Illustrated by Eve le Dez
He blinked and raised his gaze from the electronic crossword puzzle. Altivia didn’t swear often, and when she did, it was usually over something important.
“Shit!” she said this time, her usual breathy whisper turning to a violent, honking exhalation. “It’s gone again.”
“What is it?” Miriam had appeared from somewhere, and bent to stare at the screen under the navigator’s fast-moving tentacles. “I don’t see anything.”
Well, he didn’t either, but then he could seldom make sense of the watery images that seemed to float in the blue-white light of the stereo tank. His eyes were nothing like Altivia’s—for one thing, he only had two.
“Report,” he said briskly, blinking and focusing on the navigator’s large, rounded form, trying to sound crisp and in charge. He was the captain, after all.
Altivia didn’t look at him, or at least he didn’t think so. “Bogey in sector twenty-six, Captain, almost close enough to touch—there, and then it was gone again. Dammit!” she hissed.
He shared a glance with Miriam. “You didn’t see it, Second?”
She shook her head, long mustard-colored curls swinging over the shoulder of her tan coveralls. “A blur, maybe. Could have been anything…” She bit her lower lip and held his gaze.
He nodded, trying to project reassurance he didn’t feel. “Probably nothing. Make a note to have that screen checked when we reach port.”
Altivia made a sound like a rapidly deflating balloon, and he glanced her way with an apologetic shrug. She was admittedly expert at servicing her own equipment, but anyone could make a mistake, right?
“Aye, sir,” Miriam said, smiling now and sketching a two-fingered salute as she turned away.
And it might be nothing, maybe just a glitch in the tech somewhere, or old Alti needing glasses for those eight eyes of hers—but it was the third time she’d reported a sighting in the last twenty-four hours, ship’s time, and they were in the ass end of nowhere, traveling at a thousand times the speed of light. Altivia might be a lot of things, but she wasn’t an alarmist. What the fuck.
With a sigh, he realized he was hungry.
There was nothing new to be found in the galley, just the same old selections on the second-hand replicator he’d bought at auction from that pointy-eared guy. He dialed in his current “favorite,” a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, and watched the yellow and white mass form on the plate. Everything the replicator made contained whatever the being requesting it needed for complete nourishment, but it was all so boring. His fingers actually itched to take the machine apart and reprogram it with something else, almost anything but the limited menu stored in its brain, but there was always the chance he’d fuck up the entire sequence, and then what would they eat? Still, the task was first on his list when they reached a planet with real food.
He was chewing his first gooey bite when the doors opened again, and he kept on chewing, already knowing who was behind him. Shit, after nine months with a six-person crew, he bet he could tell every one of them just by their smell. This one was cinnamon and sweat.
“Hey, Concho,” he murmured as the other man made his selection at the replicator, then sat down at the opposite end of the long table.
“Cap’n Hawk.” His voice was low and as unemotional as ever. Hawk couldn’t count how many times he’d asked the man to drop the “Captain” when they were alone, but it was as though he didn’t hear.
Hawk glanced down the table quickly, trying for nonchalance. He always looked, but the view never changed. Either Concho had a locker full of black leather pants and vests, or he always wore the same ones. Hawk knew there’d be black boots under the table, and the belt with its hammered silver circles that echoed the man’s name. He wore nothing else, save a silver chain around his neck and a black head scarf that served to keep long, greasy black hair out of his face. A narrow black mustache framed his thin lips, and his dark, almost black eyes were fixed on his bowl.
“Hey, why don’t you come sit up here, keep me company while we eat?” he called.
He had to strain to hear the quiet, “Nope.”
Hawk slowly finished his sandwich, vowing he wouldn’t say anything more, but the pressure of silence was too great, and as he stood to return his plate to the recycler, he asked Concho’s slender back and broad shoulders, “Why not?”
And Concho replied, as he always did, “Because I don’t like you,” then went on spooning up his soup.
Hawk almost wished he could slam the galley door, but it slid out of his way automatically, sliding back when he had crossed the threshold.
