now you are here."

The dealer was taken aback. He obviously doesn't belong to any group of thieves I would normally deal with - neither to those bringing me stolen goods, not to Kasam's hoodlums occasionally visiting me to collect the racket-money. Someone new? But nobody ever comes to me without first being introduced by someone I already know - and the introducer is always present at the first meeting. Is this visitor not a thief, then?

In the meantime, the visitor got to his feet unhurriedly, came closer to the dealer and pressed the knife's point against his belly.

"Just now a boy was here," he said in the same flat voice. "He brought you an item. I am taking it with me."

"But I paid him a fair price," the dealer whispered losing his voice.

"Your problem. I don't give a crap that you buy stolen goods. I don't clean the city from petty criminal scum like yourself. But now you'll give me the item or I'll gut you right here. Got it or should I repeat it once more?"

The dealer nodded quickly. Not a thief, for sure. Who cares who he is, may he choke and kick the bucket! Later I might snitch to Kasam on street thugs who forgot their place, and this loony with a swollen head will surely lose his balls. But now let him have whatever he wants and shove off. This trifle he wants is not even bothering about.

He pointed at the door.

"It's there."

"Go fetch it."

The dealer's advanced age did not prevent him from rushing to the other room and reappearing from there with the pelephone in his hand in just a couple of seconds. The visitor snatched the item from his hand, gave it a cursory look and grabbed Walrus by the throat with an iron hand.

"Now pay attention, dude. If you ever take anything from that boy, be it even an empty water bottle, I'll mutilate you so that any circus will be happy to display you in a special 'Freaks of the World' show. And just try to complain to anybody - you'll become food for worms before you know it."

Walrus saw the gleam of the blade that momentarily left his belly and nodded several times quickly. I got in a pickle, and then some! I'd rather hand the brat over to the police myself than see this psycho again. Let Kasam handle him if he can.

"Quick to learn. Good," the visitor said, satisfied. "Ok, dude. Take care."

He pushed open the back office door and left. The dealer who was panting heavily watched him go. I might be too old for this lifestyle, it suddenly occurred to him. Maybe it's time to settle down. I have saved enough not to worry about money for quite a while, and dealing with those loonies is beginning to take its toll.

He swallowed stick saliva and dragged himself back to the storefront. I should definitely consider retiring...


Palek was half-running, half-hopping down the path, in anticipation of Yana's surprise at the sight of the contents of the bag in his arms. The ice-cream would have to go first but candied lemons and choux pastries won't last much longer. The miserable eighteen mayers left of Dzinton's money after shopping would hardly buy all that. He smacked his lips. I wonder if Yana could use her skills to nick wallets and pelephones.


The boy turned his head and stopped, surprised. Dzinton was staying next to the path leaning against the trunk of an old, thick maron. Then he bounced off the tree, neared the boy and looked at him downwards thoughtfully.

"Enjoying life, aren't you?" he asked in a baffling voice. "So you decided to go shopping again, and even found some money on your way?"

Palek flinched. He never thought how he would explain to Dzinton where the money came from.

"Why don't we talk a bit in the shade of the golden leaves, my friend?" the man took Palek firmly by the shoulder and led him away from the path to an old, almost rotten stump. "Sit down, my dear. Maybe you want to tell me something?"

 Palek shook his head listlessly. I got myself in a jam now, and then some! Why didn't I think with my head? That's a snafu, for sure. Now Dzinton will turn me in. No, maybe not because he doesn't like cops. Then he'll throw me out. So what?

"And I presume, you've never seen this?"

That very pelephone appeared in Dzinton's hand out of nowhere. Palek gasped. Where did he get it from? Was he keeping an eye on Walrus' store? But even so, why did Walrus give it back to him?

 Dzinton took him by the armpits and made him sit on the stump. Then he squatted in front of him so that their eyes were level.

"Palek, why do you steal?" he asked. "Did you leave the table hungry this morning? Then you could ask for more, there was enough food for everybody, with some to spare. Or are you just used to easy money? It's not the first time you do it, correct?"

The boy frowned. Now he'll start lecturing me. I'd prefer he smacked me and chuck me out.

"It's not. Why, then? In fact, I know, why. You think, it's easy to pickpocket. It's almost like this money asks to be taken. It's almost safe, too - nobody pays attention to you, and even if you are caught by accident, you can always shed a tear or two and talk them into letting you go. And it makes you feel great about yourself - at ten you can already buy food and stuff other kids can't afford, even those kids whose families aren't poor at all. You feel important and superior to others, don't you?"

Dzinton emphasized the last word, and the change in his voice was so sudden that Palek felt as if his ears were whipped. He nodded without thinking. Sure I do. What's wrong about being badass?

"You know, you are no better than flees feeding off a dog," Dzinton kept flogging him with his voice. "They, too, surely think they are badass - why not if the dog has to run all day looking for food, and the flees have but to prick the dog's skin with their proboscis and suck its blood to eat their fill. You are a louse proud of being a parasite. Everybody around you has dreams, plans, aspirations - what do you have? Big plans to steal something, sell it for the best possible price and use the money to buy enough food and drinks, so that you can stuff yourself? What is waiting for you in the future but the Juvenile Delinquency Department, an orphanage for delinquents, and later - police inspectors, drugs and jails? That's your dream - living as a thief and an outlaw? All you look forward to is not to be caught when you are stealing something the next time? What's the point of being alive if you live like that? Answer me!"

Palek flinched and lowered his head.

"I wanted to save enough money to travel," he said gloomily. "Train tickets are expensive. And I don't take much!" he added with a sudden fury raising his head. For some reason, now he felt an overwhelming desire to convince Dzinton that he was not like that. "I don't steal all the time! Big deal, a pelephone! He is rich enough to buy another one! And he shouldn't blame anybody if he is sucker like that!"

"To travel, then..." Dzinton's voice changed again, it became softer and more muted. "That's what it's all about. And you run away from the orphanage because you like seeing new places, don't you? I see, I see...Palek, tell me honestly, if you could travel without money, would you steal?"

"Of course, I wouldn't," the boy muttered. "You think I don't understand that stealing is bad?"

"You don't," Dzinton snapped, "Or you wouldn't do it. Palek, every human is born with a freedom of choice. Humans aren't trolls who would turn into wild beasts if not for the sense of duty and honor hammered into them from the very childhood. Neither humans are orcs whose life is regulated by the community almost since birth. Humans can choose, and I support their freedom of choice even when I don't like the choices themselves. But thieves and thugs will never be welcome in my house."

He straightened up.

"Yesterday I told you, Yana needs a friend. You could become that friend but not if you keep stealing.

For the first time, let's pretend that nothing happened. But if you steal even once more, even a candy from a candy stand, I don't know you anymore. You can do whatever you want, live wherever you want but you'll never cross the threshold of my house again."

 He bent towards the boy's face, his voice soft and enticing now,

"You dream about traveling - I can help you to fulfill your dream. But, for the sake of all gods on both continents, don't destroy your future with your own hands! Agreed?"

Palek sniffled and nodded reluctantly.

"Excellent. And now, please, be a good boy and take the pelephone back to its owner. Second Seaside street, house number 7, apartment 24. Sir Yanata. There is intercom, and the residents' names are written on the board. I hope you can read, can't you? Tell him you found it on the floor, and the cashier gave you his address. In fact, she does know him. Mind you, there is his weekly allowance in the pelephone wallet, so make sure you don't break or lose it. And on your way throw the garbage," he pointed at the bag with the treats. "into the nearest garbage can. And come back as soon as you can - both you and Yana still have to learn how to feed Karina properly. I hope you haven't forgotten that from tomorrow on it's your duty. Good to go now, my self-sufficient friend."

Dzinton stroked the boy's hair and went towards the hotel. Palek remained seated on the stump, hard chips sticking into his buttocks through his shorts. Didn't have a scolding like that for a long time! A louse proud of being a parasite...Would be better if he flogged me!

He looked at the ill-fated pelephone he was still clutching in his hand. Where did Dzinton get it from? And how does he know where that man lives and that the cashier knows him? There is surely some secret here. I love secrets. Decided, then - no more stealing. At least, as long as I stay with Dzinton and Yana in this hotel. It won't last forever, will it? It's not even polite to impose on strangers, after all. So, stealing is done and dusted...for now, and later I'll think about it again.

The boy jumped off the stump, picked up the bag from the forest floor and started back towards the city. Second Seaside, where is it? Doesn't matter, can't be too far away...


Karina knew she was asleep. She was floating in blissful semi-oblivion, her body detached from her. Pain that had never left her before, even in her nightmares, vanished into nowhere, and she was wrapped in a bright and light blanket of warmth and tranquility. At times she would remember that it was necessary to run away or her enemies would come for her - but she had no strength to surface the surrounding ocean, and instead she fell again to the bottom and let the waves lull her back to sleep.

Even so, sometimes she would manage to come to the surface of her dream and feel the warmth of the sun on her face, and hear birds chirping, now very close, now far away. She could also hear human voices and someone's steps, and she realized that she was lying on a bed in a small, bright room, and rich, tangy scents of the spring forest were flowing into the room through the open window. Then oblivion would return, and she would once again fall to the bottom of the ocean.

{0229-1}Sometimes she would get woken up by light, careful touches - and then her invisible hands tensed up ready to kill and destroy but for Yana's voice that calmed her down, and she ate obediently, now warm and tasty bouillon, now flavorless gruel or some strange puree. She drank water to wash down both the food and some pills she had to take with it. Once a strong stomach pain forced her out of bed, and she did not know where to go and why - but then it dawned upon her to use the pot Yana had prepared for her. On another occasion something sharp and vicious seized her head and heart from inside but immediately it had to retreat submitting to the magic hands of the young man who - somehow Karina was absolutely sure of it - could protect her against anything. She smiled at him gratefully and fell asleep once more.

Next she half-woke-up, half-surfaced when she heard muted voices. It was dark in the room, and cicadas droned outside the tightly closed window.

"I am telling you, it's not necessary," there was annoyance in the man's voice. "Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow I'll have some money and I'll buy everything we need."

"And I've bought it today," an invisible woman answered, undisturbed. "So what? Big deal, several bed sheets and duvet covers! And even those - at an employee's discount."

"And children underwear. And sandals. How much did you spend - four thousand? Five? Six?"

"Doesn't matter! In any case, this money was set aside to pay the rent - and I don't have pay any now. So I have enough left."

"Not really enough. You still can't afford buying any extras."

"Can you?"

"Yes, I can. Unlike you, I don't make financial commitments I can't fulfill. Tsu, I really appreciate your help but I am paying you back. If you don't tell me how much, I'll just calculate the total."

"You are such a bore, Sir Dzinton Muratsiy!"

"Hush, you'll awaken Karina! Let's get out of the hallway."

The voices moved away. Still half-asleep, Karina was surprised that the adults would bicker like that about nothing. As her drowsiness gradually subsided, she was becoming more and more aware of herself.

Another urge in her stomach forced her to leave the warmth of the blanket that was in duvet cover now and use the pot once again. Still feeling extremely weak, she hurried back to bed. Where am I? Who are all those people? Where is Yana? Did I hear her voice or was I just dreaming? The past was hidden in a thick fog, and even the escape from the Institute and the events of the following day seemed remote and unreal. She listened to her body. Her stomach was still aching but somewhat dully and unconvincingly, as if pain was coming from somewhere under the pillow. Her hands and feet felt so flabby as if they were made of cloth. But she felt neither sick nor hungry - so it must have been more than a dream that she had been fed.

Where am I? Surely, not in the Institute. She suddenly remembered what Yana said about those people who had found them. What were their names? My memory fails me. Doesn't matter. They found us and didn't return us to the Institute. Good. But they still can bring us back there or maybe they can't. What did Yana say about it?

A man's voice in the hallway. Dzinton? That dude I saw when I was half-conscious? But...this one will surely never return me to any Institute or police, or whatever - I just know it. I don't know, how I know it but I do - just like I knew in the Institute where the exit was. He will protect me. If he is around, all is not lost. But can he protect me from the Institute and its soldiers with guns? I doubt it. Then I have to leave, anyway. And Yana too. We have to run far away from the city and the Institute, then they won't find us. Just have to recover like you recover after you fall on asphalt and hurt your knees.

Have to get my breath back, wipe away my tears and move on.

It's decided, then. I'll stay for a day or two. Then I'll thank them and leave with Yana. But what should I do if Yana wants to stay? I can't drag her along!

I should talk to Yana. Tomorrow. I must talk to her. And now I can rest...

That was her last thought before she drifted off to sleep.


A gray and cloudy morning brought with it rain drumming cozily on the tin windowsill. The drops rustled in the foliage softly and tapped planks, a brook murmured, its location unknown. Undaunted by bad weather, an unseen tenacious bird was whistling a simple three-note melody. Karina's thoughtless dose was interrupted by Yana who appeared in the doorway carrying two slices of wheat bread and a big mug of fragrant fish bouillon filled with parsley, dill and green onion leaves. She was accompanied by a strange dark-blonde hair boy about her own age. The boy's name was Palek, and Yana was chattering with him as if she had known him her whole life. Initially Karina even felt a prick of jealousy: when talking to Karina herself, Yana would usually seem to fill ill at ease as if not knowing whether she should treat Karina as a mortally ill person or as a recovering one. Later Karina got used to the boy whose gap-toothed smile, peeling nose and cheerful spontaneity of a young monkey seemed to radiate some soft charm. While she was sipping the bouillon cautiously trying not to scald herself, Palek and Yana entertained her by chatting just about everything in a relaxed and easy manner.

Karina tensed up only once - when Palek, after a brief hesitation, asked,

"Hey, are you also...like Yana? Can you move things without using your hands?"

Karina choked and gave Yana a furious look but the other girl just shrugged carelessly.

"Would be better if he fell from that precipice or what?" she asked. "No worries, he promised not to tell anybody, didn't you, Lika?"

"My word, and may I burst into pieces if I am lying!" the boy swore drawing a circle in the air with his finger twice in a row. "So are you also like that? Are you?"

"Yes," Karina muttered. "And if you tell anybody, I myself will burst you into pieces, got it?"

 She pushed the now empty mug with her invisible hand so that it flew all the way down to her feet and plopped onto the blanket.

"Cool!" Palek exhaled, his voice thick with envy. "Why am I not like that, heh? Why?"

"Because you are lucky," Karina's mood deteriorated on the spot. "If the Institute had you, you would know why. You don't have an idea what they did to me there!"

She felt a sudden urge to tell him how her skin had been burned by droplets of liquid fire bypassing her invisible hands despite all their efforts to deflect the jet; how her body had been writhing, hit by electric discharges coming off iron pegs and breaking through her defensive barriers; how slow steel balls had penetrated her defenses and left bruises all over her; how quick pieces of lead had hit the test bench a mere centimeter from her body and crumbled into stony dust cutting through her skin; how spikes attached to a slowly descending steel slab that no invisible hands can hold off had indented her skin triggering an onset of ever growing dull pain...However she suppressed the urge. The kiddies shouldn't know that, surely not Yana. It's bad enough I'll have nightmares about that for a long time. She sighed and turned away. Palek, however, was over his initial embarrassment caused by his awkward remark soon enough. He narrated how he had once become stuck in a narrow stony manhole located in a deserted, half-ruined cellar. It must have been a scary experience but he somehow made it sound even funny, and Karina relaxed.

About half-an-hour later the very man Karina remembered from her dreams entered the room.

"Chattering?" he asked. "Hi, Karina, I am Dzinton, remember me? How are you feeling?"

He came closer to the bed, smiled at the girl, felt her forehead and then, for some reason, touched her neck above the collarbone, looked into her eyes and smiled again.

"You are recovering quite well." he announced. "But today it still would be better for you to stay in bed. The stomach, you know, is not to be taken lightly - it needs a lot of rest after spasms like yours. But if you feel that you are really sick and tired of being in bed, you may take a short walk in the garden. Just make sure you don't strain yourself. No running, jumping or lifting anything heavier than a flower. Palek, if something happens, it's your responsibility, got it?

 "As if I have nothing better to do than babysitting chicks!" the boy scoffed. Dzinton looked at him reproachfully, and Palek shrugged his shoulders. "Ok, ok. But let her do as I say, then. She might just say she is older than me, and that's it."

"She won't say anything like that," Dzinton chuckled. "she is a smart girl and she understands everything. By the way, what are you doing here, pipsqueaks? Today it's your turn to be on duty in the kitchen, and there is a big pile of dirty dishes there. And don't forget about cooking dinner. The recipes are on the kitchen table, foodstuffs in the fridge and in vegetable baskets, water in the faucet, electricity on the stove, knives on the knives stand. And so that you know: you have no more than a couple of hours. I'll be ready to eat at noon, one o'clock at the latest - and it is already half past eight. If there nothing to eat by then, oh...I am really terrible when hungry. I might devour both of you."

He winked at Karina, tapped her nose slightly and went out. The girl smiled involuntarily. He is really good. He'll never return me to the Institute.

Palek drew a long sigh and gave Yana's shoulder a nudge.

"Let's go," he said grumpily. "Those adults! Big deal – dirty dishes..."

Yana jumped off the bed.

"Yesterday Dzinton was on duty in the kitchen," she explained, "And today it's me and Palek. Dzinton says we don't have any spongers here. He is nice but also a bore..." she giggled quietly. "In the morning he was quarreling with Tsukka because she had spent money on us, and she called him a pedant and a bore. Tsukka is the lady who also lives here. Are you still sleepy? We were told to feed you five times a day, by the way."

She went to the door and almost out of the room but then she stopped and turned around.

"Karina," she said in a low quivering voice, "You won't kill Dzinton, right? And Tsukka, and Palek?

Please, don't!"

Karina felt like she was slapped in the face. She jerked as if she was electrocuted.

"You fool!" she said angrily. "They are helping us! Am I crazy?"

 "Yes," her harsh inner voice replied. "You are crazy. You are a killer."

Blue eyes appeared suddenly before her mind's eye. A confused look of the young guard - he was the first of those she killed during her escape from the Institute. The blue eyes over the pistol muzzle, trembling fingers on the trigger and confusion in his look - a moment later it was replaced by otherworldliness of death. Back then she paid him almost no attention as she stepped over him because other enemies were blocking her way but now...

How many of them did she kill on her way to freedom? Her memory retained no details but only chaotic images: a heavy hail of bullets pelting the iron lid of the box, desperate screams of the dying guards, blood and lifeless bodies under her feet...And before that? She had killed before she was taken to the Institute as well - thoughtlessly, desperately, sometimes accidentally, with no intention to kill but kill she did.

What did she do? How could she? A downtrodden orphan who would not hurt a fly before that ill-fated day when, for the very first time, she felt that ferocious steel spring of her invisible hands decapitating her tormentors. She is a killer.

A murderer.

Earlier she had had no time to think about all that. She was hiding and running away, and only one thought occupied her mind: where to find food and shelter from cold and people. Then she was brought to the Institute, and the time spent there left no imprint on her memory whatsoever – apart from those terrible hours when she was tortured on the test bench. Then she escaped again - and now, finally, she was safe. And she could recollect.

But I don't want to remember! I want to forget everything. Forger all those troubles I caused. I want everything to be like it was before I had my invisible hands.

She crouched and crawled under the blanket so that it would cover her whole body, the head included. Darkness surrounded her but she still saw those blue eyes in front of her. That guard - he can't be older than Dzinton. If he found me in the forest, sick and dying, he could also give me shelter and take care of me. But he is dead. I killed him.

"You won't kill Dzinton, right? Please, don't!"

"I don't, I don't, I don't want!" she was shouting into the void furiously and silently. "I don't want to be a murderer! I want to live, just to live! Leave me alone, please, please!"

Tears were flowing down her cheeks, sobs were convulsing her body. I'll run away again, I will. I don't want to be found. I don't want to go back to the Institute and I don't want to kill again. I have to run away. Maybe I will find some peace elsewhere but not here. It's too dangerous here...

Gradually she calmed down and stuck her head out of the blanket sniffling and rubbing her eyes with her fingers. Yana had already left but almost immediately Karina heard quick steps in the hallway, and Dzinton entered the room.

"Dear me!" the man uttered sitting down on the edge of the bed. "What happened, little one? What is this river of tears and depthless sorrow all about? It's so wet outside, let's try, at least, to keep this room dry, ok? Look what I have brought you."

He passed her a thick paper book with a glossy cover. Karina sniffled, took the book and cast a skeptical glance at the cover. A drawing on it featured six creatures, among them two humans - a young man with a sabre and a young girl with a dagger - a troll with a curved sword in his hand whose grin exposed a double row of sharp teeth, an orc with a staff - a huge wolf snuggled up against his feet - and another human male with empty hands who was gazing aside. Mountains dwarfed by an atomic mushroom above them filled the background, and right above the group there hung a heavy cloud looking like a hand with five short fingers. Threads of rain strangely resembling puppet strings were reaching for the members of the group, and at the very bottom of the picture golden letters on a dark-blue background read: 'Do What You Must'.

"A fairy tale?" Karina's words sounded both like a statement and a question.

"A fairy tale," Dzinton agreed. "But not exactly a fairy tale. Maybe it's too early for you to read such books but I just don't have anything more suitable. I didn't plan to entertain girls your age, you know. Never mind, it's an interesting book. May read it as well while you are confined to bed - much better than to be bored to tears. Sorry, I don't have a TV or a spare terminal."

He placed the book on the table and tilted his head to one side.

"Anyway, why did you cry?" he asked. "The stomach still causes your trouble?"

Karina shook her head.

"Just...so," she said hoarsely.

"There is always a reason behind no reason." he sighed and stroked her hair. "Don't be sad. The past belongs to the past. Remember it but look ahead rather than behind."

Suddenly she surprised herself by seizing his hand with her both hands and pressing it against her cheek. His palm's soft warmth was slowly spreading over her skin, and she felt that the deadweight bearing on her heart started to fall away.

"That's too bad," Dzinton murmured. "Come to me, my little one."

He carefully released his hand, raised Karina a little bit and pressed her against his body. The girl buried her face in his shoulder and embraced him tightly with both hands.

"It will be alright, Kara," Dzinton said softly stroking the girl's back carefully. "Everything will end well. Don't be afraid of anything. Nobody will harm you ever again."

Karina sniffled and let go of him. He put her back to bed carefully and covered her with the blanket.

"Everything will end well," he repeated, then rose and went out giving the girl a parting smile.

Karina was lying in bed and staring at the ceiling thoughtlessly. The heaviness that had been weighing upon her heart for so long was gone, dissolved into the void of the gray, rainy morning. Surprisingly she felt that deep inside her a vague vision of a future joy was about to be born. So far nothing more than a vision but not a sorrow anymore either.

She procrastinated for a little longer, then stretched her hand and took the book from the table. The pages started to rustle.

A green-blue planet was turning around its own axis as unhurriedly as it should have. The sun was already setting on the eastern continent, and an early evening twilight had fallen over its deciduous forests. Elongated shadows covered the emerald grass of water meadows softly, rivers' surface broke in multiple momentary splashes where fish was hunting six-winged ephemerons that had flown out this day. Hares who were looking around in fear hurried on to get back to their secret burrows before darkness full of terrible monsters - wolves and owls - could cover them, dull their instincts and leave them at the mercy of hungry predators. True to their nature, day hunters were yawning broadly settling down for the night in dens and bushes to catnap fitfully; at the same time night predators were watching the last scenes of their early evening dreams, their wings jerking nervously, their noses twitching in anticipation of fresh blood. Only one predator never intended interrupting his eternal hunt even temporarily.

Only man is able to kill around the clock.

{0250-1}The pages rustled and minutes turned into hours. Karina spent the whole day in bed as Dzinton had told her to. Yana and Palek would bring her food and entertain her by chattering about nothing special. They even showed her a game they called '144' – as it turned out, the game had been Dzinton's present to them. The game did not excite her - the chips were flickering all the time, and it was positively impossible to tell them apart. However, her friends - they are my friends, true friends, aren't they? - seemed to be quite fascinated with it. Even though Palek was mostly scoffing, his eyes were lit with the same fire of excitement as Yana's.

In the evening she saw Tsukka - a rather young, tall, dark-haired lady. Tsukka behaved with Karina in a natural and cheerful way but when her eyes happened to fall on the bruises still present on the girl's hands and body, she would wince and look away. I wonder, who is she to Dzinton - a sister or a lover? Their family names are different, so she isn't his sister. But they sleep in different rooms, too. Dzinton is on the second floor, and Tsukka - on the first, next to my room. Probably they aren't lovers. But why do they live together in the old hotel? Why do they live in an hotel, at all?

Karina liked Tsukka. The young woman, even though keeping some distance, always talked to her as an equal, without irritation or baby talk that are often typical of adults communicating with children. Later Tsukka mentioned that she had a half-brother and a half-sister, both about Yana's and Palek's age, so everything fell into its place. And she herself isn't such an aged woman - sometimes she giggles like a real teen. And that frivolous tail at the back of her neck makes her look even younger. I could have an elder sister like her.

Late in the evening, when everybody had already gone to bed, Karina did not manage to fall asleep for a long time. Again and again she would recall familiar faces - Dzinton's, Tsukka's, Yana's and Palek's - and new feelings began to stir within her. She could barely remember her parents who had died a long time ago - so long that it felt to her like an eternity - when she was very little. She could not even remember if she had ever had a real father. Vague recollections of her mother and the orphanage where she had been brought to about two-and-half years ago - that was all her memory retained. Well, there were also those two years in the Institute but I have almost no memories of them (and it's so strange to think that I am already 13-years-old!). I forgot my family life with my parents. When I think of the orphanage, I can remember only gray hopelessness and constant fear of those nasty older boys. And those times I ran away, there was nothing but despair and constant hunger.

But now...now these people around me don't see me as an annoyance. They aren't afraid of my invisible hands. For some reason, they care about me. I think I begin to love them. The girl sighed. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Dzinton could become my Dad, Tsukka – Mom, and Palek and Yana - my brother and sister. We could live as a family, then - and I would even protect them from bad people.

You, fool, you can't protect even yourself, she was struck by a cruel thought. It's just the opposite, soldiers with guns will come here and kill us all - or even worse, they will kill Dzinton, Tsukka, Yana and Palek, and take you back to the Institute. I must run away, a familiar urge cut through her thoughts.

I must run, must run, must run. Now I am feeling great here but if I stay, it will be bad - and very soon.

And not only for me. I can't repay Dzinton's and Tsukka's help and kindness like that. And in any case, it's not polite to impose on strangers. I'll just recover a bit more and then I will leave...

She lay for a while staring at the ceiling and listening to the raindrops drumming before she finally drifted into sleep. And in her dreams she saw the confused look of those blue eyes above the pistol muzzle, and she stepped over dead bodies scattered on the floor, and she tried to protect herself from drops of liquid fire...

Nevertheless, in the morning she got out of bed resolutely. She could still feel some strange weakness in her hands and legs but she just could not stand staying in bed anymore. Tsukka happened to have a day off despite a Fireday. She explained to Karina that salesgirls would normally work a variable work week, and their days-off, unlike other people's, rarely fell on a Skyday and a Dayday. Karina suddenly realized that she was getting confused about the names of the days of the week, and she strung those names together– Peri, Fire, Water, Tree, Golden, Soil, Day and Sky - using a half-forgotten mnemonic, 'spafiwat trigosods'. I wonder, how much have I forgotten since I ran away from the orphanage? I am glad I still can read! She tried to add up several numbers in her mind. There was little clarity in her thought but she still managed to cope with the task. Yet she did not succeed to multiply seven by eight: the multiplication table seemed to have been totally erased from her memory.

You, fool, she reproached herself. You can't be that stupid. You must recall things!

However, her body weakness prevented her from concentrating on a mental task, and she had to postpone dealing with the multiplication table. Instead she, barefooted, was wandering in the park surrounding the hotel, treading on wet soil, rejoicing in the gradually brightening sky and basking in sunrays that reached her through the gaps in the clouds. Yana and Palek who were keeping her company took turns in leading her to various nooks they had found in the last two days. Most of all the girl liked a high cliff over a steep precipice, thirty fathoms or so from the fence, where a narrow overgrown path weaved down to from the park. The cliff provided a stunning view of the bay below, where speedboats were scurrying to and fro between big parading ships, and of piers, big cranes and big concrete pipes leading from the piers to warehouses located much higher. The pipes, as all-knowing Palek explained, were necessary to protect conveyor belts transporting the ships' cargo to a tsunami-safe area.

"If you don't protect them," Palek elucidated, "the very first wave will destroy them. And they have to build those warehouses high up there in the mountains. Earlier they tried to build them closer to water, with very thick walls, but the waves ruined them very quickly all the same. So the warehouses had to be rebuilt from scratch. And the pipes are easy to fix, even if the waves break them."

"What's a 'tsunami'?" Karina asked. The word rang a bell but she needed some additional explanations because of her current confusion.

"You've never heard about tsunami?" Yana gave her an incredulous look. "You sure take the cake! It's a huge wave, thirty fathoms or so high, that comes from the ocean and crushes onto the shore. They say, sometimes those waves can be even hundred fathoms high but that must be fibbing. If you are anywhere near the water when the wave comes, it'll flatten you and wash you away. It can flatten a house, too - and even beach a ship. Nobody lives next to water, all the houses are built up in the mountains. See, the city doesn't come all the way down to the ocean, there is an empty beach between them."

"And nobody lives on flat shores," Palek continued, "because the wave cuts deep into the land there, sometimes even a verst or two, and washes everything away. You can live on a shore only where it steepens right away - and if you go down there to swim you must always keep your ears open to tsunami-warnings."

"It surely sucks," Karina gave a shudder. "What's a tsunami-warning?"

"A siren of a sort," Yana explained. "There are tracking stations far out in the ocean. When they register a wave they transmit a warning back to the coast. They also calculate how much time the wave will need to reach the shore. When a warning sounds, hollow, deep-voiced signals indicate the number of hours, and high-pitched, piercing ones - the number of minutes divided by ten. And they are preceded by a special signal that sounds twice in a row, 'uh-UH-uh'," she imitated a rising and a falling pitch.

"How can ships sail, then?" Karina inquired. "They can't get out and hide in a shelter."

"That's because the wave in the ocean is quite small and harmless. It grows much bigger when it comes to the shore. We were told in school," Yana knitted her brows. "that the shallower it is, the quicker and higher is the wave. So the ships simply don't sail close to the shore but stay much farther to the ocean. All they have to do to be safe there is to turn their bow towards the wave. If the warning catches them in the port, then they are indeed in trouble because they have to interrupt whatever loading-unloading they are busy with and rush out to safety."

"Where do those waves come from?"

"Our teach at the orphanage said that volcanoes made them," Palek recounted. "Far south, in the Coral Archipelago, and many other places volcanoes erupt underwater and produce those waves."

"Not volcanoes, silly, but tec-to-nic ac-ti-vi-ties," Yana syllabified. "When the earth is shaking and cracking. If you pour water into a glass and then tap it, you'll produce waves, too."

"I see..." Karina pulled her knees to her chin and fell silent contemplating the bay and the city. She had never been by the sea before, and everything around looked strange and wonderful to her. The clouds were finally gone in an unknown direction, and she was basking in the warmth of the almost summerly sun.

After the dinner was over - now that there were more people in the house, the group had to eat in the dining room because the kitchen table was too small to provide a place for everybody - Tsukka rose from the table resolutely, her fists on her hips.

"Now listen to me, folks," she declared, "You might be happy to live in a pigsty but I am not. Just look around - there is dust everywhere, on the floor, on the tables, on the cupboards. The windows are dirty, sinks in the kitchen and the bathrooms are disgusting to look at, and I don't even mention the toilet bowls. Today is going to be devoted to deep house cleaning. Those who are temporarily disabled," she cast a quick glance at Karina, "are exempted but the rest - don't even mention it."

"Whom did I bring to the house?" Dzinton rolled his eyes in pretended exasperation. "A woman on a ship is a nightmare but in a house it's even worse. Tsu, darling, can we please do without deep cleaning? On my word, I have lived here for half-a-year and no dust has killed me yet. I do sweep the floor, after all!"

"No cleaning will kill you either!" she retorted. "No big deal, it's a small house. The four of us can handle it in three-four hours. So, Dzi, you'd better tell me where the utility room is. I don't think the hotel owners took their mops and swabs with them."

Dzinton looked at the children, sighed and made a helpless gesture.

"When a woman made up her mind to get the house clean, you can either obey her or tie her up and put her in the farthest back room in the house. Something tells me that the latter choice is fraught with dire consequences. Fine, Tsu, you've convinced me - it's ok to deep-clean the house every half-a-year or so. The utility room is at the end of the hallway, a small locked door. I am not sure what's there because there was no fitting key on the common board. Doesn't matter, we'll open it soon enough."

He went to his room and returned with several long steel sticks bent at the end. Karina noticed that Palek's eyes went wide at the sight of the sticks - and even wider when it took the man less than a minute to unlock the door with their help.

"Didn't you say..." the boy began in a low voice.

"I did - and I'll repeat if necessary," Dzinton cut him short. "No matter what, our agreement holds."

They must have been referring to some previous conversation, and both Karina and Tsukka gave Dzinton a puzzled look but nobody asked any questions. The utility room was indeed filled with buckets, mops and dusty rags, and in about five minutes the work was in full swing around the house. Karina did not want to remain idle, and she was presented with a big duster and instructed to clean any horizontal surface she could possibly find. The others started with taking every available mattress and pillow to the courtyard, hanging them on the fence and applying several beaters to them so eagerly that soon enough all the windows facing the courtyard had to be temporarily closed - the resulting dust cloud was so big that it dimmed the sun over the courtyard. Next they swept and mopped the floor in every room around the house. When it came to bathtubs, showers and toilet bowls, Dzinton looked at the detergent brought by Tsukka from her shop and shook his head silently. He named another detergent and told Palek who was the fastest runner to go buy it - and in the meantime he, helped by Yana and Tsukka, washed and wiped a number of cabinets and shelves in the kitchen.

Surprisingly, Karina did not feel bored - despite the work being a drudgery. Dzinton and Tsukka were bantering cheerfully while Yana and Palek kept scampering between the rooms and making noise - and their enthusiasm finally proved to be infectious. Due to the ever-buoyant Tsukka,

a drudgery turned into a sort of an amusing game. Windows, rid of longstanding dirt and dust, sparkled merrily letting daylight in, and Karina suddenly felt carefree as if all the troubles and dangers belonged to the past for good.

Dzinton's room came last. Upon a slight hesitation, Karina pushed the door open and entered. Nothing special - a bed, a wardrobe, a table and a wooden chair, just like in all other rooms. The bed was made tidily, with a bedspread on it, and there were books, a holographic projection disc and a terminal sensor panel on the table. Everything else was the same. An intricate pattern formed by flowing interlacing lines was whirling in the dark cloud of the display. Karina put her hand inside the cloud and watched for a short while how the hologram lines were streaming over her skin sometimes brushing against it and as if disappearing inside her hand. Then she touched the sensor area above the panel incidentally, and the lines disappeared, replaced by an image of a small gray bird with outstretched wings.

"An unidentified user," a soft female voice said quietly. "Biometric parameters are absent in the user database. Please, do not try to get unauthorized access to this device."

A few melodious cadences sounded, and the hologram lines reappeared.

Karina looked at the terminal, intrigued, but she did not dare touch it again. What if Dzinton gets angry? She moved the chair next to the wardrobe, used the duster to clean its top, got down and came to the window. Upon bursting it open and shaking the dirt off the windowsill all the way down to the park ground, she returned to the table and looked at the terminal once again.

"Curious?" Dzinton darted into the room and put a bucket of water on the floor. "That's my workstation. I press the keys here."

"The keys?" Karina was surprised. There was nothing like piano keys on the sensor panel.

"That's an expression," Dzinton explained dipping the mop in water and splashing it on the floor. "In the past they would enter texts into computers using special boards with buttons. Those buttons were called 'keys', and each key was responsible for a different sylletter. So the whole thing was known as 'keyboard' - now such keyboards are rarely used, and even then the sylletters are projections of light rather than physical buttons. Yet the expression survived. Move a bit, I'll mop the floor under you..."

She moved aside.

"Is it difficult to work on a terminal?" she asked timidly.

"This one here is a computer, not a terminal. No, it's easy enough. You've never tried, not even in school?"

Karina shook her head. She did not feel like telling him that in Junior School they had had no

 terminals, and later, at the orphanage, she would always be pushed aside by more insolent boys and girls.

"Not good," Dzinton summed up. "Well, I don't let anybody to work on my computer, it's just not intended for...other purposes. I'll have to think about it - it should be possible to find an old device that you all could use for getting some learning experience. In any case, we'll figure something out. Now move once more."

After the cleaning was over, Karina felt unwell. She crept into bed - this time the mattress was covered by a clean bed sheet that rendered her skin a pleasantly cool sensation. It was her regular meal time, and she made an attempt to decline warm insipid rice using fatigue as an excuse but the ever-observant Tsukka immediately got alarmed and called Dzinton. He came, looked into Karina's eyes, checked her pulse, massaged several spots under her nape, and she started feeling somewhat better. Then Dzinton went on pressing on her belly - sometimes Karina would almost shake in anticipation of pain to come but every time Dzinton would stop his hand an instant before it could really hurt her.

"So far so bad, my little friend," he frowned pensively. "You see, your stomach is still quite inflamed, even though not as severely as before. The pills you are taking are quite efficient, so they help a lot but you still have to exercise caution. When you rest in bed there is no pressure on the stomach - it's fully stretched and resting as well. But when you walk, bend, squat, the stomach contracts and gets hurt. So you'd better stay in bed for a couple of days - or, in any case, refrain from walking a lot. Besides, you must eat because your bowels haven't fully recovered either. If you don't eat, you'll end up with constipation, and that's no fun at all."

Karina followed his advice and stayed in bed for the rest of the day.

Days came and went. Karina's body weakness was gradually subsiding, her stomach would hurt less and less often. In the meantime, Dzinton gave the children several paper books and promised to find some more. Karina was devouring those books. She found out that she was being fascinated by the fairy-tale characters' adventures happening elsewhere and elsewhen. She could not help imagining herself in the midst of the events - now threading through forest swamps under the starless sky alongside the rest of the Party; now galloping alongside charging Tarsaks; now being a hostage locked up in a monastery; now fighting evil Gulans... Siege towers, a sense of danger all over them, were slowly swaying their way towards the walls of the surrounded city; mighty magi were pulling together to fend off the enemy's sorcerers; a carriage with the abducted princess was speeding through the thick of the forest, and a pirate fleet combined with evil Maino's navy was enclosing in a circle the doomed trade convoy desperately trying to run a blockade of Krestotsin.

She craved to find herself in that fairy-tale world where her invisible hands would be nothing more than just another magic ability. It would be even better to be there without them at all - then I could live a normal life, without hiding and running away...well, maybe just for a little while, for the sake of adventures, like Palek runs away from his orphanage. Then she would sigh and discard those stupid thoughts - one can't live in a fairy-tale, after all. I'll just wait a little longer until I am a bit more fit and healthy, and then... She did not feel like thinking in detail about what would happen then. She grew more and more attached to Dzinton and Tsukka, Yana and Palek, to the old hotel and the park surrounding it, to the cliff over the precipice and to secret paths running through the thicket towards the city below where Dzinton would not yet allow her to go to. I will surely go there one sunny morning to feel the warmth of the pavement with my bare feet...

If she could choose a Home for the rest of her life, she would not hesitate to stay where she was but deep inside her there still lived that secret fear that turned her night's sleep into a nightmare. Time and time again she would wake up in the middle of the night, cold sweat all over her body, throw off the blanket and jerk herself up into a sitting position, ready to run - no matter, where. She would grow anxious and withdraw into herself, escape to the observation rock and sit there for hours on end watching the ocean thoughtlessly. Once she saw a big wave coming to the shore: first the sea ebbed exposing the bottom, then the water rose high, its foamy top shaped like a crest broken in the middle, and crushed down on the coastal rocks violently. Then the water mass broke through the mouth of the bay and attacked the breakwaters and concrete hangars sheltering yachts and speedboats, the high steep shore left overwhelmed by the impact and fully flooded. Sometimes Karina thought that, while she was sitting on the shore, basking in the sun and enjoying the warmth of the sand, one such crushing tsunami wave was already on its way, set to punish her for her carelessness.

Every morning she promised herself that today she would start packing and planning for an imminent departure in a day or two. The day would pass, like every other day, and she still would not manage to muster enough strength to turn intentions into actions. She could not even decide if she should take Yana with her - the girl seemed to feel completely happy to be where she was. Sometimes, when she happened to think about her parents, Yana would hide in the bushes and cry but most of the time she was cheerful and unconcerned.

Karina's future escape was not her only source of unhappiness. She was frustrated because she seemed to be the only one in the house who had no skills whatsoever in handling kitchenware. Both Dzinton and Tsukka clearly knew their way around knives and ladles. It was a real pleasure to watch them chopping veggies, scaling fish, slicing meat or turning over pancakes because they looked like circus magicians at those moments. Yana did not have their skills yet but she also was handling knives with some confidence – and Palek must have been born with a knife. The blade was dancing in the air as if it was an extension of his hand. However, his confidence would disappear every time he had to deal with veggies - and his slices came out in all forms and shapes. Scaling fish proved to be even worse as once he cut his finger so badly that he was unable to work with the injured hand for several days afterwards.

Yet even he was getting better by the day.

As for Karina, who volunteered to help Dzinton every time he was on duty in the kitchen, she just could not do anything right. Palek's slices seemed real masterpieces in comparison with hers. Porridge and stewing vegetables would burn if left under her supervision, milk and soups would boil over leaving the stove covered with foam; rice would overdry, and even most usual sausages once almost turned into coal when she, buried in her thoughts and looking out the window, let the water in the pot boil away. She was upset and furious with herself but Dzinton only hummed humorously.

"Take your time to learn, Kara," he told her during her second shift. "It's never easy to learn, and you can hardly hope to succeed right away. Come to think about it, you've never dealt with kitchen before, and the rest of us has at least some sort of experience with it. Don't worry - in a couple of thriceweeks your fingers will get used to correct movements, and you'll feel the improvement."

A couple of thriceweeks? Karina almost blurted out that she did not intend to stay even for a week but she checked herself in time. He seems to like the idea of being a family man – why should I upset him before time?

In the meantime, a week passed and the second one was drawing to a close. Karina still did not have the heart to act. Gradually, her thoughts about running away became more and more distant - and they visited her less and less frequently.


03.06.843, Soilday


Upset and weary, Joima Paradia, the headmistress of the 'Sunshine' orphanage let her forehead rest on her hands propped against the table. Just everything has gone totally wrong today.

In the morning no less than two terminals burned out at the learning center. The wiring that had not seen any maintenance for quite a while short circuited, and the devices, unprotected against power surges, got the worst of it. A service technician came in about two hours, shook his head, made a helpless gesture and advised Joima that the terminals' power supply units should be replaced because repairing them was out of the question. He also did not rule out a possibility that the electronic components could have been damaged as well but added that a test would be necessary to establish that for sure.

There is no way we could buy new terminals. Our checking account is almost empty, and even replacing those units would be quite a challenge. So from now on three kids will have to share a terminal rather than two.

Around lunchtime a water pipe burst in the basement. This new trouble became known only when water spurted out of basement windows, and playful rivulets spread all over the lawn in front of the main building. Gran, a yard-keeper, a door-keeper, a gardener and Jack of all other trades, got courageously soaked to the skin when he, alone in the flooded basement lit by nothing stronger than a forehead lamp - they did not dare switch on the lamps lest the wet wiring short circuit again - was first groping for the rusty stop valve and then struggling to turn it with an alligator wrench. Next the children, excited by an unexpected adventure, were scooping out water for a long time. They got soaked as well - at least, half the way to the skin. And we are fortunate that pipelines repairs in socially important public institutions like municipal orphanages are paid for out of the municipality budget. At least, we can avoid those expenses. On the other hand, until tomorrow or so water for the kitchen and the toilets will have to be brought in buckets from the nearest hydrant - lucky once again that it remained intact. But what if some of the kids caught a bad cold?

Finally, soon after they were done with the scooping, a municipal committee representing the Department for Child Protection showed up at the orphanage. An imposing old hag, who looked every bit like a spinster that had never in her life raised even one child, was accompanied by a mousy gentleman, either her secretary or counselor. The hag went on and on asking all sorts of questions concerning the orphans' living conditions, their moods, and punishments they were exposed to - all the while shaking her head pointedly. Almost half the questions were about Palek: the inspecting official must have made up her mind that the boy had run away because of being bullied by tutors or peers - and now she was trying to force the headmistress' confession. Her mousy companion was painstakingly registering all the answers - not only on a dictaphone worth about half of Joima's allowance but also on sheets of block notes. While doing the latter, he was using a stump of an actual pencil that must have been procured at some museum.

All those extra troubles added to her usual daily hassles brought Joima to the edge of exhaustion. Now, sitting in her office, she was trying not to think about dragging herself back to her empty apartment, her love life still being in shambles at the age of forty, hastily concocting a supper out of prepared foods, and falling into a heavy, broken slumber right after dinner - only to go through the same routine starting from tomorrow morning.

Why do I need all this trouble from sunrise to sunset? - a fleeting thought flashed through her mind. Wouldn't it be easier to just quit and do something...but what? And if I quit, what will happen to all those little rascals whom I am trying to give at least an illusion of having a mother? But I am so tired of all that, so tired!

And what happened to Palek? Whatever else may go wrong, just let he be alive!

A quiet knock startled her. The door squeaked and half-opened, and she saw a young man who was a complete stranger to her.

"Good evening," he said in a low voice. "I was told that..."

He fell silent and came to the table.

"Magnificent Lady Headmistress Joima Paradia?" he asked. "I presume, the office hours are over? Judging by your appearance, your day has been anything but easy."

"Judging by my appearance, I am probably good to be buried," the headmistress sighed resignedly. "It's been a nightmare of a day. If you come to talk about business, Sir, you'll have to return tomorrow. Nothing personal, it's just that today I am completely unable to discuss anything of importance anymore."

"I did come to talk about business," the guest agreed. "Lady Joima, I have a suggestion. Let's dine together and take this opportunity to discuss a little problem that, I am sure, worries you most of all right now. I am talking about your missing charge."

"Palek? Palek Brin?" the headmistress jumped to her feet. "You...What happened to him? Where is he?"

"He is perfectly fine. The boy is my guest now, safe and sound, and even enjoying a company of some new friends. He isn't eager to come back, though."

"I am not exactly surprised," the headmistress felt an enormous relief. He is alive. That's the most important, safe and sound. Such an intolerable brat! How many times has he run away - three? Four? He alone is enough to turn a person into a nervous wreck! "Unfortunately, the state is responsible for him until he is of age, so he'll have to come back. My apologies, Sir, may I ask who am I honored to talk to?"

"Not much of an honor, really," the young man smiled, and the headmistress suddenly felt that her accumulated fatigue was disappearing without a trace. This whole story will end well, and...all is well that ends well! "My name is Dzinton Muratsiy. Pleasure to meet you, Lady. I seek benevolence. But I see you are hungry, Lady Headmistress. Let's go eat, the dinner is on me. As for who is responsible for whom and what can be changed, those are the very topics we might discuss while dining. The restaurant is about twenty minutes away on foot, and on our way you could give a better idea of what is Palek Brin like, after all."


05.06.843, Skyday


 "Yes, I saw her," the green grocery owner nodded returning the picture. Just yesterday she dropped in here, and there was a boy with her, too. I don't think that's the missing one, though. She was so serious, so focused - as if she was doing something really important. I even laughed to myself: her parents trusted her with shopping, so she is trying so hard to justify their trust. No, she wasn't scared or nervous, not at all. Just a normal girl and a normal boy, and they were treating each other like friends. No, I didn't see any adults waiting for them, neither in the shop nor outside. Not that I was paying too much attention because something was wrong with my hulcy seller, and I had to send it to a repair shop to get looked at. So I was on my own and had to work twice as hard."

"That's really strange," the detective remarked as if thinking aloud. "Maybe this girl just looks like the other one. Her parents were so upset - wouldn't make any sense if they themselves sent her to the grannies or something. The police has gone totally nuts, too. No, I am sure the girls just look alike. That happens quite a lot, and besides, the picture is not that high quality either."

"Maybe they look alike," the shop owner agreed but at that moment she was distracted by a customer entering the shop. The detective waited patiently until the man bought a bag of oranges and left.

"I guess that must be the case," he said thoughtfully. "But we have to check, anyways. Do you know by any chance where she might live?"

"I do actually," the owner volunteered. "She and the boy bought ten or twelve kilograms of different fruits and three juice boxes. I thought their bags were too heavy for them to carry, so I offered to send them with my delivery man when he was back. The boy refused. He said they lived in a nearby hotel, so they wouldn't have to carry the bags too far."

"In a hotel?" the detective, clearly interested, activated his pelephone ready to write down the address.

"Are there many hotels nearby?"

"None," the woman responded. "To be precise, there had been none until the 'Daria Flower' opened.

There is also the 'Maron Grove' but that one has been closed for years. Its owner went bust and died, and the heirs showed up only once. I didn't see it myself but my friend..."

"I am sure your friend knows lots of interesting things, Lady, but I am in a hurry," the detective interrupted the talkative woman. "If you could tell me how to get there, I would really appreciate it."

"Just up the street," the greengrocer pouted. "At the end of the street ends go straight through the park. There is a paved path there, and it's a shortcut. The main road leads there too but it's a detour."

"Thank you very much, Magnificent Lady," the detective bowed a little and put a crumpled banknote on the counter. "You've been most helpful. I hope this small token of appreciation makes up for your time."

He bowed again and left quickly lest the garrulous woman try to tell him something else. A scent, then - and a hot one. After two weeks of fruitless efforts - finally there is a scent. Frankly, it was about to start looking hopeless to me. Neither my numerous informants from all walks of life, nor even my police contacts could tell me anything. The chicks' pics rang no bell whatsoever, whoever I talked to. I was quite close to believing that the little monsters had got lost in the forest that night and broken their necks in some ravine.

And now a scent. So, at least one chick, Yana, has settled down in an abandoned hotel. Isn't it funny that just a thriceweek ago, a week or so before they ran away, I had taken a shortcut here and come to this very maron park! This hotel looked completely deserted back then - broken window-frames with no glass in them, peeling walls, lopsided sheets of slate on the roof and a huge rusty lock on the gates. And now our snotty nose lives there - and with whom? Who is this buck? The other chick could change into boys clothing, of course, but I doubt it. They are too young to be so cunning.

So I would be wise to watch the hotel for a while before I show my face there. And I happen to know a very useful cliff in the area - the hotel is in plain sight from there.


 "We've found them!" the Head of Security dashed into the room, so clearly excited that the director even smiled to himself. "Both are safe and sound - and now are secretly under surveillance."

"Details," the director demanded turning off the projector screen. It must be impossible to make out the text of the mail from the opposite side of the display but who knows - maybe someone could. Better safe than sorry. "Who found them, where, what condition they are in? Everything from the beginning."

"There is a man called Kamasa Rukasik," the major exhaled dropping into the armchair without invitation. "He is a private detective but sometimes he helps me to deal with...delicate situations. The man is completely trustworthy. I have given him both chicks' pictures and asked him to look for them. Seemed like a fat chance but it worked. Both live in a deserted hotel on the west side of the bay, up in the mountains. Kamasa is watching them and in touch with us."

"Wonderful," the director made a face. "When are you going to seize them?"

"Actually, there is a catch with that part." the major hesitated.

Director Joi sighed inwardly. The Dogface always creates problems out of nothing.

"What is it, then?" he asked harshly.

"They aren't alone there," the major explained, shivering. "There are at least two outsiders with them - an adult and a child. Mind you, Kamasa has been watching the hotel for but half-an-hour - there might be more there. We need at least a day to be sure we've seen everybody."

"Well..." the director let his chin rest on his hands, his elbows propped against the table. "A problem, indeed. We won't be able to seize them without commotion."

"Exactly," the major frowned. "And the outsiders might breathe a word, too. Who knows what the deviants have told them. The younger one doesn't know anything but the older chick could well let her tongue loose, and then some..."

"Stop freaking out, Kayin," the director stopped him short. "She had two weeks to wag her tongue - so she either did or decided not to. We'll think about it later. For now..." he drummed his fingers on the table. "don't precipitate anything. Send more people to help your detective - and let them watch the hotel at all times. We must know how many people live there. If they go out to the city..."

"We tail them," the major nodded anticipating his thought.

"Idiot!" the director grimaced as if he had a toothache. "If they happen to spot the tail, they'll disappear. If they go out to the city, watch the hotel. No tails. Hopefully they won't choose this particular night to move somewhere else. In the morning we'll see what the field surveillance has discovered. Act now, and I'll give it some more thought in the meantime. Dismissed."


"Nope, haven't cooked anything," Dzinton grinned broadly.

"Haven't you?" Tsukka looked at the empty stove perplexedly. "Ok, never mind, I'll improvise something quickly..."

"Once again, nope." Dzinton grin became even broader. "It's my kitchen duty, isn't it? So nobody can deprive me of my sacred rights...or is it still duties? Doesn't matter. Long story short," he turned around and winked at the children peeping into the kitchen, "today we are going to dine at a restaurant! I've just raided the bear market - that's really something to celebrate. So we'll squander a little fortune!"

"You, spendthrift!" Tsukka remarked reproachfully. "That money could buy us something useful instead. Just look at Karina's dress, it's completely worn out..."

"Hey, I am the number-one bore here," Dzinton burst into laughter. "so, don't even try to outbore me! Dresses and other threads are important, goes without saying, but sometimes one needs to forget about routine, too. So, get change and off we go."

"So be it," Tsukka sighed. "To the same cafe we went to...that evening?"

"No. A different place this time. Their cuisine is quite decent, and we might order something for Karina that is dietary and tasty at the same time."

Karina liked the restaurant - maybe because it was the very first one she had ever been to. It was situated on a broad street, about twenty-thirty minutes away on foot from their hotel. An endless stream of horn-honking and headlights-flashing cars was rolling down the evening street flooded with lights while shining and rotating advertisements promised to turn life into a perennial feast. High marble steps starting at the street level led up to the restaurant's wide glass doors, and much higher above there was a flashing sign 'The Diamond Bay'.

"You are nuts!" Tsukka whispered but Karina heard her anyway. "That's the most expensive restaurant in the whole city!"

"Trust me, it's not," Dzinton bent his head and winked at her. "I know at least ten restaurants that are much more expensive than this one. Just relax, Tsu - relax and enjoy."

"But how did you manage to book a table? They say, you need to make a reservation a thriceweek in advance."

"A week, at most. I guess I was lucky - when I called, they told me someone had just canceled his reservation."

They climbed the stony stairs, the children clinging to each other timidly and looking around warily, and passed through the doors that automatically slid aside. Two strikingly beautiful and well-dressed women standing on both sides of the doors bowed at the same time and sang in unison,

"Welcome, dear guests!"

"Seen them?" Palek poked Karina in the side with his elbow. "Real hulcies! The latest model, looks just like humans. Must cost a fortune, I guess."

"Hulcies?" the girl asked uncomprehendingly.

"Yeah, anthropmr...I mean, human-like robots," Palek gave her a surprised look. "You never saw them before?"

A man clad in a formal black suit stepped forward towards them.

"Do you have a reservation?" he asked sternly.

"Yes," Dzinton nodded. "For the Muratsiy family."

"Welcome, then! Please, follow me, Magnificent Sirs and Splendid Ladies," the man half-bowed, turned around and led the way, seemingly without even noticing if his guests were following him.

Karina kept stumbling as she walked because she could not help looking around all the time, her mouth wide open. Majestic pillars of black marble decorated with golden and silver candelabra providing subdued light; high vaults lost in semi-darkness; tables covered with red velvet tablecloth sporting exotic dishes that had been served to luxuriously dressed persons of both genders and all three races; waiters as imposing as their guide gliding between tables with trays in their hands; quiet music; ravishing scent filling her mouth with saliva and making her stomach rumble...WOW! In the orphanage, when she was reading books describing the wealthy people and their luxurious lives, she was imagining something like that - and her imagination just paled before reality.

Theirs was a table in the corner, in a shallow niche where matte beige wall lampshades provided just enough light to dispel the gloom, and a black leather sofa almost circled into itself as if trying not to lose touch with the wall.

"Here, Sirs and Ladies," the guide half-bowed once again turning around. "I humbly beg your understanding, Magnificent Sir, that the children should behave themselves lest they disturb other guests."

"Yes, of course," Dzinton responded absentmindedly. "Well, folks, take your seats, the feast is about to start."

"Just in case, I have 500 mayers," Tsukka said looking around. "Dzi, are you sure your miserable 5000 will cover all the expenses? They might well charge a thousand just as an entrance fee."

"If I am wrong, you can always sell me into slavery, to wash dishes for a thriceweek," the man beamed. "That would teach me how to count. Tsu, didn't I tell you to just relax and enjoy?"

Karina who could not help feeling that all eyes in the room were on them hid in the farthest corner of the sofa. Palek and Yana settled down beside her while Dzinton and Tsukka seated themselves on the sides of the table. The man in the black suit appeared noiselessly and offered them a pile of heavy leather folders. Dzinton accepted them all and placed the pile in front of himself.

"So, my honored friends," he said cheerfully, "democracy is canceled for today. I'll order for everybody because you just don't know what to choose. Well, my good man," he turned to the waiter. "here is what we'll order."

He leafed through the menu and started jabbering away, none of the words he uttered making any sense to Karina. What can it possibly mean, 'quambre tukurian style', 'jellied samaritsa with shurafan' or 'eight kinds of muruka slices'? Karina just hoped that the food he had ordered would prove to be at least somewhat edible. It must cost tons of money! How come, Dzinton wastes all that money on a nonsense like that? If he really has that much, he could indeed buy me and Yana new dresses - that would be so much better!

"What will you drink?" he asked Tsukka. "Would you like to take a look at the wine menu or should I choose drinks as well?"

"What about you?" the young woman asked hesitantly. "I am not exactly..."

"I don't drink spirits, just couldn't care less about it. If I drank wine I would be just wasting the product, nothing more. But I do know something about wines, at least in theory. So I could choose something good for you."

"No, thanx," Tsukka shook her head. "I don't feel like drinking alcohol all by myself. I'd better take some juice."

"Still trying to save some money?" Dzinton sighed. "Well, up to you. Then," he turned to face the waiter. "a pitcher of tamaronga juice."

"Dzinton," Yana asked when the waiter disappeared from view, "why does this man hate us so much?"

"What are you talking about, my little one?" he replied fiddling with a fork absentmindedly.

"What makes you think he hates us? He's never seen us before."

 "I don't know," Yana sighed. "Since I am..." she checked herself.

"Since you are what?" Dzinton was watching her attentively.

"Well," the girl answered evasively, "I understand how people feel about me. Just understand, don't know how."

"A useful ability. Yet I don't think the waiter feels so strongly about us. 'Hates' is too big a word. I wouldn't be surprised if he despised us, though. After all, this restaurant is frequented by people who are wealthier than us, as well as better dressed and more imposing. For instance, that's..." he pointed behind him with his thumb, " what you might call their typical customers."

Karina looked in that direction. A human family - two adults with their son and daughter - at a nearby table was consuming appetizers unhurriedly. The man flaunted an elegant bluish suit, the woman wore a luxurious white low-neck dress. The children's clothing was as stylish - or, at least, it looked every bit as expensive. The girl noticed that Karina was watching her and stuck out her tongue furtively. Karina blushed and turned away.

"Sir Katoniy Luts," Dzinton explained. "An owner of a fishing company, five seiners, a newspaper and a floating factory; a deputy in the Assembly. Luts is a well-known persona in the city as he makes a splash almost every week. Once he even tried to run for the mayor office. An achievement he is most proud of is his membership in a certain 'Saybay' club in Okanaka. Be sure, this evening he is going to spend about five times more than we will - and he'll offer the waiter quite a tip, too. As far as the waiter is concerned, that's someone worth respecting. As for shag-rags like us, we shouldn't be allowed even to set foot in his precious restaurant," he snorted quietly. "That's our world for you, my tots - people are quite often treated depending on how thick their wallet is. For many, wealth is the only possible reason to respect someone. Never mind. Let them enjoy themselves, that might be their only fun in life..."

Karina shuddered. Suddenly she was not feeling fascinated with the restaurant's splendor anymore. Yana can see what people are feeling - and if she says they don't like us, then they don't. Why did we come here? It's so much better home, in the hotel where there are only Dzinton, Tsukka, Yana and Palek - they love me. At least, they aren't afraid of me.

Dzinton and Tsukka aren't afraid of you because they don't know you as you really are. And if they find out? They might decide that you are a monster - and that you should be sent back to the Institute.

But Yana said her parents weren't frightened at all! Well, they were afraid for her but not of her gift...

Dzinton and Tsukka aren't your parents. They are just good and kind people. Maybe they won't return you to the Institute but will they agree to live in the same house with you? You are a monster. A deviant. A murderer.

I want to live with them!

Not every wish comes true. They are nobody to you. Complete strangers. They sheltered you and Yana out of pity but you can't stay with them any longer. You must leave.

I don't want to!

You must. Let this dinner be your final 'goodbye'. Tomorrow you must sneak away.

"...Kara!" Dzinton's voice startled her. "Hello! Time to eat. Just make sure, folks, you don't overdo the appetizers - or you won't have any space left for the main dishes."

The man in the black suit - 'waiter' as Dzinton called him - was about to finish arranging plates on the table. Appetizers? Karina's eyes bulged in astonishment. Those appetizers could well make a feast of a dinner for the five of us. In front of her there were sliced fish, bundles of thin, spice scented stalks of some plants placed into a transparent liquid, pickled octopus' tentacles, clean-cut hunks of sausage...

"Those greens," Dzinton poked at the stalks. "are called 'muruka'". A kind of grass. It grows far north, withers quickly and becomes tasteless - so they transport it here by plane because when it's fresh, it's a perfect appetizer. It's somewhat spicy but, strangely enough, it doesn't harm the stomach in any way. Even people with acute ulcer can eat it safely. That's why it's so valuable. Stop staring at it as if it were a crocodile in a zoo – that defeats its purpose of being here. Just help yourself to it!"

He set an example by taking three or four stalks out of the salad bowl, putting them in his mouth and munching them.

Karina picked up a slice of fish gingerly. It turned out to be raw but incredibly tasty. Manners forgotten, she grabbed three more slices and focused on chewing them. Palek and Yana did not need to be asked twice either.

They spent the next hour gulping down the food the waiter kept bringing. Karina could not remember either the names of the dishes or even what she was eating - nothing but a sensation of tastiness beyond description and a feeling of heaviness in her belly that became as tight as a drum. Towards the end of the meal Dzinton shoved her pills into her hand, and she washed them down with juice. That was the last straw. She felt that if she added even a morsel to what she had already eaten, she would just burst. Drowsy, she leaned back and rubbed her eyes, she could barely keep open, with her fists.

"Well, citizens of a mighty state, how was the dinner?" Dzinton asked grinning smugly. Short of purring, he was looking every bit like a replete cat.

"I have pigged out," Tsukka exhaled. "My word, that's nothing but a torture - you just keep eating because you're unable to stop! I'll never-ever come here again..."

" 'Pigged out' sounds so vulgar," Dzinton admonished her. "You should say something like 'I know I'll regret it so much tomorrow but I just can't eat even a tiny bit more now'."

"I am afraid, it's my waist that I'll have to regret about tomorrow," Tsukka hummed. "Men are always that cunning: they entice you into a fancy restaurant to make sure they can always lash back with 'You are no slimmer than me!'"

"Have many such cunning men enticed you to a restaurant before?" suddenly Dzinton looked interested.

"I am not telling you that! A woman is entitled to her little secrets."

"She sure is," Dzinton agreed. "Now I'll be so jealous of those unknown competitors that I won't sleep at night. And here is the bill – a bit more than 3700. Didn't I tell you there was nothing to worry about?"

He transferred the amount from his pelephone to the waiter's terminal.

"That's it. Take five to let the food settle down a bit in your stomach, and home we go. It's already half-past-eight, no chance we make it home before nine. And if we are a bit slow, we might not get there before midnight."

The extra five minutes on a cozy sofa was almost enough for Karina to fall asleep - so both Yana and Palek had to shake her up in order to keep her awake. Unwillingly, Karina rose from the table and, like a somnambulist, followed Tsukka as the latter went towards the exit. Yet she came out of her torpor almost immediately because she suddenly heard Yana's yelp followed by a shrill female voice,

"You should learn to use your eyes, lass!"

Startled, Karina looked around. To her right, the very woman in the luxurious dress who had been sitting at the nearby table, was towering above Yana who was rubbing her arm. Both woman's children were hiding behind her back.

"First you push and shove, then you dare talk back!" the woman just would not calm down. "Look at those modern children - ill-mannered, slovenly and completely disrespectful of their elders."

Yana was looking at her perplexedly. In fact, she had not said anything at all. Judging by her countenance, all she wanted right now was to find herself as far away from this weird female as possible.

"It was he who bumped into us!" Palek stated boldly stepping forward. "He was running and bumped straight into her, and we were just..."

"Just look at this insolent boy!" the female threw up her hands in indignation. "Now he is talking back too! Head waiter! Head waiter! Someone, call the police!"

Those sitting at the other tables began to glance back at them. Another man in a black suit threw up his hands and began to navigate towards them from the entrance area.

"Magnificent Lady, with all due respect, it's your child who caused the collision." Dzinton put his hands on Yana's and Palek's shoulders and pulled them away from the female. "And, in any case, I don't see any reason to..."

"You seem to be an insolent boor yourself!" the heavy artillery in shape and form of the female's husband was quick to arrive. "How dare you offend my wife? Do you have an idea who I am?"

"Does it matter who is who?" Dzinton raised his eyebrows. "Splendid Sir, I don't see any reason to quarrel. And if there is one, I humbly apologize. I hope, you son hasn't hurt himself when he bumped into my girl. And now we are leaving."

"That's right, get out of here!" the ship-owing Assembly deputy snapped. "A young shag-rag! You and your ilk shouldn't be even allowed to show your faces in a decent place. What do they pay their security for?"

"We are leaving, Splendid Sir," Dzinton repeated emphatically. "Once again, I humbly apologize. Yana, Palek, let's go. Karina, keep up."

He turned around and went towards the exit pushing Yana and Palek in front of him. Tsukka grabbed Karina's arm and almost dragged her along. The black-suited man who had finally arrived at the scene was bustling about the gaudy family muttering his apologies and glaring at Dzinton. The glare made Karina, who kept looking back over her shoulder, tremble as if she were being whipped.

They walked in silence for a while. Then Dzinton sighed and muttered, "Poor thing."

"Who are you talking about?" Tsukka inquired. "I don't think Yana has come to any real harm. Yani, how is it going? Did he hurt you much?"

"Not really," Yana muttered. "But why did the woman shout at me? I didn't do anything!"

"Because she is a bitch!" Palek piped in.

"Lika!" Tsukka threw up her hands, shocked. "You shouldn't talk like that!"

"Talk like what?" the boy muttered. "I can do worse than that, too. She is a bitch and the dude is a bastard. You could tell them..."

"Tell them what? " Dzinton frowned. "And for what purpose? What would that achieve but an ugly scene resulting in the arrival of the police and a lengthy discussion at a police station? Or do you believe that your words would make them realize they were wrong? Palek, if you argue with those people, they never ask themselves if they are right or wrong. They don't even listen. It just strengthens their conviction that they are right - and it becomes a matter of principle to them to break the opponent. Arguing always makes things worse. The easiest solution is to leave."

"...and let them do whatever they want?" the boy asked fiercely and scowled. He put his hands into the pockets of his shorts and hunched a bit as he kept walking.

"Not even the President can do whatever he wants. Guys, you just imagine this woman's miserable life! She spends days on end trying to find something to occupy herself because her high status wouldn't allow her to get a job. She is essentially uneducated because she married a 'right person', so-to-say, right after she graduated from high school. She barely sees her own children because during the school year they are away at their boarding school, and even when they come back home for holidays, it's mostly their nannies and governesses that are taking care of them. Her so-called 'friends' are nothing else but vipers in her bosom that spread lies about her behind her back at dinner parties. So her life is all about rumors, the TV she is sick and tired of, and that endless waiting for her husband to come home in the evening - so that she finally might take it out on him. She always eats her fill, dines on the most expensive porcelain tableware, attends a fashionable fitness center where she pays more for a two-hour practice session than we paid for our dinner today. Her jewelry costs more than Lika's orphanage can afford spending in a whole year. And all that luxury just drives her up the wall because her life has absolutely no meaning. If you think she is happy, think again because she is full of envy. She envies us, shag-rags that still have their rare moments of joy brought by something like a dinner at an expensive restaurant. She envies everybody who has a goal in life - however small and unimportant those goals are."

Dzinton shook his head.

"Those having a go at whoever is around for no reason whatsoever are miserable creatures. Not only can't they find peace with the world around them - they can't even be at peace with themselves. Such people are to be pitied rather than fought against. Would you fight a venomous cripple who has no limbs? That woman is one such cripple, just a mental rather than physical one.

"You are like a saint," Tsukka smiled sadly. "You preach to pity your enemies and forgive them. Will they forgive you if they have you at their mercy?"

"I am nothing like a saint," Dzinton responded, his voice suddenly harsh. "My conscience is burdened with many things I would rather keep to myself. But I prefer to live in harmony with myself and the world around me - and I think it's utterly stupid to pick fights with strangers for no reason, even if those strangers are trying to provoke you."

He exhaled sharply.

"Well, sweetie pies. Let's not ruin a beautiful evening by bickering," he said ruefully. "Really, it's not worth quarreling because of some strange woman!" He tousled Palek's hair. "Relax, my friend. Avoiding an unnecessary conflict is a skill rather than a weakness. It just proves that one is clever. Don't you think I am clever?" he laughed softly, and Palek could not help smiling in return.

They left a broad street and began to climb a steep narrow lane leaving behind the shining lights of the big avenue they were coming from. Only few dim lanterns and the rising Star Pond were now dispelling the dense darkness of the southern night. Karina felt fresh, invigorating air filled with scents of spring blossom and growth entering her lungs, and her steps became bouncy, her drowsiness rapidly disappearing. That nasty female in the restaurant - I would love to hit her with my invisible hands, see her fly through the room flipping tables and then ram into the wall...Oh, no, I shouldn't think like that. I've caused enough trouble as it is.

"Dzinton," Yana asked timidly, "why was a man there so afraid of us?"

"I didn't notice that Sir Katoniy was afraid," Dzinton answered absentmindedly. "Irritated - for sure, but not afraid."

"No, not that man with the vicious wife. Another one. He was sitting nearby when the boy ran into me, and he was afraid of us."

"Why do you...Oh, yes, you said you know how people feel. But why do you think he was afraid of us rather than someone else? He could be a crook or something, and the woman wanted to call the police. So he got scared."

"No, it wasn't like that. He got scared when he saw me and Karina - even before the woman began to shout."

"I don't know, my little one," Dzinton muttered as absentmindedly as before. "Maybe you got confused, after all."

Tsukka looked at the girl intently, then at Dzinton. She opened her mouth to say something but then decided to remain silent.

When they arrived back at the hotel and the adults retired to their rooms, Karina came to Yana's and Pale's room. They were discussing something in a low voice sitting on a bed. Karina dropped down beside them. For a while she was just staring at the wall.

"Yana, it's time to leave," she said finally.

"What do you mean, to leave?" the younger girl half-opened her mouth, frightened. "Where? Why?"

"To leave forever," Karina muttered. "Away from here."

"But why?" Tears appeared in Yana's eyes. "I don't want to leave! Dzinton and Tsukka are so nice! Why leave?"

"That man that got scared of us in the restaurant," Karina turned towards her frowning. "Why, do you think he did?"

"I don't know," Yana barely managed to talk. "Dzinton said..."

"Dzinton doesn't know anything!" Karina cut her short. "I think, that man somehow recognized us. It means, he might go to the Institute, and they'll find us and take back there. We leave tomorrow."

"I'll go with you!" Palek announced resolutely.

"No," Karina shook her head. " Too dangerous. They are hunting us down."

"Exactly," Palek grinned his toothless smile from ear to ear. "And you have no idea where you are. Tell me, where will you go, heh?"

"Somewhere," Karina's frown grew. "Just that you know, I was on the run for several thriceweeks when...

Well, when I ran away from the orphanage. They couldn't catch me for a long time."

"But they did, didn't they?" Palek grinned again. "If you are with me, they won't. I know how to board a train without a ticket. I can find food and money."

"Alright," Karina gave up. "But you can't stay with us all the time. They might even kill you. You'll help us to leave for another city, and then we are on our own. Got it?"

The boy shrugged.

"Ok," he said indifferently. "But you can't run away like that. Tsukka has a day-off tomorrow, remember. You don't want them to find out right away that we escaped - and if Tsukka is home, she will notice that we left together."

"Escaped?" Karina was surprised. "Why escape? We'll just leave. We'll thank Dzinton and Tsukka, say goodbye and leave."

"You, silly girl," Palek smiled patronizingly. "They won't let you leave. Don't you know adults? They feel they must take care of us all the time."

"Won't let us?" the girl stared at him fixedly. "How do you think they'll manage that?"

She stretched out her invisible hands and pushed the table so that it moved across the room rattling on the floor.

"Dzinton and Tsukka are good people," she said softly. "I'll try not to hurt them. They'll just get frightened and won't try to stop us."

"And if they will?"

"Well, then..." Karina paused to think. "We'll put them in the storage room and block the door so that they will be able to get out a bit later."

"Whatever," Palek shrugged his shoulders. "Up to you. But it's easier to steal away, in any case. And we need some money, too."

"We won't take Dzinton's and Tsukka's money!" Karina turned towards him, furious. "They helped us so much, and we'll steal from them?"

"Am I nuts?" Palek took offense. "Of course, we'll take no money from here, just food. They bought it for us, anyways. As for money, I know how to get it. I just need to spend some time in a crowded store."

"Ok, I am off to bed," Karina announced. "You go to bed too, you'll need some sleep before tomorrow.

Tsukka is on duty in the kitchen, so you don't need to get up early. We'll have breakfast, say god bye and leave."

She went out and closed the door tightly behind her. That's it, the last night in a hospitable house - and then on the run again. They caught me two years ago, and I don't even remember those two years. But I do remember how to hide from people. It's easy - who cares about somebody else's child!

 A thin ray of light was escaping Tsukka's room through a narrow door gap. Karina peeped inside cautiously. The young woman was sitting at the table, an open textbook in front of her, and gnawing at her stylus. A sheet of reusable paper covered with drawings and formulas was right next to the textbook, and Tsukka would every now and then use the stylus to either write or erase something on the sheet. Karina felt pangs of envy. I would love to be like her - an adult, and quite normal, too. No need to escape and hide. The next winter she'll be admitted to the University and study astronomy as she always wanted to. Later she'll become a scientist and deal with remote stars.

Karina went to bed and lay sleepless for a long time. I don't want to leave! When she finally fell asleep, she dreamed about threading through a wild forest sniffing its air and listening to its rustles – and all the time she was tracked by an invisible hunter who came ever closer and already started taking his aim...


06.06.843, Thriceday


A trill of the communicator interrupted Mitera's deep sleep at the most pleasant moment: in his dream the director of the Institute of Man was shaking hands with the President who was about to award him an Order for Outstanding Achievements in defending the country against sea turtles. The long seconds, Mitera needed to surface from the depth of his dream and return to reality, did not help him to figure out what the turtles had to do with him, the President or anything at all. Finally he realized what exactly had woken him up, swore to his heart's content, threw the blanket aside and shuffled barefoot to the far corner of the room. It took him three attempts to hit the 'Talk' button.

"Who's there?" he asked hoarsely trying in vain to focus his eyes on the call display box.

"Kayin's here," the loudspeaker brought the Institute's Head of Security's disgustingly fresh voice. "An urgent update concerning the vacationers."

The remnants of Mitera's sleep got blown away, as if by an icy-cold winter wind. They had agreed to use the code word 'Vacationers' to refer to the runaways while mentioning them over open communication channels but Mitera almost forgot the agreement. They had had no occasion to use the word for almost a full thriceweek.

The director cleared his throat and glanced at the clock. 1:64. The middle of the night but it did not matter anymore. Kayin must have a very good reason to call at such an hour.

"I'll be in the Institute at 3 sharp," he said and hung up. Then he tossed his head and shivered: as always, he preferred to sleep naked, and now the cold night air was giving him goose bumps. Where is the cursed nightgown?

His car tore through the night streets without even slowing down at traffic lights flashing yellow, and he arrived at the Institute twenty minutes before time. Kayin was already in the otherwise empty waiting room. Joi unlocked the door to his office, entered the room and nodded to the major to follow.

Then he sat down at the table, stared at Kayin unblinkingly and inquired curtly,


"Yesterday evening Karas Simbatiy recognized both chicks at the 'Diamond Bay'."

"We pay the Head of the Sector way too much if he can afford hanging around restaurants like that," Mitera muttered. "Wait. Were the deviants there on their own or what?"

"They had company. A dude and a babe, 18-20 years old each, the deviants and a stray boy, about ten.

Karas called me at half past nine, and I sent a man to the restaurant right away. My man got there at midnight, just as they started to close for the night. He paid a bit of money, not too much, to convince the headwaiter to describe everyone in the group. Judging by the description, the dude and the boy are the same people we had seen in the hotel earlier on. The older chick is also familiar to our field surveillance. Besides, the guys from the surveillance confirmed that those five had returned to the hotel around nine. It was dark in the hotel before they arrived but right after that the lights were turned on in four rooms. Two windows remained lit for just a short while, the other two - for about an hour, until midnight. The rest of the hotel was dark throughout the evening. We can presume, there are five of them staying in that hotel. No idea so far, where the other three came from but it's unlikely there are any more...permanent witnesses around there."

"What's the dude's and the chick's names? What do they have to do with the hotel owner?"

"We couldn't find out who owns the hotel. We've talked to people living in the vicinity of the park - all of them confirm that the building has been deserted for years. Strangely enough, the field surveillance reports that it looks like it was recently renovated. The dude booked a table in the restaurant under 'Dzinton Muratsiy' - when the police wakes up in the morning, we'll check who's that."

"No time to check anything," the director rasped through his teeth. "If they dare show up in public, let alone showing up with adults, they'll start wagging their tongues soon enough. That's it, Kayin, time for checking and figuring out is up. We'll just presume we've pinned down all their permanent ...roommates. Now we have to fix the problem, quickly and efficiently. Where is the Special Unit?"

"We haven't alerted the soldiers yet, so they are staying home for the night. I'll need about half-an-hour to bullshit that blockhead, Samatta, an hour and a half - to bring everybody here, and a couple of hours for briefing and arming the unit as well as preparing our vehicles. A bit of time to get there, of course - so we might be there by seven-half-past seven, provided we get going right away.

"Get going, then. And you know as well as I do: we don't want any witnesses to survive. At the very least, no adults."

"Easier said than done," the major did not stir.

"Now what?"

"I don't command the unit. Don't forget, Samatta usually doesn't take orders from me. And he isn't one of ours, a far cry from it. Sometimes I can't even help wondering if he actually pities...the subjects. I might give him orders that have something to do with guarding the territory but if I try suggesting incidental casualties, he'll surely tell me to go fuck myself. Or worse, he might report me and cause a lot of trouble. There are better ways. I happen to know a couple of guys from the unit off duty, so arranging a few accidents during the capture shouldn't be too difficult. If the captain doesn't interfere, that is."

"Then make sure, he doesn't!" Director Joi hissed bending over the table. "Do I have to teach you every trifle? Let him proceed according to his plan but with our corrections - and when your unofficials do the strangers in, see to it that his superiors tell him to go fuck himself! How much will those guys ask for the wet job?

"Fifty grand each, I guess," the major replied pensively. "Well, I'll figure something out."

"Right, do me a favor," the director grimaced. "In the meantime, I'll pull some of my own strings.

That's it, dismissed. Get going - now!"


Captain Samatta Kasariy, the commander of the Ministry of Defense's Seventh Department's special unit, was being chased by an unidentified monster, both of them participating in a wearisome and lackluster nightmare. The chase took place in a maze whose layout looked like a spitting image of the Institute's hallways. The captain was in a bad mood because, mostly, he was bored. Somehow - either due to a gut feeling or because he had already dreamed this particular nightmare before - he knew that the monster was as bored as Samatta himself. The only reason the creature refused to give up on the chase was the sense of duty: chasing Samatta was part of the monster's job description. So it went on with the pursuit, its feigned diligence concealing sloth and irritation with the victim that had mindlessly violated the patrolled territory.

The captain was not given a chance to reach the maze exit in slow motion as his pursuer suddenly jumped on his back and pinged straight into his ear depressingly. It took Samatta three or four trills to break out of his slumber and grope for the slippery pelephone bar with his languid hand.

"Samatta speaking," he mumbled.

"Captain, major Kayin here," the loudspeaker barked causing his eardrum to vibrate unpleasantly. "I apologize for waking you up but there is an emergency."

"What's...the time?" the captain asked leaning back and desperately trying to fight off sleepiness.

"It's almost half-past-three. I apologize for waking you up in the middle of the night but we've just found the fugitives."

Samatta jerked himself up in bed.

"Where? How?" he asked brusquely.

"See you in twenty minutes in the small conference room," the loudspeaker cut the discussion short. "Out."

