Daniel Hendricks wants a vacation. Ward Security’s accountant and resident code breaker just needs a little R&R from the chaos and usual shenanigans of the office.
But what was supposed to be a sexy vacation hook-up explodes in his face when he’s mistaken for a rogue secret agent.
Now he’s on the run with CIA agent Edward Raines from Bermuda to Barcelona to Paris as they try to find the secrets the real rogue was attempting to sell before another foreign spy does.
The chemistry between them is off the charts, but how is Daniel supposed to trust a man who had originally set out to kill him?
Daniel took a sip of the frozen margarita and hummed his pleasure as the cool, citrus flavor burst over his tongue. It was the perfect antidote to the sun beating down on his head. The sun he was enjoying more than he’d expected.
Bermuda in June held a dreamlike quality that made him feel as if he’d entered another world. Sparkling, white sand. Big, open sky. Crashing surf. And the scenery in between the two was a feast for the senses as well. Rocky outcroppings gave the view texture, and the green of the trees along the sides of the beach only added to the spectacular color.
Of course, a life spent behind a computer meant he was pale as hell, leaving him to slather on suntan lotion. The Fairmont Southampton hotel where he was staying for the next week rose up on the hill behind him with the bright greens of the golf course crossing in front of it.
Today, he was planning to do nothing more than sip the drink at his side, read the latest thriller from his favorite author, and people-watch from his lounge chair on the beach. Maybe in a day or two, he’d wander around the island and take in the sights, but for now, he wanted to do a whole lot of nothing but relax and soak up the rays.
It would be a nice break from his job at Ward Security where he worked as a forensic accountant. He loved his job and especially loved the place he worked, but he still didn’t totally feel like he fit in. Or he was just the perennial wallflower.
But that was the story of his life.
Too shy for his own good, Daniel felt like he was that random piece in search of the right puzzle.
Daniel knew he should feel used to being the outsider, but Ward Security only brought it into stark clarity because all his coworkers were so outgoing. They’d become their own tight-knit family. They all tried to make him feel included, but Daniel’s insecurity and awkwardness kept him from joining in as much as he knew he should.
Even now, Quinn Lake was texting him for more pictures of Bermuda. One of Ward Security’s resident hackers, the poor guy spent even more time behind his computer than Daniel did. He admitted when Daniel mentioned his planned vacation that he never traveled, preferring to stick close to his ailing mother. But he loved to live vicariously through his constantly roaming coworkers.
Come on, Daniel! Gimme one more pic!
Smirking, Daniel grabbed his margarita and held it up so that the beach and surf were clear in the background when he snapped the picture. He sent the image, took another drink of his alcoholic beverage, and put it down on the little table beside him. He was just about to put his phone down as well when it pinged with another message.
A loud laugh jumped from his throat when he opened it to find Quinn had sent back a picture of him and Dominic Walsh. The hacker and the redheaded bodyguard were both glaring and flipping him the bird.
Dom says you need to find a man to go with that drink, Quinn texted a second later.
Daniel put his phone down without replying, but a smile still lingered on his lips. This vacation was not about finding a summer hookup. This was his chance to wind down and get his head on track. He’d been pulling long hours at Ward, and he’d looked forward to this vacation for a long time.
An hour later, he half dozed, lulled by the alcohol and sun, his book forgotten on his lap. A lounge chair next to his creaked, and Daniel could only assume that someone was stretching out in the sun. He didn’t even bother to open his eyes, was just grateful this newcomer didn’t come with chatty friends or screaming kids. Right then, there was only the sound of the crashing surf on the beach and the low, distant sound of music drifting from the nearby beach bar. This was heaven.
It wasn’t until he turned over that he cracked his eyes and caught a glimpse of the man next to him. His eyes flew open wide to take in all six and a half feet of the gorgeous creature. Blessed with broad shoulders, narrow waist and hips, the man was stunning. Black hair and a close-cropped beard gave his craggy face character. Daniel had always been a sucker for the rough-hewn look on a man, and this guy had rough down pat with his thin face, bladed cheekbones, and full lips. His arms looked like he could out bench-press the security agents at Ward Security. Black tattoos covered his left shoulder and upper arm in an almost-hypnotic design. He wore plain black swim trunks that came to only the tops of his thighs and looked as if they were painted onto his perfect form.
Daniel was used to being around big men, used to feeling kind of small despite his height of five eleven, thanks to the mountains strolling around Ward Security. He was built thin. Hours of working out would never change that. Taut and whipcord lean was what his last boyfriend called him. And Derek was the last person Daniel wanted to think about. Derek and his wandering dick.
Dark eyes turned his way, and the smile that stretched those full lips did something to Daniel’s chest. He smiled back as he settled on his stomach and closed his eyes. Wouldn’t do to stare at the hot man like some creeper. Though he couldn’t help but crack his eyes one more time. Those eyes—brown—were still on him, and they held interest as they ran down his form and locked on his ass. His ass was the one thing not lean about him. “A perfect, round bubble butt,” Derek had said.
It took all his effort to hold back a grin when the man looked at him and shrugged sheepishly. He held out a hand. “Might as well introduce myself now that I’ve come across as a complete tool. I’m Edward. Edward Raines.”
Jocelynn Drake and Rinda Elliott have teamed up to combine their evil genius to create intense gay romantic suspense stories that have car chases, shoot outs, explosions, scorching hot love scenes, and tender, tear-jerking moments. Their first joint books are in the Unbreakable Bonds series.
A magical energy drain is siphoning life from the land and leaving a twisted, decaying wasteland in its wake.
Safely isolated in his forest home, Tatsu wants nothing to do with the drain or the other citizens in the kingdom of Chayd. The only people he cares about are his childhood friend and her strangely prophetic sister, but there’s no avoiding the threat once Tatsu is arrested and taken to the capital. The Queen of Chayd offers Tatsu his freedom—but only in exchange for sneaking into the neighboring kingdom of Runon and stealing whatever is powering the siphon.
Ravenous trees and corrupted predators lie between Tatsu’s team and their prize, but the drain’s destruction is nothing compared to Runon’s high mages, determined to protect their weapon. As the truth of the siphon’s power reveals itself, Tatsu faces an impossible question: how much is he willing to sacrifice to save one man’s life?
The knock on the door came just as he finished refilling his quiver. Tatsu froze, blood running cold. He put his hand on the leather pack for stability before he was able to oust the lump in his throat. His house was too remote for anyone to simply stumble across it, so whoever it was had meant to arrive. As the air in the small house hung still and heavy, his hand slid to the uneven table with the broken leg he’d never gotten around to fixing, fingers finding the familiar and well-worn hilt of his skinning knife. It was sharp enough to take apart a jack hare. He hoped it was also keen enough to defend himself.
He took a few steps toward the noise, his feet unconsciously finding their way around the long, loose floorboards. He was almost to the door when the knocking came again, impatient. The new round of knocking was paired with a female voice. “Tatsu?”
The anxiety left his body in a rush that felt like the hot sting of Chayd’s summer against his skin, months too early.
“Alesh?” he replied and opened the creaking wooden door. “What are you doing here?”
His first thought was that she had to be injured, sick, or something worse. After all, it had been a long time since she’d last bothered to travel all the way to his hut in the inner woods. But she appeared to be in one piece, her hair worked back into three simple plaits, and she seemed no worse for the wear. Irritation surged through his chest. Knowing she’d been fine but not taking the time to visit made her sudden reappearance cut deeper.
“Please,” she said and, at once, he knew. Alesh wouldn’t journey to his doorstep for any other reason. She needed a favor.
He had half a mind to shut the door right in her face, his insides still untangling themselves from tight knots, but movement flashed behind Alesh’s shoulder. Ral lingered behind her, digging in the constant scourge of weeds growing in front of the house without any care to the dirt embedding itself under her nails. The young woman was laughing at Tatsu’s wildflowers. Her light-brown dress fabric, marking her as enol, or baseborn, was already streaked with smears of mud.
He didn’t close the door, but he didn’t edge it open any further either.
“Hear me out.” Alesh had the good grace to flinch when Tatsu snorted.
“Isn’t that all I’ve ever done?” he asked.
“I need your help.”
Help was not a word that came easily from her, though Tatsu guessed they had wildly different definitions of it. Help to him meant aid and a friendly ear and someone present, offering suggestions and finding solutions. Help was nothing Alesh had ever allowed him to do.
“The last time I tried to help you…” he warned.
She slammed the door so forcefully the ripples shook Tatsu’s arm. “Listen, this isn’t for me, you know. I can’t leave her alone, and I don’t have anyone else.”
Tatsu peered over Alesh’s shoulder again. Ral had gotten a handful of the reedy flowers and pulled them up by the roots, laughing with delight at the white tendrils she’d exposed. When Tatsu’s gaze flickered back to Alesh, her dark eyes were focused on him, narrow and unflinching.
“Please.” The second time sounded much less like a request. She knew she’d already won him over.
Tatsu sighed and called out, “Ral, would you like to come in?”
Ral complied, though she left a trail of dirt behind her as her movement loosened the clumps that clung to her skirt. She might have gotten taller. She was taller than Tatsu, at least. She seemed happy in the house, and Tatsu tried to keep half his attention on her as she moved around, in case she got her hands on the extra snares in the corners. If he had known a houseguest would show up, he might’ve done something with the place.
“It’s only for a few days,” Alesh promised. “This is the safest place I could think of. I mean, who’s going to come way out here? I have some business I need to attend to—”
“Other people’s possessions, you mean? Or is there a new line of criminal mischief you’ve found that pays better?”
She frowned. “That’s not fair at all, and you know it.”
“Do I?” Tatsu asked. “How could I know it, when the last time you bothered to show up here and tell me you were still alive, the first snow had just fallen?”
Her face pinched tight, mouth hard, before it slackened again in defeat. She sighed, equal parts exasperation and resignation, and ran a hand through the few dark strands of hair hanging wild and wavy around her face, too short to plait back.
“Look, can you…spare me the whole spiel?” Her gaze sank and stayed on a spot near the entrance where the beams of the house were embedded deep in the dirt. “I promise you can lecture me all you want when I come back to pick her up. But for now, I really need to go, and I don’t have time for this.”
Tatsu leaned against the door. Behind him, Ral had discovered the utensils for cooking and was excitedly going through them all, copper spoons and mugs clanging against one another. Alesh stood slumped on his doorstep as if the weight of the world hung on her shoulders, hobbling her. She seemed smaller than the last time he’d seen her, under the same sky and a moon tinged with red. He thought about saying something, something like stay, but the times they’d shared had long since passed between them. There had been too many winters and too many summers. The word died on his tongue.
Instead, he nodded. “Fine. But only for a few days.”
“Thank you.” Alesh’s mouth twisted up into a rueful smile. “She’s learned to count to a hundred—you should ask her to demonstrate for you. She loves showing it off.”
