Disclaimer: This story contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: email@example.com
Author's Note: Yeah yeah, it's been two months, I suck. (Especially considering where I left off last time...) But between a job, classes, and other distractions sometimes you just don't feel like writing. Heh, these prefaces seem to be nothing but excuses as of late. Maybe next time I'll blame an errant dog. For now, enjoy the tenth chapter!
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|Lethe Incipient||Part X
Rising swiftly into the stream of starships heading to and from the Andromeda jump potential, four sleek Orion cruisers sliced through space in a precise tetrahedral formation, with the Synochrion taking the lead. Like sharks cruising through a shoal of herring, the smaller civilian vessels parted before the faster warships and fell back into their wake. In a single orchestrated movement, all four ships unfolded slender jump vanes from beneath their knife-like bows and vanished in a flash of light.
"Alright, y'all can breathe now," Dreamer said, watching the scene from the bridge. Behind him, Lirelle and Sabrin witnessed the action silently, absorbed in their own thoughts. Tallas of course was nowhere to be seen; in the past two days it seemed that wherever Sabrin was, he found somewhere else to be. Dreamer held back a sigh at the pall that had descended over the ship like an impenetrable fog. He turned in time to see Sabrin shuffle dejectedly from the bridge with the carriage of a centenarian, knowing that it would be futile to attempt conversation with him. "Can't stand it," he muttered under his breath as he leaned against a wall.
"Still not talking?" Lirelle looked up from her console, where she had just begun a propulsion system diagnostic.
"Nope," Dreamer said exasperatedly. Since Tallas' return neither Orion has uttered more than monosyllables to each other or anyone else. "No point in talkin' to either of 'em," he spoke of his earlier efforts. Reaching into his hip pocket, Dreamer fished out the small amber marble he took from Tallas earlier. He rolled it between his fingers, affixing it with a glare as if it objectified the source of his frustrations. "How could've he been so stupid?" he asked rhetorically.
"No harm was done," Lirelle reminded him.
"By sheer dumb luck," Dreamer frowned, "What the fuck was he thinking, usin' this thing without havin' me scan it first? It could've been a bomb for all he knew." He dropped the device back into his pocket and paced across the bridge, continuing his rant. "And turnin' off his comlink? He could've been dead in a ditch and we would've no idea."
"Forseti doesn't have ditches," Lirelle commented dryly, provoking another glare in turn. "You already went over all this with Tallas," she referred to the loud and dramatically one-sided exchange between the two upon Tallas' unannounced return, "Just drop it."
"I can't just 'drop it,'" Dreamer answered, "He's gotta know how huge a risk he took with that little stunt. Even if I have to hammer it into his thick skull."
"At least...let it alone for a time, alright Dreamer?" Lirelle suggested calmly.
Dreamer gave her a look that signalled his begrudging acceptance, before settling down at the opposite aft console. Frustration and a slew of other emotions swirled inside his digital mindscape, compounded by the lack of an appropriate outlet.
"When did the signal cease?" Lirelle asked.
"It finally stopped flashin' at 0827 hours. Two hours before the Orions left," Dreamer answered.
"Did you inform Tallas?"
"Yup," a gust of air blew past Dreamer's lips.
Lirelle nodded, thinking for a moment. She decided a change of topic was in order and enquired, "Any ideas for our next move?"
"A few," Dreamer raised his eyebrows in thought, "Definitely shouldn't stay here too long; with both the Orions and the Kinjori huntin' us I'd rather we be farther away. Wish we could head to the frontier and go jump huntin' like I used to but I don't think Sabe's got the experience," a note of nostalgia appeared in his voice, "I don't s'pose you do either?"
"I am admittedly a bit rusty." Lirelle nodded in agreement; a farship like the Dream of Dawn was designed for seeking out uncharted jump potentials between systems old and new, but their small crew was decidedly callow for such a hazardous, albeit lucrative, field. There was always the risk of ending up in a hazardous region of space or being trapped near an unfamiliar star, not to mention the cutthroat competition to find the next commerce portal or nexus system.
"I figured," Dreamer shrugged, "Well, I'll settle for headin' somewhere safer."
"Isis is a neutral system," Lirelle noted facetiously.
"Please. Their neutrality's more like a free-for-all," Dreamer replied, rolling his eyes. "I was thinking more a star system that wouldn't welcome a flotilla of hostile Kinjori warships with a docking fee discount." He pushed off from the chair and brought up the image of a blue-green sphere on the master situations display. "Someplace like Mnemosyne," he proposed none too subtly.
"The Alya System?" Lirelle raised a questioning eyebrow. "It's not exactly low-profile."
"No, but I'd feel safer under the shadow of their fleet than anyone else's," Dreamer said, "Also, it so happens I have some acquaintances there."
"Friendly ones?" Lirelle asked dryly.
"Favor-owing ones," Dreamer gave a lopsided grin. "Oh yeah, I pulled this off the Nimrud net this mornin'. It's on our way and I think we should consider it," the screen switched to display the relevant data.
"Two metric tons cargo shipment to Kion'Seg, in twelve days or less?" Lirelle said skeptically, scanning the advertisement, "That's impossible. Isn't it eight non-coincident jumps away?"
"I'm a farship, remember?" Dreamer smirked. "We can make it, if we max out the ion engines between potentials and jump at far range."
"This is nearly double the fee of most custom cargo runs," Lirelle commented, eyeing the long string of numbers in bold. "Why does he need the cargo delivered there so quickly?"
"Does it matter? It's good money don't ya think?" Dreamer asked.
"It's interesting, but we should discuss it with the boys," Lirelle said in a tone indicating she was anything but looking forward to that conference. Yet again she wondered what could have transpired to break the best friends apart. Empathy flared in her heart for both of them.
"That'll be a party," Dreamer sighed.
They stumbled into the small, darkened room, unheedful of the tarnished, distastefully-painted walls or the worn, incompatible furniture. The door slid closed behind them with a grating hiss, locking automatically with a heavy clang. Under duress for a discreet locale, they had sought out this small, run-down hotel tucked away in the lower levels, near one of the many sprawling industrial centers in the outer reaches of Forseti Station. These were places of perpetual night, inhabited by all manners of the forgotten eking out a life through the shadows...where two men could disappear without ever being noticed. A faint haze tinged the air, that whispered the sound of distant machinery.
