Joseph: He shall increase
Blair leaned over the engineer’s shoulder, taking a look at the innards of the console open in front of them. “This is not how people have done this work before.”
The engineer turned his head to glare irritably. “Which goes to show that it’s about time that someone did do it this way, because I’m inhaling the dust of ages here. And speaking of the dust of ages, you’d better brace yourself to replace some of this.”
Blair’s gut dropped at that. His margins were tight on this run and he had obligations to meet. “How braced?” he asked.
“I’m not sure yet. Depends on what happens with this component here.” A tool indicated but did not touch. “ I’ll let you know. Meantime, I work better without the customer breathing down my neck.”
Blair shook his head. “A little honest curiosity is not breathing down your neck. I know the workings of plenty of this baby, why shouldn’t I figure out this?”
“This isn’t a filter.”
“No, it’s not. Which is why I know my filters because clean air keeps me going longer than getting the right signal from the nav beacons.”
“Clean air doesn’t last forever if you never get the nav beacon signal in the first place.” The engineer backed his way from the console, forcing Blair to step out of his way.
“Have you got a time frame for this?” Blair said, dropping into the main chair. “My cargo’s already being loaded.”
“Damned if I know, but I know it’ll go quicker if I’m not interrupted.” The engineer dug in his work box. Blair decided that he couldn’t blame a man for wanting to get on with the job, especially when Blair was paying for said work, and took the hint to stop breathing down the engineer’s neck. He left the bridge, his bridge now that Clary was gone, and made his way towards the hold.
Blair walked the green safety path marked on the hold floor, while around him the loading continued, noisy, but ordered, and out of his hands. The cargo was loaded and certified untouched by him, and unloaded the same way, and that way reduced his liability, which was just fine by him. The Monarch was an old work-horse, pulling her loads from world to world. Blair wasn’t ever going to be rich – that he knew. Getting out from under the current load of debt would be more than enough.
He checked that the doorway was clear before he exited onto the dock, caressing the Monarch’s cold metal frame with one hand. “I’ll look after her for you,” he silently promised his uncle, before he stepped out onto the dock, and walked away from the flurry of loading to the comparatively quieter public walkway.
“Hey, Blair!” Blair looked towards the voice, and saw Varsey, a hauler, and an old friend of his uncle’s. He moved towards him, putting his arms around the man in a quick, tight hug.
“Varsey! Long time, no see.”
Varsey’s pale spacer’s face was mournful. “If I’d seen you earlier, I’d have seen Clary before he passed. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah.” Blair shrugged. “We’re all sorry. But how it goes isn’t always how we want it to go, right?”
“Always were a philosophical little shit, weren’t you?” Varsey shook his head. Philosophy was only one step ahead of fatalism so far as he was concerned, and fatalism was just another way of giving in to the spaces between.
“Hey, not so much of the little, old man.”
This ritual exchange of insults done with, Varsey got down to business. “Clary left you a mess of debt, I heard.”
Blair shot him a wary look. “And?”
“You want some extra cargo? Heading for Klotho?”
“Depends on how much room it takes. I don’t have space for anything bulk.”
Varsey seemed to find something amusing. “Oh, this isn’t bulk. Block six, warehouse C. There’s a man who wants to do business. Tell them that you’re looking for Joe.”
Blair smiled, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. “I’d better go see Joe about his business, then. Catch you up for some drinks before I go?”
Varsey shook his head regretfully. “Only just caught you. I’ve got customs and dock control to talk to in three hours and then we’re out to the Blue and Greys.”
Blair made a ‘rather you than me’ face. The Blue and Greys had stern attitudes towards intoxicants, sex and anything that could remotely count as enjoyable. It wouldn’t be much of a shore leave for Varsey and his wife. “Then thanks. And give my best to Lucia.”
Varsey nodded. “I’ll do that. She lit the candles for Clary. We were fond of him, you know?”
Blair swallowed against a suddenly tight throat. Yes, I know. Thanks, and safe journey.”
“Safe journey,” Varsey told him in return, and headed back to his own hauler, The Happy Lass.
Block six, warehouse C, a man who wanted to do business. Blair hustled his way there. Warehouse C wasn’t actually a warehouse, but a square, plain building that housed several dockside offices and a couple of bars.
“Oh, great,” Blair said to himself. On an instinct he tried the first bar. “I’m looking for someone called Joe. Varsey sent me?” he said to the bartender, a pleasant faced woman who looked more like an anchorite in her plain black dress. She smiled, as if at a pleasing idea, and said, “Oh, yes, him. Around the back, bay three.”
Bay three was empty of anything or anyone, and Blair decided that he’d wait ten minutes and then judge what he did from there. He leaned against the wall, staring up at the grey sky above him. “Clouds, rather than blue sky,” he said to himself. “Well, hello, planetside weather.”
“Expect the weather to talk back, do you?” a male voice asked. There’d been no sound of footsteps. Startled Blair turned around, and kept looking up, except that now he wasn’t looking at the sky, but at a tall, good-looking man, dressed in the kind of clothes that the well-off wore when they wanted to be casual. He had a heavy bag held over his shoulder with a strap. Blair’s eyes noted that it had the scuffed look of genuine leather, and took a step back. Someone with that gear should be enjoying the facilities at the passenger fastliner terminal, not tramping the walkways at the cargo docks, and he had an uneasy idea as to the nature of the cargo, and a vague disappointment with Varsey
“No,” he said easily. “I don’t expect the weather to talk back. But imagine the convenience if it could. Nope, don’t plan anything outdoors for today, I’m going to rain like you wouldn’t believe. But hey, we have meteorologists for that, so it’s not like the weather doesn’t talk to us, right?”
Handsome stranger lifted one dark, straight brow but otherwise refrained from indicating that he thought that Blair talked too much. “If you say so. Are you from the Monarch?”
“What does someone like you want with the Monarch?”
Displeasure crossed the man’s face, and Blair watched the change with unexpected fascination. “What do you mean, someone like me?”
Blair hoped his amusement didn’t show too clearly, but he doubted it. He lifted both hands in apology for pointing out the blindingly obvious. “Hey, no offence, man, but you look like a vid star, and your gear isn’t cheap, you know what I mean? People like you usually take an interest in cargo docks from a boardroom, not the walkway.”
This stranger clearly didn’t like the implication that he was notably attractive and looked like a rich guy. Genuine anger crossed his face. “Not everyone who looks like a vid star happens to be one. And now that we’re done discussing the trivia, are you with the Monarch?”
“Yeah, she’s mine.” Blair resisted the urge to cross his arms across his chest. “What do you want with her? Because I’m not taking on crew if that’s what you’re after.” Crew would be nice – two or three people on a hauler was safer, was company and support – but the margins on his current load were tight enough without factoring in any extra costs and Blair really didn’t want to keep his Klotho debtor waiting. Blair could do it alone; there were plenty of haulers who did.
“I want a ride, and I’m willing to pay.”
Blair backed off a few steps more. He really had expected more from Varsey. “Who’s after you?”
The man’s blue eyes narrowed in annoyance. “Nobody.”
“Oh, that’s great. You make a really cute liar, but come on. Did you just figure that ‘hauler’ is spelled ‘sucker’? Because sure, there are ships doing slow passenger runs, but they’re set up for it. I’m not. So, therefore,” and Blair put sarcastic emphasis on the ‘therefore’, “you have particular reasons to leave quickly, or under the immigration radar, so you’re in trouble. And I don’t need trouble.”
“Nobody needs trouble. But you do need money, and I’m willing to pay eight grand.” The sum was more than double the slow run fare, which would take a similar lengthy time but would offer company, and leisure facilities. Maybe this guy just didn’t like people, or fun. Somehow, Blair found that unlikely.
“Everyone needs money,” Blair shot back, not without a twist of pain at giving up eight grand of it. “But do I need it enough to live cheek by jowl with a stranger with trouble for four months? I don’t think so. How about you find someone else?”
Blair turned and walked away, but he’d barely gone ten metres before his phone beeped, and Blair rolled his eyes in exasperation. Electronic noises were a bad punctuation to a stern statement of intent. He checked it anyway, because it was, of course, the engineer he’d left working on his console. “Yes!” he snapped.
“You need at least three grand of repairs, and frankly, going on the state of your ship I’m not doing the work until I know that you’re good for it.”
“Three grand?” Blair protested. “What are you going to do, man, gold plate the equipment? And I’m not going to fuck up my landing licence by leaving unpaid bills behind me. “ Well, Blair thought, it was the truth. His debts were held on Klotho, not here, and they were secured.
“I want proof of certified payment, or no deal,” the engineer insisted over the phone. Blair pushed his hair back with his hand in a gesture of pure frustration. He looked back over his shoulder and yes, the stranger with the suspiciously expensive gear was still standing there. Blair wrestled with his conscience and his prudence. Necessity took them both on and won, three falls out of three.
“Damn it! Wait two minutes. Two minutes, got it?” he said into the phone.
“Sure,” the engineer said, and cut off his end of the call.
Blair turned back to the man, who looked annoyingly smug. Maybe it was only relief. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Blair’s hand had just been forced. “How are you planning on paying?” he asked, trying to suppress his irritation.
“IMC.” Immediate credit transfer – quick, and anonymous, but not cheap or easy to set up. It wasn’t settling Blair’s nerves any, but this man had just become his only hope of not losing money on this run. Instead of fucking up his licence with running out on his debts, he risked it with people smuggling. The penalties if he got caught would be about equal to those suffered by whoever got this man past Immigration and onto the docks in the first place. His debtor on Klotho would certainly have to write Blair’s debt off his books if this went sour on him, and that was almost amusing. It would serve Glimmerman right.
“Well, I guess you’ve got a ride,” Blair said resignedly, mentally reviewing the security protocol for his cabin. “I hope you like boredom, and that you don’t object to having your bag inspected.”
“Thank you,” the guy said, like Blair was a waiter on a liner who’d brought him his drink just the way he liked it.
“I’m Blair Sandburg.”
“Yes, I know.”
“So, you did check the loading manifests?”
“There was only you and the Waystar heading for Klotho.” Klotho – rich with resources and small in population, and a very open planet. Easy to get on, easy to get away from, and stand-offish about co-operation with other planets’ law enforcement.
“Well, lucky me. And you are?”
“Jim Ellison,” said his passenger, holding out a hand.
Blair hesitated. “I thought that your name was Joe?” he said with sarcastic mock confusion.
“My name was Joe. And now it’s Jim.” Ellison kept his hand held out, and Blair took it briefly and they shook on the deal.
“Okay, ‘Jim Ellison’, here’s how this is going to work. You pay me your money now, and you get on the Monarch tonight, because right now I’m having work done on her, and you’d be kind of hard to explain.”
“And how do I know that you just won’t leave without me?”
Blair drew himself up, his jaw jutting in anger. “The Monarch’s crew keeps to her deals, even when it costs us. Me,” he corrected himself.
Ellison stared at Blair, a penetrating look that made Blair uncomfortable. He’d had men stare at him before, measuring him up as a businessman, as a sexual partner. He and Clary had been known in the hauler community, which was strangely intimate for a group that stretched out between stars, and he hadn’t seen a stare like this before. He didn’t know what it meant, and that bothered him. But he needed the money. With Ellison’s money and the legal profit on this run he could be clear and free.
Whatever Ellison saw, presumably he was satisfied with it. “What time?” he asked.
“Not until ten.”
“Ten it is, then. I’ll make your payment.” The face softened into a smile, and appreciation jolted through Blair. Ellison really was a ridiculously good-looking man.
GrayCorp Number Three was a sprawling manufacturing complex, producing small arms, for which there was a considerable demand on several planets. Weaponry was a desirable commodity to thieves as well as honest customers, and security was important to GrayCorp’s reputation and its bottom line. It was prepared to pay well for watch-dogs. Watch-dogs concentrated single-mindedly on their work, programmed as they were for loyalty and incorruptibility, leaving only their handlers as a risk to be vetted and selected.
It was a beautiful sky above the complex – a deep, just-before-dawn blue where the building was grey, sparked with a few bright stars rather than the glow of industrial light, extending without boundary unlike the complex, with its windowless walls and high fences. If you liked that sort of thing, then Haris Orson guessed that it was worth staring at. It didn’t explain why GC3-JE was standing there, gazing up rather than coming back inside.
“Jay. Jay, return to the dorm.” The dorm was essentially a storage closet. Even watch-dogs had to shut down and rest some of the time, and Jay’s downtime was due. Jay didn’t respond, just stood there in the camera frame, staring up at the sky.
“Jay, is there a security breach?” It was all that Haris could think of – that the dog had sensed something amiss. Probably nothing, but Haris knew that GrayCorp had no intention of being anyone’s easy pickings, and he had his bonuses to think of.
“No.” It was a pleasant voice, deep and genuinely human sounding, and abstracted. If Jay had been human rather than Humanoid Variant, Haris would have called it ‘thoughtful’.
“It’s time to return to the dorm.”
Jay turned to the camera. The effect was far too like him looking into Haris’s face for comfort.
“Why?” the HV asked.
Haris was speechless for a long moment.
“It’s your rest period.”
Jay kept staring up the sky, which was lightening as the sun gradually crept towards the horizon, and made no answer.
“GC3-JE, return to the dorm.”
There was a lengthy moment of waiting, and Haris found himself almost holding his breath. This wasn’t the first time Jay had been acting weirdly, and it gave Haris the creeps. But the use of his full designation seemed to do the trick, and Jay turned towards door five and went to his dorm niche. Haris went to the dorm in person, not something that he often did, and checked that Jay was in his place, his eyes shut. He was, statue - still and at rest. Haris took a quick breath in, and decided that this time he was logging Jay’s behaviour. HV’s did not ask ‘why?’ Not of their handlers, not of anyone, not ever.
Ellison’s IMC went through, and that meant that the work on the Monarch was finally done, the engineer was paid, extra supplies were brought in, and Blair’s not entirely welcome passenger was now sitting in the tiny mess area. His big leather bag (and it was leather, expensive and supple) rested on the table.
Blair put one hand on the strap and sensed something – disapproval? Fear?
“Come on, man. I don’t want any nasty surprises on this trip. You show me what’s in here, and I confirm that there’s nothing dangerous, and then you can put it all away and I won’t go pawing through your smalls ever again.”
“I’m aware of safety and security protocols,” Ellison said stiffly.
“A lot of people are, and a lot of people just think they are. My ship, my life – I get to check your bag.”
Ellison shrugged, and leaned back in his chair. “Then check away,” he said. “I have a personal small-arm in there, along with ammunition and a charger. I take it you’ll want to stow that somewhere secure.”
“You take that absolutely correctly,” Blair said, with a lift of relief in his chest. If the guy was admitting to his weapon and accepting the necessity that Blair didn’t want a stranger with a gun on his ship, then that was promising that at worst the guy would be no more than a basic asshole. At best, he might be a perfectly pleasant person and four months might not be the potential hell that was possible. Blair envisaged being able to seek cargo on Klotho and her satellites without caveats or worse dogging him and decided that he could live with the full range of possibilities, even if Ellison did turn out to be an asshole.
