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 2005 Devon Keene: firstname.lastname@example.org
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|Small Steps||Part XV
The slight breeze wafting across her chapped lips heralded Lirelle's return to the waking world. When her eyes opened she saw only darkness, that slowly resolved itself into the now-familiar details of the hospital ceiling. The breeze was the quiet exhalation of air vents; she curled her fingers and felt cool, silky sheets covering her. Even that small movement was taxing -- her entire body felt so unnaturally sapped of strength that she could barely register herself lying on the bed. I'm alive... Lirelle quested for the explanation through her foggy memories, but returned only with a frustrating jumble of vague images.
No, I should be dead... Is this a dream?
Slowly a voice appeared in the distance; Lirelle strained to discern the words but they seemed to dissolve away like sand through her fingers every time she got close. It flittered across her consciousness like a feather, teasing her across the miasma that surrounded her mind. Almost involuntarily, Lirelle's thoughts unfurled to receive it, and she realized she wasn't listening with her ears. Mustering what strength she could, she turned her head to the side and saw the source: a wispy human form curled in the nearby chair, his silvery hair shining in the dim light. Moisture pooled in her eyes as Lirelle smiled, a pale reflection of the warmth building in her heart.
As if aware of her attention, Fennic stirred and rubbed his eyes, stretching after many uncomfortable hours. After a second he caught Lirelle's gaze; his eyes widened for a second before he launched himself towards the bed with equal parts shock and joy playing over his young face. "Lirelle! Oh my god! Lirelle you're awake! You're finally awake! How're you feeling?!" the ecstatic boy exclaimed in a voice loud enough to wake half the floor.
Lirelle tried unsuccessfully to calm down the blubbering adolescent before someone complained, though Fennic's exuberance was infectious and soon she found herself grinning and laughing as well despite the pain it caused her ragged throat. She knew they'd been discovered when the door slid open, bright light stabbing over them, and shortly they were swarmed by health workers. At some point someone was able to usher Fennic from the room, while the others continued asking questions and checking equipment as they were trained to do. Lirelle was relieved when Dr. Silvestra arrived and cut a path of authority through the commotion, reassuring her that everything would be alright with a pleased smile. Lirelle was amazed when she believed her.
It was impossible for Lirelle to tell how long the examination lasted, but finally only Dr. Silvestra remained. "You're very lucky Ms. Wice," the physician remarked, "If that young man hadn't shown up with the anti-virus when he did, we couldn't have helped you."
"'Young man'?" Lirelle croaked. She couldn't mean...?
"I believe that is a matter you should be discussing with Dreamer," Dr. Silvestra said as she turned and left the room. Moments later, the door opened again and the android's tall silhouette crossed the frame.
"Hey," Dreamer smiled softly in greeting, "You look...not dead."
"Dr. Silvestra said a 'young man' had the anti-virus," Lirelle knit her eyebrows.
"Agent Ilvarra," Dreamer confirmed. He saw no reason to beat around the bush; his phrasing wouldn't change their situation. "He came 'ere a little while after you lost consciousness."
Lirelle closed her eyes. "Lovely."
Dreamer stepped closer and grasped Lirelle's limp hand. "He saved your life," he said gently.
"The Dream must leave here immediately," Lirelle put as much force as she could into those words, gasping at the sharp pain that burned through her trachea. "More agents have likely been dispatched--"
"Shh..." Dreamer's hand covered Lirelle's mouth, "I figured you'd say that. We're not goin' without ya. No arguments." Beyond the gentleness of his tone, Lirelle recognized the implicit challenge in the android's expression and saw a battle she couldn't win. Perhaps it was her overwhelming fatigue, but the Kinjori gave in with a resigned nod. "Good," Dreamer acknowledged her acquiescence with a pleased smile, "Now, I've gotten Rynn to release you to us as soon as she finishes all her tests. Then we can tear outta 'ere, 'kay?"
"Where is Ilvarra now?" Lirelle asked after Dreamer removed his hand.
"In a coma," Dreamer answered, "He passed out after he gave us the info. Rynn said it was some kind of selective neurochemical depletion -- she hasn't seen anything quite like it before." Dreamer rose and paced the room, crossing his arms. "Ilvarra said he'd pulled the formula from the mind of an assassin."
"Ah, so there were two of them," Lirelle resisted the lull of sleep beckoning her.
"I'm still pissed you didn't tell me what you thought they'd planned," Dreamer frowned.
"I knew you'd stop me," Lirelle lowered her eyes at Dreamer's damn right I would've expression. "I thought it would be for the best."
"Yeah I know," Dreamer commented matter-of-factly, "I do stupid things too."
Lirelle smiled at that. "Strange...that the assassin didn't stop Ilvarra," she observed, spurring the sluggish gears in her mind back into motion to process the information supplied to her.
"Ilvarra must've gotten rid of 'im somehow," Dreamer had evidently arrived on the same train of thought, "There's no way he could've gotten that data and reached us if the assassin was still out there. Unless there's a way he can do a memory extraction without the target knowin'...?" Lirelle shook her head to confirm the impossibility of that option. A logical consequence occurred to her:
"Where is the body?"
"Assuming there is one, the only person who knows is Ilvarra," Dreamer ran a hand through his short hair, "For all we know he found an open plasma conduit to vaporize it with. I've been keepin' an eye on the police blotter but nothin's turned up so far. Of course...the other possibility's that they set this whole thing up from the start," Dreamer loathed to even bring up that can of worms.
"Such speculation without evidence is rather counter-productive," Lirelle was reminded again of why she despised dealing with the secret services.
"Right. So, if," -- Dreamer emphasized the word -- "the assassin's out of the picture too then word about what happened 'ere might not get back to the Kinjori 'till Ilvarra misses their rendezvous."
"When is that?" Lirelle didn't bother hiding how optimistic she thought that scenario was.
"Ilvarra's transport was supposed to have put in at Chalcephry an hour twenty minutes ago. I thought about breakin' into his hotel room to see if there was anythin' we could use, but then I figured the Onyx Hand'll get there too eventually and I didn't want us responsible for takin' any more of their stuff. Speaking of which, there's somethin' else you should know," Dreamer simulated taking a breath and Lirelle knew she wouldn't like his next words. "About Ilvarra--"
"He is going with us," Lirelle finished for him. They were both aware that no other acceptable option existed.
"He deserted the Onyx Hand, you know what that'll mean for him."
"Yes," Lirelle answered redundantly and sank against the sheets. For once, she wished it was possible for her to be content allowing Dreamer and the others to ponder their next course of action. Unfortunately it simply wasn't possible to be content with blissful ignorance, not for her. "After all that our situation is unimproved," she eventually remarked.
"No, but..." Dreamer shrugged, "considering, I think it's the best we could've expected." Sitting on the edge of the bed, he squeezed Lirelle's hand to direct her gaze back to him, "Look, I know you were really set on dyin', but y'think maybe you can wait a little while longer on that? Remember, living is important too...and not just because you can have sex," Lirelle chuckled weakly and squeezed his hand in return. "Okay," Dreamer moved to the door, "I'd better let Fennic back in. He's prolly ready to tear down the wall."