Hands grasped frantically at offending buttons and zippers while their mouths grappled with each other with the frenzy of burrowed time. Each article of clothing removed laid crumpled where it fell, leaving a trail from the door to the stained, threadbare mattress in the center of the room. There were no words, only the arrhythmic breathing straining against the sweltering air and the thunderous pounding of their mutual heartbeats. The pair foundered blindly onto the bed with nothing between them but searing skin, made slippery with sweat. The taller man rolled over, bracing the opposing face with his strong hands and pressing his mouth back onto the other's swollen lips with bruising force.
The younger man squirmed beneath the assault, his mind reduced to the most basic impulses by the mix of pain and pleasure surging through every nerve in his body. His lithe back arched upwards to grind his body closer into the man above him, urging him forward. His fingers scraped over the taut muscles sheathing the other's shoulder blades, leaving angry red marks. Delirious heat poured over his senses, exploding stars across his vision. The world slipped away as he fell deeper and deeper into the dream.
The aggressive kisses moved down, from his jawline to the delicate skin of his neck, into the sensitive hollow between his collarbones. Teeth grazed the velvet surface possessively, like arcs of electricity scorching the skin in their ardor. Incoherent moans issued from the younger man's throat as his neck pushed his head into the flat pillow, struggling to cope with the intensity. His aching muscles sent pinpricks to his brain, seeming to set his nerves aflame and compounding the almost unbearable sensations. His body struggled manically beneath the other man, pressing every part of them together that he could but still desperate for more.
With a single fluid motion the taller man pinned his partner's arms above his head and locked his mouth on the muscles on his chest, pulled tightly out and standing in sharp relief in the faint red glow of the sign just outside the grimy window. He laved one blood-engorged nipple, and then the other, brushing his teeth over them and sending wild tremors through the body beneath him. He kissed down the spasming abdominals and then worked his way back up, spurred on by the younger man's fingers raking through his thick brown hair, digging into his scalp.
Dull brown eyes gazed out the small ellipsoid window at the off-gray alloy plating of the docking arm and its various small details, seeing none of it. Tallas' sight was turned inward, to the struggle of his mind against the strangling void deep inside. It was a losing battle; ever more now the screaming pain surged closer to the surface, and he wore himself to the brink to fight it back. Dried tear tracks evidenced when the sorrow bled through, but he couldn't allow himself to break. If he did he would finally be surrendering to the loss of the only person he ever loved, and he didn't know if he could survive that.
Another wave of emotion wells upwards, agonizing and crushingly intense. Unconsciously Tallas clenched shut his eyes and hands, wrestling the pain back into its reservoir. When he opened his eyes again, they are brimming with liquid, which he wiped away angrily. A small gasp slipped past, and he realized the slightly bitter taste in his mouth. What've I done?
Tallas' faltering eyes drift back down to his hands and the glossy pad held between them, to the fine lines of formally phrased text. He took a deep breath and set it aside on the desk; four hours and not a single word was absorbed. Idly he wondered how many tears he could cry before his eyes ran dry. A thousand tears to blunt the pain and a thousand more to forget it all, along with himself. Why do I have to love him? Now he couldn't face his former best friend, terrified to witness distant cold reflected in those beautiful blue eyes. Desperately he wanted to reach inside his chest and tear out the part of him capable of love, showing it to Sabrin to re-prove himself worthy of their friendship. At that moment he would've given anything to turn back the clock, to take back everything he said in that fateful twilight and everything he did afterwards. To somehow find again the wondrous equilibrium he once took for granted.
A flood of guilt washed through his mind when that name resurfaced. The experiences that had been so vivid and intense merely a day ago were now shrouded in haze, as though he had dreamed the entire thing. Why? There were no answers in those memories, only more questions. Did he walk into the park that night, with the intention of seducing his childhood friend? His thoughts were so...confused, jumbled together and so clouded by pain he couldn't begin to unravel them. Only one truth stood out with absolute clarity: it was a mistake, and Tallas hated himself for inflicting it.
He couldn't love Mark. No one had replaced Sabrin's place in his heart and Tallas feared that no one ever could. When he thought to Mark -- so cute, and intelligent, and kind -- he felt only remorse, not love; for using his friend as an outlet for his emotional turmoil. Dreamer told him that Mark had tried to raise him on the transponder for several hours, but whether it was cowardice or dread that prevented him from responding, it was just one more mistake tallied to his score. Now Mark and the Orion warships were gone, and with them any hope of conciliation. Never in his life had Tallas felt so utterly, pitilessly lost, teetering dangerously on the brink of an abyss. Leaning his head back against the cool metal wall, Tallas closed his reddened eyes and wished helplessly for a way out of the fog.
"Tal? C'mon, conference," Dreamer said curtly over the intercom, disturbing Tallas' self-imposed solitude.
"Do it without me," Tallas answered without moving.
"This isn't a request," the annoyance in the A.I.'s voice provoked a reciprocal amount of anger in Tallas, "Trauma or no trauma we still have a ship to run. Move it!"
"Last I checked you weren't my keeper so fuck off," Tallas growled.
"Tal..." Dreamer's tone changed from imperative to reasoning, "Look, I don't wanna argue again, but this is important. We need to decide what we're doing next." His image appeared on the wall monitor to reinforce his point, "You need to be there." His black eyebrows set themselves into a firm line above his steely eyes, "And like it or not, the universe doesn't hold still when you want it to. There'll be times when you've got to swallow whatever it is and keep goin'. I'm already short-handed with just the four of us; we can't afford to lose you right now."
"Easy for you to say," Tallas whispered.
"You don't know." There was something fleeting in Dreamer's voice -- bitterness, perhaps? He turned a baleful eye to the monitor. "I will override this door and carry you up there personally."
