Seven thousand meters below the ocean’s surface, the crew of the BathyTech 3 mineral mining facility has found something remarkable: a rock-like sphere of unknown material and origin.
For Mo Rees, the discovery calls to his inner explorer and adds color to his dull miner’s life. Even better than the promise of new knowledge is the unexpected connection he forges with Dr. Armin Savage-Hall, leader of the team brought down to study the thing.
For Armin, the object is the find of a lifetime. It could prove his controversial theories and secure his scientific reputation. And Mo is a fascinating bonus.
Then crew members start behaving strangely. Worse, they start to change: their eyes glow purple, their teeth sharpen. Then the violence begins, the brutal deaths. As BathyTech descends deeper into chaos, the surviving crew works desperately to find the cause of the horrors around them. What they uncover could annihilate the human race. And they can’t stop it.
- Finalist: Best LGBT SF/F/Horror in the 28th Annual Lambda Literary Awards
"[A] sexy, scary romp through a place more dangerous than the surface of the moon." –Foreword
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:dubious consent, explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Heat Wave: 4 - On-screen and mildly explicit love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 2 - Not many
Genre: horror, sci-fi, suspense / thriller
Tone: dark, exciting, gritty, intense
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), hurt / comfort, interspecies, protection, romantic elements, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
Kinks: barebacking, public play
Careers: blue collar, miner, scientist / researcher / inventor
BathyTech 3 deep-sea mineral mining pod
Bottom of the Peru–Chile Trench
Mo thought he knew the dark. He’d sought it out all his life. Made himself intimate with it. Explored cellars and caves and forgotten places where the sun didn’t penetrate and dead things decayed in the corners.
Then he’d gone down, and learned what darkness really meant.
Nothing blotted out the light quite like seven thousand meters of ocean.
The unrelieved blackness with its nightmare creatures called to the explorer in him. The part that wanted to uncover long-lost secrets and learn what no one else knew.
Which was why, when the scientists upside had asked the thirty-person crew of the BathyTech 3 deep-sea mineral mining rig to help find out what was pinging their mapping scans down in Richards Deep, Mo had volunteered to guide the science team into the deepest part of the Peru–Chile Trench to look for it.
His boss, Jemima, scowled when he told her. “I don’t want any of my miners skipping off on some stupid geek mission. I need every one of you on the vents.”
“It’s one shift. You’ll hardly even miss me.” He answered her death glare with a grin. “C’mon, Jem, don’t be like that. Think of it as a political move.”
Jem rolled her eyes, and Mo stifled a snicker. Pod 3 was the first of the BathyTech mining rigs to incorporate scientific research into its operation. To say that the scientists and the miners didn’t always get along would be a gross understatement.
“Fine. But for the love of Pete, ask me before you volunteer for this shit next time.” Jem pushed herself out of her chair and crossed to the refrigerator on the other side of the miner’s lounge. She opened it and pulled out a pouch. “Beer?”
He held out his hands. “Lay it on me, Big Mama.”
That earned him a sour look. She couldn’t weigh more than forty-five kilos soaking wet, and the top of her head only reached Mo’s armpit. The nickname irritated the crap out of her. She tossed him the beer anyway, then dug another one out of the fridge for herself. Mo tore the tab off the top to activate the polymers, marveling for the umpteenth time at the transformation from a soft-sided pouch to a solid bottle that felt exactly like real glass. He always got a kick out of breaking the empty bottle and watching it change back into a flexible pocket. It reminded him of entropy, decay, and dissolution.
She plopped into the chair, tore open her pouch, and took a long swallow the second it solidified. “So when’s this geek crew comin’ down?”
“Tomorrow. Early.” Mo gulped beer, savoring the tingle of bubbles on his tongue. “They’re sending an outside team instead of BathyTech scientists.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “Yeah?”
“How come?” She scratched her chin. “In fact, how come our guys couldn’t go get whatever the hell this thing is?”
“They tried. I heard they sent Rover out, but it wouldn’t pick up the thing. Acted like it wasn’t even there.”
“Yep.” He took another swallow of his drink. Licked his lips. Did it again because he knew damn well she was dying for more details and he was having way too much fun not giving her any. “Mmm. Good beer.”
She shot him a tight smile. “You’re an asshole.”
“Yep.” He raised his bottle to her.
She flipped him off.
Chuckling, Mo slouched into his chair, nursed his beer, and drifted off into his thoughts while Jem turned on the TV. If he was honest with himself, the strangeness of the whole business was the main reason he’d jumped at the chance to lead the upside team in their walk. Dr. Poole, BathyTech 3’s head of science, had already shown him Rover’s vid. It was way more staticky than it ought to be, but Mo had caught glimpses of what looked like a rock. The problem was, rocks didn’t show up as empty space on mapping scans, and they couldn’t fool state-of-the-art unmanned retrievers into thinking they didn’t exist.
Something highly unusual—maybe even something completely new—waited in Richards Deep. Mo fully intended to be among the first to see it in person.
Dubai’s three-month-long blackout back in 2110 had taught Mo a lot. Like how to get in and out of any place he wanted without getting caught. How to make a gang member with an automatic weapon and a necklace of human tongues believe a thirteen-year-old boy would shoot first. How to pull the trigger without hesitation when he had to. Mostly, though, he’d learned how to tell whom he could and could not trust.
He’d left his home and his teenage self behind a long time ago, but he’d never forgotten those lessons. People who arrived in the airlock pasty, sweaty, and sick from the journey down might not be bad sorts in general, but Mo sure as shit wouldn’t trust them out in the open water at over seven thousand meters in a walker suit. It was a recipe for disaster. Therefore, he got up early the next day to meet the sub from upside and see what he’d be dealing with on this assignment.
Dr. Poole shot Mo a cool look when he strode into the airlock’s outer atrium. “I wondered if you’d turn up.”
“Of course.” Mo grinned at the geologist’s sour expression. “That's not a problem, is it?”
The doctor narrowed his eyes. Before he could say anything, though, the chime sounded, and the airlock tech announced the arrival of the sub from BathyTech’s flagship research vessel, Peregrine.
Dr. Poole pointed at Mo. “Behave yourself.”
“Remind me, Doctor, which one of us had our pay docked for fighting in the cafeteria?” Mo rubbed his chin. “Oh, that’s right. You.” And Jem, though that was beside the point right now. The two had literally come to blows more than once.
Poole went red to the roots of his thinning hair. Behind him, his two lab assistants laughed. Poole’s glare shut them up just before the airlock door slid open to let in the upside scientific team.
Mo straightened his spine, put on a pleasant expression, and studied the group filing into the atrium. Three men, two women, all with that hungry look scientists got when they were after something unique.
Curiosity burned in Mo’s belly. He ignored it. Whatever was going on, he’d find out soon enough. Patience is a virtue, his mother used to say.
He went back to his perusal of the team. Of the five of them, only one had that pasty, damp-at-the-hairline look that meant the trip down hadn’t agreed with him. He strode in with a wide smile anyway, bright-blue eyes crinkling at the corners. Mo thought he looked more like a football coach than a scientist.
The man held out a wide hand to Dr. Poole. “Hi there. I’m Dr. Douglas. Call me Neil. Real pleasure to meet you. And you are?”
“Dr. Oliver Poole. I’m the lead scientist here.” Poole managed a smile that settled uncomfortably on his face. “Welcome to BathyTech 3. We’re happy to have you and your team here.”
The other man looked startled, then laughed. “Oh, no, I’m just the exobiologist. Dr. Savage-Hall here is the head of our team.” He turned to a slender, dark-haired man—midforties, at a guess, with large black eyes—who stood silently beside him. “You might’ve heard of him. His work in theoretical marine geology is groundbreaking.”
Mo pressed his lips together to keep from pissing off Poole by jumping into the conversation. He’d read Dr. Savage-Hall’s study on the potential for macroquantum behavior of the seabed at extreme depth last year and found it fascinating. The doctor’s back off expression didn’t invite questions, but damn, Mo would love to pick that impressive brain.
He only half listened while the upside doc introduced the rest of his team—Dr. Mandala Jhut, microbiology and microgeology; Dr. Carlo Libra, deep-marine geology; and Dr. Ashlyn Timms, practical and theoretical physics. Admiring Dr. Savage-Hall’s severe, studious good looks was much more interesting than hearing who did which job.
Poole gestured toward his assistants. “These are my lab assistants, Ryal Nataki and Hannah Long. They’re both at your disposal while you’re here.” He nodded at Mo, his nose scrunching like he smelled something rotten. “This is Maximo Rees, one of our miners. He’s volunteered to lead the walker team into Richards Deep tomorrow.”
To Mo’s surprise, Dr. Savage-Hall strode toward him with one slim hand held out and a smile that didn’t seem forced. “Mr. Rees.” His gaze flicked downward, then back to Mo’s face, so swift Mo almost missed it. “Thank you for agreeing to provide us with technical leadership on this excursion. We’re most grateful.”
Mo grasped the man’s hand and shook. He had a good, strong grip and a refreshingly direct gaze. Mo flashed his most disarming grin, partly because he couldn’t help liking the guy and partly to see if the once-over he’d gotten came from professional interest or something more fun.
“Please. Just Mo.” He let his smile warm when the doctor’s black-as-the-Trench eyes did the down-and-up thing again, checking him out less covertly this time. A hot glow stirred deep in his belly. “I’m excited to be a part of this team. Thanks for letting me play.”
One dark brow lifted. “I look forward to our time together, Mo.” Dr. Savage-Hall dropped Mo’s hand and turned to his team, all business again. “Dr. Poole, is there somewhere we could all gather to discuss the excursion? I’d like to go over the logistics of it and precisely what everyone’s role will be. I think we’d all be much more comfortable if we could sit down somewhere and talk.”