"He is a rare sort."
"Yeah. I think he redeems us both," Dreamer opened the door and let the boy inside.
Now that her vision had almost returned to normal, Lirelle saw that Fennic's large green eyes were reddened by crying and bore dark smudges beneath. Still, Fennic's face was set in a radiant grin as he entered and quickly wrapped his arms tightly around her, as though afraid she would disappear. I suppose I almost did once already. A few innocent tears landed on Lirelle's neck and guilt bored a hole through her stomach. "I'm sorry for worrying you Fennic," she whispered into his hair. She was barely aware that Dreamer had respectfully stepped out to give them a few moments of privacy, flashing her a small smile as he went.
"Are you gonna be okay now?" Fennic asked.
"I'll be fine," Lirelle reassued him. "How long were you waiting in that chair?"
"Not that long," Fennic mumbled, a bit embarrassed to admit he had been waiting in the room for as long as Dr. Silvestra had allowed it. "Sabe and Tal were here too for a while but Dreamer made them go back to the ship, 'cause he said he needed somebody on standby at the ship in case 'something goes down' and...I wanted to make sure you were okay."
"I'm grateful." Fennic blushed as Lirelle kissed the top of his head.
The years had been good to Rynn Silvestra, Dreamer decided. The sterile hospital cafeteria wasn't exactly how he envisioned catching up with his old comrade after his long absence, but then again very little of their layover had gone as planned. As it stood, he was lucky to have caught even this small respite to converse with Rynn in person, made unexpectedly possible by the literal appearance of a half-dead Kinjori covert operative on their doorstep several hours earlier.
"Must you leave so soon Dreamer?" Rynn asked rhetorically, taking a sip from the steaming cup of herbal tea beside her. Three years since the last time the A.I. blew in and out of her life and not a peep until now. "Every time I see you I think it's for the last time."
"That's fair," Dreamer replied nonchalantly, "I'm kinda surprised myself at the whole 'still alive' thing." He paused briefly to stare down a nearby nurse with an unhealthy curiosity towards the pairing of senior medical practitioner and handsome black-haired android. Rynn watched in mild amusement; the seemingly easy-going Dreamer could be very intimidating when he wanted to be and he knew it. "Are you sure he has to stay here for another four hours?" Dreamer picked up their conversation seamlessly after the hapless nurse flushed and retreated to a safe distance.
The doctor chuckled at the A.I.'s persistence, "I'm bending hospital regulations enough already releasing either of them in their current conditions--"
"For which you have my eternal gratitude," Dreamer interjected, flashing his lopsided grin. "That and for leavin' out certain facts from the official records," he added genuinely in a lowered voice.
"You already gave me your 'eternal gratitude' the last time you were here Dreamer," Rynn said dryly. "Don't worry, the medical intrigue posed by your new...friends was sufficient personal compensation for me." She raised an eyebrow disapprovingly, "Although...you certainly didn't help matters by pulling a gun in the middle of the hospital."
"I wasn't really gonna shoot him," Dreamer protested.
"That's load of crap and you know it," Rynn accused; Dreamer smirked at the older woman's use of mild profanity. "Really Dreamer, I would think you'd have more sense than to power up that palm of yours in a facility equipped with weapons scanners."
"Yes ma'am," Dreamer put on a poor facade of contrition, while obviously enjoying Rynn's scowl at the use of the word "ma'am" from him since they looked practically the same age when they first met. But then again, the woman was no stranger to wielding firearms herself and Dreamer hadn't missed the twinkle in her blue eyes when she learned of his transgression. Fortunately they had managed to pass off the incident as an "errant power surge" in his plasma gun, and Dr. Silvestra had brought all her formidable dignity to bear upon the unsuspecting law enforcement officers to ensure their compliance.
"I should've let the police arrest you," the doctor muttered not quite under her breath.
"Mmm...handcuffs," Dreamer licked his lips and gave her a lewd wink. Both of them broke out in laughter, drawing puzzled glances from several people in the room.
"I've missed you Dreamer," Rynn said after they calmed down.
"Duh, life's boring without me," Dreamer replied cheekily.
"How about just one paper?" the doctor asked, "Maybe an abstract? A small token for your old friend toiling in academic obscurity."
"Obscurity?" Dreamer snorted, "You're on the verge of being too well-known to have fun. Those were articles about you hanging by your office right?"
"Worth a try," Rynn raised her cup thoughtfully back to her lips. "Human engineering...synthetic viruses...people collapsing in my waiting room...do I even want to know where you've been all these years?"
"Everything didn't happen all at once," Dreamer defended himself, "there's been a whole sequence of events you don't wanna know about."
"And now you're heading home?" Rynn referred to the Dream's flight plan.
The light in Dreamer's gold-ring eyes changed. Long ago Rynn Silvestra would have doubted such a thing was even possible in an artificial being, but many experiences had passed since then. "Somethin' like that," the android eventually answered with a wistful smile.
Rynn nodded and reached across the table, gently covering his larger hand with her own. It was warm, smooth, and exactly as she remembered it thirty years ago. Feels so human, and yet... She didn't really understand his ambiguous words -- not for the first time -- and she wondered -- again not for the first time -- whether anyone did or even could. She always drew the same conclusion: that it wasn't really important anyway. I just need to be there for a friend.
Having left behind the Large Magellanic Cloud earlier in the day, the Dream cruised towards the blinding white primary of Regulus and the final jump potential that would take it to the Alya System. On the bridge, Tallas focused on reciting procedures as he settled into the pilot's seat and hooked his shoulders into the safety straps. Remember, you wanted to do this, he reminded himself. Considering how many jumps they've made so far, Tallas felt it was time he handled his fair share of piloting duties, and besides all the time he spent preparing for the responsibility was not going to be wasted.
"Don't worry we'll be fine," Dreamer said cheerfully from the aft console, "Dozens of ships make this jump every day. It's perfectly safe." The Orion resisted the urge to roll his eyes; the A.I. was maybe too enthusiastic about encouraging him. Tallas figured it was because Dreamer couldn't fly himself, and so the more people he had around to do it for him, the better. Unfortunately, the consequence of so much support was that Dreamer's repeated insistences of "nothing horrible could possibly happen" were less than convincing.
"Would you shut up? You're not helping!"
Tallas smiled inwardly at his boyfriend taking up for him. "What? I was just bein' supportive," Dreamer protested, pretending hurt.
"Well, you suck at it so stop."
"What? You don't think Tal can do it?"
"Of course not! I mean, of course he can!" Sabrin glared indignantly at the smirking android after he tripped over his words. "But it's not getting any damned easier with you around!"
"It's just jump-piloting," Dreamer waved his hand dismissively, "If you could do it half-dead with no practice how hard could it be?"
"He's got a point Sabe," Tallas called backwards, snickering as he pictured the pout that would shortly appear on Sabrin's face at his betrayal. "Extending jump vane, initiating pre-jump sequence," he announced, realizing he was no longer nervous as he easily interpreted the navigational data pouring from the console. Was that what Dreamer was going for all along? He suddenly wondered, Clever A.I. "I feel better. Thanks Dreamer."