Completely awake by now, Samatta propelled his body out of bed and went to the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, upon having shaven, taken a shower and squeezed himself into his uniform, he was already in the hallway of the Institute Dorms where he had in fact lived for the last three years. However, right before leaving his room he stopped for a few seconds, dialed a number saved in his pelephone's memory and said curtly, "Mom's here. All kids, go home." He ended the call without waiting for a reply, went out and shut the door behind him. Unless the automated messaging system messed it up, all his soldiers would gather in no more than an hour.

The conference room door was wide open, and the light coming out of the room merged into gray daybreak haze penetrating the area through the Dorms' wide glass door. Kayin was sitting at the table and rapping its surface with his fingers impatiently. A lone cardboard folder marked with a red-blue circle was in front of him.

"Here," the major pushed the folder towards Samatta without bothering to greet him first. "The deviants were seen today...well, rather yesterday. Here is the address of their hiding place and a rough site sketch, as well as excerpts from their personal files. Mostly, the information concerns their abilities. There was no in-depth examination of the younger chick, so all we have is the analysts' evaluation based on video records produced both before we got hold of her and during the escape. Mind you, it's all but assumptions, so she might in fact be way more dangerous than she seems to be.

Prepare for the worst. And don't forget that all the materials are highly classified, so any copying - paper, electronic or whatever – is absolutely forbidden."

"A hotel?" the captain's surprise did not prevent him from leafing through the rustling pages quickly. "And a park...Ok, even better this way. Who are those?" two pictures, a young man and a young woman, both about 18-19 years old, ended up in front of Kayin. "And this one?" he put on the table a picture of a ten-year-old lad.

"It's not so easy as it seems," Kayin grimaced. "They are hiding in an old abandoned hotel, and there are three non-combatants with them. Vagrants, I guess. You realize what may happen to those. They don't seem to have a clue, so the deviants can do them in any time. It is dangerous to procrastinate. That broad, Karina - she is worse than a machine-gun. Kills as easily as you breathe. And only you, guys, can do something about it because the police will bungle it as usual. I can't give you explicit orders but...".

Samatta put the sheets into the folder and went out without saying a word.

He did not like the major. He hated the Institute. Sometimes, when he thought about what's being done to the children in those secret labs, he felt like grabbing a flamethrower and discharging its thermobaric load through the panoramic window of the director's office. Yet nobody asked him if he liked to serve there, and he had not managed to summon his courage to ask for a transfer. Earning a reputation of a troublemaker could easily destroy his career, and it was not even a given that serving elsewhere would feel any better. As for leaving the service for good, he was not ready for it just yet.

A bit over thirty, Samatta had gone through a lot - he had participated in both Islands conflicts and a dirty undeclared war in Suragrash jungles, and he even survived a transport helicopter crash killing everybody else on board, his own survival nothing but a sheer miracle - and considered himself

a level-headed and dispassionate person. Nevertheless, he could not help feeling utterly disgusted with everything that was happening at the Institute. I know, I know, orders aren't to be discussed. But, all gods of the world are my witnesses, I absolutely hate the idea of returning the runaway kids to this viper nest. They may be deviants, killers with supernatural abilities who are extremely dangerous to everybody around them – but they are kids, nonetheless!

As he was striding down the pathway between the Institute buildings, Samatta exhaled sharply. Orders aren't to be discussed. It's my job to prevent deviants from escaping and to protect innocent people against them. I won't give in to emotions. I won't fail in my duty. Now I must understand if it's possible to capture the deviants alive without getting either the non-combatants or my own guys killed. I just wonder, how on Tekira one may kill somebody who stops flying bullets by just looking at them? Well - he checked the folder without stopping - if I am to believe this stuff, they won't be able to stop the bullets with a uranium core. So the sniper will manage - if Karina, when she was on the test bench, wasn't pretending to be weaker than she really is.

The Special Unit headquarters were located in a big room that used to serve as a conference-hall of an administrative building. Kmir and three soldiers were already waiting there, clearly bored as they were casting occasional glances at the clock.

"What's the rush?" the lieutenant asked querulously. "Just as we were relaxing in the guard room in the special building, the buzz came. 'All kids, go home'. Have they found the deviants or what?"

"Smart alec," the captain retorted as he sat down. For some reason, his second-in-command's insight only made him feel even more irritated. "They have, indeed."

He threw the folder on the table.

"Here. A highly classified shit. A site sketch and a plan of the building where they hide, and all that. Both girls are there, and three non-combatants are with them, two adults and a kid. We must get going by six at the latest. While we are waiting for the guys, let's think how to avoid casualties. Remind me, have they replaced those tear gas canisters that we spent during the maneuvers?"


The breakfast passed in dead silence. Tsukka kept throwing puzzled glances, now at the unusually quiet children who were fully engaged in chewing their milk-soaked cornflakes - and now at Dzinton who seemed to be completely absorbed in his own thoughts. Karina was destroying the flakes vehemently while endlessly replaying in her mind possible openers of the impending conversation. All the options struck her as hopelessly stupid and out of place. 'Dzinton, we stayed with you a bit, and now it's time to say goodbye'? 'Tsukka, we are deviants, they are pursuing us, we have to run away'?

'It was so good to be here but we can't stay any longer'? 'Dzinton, Tsukka, we have to talk?' Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

She sighed and pushed her empty plate aside. Tsukka will probably cook a delicious mushroom soup for dinner. But if we are leaving, then we must just leave. We won't wait until dinner.

"Karina, are you still hungry?" the older girl asked, concerned. "Do you want some more?"

Karina shook her head.

"Dzinton..." she said hesitantly. Palek and Yana stopped chewing and stared at her intently.

"Yes, Kara," Dzinton lifted his head and gave her a keen look.

"I...we..." Karina fell silent and then blurted out suddenly, "Dzinton, we are leaving."

Contrary to her expectations, Dzinton was not even surprised.

"I see," he said quietly as he put the spoon aside. "I was waiting for the parting moment. Frankly, I thought you would linger for five-six more days. You are itching to leave because of what Yana felt yesterday at the restaurant, right?"

Karina nodded silently.

"Kara, where are you going?" Tsukka asked perplexedly, misery written all over her face. "Dzi!"

"We must go," Karina said with unexpected fervor. "Dzinton, Tsukka, we love you very much, we really do! We love being here, with you but we can't stay any longer, honestly."

"Because they are coming after you," the man nodded, his face inscrutable. "And you have never told us, why they kept you in the Institute - even though you've been with us for quite a while. So it's obvious that you don't want to reveal your secret. But you see, Kara, it's not enough to leave a place. Sooner or later you'll have to come to some other place. And where is it? Where are you going?"

"I..." Karina did not know what to say. Where am I going, after all? Doesn't matter, just as far from Masaria and the Institute as possible.

"Obviously, you don't know - and it makes no sense to flee nowhere, Kara. You can't flee forever. Sooner or later, a fugitive who has no destination in mind will get caught. So isn't it better to just stay where you can be protected?"

"But you can't protect me!" with an effort Karina held back unwanted tears. "They are stronger! They have guns and they'll kill both of us! Or worse, they'll take me back to the Institute!"

"The Institute is not some terrible monster that crawled out of a swamp to devour everybody within its reach," Dzinton shook his head. "It's a mere establishment founded and led by people, and people have to play by the rules. They would play dirty and cheat when they think they can get away with but they have to keep playing. And they can be beaten, believe me."

"But they are stronger," Karina shouted. Why can't he just let me be? Why is he saying all those wrong words that make me feel unsure? Deep inside her fury began to build up, and her invisible hands stirred in response reflexively.

"You can't always rely on brute force to solve problems, Kara," Dzinton said in a low voice and looked her straight in the eyes. "Quite often violence just makes it worse. You won't kill just because you feel like killing, will you?"

Karina lowered her head stubbornly. She felt her fury boiling inside ready to spill out while her invisible hands were coiling and tautening, ready to crush and tear apart if and when she wanted them to. No! She gritted her teeth. No! Not Dzinton! Not Tsukka! I won't let you, she told her fury, I won't let you kill those who helped me, you hear me? I'd better kill myself... Involuntary tears filled her eyes.

"I won't," she said desperately trying to keep the tears from flowing. "But they will. Why is it that nobody can't, I can't, but they can?"

She shivered, and tears did finally flow leaving wet traces all over her face. The girl sobbed quietly. Tsukka stroked her hair tenderly while Dzinton's fingers carefully wiped off the traces.

"Not everybody understands that actions have consequences," Dzinton said with a sigh. "And you are right: lots of people believe that force can solve any problems. It can't. Violence can but aggravate the problem. Never forget that your enemy is also a living being - even if he is a big evil soldier hidden behind a mask. He also can feel and think, he also can be happy or disappointed. Maybe his wife and children are waiting for him somewhere. What will happen to them if you..."

Something big and black hit the dining-room window and bounced back with a resounding echo. Several thuds in a row came from outside and rocked the old hotel, and the whole building seemed to become an epicenter of some strange drumming. Karina felt Tsukka's hand still resting on her head tremble. Yana gave a weak squeal.

"So they did make up their mind," Dzinton's voice was laced with incomprehensible irony as he rose to his feet in one fluid motion. "Well, peanuts, the moment of truth has come. We have guests. The red carpet will be rolled out in the courtyard. Kara, I want you to come with me and watch but, please, don't interfere with anything. Whatever happens, don't intervene, ok? Tsu, stay with Yana and Palek."

"What is it?" Tsukka asked anxiously. "What's going on?"

"We are under assault thoroughly planned for and carried out by the Special Unit of the Ministry of Defense," Dzinton elucidated. "Don't worry, there is no danger. Kara, let's go," and he slipped out the door. Palek exchanged quick glances with Yana, jumped to his feet and followed.

Tsukka was watching them, her mouth half-open.

"Under assault? The Special Unit?" she muttered perplexedly. "What is he talking about?"

 Karina watched Dzinton go. Her lips, unlike Tsukka's, were pressed together tightly, her teeth - gritted. She clenched her fists with such a fury that her nails were hurting her palms. They found me. I knew they would, I always knew but I still hoped. The thriceweek I spent with Tsukka and Dzinton, Yana and Palek gave me this stupid hope. I should have run away immediately when I started feeling better. I knew I should never stay in the same place for too long but...I couldn't make myself go. I was among friends, and home - for the first time in my life. I was weak, and now it's time to pay the price.

I won't return to that terrible place, never. All I can do now is die fighting. I just hope nothing happens to the rest of them – I'll never forgive myself...Stupid, there is no 'never' left for you! And... what about Yana? They'll take her there to torture? No, not on my life! I'll better kill her myself, here and now. At least, it will be an easy death.

"I'll go take a look," Tsukka murmured hesitantly. Fear was filling her eyes. Karina gave her a look of pity: she knew perfectly well how the young woman was feeling right now. Maybe I should...No, she is quite normal, the Institute doesn't need her. Worst case, she will be shot right here – it's not more painful than to die from my invisible hands. And she might survive, too. Just might...

She looked at Yana, and her invisible hands tautened. So simple! Just one blow, and Yana will die. She probably won't even feel anything. And then they'll kill me, and the nightmare will be over. Forever.

She clenched her teeth, and her hands fell helplessly onto her knees. I can't. Not Yana. I don't want to kill. I've killed enough innocent people. I'll go and die, and Yana...maybe she'll forgive me one day. And time to go - enough of hiding here and trying to delay the inevitable! It's like an injection: waiting for the needle is worse than the needle itself. Let's get it all over with.

Karina rose resolutely and went to the door but stopped at the threshold.

"Tsukka, Yana, I am...thank you for everything," she said hoarsely. "Survive if you can."

She stepped into the hallway.

Maybe Yana will help me fighting now as she did before? Hardly. She is too soft, as soft as butter. Back then, during the escape, she just was confused and didn't know what was happening. Now she understands everything, and she won't be able to attack. She might shed a tear or two trying to stir the murderers to pity, that's all. But it might be useful, too: if they get distracted, I might be able to kill one or two more of them before they shoot me from the distance. If only I could get close enough...

Karina clenched her teeth and fists even tighter as she quickly crossed the short hallway and ran, barefoot, down the porch. She was feeling frozen from within, as if an icy, heavy stone was nested somewhere deep down her stomach. Dzinton, motionless, his head bent, was standing in the middle of the courtyard and pensively looking at the gates absorbing an onslaught of heavy blows. He turned his head slightly and gave Karina a quick look.

"Don't frown, " he said, and the girl could clearly hear cheerful overtones in his voice. "Don't frown and don't look that distraught. Now, my frightened one, you'll see a short performance. Kara, I've just told you that violence solves nothing, and only fools rely on brute force. Now you'll see how words can stop bullets."

He snorted. Karina came closer and stood next to him. They won't shoot at me right away when they see me next to a stranger - that means, I'll manage to kill more of them. I should just push Dzinton away before bullets can catch him. She stretched an invisible hand and wound it around his shoulders carefully - so that he would not feel anything. Now everything is as it should be. Why don't they enter?

"Just one request: don't intervene," Dzinton put his very real hand on her shoulder. Karina felt his palm's warmth through the thin fabric of her dress. Thank you, Dzinton. Thank you, Tsukka and Palek. At least, I'll die knowing that not everybody is a creep and a bastard... "Kara, do you hear me? Don't intervene, whatever happens."

Suddenly he swung her around and bent towards her so that their eyes met - and shook her forcefully by the shoulders.

"Kara, do you hear me? Don't you even think about interfering, whatever happens! Don't use your powers! You'll ruin everything, do you understand?"

What is he talking about? My powers...he knows who I am? But how? He...

"Kara, listen, do you trust me?" his dark eyes filled the whole world around her. "Do you?"

She nodded, as if in a dream.

"Kara, I know what you are expecting, what you are preparing yourself for. You think, they'll capture you and start torturing you again. I promise you, it won't happen. My word of honor, it all will end in a completely different way. Please, Karichka, don't interfere, and everything will end well, I promise."

Karichka...distant memories, long forgotten, Mom's tender hands, her smile, her quiet voice...

"You won't interfere, will you?"

"I won't..." it took the girl several seconds to realize it was her own voice. "I won't. But, Dzinton, they'll kill you!"

"They won't kill anybody, my little one," the young man smiled at her reassuringly. "I am telling you: now you'll see how words can stop bullets. But if you try to do something, you'll just spoil all the fun. All you have to do is to stay where you are and look determined, just like you are looking now - but don't interfere. Yes?"


Dzinton straightened up and turned towards the gates once again. Out of the corner of her eye Karina noticed Tsukka, scared and frozen in the doorway, and Yana and Palek clinging to each other. She had no time to do anything or even think about it because the gates finally flew open.


Samatta was feeling like a total idiot. Something mysterious and completely crazy was going on around him. No tear gas canister – not even one of them! - managed to shatter the windows! Just try to tell someone that a kilo heavy canister fired from a 'bertha' at close range bounces off a window like a rubber ball, only to release its content into the shooter's face - nobody would believe it, not even if every man of my thirty-strong unit swears to it. And this courtyard fence - it's surely bewitched!

None of Samatta's men succeeded in climbing over the fence, and neither Samatta himself, nor the climbers or the observers could make any sense of it. It seemed that the surface of the fence was rolling like a treadmill belt - and yet it remained absolutely still. And what about the gates? Those rickety wooden planks that look like they could be easily pierced through with a finger in an armored glove - and they withstand not only rifle butts and heavy kicks but also three - three! - shaped charges, each such charge easily cutting through a bank safe door as if it were a tin can.

It's either this whole place is full of some incomprehensible myst or I and all my men've just lost all our marbles and are suffering from hallucinations. Well, it might be just me seeing my pink elephants in a loony bin.

Enough ruminating, I have to act. There are two deviants and three non-combatants in the building. We've lost the surprise effect because the gas never reached them - so the non-combatants are most probably dead by now, and the deviants are ready to fight. Or maybe the deviants are using the others as a living shield. In any case, those three are as good as dead. And capturing the deviants alive is quite unlikely now. I know I'd better not risk any of our necks in any case but... I just hoped that at least this other girl, Yana, could be spared - unlike Karina, she hasn't killed anybody so far, and maybe she wouldn't attack and fight to death. Doesn't matter now, now they'll both have to be shot, almost for sure.

Enough ruminating. We have to get inside somehow. Will the fucking gates never open or what?

And the gates flew open.

The two soldiers who were trying to shoulder the gates did manage to react in time and save themselves from rolling head over heels. They just lost their balance for an instant but immediately regained it, squatted and aimed their rifles at the courtyard.

"Hold your fire!" the captain barked out at the top of his lungs. "At my command..."

So what do we have here? According to the building plan, the courtyard is five fathoms deep. Karina and a non-combatant are standing in the middle of it. Karina - the effector's range is one-and-a-half fathoms, the current distance is two fathoms. No immediate danger. The non-combatant next to her - no weapons in view, his arms are folded across his chest. Not dangerous. The second deviant and the non-combatant boy are clinging to the far wall - no immediate danger. A young woman in the doorway - shorts, a sleeveless unbuttoned jacket, no weapons in view. Not dangerous. The action plan: no automatic fire before the chick tries to get closer. The sniper'll need a couple of seconds to finish her off in one shot. Seems like we have lucked out, after all: there is a chance to save the non-combatants and capture the second deviant alive. I just hope, the blockirators won't fail this time!

"At my command! Hold your fire! You, lad, move aside, quickly! She is as dangerous as a deranged chainsaw! Jump aside for dear life!"

"Who are you and what's going on here?"

Infuriated, Samatta hissed through his clenched teeth. Those metallic overtones suit this chicken as much as a fool's cap would suit a cow. An idiot. He doesn't seem to realize who he's dealing with. What's the sniper waiting for?

"I officially inform the unidentified armed unit that you have just violated the borders of a private property. Your actions directly contradict the articles 23 and 24 of the Civil Rights Protection Law, as well as the article 13 of the Law regulating the use of deadly force, and at least twelve articles of other various laws and codes of laws, including the Bill of Inalienable Civil Rights. The police has already been notified and is on its way here. Everybody is ordered to cease the aggressive actions immediately lest criminal charges are pressed against every single individual present here."

Somebody is most definitely nuts here. The captain had a suspicion that it was him, and this suspicion grew stronger with each passing second. A lad looking no more than 18-20 years old talks like an experienced lawyer? What on Tekira is going on here?!

"The commander of the armed unit is ordered to step forward, unmask himself and show a document identifying his person. Now!"

As he spoke, the young man stepped forward and to the right so as to shield the deviant and block the sniper's line of fire.

"I also inform the commander that any attempt to deliver either aimed or area fire will be interpreted as an action falling under Article 34 of the Criminal Code. This article establishes up to ten years in prison as a punishment for either an illegal use of or an attempt to use deadly force, or a threat to use such force, whether real weapons or objects merely imitating such weapons are presented to support the threat. Depending on the consequences, the punishment can be even more severe. In fact, you actions have already fallen under this article. Guys, do you really feel like spending the next ten years behind bars as a unit?"

The chick popped up from behind his back, and Samatta tensed up momentarily expecting a shot but the young man pushed her back before the sniper had any chance to react. Crap.

"I repeat: the commander of the armed unit is ordered to step forward, unmask and identify himself. How much longer will I have to wait?"

That voice of his - any megaphone would be proud of such a voice! This youngster would make a great career as a public speaker, for sure. So what should I do? Kill those two and try to capture the second deviant alive? Or...in fact, this deviant hasn't tried to attack so far. Maybe she can be reasoned with? Who knows, the chick might be not so keen on dying, after all.

"Hold your fire, wait for the order," the captain whispered into the microphone of his portable radio as he stepped forward removing his antigas mask from his face. The deviant is at least two fathoms away. So far it's probably safe but what if she darts forward? "I am Captain Samatta Kasariy, the commanding officer of the Special Security Unit of the Institute of Man. Listen, lad, you have no idea who you are standing next to. You, what's your name...Karina, isn't it?" he addressed the chick who once again appeared from behind her defender's back. "I don't want anybody to die. Let's make an arrangement: you and...eh, the other one, Yana, right? You will go with me of your own accord. We'll leave the blockirators on the ground, you'll come closer, and we..."

"You won't leave here any blockirators, Captain Samatta," the speaker's voice continued to clang. "Once again you make me repeat: it was you and your unit who illegally violated the borders of a private property, and no less illegally, as well as without any provocation, tried to use weapons. That entitles me to press charges not only against your superiors who had given you orders but also against you personally - and every single soldier of your unit. Your attempt to avoid bloodshed has been noted and properly appreciated but if you don't want to go to prison, you'll obey my orders, not vice versa. Is that understood?"

"But she..."

"Captain Samatta Kasariy, I am perfectly aware that the girl known as Karina Serenova, as well as the second girl who is also present here, Yana Paraka, belong to a particular group of people who are called 'deviants'. I am equally well aware of their abilities - that's why I haven't allowed them to come close enough to you, as to provoke you to use your weapons. But that's as far as my good will brings me. Tell your men to put their safety on and immediately leave the territory of my private property that ends at the main road. Yourself, you will put your weapon on the ground, go towards the wall and wait for the police that is due here in several minutes. If you cooperate, I will consider refraining from pressing any charges against you personally. Comply!"

The captain jerked. It seemed impossible not to obey that resounding voice filled with authority but somehow he managed to resist the temptation.

"Less than a thriceweek ago she killed twelve guards during her escape from the Institute," he said hoarsely. "She kills without thinking, don't you get it? She'll kill you too when you stop protecting her."

"Captain Samatta, she killed the guards in self-defense. I have undeniable proof of the fact, including video recordings made by the area surveillance cameras. Any impartial judge will agree with me. Or maybe you regard a barrage of bullets shot from automatic weapons as just another form of politely inviting someone to a picnic?"

"Later she killed two more people..."

"Yes, two bulky brutes who were trying to rape her."

The girl peeping out from behind his back inhaled sharply and gaped at her companion.

"In addition to that, Captain Samatta, an independent psychiatric evaluation conducted by myself suggests that all opinions ascribing unprovoked cruelty and mental impairment to so-called 'deviants' are completely and utterly unfounded. Based on the results of a comprehensive study that lasted two full weeks, I assert that Karina and Yana do not pose any threat to those around them - at least, as long as they are not unequivocally provoked."

"Who are you, lad?" the captain asked, dumbfounded. "You are talking like an experienced lawyer. How old are you?"

"Old enough to be treated legally as an adult - and to own property. And this hotel, including the grounds you are currently present on, is my property..." now the young woman standing behind Karina gasped softly. "...and I again require that you order you men to leave my territory. And that you yourself put your weapon on the ground and wait for the police. How many more times should I repeat all that to make you understand?"

"I..." the captain's mind was racing. Why didn't I command to open fire right away? Or maybe it was lucky I didn't? "You said it yourself, as long as she isn't provoked. And if she gets provoked, then what? She'll kill again..."

"As her official foster father, I am fully responsible for her behavior - as well as that of my other foster children. I guarantee that nothing like that will ever happen."

Official foster father? What sort of bullshit is that?

"In short, Captain, if you have questions, use official channels to get the answers. Don't brandish your weapons here. I am asking you for the last time: will you obey or won't you?"

Distant sirens began to wail. The captain cursed under his breath. That's it, game over. Whatever I do, it'll only make it worse. I can't accomplish my task and I can't retreat.

"So, Captain..."

"What's going on here, Captain?"

The captain almost jumped as he heard an infuriated female voice. Oh, fuck! How did this bitch get here? She could possibly see our vans leaving the territory - if she happened to be at the Institute that early, of course. But how on Tekira did she find out where we had gone? He turned around to face a small woman still wearing a white lab coat over her short variegated dress.

"Captain Samatta Kasariy of the Security Service, I presume," the woman's voice seemed hot enough to boil raindrops in motion. "You have thirty seconds to explain your presence here. The clock is ticking."

"I don't report to you, Lady Deputy Director," Samatta would have never come up through the ranks to become a captain, had he not been able to adapt to a changing situation - however unpleasant it might be - right away. "I report only to my superiors, and neither you nor even the director of the Institute are one of them. If you have any issue with whatever I have done, you can discuss it..."

"If I happen to have any issue with you personally," the woman emphasized the last word, "you will be fired by tomorrow morning. Possibly court martialed, too. I am enraged, Captain, and it's in your best interest not to enrage me even more. I repeat my question: what are you doing here?"

The captain hesitated. The bitch somehow managed to become the Deputy Director, not to mention the position itself being created only to accommodate her - even though the director hates her guts. She must be really well connected. And if she is, her threats to get me fired and worse might be quite real. He sighed. The top brass of the District will surely tie my balls in a knot for this failure in any case. Would be plain dumb to ask for even more trouble.

 "Lady Deputy Director," he reported looking straight ahead, his stare vacant. "Last night major Kayin, the Head of the Security Service, shared with me reconnaissance data concerning two extremely dangerous deviants. Based on the data in question I planned and conduc...am conducting an operation aiming at capturing the deviants. I am doing my best to avoid any civilian casualties."

"And how many innocent people have already fallen victim to your best, Captain?" the Deputy Director inquired caustically. "Ten? Twenty? I heard explosions even as I was riding in a taxi."

"Thank you for your concern, Lady, but so far we've had no victims," the youngster piped in. Samatta took a quick glance over his shoulder and saw him half-embracing the human meat chopper with one hand, a mocking half-smile all over his face. The lad is clearly enjoying himself. "The captain has almost agreed that his men just overreacted. Now he'll lay down his arms and order the unit to leave. After that we'll be able to talk calmly. Right, Captain?"

The fiery woman took her fierce look off the captain and glanced at the couple in the middle of the courtyard. Fury was gone from her eyes. She skirted the captain and made several steps toward the youngster. The captain's trigger finger tensed up involuntarily. Now the deviant'll tear her to pieces, and I'll finally finish my breathtaking career with a glorious murder of two deviants and three completely innocent people...

"Sir, allow me to offer my humblest apologies for this unfortunate incident," the deputy director said dryly. "I assure you that the Institute management was not aware of the current outrage. It would never approve of such an operation. We shall conduct an internal investigation and properly punish the culprits. Karina, my dear girl," her voice trembled. "I am so guilty before you, and before Yana, and the others..."

"I am glad to see you in good health, Ehira. I see you haven't changed much for the last thousand years...or well, how long have I known you?"

The woman in the white lab coat stopped short. Her shoulders tensed up. The captain could not see her face but he became even sicker at heart. What else is going to happen? Do they know each other?

"Do you know me, young man?" the deputy director asked in a low voice, her teeth clenched tightly.

"Have we met before?"

"We have indeed," Dzinton smiled broadly. "I have always taken interest in Maya's friends and always regretted that I hadn't stumbled upon them first. I know you perfectly well, even though you've never seen me. But you might have heard about me as the Corrector."

"Dzhao..." she exhaled. "Demiurge Dzhao! Now I understand why nobody ever managed to find the fugitives..."

"I have many names, Ehira," the lad shook his head. "Here and now my name is Dzinton Muratsiy. I am sorry but it's hardly a good time or place for a conversation. Tell me just one thing, Coordinator - what are you going to do with the Institute?"

"Coordinator in name only. On my own I don't have nearly enough strength and influence," Ehira said bitterly. "As for Maya...she hasn't been in touch for years. Not once after she disappeared in 839."

"What?" Dzinton immediately stiffened up. "Maya didn't preserve...I see. Go home, Ehira. Home, not to the Institute. I'll send my projection right after I am done here."

"Yes," Ehira nodded, "I'll do as you say."

She turned around, and the captain was astounded by a change her face had undergone. The passionate fury disappeared, and a regular woman, lonely and unhappy, came in her stead. That new woman was not stunningly beautiful but she was attractive. And sad, too.

The deputy director of the Institute of Man's Masaria branch walked slowly past Samatta but suddenly she stopped and said in a low voice without turning her head, "Captain, I can't give orders to the commanding officer of the Special Unit but since I have some idea of what's really going on here, I'll venture to offer you an advice. Obey any orders given by Sir Dzinton. Any attempt to resist will end in a disaster. A total disaster."

Still without turning her head, she passed through the gates and went down the pathway before disappearing around the corner. Completely perplexed, the captain watched her go. Suddenly he realized that his men were still waiting for his command, ready to open fire any moment.

Really, what sort of myst is going on here?

"Unit, here, is First" his voice was hoarse and lifeless. "All-clear signal. Put the safety on. Second, take everybody down to the main road. Let the police pass, then wait for me."

He lowered the barrel of his automatic rifle, clicked the safety lock button and let the rifle drop onto the ground. Then he turned towards the gate - Lieutenant Kmir was looking at him uncomprehendingly, popeyed with astonishment clearly visible even under flecks of light on his shaded glass mask.

"What are you waiting for? Obey the command!" the captain roared.

Several seconds later people behind the fence began to stir and clank. One by one the soldiers backed away and disappeared in the bushes on the other side of the pathway. Soon the very last of them was gone.

"A wise decision, Captain," the young man nodded his approval. "I think, I will indeed refrain from pressing any charges against you personally. Provided you'll agree to answer my questions, that is. Kara, could you please pick up the rifle and take it to the house."

The captain turned around quickly. The deviant girl was standing right next to him, and her eyes were filled with such intense hatred that he suddenly felt very uncomfortable. Very slowly, without taking her look off him even for a moment, she bent and picked up the weapon. Samatta's temples became very heavy. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes tightly. Now my head will burst like a rotten watermelon, and there will be one idiot less in the world...

"Thank you, Kara," the young man said calmly. "Just make sure, please that you never aim a weapon at people unless you intend to kill them. Take this thing to the house and hang it on a peg by the entrance door lest it get lost somehow. Otherwise our reasonable captain will be held responsible for it, and he already has more than enough on his plate."

Samatta half-opened one eye. The chick was standing as close to him as before but her craving to kill had already left her eyes. She sighed heavily and dragged herself towards the entrance door trailing the rifle, its barrel to the ground. As she was passing the youngster, he put his hand on her shoulder.

"Didn't I tell you all would end well?" he smiled at her. "And you felt like you were going to die!"

That proved too much. Karina let go of the rifle, sank to her knees and sobbed violently covering her face with her palms.

Samatta stood there looking at the girl's thin shoulder-blades convulsing under the thin fabric of her dress. Gradually he began to feel like the scum of the earth. Wasn't I ready to kill this poor child on the spot less than five minutes ago? He knew from her personal file that she already was thirteen but, judging by her appearance, he would hardly believe she might be more than ten-eleven years old. She looks younger than my own daughter... What sort of a creep have I become to be ready to kill children?

He tried once more to justify himself. Hasn't she herself killed many people? Wasn't she killing both before she got to the Institute and during the escape. She would have surely tried to do you in as well, had it come to a fight.

Yes, she killed, he replied to himself, but could a ten-year-old truly realize what she was doing? And didn't you see what those 'experimenters' in white lab coats were doing to her in the Institute? She spent two years under much worse conditions than those of a solitary confinement. Two years of monstrous experiments that should be properly called tortures. Can you blame her for what she did to the duty shift during her escape? And those bastards who tried to rape her, if only this lad tells the truth - what would you do with them? Or with those who would try to rape your own daughter?

Dzinton squatted next to Karina and cuddled her small, childish body. She clutched at him convulsively, still sobbing and burying her face against his chest. The young man was stroking her hair soothingly but his eyes kept boring into Samatta. His look was strange, hard and evaluating at the same time.

"How does it feel, Captain? Enjoying the sight of what you've driven the girl to?" he asked softly. "Thirty big, strong guys with automatic weapons against two children - isn't it really brave and worthy of real men? Isn't it, Captain?"

Samatta gritted his teeth but remained silent. The wailing sirens were very close now. Several more minutes, and...And what? Paperwork, long boring talks, maybe I'll have to go to the police station with them. I probably should let the guys return to the Institute - or home if they are on leave.

"There, there, Karichka - stop crying," Dzinton patted her on the shoulder. "It's all over now."

As an answer, she buried her face even deeper into his shirt. He sighed.

"Pick up your weapon, Captain," he said in a low voice. "I wonder if you at least realize how badly you were framed?"

Samatta stared at him, clueless. Pick up my weapon? Didn't you just tell me to drop it? And what does it mean, I was framed?

"Come on, pick it up," Dzinton repeated, annoyed. "Don't stand ramrod straight like this. The police'll be here any minute now."

The captain shrugged and came nearer. The rifle muzzle was full of dust. Doesn't matter, it's an easy cleanup. I wonder what's coming next?

"Police! Stay where you are, don't move! What's happening here? Who called the police?"

Cops. As always, arrogant and full of self-importance. Samatta grimaced as, fortunately, he was standing with his back to the policemen, and they could not see his face. The chick stopped sobbing and clung to Dzinton even tighter.

"I called the police," the young man said calmly as he straightened up cautiously and helped Karina to her feet. The girl immediately hid behind his back and did not even try to peep out. "An unknown armed squad has trespassed upon my private property, damaged the plants adjoining the house and scared to death my family and friends. The squad's commander states that he was conducting maneuvers and was not aware that the land had an owner. I need your help, Sir, in filing an official report my claim for both material and moral damages will be based upon."


Half-an-hour later Dzinton entered the kitchen where everybody else had already gathered. When he sat at the table still featuring the leftovers of the by now forgotten breakfast, Yana and Palek stopped whispering and looked at him. Karina was sitting next to Tsukka who kept stroking the girl's hair soothingly.

"Everybody has left," he leaned against the back of the chair and stretched, his hands behind his head. "It's just amazing how much one can achieve by saying a few right words at a right time. As I said, it doesn't always take might to be right."

"Dzinton, don't you think it's time to tell us something?" Tsukka's voice was quiet but full of easily traceable tension.

"I do, of course," he admitted easily. "Was about to tell you for quite a while but somehow it just hasn't happened. In fact, my initial plan was very different but then I had to change too many things on the fly. For instance, Yana and Palek weren't part of the plan, and I had to improvise thrice to accommodate them. It's a long story, so if you, folks, have some burning questions, just go ahead and ask."

"Do you really own the hotel?" the young woman inquired.

"Formally speaking, I do. To be precise, it belongs to an organization I represent here."

"An organization?"

"Yes, an international non-governmental organization. It's rather small but quite influential behind the scenes. We work for no specific country but rather pursue our own agenda. We have no official name but if a name is necessary, we identify ourselves as the 'Tekira workgroup'."

"Did you know we are deviants?" Karina interrupted. "Did you know why they kept us in the Institute?"

"Yes, Karichka," Dzinton nodded. "Of course, I knew. I would have to be completely out of touch with reality not to know what's going on in the Institute of Man's Masaria branch."

"Did you...is it true that I am your foster-daughter now?"

"Yes. Quite officially, I am your foster-father, as well as Yana's and Palek's." Dzinton winked at the girl. "And back to our morning conversation, I am telling you as your daddy, peanuts: you aren't going anywhere today."

"Dzinton," Karina freed herself from Tsukka's embrace, rose and slowly rounded the table approaching him. "So you know that I...what I could do - and you weren't afraid of me?"

"What was there to know, after all?" Tsukka jumped to her feet, her fists clenched. "Seems like everybody but me knows everything here! Dzi, stop playing me for a fool!"

"You know, Tsu," Dzinton sighed, "In the whole country you must be the only person who doesn't flip out when the word 'deviant' is being mentioned. Karina and Yana are carriers of a virus effector in its active form. Have you never seen those TV programs about kids with special abilities who would kill their parents and other people around them with some mysterious force?"

Tsukka paled. She sank back into the chair slowly while shifting her gaze from Karina to Yana and back.

"So you are..." she did not finish the sentence. "Oh, my poor things! And I was racking my brains, stupid me..."

"Yes, we are deviants!" Karina raised her chin proudly. "We kill people! And I killed, too, got it? Dzinton, so you knew about us from the very beginning - and lied to us?" Her eyes sparked danger.

"Yes, Karichka," the young man nodded. "I knew from the beginning who I was hosting in my house."

"Don't call me 'Karichka'," the girl shouted. "You knew – and you didn't tell us that you knew?"


For a few seconds the girl just stood there panting and glaring at him. Suddenly the bulky dinner table rocked, as if from a heavy blow – once, twice, three times. Karina turned around and darted out of the kitchen. The door of her room slammed.

"I should calm her down," Dzinton muttered. "Seems like she took the truth much harder than I hoped she would."

He rose from the chair.

"Palek, Tsukka, take care of Yana," he said curtly and went out.

Tsukka watched him go, then shifted her eyes to the girl who was sitting on a chair and wiping away the tears flowing freely down her cheeks. Palek's eyes were darting back and forth between the two of them. Tsukka rose, came to Yana and embraced her.

"Why are you crying, silly?" she asked softly. "It's all good now."

"If Dzinton adopted me, it means Mom and Dad really died. Forever!" the girl sobbed even harder. Tsukka drew away from her, took a handkerchief out of her jacket's pocket and began wiping away the girl's tears.

"There, there, don't cry," she said soothingly. "You are with us now. Yana, do you indeed have some hidden power?"

Yana sniffled and nodded.

"And you knew, too?" Tsukka gave Palek a questioning look.

He also nodded frowning.

"Everybody knows everything, I am the only one in the dark," the young woman sighed. "Yana, do you mind telling me how you got to the Institute?"


→Broadcast to the Tekira workgroup. Dzhao in the channel. Urgent. Utterly important. Please, advise of the exact time and topic of your last communication with Maya. End of message.→


The door squeaked. Startled, Karina looked up. She was hunkering down on the bed, her knees drawn to her chest. Her mind was racing, her thoughts in a jumble.

Dzinton entered the room and closed the door behind him. Then he moved a chair towards the bed and sat down.

"It's over, Karichka," he said quietly and stroked her hair. "It's over. They won't come for you again. Never-ever."

"Nothing is over!" the girl tossed her head to throw his hand off. Sparks of fury lighted her eyes once again. "You lied to me!"

She felt her invisible hands tauten as they were being incited by a wave of anger rising within her.

"You lied! You knew who I was, you knew it from the very first day! You just tried to worm your way into my confidence!"

"Yes, I lied," Dzinton agreed serenely. "And so did you. You never mentioned who you were. You never said that you were being hunted down, and that armed people might come for you here and kill me along with you and everybody else. You never told me you could kill using your hidden power. What if someone else, who doesn't know how to talk with soldiers, happened to be in my stead?"

"Oh, but it's very different!" the girl said fervidly. "I...I couldn't tell you! I was afraid you would get scared and run away. Or send me away. And I..."

"And you wanted to trust someone so badly!" Dzinton sighed. "I know, Karichka. I understand you perfectly well. Forgive me, please."

Karina sniffled.

"They call me 'deviant'! As if I weren't even a human-being."

"I know."

"I hate them! I want to kill them, destroy them! One day I'll be back to the Institute by my own choice - and then they'll be sorry they ever knew me!"

"Yes, that's how you are feeling right now."

Karina stared at Dzinton suspiciously. His eyes glimmered in the semi-darkness of the room. It seemed to her that blue sparks were hidden deep inside his pupils, and suddenly she felt scared.

"Don't be afraid, Karichka" he said gently. "Don't forget that now you are my foster-daughter. I am responsible for you and everything you can do. And...you said you wanted to kill them. Haven't you already killed many people?"

"Not enough!" Karina replied furiously. "And the wrong ones! Soldiers are just fools, they follow orders. I want to kill those who tortured me!"

"Karichka, do you remember me saying that your enemy is also a living being? You chose to disregard my words but you'll have to take them more seriously. I won't allow you to turn into a cold-blooded murderer. Remember your birthday's evening..."

...images are floating before her non-eyes. Angry tears are flooding her face. Resentment fills her whole entity and overflows. Her skinned knees hurt, her smashed nose sends waves of pain into her head, a warm rivulet trickles down her chin and lips. A face of a woman who is bending over her. "Who hurt you, little one? Where is your mom?" The same face as a mask of blood now, blood gushing out of her nose, eyes and ears when the invisible hands squash her head - just as they squashed the nasty boys' heads in the morning. Terror. Fear. Panic. Warm droplets are running down her face. Why? What's for? I didn't want it to happen! Honestly, I didn't!

"Her husband died of a heart attack, in a hospital, two days after he had learned about her death. Their two children, about your age, had to be sent to an orphanage."

To an orphanage? Like me? Maybe that very orphanage I escaped from...

"The policeman in the winter..."

The icy winter wind. Old deserted hovels on the city outskirts, rotten planks, broken windows, leaking roofs and worn out doors. A dark and stinky corner of a hut at twilight, a ray of light darting around, a man's silhouette in the doorway, a shining fleck on the shield of the policeman cap. "Lass, you shouldn't play here. It's dangerous here, and there are bad men around. Let me take y..." A momentary wheeze, his chest bursts, his body soars as if shot out of a cannon when all her invisible hands strike at the same time in panic. I didn't want it to happen! I didn't! Mommy!

"He was outlived by an old mother and a loving bride. His bride has never recovered from this blow. She'll probably never marry. His mother has fallen gravely ill upon having lost her only son. Now she is in a senior home, paralyzed."

I didn't want it to happen!

"That park in the spring..."

...her heart is pounding as if trying to break through the rib cage. She left the park trails far behind, and now stalks of tall grass are clutching at her and thrashing her naked feet. Raspy panting and heavy stomping from behind comes ever closer! A shape in a gray coverall appears from behind the bushes in front of her. "Karina, wait, don't run away. We want to help you..." A terrible blow dealt by an invisible force throws the body high up in the air where it rams into a tree - his spinal bones break with a bang clearly heard even at a distance. She is rejoicing momentarily - you won't catch me! - and then there comes a blinding pain under her shoulder-blade. Her legs go numb, and her world disappears in a gray fog...

"His name was Rob Pulzer. A well-known children psychologist, he was one of those very few experts who openly sympathized with deviants. His death allowed deviant-haters to make a regulation resulting in at least fifty children and adults, supposed to have hidden abilities, being killed during an arrest. Only seven of them were actually trying to fight back – the others were killed cowardly, just in case, without being offered any chance to surrender. Fifteen victims, including three of those who did fight back, had no special abilities whatsoever. Only one of the rest had a rather strong gift."

It wasn't my fault! They were trying to catch me! I didn't want to kill anybody! It means...it means I am guilty not only of killing but also of getting others killed because of me.

"And that night in the Institute..."

The Institute hallway, as white as snow. A distant wailing siren, flickering light. Stomping feet around the corner. Her heart is thumping - to strike first and then to die...Two men appear, their faces concealed by semidarkness, their fingers trembling on the triggers, confusion reigning in their eyes. They are so young - and they can't believe they have to shoot at this frightened, bloodied girl. The trigger fingers keep trembling, perplexity and incomprehension keep nesting deep inside their dilated pupils. Her invisible hands ram into their faces, smash their noses and cheekbones, gouge their eyes - and their skulls crack as their bodies bang into the opposite wall...

"Both of them were twenty. After their military contracts had expired a thriceweek ago, they took a crash course for security guards. They worked in the Institute for only two days. When one of the youngsters' mother learned about his death, she had a brain hemorrhage. She is dying in a hospital."

But they wanted to shoot me! I didn't start the fight! His mother...I didn't know! I didn't know he had a mother!

Faces everywhere. Her victims' faces. Ruthless words like heavy stones filling the emptiness of her soul – and her heartache intensifies by the minute. And tears of remorse and despair are running down her face.

"I don't want to live..." Karina whispered. "I can't live after what I did. Dzinton, please, kill me! Please, please, just kill me! I don't want to remember, I don't want to see nightmares! I don't want to go back to the Institute! Kill me, please, just let me die without pain! I know, I don't deserve a painless death but, please, please!"

The room began to spin around her, the bed wobbled, and she felt that she was falling down slowly. Strong hands caught her, and suddenly she was enwrapped in warmth - that special warmth she had only been feeling as a child in her mother's arms.

"No, Karichka, you won't die. Your death won't change the past. You'll live and your life will atone for those deaths and suffering you've caused. I beg you, see to it that those people haven't died in vain."

"I will atone for what I did, I will! I want to! But...I don't know how..." Karina whispered as she was falling ever deeper into a soft and welcoming mist of slumber. "You'll show me how...Dad?"

"I'll show you, Karichka, I promise. Sleep now, there will be no more nightmares."

And the warm, friendly and dreamless darkness engulfed her.


→Broadcast to the Tekira workgroup. Dzhao in the channel. Urgent. Utterly important. Please, advise of the exact time and topic of your last communication with Maya during the last minitertia. End of message. →


"And then Karina and I ripped a big glass cylinder out of the floor and threw it through the display window..."

"Picture window," Tsukka corrected. "Display windows are in shops, in big halls there are picture windows."

"Through the picture window," Yana nodded. "And we dashed out that hole barefoot, straight over the broken glass - it didn't even hurt, just stung a bit. Then we ran through the forest, and they were shooting at us from behind, I think, but Karina kept pulling me along me by the hand. She broke the fence, and we immediately found ourselves in a forest. That's it. We ran away."

"To be precise, Karina used her effector to carry you through the wild night forest at least seven versts," Dzinton added as he entered the kitchen. "With her feet bare and cut all over, and her body stuffed with chemicals including a lethal, slow-acting poison that I barely managed to neutralize."

He pulled a chair nearer the table and sat down.

"Her courage and willpower are just amazing," he said thoughtfully. "And you, Yana, are also a really brave girl. After all, you too were carrying Karina through the forest when she was unconscious. You just saved each other. Now you are closer than blood sisters."

Tsukka covered her mouth with both hands.

"Oh..." she whispered. "It's terrible! Dzi, what are you taking about? Chemicals? What are they doing at that Institute that a thirteen-year-old was injected with a lethal poison?"

"The Institute's secret laboratories are conducting researchers on deviants by order of the Defense Ministry. Or, more precise, of its Seventh Department that specializes in emerging trends in weaponry. There are about twenty deviants with the most developed virus effectors from all over Katonia in the Institute. A slow-acting poison is regularly administered to all of them, in case someone escapes and comes to the police station. Unless neutralized with an antidote, the poison kills the victim within about one day. Fortunately, they didn't have time to inject Yana with it - and, as for Karina, I gave her a cleaning antidote."

"Terrible," Tsukka repeated. "But, Dzi, why doesn't anybody know about it? That's sheer savagery! Every newspaper and TV channel should be crying foul at such a brutality! Its instigators should be tried and properly punished for it!"

"I wish it were that easy," Dzinton sighed. "The military has a strong lobbying arm and is backed by both ruling parties - so an unprepared action against it is bound to fail. Any testimony against the Ministry will be immediately repudiated by every government-controlled newspaper and TV channel. What we need is an independent inquiry, and that must be provided with undeniable evidence. That's why I am here. My purpose is to destroy the Institute while provoking as much public outrage over its activities as possible. To create such a scandal that heads will start rolling not only at the Ministry but also in the government and in the ruling coalition. But..." he shifted his keen gaze between Tsukka and the children, "there should be no tongue-wagging as you realize. It's a secret."

Palek and Yana nodded simultaneously. Tsukka tilted her head to one side and narrowed her eyes looking at Dzinton.

"Games of secrecy for men?" she asked thoughtfully. "Dzi, has it ever occurred to you that I might be unwilling to play them?"

"Are you playing them, Tsu?" Dzinton answered the question with a question. "Just look back - had you known what was going on a thriceweek ago, would you have refused to help Karina, Yana and Palek?"

The young woman blushed and dropped her gaze.

"Tsu, we have important things to discuss but let's do it a bit later, ok? And now, my independent ones," he frowned as he looked at the children, "being your strict father, I must repeat: your escape into nowhere has been canceled. In the future we might consider some outings but that will depend on your behavior. You, my dears, have forgotten something – and since you seem to have gotten rather comfortable by now, it's time to remind you about it. Would you like to give it a try first? What do kids your age do for the most part of the year?"

Yana and Palek exchanged glances. Then Palek sighed, made a face and uttered, "Go to school, I guess."

"Quite right, quick-witted Young Sir, they go to school. And you have already idled away a whole thriceweek - for no good reason, I must say. Yana, you've missed quite a lot, too. As far as I know, the last year you needed an individual exam session to pass the exams - but this year you haven't even begun to study because your parents were too concerned to let you go to school. We are in the sixth thriceweek now, so you are already three thriceweeks behind, and you'll have to catch up on quite a lot of material. Well..."

He paused to think.

"Today is Fireday. It'll take me three or four days to find a decent school - Tsu, I need your help with that because I know next to nothing about local schools - and register you there. A bit more time to buy you textbooks and such. So you have until the end of the week to get used to the idea but on the next Thriceday off you both go...to Grade 4. By the way, Yana, you surely understand that it's not worth letting your schoolmates or teachers know about your abilities. Palek, that concerns you, too. Deal?"

The children looked like a picture of misery as they sighed and nodded together.

"And what about Kara?" Palek asked jealously. "Will she go to school?"

"Karina's situation is way more difficult. She was kept in the Institute for two years - and had been on the run for about half-a-year before that. At 13 she should be in Grade 7 but I doubt she ever passed even her Grade 5 exams. Fitting in with the rest of the class might prove to be a challenge as well. If she succeeds in catching up and passing an exam before a committee, she'll go to Grade 7 next year. She'll lose a whole school year, of course, but it's not that unusual. Don't you grimace, young man - it will be much tougher on her than on you. Well, pipsqueaks, any questions for Daddy?"

"Dzinton," Yana asked timidly, "have my Mom and Dad really-really died?"

"Yes, Yana," the young man answered compassionately. "Unfortunately, they have. A car crash. Your Dad lost control on a slippery road, and the car fell off a cliff. We'll try to become real parents to you – or I could try to find you other parents if you wish."

"No," Yana shook her head. "I like living with you."

"Good, then," Dzinton reached across the table and stroked her hair. "Well, guys, I and Tsukka still have to talk in private a bit. You don't mind doing the dishes for her, do you? And she'll do them for you one day."

"Owww," both children groaned at the same time.

"It's called 'an order phrased as a question'," Dzinton laughed. "Just stop talking and do it. It won't kill you. You just wait, pipsqueaks, soon enough you'll see what a strict and unrelenting father I am!"

He made a scary face as he twisted his mouth, stuck out his tongue and covered his ears with his palms.

The children spluttered with laughter involuntarily. "Let's go, Tsu."

When the adults left, Palek sighed and rose from the table.

"You know, Yani," he said pensively, "I often thought what it's like to get adopted. And now it happened - and it's so different from what I was imagining. But anyways, if I could choose a foster father, I would surely choose Dzinton. He might be a bore but he's a real fun, too."

"He is nice," the girl rose as well. "And so brave! Just think how he talked to that soldier! There was a big crowd against him, and they had rifles but he wasn't scared. And they did what he told them to."

"He is surely cool," Palek agreed as he began to clear away the dishes. "Maybe not tough enough to kick their ears but not bad, not bad at all. Hey, do you think he will give us more pocket money now that we are adopted?"


It was with a heavy heart that Tsukka closed the door of her room. She was trying not to look at Dzinton sitting on the edge of the table and dangling his foot light-mindedly. Nothing good can possibly come from this conversation. Dzinton owns this hotel? He is a member of some secret organization? Karina and Yana are deviants? All that made so little sense that it sounded like an excerpt from a low quality spy film.

"Sit down, Tsu," the man tapped his finger on the back of a nearby chair. "It seems like our conversation will be anything but short."

Tsukka sat on the edge of the chair and propped her elbows against the table top, her chin resting on the palms of her hands. She looked up at Dzinton at if seeing him for the first time - a narrow face with high cheekbones, dark attentive eyes and a seemingly ever-ready quick, encouraging smile.

"It will be probably better if you speak first," Dzinton jumped off the table and seated himself on the bed. "Go ahead, tell me what you think of everything that has happened. Don't be shy, just shoot.

I know I am a jerk and a bastard, so no need to dwell on that. Just come straight to the point."

"Tut-tut," Tsukka snorted. "You are neither a jerk, nor a bastard, Dzi - just a liar, and a poor one, at that."

"What did I lie about?"

"For instance, about the secret organization that is a 'workgroup'. Why don't you leave such tales to detective-story writers? 'An international, non-governmental organization', my ass!" She snorted again.

"Pips would tear such an organization to pieces like a cook shreds his fish: the entrails to the left, the head and tail to the right – and the rest straight to the frying pan!"

"Believe me, the Public Security Ministry's omnipotence is grossly exaggerated," Dzinton hummed. "There were ages and countries where even the most cunning pips would rank no higher than first-graders in a sandbox. But you are right about the international organization - it's a complete nonsense meant for but little kids. Have I mentioned that you are smart as well as beautiful?" a quick, encouraging smile lit up his face.

"Stop cozying up to me," Tsukka also smiled involuntarily. "You know, I just don't understand what I should do. It's one thing to live in nobody's house with orphans who need your love and care. It's quite another thing to live in a house that belongs to a particular person – and with this person's family. Listen, Dzi, why did you bring me here a thriceweek ago, to start with? Obviously, not to take me to bed as I initially thought. To look after the children? And what if they went berserk and started smashing everything around?"

She shuddered instinctively as she suddenly recalled an once seen and long-forgotten movie about 'killer kids' as they were called there. For several nights, upon having had watched the movie, she was having nightmares featuring mutilated corpses and pools of blood. Should I believe that Karina and Yana are like that as well? I'd rather conclude that I've lost my marbles and am talking to a hallucination right now!

"They wouldn't do anything like that," Dzinton shook his head. "Tsu, most of the horror stories you know are nothing but a thoroughly planned and no less thoroughly conducted operation aimed at misleading public opinion. There were indeed quite a few fatal accidents but three-quarters of the casualties happened to be deviants themselves. Do you know that a human child can become a deviant only at an age between eight and ten years old? A virus effector is an extremely dangerous tool in hands of an unskilled operator – and where would a little kid possibly obtain any skills from? Imagine yourself being blindfolded and put into a sensor-controlled industrial excavator located in a crowded square.

You would squash lots of people simply by swinging your arms aimlessly over the control panel! By the way, about half of those deviants killed themselves by bringing down the building from within - and the remaining half was butchered by fear-stricken soldiers and policemen who weren't even in any real danger. So you'd better forget those tales about little monsters: those deviants who are able to control their effector aren't any more dangerous than any usual children."

"An effector," Tsukka muttered. "What's an 'effector' – and why 'virus'?"

"Effector is a device used to impact on the surrounding world. In this particular case this device is purely energetic by nature because it's made of nothing else but vortex fields. It's a virus because it's self-propagating by inserting its own copies into any sentient bioform within reach."

"Into any sentient bioform..." Tsukka pondered over his words for a moment and suddenly leaped to her feet. "Do you mean, I also have that thing inside me? And I'll become a deviant as well?"

"The first statement is correct, the second one is total nonsense. Tsu, sit down and relax. Virus effector carriers were discovered for the first time about four years ago, and that's when the very first deviant child was officially registered. From then on the, so-to-say, 'effector epidemic' has been spreading like wildfire, and it's safe to say that by now there isn't even one sentient being in the whole world who wouldn't carry a latent virus effector. Unfortunately - or maybe it's in fact fortunate, after all - the effector can integrate with the carrier's nervous system only when the carrier is of a particular age. It's between eight and ten years old for a human child, between four and five - for a troll, and between five and seven - for an orc. Mind you that the probability of the effector actually becoming active is one in three million."

"One in three million?"

"Exactly. Well, to be precise, it's much higher but if we talk about a strong, well-developed effector, one in three million is indeed the number. I mean, 'strong' in more than one sense - that is, an effector that is both physically strong and with some additional abilities. Like, for instance, Yana's empathy."

"So she indeed knows what people feel? Tsukka gasped. "Including me?"

"Yes - and that's one of the reasons you are here. Your psyche is very balanced. It takes a whole lot to make you angry, and usually you are quite friendly. Besides, you like children. So she has been feeling safe with you - and thanx to you, I was able to convince her to stay. That was the key to keeping Karina here as well."

"So you did use me, after all?" Tsukka rubbed her eyes with her fingers wearily.

"Yes, I did. However, let me ask you once again: had you known a thriceweek ago what was really going on here, would you have refused to stay in my house to help me...no, not me but the children? Yana? Karina?" he leaned forward, took her chin in his hand and made her look him straight in the eyes. "Honestly, Tsu?"

The young woman sighed and freed herself cautiously.

"Of course, I wouldn't have refused," she said sadly. "After all, I haven't had to do that much either. It's just unpleasant, you know, to be taken advantage of."

"I do know," he nodded. "Haven't I said I am a jerk and a bastard? But imagine I would have told you about the Institute from the very beginning - you would have surely felt too scared to get tangled up in an adventure like that."

"I am still feeling scared," she twisted her lips. "You don't even start to imagine, just how scared..."

"In fact, I do imagine it quite well. Tsu, listen to me and heed my words: you are in absolutely no danger because of being involved in my games. You are under my full protection, and my protection is something that's strong enough to keep you safe even if a supernova explodes right next to you. You are totally and completely safe, and nothing can even touch you against you will. You, Karina, Yana, Palek - everybody living with me is safe."

"I am glad to hear that," the young woman hummed. "I am just afraid you might be overestimating your abilities a little bit. The Defense Ministry will hardly put up with that slap in the face you just dealt to them."

"The Defense Ministry will put up with any slap in the face I'll deal to them," Dzinton answered earnestly. "But for...some additional considerations, I would have already wrung quite a few necks of those who are responsible for this outrage."

"It still doesn't jibe," Tsukka gave him a skeptical look. "For instance, I've heard that it takes at least half-a-year to adopt anybody, and many applicants just don't get an adoption permission. Surely, a young bachelor would have no chance whatsoever to adopt a 13-year-old girl – let alone the fact that to adopt an orphan, one would need a consent of a guardianship agency's official representative. How could you possibly get that if the orphans in question are deviants on the run?"

"You are indeed a smart girl, just as I said," Dzinton flashed another quick smile at her. "Under usual circumstances everything is just as you describe but the circumstances aren't exactly usual - and I am not exactly a usual man. The representatives' signatures on the electronic document are completely authentic. As for the adoption process as such...well, let's say that there are people on the city committee who are sympathetic to our cause."

"To your cause..." Tsukka sighed. "What can I say...I am glad for you, Dzi. But I think I'll move out quite soon - spay games aren't for me."

"I have a counteroffer," Dzinton made a magician-like gesture and produced a sheet of paper, seemingly out of the thin air. "Take a look."

"A counteroffer?" Perplexed, Tsukka took the sheet. "Contractual Agreement. We, the undersigned, Sir Dzinton Muratsiy and Lady Tsukka Merovanova, agree on the sixth day of the sixth thriceweek of year 843 that the aforementioned Lady Tsukka Merovanova accepts the position of a round-the-clock nursemaid...What??"

"I am offering you a job," the young man said calmly. "You quit your salesgirl job that you are clearly not that thrilled about, and become Karina's, Yana's and Palek's official nursemaid. Later we'll change your job title into a 'guardian' but now it's still too early for that. Your allowance will be ten grand a thriceweek after taxes - plus free lodging and board, as well as free utilities. You job description includes everything you've already volunteered for but not too much in addition to that. You'll have to see to it that the children go to school, do their home assignments and so on. The duration of the contract is until the youngest child comes of age, and any party can terminate it - the termination notice period being two weeks. In short, all the usual stuff. You can consult a lawyer if you feel like it."

"Boy oh boy!" Tsukka muttered, clearly shocked. "You know, Dzi, to say something like 'I didn't expect that' wouldn't even begin to describe it..."

"For sure, I am totally unpredictable," Dzinton was quick to agree. "I am also clever and charming, and you'll have no choice but to fall in love with me."

"You'd wish!" Tsukka snorted. "Such a plain and ordinary man! Listen, Dzi, are you serious? Me, a nursemaid?"

"Quite serious. You've passed your probation, so now we can sign a permanent contract. However, there is one more condition, Tsu - it's informal but still obligatory."

"What is it?"

"Next spring you must gain admission to the University. Any department you like but if I were you, I wouldn't give up on physics and astronomy. Your allowance will be more than enough to buy new textbooks and attend preparation courses - and you'll have quite enough time to spare. But if you don't become a student, I'll terminate the contract, throw you out of my house, complain to your parents and write a caustic article for a local newspaper. More important, the kids will never love you again!"

"Balderdash!" Tsukka retorted resentfully. "Just listen to him, he'll complain to my parents! One could think I've already accepted your offer..."

"Not yet," the man nodded. "So I am waiting for your answer. You don't have to commit yourself right away, take your time to think if you need to. Talk to a lawyer, talk to your parents. Listen to your heart, after all."

"There isn't much to be hesitant about," Tsukka sighed. "Everything is quite clear. In a different situation I would agree without thinking twice. Not now, though."

"I see..." Dzinton's face became inscrutable. "Is that your final answer?"

"Dzi," she said imploringly, "Can you let me finish, please? I...I think I love those kids very much. All of them - Karina, Yana, Palek. I would love to stay with them as their elder sister, or nursemaid, or whatever but I don't want to depend on someone - on you! - who lies to me. You keep lying to me even now. You've never told me the truth about everything that just happened, only half-baked fibs that would barely deceive a kid. So," she took a deep sigh, "now I have a counteroffer: you tell me the whole truth here and now or I move out as soon as I find a fitting room."

"You are not only beautiful and smart," Dzinton uttered as he looked at her with incomprehensible tenderness, "You also have a strong character, every bit as strong as Karina's. Tsu, why do you need the truth? There is enough filth in the world - and enough people to deal with it in order to protect others from it. You are a worthy young woman, and you have goals in life. You'll achieve those goals and move forward towards achieving new ones. There will always be a road in front of you, and you'll be eager to take this road. Why do you need those games I am playing?"

"Because that's what I want," Tsukka retorted. "I...I am honest with those around me - and I want them to be honest with me."

"Hardly the most rewarding attitude, Tsu. Sometimes it's better to pretend you believe a white lie - even if you suspect the truth. But so be it, you've convinced me. I'll tell you what's really going on. I must warn you that you won't be able to discuss anything you are going to hear now with anybody unless I explicitly allow it. You will have no choice in the matter. You won't be able to relate any part of our conversation even under torture. Believe me, it's very unpleasant when you are ready to do anything to get rid of pain but you can't utter a single word. Doesn't it frighten you?"

 "You just said I was completely safe," Tsukka looked at him as she narrowed her eyes. "Was it another lie?"

"One to you," Dzinton grinned. "Yes, you are completely safe, I am dead serious about it. Well, here is your truth."

He stretched out his right hand, palm upward. Tsukka, her heart skipping a bit, suddenly saw a dark little cloud swirling above the palm. The cloud began spinning around its axis, quicker and quicker, then it stretched upwards until it took shape of a spindle - and disappeared with a bang. It was replaced by a soaring tiny form of a naked woman, quivering dragonfly wings vaguely outlined behind her back.

"A fairy..." Tsukka muttered feeling her eyes. "Is it a hologram?"

The fairy gave out a short squeak, took off and banked a steep turn around the room leaving in her wake a wave of air mixed with a subtle flower fragrance. Then she flew around Tsukka several times and finally nosedived straight into her face. Startled, the young woman jerked back, and the fairy smacked her forehead with a tiny fist, the blow somewhat painful even though not strong. Finally the miniature creature burst into peals of high-pitched, silvery laughter - as if a glass bell chimed - banked another steep turn and flopped at full speed onto a pile of textbooks on the table.

"No, Tsu, it's not a hologram. The fairy is quite material. You can touch her."

Tsukka reached out and touched the fairy's head with a finger. The creature squeaked indignantly but did not move.

"She is indeed real..." the young woman gave Dzinton a confused look. "How did you make her?"

"Yes, Tsu, she is real - not a fairy-tale anymore, just a fairy. She is real, and I am not a human-being."

He rose to his feet in one fluid motion, and a new swirling cloud appeared where he had been standing just a moment ago. Two beats of Tsukka's pounding heart - and the cloud vanished into thin air.

"Dzinton?" The young woman's head felt as empty as the room she was in, and her whole body went limp. "Dzinton?"

Another cloud came and was gone leaving Dzinton in its stead, the man's arms folded on his chest. Tsukka jumped to her feet.

"Don't you come any closer!" she warned, just in case. "I'll scream if you do."

He stepped forward and took her shoulders.

"You wanted the truth, Tsu?" he said harshly. "Here is the truth: I am not a human-being. Neither a troll nor an orc, not a living creature at all, in the ordinary way of speaking. I represent a sentient race, and we call ourselves 'Demiurges'. Everything that has happened to you and the girls - starting with the landlord turning you down, and all the way through the altercation in the courtyard this morning - is a show I planned and staged thoroughly. Sit down, please, and calm down. I know that everything happened too quickly and completely out of the blue, as far as you are concerned - and yet I repeat: you are in no danger whatsoever."

Yielding to pressure applied by his hands, Tsukka sank back into the chair...but it was not a chair anymore. Right under her it changed its shape as it sagged, spread and grew a thick lawyer of fabric. The former chair became a soft plush armchair that enveloped her in its warmth. I must be dreaming. Surely, the Special Unit in our courtyard and everything that's happened afterwards is but a dream. Now the alarm-clock will ring, I'll get up and start preparing breakfast. Some dream I've just had, on my word! Enough of that idling, time to wake up!

And yet she could not wake up, much as she tried to. Both Dzinton and the armchair remained exactly where they had been. Moreover, another armchair, looking exactly like the first one, appeared right next to it. Dzinton dropped into the second armchair half facing Tsukka.

"Tsu," he said softly as he stretched out his hand and put it on her wrist. "I know exactly how you're feeling now. Everybody, who comes into a full contact with us for the first time, is experiencing a severe shock, at the very least. But you aren't dreaming, it's all for real. It's just that this reality is different from the one you are used to. Relax. The shock will be over soon."

"Who are you, Dzinton?"

Tsukka was surprised that her voice sounded calm and detached. Inside her a scared little multiped was knocking against iron cage bars and screaming hysterically, its only desire being to run away and be elsewhere, as far from here as possible. Yet her mind remained calm and composed.

"I am a Demiurge. I represent a race that created your star system and your civilization. Many million years ago we were human-beings, very much like you are now. But we've changed. We don't need planets to live on. We live in the Universe - and we have no biological bodies whatsoever. What you see now in front of you is not me, it's a mere projection. A dummy. A remotely controlled phantom looking like a human-being because its only purpose is to interact with sentient bioforms of your world."

"A phantom looking like a human-being...Dzi, I don't understand what's a 'phantom'."

"It's a long story. The matter is, we use various machinery a whole lot but it looks very much unlike anything you are familiar with. The main raw material for our tools is lepton vortex fields. Carriers of our mind are made of those fields as well - and 'phantom' is just a different term for such tools. A projection is a phantom that is made human-like to facilitate communication. It's like a very dense hologram that is able to interact with the surrounding world."

"A human-like phantom..."

Tsukka pressed her palms against her temples and froze. Her mind was racing like never before in her life, multiple thoughts appearing at the same time - and she had no idea which thought to pay attention to first. Let's presume I am not dreaming. Is it a joke, then? A prank? Her gaze fell upon the tiny fairy sitting on the edge of a textbook and dangling her legs, and the creature stuck out her tongue teasingly. No, impossible. Hypnosis, maybe? A hallucinogen? Or...is Dzinton telling the truth?

"Dzi," she said slowly. "You told me your race had created our civilization."

"And also your star system," the Demiurge nodded. "A slipshod and a rush job, between you and me. The Constructor go ahead of himself. Well, nothing much to do about it now, I am afraid."

"Are we artificial creatures, then?"

"What?" Dzinton raised his eyebrows. "No, of course not. Let me assure you that you are quite natural - as far as your delivery and the origins of your DNA are concerned. Our own biological ancestors' genetic code was used as a template when genetic structures of your human ancestors were created. Orcs trace back to felines, even though heavily modified ones. Trolls are based on monitor lizards if I am not mistaken. All that lot had evolved almost naturally - we had to exercise just a bit of control because of the local time being sped up, so to say."

"For sure, for sure - just a little bit of control," Tsukka laughed somewhat hysterically. "I seem to have completely gone off my head. I am just sitting in an abandoned hotel and hobnobbing with a god-creator, no kidding..."

"This conversation seems to have gone somewhat astray," Dzinton remarked concernedly as he bent forward and waved his palm in front of the young woman's face. "Tsu, how many fingers do you see?"

"Get lost!" she waved him aside. "Who cares if it's 10 or 15! What's important is that I am hobnobbing with a god who can create planets as easily as he can spit." She laughed again, and this time a shrill in her voice was quite distinct. "With a god! What's your real name, Dzinton? Is it Tinuril? Or Yu-Ka-Min? No, it must be Kurat because you are God of Sun, aren't you?"

Dzinton did not bother to answer. Instead he hit the palms of his hands together abruptly in front of her eyes. She gave a shudder and shrank back. The fairy soared up and started circling the room while squeaking indignantly.

Tsukka looked around uncomprehendingly and shivered.

"I am sorry," she said. "Looks like I have really gone a bit crazy."

"Nothing unusual, just a regular fit of hysterics," Dzinton shrugged his shoulders. "A typical reaction for about half the humans and one third of orcs. Only trolls always keep their head but they are quite special, as far as emotions are concerned. Recovered a bit?"

"Yes, I am fine...I think."

"You are indeed fine. I must warn you that I am influencing your emotions directly right now. Under normal circumstances it's considered unethical but if there is an emergency of a sort I just do it without asking for permission. So, Tsu, I am a Demiurge. Technically speaking, it's indeed something like a god but we prefer our friends - that's how we call those who know the truth about us - not to see us that way. Tsu, I am the same Dzinton you've known for a whole thriceweek - and I haven't changed one bit."

"A Demiurge..." Tsukka suddenly recalled the incident in the courtyard. "That woman in the white lab coat, what's her name..."


"Yes, Ehira. She called you 'Demiurge Dzhao'. What's 'Dzhao'?

"My real name. 'Dzinton Muratsiy' is the name of a mask I am wearing here and now. Please, keep calling me 'Dzinton'. Or 'Dzi'."

"Ok. What are doing here? Why do you need me...Karina, Yana and the hotel?"

"I perform a correction. This is also a long story. I'll tell you eventually but now it's neither a good time nor a good place to discuss it. Don't take it personally, it's just that now you wouldn't be able to digest this information properly, and I would have to repeat the whole story later anyway. Just trust me - I do need you and I do need the kids."

Tsukka leaned back, sighed deeply and closed her eyes. Only moments ago her mind was nothing but a whirlpool of thoughts but now the thoughts were gradually being replaced with resounding void. Just too much for one day - the assault, the kids are deviants, Dzinton is a Demiurge...

"I'll go see how Yana and Palek are doing. Then I'll return to my room." Dzinton rose to his feet lightly, bent down towards Tsukka and touched her cheek with his fingertips. Her whole body reached up in response to an unexpected caress. "Tsu, take your time. When you've fully recovered, drop by - we'll continue our discussion. And don't forget: the job offer is valid."

The door banged shut. Tsukka opened her eyes. The little fairy on the table squatted down and was now poring over a pencil about three times her own size. Her micaceous dragonfly wings were twitching slightly. The young woman reached out for the table top and tapped it cautiously with her finger. Startled, the fairy jumped up, then soared up, gave a short incomprehensible squeak and hovered - her arms akimbo - right in front of Tsukka's face. Tsukka, fascinated, began to study the tiny creature whose figure seemed to be the ideal incarnate of mature female beauty. High set breasts, a wasp-like waist, wide hips, long legs, a lively beautiful face with a slightly snub nose, dark, long, curly hair - Tsukka felt momentarily ashamed of her own rather ordinary appearance. She sighed. I would surely kill someone to have a body like hers.

"And what's your name?" she asked. The fairy did not bother to answer. Instead she turned a double somersault in the air, banked a steep turn and stopped right by the window. Then she knocked on the glass with her little fist and squeaked commandingly.

"Eager to fly out?" Tsukka asked and rose. "Ok, I'll let you out. Hope Dzinton won't be angry that you've left. In fact, he shouldn't care - a Demiurge like him can always make a new fairy."

She half-opened the window, and the fairy flew out the aperture with a parting wave of her hand and immediately disappeared in the tree foliage. Tsukka came back to her armchair made out of the former chair – Dzinton's armchair had in the meantime vanished as mysteriously as it had previously appeared - got comfortable and put on her thinking cap. It's not a dream. It's not a hallucination either. Everything is too real and logical to be one or the other. If I were dreaming, I would jump from one topic to another, as usual - and I am not doing that. Besides, if you think about dreaming in a dream, you just wake up right away.

Her eyes fell on the contract left by Dzinton on the table. She took the sheet of paper. Contractual Agreement. We, the undersigned, Sir Dzinton Muratsiy and Lady Tsukka Merovanova...

What on Tekira are you thinking about? A god, an alien, a phantom and simply a nice guy Dzinton is offering you a well-paid, cushy job and a chance to discover fascinating secrets, let alone an opportunity to stay with Karina and Yana, the children with...what was it, Dzinton said, a virus effector? And don't forget about being admitted to the University - if you can afford expensive textbooks and preparation courses, you will for sure become a student! And, with all that, you are still hesitating? You, fool! Any girl in the world would grab this opportunity with both hands – and without thinking twice, even if she had to sell herself to a brothel in Grash...Of course, I'll agree - I'll just pretend a bit more for the sake of decency that I am hesitant, even if I am pretending to nobody else but myself. Tsukka suppressed a nervous giggle - I don't need another fit of hysterics. Let me think everything over again starting from this morning. So, Karina said she was leaving...

She closed her eyes and concentrated on recalling the events of the day. In a few minutes her breathing became regular, and a soft and refreshing sleep embraced her. She was dreaming about flitting in the tree foliage alongside the fairy, the warm and amiable sun caressing her with its rays.


What is the Corrector doing on the Eastern continent?

Ehira stood up and sauntered around the room, her bare feet sinking in the soft carpet. The room window offered a spectacular view of the bay and the ocean but she could hardly care less about it at this moment.

So the Corrector is working on the Eastern continent – even though quite some time ago Maya seemed to suggest that he was interested only in the Western one. In Grash and Suragrash, to be precise - and even there he had folded up ten or fifteen years ago. But a whole lot could have changed for those five years - and there is nobody around to ask again. The woman concentrated habitually, to send a contact request - and then she relaxed as habitually, disappointed. No, Maya won't answer - just as she hasn't answered for the past four years. I wonder if an accident can happen to a Demiurge...

I know I have almost given up, the coordinator admitted to herself, full of self-disgust. She still kept trying to cheer up the members of her network of influence by taking deep contemplative sighs and raising her eyes pointedly to the ceiling every time their common patroness was mentioned. However she herself had grown desperate long time ago. Ehira almost made up her mind to go cap in hand to Kamill, and only remnants of stubbornness and her initial inexplicable dislike of the former ruler of half-the-world stopped her from doing so. And now, the Corrector. What will he tell me? Why did he decide to intervene in the deviants' fate? And what if he forgets and fails to come? I can't even send a contact request. Of course, it's always possible to go back to that hotel but if he indeed forgot what he had promised...

→Ehira, contact request. Dzhao in the channel.

→Dzhao! I have already...Well, doesn't matter. Glad to hear you, Corrector.

→So am I. Mind if I come in?

→Of course, Dzhao, come in.

The air in the middle of the room shimmered, and the Demiurge - still appearing as the lean and rather small young man from the hotel - stepped into the room flashing his quick smile. Ehira gave him the once-over. Hrmph. Nothing like that projection of a tall, dark-skinned Gulan Maya showed to us. Well, if Maya could change her own projections like clothes, why can't other Demiurges do the same?

"Hello once again," Dzhao said. "We don't have much time: I still have to help Tsukka, that girl you saw in the courtyard, to overcome the first-contact shock, as well as clue her in on how things are. I've in the meantime put her to sleep to calm her down a bit but she'll wake up soon enough. Well, Ehira, you also look like a nervous wreck - so we'd better come straight to the point. And the very first question is, what happened to Maya? I haven't been able to get in touch with her for several planetary years - and I am the only one."

"None of us has," Ehira admitted as she sat down on the edge of the couch. Something died deep inside of her. So, something did happen, after all. But what can happen to a Demiurge?! "The last time I was in touch with her was in 839. Then she stopped answering calls."

"Well..." the Demiurge sank into the opposite armchair and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Tell me, when you were communicating with her the last time, did you possibly feel she could be...tired or something? Depressed? Emotionally spent? Maybe she was reacting in some strange way?"

"No. If you are hinting at a possible Leave or simply a very long slumber, I don't think it might be the case. It's rather the opposite: she seemed to be in a good mood, even excited. Several times she hinted that a great idea had dawned on her, and everything would change drastically soon. That she just needed a bit of time to fine-tune..."

"Any details concerning the idea?

"No. I was in no state of mind to ask, either. We were dealing with the Chuy crisis - remember, when it became clear that their government was covertly supporting the pirates? - and I felt so tired that I could almost fall asleep on my feet. When we were done taking care of Plai Jai and his group, I sent Maya a final report - and never got a reply. Ever since I've been on my own - and as helpless as a kitten up a tree..."

"I see. Ehira, I am sorry I had no idea how things stood. Maya must have told you that we consider unethical to contact other Demiurges' friends without an explicit permission - otherwise I would've contacted you a long time ago. If Maya is fine, I am violating our etiquette inexcusably. The only reason I am doing it now, is that I suspect something unexpected has happened. Something bad enough to justify my interference. So..."

He rubbed his chin again.

"Ehira, considering the circumstances that I am inclined to define as 'extraordinary', I offer you and your network of influence the same help and protection you were receiving from Maya. When she reappears, she'll resume her role as your patroness. Is it acceptable?"

"Of course!" the woman exclaimed eagerly but immediately checked herself. "Yes, Dzhao, I agree on behalf of my network. I don't think, Maya will be angry with us."

"Good. Confirmed and registered. Transferring my access code in the primary channel."

‘Ehira, Dzhao in the channel. Transferring my communication code.A short, blinding flash as something is getting compressed and arranged within her head, and a new knowledge emerges somewhere on the periphery of her consciousness. ‘Transmission over. Disconnect and test contact request. Out.’

’Dzhao, contact request. Ehira in the channel. Has it worked?

‘Dzhao in the channel. The call got through, everything's ok. Out.

"Well, now we can finally talk about the daily routine," Dzhao made himself comfortable in the armchair. "First of all, tell me how is your network doing? I am going to put an end to the Institute of Man, and I have a feeling that your help would come in quite handy..."


→Tekira work group, contact request. Dzhao in the channel. An emergency call.

→Kamill in the channel. Dzha, I am busy supporting eight active projections right now. Make it quick.

→Maya on the line. Hello, boys and girls. Busy now, can't talk. Leave a message if there is something important. I'll check it later. Out.

→An automated message from Kuagar. Colleagues I'll be in the Game for at least several seconds, objective time. I've already asked to count me out. Please, remove me from the contact list. Out.

→Miovanna in the channel.

→Veoron in the channel.

→Dzhao here. Colleagues, I've contacted Ehira, the coordinator of Maya's network of influence on the Eastern continent. There is every reason to believe that something did happen to Maya, after all. She got out of touch with everybody at about the same time. Her network of influence wasn't properly preserved her disappearance was sudden and totally puzzling. Judging by Ehira's report, Maya was in a good mood right before she disappeared. There are reasons to believe she was conducting some research. The nature of the research is unclear but I still cling to my old hypothesis - the research must have something to do with the virus effector.

→Kamill here. Dzha, we've it countless times. Your beloved auntie is quite a damsel but I wouldn't call her irresponsible. So I insist she had nothing to do with the effector.

→Veoron here. Colleagues, I suggest that we discuss a hypothetical connection between Maya and the effector at a later stage. Dzhao, since you are quite adamant that her disappearance doesn't imply the Leave - and I fully agree with Kamill regarding her sense of responsibility - there is nothing else to consider but an accident. I must admit that I've pondered over this problem a whole lot but failed to come up with a scenario of a Demiurge being hurt - let alone, being hurt on a populated planet. At the very least, that would mean that the planet has been totally obliterated - as well as everything on its face that is bigger than a little finger.

→Miovanna here. Colleagues, do you realize what it means? My sensors in the Tekira system haven't recently registered any energy emission of at least a planetary scale – and of artificial origin. It might only mean that the locals have actually learned how to hurt us or...Well, there is in fact no alternative.

→Dzhao here. Mio, I have to remind you that we aren't in the Game - so we don't lower our ability level. Rein in your imagination a bit, just to keep it within the limits of the rational. Bioforms' intervention is out of the question. I am inclined to believe in an accident.

→Miovanna here. Dzhao, you are such a bore. What can happen to a Demiurge - in particular, one supporting several projections at the same time? After all, she was with you on Dzhamterra as well, wasn't she?

→Dzhao here. Maya had folded up on Dzhamterra approximately 0,1 minitertia before disappearing. Colleagues, I have to suggest an emergency solution.

→Veoron here. Namely?

→Dzhao here. We won't be able to understand what happened unless we get access to Maya's personal log.

Disgust. Confusion. Askance looks. Grimaces of repulsion.

→Dzhao here. Colleagues, I know I am suggesting an abomination but desperate times call for desperate measures. I am as disgusted with the idea as all of you are - yet I haven't found any other solution even though gave the matter a lot of thought.

→Miovanna here. Dzhao, I've always considered you a more responsible person - even though you are the youngest of us. Do you understand that you are suggesting much more than simply violating Maya's personal space? You are suggesting to create a precedent! You are about to do something that hasn't happened for more than two days. In fact, not since the Catastrophe!