“Of course.” Poole gestured toward the hallway. “The library is private enough for a conversation and has plenty of room. Would that be all right?”
Everyone agreed, and Poole led the way. While the rest of the group huddled together behind Poole to talk, Dr. Savage-Hall dropped back to walk with Mo in the rear. “This is my first time in one of the BathyTech facilities. I’m hoping to find someone to show me around and tell me more about the operations here.” His no-nonsense gaze cut sideways to meet Mo’s. “Pardon my bluntness, but I’d love it if you’d oblige me.”
The heat in the doc’s eyes told Mo he’d be obliging more than a BathyTech tour. Which was fine with him. After nearly four months without getting laid, he was ready to jump the first man who’d have him. This doctor represented a definite upgrade from his usual casual lovers.
“On one condition.” Leaning closer, Mo lowered his voice to what he’d been assured was a sexy growl. “Tell me your first name.”
“Armin.” The doc’s pretty lips curved into an honest-to-fuck smirk. “I’ll look forward to hearing you say it later.”
Mo laughed. He liked a confident man. “Me too, Doc. Me too.”
They made an early start of it the next day. It was still dark upside, Armin reflected, when he, Mo, Carlo, Ashlyn, Neil, and the lab tech Hannah set off in the go-carts for their excursion into Richards Deep.
With nothing to do until they reached their destination, Armin gazed out the window of the go-cart while Mo piloted the vehicle along the seabed. He’d studied the lightless world of the deepest ocean countless times, yet he never tired of it. What seemed barren at first glance teemed with life if one watched with a patient eye and an open mind. Not all living things looked as though they ought to carry that label.
Learning that had changed him forever.
“It was the tube worms that got me.”
Mo’s low voice from the pilot seat brought to mind things other than marine life for a moment, stirring a heart-pounding heat in Armin’s belly. He shoved the feeling away with both hands because now wasn’t the time. Not with Ashlyn in the seat behind him and the second go-cart following them out to the place where the unknown object waited. He needed to present his best professional self and keep his mind on the work.
He glanced sideways at Mo and tried to act casual. “Oh, yes?”
Mo nodded. “I saw a TV show when I was little about the first worms they found on the deep-sea thermal vents. How they didn’t need the sun, but used the nutrients from the vents for energy. I remember thinking how they looked like some kind of weird rock. But the show said they were worms. They were alive. And that changed my whole world view.”
He studied Mo’s profile, trying not to picture his face contorted with pleasure the way he’d seen it a few hours ago. “This is what made you want to be a deep-marine diver?”
“It planted the seed, yeah.” The heavy-lidded eyes pinned him with a knowing look. “I saw you thinking about it.”
For a paralyzing second, Armin thought Mo meant their tryst the night before—not that day and night had any real meaning down here. Then he understood and laughed, relieved. “My moment was the first time I saw a mermaid fish.”
Ashlyn snorted. “Those are a myth.”
“They’re not.” Mo’s voice was soft. Reverent. His eyes glittered in the jaundiced light of the go-cart cab. “I saw one six years ago, in the Mariana Trench. It was fucking gorgeous. That’s what made me jump at this job. I heard they’d been spotted here too. I wanted to see one again.”
Armin understood. His first glimpse of the disturbingly humanlike fish on his third bathyspheric dive as a student had cemented his path in life. He’d fallen under the spell of its milky-green stare, and resolved to study the creatures of the extreme ocean depths as a secondary degree to his first love: theoretical marine geology, a field he’d helped pioneer. The possibility that he was about to lay hands on the first real proof of his theories—a macro object exhibiting quantum behavior—excited him.
On the other hand, on the single glimpse Poole and his team had gotten of it, the object they were after looked remarkably like the one Klaudia Longenesse had carried from the Varredura Longa into the Antarctic Ocean. That fact filled him with a deep disquiet.
He blinked and met Mo’s questioning gaze. “Yes?”
The lips that had explored his body until he shook and moaned curved into a lopsided smile. “Where’d you go?”
He looked away, embarrassed. “Sorry. I get lost in my thoughts sometimes.”
Behind him, Ashlyn made a scornful sound. He glared at her over his shoulder. She pursed her lips and stared out the round porthole at her side.
Mo eyed him with an odd intensity for a moment, then turned his attention back to the cart’s controls. “Okay. Well. We’ve got coordinates for this thing, whatever it is. Shouldn’t take too long to retrieve it.”
“Now. About the mapping tech.” Mo touched the flat-screen readout on the dash. It popped up into 3-D. “The walker helmet hooks into the BathyTech satellite automatically. It’ll show you a map of the seafloor if one already exists, and if there isn’t one, it’ll make one as you go and hook it up with what’s already known of the area. What you’re looking at here is a map created during our initial mining operations several years ago.”
Armin studied the readout, impressed. “It’s amazingly detailed.”
“Yeah. The suit’s automatic camera isn’t as good as the extra one we added for scientific purposes—that one records in way more detail, and in parts of the spectrum the human eye can’t see—but the built-in camera has a wide-angle lens, and it’s integrated with the mapping software, so it produces a pretty damn good readout.” Mo pointed at the flat-screen in front of Armin, then jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward Ashlyn. “You each have your own readouts you can study if you want. Dr. Timms, I know you’re not walking, but you can still have a look at the map if you’re interested.”
They lapsed into silence. Armin brought up his personal data display and studied the digital map of their destination. Whatever it was they sought, it lay in a part of Richards Deep less than a kilometer from the official boundary of the Deep, on a shelf above a narrow chasm.
He stared at the soft white dot on his display and wondered, as he’d done ever since he’d first seen it, what it might be.
Ashlyn tapped his shoulder, and he barely managed not to jump. “Yes? What is it?”
“We’re here.” She sounded amused. “Thought you might be interested.”
Mo aimed an assessing gaze at him. A rush of blood turned his cheeks hot. Maybe it didn’t matter what Maximo Rees thought of him back on the BathyTech pod, but out here, Mo’s good opinion was law. If Mo thought he wasn’t mentally up to the walk, he’d be forced to wait in the go-cart. And he could not let that happen.
“Of course. I was just studying the readouts again.” With a smile he hoped didn’t look too forced, he turned off the display. “Well. Shall we?”
Mo watched him while the two of them stripped to their skins and donned their walker suits. Examined his every move while he fastened into his helmet and started the flow of Mist. Armin tried not to cough as the thick, wet gas mix that would keep his lungs expanded and his body chemistry normalized crept into his sinuses and alveoli. It was fine once you got used to it, but those first few seconds never became any easier.
“Readout on.” His voice was muffled by the Mist. His display popped up on the walker’s faceplate, crisp and clear. He glanced sideways. Mo was going through his own systems tests but still watching him, and his patience ran out. “What in the hell are you looking at?”
If his outburst swayed Mo’s opinion one way or another, it didn’t show. His face was expressionless. “This is Rees in Walker One to walker team. Testing coms. Acknowledge by number. Over.”
Armin knew his temper was being tested as much as the communication systems. He intended to pass.
Calling on his trusty scientific discipline to suppress his frustration, he answered with a calm he hoped his companion would note. “Walker Two, over.”
Behind his faceplate, Mo hitched up one corner of that damned sinful mouth. Armin stared into the inky water of the large, round moon pool in the middle of the floor instead. Something salt white and roughly the size of his thumb skittered across the underside of the clear GlasSteel cover before vanishing into the blackness.
He wanted to follow it.
Carlo’s voice from the other go-cart came through his com with perfect clarity. “Walker Three, receiving both of you. Over.”
Armin made himself meet Mo’s gaze and nod. He thought he caught an echo of his own exploratory yearning in Mo’s eyes before he blinked his attention back to his work.
Mo methodically tested the links between the walkers and Ashlyn, Neil, and Hannah in the go-carts. Meanwhile, he managed, without so much as a glance in his direction, to make Armin feel as if he were still being watched.
Annoyed with himself, he did his best to ignore it. If he’d known how a tryst with Mo would affect his concentration, he might not have given in to the temptation.
On the other hand, remembering the clutching heat of that beautiful body, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it.
Finally, when he’d gotten affirmatives all around on the com connections, Mo declared all systems go. He grinned behind his faceplate. “You geeks ready to walk?”
An answering smile spread over Armin’s face as he pictured the scowl he knew Carlo was wearing right now. The man hated being called a geek. “Let’s go.”
“Computer: Pressurize chamber.” At Mo’s command, the edge of the moon pool room door glowed red, indicating the go-cart’s computer had sealed it and upped the air pressure in the chamber to keep the sea from bubbling up to flood it when they uncovered the pool.
The computer’s voice was bland and sexless. “Chamber sealed and pressurized. Shall I uncover the pool now?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
The cover drew back from the moon pool, revealing a round well of black water cold enough to stop a human heart instantly and heavy enough to stomp their bodies flat without the protection of the walkers. Up front in the pilot’s compartment, Ashlyn switched on the lights on the underside of the go-cart, illuminating a flat slurry of mud and organic detritus two and a half meters below.
Staring down at the first step in his journey to the thing he’d come here to find, Armin felt a vague dread seep into his blood. He shoved it away. He didn’t want anything to poison his excitement over what could be the greatest find of his career.
“I’ll go first. You follow as soon as I give you the A-OK. Got it?”
Armin blinked and looked up at the sound of Mo’s voice in his ear. He nodded. “Roger that.”
Mo flashed that heart-stopping grin again. “See you on the bottom, Doc.” He switched on his walker lights, stepped to the edge of the pool, and plunged in.
He gave the A-OK a few seconds later. Armin switched on his lights and leaped into the deep.