At least he could stomp his boots on the floor plates, and he did as he strode down the corridor. The man’s attitude was frustrating. He’d known Concho for years. In fact, they’d been at the Academy together. Roommates for a time, they’d gotten along well, and Hawk knew that other expressions besides affected boredom could bloom on that brown-skinned face. He’d never imagined that the two of them would crew together, certainly not with him as captain, but it turned out that the Guard wasn’t for him—something about “no proper respect for authority,” he thought he remembered them saying—and there he was with all that training and just enough savings to buy a second-hand lightship.
However, he’d always thought they’d stay friends.
It had been in their last year at school when things seemed to change. That had been five years ago now, and Hawk had yet to find out what had really happened.
He was tired, and his bunk was beginning to sound good, but he knew he wouldn’t rest unless he had another look in the viewing tank, for all the good it would do.
He’d bought the Pegasus for a song, a decommissioned cruiser from the Earth’s planetary fleet, but she still had those fine lines he admired and plenty of space to convert from bunkrooms to cargo holds. While he was at it, he paid for the newest engine he could afford. Speed was important when you had deadlines, and that was how he’d started out, ferrying medical supplies to colony worlds like Mica, luxury perishables to pleasure worlds like Avril. Everything he shipped was legal and above board, for the most part, though he’d been accused of pushing the limits from time to time. Nobody’d ever proved anything, though.
The ship lurched a little as he made his way back to the control room. Just a hydrogen pocket, he decided, giving the engine a minute, unexpected boost.
There was no future, to his way of thinking, in anything but straight trading. Not unless you favored a life sentence on one of the prison worlds—ugly places, judged uninhabitable, but very handy for the containment of lawbreakers and other undesirables.
Of course, there were those who didn’t see things his way. With cloning and regeneration, these days nobody had peg legs or eye patches, but that didn’t change what they did or who they were.
Altivia didn’t acknowledge him when he walked up behind her, though he knew she was wide awake. In fact, he’d never seen her sleep. She was always right there, at her post, wrapped around the frame that supported her sinuous 250-plus kilo bulk. Some independent traders wouldn’t work with Arcturian navigators, but Alti hadn’t gotten them lost yet, and she smelled better than Creighton, the engineer, most days. He took a deep breath—mint and sardines—yep, that was Altivia.
“Anything?” he asked.
“Jussst what you’d expect.”
He smiled. There was always that incipient hiss in her voice, but Altivia spoke better English than he did. He leaned over her broad body and studied the depths of the tank. Windows weren’t much good at this speed, but the swirls and flashes in the tank were little better. Hawk blinked and rubbed his eyes.
“I’m gonna get some shuteye, Alti. Squawk if you see anything.”
“Will do, Cap,” she said distractedly, waving him away with a pointed grayish tentacle tip.
Ezila was headed toward the control room as he exited. She was wearing red today, something skin tight that covered everything and hid nothing. It went well with the mohawk of red and black feathers that sprouted naturally down the center of her humanoid skull. She smiled, disconcerting unless you were used to the rows of tiny sharp teeth and a very red tongue. Her people were mammals but oviparous, which still made him scratch his head from time to time—when he wasn’t busy nibbling on one of her respectably sized breasts.
“Hey, Captain. Want some company? I got a quarter hour before my shift.”
He smiled but kept walking. He knew Ezila could do a lot in a quarter hour, but right now he had too much on his mind to enjoy it. “Thanks, Doc, but I think sleep is what I need right now. Catch you later?”
Ezila shrugged, flat muscles rippling down her slender sides. “Call if you need a sleeping pill.”
He shook his head, idly wondering if she’d been down in the engine room helping Creighton out again. That bastard was always horny, and Ezila considered sex part of medical “preventive maintenance.”
Hawk made it to his cabin gratefully, without further interruption, heading directly for the ’fresher, and emerged still slightly damp, having stayed in the little cubicle at least five minutes longer than the limited the time he demanded the crew take for their ablutions. Being the captain had to have some privileges, and the warm mist and heated air felt so good. He was peering into the small fogged-up mirror, wondering if his shoulder-length dark blond hair was getting too long, when he felt it, a chill like a sudden air displacement. And then there was a figure behind him in the glass, bulky in a brown-gray pressure suit and helmet, dressed as though the ship was about to be breached by a meteorite. He turned rapidly, but there was no one there.
