Disclaimer: This story contains elements which some people may find offensive. If that is the case, they are invited to leave. The author also holds no responsibility for possible illegalities committed by the reader in their presence here. All people and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to anything real is purely coincidental. Copyright 2004 Devon Keene: email@example.com
|the Enigma of Flatness|
|In Eden's Shadow||Part IX
Unusual sights were standard fare on Nimrud, and few pedestrians gave the two young men keeping as quick a pace as they could towards the docking arcs much attention. "When'd they get here?" Sabrin demanded into the comlink on his way back to the ship, while a bewildered Tallas trailed behind, struggling to keep up while making sense of the situation at the same time.
"They registered on sensors a few minutes ago -- all four of 'em, in formation. They're runnin' a high-F interference signal so I can't get a good readin'. You recognize 'em?"
"Yeah, they're Eumenides-class strike cruisers. Top of the line," Sabrin said definitively; recalling the basic class specifications from his memory. He could even remember watching their unveiling to the public not six years ago in a live netcasted ceremony, and the sense of awe he experienced at the raw power inherent beneath those armored hulls. He never imagined though that he would ever be on the opposite side of that power.
"Dreamer, where did they come from?" Tallas asked through his comlink.
"Can't say for sure without a scan of their jump entry, but from the approach vector I don't think it was intergalactic," Dreamer reported. "I'm pickin' up narrow-band transmissions between the lead ship and the control tower."
"I'm working on accessing the Forseti computers," Lirelle's voice came through the channel, "With any luck we may be able to find out more about them."
"Lirelle?" Sabrin missed a step at the sound of her voice, almost causing Tallas to crash into him.
"Yes I...I know you have little reason to trust me but...I would like to continue helping you if I am able. I owe both of you that much."
"Uh...yeah, sure," Sabrin said uncertainly and glanced at Tallas, standing with their shoulders almost touching, confusion evident in his face. Slowly the other man nodded; not quite a ringing endorsement but not a rebuff either. Sabrin realized he was confronted with the same dilemma which troubled him the first time that Lirelle came aboard. On the one hand, though he only knew a little of the story he understood fully why Lirelle had done what she did. On the other, he felt uneasy towards a person established as capable of betraying innocent people to achieve her goals. Again there was no salient solution and frustration colored his thoughts.
"They're movin'," Dreamer interjected, "Takin' up holding positions above the sixth ring of the Forseti Hub."
"Have they detected us?" Tallas inquired nervously as the pair resumed their course back to the ship.
"I don't think so," Dreamer responded, "They're gonna have a hard time of it since I'm powered down... Hold on, they're launchin' shuttles. Headed for the bays."
Damn, why are they here? Sabrin pondered. They'd almost certainly escaped Astral-Ishasa without being traced, and so he could say with some confidence that these cruisers couldn't have been sent directly after them. What he couldn't figure was the real reason behind their presence; Nimrud was at least six jumps from the closest Orion system, barring the route they newly restored through Seos, and to his knowledge the Imperial Fleet rarely bothered with matters so far from their sphere of influence.
The pair found an open mass-transit cab and punched in the location of the Dream's docking port, steadying themselves as the small vehicle accelerated along superconducting magnetic tracks towards their destination. "I'm not pickin' up any active sensor signals," Dreamer informed them. "Looks like they're preparin' for a maintenance overhaul."
Tallas breathed a small sigh of relief, "At least they're not lookin' for us."
"Moot point if they do catch us here," Sabrin reminded him. "We should get out while we still can."
"Bad idea," Dreamer said, "Their passive sensors'll pick up our EM signature if I fire up the core, and we're inside weapons and tractor range. We've got a better chance if we stay put and play it cool."
"'Play it cool'?" Sabrin asked incredulously, "You make it sound so easy!" The cab whirred to a stop and they disembarked with their bags, rushing past the menagerie of working crews, equipment, and cargo lining the docks to their left. Ahead, Dreamer stepped out of the airlock to meet them, ignoring Sabrin's glare when he took just Tallas' bags to take inside. "No need to panic," the android said with an easy smile, "They're not after us so as long as we don't attract any attention we can just wait 'em out." He led the three of them towards the bridge, casually setting the bags against the door of Sabrin's cabin en route.
"And if they do detect us?" Sabrin asked while ascending the ladder.
"Lirelle's workin' on that one," Dreamer said, extending a helping hand and indicating a black-haired woman dressed in a ship's uniform, working at the port aft console with a transoptic cable running into her dataport. Noticing their presence, she turned and smiled stiffly but disarmingly.
"Are you sure we can trust her again?" Tallas pulled Dreamer close and whispered at the threshold of the conference room.
"Nothin's absolutely certain," Dreamer replied. "But you should talk to her yourself and decide." Tallas nodded; it was exactly what he'd avoided doing since their flight from Vesuvius.
A day passed and the four cruisers continued to hover stoically, in contrast to the swarm of shuttles and drones scurrying around them and the station like worker bees. Dreamer and Lirelle's discreet efforts determined that nearly a third of their crews were now aboard Forseti, apparently partaking in shore leave. Given the sheer size and population of the station, the A.I. deemed the risk acceptible and returned to the station to conclude his business dealings; eventually both Sabrin and Tallas grew restless inside the confines of the Dream and joined him stationside, though not daring to venture too far.
It was the afternoon of the third day when they were walking towards Votahla, the restaurant where they had lunch before, that Tallas saw a familiar face speaking with an alarmingly more familiar face.
"Sabe, look!" he hissed, physically dragging his confused friend behind a nearby corner.
