In Discretion (A Ylendrian Empire Novella)
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Thanson Nez thought his career as a Discretionary would take him to the stars, not strand him on a space station at the ass-end of the Empire. Thanks to his last client, he’s carrying a secret he can’t get rid of fast enough, but his oath to the guild means a swift, painful death if he shares it. Already desperate for help, he runs into yet more trouble: his ex, and an explosion that paralyzes the station moments after their uncomfortable reunion.
Kazra Ferdow, Station 43’s communications officer, is almost as blindsided by the return of his first love as he is by the sudden loss of power and life support. The station is a floating graveyard in the making, and something is turning its inhabitants into savage killers. Fighting human monsters and damaged tech, Kazra and Thanson must put aside their past long enough to try to save everyone.
The more light they shine into dark corners, the more Thanson realizes how many people might die for the secrets locked in his head—and what he’s willing to sacrifice to make sure Kazra isn’t one of them.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Protocol was lenient, given the circumstances, but it felt strange to leave Rannah’s ship without announcing his intentions. Thanson Nez took the last step out of the neutral zone between the yacht’s private airlock and the station corridor, bouncing the handle of his travel case against his hip.
He’d taken this contract months ago, assuming it would be a basic flatter-and-fuck job, rather than a complete disaster that would leave him stranded in the middle of nowhere. Imperial Minister Lantony Rannah might be heading home from a lengthy tour of the Empire’s strategic pressure points in a few hours, but Thanson had no intention of setting foot back on that ship, however inconvenient his current location.
As soon as he cleared the docking bay, he paused to retrieve a sleek notepad from the top of his luggage. Hooking into Station 43’s local systems, he pulled up directions to the communications office.
He’d been to worse places in the course of his travels for work, but the sort of person who could afford to contract a discretionary didn’t often frequent deep-space waypoints like Station 43. Scuffed, dirty metal ramps, stacked over each other like rodent mazes, dropped at least another level or two below the one he stood on. The walls were encrusted with a century’s worth of grime, and the flat air carried the stink of unwashed bodies with every breath. Each of his quiet steps, dogged by the soft drag of his belongings, brought him closer to the murmur of busy noise built by all the layers of people crammed into the station.
“Where are you off to, Nez?” Thanson was too well trained to flinch, but the question hit him like a hand falling on his shoulder. His contract had been with Misher’s employer, but that hadn’t kept Misher from trying to treat him as company property.
Thanson turned to speak face-to-face with the man, aware the same courtesy never would have been extended his way. “We’ve docked at Station 43. Do I need to expand on the geographical concept for you, or can you follow the clues to a logical conclusion?” There was no need to add treacle to his tone. Misher would assume it, and he didn’t feel like wasting the effort of a performance on an unappreciative audience.
“I don’t think Lantony will be best pleased by his belongings getting lost somewhere in the ass-end of the ’verse. He’s finished his inspection with the station commander, so why don’t you scurry back to your room and wait for him like a good little whore?”
Misher’s narrow, refined features, while objectively attractive, had never been much good for camouflaging an intense desire to unsettle him. But Thanson refused to play the game Misher so obviously wanted, at least without a paid contract. “I realize there’s no point in contesting your terminology yet again, but I’m feeling gracious. I’m a member of the Discretionary’s Cohort, not a sex slave. One is a respected trade guild, the other is illegal.” If a touch of hostility crept into his voice, it was only because they’d had this discussion before, generally when Misher felt drunk and entitled. “I’m not chattel, and in any case, while I wish Minister Rannah only the best of health and success, I’m afraid our paths must diverge. The sooner we end this tiresome conversation, the sooner I can contact my Cohort, and the sooner they can offer the minister names and locations of other suitable companions.”
Thanson’s clipped Triumvir accent and emphasis on the honorific wasn’t without reason. Misher came from Cainet, and had never shaken entirely free of the social castes there. A reminder that Misher lacked the appropriate standing to truly speak for Lantony might buy him an out.
Or, it might piss Misher off.