→Dzhao here. Mio, I perfectly understand where you're coming from but consider what we have here. On the one hand, violation of ethics and an ugly precedent. On the other hand, a chance to help Maya if it's still possible. In my opinion, the latter takes precedence. We can't stick to dogmas just for the dogmas' sake - and whatever the consequences are.

→Kamill here. I have to support Dzhao because the only alternative to an accident is the Leave - and if that's the case, Maya won't need any log anymore, and all personal secrets become irrelevant.

→Veoron here. Colleagues, why don't you stop bickering? Both Mio and Dzhao are right. As for me, I am ready to support Dzhao's suggestion - provided that everybody else supports it too.

→Dzhao here. And how much time will we have to wait? The stars might die away before everybody, who is in the Game now, comes back and reads the message!

→Veoron here. I mean those who aren't in the Game - so roughly eighty people, I guess. Should be good enough for a representative sample. I don't think it'll take more than several planetary days, maybe weeks.

→Dzhao here. Don't forget, we'll need some time to hack through the system defenses. But ok, I am fine with general voting.

→Miovanna here. General voting is ok.

→Kamill here. Mio, you are an even bigger bore than Dzhao. I would just hack the log and be done with it. But if you insist, let it be general voting.

→Dzhao here. Since we are all agreed, I'll phrase and send out the polling question. Miovanna, as my main opponent, you are entrusted with counting votes. In the meantime I'll start clearing space for calculation clusters - in case the proposal is accepted.

→Veoron here. Dzha, will you be able to handle it on your own? You have but one point of consciousness concentration on Tekira.

→Dzhao here. I am a Demiurge or what? But I'll accept your help if you offer it.

→Veoron here. Deal. I'll turn on the space-clearing machines. Will fifty of those be enough?

→Dzhao here. I think it will - and with something to spare. Ok, I am sending a mass message to everyone. Out.

→Kamill here. Out.

→Veoron here. Out.

→Miovanna here. You guys are so quick that I can't help feeling envious. Out. What else can I possibly say?


Tsukka stretched contentedly, yawned and immediately straightened up in the armchair. Have I fallen asleep? Shame on me! Dzinton is waiting for my answer! She looked at the clock. Hasn't been too long, about an hour and a half, but shame on me, anyway. Or maybe it's for the better. It's not for nothing they say that evening upsets but morning brings solace. Things have somehow settled themselves in my mind while I was asleep. They say, our brain continues to process and sort out information when we sleep - must be true.

And what if it was nothing but a dream? After breakfast I just took a short nap in the armchair...In the armchair? That settles it! Not so long ago this armchair was a usual chair with a soft seat and a hard back. And if there is anything I know for sure, it's that I had no intention to buy furniture any time soon.

So, it's not a dream, it's a reality. Great! Only yesterday my life was... not boring but somewhat routine - and now it's full of novelty and excitement. Dzinton is an alien? If they only knew, they would die of envy! Such a pity I am not allowed to tell anybody. Karina and Yana are deviants? Good. So now I'll have unusual charges. I've been getting along just fine with my step siblings - I'll get along with these new girls as well. And with Palek, too. In fact, I am already getting along quite well with all of them, and now they'd better not even try balking at the pickled salad! It's so healthy, it's full of vitamins...

By the way, I haven't even told Dzinton yet that I am accepting his job offer. Should do it right away! She jumped out of the armchair, and somehow she did not even feel surprised when it shrank with a soft rustle before her very eyes and turned back into a chair. I wonder what happened to the fairy? Has she vanished into thin air? Or is she flittering around the garden and examining trees? Judging by folk tales, fairies are supposed to live in trees but who knows if this one is a real fairy or just a phantom of Dzinton's imagination...

She went out the room and on her way looked into the kitchen and the dining room. Well, the dishes are done, the table is cleared, and there is nobody around. Anyway, Dzinton is amazingly cleanly for a man, and he trains the kids to be the same. I wonder if he is actually a man? I mean, a male? Is it possible to...She mentally slapped her lips. Curiosity killed the cat. Maybe I'll know one day but not now. And where are Yana and Palek? This stupid assault must have left them shocked and bursting with excitement. When I am done talking to Dzinton, I should go find them or they might get into trouble.

She ran up the stairs two at a time and knocked at Dzinton's door cautiously. There was no reply but the unlocked door cracked open.

"May I?" she peeked into the room timidly.

Dzinton was sitting on his heels in the middle of the room, his face directed towards the door, his eyes closed, his hands on his knees, and his whole body as rigid as if it were carved out of wood.

"Dzinton?" the young woman said hesitantly.

The Demiurge raised his hand, palm facing forward, pointed his finger at the chair and dropped the hand to the previous position.

"Tsu, take a seat. I'll be with you shortly."

His voice seemed as lifeless as his body was. Tsukka gave him a puzzled look but did as he said. Who knows, maybe those aliens meditate like that.

She waited for about five minutes and already began to feel like leaving the room and coming back later when the Demiurge stirred, suddenly fully alive, and turned his head.

"I apologize," he said. "I miscalculated time. I thought you would sleep for another half an hour but I was wrong. In fact, I wasn't here at all. The projection was functioning as an answering machine while I was talking to Ehira, that woman that had been here earlier today."

"You mean, you can leave your body here and go elsewhere?" Tsukka asked, genuinely interested.

"You might say so but, in fact, I don't go anywhere. The carrier of...to put it simply, let's call it 'my consciousness' remains at the same point in relation to the planet. I just create a new projection and leave the old one temporarily unattended. Actually I can create several copies of myself - we call them 'points of consciousness concentration' - each of them quite able to think almost independently. However right now all my resources are tied up in a faraway star system, and there is but a single copy of me here, on Tekira."

"Hm," Tsukka frowned. "But how..."

"Tsu," Dzinton raised his hand. "I am sure you can ask question for a year on end without ever getting tired. You'll have a chance to do so but later, ok? And now back to business. What have you decided regarding my offer?"

"I agree!" the young woman blurted out. "I want to work for you as your kids' nursemaid."

"They aren't mine," the Demiurge sighed. "I am afraid, they'll become much more yours than mine. I don't have much time for bringing up children, you know. Where is the contract?"

"Oops..." Tsukka felt embarrassed. "I'll bring it in a sec."

"No need to bother," in one fluid motion he rose and put a sheet of paper and a stylus on the table in front of Tsukka. "If you accept the offer, just sign at the bottom. Are you indeed sure you don't want to discuss the contract with a lawyer first?"

"I don't," she shook her head. "You won't take advantage of me, will you?"

"Tsu," now the Demiurge sounded as patient as a father explaining the rules of arithmetic to his child for the umpteenth time. "Please, take the whole matter seriously. I know perfectly well what you are feeling right now but in time emotions fade away, and life goes on. I don't need this contract, you do.

Please, understand that I don't need slaves, even slaves by choice. In time you'll realize that it's quite a challenge to live next to a Demiurge if you know who he is and what his nature is. We tend to utterly dominate our friends without willing to do so - unless we take special measures. This contract is one such measure. I want you to remember that you are free to leave any time if you feel like leaving. We aren't in a spy film, and there are no melodramatic rules like 'you pay a mayer to enter, you pay with your life to leave'. Ours is a business relationship of two free individuals. That's why questions like 'you won't take advantage of me?' are out of place. And don't forget, I have no intention to keep you on a short leash. Your life is your own, and you'll live as you see fit. You'll become a University student – remember the contract's special requirement? - graduate and get a job in your field...By that time Yana and Palek will come of age, and you'll have to find your own way in life. Is it clear?"

"Yes, it is," Tsukka sighed. "Dzi...by the way, is it ok to call you 'Dzi'? How old are you, actually?"

"About 950,000 Tekira years," the Demiurge winked at her. "Half a galactic day or so, by our count. No kidding. Relax, Tsu. If I needed honorifics, I would say so from the very beginning."

"950,000 years," she muttered, clearly shocked. "An eternity!"

"The oldest of the Demiurges is 4,5 million years old. That's indeed a relict. I can introduce you to him if you ever feel curious to see a living fossil. As for me, I am the youngest in the family."

"But why do you look so young? So..."

"...unimposing? You know, Maya - who is a fellow Demiurge and, in a way, my auntie as well - said once that the old folks love to look youngish. She is quite sharp-tongued, so you'd better not cross her.

In my case, this appearance just makes me less conspicuous. But, as I said, let's finish our business first and leave questions till later. So, Human Tsukka Merovanova: I, Demiurge Dzhao, known to you as Dzinton Muratsiy, declare you my friend and take you under my auspices and protection. Confirmed and registered. Just so you know, that's an official wording that is considered sort of binding among the Demiurges."

He filliped her on the nose lightly.

"Close your mouth, you'll catch flies. By the way, I've transferred your allowance for the fifth thriceweek to your bank account retroactively. Quit your store, Tsu, and start preparing for the University matric exams in all earnest. The Winterdays are less than eleven thriceweeks away. Thirty two weeks and two days, to be precise. Not too much time, if you think about it. And don't forget about the kids. Finally, the kitchen duty schedule is still in effect - so the dinner is your responsibility today. Have I forgotten anything?"

He scratched the back of his head.

"Oh, yes, that's what it is! I should explain to you how to get access to a voice channel that allows you to communicate with me at any distance. Listen, Tsu, stop goggling at me - your eyes are as big as a plate right now. Imagine for the time being that you've incidentally found yourself in a fairy tale. Or in a movie. So, in order to communicate, you simply use your voice. The military has a special mike - it's called 'laryngophone' - that is pressed against the throat to read off sound vibrations straight from there. The phantom transmitter I've attached to you is based on a similar principle but it's connected directly to the nerves controlling your glottis. To reproduce the sound, the transmitter broadcasts the impulses into your auricular nerves. The system has already finished adjusting itself - so now you should learn how to use it. In fact, it's very easy: all you have to do is mutter to yourself, and the system will do the rest. In time, when you get used to it, even muttering will become unnecessary.

 To activate the communication channel, you will have to concentrate in a special way allowing you to reproduce the access code..."


Karina woke up with a start and sat up in bed abruptly fighting off the shackles of sleep.

Soldiers are coming, and I am idle in bed.

Oh, no - soldiers aren't coming, they are already gone. Dzinton protected me, just as he promised. And he is my Dad now. A real Dad! Doesn't matter, it's a foster father - he is my Dad, anyway. No, it's just unreal. Now it's all so bad - and now suddenly everything becomes so good!

Some vague and heavy memory was bothering her. She concentrated. Is it the Institute again? Or isn't it? Suddenly she saw in her mind's eye the perplexed blue eyes, and she remembered.

"I will atone for what I did, I will! I want to! But...I don't know how...You'll show me how...Dad?"

"I'll show you, Karichka, I promise."

And I will atone for it. I was very bad but I'll reform. I'll never ever kill anybody again. And Dad will tell me what to do.

Her heart was rejoicing now. Everything will be great from now on, for sure. No need to run and hide. No need to fear that soldiers from the Institute will come for me. I have a home - a real home, and a real Dad. I have Tsukka, and she is almost like a Mom. And Palek and Yana who are like my brother and sister. I have a real family!

She jumped out of bed lightly, smoothed her dress and stretched. Then she darted into the hallway, popped in the bathroom and splashed some water on her face. As she was drying herself with a towel, Yana looked into the bathroom.

"Well rested now?" she asked impatiently. "You've been sacking out for almost four hours. Let's go eat, Tsukka has cooked a chicken tsurme."

An enticing smell of stewed chicken meat was indeed spreading across the hallway, and Karina's stomach rumbled. She ran to the dining room promising herself for the umpteenth time that she would become as skilled a cook as Tsukka was. Yana and Palek were already at the table, and Tsukka was almost done dishing out the tsurme. She gave Karina a strange look, then tossed her head and smiled.

"Hungry?" she asked. "Sit down. I was about to wake you up. Tsurme is best when it's hot."

"Uh-hu," the girl nodded while helping herself to rice mixed with a sauce. "Yummy!"

"Thanx," Tsukka smiled again as she put the pot on the table and sat down.

"Where is Dzinton?" Karina asked, her mouth full. "Is he home?"

"Where else?" Dzinton remarked entering the room. "Mmm, what a smell! Tsu, do you mind if I tuck in straight from the pot to secure a bigger share?"

"Huh?" Tsukka looked at Dzinton as if she saw him for the first time, and once again her look betrayed some strange, though fleeting, confusion. "Do you really...Oh, I am sorry. Do as you like."

"It was a joke, you know," the man ladled himself some tsurme. "I apologize. I'll try to refrain from getting on your nerves until you've recovered and got used to the idea. By the way, Kara, you were sacking out shamelessly while Tsukka was cooking - so you are the only one responsible for the dishes today."

Karina nodded without paying much attention to his words. No big deal, the dishes. At least, they won't cause any trouble, unlike cooking.

"Kara, could you pass me the salt, please?"

Karina turned to him, surprised. The small open cup serving as a salt shaker was located half a fathom away from Dzinton, and he could easily reach it himself. She could not. Well...She began to get up but Dzinton stopped her by raising his finger.

"How about doing it without using your hands?" he asked squinting. "And without getting up?"

"Without using my hands?" Karina gave him a perplexed look. "But how?"


Palek and Yana stopped munching and stared at her. She shrugged.

"Use your effector to reach for it," Dzinton clued her in. "Grab it in your manipulator...invisible hand and pass it to me."

My invisible hand? I should have thought about it myself! She stretched her effector and reached it out trying to enwreathe the salt shaker and lift it carefully. Her attempt failed as the cup kept shaking and tilting in every direction. When the girl tried to clutch the shaker, it slid from her grasp and almost turned over.

Palek and Yana spluttered. Karina gave them an irritated look.

"Belay that!" Dzinton ordered. "Yana, do you think you'll do better? Go ahead, give it a try."

Initially Yana was indeed somewhat more successful. She managed to lift the shaker above the table and move it a little bit through the air but then the unfortunate container did finally slid from her invisible hand. The shaker dropped on the table, turned over and spilled its content all over the table-top.

"Bunglers," Dzinton summed up. "Girls, I have a pretty good idea of what you can achieve when you use the effector to hit or pull something with all your strength but using such a convenient and sensitive tool in that way is like clenching your fists and giving up on your fingers for good. So here is an assignment for you: you must learn how to use the effectors properly. Lika, you are also in! Your assignment is to become your sisters' coach - that is, to think up exercises and to check how they cope with them. Mind you, meaningful exercises, not just some primitive 'grab and pass to me' stuff. Something like clearing away the dishes without using their real hands – and without breaking anything, of course. Will you manage?"

Palek nodded, visibly swelling with importance. Karina opened her mouth to start arguing - I am not about to take orders from a younger boy! - but immediately thought better of it. Dad knew what he was doing when he got Palek involved. The boy could take offense if he were left out. Dad is really smart, he is doing everything for a reason.

Immensely proud of Dzinton, she helped herself to another spoon of rice mixed with chicken meat and kept chewing.

"By the way, my good fellows, I have an announcement of a sort to make," Dzinton finished his meal and moved his plate aside. "Thank you, Tsu, it was delicious. You are as great as ever. So...From now on Tsukka is your official governess. I am not asking you to make her feel welcome because you have already been good to each other for quite a while. It's simply that now her word is law, same as mine. Tomorrow she'll quit her old job and start spending much more time with you. Is everything clear?

The children nodded in unison. Tsukka smiled at them warmly. Karina was feeling even happier than before. I wonder if I could call Tsukka 'Mom'?


Dzinton rose from the table.

"Tsu," he said in a low voice. "I have lots to do in the next few days. If I remain in my room, don't disturb me, ok? If there is an emergency, just contact me using the direct channel as I explained."

He waved his hand and went out of the room."


07.06.843, Fireday


A foreboding Samatta had woken up with did not deceive him. A message on his communicator advised him that a special meeting devoted to yesterday's failed assault was set for noon. The remaining three hours felt like as many days, and Samatta kept dwelling on the particulars of the event.

'I wonder if you at least realize how badly you were framed?'

What did the guy mean? Who could possibly frame me? Major Kayin? But why? What's the point in framing the commander of a Special Unit guarding the Institute?

It might make sense, of course - provided there were some under-the-table dealings I had no idea of. He suddenly recalled that Kayin had drawn aside two members of his unit to engage them in a conversation. All three of them were stealing glances at the commander: the major looked annoyed, the soldiers - anxious. What could the Head of the Institute Security Service discuss confidentially with privates who were not even his direct subordinates? What did he abet them to do behind their commander's back during the operation?

Three persons, besides the hulcy secretary, attended the hearing: Director Joi, Major Kayin and a vice-colonel, Samatta has never met before, whose insignia identified him as a member of the Joint Staff. The staffer did not vouchsafe to introduce himself and was just acting bored while looking around the small conference room of the office building where the hearing took place. On the other hand, the director never stopped talking.

"Captain Samatta Kasariy," he said brusquely before Samatta had any chance to open his mouth, "based on your report and the results of an investigation of all the circumstances pertaining to the case in question, you are accused of an unauthorized use of force against civilians. What makes it worse, your planning of the operation proved to be utterly incompetent. You have violated a number of Criminal Code sections by ordering an incursion into a private ownership and threatening the owner with weapons - all that without receiving your high command's approval to carry out this operation, or even discussing its details with Major Kayin or anyone of your superiors."

"I have served in the Joint Staff Special Forces for many years," Samatta replied rather matter-of-factly, "and it's not your business, Director Joi, to teach me how to do my job. Any expert who would study my operation plan..."

"That hasn't worked!" the director cut him short. "Captain, don't you understand that only success is never blamed? Had your reckless adventure succeeded, we could have possibly given it some farther consideration. But you fucked up big time and put the Institute on the spot. Why on Tekira did you decide you were allowed to carry out operations like that?"

"My boys are trained for operations like that!" Samatta snapped. "You know all too well, Sir, that one of my unit's tasks is to capture deviants with minimal casualties. We are equipped with a special outfit..."

"You are also equipped to conduct a full-scale warfare," the director interrupted him once again. "And, judging by your personnel file, you are quite proficient at it, too. Why don't you declare war upon Grash? Or upon the Four Kingdoms at once? I didn't ask about your skills or equipment, I asked who had entitled you to become a decision-maker?"

" Major Kayin's information left me no time to seek a formal approval."

"I see," the director drawled balefully. "Major, what sort of information did you share with Captain that he suddenly became trigger-happy?"

"Tactical and surveillance data," the major shrugged his shoulders impassively. "I presumed that, being on the same team, we should share information. Unfortunately, the captain doesn't seem to consider himself a part of our team or he would have let me into his plan of action. I had no idea what was going on until the guards at the main gate told me that the Special Op's vans had left in an unknown direction."

"Didn't you..." the captain uttered slowly

'They are hiding in an old abandoned hotel, and there are three non-combatants with them. Vagrants, I guess. You realize what may happen to those. They don't seem to have a clue, so the deviants can do them in any time. It is dangerous to procrastinate. That broad, Karina - she is worse than a machine-gun. Kills as easily as you breathe. And only you, guys, can do something about it because the police will bungle as usual. I can't give you explicit orders but...'

That's it. 'Can't give you explicit orders.' The major is clean. The situation didn't imply any other course of action but the major issued no formal orders. He couldn't either because he doesn't command the Special Forces. He didn't even suggest an immediate assault.

'I wonder if you at least realize how badly you were framed?'

"Why so quiet, Captain?" the director asked tauntingly. "I guess, it finally dawned upon you what you had done?"

No. I will not grovel before this so-called 'committee' to weasel my way out of this predicament.

The scapegoat has already been found, so it will do me no good, anyways. And there is my self-respect to think of.

"I demand that the following statement will be filed with the minutes." Samatta was talking with an outward calm that completely belied the emotional storm raging within. "I, Captain Samatta Kasariy, took the liberty of carrying out the special operation in question in order to save lives of innocent non-combatants who happened to be in the area. The operation was planned and conducted in full compliance with the regulations guiding anti-terrorist activities. The failure of the operation was brought about by unpredictable external forces, as well as by lack of information. I plead innocent and acknowledge no reason to be punished. End of statement."

"You are a smooth talker, Captain," the director blinked. "Like a real lawyer. As if you were idling your time away at the philological department of some university rather than serving in the military for the last 15 years. All right, we heard your statement. The committee has no more questions. Wait outside, you will be called."

Samatta turned around and marched out of the room.

"Such an idiot!" the staffer muttered. "He just sealed his own fate. A good guy, too, but has never been known for his flexibility."

"Screw flexibility!" the director snapped out. "Soldiers must follow orders, and that's it. But an idiot, for sure. Takes one, to create such a remarkable mess out of such a simple task. Just follow the regulations: close in, do everybody away - and forget about it...Well, at least, now it all plays into our hands. Don't you see we need a scapegoat - or we ourselves will be made one?"

"I sure do," the staffer frowned. "Still, I feel sorry for the guy. He has always been in good standing with us. What beats me, is all that baloney he reported about. Unbreakable windows? Slippery walls? Was that indeed the case?"

The chief security officer nodded. "I talked to my...I mean, to some of his men. They all confirm every word Samatta wrote in his report, baloney as it might be. Glass too strong for gas canisters fired from 'bertha-84' - that's totally beyond me! At short range, such canisters would easily knock down a man and throw him at least two fathoms away! Yet everybody is adamant that was the very case. Wooden gates that withstand shaped charges! Walls that are too slippery for fingers and hooks! Pure myst..."

"Myst," the director gnashed his teeth. "Am I paying you for telling old wives' tales? Why haven't you looked into it properly?"

"Because we haven't had a chance. That guy who owns the building somehow managed to call the police, even though there was no cable communicator there, and any wireless communications were being jammed. Besides, he was expressing himself better than any lawyer - had we tried to linger there, he could've put us in much deeper shit than we are now. And that bitch, your deputy, was there too - and she also can kick quite a few asses..."

"Where is she, by the way? Why isn't she present at the committee meeting?" the director looked sternly at the secretary. "Has she been notified?"

"No, Sir Director," the hulcy shook her head. "She is neither home, nor in her office. Her pelephone is turned off."

"Huh," the director exhaled sharply. "If that's all it takes to get rid of her, a good riddance! So, let's forget about her for now but what about the police? They are supposed to arrest any deviant not under an official guardianship!"

"There is an unforeseen complication," major Kayin grimaced. "Suddenly both chicks turned out to be the hotel owner's legal foster daughters. That Dzinton Muratsiy is a certified foster parent of both. The ink is still wet on those certificates, and they are signed by state representatives at the municipality. Authentic signatures! I have no clue how he pulled it off but it's a given now. And the Institute has no right to take deviants away by force without a written consent of the parents or a special guardian. We also tried to effectuate unconditional registration of a special guardianship case by filing a standard request at the local PSS branch - no-go. It was refused out of hand - for the first time ever, as far as I can remember."

The director cursed with gusto. "Who on Tekira is that Dzinton? Has he appeared from nowhere? Have you done any background checking?"

"My contacts in the Counterintelligence are working on it but there is nothing special so far. Just public records: a human, no formal education, not employed, 21 years old..."

"How much?" the director jumped to his feet and towered over the Head of Security. "How much?! 21 years old? You all have been duped by a pup?"

"Exactly," the other replied, unperturbed. "And his age fits in perfectly in a broader picture of all that myst - unbreakable windows, slippery walls and all that. Add to it the Public Security's refusal of our request and the fact that Dzinton suddenly decided to soft pedal the whole matter. This matter is way more complex than it seems. I don't think we might be dealing with the military - unless some factions there are at each other's throats," he peered at the staffer who just shrugged silently. "Pips? Kingdomers? No idea. We'll find out, for sure, but it'll take some time."

"Find out, then," unexpectedly the director did not seem to mind. He sat on the chair, took Samatta's report and ran his eyes over it for the umpteenth time. "Find out. And make sure to stake out this fucking hotel but be careful. If an army faction has something to do with it or the pips are pursuing their own agenda, we would be most unwise to mess with them. I just wonder why they wouldn't talk to us first. We'd let them have those two, no problem - as long as they could keep quiet about it. If the newsies start sniffing around, that will mean even more trouble. Anyways, call the captain, and let's be through with this matter. We have our hands full as it is.


It was about midday. Samatta was pushing his carryall down the street with his knee and looking around, mildly interested. He had rarely left the territory of the Institute for the last few years, and even then - mostly in a vehicle belonging to the Institute. He could not even remember the last time he had been walking like that during the daytime, nowhere to hurry and no particular goals to pursue. Now he vaguely realized that the once familiar city had changed a lot. Some buildings disappeared, replaced by new ones; others grew old and dilapidated. Still others, on the contrary, became prettier and changed beyond recognition. It was still his city but, at the same time, not altogether his anymore.

Then again, he did not really care about what was going on around him because he was consumed with the committee's decision. Dismissed without compensation - well, it could be worse. They could have court -martialed me. Doesn't matter, I am still young and rather strong. I'll find a job. Why, I can even become a security guard at a storehouse!

His mind elsewhere, Samatta stopped in front of a shop window displaying vanity bags. Gaudy articles of all shapes and colors seemed to have been produced for idiots, first and foremost. Do broads really buy that?! Then he noticed the price tags, and his eyes widened for a moment. Fuck a duck! Enough money to last you a whole week! No wonder, some broads would buy that crap just to make their fellow females green with envy. Or maybe this high art is too high for me. Well, they say that it takes a real pauper to be an expert in expensive things - and I am not there yet. On the other hand, even before I find a job I'll have to find some accommodation, and that will surely make a big hole in my savings. Anyways, even if the worst comes to the worst, I'll have enough for a thriceweek or two.

"Sir Samatta, may I please have a few moments of your time?"

Samatta turned around, nettled. The voice did indeed belong to that youth from the hotel. That one, of all people! Is he making fun of me now?

"What do you want?" he growled, pointedly impolite.

"Just to talk," the youth bowed his head. "Let's find a better place, away from the street and the heat. For instance, there is a rather good cafe with a veranda over there."

"I have no money to spend on idle pleasures, Sir..." he paused. "Dinton."

"Dzinton," the youth corrected him. "Doesn't matter, all I want is to sit down for a moment. As for money, Sir, that's exactly what I wanted to talk about. So? Should we go to the cafe or would you rather stay here?"

He took a few steps towards the cafe and half-turned around inquiringly.

Samatta shrugged. Why not? In the next few days I don't have anywhere to hurry.

The veranda coolness was refreshing.

"Two sok juices," Dzinton told the waitress. "If we don't order anything, they'll throw us out," he explained to Samatta. "The drinks are on me."

Samatta made up his mind. There is no such thing as a bad freebie. After all, it's his fault I am out of work - so let him make up for it, at least a little bit.

 "True, it's indeed my fault that you are homeless now," the other agreed. Samatta stared at him suspiciously. Is he a mind reader?

"I am not a mind reader," Dzinton chuckled. "It's just written all over your face, even a child would know. And I am afraid, you'll never be a diplomat. Had you been less direct and a bit more flexible during the hearing, they would've probably deducted from your allowance and even demoted you but might still have allowed you to keep your job."

Samatta shrugged. He had no intention to pour his heart out in front of that youth but...How can he know what was happening at the hearing?

"I have my own sources of information," the guy winked at him.

Samatta seemed to find Dzinton's ability to read his face more than just a little annoying.

"I apologize," Dzinton became more serious. "I didn't intend to make fun of you. You see, I am really sorry that you were framed like that. It turns out that Ehira holds you in high regard, and well...you didn't order to open fire in the courtyard, after all. Besides, you were feeling pity for Karina - not something one might expect of an Institute security guard, you know."

Ehira? Ehira Marga? The bitch deputy director? That one holds me in high regard?? I just wonder, why she would never show it on those rare occasions we were arguing at the Institute? Shouldn't have been that difficult to understand that my men were refusing her access to the laboratory building for a reason, and not because they were mean by nature.

"So, former Captain Samatta Kasariy, you are mad because you've been thrown out of the army. You shouldn't be, really - and you'll understand it soon enough. But right now that's not the point. Tell me, what are you going to do next?"

Perplexed, Samatta stared at the saucy youth. Or is he? Now, upon closer examination, the captain suddenly noticed small wrinkles in the corners of his confident dark eyes - the eyes of a mature man. His official age mentioned in his dossier seems to have as little to do with reality as the fact that the hotel is long abandoned. There are people who even at 40 quite naturally look like they were no more than 20. And if modern cosmetics are called upon to help Nature a little bit...

So...More and more interesting. Who is it, then? The Public Security? The Army Internal Security? A private security agency? Or maybe the Kingdoms' Intelligence Service?

"So what are you going to do?" Dzinton persisted.

Samatta gestured vaguely. "I don't know," he admitted. "I guess, take a room in a cheap hotel, rest a couple of days, catch on my sleep and start looking for a job. Shouldn't be difficult to find one as a security guard."

"A security guard, then..." Dzinton nodded gratefully to the waitress who had brought the juice and pushed one of the glasses towards Samatta. "Great. The very job for an experienced raider and an army veteran."

Samatta gnashed his teeth. The bastard is making fun of me, after all!

"Since I happen to be an indirect cause of your plight...Listen, Captain, most of my hotel rooms are empty. You could stay there for a while. For free, of course. I can't promise you free food but you could contribute to our common pool as we prefer cooking for ourselves rather than eating out. It's both cheaper and tastier. A hundred a day would do. Interested?

Samatta looked at Dzinton suspiciously.

"Is that...Karina still there?"

"Of course she is. Where else could she be?"

"No go, then. She'll mince me the moment she sees me. She isn't too fond of the Institute Security, I am afraid."

"She didn't do it the first time, so she won't do it at all," Dzinton snorted. "Remember what I told you? She isn't aggressive unless she is clearly provoked. Come on, Captain, make up your mind. I am already feeling like a scoundrel, don't make feel even worse."

Suddenly Samatta felt extremely sleepy. His sleepless last night must have caught up with him, after all. I should find a cheap hotel and sack out. Or maybe, the myst with it all. The guy seems to be offering in all sincerity. Besides, that gives me a chance to check those fluid walls and resilient windows...

"Alright," he nodded sluggishly. "Cheap food and a free room are too good to refuse. I won't impose on you for too long, though. The moment I get a new job, I'll move out."

"Deal," Dzinton agreed. "Lady, my bill, please."

Later, as he was following Dzinton up the street, Samatta asked in a low voice,

"Does Lady Ehira really hold me in high regard?"

"Yes," his companion replied tersely.

"Never occurred to me before," the former captain hummed. "I would say that when we met in the past she would look at me as if I were a frog."

"Do you always say what you think?" Dzinton gave him a sidelong glance. "Somehow I doubt it. But if you care to know her exact words, here they are: 'strange as it seems, the guy has a good head, and his heart hasn't turned into a stone yet. Unlike most Institute security guards, he is not a complete and utter turd'."

"Good grief! High regard, indeed!"

"Well, if you consider her opinion of director Joi – 'the best he deserves is a bullet between the eyes' - it is a favorable opinion." Dzinton laughed softly. "Be proud, Captain. There are still people in this world who do believe that you are better than you seem to be."

"I am touched," Samatta growled. Then he fell silent.


The sun was about to set. Karina sat on the bench in the hotel courtyard, made herself comfortable as she embraced her knees, and now she was just enjoying the warmth and the quiet, thought and trouble free. It seemed to her that all her past life - the orphanage, the Institute, the escapes - had never existed. It was as if all that had been a part of an old horror book that now was closed forever. A knife's staccato came through the open kitchen window: Palek and Yana, on kitchen duty, were cutting and slicing vegetables for the evening salad under Tsukka's supervision, the 'hundred forty four' game temporarily put aside and left on the very bench Karina was sitting on. The girl cast a glance at the game board and hummed sleepily. Unlike her friends, she never came to like it because the images on the chips kept flickering, and she was positively unable to tell them apart.

The gate creaked open. Startled, Karina lowered her bare heels down touching the grass. Then she froze, utterly stunned. Dzinton was followed by a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair and a flattened nose, a small scar under his left eye. That's him! The soldier that nearly killed me and the others yesterday! But Dad...doesn't Dad understand?

"Karina!" Dad said loudly and cheerfully, "We have a guest. Please, meet Sir Samatta - he'll stay with us for a couple of days until he finds a new job."

Deep, tense silence was the only response he got. Only Tsukka gasped softly as she looked out the window. Yana's and Palek's astonished faces appeared right behind her.

"But he...he...yesterday," Karina uttered arduously. She jumped to her feet and now was backing away towards the entrance door. "He wanted to shoot..."

"True, yesterday he was accompanied by quite a few men," Dzinton nodded his agreement. "Besides, yesterday he was still working for the Institute. Today he doesn't work for it anymore - mostly because he decided not to shoot at you yesterday. He was fired because he had refused to fire at you. Now he has nowhere to go. Don't you think he deserves some leniency?"

"But, Dzi, are you sure he isn't dangerous?" Tsukka asked worriedly. She was clasping a kitchen knife as if she intended to use it for the last, desperate attack.

"Dangerous? An interesting question, Tsu. Are you sure I am not dangerous? Or Kara? Or Yani? I am sure, Lika also has an ace or two up his sleeve - just in case he might need them." Dzinton shrugged his shoulders. "The real question isn't if someone is dangerous but rather how this person gets along with the others. Sir Samatta, did you want to say something?"

Samatta coughed. He was already terribly sorry that he had decided to come here. What's wrong with me? Doesn't matter, four versts one way isn't much of a detour. Still enough time to return to the city, find a hotel and hit the sack. Say something? I have nothing to say!

The deviant girl Karina's huge dark eyes were looking straight at him. She approached him slowly until she was very near him.

"I remember you," she said, her words brimming with hatred. "I can see through mirrors. I saw you when they were shooting balls at me. You were standing there and watching..."

"What could I do instead?" suddenly Samatta felt that he was utterly exhausted. He did not want to say anything, he should have turned around and left - and yet words were escaping his lips against his will.

"What could I do instead, Karina? Even if I had killed one of the experimenters, they would have simply shot me on the spot, that's it. I was nothing more than a commander of a Special Security Unit, and my men weren't even allowed into the labs."

The girl was still looking at him, full of the same hatred - and once again Samatta felt that heavy pressure in his temples.

"Dad brought you here," she said in a low voice, "so I won't hit you. But stay away from me, got it?"

Suddenly, the earth, tamped by many feet on both sides of where Samatta was standing, heaved and shook as if it was banged with two heavy hammers. Two pillars of dust burst in the sky. Karina turned away and ran out the gate leading to the garden. Tsukka, already on the porch, pressed her palms against her lips, frightened. Samatta stood there feeling as if he had just been dragged through the mud.

"I apologize for my unintended intrusion," he said dryly. "I also apologize for what happened yesterday - and I don't even hope to be forgiven. We will not see each other again..."

He checked himself as he felt Dzinton's hand on his shoulder.

"Don't, Captain," Dzinton said. "The past dies hard but die it will. You are a guest here, and you can stay as long as you wish. In any case, you are staying overnight."

He looked at Tsukka.

"There is too much fear and hatred in the world as it is. They have no place here. Let's leave them beyond the threshold, ok? Tsu, do me a favor - show Sir Samatta unoccupied rooms on the second floor and let him choose one he likes. I'll go speak to Kara."

He patted Samatta on the back and went out the garden gate quickly. Samatta remained where he was, looking silly, his mouth half-open.

Tsukka recovered first.

"Sir Samatta, I beg you to forgive our rudeness," she thrust her feet into sandals, came off the porch, made three steps towards the captain and bowed, her arms folded across her chest. "We...your appearance was somewhat...unexpected to us."

"It was unexpected to me, too," Samatta muttered. "Please, understand that my yesterday's behavior was a result of an incorrect initial information I had received. Once again, my humblest apologies."

"Incorrect initial information?"

Tsukka looked into the captain's eyes, and he suddenly realized that the young woman was charming. Her much used dress, tousled hair, as well as absence of any makeup on her face and even a greasy streak on her cheek did nothing to lessen her charm. His heart ached sweetly, and that made him angry.

Come to your senses, you fool! What's wrong with you? You must be twice her age. And stop goggling at her, it's rude to goggle. Suddenly he realized that her cheeks were slowly turning pink with embarrassment.

"Hmm...never mind, Sir Samatta. I am Tsukka. They are Yana and Palek." She nodded towards the window where the children could be seen.

"I know Yana." He bowed to the children politely. "Lady Yana, I want to apologize to you, in particular. My behavior was unforgivable. May I hope to atone for it?"

Scared, Yana hunkered to conceal herself behind the windowsill. She seems to have little experience with being talked to as if she were an adult. She just doesn't know how to deal with formal politeness.

Not to embarrass the girl even more, Samatta turned away hastily.

"Lady Tsukka, may I ask you to show me my room?" he asked politely as he was looking at some spot above her head.

"Oh...yes, of course," she nodded readily. "We have many rooms, and you can choose any of them, Sir..."

"Just Samatta, no formalities," the captain said quickly. "Please, Lady Tsukka, I am just not used to being addressed like that."

"Neither am I," the young woman smiled timidly. "Then I am just Tsukka. Let's go, Samatta, I'll show you around the house."

When the two of them disappeared in the house, Palek cast a glance at Yana. He realized by some almost imperceptible signs that her invisible hands were tense and ready to strike.

"Why did Dzinton bring him here?" the boy asked, perplexed. "He is a soldier from the Institute. What if he is a spy?"

Yana dropped her eyes.

"I don't know," she whispered. "But Dzinton said he didn't work there anymore - and Dzinton is never wrong."

"But he wanted to kill us," Palek replied gloomily. "But Dzinton kicked him out."

Yana nodded.

"Yesterday he kicked him out," she sighed almost like an adult, "and today he brought him back. I think Dzinton knows what he's doing. And, Palek..."


"I know he is a soldier from the Institute but I am not afraid of him. He... he is really sorry, I know that."

"You aren't afraid?" Palek was stunned. "Why, you looked like you just saw a tsunami right in front of you!"

"That's because I was taken aback," the girl explained. "But then I realized that he was really sorry that he had wanted to shoot at us. And yesterday...yesterday he also pitied Kara when she was crying. Maybe he is indeed a good person."

"Are you sure he isn't just pretending?" the boy stared at his friend suspiciously.

"Dunno," she shrugged. "Let's finally get the salad done, I've had enough of the kitchen today. I want to finish the game. I've almost beaten you."

"No, you haven't" the boy protested. "I am going to beat you instead! Want to bet?"

"In your dreams!" Yana stuck her tongue out at him. Let's finish here, and I'll show you..."


09.06.843, Treeday


A quiet knock at the door gave Tsukka a start, and she raised her head from the textbook she had been reading for the last half an hour.

"Come in, Dzi."

Dzinton slipped into the room in his usual catlike manner.

"Hi, Tsu," he said placing a stack of paper books on the table. "I have a present for you here."

"What is it?" She took the top book of the stack and looked at its title. "Integral Calculus. A Course for Applicants to Natural Sciences. Oh..."

"I know a university professor," the Demiurge explained as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "I asked him, which textbooks he would recommend to a young lady who is determined to become a physics student - and he was so glad to help that he almost buried me under this stack of paper. About ten years ago the university library switched to e-books, so they wrote off a huge number of paper ones. Some of those were simply thrown away, others went to those who wanted them. That professor, like a true hamster, lugged away to his burrow two scores of volumes - now he has no idea what to do with them. You should've seen him rejoicing that someone might need them, after all. He could've tutored you, too, but unfortunately he is a chemist, not a physicist."

He flicked his finger at the binders.

"I've leafed through the books and compared the contents with that of the last year matriculation exams. It's almost a 100% correlation. And, unlike some other textbooks, those are well written: quite clear and to the point. So just do your best with them. And don't forget that the preparatory courses start in less than three thriceweeks. These seventy days will be over before you know it - so you'd better register in advance."

"Oh-oh," Tsukka muttered as she was browsing over the 'Course of Physics' table of contents. "I realized that I was thick as a brick even as early as during the exams - now this book has erased whatever doubts I still might have had. My textbook doesn't have at least half of the stuff! Dzi, maybe you, aliens, know how to download knowledge straight into one's skull? Say, I would put a textbook under the pillow before going to bed - and by the time I wake up in the morning, I've somehow learned everything by heart?"

"No, Tsu," Dzinton shook his head, unexpectedly serious. "Our methods wouldn't work for human beings."

"How do you learn, then?" the young woman was clearly interested. "Tell me, will you?"

"Well..." he paused to think. "To put it simply, our system is quite complex and rather confusing. You see, the problem is not only to learn something by heart but also to apply whatever you've learned. Do you still remember how old I am?"

"I do. About a million. Not that I really believe it."

"Good you don't," the Demiurge laughed. "If you did, you would be shocked enough not be able to even talk to me normally. So keep disbelieving. The reason I mentioned my age is that as time goes by, more and more information gets stored in one's memory. Even normal people have lots and lots of recollections, and our memory is synthetic...ehh, machine - so there is an ocean of recollections there. That's because we never forget anything. On the other hand, we used to be humans, just like yourself, and our mind is simply not able to work with huge volumes of information, be it old or new one. So we had to invent props and crutches. The main mechanism is the associative memory. The active pool of knowledge we can freely work with is quite big but not much bigger than a similar pool serving a well-developed, educated human. As for the rest, we use the Archive. Two Archives, to be precise. The first Archive is in public domain, so every Demiurge has access to it. That's a giant trash dump of all sorts of information most of which has been untouched for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. The second Archive is for personal data we prefer not to share with anybody - intimate memories, current logs and such. Our active memory contains a data index that enables us to search necessary data by using different classification schemes combined with special associative mechanisms serving to quickly retrieve those bits and pieces of knowledge that might be useful in the current situation. Have I lost you yet?"

"No, everything's clear," Tsukka curled a lock of her hair around her finger thoughtfully. "But it sounds like you are some computers."

"We are indeed, Tsu - at least, half-computers. When we were still humans, each of us had a companion artin, meaning 'artificial intelligence'. As long as we remained in our human bodies, the artins also used human-like cyborgs' bodies - so they were hulcies, just like those that begin to appear here these days. Then we transferred our psychomatrixes...our consciousnesses to energetic carriers, and the artins shared those with us. Mental communication channels allowed us to integrate our consciousnesses with theirs, and in the course of time our companionship and partnership turned into a full-fledged symbiosis - and then into complete merging. Now it's practically impossible to tell our human part from the artin one. Do you understand why you wouldn't be able to learn like we do?"

"So far, all I can understand is that I've somehow ended up in a science-fiction novel," the young woman hummed. "And yet, Dzi, why do you concern yourself so much with us? With me, with the kids? What do you need us for? Ok, Yana and Kara are unique, so it makes some sense. But why me? You spend so much time and effort - let alone, money - to pave my way to the university, and I am but an ordinary chick from essentially nowhere. If you just need a nursemaid for the children, you could easily find a professional governess who I couldn't even hold a candle to."

"I guess, now I am supposed to soothe and console you by describing in detail how talented you are, and by explaining why a great god like myself should consider you worth his attention," Dzinton laughed. "Tsu, let me give you an advice: never-ever resort to self-deprecation - in particular, not in front of anybody else. If you do, it will only mean that you have so little confidence in yourself that you need others to support you. But what if they deny you their support?"

He snapped his fingers in the air.

"Remember that woman in the restaurant that made a scene out of nothing? That scene is a logical result of her mental self-deprecation. She despises herself so much that she constantly needs to prove to herself that she is at least somewhat worthy. So she keeps trying to triumph over someone – yet she knows subconsciously that she hasn't ever triumphed over anybody, and that makes her feel even worse. Tsu, you are you, and opinions of those around you are nothing but howl of the wind. You are as worthy as any other person on the planet - no more, no less."

"Should I, then, just ignore everybody?" she asked incredulously and frowned.

"That's not what I said. You may listen and even take notice - as long as you remember that nobody knows you better than you know yourself. If you believe you are important to someone, then that's the way it is. Living in a dingy room and having to cook for yourself doesn't make you one bit less important than an industrial magnate living in a mansion five times bigger than our hotel and squandering ten million a year as out-of-pocket expenses."

"Sounds impressive," Tsukka sighed. "And yet, a magnate is a magnate, and I am but a girl in the street."

"Right," Dzinton nodded. "You are right. You are indeed a girl in the street, nothing special. There are thousands just like you. You are smart but not a genius, pretty but not really beautiful."

Tsukka looked at him as she felt that her jaw was about to drop.

"See?" Dzinton laughed cheerfully. "You kept self-deprecating anyways, in the hope that I, being your friend, would praise you and tickle your vanity. And I just finished you off instead. Do you see now how dangerous it is to rely on anybody's support? Tsu, I repeat, you are what you feel you are. If you really consider yourself a useless nothing, then you are exactly that. If, on the other hand, you want to be someone of importance, then start with convincing yourself of your own prominence."

"A wretch of a mentor - that's what you are!" Tsukka sighed. "And why did I get involved with an old and boring alien?"

"Don't forget that I am the youngest," Dzinton winked at her. "You've just not met really old and boring aliens yet– such as Harlam who is 4,5 million years old. He's one of the oldest Demiurges alive, and he had even worked with the most legendary scientist of our past, Royko Johnson himself. Harlam is an outstanding expert on physics of space continuum, the founder and the head of the so-called 'Institute of the Universe Studies' - that's a group of purist scientists advocating the primacy of pure reason. I used to work as his assistant but had to quit because his never-ending sermons on how one should live were just impossible to bear. I wasn't the only one to part ways with him, either. And when the Game was invented as a result of my research, he became so mad at me that he wouldn't even talk to me anymore. That one is a real bore!"

"What's the 'Game'?" Tsukka inquired feeling so overwhelmed by all that new information that her head was about to swim, slowly but surely.

"That's an altogether different topic. We'll discuss it some other time," Dzinton got up from the bed. "Take a while to digest what you've learned so far. And one more thing: just in case you haven't been put off by the unusual silence in the neighborhood yet, I should let you know that the children sneaked away to take a dip in the sea."

Tsukka gasped, shut the textbook and jumped to her feet.

"Those crocodiles..." she muttered. "They promised to ask my permission if they planned to go somewhere and not to be within shouting distance of the hotel!"

"Relax," Dzinton recommended. "Both Palek and Yana grew up in coastal areas, and they are quite familiar with tsunami warnings. The wave won't harm them. There is no risk they might drown by accident either – that's already my responsibility. They do deserve to be bawled out, though – you are quite right about that because promises should be kept. But that wasn't my point. After lunch grab all three of them and go to a department-store of your choice. Next week Palek and Yana will go to school - I've already sent all the necessary papers to the school principal, and they should be registered by now - and they still don't have anything decent to wear. Equip all three of them as you see fit. For this occasion, I lift all restrictions on current transactions pertaining to the checking account. Clothes, bags, school uniforms, and supplies like notebooks and pencil cases, all that. You don't have to carry the goods home, just order delivery. In the meantime I'll drop by the school, make sure that everything is in order there."

He moved towards the door but stopped.

"How do you like our new tenant, by the way?"

"Samatta?" Tsukka asked stupidly feeling she was about to blush. "He seems to be a good man..."

"A good man is not bad," Dzinton grinned broadly. "Whatever he himself might think, he'll probably stay here for quite a while because once you've been thrown out of the army, it's extremely difficult to find a job in any security service. On the other hand, he is too naive and proud to get associated with criminals. So you'd better get used to him."

He winked at her and left. The young woman's cheeks went even more pink, and she was glad Dzinton could not see her anymore. Right from the beginning she fell under the charm of this big man with intent brown eyes on his face marked by high cheekbones. She was charmed by quiet grace of his strong body; by his muscles bulging under a thin shirt; by his deferential gallantry that was so uncharacteristic of men his age...She snorted and tossed her head proudly. No way! To fall in love with an aged stranger - and on the very first day of our acquaintance, at that? Not on your life!


The intercom squeaked momentarily.

"A visitor for you, Sir Principal," the secretary's voice rustled.

The principal of the Seventh municipal secondary school cursed through his teeth. Yet another good-for-nothing decided to socialize in the middle of a busy work day. Where do they all come from today? I wonder, if a sack full of visitors has burst open somewhere in the neighborhood?! For a couple of seconds he was toying with an idea to tell the visitor to get lost.

"Sir Dzinton Muratsiy, regarding his children," the secretary's tactful reminder once again proved the man's ability to appreciate his boss's current mood.

"Let him come in," the principal sighed, now resigned to the fact that he would have to waste the whole day in idle talk. Dzinton, Dzinton...Something was wrong with him, I think...

He was truly surprised to see how young the visitor was. At about twenty he is registering his children for school? He himself must have just recently graduated from high school! Surely, it must be his siblings rather than children. When parents die, the oldest of the orphans automatically becomes the legal guardian of the younger kids.

"Splendid Sir Seki Arikui, the school principal?" the visitor inquired as he stopped in the middle of the office room. "Pleasure to meet you. I seek benevolence."

"My pleasure, Sir Dzinton. Benevolence granted," the principal echoed dryly. "To what do I owe the honor of your visit?"

"I would like to register my children at your school. For Grade Four, to be precise. A boy and a girl, both are ten."

"Your children?" the principal intoned the pronoun. "Sir, aren't you a bit too young to have ten-year-old children?"

"I am their foster father," the young man explained, unperturbed. "It so happened I had to assume responsibility for them. Two days ago I sent you all the necessary papers including the guardianship agency's certificates."

Oh, yes. Now the principal recalled that some documents had indeed arrived several days ago. Just haven't had time to take a look...He moved his finger over the touch pad - I guess I'll never get used to those trendy three-dimensional sensory consoles – and indeed found a bulky package in the 'Incoming Papers' section.

"I humbly ask you to take a seat," he nodded towards a chair as he began to look through the documents. So...the birth certificates for the children, their biological parents' death certificates, adoption certificates...issued less than a week ago? Stone the crows! Now...the boy's grade report for Grade Three, the girl's grade report for Grade Three...she seems to have taken correspondence courses. Had she been sick? A character reference letter from the orphanage...but only for the boy. The girl must have been lucky: she was adopted before she would have to be sent to an orphanage. And what is that? WOW, that beats even those adoption certificates: a PhD diploma in psychology issued for Dzinton Muratsiy. The principal gave his visitor an intent look. What sort of a person is that youngster who at 21 has achieved a diploma other people have to study at least ten years for? Heaven's fair-haired boy or just a prodigy? And now there is an expert certificate qualifying him to provide a psychological assessment of minors for trial purposes? At 21??!

"All the documents are authentic," the youngster who had in the meantime made himself quite comfortable on the guest chair, was unflustered by the amazed principal's gaze. "I am indeed a Doctor of Psychology and an official expert on minors' psychology qualified to testify in court on behalf of the state."

"I do apologize, Sir, but..." the principal hesitated.

"I am too young for such distinctions?" the visitor grinned. "It's alright, Sir Principal. It's a long and complex story but everything is perfectly legal. There are some additional circumstances that aren't public knowledge but that can be discussed later. In the meantime, just consider me a prodigy. What concerns me right now is that the children should be able to attend classes starting next Thriceday. I understand that the paperwork will take some time but I believe there is no point in waiting until all the formalities are met. The children have already missed lots of classes, no need to make the situation even worse."

"To be quite sincere, Sir Dzinton," the principal took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes wearily. "I am completely amazed by the whole situation. I've taught children for 30 years but never before have I met a man this young who was an official foster father. Let alone, a bachelor - you aren't married, I suppose? I apologize for asking a rude personal question but are you sure you can raise two children on your own? In particular, children who were adopted as almost teenagers?"

"Yes, I am quite sure," the visitor moved his eyebrows indifferently. "In fact, I have one more foster-daughter. She is 13 but I won't register her for school until next spring. As a result of extremely unfavorable circumstances, she has missed an enormous amount of school time, and now she is catching up on her own - lest she has to go back to primary school."

"So be it," the principal decided not to argue. "I won't question the guardianship agency's decision - at least, not without a good reason. And I don't see any formal reason not to admit your children to our school. That said, I am afraid that the boy...Palek comes from an orphanage, and orphanage children usually tend to have issues with both discipline and academic progress."

"Discipline is my concern," Dzinton smiled. "As for academic progress, that's the teachers' responsibility. I've chosen your school because it's renowned for its quality teaching. For my part, I can promise to do my best to strengthen the boy's interest in learning."

"Good. In that case..." the principal paused to think. "I presume, you want the children to be in the same class? Then we might place them in class 4-2."

"Thank you, Sir Principal," the young man nodded. "But, as I mentioned before, there is an additional fact you should know about. The girl's situation is far from being simple or ordinary: a thriceweek ago she lost her parents in a car accident, and right after that she was abducted. Two such psychological traumas in a row would present quite a challenge even for a usual child."

"That's really sad but you aren't talking about traumas, I presume? What's unusual about the girl?" the principal gave the visitor a wary look.

"She is a deviant."

The principal exhaled sharply as he recoiled, his face distorted in a grimace of horror.

"And you, Sir Dzinton, insist in earnest that she should be allowed to study in my school?" he asked sarcastically. "So that she may kill or maim normal kids. I am sorry but..."

"I could have kept this fact to myself," the young man interrupted him unceremoniously, and the principal winced, unsettled by the visitor's rudeness. "But at least one person in the school should know. In accordance with the Law on protecting the rights of minors, I insist that you don't share this knowledge with any school employee."

"I won't," the principal grinned sarcastically, "because she won't study here. I have no right to accept her, so I must refuse..."

"No, you don't," the visitor interrupted once again while paying close attention to his nails. "Because if you do, those concerned will be informed that your own nephew is also an unregistered deviant."

The principal gasped for breath. How did he find out? How? Nobody outside the family knows, not a single creature. And the boy is not even a deviant, really. He is barely able to move a match by looking at it! It's unfair, so unfair...

"I know it's a low blow, Sir Principal," the visitor raised his gaze. "But my girl's biological parents were concealing her from the state just like you are concealing your boy. They made enormous sacrifices to save her from being caught by...certain organizations. Even the car accident that cost them their lives would have probably never happened, had they only handed their daughter over to the authorities. Can't you feel sympathy for my child?"

"But she is a deviant..."

"Sir Principal, I will let you in on a state secret kept by the authorities as the apple of their eye. At least 15% of human children, who are between 8 and 14 years old, are believed to be full-fledged deviants. Yet in most cases their abilities don't surpass those of your nephew, so the authorities prefer to turn a blind eye to such weak deviants. State guardianship is quite expensive, as you probably realize - that's why the state resorts to it only when it has to deal with extraordinary deviants, such as my Yana. And as for Yana, I can vouch for her. She is a calm and even-tempered girl, and she'll never abuse her abilities."

"Even if a boy hits her with his bag or pulls her by her braid?" the principal inquired hopelessly. "Even if she quarrels with a friend?"

"Even so. I teach her to control her power, and she most definitely won't unleash it impetuously."

"But I'll violate the decree."

"You've already violated it. Besides, I'll let you in on another secret: this decree won't last much longer."

The principal gave his visitor a perplexed look. The other man met his gaze and smiled serenely.

"Don't torment yourself, Sir Principal. I sent you my certificate for a reason. As an expert, I guarantee you that my Yana will be no trouble whatsoever. She is a completely normal and quite reasonable child. Besides, she is really smart. I hope that one day the school will be proud of her."

He rose to his feet.

"So, in a week, next Thriceday at 6:35 - or even 6:30, in case you feel like telling them something - I'll bring the kids to you, and you'll introduce them to the class. Just in case, you have my pelephone number – don't hesitate to call me if there is any problem. And now, Splendid Sir Principal, I'll take my leave."

When the visitor left the room, the exhausted principal leaned back in his armchair and rubbed his chest trying to soothe sudden chest pain. As if I don't have enough trouble without this chick! But how, how did he find out about the boy?


A summer evening was gradually tightening its grip on the city, and the bay far below was already covered in shadows cast by the surrounding mountains. Soon the darkness would swallow the tsunami line, the sun would hide behind the summit of the White Mountain, and then Rivulets stars would come to life one after another, to lighten up the firmament above. Finally, the Star Pond would throw off its blue veil and rise from the horizon to shine with renewed vigor against the backdrop of the night's black velvet.

Karina snuggled on her favorite rock, and now she was observing the bay and the city from above. There shone the first street lights crisscrossing the city street network with dotted lines - first the lower part of the city, then ever higher. Yachts, speedboats and big ships, both moored ones and those that were floating leisurely around the bay, sported multicolored signal lights. The ocean breeze came leaving a salty aftertaste on Karina's lips, tousling her hair gently, stroking her cheeks tenderly, reaching under her clothes...'The world was respiring a pleasantly cool anticipation of the coming night' - Karina had found this line in some book a long time ago, still in the orphanage, and she liked it so much that she just memorized it. Probably now I am doing just that, 'respiring anticipation of the coming night' that will be warm and tender. Or maybe not so warm. Clouds were gathering in the sky, and she could not read their meaning. Palek and Yana, who had all their life lived near the sea, had tried to explain to her what different cloud shapes meant but she scarcely remembered their explanation. Back then I was thinking only about running away, and I couldn't concentrate on anything else. I'll ask again - and now I will remember everything!

Karina's cheerful excitement caused by her shopping expedition earlier that day was slowly subsiding. Her body was getting used to the new shorts and T-shirt Tsukka had bought for her to replace her old dress stolen a long time ago and rather worn out by now. She winced as she recalled that from tomorrow on she would have to start studying on her own to get ready for school next year. I'll have to study a whole lot and persevere, to cover a school program for a whole year in just half-a-year. To learn all that and pass an exam in front of a municipal committee. I just wonder if I can do it. Dad says I can. I haven't known Dad for too long but he's never been wrong so far. And I won't fail him, no way! I still have to make up for all the bad things I did in the past.

She heard steps behind her. Dad? No, not him. He walks lightly and almost noiselessly. That's the heavy male tread - must be Samatta. What does he want? Yesterday evening the big man had been wandering around the house and the garden, as curious as a puppy, and checking every little corner. Karina remembered how she had got startled every time she saw him. But today he's been out for the whole day - came back just before supper. And he looked sad and tired. Probably hasn't found what he was looking for.

Just in case, Karina straightened her invisible hand - no, I should say 'manipulator' as Dad teaches me – and sent it back without looking, to feel the stranger. Dad says he won't harm me but I've been on the run for too long, I guess, to let my old habits die so quickly. If he touches me, I'll drop him to the floor, and that will be painful.

Samatta did not touch her. He sat silently within half-a-fathom of her and directed his gaze down, at the bay. Karina winced and embraced her knees as was her wont. What does he want?

"I have a daughter," the captain said in a low voice. "About your age. Two thriceweeks ago she turned 12. I went to see her to today...from afar. She is growing up amazingly quickly. Only a year or two ago she looked like a little girl."

Karina kept silent. Why is he telling me about himself?

"You know, when we stormed the hotel...no when I was already standing in the courtyard and watching you cry, I thought that my daughter could be in your place. What if she were being hunted down by big men with automatic rifles? You know, I felt so lousy about myself that I wanted to slap myself across the face."

Silence. In about a minute Karina turned her head slightly and looked sideways at her neighbor. The man was looking straight ahead, his legs crossed.

"Why were you looking at your daughter from afar?" she asked gingerly. "Why doesn't she live with you?"

"Because I divorced her mother three years ago. It was a friendly divorce - no ugly scenes, no mutual complaints. Now the girl has a new family. A new father whom she seems to love. I don't visit them - why should I interfere with her life, make her choose between me and her mother, me and her stepfather? Let her live in peace, not be of two minds all the time."

"That's stupid," Karina said forthright. "If my dad were alive, I would wait for him every day. I am sure, your daughter waits for you."

"Maybe," Samatta bent his head. "Maybe not. She has just recently been discharged from the hospital. A complex liver surgery. She was feeling really bad, and her new father never left the hospital as he and her mother were taking turns with staying at her bedside. He...he is also a good man. And I had a job that kept me busy all the time. Frequent tours of duty, sometimes really long ones. Sometimes, when I came back, I felt she had almost forgotten me. It's probably best if she indeed forgets me for good."

"No, it isn't!" Karina said fervently. Suddenly she was overwhelmed with sympathy for this big, strong man separated from his daughter. Why, why is this world so unfair? Why can't children just live with their parents? You should stay in touch with her, meet her regularly!"

"Thank you, Karina, I'll think about your words," Samatta nodded. "But that's not what I am talking about right now. Karina, do you believe that I am really sorry about what happened? Can you forgive me? I know what they were doing to you, and I truly regret not having saved you from the rotten Institute myself."

"Honestly sorry?" the girl asked as she looked at him searchingly. "Honestly-honestly?"

"Honestly-honestly," the man nodded, not a trace of a smile on his face. "I couldn't possibly be more honest."

"Why did you want to catch me and bring me back to the Institute, then?"

"Because I am a professional soldier, Karina - and professionals should do their job properly, even if they hate it. I should have asked to be transferred to another location a long time ago, just didn't have the guts to do it. Maybe it's the best they threw me out. At least, I won't have to stay torn between conscience and duty anymore."

"Alright, let's forget the past," Karina turned towards him and stretched out her hand. "Just don't shoot at anybody from now on."

"I'll never shoot at children anymore," the captain nodded his agreement as he squeezed the little hand with his huge paw. "But there are many people who deserve to be shot at. Such as the director of the Institute, for example."

"Dad says that violence is hardly a solution to any problem," Karina replied resolutely. "Before I would also kill the Director if I only could have him within reach. Now I won't. Maybe one day he'll feel ashamed of everything he and his men have done."

"Ashamed? That one?" Samatta snorted. "I doubt it!"

"Doesn't matter," the girl said stubbornly. "Dad says that only weaklings and cowards want to kill. Samatta, if you want to be my friend, promise me never-ever to kill anybody...as long as there is a chance to avoid it," she added after a slight hesitation.

"If your dad says so, ok. I promise," the captain nodded. "I've already noticed that he always has a point and never says anything to no purpose. Karina, you are really lucky to have met him."

"I know," the girl agreed. "He..."

"Hush!" Samatta said suddenly.

Something bad is happening nearby. No, 'bad' is a wrong word. It's something dangerous - not an immediate threat but still something cold and threatening, and hostile. A stranger's attention directed at Karina and partially at myself. Without realizing it, Samatta reached for the source of this attention.

A picture before his tightly closed eyes: thick shrubs two hundred fathoms away, on the slope of a nearby mountain. A man wearing camouflage. He is armed but his heavy pistol is holstered; a binocular with an electronic intensifier in his hand - an observer, not a killer. A small video camera with a telescoping lens, a directional microphone, food leftovers, a bottle of water in a plastic bag at hand. Feces carefully covered with earth not far away. A watch post that has been there since the morning, at the very least.

Flashing words in his peripheral vision. 'Report: the area is not violated. Passive house defense: operating in standard mode. Immediate threat: absent. Heuristics level: third. Alarm level: first. Recommendation: remove the observer as quickly as possible. Means of active control: focused on a single target. Lethal operational mode: disabled. The supervisor is notified of the threat. A trainee operator is notified of the threat.

Karina's location: close at hand. Karina's effector: all set. Effector's power function: activated. Attention! The effector's operator is not skilled, she presents a threat of accidental injuries to people around her. Recommendation: deactivate the effector temporarily, provide additional training for the operator.'

Samatta tossed his head, and the phantasm disappeared. What was it? I should talk to Dzinton as soon as possible. Could I really feel something?

"Karina," he said evenly. "We are returning to the house. Immediately."


"It's dangerous here. We are being watched. We'll talk later. I have to see Dzinton right away."

He rose to his feet in one swift movement, took Karina by the shoulders and helped her up.

"Let's go," he ordered. Where is the observer, that way? Then this tree will effectively conceal us from the binocular.

He stopped behind the tree. Karina was looking at him, confused and alarmed.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"I am..." Samatta stopped short. What can I tell her? That I've just hallucinated an ambush on that slope?

"That's his way of showing his concern."

Samatta and Karina startled in unison. Dzinton had appeared completely noiselessly, and now he was watching them, a mocking half-smile on his lips.

"Scared, brave rabbits?" he winked at them. "Kara, Tsukka is curious what's going on with the dinner? Have you forgotten that starting from today, you are all alone on your kitchen duty?"

Karina gasped. Her kitchen duty had indeed slipped her mind, utterly and completely. She ducked under Dzinton's arm – he tapped her jokingly on the back of the head - and ran up the path towards the house. Dzinton watched her go and turned towards Samatta.

"How do you like the local defense system?" he asked.

"Defense system?" the captain repeated blankly.

"The observer you saw - do you think you've just become clairvoyant? I used my defense system to show him to you. The system has just finished adjusting its interface to your nervous system and half-effector. That's the very thing that's inside you, just like it's inside Karina - the difference being that it hasn't turned you into a deviant, after all."

"So, what I saw..."

"...was a result of that connection. The observation mode that can be used for training purposes as well. So what do you think of the toy?"

"Hmm..." Samatta scratched the back of his head. "That's why you were so well prepared for our appearance here."

"Not at all. I knew about your raid even before your vans had left the Institute grounds. That lovely place is under my permanent surveillance. I don't have much time to spend on it but I always know when something important is about to happen."

"My word!" there was almost superstitious fear in Samatta's eyes as he looked at Dzinton. "But how...I humbly ask you, Sir Dzinton, to tell me who are you? What makes you so powerful? Do you work for the Public Security? Or for the Army?"

"Samatta," Dzinton grimaced. "Haven't we agreed to do without lofty language? I am sick and tired of that formal politeness you, people, resort to every time you feel like humiliating yourself when talking to someone more powerful. I understand that the language itself requires it sometimes but, all the same, do me a favor, speak normally. As for the gist of your question...You see, Captain, explaining who I am is quite a challenging task - both from the technical and theological points of view. I don't really feel like discussing it right now. You'll learn the truth in the future but now we have to deal with more pressing matters. All I can tell you is I don't work for anybody. I am on my own."

"But...this surveillance system - it exceeds everything I've ever seen. Are you saying you've created it completely on your own?"

"Yes. And many other things. My resources and powers are quite significant."

Samatta fell silent. He squatted, leaned against the tree and looked up at Dzinton thoughtfully.

"Lady Ehira called you 'Demiurge Dzhao'," he said slowly. "What's 'Demiurge'? And what's 'Dzhao'?"

"You have a good memory," Dzinton hummed. "As for Ehira, she is old enough to learn how to think first and talk afterwards. I wonder, how many more people heard and remembered her slip of the tongue? As for Demiurges, according to an old and long-forgotten mythology, they are...well, some peculiar creatures. And 'Dzhao' is just a name. My main name - as opposed to all those temporary masks."

He squatted next to Samatta and, likewise, leaned against the tree.

"I am an alien, Samatta. A real alien."

He raised his clenched hand and put the thumb aside. A bright tiny spark flamed up on the tip of the thumb. Spellbound, Samatta was looking at the fire as he felt its intense heat on the skin of his face.

"You see, Captain Samatta Kasariy, you have completely by chance become embroiled in events that have, in fact, nothing to do with you. I don't know if you will in, say, ten years consider yourself extremely lucky or just the opposite but you did get sucked into a maelstrom - and you won't be able to just get out of it and proceed as usual. Don't get me wrong: I am not threatening you. You've seen enough to understand that you are no danger to me, and therefore I have no intention to force you to do anything you don't feel like doing. But there are enough independent players in politics - some of them will surely try to use you as a pawn, to further their own ends. Considering how naive you are, you are not going to enjoy it."

He blew gently on his thumb, and the fire went out. Samatta started, as if he had just awakened from a hypnotic sleep.

"So, you are an alien..." he said huskily as he was fighting off a throat spasm. "Which planet do you come from, Sir?"

"We've just agreed - my name is Dzinton. I don't belong to any planet, my race doesn't need them to survive. The outer space is good enough for us, and we can create everything we need straight out of the void. I am saying that because right now you must be recalling all those preposterous action movies where aliens conquer Tekira to feed on its inhabitants, exhaust its natural resources and all that nonsense. I am sorry," he added, "I can but repeat that your face is an open book. This problem has to be dealt with because it's just dangerous to be so transparent in your society. So, we are here to pursue far-reaching goals that aren't to be discussed right now. That said, I can assure you that we don't mean your civilization any harm whatsoever."

"And what do you need from me, Demiurge Dzhao?"

"Dzinton. Please, use this name. I have a business proposition for you."

Samatta looked at him askance but remained silent.

"That's the gist of it. I need a man who will assume full responsibility for the children's safety. I've watched you for a while, and I am quite satisfied with how you've been handling the situation so far. You even somehow managed to make peace with Karina – something I didn't expect to happen for at least another week or two. So I am offering you the position of my Head of Security."

He hummed.

"Well, Security is too big a word because it will consist of nobody else but yourself and the automatic defense system. But the job itself is no worse than anything you've been considering lately. I don't promise you high wages but you won't have to beg either. Ten grand a thriceweek net income, free lodging and board, and a round-the-clock sinecure of a job. Not to forget an additional clause I'll specify a bit later. Interested?"

Samatta scratched his stubbled chin pensively.

"I haven't checked lately how much Heads of Security make. If I compare what you offer with what I had in the army...well, not bad. So, what's that clause ? What else should I face, apart from working for some incomprehensible aliens?"

"The clause is simple: everybody who works for me should study something. Doesn't matter, what exactly - that's totally up to you. There are plenty of opportunities to learn new things, so all you need is to be willing to learn."

Samatta whistled.

"Some clause it is! Listen, Dzinton, do you realize that I am 32? And that half of my life I've been taught nothing but to kill? I am not some nerd, you know!"

"Doesn't matter. You can keep studying the art of war if you wish - or you can learn how to become a strategist, in case you feel like playing with toy soldiers. If you really want it, that is. Alternately, you can become a poet, or a gardener, or an expert in embroidery. Any occupation will do - as long as it's useful to other people. I can't offer you too much of a financial reward but, as far as learning is concerned, I can help whatever dream you might have come true. If you want to work with me, you should realize a simple fact: no development means death. And I don't need living corpses."

He paused.

"You don't need to commit yourself right away. If you need to, you might take a couple of days to consider the offer. Not much longer than that, though - the vacancy must be filled as soon enough I'll have to absent myself from here often enough, and for quite a while. You are getting along with the kids quite well, and you are smart - so you are good enough for me. You'll have to decide on your own if I am good enough for you."

Dzinton rose, and Samatta suddenly realized that he was moving like an experienced fighter. All his movements were smooth, precise and well-practiced. He would be a formidable opponent in a fight. How old is he, really? Forty? Thirty five? Or is their very concept of time different from ours?

"What if I decline the offer?"

"Then you'll find another job and leave. If you are hinting that you might've seen too much, it's nonsense. Ho human can possibly interfere with my plans, and you are no exception as I already said. By the way, to close the matter of finances: without even waiting for a court order, the Institute of Humanity has paid me an indemnity of 50,000 to compensate for damages to my shrubs as well as for moral damages. I've already transferred half of this total to your checking account at the 'Sea Bank' - you are completely entitled to this money because but for you I'd never have had it, in the first place. As for the rest, do your thinking, Captain. And remember: Karina and Yana need a protector. I wouldn't mind if you were this protector. By the way," he gave Samatta a mischievous look, "something tells me that Tsukka also won't mind if you decide to stay."

Samatta muttered something unintelligible. Tsukka...Don't you tell me, pal, that you managed to fall head over heels for her in less than two days. She is but a young girl, you are fourteen years older than her! Besides, what do you know about her relationship with Dzinton? They might be lovers. Or do aliens need human females, to start with?

"Tsukka isn't my lover," Dzinton winked at him. Samatta startled. Seems like my thoughts are once again written all over my face. "She is my friend and my children's nursemaid but not my lover. She'll never become one either. So this road is yours to choose if you wish to. Well?"

"I'll think about it," Samatta said hastily. "Until tomorrow."

"Agreed," Dzinton nodded. "And one more thing: I've already told Tsukka something. Not much as time hasn't come yet. But you can discuss me with her. By the way, I have to warn you that without my permission you won't be able to discuss me with strangers - neither explicitly, nor indirectly, or in any other way. It's called a 'subconscious mentoblock' and no willpower might help you to overcome it. I apologize for taking this precaution but you should understand: wagging tongues might result in a loss of lives. You aren't a talker but you know as well as I do that people can be forced to talk against their will."

Samatta hummed and shrugged his shoulders. Should've expected something like that - from one secret to another. Must be my personal destiny.

"Then I am off. Don't be late, the dinner should be ready in half-an-hour. In the meantime, I'll check how Karina is doing in the kitchen. I am afraid that even under Tsukka's supervision, she still will make a mess of the ingredients or burn something. It's time to buy a microwave - at least, there is a timer there. This Institute money might come in handy, after all."

He turned around, ready to leave.

"Wait!" suddenly Samatta felt an urge to find out. "So, you've connected me to the defense system? And what I saw was real?"

"What exactly?"

"The observer on slope."

"The observer exists. Let him sit there, he isn't dangerous. As for those who will check his tape in evening, they are in for a nice surprise. They'll watch several hours of high-quality gay-porno rather than the real records. I am truly curious if they are able to take the hint."

Dzinton winked at the captain and quickly went up the path leading to the house. Samatta watched him go, stunned. I know it's possible to jam a video camera and a directional mike, I've heard about that being done. But replacing tapes remotely?

You know what, Demiurge Dzhao, I'd be a total dolt if I refused your offer. Maybe I am nothing more than a thickheaded soldier but I know something about curiosity. My word, a real alien! There is just one little problem - to understand what on Tekira I might be willing to study...


10.06.843, Goldenday


The intercom sprang to life at the least fitting moment. Tattarin was busy picking his nose, staring at the ceiling and making up his mind where and with whom to go after work, in particular - and what to do over the weekend, in general. Obviously, his posture and facial expression could be interpreted as a sign of him racking his brain over some really complex case - but not by the boss. Sometimes Tattarin thought that the boss could literally see through his subordinates. Why don't those blasted intercoms require to confirm answering incoming calls from one's superiors?

"Loafing?" the boss asked dryly as Tattarin was making a hasty effort to look busy.

"No, Sir Taragor," the captain shook his head hastily. "Just thinking over a case..."

"Thinking is useful," the ooy-colonel's voice was thick with sarcasm that seemed to be strong enough to corrode a steel plate quicker than sulfuric acid would. "I just wish you could be successful at it a bit more often. Tell me, who is that guy you nickname 'Clown' in your reports?"

"A strange person, Sir Taragor," Tattarin almost made a helpless gesture but he remembered in time that the boss considered the gesture the ultimate proof of one's incompetence and lack of confidence.

"Our secret agent at the Institute of Man has brought him to my attention..."

"Come to my office immediately," the boss ended the call before the investigator could even finish his sentence.

For a few seconds Tattarin was just staring at the blank screen, his mouth half-open. What happened to the old man? Of course, I don't know the Head of the Sector too well because our paths haven't crossed too often (and I thank all gods, true and false, that they haven't!). But anyways, why does an ordinary case, promising nothing special so far, excite him so much that he insists on an urgent report?

The captain hummed and rose from the chair. The smart terminal squeaked and shut itself down because it immediately understood that its owner was leaving. An urgent report, so what? Maybe it means that I've incidentally struck gold! Maybe the guy is a foreign spy, the head of a local spy network working for Grash or the Kingdoms and sniffing out our military secrets? It's not by chance that he is somehow involved with the Institute of Man. And then I, Captain Tattarin Komong, will be promoted ahead of time and awarded a new nice little circle to decorate my bars...It's just a pity that I will have to stay after-hours once again. This report might well take an hour or even two hours.

He was expected. The secretary nodded curtly towards the door - as if saying 'go ahead' - and returned to his work. A heavy wooden door yielded surprisingly easily and noiselessly. The room behind it was poorly lit - rumor had it that the boss was suffering from some eye disease and couldn't bear sunlight. Or any light, for that matter: the room was usually lit by nothing but a table lamp and the terminal display, and outside it nobody had ever seen the ooy-colonel without his mirrored sunglasses.

"Sir Taragor Shift, captain Tattarin..."

"Tell me about the Clown," the Head of the Sector cut his subordinate short unceremoniously. "By heart. His dossier is on my terminal, but I want to know what struck you most as being worth remembering."

"Yes, Sir," the captain nodded. "Dzinton Muratsiy, official age -21, official date of birth - 12.3.822, born in Okanaka..."

"I don't need his bio," the boss frowned. "I asked what had struck you most as worth remembering? Why do you waste your time on him?"

"His year of birth is important, Sir," Tattarin lowered his head stubbornly. "I repeat, officially he is only 21 – and yet lots of little things just don't make sense if that age is correct. As I mentioned, first he was brought to my attention by our secret agent at the Institute of Man. The agent provided me with a copy of a report concerning an assault against the 'Maron Grove' hotel..."


"The Institute Security Service found out that two runaway deviants were hiding in that hotel. About a thriceweek ago they had destroyed the Institute laboratory building and killed tons of guards before escaping from the Institute."

"Yes, I remember. It was a huge scandal. They said something about a string of coincidences. Half of the Special Unit went to practice at a remote shooting range, one of the deviant's blockirators failed, an emergency blast door next to the staircase stuck, and the guards' weapons weren't able to break through the effectors of the runaways. That one? And what about the assault?"

"It failed completely. If the report is to be trusted, one could think the hotel was bewitched: unbreakable windows; unscalable walls, as slippery as if they were oiled; wooden gates unaffected by shaped charges. The gates opened on their own, and that guy, Clown, met the Special Unit in the courtyard. They almost shot him at first but then he nearly chewed the unit commander's ears off, and the latter just canceled the assault and effectively surrendered to Clown."

"A commanding officer of the Defense Ministry's Special Unit canceled the assault?" the boss raised his eyebrows.

"Exactly. And, judging by his soldiers' written statements, for a good reason, too: that unique Clown was running his mouth like a real lawyer. He has a windmill of a tongue, and his manners are quite matching."

"Who owns the hotel?"

"The Clown himself does. Based on the documents provided by the municipality, he bought this junk seven thriceweeks ago, at the beginning of winter - paid for it handsomely, too, by the way - and has lived there since. However we've talked to a number of people living in the area, and nothing indicates his presence at the hotel before the fifth thriceweek."

"Go on. What happened to the deviants? Have they been returned to the Institute?"

"No. As it turned out, three days before the assault happened the Municipal Minors Council had issued to him adoption certificates and special guardianship orders signed by state representatives for both chicks. Alongside with them, he also adopted a stray orphanage lad who isn't a deviant, just a regular boy. Surprisingly, the Clown managed to prove his financial well-being - he provided a bank statement - as well as all other necessary documents including two expert opinion letters signed by independent psychologists. Not to mention a whole bunch of diplomas and certificates allowing him to provide his own expert opinion on minors' psychology at any court. All papers are authentic - at least, to the naked eye. And the Council that usually drags its feet for half-a-year if not more took only two days to handle the case. We tried to talk to the Council members – they just shrugged their shoulders: 'why not if everything is in order?'

"Are they aware that the children are deviants?"

"Yes, they are but their reaction is rather weird. They suddenly become glassy-eyed. 'The Public Security Service has approved special guardianship, so what is there to talk about?' - that's what they say. And that's it, end of discussion."

"Who signed the approval form?"

"Major Sariy Tarrari. Right after he did, he went on vacation. He must be fishing now in some boondocks, out of touch. I've let it be for now. This one, of all people, will surely not go into hiding."

"Ok, continue."

"It gets even curiouser. He lives in his hotel with the kids and a 17-year-old broad - she is also nothing special – and stays there most of the time. However, quite often our surveillance system doesn't detect his presence in the house for hours on end - as if he were vanishing into thin air and then coming back from nowhere. Sometimes he goes shopping - either alone or with the kids. Yet the last Treeday he went alone, came to the downtown and disappeared. He threw off our field surveillance team with such ease as if he's been doing nothing but that all his life. The boys had barely enough time to sneeze, and he was gone. Just a bit later he returned to the hotel."

"So. He adopts two deviant girls, he buys the hotel, he handles the assault, he disappears at will - and he is a smooth talker. Anything else?"

"Three days ago they were joined by the former commander of the Institute Special Unit - that very guy that had been in charge of the failed assault. Before coming to them, he was wandering about the city for about a day and trying to find a new job. Was refused several times and never tried again."

"Anything else?"

"That's it for now, Sir."

"I see," the Head of the Sector drummed his fingers on the table. "Ok, then. The case is out of your hands, I'll personally take over from you. It's not a punishment - I've checked the case, and you seem to have been doing ok. But it's way out of your league. There are some leads..."

"...that aren't even worth a tenth of a mayer," a cold voice broke in.

Startled, the investigator gave a jerk as he was automatically turning around and groping for his pistol that was supposed to be under his armpit but in fact had remained in his room. Out of the corner of his eye he saw how the boss tensed up. A vague shadow stirred in a dark corner of the room and stepped forward assuming a distinct human shape.

"I can understand why the Public Security Service is poking its nose into just about everything - that's the very gist of its job. So I haven't paid too much attention to your guys for quite a while. But enough is enough."

Only now did captain Tattarin Komong recognize in the darkness of the room the very person they had been talking about all that time.

"Dzinton Muratsiy," he muttered, utterly stunned. "How did you get here? What..."

"Sir Taragor Shift, easy on the panic button lest you break it," the visitor's icy voice seemed to freeze the very air in the room. "It's temporarily disabled. And your secretary is currently asleep - so he won't drop by even by chance. Stop fidgeting, you two – I have no intention to harm you. Just exercise some common sense, ooy-colonel, and vice-general's circles will be yours much earlier than you ever hoped for."