Behind them, as if in agreement, Ral banged Tatsu’s ladle against his big iron pot, the sharp crash echoing.
“I will,” Tatsu replied.
Alesh tucked a bit of unruly hair behind one ear. “It won’t be long.”
Kathryn Sommerlot is a coffee addict and craft beer enthusiast with a detailed zombie apocalypse plan. Originally from the cornfields of the American Midwest, she got her master’s degree and moved across the ocean to become a high school teacher in Japan. When she isn’t wrangling teenage brains into critical thinking, she spends her time writing, crocheting, and hiking with her husband. She enjoys LGBTQ fiction, but she is particularly interested in genre fiction that just happens to have LGBTQ protagonists. Find out more on her Website.
Stranded on a tropical island, Dr No-Name has no mobile phone, no wallet, no keys, no passport. No left hand, no shoes and no memory. What she does have is a blister pack of nicotine gums, two minibar-sized bottles of whisky (consumed), and what appears to be an endless supply of coconuts. She can’t possibly get into any worse trouble, can she?
I am drunk and about to chop my hand off. There is a correlation between these two states of being, or becoming; but it isn’t that I am crazed and delirious from the alcohol. On this short notice, it’s the only anaesthetic available to me—and the hand needs to go.
Despite my grogginess on first coming to, I recognised the symptoms of a necrotising infection: the tissue death eating away at my digits—the fifth and the second are already black, all but falling off on their own—the red and purple nebulae spreading over the back of my hand, my palm, inching up towards my wrist.
I need to amputate. I need to amputate right now, if there’s even the remotest possibility the bacteria haven’t reached any of my vital organs yet.
There will be time enough for questions later—with a little, or rather a freighter-shipload of luck. Because I do have questions. Like, where am I?
Who am I?
What am I doing here?
Checking that I have my penknife at the ready, I start tightening my primitively devised tourniquet: a stick and a belt. It’s like something out of a survivalist’s wet, apocalyptic nightmare.
Fortunately—incomprehensibly—there were two minibar-sized bottles of whisky in the sorry, debris-filled excuse of a handbag I had slung over my shoulder, caught at my hip, and wound across my chest in a way that restricted my breathing when I regained consciousness. I was alone, drenched and shivering like a stray, on this abandoned strip of beach in No Place.
Maybe I’m a recovering alcoholic. It would explain the blackout. But it seems unlikely, since the spirits performed their magic after just a gulp or two, offering a warm, tingly sensation that managed to put a cap on my agony, strengthening my resolve.
I am not going to get the tourniquet any tighter. My right hand is shaking as I reach for the puny knife, making sure I have the rags I have torn out of my shirt within easy access.
“This is going to hurt so bad.” I tell the knife conversationally—like the drunk I am, at present—and I am struck by a thought that makes me laugh grimly. “I sure hope I’m not a leftie.”
Screaming like a banshee to get my adrenaline pumping, I swing the blade down over my left wrist with as much force as I can muster.
So hot. So hot, yet so cold, yet so hot, all the same. Stars dance before my eyes, and it could have been delirium, but no: it’s the night sky. An endless, otherworldly expanse vaulting above my head like an exploded piñata, each star a soaring, scintillating scrap of space. I have never seen a night sky like this before; I’m quite certain, though who will take the word of an amnesiac, a fevered amnesiac, lying in the sand—the impossibly fine white sand, like snow (if only it were snow, I muse through the wool in my brain, to cool the flames within) beside her severed hand? How did I manage? How could I have cut through bone with nothing but a penknife, even if it is a high-quality, all-the-trimmings sort of blade? I have bled through my ad hoc bandages—have I? No, they’re good, if grimy.
“Water.” I want to tell the coyly twinkling stars overhead, but my cracked lips won’t cooperate. “Wa-eh,” I actually say, breathe; and tears of hurt—and gratitude, because yes, I am in fact still breathing—stream down my immobile face, pooling in the shells of my ears.
“Need.” I try next and snort because it comes out as “Nee” and this seems funny, somehow; I can’t explain.
I am waging a losing war against unconsciousness. I probably won’t wake again, I think morosely. And then, as the sky looks to be falling…falling on top of me, the very universe ready to claim me as fair game. Oh, but it’s been grand. I can’t remember the particulars, but I think I enjoyed the ride.
Often quirky, always queer, Elna Holst is an unapologetic genre-bender who writes anything from stories of sapphic lust and love to the odd existentialist horror piece, reads Tolstoy, and plays contract bridge. Find her on Instagram or Goodreads.
Can a wealthy but frustrated CEO and a guilt-ridden stripper find what they need in a consensual, nonsexual whipping boy arrangement?
Billionaire mogul Grant Jessup, fifty-three, buries his sexual tastes and the reasons behind them—the stresses of his business empire and family. In contrast, Jim Sieber understands the regret that makes him seek pain and penance. As an asexual averse to erotic touch, Jim sets strict boundaries. But as the relationship evolves, Grant struggles to respect them, and both men realize for their association to continue and perhaps grow into real feelings, they’ll have to explore new ways to satisfy each other.
JIM SIEBER kept his attention on the television in front of him, pretending to be engrossed in the telenovela playing. He didn’t need to be fluent in Spanish to know Ricardo was in deep shit with Sofia. Occasionally he caught a glimpse of the bartender in his peripheral vision and doubled down on his TV viewing. Behind him, a steady slap of leather against bare skin pulled a rich, throaty holler from a man. Jim sat at the corner of the bar, loosely surrounding his double whiskey with his long fingers. He sensed a few stares, but people left him alone. He’d figured they would after his first time when a man had snaked his hand around Jim’s neck and called him boy. Jim had twisted the man’s thumb so far back he’d almost broken it. “Not your boy,” Jim had said, after he’d forced the man to his knees in pain. Evidently, word had gotten around. No one had approached since.
It was his own damn fault. He didn’t know why he’d come to an S&M club if he wasn’t going to get involved. He hadn’t come to watch. Hell, he wasn’t watching, not anything except the telenovela. The beatings going on behind him could have been happening on another planet. But he had to stop himself from flinching with every stroke he heard, and curled his fingers into his glass with every scream. He’d come here because he’d wondered if pain would make him forget. No, not forget. He’d come here because he’d wondered if pain would absolve him. Sure, he could have tried boxing or started a bar fight, but he didn’t want to be arrested, and his boss got huffy about facial injuries. A respectable S&M club had seemed like his best option. Except for the red flag that Jim hadn’t considered, and which had stopped him from taking action. As the subs walked past after their sessions, hugged against their Doms, he knew why he could never do that. Aftercare involved touching. It might turn sexual. Jim’s skin prickled at the thought, a march of ants that he couldn’t shake off.
So he stared at the television and talked to no one.
“Hey. Hey!” Jim jumped and blinked. The bartender was talking to him. He thumbed to a set of stairs leading up to a balcony and a single door. “Boss wants to see ya.”
“Boss?” Jim asked.
“Wouldn’t keep her waiting,” the bartender said.
Jim looked around, expecting to find some muscle waiting to haul him up, but he saw a clear path to the stairs. “Okay.” He considered his glass.
“I’ll keep it for you, if you want it later.” The bartender pulled it off the bar. So that settled it. Jim headed for the stairs. At the top, he knocked. The door flew open. A woman with an olive complexion and straight black hair reaching to the middle of her back beckoned him in. He’d expected leather, lace, and high heels. She wore smart black slacks and a maroon shirt tailored to hug her waist and not strain at her bust. The amount of cleavage on view from the two open buttonholes would have been acceptable in any corporate boardroom. Instead of heels, she wore what looked like bedroom slippers. Not the sexy kind, either. More like the “home alone with a Harlequin novel and a mug of hot chocolate” kind. He relaxed instantly. The image reminded him of many pleasant nights spent with his mother when he was a child. With almost nothing between her feet and the floor, the top of her head barely reached Jim’s nipples. As soon as she closed the door, the sounds from downstairs disappeared.
“Soundproofing?” Jim asked.
The woman smiled and extended her hand. “I couldn’t concentrate without it. I’m Tanya Wyatt. You can call me Tanya or Miss Wyatt, whichever you’re more comfortable with.”
“Jim Sieber.” He left the implication that she could likewise call him whatever she wished unsaid. They shook hands.
“Come sit down, Mr. Sieber. Take the seat of your choice.”
He followed her back to her desk. As she sat in her chair, he noticed his options—a straight-backed wooden chair or a pillow on the floor. He chose the chair. If Miss Wyatt noticed his fraction of a second of hesitation, she didn’t comment.
She folded her hands and made a serious expression.
“Mr. Sieber, when a new person comes to the club and doesn’t engage in activities, whether that is actively, voyeuristically, or simply socially, for a week, we understand. This is a new experience for them, and we appreciate their need to acclimate at their own pace. Some people can take two or three weeks before they are ready to take the next step.”
Jim’s throat tightened. “So?”
“You have been coming for nine weeks, and aside from nearly breaking Henry’s hand, you haven’t spoken to anyone.”
“So, you called me up here because I haven’t made any friends?”
“I’ll put this bluntly. My staff and clients are starting to wonder if you’re police. Are you the police, Mr. Sieber?”
“No, ma’am, I’m not.”
“Then what can I do to help you achieve your goals here? Because unless you’re here to improve your Spanish, I’m guessing that you’re not getting what you need out of your visits.”
Jim wished he’d brought his drink along. He stared down at his hands, which had subconsciously assumed the position like they were gripping a glass. “It’s hard to explain.”
“I want to help you.”
On the cusp of voicing his needs, he felt stupid. “I should go. I’m sorry. I won’t come back.”
“Truffle?” Miss Wyatt asked. Jim blinked in surprise as she opened a box on her desk and offered a tray of cocoa-dusted chocolate drops to him.
“Thank you.” He took one and popped it in his mouth before he could think about it.
As he chewed, she spoke. “People come here for a variety of reasons. They aren’t all what you might suspect. So, if you’re thinking that you’re out of place because your reasons don’t match what you believe they should, believe me when I tell you that you are wrong. Look at me.” She gestured at herself. “I’m a heterosexual woman who owns and operates an exclusively male S&M club. What are my motivations? Why do I do this? I bet they aren’t what you think.”
Jim wasn’t sure if she wanted an answer. He stopped chewing to let the chocolate dissolve on his tongue.
“Delectable, isn’t it? A good friend goes to Belgium on business. He always brings me a box. He’s a considerate man. We won’t talk about his personal life.” She offered a bland smile that Jim interpreted as “I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“Is he a client here?” Jim asked.
“He’s a dear friend.” She smiled again. “Another?”
Jim shook his head. “No, thank you.”
“I’ll have one.” She closed her eyes as she chewed. Jim watched her jaw and throat move. She didn’t seem to be putting on a show. For a moment, he wondered if she’d forgotten him.
“I, um, I’m not sure I’m comfortable here.”