The chestnut-haired waitress, Jasmi, was chatting merrily with a tall man sitting in a group of three. Their pristine gray-and-black uniforms identified them as officers of the Orion Imperial Fleet; his short-cropped brown hair, easy features, and mischievous smile identified him as Mark Tamirreg, one of their closer friends on Astral-Ishasa. Older by four years, Mark was transferred to the ward shortly after his sixteenth birthday, and the industrial accident which left him parentless. His Academy career was distinguished by a certain audacity and liberality towards the rules, but between them Cadet Tamirreg had permitted glimpses of such promise that his instructors gave him begrudging recommendations. His communiques had grown much less frequent following his graduation and Fleet assignment, which last they heard was to a missile destroyer patrolling the Iro-Makad perimeter.
"What?" Sabrin protested the rough movement.
"It's Mark!" Tallas whispered, peering around the corner to confirm his identification. Their friend seemed barely changed from his spirited youth as he flirted brazenly with the waitress, save for a sparkling new set of lieutenant insignia on his shoulder.
"Mark Tamirreg! You remember him," Tallas said. I can't believe he's here!
"Mark?" Sabrin's face scrunched in doubt, "He's over at the border. On the..." he snapped his fingers, "...Perovinion."
"No, I'm tellin' ya it's him!" Tallas insisted more vociferously and dragged Sabrin forward. "Look!"
"I'll be damned!" Sabrin's eyes widened in shock when he realized that the other man was right. In the alien environment, the sight of one of their childhood friends was jarring. "What the hell is he doin' here?"
"He must've been transferred to one of the cruisers," Tallas spoke at a quick clip, "I didn't think I'd ever see him again!"
With one hand, Sabrin pulled back his excited friend behind the corner to ensure that they won't be seen or heard by the bolstrous Orion officers. "We have to go back to the ship," he said urgently, "We can't let them see us."
Tallas shook his head, "We should talk to him."
"Are you nuts?" Sabrin whispered incredulously. "He's an Imperial."
"He's still our friend! Think about it," Tallas insisted, "He doesn't know what happened with the disc and everything. All he probably knows is that we disappeared, not connected with the Dream even. And then he hears from your waitress--" Sabrin gave him an annoyed look, "--that not two days ago two Orions came through here, both male, both near his age, one blonde and one brunette. What d'you think he's gonna report to his superior officer?"
"Aw fuck," Sabrin cursed at the complication in their plans.
"You know Mark. He won't turn us in," Tallas said confidently. A little of his happiness at the prospect of re-connecting with something of his old life, no matter how minor, spilled over onto his handsome face.
"Yeah but I hate to pull him into this mess," Sabrin said regretfully. "I don't want to think about what'll happen if they catch him coverin' for us."
Tallas' face fell at that thought, causing Sabrin's insides to twist painfully. "Damn, I forgot about that," Tallas sighed heavily and looked back in the direction of the restaurant. "I'd better update Dreamer on what's going on; see what he thinks," he activated his collar comlink and explained the situation quickly and efficiently to the ship, while Sabrin stood watch and occasionally glanced around the corner at the Orion party. Based on their mannerisms and the mostly empty cups being nursed in their hands, he gauged that they were near the end of the meal.
Dreamer sounded anything but pleased at this latest development, but agreed with Tallas' assessment of the situation. "You're right, we can't risk him hearing somethin' from Sabe's waitress--" Sabrin bristled at that, "--and reportin' back. Intercept him before he goes back to his ship."
"If we're doing this we need to get him alone," Sabrin said in a resigned tone.
"How?" Tallas peered around to see that Mark and his cohorts rising from their table. "We can't exactly just ambush him."
A light appeared in Sabrin's blues. "Can we page him? Tap into the station comn, tell him to go to the uh...assay office. Or something."
"We can tap into the comn but the station doesn't have a public broadcast system. We should be able to do the same thing if we send a fake message to the Orions through that and have they relay it to him," Dreamer said. "We'll need a little while to set it up. You two don't let him out of your sight."
"Roger that, Tallas out." As he closed the comn channel the Orions were leaving the restaurant and heading in the general direction of the central Forseti Hub, where the Orion warships were holding position. "Let's go," he signalled to Sabrin and crept out behind the Orions, keeping as far a distance between them as he could without losing them. In the relative confines of a space station this proved to be less comfortable of a distance than he'd hoped, and several times he pulled the two of them behind a corner or a doorway when one or more of his quarry turned unexpectedly. Certainly their performance wouldn't win any awards for espionage, but nonetheless they seemed to have remained undetected.
Mark's communicator finally came on when the group was nearing a transport hub, in a network of bullet trains linking the far points of the station. Dropping themselves into an available public bench, Tallas watched surreptitiously the group of three pause while Mark listened to the device, and then a lively conversation ensue between him and the others. Just as he hoped, with a brilliant grin Mark waved his friends off and headed in the opposite direction. His heart was pounding as he stood up and shadowed his friend for a short while longer, until he was certain that the other Orions were far removed. He looked to Sabrin and received a silent, if less than enthusiastic, affirmative. Here goes nothing.
"Mark!" Tallas closed the distance between them in a sprint and yelled in a barely trembling voice. "Hey Mark!"
The tall young man a few meters ahead paused and turned around, his face immediately twisting into the verifiable definition of shock when he recognized the identity of the individuals behind him. Mouth unconsciously agape, he remained frozen stiffly in place as he watched his lost friend bound up to him with a cautious, but cheery smile on his face.