"Who do you think you are?" the Head of the Sector sprang to his feet, a blued pistol gleaming in his hand. "I'll pop a cap or two into you now - then I'll see how you go on blabbering about circles. How did you get here?"

"Your safe," the uninvited guest did not even seem to listen to the speaker. "The second shelf from the top. A white envelope numbered 001207. Get it right away."

Taragor Shift froze like a rabbit placed in front of a boa. Tattarin Komong, confused, kept shifting his gaze from his boss to the suspect...or is he a suspect? Finally, the ooy-colonel, careful not to turn his back to the visitor, staggered towards the corner where a big fireproof safe was. There he produced a key from an inner pocket of his uniform coat, slid it into the slot and, after a momentary hesitation, suddenly threw his weapon to Tattarin. The latter had barely enough time to catch it.

"Train the pistol on him," Taragor said hoarsely. Then he turned away as he covered the safe keyboard with his body, entered the code quickly, and pressed his palm against the sensor plate. The door produced a melodious ring and opened.

"Now what?" the Head of the Sector asked warily turning toward Dzinton. There was a white envelope in his hand.

"Open it. The code phrase inside the inner envelope is 'The Nightingale has left the nest'."

"It'd better match what you say or else..." without finishing the sentence, the ooy-colonel ripped away at the thick paper, and it snapped.

"It does match," Dzinton replied indifferently. "Open the second envelope and put the memory card into the terminal."

This time the ooy-colonel was much less hesitant. Curious now, Tattarin watched him tear open a yellow envelope, produce a memory card out of a thick plastic case and put the card into the terminal. Then the ooy-colonel touched the scanner with his thumb and looked at Dzinton.

"Your fingerprint," he said gingerly. The other man approached the terminal and also touched it with his thumb.

The terminal burst into a melodious trill. For the next few minutes the ooy-colonel was goggling at the screen and trying to come to terms with what was written there. Then he stood reluctantly at attention.

"Ooy-general, Sir. Your authorities are fully confirmed. I am waiting for your orders. Put down the gun, you dolt," the last sentence was addressed to Tattarin who shrugged, lowered his hand with the pistol, put the safety on and left the weapon on the boss's table. Let him decide what to do with it.

"Good," the guest nodded. "My first order: erase irretrievably that dossier you have on me, including the archive copies. Those deviants are dealt with by the CI department of the Defense Ministry, and you, pips, should stay away from that operation. Your superiors have a dossier on me but your clearance level isn't high enough to have access to it. Got it?"

"Yes, Sir," the ooy-colonel echoed, his eyes void of all thought, his gaze fixed right in front of him.

"Good. Keep in mind, I have a possibility to check it, and I will. If you wish, you may ask ooy-general Vasik about a 'Kamigami dossier'. He won't kill you if you do - that is, not right away. There is a good chance, though, that the remainder of your life will be full of hardships - and not too long, in any case. By the way, Captain, that concerns you too. Obviously you have no clearance but I won't even bother taking a written oath of secrecy. If you wag your tongue where you shouldn't, I'll just bury you alive. So do me a favor, take care of your health."

"Yes, Sir," the captain also stood at attention. A trickle of cold sweat crawled down his spine. What a mess to get into! Should've thought about the CI myself.

"Good. And now, ooy-colonel, I'll need your outfit's help. There is one more attachment stored on that memory card, apart from my authorities confirmation - that's a description of a special op titled 'Kodomonohi'. To conduct it, you'll have to rely mostly on your own resources but if you happen to need some additional supplies, contact me, and I'll arrange for it. You'll find my pelephone code in the same attachment. The goal of the operation is the seizure of the Institute of Man's local branch and evacuation of all the deviants kept there to a safe destination. It shouldn't concern you, which one - that part of the plan is my responsibility. Questions?"

"Sir...Ooy-general, may I speak freely?" it seemed that the Head of the Sector was forcing himself to spit out the words.


"As far as we know, the Institute of Man is but a cover for the Seventh Department of the Defense Ministry. Why does CI need us for that operation?"

"You are being too nosy, ooy-colonel," the visitor squinted threateningly. "One might think you are but a novice in the Force. That's how it is, got it?"

"But that...that will cause a huge uproar. The Institute management is very influential. We won't be able to keep it secret."

"No need to," the other man flashed a malevolent smile, and captain Tattarin once again felt icy shivers running down his spine. "I don't need it secret, I need it as loud as possible. I want it to cause a huge uproar. You'll understand when you check the description. Be proud, ooy-colonel, you will be a part of a historical event that is going to change the world. And now I'll take my leave."

The uninvited guest turned around and walked towards the door. In fact, he did not walk, he glided - inaudible and almost invisible in his dark clothes in the dark room. The door creaked softly, and only the captain and the ooy-colonel remained in the room.

It was the investigator who broke the silence.

"Is he indeed ooy-general? What's on that memory card?"

The boss's reply was not related to any particular topic. It was long and completely unfit to print. When he was done, he spat on the floor.

"This bastard is an ooy-general of the Defense Ministry's Third Department. The CI, blow it! Internal security special ops! We don't have to deal with them too often but it's still way more often than I'd prefer to. These stinkers just love making a cat's paw of us: any failure is ours, any success is theirs. And now we are ordered to assist them in any way possible. And the order is issued by ooy-general Vasik himself!"

"The chief-director?" the captain whistled. "Fuck a duck!"

"Exactly. Even two ducks! Some documents are there too - probably the op description as well. I haven't read it yet but I already don't like it."

The Head of the Sector swore once again.

"I am taking over that cursed case, your access to it is canceled. I'll erase it myself...a bit later. That's it. Dismissed."

The investigator turned toward the door but immediately stopped dead in his tracks. Then he slowly turned to his superior.

"Boss," he said as slowly, "how did this jerk manage to get into your office? And how did he put the secretary to sleep?"

Two security service officers were looking at each other in complete silence, and icy shivers were crawling down their spines - as icy as the vanished visitor's smile.


11.06.843, Soilday


"I am all ears, Magnificent Lady Ehira Marga."

The Assembly deputy raised his wine-glass, a straw sticking out of it, in a jocose salutation. Quite contrary to his cordial smile, the deputy's slitted eyes were gleaming coldly in the semidarkness of the alcove. In private, the leader of the Rationalist Party was strikingly different from his public image of a reckless, happy-go-lucky and somewhat oafish lad.

"Oh, Magnificent Sir Krayton Kerl, nothing could be farther from my intention than turning this date into a business meeting," Ehira smiled at him charmingly as she continued to study his face from beneath her lowered eyelashes.

Rumor had it that this sixty-year-old robust man preferred young women - and nasty rumors would mention underage girls as well - so as she was preparing for the date, Ehira made the most of Maya's magic cosmetics to look no more than 17. Since they had been dating intermittently for at least the last twenty years, he could not possibly fail to realize that she was far from being a teenager - and yet, considering her long absence, she felt obliged to pursue all her available advantages.

"I just wanted to see my old friend after an almost two-year break," she leaned back in the armchair as she was playing with the stem of her wine-glass. "The Rationalist Party is gaining ground - they say that at the next elections it's going to win at least 40 seats in the Assembly. You are rapidly becoming a significant political force, Sir Krayton - and women just love successful men."

Come on, just believe that I am a greedy, calculating bitch trying to take advantage of you. Just believe it!

"For sure, for sure," Krayton lowered his head slowly. "As time goes by, people realize more and more that economics is, in fact, secondary to what's going on between our ears. The primacy of the intellect is exactly what our country needs to survive in those difficult times of recession. However, things aren't as good as they might look: we need at least 70 seats to have our say regarding the next Cabinet."

"So true!" the woman sighed sympathetically. "Old stereotypes die hard. Sometimes they even come back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, it's so easy to manipulate public opinion!"

"Alas, alas," the politician sighed. "Lies are everywhere, and it's indeed a piece of cake for the ruling coalition to fool the voters with meaningless words. We are trying to fight for the truth but with our limited finances..."

"What do you want?" his insistent gaze was asking. "Speak up or just get out of here."

"Hold your horses, my dear," Ehira's languishing smile replied. "You'll find out soon enough."

"Yes, lies are everywhere," she turned the wine-glass round in her fingers. "Wherever you go, you'll find a thick veil of lies hiding things so abominable that a common man would get sick if he ever learned about them. And nobody cares to bring those things to light!"

"For instance?" the leader of the Rationalist Party clearly pricked up his ears.

"Well," Ehira raised her eyes heavenwards as if exasperated. "For instance, a friend told me about an organization known as 'The Institute of Man'. You would think that such an organization should concentrate on studying the human body and its possibilities - instead it just serves as a cover up for its founders' unsavory dealings. Deviant children - or how do they call those kids that can move objects and do other things at a distance? - in short, those children held at the Institute are said to undergo real tortures. Can you imagine, Splendid Sir Krayton - eight to fourteen-year-old kids, and they are tortured with electric shocks, pricked by needles, shot at with steel balls, injected with nasty chemicals, put inside some terrible installations where they get exposed to dangerous rays! It is quite possible that those helpless children even fall victim to sexual abuse. The Institute management calls all that 'experiments' but in fact it's nothing but tortures. And rumor has it," she lowered her voice to a whisper, "that all this abomination is being financed by some secret department of the Defense Ministry."

"Absolutely outrageous," Krayton shook his head disgustedly. "But I just can't believe that no dignitary has ever been informed about those crimes! How is it possible that information of such importance isn't public knowledge yet?"

"Because that's how the ruling coalition would have it!" Ehira feigned the most sincere indignation. "And the media are just too scared to speak against them. On the other hand, an influential public figure - say, a well-known politician - who would choose to bring this outrage to light...Such a person would surely be heard - in particular, on the eve of the elections," she emphasized the last word.

"If we presume that such a politician exists - just for the sake of the argument, that is - he would have a really hard time," the Assembly deputy remarked as he was studying his interlocutor through squinted eyes. "The Humanist Party will surely join forces with the Institute management to deny every allegation. The whole matter could easily end up in court, and our brave politician could as easily be charged with libel and imprisoned - that would be extremely inconvenient, in particular, on the eve of the elections."

"Oh, but our hypothetical politician has no reason to worry about anything like that. There are enough decent people in the society, including in the Public Prosecutions and law-enforcement agencies - and those people could obtain all the necessary proof that would be more than enough to shut up even the top members of the Humanist Party. It's just that nobody is willing to mess with the Institute without having broad public support because this organization is indeed quite influential. Drawing public attention to the problem would change all that..."

"It's quite possible that those decent people - if they indeed exist - could obtain such proof," the politician twisted his lips. "But I am afraid that our hypothetical politician would still be quite helpless to use that proof - as much as it could benefit him during the election campaign. You see, Magnificent Lady Ehira, communicating with the media when the elections are just around the corner is very costly - in more than one sense of the word. For some reason, they tend to believe that whatever a party says is meant to serve the party's promotional purposes - even if the party's intentions are as pure as this crystal," he stretched out his hand with the wine-glass in it.

"Unfortunately, that's quite true," Ehira feigned a sigh. "Difficult times are difficult for just about everybody. For instance, I heard that an internal audit had revealed quite a few problems in a big auto concern's books. Can't recall now what's the name of that concern..." she quickly drew Tasser's logo in the air. "I am a mere woman, I have no idea what those problems are about - but they say that it's bad enough, so they even have to consider merging with another concern whose name I can't remember..." she drew Comet's logo. "It's such a pity I am but a stupid woman and totally ignorant about finances. I am sure that an experienced stock broker could easily turn this situation to his own advantage and earn a lot of money - more than enough for that politician we've discussed to finance his campaign, to get a warm welcome from the media, and to do whatever else he needs to do."

"Very interesting," Crayton remarked coldly. He slammed the wine-glass on the table and rose. "It must be really exciting to have such knowledgeable friends, I guess."

"Quite exciting," Ehira agreed as she also rose. "You know, I happen to hear all sorts of interesting thing pretty often - you might have noticed that during all those years we've known each other. But I am a stupid woman, and I have nobody to talk to. You can't imagine how lonely I am - and you are such an exciting man! Maybe we should meet more often to talk about things. In particular, if out tittle-tattle may help to restore some justice to this world."

"Absolutely," Splendid Sir Krayton Kerl took her elbow politely as he brushed back the curtain and led her out of the alcove. "I am sure we'll have many more conversations - in particular, if the law-enforcement agencies indeed happen to find some real proof of all those crimes. I just love restoring justice!"


12.06.843, Dayday


Who are you?

A voice - like an indistinct blood-curdling hiss breaking through an unintelligible whisper of other voices in the pitch blackness. Darkness is thickening above his head closing in on him. It threatens to crush him, and he suddenly realizes that he is in a burial vault. I am buried, buried alive!

Who are you?

...his skin tightens in gooseflesh all over his body, and his feet carry him in an unknown direction - and over uneven ground he cannot see in the darkness. The ground is full of stones that seem to seek his feet and try to block his way. Sheer terror squeezes his throat so that he cannot breathe - and the darkness around is thickening even more. It enshrouds him, hinders his movement - even as he jerks his whole body forwards. It's all useless. Useless!

Who are you?

I must answer. Must answer! But who am I? A clot of terror in the realm of ultimate darkness, hoarse sighs in dead silence...It's not my breath! Monsters are creeping up on him in the darkness, and their stench already touches his face. I must recall, must recall who I am!

 "I am Toi! Karatsiy! Toi Karatsiy!" Tears of relief spring to his eyes, and through the tears he sees a faint light shimmering in the distance. There! Quick now, quicker, quicker! Those creeping in the darkness are right next to him, he can feel their breath on the back of his neck. He could see their eyes burning red if he turned around. They are closing in to jump at him and tear him to pieces. I will not look back, I will not - because if I do, something terrible will happen. I must run, run much quicker - towards the life-saving light.

His legs are almost failing him but his terror - like a taut lasso tightened around his neck - is dragging him forward. The light is ever closer. It grows bigger, and the pursuers begin to fall behind. They won't disappear forever but they are afraid of light. They won't come closer until they feel sure...or until they are allowed to. Yes, until they are allowed to! But they won't be allowed to, right?

A circle of light. Warm and bright light in the middle of a desert swamped with darkness under the dark skies where dark grass is swaying in the gusts of imperceptible wind. I did it! They haven't caught me! And they won't be allowed to come closer...for now.

His heart is pounding in his chest like a scared sparrow. The air is too thick to enter his lungs, and every breath is a torture.

"Splendid Sir Toi Karatsiy?"

A dull, toneless voice comes from behind his back. Should I look back? No. No! If I do, a disaster will strike. Nothing will save me then.

"The very Splendid Sir Toi Karatsiy that has led the Humanist Party for ten years? I was looking forward to meet you."

It's that boredom and indifference that are oozing from this monstrous voice that are most terrifying. HE is somewhere beyond the circle but HE won't be stopped by the light. And HE has the power to allow Those Who Creep Behind to cross the borderline.

"Children, Splendid Sir Toi Karatsiy. Little kids. Deviants. It's only possible to become a deviant between eight- and ten-years-old."

"They are monsters! They don't belong to this world!"

No, it's a wrong thing to say. Those Who Creep Behind are coming closer to the light - ready to pounce the moment they are allowed to. Don't! Please, don't allow them to pounce! I'll kill, betray, do whatever you want me to - just don't let them!

"They are kids. Little kids, Splendid Sir Toi Karatsiy. The Institute of Man funded by the state has turned their life into a nightmare. And it's first and foremost your fault."

"But they are monsters! They kill everybody within their reach! One of them might kill me! How can we tell them from normal children? They look just like the normal ones!"

Wrong again. Those Who Creep are ready to jump right now. No!

"Don't, please, don't! Don't let them, Sir, don't let them! I'll do whatever you want me to! I'll destroy the Institute with my own hand, just don't let them! I'll carry the little monsters in my arms, I'll kiss them and spoil them, just don't let the predators pounce!"

Yes! That's right, that's what I should say. As long as I am saying that, they won't jump.

"You said it, Splendid Sir Toi Karatsiy. Your words have been heard and registered. If you ever forget them, you'll find yourself here once again. And there will be nobody and nothing around that could protect you. Now you may go."

HE disappears. The black void around grows even emptier, and Those Who Creep tense up, aware that their victim is about to disappear. They are afraid of light but they are hungry too - very hungry, and they are about to overcome their fear.

The light is dimming, and once again he can hear the monsters' breath and see their eyes quite distinctly. I have to leave! Leave! Wake up! But...how?

The light goes out, and he looks back in terror. The blood red eyes of a creeping monster are flying right at him, its stench is assaulting his nostrils, its claws are tearing at his shoulder!

Toi Karatsiy, the permanent leader of the Humanist Party sat in bed abruptly. His heart was pounding like mad, his pajama had soaked in sweat. Pale dawn was coming through the bedroom curtains.

It was a dream. Just a dream. A nightmare. What a terrible thing to dream of - to promise that I'll destroy the Institute with my own hands! My brainchild, my pet project - nightmare of all nightmares.

Something felt wrong. His shoulder was hurting. He lowered his gaze - and his stomach knotted in terror once again.

The left sleeve of his pajama was hanging loose, shredded to pieces. Three long red scratches marked his arm from to the shoulder to the bend of his elbow.

If I go wrong, Those Who Creep in the Darkness will find me. And there will be nobody around to stop them. Now he knew that for sure.


15.06.843, Fireday


Unusual silence reigned in the old hotel. For the second day in a row Yana and Palek would go to school in the morning, and Karina was feeling out of her element without them. She forced herself to read fourth-grade textbooks - that was the grade she had not had the time to graduate from that ill-fated autumn, and in less than two thriceweeks she would have to take the exams to try to accomplish that goal, after all. But right now she just could not put her mind to studying.

Even so, numbers had always come easy to her - and now she was making a good progress as long as she was dealing with fractions, proportions and equations with unknowns. Geography and social sciences were giving her much harder times: names of faraway cities simply refused to stick in her memory. With an effort, she somehow managed to remember names of different countries but she would immediately forget where exactly those countries were located, and which animals could be found there. The Common Language textbook bored her to death. Reading comprehension questions looked stupid to her, and she just had no need to learn the rules of spelling and punctuation because she simply remembered where commas should be placed and how words should be spelled as soon as she saw them. On the other hand, she liked the biology textbook right away. High quality colorful pictures of animals and birds, combined with occasional stories and detailed descriptions, kept her riveted and made her continue reading voraciously. Several times, as she came across a familiar bird name, she would come to the window and try to use her non-eyes - her dad called them 'volumetric scanner' - to find in the foliage something matching the description. In vain. Grey shadows of birds did dart to and fro through the clouds of leaves but those were wrong birds.

On the plus side, once she saw a real magic fairy, both with her non- and real eyes. First the miniature creature was scuttling through the foliage of the nearest maron as it circled around its ripening nut blossoms - and all of a sudden, it flew straight to the open window and hovered next to it while, clearly intrigued, studying the girl who was goggling at her. Then the fairy banked a steep turn and disappeared in the foliage again, permanently now. Karina came to the window several more times and even went out to search the grove in an attempt to find the fairy but to no avail. Fairies, like fairy-tales, cannot be found - they find you when they feel like it.

The day before she had started reading 'Do What You Must' for the second time. The book, long and sometimes boring, enthralled her right from the start, all the same. Just as the characters of the Party were, she was living through the fall of Hamir and an escape from wicked Zhuglitchs over the river and the swamps; a visit to the Grey Kingdom, the destruction of the valley, Bella's death (I wonder, what 'cavitation reactor' means?) and Princess Kamella's demise at the ball party; a sea battle against Maino's fleet and the siege of Krestotsin...When she was done, she wondered how it must have felt to travel with a real Demiurge without realizing who he was? The word 'demiurge' rang some vague alarm bell deep inside her, something related to the Institute Special Unit assaulting the hotel on that memorable day...She could not recall what it was.

Yesterday, on Thriceday, when Yana and Palek had gone to school leaving Karina alone in her room, she was feeling like howling with loneliness. Then Dzinton came, told a funny story that she immediately forgot, and sat down on her bed beside her. She snuggled up to him and, as she was feeling his body's reassuring warmth through his shirt, just remained motionless for several minutes. She was quietly confident that her dad would never abandon her - and utterly happy because of that confidence. Dzinton kept stroking her hair and telling her about planets revolving around stars. Karina hardly cared at all about planets but she enjoyed sitting next to him and listening to his soft, quiet voice. Then Tsukka came and the two of them went shopping. Then...then the sun was shining brightly, the salty breeze was blowing in from the sea, and birds were chirping - and even though Tsukka returned to her room to prepare for her university exams, and Dzinton disappeared somewhere, Karina's gloom never came back.

Today she was not feeling unhappy anymore. The textbooks remained as boring as ever but now she knew she would manage - if only geography did not fail her. Dad believes in me. Every now and then she would still startle suddenly and look around, perplexed, as if expecting the hotel and its inhabitants to vanish into a black void, and herself - to feel that familiar noise in the ears, and pain caused by needles and tubes sticking out of her body while some brutes are dragging her to the cold bottom of an iron box to wheel her to the place where she will be hurt even more. Then the hallucination would be gone, and that usual serenity of the old hotel in the untended park would return.

I have a Dad again! A real Dad! He is clever, strong and merry - and he'll protect me against anything. And I'll make up for everything bad I've done.

The sun was already high up in the sky when Dzinton came to her room.

"How is it going?" he asked and winked at her. "Busy?"

"I am reading," she smiled shyly. "I've already read two chapters in the geography textbook!"

"That's my girl!" her father praised her. "And what's the capital of the Four Kingdoms?"

"It's...Stone Island!" the girl recalled. "It was the capital of Kamush, one of the Kingdoms, before all four of them merged."

"Well done! Can you do even better by recalling where the Shurallakh ridge is located?"

"Nope," she shook her head. "Haven't heard of it yet."

"It's in the southern part of the Western Continent," Dzinton explained. "And it's the biggest mountain ridge in the world, even though not the highest. This area is covered by wide steppes where nomads used to breed sheep and horses - then there comes a forest, and then the mountains begin. Small spurs are gradually replaced with cliffs that get ever higher. The highest peaks are always covered in snow, and their glaciers give rise to cold rivers. Farther east those rivers merge into an affluent river, Krong, on which Grashgrad is situated. In Kleng, one of Grash's older languages, the very word 'shura' means 'fangs' - and 'llahu' means 'place'. The locals believe that their mountains touch the sky."

"Cool!" Karina said wistfully. "That's real mountains, not like our small hills."

"Well, our mountains are also quite interesting," Dzinton raised his finger. "They are even unique because there are very few mountains like that in the whole world. They are called 'laccoliths'. They were created by the hot magma that had tried to force its way to the surface but failed. The ground managed to hold it off but in doing so it had to give way under its pressure and rise so high that mountains appeared. And maybe some Grash girl is dreaming right now about coming to Masaria to see them - and our sea, too."

"And I'd like to get out of here for good," Karina sighed.

"Because of the Institute?" Dzinton looked down at her. She nodded and pressed herself tighter against him. He stroke her hair. "I know. Kara, that's why I came now."

She extended her neck and looked up into his face.

"Kara, you are afraid that the Institute of Man won't let you be. That it'll get you sooner or later, and then you'll become its prisoner once again. And you are right, they'll keep trying to harm you - and I can't keep you under my wing all the time because you should be able to have a real life and to be independent. That's why the Institute of Man will cease to exist today."

"What?" the girl asked, utterly shocked.

"What you've just heard," Dzinton smiled. "Today the Institute of Man will disappear for good. And its director Joi Mitera will be put away - and he'll stay in jail for a very long time. Kara, do you want to see it happening?"

"I do!" she nodded vigorously. "I surely do! May I?"

"You may and should because only then you'll finally believe that your past is gone forever. The only way to defeat your fear is to look into its eyes and stare it down. But we are running late. We have to get to the Institute as soon as possible lest we miss everything worth seeing."

He rose from the bed swiftly as he was leading Karina away. The girl tensed up. She felt her invisible arms moving on their own - she could not say whether it was fear or fury that made them move. We are going to the Institute? And the Institute will disappear? WOW!

Barefooted, they pattered against the wooden floor, reached the exit quickly and put on their sandals. As they were passing the kitchen, Dzinton looked into it.

"Tsu, Kara and I are going for a walk. We'll be back in about three hours, so there is a chance we'll miss lunch. If we do, leave us something to munch upon."

"I will," the young woman replied. "Where are you going?"

"We have some business to attend to," Dzinton gave an evasive answer. "If you need me, just use the direct channel. By the way, turn on your new radio in about half-an-hour - I have a hunch that it might be worth it."

Karina also looked into the kitchen passingly. Sure, Samatta is once again right where Tsukka is - seems to be telling her something interesting. They must have fallen in love with each other. Well, Tsukka is at least not too old yet but Samatta is over thirty. He is just ancient, he'll probably die soon!

I'll never understand those adults...

"Dad, are Tsukka and Samatta in love?" Karina asked as they passed through the gate.

"Curiosity killed the cat - and it might get your nose nipped if you keep poking it into all sorts of holes it doesn't belong to," Dzinton answered absentmindedly. "You'll have your own opinion about it when you get older. And now we'd better hurry up because Ehira is waiting. I bet you are too small and feeble to keep up with me."


 A call came through almost at noon sharp. Vai had just cast a glance at the wall clock displaying the digits 09:76, pulled his personal card out of the terminal and begun to rise from the table. His belly rumbled - and at the same moment, as if it was echoing the rumble, the communicator rang.

The reporter swore under his breath. Surely, here comes another breaking news concerning a cat stuck up a tree or a blood-curdling car-crash resulting in a scratched bumper and a broken parking light. I am sick and tired of that crap...

"The 'Tribune' channel," he said reluctantly as he pressed the 'Accept' button. He was somewhat surprised that the communicator screen did not display the caller's number. As far as he could remember, that had occurred only twice during the last year - and both times it was the operator's base station that happened to malfunction. Other than that, the equipment surreptitiously installed in the editorial office was able to trace even the numbers belonging to the Secret Service. A call from one such number – when a Public Security Service agent, enraged by one of the channel's reports, decided to vent his feelings - even allowed the 'Tribune' to kick up quite a row. And now the screen doesn't vouchsafe to display the well-wisher's ecstatic face - so the call must come from a pelephone...

"Vai Kraams?" a voice inquired.

"Yes," the reporter replied, even more surprised now. He was not scheduled to answer incoming calls this morning, and only three people knew he would be there. The voice did not belong to any of them. "Speaking."

"Take your reserve crew with two cameras and be at the gates of the Institute of Man in half-an-hour. Tell your management you'll go live at 10:40 sharp - whatever else is scheduled for that time. Got it?"

"Wait!" the reporter protested. "Who are you? And why the Institute?"

"My concern is to let you know - the rest is up to you. If you don't deign to lift your ass from the chair, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Your loss, not mine - I have no problem dialing the 'News' number."


The line went dead, and silence fell in the cramped room. Vai Kraams froze, hesitant. Judging by his voice, a human male of uncertain age. Is he a psycho? After a short pause the reporter poked the button for the direct line to his boss's office.

"What's the matter?" the boss asked petulantly as he finally answered the call on the fifth or sixth ring. "Busy now."

"Just got a call. No picture, and the number is unidentified," Vai informed him.

The boss raised his eyebrow slightly – a clear sign that he was moderately surprised.

"The caller told me to be at the Institute of Man in half-an-hour - and to be ready to go live at 10:40. No details - and he mentioned calling the 'News'."

The boss's eyebrow rose even higher. It took the journalism guru several seconds to chew on the message - then he finally asked,

"What's your take? A psycho?"

"Dunno," the reporter shook his head. "Doesn't sound like it but one's voice isn't really telling. Maybe just a practical joke."


"No time to ruminate. I should just go because I have a hunch something will happen there. Worst case scenario, we are wasting an hour and a bit of gas. Let's get ready to go live, no need to interrupt the current program or to make any announcement in advance. Simply put it on yellow. I'll decide when I get there."

The boss frowned. No wonder he doesn't like the idea of sending the last reserve crew myst knows where. But if something does happen...

"I should go, Boss," Vai said firmly. "My hunch has never let me down before."
"Alright," the other man nodded. "We'll broadcast live on the yellow starting from 10:42, you confirm at 10:40."

"Got it. Out."

As he clicked the 'off' button, the reporter cast a quick glance at the clock. 10:01 - barely enough time to rush out and get there without being late. Should've gone to lunch half-an-hour earlier...


Karina clutched Dzinton's hand so tightly as if she were drowning in a deep quagmire. All three of her invisible arms tautened and curled into tight spirals ready to crush and tear up everything around her at any moment. The other night, as she had been running away through the dark and gloomy forest, she had no time to look around and check the surroundings but now her inner alarm bells were ringing loudly and incessantly. We are approaching the Institute! It's just around the next turn. Or maybe a bit farther...As her terror was gradually overwhelming her, her heart thumped ever faster. What if this woman, Ehira, betrayed us? Why does Dad trust her so much? She is the deputy director, isn't she!

I wish I said 'no' when Dad invited me to see the destruction of the cursed Institute.

As if he sensed her fear, Dzinton stopped and squatted in front of the girl.

"Kara, there is still time to change your mind," he said soothingly. "If you are feeling so bad, so scared, maybe it's better not to go there? Do you want to go back home?"

She took a deep breath and shook her head. No, that won't do. I have to see everything with my own eyes - or I'll keep living in fear for the rest of my life. Dad said that the only way to defeat my fear is to look into its eyes and stare it down. I know he was right.

Dzinton stroked her hair and straightened up.

"Let's go then, my brave rabbit," he smiled at her. "Time is running out. Fear nothing for I am with you. And, by the way, don't pay attention to whatever Ehira will be saying. Her words might surprise you but she won't mean it, anyways. It's just such a special game, yeah?"

"Yeah," the girl tossed her head resolutely.

"On we go."

Around the next turn there was a small square paved with ancient cobblestones. It turned out to be completely empty - even though the time was just past noon. At the far end the square was marked with a wrought fence with openwork gates. Right behind the fence there spread a dense park. White walls of the Institute building were barely seen through the foliage. Thin threads of barbed wire were stretched on top of the fence.

...pitch blackness, moaning wind, threateningly whispering leaves. Bright searchlights and howling sirens behind her back. The fence metal bending under chaotic blows of her invisible hands – and a desperate escape into the unknown; sharp and hard roots under her bare feet...

Karina shuddered as she dispelled the vision. She gritted her teeth and quickened her pace slightly. Dad is here, and I am not afraid of anything. Anything! If not for that annoying weakness in my stomach...

As if he could sense her anxiety, Dzinton put his hand on her shoulder. Ten more steps. Twenty. Thirty. The gates were already looming mere ten steps ahead, and a guard's apprehensive eyes were watching them from behind the dark glass of the sentry box. The guard was not visible from the outside but Karina could see not only through mirrors.

Five steps to the gates. Another guard stepped out of the sentry box to meet them, a bored mien on his face.

"What d'ya want?" he asked lazily. "Unauthorized persons not allowed..."

His facial expression has changed imperceptibly. The mien remained as bored as before but it was not genuine anymore. He was doing his best to hide his fear from the visitors but his hand began to slide towards the holster against his will.

"We've come to meet Sir Director Joi Mitera," Dzinton replied calmly. "We are expected."

"Let them pass," Ehira appeared from behind a thick tree and came to the fence from the other side. "I'll watch over them and take them to the office."

The guard hesitated.

"But Lady Deputy Director," he began to say. "Without a guest pass issued in advance..."

"Are you an idiot?" Ehira asked wearily. "Or just forgot the instructions? The girl is a runaway deviant. She is being brought back to the Institute. What pass are you babbling about?"

Being brought back to the Institute? Karina gave the woman an anxious look. What is she saying?

...don't pay attention to whatever Ehira will be saying...

I trust Dad. He can't betray me. And he'll protect me from whatever.

"But she..."

"I'll put a blockirator on her right away," Ehira cut him short as she produced a small white card and passed it in front of the gate. There was a squeak, and the gate opened. The woman came close to Karina and winked at her so that the wink went unnoticed by the guard. Then she reached into her bosom, pulled out a thin, shiny collar and locked it deftly around the girl's neck. "See? That's it, she isn't dangerous anymore."


"The rest is my responsibility," the deputy director snapped. "You two, follow me."

Dzinton nodded to the girl, and she took a hesitant step forward. WOW, Ehira lied to that guard! There is no noise in my head, and my invisible hands are as strong as ever and ready to act – and they've always disappeared before if the collar was on.

Ehira turned around and moved silently down the path. Karina went through the gate gingerly and looked back. She saw the second guard who was standing in the doorway of the sentry box and talking quietly into the microphone.

The path was twisting between the trees but, surprisingly, it took them only three or four minutes to get to the big building with wide, shining windows. The girl shivered. On the escape night the park seemed endless but now it struck her as being way too small.

They were waited for in the big and quiet entrance hall. Ten armed guards lined up in a single row, about five fathoms away from the entrance, immediately pointed their submachine guns at the visitors.

"Stay where you are!" one of the guards barked threateningly. "All three of you - down to the floor, now! Put your hands behind your head! I count to five - then we fire! Any attempt to come closer - we fire without a warning!"

"Are you nuts, my dear?" Ehira inquired sarcastically. "Don't you know who I am?"

"The Head of Security's personal order - to neutralize all three of you starting with the broad!" the guard snapped as threateningly. "One! Two! Three..."

Suddenly the whole line slumped to the floor noiselessly - as if some life-supporting linchpins were taken out of each and every soldier at the same time. An acrid stench filled the room.

"They'll spend the next half-an-hour in a coma," Dzinton remarked from behind. "And a headache will be teaching them good manners for half-an-hour after that. Sphincter relaxation is a bonus of a sort. Well, well...Those nice guys are nothing like Samatta - they would indeed shoot us without a second thought. Ehira, I really wonder how you managed to work in this hornet's nest?"

"Who said I worked here?" Ehira asked, surprised. "As if I was allowed to do anything. Let's go before they sound the alarm. The hall is under surveillance."

As if confirming her words, a siren howled faintly. Karina quivered and quailed.

...the wailing siren. Shimmering lights. A rumble of shots and a shattering hail of bullets beating against the iron plate clutched by Yana's invisible hands but seemingly floating in the air.

Ehira winced, reached into her lab coat pocket for her pelephone and quickly found the number she was looking for in the contact list.

"Ehira Marga, the deputy director, speaking," she said evenly. "Cancel the alarm, a drill is in progress."

In a few seconds the siren died out. Ehira was already walking quickly towards the stairs.

"Let's go, Kara," Dzinton said softly. "Soon enough they'll realize what's going on and sound the alarm once more. I'd rather not have to battle through all the way to the office."

"But they..." the girl could not take her eyes off the bodies lying on the floor.

"Only weaklings and cowards would kill," Dzinton smiled at her soothingly. "They are alive, and they'll regain consciousness in half-an-hour. Let's go lest we miss the most exciting part of the show."

The director's office was located on the second floor, right next to the stairs. Ehira stopped for a moment upon reaching the top of the stairs, looked back impatiently and entered the office as she swung the tall door leaves wide open. Karina, her legs feeling stiff, followed.

They found themselves in a windowless, softly illuminated room that was probably larger than half the size of their hotel. Soft sofas were lined up against the walls, the floor was covered with a thick fleece carpet. By the far wall there was a massive desk with no less than three displays shimmering on top of it. A big beautiful clock hung above the table. A tall, pretty woman in a formal dress quickly rose from the table and stepped towards them.

That's the director? A woman? Karina blinked several times and opened her mouth to ask Dzinton but he just went on without stopping, and his hand on her shoulder would not let her stop either.

"I need to talk to the director, and they are with me," Ehira flung off coldly as she waved the woman aside.

"Sir Director is busy," the woman raised her arms protesting but neither Ehira nor Dzinton paid any attention to her. The door at the far corner of the room slid inside the wall, and that was when the siren started wailing once again.


To say that Joi Mitera, the director of the Institute of Man, was furious would be to belittle quite significantly the mighty storm raging within him. He had from the early morning torn around his office like a caged animal, and precious objects of art were just flying and breaking about him. Among the victims of his uncontrollable rage there already were two antique vases of thin glass, an ancient troll-made figurine portraying a gaping crocodile, a desk clock rested on a stand in the shape of a castle with two waterfalls (the clock had not actually broken but the water from the falls ended up on the carpet and drenched it), and some other things usually - but not now - pleasing to one's eye and soul. The hulcy-secretary had looked into the room several times but never entered. Equipped with artificial intelligence, a true masterpiece among her own kind (and, in large part, a product of the Institute's own researches), she was filled to the brim with heuristic algorithms responsible for the evaluation of others' typical reactions. Her local database contained templates of all sorts of states of mind including mental disorders - and yet, for the two thriceweeks that had passed since her awakening, she had not even once seen her boss in a mood like that. She just did not have an appropriate pattern of behavior to abide by but that did not prevent the artin that was controlling her from finding the best solution under the circumstances: do not look for trouble unless you really have to. So she was meticulously following this particular instruction.

The director had two reasons to be incensed. The first one was quite tangible - a memory card anonymously sent by mail. The card contained Krayton Kerl's yesterday's speech before the Assembly, and the clown used his deputy inquiry to rave about inconceivable things. He talked of crimes against humanity being committed at the Institute of Man, tortured children, incompetent Secret Service's agents - and nobody, absolutely nobody was even trying to stop him! Inexplicably, he kept mentioning true facts that only a very narrow circle of authorized people would know! And now all of the major Network channels have broadcast highlights of the speech all morning – and again, nobody would shut them up.

And the speech is not even the worst of it. Morons trying to make a name for themselves and gain cheap popularity by accusing the Institute of myst knows what are nothing new. Those idiots just don't understand that the very survival of the human race is at stake, and handling deviants with kid gloves is nothing else but pushing the world toward the abyss. But in the past there always were others, those who did understand it - and their protection allowed the Institute to do its job properly because they always knew how to put pressure on those demagogues and shut them up before the public could even pay attention to their words. But today...Myst knows what's going on today: none of my valuable contacts would accept my call. Even Toi Karatsiy's communicator redirected the call to the secretary who said that the boss was too busy to talk.

Can't be a mere coincidence. Some of those big bosses must have decided that he doesn't need the Institute any more, and predators immediately start rushing from all quarters trying to get the best piece of the pie. But how dare they - and how could they do that to me? I've done so much for both the Humanist Party and the Economic Progress Party! Haven't I supported all their undertakings, sent my people to appear on TV and appeared myself to defend the right points of view? Haven't I helped them in preparing bills and financing their election campaigns - even if I had to secretly deprive the Institute of some of its own scarce funds? How could they? Oh, if I only could strangle those false friends with my own hands!

He thought he heard the siren wailing outside. First he ignored it because it just could not be true. That can possibly happen in the building where the deviants are kept but surely not in the administrative building. When the signal finally broke through the ocean of raging fury to his consciousness the sound suddenly disappeared.

The director frowned. What's going on? The siren here? Impossible! He came to the table and pressed the button for the line to the main security station.

Nothing happened.

The director pressed the button once again. The display did not turn on, the space above the projection plate remained completely lifeless as if someone cut the power off the communicator. The director pressed several more buttons randomly - only to find out that there was no signal whatsoever anymore.

Even the ancient electric device consisting of two wires, a buzzer, and a push button had ceased to function. What is it? The whole communication system has collapsed? It just makes no sense! But if that's the case, someone will have to answer for it.

The recording. The TV. The unanswered calls. And now the failed equipment.

Joi Mitera drew himself up like a tiger ready to jump. He opened the upper desk drawer, pulled out a heavy pistol and slid it into his pocket. If there is another escape, I'll personally shoot first the runaways and then those morons who were guarding them. And after that...after that I'll drive to the airport, take the Institute plane and fly to the capital where I'll find that bastard Toi Karatsiy and crush his balls! He made several steps toward the door.

And the door burst open.

The sound of the wailing siren struck his ears once again - and this time it was not muffled by his office's acoustic insulation. Three people entered the office: that bitch Ehira, a youth and a broad. She's just gone beyond all bounds! How dare this insolent wretch enter my office uninvited, let alone - with some...

He suddenly felt as if he was punched to the solar plexus. The broad. The hatred in her eyes could burn through a stone wall. THAT broad, the little deadly monster - Karina. And that youth next to her...surely he is the very bastard that sheltered her. The foster dad, isn't he? How on Tekira was such a yobbo allowed to foster anybody?

His hand in his pocket squeezed the pistol grip convulsively. What are they doing here? How did they get to the administrative building? Why isn't the broad in her box in the laboratory building?

The door slammed shut cutting off all the sounds from outside the office, and the automatic locks' clicks were heard distinctly in the ensuing silence.

"The Most Splendid Sir Joi Mitera?" the youth inquired. "If my understanding is correct, you wished to see the deviant Karina Serenova who had escaped from the Institute. You wish has been granted. She is here."


Karina could not take her eyes off the man standing ten steps in front of her - a tall, imposing, noble silver haired man dressed in a fine gray suit sparkling with golden heads of neck-string pins. She had never seen him that close before but his eyes were the very eyes she had seen so many times with her non-eyes through the silvery glass of the labs. Only now boredom and indifference were replaced there with panic and spite.

"Joi Mitera, you are accused of unlawfully apprehending and detaining people, applying lethal force against underage children, conducting illegal and unnecessarily cruel medical experiments, embezzling funds, and other less grave crimes," Dzinton's voice seemed to chisel words rather than speak them. "Your arrest warrant is signed by the district prosecutor. But first off..."

"First off you all will croak!" the director barked. He snatched the gun from his pocket. "Dunno who you are but even your killer bitch won't save you. There are blockirators in my office, and be sure, they won't fail accidentally!"

"Accidentally they won't," Dzinton agreed. "They will fail quite intentionally. Actually, they've been inactive for quite a while - just like this blockirator on her neck. You are supposed to be an expert - don't you see that the girl doesn't react in a typical way? Karina, this man is yours. You can do whatever you want to him. You can kill him if that's what you want."

The director's finger jerked convulsively on the trigger but Karina's non-hands were already flickering in front of her as they began to weave an invisible protective net. A red-hot, heavy bullet got stuck in the net, then rebounded and hit the floor with a muffled sound. The girl was moving forward, and the pistol kept spitting bullets spasmodically, one after another - and one after another they flew aside or fell on the floor. When the firing pin finally clicked inside the discharged weapon, the girl was within two steps of the director.

"You are a creep!" she said, her voice trembling. "You are even unworthy of being killed! It's all your fault, all your fault!"

Tears were running down her cheeks, and the sunrays bursting into the room through the panoramic windows glistened on the wet tracks. Her invisible hands enclasped and squeezed the director's neck, twined around his head. Just one more effort, a simple and easy mental effort - and the headless corpse will collapse on the floor and splatter everything with blood. I know it's simple - I've killed before! Now...

The director's face contorted when invisible hobbles squeezed his body and jerked it upwards. He dropped the pistol and whined softly as his hands kept thrashing the air in a hopeless attempt to brush aside those unseen and impalpable tentacles. His stylish hairdo was gone, his hair - all disheveled now. His glasses in a thin gold frame fell off his nose and hung ridiculously from just one temple. Now he'll get what he deserves!

Only weaklings and cowards would kill, her father's voice sounded in her head. Instinctively, she looked back but no, her father was silent - and so was Ehira. I can do to the creep whatever I want, and I want to kill him!

Only weaklings and cowards would kill. Am I weak? I am much stronger than him, doesn't matter that he is much older and taller. Am I afraid? Am I? Dad is here, and when I am with him, I am not afraid of anything!

As she was choking on tears, she slowly unclenched her invisible hands and took a step back, then another one. The director dropped to his knees, rested his hands against the floor and panted heavily.

"I won't kill you!" the girl said furiously. "Only weaklings and cowards would kill, and I am not afraid of you!"

She took one more step back, tripped as the carpet caught at her heel, and almost fell down but Dzinton's strong hands supported her and helped her to keep her balance.

"Well done, Karichka," he whispered to her ear. "You did a right thing. I knew you would. And now it's showtime."

He straightened and nodded curtly to Ehira.

"I've sent the signal. You can go ahead."

"I've dreamed about it for a very long time," the woman muttered. "If only you knew, Director Joi, just how long I've been waiting for this moment!"

She pulled out her pelephone and dialed a code.

"Attention all personnel!" her voice was cold and sharp, and it echoed from the loudspeakers hidden in the ceiling.

"Here is the deputy director Ehira Marga. This is an emergency message. I inform everyone that all operations of the Institute of Man's Masaria branch should be immediately suspended. The director, Joi Mitera, has been detained and charged with grave crimes. His orders are not valid anymore. Special action forces of the Public Security Ministry will enter the Institute territory shortly. Do not oppose them. I repeat, do NOT oppose them. I order you to fully cooperate with them. Any attempt to resist will be regarded as a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. I order you to stop all experiments in the laboratory building, whatever their nature is. Stop them immediately and return the deviants from the test benches back to their boxes. Anyone who tries to cause any harm to the testees from now on will be punished severely. Employees of the other departments should also cease work for now and remain at their workplaces. I repeat. Attention all personnel! Here is the deputy director Ehira Marga. This is an emergency message..."

The office panoramic window bulged and exploded into a hail of glass shards. Ropes fell from above, and people wearing helmets and flak jackets slid down the ropes and fanned out into the room, the barrels of their assault rifles and shotguns pointing straight in front of them. Ehira paid no attention to them and just kept talking while Dzinton stepped towards the soldiers as he was completely ignoring their weapons.

"I am Nightingale," he said loudly. "Kite-One, front and center."

The soldiers exchanged glances, then one of them rose to his feet, pointed the barrel to the ground, approached Dzinton and saluted.

"I am Kite-One," he reported. "Waiting for your orders, Sir."

"He," Dzinton pointed his finger at the director who was still standing on all fours, "is the director of the Institute. He is under arrest. Immobilize him, assign two of your men to guard him and let them deliver him to the escort. After that you and the others will cooperate with the deputy director Lady Ehira Marga," he jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "She'll show you which areas in the building should be secured first and foremost. I have matters to attend to in other buildings - when you are done here, report on channel three. Understood?"

"Yes, Sir," the commander nodded.

"Get on with it!" Dzinton snapped. "Karichka," he turned to his foster daughter. "You'll stay here with Ehira. Then I'll pick you up and we'll go home."

"Dad, I want to come with you," she protested stubbornly. "There are other...deviants there. I want to help them."

For a few long seconds Dzinton was studying her thoughtfully, then he shrugged.

"Let's go then. Just don't fall behind or you might get trampled in the commotion. And there is quite some commotion there - just like in a madhouse during a fire. And I might be wrong about the 'just like' part. By the way, take that abomination off your neck – it's disgusting to see it there."

"That abomination?" Karina asked and immediately realized what he was talking about. The blockirator ring. But I can't remove it just like that or it will explode and blow off my head. She recalled a dummy she had been shown right after being brought to the Institute. The dummy also had such a ring on its neck - and then someone pulled the cord attached to the ring, and BANG! The upper part of the dummy was blown to pieces.

But Dad told me to do it - it means it must be safe. She gingerly clasped the ring at the sides of her neck with her invisible hands and pulled forcefully. The blockirator cracked, then snapped into two halves that flew to the opposite walls of the office. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the soldiers that were the closest to her twitch and raise the barrels of their rifles. She paid no attention to them. Suddenly it seemed to her that the whole Institute was flying apart just like that ring, and a heavy load she had been used to live with for such a long time was being lifted off her heart. An indescribable feeling of freedom filled and inflated her like a balloon.

"That's better," Dzinton remarked calmly. "Let's go, they are waiting for us."


Its breaks screeching, the studio van dashed into the square in front of the Institute as it banked a steep turn. Vai cast a glance at his watch: 10.41. We are late. Not by much but still late!

"WOW!" one of the camera operators exhaled, his eyes riveted to a side window. "Blow me down! Vai, just look at that! Pips! Droves of them!"

Without waiting for the van to stop completely, the reporter slid the door aside and jumped down to the cobblestones as he barely managed to keep his balance. The Institute gates were wide open, and a string of armored personnel carriers rocking from side to side was slowly passing through them. Four or five transport helicopters rattled over the park, another one was hovering over the nearest building - and countless soldiers in black-and-yellow armored suits of the Counter Terrorism Special Forces were sliding down the hanging ropes onto the roof. Most of the square was cordoned off.

"Boss!" Vai shouted into his microphone. "Boss! It's me! The yellow signal right away! I repeat, the yellow signal right away! I don't care what's on-air right now - here we have an assault on the Institute of Man in full swing! I'll go live in 20 seconds!"

He turned to the van without waiting for confirmation. The operators, already on the ground, were feverishly starting their cameras. Both men's eyes disappeared under the control panels, and the cameras would start transmitting live images any second now. Vai tossed his head making sure that the microphone would not fall off as a result of an abrupt movement. Then he closed his eyes to concentrate and enter into a right emotional state. So...take a deep breath...the heart is beating fast but still within normal limits...clear your throat...one quick movement to turn your hairdo into your trademark 'storm in a vermicelli store'...ready now! Time to begin. Back in the studio the newscaster must be sputtering and spluttering now as he announces that the regular programming will be interrupted for special breaking news. I'll go live any second now! But how do I sneak past the cordon?

"Who are you?" somebody bellowed right into his ear. "Where from?"

"Reporter Vai Kraams from the 'Tribune' channel," he bellowed back as he turned around. "Here is my ID! In accordance with the Law on Freedom of the Press..."

"Shut up!" the soldier slung his short rifle over his shoulder and pointed with his finger towards the entrance. "Follow me over there. We are ordered to let you pass. How many people are with you?"

"Two," the reporter muttered, dumbfounded. It had never occurred to him before. 'Reporters aren't allowed here' would be his usual welcome that he could easily count upon two out of three times if not three out of four - but 'we are ordered to let you pass'? That had never happened to him for the whole duration of his long and eventful career as a reporter.

He heard a squeak in his left ear, then another one. Live now! No time to think, just dive and start swimming. Here we go!

"You are watching the 'Tribune' channel, and here is your reporter Vai Kraams," he pattered habitually while striding behind the soldier. Hope, the guys are already providing the feed to the studio. I am reporting live from the Institute of Man that was assaulted by the Public Security Service's special units just a few minutes ago. I don't know yet who and why gave an order to storm the Institute, we'll find out later. It's a total mess here, and now, my dear spectators, you'll see in detail how this mess looks. So, just in front of me is the main entrance to the territory..."


Dzinton strode straight through the park ignoring the paved path meandering between the trees. Karina almost had to run - just to keep up with him. She had completely lost her bearings but her father seemed to know perfectly well where he was going and why.

A pavilion painted hospital-white emerged out of seemingly nowhere when they skirted a tall tree with spreading crown and found themselves on a wide alley leading straight to a big glass door in the middle of a long two-storied building. Several soldiers wearing armored jackets and gas masks stood at the entrance, a big armored vehicle was parked a bit aside. A cordon was placed on the path encircling the building.

Karina tensed up but the soldiers did not try to stop them. Quite the opposite: they stood at attention and saluted. Must be because of this big rainbow gizmo Dad is wearing on his chest. WOW! Dad can command even those soldiers! But why is he living with us in the abandoned hotel, then? If he is a general, he could buy a big apartment in a beautiful house, drive a luxurious car...and never meet me? Thanx but no thanx! Dad knows better what he is doing.

The huge sunlit entrance hall made her give a shudder and press herself tightly against Dzinton. She remembered it flooded with electric light...

...the wailing siren. A metallic voice coming from the loudspeakers and bellowing incomprehensible words. The guards' dead bodies scattered all over. Shimmering lamps hidden inside the ceiling. A shining transparent cylinder torn out of the floor by the girls joining forces - and the clatter of broken glass when the cylinder hit the glass panel next to the locked door. Burning pain in the soles of her feet cut by glass splinters. The damp night air rushing into her lungs and tasting like some nectar of freedom...

...and it felt just awful. Her heart was pounding. Why did you insist on going with Dad? You are such a fool! It would be better to stay behind with Ehira...

"I am Nightingale. Report the status of the operation," Dzinton said curtly addressing a group of people studying him warily, officer bars clearly seen on top of their armored jackets.

"Everything is according to plan," one of the officers reported. "All the building are cordoned, the guards are neutralized, the personnel is isolated. No resistance has been offered and no casualties incurred."

"Good. Where is Kingfisher-One?"

"On the second floor below the ground, in the deviant section. The elevators are rendered inoperative, the stairs..."

"I am familiar with the building layout, thank you," Dzinton interrupted him. "I'll need someone to accompany me as my daughter's bodyguard."

"Understood." The officer waved his hand, and a tall redhead young man with a machine gun ran up to them. "Sir Nightingale, this is Lieutenant Franzi Tor. Franzi, you will go with the ooy-general and..." he hesitated, "...his companion. You will stay with them until you receive a new order."

"Yes, Sir!" the lieutenant nodded and clicked his heels.

"Follow me," Dzinton ordered as he rushed down the hall. The turnstile had already returned to its position, and the automatic doors next to it were now wide open. "Lieutenant, the girl's name is Karina. You are fully responsible for her. No need to protect me. I'll keep an eye on the girl as well but I'll be quite busy otherwise. You'll sacrifice your own life if need be but you'll make sure to protect her. Understood?"

"Yes, Ooy-General," the lieutenant nodded again as he was walking next to Karina. He turned his head and studied the girl. She noticed his typical of a northerner merry blue eyes on the still very young, freckled face.

...The young guard's blue eyes above the pistol muzzle - first filled with incomprehension and confusion, then staring at the ceiling lifelessly...

She tossed her head. There is a staircase around the next turn. I remember the staircase.

Four people in flak jackets stood on the stair landing. They saluted Dzinton and moved aside to let the group pass. Four narrow flights, stone steps, a wide open door of the second level underground - and a white exclamation mark in a red circle. 'Attention!' the warning on the door ran. 'A high-risk area. Show your ID at the checkpoint. Visitors are not allowed unless accompanied by a staff member.'

A long and wide hallway was lined on both sides with doors, multicolored lights blinking above them.

There were not many doors, significantly less than Karina thought she had seen on the day of her escape. There are probably many more of them around the corners.

A big group of officers with rank badges - six or seven men and three trolls - was in a big sentry room next to the stair landing. The trolls wore no body armor but only regular khaki uniforms.

"Sirs, I am Nightingale," Dzinton addressed the group. "Since I am here, I will assume command. Ooy-colonel Taragor, is everything according to plan?"

"Yes, it is," a man with four big circles on the left side of his chest answered gruffly. Despite being in a low light room, he was wearing non-transparent mirrored glasses. "We've been waiting for you, Ooy-general. I decided to leave three of the local eggheads here because we need their help in handling the equipment," he nodded towards two men and an orc in white lab coats who huddled in the corner, seemingly frightened. "My guys are keeping an eye on them."

"I am fine with it," Dzinton nodded. "The vans we'll use to evacuate the deviants have already passed the checkpoint and should be here any minute now. So what do we have..."

He came to the control console and studied the screen for several minutes.

"Could've been worse," he muttered. "18 kids, all are asleep. 16 of them are in a more or less decent condition but those two, the boy and the girl, will have to be taken to the intensive care unit right away. What I don't understand is...You," he pointed at the orc in the lab coat. "Come here."

The orc glanced back hesitantly at the soldiers and came closer.

"Cell Eight. The child's readings are all normal. Why is the case marked with 'drug-induced lethargy'?

"Sir, "the orc made a helpless gesture, "that's her permanent condition. She is...out of head. Crazy."

"Crazy?" Dzinton's voice suddenly became silky. "Well, well. And how did it happen?"

The frightened orc stepped back, his face twitching pitifully and his ears pressed against his head.

"She...I am not sure, Sir. I've worked here for less than three thriceweeks, and as far as I can remember, she has always been like that."

"She lost her mind about four thriceweeks ago," one of the humans in the lab coats said brusquely. "Director Joi ordered to conduct an experiment with fire she was utterly terrified by. The girl managed to repel three jets of liquid fire but several drops did land on her skin - and her mind just collapsed.

Dzinton crossed the room in three strides and, despite his rather short stature, he seemed to tower over the speaker.

"Are you ready to repeat your words in front of a judge?" he asked through his teeth.

"Yes," the man held his gaze. "I, Denko Masava, a third-category operator, confirm my consent to testify in court honestly and truthfully. I would have done it a long time ago," he added, "if there were at least someone willing to hear me out. And to protect me, too – I've heard quite a few stories about what happened to those trying to openly challenge the management."

"You will get protection," Dzinton nodded. "Will you help out evacuating the children now?"

"I will. You know, Sir," Denko added after a slight hesitation, "to the best of my recollection, you are the very first person to call the deviants 'children'. Thank you."

He came to the console, pushed the orc who was still standing next to it out of the way, and sat in the operator's chair.

"How are they going to be evacuated?"

"In standard medical vans. It's better to let them sleep on. We'll use gurneys to transport them to the vans – so unlock the main elevator."

"Just a moment," Denko touched several sensors on the console. Something rang melodiously. "The elevator is operational," an agreeable female voice said.

"The vans have arrived," Dzinton said. "Ooy-colonel, have your men at the entrance been notified?"

"Of course," Taragor grumbled. "They'll let the medics in. The medics, the reporters - and any bum who suddenly feels like dropping by."

"Leave bums where they are," Dzinton grinned. "As for medics and reporters, they'll come in handy. I am pleased, ooy-colonel. You've conducted this operation like clockwork, and I liked your own contribution to it, too. So, Sirs, the plan is as follows: we'll open the cells starting with the closest one. Sir Denko will use the console to open the door and block the security system. I'll enter, take the kid out, put him or her on the gurney and hand it over to the medics. Then the whole cycle repeats itself.

"You'll enter?" the ooy-colonel hummed. "Living dangerously, ooy-general."

"Not me," the other shook his head. "If a child suddenly wakes up, I'll know what to do. Not sure a regular civilian medic will."

"But I could order my men..."

"I appreciate your concern but my actions are not under discussion, ooy-colonel. Oh, we have the gurneys now. I am off to the first cell. Sir Denko, wait for my signal to open the door. Kara, you stay here. Lieutenant, remember - you are here to protect her."

And Dzinton slipped out the open door of the sentry room.


→Kamill, contact request. Dzhao here.

→Kamill here.

→Ready for the evacuees?

→Glad you remembered to ask. And what will you do if I am not? Ok, ok, stop pouting. Of course I am ready. All five camps are fired up and almost jumping up in excitement. They can't wait to see the new toys.

→Got you. Hope they won't forget that those 'toys' are kids, first and foremost. How will you transport them - from the vans or straight from the building entrance?

→From the vans. Actually, in the vans because I've initially built them as transport capsules. I decided not to use dummies this time - if your reporters had caught them on camera, it would've been quite embarrassing.

→You and 'embarrassing' in the same breath?

→I didn't feel like making plausible imitations. A yawn, an impatient glance at the wrist-watch, a foot tapping the floor. I am a Strategist, you know, not a Constructor wasting his time on all sorts of trifles.

→You are an irresponsible loafer, not a Strategist. Don't forget that it's not one of your Games. Anyway, whatever you choose. I don't really care about the 'how' part.

→All good then. My phantom medics are fully debugged, there will be no mishap.

→Hope so. Out.

→Over and out.


Vai Kraams was on the verge of attacking the soldiers with his bare hands. They just would not let him inside the Institute buildings, and the whole city could witness his humiliation. If not the whole country - the boss has by now surely sold the broadcasting rights to some national channel. So when a train of orange medical vans darted into the wide open gate at full speed and rolled up the alley towards a low, ordinary looking building, Vai regarded it as a gift from gods.

When the cars appeared he was in the middle of retelling the same story for the fifth time and hoping that his viewers had not been bored to distraction yet. Vai kept running his mouth as he waved to his cameramen and rushed after the vehicles as quick as he could – only to bump into another cordon of masked soldiers about ten steps from the building entrance. All he could do was to grit his teeth and keep blabbering on air while he watched the medics with gurneys quickly disappear into the building. Yet it was not long before the first gurney reappeared at the entrance door.

"Start shooting!" he whispered one of the operators as he covered his microphone for a split second. "Close up!"

The operator shrugged. He knew perfectly well what and how to shoot. Vai sighed deeply and threw himself onto the cordon in a vain attempt to come close to the gurney.

A strong push in the chest made him stagger but he somehow kept his balance. The soldier who had just pushed him was looking aside - as if even a stray fly interested him more than the annoying newsy.

You just wait, later I'll show you...

"Vai Kraams from the 'Tribune'?" somebody asked behind his back.

Vai whirled around to face a tall orc whose head was almost level with Vai's nose.

"Yes, that's me," he answered warily. "I am allowed to be here..."

"I know you were let in," the orc cut him short impatiently. "I am the District Spokesman for the Public Security Service. I am authorized to make an official statement. After the evacuation has been finished, you and your crew will be allowed to film inside the building. I can assure you it will be sensational material. Ready to listen?"

"Yes!" Vai nodded quickly. He felt excited - I am the only reporter who was allowed to cover that ruckus and to take a statement from the officials. On the other hand, it's quite suspicious that the pips have suddenly become enamored with me and my channel. You have to pay for anything, and then some! But I'll have to pay later, and now...

He raised his hand and made a few quick gestures. The first cameraman nodded and turned away, the main lens of his camera still on the entrance and the vans near it, the additional lenses focusing on the row of soldiers and the general view of the building. His colleague took several steps to the side to train all three of his lenses on both Vai and the spokesman. Then he raised his clenched fist, the little finger sticking out - and it was his camera's images that went on-air. The reporter turned his microphone on and said quickly,

"My splendid spectators, we finally have an opportunity to learn firsthand what's going on here.

The District Spokesman for the Public Security Service...ehh," he spotted a name tag on the orc's chest. "Burial Graham is about to make an official statement. We are all ears, Sir Spokesman."

"Thank you," the orc said. "The Service would like to inform the public that three days ago, on eight-twelve, we finally procured solid proof that the Institute of Man's Masaria branch had under the pretext of studying unique features of the human body conducted cruel experiments on children with special abilities - also known as 'deviants'. As all of you are probably aware, for the last five years about 700 people have been proven to possess limited telekinetic abilities. Most of the people in question were human children aged between eight to ten years - and those of them whose abilities were best developed had to be isolated from the society and kept at special institutions for their own good. The reason was that the children, inexperienced and untrained as they were, would apply their abilities without due control - and quite often that would result in injuries or even loss of life. It was expected that the special institutions would take care of the children while keeping them in a controlled environment where telekinetic abilities could not be applied spontaneously. In addition, it was hoped that appropriate researches would provide insight into the nature of the as of now totally inexplicable phenomenon..."

"Have the researches managed to clarify anything?" Vai asked quickly.

"It's too early to discuss this," the orc sidestepped the question nonchalantly. "Besides, your question should rather be addressed to scientists, not to me. On the other hand, now we have comprehensive proof that one of those organizations, the Institute of Man, that was in charge of about twenty human children whose abilities were particularly developed, used truly horrendous methods to study those abilities. The children were showered with metal balls, pressed upon with heavy loads, tortured by fire as well as with electric current and chemical reagents, injected with psychotropic substances...As a result, both their physical and mental health have been seriously affected. There are reasons to believe that in some cases the damage may prove irreversible. The management of the Service's Masaria branch immediately passed this shocking information on to the headquarters and - upon receiving approval - began to prepare a rescue operation. Since we suspected that the Institute security would offer armed resistance in order to provide the barbarians posing as scientists with enough time to destroy evidence, we had to resort to a surprise attack planned as a full-scale military operation to seize the complex."

"How did you find out about the Institute?" Vai piped up once again.

"It was a fluke. About a thriceweek ago two children lucked out and managed to escape from the local branch of the Institute - unfortunately, their escape also caused casualties among the security guards. The event brought our attention to the Institute. After the children were found and talked to, we exercised our discretionary powers to secretly access the Institute computer network and get acquainted with the wards' personal files stored there. I've personally read those files..." the spokesman's voice quivered and turned into a high-pitched hiss.

Vai could not help admiring his acting skills. Of course, the reporter did not believe for a second that the orc's feelings were spontaneous - yet those feelings were bound to stun the spectators as effectively as the above-mentioned electric shock.

"...they are blood-curdling. The videotapes featuring those experiments...I couldn't finish watching any of them. I can't imagine the monsters able to conduct experiments like that on underage children day in and day out."

"Will the tapes be made available to the public?"

"To an extent. It goes without saying that first and foremost we must protect the children's privacy and personal dignity - and most of the materials are plain appalling. I can assure you, Sir Reporter - you wouldn't want the public to see tapes like that if they were featuring you. But I believe, the public will see enough to form its own distinct opinion."

We'll show you what we want you to see - to make you think what we want you to think. That's what you are essentially saying. So be it - it's still better than nothing, Sirs Pips. But now I'll make you dance like an eel in a hot pan...

 "Sir Spokesman, those special institutions must have been regularly inspected by official state representatives. Can you explain, why no such inspection has ever before uncovered those terrible facts? How come that the Public Security Service itself had no idea about what was going on at the Institute - even though the Service surely had enough informers among the Institute employees?

"We didn't have any informers at the Institute." The orc's usually expressive face remained absolutely impassive, and once again Vai could not help admiring him. Just look at this big-eared bastard - such a talented liar! Any troll would be proud of that stony snout. "We always trusted the Institute security and fully cooperated with it. Of course, we fully admit our negligence. Very soon we'll conduct an internal investigation, and those who are guilty will be properly punished. As for inspections..." the orc made a helpless gesture. "I can but presume that certain people - including state employees - have for so far unknown reasons or in pursuit of some unclear goals colluded with the Institute management. The district prosecutor's office has already initiated its own investigation, and I expect the truth to come out shortly."

"The truth would be very opportune, no doubt. And now, Sir Spokesman, could you please name the members of the Institute management who are being accused of committing and covering up the crimes in question?"

"The main accused is most certainly the director of the Institute's Masaria branch, doctor Joi Mitera. He has already been arrested, and now he is giving his initial statement. Besides, the following persons will as certainly be charged..."


"The fourteenth gurney with a child on it is just outside of the elevator, waiting for the car," Denko said into the microphone. "Cell 24 hosting an inmate number 15 is ready to be unsealed."

"Got it," Dzinton's voice came. "A gurney is waiting by the cell door. Start unsealing."

"Done. The catheters and needles are out. A reminder: the child's sleep isn't deep. You should be careful not to wake him up."

A buzzer squeaked shrilly. An image of a broken padlock and a number 24 began to flicker on a big, wall-sized monitor.

"The door is open. I am entering," Dzinton announced.

Karina sighed. The procedure was exactly the same - nothing new. In the beginning it was interesting to watch because she suspected that she herself had been 'unsealed' in a similar way before being put into the iron box and brought to the lab. Now she was feeling quite bored - so she looked around.

Lieutenant Franzi Tor, her appointed bodyguard, was right next to her, tall and as motionless as a statue. When he realized she was looking at him, he winked at her and made a funny face as he blew his cheeks and stuck out the tip of his tongue, his eyes bulging. The girl smiled shyly. He must be a good person - even if he is a military man. Samatta also served in the military but I know he is good. Probably not all military people are bad...

She came to the doorway and peeked outside. The gurney was next to the elevator, five steps or so away from the sentry room. A pale, thin arm was hanging lifeless from under the bed sheet covering the child's body from head to toe. I wonder what's the girl's name? How old is she? How long has she been here? Or maybe it's a boy? Will we have a chance to meet later? And where are those children going now?

The elevator pinged melodiously, and the doors opened slowly. The medics grabbed the gurney handles to wheel into the car...and suddenly something hit them savagely in the head and the stomach. Two bodies in the lab coats flew all the way to the opposite walls, rammed into them and slumped to the floor.

As if in a dream Karina watched the bed sheet fall on the floor and the child - it's a boy! - sit up on the gurney and look right ahead unseeingly. Now he is swinging his legs to the floor, leaning on them hesitantly, beginning to straighten up...

A siren began to wail faintly.

"Attention everybody!" Denko's sputter came from the loudspeakers. "There is an accident in front of the elevator! An evacuee is out of control, his effector is active, his escort is lost. The elevator is locked, the staircase doors are locked. I am lowering the blast doors..."

"Wait!" Karina shouted. Her legs propelled her forward as if against her will, and the sentry room door that was closing automatically grazed her back and almost caught the edge of her clothes. The boy was barely keeping his feet, his eyes wandering unseeingly around the hallway. There were bruises on his body. The air around him was shimmering - just like it would around Yana when she was doing something with her invisible hands. Karina used her non-eyes to take a closer look. Of course. Three long, nimble transparent tentacles sprouting from his chest were thrashing about the boy, and rainbow lumps covered with dappled splotches pulsated inside his chest and neck.

One of the tentacles grazed her cheek producing a sensation of a light skin burn, and Karina came to her senses. The boy is clearly out of it, just like...just like I was during the escape. He'll squash me or slam me into the wall without realizing what he's doing. Why did I run out into the hallway? She

strained her invisible arms as she stretched them out, and the boy's effectors lashed out at them as if with sizzling whips. How can I stop him? She strained her own effectors even more in an attempt to entwine the tentacles and hold them back – it doesn't work. As if covered with oil, they kept slipping out of her grasp. What if I reach out even farther, all the way to the body? Or simply press on the spot where his invisible arms grow from? It's like pinning his shoulders - so that his real arms can't move!

The boy stepped forward, and a red-hot tentacle lashed at Karina's cheek. She staggered back involuntarily but kept her balance. He shouldn't be allowed to walk! She picked up the boy's hot, weightless body and pressed it cautiously against the wall. Her invisible arms, relaxed and thinned down now, penetrated his rib cage as they were sliding between the thrashing effectors. Here! A small lump, soft and pulsating, a bit under his neck...squeeze it but not too hard or you might damage it, even crush.

Suddenly the boy's body arched and slackened. Karina jerked her invisible arms away, and the boy slid down the wall and slumped to the ground. What happened? Have I...killed him? The door behind her creaked, and a strong arm pulled her back.

"Denko, turn off the siren," Dzinton said loudly as he slipped past her and bent over the boy's body. "The boy is unconscious. Sound the all-clear."

Dzinton carefully lifted the body onto the gurney and covered it with the bed sheet. People were already pouring into the hallway. Lieutenant Franzi picked Karina up from under her armpits and carried her to the far wall.

"What did you run out for?" he asked reproachfully. "Now I'll get bawled out because I've failed to keep an eye on you."

She did not reply because at this moment she noticed that the medics hit by the boy were slowly rising to their feet. So they are alive? Probably the blows weren't that hard, after all. The siren faded away, and it became very quiet. The girl suddenly realized that everybody was looking at her.

"Dog doesn't eat dog," the man her father called 'Ooy-colonel' grumbled.

"Watch your tongue, Colonel!" Dzinton retorted sharply. "Action stations, everyone! The operation continues."

He glared at those present in the hallway through slitted eyes, and one by one they lowered their gaze, stirred and plodded back to the sentry room. The elevator pinged again, and the medics wheeled the gurney into the car - as if nothing had happened to them only minutes ago. The elevator doors closed. Dzinton came up to Karina.

"Well done, Karichka," he stroked her hair. "You did everything right. Just try to be a bit more careful next time - it's quite unpleasant and painful when someone squeezes your effector like that. Just skim across the surface, and the operator...I mean, the person will temporarily lose the ability to control the manipulators. As for you, Lieutenant..." he turned towards Franzi. "Well, you are a lousy bodyguard. Don't fail me again or I'll give you such a good bashing that your brain will ooze out of your ears."

He turned around and went away. The redhead lieutenant sighed heavily.

"Just as usual!" he complained to nobody in particular. "Didn't I say I would get bawled out? By the way, Karina," he turned towards the girl, visibly baffled. "What did you do there? I was banging on that door from inside - I thought the little monster would grind you to powder."

Karina flushed with anger.

"I am also a little monster, Franzi!" she said furiously. "I also can grind anyone to powder! I am also a deviant, got it?"

She stretched out her invisible arm and pushed him into the chest so that he reeled. Karina turned away and trudged to the sentry room where she huddled into a corner, squatted and propped herself against the wall. I thought he was nice! Nice, my eye! They are all the same - the moment they learn that you are different, they don't see you as a person anymore. You are a deviant!

All of them? And what about Dad? Or Tsukka, Palek, Samatta? Well, maybe not all but surely half of them! She sniffled. Will I have to remain a 'little monster' all my life? No, you won't - her other self mocked her - because when you grow up you'll become a big monster and a circus exhibit.

"Cell 24 is unsealed, I am beginning to evacuate the inmate number 15," Dzinton's voice came from the loudspeakers.

Out of the corner of her eye Karina saw lieutenant Franzi enter the sentry room. She sniffled again and turned away as she was painstakingly arranging her invisible arms into tight knots lest she incidentally hit the lieutenant in vexation. I don't need bodyguards! I can protect myself!

The lieutenant approached her hesitantly and stopped within two steps of her.

"Karina, I..." he began but fell silent. Then he sighed and squatted next to the girl. She kept assiduously ignoring him.

"I am sorry," the lieutenant said. "I...I was just scared. I thought he would kill you - and that would be my fault. I didn't know you...that you also..."

"A deviant," Karina snorted. "And a monster. Don't worry, it's ok. I am used to it."

"That you also have special abilities," the lieutenant summed up firmly. "Should have guessed - otherwise the ooy-general wouldn't have brought you with him. I didn't want to offend you, I swear. Neither you nor him...that boy. I saw his bruises. I think, if I were treated like that I would also feel like destroying everything within reach. Will you forgive me, please?"

He straightened up and stepped back. Then he leaned his shoulder against the wall and stared at the big screen. Karina turned her head and looked at him.

Maybe he isn't that bad, after all?


Vai felt his belly rumble. A quick glance at his watch - 11:23. Pity I didn't have time to take a bite. Now I'll be as hungry for the rest of the day as a troll just out of hibernation. Doesn't matter. A story like that is worth some inconvenience.

Another gurney rolled out the door. That's the eighteenth. The medics loaded it quickly into the van, jumped in - and the van rushed away. And what is that? Two more pairs of medics wheeling...empty gurneys. So they sent two more vans than necessary. Didn't the pips know how many deviants were at the Institute? And if they didn't, how does it accord with having access to the computer network and being acquainted with all the dossiers? Let's make a mental note to pull the threads later. Wait a moment! Where exactly are they being taken, by the way? Would be too risky to bring them to regular public hospitals - after all, they are deviants. They could well kill someone there! More threads to pull but that should be done right now. And how can I possibly do it?

Let's see. I have two cameramen here. An irritating overkill - after all, a camera malfunctions once in forever and a day! But right now having both of them might come in handy. What are their names, by the way? The guys are new, can't remember the names. Or maybe I didn't even know them. Can't even look at them now to recall - their faces are hidden behind the control panels. Doesn't matter.

He waved his hand, and the first operator returned the gesture as he turned off his camera. Then he came up to Vai.

"The vans," Vai said. "We should find out where they take the deviants. Take our van and tail the one transporting the last weirdo. Be quick or you'll lose him!"

The man nodded and darted towards the gate. Three medical vans had almost left the Institute grounds but at the last moment they were slowed down by Public Security Service's black vehicles followed by three passenger cars. My guy will be fine - it won't take him more than half-a-minute to get to our van. And I'd better concentrate on the building itself. They promised to let me in after the evacuation was over.

A soldier next to him cocked his head as he was listening to his radio - then he replied in a low voice. After that he stretched out his hand and beckoned to the reporter.

"You may enter," he said. "They'll meet you inside."

Vai needed no second invitation. He waved to the remaining cameraman and ran towards the glass entrance door.

The lights inside had been dimmed or never turned on, in the first place - and only the sunrays breaking through the foliage outside of the building somehow illuminated the entrance hall. Doesn't matter. The camera electronics will adjust automatically to brighten the image as needed.

The same orc was already waiting for him as he shifted from one foot to the other.

"I'll take you to the underground levels of the pavilion," he told the reporter. "You'll be able to show the spectators, in which conditions the children were kept and what they had to go through. We'll have 15 minutes, then it will be forensic experts' turn to start their work."

A group of people went past them briskly - mostly humans and trolls in uniform with officer's badges but in the middle of the group Vai noticed a rather small man in civvies and...is it a girl next to him? Yes, a ten-year-old girl. Or maybe she is twelve, hard to say. What is a child like that doing here? One of the deviants? But why didn't they evacuate her with the others if they did have spare vans? The reporter hesitated for a moment, and the group disappeared behind the outer doors.

"Are you coming?" the orc asked impatiently.

"Yes," he nodded. The cameraman must've caught the group - if not on the main lens, then surely on a side one. Later I'll just sit down and watch the recording, slowly and meticulously - to make sure I haven't missed even the smallest detail. More threads to pull – just how many of them have come my way today? Probably enough to keep me busy investigating for a year or two. I should stop trying to catch all the sparrows at once and just concentrate on one big bird for now.

He quickly followed the spokesman to the elevator. The cameraman was dogging their footsteps.

The underground hallway boggled Vai's mind. Low concrete ceilings, thick black and blue cables and communication ducts snaking along the walls, the floor covered with wide, square rough tiles, ghastly white lighting...How can one even work here? Yuck! Vai did not suffer from claustrophobia but he could not stand such military-style bunkers. Don't forget, you have only 15 minutes, anyway - and then you'll be thrown out of here. So just put up with it. Nazina's ass! I wonder if the signal can even break through all this concrete, to start with.

"One of the cells where the children were kept," the orc pointed at a wide-open door, a red light blinking above it. The space beyond the door had a strong medicinal smell mixed with the stench of human excretions. "The lights are on now but usually they would be off - to impede the inmates' senses and lower the probability of their sudden aggression against the personnel. Blindfolds were used towards the same purpose. Let's enter the cell."

Glazed white walls here and there splattered with some dark substance. A cot upholstered in some strange brown material in the middle of the cell; wide arm supports angularly attached to the cot and equipped with currently open automatic manacles. The cot was packed with big and small fixing hoops, and a repulsive tubular device - an excreta-disposal unit - could be seen in its lower part. There was nothing else in the room but tubes and cables snaking on the floor, and a big black solid metal box.

"A fixing cot - that's where the children spent most of the time," the orc poked at the bed. "Those fetters rendered them practically immobile. It didn't matter much because they, stuffed with drugs were unconscious almost as long as they stayed in the cells, anyway. They were given only liquid food, and tubes inserted through the nose were used for feeding purposes. Sanitary units rid their bodies of the excreta. There," he pointed at the box, "is a so-called 'sarcophagus'. The children were transported in it from the cells to the lab and back. All the cells and 'sarcophagi' were equipped with permanently active blockirators that prevented the testees to display their special abilities outside of the lab. Essentially the cell equipment meets the standards followed by high-security prisons for criminals with mental abnormalities. Let me remind you that the International Convention on Children's Rights strictly prohibits subjecting any person under sixteen years old to such a treatment due to high risk of irreversibly damaging the growing mind and body."

"So the children were treated like dangerous criminals," Vai jumped in. "Was there an alternative?"

"Naturally," the orc replied dryly. "They are minors, not bloodthirsty murderers. Standard neck blockirators is all they use in specialized orphanages for deviants - and they don't employ even those unless there is an emergency. Apart from that, the deviants are treated there just like usual children. What happened here is simply beyond endurance. Let's go the labs now - I'll show you torture devices that for some reason were considered test benches here..."


Torric Vaba cast a worried glance at the camera screen displaying images from the main lens. The screen shaking caused by the van vibrations made it nearly impossible to determine the quality of the stream. The optoelectronic stabilizer will surely adjust for the vibrations but it still would be better if I could check the picture quality myself. Well, it's not a live broadcast - the studio editing computer will make corrections if necessary.

He transparentized the visor and turned his head taking in the vicinity. That's weird. The medical van they were chasing was just a score of fathoms ahead of them, its orange sides glittering. It was racing down a side-street twisting between two- and three-story houses in the old part of the city. Torric did not think he knew the surroundings that well but as far as he could say, they were moving in the direction of the Clay Mountain steep slopes - and soon enough they were to find themselves in the remote suburbs with no hospitals or even country roads. There is nothing at all there but a bunch of old houses - and at least half of them are long abandoned, too. Where is this medical jalopy ripping to? I hope we are chasing a van with an evacuee, not an empty one. Or maybe the driver just decided to lunch at home because he had no work to do...For Nazina's sake, why have the vans split up? Why couldn't they just go to that hospital of theirs – or where else are they going? - together? It looks more like trying to thwart a pursuit than transporting a patient!

The street ahead of them turned sharply once again. The orange van negotiated the turn without slowing down, its brakes squealing, and immediately disappeared behind the trees surrounding a shabby three-story house with a high roof. Torric cursed. May that Vai fall and break his leg on level ground! I am a cameraman, not a policeman or a private detective - and I am not paid to participate in car racing!

The studio van's brakes also squealed as the vehicle tilted dangerously and swung into the tight bend. The cameraman gasped for breath when, as a result of the sudden deceleration, the seat belt forced the camera system unit box into his chest. He was about to curse the driver profusely but froze with his mouth open.

The van skidded several fathoms and stopped by the side of the road. There were no more turns ahead. The street, flooded with sunlight, ran between blind house fences - and it was completely straight for at least half-a-verst.

And all along the street there was not even a trace of a vehicle.