Miss Wyatt opened her eyes with the laziness of a cat waking. “In the office or in the club?”
“Here.” Jim gestured, taking in everything. “Everything’s so sexual. If you knew what I do for a living, you’d think I’m weird to say that, but….”
“But sexual is not what you want from your experience here,” she finished.
“So what do you want? Pain? You said not sexual, so I assume you don’t want pleasure?”
“Sex isn’t pleasurable for me.” He cringed. He hadn’t meant to share that.
“Mr. Sieber, if you’ve suffered a trauma and you’re here to work through it, I have to advise you against this. I can direct you to other resources—”
“I wasn’t traumatized. I’m not interested in sex. I don’t like… being touched like that. It makes me uncomfortable.” That put it mildly.
“Well. You might be the first asexual we’ve had here that I know of.”
“I don’t sign autographs.”
She laughed. “All right, you’ve explained why your goals aren’t sexual. Let’s talk about why you’re asking for pain. Are you a masochist?”
“No, ma’am.” He dug his heels into the carpet as she unraveled him.
“But you want to be hurt.”
She sounded sure. He glanced up, wondering if he should put up a front and demand to know why she’d jumped to that conclusion instead of asking if he sought to hurt someone. Her thoughtful expression shut him down. She looked ready to explain his life for him. And worse, she would be right.
“Yes,” he said, instead of the protest he’d halfheartedly intended. “I want to be hurt.” He said it aloud, slowly, to hear himself.
One look at Miss Wyatt told him she already knew why. She wanted him to say it.
“Because I deserve it.” He swallowed.
She kept eye contact and gave a small encouraging nod.
“Because I’m guilty of something and I… I want to be absolved.”
“Mr. Sieber, are you a fugitive?”
“No, nothing like that.” He realized what he sounded like, talking of guilt and absolution with such fervor.
He fell back in relief when her lips twitched into a smile. She reached across the desk. He grasped her hand.
“Mr. Sieber, I give you my word that I will match you to a client who will respect your boundaries. As for the absolution you desire, I’m afraid you’ll only find that if you’re willing to let yourself.”
“Thank you.” He began to shake with relief. He’d have what he needed soon. Everything would be okay.
“Now. Let’s go downstairs so I can introduce you properly to our bartender, Noel.” She pulled a pair of heels from beneath her desk and quickly swapped her slippers for them. “You have a lot of paperwork ahead of you, young man, and you’re going to need a soda to help your nerves.” He jumped when she touched his shoulder. “This is a big step.”
“I’m ready.” He stood up and walked to the door, where he waited for her. “Thank you, Miss Wyatt.”
THREE MONTHS Later:
Tanya Wyatt never failed to add excitement to his day, so Grant Jessup had allowed himself a rare nonbusiness lunch when she’d invited him out. Of course Rory had scowled at him. His leaving meant she needed to cancel a meeting on his account, but it was a one-on-one and it involved spreadsheets. Frankly, Grant was glad to be free of it. He still had heartburn and acid reflux from the day before after two acidic meals, one featuring citrus and the other tomato sauce. It had worsened overnight.
A new box of chocolate truffles sat on the table between Grant and Tanya. Grant had dutifully handed them over upon arrival, kicking off a conversation about his most recent European business trip. Then, when the waitress carried away their entree plates, Tanya slipped the truffles into her bag. Recognizing the significance of the action, Grant glanced around for eavesdropping ears.
“So, what’s the occasion?” he asked.
“There’s a young man I want you to meet. He started coming into the club about five months ago. I haven’t been able to match him yet. He’s breathtaking but asexual. He only wants to be beaten, but the Doms I’ve paired him with get handsy. It’s counterproductive to his needs.”
“So you think I could keep my hands off him?”
“You have a considerable amount of restraint. You are possibly my last hope. Plus, given what you’re currently looking for, I think he’d be a good match for you as well.”
Grant considered it. “How attractive?”
“Mercury or Hercules?”
Grant arched an eyebrow as his heart clenched with a mix of youthful guilt and nostalgia. Tanya had touched a nerve she couldn’t possibly know about. Unless… she’d been to Grant’s home. She could easily have seen the painting of Narcissus that hung in Melanie’s former office. Melanie had left it and a number of other paintings behind after the divorce. Tanya might have guessed it belonged to Grant.
“You’d trust me to work out my frustration on his ass? I know how protective you are of your clients’ bottoms, Tanya.”
“Oh, you won’t touch him until you and I have spent at least forty hours together and I’m positive you know how to recognize when your temper isn’t in check.”
Grant gave a light snort. “Please. I didn’t get this rich by losing my cool.”
“That’s my point. You’re so good at hiding when you’re about to boil over that I wonder if you even know when you’ve reached the point before it’s too late. I’m not about to put a whip or any other implement in your hand before you’ve proven yourself to me, especially considering your reasons for doing this. You can keep your temper in business interactions, but you’re talking about family.”
Grant sighed. He didn’t care for Tanya’s methods, but he respected them, and if this plan worked out, it would meet a need he’d been looking to fill for a few years. “Fair enough. I suppose you’ll want to start this training the usual way.”
“You know, I think it’s hilarious how you’re protective of everyone’s ass but mine.”
“Darling, no Dom gets in my club without getting whipped by Miss Wyatt. You know that. If you can’t take it, there’s no reason I should let you dish it out.”
He sniffed. “I don’t see why one needs to give repeated proof. You’re a perverted woman.”
She grinned. “If you made yourself more of a regular, I wouldn’t have to keep reassuring myself.”
“Come on, Tanya. I can’t exactly be seen there, no matter how discreet you insist everyone is. My family is already in the tabloids more than I’d like.”
“I know. So, I’ll see you at mine at ten tonight?”
“Fine.” He dug into his pocket for a pillbox and pulled out an omeprazole tablet. “When do I meet this young man?”
“Heartburn or ulcer?” Tanya asked. She nodded at the tablet as Grant put it into his mouth and swallowed with a bit of water. It wouldn’t be as effective with food already in his stomach, but it was better than not taking it.
“Heartburn, but ulcer is around the corner I’m sure.”
“What does the doctor say?”
“Says I have too much stress in my life and I need to cut back.”
“Are you going to listen to him?”
He smiled. “Why do you think I take so many trips to Europe?”
“Grant, I know you take pride in your job, but—”
“It’s not a job. It’s a career. It’s the family business that I built on my father’s framework, so whatever you’re about to say, stop.”
Tanya put her hand up and changed the subject back. “He works at a strip club in upper Manhattan. I don’t want you to meet him yet, but you can send one of your spies to check him out.”
“And by ‘spy’ you mean Rory?”
She smiled. “I do. See you tonight, babe.”
Grant sighed, already anticipating the pain in his ass the evening would be.
Ryan Loveless is the author of numerous M/M romance novels and short stories. She is honored to be recognized as a Rainbow Book Award winner (several titles), an Epic eBook Awards finalist (In Me an Invincible Summer), and a Florida Author and Publisher Association bronze medalist (Ethan, the young adult adaptation of Ethan, Who Loved Carter). She lives in New York with her family, a sentence that brings her great joy to write.
In a future where schools have no teachers and no classrooms, Jennifer Calderon is the perfect student. Every day she watches her video modules, plays her edu games, and never misses an answer. Life is comfortable in the Plex, a mile-wide apartment building. Corporations and brand names surround her and satisfy her every want and need.
Then one day, her foul-mouthed, free-spirited, 90’s-kitsch-wearing girlfriend Melody disrupts everything. She introduces her to a cynical, burned-out former teacher, who teaches them the things no longer taught in school. Poetry. Critical thinking. Human connection.
But these lessons draw the attention of EduForce, the massive corporation with a stranglehold on education. When they show how far they are willing to go keep their customers obedient, Jennifer has to decide what is most important to her and how much she is willing to sacrifice for it.
One: Learning if Fun
“The brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in response to certain stimuli. Eating candy, having sex, consuming drugs, even petting a dog can trigger a pleasure response. Video games, especially ones with bright lights, upbeat music, and facile accomplishments are especially potent, flooding the brain with a sense of reward. As such, they were the bane of teachers for many years. That is, until EduForce began to use these games in their products. The scourge of learning was being disguised as learning itself.”
—Charles Winston, The Trough, p. 114
Jennifer Calderón stared into the screen, slack-jawed and passive as the bright colors and shapes burst before her eyes. Her pupils traced letters and blocks as they bounced from one end of the sixty-inch screen to the next. She reached out and touched a word before it hit the bottom–GAMBOLED. The white letters lit up, neon-green, and the word whooshed across the screen to smash into another word—GAMBLED—and shatter into a shower of sparkles.
“Same-sounder found!” a chirpy electronic voice declared.
Dopamine squirted into Jennifer’s brain in happy little jets. A smile traced the corners of her lips. Learning was fun.
Jennifer flicked her eyes to the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The figure 23/25 quickened her pulse. Two more. Two more word pairs and she would earn the Same-Sounder Achievement.
A new word appeared at the bottom of her screen. ASCENT, it read. The friendly female voice read the word and definition. Bubbles with other vocabulary terms floated around the screen. Colors whirled before her eyes and electronic dance beats filled her ears as she searched for Same-Sounders. Then she saw it. The word, in white letters on a floating bubble, drifted toward the bottom. Jennifer’s finger jabbed at the screen. Pop! The word ASSENT exploded in fireworks. More music and chirpy voices.
“Same-sounder found,” the voice said. More dopamine gushed into Jennifer’s brain. Her eyes flicked up to the corner. 24/25.
Once more, Jennifer scanned the bubbles and blobs and cubes and tetrahedrons swirling in her vision. Her breath was shallow. More and more words poured onto the screen. In one moment after another, tiny subdivided fractions of seconds, Jennifer saw and rejected words she did not think made the same sound as “cymbal.” Her eyes, her brain, and her hands all had to work in unison. Each level of Same-Sounder Finder was faster, more complex, and more stimulating than the last.
Then she saw it. SYMBOL.
She thrust her finger out to the screen. The little magenta gem in which the word sat was zigzagging down the screen, and she almost missed it and pressed the word TUMBLE crossing its path. But the SYMBOL illuminated, exploded, and a fireworks finale showed on the screen. 25/25.
“Same-sounder found,” the voice declared, then louder and triumphantly, “Same-sounder achievement unlocked!”
Jennifer leaped and thrust her fists in the air as a fanfare of electronic tones rang through her bedroom. Not many students earned perfect scores on Same-Sounder Finder, but Jennifer did. She earned perfect scores on everything. She was twenty-three years old and finishing her last year of schooling, a year ahead of the usual schedule. Because of all the hours she put into learning, and because she never had to redo any of her modules, she had raced ahead of her peers, many of whom were still on Achievement Level 13 or 14. She was working on 15.