"No prob," Dreamer replied with a sickeningly sincere grin.
"Fuck you both," Sabrin scowled and turned back to his console, "Just get on with smearing our atoms across the universe already."
"That can't happen," Dreamer scoffed, "It's just an urban legend."
"Jump vane fully charged, optimal velocity in thirty seconds," Tallas reported, leaving Sabrin and Dreamer to snipe at each other. At his cue the three-dimensional jump controls blossomed around his hands, the invisible tactile response fields caressing his skin as the interface reconfigured to feed him the required information. It was almost like his hands moved of their own accord, pulling patterns from the data streaming across the multiple displays. Rather than being intimidated by the complexity building before him, Tallas had never experienced such a feeling of control as he keyed each successive level of calculations into place and resolved their destination more in his mind. "Ten seconds," he announced.
"What would happen if something went wrong?" Tallas heard Fennic ask.
"We could end up going nowhere. Or we could end up somewhere totally unexpected." Those were the possibilities if his calculations were off. Dreamer wisely omitted what might happen if something was physically wrong with the jump vane or its associated systems, handling as they were far more energy than in the rest of the ship combined.
"Three...two..." Tallas thought he should give his crewmates fair warning as his fingers hovered over the execution command. Barely restrained power surged beneath the Dream's deckplates, transmitting to his senses more as a subtle vibration than an actual sound. He was trying to remember whether or not he said "one" aloud when the discontinuity blinked over him, and the ship vanished in light. Abruptly, his hands were unbound as the jump controls faded away back into the regular helm. Regulus was gone from the floating viewscreen, replaced by a plain starfield.
"Hey," Sabrin cleared his throat.
"Wow," Tallas breathed distantly as the exhilaration of the moment faded into memory. That was awesome!
"Yo, Tal, check our coordinates," Dreamer said, "We there or not?"
"You tellin' me you didn't already check?" Tallas asked sarcastically and flicked up the navigational sensor feed. "We've jumped successfully," he noted with a pleased note, "Our position is 813.4 million kilometers from Alya A, heading 134 mark 22, holding speed at 0.21c."
"You did great Tal!" Sabrin beamed, all the while shaking away the last vestiges of anxiety. Sure that was natural for any first-time jump, but he would still never admit to having it. His heart swelled with pride; piloting a jump was something of a rite of passage for prospective officers at the Academy, and even though they were no longer part of that he still felt a surge of pride that both of them had now cleared that milestone. That and they were still technically first-year, while most cadets at the Academy didn't jump until their second.
"See? Piece of cake. You can open your eyes now Fennic," Dreamer put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Was that better than last time?" The avatar took in the tremulous green gaze and white knuckles.
"Yeah, I think so," Fennic lied unconvincingly.
"I can give you something to help you relax next time," Dreamer suggested in a concerned tone. He had handheld enough people through jumps to know that certain individuals were much more sensitive to the experience than others.
"No, that's okay, I wanna try and get used to it." Fennic cleared his throat and straightened his posture. "'Cause we're probably gonna be doing that a lot. Right?"
"It's what I was built for," Dreamer confirmed. The A.I. was impressed by the youth and conveyed it in his expression. Fennic's face brightened in response, giving Dreamer first-hand insight into what humans meant by a pause in their breath. That kid's gonna be lethal, come one of these days, Dreamer thought amusedly.
"We're bein' scanned." Dreamer shifted the viewscreen to show the source, approaching them from off their starboard bow. He didn't recognize the craft's specific configuration, though the large shield projector ring mounted on its port side identified it unmistakably as of Mnemosyne origin. Compared to himself the other ship was much more slight in appearance despite having a significant advantage in both length and mass, an effect of its slender form and the long, elegant arches that supported its dorsal and ventral ion engines. "It's a Mnemosyne patrol ship," Dreamer informed the others.
"I'm reading multiple weapons locks," Sabrin said with some alarm. Not only from the warship approaching them but also from several more like it and a sentry station positioned further away.
"Don't worry, standard procedure," Dreamer said, "They're hailin' us."
"I'm putting it through," Sabrin muttered something about 'advance warning' as he flicked the controls. A second viewscreen window opened to show the other vessel's bridge.
"This is the Alya Naval Patrol," the bored-looking captain stated in a practiced tone, "We are not registering your transponder. Please state your identity and purpose in this system."
"This is the farship Dream of Dawn," Dreamer stated, "We're here to visit some friends."
"I see," the captain cocked an eyebrow, "Come to a full stop and prepare to receive our inspection team."
"Got it," Dreamer signalled to Tallas to follow the instructions. The captain verified their compliance via his armrest display before signing off with a droll, "thank you for your cooperation."
"You never told me you didn't have a transponder," Sabrin turned to the android after the viewscreen closed.
"Well, it got taken out a while ago and I never bothered to replace it," Dreamer said. Sabrin narrowed his eyes suspiciously; starship transponders were operational licenses, commissioning certificates, and passports all in one, and they weren't to be removed on a whim.
"Does it matter that we don't have one?" Fennic asked with a trace of anxiety.
"Nah, it's not all that unusual for free traders not to have 'em," Dreamer said. "They'll just search us an' ask us questions, an' when they convince themselves that we're perfectly harmless they'll let us go." Despite his casual demeanor, inwardly the A.I. was somewhat concerned by the heightened level of security. In the past a sensor scan was usually sufficient until they actually docked at a port.
"Uh, what about that Kinjori agent lying in a coma in our sickbay?" Sabrin asked incredulously.
"Just say it was an accident," Dreamer shrugged, "He's still pretty banged up so that shouldn't be hard to pull off."
"And exactly what kind of 'accident' left choke bruises around his throat?" Sabrin inquired.
"Be creative," Dreamer said dryly. "Hell, if ya wanted to you can tell 'em that he tried to make a move on Tal and that you beat the shit outta him. Not like the Mems can prosecute us for it since no crime's been committed within their borders or to one of their nationals." The absurd visual of a fiery-eyed, frothy-mouthed Sabrin tearing up the ship on a jealous rampage floated through Tallas' mind, bringing a secret smile to his lips that thankfully was invisible to everyone but Dreamer.
"They could expel us from the system," he pointed out.
"Which is why we'll be tellin' 'em it was an accident," Dreamer smugly brought the conversation full circle. "If it'll make ya feel better I'll cover him up with a sheet so they won't see any bruises," the android added, "and put up a force-field so they can't move the sheet." Clapping Sabrin on the back, Dreamer remarked, "Relax man, ya stress too much. Save it for a life-or-death situation."
"Right," Sabrin turned back to his station with a knitted brow. The A.I. had a point, unfortunately.
Based on his past experiences with military law enforcement, Sabrin was expecting anything up to and including a fully armed assault team to charge through the airlock hatch. Instead three green-uniformed officers crossed through the connecting bridge, two of them bedecked in scanning equipment while the third, leading the group, held a pad and stylus in his left hand. Unlike his commanding officer, the young man's hazel eyes were friendly and disarming. Sabrin didn't fail to notice the overly conspicuous sidearms clipped to the trio's belts though.