"Okay, okay..." Tallas grudging rose from the bed, searching for his discarded uniform. Every part of his body ached, and his wildly disarrayed blonde hair would've been funny were it not for the sallow expression on his face. Tactfully, Dreamer disappeared from the monitor while he slowly dressed, though his avatar was standing right outside the door when Tallas emerged. The sudden bright light pierced into his darkness-accustomed eyes and he grimaced, staggering back a bit. He felt a warm, steadying hand on his arm.
"Careful 'ere, wouldn't want ya to trip," Dreamer said gently.
"Let's get this over with." Tallas managed to regain his poise, shrugging off Dreamer's hand and not catching the tall man's brief, hurt look. Silently the two of them made their way to the bridge, where Lirelle and Sabrin were already waiting. Tallas turned his eyes to the deck as he entered the room and slumped into the closest chair. Therefore he missed the fact that his best friend looked like hell, and the unmitigated pain that flashed through his sky blues. The tension in the air was palpable.
Clearing his throat for their attentions, Dreamer began the meeting with an update on the state of the ship's systems and the results of his sale of the salvaged cargo. Tallas sat stiffly with his hands resting limply on his lap, endeavoring to pay attention and ignore the treacherous pounding of his heart from Sabrin's presence. His breaths were trembling and unsteady, wavering with his struggle to maintain control. Sabrin was so close, barely an arm's distance away, but he was still off-limits to him. And the fact was that no matter how close they were, he could never bridge that distance for even the slightest touch of the man he loved. Tallas bit down hard on his lip; he couldn't let Sabrin see how damaged he was.
"As it stands now," Dreamer said, "We'll have enough saved up to cover basic operating expenses for a while, assuming we don't get saddled with any major damage. I think the best thing for us to do is to head for Mnemosyne, a non-aligned planet ten jumps from here in the Alya System. It's pretty far out of the way for both the Orions and the Kinjori, and Mems're kinda gung-ho 'bout their sovereignty so anybody after us won't be able to just waltz in with a warship." Dreamer paused, glancing between the two Orions and seeing no forthcoming comments.
"We'll go through the Magellanic Cloud since it's faster an' safer. On the way we can make a small detour to Kion'Seg," Dreamer continued, displaying the same information he showed Lirelle earlier. "A 'Dr. Pasiare Channing' from Nimrud wants some cargo delivered there in twelve days and he's offerin' a lot to get it done. We're one of the few ships here who can manage that and it's pretty good money." He dismissed the floating holographic image. "What d'y'all think?"
"Sabrin?" Lirelle prompted, "Considering you'll be piloting part of any future excursion, what're your thoughts?"
"Oh, uh..." the sound of Sabrin's voice, worn as it was, sent shivers down Tallas' spine. "It sounds okay."
"This'll require a lot of high-precision jump piloting," Dreamer asked more specifically, "You up for it?"
"I think so; I've been practicing the calculations," Sabrin said, barely disguising the fact that those calculations were little more than a failed distraction from his sorrow.
"Tal? You have any thoughts?" Lirelle asked.
"Not really," Tallas gave a subdued shrug, keeping his eyes glued to the tabletop.
"Alright then," Dreamer sighed and dimmed the room with a wave of his hand for flourish, bringing up a starmap displaying the relevant route between the planets Nimrud and Mnemnosyne. In the age of instantaneous intersystem travel, cartographers of the human universe found it more useful to arrange stars by their jump linkages. Therefore, the spherical dots appearing on the map in the room bore little resemblance to their host stars' actual configuration in space. A flurry of lines surrounded each one, tracing every known possible destination from each potential, a number which ranged from the dozens to the hundreds. Analyzing it in a meaningful way without computer assistance was quite beyond the capacity of any ordinary human.
One particular route was highlighted in green, with labels accompanying each waypoint. "There are some considerations," Dreamer manifested new aspects to the map as he spoke, "There's been reports of increased pirate activity in the area around Jotunheim and Fenea-Higassa; so, there'll be an off chance that when we pass through--"
The even rhythm of Dreamer's drawling speech faded into the background as Tallas' attention drifted to the bewilderingly complex starmap slowly rotating above the table. There were so many pinpoints of light, and yet they represented but a tiny fraction of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, much less any of the other galaxies within reach. His eyes shifted aimlessly from line to line, grasping for traces of a pattern which didn't exist -- or at least not widely believed to exist. In a detached, meandering way, Tallas could almost begin to see something beneath it all.
Somehow, Tallas' vision settled in Sabrin's direction and re-focused past the lines to him. Sabrin was staring at him, his piercing ultramarine eyes reflecting the multitude of pale lines and points between them. His gaze was such that it seemed to reach directly into Tallas' soul, halting his breath in his throat. There was no confusion or doubt in those depths, only an unwavering intensity that set Tallas' heart pounding. Immediately the fury of emotions returned to the surface, but for his life Tallas couldn't look away. As though seized by an infinite cosmic force, his eyes remained locked with those of the man across the table, so impossibly blue and pure that all the universe dwindled around it.
Suddenly, the stars disappeared and the lights brightened into normality. Tallas blinked rapidly, struggling to regain himself. He looked to Dreamer and saw the android mouthing "you alright?" with a concerned expression. Shakily he discovered a single tear crawling down his cheek; he hadn't even realized its presence.
"Oh, yeah I...yeah," Tallas stammered, hastily wiping the droplet away and hoping that Sabrin didn't notice.
"Um, okay," Dreamer chose not to pursue the issue, "So, none of these jumps are particularly difficult, and we should be okay with runnin' the sublight engines 15% above recommended threshold, as long as we shunt the plasma flow between drive coils every eight hours." Dreamer leaned on his hands over the table. "Well, you guys in for this?" The two young men nodded wearily.
"Good. Here," Dreamer handed Sabrin a copy of the job information, "Look that over; We'll have to interview the employer and you're gonna be there."
"Interview?" Sabrin queried apprehensively, "Why?"
"What? You thought he's just gonna hire us off our impartial word?" Dreamer said sarcastically, "You and Lirelle're gonna be convincin' 'im that you can actually jump his cargo there on time and in one piece. I wouldn't mention that you only made your first-ever jump three weeks ago."