He landed on the ocean floor with a silent ploof. The fine silt rose in a cloud around his knees. Mo stood beside him in a similar cloud. Carlo was walking toward them from the other cart like a misplaced astronaut, holding an equipment bag with its buoyancy adjusted so it floated along beside him. The dive legs of the side-by-side carts cast spindly crisscrossing shadows on the seafloor.
Beyond the reach of the lights, solid blackness hunched like a living thing. He imagined it flexing curved claws and licking long, bloodstained teeth, watching them with pitiless patience, waiting for its moment to pounce, rend, and devour.
He thought he saw the gleam of hungry eyes on the edge of the light. But it was probably just one of the delightfully unusual creatures that called this cold, unforgiving place home. There were wonders enough here without imagining the dark itself as something with thought and intent.
Mo’s calm voice brought Armin out of mental pathways best left untraveled and back to the safe, sensible world of the real. “Okay. We’re heading south-southwest from here. We’ll hit the start of the ledge in about fifteen meters. After that, it starts sloping down a little. Not too bad, maybe five degrees. The ledge narrows down fast to only a couple of meters wide, though, so watch your footing.”
Carlo nodded inside his helmet. “What’s our order?”
“I’m leading. You’re second. Doc Armin’s taking the rear, since he has the most experience out of the two of you with walker suits. Once we get near the thing, whatever it is, I’ll let the two of you at it.” Mo studied each of them in turn, his expression serious. “Any questions? I want everything crystal clear before we go.”
Carlo shook his head. “No questions. We’re clear.”
Mo looked at Armin, who nodded. “Everything’s understood.”
“All right, then.” Mo turned to face the direction they were heading. “Go-carts, Walker One here. Walker team moving out.”
Ashlyn’s cool voice crackled in Armin’s helmet. “Cart One, acknowledged.”
“Cart Two, acknowledged.” Hannah sounded excited as a child. “Keep the feeds on, guys. Neil and I want to see!”
Mo laughed. “You got it, Hannah.”
The three of them moved beyond the comfort of the go-cart lights and into the dark. Armin tried not to imagine the creep of silent footsteps in the expanding swath of blackness behind him because really, what could be there? Tiny shrimp? Miniature squid flashing neon colors? Translucent fish with their needle teeth, too small to hurt anything so massive as a human being?
All those things might hover in his wake, certainly. But none could stalk their team with intent to harm, or indeed any intent at all. None could create the deliberate, plodding floop . . . floop . . . floop . . . his brain insisted on hearing at his heels—despite the fact that his helmet’s sensors weren’t configured to pick up external sounds. Even if it were possible for this sound to exist. Which it wasn’t.
Eventually, his stubborn refusal to look paid off. The impossible noise stopped once the team started down the sloped path, an ever-rising wall of rock to their right and the abyss to their left. He peered into the void less than a meter away. The dark water felt charged, as if on the verge of revealing some forgotten horror older than human memory.
For one heart-stopping moment, he knew—knew—the thing was about to rise from the murk, white and bloated as a corpse.
He shook his head, as if he could physically knock the unwelcome visions out of his mind. Clearly the atrocities he’d seen a few weeks earlier in Antarctica had affected him more than he’d thought.
Mo slowed, one hand held out behind him. “All right. The anomaly is just ahead, about three meters. You guys go around me. Very carefully, all right? I don’t want anyone going over the edge.”
“Copy that.” Carlo tweaked the buoyancy on the equipment bag, and it drifted downward to rest on the ledge behind Mo. “I’ll leave that here. You can bring it up when we’re ready.”
Mo nodded. “Sure.”
Mo and Carlo flattened themselves against the wall. Armin edged forward, taking small, cautious steps. He put a hand out to steady himself, and Mo grasped it. They looked at one another through the faceplates. Mo smiled, excitement equal to Armin’s shining in his eyes, and Armin’s heart turned over. He smiled back, savoring the moment of connection.
“Go on, Doc.” Mo’s voice was soft and eager. “Go get your mystery thing.”
Laughing, Armin stepped around Mo and reluctantly let go of his hand. “Yes, indeed. The great mystery.”
He faced forward and made his way along the ledge. His helmet and wrist lights picked up an outcropping of the wall, and sitting atop it was a plain, round, jet-black stone. The lights glittered on its surface.
I’ve seen this before.
The thought was so out of place, it stopped Armin cold. But it was true. He had seen this before. Or rather, something remarkably like it. The grainy, three-second bit of footage from the Varredura Longa’s outside camera was the only clue to what had happened there. The sheer improbability of what seemed to be the same type of object showing up both there and here kept Armin’s feet glued to the seabed and his gaze fixed, unbelieving, on the thing that appeared to be a rock but wasn’t.
“Oh my God,” breathed Carlo through the walker’s com system. “That looks just like—”
“I know.” Armin cast him a keep quiet glare. “Let’s not jump to conclusions.”
Mo, who’d crept up behind them, leaned around Armin’s shoulder to study the object with fascination. “Looks like what?”
“Nothing.” Armin touched Mo’s chest. “Could you give us a bit of room, please?”
Mo obediently backed up a couple of steps. “So what is this thing? Poole said Rover was working fine, and so was all the equipment on the Peregrine, so how come it acts like it doesn’t exist?” He turned his curious gaze to Armin. “If the tests bear it out, it’ll pretty much prove your theories about the potential for macroquantum behavior of some materials under extreme pressures, right?”
Armin looked at him, surprised and pleased. “You’ve read my paper?”
“Yeah.” Mo grinned. “Can’t say I understood all of it, but yeah, I read it. Everything about marine science fascinates me.”
A sweet warmth rose in Armin’s chest. He returned Mo’s smile, and for a moment it was only the two of them, alone in the vastness of the sea.
Carlo cleared his throat. “Any time you’re ready, Romeo.”
If it weren’t for the Mist, Armin would have blushed. Ignoring Mo’s low chuckle, he walked the last couple of meters to the mysterious object. Pulse pounding in the base of his throat, he stroked the thing with one hand. The bulky glove kept him from feeling anything, of course, but he imagined the smoothness of it anyway. The idea that he might be touching something new to science, something unique—perhaps something extraterrestrial?—sent elated shivers through him.
“Can we retrieve it?” Carlo asked. “I mean, are you able to just pick it up, or will we need to blast it loose?”
“Whoa, hang on there.” Mo held up both hands, palms out. “We’ve got incendiary paste back at the pod, but we’d need to do more extensive testing on this wall before you could safely blast it.”
Carlo gave him a sour look. “I’m well aware of that. I was asking Armin, who is also well aware of the precautions we’d need to take, whether or not we can retrieve this thing without blasting.”
Armin spoke up before the other two could get into a completely unnecessary argument. “I believe so. It doesn’t seem to be attached to the wall.”
“Good.” Carlo moved closer. “Let’s do the scans, then grab it and go.”
“Of course.” Armin glanced back at Mo. “Switch to infrared lights, Mo. We’re going to scan on IR first.”
All three of them switched their suit lights to IR. The specially made IR sensors in the walker’s faceplate allowed Armin to see the reverse-image ghost of Carlo’s faceplate display. It lit his features in a sickly pale green that made him look dead.
A hard chill ran down Armin’s spine. Doing his best to ignore the unease tickling the nape of his neck, he leaned forward, one hand on the outcropping blocking the path, and peered at the back of the object. The IR light reflected off the curve of the rock. It was utterly featureless, and produced no heat or other radiation visible on infrared.
Armin found it strangely beautiful in its blank, perfect symmetry. He stared at it until he could no longer fight the instinct to blink. As his eyelids swept down, feeding his weak human need to lubricate his weak human corneas in spite of the Mist in his helmet, the thing seethed like a nest of worms.
He froze. Stared again, harder. This time it held still, like an ordinary—if uncannily round and smooth—rock.
He swiveled to look at Carlo. “Go ahead and get out the transport box while I complete the scans.”
Carlo switched to regular light, then opened the bag and fetched the box they’d brought to transport the object, while Armin activated his walker’s built-in scanning function. His gut told him microbes and radioactivity would not be among the dangers this thing brought with it, but a scientist couldn’t afford to operate on instinct. So he scanned for everything modern technology allowed.
Absolutely nothing showed up. Less than nothing, in fact. As far as his suit could tell him, the object he’d been staring at for several minutes, that he’d touched with own hand—albeit through a walker glove—wasn’t there at all.
Because that was clearly not the case, he lifted the stone carefully, reverently, and placed it in the box.
Carlo engaged the box’s seal, and Armin switched back to regular light. Mo had already switched. He watched with a million silent questions in his eyes as Armin unfolded the webbing around the container and prepared to carry it back to the go-cart.
Armin pretended not to notice. Now that they’d retrieved the thing they’d come here for, Mo’s part in this was at an end. He wouldn’t like it, but that wasn’t Armin’s problem. His only concerns were keeping this one-of-a-kind object safe, and learning everything he could about it.
Back on the go-cart, Mo sidled up to Armin while they were changing and ran a single fingertip down the side of his neck. “Interesting rock you got there, Doc.”
“Yes, it is.” Armin leaned briefly against Mo’s bare chest, enjoying his warmth. “I’m anxious to begin studying it.”
“I bet.” Laying a gentle hand on Armin’s cheek, Mo angled his face sideways and up until he was forced to meet Mo’s intense gaze. His lips curved into a smile that made Armin’s heart thump. “I know you probably don’t want to share with a walker jockey like me, but I’d sure love to hear all about what you find.”
Armin couldn’t help returning the man’s rakish smile. “We’ll see.”
Before he could think of a suitable answer, Mo cupped his chin and kissed him: a deep, open-mouthed kiss that left him breathless and uncomfortably aroused. He turned in Mo’s embrace and clutched the belt loops on his pants. “I’m sorry. It’s simply that I have no idea what we’ll find, if we find anything at all, and I don’t want any premature information getting out.”