"T-Tal...? Sabe?" Mark whispered under his breath, his large olive-green eyes opened wide. "Omigod..."
"It's really us," Tallas smiled and nodded vigorously. "Aren't you glad to see me?"
"Oh...fuck yeah!" Suddenly Mark engulfed Tallas in a powerful hug, momentarily lifting him off his feet. "I thought you two were dead! What...how did...where the fuck have you two been?!" he managed to ask angrily while simultaneously having a silly grin plastered on his face and giving a similar hug to Sabrin. "I get this weird-ass message from Mira about the police stormin' the dorm or some shit and then I hear on the news that you two disappeared?!" A mere split-second passed between his release of Sabrin and his punching him somewhat ungently in the arm. "You've got any idea what you put us through?!"
"Okay, okay," Sabrin frowned and rubbed the affected area. It was close to where his ID chip had been removed earlier that day, now covered by a skin-tight bandage. "How come you didn't hit him?" he indicated Tallas with faked indignance.
Mark nodded wistfully and Tallas jumped back a bit with a playful semblance of fear. Mark was a very physically affectionate person, though between his Orion upbringing and his well-honed musculature that affection tended to manifest in the way that left bruises. "Alright runt you get off, but I still wanna know what the fuck happened to you two."
Noticing that they were still standing in a very public corridor, Sabrin motioned them into a sheltered alleyway. Mark followed without resistance, though the question remained blatant on his face. "We need to ask something of you first," Tallas said seriously.
"Uh-oh..." Mark's eyes darkened noticeably and furrowed his eyebrows, "I get the feelin' I'm not gonna like this."
"You can't report back to Command that we're here," Tallas said with absolutely solemnity. Grasping the reality of the situation, the grin dropped from Mark's boyish face as his features hardened and he chewed his lower lip, a habit Tallas recognized as intense thought.
"I don't need to tell you two that neglecting to report crucial information to your superior officer is a court-martial offense?" Mark said slowly and softly. Sabrin and Tallas nodded gravely, and he let out a tired breath, "What happened?"
Leaving out few details, Sabrin described the chain of events preceding their meeting, beginning with their discovery of the mysterious datadisc, to their escape aboard the Dream, and their salvage mission in the Seos System. Mark gave their story his undivided attention, a plethora of expressions washing through his face. Finally Sabrin concluded with their arrival at Nimrud to sell their cargo, and a silence settled over the trio. Mark leaned heavily against a wall, momentarily overwhelmed by the influx of information. He rubbed the back of his neck roughly, in an effort to organize his jumbled consciousness. "Are you okay bud?" Tallas asked in a concerned voice, touching a hand to Mark's bicep.
Mark lowered his arms and glanced at the exquisite hand, and then at Tallas' dark eyes. "Yeah...yeah, it's just a lot to take in. This's some crazy-ass shit goin' on." He pushed himself from the wall in a liquid movement, "So now you're fugitives from the Empire," Tallas nodded, "Great. Just fuckin' fantastic. You reprobates just can't stay outta trouble can ya?" he grinned lamentably.
"This from the guy who had eight campus referrals in a single year," Sabrin mumbled.
"But only one conviction," a bit of the spark returned to those green eyes. Mark straightened his posture, appearing to come to a decision. "I'm not gonna report any of this," he said steadily, "And I'll help you two any way I can."
It was as though a great pressure were suddenly released from Tallas' chest, and he launched himself into Mark's startled arms. The larger man recovered admirably and closed his arms firmly around his laughing friend, gently shaking the pair from side to side. A twinge of jealousy rose to Sabrin's mind when he saw how easily Mark was able to accept such intimate contact, but it was quickly drowned out by his own immense relief and gratitude. A grin gracing his own lips, he stepped closer to join his own arms to the embrace.
"See? I told you Mark wouldn't turn us in!" Tallas said.
"You thought I would turn you in?" Mark inquired with a raised brow.
"No!" Sabrin denied adamantly, shooting a death glare at his manically smiling best friend. "I came up with the idea on how to contact you!" Gradually, the three men withdrew their limbs and pulled apart. "Mark, seriously though," Sabrin said, "I can't say how much we appreciate you doing this, but we really don't want you to put yourself in any more danger than what we've already dumped on you."
"What're friends for?" Mark shrugged off the concern and grinned, in a classically "Mark" motion. "So you two sent that message huh?"
"We had to get you alone to talk. Why're you over here anyway?" Tallas asked, figuring that by now any classified information between them was open game.
"It's a long story," Mark's face became marvelously animated, reminding Tallas how he played the role of a consummate people-person with such effortless charisma, "A bunch of us went clubbing the other night and Dvarick meets this blonde chick right? She tells him she's from a ballet company out of Calirri or some shit like that, and he actually believed her...fuckin' boy scout. So, she's workin' him for drinks hot n' heavy over at the bar, and then--"
"No..." Tallas interrupted with a smile, remembering from experience that Mark was verbosely and irrevelantly honest when he uttered the words "long story". "Not why you were at the restaurant. I meant why're those ships here? We're a long way from home," he clarified.
"Oh, ok, that I have no idea," Mark replied sheepishly, "Nobody does, except for the senior officers. All I got was a notice saying I was being reassigned to some 'special project' and that I was to minimize communications with home."
"That why you never even told us you got this assignment?" Tallas smilingly asked.
"Well, uh, y'know--" contrition flashed over Mark's face, "all this stuff was happenin' so fast and all at once and everything and--"
Tallas waved aside his rambling string of words with a hand and a grin, "I was just kidding -- believe me, I know that feeling. So uh...what happened after we 'disappeared'? Back home I mean."