Misher caught Thanson’s wrist, quicker than he’d anticipated. His fault, really; he’d forgotten how fast Misher could be when he wasn’t drunk. Thanson’s notebook clattered to the floor as Misher twisted his arm. “So that means you’re open for business?”
“It means I’m free to choose a new contract. And let’s be perfectly clear; it won’t be with you. It would never, ever be with you.”
Misher’s hold tightened more than Thanson would have thought possible, and Misher used the leverage to reel him in. “Truth be told, I’m not even interested in fucking you. I imagine you’ve got a little more use on you than I care for. I just want to put you in your place for once, and we both know that’s below me.”
Lantony’d chosen a worthy second in Misher, who masked a brutal, efficient nature with handsome trappings and a warm smile. Where an Imperial Minister might not go, Misher was happy to tread.
Thanson smiled and lowered his voice as the pain in his wrist ratcheted up another notch. “Do you know what happens to someone who tries to violate a discretionary, Misher?”
“A case of overpriced crotch rot?”
Blast guns weren’t a fitting accessory for his trade most of the time, but he wasn’t a small man, and he’d been trained to control his body under duress; he didn’t need a gun to make his point. He drove down hard with his heel, and Misher’s involuntary urge to reach the source of pain gave Thanson the chance to bring a knee up, freeing his wrist at the same time.
There wasn’t room for a good kick in the narrow hallway, so he settled on the direct application of force, driving his elbow into Misher’s gut hard enough to put him on the ground. Shoving his foot between Misher’s legs, he stepped down with enough pressure to make his point. “Nobody knows because we keep our secrets well. I’d advise you to do the same. My contract with your employer is terminated, and I’ll assume any further contact from you is hostile. You do not fuck with a member of the Discretionary’s Cohort unless they’ve agreed to it. Are we clear?”
He was expecting the struggle below him, but Misher abandoned the halfhearted swipe at his leg when Thanson ground his foot somewhere he’d never want anyone standing. “You ever try anything like this again, and you’ll be nothing but another secret I’m keeping.”
Misher’s face twisted in pain—answer enough even without the grudging nod.
Thanson backed off, keeping an eye on Misher while he bent to retrieve his notebook. Making a point was fine and well, but Lantony didn’t keep Misher around as a paid thug. Misher was the man who hired the paid thugs, who always had a plan in the wings, and who dealt with the business that would have gotten Lantony’s hands too dirty for polite society. Thanson might have won this little hallway tiff, but it was Misher’s job to protect Lantony’s best interests. Thanson had serious doubts about getting away so easily, but he wasn’t going to wait around to find out if he was right.
Satisfied that he could still find the communications office, he stowed the tablet in his bag, fussing with it for a second longer when Misher sat up with a groan.
“How many secrets are you keeping, Nez? I’m not stupid enough to believe you’re hopping out of Lantony’s bed on Station 43 because you like the scenery.” Propped up on one elbow, Misher raised a dark eyebrow. “Some secrets can’t be trusted to people with nothing to lose.” Misher’s hand started to slide toward the blast gun under his coat, and Thanson zipped his bag shut and leveled a hard-charged Flickinger at him.
Not needing a blast gun very often wasn’t the same thing as not owning one.
“My oaths to the Cohort are binding, and Minister Rannah has my discretion. I don’t owe him any more than that, and I don’t owe you anything.” Needing to move faster than the rolling bag would allow, he ducked through its strap, his eyes never leaving Misher. “Don’t turn this regrettable incident into something the Cohort needs to take care of. Go back to Lantony, and nothing either of us knows will be spilled through the air in this station.”
He fixed the Flickinger sight on Misher’s chest, the red dot wavering as Misher relaxed and eased his hand away from his weapon. Then Misher sat up, and Thanson jerked the pinprick laser up his torso.
“I’m sure Lantony has no issue with your discretion.” Misher stared him down, as well-versed as Thanson when it came to talking around something.
