He was alive.

It was not Kham, but the hellion who had died. Alpha's arm remained upraised, frozen in place. The razor- edged steel glinted in the starlight, pointing heavenward. Kham's eyes followed the line of the weapon and ended up staring into the night sky.

Was there somebody up there to thank?

Kham let his gaze drift down again and saw that there was indeed somebody to thank down here. Neko stood just beyond Alpha's immobile shoulder. The cat-boy still held his Colt in firing position, aiming at the back of Alpha's skull, at the opening Kham had ripped in the armor plate.

Time slipped back into motion, and Kham watched Neko lower the muzzle of his weapon and eject the empty clip. The fixed expression on the catboy's face softened, slumping down through relief into exhaustion.

Kham heaved at the dead weight pinioning him to the ground. It took great effort to get that weight off him. When he did, he lay exhausted, his strength finally spent. Kham stared at the holes pocking the hellion's back; they were the marks of small-caliber shells that could not penetrate the armor. If Kham hadn't ripped Alpha's skull plate free, Neko's bullets would have been ineffective. And if the catboy hadn't shot the hellion, Kham would have been meat. It had taken the two of them to beat the metal man.

Neko limped over and looked down at him. There was a half-smile on his face, a questioning look. But the catboy said nothing.

'Guess maybe I did figure ya wrong, catboy.' 'Guess maybe you did.' Neko held out a stout stick. 'You'll need this for your arm. I'd help you up, but I don't think I can take the extra weight.'

'S'okay.' Kham got himself painfully to his feet and took the offered stick.

Neko pulled a strap out of his pocket, checked to see that Kham's arm was straight, and started to wrap the splint in place. A little surprised, but definitely pleased, Kham let the catboy bandage the arm. 'Da two of us don't look much like winners.' 'Three of us. There's still The Weeze and we haven't checked on Rabo yet. But winners? This is one time when what you look like doesn't matter. All that matters is that you're still breathing.'

Kham looked at Neko and frowned. 'Weren't you da one talking about souls ta Harry?'

'If you are still breathing and do not have your soul, you have got no business breathing.'

Shaking his head, Kham said, 'Maybe someday, catboy.'

'Maybe what?'

'Maybe someday I'll figure ya out.' But first he had some figuring out to do about himself.

While they dragged the litter down to The Weeze and got her on board, Kham did some of that thinking. He did more as they dragged her to the shelter of the woods, where they did what they could for her before going to check on where the Airstar had crashed. To Kham's immense surprise and relief, they found Rabo alive but pinned among the wreckage. It took their combined strength to pry him loose, but in the end they managed. They even salvaged some medical supplies from the wreck, enough to dull the pain of the two seriously injured orks so that they could sleep. It took them the better part of an hour, but they got themselves away from the nest.

At one point some kind of aircraft passed overhead, but nobody bothered them. Kham was glad. He was in no shape for another tussle. With luck, Rabo would be mobile in a day or two, and the three of them could pack The Weeze out. Till then, they'd make do in the woods.

Mostly the catboy kept quiet. So did the woods. No searchers came looking, or gunning, for them. Kham wondered about that, but he saw no reason to complain.

It gave him some more time to think.

This had been the toughest run he'd ever been knocked around on. Too many people lying to too many other people, manipulating them to their own ends. And he'd fallen into the middle of it because of needing money. Running only for money had driven him straight into the hands of the manipulators. He vowed inwardly that it wasn't a position he'd ever end up in again.

'Ya know, catboy. I'm linking about getting outta da business.'

Neko looked him up and down with an evaluating gaze. 'Unlikely. You were born to run biz.'

'Life's short, catboy. Too short ta waste running somebody else's errands. Dyin' fer dem.'

'But you're not really thinking of giving up the shadows, are you? You need their freedom too much.'

No, Kham realized. He wasn't thinking about giving up. In fact, he was thinking thoughts entirely too strange. 'I got a family, catboy.'


And what? This run in pursuit of the dream of living longer had revealed sides of himself he'd not paid attention to before. Some of it he liked. There were a lot of feelings bumping up against habits and stray thoughts in his head. Still, a couple of things seemed clear.

'Da suits, even when dey're dragons, wanta own ya. Ain't right. Da only way ta keep 'em from doing dat is ta work fer yerself. Ya gotta stand against 'em, fight 'em when ya have ta, and turn dere plots against 'em every chance ya get.'

The catboy gave him that look again. 'You make a very ugly David.' 'David?'

'The shepherd boy with the sling who fought Goliath.'

'But he slew da giant and became king when he grew up, didn't he?'

Arching an eyebrow, Neko said softly, as if to himself, 'Crown the wise.'

Now Neko was talking like the dragon, too. 'Don't know dat I can be called any kind of wise.'

'Wisdom itself.' Neko chuckled. 'I suppose it doesn't really matter. What kind of king could you be, anyway? The world has outgrown that sort of thing.' What kind of king, indeed? By now Kham had figured that the dragon's proverb wasn't meant to be taken literally. He shrugged. 'Magic came back.' 'So it did.'

'Well, it's not like I gotta boss odder people around. Don't know dat I wanta. But I can leastways always rule myself. If I can't beat 'em, at least I'll never bow ta 'em. And sure as fragging hell is hot, I ain't gonna join 'em.'

Kham looked down at the diminutive catboy. The Biblical David was a shrimp, too. 'Ya gonna keep playing dere games, catboy? Or are ya brighter dan ya look?'

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