A shiver crawled up his spine. Bundled up as it was, the large figure had still reminded him of Dugan. He hadn’t even thought of the man in years. He must be really tired.
Resisting the urge to search the locked cabin, he pulled on some sweatpants and a T-shirt, his usual version of sleepwear. If they’d been boarded, the ship’s alarms would be clanging fit to wake all the demons in hell. It had only been his overstressed imagination—or a phantom, like those bogeys in Altivia’s tank. Sighing, he slipped between the sheets on the large bunk, only subconsciously registering the disturbing hint of tobacco in the air. No one on the ship used it.
Yes, he was tired, but sleep wouldn’t come. In three days’ time, they should be back in Federation space and able to relax a little. Then he could look for a buyer for the cargo that filled the ship’s holds—the very valuable cargo they’d somehow lucked into. Ultium was so new that the scientific powers had barely had time to give it a name. Its uses were still mainly rumors, but if even part of that speculation was true, then, with only a slight refit, any ship could mix ionized Ultium with its normal fuel and multiply its top speed by a factor of one hundred. What that would do to space travel boggled the mind.
Since its accidental discovery, minute deposits of Ultium had been found on many widespread planets, and the Federation was stretched to the limit just guarding the sites. Who could have guessed that the small and backward planet they happened upon would have kilotons of the stuff, just lying around for the taking? The raw substance was hard, with a dull black sheen; the humanoid but pre-space-travel natives used the pulverized stuff as body paint and carved larger chunks into statues of their gods. They’d been more than happy to trade some of it for an equal weight of the shiny gold the replicator churned out with maddening slowness. The rest, the Pegasus’s crew had mined themselves, directly from the source.
Their travels had taken them far off the beaten path, and they’d only been looking to set foot on a planet for a day or two. That particular remote ball of rock just happened to boast an oxygen atmosphere and free H2O. They’d all been amazed when Altivia’s scanners detected the large deposit of the rare new substance, and they’d been extra careful when leaving the little world. Right now, Hawk had no intention of exploiting the planet further, and he didn’t want the Federation to move in either. He’d kind of liked the simple, friendly natives.
So far, scientists had been unsuccessful at replicating Ultium. Something about the structure being too complex. Hawk didn’t care if they figured it out, as long as they did it after he’d had a chance to empty his hold at a good price. Man, what would he do with that kind of credit? He stretched, then tucked both hands behind his head.
Maybe he and his crew would head for one of the pleasure planets for a nice long furlough—presuming some or all of them didn’t just take off and find something they’d rather do with their money. Not that he’d blame them. Cruising around in a giant tin can, never knowing if there’d be profits or bankruptcy at the end of the voyage, wasn’t everyone’s dream. He frowned. What if Concho… He didn’t know how he’d feel if the tall, lanky first officer decided to leave. Whatever their personal relationship, they’d been together a long time…
Hawk shook his head. Dugan. What had made him imagine Dugan in the mirror? He hadn’t seen the man since the Academy. Come to think of it, maybe that was when his relationship with Concho had first begun to sour.
Hawk and Concho had never been other than roommates, but somehow, in the back of his mind, he’d always thought they could be something more. It felt right, being with him, and even though Hawk had sex with both men and women, he’d never felt as close to any of his temporary partners as he did to Concho. One day, he’d promised himself, when he’d worked up the courage, he was going to ask Concho out and see what he said. Then, in the middle of their fourth and last year at the Academy, along came Dugan.
Hawk hadn’t even known what was happening at first. Tall and muscular, his dark brown hair and big blue eyes had half the class following Dugan around, but it was Hawk he zeroed in on—first coffee in the cafeteria, then insinuating himself between Hawk and Concho at lunch, and finally a dinner invitation to a ritzy restaurant that led to a passionate night in Dugan’s private room.
