Fall and Rising

Fall and Rising, by Sunny Moraine
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-300-1
eBook release: 
Aug 31, 2015
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-301-8
Print release: 
Aug 31, 2015
Word count: 
113,900
Page count: 
432
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is #2 of the Root Code series.

This title is part of the Songs of Slipstream universe.

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Adam Yuga is on the run. Three months ago, a miracle saved him from the deadly genetic illness that threatens the entire population of his former home, the Protectorate. Now he and his lover Lochlan are searching for a way to heal his people. When they receive a mysterious coded message promising hope, they make a desperate grab for it, and are imprisoned—by the very race they want to save.

On Lochlan’s distant homeship, a young pilot named Nkiruka faces an agonizing choice: stay with her lover Satya and live a life of happy obscurity, or become the spiritual leader—and the last and only hope—for the Bideshi. Nkiruka doesn’t want to lose Satya, but worse, she fears she lacks the strength to carry anyone through the coming storm, let alone her entire people.

Threads of chance and destiny draw the three together. With the fates of civilizations in their hands, they prepare for a final conflict that might be their only chance for survival—or that might destroy them all.


Fall and Rising is part of the Root Code series, but can be read as a standalone.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Tipping Point

(in medias res)

When Rachel saw they also had Becca and Dion, she began to scream.

It raked her throat, burned high in her chest. But the pain, the fear, the horror—they didn’t quite touch her. Deep down she was numb. Even resigned. Hadn’t there been whispers? About people who’d disappeared? People who hadn’t seemed quite right, who hadn’t seemed themselves. Sick? No, no one on Terra got sick. Long before birth, illness was rendered impossible, the potential for it engineered out of existence. That was where their great civilization had started: with sickness—with its erasure. It was the foundation of who her people were. The endless quest for physical perfection was a tree sprouted from this single seed: people who didn’t get sick.

But her hands had been shaking for weeks now, and she was so often tired. Part of her had known something was wrong, even as the rest of her denied it. Denied there was any truth to the rumors. Of course she wouldn’t vanish. They would never come for her.

She had been so wrong. And now they had her children.

She rose from her bench in the transport shuttle and tried to shove her way past the peacekeepers, ignoring their guns. Trampling everything to get to her children—following an instinct deeper and more profound than any genetic cultivation. Yet if she touched them, she would be sure they were here with her, and she had known the instant she saw them what that meant.

It meant that she and they might share this weakness. This sickness. Rachel might see them shake and fall, which would be worse than seeing her whole world do the same.

She was barely two feet from them when the peacekeepers knocked her to the floor with the butts of their guns. Their faces were covered by the white standard-issue helmets with their reflective blast shields, so she couldn’t see if they felt any pity. If they might show any mercy. Her little boy and girl were crying, clinging and crying, her little boy and her little girl, and clinging to each other as another peacekeeper herded them forward—more gently, and she felt the tiniest sliver of icy relief. They might hurt her, but surely they wouldn’t hurt children.

Rachel wanted to believe that.

She pushed herself up to her knees. “Not them. Please, not them. Look at them, they’re fine, they’re—”

One of the peacekeepers raised their gun as if they meant to strike her again. “Get back in there. Do it. Don’t make this a problem and none of you have to get hurt.”

None of you. It echoed in her mind, heavy and cold. So there was her answer.

They were willing to hurt children. Children. To maintain the carefully engineered, carefully perfected paradise that had birthed that next generation.

People didn’t get sick on Terra. No.

“Where are we going?” Her sweet girl, oh, there were no words for how cruel this was. She would have traded never seeing them again to avoid this. “Mama?”

They hadn’t even been allowed to pack anything, she realized. Somehow that was the worst part of this. They had their coats on but nothing else. None of their toys, no extra clothes, no pad for books or games. They had only each other, hand in hand. If they were going to be traveling, why wouldn’t they have . . .?

She couldn’t. She couldn’t bear that.

The children moved forward, whimpering, and she opened her arms. It was all she could do. Everything was blurry, but she felt them come to her, pulled them both against her, felt their heaving breaths as they tried not to sob. Young but old enough to grasp the concept of stoicism. She was so proud of them. Now perhaps more than ever. Proud of them for simply being alive.

“All right, let’s get in the air. They’re not gonna hang around in orbit for that much longer.”

Two of the peacekeepers slid onto the benches opposite each other. Their heads were bent together, and they were talking, tones low and casual, as if she and her children weren’t there at all. The hatch hissed closed, and the engines rumbled as they fired, the shuttle jolting softly as it began to rise. She raised her head and blinked away her tears, holding on to those two small, trembling bodies—and thinking terrible things.

“You don’t have to do this,” she whispered—knowing it was pointless. “They’re just kids, you don’t have to . . . They’re not even sick.”

She was sure they weren’t going to answer her, but one leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

“You know that doesn’t matter. They’re yours. They share your code, so they’re as broken as you are. They should never have happened at all. Even if they don’t seem sick now, they will. You’re not an idiot, don’t act like one.” He sat back and turned his head, appearing to shoot his companion a glance before he directed his attention to her once more. “Maybe you’re genetically degenerate, but you can at least have some dignity.”

Small portholes were set into the shuttle’s sides. As they ascended from the hangar, the light of a beautiful, crisp winter day flooded in, and sunlight gleamed off slender, graceful towers of crystal as they passed them. Left them behind. All those people, some aware of what was happening—and many more not. Many of them with no idea at all. No idea how many things were shaking—not just hands and not just bodies. Foundations.

They didn’t conceive of the idea of an ultimate fall.

It’ll tumble down. She lowered her head and squeezed her eyes closed as the blue sky began to darken. They were leaving all that beauty behind, that perfection, and now she understood—or was beginning to understand—that it was all a lie. A lie that, if there really were more like her, probably couldn’t be sustained forever. It’ll tumble down and never rise again.

And maybe, if this was what it did to children, to the foundation on which the future was built . . .

Maybe that was what had to be.

 

Part One: Descent


Chapter 1

The Plain of Heaven was a carpet of bodies.

Adam twitched where he lay in the dust, spasmed—not in pain but in shock, in an ecstasy of terror. He could see them stretched out in all directions, splayed and torn and bloody, staring eyes and faces twisted in agony. Protectorate and Bideshi. Young men and women and elders and little children. All dead.

All because of him.

He shuddered but couldn’t turn away; they were everywhere he would turn.

There should have been screams, shots, metal on metal: the last echoes of the battle. And there should have been someone holding him—Lochlan’s arms warm and strong around him. The pillars of the stone circle rose over his head—the circle where he had been led, the circle that had the power to cure the sickness in him at last. He knew this place so well by now. He knew what had happened here, what must happen.

But Lochlan was not with him.

He pushed himself up on shaking hands and scanned his surroundings, at once seeing and not seeing the desolation. He didn’t want to see it, but he had to see it, because it was for him, all for him, a war which, if he hadn’t caused it, he had coaxed to a fevered, lethal pitch. Blood that he had spilled, even if he hadn’t taken up a weapon of his own in the end.

Lock.

He wanted to cry the name, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. It was lodged in his throat, choking him. He scrambled onto his hands and knees—and then he did see. What he had known he would see, and from which he had been trying to hide, because some truths were death to face.

Lochlan’s body, lying broken and bloody at the edge of the circle, a gash in his throat nearly severing his head from his neck, his eyes wide and bulging and bloodshot. His dreadlocks were matted with congealed gore. He stared up at the sky, at nothing.

“Dead” was not a strong enough word. “Dead” didn’t capture the finality, the violent end of everything. “Dead” didn’t capture the agony, the void opening up inside him as he let the reality of Lochlan d’Bideshi’s corpse crash over him in a poisonous wave.

His knees and elbows buckled under him, and he fell back into the dust, screaming and screaming. His mouth was full of the dust of the Plain of Heaven, the dust of Takamagahara, and it tasted like ashes.

***

Chusile. Adam.”

Hands shaking him, strong and firm and very familiar. Adam stirred, twisted—his legs were tangled in something, held down. He let out a moan and tried to free himself. His tongue tasted of dust, gritty between his teeth. He could still see . . .

Lochlan bending over him. A hand stroking through his hair. Adam dragged in a long breath and stilled.

Chere, that was a dream and a half. Don’t scream like that; you’ll send me into an early grave.”

“Don’t say that.” Adam shoved himself up and buried his head in his hands, the sheets pooling around his waist. It was too much. Part of him felt relief so deep it was almost painful. And part of him was still only terrified. “Just . . . don’t.”

Lochlan was quiet for a moment, hand on Adam’s bare shoulder. Not caressing, not moving, but there, and Adam slowly pressed back against it, releasing himself into the touch. Behind his hands it was dark, and he could hear Volya humming around them, Lochlan’s beloved, alive in her own way, and the life behind Lochlan’s breathing. He was here. The Plain was far away now.

But it had been real. All that death.

“You were having that dream again, weren’t you.” It wasn’t a question, and Adam didn’t feel the need to confirm it. Lochlan wasn’t oblivious, and in the weeks since they had left Ashwina, their knowledge of each other had deepened in ways Adam’d never expected. He knew the rhythm of Lochlan’s heartbeat now, his breathing, the ways he moved as he slept, the ways he liked to be touched, what it took to make him smile.

And Adam was known in the same way. Sometimes it almost frightened him, because no one had ever known him like this. It had been too dangerous in his old world to share such intimacy with a man. That intimacy was dangerous even now in other ways. It gave him so much more to lose. Just the memory of Lochlan, broken and bloody in his dream . . . That wasn’t how it had gone. Lochlan hadn’t died in that battle. Lochlan was here. The sickness that had sent Adam to the Plain to be healed by power he couldn’t hope to understand, power that had changed him in ways he was still discovering . . . It was gone. They were both well.

But the dreams persisted. Because how things had ended didn’t erase how they had arrived there.

Lochlan sighed and leaned his cheek where his hand had been, pressing a kiss to the angle of Adam’s shoulder blade. “I wish you’d tell me about it.”

“I can’t,” Adam whispered. He had tried. But it had been like there was a block in his throat, like his body itself was keeping it all back, as if saying it aloud would invoke it in some way and make it true. The horror of the Plain, what had happened there . . . and the guilt that lay behind the dreams. Because if it weren’t for him, none of those people would have died. Or if he didn’t fully believe that—or didn’t believe it could be so simple—he couldn’t escape the idea. It lay on him, heavy.