Mo’s eyebrows went up. “I don’t gossip, Doc.”
“I didn’t mean to imply that you do.” He cast about for the best way to explain without making it sound as if he were indeed implying that very thing. “Information takes on a life of its own if you’re not careful with it. And when it comes to scientific research, we have to take great care not to allow incomplete or unverified findings to get out because that can discredit the final findings.” Following a sudden instinct, he took Mo’s hand and laced their fingers together. “I like you very much, Mo, and I admire the way your mind works. I wish I could share more of what we’re doing with you. Please understand why I can’t.”
Mo nodded, his smile soft. “Yeah. I get it.” He kissed the end of Armin’s nose. “I’m coming to your quarters tonight, though. Maybe I can change your mind.” He waggled his eyebrows.
Armin laughed, and they both went back to getting dressed. But something told him that Mo hadn’t been joking.
Later, when the approach to researching the impossible rock had been discussed by the team and said rock had been safely locked in the lab vault, after dinner and mutual congratulations, Armin took Mo back to his quarters. Mo sucked him off in the shower, then laid him down on the unmade bed and fucked him until his vision blurred and he couldn’t have formed words even if he’d wanted to.
Afterward, he curled into Mo’s arms with a sense of completion he’d rarely felt in his life. Had never felt, in fact, with a lover. Not that he made a habit of staying with the men he bedded, or inviting them to stay with him. His one and only long-term relationship hadn’t ended well, and he’d never felt the need to involve himself with anyone since then. He wasn’t sure what to make of this unexpected connection with Mo. It was a bit frightening, and a lot exhilarating.
Why should I fight it? he wondered, breathing in Mo’s warm male scent. I’ll be here a few weeks at the most. Why shouldn’t I enjoy his company while I’m here?
Mo started to get up. Armin tightened his grip. “Don’t go.”
The muscular body in his arms tensed. “Huh?”
“I said, don’t go.” Armin tilted his head back enough to peer at Mo through half-closed eyes. “You can stay here tonight, if you’d like.”
One dark eyebrow lifted. “Can I?”
“Mm-hmm.” Grinning, Armin slung a leg across Mo’s thighs. “Don’t go.”
For a long moment, Mo watched him with a strange glitter in his eyes. Armin felt like a prize stallion being admired by a potential buyer. Logically, he shouldn’t have enjoyed it. Yet he did. His skin heated under Mo’s stare, and he wondered at the strength of his own libido.
Finally, when Armin’s breath began to come short and he’d started to wonder if he might actually get hard again, Mo favored him with a wide smile. “I’d love to stay.” He slipped a hand between Armin’s legs. “Can we play doctor again?”
Laughing, Armin pulled Mo down into a kiss.
Mo got up an hour early the next day so he could go to the lab before his shift started and see how Doc Armin and crew were doing with the mysterious rock. He expected he’d have to sweet-talk Armin into telling him anything, but after yesterday, he held out real hope for success. Especially after last night, when Armin had looked at him with big, soft, vulnerable eyes and asked him to stay.
The fact that he’d done it without a second thought was a whole other thing. One that he didn’t much want to examine too closely. Maybe he could keep seeing this thing as a multi-night stand, as long as he ignored the warmth that filled him every time Armin smiled, or laughed, or creased his brow and started explaining some complex scientific thing or other. Which was weird, maybe, but there it was.
So, yeah. He’d expected to talk his way around Armin’s professional reserve when it came to work. What he didn’t expect was Ryal guarding the lab door, refusing to let him in.
“All I know is, Dr. Savage-Hall sent me out here and told me not to let anyone in except his team. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what the hell they’re doing in there. Except Hannah gets to be in there and I don’t, which is stupid.” Ryal’s round face radiated irritation and boredom. He leaned against the wall, a covered mug of what smelled like extra-strong coffee in one hand, and the other drumming a random rhythm against his thigh. “Sorry, Mo.”
“Don’t worry about it. I was just curious anyway.” It was a big fat lie, of course, not that Ryal needed to know that. A thought struck Mo, and he grinned. “I bet Dr. Poole loves being locked out of his own lab.”
“Oh, he’s thrilled, all right.” Ryal smirked. “He’s in Youssouf’s office right now complaining.”
Mo snickered. He wished he could see Poole’s face when Dr. Youssouf told him to suck it up and quit bitching. BathyTech 3’s head of operations was nothing if not a woman of her word, and she’d promised Armin and his team the run of BT3’s lab facilities for as long as they needed it. She wouldn’t go back on that just because Armin wanted to keep everyone else—even Poole—out of the loop and out of the lab.
As much as Mo savored it, though, the delicious schadenfreude wasn’t enough to hide the bitter taste of being left out. He couldn’t pretend he hadn’t hoped whatever was brewing between him and Armin would buy him a ticket inside. The fact that it didn’t rankled.
The nagging idea that Armin might not want to hook up again bugged him even more. Which irritated him all by itself. He’d never had a problem being someone’s one-night stand before. Or in this case, two-night stand. So far. He wouldn’t pretend not to hope for more. Armin had taken up residence in his head and didn't seem inclined to leave. He kept seeing those big black eyes every time he blinked, kept thinking of Armin’s smile, hearing him breathe oh, oh like a prayer when Mo slid inside him. Did Armin think of him too? The question nagged at him.
Fucking hell. This was why he’d sworn off men a couple of years ago. Unsuccessfully, sure, but still. They always made you suffer one way or another. No-strings sex outside of paying for it was a myth. No matter how hard either partner tried to make the relationship work, there was always this evil merry-go-round of anger, competition, and wounded pride.
Or maybe it was just him. His last serious lover had told him as much before packing up and leaving for good. Said Mo was too damned possessive. Held on so tight a man didn’t have room to breathe. Mo had never believed it, but everyone could be wrong sometimes.
Realizing his mind had wandered, Mo forced his face into his best approximation of a smile before Ryal could start asking him personal questions. “Well. Guess I’ll go grab some breakfast, then.”
“’Kay. See you later.” Ryal sipped his coffee, his attention already drifting off someplace else.
As Mo turned away, the lab door slid open. He swiveled to face it again, hoping to catch Armin coming out. Instead Neil Douglas emerged, yawning. He smiled. “Hey, Mo. Can I help you with something?”
Mo swallowed his disappointment. “No, I was just leaving.” He thought about asking Dr. Douglas to tell Armin he said hi, and decided against it. He wasn’t that desperate. “All right, then. See you.”
He walked away, smothering the urge to look back.
In the cafeteria, he swallowed powdered protein made to resemble eggs, and gulped overcooked coffee without tasting it. His mind was in the lab, pondering the thing they’d brought back from Richards Deep and the unusual circumstances surrounding it. Why had the mapping scans read it as a tiny little blank space? Why had Rover gotten vid of it—however poor quality—but not recognized it as a physical object that could be retrieved? It didn’t make any damn sense. He’d seen it himself, and it’d looked like a rock.
Okay, not an ordinary rock. Armin’s suit had scanned it as blank space, just like the mapping software. Just like Rover. Those scans were anything but ordinary.
Well, now that he thought about it, the rock hadn’t looked entirely ordinary. Natural stones weren’t that perfectly round. And the way Armin’s wrist lights had glistened on its smooth, glassy surface during the one brief glimpse Mo had gotten before it went in the box . . . To Mo it had felt like a pretense, as if something inside was trying to disguise its own glow by mimicking a normal reflection.
He imagined the thing breaking open like a geode to reveal a dark, shifting glitter like captured starlight infused with an impossible life.
The mental picture was vivid, disturbing, and seductive for reasons he couldn’t name, and it stuck with him as he finished his coffee and made his way to the go-cart bay to start his shift.
Jem raised her eyebrows at him when he wandered in, last of the team to arrive in spite of having gotten up early. “Nice of you to join us, Rees.”
Marcell, busy running the last of the checks on the go-cart’s hull, glanced up long enough to grin at Mo. “You get busy with that hot piece of doc from upside? I know you tried, so don’t bother saying you didn’t.”
“None of your damn business.” Ignoring Marcell’s promise to pester it out of him, Mo crossed to the scanner, which he really should’ve already tested by now. His walking partner Yvonne was running through the series of tests required prior to every shift. He shot her a guilty smile when she looked up at him. “Hey. Sorry I’m late.”
“No big deal. It’s the first time I know of.” She stretched, both hands pressed to her lower back. “Computer. Tests complete. Load mining array scanner into go-cart bay and sync with go-cart computer.”
Mo raised his eyebrows when he heard the computer’s low, masculine purr. “You been reprogramming again, Yvie?”
“That’s what happens when you get here late. You get my dream man on the computer.” She smiled, brown eyes shining. “Thought you’d be into it.”
Before he could tell her that he liked it a lot, actually, something went click-click-click behind him. He whirled, pulse racing, picturing some kind of malfunction with the Mist compressor.
In the split second as he turned toward the machinery, several small black somethings skittered behind the compressor and disappeared.
Bugs? There couldn’t be bugs down here. It wasn’t possible.
He crossed to the compressor without looking away. Nothing moved. He peered around the curve of the machinery. Nothing continued to move. There were no bugs.
Well, of course there weren’t. The only bugs on BT3 were the ones Hannah had delivered in a special freeze-dried container every month to feed her pet tarantula, Daisy. The pesticides had kept any stray wild creepy-crawlies out of the pod ever since it was built. No reason to think they’d suddenly made their way down here now.
He started, and could’ve kicked himself for it. Damn it, he could not be jumpy out on a walk. He faked a calmness he didn’t feel and met his fellow miner Rashmi’s questioning look. “Hm? Yeah?”