"When will this be?" Lirelle asked.
"Tonight, 1730 hours station time at the Blue Night Cafe. I just talked with Dr. Channing and he's eager to meet both of you," Dreamer said with a tight smile. One of the advantages of being an A.I. was flawless multi-tasking, and Dreamer didn't believe in procrastination. "I've downloaded the details to your desk viewers; I'd suggest lookin' 'em over. Unless there's anythin' else, I think we're done here."
As soon as he was released, Tallas stood up and retreated hastily from the room, eyes fixed to the floor the entire way. After a brief, helpless look after his direction, Sabrin turned and headed away as well, through the other door.
With a heave, the young man flipped over his heavier partner, throwing his legs to both sides of the larger man's waist and renewing the frenetic embrace of their lips. The man beneath him reared up to meet the chest of the blonde straddling him, closing his muscled arms around the other's graceful torso. Thus locked together, the two writhed as a single form, their tongues wresting across the bridge of their mouths. The young man pushed the other man back and latched onto his neck with a vengeance, inflicting colorful marks.
"Hey, easy..." the taller man hissed through his clenched teeth, twisting as sparks of pain intermingled with pleasure from the attack on his over-sensitized skin. The pressure from the younger man only lessened slightly, though he moved from beneath the collarbone to the fresh skin covering the sternum. Their hands roamed over each other's slick backs, pulling them closer together.
Suddenly, the blonde pushed the other man back on to the bed and ducked down to glide across the defined abdominal muscles. His tongue dived into the small dip of the bellybutton, causing the body beneath it to buck wildly in response. A gasp floated past the taller man's lips as his partner teased him with his tongue, the flickering touch making itself barely known. His hands slipped beneath the blonde's arms and hoisted him back up for another crushingly deep kiss. The sensations were almost too intense for them to endure, blanking out the last of their minds and rendering them little more than a mass of animal instincts; subtle and delicate they were not, and the two men jousted with each other as though even an instant of ease would shatter their moment. Their bodies now moved of their own accord, their owners barely aware of each individual touch or caress as they merged into a single dazzling flow of pleasure.
The younger man rubbed his cheek against the pillow, a guttural, pleading moan sounding from his lips. His trembling hands bunched the bedsheets beneath them as he felt the overbearing pressure of the other man above him, pinning him into the mattress. There were ragged breaths near his ear, tickling the fine hairs on the back of his neck, and then he felt breezy kisses planted along his spine and over his shoulders. "C'mon..." his reinforced his barely coherent words by flexing his hips upwards. The other man's body responded in kind, but there was a trace of hesitancy in his movements.
"I..." there was shuffling above him; an arm over the side of the bed, searching, "There isn't..."
Frustratedly the blonde contorted his body around so that he was facing the man above him. His limbs rose to wrap around that solid body, halting the other man's movements. Craning his neck upwards, he continued the kiss until he felt the resistance slipping away from his partner. The other man ground reflexively against him and his resolve faltered for a moment, but then a twinge of heartache resurfaced in his chest and he drove himself to go on. The blonde closed his eyes, feeling the other man's ministrations but knowing it wouldn't be enough. "I need you..." he whimpered, pulling the other man against himself and increasing the ferocity of his kisses. They were so close...
A shudder announced the Dream of Dawn's disengagement from the docking boom, under Lirelle's sure hands. She and Dreamer were on the bridge, guiding them away from Forseti and towards the jump potential for the Large Magellanic Cloud. The silver framework of the station slid past the portal, drawing thinner and thinner as distance grew between it and the ship. Their stay totalled only five days, but it seemed an entire lifetime had passed. From his bed Sabrin gazed away from the massive station, to the massed ships that appeared first in ones, then in dozens and finally hundreds. The small silhouette of the Dream darted upwards, between lumbering behemoths that dwarfed it as an elephant would a mouse, and leaving them far behind.
"Prepare for intergalactic jump," Dreamer's voice appeared to give them fair warning, "Optimal velocity in ten seconds."
Sabrin closed his eyes and waited for the sensation to pass. The jump was over an instant after it began, but nevertheless his body protested otherwise. Sabrin took a couple calming breaths and allowed his heartbeat to subside before opening his eyes again. Four stars shone out in the darkness -- two blue, one white, and one yellow -- comprising the quaternary counterpart to the Isis System on this side. He searched for some sign that they had in fact traversed almost two hundred thousand light-years, but it felt no different than any of his previous jumps. Their companion vessels rapidly melted away as they headed for their disparate destinations.
How many days had it been without so much as a complete sentence from his best friend? Somehow Sabrin had managed to pull through the interview with their client, with no small amount of ungentle prodding on Dreamer's part. Dr. Pasiare Channing was a diminutive, unassuming man in his late sixties, with wiry brown hair graying severely from the temples. A sharply patrician nose dominated his face, while a pair of brown eyes bore just the slightest glint of mania. The man's actions were jittery and fleeting, reminding Sabrin of a hummingbird, but he was courteous enough when he wasn't distracted by some tangent. The former Academician had evaluated them with a minimum of fuss and offered a contract after only half an hour. The next afternoon sixteen heavily insulated blue crates were delivered to them and they wasted little time in departing. Sabrin didn't bemoan that; for him Nimrud had lost its luster.
Time dragged indeterminately on as the Dream maintained a rapid pace towards its destination. Lirelle and Sabrin split the jumps between them, and in between Sabrin milled about, sullenly performing menial shipboard tasks with Dreamer. Back on Forseti, the A.I. had blamed him for leaving Tallas alone on the station and for Tallas' current condition; Dreamer made his thoughts perfectly clear the morning afterwards, while Sabrin simply sat and absorbed it, knowing that he deserved it all and more. He had no idea where Tallas had gone the entire night, and he was afraid to learn the truth. He recalled Dreamer leaving to search the station with a worried expression etched on his handsome face, and being so scared that something terrible had happened. When Tallas finally appeared at the airlock, Sabrin wanted more than anything to wrap his friend in his arms and never let go, but his shame was too overwhelming and he turned away -- again.