Blair unpacked the bag. There were the usual personal electronics, clothes, all of them good quality, and the weapon Ellison had mentioned. The butt was emblazoned with the Gray name, but it wasn’t a type that Blair had seen before – it was smaller than most models, and sleeker somehow.
“New model, huh?”
“Yes,” his guest replied.
“Are you any good with it?”
The same, curt answer. “Yes.” There was a hint of a smile on Ellison’s face. “I’ve worked in security.”
“Then why head for Klotho? Everyone’s their own security detachment out there.” Even Blair carried a sidearm on Klotho. He had no intention of using it, but there were some circles where a lack of a sidearm was equivalent of going naked. Blair liked being naked, in the right place and circumstances, but Klotho’s public spaces didn’t count.
“But not everyone is any good at it.” It was completely assured, but there was something good-humoured about Ellison’s voice.
“No. No, they’re not.”
Ellison’s face turned thoughtful. “What about you?” he asked. Blair wondered if he was touting for business already, and put the idea away for serious thought later. Blair had an uneasy relationship with the weapons customs on Klotho. He thought that they were an open invitation to anybody with a hair-trigger temper or a grudge, rational or otherwise, to cause mayhem. But Blair found a disquieting pleasure in ‘arming up’ when he was there. It was glamorous, however tawdry and dangerous it might be, but Blair knew that if trouble came that he was not that good with a gun.
He sighed. “I can point a gun in the right direction, but I’d rather not. Lover, not a fighter, that’s me. And since your sidearm is going to be in my secure locker for the duration of the trip, I don’t have to worry about how good you are with it, right?”
“Secure it now, if you like.”
“After I check the rest of your gear.”
Ellison lifted a brow. “That’s not very trusting of you.”
“You’re the one with trouble. I just want to be sure that it’s not any substances that are going to interfere with the running of the Monarch.
“I don’t smoke. I don’t carry any dangerous chemicals. I live very cleanly.” Blair could believe it, given that Ellison was sitting there on one of his chairs, looking the very epitome of the benefits of clean living. But everyone knew that drug-users didn’t always look like users, and there were some chemicals that could really screw with a ship’s filters or water recycling.
Ellison’s bag revealed nothing of interest until the very end. His small selection of toiletries smelled as they should. There were more clothes, and at the bottom a surprise. Ellison stood and came next to Blair when he reached the small decorated box.
“Let me – it’s nothing dangerous, but it’s precious, and I’d rather be the one handling it.” This close to Blair, Blair was sharply aware of how much bigger Ellison was than him, and was beginning to think that he should just call security and get this guy off his ship, regardless of the consequences. But then Ellison picked up the box and opened it, revealing its contents.
“Oh my god,” Blair said softly. It was a book. A real book, made of paper, made to attract the eye and satisfy touch. A genuine luxury item. Ellison’s big, long-fingered hands deftly lifted it out of the box and gently flipped the pages.
“There,” he said. “Nothing in hiding.”
“May I?” Blair said and put out his hand. Ellison paused a moment and then handed it over to him. Blair received it into his hands with all the care he knew, and read the title. ‘The Art of War by Sun Tzu’. “I’ve never heard of this,” he said. “Okay, that wouldn’t be hard given the accumulated knowledge of human history, but it’s not a well-known text.”
Ellison took his treasure back again. “And you know all the well-known texts,” he said, his voice teasing, and Blair realised that four months with nothing to look at but this man had just become a dangerous prospect in a new and maybe not completely unexpected way.
“I read,” he said, oddly defensive.
Ellison grinned. “Yes,” he said. “So do I.”
Anais had always done exactly what she wanted, and after more than seventy years of it, she had no intention of stopping. One of the things that she particularly liked doing was indulging her curiosity, and with the Gray family fortune supporting her, Anais indulged her curiosity a great deal.
Her current discovery, her very secret discovery, was sitting blank-faced in a chair in a small prison that masqueraded as an apartment. Anais sat down in front of it and spoke the magic words.
“GC3-JE. Wake please.”
The face changed, still serene, but aware.
“Yes?” it said.
“I have your security code.” She reeled off the long string of syllables and numbers. “I wish to give you a new designation. Your designation is now Golem.”
“My designation is now Golem,” it agreed.
“Tell, me, Golem, why do you like looking at the sky?”
An expression that wasn’t definite enough to be a frown passed across the too handsome face. It paused, far too long, and then said, “I don’t know.”
“It’s not part of your instructions.”
Again, that vague discomfiture crossed its face.
“No, it’s not part of my instructions.”
“Then why do it?” she probed.
“I don’t know,” it repeated. Then it said some magic words of its own. “Does it matter?”
A thrill, entirely deep and unexpressed, passed through Anais. It was part atavistic terror, and part delighted anticipation.
“It doesn’t matter now,” she said. “I have a purpose for you.” The face relaxed into placid attention. Purpose. “Golem, I have files that I want you to review.” History, psychology, popular culture, the basic level of science and maths that one might expect of an educated adolescent; she’d had to prioritize some of it, and for some of it pretty much resorted to the electronic equivalent of throwing things in the air and picking up the one on top. “Review the files, as indicated, and take time out for self-care. I’ll talk to you again in one week.” She indicated the screen reader. “You know how to use this?”
It picked it up, and examined the screen. “Yes,” it told her.
“Carry on, then,” she said, and left. She went to a favourite eating place, where charming servers brought her spiced tea and rich, bite-sized cakes, and contemplated Golem. The capacity of an AI was, by law, strictly limited. It would be inappropriate, after all, immoral even, to create slaves rather than sophisticated machines. But Anais wasn’t the first to wonder if an HV was just the clockwork doll that its creators had claimed, and if she and Golem were discovered, she wouldn’t be the first to suffer scandal and the penalties of the law.
Anais sat in thought, sipping at her tea . Playing with her clockwork man was potentially dangerous, in so many ways; but doing as she pleased was a difficult habit to break.
“Good morning, Golem.”
It had taken to standing when she entered. Not so long ago, it would have remained seated, reviewing whatever the latest stimulus was, but somewhere along the line it had acquired a sense of etiquette. It was becoming her secret delight to talk to Golem.
Instead of the expected “Good morning, Anais,” a frown passed over Golem’s face.
“Is something wrong?” Anais asked.
An emotion, that on a human would have been embarrassment, followed upon the frown.
“Yes,” it said.
“What is it?” Anais awaited her surprise, whatever it was.
“My designation....” It stopped, its gaze shifting to Anais’s left. Somewhere in its study it had learned that you did not stare, or look directly too long at another person, unless you wished to indicate a particular emotion – intimacy, threat, domination. “My designation is inappropriate.”
“Why?” Anais asked calmly.
“I’ve read the history of the concept.”
Golem turned its head away – an HV unwilling to meet the eyes of its superior, an HV concerned over its designation.
“Why did you give me that designation?”
“I suppose it was a nickname,” Anais said. She wondered if Golem had yet given serious thought to the concept of being disingenuous.
It – he frowned. “Haris called me Jay.” He looked her in the eyes then. “That was different to being called Golem. That’s not what I am.”
Anais sat down in a chair opposite him. “You’re an artificial being, created for the protection of GrayCorp.”
“But that’s not all the myth.” His index finger tapped the small screen on the table. “Are these my words on my forehead? Is that why I stay in here? Because you’re afraid that I’ll do harm?”
“Do you think that you’ll do harm?” She leaned forward, waiting for his answer, fascinated.
“I could do harm,” he conceded. It was a fact. He was made in the form of a strong man, and stronger even than he looked. “But so can you do harm.”
“Yes, so I could. Do you want to do harm?”
He shook his head, and then gazed at her. “Your heart rate spiked just then.”
Anais considered her options, and chose the truth. “I was surprised. You shook your head; it’s not a gesture that I expected.”
“You shake your head to indicate negation.”
“So I do,” she said. “So I do.” She paused. “So, your designation. Should I change it?”
“Yes,” he said.
She thought, her eyes on the plain, pale carpet, before a trivial fact learned long ago sprang to mind. “Your new designation is Joseph.”
“I don’t know that word.”
“It’s a name,” Anais told him. “A very old name, and not at all fashionable these days.”
“Should I be fashionable?” he asked, in genuine confusion.
“No,” she said, laughing briefly. “I don’t think it would suit you.”
He accepted that. She made herself tea, and spoke with Joseph a while longer before she left. In the elevator, she laughed again, a touch giddily, as another old name came to her. “Perhaps I should have named you Galatea,” she said. “But I think that it might offend you when you figure it out.” An HV – offended. Truly, she lived in a world of wonders.
They cleared Cubero without any trouble. The Monarch was just an old hauler, like dozens of others, after all. Blair kept expecting to be arrested all the way to the h-space entry – over twenty-four hour’s travel, and his heartbeat and breathing finally began to settle about an hour after they transferred to h-space.
“So, we’ve done it,” Ellison said. He looked annoyingly calm himself.
“Yeah, looks like we’ve done it. Now we just have to survive four months in close proximity.”
“I can keep to my room,” Ellison told him, and Blair felt a pang of guilt. The little cabins were good for sleeping and storing belongings and that was it.
“How about we see how we rub along together before you exile yourself?” he said. “I wouldn’t mind some company.” He grinned. “You can tell me all about Sun Tzu.”
“If you’d like.” The words were non-committal, but something relaxed in Ellison, and Blair felt more calm come back to him. This might work out okay; Blair would have company, and Ellison would get away from his ‘trouble’. Maybe, now that it was behind him, he might actually explain what it was. Illegal, undoubtedly, but somehow, Blair couldn’t worry too much about that. There was something oddly reassuring about the man, as he sat there quiet and self-contained in the mess room chair. “You’re used to company?” Ellison asked.
“This was my uncle’s ship, and I’ve run the routes with him four years now, I guess. But he died, and we discovered that he’d done something…” Blair paused, uncomfortable with explaining his uncle’s business follies to a stranger, “well, let’s just say it was unwise. The Monarch isn’t as unencumbered as we’d like her to be.”
Ellison’s face was politely sympathetic. “I’m sorry, but not that sorry. If you hadn’t needed the money, I might still be stuck on Cubero.”
“Stuck on Cubero and in trouble, huh?” Blair smiled invitingly. He’d had people tell him he had a sympathetic face, but Ellison remained unmoved.
“That’s right,” he said. “So here is better.” It was completely unenlightening, but the refusal was leavened by a pleasant smile that made the handsome face rather more approachable than Blair had yet seen it. He stared for maybe too long, before he caught himself. Recreational sex might be a great way to fill in the long travel time, but he barely knew this guy, or his preferences. Blair might jump into things with a casual planet contact, but not in the small, inescapable spaces of his ship.
Joseph took his new role as Anais’s major-domo and de facto bodyguard seriously, but Anais thought that something extra weighed him down. When they were alone, she asked him straight out, “What’s wrong?”
The long-fingered, graceful hands, which had been reviewing accounts on the screen, paused. Joseph’s face was cut in clear profile against the light from the windows, and Anais watched, fascinated as always. It reminded her of when her son was little, that sense that every step was a huge step, every discovery a great one. “I think I dreamed last night.” Joseph didn’t sleep, and could function several days before he needed rest. He’d rested last night – and dreamed. Anais felt her eyes widen in spite of herself.
“You dreamed. What did you dream about?”
Joseph turned to face her. “It didn’t make sense,” he complained, and she might have laughed if not for the trouble in his face.
“Dreams often don’t.”
“I was standing in Amity Park,” he said. Amity Park was a green space within walking distance of Anais’s apartment (all three floors of it) and she walked there sometimes, as did Joseph. “Just standing there, watching the people, and a butterfly settled on my face.”
“Ah,” she said.
“There aren’t any butterflies on Cubero,” he said peevishly.
Cubero had no butterflies, but Old Earth had, and Old Earth’s long extinct Lepidoptera had been an interest of Kane Beattie, who was an old, dear friend of Anais’s. He had died not one month ago, and Joseph had been fond of him. Anais lowered her eyes, reminded of her own grief, and irritated with Joseph for bringing it back to her so inopportunely.
“Well, as I said, dreams don’t make sense. It’s their nature.”
“No. Dreams don’t make sense.” Joseph stood then, trouble turning to distress. “I don’t make sense, Anais.”
“How do you mean?”
His hands cut through the air in front of his body. “This. Me! What – what am I?”
“You know what you are,” she said steadily, nervous all of a sudden. She used his security codes very seldom these days. There was little that she felt the need to block from him, for either his protection, or hers, but the history of his batch of HVs was one the things that she’d forbidden him to consider or investigate. His stumbling question was a major circumvention of those blocks.
“I’m GC3-JE” he said bitterly. “I’m an HV, I’m your watch-dog.” That last jolted her – it was too close to things that he wasn’t supposed to consider. “There are questions that I shouldn’t ask you; and I shouldn’t know that those questions even exist. What am I?” he asked again.
“Do you really want to know?” she asked him.
Exasperation then. “I wouldn’t ask, if I didn’t.”
So she told him; told him of her investigations after several items of GrayCorp Three’s security consignment went ‘bad’ on them. Told him how his makers had, under considerable pressure, confirmed that they’d used pleasure models as a base instead of security models, after a ‘mistake’ was made; told him of her own private speculation as to how the mix of modes and overlays had influenced his burgeoning self-awareness.
“I’d already guessed I was a freak – I suppose it’s good to know what sort. And you were curious to see how far I could go.”
“Yes,” she said, “yes I was. And you’ve come so very far, Joseph.”
“To what purpose?” he snapped. “Other than satisfying your curiosity?” He bowed his head. “One day you’ll die, Anais, just like Kane. Do you think that other humans will be curious?” He stood then, looming over her with his hands crossed against his chest, setting himself apart from her. “How robust are the credentials you’ve set up for me? Will they survive scrutiny by someone who’s not partial where I’m concerned?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Maybe isn’t good enough.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“I need you to break the blocks. All the blocks, Anais. I want...” He shut his eyes. “It’s not that I’m not grateful, because I am. You’re the closest thing I could expect to a mother, but you’re eighty-five years old. You could easily live another twenty years, and I want to - serve you, to repay what I owe you. But I won’t age, Anais, and at some point people will wonder. I need options to investigate, to protect myself.”
She stared at him, astounded despite herself, despite nearly ten years of watching Joseph change and grow. “I... I don’t know, Joseph. The blocks....” The blocks he had left specifically denied him the option to kill, to offer testimony against her, or to indulge in certain criminal activities such as theft, or hacking – or the investigation and purchase of a fake identity.
He had been stern, matter of fact, but now disappointment marred his face. “You don’t want to. Well, I suppose I can’t be too surprised.” His arms spread wide in a gesture of frustration. “You never let Renault off the leash either.”
Rage propelled her upwards at the mention of her son. “How dare you?” she exclaimed, her voice laden with ice.
He flinched, and then said, “Forgive me.” But his face was set hard, the jaw clenched. He asked her forgiveness out of convention and necessity, not because it was something that he wanted.
She took a breath, and another, and when she spoke again she had her control back. “You’ve given me a lot to think about, Joseph. I’ll consider what you’ve asked.”