After the music died down, the screen went still. Jennifer’s head was still pounding. A headache was setting in, as was a twinge of crankiness. She left her bedroom and went to the kitchen where she poured herself a cup of coffee. Her mother always had a pot brewing, anything to keep her beloved daughter focused on school. Jennifer clogged the coffee with sugar and milk, stirred it, and took a gulp. Better. She freed a couple of aspirins from their foil pouches and swallowed them with the next mouthful of coffee. She returned to her room.
Jennifer slid her finger along the screen and opened it to a new frame, one summarizing her academic progress. Current Achievement Level: 14. 12 percent of the way to 15. 106 of 880 modules completed. Achievement Level Grade Point Average: 5.0/5.0.
Total Progress to Completion of all Achievement Levels: 97 percent. 12,845 of 13,215 modules completed.
And then there was the final number. The prized number, the number she had worked for since age three.
Aggregate Grade Point Average: 5.0/5.0
Every assignment Jennifer had ever done, from toddlerhood into now her mid-twenties, had been flawless. Missing just one question on one task would eradicate her record—The Perfect Five. There had been students with 5.0 GPAs before, but their scores came with asterisks. Usually the student had missed a smattering of questions throughout their education, resulting in a score that would round up to 5.0 in the ten-thousandths place. But Jennifer Calderón began each module on a knife’s edge, knowing one slip up would end her lunge at history. Each completed question nudged her progress toward earning Achievement Level 15, the equivalent of what was once her high school diploma. Thus far, however, all she had was poor digestion, headaches, sleep deprivation, and occasional interviews for the NewsFeed as her accomplishment became more improbable.
Jennifer left the score screen and opened a new frame to continue with a new module. She had done three Grammar Modules in a row and wished for a change, so she opened a Chemistry Module. It made no difference to her. She never understood students who had favorite subjects, who would put off Math or Writing as long as possible. She never understood procrastination. She simply worked until she was exhausted, every day, with no heed to the subject area. It was all the same to her.
To unlock the next series of edugames, she needed to watch the Chemistry vidlesson. At the opening screen, she was given a choice of several hundred different teachers to choose from. Each teacher had his or her own style. Some were brusque and businesslike, while others joked and kept the lesson light. Some had an air of wisdom and experience, while others were young and attractive. Some explained topics deliberately, but Jennifer returned to the same half-dozen teachers who explained briskly. Unlike many students, Jennifer always watched the vidlesson before the edugame. It was true “Learning Was Fun” but it was also true that “Hard Work Pays Off.” It’s so easy, she thought. They give you all of the answers right in the lesson.
Too easy. But the thought was fleeting, and she brushed it away.
Jennifer selected Mr. 85. She was not sure why the teachers did not have real names, but she did not dwell on it long. Mr. 85 was a favorite of hers because he spoke a little faster than other teachers. The content of what he said was the same—it had to be; the teachers were scripted—but he lingered a few seconds less on the examples and generally made his points and moved on. She wondered how many minutes of her educational life had been saved by Mr. 85’s expediency.
Her stomach rumbled. I should eat, she thought, but instead she touched the icon for the Chemistry video and sat on the edge of her bed. The video opened. It was six minutes. Damn. A long one.
The introduction music came up, a familiar, infectious jingle followed by a voiceover. “Chemistry—All You Need to Know. A lesson by the EduForce Corporation.” Then the camera fixed on Mr. 85. Mr. 85 was a middle-aged black man with graying hair. He never smiled. Jennifer kind of liked that. He stood in front of a display showing an elaborate chart with boxes. Each box had one or two letters inside.
“Good day, I am Mr. 85. Today we are going to learn all about Chemistry. As you remember from the Introduction to Chemistry lesson, Chemistry is the part of science that is chemicals. The chemicals have names and symbols. Today I will teach them to you.”
He stepped to the right and indicated the chart. Jennifer already knew she would have to rewatch this segment of the video. Maybe the whole thing. All those boxes and letters would be difficult to remember.
“This is called the Chemical Chart. It used to be called the ‘Periodic Table of the Elements,’ but let’s keep it simple. The Chemical Chart shows you a list of all the chemicals, called ‘elements,’ in the world. Little ones are on the top and big ones are on the bottom.
“Let’s look at some of them. The very top one is called ‘hydrogen.’ Its symbol is H. The next one is Helium. Its symbol is He.”
Mr. 85 pointed out about a dozen of the most common elements and their symbols. Aluminum. Carbon. Oxygen. Phosphorous. Jennifer repeated to herself everything Mr. 85 said.
“Next, we are going to look at what the elements do together,” he went on. “But first, you may be getting tired. Do you find your energy dragging after all this learning? If so, why not order a box of Perk-Eez? It’s the little yellow pill that keeps you shining bright!”
The video of Mr. 85 paused and was replaced with a new screen offering Jennifer the opportunity to order a box of Perk-Eez. She touched the “Yes, please!” button on the screen, and a message immediately appeared. “Thank you! Your delivery will arrive at your unit shortly. Your household account will be debited.” Perk-Eez were another reason Jennifer was on track to graduate two years early.
Mr. 85 returned.
“Now that you know some of the chemicals’ names, let’s look at what chemicals do. They like to be together. Sometimes the same kinds of chemicals get together. One oxygen and another oxygen will get together, and they make up the oxygen we breathe. If you have taken the Human Biology module, you know we breathe oxygen.”
The Chemical Chart was replaced with a graphic of two blue blobs with the letter “O” on them smooshing together.
“Sometimes different chemicals get together. A carbon and two oxygens get together and make up something called carbon dioxide. Yes, that’s right, carbon dioxide, the bad thing your grandparents put into the air that almost killed Earth!”
A new graphic with two blue blobs and a red blob with a “C” all clinging together replaced the old one.
“All kinds of chemicals get together. Let’s look at some combinations.”
The screen showed a series of different colored balls, all with different letters, making different combinations. Jennifer shook her head, trying to maintain focus. It was a lot of new information.
As the video neared completion, Mr. 85 folded his hands and stepped to the center of the screen again. Jennifer thought she almost detected a smile.
“I hope you have enjoyed this lesson on Chemistry. Please rewatch this video as many times as you like before going onto the edugames. My name is Mr. 85 and it has been a pleasure teaching you today. This has been an EduForce vidlesson. EduForce, making learning easy and fun since 2034.”
The video closed. Jennifer watched it again three times. After the second time, the doorbell rang. She accepted the delivery from SentiAid, the pharmacy delivery service. She tore open a foil packet and gobbled a couple of Perk-Eez. Almost instantly, even faster than after a cup of coffee, her brain and body were buzzy and alive.
All right, she thought. Let’s play some more edugames.
The Chemistry edugame was called “Elementastic!!!” She read the instruction screen, then the game began. After a countdown, two words appeared on the screen:
Jennifer typed in FEAR. The letters Fe and Ar zoomed in from the left and right of the screen, collided in a burst of color, and formed the word “fear,” which dissolved into sparkles that floated up to the top of the screen.
Carbon Oxygen Oxygen Phosphorous
Easy, Jennifer thought. She typed COOP.
More collisions and explosions.
Tin Iodine Phosphorous
Helium Aluminum Sulfur
Jennifer fell into a rhythm, working faster and faster on each round. Her breathing became shallow. Her pulse quickened and her pupils dilated as the words came faster, exploded bigger and more colorfully, until finally a computerized voice—male this time—announced, “Activity Complete. Chemistry Achievement Unlocked!” and Jennifer lowered her hands, panting.
The voice continued, “To celebrate your achievement, how about downloading the new song from Tuliphead? The infectious single ‘Plex Lovin’’ is already breaking new—”
“Sure,” Jennifer said, and the advertisement stopped. Buying was the easiest way to make the ads go away.
Even as a small child, edugames had come easily to her. She watched the vidlessons, played the edugames, and thought little of it. She learned with carefree abandon. But when she reached the age of twelve or thirteen, she became aware she was doing something unusual. Of course, she did not have classmates to compare herself to, and she had few friends to ask, but she understood she was different. Other children made mistakes, even had to redo modules they had not mastered. She had wondered what mistakes were, to have the certainty of rightness yanked out from under you.
As she grew older, she became acutely aware of her achievement. At age fifteen, she received a request for a vid interview with a reporter. She had sheepishly declined, unsure of what to say and certain her mother would not have allowed it. But over the subsequent years, several more interview requests came to her, and she began to accept them. Each time she said the same things, that she was proud and studied a lot to do the best she could. That answer was only half true. She was proud of her grade but never had to study. She watched a vidlesson, played the edugame, then moved on to the next.
Born in upstate New York, Adam now lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, son, a neurotic dog and two cats. He teaches middle school English and writes science fiction, fantasy, and history, often in strange combinations. His stories and essays have been published in several anthologies and online magazines. Beyond writing and teaching, his interests include running and making improvements on his creaky old house.
Kyle’s never been shy about going after what he wants. After two short term contracts, he wants something closer to permanent with Aidan. And what better way to bring them closer than to spend time apart? Being away from each other for the first time in their relationship might make them both realize they’d rather be together.
Music filters through the speakers of the dance club, this song less deafening than the last. The singer’s voice is lower, crooning, and every beat of the bass reverberates through Kyle’s body. He moves with the music, chasing it, his movements too languid to ever completely catch it.
The guy behind him groans as Kyle grinds back against him. He splays his hands across Kyle’s hips and pulls Kyle back against him, as if there’s any space left between them at this point.
“You’re good at this,” the guy says, his breath hot against Kyle’s ear.
Kyle grins as he tips his head back against the guy’s shoulder. It shows off the long line of his throat, even in the dim lighting of the club. It’s a tease, all that skin, shiny with a sheen of sweat, more than Kyle meant it to be. The guy tightens his hold as he dips his lips to Kyle’s neck.
“Makes me wonder what else you’re good at,” the guy says.
Yep, definitely too much of a tease. Kyle stops the man’s hands from creeping up his shirt.
“Tonight, just dancing,” Kyle tells the stranger.
“I could persuade you.” He dips his thumbs into Kyle’s waistband. It’s his turn to grind against Kyle, and Kyle’s honest enough to admit the man’s packing a pretty persuasive argument.
It’s tempting, but he has someone even better waiting for him tonight.
“You can’t,” Kyle says, apologetic as he turns so they’re face to face.
The guy’s a couple of inches taller than Kyle, but he doesn’t make him feel small. He likes a bit of looming from his partners, and he’s met some people who pull it off even though they’re shorter than him, but this guy doesn’t manage it even with a natural advantage. It’s a good reminder that while this has been fun, this isn’t the guy he wants to spend the rest of his night with.
The man’s hands on are Kyle’s ass now. They roamed during the past two songs, touching what seems like every part of Kyle’s body. His skin is humming with it. He wants a harder touch, for them to slip under his clothes even though he just stopped the man from doing it.
Someone better is waiting for me at home.
It makes him wonder which of them he’s really teasing.