“Dreams mean things. I don’t mean to make it into more than it is, but you could . . . Maybe I could help. What happened to you back there—I don’t completely understand it but that doesn’t mean I know nothing about it.” Adam felt Lochlan smile against his skin, though it seemed faint, and knew without looking that there would be a sardonic edge in it. “I know you Protectorate raya all think this star-reading and dream-seeing is obscene superstition and everything, but given that it did actually save your life . . .”

Adam shook his head, but he did find it in him to laugh. “Stop. I’m . . .” He took a breath. Even now, Lochlan teased—especially now, when he thought it might ease things. “It’s just that so many people died,” he murmured. “Your people. My people. Even Cosaire. ‘Missy,’ I think Aarons called her. Melissa, you know? I don’t know why that one sticks with me at all, but—”

“You didn’t put the bullet in her head,” Lochlan said quietly. “He did. And it was a mercy killing. She was sick. You know that too. And in case you’ve forgotten, she hunted you halfway across the galaxy and back. She would have killed you if she could.”

“Yeah. I do know it.” He swallowed. And she killed those people to get to me. Because I was everything she hated. Everything she feared.

“You survived. We survived. That’s what matters.”

Lochlan kissed him once more, moving up along the ridge of his shoulder, and Adam let his head drop back and exhaled. Lochlan’s hands could, at times, be a wonderful distraction, and his mouth doubly so. “You should try to sleep again, chusile.” Adam felt him smile again. “Maybe I can help you.”

He didn’t give Adam time to respond, and Adam wouldn’t have needed to anyway. Lochlan’s hand was already sliding down between Adam’s thighs, his other hand pulling him back onto the bed, and Adam’s sigh turned into a low moan as he gave over. This was real too. He could lose himself in this warm sweetness. He had permission. When Lochlan’s hot mouth closed around him, he clutched at the dreadlocks spread over his belly and hips and held on as he shuddered in slow waves of pleasure.

This much remained easy.

***

Lochlan was dozing once more, but Adam still couldn’t sleep. He lay on his back and stared up at the dimness of Volya’s ceiling, lips moving slightly as he ran through recent events. Like counting sheep, maybe it would tire him out.

Or maybe it would just keep him awake.

At last he carefully disentangled himself from Lochlan, rose to his feet, and crept to the small alcove that served as the cockpit. There, he sank into the pilot’s seat and activated the messaging system in the comm; he hadn’t heard the ping of anything incoming, anyone responding to the feelers they had put out on some of the primary message bands. They had been forced to keep their queries vague—better to not attract more attention than necessary—but Adam had been hopeful.

Nothing. He sighed and scrubbed his hands down his face.

He was tired, tired in the kind of aimless way that came from prolonged periods of inactivity. Since leaving Ashwina in hopes of curing the rest of Adam’s people, they had spent weeks skirting the edges of Protectorate space, looking for an unobtrusive way in. Making it into that space had been the objective from the start; Lochlan, usually the impulsive one, had counseled both care and at least some degree of planning—to the extent that planning was possible. There was so much they didn’t know, couldn’t anticipate.

And there were things they did know. As far as they could tell from trading rumors on outlying stations, little in the Terran Protectorate itself had changed: Its authority on its tributary planets was seemingly solid and its monopoly on trade and governance appeared stable.

If anything, it had circled its wagons, bulking up border patrols, sending reinforcements to its colonized worlds. The sickness that had nearly killed Adam remained invisible.

There was no real news about that sickness, nothing beyond vague rumors. Nothing about any of the Protectorate Peacekeepers who had been present on Takamagahara for the Battle of the Plain. Nothing about Commander Marcus Kerry, Kyle Waverly, or Eva Reyes—once an enemy, a best friend, and a low-ranking Protectorate officer, a total unknown. Nothing about Detective Bristol Aarons, though as an investigator for the Protectorate Military Police, he would be used to keeping his head down. They all seemed to have simply disappeared. Maybe dead, maybe imprisoned, maybe in hiding or on the run. If they had decided to return openly, Adam didn’t imagine it would have been taken well, given their questionable loyalties, but he had hoped. He still hoped, if he and Lochlan could get across the border, they might learn more. Might be able to make contact with one of them—with more than one. And there were other potential contacts, if the contacts could be made safely; Adam knew others, people from his old life, though how many of them he could trust . . .

He didn’t know.

They had to get into the center so they could find out what was really happening. What plagued Adam more than dark dreams was that he couldn’t escape the intuition, deep and profound, that something was horribly wrong. He had set out to do this on an instinct and continuing to follow such an instinct was questionable at best—but something was leading him. His orbit was swinging wide, away from where he had come, and he had to follow it. He had to wait.

But he and Lochlan were being hunted.

He pulled up a few of the general public-band newsfeeds. Not much there either. A fleet of garbage scows outbound from Inarihad had been seized and searched and an enormous shipment of the powerful narcotic snake had been discovered. Thanks to additional terrorist attacks on Koticki, their shipments of minerals and heavy metals were down.

And there, in the list of criminals wanted by the Protectorate, right under a pair of fugitives named Theseus and Taur, were his and Lochlan’s images. His drawn from his official dossier, Lochlan’s blurrier—a man in motion. It must have been taken from the surveillance cameras the day Adam had been caught stealing credits and Lochlan had scooped him out of Protectorate hands. Saved his life.

Started everything.

There was a high reward offered for delivery of them both alive. But more for Adam. Lochlan was clearly a bonus.

He sat back and exhaled heavily. Not news. But seeing it still made his skin crawl. The Protectorate’s pursuit of him hadn’t ended with the death of Melissa Cosaire. She hadn’t been the only one who felt he knew too much. That what he knew could break open their efforts to hide what had almost killed him. It could crack foundations. Pull everything down.

Strange, to have people regard him as so powerful. Powerful enough to break apart the system of faith that underpinned an entire empire.

Adam glanced down at his hands. Once they had shaken with the disease eating up his nervous system, but now they were steady. Strong. Yet he didn’t feel strong, didn’t feel as though there was any particular power in them. They were the hands of one man. In this moment, the idea that he could break anything so massive and ancient apart seemed ridiculous.

But there was something he could do. He and Lochlan could turn away from this whole horrible mess, head out to the farthest reaches of human-explored space, and make a life together that didn’t involve the Protectorate at all. Or they could rejoin Ashwina, and the rest of Lochlan’s Bideshi convoy, Suzaku and Jakana. Go back to a place that was, somehow and strangely, a home to him. Back to the friends he’d left behind—friends he had never expected. Kae, Lochlan’s best friend, first to welcome Adam to Ashwina and the first there to be kind to him. Leila, his wife, brave and generous. Ying the healer, gentle and wise. They had all cared for him. He thought about them now and his heart clenched.

Running would be easy. But every time he thought of it, he saw Ixchel’s face in his mind. Ashwina’s Aalim, her wise woman, who had left her blood on the Plain and her spirit among the wandering stars and the ancient trees of Ashwina’s Arched Halls.

She didn’t look pleased with him.

After everything? After so many people died? For this? For you? For what you might become, for what you might make possible? You’d turn your back on their sacrifice? Child, I expected so much more from you.

It was as though she were right there with him now, her voice so clear, her blind eyes staring into and through him in the way she had always been able to. The mind that lay behind them, sharp as a jambia’s blade. She had never let him get away with anything, had pushed him to the limits of what he thought he could do, and had given him massive, fierce shoves past the bounds of his comfort zones. Like her ancient trees, she had cultivated him, helped him to grow.

And in the end she had been among the dead. His dead.

Adam sighed, closed his eyes, and turned his attention out into the night. He had no idea which were his stars anymore, the ones that Ixchel had shown to him—had no idea if they were even visible. But he liked the sensation of them pulling at him, rooting him into the fabric of the universe.

He hadn’t reached for that connection in a while. Maybe now it would help.

He focused on the stars, his hands loose in his lap, and let himself begin to drift.

The stars were pulling at him, was the thing. Not only his birth stars but all of them, knowing him like a son and beckoning him out of Volya’s patchwork metal skin. The spaces between them, which more ignorant people—which he, once—assumed were made up of empty space. There were things dancing in those spaces, strings and lines that extended into him and everything else, their vibrations weaving the tapestry of reality. They made up the roots of the universe, and as he reached out unseen hands and combed his fingers through them, his own roots sung in harmony with them. A sine wave, rising and falling and rising again.

He wasn’t alone. He would never be.

Ixchel was waiting in that crowded darkness. Unreal, but more real than he knew how to put into words. A dream, and yet not a dream at all.

Child, she said, taking his hand, and her face was at once as old as he remembered it and young, shockingly beautiful. You’re waiting for it to come to you because you’re afraid to go to it. But this is not what I taught you. For anything worth having, you have to be brave enough to chase it, and ready to give up everything. Ask your sweetheart sleeping behind you there. He’ll tell you what he was willing to give for you, in the end.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” he whispered, unsure if he was speaking aloud or merely thinking the words. “I don’t know if I can save these people. I’m just one man.”

No. You’re two men. And you may be more than that. You may be only the beginning of something else which will grow far beyond you. The universe is vast and very, very strange. Things have been set in motion the ends of which you can’t possibly hope to see. We all of us are building something that we will never see to completion. Our children and our children’s children must take up the work for us, and even they will never see it done. When we took the first trees from Terra and brought them into our homeships, do you think any of us thought we would see what they would become? Even the Arched Halls began as sprouts and saplings.

He frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Have you ever? She laughed, soft and musical, and it seemed as though the stars themselves laughed with her. You don’t need to understand, my love. Simply be ready. There is power in your blood. Power to take the hands of two warring brothers, two halves of the same human family, and unite them in the end. It was a gift to you. Many died for it. Don’t waste it.

The vision faded, as though he was being pushed out of the trance rather than coming out of it on his own. He sat, blinking, and looked at the time readout on the console, only faintly surprised to see that over an hour had passed.

And what had he gotten from it? What had he learned?

He was so tired.

He rose, stretching stiff muscles, and made his way back to bed. Lochlan was on his belly now, his tattooed arms under his head and the dim light making his brown skin appear darker and warmer than usual. Adam lowered himself down beside him and slung an arm around his waist, tangling their legs once more. He kissed the edge of Lochlan’s jaw and smiled at the soft, sleepy rumble he got in response.