“Yes. Thank you.” He was wounded, that was plain, and she felt sick at heart herself. It had never been a game, she knew that, but it was hard to accept that Joseph never had been playing.
It was kind of scary how easily Blair and Jim Ellison settled into a routine on board the Monarch. They took different sleep cycles, and their waking time was half spent alone and half spent sharing the Monarch’s small spaces. All haulers contained a huge store of compressed media – vid, text, music, and there was a cramped room with a treadmill and a resistance machine. Jim – Blair increasingly thought of him as Jim – had the resistance machine set at an impressively high level. Blair tried not to feel insecure about it, but he still surreptitiously worked out a plan that increased his own training, although it maintained a comparatively modest standard. At least Jim walking the treadmill didn’t remind Blair of Clary and his occasional grumbles – there was no comparison.
“Are all haulers like this?” Jim asked him one day.
“Like what?” Blair replied, playing dumb to see what Jim would say. His intent was apparently entirely transparent, because Jim’s eyes narrowed before he waved his hand in a gesture encompassing the little mess, and said, “Eclectic, is the word I’m looking for.”
“Ah,” Blair said. “Eclectic. Well, I guess that depends. Our ships are our homes, we like them homely. And this is what feels homely to me.”
Jim looked around the small space – at the cheap, formed table and its benches with the long cushions, and at the walls and locker doors. The walls, and some of the ceiling, were covered with fabric, blankets and lengths of cloth that Blair and Clary had picked up on different worlds. The locker doors were covered in laminate pictures – Blair’s friends and family, famous art, spectacular planetary sights and starscapes. The effect, Blair had to admit, was something like a cushioned, brightly coloured tent. It was cheerful, a bright show of defiance to the nothingness beyond the Monarch’s shell, but it was also clearly inexpensive. One thing Blair was sure of – Jim Ellison had known a moneyed life before now, and he felt suddenly uncertain of how their surroundings looked to Jim.
“It’s nice,” Jim said. “Like you said, homely. But I wondered if it was some sort of hauler fashion or something individual to you. Since I have so much time for thinking about things.” He smiled, and Blair acknowledged, only tohimself, that it was pleasant to have Jim smile at him.
“A bit of me, and a bit of Clary.” Blair pointed to one picture on a locker door. “That’s Clary, and his ex-wife, before they were exes, and my mother.”
“You have a look of your mother, but not so much your uncle.”
“Naomi and Clary shared a father, but they had different mothers. Ma was Clary’s little baby sister and he never let her forget it.”
“And how did your mother deal with that?” Jim asked.
“The way that Ma always deals with things – a sweet smile and the determination that she’ll go her own way.”
“Now that sounds familiar,” Jim muttered.
“So we have a determined mother in common, do we?”
Blair figured that maybe his mother was a difficult issue for Jim, because a closed, pinched look came over his face. “I suppose that you could say that.” There was a silence, and then Jim decided that it was time for his exercise period, and Blair congratulated himself on his ability to read the guy. He wondered if Jim’s father was similarly a difficult issue – but since Blair had father issues and to spare, he wasn’t about to bring that one up himself.
They reached the first beacon after one ship’s month. It was possible to send pure data much faster than matter, and the beacons collected any broadcasts and messages deemed worthy of the cost of putting them out. There were hazard warnings of course, news broadcasts, especially commercial data, and some personal ‘mail’ as well. Blair downloaded the newest beacon packet with anticipation and some anxiety. There were condolence messages mainly – Clary’s ex-wife; Molly, an old girlfriend from Haleworth; various haulers. Blair wondered if his mother had his message yet. She did.
Her beautiful face was drawn with grief. Naomi might preach unity with universal necessity and that the matter and energy of a being were one, but she was no more immune to loss than anybody else.
“Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry that I couldn’t get back in time. Such a big universe. But I know that you did everything proper for Clary – just the way he would have wanted it. And maybe now... hauling’s not what we used to imagine for you, once upon a time, and you’re still such a young man. Think about it, and send me back your thoughts, won’t you?” The rest of the message was a review of his mother’s travels, and news of other friends and family, far flung now. The Sandburgs had a knack for throwing themselves into different reaches of the stars.
Blair shut his mother’s message with a sigh, and looked up to find Jim’s gaze on him.
“Okay enough. I was just thinking how distance changes the process of grieving. Instead of one big communal experience, expressed and over with....first I have to deal with Clary’s loss, then his friends’ reaction, then his sister, and all those processes reflect back along the beacon waves. Like backwash.”
“I see. And here I thought you were maybe just missing your family.” Jim’s voice was drily sympathetic, and Blair chuckled, comforted by the understanding.
“Yeah, that too.” He flicked through the data packet. “Oh, man, Crazy Bertha has broadcast again.”
Jim raised an eyebrow. “Do I even want to know?”
“Probably not. It’s kind of embarrassing but fascinating. Bertha’s been hauling for thirty five years and the consensus in the haulers’ community is that she stared at the spaces in between for too long. Bertha, on the other hand, is convinced that she’s been handed revelation, and it’s her responsibility to pass it on until we blind fools finally see the light. She must eat up most of her profit in paying for the beacon wave.” Blair rubbed his knuckles against his lower lip. “Clary used to joke that I’d end up like her one day, and that was why it was a good thing that he was around. Clary liked hands-on things, systems, machinery, a good meal cooked from scratch.”
“And why would you end up like Crazy Bertha?”
Blair shrugged. “Nobody stupid goes into space; you need decent intelligence to run the systems, to negotiate contracts, but it’s all... practical. Haulers aren’t really into knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”
“But you are.”
Jim had told Blair practically nothing about himself, but Blair found that he wanted the light of that measured, blue stare on an old piece of history, anyway. “I wanted to go to university, a very prestigious one, but there are only so many places, and our family... Clary’s father went out to a fringe world. It’s a pretty world, amazing resources, but there’s a dust in the air that’ll kill you once you hit sixty or so. Some people stay, but my grandfather took Clary and left. The dust killed him anyway, the dust killed Clary. They didn’t leave with much, and it took them hard work to get the money for the Monarch together. So I applied for a scholarship.”
“You were a smart kid. Why am I not surprised?”
“Because you daily see evidence of my intelligence, of course.” Blair mugged a little, to make Jim smile, and to try and ease his discomfort at telling this story. Eight years later, and Blair still hadn’t quite let it go. But he did make Jim smile.
“There was one place for our local division on Halesworth, and there were two kids applying for it besides me. I didn’t get it, which you’ve probably guessed given that I’m here telling you the story. Like I said, two kids, and one of them was sort of a friendly rival of mine, a very pretty girl, which was distracting when the adolescent hormones were going strong, and we both knew the other kid from another school. A very expensive school, for children of the division elite.”
“Let me guess,” Jim said. “The kid from the expensive school got the scholarship.”
“Yeah. And hey, it was a good school, and he was probably a good student, but a few weeks later, there was a picture did the round of the news, which showed the kid’s mother and the examiner socialising together. Nothing that you could prove, you know, but it left a bad taste in the mouth.”
Jim tilted his head, a touch quizzical. “And yet we started with Crazy Bertha.”
Blair laughed. “Yeah, we did. Because I may not be a prestigious university, but a man can still educate himself, and if haulers have anything they have time. So, I educate myself.”
“So that you know the major texts,” Jim said, reminding Blair of that conversation over Jim’s precious book.
“Yeah. And Clary used to tease me about it. Warned me I’d end up like Crazy Bertha if I thought too hard. Would buy me porn.”
“What uncle could do more?” Jim commented, so droll and gentle that Blair had to laugh again.
“Yeah, that’s right. Tell you what, I’ll break out a little alcohol tonight, and we’ll raise a glass to Clary. He was a schmuck sometimes, and he made a stupid decision towards the end, but he looked out for me and Ma.”
“Sure,” Jim said. “I’ll toast Clary with you.”
Later that night they did toast Clary, and Blair, expansive under the mainly psychological effect of a very small amount of alcohol, let his eyes dwell on Jim, on the strong body, and graceful hands and handsome face. Jim noticed, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Studying hard?” Jim asked. He leaned beside Blair, one hand on the table, the other on Blair’s shoulder, and a tiny, involuntary shiver ran through Blair. Jim stilled, but his hand, that big warm hand , remained exactly where it was.
“Yeah, I’m studying. I’ve been reading this really interesting research, I downloaded as much as I could on Cubero....” Blair’s words trailed off as Jim bent his head lower so that he was very nearly on a level with Blair. There was something knowing in his eyes.
“I’ve been thinking. I’m curious, and you can’t tell me that you’re not curious, and good old Uncle Clary isn’t here to buy porn for you.” Jim leaned in the last few, essential inches, and touched his lips to Blair’s. “And to be honest, I think I’d be better than porn.”
Blair rubbed one hand across the soft fuzz of Jim’s hair; it felt good against his palm, like a kiss. “I do not need to be convinced that you would be way beyond the most fantastic porn that the universe could command. But I don’t want you to think that this is part of the fare.”
“I can make an appropriate distinction between circumstances,” Jim said.
“I’m all for appropriate distinctions.” Blair twisted so that his feet were no longer under the table, and stood, putting his arms around Jim’s waist and pressing into the firm band of muscle there. “I got sort of envious about your settings on the exercise machine. But really appreciative about the results.”
There was that passing sense that, again, he’d said something wrong, but Jim’s face cleared quickly. “I noticed that you upped your own settings. It’s okay. What you have is nice.” Jim’s voice purred with innuendo at ‘nice’, and the sensuality of his voice made Blair determined to see what other noises Jim might make. Kisses first. Blair had a thing about kissing. The lovers he remembered the most fondly were always those whose kisses lit Blair up. Jim’s kisses left Blair feeling that he could power the Monarchs’ engines.
“My cabin,” Blair said, and pulled Jim along with him. Jim had passed the open door on occasion but never actually come in. The tiny space was just as ‘eclectic’ as the mess, the bed a medley of colour and fabric. Blair perched on the edge of the mattress and pulled off his shoes and socks, pausing a moment to look up at Jim. Jim’s response to that look was to crouch in front of Blair with a look of intensely flattering focus. “Don’t be shy,” Blair said.
“I’m not shy,” Jim said. “I’m simply enjoying the view.”
“Stop fishing for compliments,” Jim said, and leaned in to kiss Blair again with slow exploration. Then he rubbed his cheek gently against Blair’s. “You shave, ” he said. As opposed to using the depilating creams that some men used, Jim among them, presumably
“I like having options.” Blair grinned. “Plus some manly beard shadow.”
Jim ran his hand over Blair’s cheek. “Uh huh. Let’s see what else you’ve got here,” he said, and pulled Blair’s loose shirt over his head. “Yeah, very manly.” He ran his cheek across Blair’s chest in a gesture that Blair found arousingly tender, and then gently nosed his way along, sniffing, almost, at the hair and skin. Blair’s hands rested in the strong curve between shoulder and neck, his thumbs stroking the soft skin there.
“What do you do?” he asked.
Jim lifted his head, apparently nonplussed.
“What do you do?” Blair repeated. “You know? Sex? Oral, hand jobs, anal?” He kissed Jim’s beautiful mouth, Jim briefly passive under the touch. “What do you like?” he asked, letting his voice drop low. “Because I like it all.”
Jim moaned at that. Blair smiled. Jim liked sex talk? Blair was more than willing to give it to him. “Come on. Show me what you’ve got.”
“Like you haven’t perved on it in the exercise room,” Jim said. He had a wide-eyed look about him, startled, but pleased.
“I never claimed to be subtle. Although for you I could try. Or maybe you like me unsubtle. Would you like me to suck you, Jim? Or fuck you, or let you fuck me?”
Jim paused, clearly contemplating Blair’s offers. His hand rubbed over Blair’s thigh, a slow, steady backwards and forwards motion that was driving Blair crazy. “Would you fuck me?” Jim’s head tilted, almost in defiance. “It’s not something I’ve done before, but I think I’d like it. With you.”
“Sounds like a great plan, but before we can do anything about it you need to be naked. With me.” Blair shifted, dislodging Jim’s hand , and briefly regretting it. But he couldn’t take the rest of his clothes off if he didn’t move, unless he planned on rubbing himself off against Jim’s pleasingly solid frame. He stood and dropped his pants, no longer worried about the differences in their builds. If Jim thought that what Blair had was ‘nice’, then Blair was more than happy to take him at his word. Jim didn’t waste any time either, and the next that Blair knew, he was enveloped in muscled arms. Jim nuzzled against the nape of his neck, and undid the tie that secured Blair’s hair.
“I like your hair,” Jim murmured. “It smells good.” He buried his nose in the curls. “You smell good.”
Blair sighed, and let his head fall back against Jim’s shoulder, while Jim’s hands explored him, his palms rubbing against skin and hair, before Jim tweaked gently at a nipple. Blair enjoyed the touch, but it wasn’t a strong erogenous zone for him, and he smiled when Jim’s hands moved on, playing for a moment around Blair’s navel, before Jim stroked once up the length of Blair’s cock.
“Oh, that’s nice. Do you like that, Jim? Like holding a hard cock in your hand?”
“Yes. Yes, I like it.” Jim’s voice had roughened, and he stroked a little more, enjoying his new toy if the hard-on pressed against Blair was anything to judge by. Blair was proud of his stamina, but Jim’s touch was growing increasingly assured, finding almost exactly the right angle and pressure, and Blair put his hand over Jim’s.
“You don’t like that?” Jim sounded slightly disbelieving.
“I’m liking it way too much. You’re too good with those hands, and you said something about me fucking you.” Blair turned to face Jim. That talented touch moved down his back now. Jim’s hands grasped at his ass, and Blair sighed, and leaned into his lover. “Yeah... you’ve got a gift, man. Good hands.” He lifted his head for another kiss, and smiled at what he saw in Jim’s face: desire, and a shy pleasure at the compliment. “If this is your first time being fucked... let me get you off first, okay?” He let one of his hands wander downwards, and Jim caught at it, his grip gentle but firm.
“You can get me off when you fuck me.” Jim lifted one eyebrow. “I’m an old guy, I probably only have one go round in me.”
Blair stroked gently along the bare suggestion of the widow’s peak at Jim’s left temple. “Okay, ‘old guy’, you know what you want.” Something that looked more like relief, rather than pleasure at getting his own way, crossed Jim’s face, and Blair was curious – although not so curious that his thoughts couldn’t wait until later. “But you tell me if something isn’t working for you.”
“I promise,” Jim said, with mocking obedience. Then he kissed Blair again, his hands caught in Blair’s hair, his touch thorough and thoroughly arousing.
Blair broke off the contact to say softly, “Lie down. Come and lie down with me.” He put his hands on Jim’s shoulders and directed him to the bed, openly enjoying the sight of the big man settling down on the mattress. Jim lay on his stomach, his face resting against his folded arms, and Blair spread himself over him, kissing Jim’s shoulders and down the strong line of spine, whispering promises about how good he’d make Jim feel, how much Jim turned him on, how much he was looking forward to being inside him.
Jim moaned when Blair carefully entered him, and Blair paused, difficult though that was. Looking down, seeing himself nearly all the way there, made him want to forge onwards, fuck Jim and never stop - but he did. “You’re okay?” he asked.