"Gentlemen, welcome aboard," Dreamer said with a sardonic tint, "I'm the avatar of this vessel; you may call me Dreamer. And this 'ere is Sabrin Payne."
"An A.I. on a private ship? Don't see that too often," the leading officer offered an affable, half-rueful smile as if to apologize for inconveniencing both their ships, "I'm Lieutenant Rester. Hopefully this won't take too long." He signaled his companions, who headed down the corridor in opposite directions. "I'll have to ask your crew to please remain at their current posts until we've finished."
"Sure thing," Dreamer said, relaying the instructions to Tallas and Fennic on the bridge and Lirelle in her quarters. "There're only five of us anyway."
"Five? That's a bit undermanned," Rester commented.
"We do okay," Dreamer replied.
"Well," Rester raised his pad, "As you may be aware, your vessel's armaments exceed our allowed limits for civilian spacecraft. Therefore, you are required to disengage your firing protocols for the duration of your stay."
"Consider it done," Dreamer said.
The lieutenant smiled genially, "Excellent; I'll be monitoring your compliance. Next, I have a few questions I need to ask. Are you the captain?" The last question was directed to Sabrin, who blinked in shock. "Um..." the Orion mumbled uncomfortably, looking furtively to Dreamer for some direction.
"Yes, he is," the android abruptly interjected, his lips curving into a wicked grin as he watched Sabrin's first startled, then bewildered expression switch rapidly between him and the perplexed Lieutenant Rester. "Say, captain, why don't we continue this in the conference room?" Dreamer suggested innocently, his black eyes gleaming.
"Sure, uh, follow me," Sabrin recovered enough to say.
The ensuing interrogation was thorough but underwhelmingly mundane, consisting mostly of questions concerning their itinerary, declarations of cargo, legal history, et cetera. Fortunately the issue of the unconscious Ilvarra was raised only briefly, when Rester came to the question of their health status. As the supposed "captain", Sabrin felt a bit foolish watching Dreamer handle most of the inquiries with his typical machine aplomb while relegating him to only chiming in on sparse occasions. Being little more than a spectator, he was able to admire how Dreamer deftly dodged giving any details regarding their more exciting past activities with enough subtlety that he didn't seem to be leaving anything out at all.
The interview was finished and they were engaged in overly cautious, stilted banter by the time the other inspectors concluded their sensor sweep of the ship. In short order Rester was bidding them a good day from the airlock, promising that their entry request would be processed with all due haste. Sabrin could only untense his shoulders after the airlock hatch had closed behind the lieutenant, though a part of him still pictured the other ship firing on them as soon as their crew members were back aboard.
"How'd it go?" Tallas asked curiously when they returned to the bridge.
"Why don't you ask the captain?" Dreamer pointed his thumb at Sabrin behind him, who shot the android an indignant glare as he silently resumed his station. "I think it went fine," the Orion said, unrealistically hoping they would drop the subject.
"Captain?" Tallas repeated, a smile beginning to tug at the corners of his mouth.
"Nothing," Sabrin avoided Tallas' persistent stare. "Look, they asked me if I was the captain, and Dreamer told 'em I was."
"You are. It's a matter of state record now," Dreamer added, his tongue firmly implanted in cheek, "...sir."
"Am I gonna have to start 'sir'-ing you that too? People might get the wrong idea," Tallas snickered.
"Believe me, if I were your commanding officer you'd both be scrubbing deck five with a toothbrush by now," Sabrin growled. He was relieved when a blinking indicator appeared above his console. "It's them again."
"Dream of Dawn, I'm transmitting a copy of your travel documentation," the captain informed them, "Your visa will be valid for a period of fifteen days with the option of renewal at the end of the term. Your vessel, including your shuttlecraft, will be restricted to designated system ports of the alpha star. Any inquiries you have may be directed to the Division of Migration. Have you received the complete transmission?" Dreamer examined the paperwork and replied in the affirmative. "Welcome to the Republic of Alya," the captain said like an afterthought, and closed the channel. A slight tremor followed as the patrol craft undocked, leaving the Dream once again alone in velvet black.
"They didn't give us a lot of leeway," Sabrin remarked, scanning the limitations on their stay.
"It's more than enough, we just need to get our foot in the door," Dreamer reassured him, "We're meeting my contact at the colony on Edoch -- it's the second moon of the fourth planet."
"Shall I set a course, captain?" Tallas barked out, the epitome of military vocal precision.
"Just go already? Best speed." Sabrin fervently wished there was something convenient he could throw at his boyfriend.
"Was I unclear when I said 'take it easy' Lirelle?" the raven-haired woman offered Dreamer's silhouette in the doorframe only a brief glance before returning to the pad in her hand.
"My convalescence will not be accelerated by boredom, Dreamer," Lirelle replied, inputting several untried permutations into the unfolding codes before her. Absently she reached beside her and sipped from the glass of water resting on her nightstand, per Dr. Silvestra's instructions to keep hydrated. "We've been occupied enough lately that I've been neglecting this puzzle. Which is a shame, because it's the most interesting one I've had in years."
"How're you feelin'? Headaches? Soreness? Fatigue?" Dreamer didn't expect a "yes" answer even if it were the case.
"Hungry? I brought dinner," Dreamer gestured to the bed tray in his hands, "Sabe made it, but it...should be okay."
"Thanks," Lirelle murmured distantly.
"Do I need to sit here while you eat it?" Dreamer asked exasperatedly when the Kinjori showed no inclination to move after several seconds.
"I had an epiphany this morning. Our earlier assessment was incorrect," Lirelle spoke at a rapid clip, her dark eyes clearly excited, "The first-level operations only mimic recursive algorithms. Look," -- she pointed to a block of highlighted data -- "the false-identity functions are linked to decompilation sequences embedded in the second-level coding. One wrong move and the entire progression collapses and you have to start all over again." Complicitly she allowed Dreamer to reposition her body sitting up on her bed, "This way you can't use a standard autosequencing decryption program, 'cause every time the progression resets the coding configuration changes-- Hey!" She protested as Dreamer snatched the pad away and placed the food in front of her.
"Eat," Dreamer commanded firmly, making good on his earlier threat by plunking himself down backwards in the desk chair, resting his chin on top of his folded arms. Lirelle begrudgingly picked up the fork and speared a piece of strangely shaped pasta in some sort of sauce.
"I'm almost through the primary layer of encrytion Dreamer," Lirelle said in between wolfish bites -- her Kinjori etiquette remained sufficiently engrained to keep her from talking with her mouth full. "The key is to deal with all the functions simultaneously instead of trying to isolate them one-by-one. If you start with the--" Satisfied that his mission to make her eat had succeeded, Dreamer listened attentively and made noises of acknowledgement as Lirelle launched into her detailed explanation. She really is quite brilliant, Dreamer noted with admiration. Giving her this problem to solve all those weeks ago at Forseti was definitely a good idea; Dreamer was happy to see her recover her energy and passion after her previous ordeal, and as a further bonus she was being distracted from the Ilvarra issue...the A.I. saw absolutely no need to broach that subject until the former agent's condition changed.