He didn’t need to understand. Not right now. For the moment he was warm and safe. He closed his eyes again, and at last sleep took him.

 

Chapter 2

Isaac Sinder was trying hard to not be resentful. But he wasn’t even meant to be here. He stood on the bright, polished bridge of the Excelsior, the lead patrol ship in this particular extension of the Protectorate’s will, looked over the heads of the bridge crew and out at the star-speckled black, and brooded.

He had been third in command of operations on the planet Melann, an export center for refined plastics and as such it wasn’t especially out of the way, but it wasn’t by any means central either. He had done well there, but he’d been itching to leave, so when he had been offered a government liaison role on one of the larger warships, he’d jumped at it.

A week later, and he was starting to second-guess himself. They hadn’t told him the work would be routine patrols in relatively empty space, with little to oversee—no direct, planned searches but merely regular, monotonous sweeps.

At least what they were searching for was interesting. Little was generally known about what had happened out there in that tiny nebula within which the Bideshi believed hung a central locus of ancient power—the rogue planet Takamagahara, the Plain of Heaven. Little was known about what Melissa Cosaire had done after she lost her mind. But people with access to privileged information knew that the name of Adam Yuga was mixed up in all of it. Even though he never should have been there at all, stricken by a disease that should have killed him—one of the core aspects of the man was apparently a stubborn refusal to die.

Adam wasn’t just a fallen star, once rising—formerly a promising young engineer with a head for big-picture problems and a probable future in the halls of power. He was someone who sought to undermine the very foundation of the society that had been so kind to him.

He would make the career of anyone who was fortunate enough—or dedicated enough—to find him.

“Captain,” Sinder said, clasping his hands behind his back and keeping his stance high and erect. No one at the command consoles turned to look at him, but that didn’t matter—one had to maintain appearances. “Nothing on the scanners?”

Captain Amanda Alkor grunted and shifted in her chair. “Not since the last time you asked. Sir,” she added—a little grudgingly, Sinder thought, narrowing his eyes. He knew well how peacekeeper officers tended to resent civilian overseers intruding into their commands, and he had come prepared for it, was ready to tolerate it even, but he was monitoring the situation closely in case it veered into something unacceptable. “Pretty sure we’ve covered this sector well enough. About time to move on, do you think?”

Sinder shook his head. “One more pass. By the book, Captain. We need to be systematic about these things. Do them right. Otherwise we might as well not do them at all.”

Alkor grunted again, clearly annoyed, and finally turned, her neat gray eyebrows lowered, appearing even more severe for the tight bun that held her equally gray hair fast at the back of her head. “One might argue,” she said, “that we’re wasting time here.”

Sinder regarded her placidly. “One might. That doesn’t mean it would be a good argument.”

Alkor rose and gestured to the door that led into the offices off the bridge. “Sinder, I’d like a word, if I may.”

For a moment, Sinder considered refusing her. He knew how it would appear to the others on the bridge: a disrespectful child called into a private lecture session by a stern adult. That wasn’t an attractive idea, not when backed by days of cold warfare, each of them trying to erode the other’s authority. He was tired of it. It was counterproductive.

But refusing would look worse: petulant, weak. He nodded, gracious in the face of someone who probably didn’t rate it.

“Of course, Captain.”

The offices were small, more cubicles than anything else, and were arrayed around a central conference room where briefings and the other daily administrative business of the ship was conducted. Now it was empty, though brightly lit with the screens set into the glossy tabletop, as if a meeting was imminent. Alkor ushered Sinder inside and closed the door quietly after them. Sinder faced her, loose and relaxed.

Carefully so.

Let her make the first mistake.

“Let’s get one thing straight, Sinder,” she growled, all veneer of politeness gone now. “This is my command. I’ve put up with you for days, sauntering in here with your orders and your credentials and making a nuisance of yourself. If HQ says you have to be here, then I guess you have to be here. But if you want this to run smoothly, you back off and let me make the decisions on my own fucking ship. Is that understood?”

Sinder arched an eyebrow. Silence descended between them, and he let it play out until it felt uncomfortable. Then he cleared his throat softly.

“I understand, Captain.” Sinder paused again, his head cocked. He might not yet have risen to any significant heights in the Protectorate’s hierarchy, but he wouldn’t have gotten this far without the ability to deal with things like this. “Now you should understand something. Try, at least.” He leaned forward, bringing them about nose to nose.

“You have authority over your people, and I won’t interfere with that. I don’t especially want authority over you. I want you to do your job. If you do that, I don’t have to report back that you’re unfit to be doing anything but captaining a long-haul freighter on the outer edges. I don’t want to do that. I want to complete this mission, and then I want to go home.” He extended a hand and laid it against Alkor’s upper arm, and it might have been a friendly gesture but for the ice in the room. “Let’s work together, Captain. Not butt heads like a couple of stupid rutting goatworms.”

Alkor looked at him for a long moment, and he noted how cold-blue her eyes were, like eyes that had stared at a star so long that all the color had been bleached out of them. At last she released a breath and stepped past Sinder to a cabinet against one wall, opening it and pulling out a crystal decanter and two glasses.

With pleasure, Sinder identified it—by the reddish tint to the gold of the liquid—as aged Albaran brandy. Fine stuff. A peace offering? Probably not, but he wouldn’t reject it.

“I never wanted this mission,” Alkor said as she filled the glasses, her back to Sinder and her head down. “I was supposed to retire a week from now. I had a little place all picked out on the west coast of the southern continent on Yefan.” She turned back to Sinder, glasses in hand, and held one of them out, which he accepted with a nod of thanks. “You ever been to Yefan, Sinder?”

Sinder shook his head. He knew of the place, of course. A moon circling a small gas giant in one of the more out-of-the-way systems, it was nevertheless significant in how it teemed with an incredible variety of life forms. Half of it was given to nature preserves, and the rest of it was private land, owned by people who tended to value simplicity and quiet and therefore confined themselves to modest houses and cottages set on vast amounts of acreage. Some hunted, some did a little agriculture, and some did nothing much at all.

So now he knew more about what kind of woman she was. Interesting.

“The beaches there are beautiful,” Alkor went on, lifting her glass to her lips and taking a slow sip, savoring the richness of the liquor. “Almost untouched. Just these long strands of dark sand with the forests behind them. There are plains too, and in the north there are the deserts, but that part of the coast is mostly trees. I already have a house there, right off the beach. There’s a deck where I can watch the sunsets. I’m supposed to be there now.” She took another swallow. “Instead I’m here. With you. Sinder, I want to go home as bad as you do. But you need to know, if you think getting me a shit assignment somewhere else is supposed to be a threat to me, you better think again.”

Sinder considered this briefly, then nodded. It was probably a courtesy, Alkor telling him that so straightly. Whatever else might irritate him about her, she didn’t seem the duplicitous type.

“Why didn’t you turn down the mission?”

Alkor shrugged, turning toward the wide windows that lined one wall and gazing at the stars. “I’ve been a company woman my entire life. The Protectorate has been good to me. They’re how I could afford that land. Seemed cheap to cut and run when they were asking me to serve one more time.” She glanced back at Sinder, her mouth tight. “I wonder how much you’d know about that.”

“I’m here too,” Sinder said smoothly, moving to stand beside her. “I might only be a bright young thing, Captain, but I know what loyalty means.” He sipped his drink and stared out the window for a few seconds. Then, “The Protectorate is the greatest civilization in the history of the galaxy. We bring order, wealth, and culture to the rest of the races. We benefit everyone and everything we bring under our authority. And we are the only ones to ever make the dream of perfection an achievable reality—in body, in genetic code, which might as well be in soul, if such a thing could be said to exist. We may not know what that ultimate pinnacle of our efforts will be, but we know that we’ll eventually be complete masters of ourselves, of our bodies, able to control everything to the tiniest detail. Able to create ourselves almost from nothing. There are no gods, Alkor—only us. And one day gods are exactly what we’ll be.

“The masters of ancient Terran philosophy used to debate about whether the perfect society was even possible. They called it ‘Utopia.’ Do you know what ‘utopia’ means, Alkor?”

Alkor shook her head. To her credit, she actually appeared vaguely interested.

“It means ‘a good place.’ That became the popular meaning, and then the only meaning. But it also means ‘no place.’ The assumption of its impossibility is inherent in its name.” His hands curved delicately around his glass. He loved this story, and to the degree that any true member of the Protectorate could have holy scripture, he had made it part of his own. “Captain, we have made Utopia a place. Adam Yuga—and everything he represents through contamination, lack of control—threatens our work. That’s why I’m here. So if you doubt I know the meaning of loyalty . . . Rest assured, I know it very well. It’s quite literally in my blood.” He allowed himself a faint smile. “As it is in yours.”

Slowly, Alkor nodded, and something that looked like realization was spreading across her face. “You aren’t just here to put in your time, are you? That’s why you wanted us to do another sweep.”

“Correct. If Yuga is out there to be found, I want to find him. If we fail to find him, I don’t want it to be because we didn’t try.” He fixed Alkor with a keen eye; this might be someone with whom he could work. The trick was always in the approach. “I respect that you’re at the end of your career, Captain. I respect your experience, as I do your dedication. To that end, let me come at this from a different angle. I’m young, at the beginning of my own career, and I’m asking for your assistance.”

He took a minute step forward—this was the way to do what needed to be done, he was now sure. “Help me find Adam Yuga. At the very least, help me exhaust all the possibilities. At worst, you retire with honor, having completed your last mission to the best of your ability. And you’ll have me in your debt. I don’t think I need to explain to you how valuable favors can be.”

Alkor appeared to think about this. But Sinder could feel the decision in the woman’s bearing, the way she had immediately—though grudgingly—grasped the sense in it.

He would have no more trouble with her.

“All right,” Alkor said at last, draining the remaining brandy and turning to set her glass down on the conference table. “I suppose I can—”

“Captain. Ma’am.”

They both glanced up, startled. The door to the conference room was open and a young ensign was standing there, her face flushed and excited. “I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am, but we’ve—”

Sinder opened his mouth to issue a rebuke, but Alkor was already ahead of him. “Ensign Diev.”

The young woman drew herself up, her flush deepening and darkening. “Ma’am. I apologize.”