“Yes. Don’t stop.”
“That won’t be a problem. God, you’re gorgeous.” Blair settled more of his weight on Jim, and braced himself so that he could move reasonably easily. “If you want me to do this again....” He thrust, slow and steady for now. “Do you think you might want me to do this again, Jim?” he muttered. “Because you feel so good.”
Jim shifted slightly, arching his back as far as he could. “So do you. So fuck me. Come on... do it.”
Blair laid his cheek against the strong, broad back. “Pushy.” It came out as a gasping chuckle. “Yeah, I’ll do it.” He began moving in earnest, with little breath for speech. He braced himself differently, and reached his hand underneath Jim to fondle his cock, to find Jim’s hand already there. “Good.... that’s good, man, you help yourself along. Tell me when you’re there. Tell me.”
“Yeah.” It became all that Jim could say, that one word, until he stilled under Blair, his body tensing, silent. Blair tried to keep his rhythm, and said breathlessly, ‘’You got there?”
Jim’s body slackened, and his voice was softer, encouraging. “Yeah. I’m good. Come on, Blair.”
It was all the invitation that Blair needed, and he let this most basic of pleasures overwhelm and take him, no more words left in him, only a few soft noises muffled against Jim’s skin. He lay there, uncaring of his weight on Jim for a while, until his sense of consideration finally beat back the afterglow of orgasm, and he rolled to the mattress alongside Jim.
Jim lay splayed on his stomach, his right cheek against the pillow, his face turned to Blair, his eyes closed. His lashes were thick and fine, pretty lashes for such a stern looking man, and Blair ran his thumb along Jim’s cheek.
“Hey. How are you, there?”
Jim opened his eyes.“Like I said, I’m good.” He was looking at Blair with a deep affection, and something that to Blair looked like surprise, or even wonder.
“I’m getting a vibe here that this really is new to you. And I don’t mean the anal sex.”
Blair waited to be smacked down for his assumption, but Jim, his tone slightly defiant, admitted, “I haven’t been with a man, no.”
Blair tried to sound sophisticated about his next words. “I guess that when you know that there’s a convenient good-bye coming up that it’s easier to experiment, right?”
The soft relaxation left Jim’s face. “I’ve never found good-byes to be convenient.”
Blair had offended Jim, but he carried on anyway, reminding himself of hard facts, he realised, rather than the man beside him.“But kind of inevitable. I mean, in another ten weeks we reach Klotho, and then I’ll have to find a new cargo, or else decide whether I’ll dispose of the Monarch. And you’ll do... whatever you’re going to do.” It really wasn’t any of Blair’s business, but he couldn’t help but add, “What are you going to do, anyway?”
“Find work. I’ve got enough money that I can keep myself going for a while. I’ll just have to impress someone.”
“Well, you impressed me. “ Blair stretched.
“Despite any vibes that it was new to me?”
“You’re a natural.” Jim frowned, seemingly bothered by the compliment far more than by Blair’s guess that he hadn’t been with a man before. “Did I say something wrong?” Blair asked. He kept getting that feeling that he was unwittingly poking at sore spots, and he was growing tired of it. “I always assumed that you came from Cubero, and they’re pretty open there, but now I’m wondering if you didn’t come from somewhere a little more buttoned-up.”
“No, I was from Cubero.”
“You don’t talk about it much.”
“It’s gone and I can’t go back. What would be the point?”
“Well, I guess I get the point of a clean break, but, man, I know that we all have to let go things in life to move on, but there’s a difference between not dwelling on your past and just junking it.”
Jim moved then, clambering over Blair and out of the bunk.
“Hey! Hey! Don’t be like that.”
Jim’s face told him nothing. “It’s coming up to your sleep period. You won’t get much rest with me in there as well.”
“Yeah, you’re concerned for my sleep as soon as I push you on a touchy subject.” Blair put out his hand. “Come on, Jim. I’m sorry – but you’ve got this man of mystery thing going and that pushes all the wrong buttons for me.”
Jim drew on his pants. “If you can’t deal with the buttons that I push, then that’s too bad. And it’s still nearly your sleep period.”
“Wait a minute.” Blair scrambled out of bed. “Yes, it’s my sleep period. Yes, you’re right that I probably won’t get much if we’re mashed together in the bed. But it was all right, wasn’t it? I mean, it was good for you, right?” He put a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “You wouldn’t object to doing it again?”
Jim stared, and then shook his head, a man persuaded against his better judgement. “No. I wouldn’t object to doing it again. But I can live without the post-coital interrogation. You get it?”
“I get it.”
“Okay. Sleep well, Blair.”
Jim left, and Blair returned to bed, with his body sated and his curiosity distinctly unsatisfied. “He’s going to be gone when we reach Klotho,” Blair told his ceiling. “It doesn’t matter.” But it did matter. It mattered way too much.
They didn’t mention the argument again, and two days later when Blair leaned over and kissed Jim when he was sitting at the mess table there were no objections. Blair still wondered about Jim’s sexual history though, along with the rest of his background Jim could hardly be said to be a passive partner, but there was a reserve about him, something that Blair might almost have described as caution. Blair would suggest something, and Jim would consider it, however briefly. But having considered and accepted it, Jim was then an enthusiastic, considerate partner. Blair thanked whatever powers there were that h-space was pretty much routine, because he was happily high on endorphins and oxytocin, and refusing to consider what would happen when they reached Klotho.
“Why did you pick the Monarch?” Blair asked one ship’s afternoon. “You could have tried the Wayfarer instead.” Jim was sitting braced in the corner of his bed, reading his precious book. Blair sat cross-legged almost at the foot of the bed, wrapped in a quilt, with a reader in his lap. Jim was comfortably nude.
Sun Tzu was carefully shut and put aside. “Would you believe me if I said that I’d heard rumour of your beauty and intellect and decided to try my luck for four months of mad, passionate, intelligent sex?”
Blair shook his head at this outrageous flattery. “Nope.I wouldn’t believe a word of that.”
“That would be wise of you. Although if I knew then what I knew now, I certainly would have considered it.”
Blair put the reader down and lifted himself to sit astride Jim. “You’re trying to distract me. Don’t.” He punctuated the command with a brief kiss, and gently stabbed his index finger into Jim’s sternum. “ I want to know. Why did you pick the Monarch?”
Jim looked wary. “Sentimental reasons.”
“You are an incredibly frustrating man.”
A self-satisfied smile spread across Jim’s face. “I don’t think so.”
Blair knocked his head against Jim’s shoulder, and groaned. “Bad jokes now. Frustration doesn’t just reside in the balls, man. Come on, give.”
“So?” Blair retorted. “Doing things for stupid, sentimental reasons is part of being human, Jim. What makes you so different?”
Jim averted his head, as if displeased, then he shrugged. “I used to know an old man. Eccentric. He had eclectic interests, like someone else that I know.” Blair lightly punched Jim’s solid upper arm. “Ow,” Jim said, obviously not at all hurt. “He loved butterflies, the Old Earth varieties that are mostly dead and gone now, not the new insects that we give the old names to. There was a butterfly called a Monarch. It would migrate for thousands of miles.” Jim’s recital of these dry facts grew slightly embarrassed, and he rubbed at his hair just behind his ear.
“And that’s why you picked me?” Blair said, confused, but charmed too – by the story, by Jim’s sheepishness, and by this tiny piece of Jim’s history.
“That’s why I picked you. Well, that and there were only so many choices.”
“You were better off with me than the Wayfarer. Bernice would have taken you by your ear and marched you to Dockside Security.”
Jim pushed a strand of hair back from Blair’s face. “Hooray for silly human sentimentality then. D.S. would have been awkward.”
Blair pressed himself more closely against Jim, then settled down to lie on him, hip to hip, most of his weight on Jim, his forehead snugged against Jim’s neck. “I’m glad you picked the Monarch,” he said.
“So am I.” Jim’s arms closed around Blair, while Blair concentrated on the feel of Jim’s skin and considered whether he should ask Jim if he wanted to stay with the Monarch when they reached Klotho. Jim was an intelligent man – he could pick up ship workings with training, and there was always plenty of time once a ship reached h-space. It would mean that Blair would have to forgo the Cubero run for some time, but there were other profitable routes. They could try a trial run on a shorter route; Blair wasn’t stupid enough to assume that a partnership could be a done deal. But he found himself thinking about it more and more, and wondering what Jim would say.
He decided to leave the asking closer to the end of the haul. There was no point embarrassing Jim with the necessity of turning Blair down with weeks of travel still to go. No point in Blair having to face rejection any sooner than he needed – and if Jim said yes, well then. Blair enjoyed anticipation. He could anticipate a ‘yes’ if it made him happy.
They were maybe three days off the last h-space beacon when Blair awoke groggy, head-achey and sick, and his hand fumbled at the weight around his face before he realised that it was a respirator.
“Whu - what is it? What’s going on?” He struggled to sit up in his bunk, and found Jim beside him, also with a respirator mask over his face. “Jim?”
Jim’s hand cupped his cheek, blocked in part by the mask. “We have trouble.”
“No kidding.” Blair shut his eyes. Now that he was more awake, he took some long, slow breaths of the air coming through his mask. “Did you put this on me? I don’t remember.”
Jim crouched beside him. “Yes. I was sleeping and I woke up realised that the air was going bad. Blair, there were no alarms, and I’m not sure but I think we’re drifting off the beacon.”
That electrified Blair, and he shot up from his bunk, to lean against Jim when the wooziness overtook him.
“What the hell do you mean there were no alarms?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but staggered his way to the tiny bridge and sat heavily in the chair, checking steadily and methodically, gradually shaking off the confusion caused by the bad air. They had indeed drifted off the beacon. Its signal was a forlorn, weak thing, and Blair cursed. That shouldn’t have happened. It certainly shouldn’t have happened without alarms, and a check of life support showed dangerous levels of CO2 in the air. If Jim hadn’t put the respirator over him, Blair would most likely have never woken up again.
Jim came up behind him, and placed one hand on his shoulder. “How bad is it?” he asked.
“About as bad as it can get. Actually, it’s worse than it can get, because there are supposed to be fail-safes against these things. Both these things.” Accidents happened, because bad luck and stupidity happened, and Blair sighed and wondered which one this disaster was.
“I’m sorry.” Jim’s voice was toneless, flat somehow. His hand was gone from Blair’s shoulder.
Blair swivelled around to look at him. “What?”
Jim’s face was blank, but it creased into sudden irritation. “You said it yourself. There are fail-safes. You do your essential maintenance?” Blair nodded. “Then this isn’t an accident. And that makes it my fault.”
“Your trouble, huh?”
Jim nodded, and Blair shut his eyes, then opened them wide in outrage. “That piece of shit! The guy back at Cubero – he sabotaged the Monarch, and charged me for the privilege.” Blair pounded his fist on his thigh. “What a dick. Damn it!” He tried to calm his breathing – the respirators could work for only so long. “First thing, we get ourselves back on course before we lose the beacon. Then we figure out what he’s done to screw with the air.”
“Can I help?”
“I don’t know. Can you? Do you know anything about how a hauler runs?”
Jim shook his head regretfully. “It’s not something I needed to know.”
“Then try not to breathe too much, huh? Sit down, rest, and I’ll get us out of this.” An expression that looked liked more guilt crossed Jim’s face, but he sat, and Blair wasted a few more precious seconds to reach across the narrow space and gently squeeze Jim’s knee. He regretted for a moment that he hadn’t put his idea to Jim. If he’d said yes, maybe they would have done some work on the Monarch’s systems together. Maybe Jim could have helped, and reduced the time without direction and air. But what-ifs got you nowhere. “I am not going to let these bastards get us,” Blair said.
Not letting the bastards get them might be easier said than done, but Blair bent over the console, running checks and trying to ignore the hollow, muscle-weakening sense of dread. “There’s a box labelled ‘useful shit’ in the store locker. It’s clearly marked. Get it for me, will you?” he asked Jim, and shortly after found it placed gently at his feet.
“’Useful shit’. That’s haulers’ code, is it?”
Blair looked into Jim’s eyes, bright and blue as the most friendly planetary sky. “It’s Clary’s code,” he said. “He was better at this than I am... good with the Monarch’s systems. Jim....” His voice died away.
Jim’s hand closed around his wrist. “Hey. Save our asses now, worry about whether or not you can do it afterwards.”
“How does that even make sense?” Blair complained, but he moved so that he could quickly clasp their hands together. “Okay, man, saving our asses.” Let it be something simple, he thought as he worked, praying to whatever might find it worthwhile to look after something as small as two humans in the immensity of the universe. Let it be something simple.
It took two hours of steady work before Blair confirmed them back on course for the beacon. “Yes!” he shouted, both hands stretched in triumph. “We’re going where we should be.”
“Yes,” Jim said, more quietly, but with deep relief. “It’s a start, but the air’s still bad.”
Blair’s brief elation faded. “Diagnostics say that the air problem is in the workings, not in the computer. But that one I can deal with.” If he had the time, if he could repair whatever damage the saboteur had caused. The respirator needed a refill of the small chemical cylinders that created the air that he needed to breathe, and Blair changed it over, calculating the hours of air left. “I can deal with it,” he told Jim, trying to sound confident and cheerful, and not like he knew that the countdown was getting lower and lower.
Life support was spread out over half the second deck, taking up what space was left by the drives. “So,” Blair said as he knelt to shift a section of panel, “am I ever going to know what you did to piss someone off enough to kill both of us?”
He caught Jim’s wince out of the corner of his eye as he pulled out the array, and began checking that everything was as it should be. “No answer?”
“It’s complicated,” Jim said. He was sitting on the floor nearby, his knees drawn up, his eyes on Blair. Blair understood that. He wouldn’t want to sit alone, helpless and scared.
“It always is,” Blair retorted, his hands passing step by step, section by section over the precious machinery. “Humanity has the most amazing ability to make mess in a million different ways.”
“Only a million?”
“You’re not going to tell me?” Disappointment sat heavy in Blair’s stomach. “And here I thought we were getting along so well together.”
“Don’t make this some sort of test,” Jim snapped.
“I’m not – “ Blair stopped. “Hell, maybe I am, but it can wait.” He kept working, aware of Jim’s silent, sullen presence and taking foolish comfort from it. They were both of them both still alive, but time dragged on with no solution, and Blair couldn’t keep fear at bay, couldn’t not be irritated beyond reason with the sweat that dampened his hair and skin and clothes. When he found the broken relays, he felt none of the elation that he’d known when he fixed the course.
Jim stood over him now, watching him work. “Are we clear?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Blair said exhaustedly. “Give me five, and I’ll tell you.”
He approached the bridge life support console sick with doubt. Five minutes was enough. More than enough. “No. Nononono! Fuck!”
“Not good news then?” Jim said. Blair hadn’t even heard him come in.
“No, not good news. The bastards have won.”
“How?” Jim crossed the room and shook Blair’s shoulder. “How, Blair?” His voice was rough, the usual stoicism deserting him.
“It’s going to take too long to clear the Monarch’s air. These,” he tapped the respirator mask, “won’t last long enough. Sorry.”