"Damn, this is incredible... I don't wanna make you rest now," Dreamer chuckled after Lirelle finished. "To tell the truth I had doubts about whether we could crack this at all. I certainly haven't made any progress on it."
"I don't expect you would've," Lirelle said seriously. "This encryption's non-intuitive and on par with those used by the Onyx Hand; an A.I.-based auto-decryption program would've never been able to break it. But," -- Lirelle saw and acted on an opportunity to grab her pad back -- "celebration is still premature. There are many elements yet unresolved; I wasn't suggesting that we would be reading this tomorrow."
"The point is that it's only a matter of time," Dreamer dismissed Lirelle's modesty. "Once we know what the hell's on this thing we'll be in a much better place in dealin' with the Orions." Seeing that Lirelle was finished with her meal, he unsubtly pushed the small bottle on the tray towards her. "The second you finish the decryption we need to make copies of the data."
"Agreed." Lirelle downed two capsules from the bottle. "If only there were a way to copy the disc with the encryption locks still in place," she mused, different gears already beginning to spin in her mind.
"Let's focus on one thing at a time," Dreamer pushed off the chair and picked up the cleared tray. "Look, I know I sound like I'm stuck on a feedback loop, but try and get some rest sometime today? The sooner you recover the sooner you can get out of this room. That and I don't wanna have to resort to drugging your water."
"As always your powers of persuasion defies comparison Dreamer," Lirelle commented dryly, hiding her smile. The truth was most days she loved Dreamer's constant attention, as long as it had been that anyone was around to show that much concern for her well-being. She wasn't about to encourage him though -- "At the most six more hours. I promise." Dreamer simply shook his head with a snort and turned to leave. "I do appreciate you caring," Lirelle called out just as the android reached the door. She fondly watched him wave an aggravated arm in her general direction, then returned to her puzzle.
The overhead lights were subdued, in accordance with what was supposed to be the eight-hour "night" aboard the Dream. Tallas rather liked the soothing ambiance it created, especially with the angry golden clouds of Thial, Edoch's parent planet and Mnemosyne's companion, providing a simmering backdrop for the expansive mess hall windows. Mnemosyne itself was only saved from being counted as another moon by virtue of its size.
Reaching into the fridge, Tallas emptied the opened carton of juice into his glass and tossed the container into the disposal. "I don't understand why we have to meet this guy at 2200 hours local time," he addressed Dreamer as he made his way back to the table. At the moment it was still mid-afternoon on Edoch, meaning that from the Dream's perspective it would be the morning of the following day when they headed to their meeting. Taking a hearty draught from the glass, Tallas lazily licked off the pulp clinging to his lips and received a look of warring arousal and disgust from his boyfriend; Sabrin couldn't stand solids in his beverages.
"That's when the club opens," Dreamer shrugged.
"We're meeting him at a club?" Sabrin asked skeptically.
"Yeah, that's the easiest way to get in touch with him. He's the manager -- my idea, actually," the android flashed a wry expression, "Gave him cash to keep up a lifestyle to which he was accustomed, and made Edoch a lot less boring. You guys should've seen the place ten years ago; practically turned into a ghost town after 1800 -- sad," he shook his head. "The club's called 'Rise'. Dress casual."
"Why do I get the feeling you just want an excuse to have fun?" Sabrin teased.
"You Orions have clubs right?" Dreamer countered. "They're places where everybody sees you but nobody remembers you," Dreamer curled a corner of his lips, "And if you have to be seen then there's nowhere better to be."
"I dunno, I thought somebody would've remembered the last time we were in a club," Tallas grinned. It was only the second time the two of them had been to one, the first being on the night of Mark's graduation. Their friend Jayan had turned twenty earlier that week and he was determined to celebrate in style, which for the normally reserved man apparently meant punching out two guys and tripping into a decorative indoor waterfall. At the time it wasn't so amusing as he, Sabrin, and Mark soaked themselves wrestling their half-conscious friend out of the pool before being escorted none-to-politely outside, trailed by their dates hiding their faces in mortification.
"We had to burrow anti-intoxicants from that old lady just to get him to stand back up," Sabrin remembered how later that night Mark -- who was especially indignant over his ruined chance at getting sex -- suddenly burst into laughter as he realized the hilarity of what happened. Since then Jayan had made several dire threats for them not to tell the story again, which they ignored at every turn.
"Well we're not gonna be doing any of that," Dreamer said as their laughter subsided. "Man, for supposed 'prohibitionists' you Orions sure don't have a lot of self-control."
"As if anybody enforces that stupid law," Tallas said, "I don't know why they don't just get rid of it."
Sabrin shrugged in response; the nuances of the Orion political system were not his forte. Seeing that Tallas' glass was empty, he took it and their dirty dishes to the kitchen island. "So who is this contact of yours?" he asked as he began loading their used tableware into the cleaner, "Why's he gonna help us?"
"'Cause he owes me big-time," Dreamer answered, "I can't say much, but what I can say is that he was in a pile of shit a couple years ago -- not for the first time I might add -- and I got him out of it. I wouldn't trust him though," Dreamer cautioned, "just as a side note. Not that he's dangerous or anything but he's not a friend."
"I see," Sabrin wrinkled his brow.
"Nah, this won't be a big deal," Dreamer smiled to alleviate the sudden tension, "When he shows up lemme do the talkin'." He heard the door sliding open and turned to see Fennic at the entryway in shorts and a T-shirt. "Hey."
"Hi guys," Fennic felt a bit exposed since the three men were still in uniform, sans jacket for Tallas. "Just wanted to get something to drink."
"Help yourself," Sabrin retrieved a clean glass and handed it to the boy, who mumbled thanks. Sabrin closed the dishwasher, whch chirped as the cleaning cycle automatically initiated. Is there a part of Dreamer's consciousness that regulates that? Sabrin wondered idly. "Y'know it's gonna feel weird, going clubbing in the middle of the afternoon," Sabrin commented to the others.
"That's the way it works when you go different places; eventually you'll get used to your daily rhythm doing odd things," Dreamer said. "If ya want, you can just not go to sleep tonight. That'll put ya in the right late-night mood." As if on cue Tallas yawned, triggering a round of snickers.
"I don't think Tal can make that," Sabrin joked, "he's always sleepy."
"Maybe I just like being in bed," Tallas retorted casually, surreptitiously sending the other man a seductive look. To his credit Sabrin managed to hold his composure, though his azure eyes perceptibly darkened in lust.
"Okay, before you two fuck each other's brains out right on top of this table, might I remind you that there're children present?" Dreamer jerked his head facetiously towards Fennic, who was doing his best to pretend nothing was happening.
"Language, Dreamer," Tallas chided mildly, not moving his gaze.
Dreamer rolled his eyes and turned to Fennic, "They haven't had any in almost a day," he said by way of explanation. Fennic reddened even further.