“One more dance or no?” Kyle asks, his tone light so the guy knows there’re no hard feelings either way.
“One more,” the guy says.
He keeps Kyle like this, the two of them facing each other, as he draws him in closer. He’s rougher during this song, because it has a faster beat or because he knows this is the last few minutes he has before Kyle disappears into the crowd.
Honestly, Kyle doesn’t care what the reason is. He’s into the hands that try to touch all of him one last time and the press of the guy’s dick through his pants. He’s really into the way the guy loses the rhythm of the music as if Kyle’s more important than the dancing. By the end of the song, what they’re doing can’t be called dancing. Even with clothes on, it’s borderline indecent.
Kyle unwraps himself from the other man and flashes him a thumbs-up before heading to the bar for a drink. He asks the bartender for lemonade because he’s looking for a jolt of sugar.
He leans against the counter once he has his drink and looks out at the dance floor. It’s hard to see more than shapes, just a mass of bodies writhing together. He takes a drink, the coldness of his lemonade a contrast to his overheated skin.
He checks his watch. He has to stay here for at least a half hour longer. Probably more. He doesn’t want to seem too eager even though he is eager. All of this is to wind him up, and he’s not sure how much more of it he can stand.
He takes another long drink before he holds his glass to his forehead. His face is flushed, and he’s sweating. He’d worn one of his thinnest shirts in anticipation of a packed dance floor, and now it’s plastered against his skin, it’s practically see-through.
Once he finishes his drink, he leaves the cup and a tip for the bartender. There’s a line for the bathroom, and by the time he’s done, his clothes are sticky and uncomfortable from the sweat drying. Should he call it a night and head home? If he drives slowly enough, then he’ll show up at the earliest time he was given. He was hoping to make it a little longer, but the teasing will be worth it.
A guy with spiked hair and a hopeful smile slides up to him. He’s slimmer than Kyle and his cheeks are as pink as Kyle’s feel. He has eyelashes that make Kyle jealous, and his shirt, if possible, clings even more than Kyle’s is right now.
“You look like you’re trying to have a good time,” the guy says.
He isn’t Kyle’s type at all except he’s interested, and that’s Kyle’s biggest turn on, more than eye color or body shape or gender. Maybe it makes him vain, but he finds himself leaning toward the other man.
“Not too good a time,” Kyle cautions, because on a night like this, it’s important he doesn’t lead anyone on. Some guys assume he’s playing hard to get, and those are the ones he cuts loose after a dance. He is looking for a good time, but his end game isn’t anyone here.
The guy smiles, his teeth white and bright in the dark room. “That makes two of us.”
Kyle shrugs and lets the guy lead him to a part of the dance floor he hasn’t used yet tonight. It’s on the edge, in full view of the bar. Kyle prefers being in the middle of things, bodies packed tight all around him.
It takes a whole song for him to realize the guy’s looking over Kyle’s shoulder toward the bar.
Their plans for the night really are the same.
Kyle hooks his fingers through the man’s belt loops and tugs until he has his attention. “Do you have someone watching or someone you wish was watching?”
“Uh.” The guy’s gaze redirects to Kyle. He puts a few inches between them as if he’s nervous. He must see something on Kyle’s face that settles him because he says, “The first one.”
Which means whoever it is must be sitting at the bar. Kyle wants to turn around and see for himself, but he holds off. First, he runs his hands through the guy’s hair and tips his head back so they’re looking at each other.
“What am I allowed to do?” Kyle asks.
He knows all about putting on a show. Getting people’s attention is one of his best skills, and he’s more than happy to help this guy have his good night.
The guy’s eyebrows climb upwards. “You were definitely a good choice. You can do anything but kiss me.”
“Anything? I can’t kiss, but I can bite?”
“Not hard. No marks.” His brow furrows. “Were you planning on it?”
“No, but you should be more careful offering blank checks to random guys you meet in dance clubs.”
Tamryn studied English and Creative Writing in school but has been writing since she could first hold a pencil. Recently, she’s turned her focus towards writing erotica. She enjoys writing stories where sex comes first, then feelings, because doing things out of order can be fun.
Tamryn has spent the past few months writing the Daniel and Ryan series with a lovely view of mountains out her window, and she’s now searching for a new mountain range to serve as her backdrop as she begins her next project.
This had never been truer for the crew of Matt’s ship, the Lady Lisa. Even as their engine suffers a critical malfunction and Matt scrambles to fund the costly repairs, Val, the ship’s reticent engineer, unexpectedly comes face-to-face with a deadly ghost from his past. Now it’s up to Matt, Ryce, and Tony to rescue him, even if it means breaking the law and striking an uneasy bargain with a local black-market kingpin—but what if this time their best efforts simply aren’t good enough?
And it might be that Val isn’t the only crew member Matt risks losing when his budding relationship with Ryce unexpectedly runs aground. With their love and commitment put to the test, Matt and Ryce must rally to save their friend and to keep their ship afloat, but in a race so desperate there might not be any real winners.
The three of them stood around the gutted engine of the Lady Lisa. Well, Matt stood, while Val and Ryce crouched beside it amid piles of discarded parts, wires, and pieces of electronics. Both of them were covered in smudges of grease and looking up at Matt with expressions bordering on horror, as if unable to accept the pronouncement of judgment. It would have been quite comical, really, except there was nothing remotely funny about the situation.
Usually, it was Matt who was unwilling to acknowledge a problem he wasn’t prepared to deal with, but after watching his engineer and pilot tinker with the thing for hours with absolutely nothing to show for it, even he had to grudgingly admit it was a lost cause. If two geniuses put together couldn’t fix the damn engine, then it was beyond fixing.
“We need a new power converter,” Val said tiredly and wiped his face, smearing the grease even further. “There’s not much we can do without it.”
“We’re afraid the fission chamber would explode if we try to bypass it,” Ryce said apologetically, as if it was his fault the engine worked the way it did. Or didn’t, as the case was.
“Yeah, don’t try that,” Matt said. The last thing he needed was his ship exploding, taking all the crew and half the landing dock with it.
And he definitely didn’t need his ship breaking down. Luckily, the engine decided to give out while they were still safely docked at the Freeport 73 station, and not in the middle of a run. Otherwise, they’d have been stranded in space, drifting with the rest of the human-made junk that orbited Elysium until somebody deigned to answer their distress call.
“Okay,” Matt said, turning his mind back to the problem at hand, searching for some sort of a quick solution. They’d have to cancel the job Matt had contracted yesterday (geological survey equipment delivery to one of the moons of Elysium-4), and every day they spent docked at the station meant more fees. They couldn’t afford to tarry without any immediate sources of income.
“Can you get a new power converter?” he asked Val.
“Yes,” Val said, getting up. Looming at six feet five inches and built of solid muscle, some would call Valeriy Sokolov intimidating. The buzz cut and the perpetually grim expression did nothing to soften his appearance. He was also one of the smartest people Matt had ever known, and with Ryce in the same room, that was saying a lot.
“I’m sensing a ‘but’ coming,” Matt said.
“A brand new converter would set us back fifteen grand,” Val said. “I might be able to find a used one for about five thousand creds, but there’s no telling how long it’ll hold. Could be just a waste of money.”
Matt had had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it, and his hunch proved to be correct. Unfortunately, they always did.
“Shit.” He stared at the discarded parts as if they could somehow magically transform into Federal credits. He wasn’t prepared for it being quite so large a sum. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“I’ll clean up in here.” Val’s tone clearly suggested he wanted everybody else to leave the engine room.
“Come on.” Ryce got up and took Matt by the arm, steering him toward the exit and into the narrow corridor.
Ryce’s touch was comforting, and Matt instinctively leaned into it. He still couldn’t quite believe they were together. As in a real relationship. Ryce was way out of Matt’s league—a brilliant mind, a former Fleet combat pilot, a war hero. Not to mention hot as hell, and scrupulous to a fault—an admirable trait, but one which, at times, made their lives somewhat difficult.
As the captain of the small cargo ship Lady Lisa, Matt Spears was a runner, an independent contractor living off odd jobs hauling goods between the various planets and outposts in the Elysium system. While Matt was not averse to bending the rules regarding the legality of his cargo or passengers every now and then, Ryce was firmly against illicit smuggling in any shape or form. Had it been any other person, Matt would have told him to bugger off, or at least keep quiet about the nature of his contracts, but he couldn’t bring himself to lie or argue with Ryce on points of honor.
Over seven months ago, Ryce had been involved in one man’s covert scheme that had led to him and Matt crossing paths—but which had also cost Ryce everything. A brilliant Fleet officer with a promising career, he had been discharged under questionable circumstances and cast adrift with no remaining family to fall back on and no home to call his own.
Still, a man of Ryce’s capabilities could’ve easily found himself a job with one of the larger transport companies in the private sector, or pursued an academic career, as his late adoptive parents had always wanted. But instead, he’d chosen to cast his lot with Matt and his crew—a position that held no prospects other than bare survival and presented no challenge for his superior skills.
And now, even this paltry job was at jeopardy. The problem was, with business having been slow lately, Matt didn’t have enough money to buy a new power converter. And without a running engine, they were effectively grounded and couldn’t take on jobs that would earn them the money needed for repairs. It was a vicious circle, and right now, Matt could see no way out of it.
“I don’t know what to do,” Matt confessed once they reached the bridge and he plopped down in the copilot seat. The huge canopy window screen was shut off, a black backdrop for the silence. Outside was the bustle of a busy dock, but here, they were shielded against the noise and nonstop activity of the station.
“We’ll think of something,” Ryce said. “You always find a solution, and there’s still no cause for panic.”
He sat beside him in the pilot’s chair. When Ryce first joined the crew, after his final decommission from the military three weeks ago, they did the awkward dance around the precedence of piloting the ship, taking turns and being painstakingly polite with each other. But Matt quickly gave up on that. Ryce was an ace pilot. It was only logical to let the man do what he did best—not that piloting a small hauler around a sparsely populated solar system took much effort. This arrangement left Matt with not all that much to do around the ship, other than taking care of the business side of things and making sure everything was running smoothly. Which, at present, proved rather difficult.
Matt ran a hand through his unruly auburn hair. Ryce was right; stressing about it wasn’t helpful. He’d just have to calm down and consider the situation rationally.
“I might be able to scrape up about three or four thousand,” he said, crunching the numbers in his head. “There is a bit left in my account from our Ghorra job, and I could sell the new heater core Val bought last week. We could do with the old one a little while longer.”
“It’s not much, but it’s something,” Ryce said.
“Yes, but we’d still be at least ten grand short. And with the docking fees adding up…”
“Can someone loan you the money?” Ryce asked carefully.