“You should have paged me over the comm. Not barged in here like a wet-eared cadet.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She shifted, her hands behind her back and her gaze locked straight ahead. “It won’t happen again, ma’am.”

Alkor grunted and seemed ready to dismiss the matter. Sinder watched her, eyes narrowed—Alkor could look the part of the gruff disciplinarian, but from everything Sinder had seen so far, she was actually inclined to give her people a fair amount of rein. Sinder knew other peacekeeper commanders who would handle that breach of protocol with confinement. If not outright physical punishment.

It might be a good thing. Or it might be a liability.

“Well, then, Ensign, tell us what’s so important that it caused you to forget how the comm system works.”

“We found a ship, ma’am. Approximately six hundred kilometers from here.”

A ship. Not that exciting, in itself. So there must be— Sinder stepped forward, eager. “Have you made an ID?”

“Yes, sir. It’s not conclusive—we know a beacon signature can be forged—but we believe it’s the last ship that Commander Marcus Kerry was seen piloting. Before he disappeared on Raltir, according to the last reports we have of him.”

Kerry. Less high-value than Yuga, but still valuable. Potentially very much so. He would probably know things, and he might be willing to tell some of them. Or might be made to. “Is he aware of us yet?”

“Not as far as we can tell. He’s flying a single-seater shuttle with low-range scanners. But as soon as we close within three hundred kilometers, he should know we’re there. He could go to slipstream before we can do anything. What should our next steps be, ma’am?”

But Captain Alkor was already pushing past her, headed back to the bridge. Barely able to suppress a smile, Sinder followed.

The atmosphere on the bridge hummed with the same excitement that had gripped Ensign Diev. Alkor took her place in her chair, Sinder standing beside her. For now, Sinder was content to be silent and let her work.

They had reached an understanding.

“Bring him up on the main viewer.” One of the other officers nodded and tapped their console. On the screen, a small pale ship snapped into focus, stubby and round, like a big toe.

“What’s his speed?”

“Moderate. Not sure why he’s not traveling in slipstream.”

“He wouldn’t,” Sinder murmured, “if he had a specific reason to be here.” Something was tickling at the edges of his awareness, at the edges of what he knew. At times things came to him this way—a knowing that went beyond mere knowing. He didn’t entirely understand its nature, but he had learned not to question it. Discovering the ship like this was significant. He would find out how.

He shot Alkor a significant look, which she returned.

“Present distance?”

“Holding at six hundred thirty kilometers. We’re prepared to close in on your mark, ma’am.”

Alkor frowned. “Don’t take us any closer for now, and don’t hail. Tell the other ships to do the same and to move in. How spread out are they now?”

“Over several thousand kilometers, ma’am. It varies.”

“Get them in as soon as you can.” Alkor paused, one finger stroking the edge of her eyebrow. “Lieutenant Kwan, what’s the absolute greatest distance at which a disabling shot would be effective?”

The lieutenant glanced over his shoulder. “Approximately four hundred fifty kilometers, ma’am.”

“Good. Then bring us into range and as soon as you can, get a shot off. When he’s dead in the water, close in and take him.”

Sinder felt the momentary trepidation. There was always the chance that it wasn’t Kerry after all. But Alkor wasn’t ordering a kill shot, and apologies and compensation could go a long way.

The ship got bigger in the viewer. Marcus Kerry, the rogue commander. Along with Bristol Aarons, Kyle Waverly, and Eva Reyes, he was wanted for gross insubordination, conspiracy, treason, and the murder of a senior executive. If it was him, the man would face a firing squad.

But not before he made himself useful.

“We’re in range, ma’am.” The lieutenant at the firing control turned. “Do I have the order?”

Alkor nodded. “Fire at will.”

“Wait. Ma’am.” Ensign Diev sounded alarmed. “He’s cycling up to go to slipstream. He must have detected us somehow.”

“Then what the hell are you waiting for?” Alkor snapped, leaning forward, gripping the arms of her chair. “Fire!”

The screen flashed as the ship released a short volley. A single point on the surface of the small ship exploded in flames that quickly died, and then nothing more happened. No slipstream, no burn of engines. The ship merely sat there.

“He’s immobile. Not even sub-slipstream propulsion. Shall we move in now, ma’am?”

Alkor sat back. She shot Sinder a glance that was faintly, grimly pleased. “You wanted a successful mission? Looks like we might be one step closer.”

He smiled.

***

The ship didn’t respond when hailed. But the channel was open, and Alkor delivered her instructions. Stay put—not that whoever was on board had much choice—and the flagship would dispatch fighters to tow it into docking. There was nothing to indicate that the pilot had survived, but the fighters towed it in and the docking bay door closed behind them. The entire thing took less than twenty minutes.

Sinder maintained his composure, but inside, he was practically vibrating with eagerness. This could end up being some hapless traveler, confused and angry. But he doubted it.

They would have responded to the hails, if that were true.

Once the ship was safely aboard, and an armed guard dispatched to watch it, Sinder followed Alkor down to the docking bays. They were silent as they walked, but in Sinder’s chest his heart was anything but still. It was nearly pounding.

Things were happening. Finally.

The bay in which the ship had been installed was one of the smaller ones. The ship sat there, silent and surrounded by peacekeepers in full armor, the fighters parked on either side. Alkor came to a stop in front of the leader of the team, who saluted.

“No movement inside, ma’am. Shall we bust open the hatch?”

“No need.”

As one, they turned. The hatch was open, and stepping through it, appearing tired and resigned and much, much older than the official photo in his dossier, was Commander Marcus Kerry.

The guards raised their rifles, and Kerry raised his hands, but except for that, he didn’t seem to be aware of them. He fixed his gaze on Alkor, straight and unflinching, and nodded.

“You’ve come a long way,” Alkor said, her voice low and perhaps even a little sad. “A long way in the wrong direction, Kerry.”

Kerry barked a laugh. “So you think. I don’t suppose I could convince you otherwise.”

“Not likely. Are you going to come quietly?”

“Would there be any point in resisting?”

Alkor inclined her head. “You never were an idiot, Kerry.” She motioned to the guards, who stepped toward him, weapons still raised. “Come down, then, and let’s get you squared away. Then we can talk.”

Kerry descended the short ramp to the deck. One of the peacekeepers grasped him by the arm and spun him around, shoving him forward. Kerry didn’t resist, but he winced and stumbled, and Alkor put up a hand, shaking her head.

“What’s the point in treating him roughly? He’s dead anyway. And once he was loyal. We can still respect that past loyalty.”

The peacekeeper finished restraining Kerry, and glanced back toward Alkor.

“The brig,” Alkor said, nodding toward the door. “I’ll be down to interrogate him directly. I have to confer with our liaison here.”

The peacekeepers saluted once more and filed out, Kerry held in the middle of them. Alkor watched them go, then turned to Sinder, her expression unreadable. “What’s our next move?”

“It seems you’ve already anticipated it,” Sinder said, pleased to be asked so directly. “We put some questions to the man. He knows something. Something about what happened on that planet. Something about Yuga. He wouldn’t have run, otherwise.”

“And if he doesn’t talk?” Alkor’s composed expression flickered. “He’s a strong man. Tough-minded. I knew him in the academy. If he does know something, he won’t give it up without a fight.”

“Well, then.” He felt a smile pulling at his lips. There was something pleasant about it. “We give him a fight.” He started toward the door, but then paused and glanced back.

He had been trained in this. But he had never had the opportunity to put that training to use.

“Do you have a neuro-stim unit on board?”

Alkor blanched. “Torture? Sinder, are you sure that’s—?”

“Necessary? No, I’m not sure. But if he proves to be as resistant as you say he can be . . .” Sinder shrugged. “Needs must, Captain. Come on. Let’s see just how tough-minded he is.”

 

Chapter 3

Nio Station was humming. Humming was good, Adam thought as he and Lochlan wove their way through the crowd. A large long-awaited freighter had just come in, and people were here from all over the sector to pick through the goods it carried, to buy and to sell.

Humming meant they were less likely to be noticed.

It was a routine stop, to the extent that they made routine stops anymore. Fuel, food, some very basic repairs, and they were also gathering news, if there was news to be had. A busy station was always alive with gossip.

It would do.

But as Lochlan took Adam’s hand in his and they walked a little faster, something in Adam stirred, a prickle of bone-deep intuition. There was more here than supplies and information. That much was clear, even if he couldn’t perceive exactly what it was.

He scanned the faces as they passed, though he had no real idea what he was looking for.

“Adam. Hey, Adam.” Fingers snapped inches from his nose. Adam jumped and glared at Lochlan, a shiver of adrenaline moving through him.

“The hell was that for?”

“You were miles away. You need to stay with me. What’s your deal?” Lochlan’s voice was as light as usual, but his face belied that, and he grasped Adam’s shoulder and herded him into an alcove apart from the stream of people. “You’ve been weird for days. The dreams, the way you’ve been fading out on me like some shala-addled youngster . . . Is there something you aren’t telling me?”

There’s so much I’m not telling you. But Adam shook his head. There wasn’t any point, not yet. He was no Aalim, no star-reader. He had no gifts to help him untangle what was in front of him.

Except for what happened on the Plain.

“I’m fine.” Adam glanced away, out at the people again. All those faces, and something in one of them that he needed to see. “I was just thinking.”

“About what?” Lochlan persisted, and Adam closed his eyes. Lochlan wasn’t going to give up. He was going to worry at it until he wore Adam down, though he wouldn’t intend to cause pain.

“About orbits,” he said, meeting Lochlan’s gaze. It was easier than he had thought it would be. “About getting locked in.”

“You’re not locked into anything.”

“But it still feels like we’re moving in circles.”

“Because we are, chusile. But we’ll break out of them.” Lochlan half shrugged. “Anyway, it’s more than that. I can tell. Come on, I know there’s shit you can’t tell me, but there has to be shit you can.”

Adam huffed a quiet laugh, glancing over his shoulder. “Here? Is this the place?”

“Is there a good one?”

“Fine. It’s the Plain. You know where I got locked in? It didn’t start there, but . . . All those people. Because of me.”

Lochlan stared at him, clearly incredulous. “You’re serious? Because of you? Not the fucking raya Protectorate? Adam, you didn’t call them down on us. That wasn’t your fault.”