"Um, I didn't hear much," those olive eyes flickered down briefly, "There was a bit of a flap on the R-D news channels about you two being missing but it was so vague; something about there being a search--" Sabrin snorted at the usage of the word "search" for the hunt they were subjected to, "and a missing persons report posted...nothing about any dorm raid or stolen ship or encrypted datadisc. Then all of a sudden it all just went away and I thought they'd given up..." sadness was woven into his tone, "I wanted to go back and help but they wouldn't let me. I was so pissed off that night; Evitt still has a black eye," Mark chuckled ruefully.
"Aww, that's so sweet," Tallas teased, "you were worried!"
"Fine, make fun of the guy risking his career for you," Mark grumbled, taking that moment to absolve Sabrin's earlier complaint and landing a blow on Tallas' distracted arm. A smile found its way back onto his face when the blonde yelped in surprise and glared at him. The glare shifted to Sabrin when he started laughing outright and dragging Mark in with him. "When you two least expect it," Tallas threatened.
"So," Mark said once he regained his composure, "where're you guys headed after this?"
Sabrin and Tallas glanced to each other uncertainly. "We're not sure," Sabrin admitted, "This's the first time we've really had to catch our breaths and we haven't really talked about it. Probably somewhere out of the way, where they can't find us. Get a job, start a new life."
"Sounds pretty sweet," Mark said softly, a soft sigh escaping his lips, "Guess we won't be seeing much more of each other anymore."
"Prolly not..." Tallas sobered to the reality of their meeting, of the greater universe outside the three of them in their sheltered alley. Was this the goodbye to his life he never had a chance to say? When his life was violently ripped away from him he found it easy not to face the loss of everything he'd ever known, but here he was losing a single person and it felt as though his heart would never be quite the same. The conclusion was inevitable -- the currents of life were carrying them in opposite directions and chances were good he would never set sight on Mark's face again. A tear appeared in his eye as he painfully fought the need to embrace the one part of his life that was still whole, and never let go.
"Hey..." Mark sensed his friend's sorrow and squeezed his arm reassuringly. "This won't be the end, I'm sure of it." His words were meant to be comforting but standing beside them, Sabrin feared that they might be prophetic of their entanglement with the Orions.
"Shit," Mark glanced at his worn wristwatch, "I'd better head back before they start sendin' assault teams to the assay office." He looked to his younger companions and said, "We're not scheduled to leave for another three days. In the meantime, you can contact me with this," he reached into his uniform jacket's inner front pocket and retrieved a marble-sized object, placing it in Tallas' opened palm. Seemingly carved from a piece of smoked glass, the spherical device had several concavities over its surface, a mass of complex circuity embedded within, and a few miniature pin controls on top. "It's a secured transponder," Mark explained, "I always have one with me in case of emergencies."
Tallas handed the small device to Sabrin, who examined it curiously between his fingertips. "Definitely not standard issue...Won't the Imps detect it?"
"Nah, Mira's aunt rigged a couple of 'em up for me before I left...that woman's a fuckin' genius. And a bit of a whack job." Mark briefly explained the operation of the transponder, and reassured Sabrin again that it was impossible for the Orions to pick up the signal without active sensors. "And don't worry about a thing guys," he added, "the Pelesus' the only ship running sensors at all and I'll misalign one of the L-junctions in the tertiary sensor buffers a bit. It'll increase resolution phase-shift by 6.2% and they'll never find your ship."
"Just be careful, okay?" Tallas urged.
"As if it was my first time," Mark grinned wolfishly. Both Sabrin and Tallas knew well his passion for inflicting minor annoyances on the unwary. "I'm really, really glad to know you two are okay," he gave both of them a parting hug. "Wow, your own ship," he remarked as he pulled away, "It's like a dream come true."
"We can always make room for one more," Tallas said softly.
Tallas recognized the smile which appeared on Mark's face; the same small, forlorn smile for things that could never be was entrenched on Sabrin's face an eternity ago in the ward, following some dream of the stars. Slowly Mark shook his head, "Thanks but...we both know it isn't that simple. And you guys don't need the the ruckus from an AWOL report." He took a few steps back towards the corridor and gave the two-fingered casual salute to the temple which signified "good-bye" in Orion.
"I'll see ya; take care!" And then he was gone.
Mark's departure was an hour removed from dusk on Forseti Station, when the orbiting structure dipped beneath the elegantly curved horizon of the planet and bore witness to the eclipse of its parent star. During the few precious moments of perfect incident angle, Isis' dying rays cast their blazing radiance across the intricate surface of the station, rendering it awash in a scintillating field of golden light. In those moments the station was like a piece of gossamer wrought from the endless dark, of such beauty its existence could only be transitory.
Sabrin walked casually along the spartan corridor, his shadow stark and long in golden rays filtering through the auto-polarizing station windows. Through his careful expression of nonchalance he kept a careful watch over his friend out of the corner of his eye; since their conversation with Mark Tallas had been reserved, even melancholy. Sabrin worried that the sudden re-acquaintance with their former lives had more of an effect on the man than he was willing to acknowledge, and so had suggested they watch the sunset from the the rarely-used lower arcades, in the hopes of diverting their attention. It didn't seem to be working; in fact he wondered whether choosing a locale so suited for contemplation was a bad idea after all.
Fifteen minutes of silence finally proved too thick for Sabrin to bear and he placed a hand on Tallas' elbow, guiding them to a stop. At first the other man seemed somewhat bewildered at the break in rhythm, but his gaze quickly settled back on Sabrin. "You okay bud?" Sabrin asked.