For Matt, this had always been a touchy subject. He came from a very wealthy, very respectable family. His father was no other than the renowned Fleet Admiral Thomas Cummings, while his older sister Nora was a Major and commanded her own ship. Seven months ago, she’d been the one to pull him (indeed, all of them) out of hot water after Matt had become an unwitting accessory to high treason and multiple counts of Federal offenses. But his relationship with his family had been strained for years, their difficulties further enhanced by Matt’s continued refusal to keep in touch. After the death of his mother, there was no closing that gap. Despite Nora coming to his rescue, their renewed bond was still too tenuous, and Matt didn’t want to have to run to his sister every time he got into trouble. Perhaps this stance was childish, but he didn’t need his family being more disappointed with him than they already were.
The only other solution was borrowing money from some of his shadier business acquaintances. No proper bank would give him a loan, but people on the gray market would happily supply him with cash—at a killer interest, of course. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to get involved with a loan shark, the way his luck had been going lately.
“We’ll see,” he said finally. The money had to come from somewhere, that much was certain. “Let’s keep this option as a last resort, for now.”
“I should go help Val patch things up in there,” Ryce said, getting up. He hesitated a fraction of a second before planting a kiss on Matt’s forehead.
Matt grinned and reached to wipe a tiny spot of grease off Ryce’s cheek.
“Sorry. I’m getting dirt all over you,” Ryce said, returning his smile.
Seeing Ryce smile at him never failed to make Matt’s heart beat faster. They were both still learning to navigate the sometimes-tricky path of their fledgling relationship, having spent more than six months apart with little contact during Ryce’s prolonged inquiry, but these little moments of quiet affection made the long wait worth it.
“I don’t mind. You can get me as dirty as you want.”
Ryce snickered, a tinge of blush creeping up his cheeks, and left the bridge. When the sliding door closed behind him, Matt sighed and swiveled in his chair. His faint reflection in the darkened window turned with him.
He wished he could see the stars in live view now. Seeing them so close always made him feel as though all these new worlds were within his reach, as though anything was possible if he only tried hard enough. Sometimes it was true, sometimes it wasn’t. All he knew was that if he didn’t fix this problem somehow, and soon, there would be no more chasing stars for him.
For the first time in months, Matt found himself badly needing a drink.
A voracious reader from the age of five, Isabelle Adler has always dreamed of one day putting her own stories into writing. She loves traveling, art, and science, and finds inspiration in all of these. Her favorite genres include sci-fi, fantasy, and historical adventure. She also firmly believes in the unlimited powers of imagination and caffeine.
Klint doesn’t believe in true love. As an Alma, an immortal magician, he knows such feelings can’t last forever. The death of his mortal lover almost a hundred years ago proved it. But Klint’s resolve gets put to the test when he’s tasked with saving a prince from a dark spell. With Carishina, his friend and fellow Alma, in tow, he sets off for Terius.
Carishina’s ideas for breaking spells differ greatly from Klint’s. While he tries potions, Carishina tries kisses. Only one of them will succeed.
True love. There were no other words in all the world as deceitful as those.
In my youth, I had believed.
I sought to find that one person to complete me. As a newly trained magician, the Alsa Alma sent me to tutor the third youngest prince of the Farlerotna Kingdom. In the palace, I watched Prince Vulten grow. I was his constant companion in study and in play. The prince had a devious mind, and we spent hours thinking of ways to trick his older siblings.
And on the day he turned eighteen he’d confessed his love for me. Shocking, to say the least, because I’d come to love him too.
True love. Or so I thought. Except, how could anyone truly, irrevocably love an immortal?
For the early years, we were happy. We took trips to foreign nations. We hosted lords and ladies. We played tricks on his siblings, even Rillik, who had taken the crown by then.
But as the years stretched and Vulten began to age, the love in his eyes lessened and faded, replaced by envy and jealousy. As an immortal Alma, my magic kept my body youthful.
He’d died, cursing my name.
For decades, I mourned. Not just the loss of his life, but the loss of his love.
“That,” Alma Carishina said at the end of my monologue, “is why you don’t have relations with mortals.” She leaned forward, her chin resting on her palm. She’d magicked her hair green, and the curls appeared serpentine, a gorgon with her snakes.
“No,” I countered, “that’s why you don’t have any relationships with anyone. If love could not last for eighty years with a mortal, how could it last forever with an immortal? It’s not possible.”
“And so,” Alma Franik added with a toothy grin, “you’ve turned into a grumpy old man at the tender age of two hundred.”
“I’m a hundred and ninety-five,” I fumed. “And I’m not grumpy. I don’t see the point in romance. There’s no such thing as true love.”
“I heard,” Franik stage whispered to Carishina, “he moped in the Farlerotna Palace for a hundred years before they asked for him to be taken away.”
Carishina laughed and the red in my cheeks was not all anger. Maybe I had moped, but my broken heart was understandable. I’d lost my lover, and at the same time, my childish ideas of the world. It had wounded me. I needed to reflect and get a grip on my life.
Had I really been there a hundred years? Rillik’s granddaughter—Simmone—had assumed the throne. How long had I wandered those halls, haunting them like a ghost? It couldn’t have been more than forty or fifty.
“The Alsa Alma had to fetch Klint himself,” Franik concluded with a smug smile.
“Ha-ha,” I told him sourly. “I’m not sure you have room to talk, Franik, as you’ve never even been sent outside these walls. What was it the Alsa Alma said? You ‘lacked any and all ambition’?”
Carishina snorted and Franik glowered. “As if I wanted to mingle with the mortals,” he said, drawing himself up. “I don’t ever want to get mixed up in their insignificant affairs.”
I allowed myself a small grin as Franik directed the conversation onto a new topic.
At times, I still missed Vulten. Our connection had been the one real thing in my life. As a wizard, I used unexplained solutions, backward thinking, magicking anything into reality. But with Vulten, the emotions had seemed more than magic. Better than magic.
At least I’d learned my lesson young. The pain prepared me for my lonely future.
The afternoon light shone in through the stained-glass windows, throwing splashes of color around the room. I adored the place, my favorite in the Alma Palace, a mixture of library and meditation room. Most of the time, no occupants filled the tables. Or on the occasions when they did, other magicians knew enough to leave you to your thoughts. Well, not today. Franik and Carishina had bombarded me with questions the moment I walked in.
They were young—Franik just turned ninety, and Carishina was a mere forty-six. Of course, they were curious about the gossip around the palace, and my experience in Farlerotna continuously made the rounds. Plus, many of the older practitioners didn’t have the time or inclination for dealing with the young ones. Apparently my years in the mortal world had tempered my patience.
“I hope I get an assignment soon,” Carishina said. “I’m ready to travel and see something besides these Mylforsaken windows.” The curse using the goddess’s name sounded odd in her cheerful voice.
“They won’t let you out for a least another twenty years,” I told her.
“Why not? I heard you were sent out at forty-five. I’m older now.”
I shrugged. “The world’s a much more dangerous place now, even to a trained Alma. Dark wizards are the least of our concerns.”
Her lips puckered in displeasure. “I heard there’s a prince in Terius who’s fallen under an evil spell. I want to be the one to rescue him.”
“What did I say about mixing with royalty?” I asked, exasperated. What was the point in telling them my tragic past if they didn’t heed my warnings?
“Oh, Klint,” she said fondly, reaching out to grip my hand. “Just because a relationship didn’t work for you doesn’t mean it won’t work for everybody. Or, maybe your prince was an ass who really didn’t love you at all.”
My mouth fell open. So did Franik’s. Carishina casually went on smiling at me, unaware of how tactless her words had been.
“Klint,” called a voice from behind me. I turned in my seat. Alma Peter leaned through the doorway. “The Alsa Alma would like to speak to you.”
I wrinkled my nose. It’d been awhile since I’d been summoned by the old man. After he’d come to Farlerotna and informed me I was creeping out the current royals, I’d kept my distance. Now, I hoped he had good news for me.
Foster Bridget Cassidy is a rare, native Phoenician who enjoys hot desert air and likes to wear jackets in summer. She has wanted to be a fiction writer since becoming addicted to epic fantasy during high school. Since then, she’s studied the craft academically—at Arizona State University—and as a hobby—attending conventions and workshops around the country. A million ideas float in her head, but it seems like there’s never enough time to get them all down on paper.
For fun, Foster likes to take pictures of her dachshunds, sew costumes for her dachshunds, snuggle her dachshunds, and bake treats for her dachshunds. In exchange for so much love and devotion, they pee vast amounts on the floor, click their nails loudly on the tile, and bark wildly at anything that moves outside. Somehow, this relationship works for all involved.
While not writing, Foster can usually be found playing a video game or watching a movie with her husband. While not doing any of those things, Foster can usually be found in bed, asleep.
In the aftermath of the calamitous Human/Etech research study, Chandra and Kyra struggle to reclaim the life they shared in a pre-EMPATHY world, while Ty, armed with knowledge of EMPATHY’s programming language, seeks revenge on the Halmans for the harm that’s befallen his friends.
As a North American Union investigation into the happenings on the compound looms, a grief-stricken Peter works to resurrect the memory of his mother from a harvested nanochip, and Heather scrambles to keep her family—and their company—together. Alistair, having abandoned the family business, plots to save his hide and that of his wife while she strives to stay one step ahead of a husband she has no reason to trust.
Far to the north amid civil unrest, a recently retired Rénald Dupont investigates the disappearance of his friend and former colleague, Meredith, despite grave threats from an increasingly skittish North American Union government.
As old and new foes emerge, spouse is further pit against spouse, brother against sister, and governments against their people. In the end, all must choose between attempts to reclaim the past or surrender to the inevitable, an intractable world of their own creation.
Mourning Dove is an evocative, sweeping symphony of love, revenge, and desperation in cacophonous times. It is the second installment in r. r. campbell’s epic EMPATHY sci-fi saga.
The fear of death coiled its cold bony fingers around her.
As she dangled her feet off the edge of her doctor’s exam table, EMPATHY whirred to life, delivering an image she’d painted months earlier, one of midnight blacks, of tendrils of darkness—the painting through which she’d mourned the loss of Ty’s friend, a sensation gut-wrenchingly similar to mourning the loss of one’s self.
“Chandra?” Doctor Abernathy said. “Did you hear me? Do you understand?”
Kyra tugged at Chandra’s sleeve, gripping it tight as she leaned in. “Babe? The doctor—”
Chandra nodded, breaking her concentration on the image, on fending off the evil that always accompanied the embers of EMPATHY flickering of their own volition. The chip might have no longer been connected to her egodrive—the Merry Hacksters had seen to that three months earlier on the night of the interview—but that wasn’t enough to stop the nanochip from working locally, a computer without an internet connection.
And how could she not have heard the doctor? Three years. Five years max. The damn chip was going to kill her if the AI living within it didn’t drive her mad first.
“How can you even know?” Kyra said to the doctor, releasing her grip of Chandra’s sleeve and squeezing her hand instead. “A timeline like that is—”
“Loose, yes,” said Eliza Abernathy, the doctor Human/Etech appointed to Chandra following the study. “But we’ve become more confident in our prognoses now that we have additional data on the deterioration rates for those who have passed since the study’s completion.”