Karina was walking silently next to Dzinton and enjoying the warmth of the asphalt path beneath her bare feet. She had kicked off her sandals upon passing the last house and entering the grove – and now she just waved them in the air as she kept recalling again and again what had happened during the morning.

The Institute is shut down! Director Joi is under arrest! There is a big scandal at the Assembly! Dad said it's all being broadcast right now! I've so many times imagined avenging myself on those scumbags since I escaped. I made heavy tanks raze the Institute to the ground. I made airplanes bomb it. I got it destroyed in thousands ways. But this way...this way it's even better. Now everybody will know what was indeed happening at this cursed place. Now all those criminals will be arrested - and they'll regret that they treated me like they did. Me and the others.

And what about the others, by the way? She tugged at Dzinton's shirt.

"Dad," she asked timidly, "where did they take them from the Institute? I mean, the other deviants?"

"Here and there," Dzinton replied absentmindedly, deep in thought as well. "Kamill has five base camps scattered all over the world - he'll assign three-four people per camp. His carers are really good, much better than me - so the rehabilitation prognosis is quite favorable... Oh, I am sorry. I mean, they will be given proper medical treatment."

"Kamill has?" Karina repeated, perplexed. "Who's Kamill?"

Dzinton did not reply. The girl peered into his face and got somewhat scared. Dad's look is completely vacant. What happened to him? Has something upset him that much? But everything is just great!"

"Dad?" she said hesitantly.

"Oh...sorry," Dzinton started. "I just...was thinking about something. Karichka, let's talk a bit later, ok? Right now I have too much on my plate - I just can't answer your questions properly."

He fell silent again and stared right ahead of him. Karina hummed uncomprehendingly. Too much on his plate? Well... Anyway, we'll be home soon.

Once again she saw in her mind's eye the soldiers sliding down the ropes into the director's office through the broken window. Cool! Just like in an action movie. And Dad commanding them like a real general. A general?

"We've been waiting for you, Ooy-general..."

"...otherwise the ooy-general wouldn't have brought you with him..."

What's ooy-general? She tried to recall what she knew about military ranks. So...'lieutenant' is the lowest rank. Like lieutenant Franzi. Then, I think, is 'captain'. Or is it 'ooy-captain'? No, that's wrong. First there comes 'vice-captain', then 'captain'. And only after that 'ooy-captain', 'vice-colonel'...wrong again. I think, there is 'major' before 'colonel'. Just 'major', no 'vices' or 'ooys'. 'Major', 'vice-colonel', 'colonel', 'ooy-colonel'...Is there 'ooy-colonel'? There is - that's what they called that man in shiny glasses. And finally there are generals - 'vice-general', 'general' and 'ooy-general'. Nobody is above 'ooy-general'...I think.

And Dad is an ooy-general? WOW! But...then he must be a military man? A real military man? Or is he from the Public Security Service? No, that's impossible. He lives alone - well, now he lives with us - and he doesn't wear a uniform. He doesn't even have any. And he doesn't go to work - a general would probably go to work every day. Besides, generals must have a personal chauffeur who drives them everywhere in a big, beautiful car. That's because generals have a lot of money - and Dad doesn't have much money. So is he a general or isn't he?

Probably he is but a special general. Not like everybody else. Everything is special about Dad. And I am his daughter now! Karina swelled with pride and looked down her nose at a beloyar bush growing beside the path. Got it, Bush? I am a general's daughter now!

"So, my friend," suddenly Dzinton pulled her ear lightly. "Are you about to burst with excitement?"

"Yes, I am," she admitted. "Yana and Palek will become green with envy when I tell them everything! Dad, are you indeed a general?"

"Nope," Dzinton shook his head. "It's just more convenient that way right now. Military people are very easy to manipulate: just convince them that you have the right to give them orders, and they'll do whatever you tell them to - without even trying to make their own judgement. It's not worth your attention. Just stupid adult games, nothing more."

He hummed.

"Let's sit in that clearing for a couple of minutes," he pointed in the direction of the bushes on the left side where a small glade could indeed be seen. "There is something to talk about. Something important."

He slid through the bushes and waved his hand invitingly.

"Come here."

Puzzled, Karina forced her way through thorny branches. How did Dad manage to sneak past them so easily? She detached a particularly persistent thorn from her shorts and looked at Dzinton expectantly. He sat on the ground, crossed his legs and patted the grass next to him.

"Sit down."

She sat and embraced her knees.

"The Institute is gone," Dzinton said earnestly as he looked into her eyes. "Do you understand, Kara? It's no more!"

"Is it?" the girl smiled joyously. "Is it closed forever-forever?"

"It is. The scandal is too big to hide it - in particular, if you consider that not only the local 'Tribune' is covering it but also three federal channels and even a rather big political party. And because it's impossible to hide the scandal, politicians will need a scapegoat. Heads will roll - not literally speaking, of course, but they will. Plenty of people in Katonia will lose their jobs and privileges. The coming elections will completely change the political balance of the country. You don't understand yet what it means but in a couple of years you'll know. In the meantime, just trust my word: your suffering has been fully avenged. Your tormentors reaped what they sowed - and much more than that. Do you understand?"

"Dad!" Karina knelt, crawled right up to him and buried her face in his shoulder. "Dad, I love you!"

"I love you too, Sunshine," Dzinton smiled as he stroked her hair. "But you know, it's not like your life is about to end right now. Your childhood is almost over, you will be a grown up soon. It's time to think about the future."

"The future?" Karina disengaged herself from him and looked up into his face suspiciously. "And what should I do?"

"Nothing much so far," he shook his head. "Just rest, study, recover. Do you know why I took you with me?"

She shook her head.

"The past is dead and gone. It doesn't exist. I wanted you to see its death with your own eyes - so that you wrap your head and heart around it and don't allow your memories to torment you anymore. It's all over now. The Institute is no more."

He paused for a moment.

"However, even if the past is dead, it doesn't mean you can just forget it. You are only thirteen but you've already been through much more than many others might experience in their whole lifetime. You are already wiser than most adults. Today you spared director Joi, even though you could easily kill him. Only weaklings and cowards would kill - I want you to remember those words as long as you live."

He leaned forward and looked into her eyes.

"Kara, you are unique. You got so accustomed to your effector that you perceive it as a part of your body. And you've learned how to use it as much more than just a weapon. You can see with it. You are already able to handle small objects quite well - and quite soon you'll get even better at it. You are unique - and that's why your life won't be easy."

Karina flinched. Why is Dad saying that?

"Of course, you can conceal your talent. You can grow up, get married, become an exemplary housewife and use your effector but in the kitchen when your husband and children can't see you. But I don't think you'll like the idea. Besides, you promised me to atone for the deaths you had caused - and I promised to teach you how to do it. Remember?"

...the young guard's blue eyes above the pistol muzzle - first filled with incomprehension and confusion, then staring at the ceiling lifelessly...

"Yes," Karina lowered her head. Merry excitement that had possessed her only a few minutes ago was gone, and now she felt low-spirited and depressed. How could I forget? I am a monster and I belong to circus...

 "Don't be sad." Dzinton ran his palm across her hair, and her depression disappeared as if erased by his touch. "Everything is fine. Your whole life is ahead of you, and it depends on you, and you alone, how much you will accomplish. I'll show you the way - or maybe you'll find your own way in life. Whatever it will be, I believe that you are destined for great things. I believe in you. And I will help you."

Dad believes in me. Yes, he does but what about myself? Do I believe in myself? For a few days I managed to forget the horrors of the past and the void of the future. But I shouldn't forget! I don't want to be a monster! I just want to be a human being. I just want to live!

"The past is dead. Kara. It's gone. And now it's time to think about the future. You are stubborn, and your life isn't going to be easy. I won't be able to shield you all the time. You'll have to learn to cope with fear, envy, hostility. You'll have to learn to live your life as an independent person. I won't abandon you but it's your life to live – and you will have to live it, not I."

He took her chin, his fingers warm and hard, and looked into her eyes.

"Kara, I am offering you a choice. I can rid you of your gift that is also your curse. I can take your effector away and make sure you'll never get infected with this virus again. You'll become a usual girl. You'll grow up, get married or find a good job, or maybe accomplish something else - but you'll live a life of a usual person. I can do it. Do you want me to?"

Karina drew away from him. Suddenly she felt scared. Take my effector away? Rid me of my invisible hands that caused me so much suffering? And he can do it? But if he is telling the truth he...could do it from the very beginning. Why is he giving me a choice? I've never been given a choice before. I am still but a little girl! How can I make a right choice? It's not fair!

"Life is all about choices, Kara. We must choose between good and bad, right and wrong, between laziness and duty...I am sorry that you have been deprived of a normal childhood, my little girl but we can't do anything about the past. Even so, now you are almost an adult, and it's time to take responsibility and decide for yourself. And you are quite able to decide for yourself - you've made many choices, and none of them was bad so far. But this time I want you to do more than just make yet another choice. I need you to decide your fate. I won't offer this choice to Yana or other deviant children - they can't make it consciously. You can. And you must choose now."

Karina felt like crying. The sunlight seeping through the foliage seemed to grow dim and gray. The girl was chilled to the bone. She hugged herself as she shivered with a sensation of cold dampness coming from nowhere.

Should I give up my effector? Give it up forever, for good?

A choice...I can't make it. Or maybe I don't want to. What will happen if I refuse to make this choice? Will I be able to live without my effector as I've lived before? Probably I won't. In fact, I can't even remember how I've lived all those years. Two years in the Institute, and the orphanage before that...So it's not about living as before, it's about living like common people. I don't know how they live but maybe not so bad...

But I promised to atone for those deaths. Will I be able to keep my promise without the effector?

"Dad," she said in a low voice, "I don't want you to take the effector away. I promised - and I'll keep my promise."

"But your life will never be easy with it. Do you understand that?"

"I do." Karina raised her head and met his gaze firmly. "So be it. My life has never been easy, anyway."

"Is your decision final? I can give you some time to think if you want."

"No. I've made up my mind. If I am unique, it is...it is wrong to become usual. Let them fear me and envy me but I won't give up my effector."

She raised her chin proudly.

"Attagirl!" Dzinton laughed merrily, and the world around seemed to Karina to have sparkled anew. Warmth was coursing through her veins now. "No, I haven't misjudged you."

He grabbed her shoulders and shook her as he kept laughing.

"You are a great girl, and I am proud of you! And now let's go home. They must have lost us by now. Besides, my belly is rumbling."

He jumped to his feet and cartwheeled across the glade. The sight of him made Karina laugh involuntarily. She got up, dusted herself off and stretched. The sun is shining and the wind is warm. And Dad is right by my side. Let them envy me if they want to. I am not afraid!


Still barefoot, Tsukka bustled onto the porch the moment they were through the gate.

"Dzi!" she almost shouted. "Things have gotten crazy here! Just completely crazy! All radio channels are clogged! There is nothing but breaking news there, all regular programs are canceled."

"Hush!" Dzinton put his finger to his lips. "Tsu, don't get so agitated. Lower the volume and recover your breath. I know what's on the radio, I've been listening to it - and to some other media, too."

Karina gave him a puzzled look. How could he possibly listen to the radio?

"It's crazy, nothing but crazy!" the young woman kept blabbering excitedly. "The Institute of Man has been blitzed by the pips, the director and lots of top managers have been arrested and imprisoned; the deputy director Ehira Marga went live on-air, the Public Prosecutor's office has opened an investigation. And just ten minutes ago the President himself went on-air!" Suddenly she checked herself and stared at Dzinton suspiciously. "Dzi, just don't tell me that you were the driving force behind all that mayhem."

"I won't tell you if you don't want me to," he shrugged. "No need to tell you something you have already figured out yourself."

"Well..." Tsukka, barefoot as she was, stepped down from the porch, crossed the dusty courtyard and stopped in front of Dzinton, her arms akimbo. "And you took Karina with you! Of course, you know better but, in my opinion, the assailed Institute is not necessarily the best place for a child who had escaped from there. Dzi, don't you think that it's about time to stop dodging a simple question, what are you up to here, after all?"

"Samatta," Dzinton looked airily at the former captain who had just come out to the porch and was now barely suppressing a smile, "can you do me a favor, please? Just tuck this cheeky damsel under your armpit and carry her back to the house. Or else, I am afraid, she is going to beat me up right here - and I won't even be allowed to say anything. If anybody sees that, I will be disgraced forever. Can you?"

Samatta hummed, stepped down from the porch, came up to the young woman, lifted her carefully and carried her back to the porch.

"So, that's what it is?" she snorted indignantly as she poked him in the stomach with her little fist. "Two big, strong men against one helpless woman? Feeling good about yourselves? Really, Dzi, in all earnest..."

"In all earnest, just wait three seconds, please. Two...one...here they are!"

"Daddy! Daddy!" Yana and Palek stormed into the courtyard like a hurricane. "We were dismissed early from school today. The principal announced over the school radio that the Institute of Man had been seized! Kara, have you heard about it?"

"Hush!" Dzinton raised his hand. "Be quiet, pipsqueaks - the Big Chief will talk."

The children fell silent and stared at him, waiting.

"The three of you, go eat your lunch. Karina, while at it, tell Palek and Yana where we've been. Tsu, Mati, we need to talk. Let's go to the park."

They left Yana and Palek in the courtyard, both children immediately beginning to pelt Karina with questions, and went through the side gate and to an old stone summerhouse overgrown with kidzuta shoots, thirty or so fathoms away from the main building. Dzinton sat opposite Tsukka and Samatta, put his hands behind his head and stretched contentedly.

"So, guys, this part of the game has finished according to plan, and there is no need to keep you in the dark anymore. It's time to show my hand and provide you with a definitive explanation. You have a right to know what really is going on."

He fidgeted on the bench as he was making himself comfortable. Then he opened his palm, and a small rainbow whirlwind burst in the summerhouse and tore around it, tousling everybody's hair. Dzinton snapped his fingers, and the whirlwind disappeared. Now the very fairy, Tsukka had seen on the day Dzinton's first revelations were made, was hovering in the center of the summerhouse. The young woman looked askance at Samatta who was staring at the miniature creature, his eyes wide open. Men! All of them like nothing better than gawking at naked broads...

"This is a visualization of the local security system's effector," Dzinton explained. "A secondary interface serving to facilitate communication with guests. I thought it would be amusing to fashion it into this particular shape. Would 'Fi' be a good name for the creature, what d'you think?"

"A security system?" Tsukka asked, perplexed.

"Indeed. The hotel is protected by a system capable of repelling any planetary class threat - among other things, an atomic attack, a volcano eruption and an earthquake of magnitude 15. So? Who votes for 'Fi'?"

"Dzi," Tsukka said resolutely, "the fairy is amusing all right but do me a favor and stop keeping us out in the cold. Or I'll burst with curiosity, and you'll have to clean everything here."

"Well, if you insist..." Dzinton hummed, and the fairy flew out of the summerhouse and disappeared in the foliage of the nearest hundred-year-old maron. "You both know who I am. You know far from everything but enough to understand that what's happening is quite extraordinary.
To explain more, I'll have to touch on history and talk about the past. What you should know first and foremost, is that we are no altruists. We create planets and whole galaxies but not for art's sake.

We used to be humans, just like you are. Our civilization, unlike yours, happened to be monoracial - that is, it consisted of only one sapient species - but it doesn't really matter. We were developing science and technology, and finally we went into space and built research stations by the nearest stars. Then...then an event occurred that we call 'the Catastrophe'. Nobody knows for sure what exactly happened in our home star system but the connection with it was suddenly broken. Half a century later our surviving ancestors finally returned home - only to discover an utterly dead world. None of the eighty billion sapient humans and artins had survived, not even in the most remote outskirts of the system. All the knowledge that wasn't stored on the research stations computers was irretrievably lost. Our whole biological species was essentially exterminated – but for the 20,000 individuals scattered all over the Galaxy.

They learned how to survive. First they replaced their unreliable biological bodies with artificial ones, then they transferred their very minds to purely energetic carriers. In the course of time they became more and more proficient in science and technology but their psychology never changed. Sooner or later most of the stations inhabitants would lose their purpose in life and let themselves go.

We were dossing around for about four million years. We stopped birthing children, and our society lost momentum and froze, its permanence pointless. Many of us committed suicide because time itself became their torturer, and they couldn't take it anymore. Of those remaining, only a handful of stubborn and hopeless fanatics kept engaging in science. The rest immersed themselves in virtual games but even the games weren't much help. We knew that the world around us was unreal, and that knowledge spoiled most of the fun.

By now the number of Demiurges as we decided to call ourselves has dwindled to a little bit more than 800. About a score, mostly scientists of the first generation, are still pursuing pure science. The others had for a while rested content with virtuality and lasting dead sleep they would interrupt every now and then to look around in search of any changes, and to play a game or two before falling asleep once again. Then it dawned upon us that we were, in fact, able to create real worlds and modify them. So we started doing that, and we used the worlds we created as playgrounds, and populated them with a whole variety of sapient races - from usual people like yourselves to unimaginable monsters that had never existed but in our forebears' fairy tales."

"And our world..." Samatta said slowly.

"...is a playground," the Demiurge nodded. "A former one, that is. The Game was interrupted here about 200 years ago, and I am partially responsible for that interruption. Your world existed in an isolated section of space with altered physical metrics, and a Strategist-Player known in your legends as Maino decided to keep the Game going forever. He was so set on doing it that he actually managed to find a way to bypass strict rules describing the Game's end condition. These rules, as immutable as the laws of physics in a modified continuum, determine when and how a player wins or loses the Game in no uncertain terms. So Maino learned how to balance just on the verge of victory - without ever crossing the finish line. And when I, as an Arbiter, took notice of the situation, he simply tried to dump your world, with himself in it, outside our Universe. Fortunately, he didn't take the trouble to study properly the topology of the hyperfilm black hole surrounding your system as its natural border - so instead of dumping the bubble he annihilated the Barrier. As a result, your world dropped into the real space...and that's where our story actually begins. Guys, are you completely confused yet? Mati? Tsu?"

"My brain hurts," the young woman complained. "Dzi, is there by any chance a written version of this story? Would be easier for me to grasp."

"Of course, there is - and you've even seen it. Remember that paper book on Karina's table? It's titled 'Do What You Must'."

"I have indeed seen it, even leafed through it. A silly fairy-tale for kids. All that kitsch about Maino just makes me sick."

"Kitsch is inevitable when you deal with legends," Dzinton shrugged. "But this particular novel is a pretty reliable log of events that resulted in the annihilation of the Barrier, even if this log was somewhat adapted to make it look like literature. I'll send you both an electronic version of it later - take a look when you feel like it. Just keep in mind that Tilos' rendition of events reflects but his own opinion, and it's not necessarily the ultimate truth."

"But if the game is over, what are you doing here?" Samatta frowned.

"Trying to undo the mess our joint efforts got your world into," Dzinton sighed. "And I am not the only one giving it a try. You see, we have clear regulations as to what should be done with a Game World after the Game is over. To start with, we modify such a world so that the bioforms living in it are unable to trace its artificial origins...at least, not until they've reached a certain level of technological development. Then the world is cast off into the surrounding foam where it disappears for good...well, right now I'll refrain from discussing the details of the 'bubble theory' of the Universe. In short, we set the world free - and once it's free, we don't try to influence it in any way ever again. But in your case... The alleged legend of Maino's fall and the Awakening of the Stars is, in fact, no legend but reality. And the reports concerning magic that used to exist in your world are no old wives' tales either. In general, there are four main types of interaction in the Universe - that is, usually any interaction is either strong, weak, electromagnetic or gravitational. All four of them are subcases of the Basic Interaction. Yet your continuum was equipped with another type of interaction that was independent. This fifth interaction type is mentioned but in legends - and there it's known as the 'Force'. Sleeping segments of the cerebral cortex, as well as of the spinal cord around the sixth and seventh vertebrae, allowed both humans and orcs to use volition for the purpose of manipulating the new energy. An effector, similar to the current one but based on different principles, served as the control interface. That's a pretty standard way of introducing magic into a Game World. However, in your particular case, Veoron - who is an experienced Constructor, I must say - applied a solution that turned out to be extremely stupid in the long run. As he was assembling your planet from the matter revolving around your star, he used the fifth interaction to produce clamps that were shaping the planet. Before the annihilation of the Barrier, those clamps kept continental plates from drifting uncontrollably - even though during the previous millions of years of accelerated time, the matter Veoron was using had under the influence of gravitational forces clumped and turned into a full-fledged space object. When the star system fell out into the surrounding world, the external continuum began to engulf your space while canceling all the modified laws of physics. That resulted in earthquakes - and those quakes, destructive as they were in their own right, brought about tsunamis that subsequently destroyed almost all coastal cities, and woke up volcanoes that soon enough rendered most island ridges uninhabitable."

The Demiurge fell silent.

"Have I talked your ears off?" he asked after a short break. "Do you need a break to ponder over everything you've just heard?"

"No!" Tsukka declared decisively. "Everything's clear. Well, almost everything. I should understand those things if I want become an astronomer. Just keep going."

"As you wish. There isn't much left to tell, in any case. So, life itself came under threat on your planet. Besides, the Awakening of the Stars is such an impressive event, and of such magnitude, that there was no chance whatsoever to hush it up. And when any underdeveloped civilization gets exposed to a shock like that, it can easily plunge into the abyss of suicidal religious wars. All that was our fault because it was Veoron who had chosen a controversial engineering solution, and it was Kamill who destroyed the Station controlling the Game. Finally, it was my thoughtless interference that provoked Kamill to do what he did. The turn of events was so stunning that for about twenty planetary years we just remained in a stupor as we were trying to figure out what to do next. Most probably, the three of us wouldn't have even been talking now if not for Tilos who resolutely stepped into the breach. It was him who managed to disassemble Maino's Empire so skillfully as to prevent it from collapsing and burying the states it was composed of under its ruins. Only then we finally came to senses and hurriedly created a group that we named after your planet - the 'Tekira workgroup'. It consisted of myself, Kamill - you know him as 'Maino' - Veoron, Maya, Kuagar and Miovanna. Being experienced Constructors, Veoron and Miovanna were dealing with the planet itself as they stabilized tectonic processes and gradually redistributed the mantle matter as to minimize the continental drift. The others were focusing on social issues. Then, it so happened, Kuagar got bored of your world and decided to start his own Game. I was distracted by other events that were taking place in a different world - actually, most of my resources are still there, and my presence here is rather limited. Besides, I've never before worked on your continent because I always had my hands full in Suragrash and the Four Kingdoms. Suffice it to mention that forced industrialization of the FK! So, only Kamill and Maya remained. And then, four years ago, Maya suddenly disappeared, and a virus effector pandemic struck the planet. By that time I had essentially wound up my affairs here, and only a desperate call for help from Kamill, who had suddenly lost control over the situation, prompted me to return."

He moved his fingers in the air thoughtfully.

"You see, guys, I am not a Gamer. Of course, I do play Games occasionally - but when I do I prefer to deal with virtuality. Trifling with real people is not my cup of tea. On the other hand, I specialize in two rather narrow fields: I am an Arbiter and a Corrector. Arbiters resolve Game conflicts, and they interfere when either players themselves accuse their opponents of cheating or there is a sufficient suspicion that some players might be cheating to boost their rating. Correctors aim at fixing Game problems without stopping the Game itself whenever possible. Two rather tiresome occupations suiting nobody but a few bores like me. It so happened that when the virus effector pandemic broke out, I was the only Corrector available - no wonder I had to deal with the problem. To sum up my answer to your question, what I am doing here is trying to reduce and possibly reverse the catastrophic damage the virus effector has caused to your civilization."

The Demiurge squinted his eyes and looked at Samatta and Tsukka.

"Have I confused you utterly and completely?"

The two of them exchanged glances silently.

"But where did the effector come from?" the young woman asked musingly.

"Nobody knows. It's definitely our technology, and in a way it's similar to one that earlier was responsible for magic. For a number of considerations, anybody on the planet who isn't a Demiurge is absolutely forbidden to use such a high-level technology. According to our agreement, we aren't allowed to share things like that even with our friends - let alone spreading this sort of knowledge uncontrollably. At the same time, some of the technology features are known in and even typical of science developed by your own civilization. Your society has over the last few years learned how to work with gravitational fields - even though at a very primitive level, and your methods are quite different from ours. Surprisingly, the virus effector combines both approaches, and that's the very reason we can't understand where it came from. Besides, the effector is obviously quite crude. An analysis of its neurointerfaces shows that they are simply unfinished. There are lots of stubs replacing vital elements of the program, and complete circuits are riddled with glaring errors. It seems that, for some reason, the effector broke loose before it was scheduled to be properly released. And I have a suspicion that the whole story has something to do with Demiurge Maya."

"Maya from your workgroup, you mean? The missing one?" Samatta asked. "But what happened to her?"

"This whole matter is even more obscure than the one concerning the effector. You see, guys, she just disappeared - inexplicably and without trace - exactly at the same time when the pandemic started. Initially we were inclined to think that she had just got tired of solving the planet's problems - or maybe that she had taken her Leave. But our later findings disagreed with both suppositions."

"What's a 'Leave'? Tsukka enquired.

The Demiurge fell silent. The silence lingered, and the young woman was about to repeat her question when Dzinton finally replied.

"A Leave is when Demiurges sever all ties with the surrounding world, stop their mental processes and fall into a state very similar to a coma. I've mentioned many times that we are extremely advanced in years. The oldest of us are about four million planetary years old but our psychology remains human. Even in your world people do sometimes grow tired of living and commit suicide - it's so much more natural when something like that happens to us! Our psyche just buckles and threatens to collapse under that enormous pressure of all those years we've lived. It's to release the stress that we plunge into a deep abyss of sleep without dreams - and we stay there for thousands and tens of thousands of years. Sometimes those on Leave never return: either nothing triggers their alarm-clock or it's just a case of suicide as such. Real suicides are quite rare, of course, but a very long sleep is rather common. But in Maya's case none of those can possibly apply. You both heard Ehira say she hadn't been able to get in touch with Maya for several years. Maya is a very responsible person. She would never leave her friends to their own devices; she would never disappear without properly preserving her network of influence - or simply disappear that abruptly. It means, something has happened. A catastrophe..."

"But what could possibly happen to a Demiurge?" Tsukka sounded perplexed. "You are mighty enough to create universes..."

"Tsu, I would pay a fortune to find the answer to that question but none of us has any idea, really. Carriers of our consciousnesses are scattered in space, and they are perfectly protected against any conceivable threat, and practically invulnerable. Anything that could at least theoretically affect us in any negative way would tear your whole star system to shreds."

Dzinton cocked his head and looked at his interlocutors, squinting.

"It seems I've indeed overloaded you with information, after all. Time to finish the lecture, to let you ponder over what you've heard. To sum up, I'll just highlight my current goals. So, the virus effector pandemic has caused grave social consequences to your society. It's not that obvious yet but tension is growing between all three races. The Institute of Man financed by the Ministry of Defense had been conducting cruel experiments on deviants - that is, children with a well-developed effector. Despite all attempts to keep those experiments secret, some rumors about them did leak out. Those rumors enraged both orcs and trolls. The latter dote on their saplings because only a small percentage of troll children survive the Trial of the Will; the former, for all their quarrelsomeness, have very strong parental instincts. Besides, public demonstration of a technology, that is obviously too advanced for your civilization, has already triggered nasty suspicions in scientific circles - and we can't let your civilization's coming-of-age be undermined by a false idea of being subordinate to a higher power. That's why my goal is to prevent that from happening, as well as to correct the situation in general. Now I am definitely done."

"But what do the kids have to do with all that?" Tsukka asked fervently. " Why do you need Karina and Yana?"

"They are tools I am going to use to perform a particular correction. Sorry for being cynical but I prefer to say it myself rather than wait for you to figure it out on your own. The girls and other deviants from the Institute will help me to overcome the crisis - at least, to a certain extent. Besides, I feel obliged to do something to make up for their suffering I and the others are guilty of."

"I see..." Tsukka sighed heavily. "I thought they finally had a real father. It turns out you see them as mere tools."

"Why 'mere', Tsu? Different relationships are possible between the same two people - and those relationships don't have to get in each other's way. You don't mind a friendly chat with the greengrocer you are buying from, even though the two of you are involved in a 'retailer-customer' relationship. It's the same with the kids: they are my friends, and their helping me to achieve my goals takes nothing away from our friendship. I can't tell them the whole truth but I never make my friends do something they wouldn't choose to do if they had all the relevant information. Just like it was with you, Tsu: I was keeping you in the dark for quite a while but I never forced you to do anything you wouldn't do of your own accord."

"But they are just kids! They have no idea what they would do of their own accord! They don't even understand what's going on."

"Yes, they are kids. Not yet full-fledged personalities they are about to become. But one's personality is always shaped by the environment - parents, friends, school, mass-media, the society as a whole. Why shouldn't I be allowed to participate in the process? Besides, Tsu, you are wrong: Karina has a very good understanding of what's going on. You might not fully realize it yet but the girl is a killer. She has done in plenty of people - some incidentally, some deliberately - and she remembers it well. She realizes that she was wrong, and her psyche is overburdened with the sense of guilt. You aren't aware that she's been having nightmares featuring those she killed, are you? Without me or some other competent psychologist she would lose her mind or grow up as a moral cripple. I've corrected the problem as much as possible but the correction itself has also left an indelible imprint on her psyche. Now she needs me as much as I need her. So, please, do me a favor and forget that 'mere tools'. I am an educator and a protector. Yes, and a Corrector as well. And none of the three gets in the way of the other two."

"Very well, Dzi," the young woman sighed again. "I'll take your word for it: you are the kids' friend and protector. But what about Samatta and me - why do you need us?"

"You know the answer, Tsu. I need someone to look after the children. Soon enough I'll have to absent myself from here often enough, and for quite a while - so it's the two of you who'll have to play the part of the kids' caring parents. That's the basic level of our relationship. Just in case you might feel like doing even more...You see, Demiurges seldom interfere with social affairs directly. Any society is a delicate and complex system of interrelationships, a spider web that breaks all too easy every time we touch it. When we come into the picture, lives go astray, checks and balances begin to fail, social self-regulation mechanisms stop to function...We are like elephants trying to set an ant's broken leg. And our goal is to fix problems, not to make them worse. So we need helpers. Every Demiurge dealing with social issues has a network of influence consisting of the Demiurge's friends. Kamill has it. Maya has...had it. I need it too. Tsu, you and Mati might become crucial links in my network if you like the idea."

"My hat!" Tsukka exclaimed, dumbfounded. "More spy games?"

"Of course not, Tsu. I don't need spies. I have no problem finding information I need - and I am quite good at eliminating any threats to my plans. No, I don't need spies but I need helpers who might assist me in gradually and cautiously healing the wounds inflicted on the society. To influence a public figure, to play a game of hints and allusions with a politician, to suggest an idea to a scientist or a journalist at the right time...If you want - I emphasize, 'only if you do want!' - you can join me in doing all those things. If not... then we'll remain within the confines of our contracts. Or just part ways. The choice is yours."

"Well, Demiurge Dzhao," Samatta remarked thoughtfully, "you are thinking on a grand scale, no doubt. But there is still one little problem: I just hate being manipulated. I am somewhat used to rely on my own wits."

"In your heart of hearts you must be hoping that I'll rid you of the necessity to stick to this habit," Dzinton snorted. "Fat chance! Guys, you both know my condition: if you work with me you must study. Doesn't matter what exactly you study, as long as you are studying something. My network of influence is neither a secret organization with rigid hierarchy, nor a group of slaves thoughtlessly carrying out my orders. It's a community of like-minded people seeing certain things in the same light and willing to help me to move towards my goal. A free membership club, if you will - with small perks for members. Nothing more than that. That means, your life is your own, and I am not going to control it or interfere in it in any way. It's up to you to find your purpose in life, to set your own goals and to achieve them. I might occasionally bring your attention to details, give advice and sometimes protect you against physical threats. You are free to tell me to go fly a kite any time you wish. That's why I am securing your financial independence - and that's why I insist on your intellectual self-sufficiency. By the way, Mati – just in case you forgot - you've never told me what it was you were going to study."

The captain hummed.

"Nothing comes to my mind," he declared.

"Try to turn nothing into something. As I said, I don't need living corpses - and those who don't use their brains properly are corpses, even though they might not realize it. That's it, the lecture is over. I'll be off now, I still have to conduct a caterwauling concert. I've transferred some important data to your pelephones: in addition to the novel, there are several more texts including the Catastrophe chronology. I've put my cards on the table - now it's your decision if it's worth dealing with me."

He rose, left the summerhouse and went down the old stone stairs. As he stepped on the path below, he turned around and looked at Tsukka and Samatta who were watching him silently.

"Mati, we don't know each other that well yet. Right now I can offer you no other incentive to stay but the formal contract. But you, Tsu... When you begin to consider your final decision, remember that I am your friend. And I hope we remain friends whatever this decision is. I want you to stay, both of you. If you leave, I'll miss you. And the kids will miss you too."

He turned and went briskly between the trees.

As he disappeared behind the trunks, Tsukka and Samatta exchanged glances.

"This is a fine kettle of fish," the young woman muttered. "What do you think about all that?"

"Nothing," the former captain admitted. "It just doesn't make sense. I need to give it some more thought. Do you reckon he isn't lying about his age? A million years old? That's mind-boggling!"

"Don't know," she sighed. "I don't believe he is lying. What's for? I would be impressed by a thousand just as much. But he makes you feel...at ease. Unlike when you are around other elders, with him there is no need to think about conventionalities, such as age and social status. You just treat him like a brother who is of your own age. If he were a human-being, I would've probably fallen in love with him, head over heels."

"I would follow such a commander to the end of the world and beyond," Samatta nodded. "But he isn't a human-being."

"He isn't. And it's scary to think who he is. They can create Universes - just think about it!"

"Those Universes are far away and beyond our reach. Did you pay attention that the legendary Maino was also a Demiurge?"

"That's right! No, I actually missed it."

"My very point. Tsu, I don't know what you are going to decide but I am staying. Dzinton or no Dzinton, Demiurges will play a part in our lives. With Dzinton on my side, I'll be able to influence the situation - at least, to an extent. If I just leave...you know, you don't get rid of a bogey under your bed by just hiding under the blanket."

"A bogey!" Tsukka burst into a peal of ringing laughter. "Mati, you're going to be the death of me. You should become a writer, really - with that visual thinking of yours."

"And you?" the former captain asked, his whole body strangely tense now. "Are you going to stay?"

"Of course," she answered simply. "How can I leave Kara after what happened to her? I doubt I might be able to step into her mother's shoes but I hope to become a good elder sister to her. Hey, what's the matter with you?"

"I...I am glad" Samatta said in a strangled voice. "Really glad. Thank you, Tsu."

He took her girlish palm into his hands carefully and squeezed it lightly. Then, as if he got burned, he drew away, rose and almost ran out of the summerhouse.

Crimson with embarrassment, Tsukka watched him go, her mouth open. Shoot! Does he really have feelings for me? She tossed her head as she chased the uninvited thought away, and tried to recall where her pelephone could be. Must be in my room. I should check what Dzinton has sent. Just need a moment to catch my breath after that lecture...

She sat in the summerhouse under the rustling tree crowns, and her hand preserved the warmth of the former captain Samatta's palms.


What happened on the fifteenth day of the sixth thriceweek shook not only Katonia - and not even only the Eastern continent.

Starting from twenty minutes to eleven, two more local TV channels began to retransmit the 'Tribune's live broadcast. At eleven o'clock sharp the 'Planet', one of Katonia's national channels, joined the transmission. In a quarter of an hour the other four national channels broadcast breaking news. Radio stations joined the coverage one by one - and soon enough all the remaining TV and radio channels on both continents interrupted their regular programming for breaking news. Heated debates suddenly erupted on most Net forums.

At thirteen o'clock sharp the Assembly interrupted its session. To be precise, it was interrupted by the leader of the Rationalist Party, Krayton Kerl, who made an enquiry into the current events in his typical scandalous manner. The press-service of the Institute headquarters in Okanaka was besieged by newsmen, and the tired press-secretaries kept repeating the same sentence 'No comment at the present time'.

At about fourteen o'clock various TV channels began to air impressive video recordings found in the archives of the Institute's Masaria branch. The recordings featured some of the most cruel experiments conducted in the branch's laboratories. The underage testees' faces were meticulously blurred out but the rest was broadcast in full. The channels were immediately overwhelmed with a barrage of phone calls. Some of the callers complained about indecency of the featured material and demanded that the program should be taken off air. The majority, seething with rage, made all sorts of suggestions, such as hanging the Institute management on lamp posts. Then it became known that the Institute was in some way connected with the Ministry of Defense, and the press-service of the latter got overwhelmed with calls and messages, too.

After a while the Public Security Service finally let fuming reporters representing other TV and radio channels past the cordon and into the Institute, and the deluge of shocking information that was beginning to dry up gushed forth once again. Considering a rather big, and clearly out for blood, crowd gathered in the square facing the Institute complex, the employees still remaining in various Institute buildings, were brought together and bused out to a hiding place under escort of armored vehicles. Their families were being evacuated at about the same time, and in a big hurry - none too soon because within the next few hours about half of their houses and apartments in Masaria was vandalized, sometimes even set on fire. On the quiet, the mobs also vandalized and looted neighboring apartments and houses, as well as overturned and burned at least 150 cars. About thirty of the most active troublemakers were arrested but it was easy to see that the policemen were doing their duty with the utmost reluctance. Most of them had children, too.

Towards the evening, the President of Katonia went live on-air to announce that the Institute headquarters' and all its branches' activity had been suspended throughout the country. He also informed the public that the Institute's management was detained by the Public Security Service - and that the Minister of Defense had offered his resignation that was immediately accepted. All of the other countries that hosted the Institute branches also issued a suspension order, their police forces deployed in the territory previously occupied by the branches. The Four Kingdoms and Grash did not miss the opportunity to declare the local branch management personae non grata while their TV channels were equally quick to sarcastically blame Katonia for the umpteenth time for planting its spies disguised as scientists and diplomats. The reporters never bothered to explain how spying was possibly related to the whole situation but nobody cared about asking for an explanation, anyway.

The next day the first evidence implicating the leadership of the ruling coalition parties in the inhumane experiments appeared in newspapers. Nobody managed to get in touch with Toi Karatsiy, the Head of the Humanist Party, who was well-known for his anti-deviant statements. Other party members determinedly repelled all accusations. The Head of the Economic Progress Party, Masarik Tranga, also announced that he had never heard of the experiments, and all the contacts between the Institute management and the party members had been private and unofficial. Upon being shown an excerpt from a financial report related to the last elections, considerable donation from the Institute being clearly highlighted in the report, he lost heart and promised to conduct a meticulous internal investigation.

Krayton Kerl kept orating from the Assembly rostrum and reminding everybody that he had been the first to sound the alarm. Various experts, including physicists, philosophers and educators, participated in non-stop round table discussions that were broadcast on both TV and radio. Thousands and thousands fiery arguments turned Net forums into verbal battlefields where few advocates of harsh treatment, when it comes to deviants, were being utterly defeated by superior forces of deviants' defenders who had suddenly appeared from seemingly nowhere. The Public Security Service's special units seized two more Institute branches where deviants were held, and a full list of 94 released children was published in newspapers. After that, guardianship agencies throughout the country began to drown in adoption applications, the number of applicants being about 5000 per child. More than 1500 families, that had earlier voluntarily or under constraint turned their deviant children over to the state, officially revoked their consent to the state guardianship – even though most of those children lived in decent conditions in specialized orphanages that had nothing to do with the Ministry of Defense's experiments. At the instigation of Krayton Kerl, and without further ado, the Assembly repealed the Compulsory State Guardianship in Exceptional Circumstances Act. On the same day, around midnight, the Assembly resolution was signed by the President.

The Defense Minister's resignation turned out to be but the first step in the subsequent government reshuffle. On the very next day the entire Executive Board, including the Prime-Minister, was forced to resign because of the raging public opinion. Completely out of the blue - and much to his surprise - the Energy Minister was by right of seniority appointed the temporary Head of the Cabinet. Less than two thriceweeks left until the elections, the Assembly voted almost unanimously for the current status-quo.

The other races displayed a restrained attitude towards the scandal in the human society. The Orc Communities Elders Council issued a statement emphasizing the Elders' confidence in humans' ability to rectify their mistakes. Several communities banned humans from entering their territory while urging their own members to quit their jobs at various human organizations - yet they were in the minority. Trolls offered no comments whatsoever. However, interracial relationships experts working for the Public Security Ministry mentioned in their later secret reports that both the trolls and the orcs were satisfied with the way the crisis had been resolved.

Naturally, nobody was surprised that at the next Assembly elections the ruling bipartisan coalition lost fifty percent of its seats. As a result, it had for the first time in thirty years lost its ruling status, as well. Almost all the votes, that were lost by the Humanist Party and the Economic Progress Party, went to the Rationalist Party – and the following autumn Krayton Kerl became the next Herald of the Assembly with ease.

It goes without saying that the public at large never found out that Splendid Sir Krayton Kerl had for just a thriceweek after the crisis made about three billion mayers at the madly fluctuating stock market as he managed to predict the fluctuations with amazing accuracy.


16.06.843, Waterday


The communicator pinged. The ooy-colonel Taragor poked the 'Accept' button.


"He's arrived," the secretary informed him. "Coming upstairs."

"Roger." The ooy-colonel ended the call and rose from his armchair. He frowned as he adjusted the mirrored glasses on his nose and turned on the light. Once he had received a dressing-down from the general for keeping the room dark - and he was not going to ask for any more trouble. Bloody eyes! Bloody sawbones! Tons of smart-sounding words, piles of medicines - and no effect whatsoever: the eyes are just as sensitive to bright light as they've always been. It gets even worse as time goes by. Or maybe not... if you think about it, the last couple of days haven't actually been so bad. I wonder if those drops the CI ooy-general gave me just before he left did help after all?

The door was flung open, and general Proi did not even enter the room but rather stormed into it. Contrary to all expectations, he was alone, without his usual entourage. The door slammed shut behind his back.

"General, Sir," the Head of the Sector began to report, "Ooy-colonel Tara..."

"Have you gone completely nuts, Ooy-Colonel?" The general cut him short. "Who do you think you are? The smartest guy in our whole Service?"

The ooy-colonel felt his jaw dropping all the way to his chest.

"Too many circles are sewn into your tabs? Maybe some of them are burning your skin? If they do, I can cut off a couple as a reward for your vigilantism," the visitor raged on. "You, fucking moron, who gave you the right to conduct an unsanctioned operation? Who allowed you to let the newsies in? It could be a different matter if they were our newsies - the tamed ones we can trust. Instead you brought in those lamebrains with loose tongues who work for the foulest of all the channels you could choose from! Do you have the first idea what sort of trouble you've managed to stir up? And, most importantly, for the sake of what fuck do I learn about this operation and its results from the newspapers and the talking box rather than from my own staff? Why don't you answer me, dolt - cat got your tongue or has your brain shriveled?"

Taragor would have never earned his circles and become the Head of a Sector if he had not been able to think on his feet. Some myst is going on here once again. I'll think about it later but now the most important thing is to clarify the situation. He stood at attention and reported as he kept his gaze straight ahead,

"Splendid Sir, General Proi Kisin, I humbly report that the operation in question was approved by the Central Directorate of the Public Security Ministry. It was conducted in accordance with a plan developed by the Third Department of the Defense Ministry. It was sanctioned both personally by yourself and by the Chief Director of our Service, Splendid Sir Ooy-General Vasik Siimora."

"What?" the visitor gasped. "What are you babbling about, Taragor? Are you in your right mind? What bloody sanction? Chief director, my ass! What do I have to do with it? I've never given you any fucking sanction of the sort, and if you..."

"The sanction was given in accordance with the standard protocols of interdepartmental interactions," Taragor interrupted, his voice even. "It is attached to the file, and you can ascertain right away that both your and the ooy-general's personal signatures are there. The file is already loaded to my terminal."

"Taragor, "the general went right up to the Head of the Sector and exhaled heavily straight into his face,

"it seems like one of us has lost his marbles. I hadn't sanctioned anything - and neither had the chief director who assured me of that as recently as yesterday afternoon, and in no uncertain terms. Show me what you have there, quickly."

The ooy-colonel nodded and returned to his desk. He moved his fingers over the sensor panel of the terminal as he was leafing through the file. Upon reaching the page with a confirmation request to the Ministry headquarters, he poked at an inconspicuous icon marked 'Authorized'. A new page appeared on the screen, and there were three signatures on the page - his own and those of his both superiors. For a moment the Head of the Sector thought that he had indeed lost his mind, and the page would turn out to be empty. It did not happen - instead the screen displayed the very lines it was supposed to display.

'Signed: Chief Director Ooy-General Vasik Simiora.

Signed: Deputy Chief Director General Proi Kisin.

Signed: Head of the General Supervision Sector, Masaria District, Ooy-Colonel Taragor Shift.'

"Nazina's bottomless cunt!" the general swore as he looked at the screen from behind the Head of the Sector's shoulder. "Fuck a duck!"

His heart seemingly lost, he trod heavily on the carpet and sank into the guest armchair as he rubbed his forehead. He remained silent for a few minutes, then he raised his head and said,

"Taragor, I've flown halfway across the country to unscrew your upper story and shove it down your own ass. By all gods, five minutes ago I was sure I would do exactly that. But now...Forget all that nonsense you've heard from me. Seems like we are completely in the soup – and I don't have the first idea how we got there."

"I..." Taragor began to say but the general paid no attention to him. He seemed to be talking to himself.

"It's impossible to forge a digital signature - or, at least, that's what our eggheads say. Impossible as a matter of fact. They kept piling up big words as they were talking about it but I surely remembered one thing: the only way to hack such a signature is to use exhaustive key search - and modern computers would need fuck knows how many billions of years to do that. It can't be forged or even intercepted, to be reproduced elsewhere. I don't even mention that our communication channels can't be hacked. I know nothing about all that mathematical rubbish but I trust my analysts. Nobody, absolutely nobody can reproduce someone else's digital signature. It's utterly impossible...or that's what I believed until today."

He dug his nails into the arm-pads with such force that he almost pierced the upholstery.

"And now I am looking at my signature on a document I've never signed. Never even seen, Tinuril's triple dick! So what's next? Should I believe that a digital signature can be forged? If so, our whole information access control system breaks into pieces. Fuck it, not only ours - the entire access control worldwide! Or maybe both I and Vasik have suddenly developed selective amnesia? Tell me, Ooy-Colonel, what do you make of it?"

Now he seems to be actually asking a question. Taragor relaxed somewhat. Doesn't look like he is still about to unscrew my head on the spot. What do I make of it? Do I make anything of anything?

"I don't know, Sir Proi," he answered warily. "I don't even know what to say. Perhaps it has something to do with the military. In theory, at least, the brains they've hired are as good as ours..."

"The military?" the general squinted at him. "And now little by little. You mentioned the Third Department. What does it have to do with all that?"

"The military CI has developed the operation plan. I almost didn't have to think up anything myself, just to conduct the operation in accordance with the plan - and to correct minor details as required by the tactical situation."

"I see. And since when do you take orders from the General Staff?"

"I took orders from a Defense Ministry's undercover ooy-general whose authorities are also confirmed by both your and the Chief Director's signatures. The confirmation was sent over the 'double zero' channel, so I couldn't even think that..."

"Understood. I even believe that you can prove your words, Ooy-Colonel. Quite amusing - seems that multiple sclerosis cases in the Service Directorate are indeed multiple. Who is that ooy-general? What's his cover story?"

"Two weeks ago one of my investigators stumbled upon someone living in a deserted hotel who had sheltered two deviant escapees from the Institute of Man. For a while, we were handling the case just as usual but then the guy himself suddenly appeared in my very office, and..."

"Do you still have his dossier?"

"No, he ordered it destroyed - so it was irreversibly deleted. I thought..."

"How did he look?" The general leaned forward, his cheek twitching spasmodically. "Describe him."

"A human, a man. Rather short, dark-haired, face type three, narrow eye-slits, high cheekbones, yellowish skin. His ears are pressed against his skull, his hair is cut short. Just a moment, I'll find his picture - I know I kept it. He looks like he is twenty but, upon a closer look, he must be at least forty. His pronunciation is standard..."

The ooy-colonel cut himself short. His visitor's face turned purple, his eyes bulged while his pupils shrank to the size of a pinhead.

"His name?" he croaked. "How did he call himself?"

"Dzinton Muratsiy. During the operation he used a code name 'Nightingale'...General, what happened? Do you need a doctor?"

The ooy-colonel leaped to his feet as the visitor's body tilted in the armchair unnaturally and almost fell to the floor. Horror distorted his face, and a trickle of saliva began to dribble down his chin.

"General! Sir!"

The deputy chief director of the Public Security Service leaned back in his armchair and panted. His hands shaking, he drew a thin glass tube out of his pocket, got hold of a tiny yellow pill and threw it into his mouth. In a few minutes his eyes regained their expression of intelligence.

"I am fine, Ooy-Colonel," he said in a strained voice. "My heart was playing tricks on me but now I am fine. Just need a moment to recover. And why didn't I think about it right away?"

The Head of the Sector sank bank into his chair, his eyes still riveted on the general. Upon recovering his breath, the latter sat straight in his armchair and wiped his face with a sleeve of his uniform coat.

"It all fits together now," he muttered through his teeth. "Bloody dick, it all fits together. They got us screwed once again, and we didn't even enjoy it..."

He rose from the armchair with difficulty and came up to the table. As he cast a glance at the picture on the screen, he sighed and began to trudge towards the door without saying a word. The ooy-colonel was looking at him uncomprehendingly.

The general almost reached the door when he stopped and turned around to look at the Head of the Sector.

"The 'Kamigami' dossier. Since you were pulled into a meat grinder, you have the right to know what got you. I'll give you access when I am back in the capital."

He stooped down a little and ground his teeth.

"An advice for you, Ooy-Colonel. A great advice - make sure you remember it well. Forget about...Dzinton Muratsiy. Just forget. No, that won't do. Send his description to everybody under your command and order them to ignore any activity he is somehow related to. I mean, ignore totally and completely. If you realize that somebody under your surveillance is in touch with him, stop the surveillance immediately. Close on the spot any file that has anything to do with him or anybody from his inner circle. And if he takes it into his head to give you another order, do whatever he says in a heartbeat. Along those lines. Got it?"

"Yes, Sir, " the Head of the Sector nodded. "But... why? Who is he, what sort of a person?"

"He isn't a 'person', Ooy-Colonel. Neither a human, nor an orc or a troll. He isn't even a living being, just one of the masks of something that is able to flatten our whole world into a pancake without breaking a sweat. I couldn't care less about what's behind the mask - and I must caution you against ever trying to find out. Or...you have no idea, Taragor, how it feels when the worst nightmares come to you in broad daylight. You don't know it - and pray to all gods you believe that you'll never come to know."

The general pushed the door open and left the office. The ooy-colonel watched him go and felt his jaw drop once again. Is he in his right mind?

More important, does this weird scene mean that the promotion I was promised has just gone down the drain?


17.06.843, Treeday


"Kara, do you have a minute?" Dzinton knocked tactfully on the door jamb before he actually looked into the room. The girl took her eyes off her notebook, where numerous pencil marks bore witness to her attempts to simplify a stubborn fraction, and looked at him. "Could you please come to the kitchen?"

Karina put her pencil away, got up and stretched. She had been doing math for the last two hours, and her neck was numb with sitting motionlessly for such a long time. Maybe I should move to the garden - at least it's less stuffy there than in the room. For training purposes, she lifted the textbook slightly with her effector and put it back on the table. Then she went to the kitchen and stopped at the entrance.

Yana and Palek, recently back from and already after lunch, were tidying up. Lika was doing the dishes and throwing the clean flatware to Yana who would catch them adroitly in midair with her effectors. Then she would use her hands to wipe the plates and utensils with a towel, and pile them on the kitchen table. Dzinton was watching the two of them from the windowsill.

"Good," he said when Yana caught the last plate. "You, girls, have been practicing for only a couple of days - and already you are handling the strength function pretty well. Not displaying much confidence yet but still doing well. After a thriceweek or two of practicing you'll be able to use your effectors just as naturally as you are using your hands. But that's not enough. Who can tell me why you won't be able to protect yourself with the effector? Yana? Kara?"

The girls exchanged glances and shrugged their shoulders in unison.

"Because the effector is very easy to block. To be precise, it's your connection with it that's easy to block. You do know how your brain controls your body, don't you? It sends electrical signals to your muscles through your nerves, and the muscles contract to bend and unbends your arms, legs and so on. Your body's main nerve is the spinal cord that travels through your spinal column and transmits the signals sent by the brain to both your hands and your effector. So far everything's clear?"

The girls exchanged glances once again. Then Yana nodded.

"My dad told me about the brain," she remarked. "That it controls everything in the body. But he also said that the spinal cord was somewhat able to think as well."

"Your dad was right," Dzinton agreed, "but it's not that important now. What is important, though, is that the virus effector connects to the spinal cord of a human between the first and the seventh vertebra. The exact connection point determines how the deviant perceives the effector and which additional abilities that deviant develops. While the connection points might be scattered all along the spinal cord, there is one common rule: in all cases the effector actually attaches to the cord not far from the seventh vertebra." The Demiurge tapped a spot between his shoulder-blades with his finger. "At the very spot the brain uses to control arm movements. That's why deviants usually perceive their effector's manipulators as additional arms. Hey, young Sir," he addressed Palek sternly, "stop stealing glances through the window. I am telling all that for your sake, as well, because you should know it too. Ya?"

"Ya," the boy nodded reluctantly. In fact, he was indeed looking for an opportunity to sneak away from home.

"So, where was I? Oh, yes...Since the effector attaches to the cord in the neck area, its interaction with the nervous system is easy to block by using chaotic electromagnetic interference of a particular kind. Both of you, girls, know all too well what 'blockirator' is - I am afraid, you know it much better than you would ever care to know. Its simplest version is an object emitting chaotic noise impulses into the environment. Just like loudspeakers can produce hisses, so can blockirators but their hiss can't be heard with the 'naked' ear. Sometimes, lest they interfere with pelephones and other gadgets or appliances, they get installed inside iron boxes similar to those used to transport you when you were in the Institute. Iron plates block electromagnetic waves."

"Oh, I know!" Yana piped up once more. "We learned about lightning in science class."

"That's right, lightning is also an electromagnetic impulse. So, three-dimensional blockirators are quite cumbersome. That's why the military invented that."

Dzinton made a magician-like gesture and produced from somewhere a round, shining ring that he threw nonchalantly on the table. Karina recoiled instinctively as if she saw a poisonous snake.

"That's how a typical blockirator known in lingo as a "collar" looks. A built-in rechargeable battery equipped with specific electronic chips. Impulses generated by a collar are much weaker than those produced by a three-D blockirator but they are channeled toward the inside of the ring. Once around your neck, a collar would completely interrupt your connection to the effector. Well, you know that without me telling you, don't you?"

The girls hesitated, then nodded. Palek, intrigued, looked at the collar and touched it with his finger.

"What you don't know, little squirrels - and not only you as a matter of fact - is that the noise produced by a collar can be overcome. If you manage that, you can keep using your effector even with the collar on. However, it takes lots of practice to learn how to break through the blockade. I want you to wear this thing about fifteen minutes a day, starting from today - and to try to overcome it. It's modified: the explosive has been removed, and the electronic lock has been replaced with a simple magnetic safety catch. That's how you can open and close it," Dzinton took the ring and popped it open with a single flick of his fingers. Then he drew a flat box out of his pocket and put it on the table. "That's a charger for you. The battery lifespan is about an hour-an hour and a half. After that just plug the charger, insert the collar, like that, and leave it there until the yellow indicator light has turned off. Then it's fully charged and you can amuse yourselves with it once again. Just don't wear it in public, ok?"

"Dad," Karina asked incredulously, "how can we overcome it? I had it on many times - and I never-ever managed to..."

"You were being scared and drugged – and you didn't know you could defeat the thing. Now you are not afraid, and you do know that the collar can be defeated. I want you to succeed. Yani, the same goes for you. Girls, you must understand: if you manage to overcome the blockirator you will gain the upper hand over bad guys. You have to learn how to fight it and defeat it. To provide you with an extra incentive, I make a solemn promise: when you both have conquered the collar and broken through the blockade, I'll take everybody to the Wonders Park."

"WOW!" Palek shrieked. "I want to go to the Wonders Park! lang=PLYani, Kara, do it quickly!"

"Now you also have an incentive," Dzinton winked at him. "So, do your part, make sure they practice. Fifteen minutes a day. Even half-an-hour, if you can. I'll consider it an ultimate success when you manage to pick a plate off the table and hold it in the air for two minutes - with the collar on, of course. By the way, you should continue practicing without the collar, just as before. Agreed?"

He looked closely at the girls. Yana nodded readily.

"I'll try," Karina agreed and sighed. Dad never does anything without a good reason. If he says it should be done, then it should. What's 'Wonders Park'? I should ask Yani.

"You shouldn't try, Kara. When you 'try', you allow yourself to fail. And, in this case, failing is out of the question. Don't try, just do it."

He cocked his head and listened for a moment.

"Seems like we are having uninvited guests - and I even know who they are. Lika, would you mind to come with me to the courtyard?"

Without waiting for an answer, he swung his legs over the windowsill and jumped down into the courtyard. Palek climbed the sill and also jumped down. Karina shook her head. Boys! Dad is an adult but he behaves like he, too, were a boy. Couldn't he just walk down the hallway, slowly and with dignity? Besides, now their bare feet will become dusty - and they'll bring all that dust back to the house, and onto the clean floor...

An insistent car honk came from right outside the gate, then another one. A strong blow followed immediately, and the gates flew wide open. Three persons waddled into the courtyard. The leader of the group was a tall, burly human male wearing, notwithstanding the heat, a thick and wide gold suit jacket with blue-green threads, and well-pressed gold bell-bottom pants. His jet-black shoes were barely visible beneath the pant legs. The man's head was clean-shaven, and a diamond earring was dangling from his left ear. A short, ugly scar crossed the left side of his forehead. His deep set, gun muzzle-like eyes were gloomily raking the world around him.

The leader's companions looked less flamboyant. A musclebound human male wearing shorts and a tank top would be inconspicuous but for his very muscles and a piece of pipe he was toying with. An orc male seemed to be content with his own, already graying fur that was covering his whole body. The weather being so hot, he obviously needed no additional clothing.

Karina disliked all three of them at first sight. She peered at them for a moment. They must be robbers. And they are so big and strong! Probably, Dad won't be able to handle them, and I'll have to help him. Where is Samatta when we need him? Doesn't matter, I'll manage on my own. I just have to make sure I won't kill them incidentally. It's good that Tsukka went shopping or she could get hurt by accident. Karina tried to estimate if the self-invited 'guests' were within her effector's reach. It seems they aren't, I am too far away. Must come closer. She sighed inwardly and jumped onto the windowsill, just like Palek had done a few moments ago.

"Yani, be ready to help, just in case," she said as she turned her head, to make sure the visitors would not be able to hear her. Then she jumped down into the courtyard.

"Look who's here!" the man in the gold suit jacket said, his exclamation of surprise sounding as unnatural as it was loud. "What's up, pal?"

"How can I help you...hm, extremely splendid Sir?" Dzinton asked, seemingly interested, as he looked sideways at approaching Karina. The girl squinted as she estimated the distance once again. Yes, now I can get all three of them.

"Was it you, snip, that plucked the Walrus four weeks ago? First your brat sold a swag to him, and then you took the swag back. Want to know what we do with rats like you?" There was an edge now to the man's voice. "Did you think we wouldn't find you? You'd wish! Hunting down your brat in the street is a piece of cake! Do you know what we are going..."

"First of all, Splendid Sir, let's define our terms," Dzinton interrupted him. "There are no snips or brats here but several honest people including three minors, and three criminal gofers. So, watch your tongue if you don't want to lose it right now. Secondly, be so kind as to tell me what you want - and use appropriate language while doing so. And be quick because you've trespassed on a private property, and I am itching to teach you good manners."

"Lo, he is talking back," the man drawled jeeringly. "Seems you need to be taught a lesson, after all."

The side gate creaked, and Samatta stepped into the courtyard. He was naked but for a loincloth, and his skin glistened with sweat. Karina realized that he must have gone for his daily run around the park.

"So, what do we have here?" he asked, curious. "True gangsters, are they?"

"Not even close," Dzinton smiled ironically. "Petty racketeers, nothing more. That one, in the jacket, is a capo serving a certain racketeer named Kasam - a plague of street vendors and small shopkeepers. I think, his name is Zamaha. The other two are just part-time fighters."

"I don't get it!" the golden man uttered, dumbfounded. "You, like, know me?"

"You are well-known to the criminal police, Splendid Sir - in case, you didn't realize it," Dzinton informed him coldly. "The only reason you aren't behind bars yet is that you are smarter than an average capo. Anyways, we are acquainted now - so, just skip the preamble describing what you usually do with those like me, and tell me what exactly you want."

"You, punk, are too insolent," the golden Zamaha said, after giving the matter some consideration. "You ignore my words, and you even talk back. I'll have to teach you a lesson, to start with. Then you'll go with us to Kasam, and it will be his decision how much you owe him for shaking Walrus down. Maybe, Kasam will just bury you right away somewhere in the forest - so that you won't be such a smartass next time." Zamaha grinned, displaying a few gold teeth. "Goose, Torpedo, do your job. And you, stay away!" the last words, along with a wary glance, were addressed to Samatta.

"I surely will," the latter smiled broadly as he propped his shoulder against the fence and crossed his arms on his chest. "You got yourself into this mess - you find your way out of it."

Karina looked at him uncomprehendingly. Why wouldn't he help Dad? Doesn't matter, I'll manage on my own. First, I should knock down the golden one...

She felt Dzinton's palm on her shoulder.

"Kara..." he said in a low voice. The girl lifted her gaze and saw him shaking his head imperceptibly.

"Do me a favor, move aside and take Lika with you."

At that moment both the human in the tank top and the orc stepped forward and found themselves within arm's reach of Dzinton. The human struck forward with the pipe without swinging it as he was aiming at Dzinton's face. Meanwhile the orc slid forward and tried to perform an outer reaping throw. Karina was familiar with that dirty trick of stunning the opponent and throwing him to the ground, in order to start kicking him.

The pipe swished through the air but Dzinton already disappeared from the spot he had occupied a split second ago. The next instant he materialized behind the assailant's back and jabbed his fist into the back of the man's head. The man lost his balance and ran a few steps forward carried by his own momentum. Karina barely had time to dodge out of his path but she still managed to trip him up using her manipulator. The man fell headfirst. Karina jumped aside while her other manipulator served to cast away the pipe he dropped.

Palek dived forward, tucked into a ball and rolled into the orc's feet as the latter was turning around. The orc tripped over him and lurched sideways but managed to keep his balance as he wriggled like a snake. Then he lunged at Dzinton once more. Karina had no idea what came next: Dzinton swung his arms in some strange way, performed a graceful pas - and somehow in a moment he happened to sit on top of the orc who, his hands twisted behind his back, and his nose buried in the dust, was swearing hoarsely at the top of his lungs. As Dzinton slapped the orc's lightly on the back of his head, he said didactically,

"One shouldn't study the Art of the Path to avenge his grievances by taking it out on those who are weak and defenseless. Proficiency in that Art implies a highly developed sense of responsibility – and the more skilled you are, the more responsible you should be. And it's that very responsibility, my dear Sir, that you seem to be lacking entirely and completely."

"And if you show your face here ever again, we'll kick your ass, and then some!" Palek said in a ringing voice as he shook the dust off his knees.

"Now, what about your manners, young Sir?" Dzinton asked reproachfully as he straightened up. "You should never forget about being polite, even if you are about to tear one's head off. Don't follow our guests' example, it's not a good one. You'll be able to rise in about two minutes," he informed the orc who was trying in vain to come to his feet. "That's a gentler version of the 'spider bite'. Mind you, if I ever have to teach you another lesson I'll leave you paralyzed for a whole thriceweek."

In the meantime, the man in the tank top had finally managed to leap to his feet - and now he roared, lowered his head and charged at Dzinton. However, as soon as he moved, Karina's manipulator tripped him up once again, and he collapsed to the ground and rolled forward. The girl immediately pinned him down on the ground, and he lay on his back, his legs flailing helplessly. The man looked strikingly similar to an upturned beetle as he was unsuccessfully trying to stand up.

"The modern youth have no respect for their elders," Dzinton muttered. "Kara, have you no conscience at all? He is twice your age, and you get his skull banged against the ground! You could've at least dropped him to the grass."

"You...you, what r u doing?" the golden Zamaha finally snapped out of his temporary stupor. "What are you doing, you punks? I'll show you now!"

With unexpected deftness he drew a big handgun with a long barrel from beneath his jacket and aimed it at Dzinton.

"That's it, you asshole," he said menacingly. "Now you're up shit creak big time. Now I'll bury you right..."

He was never meant to finish the sentence. Dzinton stepped forward lazily and plucked the gun with his left hand while he touched, seemingly lightly, the ruffian's solar plexus with straight fingers of his right hand. The thug sank to his knees, wheezing and gasping for air, his eyes bulging as he dirtied his stylish pants.

"Considering your occupation, Sir Zamaha," Dzinton remarked didactically as he cast the handgun away, "you should have learned by now not to draw your gun unless you are ready to use it. Or else, to be prepared to face the consequences. It's your problem, of course – it won't bother me if one day you get shot with your own weapon. And now listen to me: it's not I who is up shit creak, it's you who are up it without a paddle. You and your goombah. You two owe me for this shakedown attempt, and you owe me a whole lot. Remember now: Kasiva Square, the 'White Rose' cafe. Tomorrow at noon Kasam should be waiting for me there. If he fails to be there when I come, he'll have only himself to blame. If you fail to tell him, you'll have only yourself to blame. The next time I find you, the children won't be around - so I won't handle you with kid gloves anymore. Kasiva Square. The 'White Rose' cafe. Tomorrow at ten sharp. Got it? I asked if you got it. Repeat what I said."

"The 'White Rose', Kasiva Square," the golden Zamaha croaked. "I'll tell him, Sir..."

"Very good. Now take your henchmen and away with you." He looked at Karina, shifted his gaze to the man in the tank top, still flailing his legs stubbornly on the ground, and raised his eyebrow very slightly. The girl shrugged her shoulders and withdrew her manipulators. Panting, the hoodlum got up as he was shifting his uncomprehending look from Dzinton to still equally panting Zamaha and back. In a few seconds he was joined by the staggering orc. Both helped their golden ringleader to rise to his feet as they kept looking around apprehensively, and all three of them almost tumbled out the gate. Dzinton watched them go, thoughtful now.

"That's how the past comes back to haunt you at the most unexpected moments," he told Palek who was grinning happily. Suddenly the boy's grin went out. "And you hadn't even gotten into any real mess. Imagine what could have happened if you had."

"But I've quit!" the boy muttered gloomily as he was picking at the ground with his big toe.

"I know," Dzinton nodded. "But remember: it's easy to go wrong, it's much more difficult to get back on track. Anyway, I'll handle this whole matter. And you and Yani still have your home-task to deal with. Kara, you need to study, too. But first, all three of you, go to the bathroom and wash your feet. Tsukka will be back soon, she'll check how you are coping with your studies. Off you go, pipsqueaks, time to do something useful."

When the children, as they were exchanging excited glances, had left the courtyard, Samatta came up to the handgun, picked it up from the ground and twirled it nonchalantly with his fingers.

"Kendza-3. A cheapy," he snorted derisively. "Looks impressive but its accuracy range is barely twenty fathoms, its grouping of shots is practically non-existent, and its bolt will jam if you sneeze near it. Good enough to scare shopkeepers but that's about it. He didn't even take the safety off when he was drawing the gun! And he hasn't cleaned it for about a year. And this wretch calls other people 'punks'?"

"Well, thugs don't participate in battles," the Demiurge shrugged. "Do me a favor, throw the gun away someplace. Or just disintegrate it. It surely has some criminal history, so we'd better not keep it here. And it's not a good idea to give it back to the owner, is it?"

"Disintegrate, you say?" Samatta looked at the gun thoughtfully, and it rose slightly on his palm. Suddenly an oval pitch-black cocoon surrounded the weapon, and in a second both vanished into thin air with a pop.

"Easy, easy," Dzinton advised him. "So much power can atomize a tank, not only a handgun."

"Haven't mastered the system yet," Samatta's eyebrow jerked. "Still can't make it work as I want it to. I intended to use much less power. By the way, I was ready to paralyze all three of them at any given moment but your show turned out to be much more impressive."

"My show will also help me to shake down a minor shot caller for quite a lot of money tomorrow," Dzinton snorted. "If there is anybody I might enjoy to brainwash, it would be him. I just can't stand this criminal scum! Those lice - not enough that they drink blood, they spread disease, too."

"Money..." Samatta gave him a reproachful look. "And you are going to take this criminal slimebag's money?"

"Of course, I am," the Demiurge nodded. "Mati, try to understand: it's not my task to rid your society of such problems as thugs, corruption or criminal stupidity. It's up to the society itself to solve those problems - and it can do it, too. I just take advantage of favorable circumstances to advance my goals. Sometimes I might solve a problem or two as a side effect of what I am doing but that doesn't happen too often. Let the police do it systematically, day by day. As for money, it's not the main thing, of course, but it is important - even I can hardly imagine a more convenient tool. It goes without saying that I can create any amount of money out of nowhere, be it in cash or as a credit entry in my bank account. But we'd rather avoid pumping massive amounts of uncovered money into the society because it harms the economics. So, we prefer to use the already existing money when we can - and that means, we have to take it from someone. And it's better if we part a criminal from his money rather than an honest person or even a stock-market gambler. Do you understand?"

"I'd still prefer to just break his neck," Samatta scowled stubbornly.

"He'd get immediately replaced by someone else. An ancient people, now long gone, had a saying: 'A holy throne is never empty'. So? Should we keep wringing necks until half of the population is dead, and the other half is scared to death? Wouldn't it be easier to just vaporize the whole planet, to start with? The real problem isn't Kasam, as such, but rather the socio-economic realities of your society that make the very existence of 'kasams' possible. Change those realities so as to eradicate racket as a social phenomenon, and life will become much easier."


"Why do you think I should know?" Dzinton was surprised. "It's your society, so it's up to you to find a way."

"So be it, you know more about this than me," the former soldier gave up arguing. "By the way, what did you tell Lika about the past?"

"He would pickpocket before we met," the Demiurge explained. "Nothing big - mostly wallets and pelephones - but he had already gone astray. I've talked sense into him, hope he won't get involved in anything criminal ever again. But there is another problem. Kara."


"Yes. She is a brave girl. Too brave and selfless. As you saw, she was ready to take on all three hoodlums, just to protect me. And on the assault day she intended to fight your whole unit all alone - fight and die."

"True." Samatta rubbed his chin pensively. "If she doesn't learn to choose her battles wisely, she'll come to a bad end. Children don't understand what death is."

"Exactly. On the other hand, you know all too well that new recruits are those who die first during any war. And she makes no bones about using her effector either. Ok, this time I've clouded those clowns' judgement - so they won't realize why they kept tripping on level ground. But if that happens again, when I am not around but someone observant is..."

"And what do you suggest?"

"I'll have to think it through first. I have an idea but I am not sure yet how to implement it without hurting Lika's feelings. So, it needs some time to take shape. And now I should get busy and disappear for a couple of hours. By the way, if it makes you feel better, Kasam is a nuisance for me. And I need to make an example of someone. So he is a goner. He will be either killed by his own ilk or imprisoned for a long time - and he'll never come out of jail alive."

Dzinton nodded to Samatta and headed for the house. The former captain watched him go, then picked up the orphaned piece of pipe and threw it over the fence. Then he went out into the garden. When the security system had notified him about armed people approaching the house, he still had more than two versts to run - and even such an interesting visit was not to interfere with his daily routine. So Samatta wanted to get rid of the boring task as soon as possible.


18.06.843, Goldenday


→Kamill, contact request. Dzhao in the channel.

→Kamill in the channel.

→I've hacked Maya's personal log.

→Do you expect me to offer you a cookie? What have you found out?

→She is responsible for the effector. There are many charts and sketches in the log that are quite similar to what we actually have in reality.

→So, she is to blame, after all. Excellent. When I meet her, I'll tell her off as she deserves. I wonder what was she thinking of?

→No idea. She doesn't explain her motives. There might be some other notes elsewhere but I have no intention to rummage through her entire archive. Now it's more important to locate her current whereabouts. There is what seems like a clue: she mentions several people in the Defense Ministry, including the then Minister, as possible influence vectors.

→The military? Amusing. But I still can't see how it can help us.

→We should assume that there was an accident. Something that prevented her from finishing her work.

 →...or maybe that she just released this stupid thing - and then fled like a guilty schoolgirl because she was afraid of the consequences.

→Kamill, stop grouching. You know quite well that Maya wouldn't do anything like that. So, let's assume that the effector broke loose by accident - if that's the case, it almost certainly began to spread from a single location.

→And we might try to find this location to look for Maya there.

→Exactly. Kamill, you know the local society much better than I do. It's much easier for you to find information we need.

→Yeah, sure. When something happens you think of Kamill right away. Just that you know, I am not exactly twiddling my thumbs right now.

→You don't have to be so modest. I know that you are second to none when it comes to manipulating bioforms. Give it a try, please.

→You are sweet talking me, and you are laying it on thick. Well, if you need me that much... I don't have to give it a try because it's quite easy to do. We just check the archives and see what newspapers and breaking news reports were saying about deviants in 839.

→Great. How much time do you need?

→Already done. Those electronic archives are a real beauty, it's a pleasure to search there. But it cost me so much time and energy to get all of them converted into electronic form...Now, that's really funny. Dzhao, the pandemic seems to have started somewhere near that very city of Masaria where you now have your charming family. By the way, do you at least humor that young nanny of yours? Or do you keep pretending to be a wise monk, as you always do? Just think how much pleasure you are denying her!

→Wisecracker. Ha-ha. Now, don't get distracted. What exactly looks suspicious in Masaria area?

→The archives of that same Institute of Man's Masaria branch you so gracefully destroyed a couple of days ago. There is a lot of evidence there proving that the Institute had been collaborating with one of the Defense Ministry's secret laboratories located about 150 versts away from Masaria. It's getting even more hilarious than before: those military professors settled down just three versts away from my old Citadel that you, Sir Arbiter, blew to smithereens as you were throwing me out of the Game. They seem to have conducted some excavations there, in an attempt to reach the lower levels - and then they decided that an auxiliary building ruins was the best spot for their secret base. In particular, because the building's underground levels remained intact.

→Hm, an interesting coincidence, indeed. Do you think it might be worth taking a look?

→I don't only think so but I am actually taking a look. I've already begun gutting them, in search for some useful information.

→Excellent. I am in the middle of a manipulation, so I can't join you. But keep me updated. And, Kamill, if you do find Maya, don't try to do anything drastic on your own. Just to be on the safe side because this whole situation is too enigmatic.

→I know your opinion about me but even if I am a psycho, I am not a fool. Relax, Dzha, and enjoy whatever you are doing. I'll get in touch when I am done.

→Thanx, Kamill. Out.



Of course, Kurragh entered the room without knocking. Hasn't changed a bit for those fifteen or so years I know him: as cocksure, impudent and not giving a hoot about conventionalities as ever.

Vice-colonel Surash snarled slightly, displaying two rows of sharp teeth, and jerked his scaled face skin as much up as he could as he was trying to show his disapproval. To no avail, just as usual: even if the orc did suspect that trolls also had facial mimicry, he had never made it known.

"We have problems," the Head of Computer Security Service announced right away, without ever bothering to say something like 'good morning'. "We've just been raped big time, and I have no idea how they did it. Total 'isharaht', in short."

"And now spell it out," the Head of Security of the Defense Ministry Third Lab leaned back in his armchair and nervously tapped his claws on the tabletop that was already marked all over with deep scratches. You don't need enemy if you have subordinates like that: they are quite enough to drive you crazy.

"Half an hour ago the monitoring system alarm went off. It registered an access to the local network resources – and the network was logged into with the chief director's credentials."

"Could he himself log in?"

"No, he couldn't. I know him for seven years, and he's never deigned to connect to the network while on vacation. That's why the system is programmed to sound the alarm if it ever happens. But this is only the thin end of the wedge. According to the logs, the access occurred from an unidentified terminal within the local network - the terminal that was assigned a non-existing address."

"Unauthorized usage of the address?"

"Out of the question. Interfaces of active networking equipment have hard-assigned lists of addresses of all connected devices. Strictly speaking, you can seize an address but you'll never be able to use it past the nearest switch. The switch will not only send you packing but also raise the alarm - to notify all the systems that an authorized access attempt has occurred. It means that the address is seized, but the frames containing it didn’t pass through switches, although the address belonged to a network segment completely different from that of the accessed servers."

"Got it. Go on." The vice-colonel felt the fury swell inside him. Who could pull a trick like that in my Lab?

"The logging system registered access from that address to a database on 'Maino' server. The session continued for three minutes, and during that time every single header of the database was checked upon. Then the connection broke but right after that the main system storing all the current experiments data reported maximum load on all data volumes, regardless of their contents. The system access activity on all the connected servers remained statistically average. The logs of the equipment used for connecting to the system confirm that the traffic didn't exceed the usual volumes."

"Skip technicalities. Conclusions?"

"None whatsoever," the orc plonked himself down on the guest armchair and began to pick his teeth with a claw. "I would say, an unknown device materialized out of thin air, attached itself straight to the cable connecting to 'Maino' - a second-security-class optic cable with reinforced coating running inside armored ducting, that is - faked the chief director's security credentials, including his certificate, personal code and fingerprint, scanned the database and broke connection. After that it attached itself to the storage system controller in a similar fashion, downloaded all the necessary information about the experiments it was interested in - without even bothering to use one of the servers for that purpose - and vanished back into thin air as gracefully as it had appeared. And at the very moment when the duty officer, puzzled by what was going on, summoned me. How is that?"

"Just outstanding" the troll snorted. "And now stop clowning and present a normal version of what could've happened there."

"I've just told you, Surash," the Head of Computer Security Service looked at his interlocutor as if he suspected that the latter had just lost his mind, "that I have none. No plausible conclusions. It's just impossible. I'd rather believe in simultaneous glitches in several different systems than admit that anything like that could ever happen in reality. The only reason I came to you is that I am enough nuts not to be afraid that you, a two-fathom bean pole, will haul me over the coals because I just don't have any explanation."

The vice-colonel hissed through both rows of his teeth. Right now he was indeed dying to haul his old pal over the coals. If the computer system was indeed compromised, it isn't just bad, it's disastrous. If any experiment data - let alone, any classified data concerning the experiments whose conduct requires sixth level security clearance - leaked out, the Lab will be closed indefinitely, and the CI will be screening every single member of the staff and checking every single piece of equipment. My own personnel file will be so blemished that I can consider my career out the window once and for all, no matter how innocent I might be.

"Well," he said. "I see. I would ask you if you are sure of what you said but I know you well enough. Of course you are. You don't even know what 'doubt' is! Fine..."

He turned towards the communicator and activated it by casually moving his hand. In a few seconds the Head of the Guards' face appeared on the screen.

"General Red Alert," the vice-colonel said curtly. "Full protocol. Immed..."

He was interrupted by a whistle of an emergency call, and a middle-aged man in a military uniform, wearing an armband of a containment unit duty officer, replaced the Head of the Guards on the communicator screen. The priority call icon began to flash in the corner of the screen.

"Vice-Colonel, Sir," the duty officer was stammering under nervous excitement. "We have a double emergency in Cell Eight: the blockirators are off, and there is a stranger in the cell."

"What?!" Surash roared as he leaped to his feet. "Which stranger? Where has he come from?"

"I don't know, Sir! The cell door has never been unsealed, the surveillance cameras haven't registered anybody in the hallway. It's as if he materialized out of nowhere."

"I'll show him 'out of nowhere'!" the troll bellowed. "Send the duty detachment to the cell! I'll be there in a minute, don't unseal the door without me!"

As he raced along the hallway in giant leaps towards the elevator, the same thought kept buzzing through his head: it finally happened. It must've happened sooner or later - and now it has...

In the elevator he managed to pull himself together. You, idiot. Moron. Brainless beast. You've been alive for seventy years, and sixty five of them you've spent on the Path - enough time to learn how to control yourself. Or are those butterflies in my stomach but a consequence of the underlying pressure I've lived under for the last four years, ever after that terrible day? The bloody Cell Eight...

Look at the bright side of life, his inner voice interfered. It looks like today the old mystery will finally get solved.

Surash was still walking briskly when he approached the control post but he already kept his emotions in check. The atmosphere at the post could be best described as 'quiet bedlam'. The duty officer, his eyes utterly mad, gave Surash a look full of hope.

"What's going on in the cell?" the vice-colonel asked tartly. "Come straight to the point."

"A man. A human. Came from nowhere. He is standing there and talking to her," the officer reported. His colleague, whose eyes were as mad, nodded several times.

"Louder," Surash ordered. "I can't hear anything."

He fixed his eyes on the screen showing the stranger's face, then on another screen where the woman could be seen. It's just unbelievable! He should have been killed twenty times by now!

The duty officer nodded readily and raised the volume.