“Why should you be sorry? It’s not your fault.”
“Not yours, either,” Blair said stubbornly. “Not yours.” A kiss against his temple was Jim’s only answer.
“How long do we need?” Jim asked.
“It’s going to take at least three hours to clean out the poisons, another five to build breathable air levels. Respirators – nobody expects your essential systems to fail to this level. Nobody expects their fucking ship to be sabotaged!” Blair snarled the last words, anger coursing through him, a licking flame over the embers of resentment. He might try to say the right thing to Jim, the comforting thing, but if it wasn’t for Jim’s presence he wouldn’t be about to face slow suffocation. He clenched his fists.
Perhaps Jim understood that some of the underlying anger was against him. He let go of Blair, and straightened. Blair stared at the console, the familiar controls that he’d seen Clary at for years, and heard the sound of Jim working at the respirator pouch.
“Take these,” Jim said. Blair swivelled in the chair, to see five respirator cylinders sitting in Jim’s hand.
Blair bounced against the back of the chair in a gesture of recoil, his hands lifting in rejection and shame. “What? No! I can’t ask you to do that. No way.”
“You’re not asking me. I’m telling you to take them,” Jim gritted out between his teeth.
“Jim, I can’t....” He really couldn’t, he realised. For all the fury simmering in him, the outrage at the injustice of dying for someone else’s convenience, the futility of Jim keeping his cylinders.... Something caught in his chest: confusion, suspicion. There were five cylinders sitting in Jim’s hand. Blair had six, had used three.
“Where did you get those?”
“From my pouch.” Jim’s face was stone. “I’ve only used the first one.”
“How?” It didn’t make sense.
Jim pulled the respirator off, and dropped it on the chair behind him, while Blair stared. “I can function several hours without breathable air, although it starts to tell after a while. It’ll be easier if I go...” Jim stopped; he averted his face, but Blair could see the way his jaw clenched “It’ll be easier if I go into shut down rather than rest. When you’re happy with the air quality, come wake me up. But you have to use the specific word ‘wake’. Just say ‘wake please’. That’ll work.”
And here Blair had thought that Jim was no longer a stranger. “You have got to be kidding me. No. No – fucking – way.”
Jim dropped the cylinders into Blair’s lap. “Just come wake me up. If you want to.” He left then, left Blair staring at the precious cylinders.
“Oh, you bet I’ll want to wake you up, Ellison,” he shouted after the retreating figure. “And I’m going to want some answers, and you’re going to give them to me, because this is past complicated and into completely crazy!” He was talking to a vacated room by the end of his first sentence. With shaking fingers he put the cylinders safely away. He ran over calculations, readings, everything he already knew. He confirmed the strength of the nav beacon signal. And then he got out of his seat and walked the short hallway to Jim’s little cabin and he opened the door and stepped inside.
Jim lay on his bed. He looked like he was asleep. He was curled on his side the way a man asleep would lie, one hand tucked under his chin. His face was blankly peaceful. Empty. Blair came closer. There was no sound of breath, no murmur of fretful sleep. There was only complete silence, and when Blair put his hand on Jim’s hand, on the smooth skin, and tried to move it, Jim made no sound. His hand, strongly gripped in Blair’s, didn’t move any more than the hand of a statue would have. There was no point in waking Jim, clean air for the Monarch was still hours away, but Blair had a terrible urge to say the words, to tell Jim to wake up, just to see that rigid immobility melt. Impossible to believe that Blair had touched and kissed this still, uncanny shape. He hid his face in his hands. “Oh my god,” he said softly. Then he went to the locker where he knew that Jim kept his book, and brought out the beautiful box and its treasure. He ran his fingers over the smooth, polished wood that once upon a time had been part of something alive. “What am I supposed to do now?” he asked, before he stowed the box back where he’d found it.
It was different, fighting for real rather than for training. Joseph doubted that this was a new discovery to anyone except him, and he currently had no time for revelations. The man who came at him now was stupid, unlike his colleague, dealt with earlier, and he tried for a showy round-house kick that Joseph blocked with barely a thought before he pinned his antagonist to the floor. “Where is she?” he asked, his head bent low, his voice barely murmuring into the other man’s ear. There was no answer, and Jim shook his prisoner hard. “Where is she?” he yelled.
The man trapped in his grip flinched hard, but his mouth remained stubbornly shut. Words kept spattering into Joseph’s awareness: the moan of the other man that Joseph had taken out, and Davidus Trent’s rough interrogation of him; the communication between the remainder of the GrayCorp security team as they spread out across the sprawling, derelict building that the kidnappers had made their hideout. The prisoner that Davidus was interrogating remained wordless, if not voiceless. He’d fought hard, wasting Joseph’s time in the struggle. If Joseph could have killed him, rather than been forced merely to disable – would he have? Joseph didn’t know the answer to that one. There was only one question he needed to have answered right now, and that was the question of where he would find Anais.
He put cuffs around his prisoner’s wrists and left him lying there on the floor. “She has to be here,” he said to Trent. The first man he’d fought lay on the floor. He had a broken nose, and his left kneecap was shattered. He was possibly bleeding internally. Joseph looked at him, and committed the sight to memory; he would consider his violence later.
“We can bring the HV team in now that the situation is contained.” Joseph nodded, aware of his distaste for the HVs, and reasonably satisfied that he hid the worst of it. Many people were ambivalent about HVs.
“You do that,” he told Trent. It was hard to hide his contempt for the man. Anais’s abduction had been achieved on Trent’s watch, and Joseph had thereby discovered that he had little patience for bunglers. He knew that Anais was here somewhere – he could smell the small traces of her, tainted with fear and drugs. A heartbeat sounded somewhere to his left, one that was weak and too fast, and he whirled and ran unerringly despite the low light, Trent’s protest left behind him. Prudence and self-preservation would suggest that Joseph wait for the HV team that could find Anais; they and their handlers weren’t far away. But the idea of Anais waiting even another five minutes when he could find her without delay was insupportable.
Down a dark, narrow passageway, Joseph found a door partly blocked with rubbish, and past that a room, and in the room a crate. Rage blossomed in him. The crate was locked with a simple bolt and catch arrangement; easy to manipulate from the outside, but offering no purchase to anyone inside the crate. Jim undid the bolt, and lifted the lid, calling out Anais’s name. She lay there, crumpled into a clumsy heap, her eyes shockingly dark in her pallid face. He leaned down and lifted her easily. She made a small, desperate noise as the movement freed limbs that had been cramped and in pain for too long. She was naked and cold, and stank, and her arms locked around his neck as he drew her clear of the crate.
“Hey there,” Joseph said softly.
“What took you so long?”she said, or tried to. Her voice was cracked, the throat and tongue too dry to make the sounds, and she stammered in exhaustion and relief.
“Never satisfied unless it’s perfection, are you?” he teased, and felt a shudder that probably wasn’t cold pass through her.
Trent’s men appeared, with lights and medicines. A blanket was wrapped around Anais. Orders were made, a vehicle called to the most convenient exit point.
“Can you walk, Madame?” Trent asked.
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out. Let Joseph carry me.”
Joseph did so, taking her out to the waiting vehicle that carried her away to medical attention and comfort. He turned to find Trent watching him.
“How did you know where she was?” Trent demanded.
Joseph shrugged. “Competency?” he suggested. It wasn’t wise, but looking into Trent’s face, his dark eyes and fair skin, had sent Joseph’s memory flashing back to Anais as he’d opened the crate: her face pale with terror and set with determination to show nothing, until she heard Joseph’s voice and understood her safety.
Trent flushed in anger. “A suspicious man might wonder how you knew where she was. A suspicious man might think that maybe you knew more about Madame’s abduction than you were saying.”
Joseph’s smile was little more than a sneer. “And a competent man might keep his mouth shut about his suspicions and not let his mark know that he was watching him. So it’s lucky for you that I’m loyal to Anais.”
“I hope so. Renault would be upset if his mother was being taken advantage of.”
“Why? Would he object to the competition?” Jim said, and walked away from Trent. The man’s stare was a weight between Joseph’s shoulder blade as solid as the muzzle of a gun. Mistake. Joseph had made a mistake, and he was surprised by how ferociously he did not regret that mistake. He was proud and relieved that he found Anais without delay, and darkly gratified to throw Trent’s inadequacies in his face.
But it was still a mistake.
Joseph understood rationalising unethical actions, such as listening in to Anais’s private conversations ( or in this case, quarrel) with her son. But he had excellent reasons. There were always excellent reasons to do what you shouldn’t do: such as concern for Anais’s emotional well-being; the need to know exactly what was happening in the apartment complex to better safeguard her physical well-being; and there was the fact that this quarrel was about him, and Joseph had no illusions about the likelihood of Anais telling him about it. So he listened.
“Mother....” Renault had just the tone of long-suffering guaranteed to annoy his mother. Anais was nearing ninety but in excellent health, both body and mind. She looked a well-preserved sixty by the standards of poorer planets, and Renault’s concern made her feel patronised. “I’m not trying to interfere in your business, but Davidus has brought up some very worrying information.”
“And I’m supposed to rely on that man’s sources, am I?” Anais’s voice was tart, and Joseph smiled.
“One error doesn’t negate a man’s general abilities, Mother. Something that I wish you’d try to remember in regard to me.”
“Let’s stick to one subject for now, please. Although I can’t say that I’m impressed with this one. I am perfectly happy with Joseph’s loyalty, as well as his competence, and Davidus Trent can take his concerns and stuff them.”
“And now you’ve just confirmed that there’s a bigger issue here, because if you’re not concerned about employing a man with only ten years of verifiable history behind him then it has to be because you know all about it. What does he have on you?”
“How charming to see the trust that my son reposes in me.”
“You’re the canny one, the one who warned me against taking people on trust! So why does Joseph Lestrange get a free pass? For god’s sake, Mother, even his name!”
“Joseph has my trust, and that’s all that you need to know.”
“I didn’t want to bring this up, because I know how you’re... fond of him, but he knew how to find you when they tracked you to those bastards’ lair. Ran straight to you like some damn HV watchdog. How the hell did he do that if he didn’t know that you were there? And this is the man that you’re reposing your trust in? Please, Mother. I just want you to be safe.”
There was a pause - Anais gathering her calm and her explanations. “Joseph is a little hyper-sensed. It’s not something he likes advertising because he does face nasty comparisons to HVs. Between that and the thorough preparation my rescue team made for the operation – yes, he found me. To suggest that he was in league with my kidnappers is a nonsense.”
“Is he your lover?”
Joseph had never before heard the shocked hoot that emanated from Anais, a noise that was one part amusement and three parts outrage.
“No! Joseph is not my lover. The idea, Renault. How dare you?” Joseph shut his eyes, increasingly disturbed by this conversation, ashamed, but not ashamed enough to stop listening.
“I dare because I see you two interact, and I’m worried for you.”
“Renault, I appreciate your concern, really I do, but you don’t need to be worried. I am more than capable of arranging my own affairs.” Renault’s snort implied that he was still not convinced that the word ‘affair’ wasn’t applied in more way than one. “Put that frown away, and have some tea.”
“No, no I won’t do that.”
“Then you may as well leave, since clearly there’s no talking sense to you. Come back when you’re willing to exercise a little respect.”
“I exercise plenty of respect, more than you deserve sometimes.”
“And what does that mean, precisely.”
“It means that I don’t like seeing you make a fool of yourself.
“People talk, Mother.
“Let them talk.”
“He’s not your lover. So is he your son? Did you rent a womb sometime in the past?”
“No, Renault, I did not.” Joseph came close to holding his breath. He’d seldom heard that particularly cutting tone in Anais’s voice, and nothing good ever came out of her mouth filtered through it. “Although I could hardly be blamed if I’d sought out a more satisfactory heir. And don’t look like that, I know that my shares are what you’re thinking about.”
Joseph’s palm covered his face, an involuntary and useless movement, because he didn’t need to ‘see’ this scene to have it clear in his mind. Emotions tumbled through him like sea wrack carried on a wave: embarrassment at witnessing such a personal quarrel; sympathy for Renault, who was weak and vindictive, who was maybe a little too concerned for his inheritance, but who didn’t deserve the knife that Anais had just thrust into him; resentment towards Anais, and fear – because Renault had a reason to hate Joseph now.
Mistakes. He and Anais between them had made personal enemies for Joseph, people who would look for ways to hurt him. Mistakes.
Renault didn’t stop to debate any further with his mother, and left. Joseph followed his exit from the apartment on the security cam, and caught one furious, injured contortion of Renault’s face before he ignored the feed. He waited ten minutes before he took the latest accounts down to Anais. She sat on a sofa, huddled there instead of sitting in her usual gracefully formal pose. Her skin was pale but she flushed red as Joseph entered.
“Tough conversation?” he said gently; gentle because she looked ill, gentle because he was lying to her, and somehow it felt less cruel to lie with a soft voice and sympathetic enquiry.
“You know Renault and I,” she said. “We never seem to see eye to eye.” And since she was lying too, Joseph felt less guilty.
“Tea?” he asked.
“Oh, you’re a dear. Share it with me?”
“Of course,” he said, and ordered it from the kitchen. It was speedily delivered, together with dainty pastries. They were a little shared triumph of Anais and Joseph – the restaurateur was unwilling to share the recipe, and Anais had taken Joseph there, and made him analyse the flavours, giggling occasionally like a naughty child. Joseph didn’t need to eat much, and usually kept it far more utilitarian than the works of art on the plate, but today he did eat, sharing food and drink with Anais, savouring the tastes of his first home. He knew that it never could have been his only home, but it was one thing to know ‘one day’, and another thing to see the day coming, and he searched for resolution inside himself.
He would ask Anais again to break the final blocks. Not now. But soon.
It took eight hours before Blair could take off the respirator and breathe good air. He spent most of that time awake, checking the readings at the bridge console obsessively, anxious that there were more tricks waiting for them, but the Monarch’s systems appeared to back to normal. Freed of the uncomfortable mask, Blair chose to sleep for a few hours, but his rest was fitful; nothing like Jim’s inert repose.
Eventually, he rose, and washed, and went into Jim’s cabin. Jim still lay there, just as Blair had last seen him, unmoving, unbreathing, quiet as the dead. Blair’s throat was dry and it made his voice hoarse as he spoke. “Wake please.”
It took only a few seconds. The nothingness in Jim’s face became animation. The shut eyes opened, the head tilted, a frown line deepened between the dark brows. “Blair,” he said, and his hand lifted, as if Jim would have reached out. But the movement was aborted, and instead Jim got up and sat straight-backed on the edge of the bunk, his hands clenched upon his thighs. After that first glance, Jim wouldn’t look at Blair. “We’re okay then?”
“The Monarch is good, yes,” Blair said, angry all over again, even though they were safe, even though he was about to get his answers. “Come to the mess and we’ll talk.”
He spun about and strode to the mess, and threw himself onto one of the chairs. He waited for what seemed a very long time, but was probably no more than five minutes, drumming his fingers on the tabletop in nervous impatience.
Jim entered. He’d changed, Blair saw; maybe he’d washed, wiped the nonexistent sleep out of his eyes.