Now, the farship seemed to wax sympathetic as his depression deepened. Dreamer tried talking to him more than once, even attempting a joke now and then, but Sabrin remained obstinate. He could tell that the A.I. was growing frustrated with both of them and had likely already guessed what happened, but he simply couldn't speak about what he'd done. Lirelle, for her part, stayed out of the way and performed her duties with quiet efficiency, for which he was grateful since the last thing he needed to consider was the topic of her loyalty.
In his off hours, when Dreamer insisted that he take them, Sabrin would drive himself to exhaustion on the newly installed equipment in the ship's gym. Unfortunately, Tallas often had the same idea and then he could only lay on his lonely bed, staring blankly at the patterns of light on the ceiling. One of those unwelcome periods of forced introspection was where he found himself after the Dream leapt through the seventh of the ten total intersystem jumps to Mnemnosyne, where they were to make their detour. Bathed in the ruddy light of the red giant Vajrahm, he sighed and wondered for the millionth time how he could have fucked everything up so badly. Tallas was avoiding him tenaciously, reversing direction without pretense the instant they caught sight of each other. Sabrin almost wished that Tallas had been angry that afternoon, if his friend had cursed or hit or thrown objects at him; every time he glimpsed the raw, naked pain in Tallas' liquid brown eyes, it felt like a dagger plunging into his chest. His heart would wring so drastically that he could barely move or breathe. To know that he had hurt so deeply the person he cared for more than anyone else -- Sabrin despised himself with an unyielding fury that occupied his very being.
God fuckin' damn it! Hot tears rolled down Sabrin's cheeks and soaked into his rumpled T-shirt as he slammed his fist onto the wall, unmindful of the pain shooting up his arm. Why did I just stand there like some fuckin' retard?! He cursed himself every way he knew how, for being such a coward and weakling, to have scorned the man he... that I love.
Yes, I do love him. The admission left him breathless. Dreamer was right all along, and some part of Sabrin always knew that. I love him. I love him... Each time the words were easier to say, breaking down another part of the wall Sabrin had erected within himself without even realizing it. I love him... More tears emerged from his eyes, pain intermingled with joy as an indescribable sense of warmth spread through his frayed nerves. He loved Tallas, his best friend -- how could he have thought it would be any other way? The words felt so natural -- he knew he was meant to say them, over and over until the end of time. He remembered when he saw Tallas in the conference room, the demure features catching the light -- he consumed the memory as though he were a blind man seeing a sunrise for the first time; the perfection he could never allow himself, until now.
But as quickly as that effervescent epiphany appeared, the walls closed in again when Sabrin remembered that he had turned away his love when he exposed his heart. The ache was startling, piercing more deeply as the full realization of what he had done materialized in Sabrin's mind. Plaintively he closed his eyes and searched for deliverance, wondering why he was so afraid.
It seemed that every day that passed the gulf between them grew wider and more insurmountable. He had felt Tallas' love that day, shining so bright that he cowered beneath its radiance, and pushed it away as though it meant nothing to him. In the light of the fading sun he had rejected and crushed something so absolutely precious and so beautiful, that he feared it was forever destroyed. He remembered seeing the light drain from Tallas' face, replaced by the ashes of a dying love he in no way deserved.
That was the fear that gripped his soul: that Tallas' love burned so intensely that it could only offer him a single chance to accept it. Desperately Sabrin clung to the hope that a last few embers still blazed there, that there was still some way to rekindle that radiance. He hadn't the strength to contemplate the alternative.
"Sabe," Dreamer's voice roused him from his solitude, "The port stabilization gyro's actin' up. You wanna help?"
"Okay, be right there," Sabrin swung himself off the bed and pulled on his dark blue uniform pants, running a hand to smooth his mussed hair. He met Dreamer in the hallway, and the two of them made their way to the maintenance conduit on deck four. Since Sabrin was still learning the inner workings of the ship, he looked over Dreamer's shoulder and handed him tools while the crouched android performed the actual operation. There were usually few words exchanged between them, especially in the last week or so, but today Sabrin felt compelled otherwise. "Dreamer, can we maybe talk a little?"
Dreamer turned to face him, expressing mild surprise with a raised eyebrow. "Now you wanna talk to me?"
"Yeah," Sabrin dropped his eyes and took a deep breath, "I know I haven't been very good company lately but..there's a lot on my mind and I think I just need somebody to listen."
The black-haired man seemed to consider this. "You and Tal?"
"Wasn't that hard," Dreamer shrugged nonchalantly and resumed working. "I may not've known you guys for all that long, but I can tell when somethin's goin' on."
"You've always been a lot more perceptive than I gave you credit for," Sabrin attempted a weak laugh, "...you knew me before I knew myself."
"You love him," Dreamer stated simply, turning so that his impassive gaze bore into Sabrin's eyes.
"Yeah," Sabrin whispered, fighting off the gathering tears. "God Dreamer, I love him so much."
Dreamer nodded slowly, compassion working its way behind those black irises. He set the positronic calibrator down on the deck and gave Sabrin his full attention. "Go on."
Haltingly and unsteadily, Sabrin recounted in detail what happened between him and Tallas on that afternoon. Dreamer listened quietly, no accusation or judgement appearing on his handsome face. Tears were coursing down Sabrin's cheeks as he forced himself to relive the memory, seared into his consciousness like a brand. Finally, he ground to a halt and slumped against the curved conduit wall, waiting for the inevitable condemnation. Instead, he felt himself drawn into the warm circle of Dreamer's arms. He buried his face into the crook of Dreamer's neck, allowing a few of the sobs to bleed through. Some number of minutes passed before he calmed and Dreamer shifted him back to arm's length.
"I hurt him so bad Dreamer...I can see it in his eyes..." Sabrin wiped his reddened eyes.
"Yes, you did," Dreamer said honestly.
"He has to hate me now," Sabrin shook his head sadly, "I can't say I blame him for that. I never thought I could love anyone as much as I love him...how could I do that to him?"
Dreamer paused, and then said, "We aren't so perfect that we always do the right thing."
"What am I gonna do now Dreamer?" Sabrin asked in despair. "I've fucked everything up..."