"...just in case, I am repeating my message verbally as well as re-sending it over a secondary channel." The stranger's voice was stripped of any emotion. It could have belonged to a voice alert system rather than any living being. "I do not hear your response, Maya. Let us try again, in case you find a way to handle your projection. I am waiting for a verbal communication for the next twelve seconds. Eleven...ten...nine..."

Surash listened with bated breath and tried not to miss any small detail like a gesture or a voice inflection. The woman moaned loudly and produced a series of meaningless sounds.

"Verbal communication has failed. Maya, I am waiting for a change in your facial expression for twelve seconds. Close both of your projection's eyes - or, at least, one of them. Eleven...ten...nine..."

"What had happened before I came?" for some reason, the troll asked the question in a hollow whisper - even though the stranger could not hear him.

"More of the same," the duty officer whispered back. "He is repeating it for the third time."

"No facial expression change has occurred," the stranger stated in the meantime. "Maya, I am waiting for your tactile reaction for twelve seconds. Use your effector to touch my projection anywhere in the head area. Nine...Eight...Seven..."

The troll clenched his fists so tight that his nails dug into his skin. Why is he calling her 'Maya'? That name wasn't in her dossier. That name doesn't even exist!

"Tactile contact has failed. Only chaotic effector attacks resulting in blows to random parts of my projection have been noted. Maya, based on the outcome of the three series of attempts, I must conclude that at least your outgoing communication channels are completely blocked. I am going to take you out of here but, because of your unclear condition, I can't risk using the hypershift. I have to resort to ground transportation. I will transport you to Dzhao's Citadel that is the nearest protected location. Be ready."

The stranger looked straight into the camera, and Surash felt a surge of real terror. Of course, the camera was broadcasting in only one direction - and yet he could swear by anything he believed in that the other man could see him.

"Hey, guys," this time the stranger's voice was brimming with irony. "How about joining the party? Have pity on the cell door - either you open it for me or I'll just blow it out. Or you don't care much about government property? You have a minute to make up your mind, then I'll begin to act."

There is no fear because it's part of me. There is no fury because it's part of me. My feelings are part of me, and they don't exist because only I exist.

Surash repeated it twice, the formula he had learned as a child. His emotions were overwhelming him in a most unbecoming way, and the main emotion was - as he was surprised to realize - the very fear he had just mentioned. And yet...

"Duty detachment?" he asked curtly as he pressed on his earphone. "Here is Second. Where are you?"

"Here is Ant-One. We took up our position at Cell Eight. Waiting for orders."

"I'll be there in twenty seconds. Wait."

Due to intermediate locks being already open, the vice-colonel met his deadline with at least five seconds to spare. As his eyes swept over the fighting squad scattered all over the hallway, their heavy assault rifled trained on the cell door, he hummed skeptically. How come I don't believe they'll be any help whatsoever?

"Open the door," he said, his eyes on the black oculus of the security camera under the ceiling.

The door buzzed lightly and slid inside the wall. The stranger stood behind it, his hands dropped at his sides, in a relaxed manner, and looked at the troll, bored.

"The Head of Security, Vice-Colonel Surash Tamarei, if I am not mistaken?" he asked indifferently. "I am taking her with me. This toy is out of your league. Shortly a van will come in front of your Lab gate..."

"Who are you, Sir," Surash interrupted him politely but firmly. "Why have you broken into a highly classified government installation without warning?"

"To make things simple, you can call me Kamill," the stranger answered. "Or Scorpion, if you wish. As for who I am..."

A clatter around him made Surash start. He glanced right, then left. His soldiers had dropped their weapons and all, to a man, collapsed on the concrete floor where they were lying now, lifeless as dolls.

What's the myst? Are they all dead? How?

"Relax, Dog Face," the man who called himself Kamill said condescendingly. "They are alive, just conked out. And so did those two in the control room. The security cameras temporarily stopped to work, and there is no recording in progress. We are alone. So, as I said, an ambulance van will come to the checkpoint of your remarkable classified installation very shortly. You'll give an order to let it pass, and I'll help this...ehh, person into it. Then I'll leave - and it should concern you not in the least, where exactly. I don't care how you'll justify the handover to comply with your rules but if your guys try to get in my way once more, they'll have only themselves to blame. At the very least, the lab will have to be rebuilt from scratch because there will be nothing left of it but a deep pit, good enough to lay a new foundation. Is everything clear?"

"But I can't let you take her away like that! She is dangerous!" Surash felt that he was talking nonsense but he had no idea what else to say.

"I don't remember asking for your opinion," the stranger's voice became icy. "Let me judge how dangerous she is. And just for your information: she is way more dangerous than you deem her – so, in fact, I am doing you a favor by taking her away. Do you think that those tiny tentacles, her projection uses to lash at whatever it can reach, are the most dangerous thing in the world? That's because you've never seen nucleation of a new Universe at close range, my friend. And she is quite capable of doing that. By the way, how will I carry her? If she starts levitating, you guys will lose whatever is still left of your marbles. A helicopter? Won't work in Masaria. Oh, I know..."

Kamill stepped forward and sideways, and immediately a gurney appeared out of thin air. The troll could swear on the memory of Usimbei that no such gurney could be found not only in the hallway but also in the whole building. All the more so because the gurney obviously moved completely on its own - even though it was not equipped with anything like a motor. In the meantime, it rolled into the cell and up to the cot with the woman where it stopped. The protective restraints fell off the woman's body all by themselves, and the body - still twitching and producing random sounds – floated up and landed smoothly on the gurney. A white cloud materialized in the air and, as it was turning into a bed sheet, covered the body. As if nothing happened, the gurney rolled out of the cell and began to move slowly towards the elevators, its wheels squeaking matter-of-factly.

"And now, Dog Face, we will follow the gurney, and you are going to use your authority to make sure they'll let us pass. Hello! Have you fallen asleep, my friend?" Kamill tapped his index finger against the stupefied troll's shoulder. "Start moving your feet or I'll really have to smash a door or two..."

The orange medical van disappeared behind a rock ledge overhanging a bend in the road, and Surash sank heavily straight to the low grass by the roadway barrier gates and stared at the ocean glinting far below as he ignored gobsmacked looks of the sentries. He was feeling unclean and sick at heart. If pulp fiction is to be trusted that's exactly how raped human females should feel. The worst of it is that this incomprehensible Kamill didn't give a hoot about the Lab itself nor the prototype of a top secret laser cannon that was only yesterday deployed in the training area, or the regiment guarding the territory. Eight hundred people armed with heavy weapons - who indeed cares about such a trifle...Just like an adult would smile condescendingly as he squeezes through street barricades built by children eager to play their war games. For the sake of all myst, who is that Kamill??

And then there is this mystery that'll never be solved. The mystery of a green-eyed red-haired mad woman who used to work in the Lab. The woman who hasn't eaten a crumb of bread, hasn't drunk a drop of water for those four years that passed after the sudden and incomprehensible disaster - and yet she hasn't suffered from thirst or hunger, not even a tiny bit. The woman whose skin was impervious even to a laser scalpel, and whose body couldn't be penetrated even by hard gamma-rays. The woman who was the only known adult deviant in the entire world.

The mystery of Doctor Kasatana Hamayara who appeared out of thin air and vanished into the blue.


The bell above the door tinkled, and Bun Tadasiy whose cheesy smile was already on his face, froze. He would give a small fortune never to meet this man. Bun had caught but distant glimpses of him so far as he had mostly had to deal with his henchmen - sullen goons who did not know the first thing about civility. One of those goons had broken Bun's finger during the very first visit because the owner of the 'White Rose' would not pay the 'protection money', and since then Bun preferred to comply with the their demands without arguing. Of course, he could complain to the police but the police would not safeguard his cafe around the clock. And if he were to hire several private guards strong enough to scare off potential arsonists...It was cheaper to pay the racketeers.

Yes, Bun had never seen Kasam so close - the man who terrorized the entire area did not like to show his face in public. If he ever condescended to visit a shop, it meant that the shop owner had fallen into a major error and was now in big trouble. Bun feverishly tried to remember if he had possibly done something that could infuriate the 'king of the night'. I don't think I had. Only three days ago I paid the hoodlums what I 'owed', and even served them a free lunch, including two bottles of my best wine, three thousand mayers per bottle. Probably shouldn't have humiliated myself so in front of common ruffians who don't even know the difference between vintage wines and stinking home brews but...it's better not to take risks.

Stately and full of confidence, Kasam kicked the door open. He was followed by five or six goons wearing suit jackets with extremely wide shoulders. It was obvious that pistols or even submachine guns were hidden under the jackets, and Bun swallowed nervously. Whatever they are doing here, it might spell big trouble for the cafe.

Kasam lingered in the middle of the dining room as he was looking around, an aura of authority emanating from him. He waived away a waiter who - prompted by Bun's gesture - bent his head servilely, and headed straight for a young man in shorts who was sitting at a table at the far end of the terrace. Kasam's goons ringed the table, and other customers - there were not many of them because of the early hour - began to rise from the adjacent tables as they were eager to create as much distance between themselves and the gang as possible.

"Was it you who demanded a sit-down with me?" Kasam asked coldly as he took a chair. In the meantime, the young man kept sipping his juice, unperturbed. "What were you babbling about me owing you money?"

"First of all, Splendid Sir Kasam, we haven't been introduced - let alone being on a friendly footing," the young man informed him serenely as he took another sip. "Don't you think your manners are extremely rude? Secondly, your men have exactly half-a-minute to get out of here. They'll wait outside while we are going to talk in private. The clock is ticking, by the way."

"You are a cheeky fellow," Kasam bared his teeth in a grimace that was remotely resembling a smile. "I might even like you..."

"But I don't like you," the young man interrupted him. "You are a hoodlum, a piece of filth that is still alive only because no big fish has decided to get rid of you yet. Ten seconds have passed, seventeen left."

"And what will you do, you whelp, if they don't get out? Call the police?"

"No. I'll start hurting them. Not maiming yet but it will be very painful, in any case. Five seconds."

"You see, my friend," Kasam bent confidentially towards his interlocutor, "my guys are no idiot Zamaha. They are pros. They..."

"Time is up," the young man remarked coldly.

Bun, who was waiting despairingly for an inevitable fight, did not even realize what happened. It was as if a whirlwind swept over the terrace - male bodies scattered all over, and howls of pain shattering the midday silence. Kasam's bodyguards writhed in agony on the ground, among upturned tables, broken plates and food leftovers, while the customers ran out the door - without even thinking to pay their bills, of course. Bun sank straight to the floor behind the counter, clasped his head in his hands and began to sway backward and forward as he was wailing softly. Everything is up the spout now, everything. So much money is lost! Even worse, Kasam'll never forgive me that all that happened in front of me! I can shut down the cafe and leave the city right away as well...Why did that cursed visitor come here, of all places?

Kasam was looking uncomprehendingly at an unconscious bodyguard sprawled on the floor, his arm sticking out at an unnatural angle. What happened? They all served in special ops! Each of them can easily knock out ten suckers without even breaking sweat! I was laughing at myself when I decided to take all five of them with me but I was right, after all. My hunch didn't fail me...Who is he? Where did he come from?

Kasam's racing thoughts were interrupted by a strong hand that grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off the chair as easily as a child would lift a straw doll. Suddenly the racketeer found himself face to face with his unexpected enemy whose eyes were sparkling now like icy flames.

"I've given you a friendly warning," the other man said lazily, and his very laziness somehow sent shivers down Kasam's spine. "You wouldn't hark. Well, that increases your debt tenfold. Now, Kasam, you really owe me big time."

He brought his clenched fist, the index finger sticking out, to the ruffian's face. A short and thin but extremely bright beam of light appeared from under the nail, hissing softly. The young man repositioned the ruffian so that he was facing the table now, and passed the beam over a plate with several rolls on it. A wisp of smoke rose into the air, and both the plate and those buns that were in the beam's way broke in two. The man brought the finger to the ruffian's face once again, and the latter stared at the bright needle unable to take his eyes off it, his heart beating wildly.

"You are a worthless vermin who can only bully small shopkeepers. You don't even dare messing with bigger stores because they are 'protected' by gangsters who are way out of your league. And you won't even think about fighting any of them because you are too afraid for your hide. As I said, Kasam, the only reason you are still alive is that you haven't angered any really big fish yet. So, know your place, you cur, and don't woof when tigers are around."

The strong hand let go of Kasam's throat, and the half-strangled racketeer collapsed into the chair. The young man sat opposite him.

"I think you can guess," he said as he showed his finger once more, "who produces such devices and who they are implanted to." The beam slid back under the finger nail. "Just in case you start having funny ideas like refusing to pay or hiring an assassin, or maybe kidnapping one of those people living with me, recall this meeting. I have been hired many times to do in important people whose bodyguards were head and shoulders above yours, and I've never fouled up. If anything goes wrong, I'll come for you - and then you'll find out what real pain is all about. Is everything clear, kuso? Answer me!"

"Everything is clear, Sir!" Kasam stuttered. "I'll do whatever you want me to..."

"That's better," the young man grinned contentedly. "Remember, my name is Dzinton Muratsiy. If you hear this name, run away as far as you can for I am death incarnate," madness flashed in his eyes, and Kasam felt that he was on the verge of soiling himself. "Now that we understand each, let's talk business..."

Police sirens wailed in the distance.

"Cops!" the young man frowned. He drew a piece of paper out of his shorts pocket and threw it casually on the table, in front of Kasam. Several digits and sylletters were typed out on the piece. "No later than tomorrow you'll transfer twenty million to this account. I don't give a shit how you get the money but if it's not there by the end of tomorrow, you'll croak. That's how you make up for your yesterday's shakedown attempt. As for what you owe me for today..." he looked around the devastated cafe. "I'll decide later."

He rose up quickly.


The waiter emerged hesitantly from behind a nearby palm-tree.

"My bill will be paid for by that person. He will also cover all the losses. I'll check it out later, and if he happens to have left without paying, he'll find himself in the soup. Is it clear, Splendid Sir Kasam?"

Without waiting for an answer, the young man jumped effortlessly over the balustrade and walked briskly until he disappeared down a side street - at the very moment when three police cars roared into the square, one after another.

The gangster watched him go as he was gasping for air, his look uncomprehending. Only one thought was buzzing through his head: where, for the sake of all gods, can I find twenty million by tomorrow?


A distant sound of a car engine awakened Karina who was dozing over her textbook. Samatta had gone out - to pick up Yana and Palek from school and do some shopping together with them on their way back home. In the meantime, Karina settled on the roots of an old hollow maron to study math but warm wind combined with her full stomach gradually lulled her to sleep. When she was startled by the car passing behind the green fence, she dropped the textbook but prevented it from touching the ground by catching it hastily with her manipulator.

She listened for a moment. Judging by the sound, it stopped right in front of our gates. That's weird. Only delivery people would use this road when they ride their cargo motorbikes to bring orders. She jumped to her feet, slipped hurriedly between the tree-trunks and darted through the side gate into the courtyard where she threw the textbook on the bench and...froze in utter surprise.

The gates were wide open, and a big orange van with blue triradial snowflakes painted on its sides - an emergency vehicle - was in front of them. Meanwhile a tubular device traveling on small wheels, just like those gurneys Karina had seen when the released children were being transported from the Institute of Man, was slowly entering the courtyard all by itself. Judging by the outline of the bed sheet covering the gurney, a twitching female body was lying on the gurney's flat upper surface. A totally unfamiliar man wearing an elegant gray suit was striding stately alongside the gurney.

For a split second the girl felt scared - Samatta isn't here, and Dad had gone somewhere in the morning – but she calmed down immediately. The man doesn't look dangerous. And anyways, I could handle even an armed soldier if I had to.

Tsukka dashed out to the hotel porch.

"Good day, Sir," she said, perplexed. "We haven't expected guests today."

"Dzhao will be here any minute now," the man said in a cold, indifferent tone as he gave first Tsukka, then Karina a cursory glance, his colorless eyes apathetic. His fosterlings are rather quaint, I must say..."However I must apologize to Splendid Ladies for my manners. I am Kamill. I know your names. Pleasure to meet you."

"Ehh...my pleasure. I seek benevolence," Tsukka managed to say, even more perplexed. "Kamill? The Kamill??"

"Benevolence granted. I have no idea what other Kamill there might be," the man chuckled. "I am Demiurge Kamill, if that's what you mean."

"Like in the book?" Karina asked stupidly. "Oops..."

Dzinton came through the gate at full pelt. Karina looked back at him over her shoulder - and nearly sank to the ground through surprise. The space in front of the gates was empty - as if the emergency vehicle that had been there an instant ago just vanished into thin air.

"It's all right, girls," Dzinton smiled soothingly. "It's just that we've finally broken through. Kamill, let the main channel alone, you are being impolite. Talk aloud."

"You are such a bore!" the guest snorted. "Why waste time like that? What should we do with our freak of nature?"

"To start with, get rid of the props. We are all friends here."

"If you say so."

Karina's heart missed a beat once more: the gurney, together with the bed sheet that was covering it, disappeared, and a naked female body hung in midair, as if it was lying on fully transparent glass board. The woman's long ginger hair was hanging loose and almost reaching the ground, and her whole body was twitching. It also seemed somewhat...unnatural - as if surrounded with a barely perceptible, translucent haze. When Karina had been using her non-eyes to look at moving manipulators - both her own and Yana's - she would see an almost, but not exactly, identical haze.

"Dzi," Tsukka said hesitantly.

"You see Maya," he replied. "Or her projection, to be precise."

"So, you've found her, after all?" the young woman started. Karina gave her a weary and puzzled look - seems like I am the only one here who has no clue what's going on.

"We have, thanx to Kamill."

"Anytime, dear friend," Kamill grinned crookedly, and Karina decided that she probably did not like him, after all - whoever he was. "You'd better tell me how to handle her case. I don't have the first idea what's going on here: I've tried to establish communication with her for at least an hour, and every single channel is cluttered with nothing but garbage. Miovanna and Veoron can't help either. Even visually her projection is completely out of balance - and yet her point of consciousness concentration is clearly seen. Judging by some secondary signs, it's also fully functional. So, why doesn't she reply?"

"Kamill, can you please enlarge the cocoon?" Dzinton requested. "I want to see her micromanipulators when they aren't restricted."

"Sure thing."

The shimmer surrounding the woman's body suddenly expanded and assumed the shape of a big, oval egg. Tens of thin, smoky snakes tore around inside the egg as they enmeshed the body in a breathing cobweb.

"That's funny," Dzinton murmured. "Do you see anything familiar?"

"Just like those your little friend has," Kamill nodded at Karina. "But they are completely out of control."

"Not only that. Look down the long axis. A standard minor effector, also out of control but inactive."

"Indeed," Kamill muttered. "Haven't even paid attention to it. I'll try to trace it to the core."

The next moment his body was lifted into the air and rammed full force into the wall. The masonry boomed and shifted, and the plasterwork blackened through time and weather burst into large cracks. Tsukka screamed and pressed her palms against her lips. The guest's body became motionless, as if stuck to the wall.

"Dad?" Karina asked hesitantly. "What happened to that Sir?"

Dzinton muttered several unfamiliar words in return. Then, as he realized what he just said, he added,

"I am sorry, just forgot myself for an instant. It's too long to explain. Don't worry, he is perfectly fine. He'll recover in a moment."

The body moved away from the wall and hung in midair. Now it, as well, was surrounded with a semitransparent shimmer. Then the shimmer became pitch-black, before disappearing altogether. The guest landed on his feet, as good as new.

"Can you imagine, it has blocked my projection!" the guest said, quite surprised. "I've completely lost control over it! Had to erase it and create a new one, from scratch. Listen, Dzha, I had no idea it was even theoretically possible."

"Neither had I but now everything is more or less clear. If what we can see is Maya's only point of consciousness concentration, and if she interacted with the surrounding world through the projection's interfaces, then she is simply trapped inside it. You see, the virus effector seems to have somehow completely broken her connection with the regular one, as well as with everything else, for that matter. It just connected all the outgoing interfaces directly to itself. Most probably, she has no way to transmit information - and it's quite possible she can't receive it, either."

"Yes, our dear Maya has gotten herself into quite a pickle," Kamill agreed. "And what do you suggest we do? I have no clue how even to start approaching it. We need an expert on projections."

"That's exactly what she is," Dzinton sighed. "The only available expert, that is. Everybody else I know is being busy playing Games right now - at least, all those who are more skilled and experienced than I am. Getting in touch with any of them is quite a challenge in itself but what else can we possibly do? Well, I'll try to establish a channel to Lotto..."

Karina shifted her uncomprehending gaze from Dzinton to the guest and back. She had begun to get used to all sorts of oddities happening every now and then but what was currently going on seemed to cross all the lines imaginable. Why is the woman hanging in midair, all on her own? What is this shimmer around her? Who is this guest, and what happened to the medical emergency van? She looked back at Tsukka who was sitting on the porch, her legs crossed, and silently watching the happenings. As Tsukka met Karina's eye, she just shrugged her shoulders.

Won't help to ask her, I guess. The girl gave the naked woman another look. Probably, she is totally out of it. As much as...that boy I stopped at the Institute? That's right! The lines of force are tearing around her just as they were around him! Why don't I try?

"What are you doing?" Kamill asked brusquely but Karina did not pay any attention to him. She already put all three of her manipulators inside the cocoon and now she was trying to bring them closer

to the woman's body. A sharp pain, as if caused by multiple whips lashing her at the same time, already pierced her manipulators but she kept thrusting them forward doggedly, determined to prevent the hostile tentacles from pushing them away.

"Shush, Kamill!" Dzinton said quickly. "It might work. Don't you see, the effector doesn't react to her as it did to you. Its replication node has already recognized her as being infected, so it's not trying to infect her for the second time. Kara, keep going, I am backing you up."

Karina did not even try to understand his words. She was focusing on her own lines of force, on how they were penetrating the stinging haze and sliding into the body...is it a body? She remembered how it had felt when her manipulator was touching human flesh, and the current sensation seemed to be very different.

Doesn't matter. She could not feel the lashing whips inside the body - so she let the relaxed tips of her lines of force glide freely as she was groping for the node. Here it is! A soft, pulsating, springy lump that keeps pushing me off. She enclasped the lump carefully and tried to stroke it carefully, in order to calm it down - to no avail. The lump continued to pulsate chaotically while attempting to break loose, as if it were alive.

"Kara, squeeze it as hard as you can," Dzinton said authoritatively.

Even before she realized what he was saying, the girl pressed her hands together with all her might. It seemed to her that the lump burst like a rotten apple.

A fiery flash of light struck her eyes, and a deafening din hit her ears...

→Dzhao! Kamill! Dzhao! Kamill! Dzhao! Kamill!

→Dzhao in the channel. Maya, my dear, calm down. I can hear you perfectly well. How can I help you?

→Kamill in the channel. Ayky, now that we've bailed you out, I'll be gone. I have my hands absolutely full. Later you two'll fill me in on how things are. By the way, you'd better be careful when you are erasing projections lest you rip the whole planet to shreds. Wouldn't that be a pity? Out.

→Dzhao! Kamill! Finally you... (a stream of incomprehensible symbols)

→Maya, I am here. Don't worry, my dear, everything is fine. I won't let you fall back into stasis.

...she is being lifted into the air and thrown aside...

→Dzhao! (a stream of incomprehensible symbols)

→Maya, I can't understand you. Something is wrong with your translator. How can I help?

→Something is wrong with just about everything. This crap... (a stream of incomprehensible symbols)... all the external interfaces. I still can't properly... (a stream of incomprehensible symbols)...control.

→I'll do everything I can. I'll ask the others to help with whatever is necessary. Just let me know what you need.

→Thanx, Dzha. I seem to have regained control over the communication channels. Is there any more junk?

→No, it's ok now. How are you feeling?

...her father's strong, reliable hands catch her and stop her from falling...

→Just like a Demiurge who has been paralyzed for two thirds of a minitertia, and without a slightest hope to be released. Can you imagine how it feels, to be fully conscious without being able even to stir?! I am sorry, I didn't want to shout. I am nothing but a nervous wreck right now.

→I understand. Maya, how can I help?

→Thanx, Dzha, but you can't. Because you've already done everything that had to be done. Now I just need time to collect myself. I've finished testing the hypershift subsystem - it's fully functional. Dzha, I owe you so much - both you and Kamill, and the young bioform. Her - first and foremost. But I'll have to postpone expressing my gratitude until later. I am too dangerous for those around me, all my effectors are out of sync. I need to recover my breath. I want to feel alive once again. So I'd better stay away from any area of the outer space that can be seen from Tekira.

→Maya, make sure to let me know where you are. I'll pay you a visit. How long will you be absent?

→Don't have a clue. Maybe a minitertia. Maybe a second. I'll be back when I am back. See you, Dzha. Out.

→Good luck, Maya. Out.

...and she is standing on firm land once again...

"Attagirl!" Dzinton whispered in her ear. "You've done a great job"

Karina cracked her eyes open, dark spots floating right before them. The courtyard was empty. Both the strange guest and the woman were gone, and only Tsukka was rubbing her eyes on the porch.

"Dzi, what happened?" she asked worriedly. "Is Karina alright?"

"Everything is just perfect!" Dzinton replied merrily. "Tsu, you can congratulate us: we've just released Maya!"

"And where is she?" the young woman inquired.

"I wish I knew. We've exchanged only a few words. She said she would need quite some time to recover after such a long imprisonment - then she took off."

"Dad!" Karina tugged at his T-shirt insistently. "I can't make head or tail of what's going on. Where is the Lady?"

"The Lady has left," Dzinton laughed merrily. "You set her free, Karichka. She'll come back to thank you but that will be later."

"But how could she leave? She was here but a moment ago, lying...in midair!"

"Have you ever seen movies about madamukiras on TV?" Dzinton stroked her head. "That's what happened here."

"Madamukiras?" Karina asked incredulously. "Killer women? Is the Lady also a killer?"

"No, she is kind and good. She is simply a little bit upset right now."

"Dzi, stop pulling the wool over the child's eyes," Tsukka sighed. "Kara, I'll tell you later what happened. May I, Dzi?"

"Yes, you may."

"Then make sure I understand..."

‘Tsukka, activate the direct communication channel. Can you hear me?

‘Yes, Dzi. You don't want Karina to hear?’

‘You got it. Too late to quit drinking alcohol when your liver is gone but maybe the girl hasn't realized yet. A fat chance, of course, but who knows.


’We realized that it had been Maya, after all, who created the virus effector. So we analyzed the scarce data we had on the initial outbreak of the infection and managed to narrow our search of the spot, the pandemic had started at, down to a relatively small area. It happened to be right next to Masaria. Kamill paid attention to the fact that one of the Defense Ministry's secret labs was located in the same area, and that's where he found Maya. He brought her here because he thought it too risky to hypershift her to one of his camps.

‘Again that Ministry of Defense. I seem to start hating its guts.’

’Most probably, this time it was Maya who took advantage of them, not vice versa. Don't forget that she isn't a deviant child but a Demiurge. For some reason, she decided to provide bioforms with an effector similar to ours but something went awry. Don't ask me what because I haven't figured it out yet - but as a result, she became completely unable to communicate with the outside world or influence it in any other way. Karina managed to take her out of limbo, and she bustled off spectacularly to settle her nerves. All's clear?

‘More or less. Dzi, you'd better pay attention to Kara or she'll burst with curiosity.’

‘Ok. I'll send her your way when we are done chatting. In the meantime, think how to present the whole story to the younger kids - Kara will blab it anyways. Out.


Karina was looking uncomprehendingly at Dzinton and Tsukka who kept staring at each other, the latter muttering to herself.

"Dad?" the girl asked impatiently.

"Yes, Kara," Dzinton sighed. Tsukka smiled at the girl encouragingly from the porch and went back into the house. "You see..."

"Dad!" Karina interrupted him as she was almost jumping in excitement. She suddenly realized what was the weirdest part of the whole incident. "Dad! That man said he was Demiurge Kamill!

"Yes, he..."

"Dad, is he the real Demiurge Kamill from that book?"

"Oh, fu..." Dzinton muttered. "Ehira isn't the only big mouth around, it seems. And haven't I warned him?!"


"Yes, Kara," Dzinton sighed again. He lifted her slightly by the waist, put her on the bench by the wall and sat next to her. The girl immediately pressed herself against him and peeked from under his armpit. Somehow it was exactly when she was assuming that posture that her father would tell her the most interesting and mysterious things.

"Yes, Kara, he is Demiurge Kamill from that book," he gave her ear a gentle tug. "And you are my sharp cookie."

"Dad, but if he is Kamill, and he said 'Dzhao will be here any minute now' - and you came home right after that – it means you are also a Demiurge from that book, doesn't it? Demiurge Dzhao? The Player?"

"Not the Player. The Arbiter. Yes, my little one - I am Demiurge Dzhao. You shouldn't have found it out before time but well...It is what is. Pay attention now."

He turned his head, and Karina - as she followed his gaze - was astonished to see the damaged masonry move completely on its own while the cracks in the wall began to disappear. In but a few heartbeats the wall looked exactly like it had been looking earlier that morning.

"WOW!" she said rapturously. "Dad, can you do it again?"

"Oh, my!" Dzinton laughed. "Kara, you could watch tricks around the clock and still want more! By the way, you could well do it yourself if you just practiced a bit. All right, here it is..."

He stretched his hand, and a very real fairy with a rainbow nimbus around her body nosedived onto his open palm – the very fairy Karina had once glimpsed.

"Meet Fi. She is guarding the house. She is small and not very smart but brave and selfless. In those two respects she is quite similar to you. Maybe you'll even make friends."

He snapped his fingers, and the fairy circled once, soared up and disappeared into the blue.

"Dad, that was cool!" the girl clapped her hands. "And..."

"Enough is enough, young Lady," Dzinton said. "You'll pelt me to death with your questions - and, by the way, it's me who should be pelting you with questions. Have you forgotten that in a week you are taking your fifth-grade exams? And that your sixth-grade exams are due in half-a-year?"

"Buuuut," she drawled disappointingly, "you are a Demiurge, Dad! What should I study for?"

"Ouch!" Dzinton hummed as he turned sharply towards her. "Look me in the eye, young Lady. What makes you think that if I am a Demiurge, you don't have to study?"

"But you are omnipo..."

"No, Kara," the Demiurge's voice hardened. "Don't you ever count on that. I can indeed do a whole lot of things but I won't let you scrounge off me for your entire life. Have you forgotten your promise?"

Karina sighed and looked away. I did promise but now everything is so exciting! Dad is a real Demiurge!

"All right," Dzinton relented. "Let's make a deal: during the day you will be preparing for your exams, and in the evening I or Tsukka will check what you've learned, and what are Yana's and Palek's grades. If we are happy with the three of you, I'll tell you a couple of entertaining stories. But if your studies aren't going well, alas and alack – storytelling is canceled. Deal?"

"Deal!" the girl tossed her head fiercely. "You just don't forget, Dad!"

She jumped off the bench, picked up the textbook and ran to the garden, skipping. Enough time to finish the paragraph before Samatta and the others come home. And then...Yani and Lika will become green with envy once again!



Days full of sweltering sun dragged by - and zoomed by, at the same time. During the daytime Karina would enjoy the peace and quiet of the old hotel as she was pensively leafing through her textbooks or practicing calligraphy by writing down sylletters in her notebook. In the evening she and the others would listen to Dzinton's stories that were now amusing, and now scary - but always entertaining. Tarsak nomads who were wandering in the steppes, led by their female rulers; devious and treacherous Gulan rustlers; old stone cities of Four Kingdoms and Karagrash's fortresses surrounded with high wattle-and-daub walls. The listeners learned about an ancient little Kingdom of Katonia becoming the core of Maino's great and mighty Empire - and about the wars against Krestotsin, Zerapon, Klukh and a faraway northern republic of Samukan that had never known any emperors or Kings... Dzinton narrated how, after Maino's disappearance and the Awakening of the Stars, a man named Tilos had demonstrated uncanny resourcefulness and an exceptional skill in political intrigue to prevent the Empire from plunging into a gory civil war for the vacated throne - and to save the Four Kingdoms from a devastating invasion of southern nomadic tribes. Dzinton depicted how horrible tsunamis had destroyed wealthy coastal cities one after another, forcing fishermen and merchants to flee to inland regions of the country where they had to beg on the streets in towns and villages as they were dying of hunger and at the hands of cruel local aristocrats. Any trade relations between the continents were frozen for a whole century and a half, thousands and thousands of trolls kept dying on their sacred islands trapped between erupting volcanos and the raging sea - and yet they refused to bow to the hostile reality and leave their ancient dwellings...

Every now and then, while listening to Dzinton's stories, Tsukka and Samatta would exchange glances and ask strange questions Karina could not understand. Neither could she understand Dzinton's answers. What's genocide? Or inflation? But she managed to grasp the general idea, and sometimes her own troubles seemed to pale in comparison with all those horrors the whole world had had to come through. At those moments she fell into gloomy silence and cowered in a corner of the dining room where the storytelling was taking place. However, Dzinton never failed to notice that she was being scared - and then amusing stories would replace scary ones. For instance, he mentioned that 500 years ago princes of Klukh had chosen their heirs by forcing droll tests upon their noble vassals. To pass one such test, a candidate - his body naked and honey-smeared - had to spend a whole day under the scorching sun right next to a beehive. To pass another one, it was necessary to fill a big jar with water carried in a spoon while beating everybody else to the punch...

Yana and Palek also liked listening to Dzinton's stories but they reacted to them with equanimity. Besides, more and more often they would spend their evenings with their new school friends rather than at home. They asked Karina to join them but she always declined their invitation. She was terrified by the very thought of finding herself next to strange children who would push her and tease her. What if I get so annoyed that I forget myself and strike one of them with my manipulator? Once Tsukka's family came to visit, and Karina was talking to them politely but she still sneaked away at the very first opportunity. Noisy and full of energy, Tsukka's siblings scared her as much as any other child. Quite to the contrary, Yana and Palek immediately made friends with them - so much so that they already visited them several times and even stayed for dinner. Tsukka's parents would cast strange, evaluating glances at Samatta, who was sticking to the young woman, and shake their heads - probably they did not like him too much. It was very different with Dzinton who made Lady Tanna melt - and whom Sir Panariy kept treating with exaggerated reverence despite looking twice older than him.

Karina passed her fifth-grade exams on the first day of the seventh thriceweek - the day when the summer officially began. Her father brought her to a tall, nine-storied stone building where, as he said, the municipal Underage Children Inspectorate was located. Two strict elderly women and a bald man made her solve mathematical problems, take dictation, find cities and countries on the map, answer questions about animals and plants mentioned in the science textbook, as well as questions about history. She managed all the tasks with flying colors and even felt a tinge of disappointment because she had been so afraid of the exams, and they turned out to be a walk in the park. There was but one hitch when, as she was talking about history, Karina said that Emperor Maino had chosen not to annex the neighboring countries because...At that moment she realized that it would be better not to mention the Game and the Demiurges - and no other plausible reason came to her mind, so she just fell silent.

"Where did you read about it?" the man suddenly grew interested. "You don't mean to say it was in the history textbook, do you? You surely know that Maino is a mythical character who never existed in reality."

"A detailed analysis of Maino's foreign policy is provided in Mara Parasaka's homonymous seminal work," Dzinton came to Karina's rescue. "I've read this book and shared some of its ideas and conclusions with my children. There are different hypotheses concerning Maino being but a myth as well. Obviously, the destruction of archives in the Times of Trouble opened the floodgates to all sorts of interpretations..."

"Good, good!" the man threw up his hands in a playful manner. "I give up, Sir Dzinton. I read this monograph when I was a university student. I was just a bit surprised that a child her age should know things like that. Well, Ladies," he addressed the women, "do we still have questions for the girl? Seems like we don't - so, on behalf of the committee, I congratulate you, Karina, on having successfully passed the exams. I hope, you will as successfully pass your sixth-grade exams in the coming winter. Sir Dzinton, her grade certificate will be ready in about a week - you can pick it up at the front office, room 105."

"Thank you so much, Sir," Dzinton nodded. "Congratulations, Kara, great job. And now it's time to go home."

In three days Karina finally managed to cope with the blockirator. The hated collar still made an unbearable noise in her ears and deep inside her head but gradually she had learned to ignore the noise and feel her manipulators in spite of it. Initially, when the blockirator was on, she perceived the effector as some dead, totally motionless part of her body. After a while, the girl succeeded in slightly moving the manipulators - and then in employing them almost as usual. The noise in her ears still prevented her from making a really good use of her invisible tentacles - as well as from seeing properly with her non-eyes - but, at the very least, lifting such objects as sticks and stones, and keeping them in midair was now an easy job. Eventually the noise would break her concentration, and then the object fell to the ground, but soon enough she was able to keep whatever she was holding away from the ground for two or three minutes.

When Karina told her friends about her achievement, Jana just nodded.

"I can do it too now," she remarked. "Lika keeps bugging me -'when will you learn how to do it?' But I've already learned. So..."

"I haven't bugged you!" Palek huffed but Yana did not pay attention to him. She put on the collar - its activity indicator turned on - and concentrated on a twig lying under a nearby tree. In a few seconds the twig ascended a full fathom, then dived almost all the way to the ground but never touched it. Finally it just hung in the air, swinging.

"Yay!" Karina said sincerely. "Why did you keep it to yourself until now?"

"Well..." Yana suddenly looked embarrassed as she dropped the twig. "You are the elder sister. You should have succeeded first. Oops..." She blushed.

"You silly girl!" Karina gave her a light push on her shoulder. "Who cares who's first? Well done!"

"'Well done' to you, too!" Palek shouted at the top of his lungs out of the fullness of his heart. "Now Dzinton will take us to the Wonders Park!"

"Yeah!" Yana nodded enthusiastically. "Great!"

Karina smiled involuntarily. Lika is Lika: all he cares about is having fun. And maybe this Wonders Park is really a great place to come to, who knows...

When Yana and Karina used the salt shaker one by one during dinner to proudly demonstrate their achievements, the adults exchanged glances.

"Well, well," Samatta said thoughtfully. "So, it is indeed possible. Fancy that..."

"Lots of things are possible if you genuinely believe you can achieve them," Dzinton nodded. "Good job, girls. Even I wasn't sure you would succeed but you did - and you've earned your reward. So, now I can officially announce that tomorrow we are going to the Wonders Park."

"Hurrah!" Yana and Palek yelled at the top of their voices. "The Wonders Park! The Wonders Park!"

"Be quiet!" Dzinton said with exaggerated asperity in his tone. "What sort of manners is that, young people? One can become deaf around you! Do you yell like that in class as well? Poor teachers..."

"No, we don't," Yana replied in a loud whisper. "We don't yell in class but we throw paper notes to each other."

"Which is hardly any better," Dzinton made a grimace filled with reproach but immediately laughed. "Nothing I can do about it, you brats...Anyways, tomorrow morning we go on a trip. Tsu, will you join in?"

"You bet!" the young woman tossed her hair. "Lest soon enough I start howling in misery. I am sick and tired of all those textbooks with formulas, I need a distraction."


"Count me out," Samatta shook his head. "I am too old for things like that. I'd rather finish the book you gave me. The author doesn't know the first thing about military history but some of his ideas aren't completely devoid of interest."

"Glad you found it interesting. You know what, maybe it's for the better that you don't feel like going,"

Dzinton squinted at him. "I have an impression that you also might need a distraction. If you don't mind an exercise, you could go to the port tomorrow. Look for a cargo catamaran named 'Octopus'. It belongs to an archaeological expedition, and it's about to finish loading and sail out. They are digging in underwater ruins west down the shore, and they have several practicum students with them. The students are novices, so they need a diving instructor - and you have lots of experience when it comes to aqualungs. It would be the best if you just joined them for a week or so and taught them right there."

"Really?" Samatta gave him an equally appraising look. "And which part of the story have you kept to yourself?"

"Shrewd, aren't you?" Dzinton grinned. "Nothing special, in fact. The expedition caught the eye of 'black archaeologists'. They believe it's on a treasure hunt. In fact, the ruins are hopelessly empty: they are remains of Kamill's old key port, and it wasn't his wont to transport gold by sea. Of course, the 'blackies' aren't in the know. So, the expedition needs some protection during the first field trip. A bit later I'll provide you with some special equipment. By the way, going with them will benefit you, too, because the ruins are mentioned in that book I gave you. You'll be able to see how reality can be transformed in scientists' imagination."

"Ok, I'll do it," the former commando nodded.

"That's not what I meant," Dzinton's reply was unexpectedly harsh. "I said, IF you feel like unwinding a bit. It's not an order. Just a chance to do something different for a while. Your main duties are here, in any case. If you don't want to go, just forget about it. It's perfectly fine with me, I have other options. The only reason I made this suggestion is that I thought the trip could actually interest you. I have no intention whatsoever to force any entertainment upon you."

"It does interest me," Samatta informed him, unconcerned. "Been a couple of years since I dived with an aqualung, it surely wouldn't hurt to restore my skills."

Dzinton rolled his eyes, shook his head and sighed.

"Darn, Mati," he said discontentedly. "I meant it as a nice surprise for you, and you've turned it into an order. Anyways, it's up to you. Pier 7, catamaran 'Octopus'. Mention my name to the expedition leader - we know each other, even though we haven't met in person yet. He is Bun Yubeda, by the way. You have my permission to take a vacation for a week. Drop by my room after 9 today, I'll teach you a couple of tricks. That will leave you enough time to practice. Everybody else, pay attention: we are off to the Park tomorrow morning at 8 sharp. Considering inevitable traffic jams, we'll need a couple of hours to get there - so, we'll make it by about noon. That's it, guys - I am off. Still have a couple of things to do. Thanx, the food has been very tasty. Kara, your cooking is obviously improving by the minute."

He winked at the girl, rose from the table effortlessly, waved his hand and disappeared in the hallway. Karina felt embarrassed against her will. It was indeed she who had cooked the tsurme with sea roaster - even though under Tsukka's guidance - and even she liked the final product. Maybe, one day I will really learn how to cook well? But right now even Lika can do it better...


Later that night, when the Star Pond was already shining brightly in the sky, and the old park surrounding the hotel sank into darkness, Karina slipped out her room window to stretch her legs before going to bed. Marons' hard roots pecked lightly at her bare feet, and the freshening night wind was piercing through her T-shirt and giving her goosebumps.

The girl was going to spend some time on her favorite cliff over the gulf and to watch the bay. However, almost as soon as she left her room, she heard a two-hours tsunami warning. So much for watching the bay. Small ships will now be sheltered in concrete hangars, and big ones are going to stop their operations and shove off hastily - to meet the wave in deep water. In a couple of minutes the blinkers around the bay will simply disappear, and the bay will become plain boring. She decided to take a stroll in the garden while breathing night air and clearing her head of all sorts of thoughts - to be able to fall asleep easily upon coming back to the room.

She threaded her way between maron trunks, nothing but reflected starlight breaking through the thick canopy to help her getting her bearings. She liked imagining herself a brave scout deep behind enemy lines, somewhere in Suragrash jungles, and she tried to make as little noise as possible. Not even a dry twig crunched under her bare heel, not even a pile of leaves rustled discontentedly because of her body's touch. And when she suddenly heard quiet voices nearby, she froze. It's so impolite to eavesdrop. Yes but what can Tsukka and Samatta whisper about in such a place at such a time as this?

Her curiosity prevailed, and she came several steps closer towards the deserted summerhouse.

"...can't understand his motives," Samatta was saying in a low voice. "You see, Tsu, with a defense system like we have here, he just doesn't need me. The system is, at the very least, as smart as I am - and it could easily protect the house on its own, with no operator to control it. And that's exactly what weighs me down: I hate it when I don't understand what my superiors' real intentions are. When it happens in a combat zone, it's bound to end in disaster."

"But we aren't in a combat zone," Tsukka objected. "Mati, even if you don't understand his motives, it doesn't mean they are necessarily bad. For instance, he insists that both you and I should acquire knowledge - what's for if his intentions are crooked? If taking advantage of people and throwing them out afterwards is all one is aiming at, there are much simpler ways to do it. But he is honest with us...considering his idea of honesty, of course. I actually understand now why he urges us to be financially independent: if you want people to be your friends, you can't keep them on a short leash. They should be free - and that includes being free to leave if that's what they choose to do."

"No offense meant, Tsu, but you are still very young," the former commando hummed. "I am more experienced than you, and I know how it's possible to dupe people into getting emotionally attached to you. They will genuinely consider themselves completely free - and yet they will be but putty in your hands. In particular, young people: all you have to do is to show them a noble goal, and they'll go out of their way to achieve it. Take our battalion - right after the boot camp all of us were embarked and shipped to the Western continent. You were surely too young to remember that but in those days all the newspapers and TV channels just went beside themselves as they kept raving about the freedom-loving people in Suragrash being oppressed by ruthless invaders from the Four Kingdoms.

And we believed every word! Imagine how it felt when, instead of freedom-loving people, we found there criminal clans of the Dragon forcing local peasants, who were more dead than alive, to grow mayaka at gunpoint. And instead of bloodsucking invaders - puny police forces scared to show their faces outside of their bases. And even those were leaving in a hurry. Well, occasionally we would run into some real army units raiding the jungles in search of drug plantations. Those FK raiders consisted of nobody but utter thugs - half of them were drug addicts. And in only a couple of thriceweeks our guys would become drug addicts, too. By the time we were finally sent home, we had lost ten percent of the contingent to accidents and diseases; three or four percent had been killed in action. And no less than thirty percent had died or become crippled for life because of drugs and binge drinking. I myself almost got hooked on the drug but managed to stop just in time. Had terrible withdrawals but survived - and then wouldn't touch even table wines for several years. And how many of them couldn't stop in time?"

"Poor thing," Tsukka sighed. "And you don't believe anybody ever since?"

"Ever since I don't believe there are such things in life as friendship and generosity. Surely, not among rulers. Tsu, what you can see is but Dzhao's appearance - something he wants us to see. Remember he told us that a projection was just a dummy with pre-programmed reactions created to communicate with bioforms? It can yawn, sigh, raise its brows but none of those are real reactions of a human body. This artificial body-language, meant to provoke certain responses in those around the projection, is no indication of what's going on inside his mind. We'll never know what he is really thinking or striving for. And he isn't even a human being - he is immortal, and he is used to deciding the fates of whole worlds. Remember his remark about the children? He didn't say it in so many words – must have tried to spare our feelings - but I have no doubts whatsoever that we are also but tools to him. Exactly as a scalpel and a suture needle are tools to a surgeon. No, Tsu, I am not saying there is anything wrong about it: we all are either tools or surgeons - and sometimes even both in one. And surgeons may love their tools and take a good care of them. You know, sharpen and polish them, and keep them in comfortable velvet cases. But to avoid disappointment, it's better to have a very good idea who is who in your life."

"Mati," Tsukka asked gingerly, "so d'you believe that he is lying to us, after all? And d'you want to leave?"

"Me?" Samatta was astounded. "May Tinuril keep me from doing something as stupid as that! No, Dzinton got me completely hooked. Tsu, I had helped keeping children in that cursed Institute for so long that now I just must take care of at least Karina and Yana. Besides, my curiosity will plague me for the rest of my life if I leave now. No, Tsu, leaving is out of the question. In fact, I haven't given a hoot about my life for quite a while. Even if I am to become but expendable supplies and materiel, I'll be more than satisfied when it's my time to croak. How many people have ever come in contact with a mystery of that magnitude? I don't care if I am the children's bodyguard, a link in Dzinton's network of influence or even a kamikaze ordered to commit an act of terrorism. I can see all the strings he's keeping me on perfectly well but I don't feel like cutting any of them. My curiosity, my sense of guilt, you...oops."

"Me?" Tsukka asked in a low voice. "Mati, are you..."

"Tsu, I've wanted to tell you for quite some time now," strange notes of panic crept into Samatta's voice. "Never done it until today, for some reason, but since I just mentioned it, anyways...No, wait, don't interrupt me or I won't find it in my heart to say what I should say. You know, every morning I wake up with a thought that a new, exciting day is about to begin. It's exciting because you are here.

I am sorry, I am not a smooth talker but..."

"Mati, you'll break my arm!" Tsukka laughed. "I don't think it's the best way to declare your love."

"Sorry, Tsu. Well...I guess, it isn't. Never declared before," he hummed, embarrassed. "Even when I proposed to my future wife. But I want to say, Tsu, that I can't live without you. My life sucks without you. I...I don't know if it's love or anything else but I'd do anything to make you happy. And if you don't want me to..."

"Silly boy!" Tsukka laughed again, and it was as if silver bells pealed in the garden. "What sort of declaration is that? Mati, you are my silly boy!"

"I..." Samatta's voice trailed away. In a minute or two Tsukka whispered,

"You are an enthusiastic kisser but you still have lots to learn. I wonder what you had been doing with your wife? You seem to need practice and more practice."

"I could indeed use some, Magnificent Lady," the man agreed contritely. "Would you mind giving me a couple of lessons?"

"Gladly. Just be careful lest you strangle me accidentally, such obaka as you are..."

At this moment Karina stopped eavesdropping because it was becoming really impolite and improper. She moved back as cautiously as before, determined to make no noise, and returned to her room. She meticulously shook the dirt off her soles as she was berating herself for being too lazy to go to the bathroom and wash her feet properly. Then she took off her shorts and T-shirt and slipped under the blanket. The last thought that crossed her mind before she fell asleep was about what she had just heard. So, Tsukka and Samatta are indeed in love with each other? I wonder if they'll have their own kids. Would be great to play with a baby!


05.07.843, Skyday


Dzinton kept his word, and they left for the Wonders Park even before 8 in the morning. Yana and Palek, who had been woken up as early as 6, protested halfheartedly and begged for 'just a bit more sleep'. In vain - because Dzinton turned out to be inexorable, and the two of them, drowsy and yawning, had to drag themselves to the bathroom. Karina had no such trouble - after all, the morning sun was already shining brightly in the sky, its thin rays tickling her eyes. Fi flew into the house through an open window and was now circling around the top of the room and chirping merrily. Karina knew that the little creature with dragonfly wings was but a part of the house defense system but, as she was stretching, the girl sleepily smiled at the fairy anyways. What if she really comes alive? Am I not in a fairy-tale, after all?

The Wonders Park was located across the city, and Dzinton called a taxi all five of them eventually squeezed into while ignoring the driver's displeasure. Samatta waved goodbye and went in the opposite direction as he took a shortcut down the stairs over the precipice – and farther on, towards the bay and the piers where the ships had already returned in the wake of the big wave. The 'Octopus' catamaran could be seen even from far above - a big white 'H' next to one of the distal quays.

Now stuck in traffic, and now darting into backstreets, the taxi was wiggling and wobbling for about an hour before it finally reached the Park soon after 9. The Park, situated high on a slope of the Crab Mountain overhanging the north-eastern part of the city, was surrounded by a thick forest not only spared but even enhanced by the Park owners who had rendered some areas completely impassable by creating a skillful imitation of natural deadfall and scree. A whole maze of paths, connecting all sorts of rides and amusements, was twisting and turning between bushes and trees that seemed to represent every single variety of plants one could possibly think of. Tikurin and wild nobara roses, darias and mountain birches, centennial marons, elms, sosnas and tonerikos were among them. On both sides of the forest paths there were living beresklet hedges, here and there pruned so as to take shapes of spheres, cubes, ovals or even strange animals and buildings. A giant observation wheel was slowly revolving high above the Park grounds. Young people screaming in fear and squealing with delight thronged all the swings, carousels, roller-coasters and other breathtaking - literally so! – slides and rides. Every now and then a pavilion would materialize under the tree canopy - ominously black or painted with bright rainbow colors. Some of the pavilions dared their visitors to get scared by skeletons, ghosts, cannibals, obakas and other monsters or to ride a spaceship while experiencing very real gravitational overloads; others invited them to watch the fearless fighter Divana Dzona ward off savages in the jungles, or laugh their heads off while looking at their own and others' reflections in distorting mirrors. Movie posters flickered temptingly, and smells wafting out from countless restaurants and food courts made even the most sated guests salivate.

For the next three hours Yana and Palek, along with Tsukka, were clearly enjoying themselves as they explored the wonders at hand. Palek just would not leave the horse pen that he circled at least ten times on a tame pony. Karina, on the other hand, shrank away from the festive crowds and withdrew into herself. No matter what her friends were trying to do to cheer her up, she never relaxed. Dzinton kept giving her concerned looks and almost forcing her now onto a carousel, and now into a fun pavilion but she remained as tense as before. Two years ago she had been caught in a park like that and sent to the Institute, and now she could not help starting and looking around nervously. It seemed to her that everybody - humans and orcs alike - was watching her, a familiar accusation in their eyes: 'A monster! A deviant!'. Men in speckled fatigues seemed to be waiting, ready to jump from behind the trees and riddle her with flying syringes. Then she would once again wake up in a dark and stuffy iron box. She realized that her fear made no sense but still could not take it under control. Her effector's manipulators were pulsating restlessly, in tune with their owner's mood, and she could barely control even them. Finally, she gripped Dzinton's hand like a vice and decidedly refused to let go of it. The man stroked her hair with his free hand, sighed and raised his eyebrows as he met Tsukka's eye.

Yana could sense her friend's distress but initially she did not pay much attention to it. She had since long ago been used to ignore other people's emotional auras as one would usually ignore leaves rustling in the wind: you don't hear them unless you deliberately concentrate on them. Yet the longer she stayed alongside Karina, the more annoyed she became by waves of fear and uncertainty emanating from the other girl - until finally her patience snapped. She snorted and ran far ahead of the group, up a deserted alley Dzinton had chosen to take in order to give Karina some respite. Tsukka opened her mouth to call Yana back but suddenly Dzinton touched the young woman's shoulder to caution her.

"Wait!" he said, his tone of voice rather strange. "Let her go. We'll catch up with her later. In the meantime, my quick-witted bunnies, let's take a break. Here is a handy bench. Lika, you are the youngest - so it'll be your task to fetch all of us some ice cream. A chocolate one for me, please."

He put a handful of small coins into Palek's palm and clapped him jocosely on the back of the head. The boy did not have to be asked twice. His sandals clattering staccato on the ground, he trotted towards the thoroughfare where ice cream vendors' glass stalls were covered in icy haze. Dzinton sank into the bench and seated Karina beside himself. She nestled up against him as if seeking refuge from the horrors filling the world. Tsukka sat down on the other side of Karina and stroked her hair tenderly.

"My jittery one," Dzinton said soothingly. "You'll never become the life and soul of the party, my little girl. But that's ok. For now, just rest a bit - then we'll go home. Tsu, do you still have what it takes to walk Lika and Yani around the Park for a couple of hours?"

"Growing old is no fun!" the young woman complained, delighted to put her feet up. "I am dog-tired but should be able to go on for an hour or two. After all, who knows when I'll be able to come here again."

"True, your preparatory courses in the university start in a week," Dzinton nodded in agreement. "From then on, until winter, your head will be swollen, your eyes will be sleepy, and your melted brain will ooze out of your ears. So, you'd better enjoy your last peaceful day off. We'll rest for a couple of minutes and start looking for Yana. By the way, if her ice cream starts to melt, we'll be happy to feast on it - and she'll have nobody to blame but herself."


Yana was running down the alley without even noticing if the others were following. She was filled to the brim with the summer sun's joyful energy, and the whole world seemed to her as warm and friendly as a big shaggy dog. The path began to climb quite steeply, the forest around brightened perceptibly, and within twenty or so steps she, somewhat out of breath, found herself on a viewing platform, high above a precipice falling towards the faraway ocean. She stopped as she was panting, her hands resting on her knees - still curious enough to keep looking around.

And suddenly she felt as if she had been smacked in the face.

The sensation she had never experienced before made her gasp as her knee awkwardly dropped onto the ground, and she had to lean on her opposite palm, propped against the hot asphalt, to keep her balance. About five fathoms away from Yana, at the very edge of the platform where the safety railing had crumbled, a man was standing completely still, with his back towards the girl. The man did not pay any attention to her but such waves of deadly grief and endless pain were emanating from him that once again Yana felt as if an invisible arm thrust into her face was forcefully pushing her back. What happened to him? Why is he here alone? Why is he suffering so much?

She overcame an urge to turn around and run away. I can't, it's wrong. If this man is so unwell he shouldn't be left alone. Mom used to say so even before I became a deviant, and she herself began to feel scared and depressed all the time. If someone is suffering, even one kind word might help him to cope. But why is he here alone?

She forced herself to rise and make a step forward. Then another one. And another. Her eyes widened in terror when she saw that the stranger was standing on the very brink of the precipice, where the land ended and the void began. But he can't...

He is a suicide. She saw as clearly now as she could see the waves rolling across the surface of the ocean far below. He came here to die because he is suffering and he is lonely. But that shouldn't happen! Never! I should prevent it whatever it takes! But how? I am but a little girl, and neither Dzinton nor Tsukka are here to help. Not even Karina. I can try to use my effector to hold him if he starts to fall but he is big and heavy. Together with Karina, we would manage for sure but me alone...No, that wouldn't work. I need something else. But what?!

Fighting back waves of anxiety that were coming at her thick and fast, she went up to the man and stood next to him as she clutched the safety railing. The reliable firmness of iron was reassuring.

"Sir..." she said timidly.


Sai stood motionless on the brink of the precipice and felt the hot stuffy wind ruffle his shirt. The setting sun was annoyingly dazzling his eyes from both the sky and the ocean surface at the same time. He had no thoughts left. He just could not bear his pain anymore. A week had passed since a catafalque with Rasuma's body disappeared in the fiery crater of the crematory, and his soul would not heal. He even refused to take a few days' leave from work because he was afraid of staying alone in the now empty house - and yet every evening he had to return to that place where her breath still seemed to permeate everything, and where everything reminded him of her cheerful personality. His memories kept tormenting him day and night, and nights were the worst. He tossed about on hot bed sheets, and it seemed that all he had to do was to turn his head or stretch out his arm - and he would be able to touch her supple body, listen to her measured breathing... But no, she was not there anymore. It was nothing special, most routine unfairness – a road traffic accident when the driver applied the brakes a moment too late. A 'Pedestrian Crossing' sign failed to protect either her or their unborn daughter. Unfairness so typical of that life he could not bear any longer.

Somewhere there, behind him, the Wonders Park was brimming with life, and thousands of people were lightheartedly entertaining themselves in every possible way. A new sunrise was waiting for them tomorrow, and a new day was about to salute them. Sai had come to the Park in the hope of soaking up at least a tiny drop of their happiness and serenity. He was wrong. Carefree men and women laughing blithely only made his heavy heart become even heavier.

There were no feelings left. Endless pain and leaden grief flooded his whole world and left him only one wish: may everything end as soon as possible.

He listened to himself. Yes, I am decided. There is no need to return home. Daily routine doesn't matter anymore. I am leaving no will but my sister will handle it somehow. My death won't change anything, hardly anybody will notice. I pondered over my options, weighed them up - and now my mind's made up. All I have to do is to bend forward a little - the force of gravity will do the rest...

Children's sandals' staccato clatter, that came from behind and stopped abruptly, made Sai wince in annoyance. Jumping down in front of a child is nothing but swinishness. Doesn't matter. Children are antsy creatures - this one will hang around for a minute or two and run elsewhere to attend to some urgent business. I'll wait.

Gingerly steps behind his back. Heavy irregular breathing. A timid voice.


"Yes..." he replied in a low voice and turned his head as he managed to curb his irritation. "What do you want?"

"Sir, are you in a very bad way?"

"What?" Taken by surprise, he swung around to face the girl. "But...how do you know, young Lady?"

"You are in a very bad way, I can feel it," the girl said resolutely as she brushed her forelock away from her eyes. "Sir, it's wrong. It shouldn't be so. Why are you suffering?"

"Mind your own business, young Lady," Sai said evenly, barely able to contain himself. "My feelings aren't your concern. Your parents must be looking for you."

"They died," the girl moved her shoulders as if she was suddenly feeling very cold. Then she turned away and looked down the precipice as she clasped the handrail with such force that her knuckles went white. "They were killed in a car accident."

"Oh..." Sai felt at a loss for words. Something stirred deep inside the ocean of his grief. This world is so cruel and unjust. People die in their prime when their whole life should still be ahead of them. Rasuma did, and our unborn child. Maybe our daughter would have looked like this girl. "I am so sorry, young Lady. Please, accept my condolences."

"Mom used to say that there is always hope in life. Sorrows will pass but life will go on. Sir, I don't want you to suffer." She raised her eyes and gave him a pleading look. "Could you smile? Please!"

"No," Sai shook his head. Another wave of grief swept over him. When will this girl get lost?

"You know, when I used to live at home with Mom, she would always sing a song about a nightingale for me if my throat was sore or my knees were skinned. She loved this song so much," the girl pleading eyes were still riveted to him. "May I sing it for you? May I?"

"Sing, young Lady." he sighed. The girl is obviously not so easy to get rid of. She just wouldn't leave me alone. But...how did she find out about my sorrow?

"Sure!" she nodded happily.


I want him to cheer up! Yana made a wish because she believed that everything could be achieved if only one's desire to achieve it was strong enough. Well, maybe not everything but surely quite a lot. She took two steps back and assumed a posture that, as she thought, real singers would choose when performing in front of an audience. Suddenly the stranger's grief presented itself to her as a stormy sea where huge waves rolled over pebbles, crashed into the shore and uprooted courageous tufts of grass growing between boulders. The girl squeezed her eyes shut lest her vision distract her, stretched out her invisible arms - not to grasp but to embrace and comfort – and began to sing.


If the pain and the sadness my heart all at once overstrain,

I’ll go down to the south, where the waves at the beach softly tear,

Where a nightingale lives whose feathers are humble and grey

And who sings through the night, a stranger to trouble or care.


From on high in the heavens the stars brightly shine down on him,

A warm wind brings the smells of the flowers, the sea and the leaves.

Nature blissfully hearkens along to his own daily hymn

And a whirlwind of petals delights as it spins on the breeze.


...reach out now and smooth out those heavy leaden waves... hug and comfort him like his mother would... chase that nasty pain away...


I will silently go to the grove where that nightingale lives

And I’ll perch on the moss to enjoy his sweet reverie’s tune.

What a faithful and humble and true friend that nightingale is,

Of the scent of the rose and the stars he will sing to me soon.


Won’t you sing, nightingale, of how one day the dark clouds will sail

And how one day the sadness and sorrow will go.

Life continues and hills tumble down into vales

And a veil of abandon will cover up yesterday’s woes.


...the storm is calming down, and the waves are getting smaller. All I have to do now is to still the ocean and dispel the hurricane. Let the sun break through the leaden clouds even for a moment - just to remind him that it's still there. Put him at his ease before the song is over...


Grey-winged nightingale sing! let your song echo over the world

And cast out the anguish and heartache and trouble and woe,

So the sunlight and warmth warm the graves in the ground firmly furled,

Wherein little by little our sadness has buried our hopes.


If the pain and the sadness my heart all at once overstrain

I won’t merely drown in an ocean of sorrow and care.

I’ll remember the song of the nightingale feathered in grey

And be warmed with new hope by the petals which dance on the air.


Yana sang the last line of the song one more time in a soft voice. She cracked one eye open, her heart skipping a beat. "Do you like my song, Sir?"


Sai was silently looking at the strange girl. He suddenly felt the heat of the summer sun on his skin, heard a steady murmur of the leaves and the festive rumble of the crowd, as if the latter had finally broken through an invisible screen. He breathed in a lungful of fragrant air - and he realized that grief was not filling his mind with a silent black ocean of nothingness anymore. The numbing pain had disappeared, and only a deep sadness about Rasuma's death remained. That sadness that was still wrapping his soul in a gray shroud but it was not paralyzing his body with throes of agony, nor pulling his mind into an abyss of despair.

He squatted in front of the girl and took her firmly by the shoulders.

"Who are you, young Lady?" he asked in amazement. "What's your name?"

"I am Yana," the girl informed him cheerfully, her eyes wide open. "Yana Paraka...I mean, Muratsiy. Pleasure to meet you. I seek benevolence. Sir, you don't want to kill yourself anymore, do you?"

"I am Sai Korin. My pleasure, benevolence granted. For your age, you know too much about adults, Lady Yana," Sai smiled crookedly. "You probably understand me better than I understand myself. I don't know. But I am very grateful to you for...the song. Thank you."

"Yani!" A woman's voice came from nearby. "Where have you gone, you mischief-maker?"

Sai raised his eyes. A young woman was hurrying towards them, next to a hopping boy who was about the same age as the girl. A man and a somewhat older girl were standing behind, the latter seriously and attentively watching the scene.

"Has she been bothering you, Sir?" the woman inquired concernedly. "Yani, how many times I've told that it's impolite to bother strangers?"

"Everything is fine, Lady," Sai shook his head as he straightened up. But the girl said her parents had died. Did she lie? No, it's not too likely. The woman is too young to be her mother. Must be an elder sister. And the others are probably her siblings as well. It's great to have someone to support you when you are in deep water... "Everything is fine. Your Yana is a great girl."

"True but she has a wild hair up her ass," the older man hummed as he came closer. "Well, my lively ones, Karina and I will be heading for home, and the rest of you might hang around here for a while. By the way, Yani, your ice cream has almost completely melted. If you don't do something about it, soon enough you'll have to lick it off the ground."

"Tsu, let's take another ride on that carousel with airplanes," Yana said impatiently as she snatched the softened waffle cup out of his hand. "Shall we?"

She waved to Sai and ran down the alley. The boy hallooed like a creature of the forest and followed.

"Those scamps," the young woman shook her head. "I'll try to catch up with them before they've gotten into another mess."

"She is a good girl," Sai said thoughtfully. "Your sister?"

"Actually, I am her foster father," the other man said as he was looking at Sai in a strange way. "Her parents have died. But you are right, Sir: she is indeed a good girl. In fact, there are no bad children - only bad adults who don't know how to raise their children properly."

The older girl was standing next to him, and he stroked her hair.

"Let's go, Tsu. The carousel is on the way, we'll put them on it, and then I and Kara shall go home."

He turned away from Sai but then, after a momentary hesitation, glanced sideways at him.

"The past belongs to the past," he said evenly. "Our sadness about the death of those we love should stay in our hearts, not in our eyes. It shouldn't be able to prevent us from looking into the future. Do you really think she would like you to follow her? If you happened to die instead, would you want her to follow you?"

Sai winced and opened his mouth to reply but the man and his two companions were already moving down the alley. I say! Has he read me like a book as well?

He watched the strangers go and felt the terrible strain he had lived under for the last several days abate from his body. He thought for a moment, then sat straight on the beaten earth of the observation platform as he propped himself against the railing - his back to the precipice - and closed his eyes.

The chasm did not attract him anymore. No, I surely wouldn't want Rasuma to follow me into death. And if I die, who will preserve her memory?

"...And be warmed with new hope by the petals which dance on the air," he muttered to himself. "Thank you, young Lady Yana."


After supper Tsukka knocked on the door of Dzinton's room.

"Come in, Tsu," the Demiurge called out. He was sitting on his heels in the middle of the room and, seemingly, meditating. The display on his table was flickering a rainbow of colored lines.

"Dzi, I wanted to ask about Yana...there in the park," the young woman sat down on the edge of the bed. "Who was that man? Was he molesting her? Is he a pervert?"

"Who were you more concerned about – him or Yana?" Dzinton laughed as he opened his eyes and rose to his feet in one fluid motion. "Tsu, I pity a rapist who would try to do something to her. She won't kill him, I hope, but he'll never be interested in little girls again. Or even in big ones, for that matter. No, no, it's something completely different," he became serious. "Our Yana has saved a human life today."

"A human life?" Tsukka asked, baffled. "But how?"

"He was about to commit suicide. A recent terrible tragedy had broken his spirit. Most probably, his beloved's death - I noticed a typical combination of overwrought regions in his psychomatrix. It's either one of his parents or a significant other, and it looks more like the latter because in a parent's case this pattern is much less typical. Yana...she calmed him down."

"How so?"

"She used her effector. To be precise, it was one of the effector's components called 'empathor'. It enables its carrier to feel other people's emotions, remember? I thought it might be able to do the exact opposite as well but it has never been proven...until now. Her effector's neurointerface managed to temporarily suppress the excitement in certain regions of his cerebral cortex. Cases like that are usually fueled by a so-called 'vicious circle effect': the excited regions keep influencing each other - so that the excitement never has a chance to die down. The effector implanted a mentoblock in several such regions, and the excitement just ran its course and faded away in the rest of them."

"Just incredible..." Tsukka muttered. "And what else can those effectors do?"

"Lots of things. You see, an effector is so much more than just its fighting component - yet the manipulators are the most conspicuous part of it, and they manifest themselves before everything else. However, a virus effector is a highly intelligent device that is orders of magnitude smarter than all the computers on your planet combined. It has a number of components - apart from those responsible for its fighting ability - that get randomly activated. Among them are volumetric scanner, like Karina's, spatial and eidetic memory, empathy, an ability to dispense with sleep, fast metabolism and so on. One of the components is mentoblock implanter, and that's what Yana displayed today. Based on the analysis of the effector, a probability of this particular component to become active is essentially non-existent - and yet it did happen in Yana's case."

"Mentoblock?" Tsukka knitted her brow. "Never heard of it."

"Naturally. This term comes from our neurophysiology. Here is more or less strict definition of it: mentoblock is a fixed set of stimulating and inhibiting impulses in cerebrum neurons - and this set of impulses influences one's mental and emotional processes in a certain way. By the way, its influence isn't restricted to humans. There are four levels of mentoblock, based on its actual effect. The first level implies a minimal amount of interference with one's emotions, and this interference ceases soon after the mentoblock was implanted. We apply those mentoblocks rather often when dealing with bioforms because there are no long-term effects whatsoever. For instance, while revealing my true identity to you, I implanted into you a simple first-level mentoblock suppressing too strong emotions - to make sure you would be able to preserve clarity of thought. Such a mentoblock exists no more than an hour-an hour and a half - and that's exactly what Yana implanted into that man."

"What else have you embedded in me?" Tsukka inquired, her tone suspiciously indifferent.
"Similar calming mentoblocks - and I did it but few more times. That's about it. You see, Tsu, we regard implanting mentoblocks as quite unethical interference with one's inner space - in particular, when dealing with our friends. That's why it's extremely rare that I implant even first-level mentoblocks into my friends - and I do it only in cases of utter emergency. And I would never-ever apply a higher level mentoblock to a friend. So, Tsu, your will is absolutely free, if that's what you mean."

"Ok," the young woman's tense shoulders relaxed a little. "I...I didn't mean to say that you were controlling me in some way..."

"And yet you were right to ask because the matter had to be clarified," Dzinton shrugged his shoulders. "To complete an introduction to the theory of mentoblocks, I will describe the other three levels. Level two means significant interference with one's emotional sphere, and with lasting consequences for the person's psycho-emotional state. Level three - drastic interference altering one's thinking patterns, causing hallucinations, creating a false memory, and all that. Finally, level four - ruinous intervention completely changing one's thinking and whole personality, shattering the subject's psyche and essentially driving him or her insane. It's rarely possible to implant a two-to-four level mentoblock right away - usually one has to study a particular individual for quite some time before doing it successfully. Since reading thoughts, if we are referring to the common usage of the expression, is impossible, we have to resort to a long-term comparison between people's behavior and their brain processes - or even build a full-scale model of the 'wind in the foliage' - to, at least somehow, anticipate possible consequences of our interference. It's different when we need to target one's underlying fears and instincts: a long study isn't really necessary because everybody's subconsciousness is about the same - yet that's an obvious case of a third or fourth level mentoblock, and it happens very, very seldom. Of course, that's but in-a-nutshell explanation but I hope the general idea is more or less clear."

"Yes, it is," after some consideration, the young woman nodded. "So, Yana can influence people's emotions?"

"You might say so. And it means, we have a serious problem."

"Why?" Tsukka elevated her eyebrows in amazement. "She saved a life!"

"You see, Tsu," the Demiurge sat on the windowsill and looked out the dark window, "a mentoblock is a mentoblock – whatever one's goals might be. As I said, direct interference with brain processes is unethical, even if a life is at stake. Unwittingly, Yana performed a rather far-reaching personality correction bound to have long-term consequences for the saved person. She prevented him from making a free choice – and, in fact, she forced him to change his life against his will. Even I consider all pros and cons before doing something like that. She did it incidentally, without realizing what she was doing, and why."

"But he would've died!" Tsukka exclaimed fervently. "Would it've been better to let him die rather than calm him down?"

"It's not that simple, Tsu. Everybody is entitled to a free choice - in particular, when it's a matter of life and death. Everybody has a right to choose to die, and depriving people of that right means turning them into slaves."

"But he wasn't in his right mind!"

"Really?" Dzinton frowned. "And who is to decide who's in their right mind - and when? Should it be you? Or I? Or maybe a random onlooker? Can you call someone legally incompetent only because that person's outlook on life is different from yours? It's true that any suicide is psychologically and emotionally unstable but nobody is completely steady and rational - literally nobody, including all humans, orcs, trolls and even Demiurges. Or maybe I should say, especially Demiurges. Which borderline should people cross to justify tying them up and locking them away in a padded cell? Where does a friendly hand turn into a stifling collar? I can't take the liberty of determining that. Can you?"

"And yet it's wrong!" Tsukka looked dejected. "How is it possible to be able to save someone - and to refuse to do so?"

"It's a really difficult question, Tsu," the Demiurge said thoughtfully. "Good intentions serve as a necessary foundation for any positive development - and yet the road to most abominable crimes is paved with those very intentions. You see, any self-appointed well-doer aims at promoting general happiness - and believes that such an important end justifies any means. If such a person thinks that exterminating 50% of those potentially fortunate people might be necessary to achieve the ultimate goal, he or she will have no qualms doing just that. And it doesn't matter if the goal is to benefit a couple of people or the entire civilization. No, Tsu, those claiming that they know better how people around them should live, must be killed on the spot - lest they themselves start killing."

"But what does all that have to do with that suicide?"

"By stopping him, you are placing yourself above him. You are claiming that you know better what he should do. You are denying him his free will and right to choose - and that's one of the worst crimes that can possibly be committed against an individual. Look into my eyes, Tsu."

The young woman started and raised her eyes. The Demiurge was looking at her, his gaze stern, his eyes screwed up, red dots clearly twinkling deep inside them.

"When my projection's pupils become red or blue, it's a sign that my effector's outer interface is active, and it has taken over the affected individual's psychomatrix. Yours, in this case. I just want to give you a practical demonstration of what I am talking about. On the count of two - one, two...

...and suddenly she was engulfed in an ocean of endless bliss. Tidal waves of euphoria swept over the young women and drowned everything around her with streams of magically beautiful light. She was experiencing all the pleasures of the world at the same time: a divine taste of food, the warmth of the summer sun, silk-tender touches of a man's hands, the finest ever fragrances, unutterably beautiful music... She felt like forgetting about everything else and just basking forever in that sheer happiness - and when the sensation was gone as suddenly as it had appeared, her disappointment was so acute that she almost groaned. Now she seemed to be free-falling somewhere, and when Dzinton's hands caught her by her shoulders and cautiously laid her down on the bed, she just stayed there for a while, unable to move or even stir.

When she felt a little bit better, she opened her eyes. Dzinton was still sitting on the windowsill and peering into the darkness of the summer night illuminated by the sparkles of the rising Star Pond.

"How are you?" he asked without turning his head.

"What happened?" Tsukka muttered as she gingerly felt her forehead. She was feeling hot, as if she had a fever but the forehead remained cold.

"A simple case of interference with certain nervous centers in your brain. I did it to activate your most primitive sensations. That creates an illusion of unimaginable bliss and ultimate happiness. Did you like it?"

"Don't do it again," the young woman murmured as she managed to sit up in bed. "Even once is too much."

"I won't," Dzinton agreed, "even if you ask me to. I just illustrated my point: this first-level mentoblock shows that even something as complex as a human brain may become quite simple and even primitive. Tsu, I am a Demiurge. It's a walk in the park for me to make everybody happy in such an unimaginative way. I would need no more than five minutes to ladle out bliss to just about anything that has a nervous system, starting with flatworms and hydras. Would you call it 'happiness'?"

"No, but it's something utterly brutal," she winced as she was massaging her temples. "I haven't fully recovered yet, even by now. No, Dzi, it has nothing to do with happiness - if that's what you wanted to hear. Bestial exultation, maybe..."

"Exactly!" he smiled at her warmly. "I wonder, how come that all my ladies are not only beautiful but smart as well? Now you are beginning to understand me. That's exactly what it is – bestial exultation even a cockroach can experience. And a human being isn't just an animal but a creature possessing the most valuable thing in the whole Universe - a reasoning faculty, even though quite often humans fail to exercise it properly. And the most valuable aspect of that faculty is its ability to make free, independent choices. That's why one's freedom of choice should be preserved at any cost - even if the cost is a human life, provided that it was the person's free decision to part with it. If we deprive people of their inalienable right to choose their own way, we a priori declare them mentally incompetent. That's exactly why I never cross certain borders under normal circumstances."
He sighed.

"I am no knight in shining armor, Tsu. I've played war and politics for thousands of years. I told Karina many times that only weaklings and cowards would kill. In fact, it's nothing but a simple mantra for a growing-up child who needs some guidelines in life. Life itself is way more complex than that. In certain situations I am facing a choice of either crippling one's mind or just killing the person - and quite often I choose the latter because the mind's death renders its owner's biological life meaningless."

"In certain situations?"

"Yes. There are certain categories of people whose decision-making threshold is much lower than what might be seen as normal. Those who trade slaves, rape children or take hostages aren't too likely to survive a meeting with me and remain sane. Gangsters and politicians also belong to a high-risk group. But we are talking about Yana, not me, as you surely remember - and Yana has an intuitive ability to implant at least second-level mentoblocks. That worries me quite a lot. She can do just that – cripple someone's mind, without even realizing what she is doing. Today she lucked out - and I was there to back her up, too - but the next time it might be different."

"You aren't going to do something to her..." Tsukka gave Dzinton a scared look.

"Come on, Tsu!" he laughed, and the young woman suddenly felt invigorated, her mind clearer now. "Of course, I am not going to do anything terrible to her. However, operating even a basic power effector implies the owner's additional responsibility - let alone possessing a mentoblock implanter! Yana is a kind and tender girl, and that will spare her from many mistakes. That said, she needs to learn how to control and properly apply this dangerous ability, and I don't have the first idea how to teach someone her age properly. She just doesn't have that necessary life experience that would allow her to understand what I am trying to explain."

"Why not just take away her ability to mess around with others' brains?"

"No. Whatever happened, happened. Her ability to handle a neuroeffector is already an important part of her personality - depriving her of it would mean to harm her pretty significantly. That would be level three, if not level four, interference - no way I might do it to a friend under any circumstances. Even when it comes to matters of life and death. No, Tsu, we'll have to accept her abilities and... Actually, I have an idea. Do you know by chance if there is a music school in the neighborhood?"


The catamaran white high side towered above the pier by a couple of fathoms. A mighty lifting crane had just lowered something down to the hold, and now it seemed to be hanging over the boat, as if frozen in midair. Samatta climbed the gangplank swaying under his feet and looked around.

"What d'ya want?" A sailor asked him lazily as he was leaning on his elbows against the railing next to the gangplank. "It's a private boat, we don't accept passengers."

"Good day, Sir. I am looking for Sir Bun Yubeda," Samatta made no indication that he was annoyed by the other man's unceremonious manners. Who knows, maybe that's how they usually communicate here.

"What for?" the sailor spat over the side.

"To discuss some topics, Sir, that concern only the two of us," Samatta gave him one of those slit-eyed, trouble-promising looks that would send shivers down the spinal cords of pigheaded new recruits. "I am humbly asking for your assistance. How can I find him?"

"I'll call him," the sailor replied gruffly as he reluctantly unglued himself from the railing. "Wait here...Sir."

He strolled along the deck and disappeared into the spar deck, his boots drumming a gangplank leading downstairs. Samatta shrugged mentally and switched his attention to the boat.

Despite having some sea experience, he did not consider himself an old sea dog, and never even cared much about the sea and everything that sailed on it. Every single commando was required to be able to use an aqualung while storming ashore - and Samatta had become quite proficient at that particular skill. As for the rest, it was not his concern because, fortunately, he had always been transported to the drop zone by the navy who could barely be regarded as soldiers anyway. But now he was scrutinizing the boat and really trying to take in every little detail. If indeed I'll have to protect it from an assault, any such detail might make a difference between life and death.

He could hardly see the second catamaran hull behind the superstructure. The deck was cluttered with coiled hawsers and some bales. Covered row boats, along with a weird cylindrical structure under tarpaulin, were hanging down a ship side, supported by pulleys. The crew was nowhere to be seen but muted clanging sounds and indistinct voices were coming from an open hatch where the crane cables had earlier disappeared. They must be unloading right now. Seagulls and silver birds were flying to and fro over the deck, probably waiting for a handout - and never missing a chance to dirt on the deck while waiting. To test his, as Dzinton had called it, 'half-effector', Samatta aimed it at one of the seagulls and hit the bird lightly. The seagull dropped almost all the way down to the pier but managed to do a quick U-turn - just in time to soar and fly away and out of sight as it passed the warehouses. Must be complaining to her flockmates about that cheeky gusting wind. The former captain grinned. Dzinton's present – that ability to strike at a distance with nothing but an effort of will - is definitely pretty useful. Still not a real effector like the kids have but even as it is, it's already something. Catch a dude in the jaw or hit him square in the upper body, and he is surely out for quite a while. Just be careful not to kill anybody by chance - you don't really want to find out what a Demiurge means when he says 'I would be upset'. So, to start with, just master your new skill.