“That’s because he doesn’t need to. Stay where you are.” Bag weighing heavy across his body, he glanced down the corridor, wondering how even lax station security hadn’t recognized a conflict yet. Maybe Misher had overridden the security feed in this docking bay. If no one was coming to clear up the mess, he’d take care of it himself. He could pull guild privilege if he needed to; a quiet cell in isolation until a suitable escort from the Cohort could be ferried out to take his statement wouldn’t be the worst thing that had ever happened to him. Given the nature of Lantony’s secrets, he didn’t think he’d get that option unless he got away from the ship before Lantony’s retinue returned.
“Nobody but us has to know about this if you get back on the ship.” Misher didn’t move, the conspiratorial lilt to his words easily read as a falsehood. “You’re making a mistake, Nez.”
“Then I may as well make it gladly.” Thanson’s finger twitched to the trigger, the Flickinger buzzing slightly as he fired straight at Misher’s chest. A hard charge wouldn’t kill him, but it knocked him flat.
Thanson turned toward the station’s center, leaving Misher’s twitching, unconscious body in his wake.
Thanson didn’t run, but his steps weren’t slow. It took a few wrong turns before he calmed his nerves enough to think, and then he pulled his notebook out again and followed the directions to the comm office.
Lacking the proper authorization, he couldn’t lock the door behind him, but he made certain it was closed. The comm officer camped out at the only desk was listlessly watching something on a vid screen that would have been old a decade prior. The light in the dim room shifted with the vid, and when it washed over the comm officer’s profile, Thanson blinked several times, as though that would make what he was seeing more plausible. He shuffled his feet for a second, weighing facing down Misher again over speaking up, but self-preservation trumped pride.
“Excuse me? Is this the communications office?”
The man at the desk barely stirred, eyes never leaving the screen. A familiar voice answered, plucking a chord in Thanson’s chest like someone twanging all the strings of him at once. “S’what it says on the door.”
Thanson found his words unsteady at best, an unwilling and bitter laugh wrung from him before he could reply. “Just checking, because the Kazra Ferdow I know can’t communicate for shit.”
It was worth the momentary loss of his polish to watch Kazra turn so fast that the chair nearly toppled. Same baby-fine black hair, though maybe a bit less of it now, still sticking straight up. Same olive skin and piercing eyes, dark and ringed with a smudge of violet fatigue. Same careful mouth, looking like smiles should be rationed lest they run out.
“What the hell are you doing in the asshole of the ’verse, Thanson? I thought you catered to something a little more upscale than asteroid belt miners.”
No doubt about it. Same Kazra.
“Usually. But then, I thought you were going to turn your decryption skills into a bang-up career in the IEC, and yet . . .” He waved a hand to encompass the small office. “We’re both surprising people, it seems.
Kazra’s half smile wasn’t friendly. “You’ve always been good at surprises.”
“Well, surprise. I need a secured Discretionary line. Do we even have one this far out?” Maybe once he’d spoken to a Head of House and shaken off the professional urgency, he’d offer to buy Kazra a drink. They could overindulge and hash out the past decade, and with alcohol on board, the eventual brawl would be easier to explain and recover from. Their past had been more of the alcohol-and-fuck style, but all things considered, alcohol-and-fight seemed a more likely option now.
“I can dig one up for you.” Eyes narrowed, Kazra nodded toward the door in a vague way. “You can’t get through on Minister Rannah’s ship of dreams?”
“I’m no longer contracting with Lantony, and I need to notify the Cohort of my whereabouts.” All of it true, and none of it enough. It was petty to watch for a flinch at the casual mention of Lantony’s name, tossed out for much the same reason he’d resorted to honorifics with Misher. A subtle drawing of lines; Thanson was the sort of person who drawled the first name of the head of the Health Emergency and Regional Disaster Ministry like it was familiar, and Kazra was the sort who thought that it was “Minister.” “Quicker would be best.”
Kazra snorted and turned away, moving a ready-meal pouch and a half-full mug out of the way to better reach the communications array. “Only the finest in privacy booths here on Station 43. If you’ll step into the corner office there, I’ll have a connection for you momentarily.”
Unable to make out an expression on Kazra’s face, and fairly certain that he wouldn’t like what he saw if he did, he gave up trying and walked behind the service counter. Taking the single seat in something that could only pass for a cupboard if one were being generous, he waited for the secured line to open.