“They came because you took me in,” Adam replied, and misery seeped into his voice. “To save me. Or you tried. You didn’t, not completely. You couldn’t have. I am what I am. But when you healed me . . .”

He raised a bare forearm to display the mottled, once perfectly even skin tone, and he knew that when Lochlan gazed into his eyes, he saw mismatched blue and green. Adam’s very body rearranged, at the level of his code. An abomination in the life he had abandoned. That had abandoned him. “You changed me and that locked me into something new. Maybe not a circle, but . . . My orbit shifted. Nothing’s the same now. Nothing deep in me . . . Nothing on the surface. Even small things. Maybe there’s a reason behind it, what happened on the Plain, to everyone, to me . . . but it started with me, and it all adds up to something.”

Lochlan laid a hand on his mottled forearm, his thumb stroking over one of the patches of browner melanin. “The small things? Let go of those. You know I think they’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.”

Adam smiled faintly, sadly. “You think everything different is beautiful.”

“Are you holding that against me?”

“You know I’m not. I’m just . . . Whatever happens next, what I started led to the deaths of all those people. And sometimes that’s too heavy. Sometimes it’s hard to breathe.”

Lochlan nodded, slowly. His comprehension was like a rapid sunrise behind his eyes, and he reached up, hands framing Adam’s shoulders. “Place like this, the less legal businesspeople will be marking the patrols. Someone here will have what we need. Let’s go.” But he hesitated, then cupped Adam’s face with one hand, leaned forward, and kissed him.

It didn’t come as a surprise, but Adam still stiffened for a split second before he relaxed. It was warm and sweet, and for the briefest, most wonderful of moments everything else faded into the background and there was only Lochlan, solid against him.

Solid and alive.

For how much longer?

“There’s got to be a bar,” Lochlan murmured as he pulled back slightly, one hand threading into Adam’s hair. “There’s always a bar.”

Adam nodded, but with the loss of the kiss, he was freshly aware of where they were, of all the people, and though they were tucked out of the way, unease snaked through him. Being affectionate in front of the Bideshi was one thing—with them, at least as far as being with Lochlan went, he now felt a kind of comfort that he couldn’t remember ever feeling within breeding-focused Protectorate society. There, the act of pairing and reproduction had taken on an almost religious significance. But these weren’t Bideshi, and though no one seemed to notice them, it felt as though there were countless unseen eyes watching.

He pressed his hands against Lochlan’s chest, feeling the beat of that well-loved heart under his palms. He was going to take what he had here. He was going to stop being afraid. “Okay. Let’s find that bar.”

***

The bar was an unnamed establishment on the lowest level of the station, and while it was clearly a large space, it managed—thanks to a thick crowd and low lighting—to feel claustrophobic. Adam and Lochlan made their way from the door to a long circular bar at the center of the room—slow and careful because all they needed now was to offend someone and end up in a brawl. The area around the bar was even more jammed with people than the rest of the place, but Lochlan had proven himself well versed in making use of spaces that Adam would have assumed were too small to squeeze through, maneuvering his way closer. Bemused, Adam followed.

Lochlan raised a hand as Adam pressed in alongside him and one of the barkeeps—a Koticki with its antennae waving—made its way over to them and clicked its mandibles in preamble to its greeting. “Gents. What can I get you?”

“Two house ales,” Lochlan said immediately. “Chaser of whatever your cheapest whiskey happens to be.”

The Koticki clicked an affirmative and turned to fill the order. Adam leaned close to Lochlan, glancing at the people who surrounded them—some human and others from a bewildering variety of other species, even for someone who used to live in the relatively cosmopolitan Kolyma City. They looked tough, weathered, and generally unapproachable. But they could clearly talk to each other, and they could all come to some form of communion. Not for the first time it occurred to Adam that it was sadly comic how such different species could often communicate with such ease—even learning each other’s languages when necessary, and frequently without much difficulty, while two groups of humans had been at odds for centuries. And now that conflict had exploded into violence.

He turned his attention back to the task at hand: the careful, casual extraction of information. But not in a bar like this, and not from people so formidable.

Lochlan seemed to catch his trepidation, for he nudged Adam with his elbow and shot him a quick, cocky grin. “Relax. We got this.” He leaned back slightly as the Koticki set their drinks down in front of them, and cleared his throat.

Khara, you’re right, those patrols are such a pain in the ass. But what can you do? We’ll have to take the shipment back, I suppose.” He nudged Adam again, raising his eyebrows as he picked up his ale, and Adam got it. Play along.

“But all that wasted cred,” he groused. “Are you sure there’s no way around them?”

Lochlan shook his head sadly. “Not sure, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk. But at this point I’d consider paying for the information. It’d be cheaper than getting boarded and seized, wouldn’t it?”

Payment. Adam arched a brow. That kind of implicit promise might not be a good one to float. They had credits, of course, and some goods to trade, but they weren’t exactly flush. Still, Lochlan could talk smooth when he had to. And even when he didn’t. It was practically a sport for him.

They waited a few minutes, but no one came up to them. No one seemed to have noticed what Lochlan had said. The chaos continued around them much the same as it had before, and at last Adam leaned in again, sighing disappointment. He wasn’t sure if he had really expected it to work, but he had hoped.

“I guess we’ll have to try something else.”

Lochlan shook his head. “No, just wait. You have to give the word a chance to circulate. And you have to give people a chance to do some considering.” He squeezed Adam’s shoulder and pushed away from the bar, drinks in hand. “Be patient, chusile. I must be a bad influence on you, eh?”

Bemused but willing to go along for the moment, Adam picked up his own glasses and followed Lochlan back through the crowd to a small table set against the rear of the room. It was dim and the low light made it feel secluded even as it was surrounded by people, and once more Adam felt a sliver of doubt as he slid into a seat beside Lochlan.

“You think anyone will be able to find us back here?”

Lochlan regarded him with a faintly amused smile. “Mitr, you haven’t spent a lot of time in places like this, have you?”

Adam’s mouth twisted. “I haven’t spent any time in places like this. Until recently, anyway.”

“Not even when you were on the run?”

“Not even then.” Adam shrugged. “I was mostly trying to stay away from people. I picked up food in a few holes-in-the-wall, but I never went anywhere crowded. It seemed like asking for trouble.”

“Well, trouble is exactly what we want right now.” Lochlan looked up and grinned. “And right on cue, here she comes.”

Adam followed his gaze and saw a woman approaching them, pushing her way past the people in front of her with a cool authority that matched her expression. She was both tall and softly round, but with a hardness under that roundness that suggested muscle, and Adam was struck by the deep-purple scar that cut down the right side of her face.

She stopped by their table and bent down, bracing on it with both powerful arms. “I hear you’re trying to get past some patrols.”

Lochlan inclined his head. “You heard right, lady.”

The woman’s face stretched into a quick smirk, there and then gone again, and her attention seemed caught and held by Adam, and he could guess why. Few people marked the unevenness in his skin tone or his eyes until they got close to him, but once they did it tended to hold their attention.

Try as he might, he was still noticeable.

“Might be able to help you.” She dragged up a stool and sat without waiting to be invited, then leaned across to them. “I made the run past them twice last week. It’s not easy, but there are ways.”

Adam nodded. So it was possible. But it was unlikely that she’d proffer this information for free. “Are you the only one who knows about it?”

“You asking if I have any competition? Fat chance. Not saying I’m the only one who knows, but I’m the only one around here you’re gonna find.”

“We can pay.”

“I know you can. You better.” She tapped her fingers on the table. “Up front. Ten thousand credits.”

Adam stared at her. This, he hadn’t been expecting. He glanced at Lochlan, who gave him a minute shake of the head. Let me handle this.

“We don’t have that much on us. Once we make the drop and get our payment, we can cut you in.”

The woman barked a laugh. “What do you think I am, some dirt-fresh baby bird? I’m not telling you shit unless I have cred in hand.”

“We can pay you after—” Lochlan started to say again, but Adam cut in. It was desperate, maybe stupid, but he was tired of waiting, and they didn’t have the luxury of caution now.

“We’ll give you what we have, and the rest later if you come along. That way we know you aren’t trying to screw us. Is that acceptable?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “How much are we talking?”

“Five thousand now, five thousand when we make the drop. For the full ten.”

The woman was silent. Under the table, Lochlan gripped Adam’s knee, and Adam was unable to tell what feelings were behind the grasp. Lochlan’s face was unreadable.

She seemed to be considering, and when a tall, slender, green-skinned man moved past carrying a tray of glasses, she took one. She took a long swallow. “What’s your story, anyway?”

Lochlan arched a brow. “Excuse me?”

“You. You’re Bideshi, or you were. Don’t bother trying to tell me you’re not; I knew it the second I saw you. The tats? Please.” She laughed again and took another swig of whatever was in the glass. Adam shot Lochlan a look, and the one he got back was both bemused and a bit tense.

Keep your mouth shut.

“So what if I am?” Lochlan’s shrug was carefully casual.

“So, nothing. Except it does kind of have me wondering. There were some rumors a while back about a dustup on a planet closer to the galactic center. Protectorate. Bideshi. Lot of people killed. On both sides.” She glanced from Adam to Lochlan, brow furrowed meditatively. “Just wondering if either of you know anything about it.”

“Nosy, aren’t you?” Lochlan’s mouth tightened. “Is that wise?”

“I want to make sure you’re not gonna screw me. What I know could get me in a lot of trouble. With the wrong people.” She smiled faintly. “But you . . . Protectorate don’t hire Bideshi. Even when they’re desperate. Even if they could find any Bideshi willing to be hired. They wouldn’t lower themselves.”

“So you’re satisfied?” Lochlan’s tone had an acid edge. But he didn’t, Adam thought, seem like he was about to drag them both away.

“I still don’t know if you know anything about that little incident. I mean, you know that’s why the patrols are as intense as they are right now. Looking for someone, people say.”

Lochlan said nothing. There was tension gathering, and Adam worried that it was an indicator to pull out of this as quickly as possible, perhaps even get off the station, and he was lifting his foot to nudge Lochlan’s under the table when the woman sat back, shaking her head.

“Look, man. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. I’ll only say I have no love for the Protectorate. At all. Bideshi, no Bideshi . . .” She cocked her head at Adam and flashed him a brief but brilliant grin. “Whatever your deal is, Blotchy. I’m in, sure. You pay me, obviously, but I don’t like the way they’ve been hassling people. Especially the Bideshi. And whatever happened on that planet . . . I don’t like the sound of that either. You want to skim through under their noses, I like the sound of that just fine.”