There was a sound of heels clicking on metal, and a lean man appeared from the superstructure. While he was striding across the deck, Samatta had enough time to take a closer look at him. Judging by the man's gray hair and wrinkled face, he was well into his sixties – and yet his age did not seem to catch up with him. His sinewy body was moving quickly, and his long legs were supporting its weight with ease. The man's T-shirt revealed his muscular arms and shoulders, and there was not an ounce of fat on his neck and belly, the latter covered with some thin fabric. The guy is definitely taking care of himself and exercising like not every athlete would.

"Have you been looking for me, Sir?" the man asked as he came up right next to Samatta and scrutinized him, intrigued. "I am professor Bun Yubeda, the boss of this floating madhouse.

"I am Samatta Kasariy," the guest introduced himself automatically. "Pleasure to meet you, Professor. I seek benevolence."

He was trying hard not to reveal his confusion. He was convinced that a professor - let alone, the Okanaka University Medieval History Department chair - should be looking much more imposing.

At the very least, such a person should not be involved in loading ships like a common docker - and he clearly was as patches of dirt on his T-shirt, shorts and muscular hips unequivocally showed.

"My pleasure. Benevolence granted, young Sir Samatta. Wait...are you the very man Sir Dzinton wrote to me about?

"Sir Dzinton advised me to contact you, Sir Bun, to offer you my services as an aqualung instructor during your trip. So, it's quite probable he could be writing to you about me."

"Excellent!" the professor exclaimed as he bowed much lower than the etiquette required. "It's just excellent! Our former instructor got sick - just imagine, he somehow managed to catch a cold in this summer heat! - and I have no less than five trainees here, none of them has ever seen an aqualung before. I already began to grow desperate."

"He caught a cold?" Samatta asked suspiciously. I wonder, if a certain Demiurge I know has a hand - or whatever replaces it - in it. "I am sorry to hear that, Sir."

"Yes, yes," the professor seemed to wave off his remark. "Quite frankly, I don't like him anyways but he has signed a one-year contract with us, and there is no formal reason to annul it. This time we are going on a very short trip - six or seven days, at most a week. That's because the ship should get tested after repairs: the last year its helmsman found nothing better to do than hit an underwater rock and get the boat's belly ripped open big time. We'll take this opportunity to conduct a preliminary reconnaissance of the site - and also to see what our trainees are worth. So, I hope we won't affect your plans too much. That said, may I ask what sort of experience do you have in the field?"

"I am a special operations forces captain. Or rather 'was'," Samatta corrected himself. "I am quite familiar with military models of such aqualung brands as 'AGAGA' and 'Devilfish'. In theory, I have a pretty good idea of some civilian models, as well - 'Perch', 'TABURU'-10 and 20, and so on. But I've never actually worked with them. As for my practical experience, I've spent about 150 hours underwater, at a depth up to 15 fathoms."

"Wonderful!" The professor brightened up. "We just happen to work with 'Devilfish-15'. Our sponsor seems to have good connections in the military department - so we are never short of military equipment, even though not necessary the most modern one. You said, you _were_ a captain?"

"Yes. I was fired for being too independent." Samatta did not feel like going into details, and he hoped that the professor would not require any.

"It's good to be independent," Bun smiled, and many wrinkles blossomed around his eyes like tiny flowers. "That's what it takes to become a good scientist. Tell me, Sir Samatta, how is Sir Dzinton feeling? Unfortunately, we've never met in person, just written to each other. When I found out that he was living here, in Masaria, I even thought he would feel like joining our expedition. The university would undertake to pay all his expenses - you know, sometimes he would offer such an unusual perspective that the whole problem in question suddenly presented itself in an altogether different light. For instance, that site where we are going now...But I must've chewed your ear off. I apologize for my old man's gab: young people are always in a hurry, and when I finally find myself in a company of a youth who is unable to escape, I just can't stop talking."

"And I love listening. It's just that nobody has called me a 'youth' for quite some time," Samatta smiled. Little by little he was developing a liking for the professor who was anything but a fat, haughty dryasdust the former captain had always thought any famous scientist would be.

"For a fossil like me, everybody who's younger than 50 is a youth," the professor laughed. "If you are trying to figure out how old I am, don't rack your brain. I am 82, and for about the last 15 years they've tried to get rid of me as the department chair. So far to no avail."

"82?!" Samatta looked him over from head to toe, quite openly this time. "It's just unbelievable. But for your gray hair, many people at thirty look much worse than you do."

"Physical exercises and jogging for five versts - possibly, every day - combined with healthy eating and a proper regimen," Bun winked at him. "Follow this recipe, young man, and you'll look every bit as good as I do when you are my age. But we've talked enough about me, there are more important topics to discuss. So, you are enrolled as an expedition member on a temporary contract. We'll complete the paperwork when we sail off - right now we have to finish loading as soon as possible. All those delays have already cost us a lot of money. We have to leave by 7 in the evening lest they charge us for a full extra day of berthing. Mind you, you'll have to perform menial tasks, just like everybody else."

"Of course, Sir," Samatta nodded. "What should I do?"

"Right now we have to rearrange the cargo in the hold. When we received the last batch, it turned out there wasn't enough space to fit it in - so now everything has to be reshuffled. And the modern youth is completely and utterly cack-handed: the sailors are good for nothing but shirking their work, and I am somewhat past my prime to be able to toss bales on my own."

"Cack-handed shirks, heh?" the former commando grinned. "Let's go check their hands, Sir Bun. And while we are at it, I might find out if I still remember how to drill new recruits. Something tells me I will need those old skills once again. Do you mind appointing me the dockers' foreman for now?"


Later, when the catamaran had finally left the port, Samatta - along with the students, the professor and two expedition researchers - settled on the foredeck of the left hull. There were five students: three humans and a recently married couple of orcs. The female orc had a charming lively face, and the golden-yellow iris of her almost triangular eyes matched her bluish gray fur perfectly well. Samatta found her spontaneity and curiosity strikingly similar to Yana's. As the male orc noticed Samatta's interest in his better half, he grinned broadly and embraced her, clearly proud of such a wife. Samatta winked at him but at the same time he was wondering if it had occurred to the expedition supply managers that the two should be provided with fitting masks and mouthpieces. Standard ones that are meant for humans will surely be no good.

The human students made no impression on him whatsoever: two skinny young men stammering under excitement, and a plain young woman with a shock of orange-striped hair. They looked so naive and helpless that the former captain hummed involuntarily. Our modern youth is nothing but a joke...Or are you simply growing old, buddy? So, young people used to be stronger, and grass used to be greener - is that what you are saying? No, it's not that. Tsukka is five years younger than them, and she is neither helpless, nor naive. Maybe their life in the capital has taught them how to rely on their parents' financial support rather than how to take responsibility even for their own actions, let alone those of others...We'll see. A week isn't much time but even a week might be enough to drive at least some practical skills home to them. We've worked together for but a few hours, and they are already afraid of you - so there is chance they'll listen to what you have to say.

The researchers were birds of the same feather as the expedition leader. Professor Gonaga Purima, an about forty-year-old human female, was tall and sturdy but not fat. Despite her size, she moved smoothly and effortlessly - even when she was in the cramped hold. Her shirt and flimsy pants did nothing to hide her attractive curves. Her gray eyes were sharp but friendly. More than once Samatta would notice her ironic motherly smile when she was listening to his orders - yet she never tried to argue with him. It was similar to a loving mother pretending to give in to her children while playing with them - and inconspicuously doing everything her own way all the same.

Finally, there was a senior assistant Maroy Simaha - a plump and loud man who had a truly phenomenal, priceless memory. He never needed more than one attempt to recall where things of importance, trifles or even half-junk were located. His speech was teeming with quotations from works Samatta had never heard of. It's surely easy to be a historian with a memory like that: all it takes is to cast a glance at a page and to quote it later if needed...

The last character appeared when the others were already sitting in a semicircle, ready to listen. A young human female, wearing trousers and a long-sleeve blouse, climbed up the companionway leading to the cabins as she was walking with a cautious, even somewhat constrained gait. Samatta had never seen her before because she had not been participating in the unloading. Her hair was neatly arranged in a ponytail, and she was dressed in a strangely formal way that seemed quite out of place on a ship. Without saying a word she came up to the rest of them and stopped in her tracks. Professor Bun motioned with his hand, and the woman - still completely silent - subsided on the deck and became motionless.

"Her name is Miriay," Bun explained as he met Samatta's puzzled gaze. "A hulcy. Guys from the cybernetics department asked me to test her under real life conditions. They were experimenting with her artin while also improving her body design for the umpteenth time. Don't ask what exactly they did - I don't have the first idea about all this intricate mechanics. Anyway, just don't pay attention to her. She isn't too talkative, and she won't be a distraction."

Astounded, Samatta examined the cyborg from head to toe once again. The growing dusk concealed the details but now he could see that the young woman's exquisite face was, in fact, too symmetrical and even doll-like, its muscles - as well as the eyes - too static. Likewise, her skin was too white and smooth, and all her movements - as Samatta realized now in retrospect - almost mathematically precise and monotonous. Notwithstanding all that, without knowing who she really was, it would be all too easy to confuse her with a flesh-and-blood female. Samatta had seen hulcies before, mostly within training areas, but they shared next to nothing with a human being, apart from a head, a pair of hands and a pair of legs. Besides, military artins did not care much about forcing their angular bodies to imitate human movements - so even a baby would hardly confuse them with a real human. A battle robot is nothing but a robot, an abortive by-product of fantasy action movies always getting stuck in off road conditions, and breaking down about once an hour, to boot. But this lass... Samatta remembered seeing once a 'Hulcies for the House' store on a central avenue displaying handsome male mannequins and pretty female ones in the shop window. Were they indeed mannequins? Should take a closer look when I come back.

"So, my Sirs and Ladies," Samatta cleared his throat and shifted his eyes away from Miriay before leaning comfortably against the superstructure wall and surveying the small group of humans and orcs gathered around him. "It was too hectic here when we met the last time, so I'd rather introduce myself once more. My name is Samatta Kasariy, and I am your short-term diving instructor. Those who have ever swum with an aqualung, raise your hands."

Only Bun and Maroy did, the rest just shook their head.

"I see. Well, in that case I'll have to begin with the basics. But even before we start discussing aqualungs and other underwater equipment, I must emphasize that the sea is unforgiving. One may easily run into health problems or even die as a result of something as simple as aqualung swimming near the surface, and staying at a depth of twenty fathoms or so is way more dangerous. That's why, to begin with, you must memorize several basic but extremely important rules."

He raised his clenched fist and stuck his thumb out.

"Rule number one: your life depends on you and only you. When push comes to shove, you can't rely on anybody to bail you out. They might be able to help you - or they might not. So do pay as much attention to your own safety as possible: check your equipment meticulously before diving. Your first concern is your aqualung - the cylinders pressure, the state of the oxygen delivery regulator and so on. When underwater, first and foremost examine each other and make sure there are no air leaks where there shouldn't be any. Of course, I am going to check each of you out as thoroughly as a loving mom would but that alone may be not enough. Once a friend of mine died right in front of me: a diving instructor - and a very experienced one, I must add - he somehow failed to notice that his belt load was much heavier than necessary. He dived and just plummeted 150 fathoms, all the way down to the seabed. His body was never recovered."

Samatta looked around and saw the orcs shudder in unison. Their vivid imagination must have provided them with a picture that was too explicit for their taste.

"Rule number two: every sensation is extremely important," he stuck his index finger out. "Remember that water dulls all your sensations, and the deeper you go - the duller they become. You can rip your hand open and fail to notice it if you disregard a slight tingling in your hand and miss a trail of blood in the water. It's a guaranteed way to die of blood loss - in particular, when you are at a significant depth where it's impossible to surface quickly from. Listen to your body all the time, and do pay attention to any trifle. Besides, try not to touch anything you don't really need - things like corals, stones, caves' walls... They can be quite sharp by themselves, and they also might be covered with sea shells having very – VERY! - sharp edges."

His middle finger joined the index one.

"Rule number three: never panic and never make any sudden movements. The latter won't save you but they can well harm you even more. Here is a typical example: sometimes, as you reach a certain depth - usually it's about four-five fathoms - you might have a sudden, intense headache and a sharp pain in your ears. Inexperienced divers can easily get scared and shoot upwards. However, if you surface too quickly even from five fathoms, you are quite likely to develop decompression sickness. Probably a mild case of it but all the same. So, if you happen to find yourself in a difficult situation, and you have no idea what's going on with you, just stop and take a deep breath several times in a row. On most occasions, even such a short respite might help you to realize what's happening and what you should do."

Samatta clenched his fist once again and shook it in the air.

"Finally, rule number four: when it comes to your behavior in the water, you obey me instantly and unconditionally. You hang upon my lips and literally do what I am telling you to. If you just try to behave willfully even once, you'll come out of the water right away and become an orderly for the rest of the trip. To sum up: there are four basic rules. Check your equipment, listen to your body, never panic and do what I am telling you to when you stay in the water. Questions?"

"Sir Samatta," one of the human students immediately piped in, "won't sharks become a problem?"

"There are no sharks in coastal waters," the former captain grinned. "At least, none of those that might be dangerous for people. You must've seen too many thriller movies. The bigger a fish is, the less likely it is to survive next to the dry land when a Wave comes. Big fish just get thrown ashore and onto the rocks where they die. For centuries, nobody has seen any sharks longer than a cubit near either our coast or the Western one. Divers are much more threatened by other creatures that aren't usually featured in sea adventure movies - such as, for example, stinging jellyfish. Its body is as small as a fingernail but one touch of its dome or a half-a-fathom long tentacle is enough to send you to an intensive care unit if not straight to a cemetery: anaphylactic shock is a lousy thing, and then some! Or take water chestnuts with their long spines: they can easily pierce through both your diving suit and your skin - and they would snap deep inside your muscles. Removing such a spine remnant from under the skin outside the operating room is extremely difficult, and abscesses they usually cause are quite painful. You won't die of it but you will suffer a lot. There is also striped fish: the size of the palm of a man's hand but during the spawning it becomes so hot-tempered that it attacks everything that moves to protect its own territory. Its mouth is rather small but its teeth protrude forward, and they are covered in poisonous slime that causes soft tissues to become necrotic. So, if this fish manages to bite your finger, it will have to be cut off. Have I set your mind at ease?"

The young man swallowed nervously and shook his head.

"Any more questions? Great. Later we'll keep discussing dangerous sea creatures but right now I want to remind you one more time about the four rules: check your equipment, listen to your body, never panic and do what I am telling you to when you stay in the water. And let's begin our first lesson. What you see here," he removed a tarpaulin from an object that was beside him, "is 'Devilfish-15' aqualung - an old but quite reliable and versatile military model both rookies and experienced divers might find useful. It consists of the following parts..."


06.07.843, Thriceday


"I am still not completely convinced," the school principal drummed his fingers on the table thoughtfully. "True, for those two weeks I've been closely watching Yana, I haven't seen any anomaly in her behavior. Hadn't I known about her...special abilities, I would've never guessed she was different from normal children. But two weeks isn't too much time. I would even say, it's a very short period of time."

"She isn't different from normal children because she herself is a normal child," Dzinton shrugged as he kept staring at his nails. "She knows very well that it's not allowed to use her effector when she is anywhere but home - so, there is absolutely nothing to worry about."

"And yet...please, try to understand me, Sir Dzinton. I am responsible for two hundred kids between the ages of ten and thirteen, and they are all different - kind and angry, sympathetic and cruel.

In particular, in secondary school where they are already physically strong enough to cause trouble but not smart enough yet to sympathize and understand what they are doing. What will happen if one of the older kids hit her, by accident or on purpose? Will she be able to hold back rather than return the blow? I saw on TV how some deviants were breaking through a three-millimeter-thick steel plate with a single punch!"

"As I said," Dzinton repeated patiently, "I can guarantee that she'll never use her power anywhere but home – as long as it won't be a matter of life and death. Her elder sister has told her enough about the Institute, and Yana isn't too keen to end up in a similar 'charming' establishment."

"Her elder sister," the principal grimaced as he felt bitterness rise in his throat. "Sir Dzinton, the very thought about what was being done to children in our city makes me feel indignant - and three times as indignant because I am a human being, a father and an educator. But placing a child, whose psyche has been crippled through a long stay in the Institution, among normal children...I am resolutely opposed to it. I can't accept any guarantees when it comes to _her_ behavior. I just can't allow that..."

"Two weeks ago this girl with her, as you put it, 'crippled psyche' was standing face to face with a man who had given orders to get her tortured. She had every opportunity to kill him - and she was allowed to - but she didn't," Dzinton kept staring at his nails indifferently. "She didn't even hit him properly - unlike a police investigator who broke this man's jaw a week later, unable to contain his emotions. I am inclined to regard this test as an ultimate proof of her mental stability."

"What are you talking about?" the principal immediately became alarmed. "Where did it happen? Who could _allow_ her to kill a human being?"

"I did," the visitor gave him a bored look. "You see, Sir Seki, I happen to have participated in neutralizing the Institute - and I took the girl with me to let her participate as well. I am sorry but the rest is a state secret. But we got off the subject that is the younger girl, not the older one. Since you confirm that Yana's behavior has been completely normal, I'll be off now. I still have lots to do."

He rose from his chair, bowed slightly and headed for the door.

"But what if she does hit somebody?" the principal asked despairingly as he was looking at the visitor's back. "I mean, she is more powerful than a handgun!"

The visitor stopped and turned around to face him.

"Much more powerful than a handgun," he remarked politely. "I would say, at least as powerful as a large-caliber howitzer. If properly motivated, she is able not only to break through a steel plate but also to pull down the whole school building. But you are an educator, Sir Seki, and you know perfectly well that children grow up sooner or later. Do you suggest that they should be brought up in isolation - so as to make them feel like outcasts? And, once they have grown up, what do you think they'll feel about the society that rejected them? Or should they be exterminated right now - all of them - before they had a chance to develop a life philosophy? Well, if that's the solution, it'd better be done quickly because some of them will come of age within a year or two."

Without waiting for an answer, he went out and close the door behind him tight. The principal remained alone, his mouth half-opened helplessly. Children grow up, do they? They sure do. May a curse fall upon that cocksure whelp who believes he knows everything about life! Of course, one can't reject those children - they aren't guilty of having special abilities, after all. But mixing them with everybody else...

He wiped the sweat from his forehead irresolutely as the school reverberated with the joyful sound of a bell announcing the end of classes. A hum of children's ringing voices came immediately from the school hallways and courtyard. Sir Seki Arikuy sighed heavily and scrambled out of the armchair. It was time to get back to work.

...and what will they feel about the society that rejected them?


"Look, it's dad!"

When Yana shoved Palek with her elbow, he had already seen Dzinton who was sitting on a plinth and carelessly dangling his feet in midair. He looked very young - barely older than those high school graduates who were now streaming past him. Without taking a closer look at him, one could easily take him for a sixteen-year-old.

"That's your dad?" Tsury asked incredulously as he exchanged glances with Kamir who was keeping company with them. "You are fibbing, Yani. He's too young to be your dad!"

"It's you who are fibbing, not me," Yana huffed. "He is our foster father, not the real one. But he is cool, anyway. Hey, Dzinton!" she waved her hand. "We are here!"

He waved back at them, jumped off the plinth and moved towards them as he was dodging oncoming people adroitly. When he came up to the children, he smiled at them.

"Hey, scamps!" he said. "And how are things going?"

"Just great!" Yana informed him excitedly. "Lady Simitsa said that the day after tomorrow our whole class would go to the History Museum. There will be no school! We'll change into historic costumes and see a performance!"

"Doesn't take much to make you happy!" Dzinton hummed. "You are nothing but idlers, and it just can't be helped... Folks, have you made any plans to hang out with your friends?"

"No," Palek said quickly before Yana could get a word in edgewise. "We were going home." He would hate Yana to blab that they planned to explore an abandoned house located just above the tsunami-hazardous area. Tsury might've made it all up about the treasure, of course, but anyways - no fun to raid an, who knows, old pirates' nest if you need adults' permission to do so. After all, the house will be there tomorrow, too. And so will the treasure.

"Good," Dzinton nodded. "I just happen to have got a couple of news for you, and there is something important to talk about. Sorry, guys," he inclined his head toward Tsury and Kamir, "but today your friends will go with me. And tomorrow is a new day. After all, waiting for an adventure is sometimes almost as exciting as going on it, don't you agree?"

Palek gave him a suspicious look but Dzinton's face remained completely inscrutable. But he is a Demiurge! Maybe he knows about that house, all the same. If he somehow knew about the Walrus and that incident...Doesn't matter. If we are doing something wrong, let him say so.

Dzinton did not say a word about the pirates' house. Instead he led the children out of the schoolyard and up a small, narrow, winding street. In about half-a-verst they stopped at a cafe and sat down on the summer veranda. Dzinton ordered three ice creams and began languidly poking his tea spoon at the thick brown mass, waiting for Yana and Palek to finish off their scoops.

"Well, cookies," he said thoughtfully when their teaspoons began to scrape the bottom of the bowls, "are you ready for a serious conversation?"

"What about?" Palek, as he was sucking the remnants of the ice cream off his spoon, sounded barely interested.

"About Karina."

The children looked at him in unison and exchanged glances.

"About Karina?" Yana asked hesitantly.

"Yes. Remember, we went to the park yesterday. Yani, what was she feeling there?"

"Well..." the girl took some time to ponder over the question. "She was a bit afraid. And distressed. Really distressed when there were many people around, and not so much when it was less crowded. Besides, she was craving to run away and hide."

"That's about right. I thought so, too," Dzinton nodded. "It's quite bad. You see, she had escaped from an orphanage and been hiding in abandoned housed and parks - hiding from people for almost half a year before she ended up in the Institute. All that time she was afraid to be seen and get caught, and that's exactly what happened in the end. And now she keeps being afraid of people because it has become a habit."

"That's silly!" Yana said with conviction. "What is she afraid of? We are right here, with her. And you are here, too. You will always protect her if necessary."

"I will, indeed, but human feelings are a weird thing: you know for sure there is no danger, and yet you are afraid of something. Say, when you see a spider, you can't help recoiling - even though you do know that it doesn't bite. That's how Karina is feeling: having many people around affects her exactly in the same way seeing a spider affects you. Have you paid attention that she wouldn't even go shopping if she can avoid it?"

"I understand," Yana nodded upon reflection. "And what should we do about it? It's really bad if you are afraid to go out."

"It is bad, that's exactly what I am saying. As for what to do, what would you suggest we should do?"

"It's all nonsense," the boy shrugged. "Girls always make up things and stuff...ouch!" he gasped as Yana stuck her fist into his side. "Ok, ok, not always. But it's still girly nonsense."

"No, it's not!" Yana frowned. "I can see that she is indeed afraid of people. Dad, how would we know what to do? We are still kids."

"Nobody is too little to take care of their friends," the Demiurge said sternly. "She is your sister. You must help each other."

"I'll kick anybody's ass if they even try to touch her!" Palek said belligerently.

"Karina herself is quite able to kick not only asses but brains as well - so that they'll ooze out of people's noses. So what? Lika, have you ever seen slons in a zoo or, at least, a picture of them? Mighty animals - and yet so many of them have been killed that now they are almost extinct. No, sheer strength means very little unless you know how to use it properly. Doesn't matter how strong you might be - there is always someone who is stronger than you. So, it's not about kicking butts but rather about convincing Kara that she is safe, and there is no need to be afraid of people. The question is, how to convince her that's the case?"

The children exchanged glances silently and shrugged. Dzinton sighed.

"That's what occurred to me," he said slowly. "A weak person can start lifting weights to build strength, in time. Those, who are afraid of water, might practice swimming in shallow water and gradually get over their fears. A bad memory can be improved through learning by heart a short piece of text at a time. In other words, to solve a big problem, one should create a number of small problems that are similar to the big one - and keep solving them until the big one doesn't seem that big anymore. Makes sense?"

The children exchanged glances again and nodded in unison.

"Then we should create a small problem for Kara to solve. But which one?"

"If she is afraid of crowds, let her go only to those places where there are few people," it dawned upon Yana after a short while. "And make sure more people will come there - that's how she will get used to be among people. Right?"

"Yes," Dzinton smiled, "but not completely. If she simply finds herself in a small group of people, she'll just huddle into some corner, withdraw into herself and remain alone. Then she'll get used to be alone when among people rather than being with people. That would be even worse."

"But what can we do, then?" the girl asked confusedly.

"We should find a way to force her to actually communicate with someone all the time - so that she would have no chance to hide. I just thought, maybe we should send her to learn martial arts in some really big school?"

"Do they teach girls to fight?" Palek was amazed. "Girls start sobbing when they as much as scratch their knees!"

"Girls are every bit as good as boys, by the way," Yana said proudly. "Remember how I smacked Purk on the head with my schoolbag today? He was wailing, not I! Oops..." she gave Dzinton a wary look.

"And that's why there is a dent in your schoolbag now," the man frowned. "Just keep in mind, if you damage the bag, we aren't buying you a new one till the spring. You'll have to use it as it is or patch it yourself. Troublemakers...Anyway, that's not what we are talking about right now. To sum up, I think we should indeed send Kara to learn how to fight. Who knows, maybe it will help her to gain confidence, after all."

"She won't succeed, all the same," Palek muttered sulkily.

"Maybe not," Dzinton was quick to agree. "No need to be envious, though. As I said, I've got a couple of news for you, and here is the first one. I've talked to some guys from the Big Manege, and they agreed to let you come over to see the horses."

"The horses?" Palek exhaled. His eyes were as big as saucers now. "Real horses? Not ponies?"

"Very real horses," the Demiurge smiled. "They also said they could use a quick-witted boy who wouldn't be afraid of menial tasks. And that they would take you if they liked you."

"Hurrah!" Palek yelled as he jumped to his feet and began bouncing all over the veranda like a savage. "Horses! Yeeees!"

"Mind your manners, Young Sir," Dzinton admonished him. "People are looking at you. Now, sit down. Too early to rejoice. Do you know what a stable boy is all about? Mucking out, feeding the horses and grooming them after performances. You won't even be paid for doing all that, just allowed to learn horse riding - and even that not right away."

"I don't mind mucking out," Palek, who had in the meantime sat down on a chair, jumped up once again. "There are real horses there! Horses!!! I don't mind mucking out all day every day!"

Yana snorted but Palek took no offense.

"Real horses!" he murmured. "So cool! The guys in my class will be green with envy!"

"Be careful lest they kick _your_ ass because of this envy, " Dzinton grinned. "Yani, now it's your turn. There happens to be a music school right next to us, and a good one, too - if opinions are to be trusted. Would you like to study singing? I mean, real singing, like what they do in opera."

"Singing?" she could hardly believe her ears. "Wow...I mean, of course! Mom also wanted to send me to a music school but then..." she became sad for a moment. "May I, though? Isn't it expensive to study singing?"

"Not cheap, indeed, but we'll manage somehow. And if you do well, your tuition fee will be reduced by half - or even waived altogether, in case you start winning inter-school contests. "

"I'll do very well, I promise!" the girl assured him fervently. "I'll become the best singer in the world!"

"That's a very brave statement, Young Lady," the Demiurge laughed. "To start with, try to become the best singer in your school. You realize that studying music is no walk in the park, don't you? Learning solfege by rote, exercising your voice, practicing instruments... Will you manage?"

"I will!" the girl tossed her head. "My word of honor!"

"Good. And now, scamps, go home. I am still going to be busy for a while. And make sure not to tell Kara about the martial arts school yet - let it come as a surprise for her as well. By the way, you can treat yourself to my scoop, I don't feel like eating it."

He stroked each child's head, paid his bill, waved his hand at parting, ran down the terrace steps and walked briskly down the street.

"Real horses!" Palek uttered dreamily.

"Who cares about horses!" Yana tossed her head haughtily. "Studying music - that's really something!"

"Big deal, music..." Palek began heatedly but cut himself short. "Yani, he had it all planned, didn't he?"

"Planned what?"

"To pretend that he was interested in our opinions. But he had made up his mind about everything before he even asked. I mean, that he would send Kara to study martial arts, and you - to study music, and me - to look after horses. To make sure we wouldn't be jealous of each other, d'you understand?"

"We won't," the girl shrugged her shoulders. "Siblings shouldn't be jealous of each other. We are family, aren't we? Anyway, Dzinton is the best dad in the world. But for my real dad, of course," she added unhappily. "So, we haven't gone on a treasure hunt - let's go home, then? We still have to write our assignments. By the way, do you feel like taking care of Dzinton's scoop?"


"Enjoying the view?"

Karina started, then jumped to her feet and, as she placed the social sciences textbook on a warm rock, smiled at Dzinton joyfully.

"I love sitting here, too," he returned her smile and stroked her hair. "It's quite beautiful here. But now great things are waiting for us. I have a surprise for you. Forget about studying for now, let's get going. We should get to...a certain place as soon as possible."

Karina nodded quickly.

"I am ready," she said. I'll put the book under the rock lest it gets wet in case of rain. And where are going?"

"Let's go. I'll tell you on the way."

They left the cliff and went down a long flight of stone stairs, straight through the thicket of tall tikurin trees, toward the downtown. The sunbeams were breaking through the trees' broad leaves, warming Karina's and Dzinton's cheeks and targeting their screwed up eyes like sharp arrows. Tall tree trunks were crackling overhead. Dense grass was tenderly stroking Karina's bare legs, just below her shorts already frayed along the bottom edges. The intoxicating air of a summer midday tasted like a tart herbal beverage.

When they reached a deserted alley ending in a set of steep stairs that led to the sidewalk, Karina gave her companion a quick inquisitive look.

"Intrigued, aren't you?" he laughed. "Ok, I won't keep you waiting any longer. You are my smart, pretty girl, so I can tell you: you are going to a school today."

Karina stumbled and almost fell topsy-turvy but managed to catch hold of Dzinton's hand and regained her feet. The sunlight seemed to have gone out around her.

"Yes, Karichka, you are going to a school," this time Dzinton sounded quite serious as he disentangled himself cautiously and embraced the girl. "It's a very special school, not like one you will attend starting from the next spring. A school of martial arts run by Master Karabi Netto. He is an outstanding teacher. You'll love it there, I am quite sure of that."

"But why?" she clutched his shirt as firmly as she could, panicking "I don't want to go there! I prefer staying at home!"

"Yes, you prefer staying at home but you can't hide forever. You can't stay under my wing for the rest of your life. You have to learn to be around people all over again. Your life hasn't been easy, I know, but trust me: most people wish you no harm."

"I don't want to go there," Karina fixed her gaze on the ground, the tip of her sandal kicking at the tufts of grass that had grown through a crack in the pavement. "They'll scoff at me. It's a martial arts school! They'll scoff at me and bully me, and I'll..."

"And you'll cripple or kill them. I know what you are afraid of, Kara, but you should face your fears and overcome them. If you just harbor them, you'll feed them and make them stronger. And one day they'll devour you completely."

She did not reply.

"In fact, you are afraid of more than just incidentally crippling them. What you fear most is that everybody will find out about your abilities, and then you'll be taken away and locked away in another 'Institute'. Right?"

The girl nodded reluctantly.

"That won't happen," Dzinton said firmly. "I've already promised you - and I promise you again. But you are right that other people shouldn't know about your abilities. At least, not yet. And that's why we are going now to Master Karabi Netto."

Karina cast a forlorn look at him.

"Master Karabi is a Guide of the Path," Dzinton explained. "Besides, he is an old friend. He'll teach you hand-to-hand combat skills - so that you should be able to defend yourself without giving yourself away. There isn't much time left until spring but if you persist you'll learn enough to be able to fight off any boy without using your effector. And don't forget: you had done bad things in the past, and you promised to expiate your guilt. And I promised to teach you how to do it. That's what I am doing now."

He half-embraced her shoulders and pushed her forward gently.

"Let's go. And don't fear anything because I am with you."


Master Karabi's school was a twenty-minutes-walk away from where the Fern Street met the Winter Boulevard. Inside, the gym seemed really vast, and clusters of children and grown-ups of all races could be seen on mats scattered all over the place. The students wore white jackets of a dense fabric and linen pants, and they were engaged in what looked like painstaking butchering of each other. Yet those of them, who were just sent crashing to the floor, would immediately spring to their feet and rejoin the fight as if nothing happened. Several trolls and humans, wearing multicolored stripes on their shoulders, were sauntering about the gym, correcting the students every now and then. Rows of lockers could be seen in the far corner of the room - and next to them there were shower sprinklers built right into the wall. Dark spots on the stone floor below the sprinklers marked the locations of the floor drains.

Karina stopped on the threshold of the entrance door, her mouth half-open, and looked around. As always, when surrounded by people, she was feeling uneasy. As she was blocking the entrance, Dzinton pushed her forward slightly and followed her inside. In a minute one of the human instructors came up to them.

"Would you like to enroll your sister in one of our groups, Splendid Sir?" he asked, his tone professionally indifferent. "Or yourself? Unfortunately, your respective age groups are already full for the current season. You'll have to wait until winter."

"I need to speak to Master Karabi in person," Dzinton replied and bowed. "I would appreciate, Sir, if you could call him."

The instructor elevated his brow but said nothing. Instead he turned around and went briskly, as he maneuvered between the mats, toward a troll who was explaining something to a boy and a girl, the latter barely older than Karina. Upon approaching the troll, the instructor said something and nodded in the direction of the entrance. The troll turned his head lazily but immediately straightened up. He added a sentence or two to finish his explanation - and hurried to greet the guests.

When he was three steps away from Dzinton, the latter covered his clenched left fist with his right hand and bowed deeply before the troll. In return, Karabi folded his arms across his chest, his palms on his shoulders, and bowed even deeper. Karina noticed a green ribbon with many white transverse stripes on one of his shoulders.

"Dai-Sensei," the troll said in a low voice.

"It's been quite a while since I was a sensei, Karabi. Quite a while, indeed. Notwithstanding, I am really glad to see you again, even though on the other continent. You haven't changed one bit."

"Neither have you, Marak. And I am every bit as glad."

"Marak is dead. Now my name is Dzinton," the Demiurge shook his head. "Dzinton Muratsiy. I apologize for showing up in the middle of a practice session but I've just heard you were about to sell your school tomorrow. Could we discuss the matter for a few minutes?"

"Any time, Ma...Dzinton. My presence here isn't that necessary, as a matter of fact. Aging is no fun, and I find it increasingly difficult to teach young and agile people."

"Don't you slander yourself, Karabi Netto, a Guide of the Path!" Dzinton laughed. "You'll stay head and shoulders above any of your instructors for decades to come. Let's hide somewhere in your office and have a talk."

As they entered the office, Karina caught a glimpse of a huge trestle bed against the far wall. A narrow strip of a bed sheet could be seen under a bedspread that was as tight as a drum. At the head of the bed there was a bolster of a sort - namely, a log encased in a dark fabric and wrapped in a piece of white cloth. The school owner's office obviously served as his bedroom as well. An unwieldy iron table was located in the corner of the room, and a terminal display on it was shimmering above a disorderly pile of papers.

"Just sit here for a bit," Dzinton whispered as he shut the door almost right in her face. "Watch the folk practice, it's quite instructive."

Karina froze indecisively at the door, then shrugged her shoulders and turned around to face the gym. There was absolutely nothing to sit on - so, she shrugged again and simply sat down on the floor.

As she propped herself against the wall, embraced her knees with both arms and tried to become as inconspicuous as possible, the girl turned her attention to what was happening around her.

About a fathom away there was a small mat where two very young orcs were being utterly focused on trying to grab each other's hand. Tension all over their bodies, they squinted their feline eyes as fur on

their faces bristled. Their movements seemed jerky and awkward. Upon having watched them for some time, Karina realized that they had been practicing just one movement over and over again: grab the rival's hand, half-turn away from him as you step aside and push his elbow from below with the palm of your free hand. Then finish the movement by putting pressure on his straight elbow from above and forcing him to bend forward and fall onto his knees. Fully absorbed in her thoughts, she instinctively stretched out her arms and tried to repeat the movement. Nothing special, it seems...You'd wish! Easier said than done. But Dzinton said they would teach me how to fight - so, why don't I try it once more? So...so...and so!

Suddenly she met an evaluating gaze of the human instructor who had snuck up on her from the side. The ribbon on his shoulder was solid green.

"Who are you?" he asked sternly. "Why don't you wear a dzuba and why aren't you practicing?"

"I..." Karina blushed and embraced her knees with both hands once again as she stared at the floor. "I've come with dad...with Dzinton. They are inside," she nodded toward the office, "talking - and I am waiting here."

"Oh, that's what it is?" the instructor hummed. "I presume, your dad is asking Master Karabi to accept you to our school?"

Karina nodded reluctantly.

"I don't know if that's possible," the instructor shook his head. "Our summer groups are full. Besides, as it's well-known, Master Karabi is forced to sell the school to pay his debts. And he is too proud to stay here as a rank and file instructor. I doubt he will be able to help you and your dad. What's your name, by the way?"

"Karina Muratsiy," she muttered. "Pleasure to meet you. I seek benevolence."

"Granted. You have a keen eye, Karina, and you must be a quick learner. Have you ever studied the Art of the Path?"

"No," the girl muttered as sulkily as before, feeling her cheeks redden. "Last week Dad showed me how to fall properly on my back but that's all. He said this was one of the skills the Path would teach."

"That's correct, the Path teaches how to fall, among other things. One can't rise without falling, and rising is the very ability that distinguishes the living from the dead. May I ask you to stand up, Young Lady?"

Karina gave him a puzzled look but immediately thought better of it and jumped to her feet.

"Show me now how you would perform that technique...I mean, how you would do what they are doing?" he nodded toward the panting orc children. "Here is my hand. Go ahead, don't be afraid."

Karina hesitated, then grabbed his hand timidly and pulled it while trying to half-turn. To her surprise, the tall man bent forward so as to allow her to push his elbow with the palm of her other hand. However she made no farther progress, much as she was trying to finish the movement. The girl blushed even more, let go of the hand and stepped back. Is he making fun of me? How can I possibly overcome a big and strong man who is also an instructor of the Path?

"You've grasped the concept of this movement," the instructor nodded. "Of course, you aren't performing it correctly yet but nothing else can be expected at one's first attempt - in particular, without any explanation and demonstration of how it should be done. I thank you, Lady Karina Muratsiy, for not being afraid to look awkward." He folded his hands across his chest in a way that was already familiar to Karina, and bowed slightly. "My name is Adam Kite, and I am one of the school selectors. Our school is quite famous. Many people want to study here but we accept only those who have a certain potential. Make sure, you come back in the winter when we begin to take on new students. I think, there will be a place for you in one of our groups. And now I must return to my students, Lady Karina. My apologies."

He bowed again and resumed his walk around the gym.

Confused, Karina sank to the floor and watched him go. She had been used to being either disparaged, feared or shunned. An orphanage misfit, a hunted down runaway, a living exhibit, and once again a runaway... Nobody had ever showed her that much respect. Maybe only Dad but he is a very special case.

She embraced her knees with both hands one more time and began to stare around absentmindedly.


"So, you are selling the school," Dzinton drew himself up to his full height as he sat on an uncomfortable wooden chair, his arms crossed behind his head.

"So, I am," the troll shrugged. "I am a lousy businessman, as you know. Once I plunged into debt ten years ago when I bought this school, I've never managed to come out of it. I borrowed, and borrowed even more, took usurious loans, signed stupid promissory notes... All in all, it's not so bad, and I have no reason to complain about my income – it's just that I have exactly one debt more than I can handle. Had it been one less, I would have been able to pay it all back in five years or maybe even earlier. As it is, I have no chance."

"Strange as it might seem, that's exactly how I see it, as well," Dzinton winked at him. "That's why I decided to make you two presents. One of them is quite real, the other is dubitable. Let's start with the real one, just to sweeten the pill."

In a magician-like gesture, he produced several stapled sheets of wax vellum out of seemingly nowhere and passed them to Karabi. The troll took the sheets gingerly and ran his eyes over them.

"No," he said in a low voice after a short pause. "Eighteen million is a whole lot, I can't accept that much. I am hugely indebted to you as it is, and I'll never be able to pay _that_ debt."

"Who said it was under discussion?" Dzinton snorted. "I know you better than you know yourself - so, I knew in advance how you would react. The promissory note has been redeemed, reissued and written off. How I am going to settle my account is my problem but let me assure you that I'll have much less trouble doing that than you will have paying back the rest of your debts. Don't forget that you still owe eight million to other creditors. That said, I happen to know a financier who will be happy to advise you how to get rid of those debts soon enough - and he won't even charge you too much. I'll send his contact information to your communicator. So, if I were you, I wouldn't rush into selling the school."

The troll was silent for two long minutes. Then his shoulders drooped while the papers slipped from his fingers and fluttered to the floor.

"Dai-Sensei," he said, his voice muffled with emotion. "My debt to you has been more than one could possibly repay but from now on it's a life debt. I swear an oath that I'll compensate you for all your expenses at the very first opportunity. I..."

"How touching!" the Demiurge grinned. "Your propensity for patheticism is still there after twenty years we haven't seen each other. Forget it. You know that I never do anything without a reason, and that I expect to be paid back in full sooner or later. As for your alleged old debts, the very fact that you mention them proves that you are indeed a lousy businessman. You have no idea of your true worth, no idea whatsoever. Well, well, stop sulking...my pupil," he winked at the troll. "As I said, I have two presents for you - and the second one is sitting on the other side of the door and waiting to be called."

"That girl?" Karabi asked warily. "Do you want me to teach her?"

"There is no denying your quick wit, though," Dzinton grinned again but immediately became serious. "Yes, Karabi, I want you to teach her. I know that you are ready to accept her right away – just because I am asking you to. But my real request is somewhat different. Master Karabi, I want you to listen to me and to tell me what you think, completely regardless of who you are talking to. Will you?"

"You scare me," Karabi smiled cheerlessly as he licked the outer row of his teeth. "But it doesn't matter. Yes, I will listen to you and give you my unbiased opinion, regardless of the fact that it's you who are asking me."

"Thank you, Master," Dzinton nodded seriously. "Listen, then. I do indeed want the girl to learn the Art of the Path but there is a significant complication. She is a deviant."

A hiss escaped the troll's tightly compressed lips but otherwise he remained motionless. His green scaled face became as hard as stone.

"She has had an extremely rough life. Her soul is crippled, and even I haven't so far managed to heal it completely. She has taken many lives, quite often - needlessly. Now her guilty conscience is giving her nightmares, and she is emotionally unstable. On the other hand, she is talented - both intellectually and in regard to her effector. In fact, she is more talented than any human child I have ever seen in my whole life. Her integration with the effector is quite unique. I don't know why and how she, of all people, has developed such a deep and seamless relationship with it – yet the fact is that she glides effortlessly where other deviants can manifest nothing but brute force. And where others give in, helpless to do anything, she breaks through like a battering ram. Just imagine: it took her only ten days to render a blockirator collar useless! I would never believe it could be done in less than a couple of thriceweeks. Her effector has become a true extension of her nervous system, and in that respect she is second to none. On this whole planet bioforms like her can be counted on the fingers of one hand."

The troll nodded slowly.

"But, as I said, her soul is crippled, and she is helpless before the world that surrounds her. She is afraid of herself and her power. She is afraid of people. She is afraid of accidentally killing somebody once again. She doesn't want to be next to people because she regards herself as a monster. I want you to teach her to believe in herself - and, if necessary, to defend herself without resorting to her hidden power. I don't want her to become a fighter because I believe that she has an altogether different vocation. However, she should learn to communicate with others as an equal. And I know that you, being who you are, can give her that inner confidence."

The troll nodded again.

"I've heard you," he said slowly. "I'll say 'yes', and not because of who you are. I'll never forget that a deviant killed my brother but I don't blame him. The boy didn't know what he was doing, and there is no reason to hate him or...his companions in adversity. I will help you."

"Are you aware of the danger? A crippled psyche combined with hormonal and emotional instability typical of her age - that's a volatile mix."

"A handgun carried by a daring and experienced mercenary is way more dangerous," the troll shrugged. "And in Suragrash I knew how to cope with those, too. I'll teach her if she wants to learn. Besides, I am quite curious to find out what a combination of the Path and...this effector, as you call it, might produce. Just one question: why don't you just teach her yourself? You are the greatest fighter the world has ever seen."

"I don't see myself as a fighter, and it's very, very seldom that I would teach anybody to fight," Dzinton shook his head. "Neither am I a sadist. If I have to kill, I don't turn murder into a show. You were an exception worth breaking this rule. As much an exception as Karina is in her area. Yet my usual role is quite different: righting wrongs. Besides, I adopted her - and a father-daughter relationship is very different from a teacher-student one. Let me emphasize once more, Karabi: there is no need to turn her into a fighter. All you have to do is to make her perceive herself as an equal among equals, give her confidence and teach her self-control. And nobody in the whole world can do it better than you because you are a great teacher, whatever you think about yourself."

"Cheap flattery is the key to one's heart?" the troll smiled crookedly.

"No, Karabi, I mean it. Shall I call her?"

"Wait. There is one condition."

"Really?" Dzinton raised his eyebrows. "And what is it?"

"You'll participate in an exhibition fight: one against five."

Dzinton whistled.

"Thinking big, aren't you?" he said, full of respect. "Why five?"

"Because I have several talented students," the troll was getting livelier by the second. "Too talented. Already as good as the instructors. They win each and every inter-school competition – so much so that the organizers aren't too happy to see them participating anymore. Two of them wear a green ribbon, and it seems to be just around the corner for the other three who still wear an orange one."

"And because nobody has for a while put them in their place, they begin to stick their noses up in the air," the Demiurge nodded knowingly.

"Exactly. And one has to drub a modicum of humility into their heads before they get proud beyond any measure. Of course, I still can manage any of them because my experience makes a difference. Yet that would hardly serve any purpose: I've been wiping the floor with them for so many years that they just take me for granted..."

"...but if a stranger teaches them a lesson, it will be an altogether different matter," Dzinton finished his sentence. "Ok, I'll do it. Right away?"

"Why not? Besides, your girl will have a chance to watch you doing it."

"Hm...Well, so be it. In any case, my current guise has been exposed all too often. Will it shock you if I change into a different garb right here? I can't appear on the mats as I am now, can I?"


The door creaked open, and Karina started when she saw Dzinton following the troll out of the room. The girl barely recognized her father who was now wearing linen pants and a wrap-over jacket of a dense fabric - just like anybody else in the gym. Must be that dzuba Adam Kite mentioned. Karina jumped to her feet. She suddenly realized that the troll was not as tall as his fellow racemen. An average troll male was about a fathom-and-a-quarter tall, one-and-half times taller than his human counterpart. Yet Karabi's height was just slightly more than a fathom. I think I've seen troll women who are taller than him.

"Have you missed me yet?" Dzinton smiled. "Kara, I've a good news for you: Master Karabi has agreed to accept you as his student. From tomorrow on you'll come here to practice every day."

"Pleasure to meet you, Splendid Sir Karabi Netto," Karina bowed timidly. "I seek benevolence."

"My pleasure, Young Lady Karina," he nodded in response. "Benevolence granted. When we are alone you may simply call me Karabi but in front of others call me 'Master' as everybody else does. From tomorrow on I'll be waiting for you here every day, at seven in the evening. You'll practice with both groups, eight days a week - not just every other day, as per usual schedule. Let's see if you are indeed as talented as you father believes you to be."

Karina blushed. Dzinton thinks I am talented? But he's never mentioned it to me. It's so nice to hear, of course but...what if I fail? She felt butterflies in her stomach - and at that moment the troll gave her a little wink. Karina stared at him, dumbfounded, but he already turned away and loudly struck his hands together several times, his gesture accompanied by a guttural explanation.

"Attention everybody!" he called out as he was quickly moving towards the center of the room. "I have two announcements to make. Please, sit down in a big circle."

"I guess, you haven't been to the circus for a long time?" Dzinton asked Karina in a half-whisper. "Or maybe never been to it? Well, now you are going to see quite a spectacle. Let's hurry up or they'll occupy all the front seats, and you'll have to go to a back row."

He took her by the hand and quickly led the way.

Indeed, both the students and the instructors were streaming towards the center of the room where they sat down in a big circle, five fathoms or so in diameter. Karina barely had time to plump down next to Dzinton, in the last remaining free seat in the front row. A towheaded boy, who wore a yellow ribbon on his shoulder, scowled at her. The girl snorted and stuck her tongue out at the boy, careful that Dzinton would not see what she was doing. Then she made herself comfortable on the floor, her legs crossed. Only at that moment she realized that Dzinton had assumed a weird pose as he was sitting on his heels, his legs tucked under him and the palms of his hands placed on his thighs. She looked around - most of the others were sitting in exactly the same way. She quickly tucked her shins under her thighs, trying to imitate the pose, and hissed in pain. The wooden floor put so much pressure on her soles, already crushed under the weight of her buttocks, that tears involuntarily welled up in her eyes.

Reluctantly, Karina crossed her legs once again as she gave herself a solemn promise to come to grips with this new pose.

"The first announcement," the troll said after everybody had settled down and all movement had ceased. The hum of voices immediately died down, and dead silence fell in the gym. "All of you surely know that tomorrow I was about to turn the school over to the new owner. The circumstances have changed. I will not sign the contract - and I will remain your Master as before. I am sorry if I've disappointed anybody," he added as he bared the double row of his razor-sharp teeth in a grimace that, in trolls' case, was meant to serve as a sarcastic smile or something like it – Karina did not know much about trolls' facial gestures.

The silence imploded, and jubilant shouts filled the air. Karina looked around. Younger students were screaming loudly and waving their arms in the air, older ones and the instructors were smiling broadly. The Master seemed to be well loved there, and his news was most welcome.

After a minute's wait the troll raised his hand, and gradually the room became silent again.

"The second announcement. Today we have a guest - a Guide of the Path, Master Dzinton Muratsiy. He has agreed to conduct a master class for you, and to do so he will take on five of the school's best students. The fight will be contactless, standard rules, the winner will be determined by points. A reminder for younger students: a participant, who has received three scoring blows or a single deadly one, forfeits automatically."

He met Dzinton's eyes and nodded slightly. With a single swift movement the Demiurge rose up and stepped forward towards the center of the circle. He folded his arms across his chest, his palms on his shoulders, bowed in three directions and froze, waiting.

"He is so young," someone muttered disappointingly behind Karina. She turned her head, and it happened to be the very boy she had beaten to the free seat. The yellow ribbon was hanging loosely from his left shoulder. When he met her gaze, he bent forward and whispered,

"You are with him, right? Why does he wear a white ribbon on his sleeve? It means the lowest rank! Only newbies wear it."

"You are a fool, Sniffles," a little orc about the boy's age, who was sitting next to him, nudged his side with an elbow. "Haven't you seen Master Karabi's ribbon? It's green, and with white stripes. The pure white color means the next rank. That's a tradition, d'you understand? Like, even the best Master is still but a student...Are you really with him?" he bent towards Karina. "Is he indeed a Guide of the Path? I haven't seen any of them yet. Nor even our Master: he is super-cool but isn't a Guide...I think."

Karina shrugged hesitantly and quickly turned away. WOW! Dad is a Guide of the Path! I wonder, what it means?

"Seequel! Orac! Deebes! Efubird! Foxbaise!" His name called, every man rose hastily and moved to the circle where all of them lined up in front of Dzinton. Three trolls, a human and an orc. "Get ready for a fight! Let him win whose spirit is truly serene!"

Dzinton bowed to his opponents, and they did the same. Stupefaction mixed with hesitation was written all over their faces. Serves you right, Karina gloated innerly. You thought you were the coolest here, did you? Dad will show you now!

"Today I am going to demonstrate an old technique that belonged to a school known as 'Fusing with the World," Dzinton said. "The school ceased to exist several centuries ago, after its last Master had died. It turned out that the technique was poorly adapted to the anatomy of the People. Probably it suits orcs best but humans are also able to use it well, provided they make some minor adjustments. Fusing is very efficient but it's also very difficult to master because it requires exceptional agility and superb body control. I myself am not perfect at it," he smiled, "but hopefully you won't be disappointed with the demonstration anyway."

And suddenly he was two steps away from where he had just been standing. It seemed that he had flowed rather than just gone there. His opponents blinked in confusion.

"For instance, this movement is called 'Retreating into Shadows'. It serves to dodge an aggressive, straightforward, simultaneous attack from several directions in the forward hemisphere. Pay attention, and you'll have a pretty good chance to learn its pattern because it seems that I'll have to resort to it quite often today, to escape," he smiled again. "And now, one-two-three, let's go!"

Karina could barely make either head or tail of what was going on for the next ten minutes or so. What looked like a merry-go-round made of bodies was spinning right in front of her. Six males seemed to be performing an utterly beautiful but, at the same time, an extremely complex dance. Bodies bent in impossible ways; blows dealt so quickly that the arms seemed to become a blur; bare feet gliding across the wooden floor like pond-skaters would glide across puddles after a downpour... Every now and then a body soared and crashed to the floor. It seemed impossible to rise after a crash like that - yet whoever had just fallen would jump to his feet and rejoin the battle.

Occasionally, Master Karabi's shouts broke the silence. Mostly he would utter a strange word, 'kuravas' - and each time the fight would be stopped, the opponents bowing to each other, only to be resumed in a moment. Karina also remembered another word, 'kisi', that not only interrupted the fight but also resulted in one of the students leaving it for good. When it happened for the third time - and Dzinton was left to face only two opponents, the orc and the human - the girl turned towards the boy called Sniffles and asked in whisper,

"What does it mean, 'kisi'?

"You, ignorant!" the boy snorted patronizingly. "It means 'killed', something like that. That's when someone receives a deadly blow and is sort of considered killed."

"And 'kuravas'?"

"It means, a scoring blow is counted against you - one that gives points to your opponent. How come, you are with Master Dzinton, and don't even know simple things like that? Have you never studied the Path?"

Karina shook her head and turned away, to continue watching the fight. However, it was over quite soon - in a minute Master Karabi shouted something similar to 'kisinaka', and the remaining fighters bowed to Dzinton and returned to their places as they were panting for air. Those who had been 'killed' earlier, joined them.

Dzinton bowed to all five of them. He did not even seem to be out of breath.

"I presume, you know what you've done wrong," he said, "but can anybody point out your main mistake?"

The five exchanged hesitant glances.

"We don't know how to fight as a team, Master?" one of the trolls ventured.

"A good guess," Dzinton nodded. "And mostly a correct one. You don't know indeed how to fight as a team - and even if you don't get in each other's way, you aren't helping each other either. No Master of the Path, when alone, will be able to withstand five opponents who do fight as a team. But a lack of teamwork is just one mistake, and not the main one. Other ideas?"

The students exchanged glances again but nobody risked to speak up this time.

"I'll tell you, then. Your main mistake is that you are fighting for the sake of winning the fight."

"But is it possible to fight for anything else?" the orc inquired, surprised.

"It is. The Path of Serene Spirit teaches us many ways to interact with the surrounding world, and fighting is just one of them - quite often a necessary one but still just one. Winning a fight doesn't really change your situation for the better. It doesn't address that particular problem that was the reason for the fight. Even if you kill your enemy, he will be replaced by a new one coveting revenge. No, the Path's main message is not to defeat you adversary but to become united with the world. Rather than destroying an enemy, you should strive to incorporate his fury and his aggression into the world around you - and to achieve harmony with that world. If you do, you might not even have to win anymore because your adversary will stop being your enemy and will turn into your friend instead. Unity is the only real victory. I hope you'll heed my words, my comrades in the Path."

Dzinton bowed deeply, his arms across his chest, his hands on his shoulders. The students bowed in return, their foreheads touching the palms of their hands propped against the floor. People around Karina began to make noise as they rose to their feet.

"WOW!" Sniffle exclaimed, jumping up and down in excitement. "That was some fight! One day I'll surely learn to fight like that, and then Semka will be sorry that..."

"You fool," the little orc prodded him in the shoulder. "You've heard Master Dzinton: one shouldn't fight for the sake of winning. That Semka is a moron, and you keep playing into his hands. I told you many times: let the dolt cackle, why should you care? What's your name?" suddenly he switched his attention to Karina. "I am Mushka, and he is Simbas but everybody calls him Sniffles because he always catches a cold and has a runny nose."

"It has nothing to do with a cold, I am just allergic," the boy snapped. "But you can call me Sniffles, that's fine. I am used to it. What's your name?"

"I am Karina," the girl said timidly. "Pleasure to meet you."

She tensed inwardly. As time had passed, her orphanage memories were gradually fading away but now they suddenly resurfaced. Boys had usually spelled trouble.

"My pleasure," the orc nodded. "Listen, what is Master Dzinton to you? I saw you came together. Is he your brother?"

"He's my dad!" Karina said proudly. "My foster father," she added quickly, feeling embarrassed for some reason.

"Cool!" Sniffles exhaled. "I'd love to have a dad like him! Will you come to practice here? You'll probably get a yellow ribbon right away. We could practice together."

"There is no free lunch, you know," the more practical orc corrected him. "But she might catch up. A yellow ribbon is no big deal, she'll get it after a thriceweek or so of practicing. But I should be able to pass a test for the blue one in a thriceweek or two."

Karina did not know what to say but she was saved by Dzinton who had just finished talking to Karabi.

The Demiurge nodded to the girl and walked briskly towards the Master's office. Karina waved uncertainly to the boys and rushed after him.

When she entered the office, her father was already wearing his former clothes. The girl blinked uncomprehendingly. When has he changed?

"Did you like the fight, Karichka?" he asked cheerfully.

"Loved it!" she said sincerely. "It's like...like a dance."

"That's right," Karabi's deep voice came from behind. "Dancing and fighting are like twin brothers, and it takes superb body control to make them look beautiful. So, my friend, would you like to master the art?"

"Sure!" Karina nodded. "I would...I think. How long does it take?"

"Shouldn't take you more than thirty years to earn a white-and-green ribbon, I guess," Dzinton winked at her. "The rest will be completely up to you. Twenty-thirty more years, and you'll have every chance to surpass me."

"How many??" the girl's eyes popped out of her head against her will. "Thirty years and thirty more years? I'll be ancient by that time!"

"Ancient but very lively," Dzinton laughed. "Ok, time to go. So, from tomorrow on she'll be here for the last practice session. She'll come unaccompanied but someone will pick her up after the session - either her nursemaid Tsukka Merovanova or her guardian Samatta Kasariy. Or myself, of course."

"What's for?" Karina gave him a suspicious look. "I can make it home on my own."

"Of course, you can," Dzinton tousled her hair. "But don't forget, there are plenty of people in this world who would be happy to take you elsewhere instead, and it might be much less pleasant. Besides, there is a higher probability to run into bullies when it's late enough. So, you'd better not be outdoors alone when there are but few people around."

"But I could deal..."

"No!" Dzinton bent forward and looked into her eyes. "We've already talked about your power - don't even think about using it against someone. As for what you are going to learn from Master Karabi, you won't be able to apply those skills to a real fight yet, not for at least two or three years. So, someone will definitely be picking you up. At least, initially. Karabi, can you do me a favor and make sure she won't leave on her own?"

"Of course, Dai-Sensei."

"I am not even close to being a sensei now," Dzinton dismissed the troll's words with a hand gesture. "Just fooling around, that's all I am doing. Ok, we are off. I see, there is a separate exit here - can we use it? I am afraid, we'll draw too much attention if we have to return to the gym."

"Just a moment, I'll unlock the door."

It was already dusk outside. They walked in silence for a while. Karina was digesting the events of the last hour, Dzinton's hands were in his pockets, and he looked somewhat concerned. However, when they were already not far from the hotel, he roused himself.

"More or less like that," he said. "A stone has been thrown inside a tree hollow, and the hornets are already buzzing. Karina, please, be careful in the next couple of weeks. There is no immediate danger but we are guaranteed to draw a lot of unwanted attention. Don't go to the city alone, ok? Take Yana or Palek with you. Or just stick to Tsukka."

"Yes, Dad," she answered obediently. Or maybe not. Indeed! One could think I am a baby that needs to be led by the hand. At the very least, I can always make it to a store. Dad, why haven't you told me you are such a good fighter? And why don't you want to teach me yourself? You've already taught me so much."

"Because I hate teaching how to kill and cripple," Dzinton replied, his voice even. "And the art of the Path, even as nicely presented as it is, is still essentially about just that, first and foremost. I prefer to teach how to create, not how to destroy. Don't worry, Karichka, Master Karabi is an excellent instructor, and he'll teach you better than I would. Besides, quite soon I'll have to start leaving often and staying away for quite a while."

"You are going to leave?" Karina stopped dead in her tracks. "And we'll remain alone again?" Suddenly she felt like crying.

"Yes, I am going to leave," Dzinton sighed as he squatted in front of her. "I am sorry, Karichka, but I have to. I've already stayed with you much longer than I could afford. But after some time everything will be all right, and I'll begin to spend more time with you all once again. Besides, Samatta and Tsukka will always be with you."

He embraced the girl carefully, and she buried her nose in his shoulder, her arms enclasping him.

"There is no need to worry. Whatever happens, I will come back. And if you ever get in trouble, I'll be there for you."

"No lie?" Karina asked in a muffled voice.

"Trust me," Dzinton confirmed as he stroked her hair. "Tomorrow morning we'll go downtown and find a dzuba for you. And then, I think, we'll loosen the purse strings a bit and take our whole gang to a classy restaurant - to eat something really tasty. One should party every now and then, you know. And now let's go home. Lika and Yani will show up soon, and then Tsukka will go with Yana and enroll her in the music school, while I'll have to accompany Palek to the Manege because it's going to be his first time. Besides, I can hear your stomach growl - so you must be hungry. How about having a race to the stairs?"


The catamaran was sailing along the coast all night. Before going to bed in the cabin that was assigned to him, Samatta inspected the ship one more time. He even entered the cockpit on the left hull and examined it thoroughly, ignoring the watch keeper's and the captain's scowls. He sincerely hoped that the ship would not hit the rocks once again in the darkness, and his scrutiny indicated that his heart's hope for a happy ending was not entirely ungrounded. Even though he did not consider himself enough of an expert on nautical matters, the sonar was squeaking soothingly, its display's big green eye blinking at the slowly flowing splotches; the radio was muttering quietly in the corner; there were no warnings on the on-board computer's monitors, and both the captain and the watch keeper looked quite sober.

Back to his cabin, Samatta lay sleepless for a long time as his body was keenly aware of the ship hull's monotonous, soothing vibration. Unbridled joy was filling his heart when he recalled the previous night that he had spent with Tsukka. Dzinton, that wise man and an old pander, had surely counted on exactly that to happen but Samatta could not care less. It doesn't matter a jot what brought it about - blind luck or somebody's push in the right direction. What's important is that we did meet. Pity I had to leave right away but it's not for long. And I've had many chances to learn that the Demiurge never does anything without a good reason. I wonder, what sort of surprises I am in for? It's quite obvious that Dzinton hasn't put all his cards on the table - or else, if the 'black archeologists' is indeed the main problem, why should I remember those code words, for Sumar's sake? And since when did those 'blackies', who normally prefer to dig around unexplored burial sites without drawing anybody's attention, begin to openly challenge official expeditions?

He was jolted out of sleep by a loud reveille that was sounded over the ship radio.

"Ladies and Sirs!" the captain's tone seemed icy and impeccably polite. "The catamaran 'Octopus' is approaching its destination. We are maneuvering between the rocks at the bay's mouth. The expected time of anchoring is fifteen minutes from now."

"Boys and girls!" Professor Bun's cheerful voice cut in. "Hit the deck! The sun is already rising - and so should you. A great day is waiting for us, be quick to wash up and have breakfast. The table has been laid in the messroom."

Samatta groped for his watch bracelet and brought it closer to his eyes. It was ten past five. I could surely use an extra hour of sleep. On the other hand, it would suck if those greenhorn students were to get up before me.

He threw aside his blanket and jumped off the narrow berth, feeling glad for the umpteenth time that he was alone in the cabin. With so little space available between the berths, it would be no fun to bump into a neighbor all the time. He came up to a tiny wash basin nestling in a corner of the cabin and splashed some cold water onto his face. Then he slipped on his shorts and left the cabin.

Samatta spent the next half-an-hour on the deck where he was doing his morning exercises. When he finally showed up in the messroom, upon taking a quick shower, the students were still chewing their bacon and eggs, sausages and toasts. All five of them looked utterly sleepy - unlike the scientists who had already finished their meals, and were now being engaged in a quiet conversation. Miriay, the hulcy, was sitting in the corner and attentively looking around. Samatta nodded at everybody and chucked down his breakfast. Not much of a helping, I would say. He finished eating just when the students did - so, when he set his fork aside and wiped his lips, the professor tapped a teaspoon on his glass of orange juice.

"So, boys and girls!" he said energetically. "I hope, by now you all are awake enough to hear my words and sometimes even understand what they mean. First of all, welcome to our exploration site, everybody. Since all of us here are but landlubbers, I have to remind you once again: if you hear a tsunami warning, you immediately quit _whatever_ you are doing in the water and scramble upon dry land."

"We have to plan for a retreat in advance, though," Samatta remarked. "We need a rock that is tall enough and climb-friendly at the same time - and so far I haven't noticed anything suitable yet in the area."

"Talk about being a coast dweller!" the professor laughed. "You are absolutely correct, young man, but just take another look at the bay's mouth when you are back on the deck. It's narrow, winding and strewn with rocks. The wave arrives here so weakened that it's not really a tsunami wave anymore but more like a strong vibration of water. Our good captain has assured me that, judging by the existing pilot charts, we don't even need to weigh anchor and stand out to sea - the anchor chains should easily withstand an extra load, and the depth here is sufficient to make sure that the ebb, preceding the arrival of the wave, will not result in the ship scraping the rocks. Although the shore is low, the wave doesn't move inland by more than twenty-thirty fathoms - so, to be safe, it's enough to retreat beyond the tsunami zone borderline that is easily seen with the naked eye. As a matter of fact, that's exactly why we are here. Had the local shallow waters received the full force of the tsunami, the very items we hope to find through our underwater excavations would have been scattered all over the seabed."

Samatta nodded. He had paid attention to the narrow mouth of the bay but it was important to make sure his understanding was correct.

"To make sure that we all are on the same page," the professor cast a glance at the trainees, "I'll outline our goals once more. We are about to conduct a preliminary survey of the site a geodesic expedition stumbled upon the last year. About two hundred years ago, as a result of an earthquake typical of those times, the whole coastal area sank significantly, and all the buildings located there ended up eight to ten fathoms underwater. The modern coast still features some rather well-preserved ruins but those have been known for quite a while and explored from top to bottom. They are worthless now because whatever was of interest there had been plundered a long time ago."

He cleared his throat.

"Last year the soil around here shifted slightly, and that geodesic expedition, engaged in a routine inspection of the coastal area, found on the seabed some objects that were clearly artificial in origin. Either the shift had shaken off some of the sediment covering those objects or they had just been missed during previous inspections. In any case, the geodesists notified us of the discovery. Since our catamaran had to be tested anyway, a decision was made to bring us here to conduct a preliminary survey of the site. Based on the results of the survey, we'll have to decide if this site is worth exploring. I must say right away that I am quite skeptical about the outcome because I don't believe we can find anything interesting here. But, at least, you'll get some useful experience in working with an aqualung at small depths - as well as in conducting underwater excavations, in general. And just in case," he squinted his eyes, "anybody here believes it's a good opportunity to idle your time away, you'd better think again. I expect each of you to work like a beaver, as if the excavations were very real. Make sure you take my words to heart if you count upon working with me in the future."

He smacked the table with the palm of his hand.

"Our plan of the day is as follows. Now we'll begin unloading our equipment and setting up a base camp on the shore..."

"More unloading!" one of the trainees groaned.

"Indeed," Bun agreed. "Relax, young people. Haven't you been told that most of what we loaded yesterday wasn't in fact intended for us? What belongs to us here weighs barely a ton, and it occupies a bit more than twenty boxes. When we are done unloading, the catamaran will cast off and keep sailing along the coast. Professor Kamas' expedition's permanent camp is located four hundred versts south-west of here, and that's where containers with canned food and other rubbish are going to. In five or six days the ship will pick us up on its way back to Masaria. But let's return to our plan of the day. In the morning we unload and pitch camp. Then Sir Samatta will continue teaching you how to handle an aqualung - and this time you'll be learning by doing rather than just by listening. In the meantime, Lady Gonaga and I will check the sea floor, decide where we are going to start from, and test the equipment. In the afternoon our real work will begin."

"May I suggest a couple of minor changes, Professor?" Samatta butted in again. "As your diving instructor, I am responsible for every member of the expedition - so, just in case of...an emergency in unfamiliar waters, I'd prefer to be close to you and Lady Gonaga during the first submersion. Besides, in order to teach properly, I need to have some idea of what the sea floor is like - at least, in my immediate surroundings."

"Really?" the professor gave him a doubtful look. "Actually, young man, I am a pretty experienced diver - so there should be no emergency. If you go with us, it will slow down the learning process, and we are already short of time as it is."

"My absence won't make an impact on the training. You and me don't really have to participate in pitching camp to the bitter end. I am sure that, even without us, the rest of our group will cope with minor tasks perfectly well. I don't think that our personal presence is crucial for digging a sanitary pit privy or installing a kitchen. While the others are dealing with the camp under Sir Maroy's guidance, the three of us will have enough time for a test submersion."

"So be it," Bun nodded. "I must confess that I would never think about a sanitary pit privy until I actually needed it. Seems like your experience will prove useful to us out of water as much as in it. Well, folks, it's time to work! Let's get going."

It did indeed take them less than two hours to disembark with all their cargo. A cutter was launched without delay, and it made several round trips to deliver piecemeal their equipment, food and fuel supplies for itself, as well as for a diesel generator, ashore. When the mission was completed, the catamaran hauled up the anchor, hooted, turned around and headed for the bay's mouth. The cutter it had left behind was a real blessing: a quick and capacious boat whose hull was made of durable, glass reinforced plastic - and quite light at that. Two people could easily carry it on shore, and that made it possible to take the cutter away and beyond the tsunami zone borderline for the night, in case a big wave would arrive unexpectedly. The danger area was easy to distinguish due to numerous pebbles occasionally covered with dried seaweeds. Although the beach was almost strictly horizontal, the tsunami zone stretched for no more than twenty fathoms – and that set Samatta's mind at ease about their means of transport.

Just in case, a place for the camp was chosen in such a way as to be shielded from the bay by a huge granite boulder located ten fathoms or so away from the danger area borderline. That was done to ensure that nobody would get hurt by an incidental stone a tsunami wave might hurl. The process of setting up the camp turned out to be much more challenging than unloading the cargo: none of the students had ever put up a tent before - so, they had to be taught from scratch. When the task had finally been accomplished, all five of them were so exhausted as if they had carried heavy loads all day long while running uphill. Upon allowing the students to take a short rest and providing Maroy with detailed instructions as to what was to be done next, Samatta unpacked a container with aqualungs and diving suits, that had been prepared in advance, and went towards the water alongside Bun and Gonaga.

The sea floor began to drop steeply almost straight off the shore. Upon circling at the surface for a while to test the equipment, and making sure that all 'clickers' were fully functional, and everybody responded to their respective code signals, the divers began to descend unhurriedly as they were following silty twists and turns of the water terrain. The daylight, forcing its way through turbid water, gradually grew dimmer, and quite soon both the head lanterns and the wrist lamps had to be turned on. Occasionally Samatta would send a test signal - who knows how civilians, and in particular, the old Bun, might feel in this enshrouding darkness - but every time he heard a soothing click in response. So, eventually he stopped worrying.

The ruins appeared ahead of the group when the depth gauge showed that the divers had reached the nine fathoms mark. A vague threat seemed to be lurking in those wall remains here and there topped by roof skeletons. Samatta shone his wrist lamp into one of the window apertures and caught a glimpse of indistinct shadows with glinting scales as they were darting aside: obviously the guests inspired little confidence in the local residents. The seabed sediment swirled and hid the scene but, in fact, there was nothing much to look at, in any case - commonplace walls made of light granite stone blocks did not conceal anything worth a second glance. Apart from the walls themselves that looked exactly like crumbling and deserted walls should, there was some unidentified wreckage sticking out of the seabed. And that was it.

Bun's 'clicker' sprang to live. "Move on, move on, don't linger," he signaled in the sea code and impatiently motioned Samatta onward. The latter shrugged, wilco'ed and followed him, along with Gonaga.

It was not before the professor, satisfied with what he had seen so far, signaled the others to return to the surface that a metallic gleam in a pile of stones caught Samatta's eye. The dive cylinder pressure check gauge was already flashing yellow, indicating that the remaining air supply would suffice for no more than twenty minutes. Considering that they needed about fifteen minutes to come back to the surface, Samatta was about to remind the professor about their time limit when he spotted this incidental sparkle. He sent a 'Delay. Find' message and carefully rolled several stones, that must have been fragments of yet another wall, aside. The light cast from his lantern reflected off a shining, mirror-like metal surface and momentarily hurt his eyes. The next moment the former captain found himself staring in amazement at a metal strip with symbols engraved into it. Careful not to rip his gloves, he seized the edges of the strip and pulled it free. The thing moved with unexpected ease, and Samatta lost his balance and was thrown backwards. His heart aflutter, he felt his cylinder scraping against stone. Fortunately, he got away with it as the collision did not result in any damage to the equipment.

Bun and Gonaga descended, their flippers oscillating slowly. Samatta showed them the metal strip, and even the professor's mask could not hide his amazement as his eyes nearly popped out of his head. Samatta carefully put the strip down and tapped first his watch, then the pressure check gauge. After that he pointed upward, waited for the others to nod their confirmation, picked up the strip and began to ascend as he made every effort not to rush. Of course, ten fathoms isn't too deep but I've heard about at least one person who managed to catch decompression even at this depth after he had foolishly skyrocketed all the way from the bottom. Better safe than sorry.

Upon reaching the surface, he stuck his head out of the water and tried to memorize inshore landmarks.

Then he found a convenient spot to come on shore and headed for it. The piece of metal he was still squeezing in his hand, kept pulling him down and impeding his progress - so, when he finally managed to get up and spit the mouthpiece out, the gauge was already blinking red and squeaking an alarm warning. Panting and picking his way over the pebbles, Samatta scrambled upon the shore, plonked himself down on the stones and began to unstrap his flippers. Have we indeed idled around underwater for one-and-half hours?

Gonaga and Bun had already kicked off their flippers and dumped their aqualungs, and now they were almost wresting the metal strip out of each other's hands.

"That's just incredible!" the woman said excitedly. "Bun, it's a stunner, a real sensation, and it happened on the very first day! You can bet your life that it's kanamara of the second type! Just look at it - 'Koto no ohara dzi impara', 'Imperial Security Service'! The typeface is a bit different from the known samples but there can be no doubt..."

"Nagi, don't you see what it's made of?" the professor interrupted her huffily. "This is stainless steel or something like that. Who ever saw stainless steel two hundred years ago, for Nazina's sake?! No idea where it came from but it must be a modern replica of kanamara. Some role players might have something to do with it."

"No, that's not steel," Samatta shook his head, taking off his aqualung. "Stainless steel corrodes pretty quickly in seawater - it's 'stainless' only under particular conditions. Actually, it looks very much like polished silver, only it seems too heavy. Silver shouldn't weigh that much. I am not a metallurgist, so I might be wrong, of course."

"Well," the professor fiddled with the object, perplexed. "Quite some puzzle. It's definitely a modern replica but how did it happen to end up in those boondocks? Tourists?"

"Nobody has camped around the bay for at least a year," Samatta shook his head again and rose to his feet. "There are no traces, and campers would surely leave some. Besides, no role players would throw away their props, and this one looks rather expensive."

"Maybe it is indeed a replica," Gonaga said doubtfully, "but I wouldn't use the word 'definitely'". Bun, do we have a microscope, by any chance? I know, you are a bit of a hoarder."

"We do, so what? What's the use of it?" the professor growled. Suddenly he froze and gave his colleague a strange look. "Nagi, you aren't thinking about..."

"Of course, I am," she tossed her head in vexation. "I can recognize typical structures on a thin section if there are any. It's not for nothing I had stayed in the Museum storage around the clock. What do we produce a thin section with, though?"

"What are you talking about?" Samatta inquired quizzically as he shifted his gaze from Bun to Gonaga.

"Which structures? Where?"

"Strange fields," Gonaga explained impatiently. "Just don't tell me you've never heard of them!"

"Indeed, I haven't. What is that?"

The professors looked at him pityingly.

"Strange fields," Bun assumed a didactic tone, "is a hypothesis that intends to explain certain irregularities in the structure of matter that modern solid state physics can't account for. Do you remember physics experiments in school when a magnetic field would arrange iron filings on a plastic sheet in a particular way?"

"I recall something vaguely," Samatta frowned as he pondered over the question. "Yes, I do. It was done to illustrate permanent magnet's lines of force."

"Just so! Magnetic fields act upon certain metals. Crystals, forming in congealing liquid alloys of a ferromagnet that is being affected in such a way, assume typical patterns. If we make a thin section of a fully solidified ferromagnet piece and examine it under the microscope, we should be able to see those patterns. That's also the case with strange fields. Many old artifacts manifest such patterns that could not possibly form as a result of any process our modern science is aware of. At least, that's what my good friend who is also one of the world's most renowned crystallographers, Professor Karaganes says. I don't know the first thing about the subject but I have no reason to doubt his words. Besides, those patterns can be found not only in metals but also in stones, ceramics and - most puzzling - even in organic objects, such as wooden or bony ones. Hence this hypothesis dealing with strange fields that, although unknown to science, had been widely used by imperial residents to advance their goals. Have I lost you?"

"No, it's all pretty clear," Samatta bit his lip thoughtfully. "I just wonder if those strange fields had ever gone by any other name? The 'Force', maybe?"

"And then some!" Gonaga replied enthusiastically. "There is an ancient document that is most probably a manual dealing with mass production of steel sword-blades - and this term is mentioned there quite a few times, and in a such a context that modern metallurgists can't help shaking their heads in disbelief. For instance, the document claims that those blades, that were processed with the Force, wouldn't rust in water and wouldn't break even in a mild acid solution. Wait, wait," she squinted her eyes suspiciously at him, "how come _you_ know about the Force? I don't remember it being mentioned in popular science literature."

"Dzinton mentioned it," Samatta answered absentmindedly. At that moment his thoughts were hovering elsewhere. The sylletters on the tablet seemed strange and incomprehensible as they had very little in common with the modern ones. And yet...he could sense that impersonal, soulless threat that always emanated from any signboard that could be seen around intelligence agencies buildings. He was trying to sort through the thoughts crowding in his head but failed. Is it a modern replica? A modern replica in boondocks like that? Bullshit! I've seen role players in my life – both kids not yet of legal age and full-fledged adults that either hadn't managed to play with sharp toys to their heart's content when they still were teenagers or were just looking for an excuse to get together somewhere outdoors and go on a drinking spree. None of them would ever leave civilization behind and travel many versts - only to play yet another game in a deserted bay. To a suburban forest, sure thing. But not to a faraway, deserted coast.

The tablet. 'Imperial Security Service'. Strange fields. What else is running through my head that I can't pinpoint?

"...talk to him about this tablet," Bun was saying. "I think..."

"Professor!" Samatta interrupted him abruptly. "I need to know something, and that's really important. I've in fact never asked you where exactly we are. How far is from here to Masaria?"

"Well," Bun scratched his chin that was already sporting some gray hair. "I would say, 150 versts or so."

"Was this place ever called 'Heavenly Bay?' Or 'Ice Castle?'

"Yes, it was," Bun gave him a look of surprise. "According to some sources, the bay may well be located in the vicinity of the old imperial harbor known as 'Heavenly' - and that's where the mythical 'Ice Castle' also known as 'Maino's Citadel' was rumored to be. But how..."

"Dzinton, you bastard..." Samatta muttered through his teeth. "Professor! Has the expedition been okayed by the military?"

"It surely wasn't," Bun snorted indignantly. "Why on Tekira would we decide to ask them..."

A gun banged from somewhere near the camp. Then there came another bang.

"Tinuril's triple dick!" Samatta cursed as he crouched down and looked around. "Bun, Gonaga, you stay here. I'll check out what's going on."

To test his semi-effector, he activated it very carefully - just as Dzinton taught him - and struck forward. The shocker swished through the air. It won't protect us against bullets but might serve as a nasty surprise. No, fighting those soldiers would be really stupid. Worse than stupid - it would be as bad as committing suicide. We should avoid it at all cost.

"Young man!" the professor said huffily. "In case you forgot, I am still the expedition leader - and I am the one to give orders here! We return to the camp together."

He raised his chin and marched forward resolutely, his bare feet slipping on the pebbles. To keep his balance, he kept waving the metal tablet clutched in his hand. With one bound Samatta was by his side, the former captain's strong hand resting on the professor's shoulder.

"And how will it help those you are responsible for if you get shot on your way to the camp?" he asked coldly. "Sir Bun, I am not questioning your overall leadership but when it comes to security I know my onions - and it would really benefit all of us if you trusted me. Please, take Lady Gonaga and go..."

He cut himself short. Several figures, looking quite small in the distance, appeared from behind the boulder shielding the camp. They were carrying weapons that looked disturbingly similar to automatic assault rifles. The figures spread out and, as they started moving towards the expedition members, one of them fired into the air twice.