"You're absolutely right Dreamer," Tallas said as though it was a great revelation. "C'mere babe," he jokingly grabbed Sabrin's hand and almost pulled him across the table.
"Okay that's it, unless you two're actually gonna let me make that porno it's time to go away. I've got work," Dreamer ordered, pointing imperatively at the door. Fennic too was openly laughing by that point, as the two Orions helped each other to their feet. Sabrin sneaked his arm around Tallas' waist and gestured goodbye, "Later you two."
"Hey wait, you guys," Fennic said, suddenly pensive. "Um...I was wondering if uh...I could maybe go with all of you to the moon tomorrow?" he asked hesitantly. He had spent the last few hours lying on his mattress agonizing over whether or not to make the request, weighing his need to feel more involved with the goings-on of the ship against his fear that he might be more an encumberance than a help. In the end he was determined that if he were ever to make a contribution he had to take a first step. His resolve wavered though when the others cast each other uncertain glances.
"You sure you wanna come?" Sabrin asked.
"Yeah I think so," Fennic stated in a clearer voice, "I feel like I should be doing my part if I'm gonna stay aboard...I don't wanna always be stuck worrying about how everything'll turn out, while you guys are out there doing things for all of us, y'know?"
"Fennic, we appreciate that but you don't have to--" Dreamer started.
"I know," Fennic insisted, "I want to."
"Well...I think it'll be okay," Tallas said slowly, scanning the others for objections. From what Dreamer described the danger seemed minimal, and he understood the younger man's desire to take more control over his own life. "I mean, it's not like we're going to some derelict warship or something," he added, seeing that both Sabrin and Dreamer's faces remained doubtful. Finally Sabrin nodded in agreement and Dreamer followed suit.
"Looks like we're making space for one more," Dreamer smiled, "Though I'm not sure I'm being a responsible role model letting you go to one of these places."
"If Fennic's making you his role model we've got bigger problems than the Orions or Kinjori," Tallas remarked, receiving a black glare from Dreamer. Fennic giggled while working to quell the butterflies in his stomach.
Morning came to Tallas in the form of another man's weight stretched out over his back, his warm skin producing the most delightful sensations against his own. "Hi," was whispered in his ear as Sabrin's strong hands glided over the curves of his arms and flank. Tallas smiled as his memory flittered to the night before, and he wondered if they had time for a repeat performance. As though he'd read his mind, Sabrin ground lazily against him, confirming at least his physical readiness. Tallas shivered from tiny sparks of electricity flying up his spine. "Somebody's awake," he smiled, arching his own body to meet Sabrin's movements.
"I can't get enough of you," Sabrin's tongue delicately traced the shell of his ear. "I love waking up with you..." He pressed a series of gentle kisses to the back of Tallas' neck, relishing the delicate flavor. They grew more aggressive, when he felt the other man awakening beneath him and responding in kind. "I wonder if I should leave something here, to show those vultures at the club that you're mine."
"You don't need to worry about that," Tallas peered at his partner out of the corner of his eye.
"I'm not." Catching a glint from Tallas' warm brown gaze, a jolt of indescribable feeling worked its way through Sabrin's body. His mouth went dry and he momentarily couldn't speak; instead he pressed his lips on the soft spot between Tallas' shoulder blades and wrapped his arms around the other man, hoping to convey raw emotion through his touch. "I love you."
"I love you too," Tallas murmured, feeling himself falling even deeper into the haze as he listened to Sabrin's heart beat against his back. He wriggled his body a bit impatiently against his handsome lover. "Now, I'd really appreciate it if you finish what you started. Twice if you have time." Sabrin chuckled and nuzzled his cheek.
Auspiciously timed, the two of them were out of the shower and half-dressed when the door chime sounded. Sabrin answered and nearly did a double take, as did Tallas when he glanced to see who it was. Dreamer was standing on the other side, wearing his trademark lopsided grin and, for the first time since they met, civilian clothes rather than his uniform. That was an understatement, as the android was fully dressed to kill in a pair of tight black jeans and a gray and crimson T-shirt that his divinely sculpted body strained in all the proper places. The contrast from his usual state was so striking that it took both humans a second to respond, which was apparently what Dreamer was aiming for as his grin split wider.
"Uh, hey, Dreamer," Sabrin hesitated, his gaze flickering over the taller man. There was something very different about the android, aside from his clothes. "Dreamer...what happened to your eyes?" Instead of the familiar black and gold, the avatar's eyes were a warm, human brown. Sabrin was startled at how completely this minor detail changed Dreamer's overall impression.
"Contacts," Dreamer winked, "Don't wanna get picked out as an android too soon. It'd ruin the fun."
Tallas walked over to see for himself. "Why didn't they just build you with normal eyes to start with?"
"'Cause you humans are so fickle," Dreamer smirked, "You get nervous when something that looks too little like a human talks to ya, and you get nervous when something that looks too much like a human talks to ya. Turns out that what most of you want is something that's almost exactly like you but not quite, 'cause you wanna be able to tell when somebody's different."
"I think I like your original eyes better," Tallas commented with a slight frown.
"Thanks," Dreamer stepped out of the corridor and performed an unabashed half-pirouette. "So, what do y'all think?"
"Is that my shirt?" Tallas said slowly after a moment's consideration.
Dreamer shot him a disgruntled look. "You don't mind, do ya?" he asked sarcastically. It was actually one of the shirts Fennic borrowed for the day or two when all he had were the barely wearable rags he escaped in.
"It's too small for you; you'll stretch it all out of shape," Tallas suppressed a smile. As if the avatar would ever suffer the illusion of looking anything less than absolutely amazing.
"I'll have you know most people think my shape is just fine," Dreamer leaned against the large dresser with his arms crossed, making the definition of his simulated muscles even more pronounced. "Gee, you sure know how to bust a boy's self-esteem," he pouted. Tallas laughed and stepped up, lightly kissing the theatrically sulking android on the cheek before nudging him away from the dresser to fish out shirts for himself and Sabrin.
"So, this is supposed to be 'low-profile'?" Sabrin caught the dark blue garment tossed to him as he moved to Tallas' side, feeling a twinge of jealousy at Tallas' open display of affection. Dreamer of course noticed immediately and mockingly held up his hands, his grin back full-force.
"What? I don't wanna look like a bum in front of complete strangers," the android said adroitly.
"Heavens forbid," Tallas rummaged through the mess on his desk for his comlink pin, "Did you only come here to show off Dreamer?"
"No..." Dreamer suddenly switched the lights on full with a flick of his chin, bringing complaints from the two Orions as they were momentarily blinded. "When you humans're ready to be seen in public one of you needs to go and put us in at Edoch Port."
"Yeah I'll handle it," Sabrin put up a hand to shield his eyes while they adjusted. "What do you wanna do about breakfast?" he asked Tallas.
"Screw it, I'll just re-heat the leftovers from yesterday. Maybe throw in some bread or something...a ha!" Tallas finally found the small pin and affixed it to the base of his collar. "Well?" He pantomimed Dreamer's earlier movement with a touch more dramatic flair.
