by Ellis Ward
(sequel to Echo)
Standing at the lift mechanism computer outside the main cargo hold, Ray Doyle rekeyed the defaults that would implement the upgrade he had just installed. Eyes fixed on the monitor, he cursored through each field until all pertinent alterations had been made. With the stroke of a little finger, the data was stored to the machine's permanent memory. At that precise instant, he was swamped by a surge of white-hot, dizzying lust.
Bloody hell, Bodie! he moaned inwardly, riding the crest of sensations so intense they lit up the backs of his eyelids with brilliant colors and poured liquid heat into his groin.
Inhaling sharply, he opened his eyes to gaze blankly and at length at the temporarily meaningless screen. Aware of what was happening, however, Doyle set about employing the mental shutters that would partially filter--though not block out entirely--the promiscuous desire, which gradually lessened in intensity until he was back under control.
Three weeks ago, it had not occurred to Doyle that he might be subject to a complaint of this nature. Three weeks ago, he and the man who had rescued him from a thought-infested prison on Stepney had coupled their futures in a Vauxan bonding ceremony at the Templar's office in CarShalTon. With his mother Gilla, cousin Moor, and assorted distant relatives, as well as Bodie's sfang Asper--its pure white silken muzzle peeping out of the leathern pouch suspended from Bodie's shoulder--in attendance, Doyle had readily opened his mind to the human. Aided by the Encircler, who had augmented Doyle's half-breed empathic ability, they had experienced the fullness of their emotions in a way that would likely never be repeated. Open and utterly trusting, neither had resisted when the facilitator's psychic probe had gone deep into their image-rich selves. Out of those kaleidoscopic emotions she had plucked something of each man's essence, which she had then implanted in the core of the other.
Faintly shaken, the two men had remained solemnly hand in hand until the Encircler had completed their bonding by guiding them through the comparatively prosaic documentation that would make their union legal in the eyes of the Consortium. Within moments, the gathering had been herded out, according the newly espoused individuals the privacy which Vauxan custom deemed necessary at this time.
Oddly ill at ease, Doyle had stared down at their conjoined fingers, noticing only then that his own were cold and pinched in Bodie's too-urgent grasp. "You okay?" Doyle had whispered.
Bodie had lifted the curls from Doyle's forehead. "Will be when you give me a kiss." The words had sounded glib.
Bringing his head up warily, Doyle had begun a slow study of Bodie's face. What he had seen there had disconcerted him, for Bodie had borne a notably pained expression. "You're not sorry?" he had blurted out, the possibility that Bodie regretted their bonding too wounding to contemplate.
"No, of course not. Idiot," Bodie had added chidingly. "You?"
"Even if you were--" One dark brow had arched up arrogantly. "--you're stuck with me."
Relief coursing through his veins, Doyle had murmured, "Thought you might've resented the Encircler rummaging round in your head."
"'Course not. Gilla told me what to expect, y'know. Wasn't as bad as I expected, actually."
Bodie had grinned crookedly. "Was afraid the Encircler--once she'd 'rummaged round in my head' as you so neatly put it--might warn you off me."
"I already know the worst of you, Bodie. Idiot."
His smile widening at the echo of his own insult, Bodie had dropped his gaze to Doyle's mouth.
That unsubtle perusal had kindled an immediate response: Bringing their bodies into close contact, Doyle had taken Bodie's mouth with proprietorial presumption. Gently at first, then more insistently, he had deepened their kiss until Bodie was clinging to him for support.
Afterward, they had stood, loosely held, in each other's arms, foreheads pressed together. A low chirring sound, partly nettled, partly inquisitive, had issued from the leathern pouch. Four beady eyes had appeared from beneath the flap; they had moved from one man to the other until both men had been encompassed in a quadruplicate onyx glare.
"That'll do for now," Bodie had said, taking a moment to tuck Asper back inside the carrier. "Time to attend Gilla, eh?"
His mouth soft in reminiscence, and still warmed through with Bodie's broadcast of untempered arousal, Doyle let his thoughts touch on the events that had followed. They had been feted at Gilla's home with marvelous food and drink while being made welcome to the clan into which Doyle had been born. Later, back on board the FG BEHEMOTH, they had tenderly and with great affection restated their vows, through body language alone, until exhaustion and the late hour had given them over to sleep.
The next several days had been spent in the hilly regions outside WalLingFord, a small town some considerable distance from CarShalTon. There they had hiked across rugged, wild terrain, exulting in sweet, unrecirculated air, the pleasing variegation of plant life and indigenous creatures, and the solitude that had surrounded but had not intruded upon them.