She drained the rest of the glass. “If you can forgive the questions, it’s a deal. When are you ready to go?”

Lochlan’s brows drew together. “We’re refueling, picking up a few other things. Six hours?”

“Got it.” She gave them another quick smile. “What names are we working with?”

“Yuri,” Lochlan said immediately, then nodded at Adam. “And Sasha. You?”

“Skyler. All right, Yuri and Sasha.” Her smile widened, her scar stretching. “I’ll see you in six hours. I’m on a Finch J79 on the top ring, name of Sybilline. Disembark and hail me and we’ll go from there.” She stood up, gave them a slight bow, and left, vanishing through the maze of people.

Adam leaned close to Lochlan, one corner of his mouth twitching upward. “Sasha?”

“It’s not always a girl’s name.” Lochlan downed his whiskey and rose from his chair. His lanky body was suddenly tense, almost twitchy, his eyes distracted. “And I liked the look on your face. Let’s get outta here.”

Adam emptied his own glass and rose, trailing Lochlan toward the door, feeling disquiet gnawing at him. Had something happened, beyond the obvious? Or was Lochlan doubting what they were doing entirely? Back in the main atrium, Adam caught Lochlan’s arm and tugged him into a side passage, stopping them in a patch of shadow. “What’s wrong?”

Lochlan’s brows drew together, and his mouth pulled into a thin and unhappy line. “You just gave her the last of our cred, that’s what’s wrong. And those questions got uncomfortable.”

“I . . .” Adam shook his head. “She wasn’t going to budge. And we needed her. As for the questions . . . How were those my fault?”

“We would’ve found another way. Or I could’ve bargained her down.”

“Is the money actually the issue, Lock? If it’s about the questions, remember that you could have walked away when she started with them. I could tell you were thinking about it. But you didn’t.”

Lochlan’s eyes widened, and Adam caught at least a little of what was really going on. Lochlan was scared. Scared and back into a corner.

“Regardless. That was stupid, Adam. You should’ve let me handle it.”

Adam reeled back, stung. This was a taste of the old Lochlan, arrogant and bullheaded, snappish and impatient when it came to Adam and what Lochlan perceived as his sheltered Protectorate shortcomings.

Except it wasn’t like the old Lochlan. Before, he hadn’t seemed so tired. So worried.

“Okay,” he said slowly. “So . . . Look, maybe you’re right. Fuck, you probably are. I’m sorry. But we can get more, we can . . . This isn’t necessarily a problem.”

“‘Not necessarily a problem’?” Lochlan sounded incredulous. “Khara, if you’re going to go off all half-cocked every time you get impatient about something, then we’re going to—”

You’re telling me to not go off half-cocked? Are you out of your mind?”

You can’t do this, Adam.” Lochlan was close now, inches away from his face, voice an angry hiss. Someone pushed past them, and Lochlan glanced at their receding back, silent for a moment before focusing on Adam again. “You don’t know this world. I know you’ve done . . . I know you’ve come a long way, but we’re out in the shit now, and I worry about you, you don’t know—”

Adam stopped him with a hand pressed quickly to his lips. The world was disintegrating around him. Lochlan had seemed so confident, so unconcerned, from the moment they had disembarked from Ashwina until only a few hours ago, but now it was as though a mask had slipped, revealing something raw and painful underneath. All at once Adam remembered the thick forests of the Klashorg homeworld when he and the Bideshi convoy had sheltered there from the pursuing Protectorate forces. He remembered sitting beneath the glowing bell of a massive flower, listening to Lochlan tell the story of what had happened on Caldor Station, the Protectorate massacre of so many Bideshi, of the small, terrified boy he had once been as he left the corpses of his family and went crawling through the passages and ducts of the station, blood and the screams of the dying outside.

Lochlan had two faces. Adam was still learning how to tell which was which.

“We’re all right,” he whispered, and Lochlan shook his head, pressing in, pushing Adam’s back against the wall.

Chusile . . . I almost lost you on the Plain.” He leaned their foreheads together. “I came so close. The last few weeks . . . I can’t stop thinking about losing you again. Chere, this could be so dangerous. I know you have to do it, and I have to be with you while you do. You just . . . I want to help you. Let me help you.”

Adam let out a long breath, curled one hand around the coils of Lochlan’s dreadlocks, and nodded their mouths together in something that was too light and careful to really be a kiss. “I want you to help me. But you have to trust me.” He nuzzled Lochlan’s jaw. He didn’t care who saw them now. He didn’t want fear to have any place here.

Yet it seemed it always would.

“You don’t trust me,” Lochlan said, and he sounded so sad that for a moment Adam couldn’t speak anymore.

“I’ll tell you,” he murmured finally. “I promise, I will. I just . . . I can’t. Not yet.”

Lochlan nodded, but his face was still twisting, unhappy, and as Adam kissed him again the kiss was hard and a little desperate. When Lochlan pressed forward again, his hand slipped up under the hem of Adam’s shirt, and Adam uncoiled under rough hands and a familiar body, as though there was nothing between their skins.

“I love you,” he whispered, and Lochlan sighed in response and only kissed him harder, pushing his lips apart, demanding.

Yes, Adam didn’t care about being seen now. But he was grateful for the shadows, all the same. This was theirs. This was for them. He wasn’t going to let anyone take it away.

But the twisting in his gut didn’t leave him. And even the warmth of the kisses, of Lochlan’s touch felt somehow distant. What would happen if he moved further away? What would happen if, somehow, that space grew? What would happen if he had to make a choice?

 

Chapter 4

Kerry didn’t struggle in the bonds that held him fast to the chair. He didn’t move at all, his face blank.

Sinder knew enough to recognize that as a form of resistance.

He, Kerry, and Alkor were in one of the brig cells. A med-tech sat on the bunk, and on her lap was the small box of the neuro-stim. Two wires extended from it, which branched into four and ended in adhesive pads; these were attached to Kerry’s wrists and temples.

Normally it was a therapeutic device, to assist in the rebuilding of damaged nerves. Normally. It had other, less savory uses.

Kerry glanced from the pads up to Sinder, his eyes cool and oddly colorless. Alkor, for her part, was leaning in the corner, her mouth twisting with clear discomfort. This wasn’t surprising. Sinder had gotten the feeling that she might not have the stomach for this kind of tactic.

She didn’t have to. As long as she stayed out of the way.

“Well, now, Commander,” Sinder said, his tone light and eminently reasonable. “I think we should talk.”

Kerry shrugged. “Whatever. Sinder, is that your name? I don’t see much of a reason why I’d tell you anything, but you can talk if you want to.”

Sinder arched an eyebrow and gestured to the med-tech and her unit. “There is that, if you’re looking for a reason.”

“Torture?” Kerry snorted. “That’s a little ham-handed, don’t you think? Then again, the way your bosses have been going—”

“They were your bosses too, Marcus,” Alkor cut in. More than anything, she sounded tired. “What the hell happened to you? You were one of ours. A true believer. How could you toss it all away like you did? Why?”

Sinder watched Kerry silently. These questions were rather beside the point, but he was prepared to let Alkor ask them.

Kerry was also silent for a moment. Then he shook his head, an awful smile stretching his mouth. “I know that’s the line they fed you, but you weren’t there. You can’t imagine. You don’t see something like that, all those people dying for nothing, and keep going the way you have. It’s not possible, Alkor.” He leaned forward slightly, his arms straining against the bonds. “Open your eyes. What’s coming for you—for all of us—is so much worse than some kid who didn’t die when he should have.”

“Kid,” Sinder echoed thoughtfully. Now they were getting somewhere. “You mean Yuga. So he’s still alive.”

Kerry pursed his lips. And said nothing.

“We were almost certain,” Sinder went on breezily. “But it’s nice to have anything in the way of independent confirmation. By rights he shouldn’t still have been alive during the altercation on that planet, but given the fact, it makes sense that he would be now. Somehow he overcame what was happening to him, which is part of why we’re interested in him.” His voice dropped, grew more serious. “But we have to find him, Kerry. Him, the Bideshi, what they did to Melissa Cosaire and all those peacekeepers . . . We couldn’t have predicted it. But now we know Yuga’s a wild variable. He’s destructive. If you ever valued the world that bore you, tell us what you know about him. Help us, Commander.”

“‘He’s destructive,’” Kerry repeated, shaking his head. “You . . . You don’t know, do you? They didn’t fucking tell you.” He laughed, sharp and bitter. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Cosaire knew, but she had every reason to. She was dying from it.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Alkor stepped forward, shooting Sinder a worried look. “She died because Bristol Aarons put a bullet in her head. Because you helped him lead a mutiny. What’s this bullshit we’re supposed to know?”

Kerry smiled, that same awful smile. “Every one of us is dying from it. The alterations to our code, the first enhancements. Nasty little imperfections, hiding in the very thing that was supposed to make us perfect. They’re in us, and they’re twisting in on themselves. You know how fucking ironic that is? Given why they’re there? Centuries of work leading up to the eradication of every cancer, of what the world feared then? Those initial enhancements. Then more and more, all built on top of each other, interweaving, combining. Now they’re acting like a goddamn virus. That’s what they aren’t telling you. In some of us it’ll go faster, in some of us slower . . . I haven’t shown any symptoms yet, but I will— if you don’t kill me before that. Adam . . . He wasn’t alone. He wasn’t even the first. He sure as hell won’t be the last, and he knows it. What he represents—the truth, that we did this to him, that we’re doing it to everyone, even now—it’ll bring the whole thing tumbling down. Everything we’ve done . . . Every species we ever subjugated in the name of that. Every one of us who worked for it. Believes in it. You know what happens when faith gets snatched out from under you? ’Cause I do. It all falls down once people find out the truth. Our leaders, our people . . . They just deny and deny and deny, to themselves more than anyone else. He would destroy all that. He would destroy everything. Don’t you get it, you stupid fucks? Why he’s so dangerous.”

It made no sense. And yet it did, like fragments of a sunken ruin protruding above the water—Kerry must be raving, but it was reasonable, perhaps, to wonder what he was raving about. How the mad idea had worked its way into him. How it might connect to other things. Isaac Sinder had been born with powerful instincts, and he had learned over long years to trust them.

