Truth Revealed
By Chris Van Deelen

“Magistrate Decard!”

Wearily, the young man clad in black body armor looked up.  He was in the middle of un-doing his armored overcoat.  “Yes?  What do you need?”  His voice sounded as if it was dredged up from the depths of a forgotten tomb.

“We require your assistance in the nursery.”  The speaker was a tiny woman.  Her bulbous head and huge eyes betrayed her half human, half alien ancestry. Unlike Decard, she was dressed in a silvery gray, skintight body suit. Despite the near total destruction of the Archuleta Mesa facility nearly two months before, and the nearly never ending work to get the basic needs returned to the facility, her suit was spotless.

Decard wanted to say no, to ignore her and head to the makeshift dormitory that had been set up for the surviving Magistrates.  But she was one of the Baron’s kind: a hybrid.  From his initiation into the Magistrate division of Samarium ville he had been taught, the words physically beaten into him, that the barons were to be obeyed, no matter what they asked.

To the sixteen-year-old Magistrate, there was no difference between the hybrid before him and the Baron he served with his very life.  He had to obey.  Stifling a sigh, he answered. “Yes.  Lead the way.”

Without another word, the elfin hybrid female lead him into the ruins of the facility. Although power had recently been restored, rebuilding would require years. It took several long, winding minutes for the pair to reach the remains of the hybrid nursery. The room was filled with box-like cribs that were formed out of plastic.  The cribs had no lids. Every eye in the room turned to look at the newcomers. Several hybrid technicians and another pair of magistrates were busy with the infants who ranged from newborn to about four months in age.  They were doing their best to feed and clean the young hybrids.  Red, naked bulbs that were strung up on extension cords lit the chamber.

Upon arriving, the two Magistrates stood up and left without a word, their duties complete.  Decard nodded briefly to them as they exited.

It struck the young Magistrate as odd how none attempted to give the youngsters any sort of care or attention, other than what was immediately needed.  He moved silently between the rows of cribs, following the hybrid.  Even though he was a magistrate, it bothered him to see the condition of the children around him.  The compassion he felt was something that would disappear as time progressed and he spent more and more years enforcing the will of the Barons.

The female hybrid walked steadily, admirably hiding her soul-deep weariness.  Another one of the hybrids approached her and handed her several bottles of formula.  In turn she faced Decard and handed two of the bottles to the Magistrate.

She pointed one of her long slender fingers towards a pair of cribs. “Those two need feeding and cleaning.”  She spun on her heels and picked up the nearest youngster.  Cradling the child, she began to feed it.

Decard went to the first crib and looked down.  A tiny naked female hybrid stared back up at him with her huge golden orbs.  The child’s stomach was bloated from malnutrition and her ribs pushed against the thin skin covering them.  Somehow she found the strength to lift her small arms up towards him.

He picked up the baby, feeling shock at how frail she felt in his hands.  He held the youngster as if she were made of porcelain.  The infant leaned into his armor-plated chest and sucked weakly on the bottle he was holding.  Not once did her eyes leave his face as she fed.

No one spoke as they attended to the hybrid children.  The duties were clear; time was too short to waste on trivialities such as talk.

The bottle empty, Decard placed it on the floor next to the crib.  He put the youngster back inside the bed and went to turn away.  To his surprise she held onto his hand, wrapping her small fingers around his thumb, refusing to let go.

“Sorry, but I have to feed your brother or sister,” he told the infant quietly as he ever so gently pulled her fingers off his thumb.  “Let me finish with him or her first and then I’ll clean you up.”

The infant only stared, her tiny arms outstretched, longing for physical contact. Decard forced himself to turn away from her.  The second crib held a somewhat older child, only three, maybe four months old. It had to have been born just before the disaster. The eyes were huge and inhumanly blue and like its sibling, it held out its hands, waiting to be picked up and fed.  He gently lifted the child out of the crib and sat down, cradling it so it could feed.  With the youngster feeding, he allowed his eyes to close.