"Yes, why do you ask?" Tallas' soft voice carried clearly in the unpeopled space.
"You've seemed kinda distracted since we talked to Mark. You barely said a dozen words at dinner," Sabrin said. The ship traffic outside cast wispy, indistinct shadows that darted across the smooth floor and walls, but he barely noticed. All his attention was focused on the dark pools which were Tallas' eyes. "Somethin' bothering you?"
A faraway quality glazed over those chocolate depths, "Um, nothing really. I guess runnin' into Mark's got me thinking about home."
"Home?" Sabrin was uncertain how to respond. He had seldom desire to look back since he threw himself, or rather was thrown into, his new life.
"Yeah, like, how we used to all go out to that field behind the post office and hunt for scrap metal...then we'd dare each other to climb that old acacia tree and see who got the least scratched up..." Tallas and Sabrin both smiled at the memory; Tallas invariably won those ill-advised contests after the rest of them gave up. Even in the throes of adolescence his body moved with an acrobatic grace and skill Sabrin envied.
"And those nights when we'd sneak out past curfew and go fishing in the creek," Sabrin added another memory with a smile, hiding his concern over where this was leading. The opportunities for such excursions were few and far between, representing a mirage of escape for all of them. They had faded from his consciousness upon his release from the ward to the frenetic life of the Academy, but now he could clearly recall the sound of rushing water and the dark silhouettes of the trees and the faint tessellated grid of the atmospheric dome far above. Still, now they were so far away from the reality of it; he found that he had a difficult time believing any of it actually happened.
"Messin' around with the worms always grossed me out," Tallas cringed slightly at the thought of the soft, squirming creatures between his fingers.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I didn't want everybody to think I was a wuss," Tallas admitted.
"You should've told me; I would've gotten them for you," Sabrin said, pleased to have brought a flush to Tallas' pale cheeks. His friend turned a bit to gaze out of the window, allowing the golden rays to caress the beautiful contours of his face. Sabrin had to squint in the brightnss but thought he saw a glint in those mesmerizingly dark eyes. The sunlight cascaded over his friend's features, throwing a thousand subtleties of color and shade through his flaxen hair and raining down across his slender body.
"It's just us now," Tallas said wistfully, "Mark, Jayan, Mira, Kento..." the names passed through his lips as though for the last time, "At least I had a chance to say goodbye to Mark."
"Who knows what'll happen in the future," Sabrin placed a comforting hand on Tallas' left shoulder, gently kneading the firm muscles beneath. For a moment Tallas melted beneath his touch, but then remembered himself and tensed again. He hated the necessity of it, the torture forced upon them by their circumstances. It was a burning desire which grew more intense every day that he spent in Sabrin's company, a desperation that wrapped itself around his soul so tightly that he could barely breathe. His eyes drifted over the towers burnished gold by the descending star Isis, as though he were gazing across the fabled paradise of Shangri-la he'd read about in literary class.
"C'mon, I think we both know they can't be a part of our lives anymore," Tallas pulled back a little and wrapped his arms about himself.
"But I thought you...that we wanted this," Sabrin said in puzzlement, "to get away from Orion." Does he regret what's happened to bring us here?
"I know -- I do. Want it," Tallas sighed at his inability to articulate himself, "But it's still home and they were our friends, y'know? And now it's gone."
Sabrin wasn't quite aware of what inspired him, but his hand glided across the back of Tallas' neck to rest his entire arm on both shoulders, drawing the two of them closer. Tallas's eyes were fixed to the gilded vista outside, though his shallow breathing betrayed his awareness of how close they were. "It's not gone to me. That wasn't home; this is," Sabrin said quietly.
Tallas chuckled in bemusement, tipping his head towards the alien world before them. "This?"
"No, it's this," Sabrin grinned at Tallas' sidelong glance and squeezed his shoulders affectionately, "It's where you are."
"What?" Tallas' face was the definition of confusion.
"We've always been together Tal," Sabrin said softly, "You're my best friend; we've gone through so much...I can't tell you how much you mean to me. No matter where I go or end up, as long as you're with me it'll always feel like home." The emotions welling within him grew too intense and he was forced to divert his attention out the window to keep his head above the gathering tide. They stood, alone, within their own corner of the universe, shielded by a half-meter of transparent alloy from everything else. And yet when the silence dragged on Sabrin feared he may have overstepped his bounds. He was just about to withdraw his arm and apologize when Tallas turned to him with the sun reflected in his eyes. An irregular trail of light extended to his jawline, as if offering a glimpse through the mask of his exterior to the spirit beneath.
"Sabe," Tallas' voice was clear but trembling, "I have to tell you something."
Aboard the Dream of Dawn, the android and the technician had more engaging matters than the panorama outside. Between the two of them they kept a constant vigil over the four Orion cruisers, watching for any signs of discovery. Both breathed, literally or metaphorically, a bit easier after Sabrin checked in with the success of their task and the date of the Orions' departure. Having offloaded nearly half of their cargo, Dreamer had postponed the rest of his business to tomorrow and come to Lirelle with an unusual request.
"Is the program ready?" Dreamer asked.
"Yes, it only awaits the insertion command," Lirelle responded, "I have a systems window standing by with the Synochrion."
Lirelle sent the appropriate commands through her neural interface, admiring the unfolding of the carefully crafted lines of code as only an A.I. or someone fitted with the proper technology could. "You know that this increases our risk of exposure," she rehashed their earlier conversation. "The boys won't be happy that you put a spy program in one of those cruisers."