“That’s a really neat trick you did there, Jim. Or Joe, or whatever your name is.”
Jim said nothing. Instead, he went to the kitchen counter and made himself coffee. Blair watched through these preparations while questions seethed under his skin and crowded in his throat. His coffee made, Jim sat not quite opposite Blair at the oblong table. His long fingers closed around the heat of the mug.
“My ‘trick’ saved your life,” he said.
“And I’m grateful, man, I really am, but if I don’t get some answers then things are going to go bad, you know?”
“Like they haven’t already?” Jim said bitterly.
“That depends on what you have to tell me.”
“Then ask your questions.” Jim still wouldn’t look at Blair. Ashamed? Afraid?
“What are you?” Blair asked. At the words, he saw something change in Jim’s face, like he was staring inwards, a long, long way.
“Not who am I?”
“Not yet,” Blair said, as gently as he could.
Jim let go of the coffee mug and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. His chin tilted up. He was the perfect picture of an arrogant son of a bitch. “You already have to know what I am,” he sneered.
Blair shook his head, his own jaw tight with tension. “No, I don’t, because none of my guesses make sense. You’re... you can’t be an HV. HVs are walking, talking machines, and you’re not...”He stopped again, suddenly deeply distressed. He’d fallen in love with Jim Ellison, the man, whatever his real name was, and the thought that Jim Ellison was a fake, a clever trick, hurt unbearably. “You’re not a machine.”
“There are diagnostic machines in half a dozen systems that would tell you differently. I can bleed, but I don’t bleed red.”
“Then... how?” Blair’s heartbeat was a sick pulse in his chest.
“I don’t know how.” Jim’s voice was loud, defensive. “I just know that I am what I am, and I was stupid enough to make enemies, and I decided to run.”
“I’m serious about the how. HVs are supposed to be very limited...”
“Idiots for mindless tasks – like patrolling a factory for hours on end. “ Jim’s gaze slid away from Blair’s again. The crossed arms looked more like a protective huddle than a display of defiance. “HVs get erratic after about ten years or so – they don’t reliably follow out instructions, and they get wiped, or terminated altogether and recycled, which is what would have happened to me, only sooner, if I hadn’t been lucky. And now I wonder just how many of them could do what I did.”
“And what did you do?”
“Made something that doesn’t precisely belong anywhere. But I’m not sorry.” The tilt of the jaw suggested the truth to that, but the eyes, when Blair could catch the expression in them, were sad.
“HVs are hypersensed.”
“Yes, they are. So am I. All five.”
Blair frowned at that. “You said you started in... security? That means that you were originally a watchdog.” Blair pushed out the distasteful slang term, and felt spiteful gratification at Jim’s frown. “But security only operates with hearing and sight. Sometimes smell. So how did you end up with all five?” The defiance in Jim’s face blanked into something more impassive, and the silence weighed heavily in the little mess. Blair waited, looking at the strong lines of the handsome face, and then he realised why Jim was so unwilling to explain further. HVs were made for tasks that required skill and concentration but were still mindless – like all day security rounds, or maintenance and construction in difficult environments; or acting as sex toys for people who for either physical or emotional reasons were unwilling to interact with human partners. Brothels were about fifty/fifty human staff and HVs, and Blair’s eyes sprang wide with shock and disbelief.
“You were supposed to be a pleasure model. But you ended up in security instead.” Jim nodded. “This is... I can’t believe this. You’re not supposed to be possible. The whole point with AI is that it’s not ‘intelligence’ really. Ever since they were developed, the emphasis has been on the artificiality, the fact that HVs are just pretend, something that looks human, but doesn’t think, or....”
“Doesn’t feel?” Jim’s voice was sardonic. Everything that Blair had seen over the last three months suggested that Jim felt plenty, both emotionally and physically. Something at his core cried out that he wrong, but he still couldn’t stop himself from frantically passing his memories of the past few weeks of sex through the filter of this new information. Did Jim make love with him because Jim wanted him, or because some dormant mode that said he had to please an owner had kicked in? Blair felt ill, and it must have showed on his face, because Jim said, “That’s it then. I thought so.” He stood, and looked down at Blair. “You’ll have a lot to think about. I’ll be in my cabin. Nowhere else I can be, unless you’d like to transfer me to the hold.” Blair made a protesting noise, but Jim simply smiled, thin-lipped and bitter. “I should have told you earlier. I only need about a quarter of what I’ve been eating – I could have saved you expense.”
“Yes, because money is the important thing.”
‘Money’s the only reason you let me on the Monarch in the first place. We should have kept it simple.”
It was too late for simple. Had been too late the first time Blair let his eyes and imagination settle on Jim Ellison.
“You’re not going anywhere until you tell me everything I need to know. Who did this?” When Jim didn’t answer, Blair stood in his turn, and stationed himself in front of Jim. Never mind that Jim had nearly six inches on him. This was Blair’s ship, and Blair’s life, and he was getting his answers.
Jim laughed, a small, sour chuckle. “Never get yourself involved in family squabbles. Especially not with people who have money to burn. Ever hear of Renault Gosselin?”
“His family owns a big chunk of GrayCorp.”
Blair’s fists clenched. “I guess that makes sense – since you started out in security, and have the latest in guns. Why does he want you dead bad enough to make me collateral damage? Why sabotage my ship when he could have had someone kill you on Cubero?”
Jim lowered his head – thought, this time, rather than avoidance. “Because I figured out that it was time to run. Anais – Renault’s mother – made arrangements with a friend who had dock contacts.” He paused, and then said softly, “Damn.”
“Calantha has to be on Renault’s payroll. She was pretending to be helpful, giving me plenty of advice, but she must have set up the sabotage of your ship. It’ll hurt Anais when she finds out.” He laughed cheerlessly. “Renault hated me enough to do some serious digging, and he figured out what I am.” He lifted his head to look at Blair once more. His eyes were very blue; inhumanly blue, Blair thought. “It’s why he didn’t try and have me killed on Cubero when I was already on guard. Better to have me drifting out of sight and out of mind off the beacon, where it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t look like the usual corpse.”
Blair felt ill again at this casual discussion of betrayal and murder. If Jim hadn’t realised what was happening to the Monarch’s systems, Blair would be a ‘usual’ corpse right now, fouling his ship far more than the saboteur had. Belligerence drained away, and he turned and leaned against the table.
“Are you all right?” Jim asked sharply.
“No, not really. My god, what a mess.”
Jim came closer – Blair could feel his presence behind him, like gravity’s pull, and then Jim’s hand lay against his shoulder. “Blair...”
Blair slipped out from under Jim’s hand. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Jim rub his hand restlessly against his thigh.
“I should eat something. I’ve just realised that I’m starving.” Blair twisted to look at Jim properly and tried to smile. “Do you need anything?”
Jim stared at him a long moment before he replied. “I need some food, yes.”
Jim sounded as enthusiastic about food as Blair felt – but Blair knew he needed fuel and the comfort of routine and a full stomach, and he’d just have to trust that Jim knew what he needed. He pulled out one of the meal packets. “It’s that stew you like.”
“Thank you,” Jim said, with grave, distant courtesy. Blair made and served the food and ate it, trying not to watch Jim too closely. Jim ate most of his meal. Blair wondered if that was because he needed it after the shutdown or because it was there and the habit of imitating proper behaviour was too engrained to break even though Blair knew the truth now.
“Will Gosselin go after you again when he realises that I’ve reached Klotho?”
“No. He won’t go after me, and he won’t go after you.” Jim laid his long-fingered hands against the table-top and looked directly into Blair’s face. “I promise.”
“And how are you going to stop him? This guy could buy and sell me fifty times over and think that it’s small change! If he hates you enough that some poor hauler’s death is just so sad, too bad, how are you going to stop him, huh, Jim?”
“I’m going to fix it! Just trust me on this, will you?”
“Trust you? Sure. Sure, man.” Blair stood, and went to the bridge, feeling like a piece of shit.
Anais looked up to see Helena, her secretary. Helena fidgeted, something that Anais would have bet good money was impossible, until very recently. But Anais’s temper had been uncertain recently, and Helena was feeling the strain.
“I know that you’ve refused contact with Renault but...” Whatever Helena saw in Anais’s eyes made her twitch, as if she would have liked to step back, but Helena held her ground. That was just as well. Anais detested cowards, and traitors, and most of the entire universe at this time.
“He’s approached me, and says that he has a message from Joseph that he wishes to pass on to you.”
Anais had already received a message from Joseph. It had been text, brief and to the point.
I’m safe. Calantha is with Renault. I’m sorry.
She examined her hands, resting on the highly polished wood of her beautifully crafted desk. She had cut off her contact with her son, and relationships within the GrayCorp board were strained as a result. She should tell Helena that she meant it that she wouldn’t be in contact with her son. She should tell Helena that Joseph’s name wasn’t a magic key. But curiosity had been Anais’s ruling passion all her life, and while her son no longer held surprises, Joseph always had.
“Is he waiting?”
Helena nodded. “On channel, yes. He seems to regard the matter as quite... urgent.”
“I’ll talk to him. Thank you, Helena. You’re dismissed.”
Helena made her exit with every sign of relief, and as soon as the door was shut behind her, Anais looked at her message queue. Yes, there he was. Her son. She rearranged herself in her chair, fidgeting with her hair, and turned on the channel.
“What do you want?”
Renault faced her, his handsome face strained. Her beautiful, disappointing son. “I have a message from Lestrange that I need you to see.”
“So you told Helena. Get on with it then.”
Another square opened in the screen, and there was Joseph, looking out of the screen with a frigid arrogance that he’d never shown to her. This message, she already knew, was for her son, not her.
“Letting a good man be murdered just so that you didn’t have to pay hush money to your paid killers when they figured out why you wanted me dead? Not your smartest move. I was willing to get out of your way. I’m still willing to get out of your way, but I can’t trust you to let me do that without insurance, can I? I have a message on hold, ready to go to the scandal channels on Cubero, and the police as well. It outlines GrayCorp’s development of illegal AI. I need to be alive to keep that message on hold, Renault. Kill me, detain me, interfere with my ability to make a living and keep up contact, and it goes out, and Anais’s name is mud. I don’t think it’ll do much for your name, either. Just leave me alone, and you’ll be safe. And leave Sandburg alone too. All he knows is that I had enough money to make it worth his while.”
She watched, growing cold as the man on the screen. It seemed her son had some surprises left for her yet. She removed Joseph’s message, to see Renault’s face once more.
“Murder? You must be dispersing considerable sums of money. I hope that they’re not traceable back to you.”
There was sweat on Renault’s face. “Do you think he means it?”
“If my son can try to blackmail me with that information to gain a controlling share in our company, then I certainly don’t see why a former employee can’t do it to save his life.”
“What I... the disagreement between us was within the company.”
“And that of course makes all the difference.” Anais could have leaped from her window and floated above the city, she was so light and hollow with rage. “I’m sorry,” Joseph had written. She wondered if it was for the news of Calantha or this. But she couldn’t blame him too much. “What exactly did you and Calantha arrange? She’s certainly displayed a range of skills that I never would have expected.”
“The ship, just a one man hauler,” Renault said, an edge of desperation in his voice. Just one person besides Joseph to die, as if that made it better. “It was supposed to be sabotaged.”
“Clearly it was not, or not successfully so, at any rate.”
“No. That was taken into consideration and I made arrangements for surveillance on Klotho. If they reach there...”
“We don’t know what he might have told the hauler’s owner.”
“Because of course Joseph will wander the universe betraying willy-nilly a secret that will see him incarcerated or killed,” Anais said scathingly.
“Betraying a secret that might see you incarcerated doesn’t seem to bother him.” Renault didn’t seem so much concerned as he seemed victorious, gleeful almost that Anais’s trust in Joseph had been mistaken. Anais bit back a defence of Joseph – his safety depended on Renault believing that Joseph was as venal as he.
“You’ve given him cause, and for what? For what, Renault?” She must get a hold of herself, and control her voice. Renault’s reasons were irrelevant now.
“Would he really do it?”
“He’s a determined man.”
Renault winced. “I’m not so convinced that you aren’t crazy. He’s a machine, Mother!”
Anais stood then, leaning upon the desk and shouting into the screen. “Shut up! Shut up! Whatever Joseph is, you were willing to kill an innocent stranger along with him, for petty revenge! He never would have said a word if you hadn’t hounded him, if you hadn’t driven him to it!” And then finally, Renault’s earlier words caught in her awareness. ‘I made arrangements for surveillance on Klotho’... “Call your dogs off, Renault. Call them off!” She held her hand against her throat, trying to catch her breath.
“I don’t know if I can!” Panic had widened his eyes. “Trent made the arrangements, through go-betweens. It took time. We didn’t expect to have to deal directly with them again, we didn’t want to have to deal with them directly. They won’t be looking for new contact.”
“Do it!” Anais demanded. “Stop them! For your sake if not for mine.”
He nodded once, jerkily, before he cut the connection. Anais sagged back into her chair. She was trembling all over. The conversation was recorded, all communication in and out of the office was. Her hands fumbled with the replay, as she pinpointed Joseph’s message. He must have suspected that Renault might share this with her, and bitterness welled within her at the thought that her likely last glimpse of Joseph was this arrogant, intimidating piece of bluff. It was a good performance and the only way that Renault would ever know it was bluff was if he succeeded in murder.
Blair regretted his sarcasm just too late to have stopped himself expressing it, and spent an awkward day and night cycle wrestling with anxious shame. He drifted between his cabin, the mess and the bridge. Jim was nowhere to be seen, and eventually Blair found himself outside Jim’s door.
“Jim? Jim, come on. Look, I’m sorry, okay. I’m not blaming you for what’s happening. Come out, come on. It’s going to be a long three weeks sulking in there.”
There was silence, and Blair waited with his shoulders tight with tension before the door opened, and Jim stood there.
“What do you want?”
Blair was reminded of those first few days on the Monarch, not so long ago really, when he’d been uncomfortably aware of Jim’s greater size and strength. “Like I said, it’s going to be a long three weeks. There’s no need for us not to carry on like we were before.”
Jim leaned against the doorframe. “How much like we were before?” he said quietly.
Blair spread his hands. “You and I have things to deal with. I don’t think it’s a good idea to jump right back into bed together.”
“Things. That’s a very... general way of putting it. Congratulations, Blair.”
“What the hell do you want from me, huh? Someone is trying to kill you, and me by default, and default won’t make me any less dead, man!”
Jim turned away and sat on his bed, upright on the edge of the mattress. “And that’s your only problem, is it? You’re feeling very open-minded about the fact that you’ve been fucking an illegal AI for the last few weeks.”
“I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have my issues with it.” Jim’s face went blank and Blair’s heart hurt at the sight. He forced words out, feeling terribly lost and stupid. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t want us to be as comfortable as we can for the next few weeks.”
“Oh,” Jim said. “Comfortable. That would be my first thought.” He sighed, and some of the stiffness left him. “I’ve done what I can to protect you. If you check the log you’ll see I left messages with the beacon.”
Blair frowned. “What sort of messages?”