He had to understand this.

It was another reason to find Adam before anyone else could.

“Then tell me where he is,” he said, stepping closer, his voice low and even. “I’m here because I believe in protecting what we have. If what you’re saying is true . . . Tell me where he is, and I’ll see what I can do to help him. I’ll at least hear him out. I know we have a mission, but if there’s another threat to the Protectorate . . . Commander, I’m as loyal as you were, once. You’re right. I don’t get it. Help me.”

Kerry stared at him. Sinder could sense the wheels turning frantically behind his eyes, the internal struggle that he had started. The man wanted to believe him. How long had Kerry been alone, facing his own impotence? Perhaps he hadn’t been; perhaps he had been with Yuga and whatever other malcontents he had managed to scrape together . . . But he had a look of gaunt desperation that suggested that wasn’t true.

This was a man hanging on by his fingernails.

“Anything you can tell us,” Alkor said quietly. “C’mon, man. You can still turn this thing around. All those people who died on that planet . . . Don’t make their deaths meaningless.”

He was going to give in. Sinder was sure of it. He could see the facade cracking, a flood threatening to burst through.

And then it pulled together again.

“Fuck off,” Kerry growled. “You think I don’t know how to read you? I knew Cosaire. I knew that look in her eyes, like she’d do anything, say anything to get what she wanted. You have the same look. You’re a snake, Sinder. You’re a fucking snake, and I wouldn’t trust you worth a shed scale.”

Sinder stepped back, ice trickling down his spine. Not fear, but everything in him hardening, turning to cold steel. Not this way, then.

There were other ways.

“You know where he is,” he said. “Or you know something. I don’t care what you think of me, Kerry—I have a job to do. If you won’t help me voluntarily . . .” He gave the med-tech a nod. She returned it and lowered her hands to the screen, which flicked on under her touch. It glowed and then glowed brighter, numbers scrolling across one side, a sine wave at the top. The line shortened, the troughs and crests lowering and raising, like a sea growing more turbulent. The tech touched the screen again.

Kerry screamed.

It wasn’t a long scream, but it was tight with agony, strangled and then bursting from him as he failed to hold it back. Of course he couldn’t. The neuro-stim seized the entire nervous system and sent waves of stimulation into it, wrenching muscles, jerking limbs, and simulating sensory input—including pain. Kerry was likely feeling as though the skin was being flayed off every part of his body at once, torn from him in a cruel yank.

Then the unit cut off and he collapsed back into the chair, breathing hard.

“I don’t want to have to ask you too many more times.” Sinder’s tone was placid. He could feel Alkor glaring icily at him. “This won’t kill you, but it can cause permanent nerve damage, and believe it or not, I have no desire to hurt you in that way. It would look better if I handed you over to the tribunal whole and well rather than in constant pain.”

Kerry only stared at him in silence. Sinder sighed and leaned forward. He had hoped for a little more cooperation than this, but he had enough sense to know that was unlikely now. “You can go to your execution with all the dignity appropriate to your pedigree, or you can be carried there a drooling, paralyzed shell. It’s entirely up to you.”

“I don’t know where he is.” Kerry’s expression radiated scorn. “And even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you, you psychopathic prick.”

Sinder nodded at the tech, who flicked on the stim once more. This time the scream went on for about half a minute, and when the unit finally cut off again and he went limp, there was a faint twitching in his extremities.

“You know something,” Sinder repeated softly. “Give us anything we can use, and this stops right now.”

Kerry shook his head, gasping, and then went rigid with a howl as fire leaped into his nerves.

“Sinder.” Alkor stepped forward, holding out a hand. The tech, mouth tense—betraying the first emotion she had yet shown—cut the stim off, and Sinder gave Alkor a frown. This was something he would have preferred to avoid, though he hadn’t imagined for a moment that the captain would have been willing to absent herself. “This has gone on long enough. Whatever he did, this is one of our own, we can’t just—”

“We can. We will. We have to, Alkor; I thought we had this clear between us.” He moved closer, his head down and his voice low and smooth, as if he were trying to soothe an animal. “He’s not one of our own, not anymore. He’s a destructive force. If he can’t be made use of, then his value is entirely depleted.”

He glanced at Kerry, hit by a wave of sudden and intense disgust. No, they didn’t owe this man anything. Kerry had exhausted Sinder’s store of mercy. “The man you respected—that we both could respect—died on that worthless planet. He can’t be saved. He’s already dead.”

Alkor simply looked at him, her brow furrowed. For a few seconds, he expected her to protest further. But at last she stepped back, flicking her gaze away, her shoulders hunched. Sinder was satisfied.

She’d put on a show of strength, but there was profound weakness in her core. That was good.

“I don’t know,” Kerry moaned. Speaking of weakness. Sinder turned to him.

“I’m losing my patience, Commander. I told you, we don’t have the luxury of taking our time here. Give us something. That’s all I’m asking for. That’s not so much.”

Nothing. The stim’s next thrust of pain went on for over a minute, and Kerry’s screams took on a rough, breaking quality, as though the unit was raking his throat raw. He was crying now, eyes squeezed shut and teeth clenched, but when it stopped he simply shook his head and said nothing else.

So it went from there.

It was, Sinder thought as he watched the man’s body arch and spasm, a little like the more delicate parts of mining, like wearing down solid rock until the ore could be extracted. You could blast your way through to some of it, but the rest took consistent, grinding pressure until at last it came away. That took determination. Faith.

He knew there was ore. It was just a matter of getting to it.

Fifteen minutes later, Alkor left, muttering something that Sinder couldn’t make out, her face colorless.

Fifteen minutes more and Kerry broke.

“He’s here,” he whispered, barely audible. His voice was almost gone, his head lolling to the side and a thread of drool trickling from the corner of his mouth. Sinder had to crouch close to him in order to hear. A flush of excitement spread through him.

Finally. And better than he had hoped.

“Where? Where, Commander? You can tell me. This is almost over.”

“In . . . this sector. I don’t know exactly where. I was . . . I was going to make contact. Arrange . . . a meeting. Help him get past . . . patrols.”

“How? How were you going to make contact?”

“They’d have to . . . put in for supplies. One of the stations. I could . . . I could get word through others. People there . . .” His mouth stretched into an awful, sick smile. “They don’t ask questions.”

“All right,” Sinder said gently. “Good. Thank you, Commander.” He straightened up and turned toward the door, his hands opening and closing in reflexive fists.

Outside the cell, he nodded to one of the peacekeepers. “Get in there and see to him. Call another medic to assist. Have him cleaned up, see that he’s resting comfortably. We might need him again.”

In fact, there was no might about it. Commander Marcus Kerry had one last mission to carry out.

Whether he wanted to or not.

 

Chapter 5

Lochlan shifted beside Adam, turned over, and slung a leg across his thighs. For once, Adam was sleeping soundly, and he didn’t want to disturb him, but in the last week or so, touching him had been nearly impossible to resist.

Those touches had been desperate. He didn’t like to admit it, even to himself, but it was still true.

After the Battle of the Plain, there had been a kind of peace that he now recognized as mixed exhaustion and relief. That peace had made the decision to leave Ashwina easier. Lochlan wasn’t used to staying in one place for long anyway and Adam’s determination to go had made the choice for him. Though what the man felt he still owed those who had tried every weapon in their arsenal to kill him, Lochlan wasn’t sure, but he knew Adam would hold to it, this need to save them if he could. That he was driven in significant part by the fact that a lot of people had died because of the conviction that two civilizations who were truly siblings couldn’t be at war forever, hot or cold, and someone had to make the first move. That someone might as well be him, whatever the risks.

It was what Ixchel would have wanted. What she believed, until the moment of her death.

Lochlan wasn’t used to fear. It was there, but from long necessity he had gotten good at beating it back. Now the emotion was getting harder to ignore—fear coupled with frustration coupled with a heavy, sick boredom. Yet if they gave in to that boredom, if they moved too soon and too fast, they would likely be caught, even in slipstream. The Protectorate had demonstrated the ability to pursue them there before.

Everything had changed. Everything was wrong. He had been ready for it to be right at last, to be with Adam and to discover what it meant to love someone like this, which was so new, and here as well there was an element of fear. What it meant to need someone in this way, the danger that followed from it. Of vulnerability. Of loss.

What he had refused to do for so long.

Now they were facing death again.

They were stationed a few hundred kilometers from the patrol lines, Skyler’s ship pulled up alongside. Hours before, when they had exited slipstream, she had hailed them and explained what they would be doing. It hadn’t been a long conversation, and it all had seemed reasonable enough, but that hadn’t meant Lochlan had liked it.

Not that they had much more in the way of options.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed that it seems like they have no pattern,” she’d said. “To throw you off. It took me a week of watching them, but I have it all charted. We wait here a few hours, and then there’ll be about half an hour where none of the patrol teams will be in sensor range of this one twelve-kilometer area. It’s a blind spot, and far as I can tell they don’t know about it. If we move fast, we can sneak through.”

Adam had frowned. “No slipstream?”

“They’ve got some hot new sensor system that can detect ships in slipstream, even when they’re out of it. It’s actually got greater range than their sensors for normal space. Something about displacement or whatever; I don’t totally understand the physics. Either way, we should use the sub-slipstream engines. They’re slower, but safer.”

So now they were parked, waiting. Trusting that in the meantime, they wouldn’t be spotted. Trusting Skyler, which Lochlan wasn’t sure he did, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t make use of what she knew.

Skyler did complicate things, because assuming they got through, she would want the rest of her pay. But they would figure that out. Lochlan was good at figuring things out. He was also good at wriggling his way out of tight spaces. From an early age, it had always struck him as blackly funny how he had acquired that skill. Expertise through misery and grief and terror. Crawling through the conduits of Caldor Station, wedging himself into places too small for anyone but a child. Staying alive.

Suddenly, he missed Ying so much it almost hurt. From the day she had taken him in after the murder of his parents, the Bideshi healer had been one of the few people able to comfort him, and now she was back on Ashwina, what felt like an impossible distance away, and it had occurred to him more than once that he might never see her again. And she might never know what had happened to him.

He could hope.