“We’re ready to go.” Rashmi frowned, putting a deep crease between his brown eyes. “Are you all right?”
Translation: Are you in any shape to walk? Are the rest of us going to be in danger because you’re distracted?
Mo gave it a moment’s thought because walking at seven thousand meters was serious business and he owed it to his team to make sure he could do it safely. “I’m kind of tired,” he admitted after a few seconds. “But I’m okay to walk.”
Rashmi nodded, his expression solemn. “If you change your mind, say so. There’s no shame in stepping out.”
“I know. I’ll be fine.” Mo clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Thanks.”
Rashmi walked away with a smile and an assessing look. Mo followed him into the go-cart, doing his best not to stare at the Mist compressor. If this place suddenly had a vermin problem, he didn’t want to know. At least not right now. He fucking hated bugs.
Mo couldn’t help thinking that the only reason he got through his shift without a hitch was that the process of walking the mineral collector circuits on the vents had become embedded into his brain cells and muscle memory; anything the slightest bit out of the ordinary would have set off his inner alarm bells.
Good thing, because in fifteen years of marine mineral mining, he’d never been so distracted. For the first time, the sea felt unfriendly. Like an enemy. Like something was sidling up to him with sinister intent whenever he put his back to the endless night of the deep. He had no idea what to make of it. He’d always been perfectly comfortable at the bottom of the ocean. This new sense of tension—he didn’t like to call it fear—annoyed him, even while it brought out his innate urge to poke at things he probably shouldn’t. He felt fidgety with the need to delve into the reasons behind his own nervousness.
Arriving back in the airlock at the end of his shift was a relief. It shouldn’t have been. It never had been before. Walking had always calmed him, soothing his spirit regardless of its purpose. Now a strange, formless anxiety had invaded the cold, quiet darkness he loved, and he didn’t know what to do. His chest felt hollow, his throat tight and burning.
He stomped out of the go-cart and across the bay to Yvonne, who’d already started the postwalk tests. “Yvie, can you manage without me today? I . . . I don’t feel so good.”
Her eyebrows shot skyward, but she nodded without asking questions. “Sure. Go lie down. You look like shit.”
He managed a feeble laugh. “Thanks. I’ll do the testing next shift.”
She waved a dismissive hand his way and went back to her work. He turned away, grateful that his partner didn’t want to know about other people’s business.
Everyone was allowed an off day. This was his.
“Rees. Hold up.”
Shit. Scowling, he slowed his pace to let Jem catch up to him. “What do you want?”
“I want to know what the ever lovin’ fuck’s wrong with you.” She scampered in front of him, planted one small hand in the middle of his chest and her feet on the floor, and dug in, forcing him to stop in spite of his superior size. She peered up at him with a familiar, annoying determination. “Nobody’s perfect, and everybody’s business is their own, as far as I’m concerned. But your mind was a million kilometers away out there. You could’ve gotten somebody killed, including yourself. So you’d better damn well tell me what’s up.”
She was right, which only made it harder to swallow. He sighed and raked a hand through his sweat-and-Mist-damp hair. “I don’t know, and that’s the truth. I just kept feeling like something was watching me. Like it was about to jump on me and eat me or something.”
She dropped her hand and frowned up at him. “There’s nothing out there but us and some fish.”
“I know, okay? I know it doesn’t make any sense.” He rubbed a hand over his face. He almost told her about the bugs, but didn’t. Why mention what was probably just a trick of the light? “Maybe I’m just tired. I dunno.”
She watched him for a long, uncomfortable moment while the rest of the team filed past, shooting curious glances at the pair of them. Once they were alone again, Jem reached out and touched his arm. “Look. If you don’t feel back to normal by next shift, let me know, okay? I’d rather you take some leave time than endanger the whole team by trying to tough it out.” She studied his face with an intensity that made him want to squirm. “Am I understood?”
“Yeah. Understood.” He stepped back, uncomfortable with her touch and her penetrating stare. “Thanks, Jem.”
“No problem.” She gave him an awkward pat. “I’m off to The Beach. You coming?”
Normally, Mo would’ve hung out at the pod’s ironically named bar with the rest of the crew for a while. Tonight? He didn’t feel in the mood. “I think I’m just gonna go to bed.”
Thankfully, Jem didn’t say anything about it. “All right. See you later.”
“Yeah. See you.”
They parted ways without another word. He aimed his gaze at the bland gray metal beneath his feet and strode out of the bay into the hallway. The sooner he got to his quarters, the better.
He wasn’t sure what to think when he found Armin waiting for him, pacing the floor in front of his door and gnawing one thumbnail ragged. Mo stopped and stared. They hadn’t known each other long, but he’d already gotten used to calm-Armin. Agitated-Armin was something new and unsettling. “Doc? What’s wrong?”
Armin started like he hadn’t seen him coming. He blinked and focused on Mo’s face, those big dark eyes full of something that made Mo’s heart gallop. “Could we go into your quarters?” He stepped forward into Mo’s personal space, never breaking eye contact. “I’d like to talk to you in private.”
Mo breathed in, caught a heady whiff of desire, and decided to let his dick overrule his brain for now. Sliding his hand into the thick black hair at the nape of Armin’s neck, he pulled the man close and planted a hard, claiming kiss on his mouth. “Sex first. Then talk.”
Armin’s breath ran out in a warm, whiskey-scented rush against his lips. “I hoped you would say that.”
The heat in Mo’s gut flared into a full-blown fire. Grinning, he led Armin through the door and into his suite.
The sex was every bit as good as before, but Mo could feel the undercurrent of distracted nervousness beneath his partner’s passion. As soon as they finished and he caught his breath, he rolled onto his side to face Armin, who was lying on his back with his eyes shut, breathing hard, a faint smile tipping up the corners of his mouth.
Mo reached over and traced a fingertip around the curve of Armin’s lower lip. Armin’s eyes opened, and Mo smiled at him. “You gonna tell me what’s wrong now?”
Armin blinked, a lazy sweep of those long black lashes. “Wrong?”
“I get the feeling you didn’t show up here tonight just to talk about the weather.” He smoothed his thumb over the worried crease already digging itself between Armin’s eyes again. “What’s wrong, Armin?”
“Maybe nothing.” Armin tucked an arm beneath his head and stared at the ceiling. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but . . . Well. The rock we found . . .”
Mo prodded when he failed to continue. “What about it?”
“I’ve seen it before. We have. Mandala, Carlo, Neil, and I. We’ve seen it—or something that looks like it—before.”
The implications of that tensed Mo’s body with intrigue and excitement. “What do you mean, you’ve seen it before? I keep up with the journals. I haven’t read about anything like this.”
“It hasn’t been written up. We have nothing to write about, really.” Armin rolled onto his side and propped his head up on one hand, peering at him with solemn black eyes. “We got a brief look at an object that looked very much like this one on a poor-quality video from another research facility. That’s the only information we have, and all we’re able to get. I wish I could tell you more, but there’s really nothing to tell.”
Mo’s sensible side told him to leave well enough alone. Armin had already told him more than he’d expected. He should keep quiet and be grateful. Unsurprisingly, the lifelong inquisitiveness that had driven him to turn over rocks, break into condemned buildings, and explore new places—that had, in fact, led him to the deepest ocean—stomped his sensible side flat and prodded him to keep digging.
He stroked his fingertips along the line of Armin’s neck idly, picking at Armin’s words in his head. “You’re thinking it’s not a coincidence, huh? The same sort of rock in two places.”
“I don’t see how it can be.” Armin lifted his shoulder in a half shrug. “But who knows? The video clip we saw was extremely bad quality. It’s possible they aren’t the same at all.”
“Is there anything I can do to help you figure it out? Because I will, if I can.” Partly to satisfy his own curiosity, of course, but also because he hated seeing that torn, uncertain look on Armin’s face. If he could help fix it, he would.
Armin smiled, his eyes full of a soft light that made Mo feel hot and tight inside. “I believe you would, if there was anything you could do. But there isn’t.” He touched Mo’s cheek, a bare brush of his fingertips. “I wanted to tell you, that’s all. Talking about it with you makes me feel lighter. Helps me work it all out in my head. And I believe I can trust you to keep what I say to yourself.”
Mo’s heart thumped hard against his sternum. “Of course you can trust me.” He scooted closer, threaded a hand into Armin’s hair and kissed him, soft and slow. “Stay with me tonight?”
Armin answered by resting his head on Mo’s chest and tucking his arm around Mo’s middle. Mo shut his eyes and let the rise and fall of Armin’s ribs beneath his hand soothe him to sleep.
When Mo woke who knew how many hours later, he felt the presence before seeing it. Frozen, afraid and excited, his lover sleeping beside him, he stared wide-eyed into the soft, sweet darkness. He counted twelve heartbeats whooshing in his ears. Then he saw it—a denser blackness slithering through the dark, huge and sinuous, unseen hide rasping impossible whispers against the air as if the room’s atmosphere had turned solid.
Terror and anticipation bubbled up to clog Mo’s throat. He couldn’t speak, or scream, or fucking breathe, could only watch as the thing rose to the ceiling, expanded to the walls, pushed into the corners to swallow up the furniture and extinguish the tiny red light indicating the locked door. The faint blur of Armin’s foot vanished into the tarry sludge.
The sight broke Mo’s paralysis. He sat up, unsure if he wanted to stop the thing or find out what it was.
Only it wasn’t there anymore.
Confused, relieved, and a little bit disappointed, he turned to Armin.
Eyes gone a deep, bottomless black from lid to lid stared back at him. Armin grinned wide, showing gleaming rows of silver needle teeth, and Mo screamed.
The scream yanked Armin from a dream of seductive horror into disorienting darkness. An amorphous shape loomed beside him. For one heart-stopping second, he thought the already half-forgotten visions from his nightmare had followed him to the waking world. Then Mo’s familiar voice called up the lights, and the universe snapped into its proper alignment.