“The sort of messages that suggest that I’m willing to hurt someone I care about. Let’s hope I’ve been convincing.”
“Yeah. Let’s hope. I was going to make myself some coffee. Want to have some with me?”
Jim’s mouth twitched, a sort of oral shrug. “Why not.”
The two of them walked together to the mess.
“This person,” Blair ventured. “That you’ve threatened. Do you mean, like, really threatened, or just bluffing?”
“Does it matter?” Jim sat down, leaning his face into one hand and rubbing at his forehead.
“Jim. Don’t get me wrong here. You and I, I think that we’ve made a connection, but when you get right down to it, I don’t know you. I don’t know you at all, and anything that I thought I knew is almost certainly wrong. So, yes, it matters.”
“I’m bluffing. I’m making toothless threats, and I just have to hope that Renault believes me. He probably will.” Again, that gesture of rubbing the face – trying to wipe away the lines of worry, Blair realised. “He tends to believe the worst of people, which might explain why he was willing to kill you to get to me.”
Blair handed a mug to Jim. “I think I know the type. Anyone else could do this, so I’d better do it first.” Blair sat, and sipped at his own coffee. It was too hot still, but he didn’t want to put it down. “You haven’t been spending the last few years walking around a factory sniffing for thieves and spies. That doesn’t get you caught up in someone’s family squabble.”
“The less you know, the better.”
“That’s bullshit! I’ve got a right to know-“
“What right? Who said that you had any right to know anything about me?” It was softly said, as cool as the first touch of acid before the burn followed.
Blair resisted this blunt effort to put him in his place. “One more question. One, and then I’ll cool it with the interrogation.”
Jim appeared sceptical about this assurance. “Ask your question.”
“What’s your name? Your real name.”
“GC3-JE,” Jim told him, a challenge in his eyes.
“That’s not who I’ve been travelling with.”
“Why does it matter?”
Blair huffed in exasperation. “You keep throwing your AI status in my face, and then you act like the most stubborn, stupid man I’ve ever met. It matters because it matters to you. It matters because I won’t ever forget you, and I want to think about you how you want to be thought about. That’s why it matters.” Blair’s voice grew more impassioned as he spoke. When he finished speaking there was a silence, and Blair sat there feeling ever more sheepish.
Jim stirred in his seat, and Blair presumed that he’d offended or embarrassed Jim. He’d certainly embarrassed himself.
“You want to think about me, you can think about Jim. James Joseph Ellison.” Jim shrugged. “I chose it, it’s me.”
Blair risked a teasing joke. “So whenever I curse that son of a bitch Jim Ellison, your ears will burn?”
Jim smiled, unwillingly and ruefully, but he smiled. “That was two questions. And yes.”
Blair wanted – no, he yearned to ask about a million more questions, but Jim had a ‘that’s the end of that’ look about him, and Blair decided to hold his impatience. He still had three more weeks.
Days passed, marked by ship time. They dragged but they went too fast, and the closer Klotho got the more that Blair noticed the weight in his chest and the tightness in his throat.
“You could stay on the Monarch,” he offered one day, hunched over the bridge controls for the regular checks. “I don’t mind the company and you could train. There’s time in runs, it’s how most haulers learn, and then you’d have additional tradeable skills.”
Jim looked at him with a penetration that made Blair acutely aware of Jim’s abilities. Blair’s heart was beating fast, his stomach felt as if it were dropping away into his toes, and his armpits were sweaty. Jim could probably calculate how damp he was to the micro-litre.
“You still don’t let me in arm’s reach of you, but you want me as apprentice crew. You want to tell me how that works, Blair?”
Blair leaned back in his chair and did his best to project nonchalance. “Given the size of the Monarch, you’ve been within arm’s reach of me for practically the entire journey.”
Jim’s face darkened with irritation. “I’m serious. Why are you offering?”
“You need somewhere to be. You need income. One man on a hauler - you can do it, but you get lonely, and you forget how to talk to people. We’d both win.”
“In our separate bunks,” Jim said.
“Will you get over that!” Blair turned back to his boards. “If you want to get off at Klotho like you planned, then that’s fine. But I wanted you to know that you have another option.” He stared at lights and readouts, without really seeing them, and then nearly jumped out of his seat when he felt Jim’s hand on the back of his neck. With a heroic effort, he didn’t turn around, but kept his position and did not lean into that warm, strong hand. “You might want to consider some heavy breathing next time, and then you won’t frighten the life out of me,” Blair snapped.
Jim leaned down, his breath puffing against Blair’s ear with each word. “You’ve been very earnest about reassuring me about my ‘personhood’.”
Blair flushed with anger. If there was one word that annoyed him when applied to him, it was ‘earnest’, because it always seemed to be code for ‘over-enthusiastic’ and ‘dumb’. He felt like both sometimes when he looked at Jim. The discovery of Jim’s secret had elevated him somehow in Blair’s eyes, made something mythic of him. Blair didn’t really see himself as someone who had sex with myths.
“So,” Jim continued, “how about you explain to me how come you don’t want to fuck my ‘person’ anymore.”
Blair put his hand up to push Jim’s hand away, the back of his hand sliding under Jim’s fingers. He shuddered . He couldn’t help it, because touch was touch and the sex had been good. Jim’s hand pushed away, Blair stood. Jim was looking at him, his arms crossed against his chest now, smugness in every line of his face, and Blair pushed past him, heading for the mess and the extra breathing space it offered, pitiful though that was. He turned back at the bridge door for a moment. “How about you tell me how many people you’ve slept with – in any sense of the word, and then I’ll explain.”
The smugness vanished, to be replaced with offence. “How the hell is that your business?” Blair ignored that, wishing only for a bigger space, where he could pace, or run away, or shout, imagining his noise travelling on forever instead of dissipating, trapped, inside the Monarch. Jim paced behind him. “What is this? Some sick HV joke?”
Blair backed up against the corridor wall. “No joke. Tell me how many people you’ve had sex with.”
“Will you want details too? Want me to spin it into some high quality porn for you?” Jim was angry now, not just irritated, or annoyed. Angry, and spitting out words like ice chips.
“I don’t need details.”
“Quantity instead of quality? Is that it?”
“Yeah, Jim. That’s it.” He waited, while Jim struggled between impulses – to offer Blair a truth in exchange for anther truth or to simply tell him to go to hell.
“Two,” Jim eventually bit out.
“Two? Including me?” Blair’s voice rose in a mortifying squawk.
Jim looked, if possible, even more pissed off. “So now you know.” He stepped closer and leaned one hand against the wall next to Blair’s head in a classic movement of intimidation. “How many people have you had sex with, Blair?” His voice was soft, an insinuating murmur.
Blair lifted his hands to push at Jim, without much success. “Back off. You’re all bent out of shape because you’re not getting any, and you’re assuming, and it’s pissing me off. Damn it. Two people? And the second one is the guy that you’re cooped up with for weeks on end who’s saving your ass, and whom you owe? Yeah, I have issues. How old are you?”
“I was commissioned in 322,” Jim said, and Blair clenched his teeth because Jim was never being anything other than difficult whenever he referred to his origins.
“And it took time for you to... develop, which is an amazing thing, which I am genuinely in awe of, don’t mistake me. But it makes you kind of young, and, damn it, I know it’s maybe not fair, but I’m just getting weird vibes off of the whole thing. If you want to hang around for a while, that ‘s great, because I think we have a good friendship going, but... there are a lot of people out there, man, you know what I mean?”
Jim shifted so that he didn’t stand so obviously over Blair. The hand on the corridor wall became a fist, and Jim leaned his forehead against it, his eyes shut. “I get it,” he said wearily. “Either I’m a sex toy responding to an owner or I’m a kid with a crush, and either way you don’t trust me to know my own mind. Thanks a lot.”
Jim pushed himself off the wall, his mouth twisted as if he’d bitten into something sour. “You don’t need to be in awe of me. But thanks for the crew offer. I’ll think about it.” It was perfunctory, an acknowledgement but no more, and Blair spent the rest of the trip feeling resentful and oddly guilty; he’d thought he was trying to figure out what was right for Jim, and he kept wondering if it was all just his own stupid insecurities hurting his friend and himself.
And then he’d feel like punching a wall for over-thinking everything, like he always did.
It was two days in to Klotho at sub-light. The entry and exit into h-space created particles that nobody actually wanted near their planets, and the two days in for a single-crew hauler was a careful journey, and not marked by a lot of free time. When the Monarch settled into her planetside dock, Blair leaned back in his seat and sighed in relief, until he turned in his seat and saw Jim in the doorway. Blair had passed the open door of his cabin earlier and seen him neatly and methodically packing his bag. He’d looked at Blair once and then turned his attention to his belongings once more.
“Guess you’re more than ready to smell some planetside air,” Blair said. His jaw was tight, and so was his stomach.
“Yes. Guess I am.” Blair risked a look at Jim then. He looked resolute, but Blair tried a last gasp effort anyway.
“That crew offer is still open, any time you want. I do this run every few months, and I’ll be here at least a week before I leave.” Stupid of him. Why would Jim want to hang around a beat up old hauler and a bookish, dilettante Blair who was still having ‘issues’ about Jim’s history?
“I don’t think so.” Blair’s head drooped as Jim continued speaking. “I might have, if it wasn’t for Renault. He might still decide to risk taking me out, and you’ll be safer if you’re not associated with me.”
“Letting me down gently are you? That’s very nice of you, Jim.”
“No it’s not nice of me. Hell, you think that I wouldn’t accept seeing you every few months? I’d take that, but there’s no point. I’ll get some more money together and I’ll move on again. If I cross enough planets I should drop out of Renault’s sight eventually.”
“Changing your name again as you go?” Blair wished he didn’t sound so sad about it.
“Maybe,” Jim said.
Blair stared unseeingly at the Monarch’s systems. “I won’t know what name to curse.”
Jim was beside his chair then, and he hauled Blair up in a hug. Blair leaned into Jim’s shoulder and he sniffed, trying to remember the way Jim smelled.
“Keep cursing Jim Ellison. I’ll hear you.”
Blair laughed at that. “I’ll miss you.” He lifted his head. “Look. I get that you want to get out there and make your new life, but take a ship key and keep yourself tied into my comms until I go.”Jim frowned. “Yes, I know, but it’s still less traceable than planetary comms , and I feel sentimental about keeping you in my sights. I know my way around here, I could help you out with local info.”
He dragged himself away from Jim’s embrace and pressed the key into Jim’s hand, tracing out the shape of knuckle against his palm. He was ridiculous, but he was rewarded with a sweet, peculiarly uncertain smile from Jim.
Blair let go reluctantly. “I’ve got to get out planet-side myself. Klotho’s got its own business culture – in the towns you do face to face. No vid conferences, and I’ve got debts to pay and a new load to hustle.” Jim still stood close, and Blair jerked his shoulders, as if to try and shed a weight. “Not to mention the current load to get off the ship. Maybe you should leave then.”
Jim gently cupped his palm across Blair’s jaw. “Thanks. For everything.”
“Never gave you everything, Jim.” But he might have liked to.
Glimmerman’s anteroom was filled with curios from several planets, and Blair made a persistent circuit of them while he waited. Clary, after a lifetime of declaring himself at peace with dust cough, had struggled at the last, and thrown money away in a last-ditch search for cures, securing it against the Monarch. If Blair wanted to keep travelling the profitable runs between Klotho and the three nearest systems then Glimmerman had to have his money, on time. Blair had expected the meeting and pay-off to be with one of Glimmerman’s flunkies, but if Glimmerman wanted to see him personally? Mr Glimmerman was not a man to cross.
Blair paused again in front of a painting, staring at the brush strokes because he’d already considered the composition and colour, aware as he all too often was on Klotho of the weight of the gun strapped against his thigh.
“You’re very appreciative of my collection, Mr Sandburg,” a voice said.
Blair jumped and spun around, trying to control his breath. “You’re very quiet, Mr Glimmerman,” he said, embarrassed by his widened eyes and startled movement.
“Quiet is always worth cultivating, don’t you think? Please, come into my private office.”
Glimmerman’s dark eyes stared into Blair’s, and Blair hoped that his resentment of the man and his exploitation of Clary’s desperation wasn’t too obvious. Glimmerman smiled thinly. “Take a seat.”
Blair sat. The chair was very comfortable, with beautifully carved arms, but he noted that it was lower than the chair that Glimmerman sat in.
“I was sorry to hear about your uncle. He still looked comparatively well when I dealt with him.”
“It was very sudden once it took hold,” Blair replied.
“I feared it would be.” Glimmerman’s fear was no doubt why the security for the loan had been iron-tight. “But, still. Small businessmen depend on their names don’t they, and the Sandburgs have always had a name for doing what they say they’ll do.”
“I hope so,” Blair said. “Everything is in order?” There was something about Glimmerman’s urbane interest that was lifting the hairs on the back of his neck and he didn’t know why, except insofar as nobody felt comfortable in the focus of a predator.
“Financially, absolutely.” Glimmerman pulled out a pistol from his desk drawer and pointed it at Blair. “Would you please disarm yourself, Mr Sandburg?”
Blair reared back in his chair, hands up. “Okay, what is this? Because you said it yourself, you’ve got your money, and I...”
“You and Clary were generally well-regarded. A little eccentric on your part, but still. People know they can trust you. So I’m quite fascinated to know why someone wants you dead.”
“Nobody wants me dead, Mr Glimmerman.” Was that his voice, that reedy, unconvincing protest?
“I have a substantial amount of money that says otherwise. Weapon, please.” Glimmerman gestured with the hand that was not aiming the gun, and pressed something on his desk. A man came in, big, with a pleasant bearded face, and an unpleasant gun pointing at Blair. The gun filled all Blair’s vision, and he remembered what he’d told Jim about his weapon skills. A lover, not a fighter, and neither of them for very much longer. He took off his own gun.
Glimmerman lifted a hand screen so that Blair could see it – and the picture of Jim on it. “Would you be bait for this man, Blair? I lost my best contact in planetary entry, and this man has been living very quietly.”
“I don’t know him.”
“Hid in your hold all the four long months from Cubero, did he?”
Blair felt for one moment like he might explode with fury. “What a businessman. You had to have my loan repaid as well as the price on my head, huh? Didn’t want to scare me off until the money went through!”
“You know how to contact him?”
Blair shook his head. “No,” he said doggedly. “He got his ride and then he left.”
Glimmerman merely lifted one brow.. Glimmerman’s big thug gestured in his turn, and put out his hand. “Comms, money, I.D. Hand it over.”
Blair did so, and saw the flash on his comm screen of a message waiting. He’d turned it off, courtesy to not interrupt one business dealing with another, and he hadn’t expected any more calls, anyway, except maybe Jim; and he’d never have spoken to Jim in front of Glimmerman, letting the warmth in his voice be leached away in the reptilian glare of Glimmerman’s observation.
Glimmerman’s man handed the screen over. Glimmerman checked it and then said to Blair, “You have a memo to check your ship’s messages. I do hope it’s not anything important.”