“Magistrate Decard.”  A voice snapped him back to full wakefulness. 

He didn’t realize that he had fallen asleep.  “Sorry,” Decard mumbled. The bottle was empty and the child was lying content and full for the first time in days in his arms.  It actually smiled up at him.  He felt the corners of his mouth tugging upwards in return.

“Magistrate Decard, the young need to be cleaned.  You do not have the time to sleep.”  She turned and left him without another word.

Decard’s eyes followed her as she left the facility.  He finally let out a sigh. “Fireblast, sent here to guard against the insurrectionists and this is what happens.  Here I’m feeding half human babies,” he mumbled. 

He looked around and spotted a pan of water resting on one of the tables. Next to it laid several fairly clean cloths.  How they managed to get the cloths cleaned was beyond him.  He was lucky enough to get a shower once a week since the disaster.

It was a foul job but he completed the task quickly enough. It unnerved him how silent the hybrid infants were, their eyes never leaving him as he worked.  Silent pleas for attention tugged at him from every direction.

One of the hybrid technicians came up to him. “You are relieved Magistrate. We will handle it from here.”

“If you don’t mind, I think I will stick around a bit longer.  Looks like your babies really could use the help.”

The technician stared at him for what seemed to be an eternity, studying his features.  Slowly he nodded. “As you wish Magistrate, carry on with the cleaning.”

What the hell am I doin?  his mind snarled.  I should be heading to the make-shift mess and get some food, then some sleep. I have patrol duty again in six hours. He looked at the huge mournful eyes around him.  Human or not, they need help. I can’t stand by and let them suffer.

Decard spent another hour helping the technicians to the best of his ability.  He couldn’t help but notice the strange looks they kept firing off at him when they figured he wasn’t looking.

The female hybrid burst into the room, startling him as well as the technicians.  She seemed to be very surprised to see him. “Magistrate Decard, why are you still here?” the hybrid began, and then waved her hand dismissively. “Never mind, Baron Sharpe and Samarium will be here in a matter of minutes.”

“The lord Baron Samarium is here?”  Decard blurted out.  He realized that the baron must be at the facility to inspect the damage and to see what could be done.

“Yes, Magistrate Decard.  You must leave immediately. Your presence before the Lord Barons would not be welcome,” she told him.  Taking one step, she moved aside, clearing the way to the exit.

He watched as the hybrid technicians left the room without a word. The female stood and waited.  Almost reluctantly, he walked past her and turned down the corridor to follow the other hybrids.  She appeared to be satisfied and went the opposite direction.

Decard followed the rubble strewn corridor for several minutes before he stopped. He had met the baron once, just before his assignment to the facility.  Baron Samarium never explained his reasoning behind choosing the young graduate, but then again, the Barons never needed to explain their actions.  Something deep inside him compelled the young man to go back the way he came.

He came to an L turn and stopped just in time to see the two Barons enter the infirmary.  He was even more surprised to see that the Baronial Guards were nowhere in sight.  He recognized Baron Samarium almost immediately.  Both Barons were dressed in flowing bell-sleeved robes of gold brocade and tall, conical breasted headpieces ringed by nine rows of tiny pearls.  Decard held his breath, for fear that the shock of how much the two barons looked alike would cause him to gasp, giving away his position. Baron Sharpe and Samarium entered the nursery.

            The young Magistrate approached the slightly ajar door to the nursery and peered in.  The Barons were talking quietly as Samarium went from crib to crib, touching the infants one at a time. Decard was thankful that he had removed his helmet as he leaned against the door and tried to listen in on what was being said.

            “…suffering from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies”  Baron Samarium said quietly.  The two Barons continued to talk as they went further into the nursery, and the words became fainter and fainter.  He couldn’t make out what they were saying. Suddenly Samarium swept his arm in a wild wave around the room and the small cribs. “They have not seen this! We of the hybrid dynasty are doomed if we do not seek outside aid.  And it doesn’t appear as if any will be forthcoming from the Archon Directorate. If necessary we must circumvent the Oligarchy and find other allies.”