"Too late," Samatta sighed. "Now we must stay where we are because we are like sitting ducks all along the shoreline. That's it. We stay put lest we get hit by a stray bullet." He easily stopped the professor's halfhearted attempt to get free. In fact, the latter did not really try to thrash around but rather stood still and watched the strangers, his eyes looking like narrow slits now. Well, at least he doesn't argue anymore about who is the expedition leader. That's good enough...

"Who are those people?" Gonaga asked, frightened. "Where did they come from?"

"Either the military or just some thugs," Samatta replied as he was trying to get a good look at the men running toward them. "Hopefully, the former because if those are thugs, we'll have to kill them. On the other hand, I don't think thugs would attack so soon. It would make more sense to them to wait until we have found something of value."

"But what does the military have to do with us?" the woman sounded even more terrified. "What do they want?"

"There is at least one top secret military installation in the area, and that's what they must be guarding," Samatta said through his gritted teeth, innerly cursing his own stupidity. Why didn't I recall a bit earlier how Demiurge Maya had been set free? Dzinton told me in no uncertain terms that the military lab was quite close to Maino's former citadel! "Of course, they couldn't possibly fail to spot us under their very noses. Professor Bun, now you will introduce yourself and describe the expedition's goal clearly and concisely. We'll have three, maybe four seconds before we will be ordered to lie flat on the ground, face down. Maybe not even that much."

"Got it!" the professor grunted. "Let go of me, young man! You'll rip off my arm!"

Samatta released his shoulder - a mere moment before a group of five soldiers, their rifles trained on the expedition members, came to halt a couple of steps away from them.

"Everybody on the ground, face down, your hands behind your head!" a man wearing lieutenant's bars ordered curtly. "Now!"

"I am professor Bun from the Okanaka University. I am leading an official archaeological expedition!" Bun declared loudly. "I demand explanations!"

"I repeat: lie on the ground, your hands behind your head!" the lieutenant bellowed. "On the count of three I'll open fire with lethal force! One!"

"On the ground!" Samatta ordered and set an example. "Obey him!"

Much to his relief, they did not balk but just lay down on the pebbles. Samatta felt a rifle muzzle thrust into his neck while invisible hands pulled his dagger out of the sheath he was wearing on his belt, and frisked the outer pockets of his diving suit.

"Hey you!" Gonaga shouted next to him. "Watch your hands! You may paw one of your own, asshole, if your sperm went right to your head! Or maybe your balls are about to burst? Just tell me, boy, and I'll find where to shove them, to make sure they'll never bother you again!

Samatta grinned against his will. Seems like the Lady Professor isn't such a refined intellectual, after all. She definitely knows a thing or two about the facts of life.

"All of you are detained for trespassing in the territory of a guarded facility," the lieutenant declared peremptorily. "Any attempt to resist will be punished. My orders are to be obeyed in full and precisely. Now you will be taken to a temporary location. Get up! Keep your hands behind your head and don't lower them without permission."

"I am the head of an Okanaka University expedition..." Bun repeated as he rose to his feet but the lieutenant cut him short abruptly,

"It's not my business. You'll speak to my commander. Let's go!"

"I don't know what's your business and what isn't," Bun said threateningly as he turned his entire body toward him, "but we've brought lots of expensive equipment with us. If any of our property gets lost, I'll press charges against you personally. You'll have to pay your bottom mayer, you snot nosed kid, and still be in debt for the rest of your life. Got it?"

The furious professor, even with hands behind his head, looked quite impressive. His eyes sparkled ominously, his disheveled graying hair seemed to crown his head like some semi-halo-semi-cloud, and his haughty, gaunt-looking face could have belonged to an ancient god.

"Nothing will happen to your equipment," the somewhat taken aback lieutenant grunted. "Let's go."

All things considered, the lieutenant turned out to be a rather decent person. He even allowed his captives to change into their normal clothes - after he had thoroughly patted down every item, that is. Instead of his usual shorts and tank top, Samatta slipped on loose-fitting pants made of a dense fabric known as 'hide', and a long-sleeved shirt. This outfit did not restrict his movement - and that could be important, in case he would have to fight - while protecting him from both scratches and cold.

It was not clear yet, what condition they would be kept in, and the former captain preferred to be on the safe side. He also put on tall military ridged sole boots instead of his sandals.

"Where did you do your military service?" the lieutenant asked in a low voice, so that the others would not overhear him.

"Ministry of Defense, special ops," Samatta hated the idea of being closely watched but he realized that his military bearing was impossible to hide from a practiced eye - and trifles like this were not worth lying about. "Captain."

"An infiltrator?"

"Haven't been one for quite some time now. Sensitive sites security. Fired without being pensioned."

"I see," the lieutenant gave him a thoughtful look. "So, you are one of ours. Didn't you know where you were going?"

"I figured it out," Samatta hummed. "Just a bit too late. Listen, pal, this whole matter is much more complex than it seems. I have to talk to one of your high ups. To the highest up, to be precise."

"You will," the lieutenant shrugged his shoulders. "Even more than you wish. Ok, enough chatting, time to get going. By the way, as you realize, you'll be under special supervision. Nothing personal but just in case, the first bullet is yours. So you'd better watch your step. Our top brass has lately..." he cut himself short.

"Your top brass have recently gotten into a huge mess," Samatta said brusquely as he looked straight into the other man's eye. "And I know who exactly helped them to get there, and how. That's why I have to talk to them as soon as possible lest they screw it up even worse. Remember two words 'Kasatana Hamayara'. It's vital that those at the very top hear them in time. The rest is not your concern. 'Kasatana Hamayara', savvy?"

The lieutenant looked at him attentively and nodded.

"I'll pass your message along to whoever I'll be able to. Now let's go."

"Let's go," Samatta nodded. "But, sorry, we will lower our hands. The professor might look lively but he is well over 80, just so you know. And you realize what they'll do to you if he has a stroke on the way. Don't look at me like that, we aren't shooting an action movie here. Had I wanted, I would've done you in a long time ago - and then used your own rifle to snuff half of your squad before they could even realize what was going on. But I am responsible for my charges, and I am not looking for trouble. So, just stop pretending we are at war, Lieutenant. It will be all right, I promise you."

When he joined the rest of his group, eight pairs of eyes stared at him impatiently and hopefully at the same time. Nine, to be precise - if a hulcy can possibly be impatient.

"What were you chatting about?" Maroy asked huffily as he was massaging his injured arm (a soldier hit him in the shoulder with the butt of his rifle after Maroy had tried to brush that soldier aside). "Who are they?"

"Sirs and Ladies," Samatta said. "It so happened that we've been detained by the security service of a secret organization because we found ourselves in their territory without permission. In what they consider their territory, in any case. I am afraid, there is no chance to clear up the misunderstanding here and now - so we'll have to go with them. They've already promised to safeguard our property against any damage, and now our goal is to extricate ourselves from this situation while losing as little time and energy as possible. But first of all, we have to display reasonableness and avoid making scenes. I used to work in... a similar organization for quite a while - so I have a very good idea of how they think. Now they are going to take us somewhere and carry out an investigation."

"Or just bury us in a mass grave," Bun grunted. "Well, if you say that's what we have to do, I'll trust you. Colleagues, listen to me! We are going wherever they are taking us, quietly and without making scenes. As for scenes, I'll create them later - and they won't be happy about it," he added as he gave the squad, surrounding the expedition members, a nasty look.

For about an hour they were negotiating steep paths twisting between the trunks of mountain sycamores. Finally they came up to a gate built into a barbed wire fence displaying quite a few menacing signboards, such as 'State property. Don't enter without a valid pass!' or 'Don't leave paved pathways. The guards shoot to kill.' A paved road disappeared into the mountains. The captives' names written down, they passed through the gate, as the guards were watching them warily, and descended to a bunker located behind sentry boxes. Once inside, they were herded into a rather spacious room with nothing in it but bare concrete walls, several wooden benches and a solitary, jarring-to-the-eye light bulb in the middle of the ceiling.

When the iron door clanged shut behind Samatta, he gave an involuntary shudder but immediately got a grip on himself. Everything's fine, he innerly said. Everything is under control. Don't you get jittery, you idiot - those people are looking at you. The last thing you need is to make them panic by setting an example.

"Outrageous," professor Bun muttered. Judging by his tone, the whole situation dampened his spirit as well. "It's just completely outrageous!"

"Will they kill us?" the orc trainee asked, shivering. "In our community there are quite some rumors about the human military."

"Sirs and Ladies!" Samatta was speaking loudly and distinctly, as if he were in front of a military formation. "Please, sit down and relax. I am sure that the current confusion will get resolved very soon. Don't forget that we've been detained by the military, not by some gang."

"That's exactly what bothers me," professor Gonaga growled. "Trust the military to shoot us just in case, lest we cause some security leak."

"Lady Gonaga," Samatta replied, his voice icily formal. "I have to ask you to calm down and to stop demoralizing everybody around you. They can't 'shoot us just in case'. I am not even going to mention that it's completely illegal - I know that right now the word 'legal' won't mean anything to you. But, at least, try to think logically. First of all, nobody wants us dead because we haven't seen anything of importance. Besides, quite a few people know where we were going - and if they start searching for us, any meticulous investigator would easily find out that there is a secret military installation in the area. And if we disappear, they will definitely start searching for us because there is no way our eventual disappearance can be kept secret. In other words, harming us would only make it much worse for the...locals."

He looked around. The professors were exchanging glances and shrugging their shoulders. The trainees just kept looking at him hopefully. Only the hulcy was standing in a far corner and staring straight ahead, completely motionless.

"So, they'll stall us here for a couple of hours, and that will be it," the former commando finished imperturbably. "When they make sure that we are who we say we are, they will let us go. They have already crossed the line by detaining us far beyond the boundaries of the security zone, and they don't need to escalate the scandal. So, just try to relax. I don't know about you but I am tired. If you feel thirsty or just need to go to the washroom, just knock on the door. I am sure there are guards on the other side of that door."

He sat down on a bench, propped his back against the wall, congratulated himself on his foresight regarding the shirt and closed his eyes. He would love to be as calm and composed as he pretended to be. But panicking indeed makes no sense. If the worst comes to the worst, I can always use the direct channel to contact Dzinton. However, first I have to understand what's going on.

Did Demiurge Dzhao know that the expedition's destination was so close to Maino's former citadel - and therefore, in the vicinity of this military lab? Of course, he did. After all, he himself had a hand in destroying the citadel 200 years ago and - indirectly – in getting Maya transferred from the lab two weeks ago. So, he knew but he didn't warn anybody. On the other hand, he provided me with some additional means of protection and communication. Could he hope that the military just wouldn't react? I doubt it because even I know how edgy the lab bosses must be after Kamill humiliated them by heedlessly snatching Maya from under their noses. All that can mean but one thing: the Demiurge wants to see how I handle the situation on my own, completely without his help.

Unless I am missing an alternative. Dzinton has never properly explained how Demiurges' networks of influence work - yet he said enough to understand that each network agent is usually almost completely independent. Teaming up is possible and sometimes even necessary but, as a rule, agents are left to their own devices. If Demiurges deem it necessary, they offer their friends some help - at least, Dzhao does - but they never impose their own opinions or tell anybody what to do.

Whatever it is, this crisis here is my responsibility, and I shouldn't bother Dzhao unless there is an absolute emergency. For instance, unless the local bosses cracked up and really decided to bury us here: you can't fight guns with your bare hands. So far nothing indicates that might be the case, and that's why I might just as well wait and see where it all goes - at least, for now...


To Samatta's surprise, professor Bun recovered from his initial shock much faster than anybody could expect him to. Merely half-an-hour into their imprisonment, he already arranged for a quiz to be run. Assistant Maroy would dig into his vast memory to name one historical event after another - and the students took turns to attach a date to each of them. The current answerer would appoint the next one.

Samatta was not invited to participate in the quiz but he took to it involuntarily and began to try to think of the correct answer before the student in charge actually voiced it. Contrary to his expectations, he succeeded on at least half of the occasions. Eventually, he could not help correcting an answer.

"In 625, not 623."

"What?" the student gave him a look of surprise.

"The last siege of Krestotsin took place in 625," Samatta repeated. "It ended on 14.5 when the Imperial forces seized the city. By the way, I've always wondered, why this event was called a 'siege'. In fact, the city fell on the very first day. Maino's combined land and sea assault just obliterated its defenses."

"But for Maino being a mythical character, everything else is correct," Maroy nodded. "The Imperial ground forces' and fleet's combined assault did indeed take the city's much-touted defenses apart in just a few hours. Swimmer saboteurs captured coastal fortifications and lowered the chains blocking the entrance to the bay - and while the defenders were concentrating their efforts on the city walls, the Mainers' shock troops landed on the wharves, unopposed. However, until a bit more than half-a-century ago nobody really knew what happened on that day, and the battle had been believed to be long and bloody. Hence it became known as a 'siege'. Congratulations, Samatta: you know history better than half of my students," he cast a meaningful glance at the student who provided the incorrect answer, and the latter blushed. "So, you too are interested in history? Then again, it's probably a stupid question: you just wouldn't be here if you weren't."

"In the Military Academy this operation is considered exemplary," Samatta explained. "It's allocated an entire lesson in the syllabus. And yes, I've been interested in history since my school days. In my graduation year I even earned a Big Silver Medal for an essay I wrote for my social sciences class. 'Unification of Katonia after the Downfall of Maino's Empire.'"

"And you chose a military career?" Bun raised his eyebrows. "Well, young man, you definitely buried your talent under the biggest stone that can only be found on the road."

"I didn't have enough money to pay the University tuition fees," Samatta shrugged. "And I didn't feel like taking loans. The military promised to pay for my education after I would have served for five years but somehow it didn't happen. In two years I enrolled in a sergeant course, in another year I became an Academy student. At 20 I was promoted to Lieutenant, and from there on it's been just the usual routine."

"Well, I would say it's never too late to learn," Bun muttered pensively as he squinted at the former captain.

Samatta gave him a suspicious look. Is he in league with Dzinton or what? They've never even met!

"Don't look at me like that, young man!" the professor laughed. "Just so you know, I've recently been studying the ancient Kar language. I started a year ago, and in five years or so I should be able to read in it fluently. Mind you, it's very different from the Common, with its five cases and three tenses. In fact, it's unlike any modern language. And if such a fossil as myself can learn new things, so surely can you. I could also mention professor..."

He was interrupted by a sound of a key rasping in the lock. The door flew open, its ungreased hinges squeaking shrilly, and the familiar lieutenant entered the cell.

"You!" he pointed his finger at Samatta. "Come with me."

"Hey!" Bun protested as he jumped up from the bench. "I am the expedition leader! I insist on meeting your commander!"

"I was told to bring your Head of Security or whoever he is," the lieutenant shook his head. "I apologize, Sir, but I am just carrying out my orders."

As Samatta rose from the bench, he mentally marked a change in the lieutenant's style of communication. 'I apologize, Sir' isn't much but it's something. By all appearances, they've already received a confirmation that a scientific expedition was sent out to this area - so, all I have to do is to convince them that they should just let us go. Of course, it's quite a surprise to become the 'Head of Security' out of the blue but it's still better if I do the talking, not the professor.

He did not have to go too far: two fathoms down the hallway the lieutenant stopped and nodded towards a door - another iron door but this time not a squeaky one. Upon glancing behind him at two soldiers at hand, the former commando pulled the door open and entered.

The room, just like his cell, was illuminated by a single powerful lamp without a lampshade. Two ancient-looking, half-collapsed wooden cupboards against the near wall flaunted dusty emptiness of their shelves seen through the slightly opened cupboard doors. Equally old table and a couple of chairs were standing against the far wall. One of the most gigantic trolls Samatta had ever seen was occupying one of the chairs. The beast wore colonel tabs on his field infantry uniform.

"Wait outside," the troll ordered, looking sideways at the escorting lieutenant. He paused until the door closed behind his subordinate, and then his unfriendly gaze shifted to Samatta. "So?"

"So - what?" the latter inquired as he suppressed the instinctive urge to come to attention. Instead he folded his arms across his chest defiantly. "You could at the very least introduce yourself, Splendid Sir."

"Vice-Colonel Surash Tamarei, the Head of Security," the troll growled discontentedly. "I know who you are, we've already received your personal files. And I can't say that I am pleased to meet you. So what did you want to tell me about...the woman we both know?"

"Nothing too important," Samatta shrugged. "I just thought that you might be interested to learn that she has recovered, more or less. She didn't ask me to send her love to you but you didn't really expect it either, did you?"

"What happened to her? Where is she?"

"As for what happened to her, I don't know," Samatta's reply was polite and quite detailed. "I wasn't there – and I wouldn't have understood too much even if I had been. All I do know is that she was helped to get rid of the virus effector - and right after that she left in an unknown direction."

"Nonsense," the troll hissed through his teeth wearily. "Can't you understand, Captain, that it's a matter of national security? It requires security clearance that you've never had and never will have. She must be found and brought back - at the very least, in order to obtain her report about what happened back then. Are you in touch with her? Could you pass on a message to her? We aren't going to harm her in any way or press any charges against her - I swear by the Straight Path!"

"You don't have to swear to convince me," Samatta snorted. "The trouble is that she will surely hate the idea of coming back here, let alone providing any reports. And if this idea is ever mentioned in her presence, she is quite likely to feel like harming you instead. And she can do just that any time she decides to do it, let me assure you. Besides, there is another complication: to the best of my knowledge, she is fuck knows how many billion light years away from here right now. Or maybe trillion, not billion. I don't think that even other Demiurges would be able to contact her."

"Other who?" the troll asked, surprised. "Billion years? What are you talking about?"

"Seems like not _my_ security clearance is a problem here," Samatta grinned. "You know, Sir Surash, I am not going to discuss this topic with you. I am simply not sure what you are entitled to know, and what you aren't. I just want to notify you of the following," he drew the air deep into his chest and paused as he tried to recall the exact wording of the message he himself had come up with. "The person that took Doctor Kasatana Hamayara away from this laboratory has no intention to explain himself in any way. If he ever changes his mind, he will contact you. In the meantime, he wants to make certain that this expedition is able to complete its work successfully and return home in full force."

He focused his mind and generated an impulse that slammed Surash, together with his chair, into the concrete wall. The troll twisted and turned nimbly, and jumped to his feet as a heavy gun appeared in his huge hand from seemingly nowhere. Samatta raised his palms soothingly.

"I have no intention to harm you, Sir Surash," he said slowly and distinctly, "but I've been authorized to remove any - ANY! - obstacles standing in this expedition's way. So far I haven't escalated the conflict - even though your soldiers' stupidly kept treating a handful of snot nosed kids and eggheads as a saboteur squad. And I hope we can resolve this conflict right now and right here."

"I can't let you go," the troll shook his head. "At least, not before it's been okayed by the Head Office. You've trespassed in a restricted area, and that calls for a thorough investigation."

"Vice-Colonel, there is no need to bullshit me," Samatta screwed up his face. "We are colleagues, even though former ones, and we both know all too well that restricted areas should be marked with suitable warning signs and cordoned off. The bay coast isn't marked in any way whatsoever - which means it's nothing like a restricted area. It's just common land, close as it might be to a secret military installation.

And professor Bun is quite a prominent figure in his field. Do you want to cause public scandal? Have you forgotten what happened to the Institute of Man? My patron was highly displeased with it - and he will be equally displeased with you and your...establishment."

The troll squinted at him.

"And why didn't your...patron," he emphasized the last word, "come in person to voice his displeasure?"

"Because he doesn't waste his time on trifles. There are errand boys like me to do that for him," Samatta calmly met his interlocutor's heavy gaze. "He came for Doctor Kasatana in person because she is way more important than you could ever imagine. But the expedition has nothing to do with your firm - so it's me who was send to make certain that its members wouldn't be bothered. So? Shall we start quarreling or will you listen to reason, after all?"

"I still believe you are bluffing," the troll smiled crookedly. "Your name isn't mentioned in the 'Kamigami' dossier. In my opinion, you are a mere pawn..."

Samatta never let him finish the sentence. This time he generated a much more powerful impulse. Surash hit the wall with such force that his eyes glazed over for a moment, and he grunted indistinctly as he began to slump to the floor. Yet the troll managed to keep his balance. He tossed his head to focus his gaze - and froze. Samatta was standing right in front of the vice-colonel, the latter's own gun aiming straight at him.

"If you think that an extra half-a-fathom of height and an extra hundredweight will work to your advantage, Splendid Sir Surash, you are gravely mistaken," the former commando said warningly. "Saboteurs are versed in troll's anatomy, and I know perfectly well where to lodge a bullet to finish you off on the spot. And let me assure you, I'll have enough time to shoot even if you happen to be a Guide of the Path."

He retreated a few steps and put the gun on the table, the safety on.

"I have no intention to kill you," he said. "I don't want to fight you at all. I understand where you are coming from, and I have absolutely nothing against you personally. It's a pity, Vice-Colonel, that we happened to meet under those circumstances. But since it is what it is, I have to give you an ultimatum: either we are set free before the day ends or I call my patron and wash my hands of this matter."

The troll exhaled hoarsely as he unglued himself from the wall and stepped towards the table. There he took the gun and examined it for a few seconds as if he had never seen it before. Then he lifted his gaze to Samatta.

"Looks like we don't matter anymore in our own world," he said bitterly through his teeth. "Anybody can meddle in whatever - and in whichever way he wants to - and we don't even dare complain about it."

"It isn't true. They..."

"You don't have the first idea about it, you whelp," the troll sighed wearily. "As I said, you are a mere pawn they use as they please. Your name wasn't in the 'Kamigami' as recently as a week ago - so you must have just started working for them. You simply don't know what's going on and what exactly they are doing to us. Doesn't matter. I won't try to convince you, it would be to no avail. If there is anything we do know for sure, that's how fanatical their henchmen are. No, I don't feel like drawing Beings' attention once again. Your group will be released but my men will stand guard over your camp."

"No problem," Samatta nodded. "Don't be shy about sending out as many as you can - in fact, my task is to protect the eggheads from 'black archaeologists', not from you. So, if you help me to secure the camp, I'll really appreciate it."

"You are a saucebox, Captain," the vice-colonel grinned broadly, exposing his numerous teeth. "I wish we were on the same side. Ok, I'll think about it."

"Who said, we aren't on the same side?" Samatta was surprised. "Those Beings might have peculiar ideas about what's good and useful but, in any case, they mean us no harm. So, you and me have no reason to be on the opposite sides of the barricade, do we?"

He turned around and went out without waiting for an answer.

"Enter," he poked his finger over his shoulder towards the door, addressing the lieutenant who tensed up when he saw Samatta. Then he stopped in the middle of the hallway to take thought. And how am I going to explain the guards in the camp to professor Bun?


07.07.843, Fireday


"Idling your time away?"

Palek started. He was being so absorbed in scratching an indecent inscription on a flat stone located on the observation rock over the precipice that he did not even hear Dzinton coming from behind. The boy tried to use his own body to hide the stone but it just slipped through his fingers and rolled away on the ground. Dzinton picked it up, cast a skeptical glance at the almost finished inscription and gave the stone back to Palek.

"The word 'fool' is spelled with the sylletter 'fu', not 'fo'," he remarked, his tone acid-tongued. "I understand that you had to use up your intellectual capacity to create the inscription but it hardly justifies such an elementary mistake. Remember, Lika, an insult works best when it's cleverly devised and impeccably written. Stupid words clumsily strung together will but turn you into a laughingstock instead. And with your grades in Language Proficiency you stand no chance of producing a quality insult."

Palek blushed deeply, threw the stone away and pouted.

"Don't take offense," Dzinton laughed as he sat down next to the boy. "How is it going at the Manege? Getting used to it? Not disappointed with your work?"

"Nope," the boy tossed his head. "Not at all. There are real horses there! Who cares about that dung! As if I wasn't forced to clean toilet bowls in the orphanage as a punishment... And here I hand fed the horses bread and sugar!"

"Have you mounted a horse yet?"

"Not yet," the boy sighed. "They say 'Later'..."

"I don't think they'll cheat you. And patience is a virtue worthy of a man," Dzinton tousled his hair. "Feeling bored when the girls aren't around?"

Palek shrugged his shoulders. Yani is at her music school, Kara - at practice. I am the only one who came home that early. Foolish. I could've stayed there a bit longer.

"I've looked at your report card," Dzinton informed him as he plucked a grass blade, that had grown through one of the cracks in the stone, and put it into his mouth. "Not too impressive, I must say. Are you indeed so stupid that you can't handle fractions? I just don't believe it."

Palek pulled a long face. Fractions did indeed confuse him. Not that he really could not understand how to deal with them but at crunch time his thought would just scatter. By the time he managed to focus on the task once again, his hand would already scribble some nonsense, all on its own.

"That just won't do," Dzinton pulled the boy's ear slightly. "Should I motivate you by filliping on your forehead if your grades are below 50 - and by doing it twice if they are below 30?"

"Then you should pay me ten mayers if they are over 80, and twenty mayers for a perfect 100," Palek muttered.

"You are some rogue!" Dzinton burst into laughter. "No-go, my money-loving friend. That won't happen. I couldn't care less about your perfect grades if you get them by just copying down what the best student in your class wrote. Besides, I reward your good grades by telling you stories. That's good enough."

Palek pouted again. He did indeed begin to consider who of the top students in his class he could team up with to tackle homework - and in which subjects. We'd split the booty fifty-fifty...no, I would keep two-thirds. One third is more than enough for those high achievers. Oh, it just sucks to be a Demiurge's son - he can see right through you!

"And one more thing," Dzinton became serious. "Let's say, I can understand that you are struggling with fractions but your bad grades in geometry are completely beyond me." He made a magician-like gesture and produced Palek's math exercise book out of nowhere. "Here, take a look. You have a sure eye and a firm hand. Precious few people can draw an almost perfect circle in one movement, let alone without a compass. Your drawings are textbook quality but your grades are mediocre. Why? Is it because you prefer to draw landscapes and caricatures instead of geometric shapes?"

"Lady Simonara insists I should use a compass," the boy muttered as he turned away. "And a ruler. And I don't want to. I can do well without them, you just said it yourself. Ok, sometimes the line is a tiny bit twisted, so what? And I don't sketch trees where the drawings are but in the margins - what's the problem with it? Why does she keep scolding me? I haven't drawn her own long-nosed face, have I?"

"I see," Dzinton sighed and stroked Palek's head once again. "Lika, there is more than one way to solve a puzzle or accomplish a task - and there are no right and wrong ways but only efficient and less efficient ones. An efficient way saves you time and effort, and right now freehand drawing does just that for you. Yet soon enough you'll find out that compasses and other instruments are quite often more convenient to use. And drawing is not only about paper, far from it. There is drawing software that facilitates everything so much but first you have to get used to it. And if you are to learn how to use different methods, you should start learning it sooner rather than later. Now, in fact. It's better to have both hands, not just the right one, isn't it?"

He put the exercise book aside and propped his elbows on his knees, contemplating the bay below. Numerous ship signal lights were dancing upon its waters.

"Lika, quite often adults say something that might sound stupid to you. Trust me, in most cases they know what they are saying. It's just that you can't see their reasons yet. But before long the world around you will grow ever clearer and more logical. At your age you still have to take adults at their word oftentimes but the older you become the more opportunities you'll have to draw your own conclusions. A sure eye and a firm hand might suffice you for the rest of your life - and then you'll never need a compass. Or they might not. Time will tell. But in the meantime just learn how to use guiding and measuring instruments properly. Really, it's a no brainer for such a bright boy like you."

Involuntarily, Palek blushed from embarrassment. Dzinton would never praise anybody but for a good reason.

"Have you ever thought of becoming an artist?"

Taken aback, the boy snorted.

"Indeed! He grinned crookedly. "Why paint pictures if it's always possible to use your pelephone to take one?"

"Because not all types of pictures are alike. Take, for instance, those caricatures of your friends you create – can a pelephone do that? Or that?"

Dzinton offered him a big sheet of paper. Innerly frustrated - will this sermon ever end? - Palek took it from his hand, glanced at it sideways - and froze.

A pencil sketch on the sheet definitely represented the city bay - steep streets on the hill slopes falling towards the water, piers and ship bunkers along the coast, shoals at the bay mouth... And yet there was something on that sheet of paper that did not match reality: a light, lacy bridge connected the opposite shores of the bay. Delicate structures in the shape of convex arcs and honeycombs seemed to float in the air as they rested on but two pillars at the ends and one in the middle of the bridge that looked unreal but so unutterably beautiful as if it had somehow emerged from a fairy-tale book populated by wizards and...painters.

"You are looking at a project draft. The author of the project is an engineer called Van Sakidzakiy who proposed to build a bridge over the bay to significantly reduce travel time between the ends of the city. Do you like the drawing?"

Palek nodded, spellbound.

"Many people can draw a beautiful bridge but what you are holding in your hand is more than just a drawing. That's a real project the author intends to implement despite lots of complication. One has to ensure that the supporting pillars will - if needed - survive a tsunami wave or a collision with a ship. It's necessary to calculate the maximum weight the load-bearing structures can take - so that this enormously long bridge won't collapse under either its own weight or the weight of all those cars ceaselessly going back and forth. Constant vibrations the cars produce, and ever changing winds are also important considerations. There are plenty of purely technical problems, and it takes a genius of an engineer who is also an outstanding artist to think of something like that and actually let it materialize on paper. That's why I am asking you, Lika: would _you_ like to become an artist like that?"

"I...don't know," the boy whispered, his eyes riveted on the drawing. "Is it...difficult?"

"It is. Success is but ten percent talent and inspiration, the rest is hard work. Loafers will never achieve anything important, even if they are triple genii - whatever excuses they might find to justify their laziness. It depends but on your own perseverance what you'll end up being. If you really want to become such an engineer-artist, you will. But only if you really want it and give it your best effort. Idle dreams don't come true."

He rose to his feet in a springy, fluid motion.

"You can relax now, and I am off. I still have to pick up Kara from school. See you later, Alligator."

He gave him a warm and encouraging parting smile, waved his hand and merged into deepening evening shadows enfolding the old stairs. Palek watched him go for a while, then turned around to face the bay, drew his knees to his chin and paused to think. I do work hard, don't I? I've never played truant, even though I so often wanted to. I do my homework without cribbing even from Yani...well, almost without cribbing. I never crib from her more often than every other day. My grades are bad but that's not my fault! It just happens so.

'Loafers will never achieve anything important, even if they are triple genii - whatever excuses they might find to justify their laziness.'

The boy shivered as if he were cold. He felt his cheeks begin glowing red in the advancing darkness. But Dzinton hasn't said anything special! He wasn't even talking about me! His glance fell on the drawing that was still clutched in his hand, and it seemed to him that the bridge was growing out of the paper sheet and becoming three-dimensional. He shifted his gaze to the bay far below. The mountains' long and thick shadows had covered it almost completely but he could easily imagine the bridge spanning the two banks.

Do I want to become such an artist? Of course, I do! I'd love to. But idle dreams never come true.

He looked at the drawing one more time. It's decided, then. I'll learn how to use a compass and how to simplify those stupid fractions. I'll also improve my grades in all other subjects - language, geography, social sciences. And one day, sometime in future, I will become an Artist. And I will make sure to build if not a bridge like that, then something equally beautiful.

And right now I still have a couple of minutes to enjoy the drawing, before the sun is finally gone.


Karina pushed the school door open, stepped in and stopped, unsure what to do next. A big bag with her dzyuba weighed down her arm. A sweet aftertaste of ice cream, still lingering in her mouth after her earlier visit to a restaurant, suddenly turned into an unpleasant tang as it got mixed with acid flavor of gastric juice. She looked around. The gym was swarming with humans and orcs of all ages, and tall figures of troll instructors were moving to and fro as they supervised the students. Most of the latter were busy doing exercises while some were just sitting on their heels and talking quietly, waiting for the class to begin. The girl tried to spot the schoolmaster in the throng but failed. She sighed and tensed as she approached a human male wearing an instructor's armband.

"Sir," she uttered, pulling his sleeve timidly. "I humbly ask for your help. I need to find Master Karabi Netto. Could you tell me where he is?"

The man turned around, and she saw a familiar face.

"Good evening, young Lady," instructor Adam bowed slightly. "Have you come to practice?"

"Good evening, Sir," Karina gave him a frightened look. "Yes, I...I've come. I was told to talk to Master Karabi but he isn't here. I don't know what to do next."

"Karabi told us we would have a new student," Adam said. "I am glad you'll be with us. He is in his office, he'll show up when the class begins. By the way, that will happen in 15 minutes, and you haven't changed into your practice clothes yet. Let's go, I'll take you to him."

When Karina entered the office, the troll was sitting at the table and quickly typing something on his terminal. He glanced at the girl, took a break from his work and nodded.

"Good evening, Karina. I'll be done shortly, and we'll talk. You can change in the meantime."

Karina threw off her shorts and T-shirt, emptied her practice clothes bag, arranged her loincloth and chest bib as her father had shown her, and slipped into long pants of a dense fabric. She figured out on her own how to tie the straps around her waist to prevent the pants from falling down. However, the dzyuba baffled her because it had no straps or buttons on it.

"Just wrap yourself up in the dzyuba and fasten a belt around it," the troll offered his advice as he rose. "Pass the belt round your body twice before tying it at the front. Like that."

 He made his way around the table, bent over Karina and showed her how to tie the belt properly.

"Soon enough you'll see why there aren't any buttons," he added upon finishing the demonstration. "They wouldn't last even one practice session but rather come off right away. So, my young Lady, how are you feeling? Ready to learn a new skill?"

The girl shivered. Of course, I am not.

"Yes, Sir Karabi," she said in a low voice as she lowered her head.

"As I already told you, you can skip the formalities when we are alone. It's only in front of the others that you should call me 'Master' because that's how any school-owner is expected to be addressed. Now it's time for you to acquaint yourself with a couple of basic rules. Rule number one: don't be ashamed of your ineptitude - in particular, in the beginning. You don't know anything yet, and initially nothing will be going right for you. That's ok, it's been the same with just about everybody, and I am no exception. What really matters is your perseverance, the rest will come. Rule number two: you always practice with our own group. Considering that you are going to attend daily - not just every other day like the rest of them – you'll be in two groups. Try to make friends with your fellow students. The better you understand each other, the quicker you'll improve. Finally, rule number three: we don't have any hired hands. That means, each group cleans after itself when the lesson is over. In particular, you'll have to put the mats away, then sweep and wash the floor in your area of the gym. That's about it. Just work hard, and everything will be fine."

The troll thoughtfully scratched his chin with a claw.

"Yes, that's about it. I guess, you've already seen the lockers and the showers. The showers aren't too roomy, so the groups have to take turns after the classes."

Suddenly he bent towards Karina and looked her straight into the eyes.

"I know about your special abilities. And I know who your dad is. Kara, you are a human, and therefore you aren't bound by the People's concepts of honor and debt. But even so, you must understand that the load you are carrying is a huge honor and an equally huge responsibility. Your dad believes in you - do your best not to fail him. Will you?"

The gobsmacked girl nodded quickly. An honor? What is talking about?!

"Kara, I am over 100 years old, and I've been through a whole lot. 70 years ago your father stretched out a saving hand to help me - an inexperienced youth who had left his home and his people in search of fame, only to meet his death during a stupid fight in a dirty bystreet. He nursed me back to health and opened my eyes, discerned my talent and taught me the way of the Path. He saved me like one might save a stray kitten about to starve to death. I owe him everything. And I would sacrifice everything for his sake, even my honor. Teaching you is my chance to repay him a tiny part of my debt, and I'll do all I can to teach you as well as only possible. It will be very hard for you, much harder than for anybody else. Will you manage?"

"Dad said I should learn," Karina answered in a low voice, her eyes lowered to the ground. "And if he said so, I'll manage. I will make sure to manage!" she added fervently, jerking her head up. "My word!"

"Good," the troll bared his teeth in a smile and filliped her on the nose with his claw. "Even a stray kitten, if raised by your dad, may turn into a beautiful tiger. Let's go meet your first group."

Adam was the group's chief instructor, and there were eight children in the group, all about Karina's age. Four humans - three boys and a girl - and four orcs. Karina was not sure how to tell an orc boy from an orc girl unless they were wearing their clan decorations. Doesn't matter. There will be enough time to make the acquaintance.

"There is a new student in your group," Adam came straight to the point as he addressed the students who were sitting in a semicircle. "Her name is Karina Muratsiy." The instructor's hand was on Karina's shoulder, and the girl did not know where to look and what to do with her hands. "Since there are nine of you, from now on you'll practice in threes, not in pairs. That will allow you to learn how to team up against one opponent without getting in each other's way. Besides, you'll have to deal with adversaries to your right and to your left at the same time, and that should help you to hone your technique while moving in both directions. But first of all we'll have to warm up, as usual. Fall in!"

Karina's first practice seemed like an endless nightmare to her because everything went wrong straight from the warm-up. She could not touch the floor without bending her knees, and she did not manage even five push-ups; when the students - their feet interlocked within their respective trios to achieve better balance - were raising their upper body from a supine position to exercise their abdominal muscles, she ran out of gas after the fourth attempt. She barely jogged one lap around the gym before sharp pain stabbed through her side, and it would not go away even after she stopped. While learning how to roll forward, she bruised either her back, hips, sides or buttocks every time she landed against hard mats - and even her protective clothes hardly made any difference. She almost dislocated her neck when she was practicing backward rolls. She failed to properly repeat the movements she was shown - Adam called them 'techniques' - even though she understood perfectly well how they should be performed. The problem was her body that stubbornly refused to obey her commands. She moved as if she was walking on stilts, and her hands would miss the targets time and time again. Her bare toes kept finding and stumbling over every wrinkle in the mats while her soles just would not slide over those mats as they were supposed to - at least, according to the instructor whose soles now seemed to stick to the mats, and now - to soar high in the air. Karina had an impression that everybody was giving her scornful and derisive looks, and her cheeks never stopped blushing madly. Every time Adam corrected her movement, she innerly shrank away from him as she fully expected to be thrown out of the group because of her clumsiness and ineptitude.

Sooner or later everything comes to an end, and nightmares are no exception. Upon helping to carry the mats away and swabbing her section of the floor, she despondently headed for the showers as she was looking forward to throwing off her dzyuba soaked with sweat.

"Karina," Karabi stopped her. "Could you, please, come to my office?"

The girl froze. Then she clenched her teeth and obediently followed the school-owner. That's it. He'll probably tell me now he won't teach such a bungler anymore. And what will I say to Dad?

"Barely alive, aren't you?" Karabi asked when the door closed behind them. "Well, that's always the case in the beginning. Sit down," he nodded towards a chair.

Karina perched herself on the edge of the chair, anxiously waiting for him to continue.

"Not too bad for the very first practice," the troll said pensively. "Not a stellar performance, true, but not bad either. Adam is right: you do have a knack for it."

The girl gave him an uncomprehending look. Not bad? It means, he won't rebuke me?

"Karina, I know how you are feeling right now," Karabi grinned unexpectedly, exposing the double row of his teeth. "'I can't do anything, everything's terrible, everybody laughs at me behind my back, I shouldn't even be here' and all that. Right?"

She started. How does he know?

"That's what absolutely every rookie thinks. And I warned you about that before the practice started. Karina, it takes most humans and orcs half-a-year to a full year just to come to grips with most basic techniques - and those are but an introduction to the art of the Path. You were being too preoccupied to pay attention but, in fact, the others in your group aren't better than you at performing those techniques. And they've already been practicing them for a thriceweek and a half. So, you'd better stop feeling miserable lest your crestfallen face brings tears to my eyes."

The troll winked at her cheerfully, and she smiled involuntarily in response.

"And never-ever be afraid of being laughed at. Only those who have confidence issues would laugh at other people. Those who know how unskillful they are - and try to hide their lack of skills. Those, who are confident in their abilities, will either try to help or just pretend they haven't seen anything unusual because they don't want to embarrass the rookie."

Karabi drew up another chair and sat down facing the girl.

"What does matter, though, is that you have fitness problems. Your muscles and, in fact, your entire body are in a bad condition. In short, you are in quite a bad shape in comparison with other children your age. Karina, I will understand if you are unwilling to discuss your past with me but... Have you had any grave illness lately? Maybe you've been bedridden for two-three thriceweeks or even longer? I don't insist that you answer those questions but if you do, it will be easier for me to understand what's the root of the problem."

Karina hesitated. She liked the master. Somehow he seemed to have a natural ability to win favor with people, and even his face looked... maybe softer than any other troll's - even though in reality it was as stonelike and immobile as theirs. But to tell him about the Institute? I can't!

You fool - now she became quite angry with herself. The Institute is no more, and Dad promised nobody would ever take me anywhere again. You can't hide from your fear forever. You must face it and beat it. You already faced director Joi and you weren't afraid. Master Karabi is no director Joi but the exact opposite. He is Dad's friend and student!

"I was held in the Institute of Man," she said as she lowered her gaze. "For two years. I was sleeping almost all the time, and I didn't move at all. I wasn't allowed to walk. Instead they would transport me in an iron box with a blockirator. Dad said they had toned my muscles with electrical stimulation."

The troll made a strange sound – something similar to both a hiss and a growl. Karina looked into his face and recoiled instinctively. Master Karabi's mouth elongated, his upper lip moved up, exposing rows of saw-like sharp fangs. The heavy, scaly eyelids drooped over the troll's eyes, turning them into narrow slits, almost fully covered by his overhanging forehead. His claws clicked as they dug into the tabletop. A big, good-natured creature, the troll was suddenly transformed into a dangerous monster ready to rip up and tear apart. Karina felt a shiver run down her spinal cord as her manipulators began to tense and coil up into springy spirals against her will, ready to defend her.

Fortunately, the scary moment did not last long. Karabi tossed his head and imperceptibly turned back into his former self - a calm and understanding school-owner.

"I am sorry, Karina," he said thickly. "I didn't mean to frighten you. It's just that the People regard treating children in that way as a terrible crime against one's own race. We have to kill our children if they fail the Test of Will - but torturing them like that is just beyond us. Now I can better understand our elders who..." he cut himself short. "Doesn't matter. Hm... In fact, I should have realized there was a connection between that uproar caused by the Institute and your appearance here."

He fell silent.

"Now everything is clear. I saw people in an as bad physical shape as yours, and all of them had prior to that been gravely ill and bedridden for a while. Well, now we have at least understood what the problem is - so, all that's left is to overcome it. Karina you should exercise regularly. First of all, you should start jogging. Your endurance is very low, and it's a must to increase it as soon as possible."

"Samatta also jogs daily," Karina recalled upon having somewhat calmed down. "He jogs in the forest and around the park, there are trails there. Samatta is a soldier who lives with us and guards us," she explained. "First he wanted to capture us but didn't - and then he was fired from the Institute. So, he began to live with us."

"Typical Dzhao," the troll hummed. "Confront an enemy and turn him into a loyal supporter... Even if he hadn't been a Demiurge, he still would've definitely deserved the title of 'Guide'. Well, Karina, I want you to start jogging as well. Do it every morning, before breakfast. Start with just one verst, maybe even 300-400 fathoms. Later you will gradually increase the distance. Besides, tell your dad - in case I don't see him - that you need to do gymnastics. I would suggest Pragat's classical method. Pragat was a Guide of the Path who lived in the distant past. He adapted the art of the Path for humans. Will you remember?"

"Yes," the girl nodded. "I will. Pra-gat. Pragat. Should I jog every morning?"

"Every morning, indeed. Indulge your laziness once, and it will be twice as hard to hit the trail the next day. So, you'd better start tomorrow. Ok, that's it for today. Go take shower and change. You'll be picked up soon. Tomorrow I am waiting for you at the same time."

The showers area was almost empty, but for several boys and girls from the last group and a couple of instructors still lingering in the shower as they washed off their sweat under the jets. There were only humans there. Trolls' skin being scaly, and orcs' - hairy, neither of them needed to take shower because neither ever perspired. Karina threw off her dzyuba, loincloth and chest bib, and went to the nearest unoccupied shower. Belatedly she realized that her towel, along with her regular clothes, had remained in the locker. I'll have to waddle back across the wooden floor as I am, all wet...

As she hastily lathered herself with liquid soap, she cast a glance at the instructors' bodies. All of them were lean and taut, with flat bellies, broad shoulders, slim waists and strong muscular hips. Nothing like those other men and women with fatty sides and low-hanging stomachs she had seen in bathhouses - and the instructors' movement were as graceful as if they were dancers. She looked down at her own gaunt and ungainly body, and sighed inwardly. 13 already, and my breasts are completely flat; my ribs and hip bones stick out like park fence bars, and my legs are thin and crooked... So ugly!

"Hey!" somebody called out to her. She looked around and saw a boy a bit older than herself who was one shower away. The boy waved at her as he began to wash the soap remnants off his hair. "Hello!"

Karina waved back at him, quickly finished showering and went to the bench where her dzyuba was. What a nuisance! Couldn't he wait until we both were done showering and got dressed? She grabbed her clothes, skimmed over the showers area and to the lockers, dried herself thoroughly with her towel, slipped on her panties, shorts and T-shirt, and fastened her sandals. Finally she folded her still wet dzyuba, squeezed it into the bag and looked around hesitantly. Dzinton promised to pick her up but, for some reason, there was no sign of him yet.

"Hey, wait!" the boy from the showers had just finished drying himself. "Don't leave, I'll be there in a moment!" He flung the towel over his shoulder and stepped towards her...

...and all of a sudden time slowed down, as if in a dream. Karina knew how it was: you realize that something bad is about to happen - a cup will hit the floor and break to pieces or you yourself are going to fall hard onto the ground and scrape your knees and elbows against the hard asphalt - and you can do absolutely nothing but watch it happening... Spellbound, she watched the boy's heel slide through the wet stone floor, his leg buckle, and himself begin to fall on his back. Some part of the girl's consciousness noted that the abandoned bag with the dzyuba was falling to the floor while her feet were moving with an effort, as if through water, and her manipulators were rapidly unrolling and reaching for the boy to catch him and prevent him from falling. It did not matter anymore. Too far. I can't reach him in time... The boy kept falling, as slowly as before, and thrashing the air with his hands as he was trying in vain to keep his balance – until his right hand somehow found itself under his body.

Even from a distance Karina could hear that revolting crack of a breaking bone. The boy's eyes assumed that peculiar expression of already realizing that something terrible just happened to you but not being in pain yet. His anticipation of pain combined with confusion all over his face finally forced time to start flowing at its usual pace.

She ran up to the boy. He was sitting on the floor and staring at his strangely twisted and displaced hand, utterly astonished. The wrist looked so bent as if the arm had somehow grown an extra joint.

"My hand," he said incredulously. "Look what happened to my hand."

He touched his right wrist with his left hand and immediately let out a horrifying cry that made Karina recoil. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed like a sandbag as he fell on his back at the feet of an instructor who had just run up to him.

In a few seconds all the instructors – both those who already were fully dressed and those who still remained naked and wet after the shower - gathered around the boy. Few students, who had incidentally not left yet, huddled together just outside the showers area, as if its stone floor was some forbidden territory.

"A forearm fracture," one of the instructors muttered. "Such a mishap. How on Tekira did it happen to him?"

"Karabi!" another instructor shouted. "Come here! Quickly!"

The school-owner looked out his office door - and in an instant he joined the crowd.

"Well," he said loudly and sternly. "There is nothing to watch here. Kurst, be so kind as to call the ambulance. Orina, I'll lift him up, and you hold his hand steady lest it dangle. The rest of you, dry yourself, get dressed and see to it that the students go home."

The troll picked the boy up easily, as if he was light as a feather, and carefully carried him to the office. One of the troll instructors was helping Karabi while another stepped aside and began talking quickly and quietly over his pelephone.

Karina felt someone's hand on her shoulder, and she was so startled that she actually gave a jump. When she looked around she saw instructor Adam.

"Go home, Karina," he said. "He'll be fine."

"It's my fault!" the girl said, her eyes filled with tears. "He was in a hurry because he wanted to tell me something and he was afraid I would leave. And I didn't manage to get a hold on him in time..."

"But you had no chance to get a hold on him in time!" Adam was surprised. "You were five fathoms away. I was much closer but even I couldn't do it. Nobody could. It's nobody's fault. It just happened."

"But I..." Karina cut herself short. Adam seems to be a good man but it doesn't mean I should tell him about my special abilities. "I can't go home alone, Dad doesn't allow me to," she said instead. "He should pick me up."

"I see," the instructor nodded. "Well, just go to the lockers area, sit on a bench and wait for him there." He patted her on the shoulder and joined the other students who were still heatedly discussing the latest developments. "Now, young Sirs and Ladies, time to go home..."

Karina picked up the dropped bag with her dzyuba and trudged back to the lockers area, her heart heavy. Not enough that I completely messed up the practice - now that boy, too. Had I talked to him in the shower, he wouldn't have rushed and wouldn't have fallen.

"Why so much down in the dumps, young Lady?" a cheerful voice came from above.

She started, lifted her gaze and found herself face to face with smiling Dzinton.

"Dad!" Karina exclaimed as she dropped the long-suffering dzyuba bag on the floor, and embraced Dzinton. "Oh, Dad!"

"Sounds like everything's wrong once again," the man hummed and soothingly stroked her hair. "Ok, spill it out. Just don't tell me that Master Karabi has sent you away because of your ineptitude."

"Dad, he broke his hand, and he did it because of me!" the girl said in despair. "He fell, and I was too far away to prevent it. My effector couldn't reach him."

"Wait, wait," Dzinton interrupted her. "Who broke his hand? Master Karabi?"

"No, a boy. He was leaving the showers area, and he slipped and fell. And I didn't have enough time to get a hold on him."

"Really?" Dzinton frowned as he moved her aside. "So, he broke his hand? Well, let's see. Where is he?"

Karina nodded towards the office. Dzinton picked up the dzyuba bag, half-embraced her shoulders with his other arm and almost dragged her in the aforementioned direction.

Two instructors at the door bowed to him, their arms across their chests. He bowed in return, pushed the door open with his shoulder, pushed Karina inside and entered the office in her wake.

"Evening, Karabi," he said. "What happened?"

"Good evening," the troll answered without turning his head. He was doing something as he bent over his own bed, where the boy lay now. The second troll was standing next to him and watching him concernedly. "Student Sai Otoko slipped in the shower and broke his arm. A forearm fracture, to be precise - fortunately, a closed one."

"A bad accident," the Demiurge agreed. "A bending fracture of both bones. All in all, the situation is not critical: distal fragments are almost not displaced, there is only one small splinter, wrist ligaments aren't torn. His fingers won't lose mobility. They'll use nails to fix the fragments, and he'll have to spend three thriceweeks in a cast. Rehabilitation might take two more - so he could possibly return to practice in about a season-and-a-quarter."

"There might still be problems with the boy's hand, nonetheless. If the bones aren't properly joined together, the wrist might become partially immobile. I don't even mention that his parents might sue the school..."

"They won't," Dzinton muttered. "And even if they do, they'll lose. There is a precedent: Crai Tomodasiy versus the 'Flower Park' hotel. That pettifogger broke his hand when he was taking a bath in his hotel room - so he decided to sue the hotel. The case dragged on for three years but finally, on 2.16.831, the Supreme Court decided that bathrooms, bath houses, showers and all such were high risk locations, and their owners shouldn't be held responsible for customers who got injured while being there. Karabi, can we talk in private?"

The troll finally turned around and looked at him, then he glanced at Karina. After that Karabi turned to the second troll and requested, "Orina, could you leave us alone, please?"

Orina nodded curtly, left the room and closed the door tightly behind him.

"Karina," Dzinton turned the girl to face him and squatted down in front of her. "You said you hadn’t had time to catch him, right?"

She nodded.

"And you still want to help him, don't you?"

"Yes!" Karina exclaimed fervently. "But how?" now she looked confused. "I am no doctor."

"You aren't but you can do many things doctors can't. You can help but only if you don't get frightened. Will you manage?"

"I will!" the girl nodded again. "I am not afraid. I wasn't crying even when they stabbed me with needles. What should I do?"

"My brave one," Dzinton smiled warmly, and Karina felt she was melting at his smile. "Come here."

He straightened up and led her to the bed. The boy lay there motionless, his twisted arm stuck out at an unnatural angle as if it did not belong to the body anymore and were now a useless discard.

"He is unconscious. He doesn't feel pain, don't be afraid of hurting him even more. Now, examine his arm carefully and try to memorize every detail, from the wrist to the elbow."

Karina took a good look at the crippled arm. Uncomprehending blue eyes flashed through her mind and disappeared. That's what I myself used to do to people.

"Now close your eyes and try to look at the hand that special way only you can, without using your eyes."

He wants me to use my non-eyes? The girl lowered her eyelids and concentrated. She saw the hand - this time it seemed gray, almost colorless - on the bedspread.

"Look into the hand. Just imagine it's transparent. Imagine you can see the bones."

The skin melted away, and the hand – its muscles and tendons closely intertwined - began to look like it might in a horror movie. Then the muscles turned into a gray mist enveloping two small, bent bones. The bones were broken, and there was a small splinter, all by itself.

"Kara, you have one ability you've never used before. It's called 'nanomanipulator'. You can connect broken parts in such a way that they become whole again. I want you to try to do it now."

Dzinton put his hands on her shoulders.

"Take his wrist, just be very cautious. Pull it slightly in order to move the bone fragments so as to get them lined up, even if just approximately. Now push one manipulator through the skin and the muscles, reach for the fragments and try to bring them together. Imagine that you are assembling a puzzle. Move them very carefully lest their sharp edges damage nerves and muscles. If you feel a strong resistance, look for another path for the fragment you are moving. Go ahead, give it a try."

Without opening her eyes, Karina grabbed the boy's hand and stretched out a manipulator's relaxed tentacle. She tried to twine it around one of the bone fragments. She saw the fragment very clearly with her non-eyes but something was blocking her manipulator, and that 'something' felt as resilient as a rubber chunk.

"No, Kara, not like that. You are trying to grasp his entire arm, and it doesn't work because the manipulator can't tell muscles from bones and find one particular objects it needs to find. Just insert the manipulator's tip into the fragment and... Well, imagine that your put your clenched fist into a bottle and then spread your fingers wide. Then the bottle won't fall, will it? Just do the same with the manipulator."

Karina paused to think. I've never done it before but why can't I try? She made her manipulator thin and transparent and carefully inserted its tip into the fragment. Now fingers. But the manipulator has no fingers, how can I spread them wide, then? I guess, I'll have to imagine something else. She remembered her orphanage where older boys had amused themselves with air balloons. They would thread them through bottlenecks, inflate the balloons and then swing the bottles while holding onto the balloons tails. So, she imagined a rubber drop slowly growing at the end of the manipulator. Now it's as big as the fragment, and... And what? She carefully moved the manipulator tip, and the fragment followed her manipulator as if it were glued to it.

"Excellent, Kara! Now bring it as close as possible to the other fragment. Make sure there is no gap left. Careful, careful...good job! Now the last step: you need to fuse the two. Insert the second line of force into the bone, right where the fragments are touching each other. Now imagine that small screws begin to appear at the connection point. Use them to fasten the fragments together. You'll have to move the manipulator all the way along the seam, very slowly. Still must be careful, we don't want any screws anywhere else. Go ahead. And try to relax, your muscles won't help here."

Twenty minutes later, when two ambulance paramedics rushed into the office, Karina was sitting on a chair beside the bed and shivering all over. Her teeth were chattering, and she was soaked in sweat, and feeling very weak - notwithstanding Karabi's warm jacket, that reached nearly to her heels. She felt an overwhelming desire to lie down but there was nothing to lie on but the bare floor. So, the girl kept braving her weakness and fatigue as she sat straight while Dzinton was stroking her hair and watching Karabi skillfully apply a makeshift splint made of several thick planks and a wide bandage.

"Where is the victim?" one of the paramedics asked, looking around.

"Here," Karabi finished tying a knot and straightened up. "A closed fracture of the right forearm. The bone fragments are fixed in the correct position - so, it should be fine just to put on a plaster cast.

"Radiography will tell what's fine and what isn't," the paramedic retorted as he bent over the boy and palpated his arm. The boy opened his eyes and groaned softly with pain. "Why did you meddle with his arm before my arrival, to start with? On the other hand, the splint is rather skillfully applied. Are you a surgeon, Sir?"

"No," the troll shook his head. "But I am very good at crippling people - willy-nilly I had to learn something about healing them, too."

"Your logic escapes me," the paramedic frowned. "How did he break his arm, by the way? During the practice?"

"No, he slipped in the shower and fell really awkwardly," Karabi replied. "So, should we move him to the car?"

"We can, if you don't mind helping. Or we could fetch a gurney."

"I'll help, for sure," the troll nodded. "We don't need any gurney, just take along his belongings."

"We should be out of here, as well," Dzinton added. Let's go, Karina."

Careful not to hurt the girl, he helped her to stand up and led her towards the outer door as the two of them followed Karabi who was carrying the boy. Karina clung to Dzinton's arm and literally hung on it lest she fall, her legs feeling so jelly-like.

"What's wrong with the girl?" the paramedic asked. "She is pale as death."

"Overworked," Dzinton answered briefly. "Don't worry, Sir, she'll rest at home and be all right."

"The girl's workload should be commensurate with her physical capabilities," the man muttered as he followed them out of the building. "She is still a child - in particular, if you consider that at her age the cardiovascular system is less developed than the rest of her body. You shouldn't make her practice until she faints. And call a taxi: she shouldn't walk now."

"Thank you, Sir. I'll keep in mind what you said. And I've already called a taxi - it should arrive in five minutes."

The ambulance flashing lights disappeared into the darkness, and Karina felt that her strength had finally failed her. She began to slowly slump to the ground but Dzinton's strong arms caught her. She wrapped her own arms around his neck, rested her head on his shoulder and fell into a sudden blissful sleep.

"What's going on with her?" Karabi sounded concerned. "She is indeed looking quite bad."

"Just nervous overstrain, nothing to worry about. The effector doesn't draw on the carrier's body resources but rather its cobweb accumulator collects energy from the environment. She has simply been too anxious, and she was trying too hard when there was no need to. All that combined with being naturally tired after practice - and we have what we have. Never mind, it will be easier next time."

"I hope, next time it won't happen in my school," the troll hummed. "Now I still have to break the news to his parents. Where did he say the boy would be taken to? The Third Municipal Hospital?"


"All right. By the way, Karina is indeed unique. I've never before heard about deviants who could use their special abilities to heal rather than to kill. Fusing broken bones, even if only for the time being - fancy that! When the surgeons in the hospital see the radiography results, they'll jump out of their skin!"

"There is still a lot you haven't heard about," Dzinton laughed softly, careful not to wake up the girl. "And you aren't the only one. In due time the world will be in for a big surprise once again. The nanomanipulator is not even the most amazing component of the effector. For now, keep your mouth shut about it, it's too early to advertise her abilities. By the way, do you understand now why I am so interested in her?"

"I do - and I understand it perfectly well. I myself look forward to the moment I'll be able to start teaching her properly. Actually, I have in the meantime come up with a couple of interesting ideas. Just waiting for her to get fitter and a bit more comfortable in new surroundings. Then we'll see..."

"Sure, give it a try. Just don't forget to share your plans with me in advance."

"I will. And now, since we are waiting for your taxi anyway, let's talk about her fitness training program..."


08.07.843, Waterday


The green fence leaves were rustling in the night breeze. Spectral green light flooded the field of the snooperscope's view. Jok harrumphed under his breath. What is there to be afraid of in this quiet suburb of Okanaka? There isn't even a dog. Just a regular small two-story house out in the cut - lots of them all over those lazy reservations for moneybags. Or maybe we should be afraid of the night patrol? Indeed! Those former cops, overstuffed with their employers' free food, wouldn't even notice a dung heap they've just put their feet in. They could, at least, change their patrolling routine every now and then. Of course, it wouldn't make any difference but, if nothing else, it could be less boring.

He listened for a moment. The last buzzing sound of the patrol car's engine had died down quite some time ago, and now the night was absolutely quiet. They'll be back in exactly an hour-and-a-half, and all we need is about five minutes.

The mercenary raised his hand, phosphorescent marks on its gloved fingers visible now, and signaled. Two shadows noiselessly jumped down from a huge branch, hanging over the house fence, in the front lawn. Jok looked back at the road for the last time and joined them a few moments later. The three of them slunk to the back door. Kumer clicked his snooperscope off, pushed it up to his forehead, squatted as he held a small flashlight between his teeth, and took out a lock pick. In a second he swore under his breath.

"What is it?" Jok asked in a furious whisper.

 Instead of answering, Kumer just pushed the door with his forefinger. The door squeaked softly as it cracked open. It's not even locked? Jok just shrugged his shoulders. We've watched that guardian guy long enough to find out he doesn't take his duties too seriously - so, his negligence is no surprise. Even better. One less problem to worry about.

They lubricated the door hinges with oil they had forethoughtfully brought along - and twenty seconds later they already spread out in a big living room combined with a dining-room. All three of them knew the plan of the house by heart: the girl's bedroom was on the second floor, the first door to the left. The guardian slept in a room on the first floor, just three steps away from the living room down a short hallway. The remaining three rooms were empty.

Jok motioned with his hand - and both Kumer and Simon began to move up the stairs, unsure of the steps and very careful lest they squeak. We've had too little time to prepare, just way too little. Not even enough to sneak into the house and properly familiarize ourselves with it when nobody is around. We needed at least a couple more days. Jok tossed his head. Doesn't matter. We'll make do with whatever there is. Big deal - to press a mask soaked in that drowsy filth against the girl's little face and melt away into the night. No need even to neutralize guards. It's so easy that it's even suspicious: why would anybody pay a fortune to three experienced ex-saboteurs for a walk in the park - and that's when most of the necessarily information has already been gathered and an action plan has been decided upon? That's nothing but a stupid waste of money! They could've easily hired a bunch of thieves in the neighboring Burisamara - and there are plenty of them there! - and paid three times less for almost as good a job. And thieves are used to deal with kids, too. For us, after so many years of capturing real enemies for interrogation purposes, kidnapping a snot nosed kid feels like disgracing our trade.

Suddenly the room lit up, and the light cut Jok's eyes like a knife.

"What are you doing here?"

As he swore through his teeth, Jok jumped to his feet and pushed his snooperscope up to his forehead.

How come, I didn't even hear the footsteps? A child's scream assaulted his ears, and he heard two thuds - as if something soft but heavy had just been dropped on the second floor. The snot nosed kid in question, completely naked but for a dangling hair band, scurried down the stairs as she was shouting at the top of her voice. His eyes still hurting, the mercenary managed to see how the girl ran up to the enraged guardian, standing with his arms akimbo, and clutched his nightgown.

"Daddy Kosoma, Daddy Kosoma!" the might-have-been kidnapping victim yelled. "There are two men there, they tried to catch me!"

Footsteps thumped, and the two confused and angry men spilled onto the stairs. Kumer was still clutching a small piece of cloth - the dolt must have grabbed her nightie, and the kid just slipped out of it. That half-assed idiot!

"I said, what are you doing here?"

The guardian moved the girl aside, closed the distance between them in three strides and slammed his finger into Jok's chest.

"Are you a burglar, you bad ass motherfucker? What's the fuck are you doing in my house?"

It's just wrong. It's just all wrong. How come, I didn't hear his footsteps? How come, Kumer and Simon failed to cope with a seven-year-old girl? Why is she wearing that band - hadn't she gone to bed yet? But then, why were the lights off throughout the house? How could that nutjob find out we were here, to start with? Is there a hidden burglar alarm in the house? An alarm not marked on the house plan, and we haven't spotted it either? That might explain everything. That means, guards are running here at full speed at this very moment, and we should turn tail as soon as possible. All right, then - if we failed to keep it quiet, let it be loud. No bonuses but that's ok. We had it coming because of our carelessness. We left the services but a year ago, and already as lax about discipline as any civilian.

"Seize hold of the chick, you blockheads!" Jok roared, shoving the tenacious guardian in the shoulder with such force that he sent him flying through the air. "We get outta here!"

"I don't think so," contrary to all expectations, the man did not fall headlong but kept his balance. "To start with, guys, you'll have to answer my questions."

A huge blued pistol appeared in his hand as if by magic, and the pistol's muzzle was aiming right at Jok's forehead.

"Drop your weapon, you dimwit!" the guardian ordered imperiously. "Move your finger, and you are dead. Behave yourself, and I'll let you and your pals leave unharmed - after you've answered my questions, that is. Well?"

"Daddy Kosoma, Daddy Kosoma!" the kid tugged at his nightgown tail. "May I?"

"No, Boyra," he cut her short abruptly. "You may not. You, empty-headed asshole, haven't you heard me?"

No, it's totally wrong. He has habits of an experienced cop. The gun doesn't even quiver in his hands, and he positioned himself so as to see all of us at the same time. But he can't be a cop, a guard or a soldier - I kept my eye on the house all day long yesterday, I would've known! He looked like a regular pencil-pusher who, for some reason, had been assigned to watch over someone else's child. And all his habits were of a pencil-pusher who would rather stumble on level ground, too! He is definitely a human, not a hulcy - so there must be a mistake in his dossier. But there is no way he is a pro bodyguard.

And now he behaves like a cop or a detective - and even stares as tenaciously as one would. And he's seen all three of us. Surely, he won't find it too difficult to help the police create an accurate identikit. Too accurate, if you ask me...

Jok did not finish considering all possible implications. The grip of his pistol slid into his palm all on its own, and the silencer swallowed the sounds of three shots that almost merged into one. The guardian was thrown back against the wall as he gasped for air and slumped to the floor. His weapon rattled across the floor, and a fountainlet of blood spurted from his mouth.

"It...hurts," he whispered, jerked and went quiet.

"Daddy Kosoma!" the girl screamed. "Daddy Kosoma!"

She fell to her knees next to the corpse and buried her face in the blood-soaked nightgown.

"Don't you freeze!" Jok hissed, addressing his gangmates. "Seize hold of her and let's go! There's surely an alarm here we haven't spotted. Out we go!"

The two mercenaries silently slithered down the stairs. They did not need to hide anymore but the stamp of their soft-soled boots could be barely heard anyway. And the steps did not squeak. A second later Simon's hand grabbed the child's neck in a vice grip. Now he'll press the triokat-sodden mask against her face, keep it there for ten seconds, and we'll carry our lifeless prey away like a wolf carries away a slaughtered sheep...

A second later, when Simon's body almost hurtled through the air and slammed, back first, into a panoramic window on the opposite side of the room, Jok realized just how wrong everything was. No slip of a girl could ever hurl like that an experienced and perfectly fit fighter about a fathom tall and ninety kilos heavy, let alone a bulletproof vest and ammunition. Hardly a grown-up man would be able to do it, either. And if such a bulk did become airborne, it should've smashed that fragile glass panel to pieces, not rebounded off it as if it were a spring mattress.

The girl drew herself up to her tiny full height and silently turned to face Jok. And her gaze was nothing like a gaze of a frightened child who had only yesterday played her dolls on a sunny lawn in the company of her fellow kids. Rather a cook would look like that at a piece of meat while figuring out the best way to cut it.

"You have killed Daddy Kosoma," her voice was flat and lifeless. "You are a very bad man. I am allowed to kill very bad men without permission."

Strange fatigue crept over the former commando. Slowly, as if he were underwater, he raised his pistol to silence the little mouth uttering something it should never-ever have uttered. He never had a chance to pull the trigger as the girl was already right next to him - and a small fist rammed into his breastplate like a freight train.

Kumer was looking torpidly at the little girl who had just crushed through his leader's bulletproof vest with a single stroke - even though she could barely touch it when she stood on tiptoes. This naked little monkey...I didn't slip, I couldn't slip there upstairs! I have to run, have to escape... The girl paid no more attention to the leader's motionless body at her feet. Instead she turned around and silently stared at her might-have-been kidnapper.

"You are also a bad man!" she pronounced dispassionately. "But you haven't killed anybody, and so far you aren't a very bad man. I am not sure if I am allowed to kill you. Daddy Kosoma, am I?"

Suddenly Kumer felt an unpleasant weakness in his crotch. That would cap it all - to wet my pants now! Escape! Escape! Escape! The girl remained motionless as she kept watching him closely. The mercenary gingerly began to retreat - a step, another step, and another one... Five more steps, and I could dart to the open back door, break through the bushes and melt into the saving darkness. Five steps, four, three...

Something seized his pant leg. He glanced down - and froze in horror. The guardian's corpse was slowly struggling to his feet as his hands groped around Kumer's clothes. The corpse's lips were stretched into a frozen grin, blood was trickling from one corner of his mouth, and his dead eyes were looking right through Kumer. A huge red stain on his nightgown reeked of fresh blood.

"F..f..f...ww..why... did... you... kill...me?" the corpse demanded through clenched teeth.

That was when Kumer Spirin - a forty-two-year-old veteran of two secret wars, a holder of two military orders and four medals who had earned eight wound stripes, participated in twenty three rear area incursions, and a saboteur who had killed at least fifty enemies with his knife alone and had for his composure and cruelty been nicknamed 'The Snake' - fainted.

The girl kept looking at him for a few more seconds.

"Kosoma!" she finally said demandingly. "Get to your feet. All three of them have been neutralized. The show is over. What's next? Should we finish them off or just leave as they are?"

"Wait a moment," the guardian replied slowly, struggling to push the air through his throat. "That jerk... the shooter... he somehow managed to hit the second nerve cluster. The dummy is half-paralyzed... and almost out of control. I wonder... what sort of an idiot... designed that stupid circuit?"

"You did," the girl reminded him ruthlessly. "Have you forgotten? That was your graduate thesis. It's beyond me how it could even pass at all. Even without any deep analysis, I can see seven major flaws - and incorrectly implemented redundancy of key nerve clusters isn't even the biggest of them."

"You could...have had some compassion for me, too. Hasn't Kamill... explained to you that artins...are supposed to be tolerant and...non-judgmental when...dealing with mere humans? Ok, I need just...a bit more time. Two minutes to regenerate."

"Understood. I am waiting," the girl replied as she straightened up and stared right ahead of her as if she had just turned into a mannequin. The guardian stirred on the floor. In two minutes he did indeed sit up.

"Next time I'll just whack them with a shocker right away," he growled. "And I haven't even lowered the pain-blocking threshold - so I really got it in spades. Well... Boyra, how are those three? And how are you?"

"One of them is unconscious, he'll recover in a few minutes. I advise taking additional measures to immobilize him. The remaining two have been exposed to a shock effect. None has sustained any lethal injuries but one has got two ribs on the right side broken and a lung damaged. The reason: miscalculation of the impact force created by a blow to the bulletproof vest. I counted on standard materials being used in armor plates but, in fact, they had decided to save on their vests - so the actual plate was less strong. A note for future reference: an additional research on current assortment of human protective equipment is necessary. In both cases the prognosis is favorable. The hulcy-carrier's upper extremity is significantly damaged as a result of the aforementioned blow: the soft tissues have been destroyed, the fingers' pseudo-bones have been shattered. Regeneration time - two hours. There are no other damages."

"I thought you were rehearsing a role of a child, not of a criminal expert," the guardian hummed as he rose to his feet. "Anyway, I've already notified the Security Service - they promised to send a mopping-up expert. Let him choose which mentoblocks he prefers to implant to those three. I wonder, who they are. Judging by the way they carry themselves, they must have a military background but I don't think it's Intelligence Services. That's the second incident of the sort, as far as I can remember. Has an overzealous private agency decided to do mischief?"

"That's quite probable. Kosoma, the monitoring department has just issued a recommendation that we should leave immediately - and that would fit into our expected behavior patterns. Any alternatives would inevitably involve an undesirably high level of publicity. Kamill has been notified of the incident, an investigation has begun."

"Boyra, a seven-year-old would rather say 'Daddy, let's go away, I am scared!'," Kosoma grinned. "By the way, your cover must have been blown. It's already the third place where you get unusual attention. Time to replace your dummy - and, for that matter, to find some new whereabouts. The suburbs of the capital are a bit too noisy, after all."

"That can be discussed," the girl nodded. "But it'll have to be later. Now I can only bring your attention to the fact that they used soporifics - so, they were trying to kidnap me as a bioform, not as a hulcy. It's possibly that your cover has been blown, not mine, and they wanted to use me as leverage to blackmail your alleged bosses. Now I am following your recommendation to return to my role. Re-activating the 'Seven-year-old' template."

She gave a slight shiver, and her apparent stiffness and sluggishness immediately vanished. Fear flickered in her eyes.

"Daddy Kosoma!" she squeaked, crouching. "There are bad men here! I am scared! My hand is hurting! Let's go away quickly!"


→Dzhao, contact request.

→Dzhao in the channel. Hello, Kamill. What will you be complaining about this time?

→Oh, nothing special, just the usual stuff. You are a bore, Maya is a drama queen, Mio and Veoron are clumsy bunglers. Only I am perfect. Have I missed anything?

→You have. The irresponsible slouch Kuagar has dropped everything and left at the most critical moment.

→True. Add it to the list. What interests me as a matter of fact - how is your current correction?

→What is it about my current correction?

 →Are you done with it? Can I start acting on the Eastern Continent without risking to come into conflict with you? I need to knock some sense into a few schmucks who are pestering me.

→Done with it? Kamill, it's a weird question to ask. I am just starting!

→Really? I thought you would create a crisis, resolve it and move your resources back to your precious Dzhamterra. That said, when I considered all the time and energy you had invested into that family of yours, I started having my doubts. An engineer-to-be, a historian-to-be, a doctor-to-be, an actress-to-be and an astronomer-to-be - have I missed anybody? And it will take at least a couple of minitertiae to educate all of them. Are you by any chance about to settle down here for quite a while?

→Shrewd, aren't you? Of course, I am. Kamill, seriously, haven't you realized yet that what I am doing is but an emergency relief? It will take at least seven-eight minitertiae to actually resolve the crisis – that is to cope with the consequences of the virus effector's premature release. We'll have to figure out how to debug and fine tune the effector in real life situations, while dealing with living bioforms; how to change one's wary attitude towards deviants. Most important, we'll have to find a way to explain the virus' origins to the society. Somehow I don't think that too many people will buy the story about a secret military blueprint that just got out of hand. In particular, I doubt that it might fool any scientist who is aware of the current level of Tekira technology. Besides, haven't you noticed that there are problems with your own project, as well?

→Dzhao, what are you talking about?

→You haven't, then. I am gradually activating the Katonian network of influence I've inherited from Maya. Many agents are still hibernating but those, who are already awake, begin to come up with some interesting info. Ekhira has produced an impressive pile of articles and project documents on the topic of hulcies. Seems like local philosophers are proving to be not only more far-sighted than those from our own history but more influential, too - and what has so far been but sporadic attempts to kidnap your artins, is only the top of an iceberg.

→Thanx for letting me know. So, the latest pinpricks aren't incidental, after all. Hm... Now I'll have to think whose clock to clean - and how exactly. They must learn to think before they take too much initiative.

→No, Kamill. The problem isn't caused by individuals, it's a systemic one. And so far it has nothing to do with the 'Kamigami' dossier and its information about us. To use brute force to solve this problem is not even level two interference but rather level three. And we confirmed many times that we wouldn't resort to anything higher than level one. Do you want to void the agreement?

→Drat! No, I don't. I am a gamer, and fair is fair. But I will take some measures, anyway.

→Do. I'll share info I have to help you. By the way, I expect you to do the same. Don't be a miser, King Maino, you won't need your gold, in any case.

→'Emperor', not just 'King'. On your knee, serf - prop your fist on the floor, bend your proud neck, bow before me and say 'Long Live' three times. Then I'll consider sharing my gold and precious stones.

→Just for you I'll create a knee, a neck, a fist, and some surface to prop all that on - right after I'll have finally overcome my laziness. You haven't mentioned any other body parts, now you'll have to do without them. Joking apart, be prepared to tolerate me for quite a while. Things are improving a bit on Dzhamterra - so, I've already moved some of my resources to Tekira. Now I can control several dummies at the same times but even so I'll need two or three minitertiae to finish the correction. Maybe more.

→You are such a bore. Well, nothing I can do about it. Enjoy your family life...Daddy. I guess I am not getting my hotel back?

→Of course, you aren't. Shouldn't I be at least somehow rewarded for putting out fires all the time?

→Sorry, Kamill, but I've already turned it into a full-fledged Citadel. I would hate to have to start everything from scratch – in particular, because I have my hands completely full as it is.

→That's my reward for trusting people. 'It's temporary, it's just temporary!' Now it turns out, it's for good. But ok, what wouldn't I do for the Corrector! Own. Enjoy. Out.

→I've never doubted your generosity. Thanx. Out.


Karina woke up because someone was singing almost straight in her ear in a silvery, melodious voice. She stretched contentedly, rubbed her eyes and looked around the room. Fi, the fairy, was sitting on the windowsill next to an open casement and carelessly dangling her feet as she hummed a tune. The moment she saw that Karina had lifted her head off the pillow, Fi merrily squeaked something unintelligible, soared, circled the bed several times and flew out the window.

The girl stretched again and yawned. Something she vaguely remembered was bothering her - something good and bad, exciting and worrying at the same time. She made a mental effort and suddenly she recalled every detail of the previous evening: her terrible practice and her conversation with Master Karabi, the boy's broken arm and herself - how she, her eyes closed, her body tense and soaked in sweat, was fusing the bone fragments.

She could not remember how she had got into bed. I could barely keep my eyes open when I rose from the chair. Have I slept all that time? I was brought home, undressed, put in my bed - and I didn't feel anything?! Strike me pink! I wonder, what's the time now?

The girl resolutely threw aside her blanket and lowered her feet to the floor, wincing in pain. Every muscle in her body seemed to groan and complain about having been treated 'oh, so unfairly'. And I'll have to do it all again this evening!

The door creaked open, and Dzinton strode into the room.

"Alive and awake, my little healer?" he asked cheerfully.

"My back hurts," Karina complained. "And everything else, too. Dad, did it really happen yesterday or did I just dream about healing this boy's hand?"

"It did happen," Dzinton nodded as he sat down next to her. "You were awesome. You didn't heal his hand completely yet because his bones would need a lot of time to knit together. But he won't become a cripple for life."

"Will I be able to do it again...later? Without your help?"

"Of course, you will, Kara," Dzinton's look was unexpectedly serious now. "You'll become a great doctor if you choose to. You will heal people and save their lives."

"Save lives?"

"Yes, save lives. All you need is to learn how to do it in a right way."

"Teach me, then!" the girl demanded as she jumped off the bed and turned to the Demiurge. "Master Karabi said yesterday that those who know how to cripple others should know how to heal them, too."

"So, you heard him and remembered! And I thought you were sleeping upright. Yes, Master Karabi was right but I won't teach you. First you'll graduate from school - and only then you'll be able to study medicine at university if you feel like it. It's not as easy as just fusing broken bones. What if ribs are broken? You can't ask the patient not to breathe while you are joining them, can you? And what if the spinal cord or the skull is damaged, and the fragments are putting pressure on the brain? And there are many other diseases that have nothing to do with broken bones. You have to learn a lot before you are able to heal. A whole lot."

"I will learn!" Karina said resolutely. "Dad, I promised to atone for all those murders I had committed. How could I atone better than by becoming a doctor?"

"One has many options, and the most obvious of them aren't always the best. But I will help you to become a doctor if you want me to. I'll show you how to use your effector to heal. But that will take some time, and now your main goal is to learn in half-a-year what others take a whole year to learn. Then you'll have to pass the exams by midwinter to be able to go to school next spring, remember?"

"I do," the girl sighed. "I'll pass, for sure. It's quite easy, only geography might become a bit of a problem."

"Excellent!" Dzinton smiled again. "Well, sleepyhead, time to get dressed, wash up and have breakfast. It's nine o'clock, almost midday. You've slept exactly half-a-day. Palek and Yana went to school quite some time ago, and Tsukka is getting worried about you. And after breakfast we'll talk about your fitness program. Don't look at me so sorrowfully or I'll weep for pity. Your arms and legs are like boiled noodles, even Yani is stronger than you. You've been ill long enough, now it's time to catch up and get strong. And keep you chin up, my little one! Life is great, no matter what."

He filliped her on the nose lightly, rose to his feet and left the room. Karina watched him go, then climbed back into her bed, stood on her knees, her elbows propped on the windowsill, and looked out the window. Waves of already warm morning air, loaded with scents of herbs and leaves, lapped against her body, and her face became dappled with hot fragments of sun rays that had managed to break through the foliage. She inhaled the fragrance of grass and laughed merrily. Doesn't matter that my entire body hurts, and I am a bungler. Doesn't matter that I can't remember the faces of my real parents, and that two years of my life were wasted in the dungeons of the Institute. I am back home, and once again I have a Dad – Dzinton. I also have two younger siblings - Yani and Palek - and an older one – Tsukka. And an uncle - Samatta. I'll become strong and learn how to fight, I'll pass my exams and go to a real school - and one day I'll become a doctor and begin to save people. The past belongs in the past, and my whole life is still ahead of me, and it's full of joy and excitement. And I'll make sure to live it so that everybody will be proud of me, and first of all - my Dad!

She jumped off the bed, dressed quickly and ran out the door, towards tempting aromas wafting from the kitchen. Fi, the fairy, who was watching Karina, squeaked approvingly, left her hiding spot in a tree foliage and soared into the air to circle the park for the umpteenth time. And her shimmering, semi-transparent wings flashed iridescently in the bright summer sun.


The end of Book 1

April - August 2008

To be continued...


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