"Tell him the truth," Dreamer urged. "Tell him that you love him."
"He can't even stand to be in the same room as me," Sabrin bit his lower lip. "What if it's too late? I hurt him so much -- what if he can't ever forgive me? What if...what if he doesn't love me anymore?"
"You have to tell him," Dreamer said softly, "What you two have, it's the most precious thing in the universe. A person can go through an entire lifetime without ever finding it." His eyes spoke of sadness and loss. "If you don't tell him...if you don't ever see how far your love takes you, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."
He could no longer see; searing pain shot upwards through his body, exploding across his vision and branding into his mind. A scream rose and died in his throat, only a small yelp managing to make it through. He felt every excruciating detail as the other man pushed into him for what seemed like forever. It felt as though he were being torn apart, but he kept pressing with his legs, urging his companion deeper. He wanted to be awash in that glorious pain, for it to occupy his consciousness in lieu of everything else. The young man bit down hard on his lip, clamping down on his reaction so that his partner wouldn't lose his nerve.
Finally both bodies were still, the dark-haired man realizing with chagrin that it had hurt and waiting for his partner to adjust. Reddish light diffused through the window, casting the tiny dark room in an otherworldly hue.
Slowly at first, the man began to slide back and forth, his progress becoming easier though still transmitting a burning sensation with every stroke. The sheer sensations assailing his senses began to overwhelm his concern, and his motions gained speed. On the receiving end, what had been blinding pain tempered to a growing sense of euphoria, as his senses were overwhelmed with a pleasure he couldn't describe. His body thrashed involuntarily in the other man's embrace, pushing back to match his rhythm. The young man was losing himself, his mind dissolving further and further into the feverish ocean of pure feeling blazing through his entire being. "Harder..." he didn't even recognize his voice; as though possessed, their rhythm became more intense, more powerful. Their bodies pounded into the mattress, each thrust punctuated by inarticulate moans.
An eternity of time passed, until finally the man above him shuddered violently, every muscle tensing starkly with release. The reaction triggered his own shattering climax, bursting through his brain with the brilliance of a million supernovae, so intense that he thought he might pass out. When finally his trembling stopped and the sparks faded from his vision, he felt the other man collapsed atop him. Their bodies were still intertwined, heaving with their panting breaths and slick with sweat. Slowly, the larger man managed to slip off to one side, his arm still wrapped around his partner. "I love you..." he sighed.
The younger man couldn't respond had he wanted to; his entire body felt drained. Still reeling from the orgasm, he felt a well-muscled arm resting across his stomach and a robust leg between his own. Relaxing his body at last, he surrendered to the darkness with his friend's gentle breath on his neck.
The Dream of Dawn stabbed into the star system from the point of non-space, the slender blade beneath folding smoothly back into its usual flush position. They were eighteen million kilometers from Kion'Seg, the cloud-shrouded planet that was home to Dr. Channing's recipient. The jump controls faded from around Lirelle's hands, leaving only the familiar helm interface. Announcing their position and speed, she plotted a course towards the gray sphere at the Dream's standard cruising velocity of one-quarter light speed.
"Eight hours to spare," Dreamer noted in a pleased tone. "I've raised their planetary network...Contacting the address Channing gave us." A separate window opened on the viewscreen, displaying the real-time frequency trace that indicated an open channel. "Channel established," a plain, middle-aged man appeared on the screen, sitting behind a plain gray desk with his hands folded in front of him. Analyzing the signal, Dreamer recognized that it was a false image, created by a signal filter installed on the other side. "May I help you?" the digital simulacrum asked in a neutral voice.
"This is the vessel Dream of Dawn, bearing a cargo shipment from Dr. Pasiare Channing, out of Nimrud," Dreamer stated concisely.
"Yes, we have been expecting you. Please prepare to exchange authentification codes."
"Transmitting," Dreamer matched the stream of incoming data with the cypher key Dr. Channing provided. "Code sequence verified."
"Likewise Dream of Dawn, we are transmitting delivery instructions."
"Instructions received," Dreamer said after a few seconds. He perused the planetary approach protocols and cargo transfer details, and found them all fairly routine. "Our ETA to planetside is 33 minutes."
"Understood. Thank you." The screen went dark.
"Well, that was...easy," Lirelle commented, adjusting their course to match their assigned approach vector.
"Don't jinx it," Dreamer said dryly. "Take us down nice and easy, just like the simulations," he told her as they watched the planet approach, its circular edge transforming into a flat horizon. "Sabe, Tal, I'd recommend holdin' onto somethin'," Dreamer spoke through the intercom, shortly before a dull tremble appeared. It grew in intensity as the farship entered the upper reaches of the atmosphere, drawing a fiery contrail through the angry, rolling clouds. Long fins projecting from the Dream's engine pods splayed out, slowing and stabilizing their passage. Eventually, the ship broke through the cloud deck, cruising above an expanse of dark hills snaking and weaving between each other.
Graceful and light as a bird, the Dream banked and swung in an elegant arc down towards Kion'Seg's primary spaceport, outlined by a scattering of lights. Anti-grav systems hummed quietly, bringing the ship to a gentle hover above a circular landing pad. Three previously hidden legs extended from its rounded belly and made contact with the ground, supporting the ship while its engines wound down.
"We're down," the helm controls phased out of existence as Lirelle brushed the sweat off her brow. She unbuckled the straps holding her to the chair and loosened her tense muscles.
"They're right on time," Dreamer displayed a large hovertruck that had just arrived, aligning its altitude and position with the large cargo door at the Dream's tail.
"Shouldn't keep 'em waitin'," the two of them headed for the large aft cargo bay, where Dr. Channing's delivery sat amidst the salvaged materials they decided to keep. Just in case, Lirelle holstered her plasma pistol prominently on her hip as the cargo door unlatched with a heavy clang and slid upwards, revealing the blocky shape of the hovertruck silhouetted against the dismally gray landscape. Dreamer released the force-field, and immediately Lirelle felt a cold wind slicing right to her bones. Three human figures disembarked from the rear of the hovertruck, dressed in heavy furred overcoats to shield them against the bitter chill. The lead man, a gaunt shape with sunken eyes and dark blonde hair, approached first. His two subordinates trailed behind with a large anti-grav pallet.