"That's why we won't be tellin' 'em," Dreamer said matter-of-factly.
Lirelle sighed exasperatedly; given her experiences she had acquired a definite distaste for cloak-and-dagger games, even if she couldn't help but thoroughly enjoy the technical aspect of it. "Would it be out of line if I asked what this was all about?"
"Not at all, but I'm still not gonna answer," Dreamer gave a playful, lopsided grin, which then somehow merged seamlessly into a sober expression. "There are just...things that I need to take care of. Trust me, you guys wouldn't wanna get involved."
"I would think that if it involves you and something serious, it necessarily involves us," Lirelle reasoned.
Was it her imagination, or did a glimmer of regret appear in those black and gold eyes? Lirelle dismissed the notion as far-fetched; after all, wasn't every part of what Dreamer presented to the world, no matter now minor, carefully orchestrated and considered by his machine mind? She warned herself before not to over-anthropomorphize the A.I., and here she reminded herself again. "It won't... This is personal, okay?" Dreamer said.
"Sure," Lirelle acquiesced. On her mental landscape, she saw that her program had been successfully integrated into the Synochrion's mainframe and felt a hint of pride at her work. From her admittedly amateurish skills five years ago, the unyielding forge of experience had honed her programming abilities into a sharp and precise tool. Her spy program was almost a work of art, designed to remain an invisible witness inside the cruiser's mainframe until their next unforseeable encounter. Compared with defeating Dreamer's frustratingly open-ended security protocols, this was child's play and she told him so. The A.I. had blushed but reminded her not to fall into the trap of overconfidence. "Program insertion complete."
"Cool," Dreamer smiled, "Nice work."
"Thanks," Lirelle unplugged the neural interface and left the console, stretching her stiff muscles. "What was so valuable on that datadisc that the Orions would spend that much effort trying to retrieve it?" she asked as she headed for the mess hall to make her own dinner.
"That's the question of all questions, ain't it?" Dreamer trailed her off the bridge. "We haven't a fuckin' clue; the thing's got more encryption on it than the Kinjori Matriarch's diary. I set up a program to work on it but so far all it's been gettin' is a bunch of dead ends." He glanced at the dataport on Lirelle's neck and an idea came to mind. "Say, why don't you take a crack at it? Seein' as bypassing security programs' one of your fortes."
"I'd be happy to," Lirelle responded as she entered the kitchen. The food storage compartments of the Dream were sufficiently advanced to store a reasonably large amount of food in stasis almost indefinitely. They were far from full but Lirelle figured there was enough for a decent meal. They also bought a more sophisticated food synthesizer on Forseti than what Dreamer had, but hadn't yet had an opportunity to install it. All around them the ship was coming alive, and she could almost see Dreamer's mood lighten with pleasure. "When did Sabrin and Tallas say they would return?"
"They were gonna grab some dinner then head back," Dreamer accessed his internal chronometer, "Prolly soon."
"Those two are pretty close, aren't they?" Lirelle commented. She reached the mess hall and selected a nicely sized skillet from the pile of still-wrapped utensils by the wall. Dreamer leaned casually against the kitchen island with his arms crossed, watching her with a faintly curious expression.
"Yeah, it's pretty sweet," Dreamer said, remembering fondly the interaction between his unlikely saviors.
"Is there...more between them than friendship?" Lirelle asked. The question lingered persistently on her mind, but she didn't know a polite way to approach it.
"No there isn't," Dreamer answered honestly. "Would there be a problem if there was?" he asked noncommittally.
"Of course not," Lirelle shook her head adamantly.
"That's good to hear," Dreamer said, "I wondered, since you were Kinjori and--"
"Yeah I know what you mean, but not all of us are like that," Lirelle acknowledged his point with a smile. With the emphasis that the Kinjori placed on traditional families and lines of inheritance, many amongst her people found same-sex relations to be pitiable and incomprehensible. Though she couldn't claim she spent much time thinking about it, she found that view to be narrow-minded and thought it another reason why the Kinjori were so often characterized as dour and sanctimonious by the interstellar community. "If I may ask...is there a reason why they aren't?"
"Together?" Dreamer arched his perfect eyebrows.
"They seem so close...or have I completely missed the mark?" Lirelle asked. Normally she didn't bother concerning herself with the affairs of others but she regarded these men as her friends. She didn't wish to commit some inappropriate gaff in their presence due to inadequate information.
"Oh you're dead-on," Dreamer said, "Classic case of 'friend syndrome'. They've got a good thing goin' and they're scared."
"It'll work out," Dreamer predicted confidently, "I just hope they don't do something stupid."
Time stood still in the insignificant section of corridor facing the main station structure. Two young men stood facing each other in the waning sunlight, their forms mirrored by shadow on the opposite wall. Tallas had committed himself -- there was no going back now, no retreating back into the cage he wrought himself all those years ago when he realized that he truly loved his best friend, without hesitation and without limit. The cage was gone, its bars shattered into the recesses of nothingness. Tallas had never thought to prepare for the total exposure of his heart, but he felt a curious calm pervading his senses. All he had to say was a few simple words, and his universe would be either destroyed or created. He took a shivering breath and cleared his throat to speak.
"Sabe, I've known you for as long as I can remember. You've been the best friend any guy could ever imagine..." Tallas trembled but he was determined to keep his eyes locked on Sabrin's for as long as it would take. He was overwhelmed by their blueness, and the depths contained beneath such a purity of color and pattern. He never remembered them looking as beautiful as they did in the autumnal light, and a few more tears trickled from his eyes.