Finally, Kazra’s annoyed voice filled the booth. “I’m holding for a Discretionary channel on the relays, but it shouldn’t be much longer.”
A minute later, an unfamiliar woman in a House uniform appeared on-screen and offered him a bland smile in greeting. “Mr. Nez, you’re a long way from home. What can we do for you?”
Though the Cohort paid for optimal security channels, dedicated for their private use, protocol didn’t allow him to give her a full picture of what was going on. He settled for careful phrasing. “Circumstances have led me to terminate my contract with Minister Rannah. Unfortunately, I’ll require transport from Station 43 to a Cohort holding as soon as possible.”
Her expression never changed, accommodating and impersonal all at once. “I’m sure you’re aware that our dealings with the outer stations are limited. It may take several days to find a transport option that works for you.”
He kept his tone steady, returning her bland courtesy. “It would be best if something could be arranged sooner, rather than later.”
She worked for a moment, no doubt calling up available itineraries and silently cursing him for being the sort of wilting flower who couldn’t finish out a contracted run with a client. There was very little he could say to alter her opinion, but she looked up when he spoke again, a touch of urgency in his voice that he’d worked to hide before.
“It’s imperative that I speak with your Head of House immediately. My secrets are a heavy burden.”
Her tone verged on bored as she asked him one of the rote questions, though she had to recognize the coded phrase he’d just given her. “Has your personal safety or well-being been compromised outside the limits of your contract?”
Though her disinterest was on prominent display, he knew she was watching him when he answered. “No, my personal safety was not compromised until my contract ended, and not by my employer.”
She blinked, three times, and he licked his lips in silent response. She twirled a lock of hair around the ends of her fingers, playing out her boredom. “We’ll get you on a transport as soon as one becomes available. If you’re able, please keep this line open for further details.”
The screen flickered, and even through the relative soundproofing of the booth, he heard Kazra say something truly filthy about the stationmaster’s personal habits. “I’ll speak to the communications off—”
The screen went dark before he’d finished speaking, and a second later, the world went black as well.
Kazra cut himself off when the ever-present hum of the station went dead silent, taking the lights with it. Thanson, stuck in the privacy booth behind a decently heavy mechanical door, knocked against the metal.
“Kazra, a little help?”
He wanted to help, but with his feet floating several inches off the floor, he wasn’t going to have much luck getting around the corner to Thanson. Anything that hadn’t been nailed down was drifting lazily near him in midair, forcing him to acknowledge that he really needed to clean the office.
Several sluggish moments dragged by before the groan of a tiny generator filled the air, fading as the machinery resigned itself to the task of running the temporary life support. Kazra came back down to the deck gently, still feeling too light for his body. The smaller items from his desk landed in a haphazard mess.
A single light flashed past the frosted polyglass window next to the door, the beam sweeping across the office, bobbing up and down with someone’s steps as they came down the corridor. Kazra clapped a hand against the door of the booth to get Thanson’s attention, though now that the white noise machine in the privacy booth had kicked off, he didn’t need to raise his voice.
“Someone’s coming. Probably some idiot who thinks I can get an emergency call out when there’s no fucking power in the whole station. Shut up for a minute, until I find out how bad this is.”
He already knew it was bad, both because he’d long since given up on the ’verse buying him a drink before it fucked him over, and because no power meant limited life support while they were full beyond capacity with belt miners waiting to transfer out. The station could limp along on barely scrubbed air for a while, but eventually they’d all be stewing in their own poison.
He tripped over the bag Thanson had left sitting outside the booth, kicked it out of the way under his desk with little care of the contents, and managed to knock his favorite mug to the floor in the process. The ensuing crash made him flinch, and he crunched his way across the small office toward the door, dead crockery in pieces under his boots. He tried to peer through the window, speaking loudly enough to be heard through the closed door, but could only make out that someone was standing nearby, not who it was. “There’s no backup generator hidden in my comm array, so don’t bother asking if I can get an emergency line out.”