Hawk had to admit he’d been dazzled by the attention at first, never understanding what the bigger man saw in his ordinary face and hazel eyes. The sex had been great, sure, but there was just something about the man that put him off. A month of his intense company was more than enough, and Dugan had gone on to another conquest when Hawk broke it off, seemingly without a backward glance.
But the damage was done. Somehow, a wall had grown up between him and Concho in that short time, and it hadn’t come down yet.
Months later, he’d heard that Dugan had left the Academy, and there were rumors that he and his gang had bought their own ship. Funny they’d never encountered him at one of the free ports. Oh well, it was a big universe.
He’d seriously thought he’d lost Concho when Hawk dropped out before graduation. Their good-byes had been perfunctory at best—no smiles, no touching of any kind, not even a handshake. Then, a few months later, when he’d finished Pegasus’s refit and put out feelers for a crew, the dark man had been first in line.
A smile had almost cracked Hawk’s face when he’d signed on, but Concho had been cool, and when Hawk asked him why he wouldn’t shake hands on it, the deep eyes had narrowed and he’d come out with a drawled “I don’t like you.” Hawk couldn’t count how many times he’d heard that same statement since.
But still, the crew had worked out well. Altivia had been the last on board. He’d seen her huge form lurking near the ship’s docking bay, and he wasn’t sure if he should worry or not. He’d never known an Arcturian personally, but from what he’d heard, they made excellent navigators, and he’d been brought up without prejudice. Finally, he’d left the ship under Concho’s supervision and walked over to talk to her. He’d been immediately taken with her hisses and whistles, convinced by her obvious expertise, and when she accepted his offer, he’d marveled at how easily she could move her bulk, all those tentacles seeming to squirm at once.
The only crewmember that gave Altivia the evil eye had been Creighton, but Hawk needed an engineer, and they seemed to be in short supply. If push came to shove, Hawk could sort out some of an engine’s quirks, but in deep space, with no dockside experts to consult, he wanted a qualified mechanic. Creighton, in spite of his slovenly appearance and probable prejudices, could at least claim those credentials. Thankfully, he only leered at the women, and with Creighton, that was one prejudice Hawk could applaud.
The engine had no problems under Creighton’s care, but somehow the entire bay seemed permeated with his scent—cheap cologne and the greasy junk food he was always coaxing out of the replicator. Hawk didn’t know how Ezila could stand it. But the mechanic was a good man in a fight; he had to give him that. That time on Arborous 3, when the portside gang tried to enforce their extra “taxes” on his shipment, Creighton had been right there, in the thick of it, laying about him with a pipe wrench the size of his thigh. Thanks to him and to Concho’s machete, they’d all escaped mostly unscathed.
Miriam could be counted on in a fight, too. Despite her shyness, her needle-gun aim was accurate; and Ezila could be scary even without weapons. Those pointed fingernails, which sometimes left titillating scratches on his shoulders, could extend enough to peel off skin. Altivia’s people were mostly peaceful, but you wouldn’t know that to look at her. He’d had other traders back away from a sale just because Altivia stood beside him.
Yeah, altogether, it was a good crew, and soon they’d be back home and could cash in on their good luck. Whatever happened after that, well, he’d just have to wait and see. Hawk yawned, turned onto his side, and fell asleep to the almost imperceptible vibration of the ship.
He was having the damndest dream. He’d gone out for wrestling in his first year at the Academy—something about lying on a mat, twisted around another sweaty young man—and he was good at it, but this time his opponent had him down. Choke holds were taboo, and Hawk wondered what the ref was thinking. Couldn’t he tell that the guy had an arm across his throat?
And then finally there it was, the ref’s whistle, shrill and piercing. But his opponent didn’t stop choking him, and the noise went on and on, rising and falling like the last trump of doom. He pushed as hard as he could against the body on his chest, but it was too heavy. He was out of his weight class for sure this time. Dad was always warning him about that. “Don’t let your pride get the better of you. Your only real opponent is yourself,” he’d say. And Hawk would gladly admit his mistake if only he could catch his breath to say the words. Besides, it was cold, it shouldn’t be this cold, and it was getting dark…
He thought he heard a tremendous crash, and then the lights went out completely.