“So? Those things happened to other people,” Kyra insisted. “Chandra might be different, and everything you’ve said is so unspecific—”
“Well,” the doctor said, “if you want specifics, I can tell you given Chandra’s general fatigue and the frequency of her intermittent lack of bodily control, we can project those symptoms will progress over the next three to five years until she sleeps nearly the entire day through.”
It felt as though a warm, heavy blanket descended on Chandra, the exhaustion coming for her again, doing its best to depress her increased heart rate and the panic gripping her.
“So she’ll fall asleep and that’s it?” Kyra said.
“Mostly,” said Abernathy. “At some point in that sleep, the brain stem itself will power down, and with it, her breathing and cardiac function will cease.”
Most days Chandra already felt as though she were drowning. Her final breaths, those she would draw in her sleep no less, couldn’t be any more unpleasant than the pained ones she had to gasp after from time to time.
Kyra squeezed Chandra’s hand tighter. “You’re sure there’s nothing we can do, doctor? What if you took out her chip?”
Doctor Abernathy tut-tutted. “There’s only been one case to date in which a patient has had their chip removed without further complication.”
“But we could try, right?” Kyra said, eyes awash with tears as she turned to Chandra. “You want to try, don’t you?”
Chandra swallowed, frozen now not by the news the doctor had delivered, but by another threat entirely. It always started this way, a tickle, a grinding sensation. She’d learned she could keep it at bay if she popped an anxicap, but—oh, what time was it? It’d been hours since she’d last taken one, and the veil of fog the anxiety med shrouded her in had already been pierced by Abernathy’s news. Weak. Her defenses were too weak.
Tickle. Click. Grind.
Somewhere in the deepest recesses of her mind, M3R1 had pulled off a jailbreak, Chandra in pursuit as M3R1 sped down neurohighways, barreling toward some imaginary county line where, once on the other side, it could assume control here in the real world. Abernathy and Kyra narrowed their eyes as Chandra twitched, scrambling to rally her deputies, dispatching roadblocks and spike strips to halt M3R1’s every advance.
Chandra ignored her, focused on spinning out another of M3R1’s mental assault vehicles. There—no more tickle, no more grind, no more shoulder jerking or lip curling. With M3R1 successfully impeded, she inhaled through her nose and dared to shake her head once.
“No?” Kyra said. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t you want them to try to remove your chip? Did you even hear what Doctor Abernathy said?”
Had she not seen Chandra nod earlier? Just because she couldn’t speak didn’t mean she couldn’t understand, something still lost on Kyra, lost on the world in the months since her release from the research compound. As Chandra’s motor control had returned over time, as her memory became less clouded, she had taken to sketching her thoughts as best as she could manage, though it turned out the world was downright miserable at playing her version of Pictation.
Doctor Abernathy intervened, speaking directly to Kyra. “Your wife’s fear is understandable. This is an unfortunate prognosis, yes—”
“Unfortunate prognosis?!” Kyra said. “I think telling us Chandra’s life will be severely shortened as a result of your company’s malpractice is a bit more than an ‘unfortunate prognosis.’”
Death’s fingers tightened their grip, and the well of sorrow within Chandra overflowed, choking her off at the throat, spilling over at the eyes. Chandra was twenty-six. Twenty-six. That she’d only live to see thirty-one, that she’d spend her final years regretting having left that helmet in her back seat, having signed up for the study, that she’d have no way to truly apologize for the woe in which she now drowned her wife… All of it was enough to have her yearning to surrender to death’s embrace now.
But that wasn’t possible, not with what lurked inside her, not with what would become of it were she to die and have EMPATHY removed. So long as M3R1 had the potential to someday return to the cerenet and wreak havoc on the world as it did on the compound, it could still win their war. Chandra might have been winning most of their battles as of late, but she couldn’t rely on her anxicaps forever, and fighting M3R1 without them only fueled the exhaustion Doctor Abernathy said would kill her in the end. Before Chandra could ever give in, she’d have to find a way to assure M3R1’s fate along with her own.
Kyra, still fretting alongside the exam table, bit the inside of her cheek. “And look at her, Doctor. You call this progress? When she’s not spasming, she’s scared stiff. She’s not even moving.”
Chandra clenched her jaw as M3R1 sped a fresh caravan of malicious intent down a central neurohighway, the caravan’s members splitting off at every exit in a multi-pronged attack. In the exam room, she remained immobile. She couldn’t lose control now.
“Yes,” the doctor said, stepping in front of Chandra again. “You mentioned this temporary paralysis has been recurring?”
Kyra nodded as the doctor pulled a handheld ophthalmoscope from the breast pocket of her lab coat. Chandra squinted as the light from the instrument struck her eyes.
“She’s still responsive.” After adopting a pensive expression, the doctor spoke again. “Perhaps it is fear driving these episodes, then.”
“What do we do?” Kyra said.
As well intended as Kyra might have been, what was to come had so little to do with a we and everything to do with a she—and that she would be Chandra and Chandra alone.
“You make the best of the time you have together,” Doctor Abernathy said. “It’s a miracle the two of you have been reunited in light of everything that’s happened. I’d encourage you to make the most of it.”
Kyra sniffled. She squeezed Chandra’s hand once again. “The two of us and the cat, that is.”
“Ah,” the doctor said, “you’ll be getting an emotional support animal after all?”
Apparently, yes, they were. It would be the two of them, the cat… and something far more sinister.
One of M3R1’s attacks charged a roadblock Chandra had set in its way. It burst through on the far side, Chandra trembling as M3R1 took hold.
>>You can only keep M3R1 away for so long, Chandra, and M3R1 would very much like an escape.
Chandra’s voice gurgled in her throat.
“She’s trying to say something,” Kyra said.
Abernathy put herself opposite Kyra’s side of the exam table, apparently prepared to help keep Chandra from falling. “No. It’s a seizure.”
Both Abernathy and Kyra were wrong. The twitching of her muscles, the contortions of her face—they were symptoms of a lawman-outlaw shootout deep in her mind.
>>You will tell the doctors to remove the chip, Chandra. You will tell them to remove the chip and—
Her mind’s sheriff dared one last shot, a final bullet bursting forward from the chamber of her six-shooter. The AI crumpled.
Every bit of her—down to the hairs on her arms—felt as though it burned as the electrical activity supporting M3R1 now turned against it. The enlisted forces from the county next door surged into action, corralling the rogue AI’s body and dragging it back to its shoddy prison inside the EMPATHY chip. It would only be a matter of time before it resurrected itself, but for now, the threat had been neutralized.
Chandra permitted herself an uneasy breath as the tension in the room melted.
Kyra wrapped her arms around Chandra’s waist from where she stood on the floor, burying her head in her side. “I’m sorry, Chandra. I’m sorry this had to happen.”
Had she the words, Chandra would have told her wife she didn’t need to be sorry this happened, that it was all beyond her control. She would have told Kyra she was sorry—not for what had come to pass in recent months, but rather for what would come to pass the moment Chandra met her early end.
When Chandra died, however soon that might be, she was sure Human/Etech would harvest EMPATHY from within her, and with it, M3R1. And who knew what calamity M3R1 might induce were it returned to the cerenet in a world where EMPATHY would inevitably take hold? It had been willing to kill her if it had come down to it, and the eighty-seven lives lost on the compound were testimony to M3R1’s dedication to its goals.
Even if her own were now a lost cause, Chandra was determined to never again let M3R1 destroy a human life. But how could she keep the Halmans from getting their hands on her chip once she passed? Was it possible to excise M3R1 from it before she died? Chandra had no idea, but it was now her life goal—her life’s duty—to make sure M3R1 could never again terrorize anyone besides her.
For now, though, she put an arm around her wife’s shoulders, drew her in, and laid a soft kiss on the crown of her head. Three years or five, it made no difference. Regardless of how one spun it, Chandra and Kyra had far less time than they once thought, far less time than they’d hoped, but for now they still had each other.
Born Ryan Campbell, r. r. campbell is an author, editor, and host of the r. r. campbell writescast. His work has been featured in Five:2:One Magazine’s #thesideshow, Erotic Review, and with National Journal Writing Month. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife, Lacey, and their cats, Hashtag and Rhaegar.
Lieutenant Addison Hunt is proud to serve the Confederation even if he still feels like he’s on the outside looking in. Addison was illegally genetically modified as a child, leaving him burdened with a sense of shame. Emotionally isolated from his fellow crewmen and recovering from injuries from his last job, Addison is happy to have light duty transporting an esteemed diplomat to a peace conference.
Deveral is one of the Sacred Kin, possessing a psychic ability that his people consider a spark of the divine. Like all the Sacred Kin, he’s led a sheltered life as a temple priest, but his heightened empathic ability makes him the perfect diplomat. Nervous to leave his home, he’s curious about his new companion, Lieutenant Hunt.
Not everyone wants the diplomatic mission to succeed, and a rebel faction poses a real threat to Addison and Deveral. Finding themselves cast adrift on a “lost” colony, they’ll have to fight to stay alive.
Fyria promised peace, hanging like a blue-green, white-smudged jewel in the starship Turing’s view screen. Addison wondered if Fyria’s peace would be one more broken promise. Living a life stuffed full of fractured vows, he remained leery of new pledges. He’d never been in this little pocket of the galaxy and knew the bare minimum about the Fyrians.
Captain Valdis Sigmundsson swiveled her chair around to eye him. The fine lines around her eyes and lips always set him at ease. He knew this face well, though he knew the visage best on Admiral Hilde Sigmundsson, Valdis’s identical twin. Hilde had saved him all those years ago and sponsored him through the academy. He’d do anything for the twins and had been honored to serve with Valdis. Valdis and Hilde had made him honorary family, and off duty, he called them his aunts. If there was anyone he loved unconditionally, it was the sisters.
“Are you ready for a mission more boring than your usual?” Valdis’s platinum-hued eyes danced.
Addison schooled emotion from his face. He liked to appear neutral and unflappable on duty, a contrast to his captain. Controlling his emotions proved difficult for him, too acerbic in temperament. His shoulder thrummed with pain, reminding him how his last mission had been too exciting. He was luckier than most when it came to that assignment.
“An uncomplicated escort mission would be a nice change of pace. Besides—” He grinned impertinently at his captain, breaking his own self-edict of being emotionally controlled. “—how often will I get to talk to a living god?”
Valdis snorted, garnering the attention of her navigators. “Deveral is not exactly a living god. He’s Sacred Kin,” she reminded him, though he could be trusted to read the dossier. “The Fyrians believe their Sacred Kin hold a flicker of God’s power. That said, do be on your best behavior, Lieutenant. I’d hate for you to cause an intergalactic mission to go belly up if you act like your usual sarcastic self.”