"You look great," Sabrin murmured sincerely, not a small amount of desire stirring in his sapphire blues. Dreamer snorted and rolled his own now-ordinary eyes.
Compared to the titanic space stations they had visited at Nimrud and Windfall, the structure far above Edoch Colony was far more modest at only eight hundred meters across its longest axis. Though it was open to civilian traffic, Sabrin uneasily observed that the few docked vessels were all Mnemosyne naval craft.
"You should've gone sleeveless," Dreamer was saying, glancing back at Sabrin's attire. They walked in pairs, Dreamer and Fennic in front and he and Tallas behind. As dense as Tallas often playfully accused him of being, Sabrin did notice the ongoing difficulty the flaxen-haired youth had in ungluing his eyes from Dreamer's eloquent form. "People can't see that hot tattoo with what you've got on," the android continued, seemingly oblivious to Fennic's attention.
"So? It's not like I'm trying to pick someone up," Sabrin replied. "He'd better not," Tallas warned playfully in a low voice from beside him, earning a gentle elbow from his boyfriend.
"You're missing the point!" Dreamer's tone seemed to convey terminal exasperation. "Why even bother gettin' it if ya weren't gonna show it off?"
"Not everyone's an exhibitionist like you Dreamer," Sabrin said. His words was true; Sabrin was never one for outlandish behavior or dress. The part he didn't mention was how he had secretly loved lending himself as a canvas for Tallas' artistic talent when the other man half-jokingly suggested it years ago, so that he would have a tangible symbol of their friendship.
"Hey, a lot of effort went into makin' this body! I don't wanna waste it," the android winked, flexing an arm to emphasize his point.
The four of them arrived at a transport hub near the midpoint of the station. "Any of you ridden an orbital tether before?" Dreamer asked. The three humans answered in the negative. The small group was directed to a three-leveled passenger cabin. There were row seats on each level, arranged into booths to afford some degree of privacy from each other. Each booth was accompanied by a large window, though at the moment there was nothing to be seen other than dull gray metal.
"What's an orbital tether?" Fennic asked once they were seated.
"It's sort of like an elevator that connects the space station to the ground," Sabrin explained. "You can see the cables over there," he gestured to what looked like a pair of massive columns embraced by a tangle of machinery visible through the windows on the far wall. Each column was a weave of high-tensile composite fibers, reinforced by a structural integrity field. There was another similar cab reserved for cargo on the other side, making the entire craft balanced to a degree.
"Edoch Colony doesn't have much in the way of landing facilities," Dreamer explained, "This is the way most people go."
"Attention all passengers, access to transit cab two is now closed. Departure in one minute," an automated voice announced. There was a hiss and click as the airlocks closed and sealed, encasing the cabin in a dull silence. Noticing Fennic looking somewhat apprehensive, Dreamer took to distracting him with a brief explanation of orbital tether mechanics. Thus, the boy only jumped a little when the cab disengaged from the station with a convulsion and a instant's sensation of falling that was quickly muted out by the inertial dampeners.
"Crude system," Dreamer commented, "In better ones you don't feel anything."
In the blink of an eye, the metal sheath of the station seemed to lift away and they were treated to a spectacular panorama of the Alya double suns shining gloriously in space, as the small vehicle plummeted along the cables at dizzying speeds. Near the window, they could just make out the broad sweep of the planet Thial above them, slowly drawing further away. On their other side, the twin cables sped through the cab's motor cradle at a blur. When Tallas looked at them he felt something uncomfortable in the pit of his stomach, a phantom response from his eyes telling his brain the physical forces his body should be experiencing. He quickly looked away.
Despite their speed, the distance was such that beneath them the rocky surface of Edoch neared only gradually for most of the journey. The cab was decelerating the entire final four minutes, but there were still some heart palpitations amongst them when it seemed they were rushing headlong towards a wall of rock at an alarming rate. Dreamer simply sat sedately through it all and looked for Edoch Colony when it became visible: an unimpressive elliptical dome and two arcs of alloy and transparent composite hugging the interior margin of a crater. At a now-reasonable pace, the cab descended into a structure extending from one side of the dome.
After the vehicle came to a gentle halt, they followed Dreamer through a series of metal-walled corridors and staircases partially mitigated from their stark artificiality by various plants and ornamental works set out by the locals for that purpose. The entrance to the club itself was an unobtrusive trapezoidal door with the word "rise" in a glowing vertical line along one side. Only the small number of nicely-dressed persons heading to and from it hinted at the activity within. A large, well-built bouncer was standing outside collecting cover charges; without delay Dreamer walked up to him and whispered something in his ear, before his three confused companions. The imposing man gave the android a look of what Sabrin thought was surprise, before quickly vanishing inside. Just as quickly, another club employee replaced him and signaled for them to enter.
"What did you say to him?" Sabrin asked.
"I'm lettin' Sid know that I'm here and that our drinks'll be on the house," Dreamer replied, "C'mon."
The moment they crossed the threshold they heard the rhythmic pounding of dance music, whose volume dramatically increased as he and others passed through the layered sound cancellation system that shielded the dark entranceway. What greeted them after they crossed the shimmering holographic membrane that was the inner door was as far from the serenity outside as any they could imagine -- a shocking kaleidoscope of light, sound, and moving bodies. Young persons, both male and female, drank, mingled, and gyrated amidst a space of shifting patterns and flitting colors that constantly deceived in its dimensions and form. Curious, appraising glances were cast at all four of them as they weaved through the fray, struggling to keep each other in sight.
"Wild, huh?" Dreamer said -- or rather shouted, as that was the only way he could make himself heard over the music -- to Sabrin, who nodded in decided agreement. "I can definitely see your touch in this place," he commented.
"That a good thing, right?" Dreamer led them to the bar. "Nothing too hard, you'll want to stay lucid," he cautioned Sabrin, who shot him an obviously look.
Nothing available was familiar to either of the two Orions, so the two of them ordered at the bartender's recommendation and joined Dreamer and Fennic by a railing near the dance floor. Fennic appeared somewhat overwhelmed by the assault on his senses, as close as he stuck to Dreamer's side while his eyes moved frantically to take it all in. "How long will it take for him to show up?" Tallas asked.
"Depends," Dreamer answered vaguely. It had been some time since he himself had last visited this establishment and he approved of its current state. He caught the stares of a rather sinuous blonde and his darker-hued companion. Regardless of the logic in it, the A.I.'s mind was human enough to respond to their more basal behaviors. "If you'll excuse me boys," he smiled and pushed off to join the mass of bodies.
"Well, didn't take him long to ditch us, did it?" Tallas snorted and leaned into Sabrin's side.
"I think Dreamer likes playing human a bit too much," Sabrin remarked.
"Or maybe he just likes playing humans," Tallas chuckled, "Those two're gonna be disappointed when they find out their hunk's not real."
"I think they'll survive," Sabrin replied dryly, assessing the two young men now very closely complementing Dreamer's graceful movements as typical of the types who bedded a different partner every night and cycled back to the dance floor for more the next day. There was simply something very promotional about their appearance, that boldly announced their intentions without apology. Sabrin knew of many Academy classmates who were exactly the same way, and back then he had wondered what was the appeal of such a capricious existence. Now, subconsciously wrapping an arm around Tallas' warm body, he found he was further from the mystery than ever.