"Greetings," the lead man said. "I am Balarys, here to accept the cargo."
Dreamer presented the pad for the man to input the password, so as to verify his identity. "I am the avatar of this vessel," he said once it chirped in the affirmative. "Your goods are this way," he gestured for the men to follow.
"We only need to perform a quick inspection, and then we'll take our leave," Balarys said, holding up a handheld scanner to the sealed blue boxes. "Everything seems to be in order," the lead man smiled and gestured dismissively for his two underlings to begin loading them onto the pallet.
"If you will sir," Dreamer presented the Confirmation of Transaction form when they were finished.
"Of course," Balarys pressed his thumb against the square until it chimed, "My compliments on your prompt service," he smiled again and headed back to the truck with the cargo. Dreamer and Lirelle watched the vehicle dwindle in the distance, until it could no longer be discerned amongst the howling winds. "Let's get goin'," Dreamer placed a warm hand on Lirelle's slender shoulder and guided her back into the ship, closing the cargo door behind them. Without ceremony the Dream lifted off again in a cloud of dust, climbing quickly back through the turbulent atmosphere into orbit. They had spent less than a half-hour on the surface.
"I wonder what Dr. Channing took the expense of shipping across eight jumps," Lirelle mused when they were back in orbit.
"We're freight runners now, we're not s'posed to ask," Dreamer said facetiously, "Alright, let's head back." Lirelle chuckled and returned to the pilot's seat, re-initializing the controls. The small ship turned and headed back for the jump potential at full speed. After a few minutes, a small internal sensor irregularity caught the A.I.'s attention -- an inconsistency in ambient radiation readings. "I'm pickin' up somethin' in the cargo bay."
"I can't get a clear readin' but it's definitely some sort of energy signature," Dreamer frowned. A number of possibilities ran through his mind, none of them good. "I'm gonna go check it out," he turned to leave the bridge. "Don't jump," he added as a precaution. He knew of a variety of unpleasant devices that were triggered by the power surge of an intersystem jump.
Cautiously, Dreamer re-entered the cargo bay, sweeping the space with his handheld scanner. The overhead lights were bright, but left plenty of shadows where something could be hidden. Now that Dreamer was closer though he had a fairly good idea of what he was dealing with. Relying on his hyper-sensitive senses, he stealthily crept against a stack of boxed subprocessor chips, towards a pile of deuterium injectors lying near the doors at the far end of the bay.
In a split-second, he reached around a corner in a single fluid movement and simultaneously pivoted sideways, swinging towards the blank metal of the door. A wildly strugging form was pinned between his right hand and the door, its kicking legs lifted several inches off the floor. Dreamer blinked as he realized that he was holding an adolescent boy in his immovable grip, no more than seventeen or eighteen years of age. His panicked, fear-filled eyes were large and bright green beneath a messy mop of white-blonde hair. The boy's gracile hands clawed frantically at Dreamer's solid arm in a desperate attempt to escape; Dreamer noticed his arms were muscled, if somewhat scrawny. Must've snuck onboard when we transferred the cargo, he thought as he relaxed his grip a bit and lowered the thrashing teen to the deck. "Hey, stop, I'm not gonna hurt ya," he said softly.
The boy didn't appear to have heard him as he simply struggled harder, and so Dreamer simply held on and waited for him to exhaust himself. It took a few minutes until his lightly built body stilled, panting heavily. Large eyes stared at him beseechingly, tears beginning to glisten along the delicately long lashes. Dreamer changed hands, shifting his grip from the boy's shirtfront to his arm and maintaining just enough pressure to assert his presence. "Lirelle? I got 'im," he spoke into the comn.
"Yeah, him," Dreamer confirmed, making a visual survey of the badly trembling boy. He was dressed in drab civilian clothes that were far too flimsy for the Kion'Seg cold, scuffed and torn from past trials. "We've got a stowaway," Dreamer informed her as he began walking out of the cargo bay, dragging the boy with him.
At those words the boy went pale, renewing his efforts at escape. A range of pitiable noises issued from his throat as he pushed uselessly against his captor. Not wanting to hurt him, finally Dreamer picked him up and carried the squirming body to the cargo lift. "Hold our position," he told Lirelle, "Meet me in sickbay." He watched fear, desperation, and pleading fighting for dominance on that young face, pulling at his heartstrings. The two of them entered sickbay and he wrestled the adolescent down onto the surgical table, always keeping at least one hand securely gripped. Lirelle walked in a moment later, her eyes widening at their unexpected passenger. "Lirelle, I think we need to give him a sedative," Dreamer said, fending off the teen's flailing arms and legs.
Lirelle nodded and retrieved something suitably mild from a nearby cabinet. The boy saw the medical instrument and bucked away wildly, crying out a garbled string of frantic protests. Dreamer hated it, but he held the terrified boy still as Lirelle pressed the hypo-syringe to his neck. At once the resistance melted away, and Dreamer was able to recline him gently on his back. The android simulated an exhalation of relief and stepped back to initiate a medical scan.
"I only administered enough to keep him unconscious a couple minutes. How did he slip past the internal sensors?" Lirelle asked in a hushed tone.
"This," Dreamer took a portable dampening field generator from the boy's breast pocket and handed it to her.
Lirelle approached the motionless form and smoothed out some of the adolescent's silvery hair with her hand, marvelling at how angelic he looked. "Well, this decidedly complicates matters," she murmured.
"Told ya not to jinx it," Dreamer said with a sardonic half-smile.
Morning came in its quiet manner, not disturbing the two men in their tiny pocket of the universe. The blonde regained his senses first, awoken by the soft but insistent snoring of his companion. The larger man was wrapped around him, the two of them practically stuck together. Weakly, he pulled himself up to lean against the headboard and took a bleary look around, taking in for the first time the sorry quality of the room and their clothes scattered about the floor. Beside him, Mark stirred slightly and snuggled in closer, a mild smile playing on his lips.