“Is there anyone in there with you?” An unfamiliar voice wasn’t so strange, what with the influx of miners, but he knew everyone who worked the station, and this wasn’t a soul he recognized. He was certainly a suspicious man by nurture, if not by nature, and he stepped away from the line cut by the flashlight.
“Station head count.” Not a beat of hesitation, which might have sold it to someone who didn’t know better. Except he did; Kazra was a vital part of the emergency drills, and head counts didn’t happen in hallways. Anyone who was able made for the largest holding bay, where the shuttles and emergency suits were stored. Everything fanned out from there. There was no way, seconds after lights out, that someone was already crawling the halls for stragglers.
“I’m stuck in here until the power comes back up. You can pass that along to the crew in the central bays.” A beam of light aimed directly through the window again, and he caught the shadow of a weapon as whoever it was shifted positions for better cover. Not for the first time since coming to Station 43, he questioned the official company policy that barred him from being armed on the clock.
“I think between us, we can probably get the door pried open.”
“I appreciate the help, but I have to be here in case the station power core kicks on again. It’ll take me hours to restart the comm system. You’d better get on with the rest of the head count.”
The long pause grew more awkward by the second, but he’d had years to practice waiting them out. Eventually, the light moved again. “You have something in there that we both know doesn’t belong to you. This doesn’t have to be difficult.”
Thanson hadn’t made a sound yet, but Kazra was suddenly even more aware of his presence, even though Thanson was still locked in the privacy booth. “There’s nothing in here but useless comm equipment and a transmission manager who’s getting more pissed by the second.”
His gaze fell on the bag he’d kicked out of the way earlier, notebook sticking out of the front pocket. A tiny flash of red light strobed in the unnatural darkness. “And a bag some asshole dropped off earlier, like this is a storage locker for the damn bar.”
He wasn’t a psy, but even he could read the change in tone when the erstwhile intruder spoke again. “Tall guy, kind of ferrety? Dark skin?”
Hoping his snort of grudging laughter made it believable, he answered. “I guess. Ran in here, dumped his bag, and said he’d be back for it later. Figured he was on his way to waste a paystub in the bar and didn’t want to forget his bag somewhere once he was drunk.”
A moment later the light dropped away entirely, and he suspected the solitary thump was his overly curious friend kicking the corridor wall. “Sorry for the confusion. I don’t have to tell you that this never happened, right?”
“I’d prefer it that way myself.” He got no answer, but the familiar scrape of the loose walkway about ten meters from his door told him enough. The slight change in gait as someone stepped over the hatch into the next section of hallway confirmed it, and he felt safe enough to knock on the door of the privacy booth. “You hear any of that?”
Thanson’s muffled voice didn’t convey much beyond a muttered, “Most of it.”
There was no manual override for the privacy booth door, but it was finicky enough that Kazra kept a pry bar leaning against the wall behind the cabinet. Slipping it into the dent near the magnetic latch, he pushed forward, popping the door and using the hook to pull it open. Thanson was quiet, emerging from the booth fast enough to brush against him on the way by. Sheer force of will kept him from flinching away from the contact.
The only ambient light in the office came from the flashing alert on Thanson’s notebook, and a matching one on Kazra’s own, shoved to the corner of his desk to charge while he worked. It was a pitiful sort of glow—red, then green—and none of it enough to illuminate anything. Thanson’s eyes caught the light, and Kazra tried not to see the ghosts reflected there—an eerie reminder of days gone by, looting abandoned starseed mines and saving for a way out.
“So? Got anything to contribute to the conversation?”
“I don’t look like a ferret.”
He couldn’t see Thanson’s expression, but the inflection spit across the short distance between them was clear enough. Kazra’s face actually hurt when he grinned—such a distantly recalled event he was surprised he could still do it. “Only a little around the eyes. And maybe the nose. Makes you seem like you’re up to something.” Time was wasting, and he had a station to watch out for, no matter how unsettling and unexpected his company was, so he skipped the niceties. “Thans, what the hell is going on?”
“I can’t tell you.”
[D]efinitely worth it for any science fiction fan.
[A] taut, highly suspenseful story.
[T]he best of sci-fi with a heart of romance!
[K]eeps you in suspense.