He lifted his head, leaned it on one hand. Adam was on his stomach, and the dim light fell across him in delicate patches of light and dark, which were a little like the soft mottling that had covered his skin since his healing on the Plain. Lochlan knew it now, the pattern of it, though—like the Protectorate’s patrols—it appeared random. Perhaps he had merely created one in his own mind, like constellations seen from a planet’s surface. A parallax view of someone’s body.

He settled his hand on Adam’s back and traced the marks with his fingertips, light and careful. Perfect, he thought, and smiled as warmth flooded through him.

But Adam’s skin and eyes weren’t the only things about him that had changed since he was healed on the Plain of Heaven. His build had always been slight, but even when Lochlan had found him, weak and starved and so sick, there had been remnants of the strength he had once possessed, and on Ashwina, much of that strength had returned, and he had filled out again. But now he was getting skinny once more, as if his body were melting away with each day without progress. His sleep choked with nightmares he refused to share.

There was distance between them now. It was small, but it was growing.

I could lose him.

There was more than one way to lose someone.

Lochlan lowered his head and pressed his lips to Adam’s shoulder. Adam stirred, muttered, subsided back into deeper sleep. Like this, at least, there was a little of that peace they had had so briefly, a little of what they had begun to build together.

Maybe someday this would all be over. Then they could start to build it again.

There was a soft chime from the console. A hail. Lochlan sighed and pushed himself up, clambering over Adam’s body. From behind him, he heard Adam stir again.

“Whassit?”

“Comm.” He turned, bent, and combed his hand through Adam’s hair, kissing his temple. “It’s probably Skyler. I’ll get it. Take your time.”

But it seemed too soon. By his estimate, they should still have another hour or so. He crossed to the comm, stepping over piles of clutter, and punched the receiver without checking the sender ID.

Bienentad, Skyler. What’s the good word?”

“This is an automated message. The word is Takamagahara. Repeat, Takamagahara. That is the entire word. Seek location. Sender is plain orbiting body.” There was a pause, a crackle of static, then, “Message repeat. This is an automated message. The word is—”

“What the hell is that?” Adam, behind him, sounding sleepy but awake enough to be confused.

Completely bewildered, Lochlan stared at the console as if it could tell him something, and called up the sender ID. Blank. “Khara, sender’s blocked. Whoever they are, they don’t want anyone identifying them.”

“So what’s the message mean?” Adam moved to stand next to him, glancing down at the ID, one hand at the small of Lochlan’s back. “I . . . It sounds like some kind of code. Takamagahara.” He glanced at Lochlan, his eyes wide. “You think it’s . . . for us? Lock, who even knows we’re out here?”

“No one. No one should.” Except how sure was he of that? How sure did he have cause to be? They had been careful, but their faces had been seen, and if anyone had had reason to recognize them . . .

But this didn’t feel like Protectorate. It was too . . . Well, it was too nonsensical, for one. Though Lochlan was certain, the more he considered it, that there was sense behind it, however elusive.

“‘Sender is plain orbiting body,’” Adam echoed, settling himself into the pilot’s seat and peering at the transcript of the message. “What could that . . . Takamagahara.” He was quiet for a few moments, then lifted his head. “What was orbiting the planet?”

“When?”

“When the battle happened. There were Bideshi homeships . . . And there were also Protectorate ships.” He looked back at Lochlan, eyes wide and his gaze sharpening. “Bideshi wouldn’t send a message like this. What reason would they have to be so cloak-and-dagger? Lock . . . What if this is coming from someone inside the Protectorate?”

Lochlan frowned. He had disregarded the idea as a bit improbable, but it made a kind of sense, as much sense as anything else made at the moment. “You think it’s a trap?”

“I don’t know.” Adam closed his eyes. “If that part is referring to the Protectorate, it could also mean someone who was on one of those ships. I don’t know why they wouldn’t have contacted us before, but who knows what’s happened to them since.”

His mismatched eyes snapped open, bright and excited. “So . . . It could be Kyle. My friend, you remember? Or Eva Reyes, the woman who was with him. Even Bristol Aarons, though I don’t think that’s likely. Or . . .”

“That commander,” Lochlan finished, as the memory came to him. “Kerry or something, wasn’t it?” He had seen the man only briefly and had found his gruffness off-putting rather than possessed of the ornery charm it might have had in a Bideshi. But Kerry had seemed genuine in his desire for peace, and had kept the truce until the Protectorate fleet departed. He had even assisted in sorting through the dead and wounded of both sides, making sure that people—and bodies—were returned to their proper ships.

“Yes. Kerry.” Adam frowned. “Okay, so leaving aside identity for a minute . . . What’s the rest of the message? What’s its actual purpose?”

“‘The word is Takamagahara,’” Lochlan mused. He leaned over the pilot’s seat, his attention momentarily caught by a scatter of light from the prisms that dangled over the console. The rainbow specks were almost like stars across the darkness of the console’s face, moving slightly as the prisms swung in Volya’s gentle vibrations.

Stars.

“Takamagahara is a place.” He set his hand under the lights, watching them slide across its brown back. “Is it telling us to go somewhere?”

“To Takamagahara?” Adam appeared to consider, then shook his head. “It can’t be. If the rest of the message is that obscure, why would the location be so blatant? If it seems to be giving us specific directions it has to be referring to something else.” He paused, then slapped a hand on the console’s face so abruptly that Lochlan jumped.

Khara, Adam, what’re you—”

“What if we converted the letters of the name into numbers? In Standard, in terms of position in the alphabet.” He was already doing it, fingers darting over the touch screen. “It’s actually really basic, it could be wrong . . . But it’s still worth a . . .” He shifted his gaze to the set of numbers softly glowing on the screen. “Are those coordinates? They are, aren’t they?”

“I’ll be damned three times over.” Lochlan grinned, sudden and wide. For all the trouble he had slung Adam’s way at first, for all the hard time he had given him, he had always known the man was sharp. “You’re quite something, chusile.”

Adam breathed a quiet laugh. “You’re with me, aren’t you? Seriously, though, it’s not that complicated. Like I said, it’s not even that secure. Anyone could probably figure it out if they had any context for it, though I guess it would be a lot harder to identify the sender if you didn’t know about the battle.” He tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair, brow furrowed, and Lochlan realized that it was the first time in a long time that Adam really seemed like himself again. Keen, alert, ready to move on something.

On impulse he swung the chair around, hooked a hand behind Adam’s neck, and pulled him up and in, sealing their mouths together. Adam tensed, but then relaxed under him with a low groan, lifting a hand to grasp at Lochlan’s dreadlocks.

“What was that for?” he murmured, when Lochlan pulled away enough to let them catch their breath. Lochlan smiled.

“Don’t ask questions, you stupid raya. I like seeing you like this, is all.”

Adam gave him a quizzical look, but he was still smiling, warm and happy. “So . . . I guess we go to the coordinates, then.”

“You trust them?”

“Not really. Not sure I’d trust anything right now.” He glanced back at them, lips moving silently as he mouthed the numbers. “Shit, there’s Skyler, though. What’s she going to do if we cut out on her? Do we want to cut out on her? We could still make the run through the patrol route.”

Lochlan shook his head. “You think you can just ignore this? Act like we never got it at all?”

“No. All right. We should contact Skyler. Unless you think we should go to slipstream.”

“Not very polite. I liked her. Anyway, she has our money for doing basically nothing. How mad could she be?”

Adam shot Lochlan a wry smile. “I don’t suppose she’d give us a refund—I guess I should let you do the talking this time?”

“Oh, stop; I said I was sorry.” Some of the words were teasing. Some of them weren’t. He was sorry. It wasn’t as though the outburst was unlike him, but he could tell when it was fairly justified and when it wasn’t. “But yeah. I should.” He leaned over farther—and then almost as if it were an accident, he slid backward into Adam’s lap.

Adam let out a breath and a laugh that was dangerously close to a giggle. “What the fuck— You’re heavy.”

“You can take it.” He rocked his hips back as he engaged the comm. It wasn’t the time, not when something this huge and potentially dangerous had been dumped in front of them, but it was always dangerous now, and he could finally feel the better edges of the risks again. He had always been able to enjoy those edges before: the joy of daring, of being foolish, of running high both in slipstream and in life, and slipping away just as the jaws of danger began to close on you.

He understood that a great deal of that had been childish. But childishness had its place. It was worth holding on to.

“Whatever.” Adam wrapped his arms around Lochlan’s middle, shifting beneath him and resting his cheek on the center of Lochlan’s back. “Make the call and get us out of here.”

Skyler had clearly been asleep before she answered their hail; her hair was tousled and she swiped a hand down her face. “What the hell? We’re not going anywhere for almost another hour. Told you to leave me alone until then.”

“Yes, well.” Lochlan leaned forward, giving the screen one of his most charming smiles. He wondered if Adam was visible from behind him, and mused on what an odd picture that would make. “There’s been a bit of a change in plans. We won’t be heading through the patrol route after all. We’re needed elsewhere.”

Skyler raised an eyebrow. She appeared less groggy now. “What about your shipment?”

“That’s why the plans have changed,” Lochlan said smoothly. “New drop point. More convenient, really. Regardless, we appreciate how willing you were to lend us your expertise.”

“Whatever, you fucking paid me.” Skyler eyes narrowed. “I hope you’re not planning to ask me for the five thousand back. I still spent all this time out here. Regardless of whatever else is going on, that deserves compensation.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. It’s yours.” Lochlan batted at Adam’s hand—which had begun to drift below his waist—but without any real determination. “Thanks again. Maybe we’ll cross paths another time.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Skyler allowed him a faint smile. “You’re interesting. Clear skies to you, and don’t get yourselves killed.”

“We’ll try our best.” Lochlan tipped her a salute. “Safe flying.”

The screen went dark, and Lochlan relaxed back against Adam’s chest, sighing as Adam reached between his legs and curled his fingers around what he had been searching for. “Line and orbit, you . . . No blushing flower anymore, are you?”

“I’m alive,” Adam murmured against his spine, his hand caressing. “Counts for a lot.”

Lochlan laughed and spread his legs wider, trying to keep his own hands steady as he plotted the ship’s new course. He managed to focus long enough to get them into slipstream, and then turned around and settled himself back into Adam’s lap with his hands on Adam’s chest and moving downward, parting Adam’s lips with his own. No, this was definitely not the time. But this was something they had to seize whenever they could, now.

He had an awful suspicion that soon, these times might be fewer and further between.