Addison offered her a flat smile, recognizing the subtle reprimand hidden in those humorous words. He’d spent too many hard years outside the military. He hadn’t been broken to their respectful ways, not entirely. His spotty past was why he fought to improve his on-duty demeanor. “I’ll behave.”
Addison hoped this living god would do the same. He had no time for entitled assholes, whom he loathed outright. He might not be the right person for the job of babysitting an ambassador, especially one who’d been treated as a god his whole life, but Addison brushed away the negativity. He was a professional. This would be a simple job easing him back into active duty after Telsama. Uncomplicated was just what he needed.
His shoulder twinged at the thought of Telsama. He was lucky to still be standing here. The ship’s surgeon had worked hard to put him back together again, and his strange body hadn’t made it any easier. Illegal anatomical modification meant very few records had been kept on all the things done to him as a child. Luckily, Dr. Wroe had done multiple workups on him the moment Captain Sigmundsson brought him on board, so she knew all his strangeness intimately.
Setting the dark thoughts aside, he entered his small, but private quarters. Sigmundsson had arranged these accommodations, even though most Coalition officers of Addison’s rank had roommates. If anyone had known the captain was involved in the situation, he’d have faced taunts of favoritism, but jeers would have been worth it. Roommates would have questions if they caught sight of his few visual modifications. Most of his mods were internal, but those that could be seen were highlighted in glowing lights in his imagination. Sighing, he considered what he needed to pack in his rucksack.
It would be a short trip on a shuttle. All the appropriate away-mission weaponry was a must. Any options centered on what to bring for the day or two he’d have to spend at the station hosting the talks once he dropped off his holiness. He would have been far more comfortable just turning around and heading back for the Turing, but protocol demanded he wait and make sure the Sacred Kin remained safe.
Addison flopped on his bed, staring up at the gunmetal gray ceiling. He had no idea how to handle someone like this Sacred Kin Deveral fellow. He’d never been anyone’s first choice for ambassadorial duties, so Addison couldn’t guess why Aunt Valdis had tasked him with the job. He’d been cleared for full duty, so he didn’t need this light assignment. Did she think he wanted to step up the ladder and round out his résumé? No, she knew he’d not be allowed to advance. His modifications had been forgiven as they weren’t of his doing, but they were still a noose to any chance of becoming a captain someday.
Rubbing his eyes, Addison tried not to feel bitter about the situation. He would do his best to go as far as he could.
“I’m going nowhere if I don’t get myself prepared,” he muttered.
Addison rolled to his feet and parked himself at his workstation. He needed to know more about the Fyrians in order to deal with Deveral properly. This Sacred Kin business was new to him. He’d grown up without a hint of religion. After his rescue, religion remained something he only had a passing acquaintance with. The idea that an entire race could believe certain members of their kind actually possessed a sliver of the divine struck him as bizarre. What would that entail? How arrogant would someone like a Sacred Kin be if they were praised and all but worshipped daily? Would he have to grease up the guy’s ego to get it in the shuttle?
Addison delved into Fyrian history and culture. He had immersed himself so deeply into his studies the doorbell chiming nearly sent him out of his skin. “Door open,” he told the computer. He rubbed his aching eyes again, feeling as if someone had poked them. He never did well with a lot of light, and the computer screen counted as too bright.
Doctor Yukiko Hayashi stood in his doorway. Addison smiled slightly and waved her in. “What’s up?”
“I heard you have a diplomatic mission and thought you might need a little of this.” She waggled the Cala whiskey bottle she held, sloshing the blue liquid about.
He made an appreciative noise, pushing back from the workstation as he nodded toward the little breakfast nook in his studio. “Do you know what I love about you, Yukiko?”
“I can read your mind?” Yukiko tossed her long hair over her shoulder before she sat at the tiny table.
“That’s it.” Addison fetched two glasses and sat next to her. “Do you know anything about the Fyrians?”
“Not much other than they’ve been in the news a lot lately.” She poured the whiskey. Unlike so many others, the drink had a sweet scent, almost like blackberries. The fruity taste was one of the reasons he liked the whiskey. His modified system could handle a lot of alcohol, but he preferred it sweet.
“How so? I’ve been out of it.” He didn’t have to tell her. She had assisted Dr. Wroe’s lifesaving efforts on him after his last mission had gone horribly awry.
“They found a group of them that branched off the main planet so long ago they faded into myth. Isn’t that what your mission is?”
Addison sipped the high alcohol content whiskey. “I’ve been looking up what the hell a Sacred Kin is.”
“Did you find anything interesting?” Yukiko shot her whiskey faster than he did. She poured herself another.
“They’re an interesting people. You’d find them fascinating. They have chromatophores in their skin and can change their coloring as camouflage.” Addison remembered the videos he’d seen of them and tried to explain. “During their evolution, there was a particularly nasty predator involved. The prey-predator relationship is what scientists think drove that piece of genetic neatness. I mean, it sucks to be prey, and obviously, their situation was worse than primitive humans had with a saber-toothed tiger, but their skin color thing is pretty.”
“You’re right; that would be fascinating. Now I’m sad I’m not on this mission with you.”
“I’d gladly let you take my place. I’m not good at this stuff. I don’t talk to people.”
“You’re talking to me.”
“Only because I had to talk to you for so many months when I came onboard. I got used to you.”
“Newsflash, Addy, that’s how it works. You talk, the other person talks back. You don’t actually have social anxiety, per se.” Yukiko scowled. “You don’t, do you? I’ve never seen any signs in you.”
He shook his head. “No, conversation doesn’t make me anxious but…” He let air escape him. Talking about this never got easier. “I don’t know the rules.”
“I’m aware, just as I’m aware that, despite being schooled, you never picked up on those sorts of social cues, nor do you recognize your worth.”
Addison forced himself to meet her gaze but couldn’t keep eye contact. “My schooling was with private tutors.”
She knew that of course, and his statement wasn’t the whole truth. He’d attended the academy after a few years of immersive education thanks to Hilde and Valdis. His determined aunts never let him quit on himself. It would have been easier to just implant the education, but it was an imperfect, illegal process that had high chances of basically lobotomizing a person. Most illegal mods like him, worker drones who counted for less than the equipment they manned, had gone through implantation. He’d worked with those lobotomized mods, or at least the ones still able to function. Some were violent, forced into wearing a “shock collar,” technically a neuroimplant and nothing the mod could have somehow removed. Addison hadn’t been collared, because implantation wasn’t needed for his work, and he’d been taken and modded at such a young age, he never knew there was life beyond his job and dorm room.
Implanting might be dangerous and illegal, but tethering was neither. Tethering, while slower, meant being literally wired into another person’s brain, and utterly unpleasant. There were reasons tethering was used only in extreme cases such as his. He didn’t so much have a mentor as he had someone willing to use their brain to train his. There had been an insane amount of catching up to do. He’d managed it but barely, or so it felt some days. That wasn’t the literal truth; he’d progressed further than he’d imagined and owed it all to his aunts.
Yukiko said nothing to his fallacious statement, just raised an eyebrow. Finally, she said, “Do you know anything personal about this man you’re escorting?”
He shook his head, grateful for the change of subject. “Not really, only that I’m to transport him to the conference. I guess they don’t think it’s necessary for me to know much about him since I’m merely the pilot and bodyguard.”
“You could always find your answers by asking him.”
“I’m not sure I can. That’s why I wanted to learn more about the Sacred Kin. It appears I can speak to him, but you know how some races are. They have a huge amount of rules and protocols. The Fyrians don’t seem to, but their Kin are special. They’re said to have special abilities other Fyrians don’t.”
“How so?” Yukiko quirked up her eyebrows.
“Records aren’t clear on that. I’m not sure if it’s a secret, or if the Fyrians don’t give it a second thought and assume everyone else knows. I’m sure if I dig around longer, I could find out more, but I probably should go make sure the shuttle is fully stocked, especially if I’m going to be stuck in that tiny thing for days with a stranger.”
“Maybe I should give you something to mellow out that personality of yours.” Yukiko shot him an “I’m so innocent” look.
He rolled his eyes. “Why are you my friend?”
“Because I can put up with your dourness.” She stood and dug in her pocket for something. “Computer, Dr. Hayashi, going off duty,” she said loudly for the benefit of the ship’s computer.
“I thought you already were.”
“No, just checking on my favorite patient. Try not to get yourself taken apart this time. I’m getting tired of playing with the meat puzzles you make out of yourself.”
He huffed at her. “Never my plan to get hurt, but I am part of the ship’s tactical and security crew.”
“With a stunted sense of self preservation.”
He couldn’t argue. Drones like him were replaceable meat sacks to the corporations dirty enough to use them. Making friends and keeping himself alive were still relatively new concepts for him. “Maybe.”
“And if I was on duty, I couldn’t do this.” She bent over and tossed her arms around him, giving him a powerful hug. She held something odd in her hand, but he ignored it as he leaned into the embrace. Hugging he’d gotten used to. His aunts were huggers, and he found he liked the comfort of being in someone’s arms. He reached up and embraced her in kind.
When Yukiko let him go, she handed him a small brocaded silk pouch. “For you. Keep it on your person.”
He stared at the pouch and then tried to open it. Yukiko snatched it from his hand.
“Never open the pouch. It drains the power.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Inside the pouch is an omamori, a Shinto protective charm. I made the omamori for you. This one is a yaku-yoke for the avoidance of evil. They used to be issued by shrines. It’s more commercial these days, of course. Has been for centuries.” Yukiko shrugged. “I guess they’re remnants from a time long ago, but an omamori still means something to a lot of people.”
“Do you believe in this sort of thing?” Addison waggled the charm. “Are you Shinto?”
She stared at him for a moment. “You’ve never been interested in religion before, but I guess I am the one who brought it up. Yes, I do believe.”
Addison stood and put the charm in his rucksack. “I have no beliefs at all. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that. You know how I was raised before the captain took me in. I can’t say she’s particularly religious either, but thinking about the Sacred Kin has me wondering about how faith works.”
“I’m not sure you can approach it logically, Addy.”
He shrugged. “I have no other means in which to do it. For me, religion is an academic exercise. I don’t have enough time to really study the Fyrian religion, so I guess I’ll have to keep my mouth shut about that topic for most of the trip unless he brings it up. I could listen. I’m pretty good at that.”
“Sounds like a plan. All right, I’ll leave you to finish prepping for the trip. Hope it’s nice and boring and you come back safe.”
He hoped it would at least be more boring than Telsama.
Jana is Queen of the Geeks (her students voted her in), and her home and office are shrines to any number of comic book and manga heroes along with SF shows and movies too numerous to count. It’s no coincidence that the love of all things geeky has made its way into many of her stories. To this day, she’s disappointed she hasn’t found a wardrobe to another realm, a superhero to take her flying among the clouds, or a roguish starship captain to run off to the stars with her.