            Deep in his soul Decard knew that if it ever got out that he had overhead the baron’s private conversation, his life was forfeit. His actions will have very well signed his own termination warrant. He pulled back as the barons approached the doorway.  As he turned away he caught the tail end of their conversation. “…insurmountable it may seem. The humans who caused this tragedy are now the only ones who can save us from it.”

             The last comment caused him to stop in mid stride. His ears clearly heard and understood what Baron Samarium said, but his mind refused to believe it.  The barons? Talking about asking the Traitors Kane and Grant for help? They killed Baron Ragnar and had become the figureheads in a rebellion that had begun to brew in the Outlands. To top it off, they were directly responsible for the destruction of the Facility.

            Moving swiftly and quietly, he tore down the corridor passed the L turn just as the barons left the nursery.  As soon as he was out of their line of sight, he slowed down to a normal walk.  A few minutes later he was inside the makeshift bunkroom for the few surviving Magistrates.  The room was empty. That pleased the young magistrate.  He didn’t want anyone to see the turmoil his thoughts caused him.  He took off the Magistrate armor and placed it on the rack beside his bed.  The red, nine spoked wheel, the symbol of the Magistrates, shone dully in the dim light.  “Why the hell did this have to happen?” Decard whispered.  His fingers touched the badge of the Magistrates.  He shook his head and lay down on the bunk, his eyes closing.

            All the time, he was un-aware of the eyes that watched his every move.


*           *            *


            A sudden jarring woke him up.  He rubbed his burning eyes and looked up to see one of his fellow Magistrates standing above him.  A frown creased the older man’s face. “Up and at them kid.  We’ve had reports of outlanders, probably slaggers on the southern perimeter.”

            Decard’s limbs felt like they were filled with lead when he sat up.  “Sure, Crowe, Gimme a few minutes to suit up,” he grated.

            “Five minutes kid.  If you’re not ready by then, you’ll have to answer to Lord Samarium.”

            “The lord Baron is here?”  he asked, trying to sound surprised.

            “Yeah,” Crowe confirmed. “He and Sharpe arrived while you were out on patrol. Been inspecting the facility.”

            Strapping his sin eater to his right forearm, Decard flexed his tendons. The big bore 9mm blaster smacked firmly into his waiting palm. “I’m not surprised that they have come. I just hope that they will send us some more help.”

            “We’re all tired, Decard.  But the safety of the barons and the others is our top priority.  When we get transferred back to the villes, we can get all the rest we need there.”

            “Right,” he snorted.  As if that was going to happen any time soon.  Decard grabbed his body armor and slipped it on with practiced ease. Three minutes later he was suited up and ready for battle.

            “Alright, let’s do it.”  Crowe told him when he saw the young Magistrate was ready.

            Together, they left the makeshift dormitory and headed towards one of the few exits to the surface that was unblocked by rubble. In the dim light he could make out a small figure standing near the exit.  “Who’s that?” He asked Crowe.

            “Quavell, one of the hybrid technicians.”

            Recognition caused the young Magistrate to pause.  Crowe noticed it and turned to him. “What’s wrong with you, Decard? You’ve seen plenty of the hybrids since you were stationed here.”

            “Nothing Crowe. I just wasn’t expecting to see her here.”  Quavell, so that’s her name. I wonder why she never bothered to tell me.  Oh, right. I’m just a human, not one of their kind, he thought sourly.

            Crowe handed the younger Magistrate a copperhead assault rifle as well as several magazines.  “We don’t know how many we’re going up against, but best be prepared,” he told Decard, slapping him on the back in a friendly manner. “Time to go delve out some Magistrate justice to the outlander slime.”

            The elder Magistrate took point, with Quavell following a few steps behind him.  Being the youngest, Decard came up third.  The three entered the main garage.  A Sandcat sat with the engine purring quietly.  “We’re going out in that?  Isn’t that a waste of resources?”  Decard asked.