One look at the half-panicked, half-yearning gleam in Mo’s eyes drove the last of the dream shadows from Armin’s mind. He sat up and laid a hand on Mo’s arm. His skin was hot and damp with sweat. “Mo? What’s wrong?”
Mo searched his face, as if afraid of what he might see, then shook his head. “Nothing. Just a . . . a weird dream.” He rubbed both hands over his face. “Christ. Sorry I woke you.”
“It’s all right.” Armin tucked his legs beneath him and caressed Mo’s tight shoulders. “Would it help if you told me about it?”
Mo barked out a laugh. “I don’t think so. Thanks anyway.”
For reasons Armin couldn’t pinpoint, Mo’s reaction felt like more than a desire to not relive a nightmare. He decided not to push the issue. After all, he had no real reason to doubt Mo, and no right to demand explanations.
He lay back again when Mo did and settled into his embrace. He said nothing when Mo dimmed the lights instead of turning them off. He understood the need to keep the sinister darkness at bay.
When Armin arrived at the lab the next morning, Hannah and Mandala were in the middle of a heated argument.
“I know what I saw.” Hannah’s cheeks were pink and her stance tense with indignation. “If you don’t trust me on a microscanner, maybe you ought to bring down someone from upside.”
Mandala sighed, as if they’d already gone through this multiple times. “It isn’t that I don’t trust you. But anyone can make a mistake. All I’m saying is that you made a mistake.”
“So, anyone but you can make a mistake. I see.”
“That is not what I said.” Mandala rubbed her forehead. “I do wish you’d be reasonable.”
Hannah opened her mouth. Armin cut her off before she could say anything else. “Would one of you care to tell me what this is about?”
“There are microbes in the rock.” Hannah’s expression was fierce with excitement. “Bacteria. Live bacteria.”
“There are not,” Mandala said before he could recover from his shock sufficiently to answer. “Where do you suppose bacteria would have found nutrients they could use at seven thousand plus meters underwater when that rock was nowhere near a vent or any other source of energy?”
She was right, of course—she was one of the world’s leading microbiologists, which was one reason she was here—but he had to ask. “Did you check to be sure?”
Mandala shot him a withering look. “Of course I checked. I found no microbes of any sort, living or dead, bacteria or otherwise. Neil gave it a look too, as a double check.” She gestured toward Neil, who was fiddling with one of the microscanners. “He also found nothing.”
“Well, that’s it, then.” Armin studied Hannah’s increasingly red face and confused, angry eyes with concern. “Mandala’s right, Hannah. Anyone can be mistaken about something like this. We all have been at one time or another. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.”
She scowled, her usually sweet expression turning thunderous. “Fine. I have other duties I can be taking care of, if that’s all right with you, Doctor?”
Armin studied Hannah’s tight mouth, fiercely furrowed brow, and the gaze burning a hole through the lab floor. He hadn’t known her for long, but he’d already learned enough to know that this—the argument, the childish reaction to being wrong, all of it—was utterly unlike her. Unease pooled in his belly.
He nodded, pretending a nonchalance he didn’t feel. “Of course. I don’t want to keep you from any of your other duties. And you must know that no one here on BT3 is in any way substandard.”
Hannah ignored him and stalked out the door in a near-visible cloud of fury.
Neil watched her go with a frown. “Why’s she so upset? What did we do?”
“Obviously she was embarrassed about being wrong, that’s all. She’ll be fine.” Mandala crossed the lab to her scanner station and settled on her rolling stool.
The lab door slid open, and Carlo hurried in. “Sorry I’m late. I overslept.”
Everyone turned to stare at him. Armin had known the man for nineteen years, and had never once known him to be late.
Naturally, it was Neil who broke the uncomfortable silence with a laugh. “Hell, Carlo, I was starting to think you were a robot or something. Good to know you’re as human as the rest of us.” He clapped Carlo on the shoulder, either unaware of Carlo’s glare or ignoring it. “You missed the excitement. Hannah thought she saw bacteria on the scans of the rock, but none of the rest of us saw anything, and she got all upset and stomped out when Armin told her she must’ve made a mistake.”
Carlo stroked his chin. “Are you sure she did make a mistake?”
Mandala answered without looking up from her workstation. “Yes. Neil and I both checked behind her to be certain. We found nothing.”
“Hm.” His features set in a thoughtful frown, Carlo crossed to the vault holding the object they’d brought in the day before. He pressed a palm flat on the door, as if he could feel the force of the thing through the metal. “I wonder . . .”
The dreamy lilt to Carlo’s voice plucked the alarm threads in Armin’s mind. He cast a glance around the lab. Neil had gone back to his work, typing with his index fingers as he tended to do. Mandala was massaging her temple and fiddling with the flat-screen controls. Ashlyn was absorbed in studying the electromagnetic waveforms from the object on her workstation in the corner.
Armin suppressed a sigh. He stared at the holo of the rock inside the vault, letting the image jump and blur as his mind wandered up through the endless black of the ocean above—back to the Peregrine where he’d first seen the strange sonar signature and realized what it could mean, further back to the Antarctic Ocean and the events that still haunted him. Maybe the past few weeks had made him paranoid. He thought that was understandable, all things considered, but he needed to get a grip on it if he wanted this mission to succeed.
Giving himself a mental shake, he blinked and turned to Carlo, just in time to watch the other man press his thumb to the security panel and open the vault.
Armin frowned. “Carlo, what are you doing?”
“Wait. But I heard . . .” Carlo cast a puzzled look at the rest of the group, who had all abandoned their stations in favor of eyeing him with caution. “I thought I heard a voice. From inside the vault.”
“Who did you think was in there?” Ashlyn’s voice was calm and without inflection, her expression blank, but Carlo’s face flushed red anyway.
He glowered at her, his tone becoming aggressive. “I know it wasn’t the rock, all right? It’s just a rock.”
She raised her hands. “I never implied that you thought otherwise, Doctor.”
“Not in words, Doctor, but I think we all got your meaning.” Carlo cast her one more vicious glare before turning to Armin with uncertainty stamped all over his features. “I thought someone had gotten stuck in there somehow. I never would’ve opened the vault otherwise. We agreed.”
They had, mostly because no one was certain of the object’s exact nature. That being the case, it seemed prudent to limit their physical contact with it. Armin peered into his friend’s troubled eyes. Carlo hearing voices from the vault was worrisome. Even more worrisome, however, was the transparent fact that he wasn’t sure of his own experience—whether he’d truly heard it or not, where it had come from, why it had happened. Carlo was a practical, grounded man. It was a job requirement for being a scientist. If he believed for a moment that he’d actually heard voices from the vault, even after seeing it was empty, then he couldn’t be here working on this project.
Edging around the spot where Carlo still stood as if his feet had sprouted roots, Armin shut the vault and keyed in the security code. “Carlo, why don’t you go back to your quarters and lie down? Take the rest of the day off. Tomorrow as well, if you need to.”
Carlo spun and pinned Armin with a wild, wide-eyed stare. “Why?”
Armin didn’t want to say it. Not in front of everyone else, even though they were all scientists and they had to know that Carlo couldn’t work if he was hearing things. He shook his head. “Please, Carlo.”
For a moment, he didn’t think Carlo would do it. He breathed in. Out. Steeled himself for what would likely be an ugly confrontation.
Finally, Carlo let out a deep sigh and scrubbed both hands over his face. “You’re right. I’m feeling a bit under the weather.” He dropped his hands and peered at the floor as if he expected it to do something interesting. “I might join you all for dinner later.”
“Please do. I’d like to know you’re all right.” Armin touched Carlo’s hand. His skin felt cold.
Carlo flashed a faint smile, turned, and walked out the door. The silence echoed in his wake.
“Well. Losing two in ten minutes.” Mandala arched one neatly groomed eyebrow. “I must say, we’re off to an excellent start.”
Neil snorted. Ashlyn remained silent. Armin pressed his fingertips to his right temple, where a thin pain had begun to throb. “Let’s get back to work. I can handle Carlo’s workload for today.”
No one argued with him, thank God. He needed some space and quiet to think. To try to figure out what in the seven hells was going on, and what to do about it.
Mo didn’t see any bugs in the go-cart bay airlock when he arrived for his shift. Instead, the Mist compressor grew a crown of long, whipping antennae for the fraction of a second before he could focus on it.
He shut his eyes tight and counted to five before opening them again. The compressor sat there as plain and free of abnormal appendages as it had always been.
Well, of course it did. Mining equipment didn’t suddenly sprout insect parts. He’d imagined it, just like he’d imagined the bugs he thought he’d seen yesterday. He blamed lack of sleep. If he’d gotten eight hours of shut-eye in the last couple of nights put together, he’d eat his fucking walker, helmet and all. Which was weird and annoying, because great sex usually put him in an impenetrable O-coma for at least six hours. And just to make it all perfect, his scant sleep had been broken up by freaky-ass dreams that planted disturbing images in the back corners of his mind where he couldn’t quite see them.
Stupid nightmares. He forced a smile for Yvonne and Rashmi, who had their heads together as they murmured over the scanner. Yvonne frowned. Rashmi eyed him with concern stamped all over his face.
Mo pressed his lips together to keep his irritation from spilling out. They were his coworkers and friends. If the situation were reversed, he would have been worried about them, too.
Jem stuck her head out the open door of the go-cart. “Rees! You gonna stand there all day with your thumb up your ass, or you coming along with the rest of us?”
He took a look at Jem’s sour expression and sighed. So it was gonna be one of those days. “Keep your pants on, Big Mama. I’m coming.”
“Glory hallelujah.” She ducked back inside.