"You've cheered me up when I was down, you've kept me company when I was lonely, you've helped me when I need it--" a new flood of emotions rushed through his body, pouring into his overflowing heart. Golden radiance shone across Sabrin's features, from the sharp cheekbones, to the sculpted nose, to the perfectly formed lips. You are perfect... "You've been there, through the good and the bad, and you never gave up on me even when I wanted to. You've risked your life to save mine without even a thought." Silently, a symphony of lights danced across the golden city as the space station's own floodlights switched on in the wake of the dwindling sun.
"I..." speaking was becoming more difficult through his tears, "I can't keep this from you anymore. I thought I could but...every time I see you I can't stand not telling you how beautiful and wonderful you are. It hurts so much...not being able to touch you, or hold you in my arms..." Tallas roughly wiped away the tears with the back of his hand. "God...damn it I guess what I'm trying to say is that..."
"I love you," it came out as barely more than a whisper, but both of them heard it with the clarity of a lightning bolt.
"I love you Sabe..." tears coursed unrestrained from Tallas' eyes even as a grin appeared on his lips, "...as much as any person can love another. When I see you I can feel it in every part of my body...love wraps around me and blinds me to everything but you. It tears me apart but it's a pain I can't live without... You're everything to me Sabrin. I can't imagine life without you...I love you so much..."
Tallas' voice faded away into the empty corridor; exhaustion overtook his body as the secret that cost so much to conceal filled the space between them. When the fateful words passed through his lips joy encompassed his being -- a joy he never dared to allow himself. For the first time he saw the vision of his love...their love, flowing through and around both of them like an infinitely beautiful ether. How could I have not seen it before? This feels so right...this was meant to be, right? As that thought ran through his mind he noticed that several seconds had passed and Sabrin had still not uttered a single word. A look of shock was frozen on his face, and an icy pang stabbed into Tallas' heart.
"Sabe? Sabe say something," Tallas' strangled voice became increasingly panicked as the beauty and warmth tore from him in tatters. His body shuddered with sobs while new, bright tears of pain slid down his milky cheeks, leaving seared trails behind.
Sabrin's mouth opened, but for his life he could not utter a single word. It was as if some great force were pressing on his chest, holding every molecule of his body in absolute stasis. He was standing on a rise, a sheer drop on either side, and he could not bring himself to take a step in either direction. Fear rose, black and smothering; fear of loss, fear of risk, and fear of the unknown. It held him, paralyzed to the now badly shaking young man standing in the last gasping rays of the falling sun. His intelligent, witty, compassionate best friend, a single breath from being everything he ever wanted. All he had to do was say the words...
"Sabe? Say something. Anything. Don't shut me out. Sabe please..." Tallas choked out desperately through his ragged sobs as his worst fear played out right in front of him. Unimaginable pain surged freely through his body, swirling in the void left by the destruction of his heart. His worst nightmares could not have prepared him for the absolute reality of losing the most important part of his life.
"Please...Please say something..." Tallas whispered over and over, pleading through his eyes, each time dying a little more.
It was growing difficult for Sabrin to breathe, such was the deathly grip around his throat and chest. He saw and felt the visceral form of Tallas standing before him, his beauty more radiant and encompassing than Sabrin could ever remember. Sabrin gazed into those eyes and saw such splendor that it blinded him -- and such naked anguish that his entire body weakened to it. He frantically needed to get away, to escape the terrifying clarity of that truth. Though a looking glass he saw his own eyes, irresistably dropping until they could see no more of Tallas' tear-streaked face.
"No...God no..." Tallas whimpered when his love's eyes turned from him. He staggered a few small steps backwards, wrenching a hand roughly through his tousled blonde locks and shaking his head as if he could will all of it away like a bad dream. His agonized sobs echoed through the empty corridor as the last of his world shattered and faded into dark. It was gone -- he'd sacrificed everything and there was nothing left but his despair. Slowly, excruciatingly, Tallas turned and hastily rushed down the corridor, leaving Sabrin standing alone beneath the harsh overhead light and the station outside, ghostly white against the pitch blackness of space.
I'm sorry. "I'm sorry."
"Sabe, finally you're--" Dreamer's welcoming smile dropped quickly when he saw Sabrin's slumping form shuffle through the airlock. His sallow face was pulled taut and his blue eyes were dull and bloodshot. "What the hell happened?"
"Is Tallas back yet?" His voice was strained and hoarse, as though from disuse.
"Uh, no...I don't know where he is; he turned his comlink off...he's not with you?" Dreamer watched with concern as Sabrin gave a tremulous sigh and passed him as though he weren't there. "Hey, wait a sec...what happened? Where is he?" he asked more insistently, stopping Sabrin with a hand on the young man's shoulder. "Are you guys in trouble or somethin'?"
"No...no Dreamer we're not," Sabrin shook his head weakly, shrugged off the hand, and headed for his quarters.
Nimrud's second moon was perfect, looming silver and perfectly circular above the lush growths of trees and shrubs which brimmed over both sides of the narrow, curving path. The celestial gardens were one of Forseti's well-known attractions; each was an arboretum suspended in a bubble of atmosphere, the transparent paths offering no obstruction to either the stars above or the planet below. The paths dipped and intertwined in elegant patterns across three dimensions, such as that seldom a perspective would be repeated anywhere in the park. A shimmering waterfall glowed in the moonlight, issuing from a chalice suspended from a forested upper level. Small white lights lined the paths and larger blue lights were concealed in the greenery, so it wasn't completely dark.