“Time’s wasting kid.  We need to hit the outlander slaggers fast and hard, and make sure that none escape.  Can’t let anyone else know about this place.  Thus,” Crowe waved his hand at the Sandcat, “Our transportation.”

 Decard nodded.  Crowe opened the driver side and climbed in, securing the safety harness around his polycarbon clad torso. Quavell climbed in through the passenger side and sat in one of the empty seats in the back, away from the two Magistrates.

“You gonna sit there all day, kid, or get in?”  chided the elder Magistrate when he noticed Decard standing at the passenger entrance.

“Sorry…” he mumbled and climbed in.  Following Crowe’s example, he strapped himself in. Crowe nodded his approval and gunned the engine.  The Sandcat picked up speed as they approached the double vanadium doors. Decard glanced nervously at the Magistrate behind the wheel and then back at the rapidly approaching doors. “Uh…”  squeaked out.

Crowe cast a sidelong glance at the younger Magistrate and chuckled.  Just when Decard thought that they were going to crash, the huge multi ton doors began to slide into the side of the base.  The entrance to the facility was carefully camouflaged, using the natural terrain.  Very little water existed out in the desert, so few people made it within a hundred miles of the facility unless they were traveling in a vehicle, or had the mind to bring enough water with them.

The base was too valuable to let its presence be known.  Most of those who made it this far were killed outright, usually being slaggers or having suffered too much chromosomal damage due to the chemical storms and pockets of radiation that still pervaded the Outlands.  Even fifty years after the Barons took control, little had been done to clean up the former Deathlands.

However, a few hardy individuals were captured and kept alive to have their genes harvested, or their organs used for the annual visit by the hybrid barons.

Either way, no one ever returned from the Archuleta Mesa.

The sun was just starting to settle behind the horizon when they left the facility.  Already the desert was cooling down and with it came a cool breeze.  It wouldn’t be long before the night got dangerously cold.  That is the nature of the desert.  Deathly hot during the daytime, soul chillingly cold during the night. It was only comfortable just after dusk and dawn. 

This was the time the young Magistrate loved the most.  His finger hit the power window control. The passenger side window slid silently down, letting the fresh desert air fill the vehicle.

Quavell sneezed quietly, making her disdain for the fresh air known.  Decard cast a glance over his shoulder at her and shrugged.  The hybrid would just have to put up with it till the danger passed.

They drove for several minutes in silence.  Decard leaned his head against the rest and closed his eyes, figuring that it would be the perfect time to catch a few winks.  One thing he learned during his four years of training with the Magistrates is that you took sleep where and whenever you could find it. As long as you were not on duty.

Technically, they were not on duty. Yet.

“Hey, Kid,” Crowe growled and swatted him on the shoulder.  “No time for that, we’re almost there.

Decard rubbed his eyes, feeling the grit that comes from lack of sleep. “We are?  That was fast. How far out were they?”

“About forty-five miles.”

Decard blanched.  “That far? And we’re almost there? But we only left the facility a few minutes ago,” he blurted, and then noticed that it was pitch black.  Crowe was relying on the vehicles thermal imaging package to drive.

            “Sorry kid, but you’ve been asleep for over an hour.  We’re nearly there,” Crowe repeated.

            “Any idea how many we’re going up against?”

            Crowe nodded, never taking his eyes off the terrain before them. “Outer sensors indicate about a half dozen humanoids approaching.”

            “Quick sweep then huh?”

            “Yup.  Chill them hard and fast and then return home.”

            A sudden thought occurred to him.  Why was the hybrid going with them?  This is a fast and hard contact mission.  If anything, they should have another Magistrate with them, even with the facility being understaffed.  He voiced his thoughts.

            Crowe shrugged.  “Not enough targets to worry about.  Besides, she’s already got contact experience.  With the traitors,” spat Crowe angrily.

            Decard nodded.  That made sense.  Sort of.  He got the sneaky suspicion that Crowe was holding back on him.