He rolled his eyes and turned to uncouple the cart from the Mist compressor.
Something twisted at the edge of his vision. Black, dense, wriggling like a tongue.
He spun, his pulse knotted in his throat. The thing was gone.
Because it was never there, said the sensible part of his brain. But his heart still raced, and his mouth was drier than the desert where he’d been born.
Dom slapped his shoulder, making him jump. “You done there, brother?”
“Almost.” Mo finished the uncoupling process, thumbed the control panel, and watched the hose shrivel and reel itself into the wall. “Okay. All set.”
He followed Dom into the cart. Yvonne and Rashmi came behind with the scanner.
As the go-cart’s computer shut the hatch behind them, the dark shape vibrated in the shrinking space between the two metal slabs.
He fought the instinct to lunge for the porthole and peer out the scratched GlasSteel. He stopped himself, not because he was afraid he wouldn’t see anything but because he feared he would.
Shaking off the crawling sensation as best he could, he put his back to the hatch and the porthole and strode into the cab. He had work to do.
The thing in the tail of his eye followed him as he and Yvonne checked the mineral collection arrays that squatted around each vent like huge metal spiders. It squirmed and fluttered on the fringe of his sight, beyond the reach of his helmet light or the flood lamp attached to the scanner.
By the time he and Yvonne got to the Pipes—the last vent, named for its impressive mineral formations—Mo was wound as tight as an overtuned guitar string by the constant movement that vanished whenever he tried to look at it. The shape whipped an amorphous pseudopod almost within range of his vision, and he stumbled. “Fucking shit.”
Yvonne peered at him across the rounded bulk of the scanner, her face all planes and angles in the glow of her helmet light. “Okay there, Mo?”
“Yeah. Just tripped, that’s all.”
She cast him a narrow-eyed, sure you did look. Mo ignored her and concentrated his full attention on the scanner readout. She could be suspicious of his uncharacteristic clumsiness all she wanted. No way was he telling her he was seeing things. Later, after they were safely back in the pod, maybe he’d talk to Jem. Or at least mention it to Armin. Right now, he was keeping it to himself.
Hell, maybe he ought to get his eyes checked. The damn wiggly thing had stuck with him all day. Hallucinations didn’t do that. Did they?
His com crackled, and Marcell’s voice shouted in his ear, high and breathless with excitement. “Mermaid fish! ’Bout five meters east-northeast of the Pipes. Cams, folks, let’s go!”
All the miners had standing orders from the biologists to drop everything and start filming if they spotted a mermaid. No getting close, no interacting. Just video. It was the one thing the two factions never argued about. Everybody on BT3 wanted to be the one to get vid of the rare, elusive creatures.
Mo lifted his head and swiveled as fast as possible in the walker, the squiggling shape in his eye forgotten for the moment in a rush of excitement. “Walker One. Camera on standby.”
“Acknowledged, Mo,” said the walker’s computer. “I will record on your mark.”
“Thanks.” Answering the computer had become a habit over the years, but it still didn’t feel quite natural. That’s what happened when you spent your teen years cobbling together communications equipment from parts older than your great-grandparents. In the postblackout years, they’d been lucky the computers had worked. Forget talking back.
“Anything for you, Mo.”
The utterly unexpected rasp of Armin’s low, rough whisper coming from the walker’s computer startled Mo badly. He tried to turn, got his feet tangled together, lost his balance, and fell sideways. He hit the ooze on the seabed harder than he would’ve expected with the water to slow him down. His teeth dug into the inside of his cheek.
Yvonne called over the com, asking him if he was all right. Marcell, predictably, snickered from his spot at com central in the go-cart. Mo let it all float through his consciousness and out again without paying much attention—because the mermaid fish was right there, not five meters from his face, hovering like a ghost in the margins of the light.
He froze, his gaze locked onto the creature’s luminous greenish-white eyes. Christ, it was something else, weirdly beautiful with its long, translucent, fingerlike fins and the small, flat scales that seemed to absorb the light. Its body was sleek as a shark’s, grayish-white, at least two meters long, with a short dorsal fin and a flat tail like a whale’s. Its gill slits opened and closed, opened and closed, pumping water through its respiratory system.
A blue-black spark shone deep in the mermaid’s unblinking eyes. It stared directly at Mo as if it could beam its strange, fishy thoughts straight into his brain with the force of its gaze. His stomach knotted in a churning chaos of nerves and awe.
“Walker One.” He kept his voice low, though he had no idea whether a mermaid could pick up voices from inside a walker, or what they’d do with it if they could hear it. No point in taking chances. “Outside camera, record.”
This time, he didn’t answer. Instead he held as still as he could, hardly daring to blink in case the mermaid decided to swim away in the fraction of a second his eyes were closed. This encounter was bound to be brief, and he didn’t want to miss any of it.
His heart thudded seven, eight, nine hard, rapid beats while he and the rare animal stared at one another. Then the wide, lipless mouth opened, revealing rows of too-long, pointed metal teeth identical to Armin’s from Mo’s nightmare.
A shocked oh escaped Mo’s throat before he could stop himself. His arm jerked, raising a plume of silt. The mermaid flipped its tail and glided off into the darkness.
“Fucking shit.” Mo shut his eyes and told himself to calm down. Fuck. “Walker One. Camera, stop recording.”
“Recording halted, Mo.”
He breathed in and out, steady breaths, willing his heartbeat to slow. Now that the whole thing was over, a wave of pure giddy joy washed over him. He’d just been face-to-face with probably the rarest animal on the planet. For the second time in his life, and this encounter was so much closer than the last. How many people could say that? He laughed out loud.
“Mo?” Yvonne’s boots approached as she spoke. “What’s going on? Do you need to go to sick bay?”
“No. I’m fine.” Mo clambered to his feet, grinning. “It’s not every day we see a mermaid fish, you know. It’s damn exciting.” He kept the part about the nightmare teeth to himself. She already thought he got too wound up about “science shit” as she put it, when he ought to be concentrating on his job. If he told her about the fucking teeth, she’d drag him to Dr. Palto herself.
She grinned back at him, because everybody got excited about seeing mermaids. “Well. At least we both got some footage. Poole’ll jizz his shorts.”
The whole team let out a collective groan over the com network. “Didn’t need that visual, Yvie,” Dom growled from where he and Rashmi were walking the vents to the south.
Jem broke in for the first time in the walk. “Finish it up, guys, and let’s get home. I got a wicked fucking headache.”
Grumbles and scattered laughter came over the coms before everyone settled into tying up the loose ends of the shift’s work. Mo was glad. He didn’t feel like telling anyone what he thought he’d seen.
He should’ve known that wasn’t going to wash with Jem.
Back in the BathyTech airlock after the postwalk tests were run, Jem stopped him with a hand on his arm before he could get away. He gave her his best blank face. “What’s up?”
“You’re taking the next shift off.”
Damn it. “I don’t need—”
“Don’t argue with me, Rees, I’m not in the mood.” Jem rubbed one temple. Her features were tight, the corners of her mouth downturned. “You’re smart enough to know you can’t be out here if your head’s not right, and I’ve worked with you long enough to know when it’s not.”
Mo sighed, because she was right. “Fine.”
“If I don’t think you’re back to normal when you come back, I’m taking you off duty for longer.” Jem studied Mo’s face like she was trying to see inside his brain. “I’m not trying to punish you, Mo. I hope you know that.”
“Yeah, I know.” Mo forced a smile. “I’ll see you in a couple of days, then.”
“Yeah. See you.” She turned and went to the wall terminal to record her shift report.
Mo headed out of the go-cart bay and into the hallway, turning over the events of the past few hours in his mind. He wondered if he ought to talk to Armin. The encounter with the mermaid fish had rattled him, in spite of the thrill of it all, and he knew Armin would listen without judging.
On the other hand, mermaids did have impressive teeth, like lots of the fish that lived at depth. Or at least, the one he’d seen in the Mariana Trench had. He assumed they all did. The angle of the light had probably made this one’s teeth look unusually long and given them a metallic sheen. The human tendency to connect one thing to another had supplied the mental link to the image from his dream. As for the strange black squiggle . . .
He tried to look without looking. It was gone.
Maybe he really should use his unexpected time off to get his eyes checked.
He considered whether to go to The Beach or head to his quarters. The idea of being alone right now made him feel cold inside, so he headed for the bar instead.
His usual shortcut took him past sick bay. As he passed, the door slid open and Hannah walked right into him.
Her features twisted in anger for a second, then smoothed out again. “Oh. Hi, Mo. Sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“No problem.” He took in her abnormally pasty complexion and the sheen of perspiration on her upper lip—not to mention the fact that she’d just come out of sick bay—and touched her elbow, worried. “You okay? You need me to help you back to your quarters?”
“Naw, I’m fine. My eyes have been bothering me a little, is all.” She gave him a smile several watts dimmer than her usual. “I think some of the lab equipment’s off-kilter a little. But hey, the equipment’s an upside problem now.” She grasped Mo’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze, then let go. “See you later, Mo.”
He watched her go with a frown, uneasy. People had eye problems sometimes. It didn’t mean anything. Not even when it happened at the same time as other people’s hallucinations.
Nodding to himself as if that would help make it true, he resumed his trip to the bar. Hopefully the noise and bustle of all those people would help loosen the knot of apprehension winding tight in his stomach.
By the end of their second day in the lab, the only thing Armin felt certain of when it came to the object from Richards Deep was that it was utterly unlike anything he’d studied in all his years as a scientist. It stubbornly refused to register properly on any of the equipment, behaving more like some sort of enormous subatomic particle than a rock roughly the size of a shot put.
He did his best to keep his elation to himself, even though every new finding added another confirmation to the theories that had made him a pariah in some scientific circles and a cult hero in others. It didn’t matter how many times he’d proven himself in equations, or in a lab setting. This find would prove him right in a real-world setting, and that was everything.