Few people frequented the parks so far into the night, and thus Tallas found himself alone in the artificial glade. It was one of the most extraordinary spaces he had ever visited. Above him, uncountable stars shone boldly across the blue-tinted sky, accented by the moving lights of ships plying the bountiful starlanes that ran through the system. Beneath his feet, webs of tiny lights spread a glittering tapestry across the night face of Nimrud, tracing the sprawling cities defining the invisible coastline. Here too were more ships, glowing pinpoints moving along their own designs. It was as though one were standing at the mirror plane between two skies full of stars: one true, one false. However, his heart had no place for the beauty the place offered. The pain clouded his senses, sapping his strength and pushing his mind further into the abyss. Tallas staggered numbly forward, barely able to contain the wails welling in his throat and the urge to collapse and never rise again. His cheeks glistened; in the past few hours he had cried more than he ever thought possible and yet he still couldn't soothe the burning, writhing wound inside.
Tallas wasn't particularly concerned for his safety, as he could take care of himself and the park was monitored at all hours, such as that a prospective criminal ironically had a greater chance of escaping during the day when there were more people. Nevertheless, his pulse quickened when he heard a rustling in the leaves near him. He turned to the source of the noise, forcing away his imagination and waiting by a stand of eucalyptus trees. He was able to relax when he saw the flashing amber light held in the approaching silhouette's hand. A corresponding light was concealed inside his jacket pocket.
"Tal? Is that you?" Mark's baritone voice accompanied his face as he stepped into a pool of light. "I got the signal."
"Yeah, Mark, it's me," Tallas managed to say in a choked voice. Unable to hold back any longer, he threw himself into Mark's chest and cried a new spate of tears into the other man's uniform. He felt Mark's strong arms close tightly around him, giving him the security and comfort he so desperately sought. Despite his bafflement, Mark never slackened his hold, rocking them gently from side to side and whispering calming words into his ear. His friend's distress was evident in every move he made, and it pulled Mark's heart in ways he never wanted to experience.
Finally, Tallas cried his throat raw and his shaking subsided to a few tremors. Unsure of himself, Mark moved his hands in circles over Tallas' back and through his hair, with a gentleness belying his strength. A few unfamiliar tears welled in his own eyes, which he did his best to blink away.
"What happened?" Mark asked quietly. He pulled away to take in Tallas' ashen, tear-streaked face, contorted in grief.
"I...I thought...he..." Tallas' broken words were barely comprehensible and more gasps shook his light frame. His eyes were vacant, searching and pleading for some answer Mark couldn't provide. His voice was strangled by more coughs, and he buried himself back against Mark's body.
"It's okay...you don't have to tell me," Mark murmured, "Whatever it is, I'm here for you bud..." Tallas pressed in closer, hiding himself in Mark's touch. His friend's heartbeat throbbed against his own chest, and he felt the other man's body heat enveloping his. He wrapped his arms around Mark's midsection, feeling the silky-smooth skin sliding over the hard planes of muscle beneath. Needing to feel that skin without the artifice of the uniform in between, his hands were guided upwards to the elegant curve of Mark's neck, his fingers whispering over the searing hot surface. They were almost melded together, virtually breathing each other's air. The even rhythm of Mark's breathing faltered, and Tallas felt him suck in a small amount of air through his teeth as though he were fighting some inner struggle.
His hand crawled upwards along the back of Mark's neck, raking ever so gently through the bristly hair and stroking the back of Mark's ear. Mark's green eyes closed, and whether he realized it or not his head turned into Tallas' touch. "Tal..." nothing more than a whisper, "What are you doing..."
Tallas looked up, regarding Mark's fine features superimposed against the radiant moon through the shadows of the trees. Mark was boyishly handsome -- long eyelashes fawned cheeks still bearing a few freckles, bridging a cute upturned nose above a set of ruby lips -- Mark's effusive personality brought those features into their own light and made him popular with both men and women; as much as Sabrin dominated Tallas' universe, he couldn't fail to notice it. And there was no moment that he was as aware of it as now, when they were surrounded by beauty.
Craning his head to the side, Tallas nuzzled against the pliant flesh of Mark's neck. The heat of their contact sparked from his lips through the rest of his body, setting his nerves on fire. His tongue darted out, glimpsing tastes of the vulnerable skin beneath the solid chin. A rolling sound, almost like a purr, emerged from Mark's lips as his head tilted back to allow better access.
The pleasure was saturating Mark's senses, drowning out the rational voices within his mind screaming that they shouldn't be doing this. He was never lacking for sex, but this was different. Tallas ignited parts of him he never knew existed and his body was definitely responding despite his intentions. Slowly, Tallas' kisses moved upwards, until finally meeting his lips in a hesitant, but overwhelming touch. Mark felt himself falling deeper into the fugue, but his mind offered one last effort to pull him away.
Tallas found large hands pulling him from his friend and dazed eyes looking at him. "Tal I...this isn't..."
"Shh..." Tallas placed a finger against Mark's lips. A storm of emotions swirled about his mind so intensely he could barely think, compelling him to desire the physical closeness that Mark could offer. "I want this...don't you?"
"God yes..." Mark unsteadily whispered the truth.
Tallas silenced any further conversation with another kiss. His tongue gingerly probed the other man's lips, asking for entry and finally receiving it. Mark's arms locked around him and ground their bodies together, intensifying their contact. Their bodies twisted in sync with each other in a growing frenzy, their hands roaming almost frantically over each other. There were no more words now; only instinct, pulsing between them with the rhythm of an ancient song.