            The Sandcat stopped.  “Alright kid, un-leather the sin eater and let’s do this,” Crowe opened the door and climbed out of the vehicle.  Decard followed suit.  The silence of the desert night was nearly overwhelming.  Back at the complex, there was always noise. Near constant thrumming of the back up electrical generators, the constant noise from the on going repairs, and the snores from his fellow Magistrates. He wasn’t sure if he would ever get used to the lack of sound.  Somehow, it was disconcerting to him.

            Crowe took the point, holding his sin eater in his right hand. Decard let him get a dozen yards ahead before he flexed his tendons.  The weapons slid smoothly into his hand and he followed the older Magistrate.

            Many years in the Tartarus pits as well as the outlands taught the elder Magistrate to move as silent as a ghost.  Decard wasn’t quite as proficient as his brother in arms.  His movements sounded like a stampede of Buffalo over the plains in comparison.  Crowe stopped moving and glanced back over his shoulder.  Decard could see the frown on his face and he cringed inwardly. Christ, I’m gonna hear about that when we get back to the cat, his mind chided.

            They crept through the darkness for nearly ten minutes before Crowe held up his fist and brought it down sharply.  Decard stopped instantly.  The other Magistrate held up his hand, five fingers splayed then closed them.  A moment later he held up two fingers.  The simple signal told Decard that they were facing seven opponents. 

He crouched and scanned the rough terrain ahead of them.  He could easily discern the seven figures moving slowly through his light-intensifying visor. Six appeared to be human adults, while he figured one was a child, due to its small stature. Or it could be a mutie.  A dwarf.  Mutations like that were still very common in the Outlands.  It was still to far to discern the sex each individual traveler, or if they were human, mutie or dreg.

            Not that it mattered. In a few minutes, they would all be dead.

            Crowe crouched as well and pointed at Decard, then ran his finger across his throat.  He then patted the ground.  The younger Magistrate knew that he was to stay put and not make a sound. He continued to watch as Crowe touched his chest and drew a semi circle in mid air, indicating that he was going to circle around.

            Classic pincer trap.  They would catch the outlander’s un-aware between them and the slaughter would begin. It would be over before the outlanders knew what hit them.

            The elder Magistrate moved like a wraith, silent and deadly in the desert night.  Decard tracked him, never moving a muscle until he was in position.  He shifted his weight and relaxed.

            Seven figures moved unknowingly towards their death.  No one spoke. The only noise that came from the group was the steady scuffing of feet against the rough dirt of the desert floor.  As they approached, he could tell that there were four males and two females.  The smallest one must have been a child, but he was unable to discern the sex. They were dressed in typical outlander rags, scavenged from the ruins or traded for in the Tartarus pits of the various villes.  The males were all carrying crude knives, which were tucked into the loose folds around their waists.

            They were wary, as anyone traveling the outlands should, but it wouldn’t be enough.

            Decard watched as Crowe casually stood up and aimed his sin-eater at the group.  Like a lovers caress he stroked the firing stud of the blaster.  A trio of bursts ripped into the crowd of slaggers, dropping two and wounding a third.  The attack was so sudden and unexpected; the doomed were unable to cry out in surprise.

            Following suit, Decard stood and leveled his sin-eater at the outlanders.  Killing defenseless outlanders, even though it was his duty and what he had been trained to do, rubbed the young magistrate the wrong way.   But it was that, or face the wrath of the Lord Hybrids when he returned.

            The big bore 9mm hand cannon spoke thunder, round after round smashed into the still reeling bodies of the outlanders. There was no chance for the outlanders to defend themselves.   In mere seconds they were down, dead or dying.  Oddly enough, the only one to survive the onslaught was the smallest.  Whether it was on purpose or due to being shielded by the others, Decard didn’t know.