Mandala led the way out of the lab as she, Armin, Ashlyn, and Neil finally left after twelve hours with very little to show for it. “It’s as though the object isn’t even solid. Only we know it is, because you and Carlo have both handled it, Armin. And, yes, I know you predicted this. That doesn’t help us figure out what to actually do with it.” Sighing, she pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. “I’m going to lie down. My head is killing me.”
Armin laid a hand on Mandala’s shoulder. “Are you all right? Would you like for me to bring you some dinner?”
“No, that’s fine. I’m not hungry at the moment. Perhaps I’ll get something later on.” She lowered her hands and patted his cheek. “It’s kind of you to offer, though. Thank you.”
“Well, I’m starved. I’m headed for the cafeteria.” Neil raised his eyebrows at Armin and Ashlyn. “What about you guys?”
Ashlyn nodded. “Me too.”
Armin’s stomach growled. As usual, he hadn’t even thought of food while working. “I could definitely eat.”
“I’ll see you all in the morning, then.” Mandala gave them a wan smile, then headed down the hall toward her quarters.
The main dinner rush in the cafeteria seemed to be over, but several people still sat singly or in small groups around the room, talking and eating. There was no line at the self-service food bar. Armin and his team loaded their trays, found a spot in the corner, and dug in.
The three of them ate in a heavy silence. Armin knew his fellow scientists must be mentally sifting through the day’s findings and trying to slot them into a working model of the universe. He couldn’t help feeling a bit ahead of the curve, in spite of the difficulties inherent in working with such an unusual find. Mandala was right—the fact that he’d predicted the existence of an object like this one did not make the reality of studying it any easier.
“Wow, this is a real happy party, huh?”
Startled, Armin blinked himself out of his thoughts and lifted his gaze from the remaining peas he’d been pushing around his plate to the man standing on the other side of the table grinning at him. “Hello, Mo. We just got finished in the lab. I suppose our minds are still on the work.”
Mo let out a loud pfft, which made Neil snicker. Mo ignored him. “You science types’re always working. You ought to let your hair down once in a while.”
Ashlyn set her fork down on her empty plate and watched Mo with obvious amusement. “Mr. Rees, have you been drinking?”
“Maybe a few.” Mo favored her with a wink and a rakish smile that made Armin feel hot inside. “Jem made me take next shift off, so why the hell not, right?”
“Amen, brother.” Neil leaned back in his plastic chair with a deep sigh. “I could go for a beer myself, if I wasn’t so tired. Maybe another night.”
“Doc, you let me know when you want to go drinking, and I’ll take you to The Beach for that beer.” Mo gave Neil a friendly slap on the back. “Armin, you think we could talk for a minute?”
Instinct—plus the way Mo fidgeted—told Armin that the request was related somehow to Jemima ordering Mo to take tomorrow off. He hid his sudden vague anxiety behind a casual smile. “Of course. Would you like to sit down?”
Mo’s gaze cut left, then right. Quick and nervous. “Um. Actually, if we could talk in private, that would be great.” He widened his eyes at Ashlyn and Neil. “No offense to you guys.”
“None taken.” Ashlyn pushed back her chair, stood, and picked up her tray, still half-smiling as though she found Mo entertaining. “I think I’m going to go back to my room and read for a while. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”
“Wait up, I’ll walk with you.” Neil jumped up, grabbed his own tray, and hurried after her.
Mo watched them for a moment, then shook his head, blinked, and focused on Armin’s face with an intensity that bordered on frightening. “Look, this might seem kind of weird, but . . .” He cast a sharp, hunted glance over his shoulder, as if he’d heard someone sneaking up on him. His pupils were wide and black, his body tense. “I know a place we can talk where no one’ll overhear us. Would that be okay? I don’t . . .” He chewed his thumbnail, something Armin hadn’t seen him do before. “I don’t feel comfortable talking here.”
What was there to say? Armin stood. “Of course. Let’s go.”
He took his tray to the recycler, then followed Mo out of the cafeteria and down the hallway to a juncture he’d noticed before, but never paid much attention to. Mo turned left off the main corridor down the narrower side passage. It was deserted. They walked along for a few minutes, past closed doors and secondary halls with lights dimmed for the “night” shift.
He was beginning to wonder just where they were going when Mo finally pushed open a doorway on the right, marked simply: Aquarium. The obvious question died on his lips when he trailed Mo inside and saw what BathyTech 3’s idea of an aquarium was.
“My God.” Armin paced to the center of the circular room, staring in awe at the GlasSteel dome that arched over the whole space. A strip of low lights running around the baseboard provided the only illumination, bathing the floor in a soft golden glow and leaving the endless blackness of the deep as the room’s focus. A jellyfish drifted past overhead like a lost star, and Armin laughed. “This is incredible. Why did I not know about it before now?”
“I guess we’ve both been a little busy.” Mo tilted his head back and peered upward with a smile full of memories. “Not many people come here just to hang out, I guess. Poole’s biology staff use it to study the wildlife, of course. Most of the other miners aren’t really interested after the novelty wears off. But it’s my favorite spot in the pod.” His gaze dropped to meet Armin’s. “You never know what you’ll see out there.”
Something haunted had crept into Mo’s eyes, and Armin knew they’d moved beyond talking about the weird, wonderful creatures one normally encountered in the deep ocean trenches.
He stepped close, reached up, and ran his fingertips along the line of Mo’s jaw. “What have you seen?”
For several heartbeats, Mo didn’t answer. Armin stayed silent and watched the struggle over what to say and not say play out across his features.
Finally, Mo shook his head and turned away to face the ocean, shoulders tight and arms crossed. “What’s happening down here, Armin?”
An invisible hand wrapped around Armin’s ribs and squeezed. “What do you mean?”
Mo stepped closer. The aquarium’s shadows cast an artificial grimness over his features. “I know it’s none of my business. But I really want to know what you’ve found out about that rock.”
Armin studied Mo’s carefully expressionless face. Determination glittered in his eyes, shot through with a bright thread of fear.
Worried now, he laid a hand on Mo’s arm. “Mo, has something happened?”
“No. Well . . .” Mo turned his head to stare out the transparent wall at the endless ocean beyond. “No, not exactly. We saw a mermaid fish today. It was pretty cool, but . . .” He trailed off again, forehead furrowed. “This one looked different.”
The way he spoke, quiet and puzzled, made the back of Armin’s neck prickle with unease. “Different how?”
“Like its teeth were too long, or something.” Mo let out a short laugh. “I don’t know. It’s stupid. Yvie—my walking partner—says my imagination runs away with me sometimes. I probably imagined it.”
His frown said he didn’t really believe that. Armin had no idea where this new development fit into the picture, or if it did at all. But he knew it made him worry about Mo more, not less.
He turned Mo to face him and slid both arms around his waist. Mo tensed, but didn’t pull away. Instead, he touched Armin’s face with his fingertips, a gentle caress that made Armin shake inside.
“We still don’t know precisely what we’re dealing with.” Armin hated the faint tremor in his voice, but he couldn’t stop it. Not when Mo kept touching him like that, like he was something rare and precious. “So far the tests we’ve run have confirmed my theories, but that hasn’t gotten us any further in how to define this thing.”
Mo’s gaze searched his. “This is going to sound really strange. But humor me. Do you think it can cause any . . . you know, problems?”
Armin shook his head, confused. “What sort of problems?”
Mo studied him in silence for several long seconds. The whole time, his fingers mapped the contours of Armin’s face. The touch was profoundly intimate, and Armin thought he ought to have found it disturbing. Instead, it soothed him. Eased away some of the apprehension that had been gathering like a storm inside him lately. He spread his palms flat on Mo’s back, the better to feel his warmth and the rise and fall of his ribs with his breathing.
“I’ve seen things,” Mo admitted finally. “Nothing spectacular. I thought I saw bugs in the go-cart bay the other day. And today I thought I saw antennae on the mining array, then I kept seeing this squiggly thing at the corner of my eye all day long.” He quirked a wry smile at Armin. “Probably I just need to get my eyes checked. I’m coming up on the big four-oh soon. Maybe that perfect vision I used to have is going away.”
“I see no reason to believe the object would cause hallucinations, or any other physical problems.” Armin pulled Mo’s body flush against his, mapping the contours of his muscles through his shirt. “You should definitely get your eyes checked.”
“I’ll do that.” Mo buried his fingers in Armin’s hair, then bent and kissed him, light and quick. “And if there’s nothing wrong with my eyes?”
The disquiet that followed Armin everywhere now gave his insides a sharp tug. Maybe what Mo had seen meant nothing, even if his vision tested normal.
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.” Armin stole a kiss of his own, then another. It would be so easy to lose track of time and simply stay here all day and all night, kissing Mo. But he couldn’t. He made himself pull back. “Well. I should get back to the lab. I have a few odds and ends I'd like to wrap up before I call it a night.”
“Okay.” Mo took both Armin’s hands in his and squeezed. His dark eyes peered deep into Armin’s. “My place or yours tonight? Because I can’t not have you.”
Oh. Armin’s knees wobbled. “I’ll come to your room. I’m not sure what time I’ll be done in the lab.”
“Cool. I’ll be waiting for you, Doc.” Mo dropped his hands and strode away with a wicked smile.
Armin stood there, cheeks hot and heart hammering, until his legs regained the strength to walk, then he left the aquarium. Just one more look at the strange rock, and he could go to Mo’s bed without the mental image of the thing beating against the insides of his eyelids.
Or, check your local library.
Word Count: 102,800
Page Count: 375
Cover By: Kanaxa
Release Date: 04/18/2015
Release Date: 04/20/2015