"I...I think I'm gonna get something to drink after all," Fennic suddenly said, turning back for the bar.
"Poor Fennic," Tallas followed the youth's retreating back, "having to watch Dreamer do that." The innocence of their newest crew member tugged at his heartstrings. The boy seemed to have virtually no experience in hiding his emotions, and Tallas had watched with increasing concern the initial hero worship of their resident A.I. rapidly transforming into something more. Sympathy and a bit of anger flared when he added: "I don't know what the fuck that A.I.'s thinking."
"Maybe it's better this way," Sabrin suggested, "Fennic can't exactly have a relationship with a machine."
"I suppose not," Tallas sighed. "Still, Dreamer could be handling this better. You think he knows how Fennic feels?"
Sabrin looked over to the dance floor, where Dreamer had already drifted to a new partner with red hair and a dragon tattoo, undoubtedly leaving behind a trail of dashed hopes. "He should. He had me figured out the first day he saw us together."
"Yeah. Said he could sense my heart beat faster whenever I looked at you," Sabrin ducked his head at the memory of how he had been both flustered and angry when the A.I. bluntly confronted him about it in their first days aboard. God, how could I've been in that much denial? Thank god Tal had the balls to tell me how he felt first. Tallas must have read the gratitude in his face when Sabrin returned his gaze to him, for the blonde smiled and rested the palm of his hand on Sabrin's chest.
"Hmm...it's going pretty fast right now..." Tallas observed.
Again, Sabrin stood mesmerized by the beautiful young man standing beside him, amazed that, for whatever chaos surrounding them, Tallas could submerge it all into the background with a simple look or touch. They were close enough now that their heavy breaths intermingled. "I wanna kiss you so bad," Sabrin said softly.
"What's stopping you?" Tallas' own heart was running a marathon. This was the closest they'd come to affirming their relationship outside the familiar confines and faces of the Dream, and he was afraid that it was perhaps too soon for Sabrin -- seeing how difficult it had been for the other man to come to terms with himself not too many days ago. Tallas saw hesitation flicker through the other man's eyes and his heart sank, just before the other man's lips smashed against his. Tallas closed his eyes and moaned from deep inside his throat, feeling Sabrin's hands caressing his cheeks as their tongues dueled.
"Thank you," Tallas whispered after they separated. He wasn't sure if Sabrin had heard him.
At once the pair noticed that they had attracted quite a bit of positive attention; Dreamer was grinning manically and giving them both a congratulatory thumbs-up. "I, uh...let's head back to the bar," Sabrin said sheepishly through his blush.
The two returned and found Fennic sitting on a stool, having missed their small public display. To his relief Sabrin saw that Fennic had stuck to water; he disapproved of the way one of the bartenders was eyeing the boy. Fennic naturally was completely oblivious to his admirers as he made small talk with the older Orions, all the while stealing glances towards the dance floor. Finally Tallas was fed up and suggested that they rejoin Dreamer.
"Hey," the android smiled as they approached. "You guys were hot."
"Thanks," Tallas replied. "Looks like you've been having your own brand of fun," he gestured to Dreamer's abruptly abandoned dance partner, who was slinking off with a disgruntled expression.
Dreamer shrugged, "I like the attention."
"Even if they're only interested in your body?" Sabrin asked somewhat ironically, since the A.I's facsimile human body offered only the surface. Dreamer answered by winking and stripping off his shirt. Though he did not produce sweat, his artificial skin glowed with a natural sheen that only accentuated the fluidity and power of his musculature. Tallas shook his head; the technology to create a indistinguishable human replica, not only in android form but also in holograms and two-dimensional images, simply wasn't fair on several levels. He was undecided, however, on if it made people as a whole more or less vain to be availed of such synthetic imagery.
"Great, we're gonna be deciding our future in this system with you half-naked," Sabrin said.
"Sid's intimidated by well-built guys," Dreamer said matter-of-factly, "that'll work for us, I think," -- giving Sabrin a blatant visual once-over -- "The man could never quite get over the subject of appearances. Ain't that right Sid?" Dreamer directed the last comment behind him.
The three humans peered over Dreamer's shoulder to see a flustered man of medium age and height approaching them at a hurried clip, with the bouncer Dreamer whispered to in tow. In contrast to what Dreamer's statement had prepared them for, the man possessed a strikingly handsome face and a formidable build. However, under anything more than a cursory glance his physique rang hollow, and not only to Dreamer who happened to know that his attributes were purchased from some of the most expensive cosmetic surgeons available. No amount of money spent on the facade could fully conceal the original jittery, skulking individual beneath -- hence the impression of a man utterly uncomfortable within his own skin.
"Oh fuck. Dreamer," the man's eyes bulged, stricken with something akin to panic, as he confirmed with his own senses the physical presence of the big android, "You're actually here."
"Not much of a greetin', huh pal?" Dreamer pretended an expression of hurt that nonetheless held such a quality of menace that Tallas felt a chill. Striding purposefully to the other man, smoothly shedding his contacts in the process, the avatar seemed to tower over him despite their difference in heights not being all that great.
"I-I thought you were--" Sid stammered nervously, peering up at Dreamer's mildly amused gaze.
"Nah. You didn't actually think that did you?" The teasing manner of Dreamer's voice and expression reminded Sabrin uncomfortably of a cat toying with a mouse. "I thought better of you than to believe stupid rumors."
"No, of-of course I didn't," Sid attempted a feeble smile, recovering a little of his composure, "I knew you were still around; I wasn't expecting you's all."
"Yeah, I know I just kinda dropped in on ya this time but" -- Dreamer draped an arm over the other man's stiff shoulders in an overly casual move that approached but fell short of being friendly -- "I thought it'd be more fun this way." The rest of their group followed them towards the closed door that led into back of the club.
"Are...all three of these gentlemen to accompany us?" Sid asked tactfully, obviously reticent about strangers participating in the confidentialities between him and Dreamer.
"Uh Sabe, why don't you go in with Dreamer while me and Fennic keep an eye on things out here?" Tallas proposed. The flicker of understanding in Sabrin's eyes confirmed that his partner had the same thought -- neither of them were comfortable in Sid's presence nor thought it a good idea for Fennic to attend the meeting. "Sure, only one of us will come if that makes things easier," Sabrin told Sid. He didn't know why Dreamer seemed to relish making the man squirm but he did not share the desire.
"Okay, let's go Sabe," Dreamer said, "See you two in a bit."
After the four men left, Tallas ushered Fennic to a spot within sight of the door. Despire assuring himself that there was little risk and that both Dreamer and Sabrin could take care of themselves, trepidation still weighed down his heart as he resigned himself to the wait. Beside him, Fennic sensed the Orion's anxiety over being separated from his love and remained quiet.
"Hi, I see that you guys didn't have any trouble finding the local waterin' hole," a familiar voice said.