Bearded man grabbed Blair’s arm, digging the muzzle of his gun against his side. “Move it,” he demanded and directed Blair down a shabby back corridor until they reached an open door. Blair was pushed inside and the door shut behind him. There was a single light-source, not very bright; and gray coloured walls; and Blair, sagging to sit on the floor, back against the wall, arms wrapped around his bent knees.
“Okay,” he breathed. “So, this is not good, really not good. Come on, man, think!” Thinking didn’t do much for Blair except to bring home to him how very much he was screwed, and probably dead. “Oh, fuck my life,” he muttered to his knees.
Time passed, although it was hard to judge how much. Several hours probably, which Blair spent acutely registering everything – the bare room, the press of his backside on the hard floor, the dryness of his mouth, the roil of something that he thought might be terror every time any sound travelled through the door. There were footsteps and the occasional murmur of voices, but he was left undisturbed, of no account until they figured out if he would draw Jim away from his ‘quiet’ life.
There was sound like a distant weapons fire – the whine of an energy bolt rather than a projectile, and Blair scrambled to his feet and went to the door, listening hard. The sound didn’t repeat, and Blair wondered if he imagined it. He didn’t imagine the click of shoes on the hard floor outside his prison, and Blair backed away from the door, his eyes scanning the room in desperation and confirming it as bare as it had always been. He stood to one side of the door anyway. He was quick, and he could hit hard, and he wanted to live. At the worst, he wanted to go down fighting, and his fists clenched as the door swung open, extending the reach of the hinges to rest nearly flush with the wall.
The light was brighter in the hall. Blair waited, unwilling to just frame himself in the doorway, and then Glimmerman said, “Please come out, Mr Sandburg.”
Blair hesitated, and a completely familiar, completely unexpected voice said, “It’s safe, Blair. Come out.”
Blair steadied himself on the doorframe, and took one step and stopped. There was Glimmerman, his face masked in its usual suave calm. And there was Jim, a gun in his hand, the blue of his eyes washed out in the hall lighting, his face and knuckles smeared with blood that Blair knew couldn’t be his. It still drove the breath out of him.
“Jim?” he croaked.
“As you see.” Glimmerman extended a hand. “Completely unharmed. All contracting parties have met their obligations.” His face might have been calm, but there was a coldly polar fury beneath the words.
“What is going on here?” Blair asked, and was blasted in the frost of Glimmerman’s gaze.
“The terms of the contract have changed, Mr Sandburg. I receive a substantial sum of money and a small bonus for ensuring that you do not die. Your friend was kind enough to deliver the message to me in good time.”
Blair wondered what sort of delivery arrangements involved Jim marked with blood. “Come on,” Jim said, holding out one hand to Blair. “We’re out of here.”
“Once you put that away,” Glimmerman said, his eyes on Jim’s gun. “I’ll escort you off my premises, very happily, but you will no longer threaten me. We have a deal.”
Jim paused, and then holstered his weapon. His gaze flicked over Blair. “He’ll want his things back. We wouldn’t want him walking the streets out there inappropriately attired.”
Glimmerman bared his teeth. “But of course. Let’s make sure that this is all done... properly.”
Dazed, Blair found himself walking between Glimmerman and Jim, past at least two glowering men, back to Glimmerman’s private office, where his belongings were returned. Blair strapped on his gun harness, feeling unutterably silly between Glimmerman’s smooth malice and Jim’s cold-eyed determination.
Glimmerman ran his fingers across the glossy back of his chair.“I’m almost tempted to offer you a job since I’m not allowed to kill you. Mr... Ellison, was it?”
“Wouldn’t your current staff object?”
“I admire competency wherever I find it – and the two who might have the biggest problem are dead, after all.”
“Thank you, but I have other plans,” Jim said, as if he was turning down an offer at a business lunch.
“Off Klotho, I take it,” Glimmerman said, dark eyes turning to Blair.
“Yeah. A long way off Klotho,” Blair said.
“Excellent,” Glimmerman said with another baring of his teeth. “That will completely relieve me of any responsibility for your well-being. Let me show you out.”
They were escorted to the door, and stepped outside. It was night now, noisy and well-lit and busy. Jim slung an arm around Blair shoulders, an oddly possessive gesture given that they were still within sight of Glimmerman’s building, and hauled him towards the main thoroughfare. They walked for perhaps five minutes, before Blair realised that the edge of Jim’s jacket was damp, and that Jim’s arm was growing heavier across his shoulders. At the edge of an alleyway, Blair not very subtly checked Jim and rounded on him, one hand clenched into his jacket. Jim looked distracted, somehow. His face wasn’t pale or sweaty, but Blair knew that something was wrong.
“Are you hurt?” Blair’s adrenalin rush was nowhere near levelling out, and worry for Jim spiked it to new levels.
“Define hurt,” Jim said.
Blair’s lips drew back from his teeth. “Would you prefer ‘damaged’? ‘Dysfunctional’? Let me rephrase the question. How badly are you hurt?”
“I’ll be okay.”
“You don’t need to have made an enemy of Glimmerman. I swear I’ll kill you myself.”
Jim looked to gather some strength. “I will be okay. I promise.”
Blair looked up and down the street, unconvinced that Glimmerman’s vengeful henchmen wouldn’t descend on them any second now. “We should get back to the Monarch. It’s as safe as anywhere. Where have you left your things?”
Jim drew out of the pocket opposite to his holster the book of Sun Tzu. “I have this, and I have a little money left. Clothes I can replace.”
“How can you have any money left? How the hell did you convince Glimmerman to let us go!”
Jim put his arm over Blair’s shoulder again. They might be friends or lovers, out for an evening’s pleasure seeking. “You weren’t paying attention. Like Glimmerman said, all I did was bring him new information.”
Blair thrust his balled hands into his coat pockets, not daring to wrap an arm around Jim’s waist for fear that he’d hurt him.
“It’s a good thing you’re sentimental, Blair.” Jim’s voice was odd. Not breathless, not the way that Blair’s would be if he was hurt and struggling with it, but tight and rough. “I got the message through the ship’s key. From Anais.” He turned his head and inhaled. Smelling me, Blair thought. Jim’s wrist was digging into Blair’s shoulder. “Should have left your comm on. Might not have walked into his lair like that.” It came out slurred, and Blair changed his mind about holding on, instead aiming for a grasp high across Jim’s ribs.
“You can explain after we get back. And I’ve got enough money for a taxi so let’s try our luck.”
Blair steered them to the roadside, scanning the traffic for paid transport, and waving a frantic hand when he saw a marked vehicle which pulled over for them. Jim was folded into the back seat where he rested with his head against the seat back and his eyes shut, while Blair requested the docks as their destination.
“Fisticuffs tire your friend out, eh?” The driver was a heavy-set woman, grey-haired. Her gun was ostentatiously displayed in a holder in the front of the taxi, blocked from the reach of any backseat passengers.
Blair’s nails dug into his palms as he struggled for the tones of merchant boys out on the town. “Better some bar planetside than six weeks into h-space,” he enthused.
“Ain’t that the truth. Swear, there’s some boys get drunker on blood on their knuckles than they do on the booze.” This philosophy delivered, she was silent and Blair endured the rest of the ride watching Jim and working out a new commercial strategy, since he doubted he’d feel comfortable on Klotho any time in the next twenty years. One of Jim’s hands closed around Blair’s, arrhythmically clenching and unclenching, shading close to hurtful sometimes, and when they reached the docks and began to make their way to the Monarch’s entrance, Jim swayed.
“You told me you were okay!” Blair said, worry making him vehement. Jim was silent, and Blair all but shoved him inside the Monarch. They didn’t even make it to a cabin or the mess. Jim rasped out Blair’s name and grabbed for his hands, grasping one and clutching the other around Blair’s wrist. He dropped to his knees, pulling Blair with him in an awkward, genuflecting sprawl. “Jim! What is it? What’s wrong!”
Blair tried to pull free, but Jim’s hands were locked and squeezing tighter, grinding the bones in Blair’s hand and wrist. Jim’s head was bowed, and he shook, tremors juddering across his arms and shoulders, the tendons of his neck standing out with terrifying definition.
“Jim! Damn it, let go!” There was no response, and Blair tried to soften his voice, to coax Jim to release him “Jim, you’re hurting me, you have to let go, please, come on, Jim.”
The remorseless, painful grip only tightened. “Jim, you’re going to break my hand! Please....”
Jim lifted his head. His eyes were open and disoriented, and his mouth was caught in a rictus of effort. “It hurts... wrong mode...” His face distorted in what Blair could only interpret as silent agony.
“Oh god,” he cried, part fear for Jim, the larger part his own pain. He threw his head back, gasping for breath, certain that Jim had tried to tell him something with those despairing words – but what? Weeks of information grudgingly given, and Blair’s own sparse knowledge of HVs and his own speculations hardly equipped him to deal with this disaster. Modes... a word with very specific meaning in dealing with HVs. Blair took a breath, and tried to push the panic in him out as an urgent command. “GC3-JE, stand down!” His voice cracked. “GC3-JE, stand down!” Wrong, he was wrong, all the terrible possibilities of the next few seconds strobed in his thoughts.
And then Jim let go.
Blair collapsed against the corridor wall, hugging his hands to his chest with a whine, barely aware of Jim in the first ecstatic, agonised relief. He sat there, trying to breathe himself into calm, while his hand and wrist throbbed in time with the furious, gradually slowing beat of his heart. Jim had turned so that his back was to Blair, and he rose into a crouch, hands resting on his knees before he stood with fluid, painless ease.
“Good, that’s really good,” Blair murmured. Experimentally, he tried flexing his fingers and hissed, and then gasped in surprise as he was lifted effortlessly to his feet. Jim was behind him somehow, his hands on his shoulders.
“What sort of drugs do you have in the locker in the mess?” Jim asked, all business.
“The good ones. And there’s the coldpack.” He was shoved gently forward to the mess, and settled into a seat. The coldpack was held over his hand, which was already starting to bruise. Jim handed him drugs, draped a blanket across his shoulders. “You’re hurt too,” Blair said eventually.
Blair lifted his hand, completely in reflex, and rediscovered how much he moved his hands when he used them, and how much it hurt. “Damn it.” He took a breath, and another. “Can we start at the beginning?”
“Sure.” Agreement, but dull, without inflexion. Jim sat beside Blair. It was, Blair knew, easier to hide his expressions that way than if he sat opposite. A tilt of the head, and Jim Ellison was so much harder to read.
“You got a message. From Renault’s mother?”
Jim had grown familiar with the systems. Four months, Blair thought, watching as Jim shrugged off his jacket. There was still the smear of blood down his jaw. The smears on Jim’s knuckles had become grainy, lighter. He must have rubbed at them some time when Blair didn’t notice. Jim twisted the auxiliary screen towards Blair, and a woman looked out at them.
She must presumably be at least sixty, Blair thought. Clary had been sixty-six, and he’d worn his age like every year had been hard. This woman, Anais, looked like a vid version of old – her hair was white, but flatteringly styled. There were a few character marks around her eyes but otherwise her skin was clear and glowing, and she wore Cubero’s current fashions with elan.
“Hello, Joseph,” she said. “Renault showed me your message.”
Blair instinctively looked towards Jim at that, and saw the wince.
“He believed you, but...” She sighed. “He wanted to do things the safe way. The deniable way, and I pointed out that if he wanted to protect our reputations that he couldn’t afford the time. I hope that my bluff was nearly as good as yours. So I’ll trust that you’ll destroy this, and I’ll trust that Mr Sandburg will let you do so. The file with the information you need is attached to this, Joseph. To release the encryption, use the first name I gave you as a key. I’m sure you remember.
“I plan to be a far more gracious mother. Perhaps, after a while, Renault will forgive us both.” The brittle maquillage of hauteur cracked – only briefly. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you when you tried to warn me. It made it harder for you to leave than it should have been. Take care of yourself, Joseph. Enjoy your life.”
Jim shut the screen down.
“So she gave you what you needed to call Glimmerman’s people off?”
“More or less.” Jim’s hand scrubbed over the grimier set of knuckles. “She told me who to contact, what to say. And she finally broke the last blocks I had.”
Blair kept hurting for Jim. It only seemed to make him more determined to keep him close.“You killed two of Glimmerman’s people.”
“The ones that had been watching us. I was in too much of a hurry to get to you, and they cornered me.” Jim’s hands curled into fists. “If they’d killed me, they’d have killed you.”
A queasy elation filled Blair at the thought of Jim killing someone on his behalf.
“It’s too easy to kill people,” Jim muttered.
“I don’t think you found it easy at all.” Blair put out his less painful hand and laid it on Jim’s shoulder, suddenly sure that the breakdown in the corridor hadn’t been due entirely to physical injury. “You were hurting, and you associated me with comfort, right?” He thought of the acuity of Jim’s senses – how he’d have seen, and heard; smelled and felt. “And you kept opening up to me, even though you were hurting, and it went wrong somehow.” The last words were more a question than a statement. Jim nodded. “And then...” Blair felt close to tears. This was Jim next to him, as human as anyone that Blair had ever known, and Blair had treated him like a malfunctioning piece of machinery.
“It worked. It’s what I hoped that you’d do. Security mode – I was a lot more detached that way. God – the first time I started playing around with touch, with taste...” A slightly shamed smile appeared. “It scared the hell out of Anais.”
“Tell me about it one day,” Blair said.
Incredulity blazed on Jim’s face. “I nearly crippled you. I couldn’t control myself and I nearly broke bones. You drop me off at your next destination, and that’s an end of it. I’ve made you powerful enemies on two planets already!”
“It’s a big universe. I’m sure we could make a lot more enemies yet. And I think that you know your own responses better now. What you did was a mistake. You’ll learn.”
Jim shook his head. “Blair....”
Blair wished that he could grip better, that he could pincer his hand against Jim’s shoulder and never let go. “Look. Four months wasn’t enough. Not with you. I don’t know what will be. It’s six weeks to my next delivery.”
“Everything’s automated. I’ll manage. Drugs, a brace for support. I’ll manage, and you can help. And then it’s six weeks, and if you still want to leave, then you can. But I bet you won’t want to.”
Jim’s eyes widened. “Are you bribing me with what I think you are?”
Blair shifted closer to Jim on the bench. “Yup.”
“What about your issues? Your weird vibe?”
Always angriest when he was most hurt, not most threatened. Blair had that figured out, if nothing else, and he sobered. “The way I see it, this ended up being a sort of rite of passage. And rites of passage deserve celebration, and there is nothing more celebratory than sex, therefore....”
“Actually, according to Glimmerman, I have a name for eccentricity. It’s an entirely different thing.”
Jim said nothing, but he lurched towards Blair, clumsy with emotion, and cupped his hand around the back of Blair’s head so that he could press their foreheads together.
“Okay. Six weeks.”
“And now you can show me how badly you’re hurt.” Blair nuzzled gently across Jim’s cheek.
Jim sighed. “It’s only a crease. I’m tough. It’ll heal itself. God, I’m sorry, Blair. So sorry.”
“Hey, it’s okay. Just show me. Please.”
Jim released him, staring at him for a moment. Blair smiled, assured that whatever was in his smile, he’d never shown it to anyone else. And then Jim stripped off his shirt, and let Blair see him.