Hawk figured he must still be asleep, which was all right with him. It was a good dream now, and somewhere a soft and silky voice went on and on while roughened fingers caressed his forehead and the side of his face. After a long time, the words began to make sense. “Hey, Hawkman. You finally back with us? I was gettin’ a little worried, chico.”
Hawk tried to lift his head, only then realizing how much his throat hurt. He opened his eyes instead. There was no mistaking the narrow face, dark eyes, and creamy brown skin. The smile was a little unfamiliar, however. “Concho?” The word came out in a croak.
“Yeah, bossman. Ezila says you’re going to be fine. Just need some rest is all.”
“But what about…?” He coughed, cleared his throat, and tried again. “The ship. I thought I heard the alarms—”
Concho placed one slender finger on his lips. “It’s under control. The pirates are gone, except for the ones we tied up and locked in the hold. Miriam jammed the frequency they were using to teleport inside the ship, and only two of them escaped through the airlock. Their ship was cloaked, and we aren’t sure if they made it back to her or not.” He gave a sharklike grin. “None of us are losing any sleep over it.”
Hawk relaxed a little more against the pillow. “Then our cargo…”
“Is still ours. I don’t think they had any idea what they were trying to steal. And don’t worry about the ones below decks. Ezila shot them up with enough tranqs that they’ll sleep until we make port—which should be this time tomorrow, according to our navigator.”
Hawk sighed. “The rest of the crew?”
“All fine. Creighton took a dart in the shoulder, but it hardly slowed him down—man’s like an ox. Miriam got three of them with her pistol, and I think Ezila ate one guy’s ear.” Concho laughed. “He’s lucky he had his pants on.”
Hawk studied Concho’s face. “You’ve got blood on your cheek—”
“It ain’t mine,” Concho interrupted, smoothing Hawk’s hair back from his forehead. “In fact, you’re the only one who really got hurt. Dugan must have been holding a grudge, even after all this time, for you dropping him like you did,” Concho said with a fond smile.
“Dugan…?” Then seeing him hadn’t been a hallucination? Hawk felt his mouth drop open.
“Didn’t I say? He was the one leading those guys. Guess it took them a few tries to get the frequency right. That’s why Altivia kept seeing those here-and-gone-again bogeys. They’d come out of cloaking just long enough to try their boarding trick.”
“Jesus,” Hawk sighed.
“Yeah, and while most of his crew were trying to breach our hold, Dugan came right for you.” Concho’s eyes grew even darker. “He hit you with some kind of hypnotic. We found the broken vial on the floor. I guess you fought back anyway, because he was choking you while trying to rip your clothes off. Bastard was ready to go for it. I knew there was something wrong when you didn’t respond to the alarm, and I kicked your door in just before he… um, just in time,” Concho finished, looking away for a moment and reaching to tuck the sheet tighter around Hawk’s chest.
He stood up suddenly, turning to move away from the bed. “Look, I should let you rest, like Doc says. Anything you need before I go? Water maybe? I can get you something from the galley if you—”
Hawk caught hold of Concho’s vest. “Hey. Don’t go,” he rasped.
Concho stood still, making no effort to pull away, and finally sat back down on the bed.
“That’s better,” Hawk whispered. “Concho,” he said, waiting until the man’s head finally turned his way, “all this time, you haven’t hardly talked to me, kept your distance, and now, when I need you, you’re here.”
The black-haired man looked at him intently, studying his face as though he’d memorize it. “I didn’t want to get in your way. Being around you was enough. I wasn’t going to ask for anything else.”
Hawk was stunned. “But I… I thought you didn’t like me. It’s what you’ve always said.”
Concho smiled a little. “I don’t.”
Hawk took a tighter grip on Concho’s vest, wishing he could use it to shake sense out of the man. “What…?”
Concho smiled again, and this time his face almost glowed with it. He lowered his head until the tip of his nose touched Hawk’s. “I don’t like you, Hawkman,” he whispered. “I love you.”
And to Hawk’s surprise, their mouths came together for the first time—but not the last.