            “Check the bodies,” Crowe ordered as he stepped out from his hiding spot.  The young Magistrate complied, climbing over the rough ground until he reached the outlanders.  All but two of the Outlanders on the ground were chilled, their vital organs having been messily pulped by the large caliber rounds from the Magistrates weapons.

            “Two of them are still breathing,” he said. Decard could see that the outlanders were normal humans, neither muties nor dregs.

            “These will do.”

            Decard whirled in surprise, his finger almost triggering the sin-eater in his hand.

            Quavell appraised him with her cool, inhumanly large eyes.

            “Sorry.”  He said sincerely.

            The female hybrid waved it off.  “You didn’t trigger the weapon, so no harm done.  I will bring the Sandcat over. You and Crowe will prepare the bodies for transport.  Put down the wounded, but leave the young one alone. It appears that she could be useful,” She told him then turned away without another word.

            It bothered Decard deeply the way she told him to put the wounded down.  She acted as if they were nothing more than animals, instead of living, breathing human beings.

He shoved the thoughts deep into his mind as he glanced down at the first survivor.  She was probably in her late twenties, maybe early thirties and would have been beautiful if the bullet hadn’t torn away most of her lower jaw.  Decard silently thanked the makers that she was unconscious.  He leveled the sin-eater and put a single round through her temple, exploding the skull like a ripe tomato.

Crowe nodded his approval.  Decard shifted his torso slightly and spotted the other survivor, a male.  He squeezed the trigger and put a single round into him, ending his suffering.

The whole time the young girl stood silently watching. The only sign of emotion were the tears streaming down her face.  It was as if she knew her fate and had decided to accept it.

“You did good kid.”  Crowe said as he clapped the younger Magistrate on the back.

Decard nodded, not trusting his voice.

“C’mon, you start stacking up the corpses and I’ll secure the outlander kid.”

He worked quietly and methodically, pulling the bullet-riddled corpses into a neat pile away from the blood-soaked site of the slaughter.  Quavell brought the Sandcat up from its position. She stepped out of the vehicle and opened the rear door.

Working together, Crowe and Decard loaded the corpses into the Sandcat.  Crowe wiped his blood soaked hands on the rags of the young girl and grinned down at her. “Time to go Slagger.”

She stood there, not moving, silent tears rolling down her cheek.

Crowe grabbed her arm roughly. “In the wag Slagger,” he snarled.

Decard felt hot anger building deep in his chest.  Magistrate or not, he didn’t like seeing a child being handled so roughly, even though he had been through simulations during his Magistrate training.  But he stood his ground, keeping his mouth shut.

The young girl cried out in pain as Crowe bodily lifted her off the ground and tossed her through the open door on the Sandcat.  She landed in a heap on the corpses of those she had been traveling with.  The elder Magistrate slammed the door shut and turned around. “There, that takes care of that.  Now only one thing left to do.”

“What’s that?” Decard asked.

Quavell came and stood behind and slightly to the left of Crowe, her face impassive as always.

“I’ve a termination warrant to fulfill kid,” Crowe said quietly as the sin-ester slapped into his waiting palm. “I’m sorry. You had real potential, but you were too fireblasted nosy for your own good.”

A soul-chilling fear momentarily froze the young Magistrate's limbs.  He turned as white as a ghost. “Termination?”  He choked.

“Yes Magistrate Decard.  I saw you at the nursery.  You should have left when I told you. What you overheard, the conversation between Lord Sharpe and Lord Samarium was not meant for your insignificant human ears,” Quavell told him, her voice as cold as the arctic air.

Decard’s mind raced.  He considered lying about it, but knew that it wouldn’t do any good.  But, he didn’t want to die either.

“Remove your helmet, son,” Crowe ordered.

“Alright,” Decard reached up with his hands to un-strap the helmet to his body armor.  As he raised his right arm, he flexed his tendons and the sin-eater slapped into his palm. His finger was depressed, causing the weapon to fire instantly upon contact.