But instead of feeling enraptured in the afterglow of their union, all he felt was dirty and guilty. His first time with another person, and he wanted to forget it ever happened. Feeling a pressing need to take a shower, he gingerly extricated himself from Mark's arms. Fleeing into the bathroom, if it could be called that, he jumped into the simple decon unit and switched it on, closing his eyes as invisible fields scrubbed his body of the previous night. He became aware of the numerous reddened marks on his skin, and remembered that the same was true of Mark. Some of his muscles moved inappropriately, and he winced at the soreness. Memories of the previous night flooded back, but without the rosy tint of mid-intercourse. Why had he spurred Mark to be so aggressive? He found that he didn't like the answer.
After he emerged from the bathroom, he scrambled as quietly as he could about the room for his clothes, his face burning with shame. At some point he realized a pair of eyes regarding him and he raised his head to meet them. He felt worse when he saw the adoration in Mark's sleepy green orbs.
"Hi," Mark unfolded his six-two frame from the bed and stood up with a smile, the dim light highlighting the hard planes of his sculpted body. "You okay baby?" He asked with gentle concern as he massaged the blonde's shoulders, eyeing the bruises. "Are you sore?"
"Uh, not really," the younger man lied and forced a smile, all the while wriggling out from under Mark's touch.
"You're...going?" Mark sounded hurt, and the emotions worsened. As quickly as he could, the blonde pulled on his clothes, not meeting Mark's questioning eyes. Mark still reeked of sex, and he couldn't think clearly when the other man was so close. Now he was the one who needed to get out, but unfortunately he didn't have a way to without hurting Mark more.
"Yeah I...I should be getting back" he said miserably, edging towards the door. Mark remained where he was, standing naked in front of the bed, confused by the emotions roiling in his own mind.
"Talk again later?" Mark asked uncertainly. A sense of imporing in his large eyes made him look heart-wrenchingly innocent. The younger man blinked at his friend painfully and nodded without convinction, before heading out the door. When it slid shut, Mark sat down on the bed and traced the hickey left on the side of his neck. He glanced about the claustrophobic room, lost in his thoughts.
What am I still doing here? Sabrin gazed out at the dark clouds streaming past the window, wondering if Tallas was doing the same only two doors away. Was Tallas thinking about him at that moment? For the past few hours he'd mulled over what Dreamer had said, and actually stood at the door to Tallas' quarters a few times, only to back down at the last moment. He tried to rationalize it, thinking that perhaps there was a better moment or a better setting -- anything except that he couldn't find the courage to face how he failed his best friend again. He remembered how Tallas once said that he could never let him down, and laughed bitterly to himself. Yeah right.
Outside, the stars were gradually replacing the clouds as the ship continued its rapid ascent. The arc of the planet receded, and then swung out of view as the ship made the course adjustment to the potential. Sabrin stood up and thought about helping on the bridge, but considering how Dreamer glared at him when he appeared before the last jump, it was probably a bad idea if he hadn't talked to Tallas first. He thought about moving through their mutual bathroom, but it seemed too presumptuous and instead he found himself in the corridor. Bracing himself against the wall, he pressed his shaking finger to the door chime between himself and his future.
"Dreamer, I'm not in the mood right now," came a tired voice.
"It's...it's me," Sabrin said apprehensively, his heart pounding in his ears.
The silence dragged on and his heart sank, but then there was a small click and the door slid open, revealing Tallas' slender form. His hair was in its usual disarray and he was dressed in nothing more than a shirt and shorts. His cheeks were hollow and dark circles beneath his eyes spoke of sleepless nights, though he was nevertheless beautiful. "Come in," Tallas said softly without looking at him and returned to his small bed, drawing his legs up onto the mattress and resting his hands between them. Huddled in the corner, Sabrin thought he looked like a trapped animal, guarded and yet so terribly vulnerable; his insides contorted at the sight.
"How're things Sabe?" Tallas' quiet voice sounded strange in its tranquility.
"Not so good," Sabrin said truthfully, having trouble finding his voice. Slowly he approached edge of the bed and sat down facing his friend, careful not to seem crowding. "It hasn't been the same without you bud."
"Right," the defeat in Tallas' voice shook Sabrin to the core; silence settled once more between the pair. Sabrin took a deep breath and was just about to speak, when he noticed Tallas' hauntingly dark eyes glowing in his direction.
"I didn't mean it Sabe," Tallas said emotionlessly.
"What?!" Sabrin couldn't keep the desperation out of his voice. No, this isn't right!
"I was just confused and," each word was like a razor blade passing over Tallas' lips. He swallowed and forced himself to continue, "and emotional and...I said things I didn't mean. I'm s-sorry for freaking you out like that."
"That's not true," Sabrin shook his head in shock, but Tallas was staring right past him.
"Yes it is," Tallas insisted, on the verge of tears, "Can't we just forget it ever happened? Turn back time to what we had before?"
"Tal, we can't just pretend the last two weeks didn't happen," Sabrin said, his voice cracking.
"Why the fuck not?" Tallas' voice reached a frantic pitch and a few tears loosened, "Why're you making this so difficult?! Isn't this what you want?!" He wiped his eyes hastily and glared frustratedly at Sabrin with a bewildering mixture of anger and supplication on his face, as though he couldn't comprehend this turn of events, "I-I need to be your friend again Sabe. Damn it I don't need you to l-love me!" -- his lost control of his true self for a brief second -- "But I c-can't live without you being my best friend!"
"No, no Tal you don't understand I--" Dreamer's image interrupted them and Sabrin saw red. "Fuck off Dreamer!" he roared furiously to the monitor.
"Sorry, but we've got a situation," Dreamer said grimly. "I need you guys on the bridge."
"Can't it wait?!" Sabrin snarled. Shit, this isn't going at all like it's supposed to!
"We'll be right there Dreamer," Tallas said, shifting quietly off the bed to retrieve his uniform. The monitor blanked, and Sabrin could only sit where he was, shivering in stunned silence. "C'mon, let's go," Tallas prompted him from the door. In a daze, he stood up and followed.