The burst drilled into Crowe’s chest, most of the kinetic energy being spent on the armor plates, but enough was channeled through to slam him against the hull of the Sandcat. He staggered, in pain but far from out. “You stupe son of a…”

Decard never gave him the chance to finish his sentence.  Shifting his aim, he depressed the firing stud one more time.  The rounds connected the metallic body of the Sin Eater blaster, smashing it to so much useless metal.  At the same time the rounds shattered the elder Magistrates wrist.

Quavell reached towards the thin belt around her waist.  Catching the movement at the corner of his eye, Decard swung his arm around, aiming the weapon at her.  “Don’t do it Quavell. I don’t want to have to chill you.”

The hybrid registered what might have passed as surprise.  Slowly she raised her arms.

He stepped up to her and removed the small wand like device she was trying to get from her belt.  He dropped it to the sandy ground and crushed the delicate instrument beneath his boot heel.

“You’ll never make it kid,” gritted Crowe painfully. “We’ll hunt you down and chill you.  That or the desert will.  Give it up and let me finish my job.  I’ll make it painless.”

Decard ignored him.  He opened the door to the Sandcat climbed in.  The outlander girl sat perfectly still, neither looking at him or the corpses.  For the moment he ignored her, going to the overhead locker that contained the Copperheads and spare ammunition.  He pulled one of the rifles out and slung it over his shoulder. The other he removed the magazine from and dropped all the ammunition in a bag.  Lastly he opened up the emergency supply locker and pulled out the rations packs, and all the water bottles he could comfortably carry.

For the first time the outlander child looked up at him with her huge brown eyes.  He paused, staring down at the child. “Ah, what the hell…” he held his hand out to her.

The child hesitated for a moment before taking the offered hand.  He helped her out of the Sandcat and past Crowe and Quavell.

No one spoke, all knew exactly what had just transpired.  Magistrate Decard was now a traitor, an exile.  He would never again be safe to enter Ville controlled territory and every Magistrate, Outlander and mercenary would be out to collect on the considerable bounty the Barons would surely place on his head.

“Fireblast!” He roared and flexed his tendons.  The sin-eater slapped into his palm and he fired twice through the open door into the dashboard of the wag.  For good measure he fired twice more.  A shower of sparks burst from the shattered board as a small fire erupted.

Without another word, he took the child by the hand and walked into the desert.


*           *            *


            “He’s gone,” Quavell spoke into the radio she had secreted in the Sandcat.  Crowe sat in the driver's seat, painfully stripping off the remains of his sin-eater.  A steady stream of profanity sprung from his lips.

            The radio crackled. “Excellent.  We have another Sandcat on the way to pick you up.  ETA is thirty five minutes.”

            “Do you think it will work?”  Quavell asked.

            Silence persisted for long seconds before the other voice spoke. “Do you question my judgment in this matter?”

            “No, my lord Baron, no I don’t. I am left wondering if the young Magistrate will not end up succumbing to the desert before the traitors find him,” She said quickly.

            “That is our concern Quavell.  You two have done well. I will see you upon your return to the facility.”

            She bowed her large head. “Yes my lord Baron.”

            The line went dead.


*           *            *


            Dawn was just breaking over the horizon when Decard finally stopped.  Five long hours of travel though the desert left him exhausted and thirsty.  His young companion never made a sound, never complained, as if she was used to such hardships.  He wiped the sweat off his forehead and realized that it was going to get dangerously hot.  “Better find us some shelter till nightfall,” he told the child.

            The child stared at him impassively.  The young Magistrate shrugged and pulled a canteen off his belt and opened it.  He took a drink and handed the container to the girl. She drank her fill and handed it back.

            Decard surveyed the surrounding terrain.  Several miles to the west he saw what looked like foothills.  That would be the place where they would stop for the day and rest up.  He felt eyes on him and looked down.  The child was staring at the nine-spoked wheel, the badge of his former life, attached to his chest.  He looked down at it and sighed.  The badge came off in his hands.  He held it, staring down at it before dropping it in the sand.

            Together, they walked side by side, towards the distant hills.

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