For his part, Asper had found the wide-open spaces intoxicating. He had indulged in hunting live prey, though surprisingly, had never gone for the kill. The sfang, Bodie had observed aloud, had become as domesticated as the two of them. He had spoken with fond amusement, rather than irony, his manner reflecting a contentment that seemed new to him.
Shortly upon their return to the spaceport city, Bodie had hired out the FG BEHEMOTH to the Institute of Vauxan Studies. They had contracted to ferry echo stones to a science outpost called Snaresbrook Station, which lay two Gates distant, for the benefit of a renowned Vauxan medical scientist, whose intention was to examine the stones as possible healing conduits.
Bemused to hear that Bodie had been given the consignment--based in large part on Doyle's ability to shield him--Doyle had nevertheless received the news that they would be departing Vaux before the week was out with some relief. By then he was already keen on returning to the world he had first known with Bodie--the FG BEHEMOTH--and on having Bodie all to himself again. Not discounting Asper, of course.
They had off-planeted three days ago. The lull following their return from WalLingFord had been consumed with all the tasks necessary to facilitate their departure. Despite the many hours of supervising the purchase of upgrades in both hardware and software, as well as undertaking to resupply their stores while Bodie oversaw the partial refit and overdue specialized maintenance of the ship, Doyle had found a few hours to visit with his mother Gilla. Pressed by obligations surrounding the remachining of one of the BEHEMOTH's engines, Bodie had sent him on alone.
Doyle had preferred to make the journey to his mother's house in the outer reaches of CarShalTon by himself--for he doubted Bodie would have approved all of his reasons for going. Once there, Gilla had fed him sweets and plied him with Vauxan tea while bringing him up to date on the goings on of their family. Once he had been made borderline stuporous from the onslaught of so much seldom-sampled--and unusually rich--Vauxan fare, Doyle had been incapable of dissemblance when his mother had shrewdly questioned the motives for his visit. Aware from her own experiences that separation so soon after bonding could prove distinctly unsettling for both partners--even humans--she had politely but relentlessly badgered her son until he had confessed all: Doyle had wanted permission to go through his brother's personal effects.
His statement had quite obviously taken Gilla aback, though this had been evident more in the subsequent silence than in any overt change in her expression. The inevitable--and logical--question why? had never followed, however. Gilla had simply granted him leave to do as he wished.
There had been little enough left of Targeon's belongings to sift through, the few items all contained in a single finely crafted storage chest, its chiseled outside depicting scenes from Vauxan folklore. Doyle had smiled to himself at sight of it, gliding a fingertip over the panel near the right front corner which featured a gruesome display of marauding sfangi attacking a cluster of hapless Vauxans.
Beneath the heavy lid had been revealed a small bundle of finely woven ceremonial outfits; a casket wrought of semi-precious metal containing jewellery that had belonged both to Targeon and his spouse as well as some curios he had collected in his wanderings; a couple of diaries, their dates preceding the period Doyle was interested in; a vid-cube whose listing of holograms was frustratingly short; a thin, battered documents-folder, and an ornately preserved copy of Targeon's Last Words, the legal statement required of all First Inheritors whose assigns had died before them.
Disappointed that so little remained, Doyle had cursorily inspected the documents that had been in Targeon's possession at the time of his death. These he had set on the floor next to one knee. Frowning to himself he had then selected the Last Words and the vid-cube.
"May I take all of these?" Doyle had asked. Though she had said nothing, Doyle had been aware of Gilla's presence at the door to the spare room all the while.
"You must remember everything that is in there, surely?" There had been no condemnation in her voice despite the bald frankness of her words. "When you came home after Targeon died, you studied his things for hours."
"I didn't memorize them." No explanation of his reasons for wanting his brother's effects had been offered.
When he had said nothing more, Gilla had shrugged her agreement, "Of course you may take them."
"Thanks, Mum." Jaw clenched tightly shut, Doyle had set about restoring his brother's possessions to the chest, his every move painstakingly precise. When a pair of arms had come to enclose him from behind, Doyle had been forced to bite his lower lip to keep in a sound that would have shamed him.
"You always loved him," Gilla had whispered. "He loved you too, you know?"
Clasping his mother's arms across his chest, Doyle had nodded. Once he could find his voice, he had replied, "He gave me Bodie."
Doyle had reminded her lightly, "Targe made him promise to look after me, didn't he?" Raising their joined hands to his mouth, he had kissed her fingertips. "Did he speak much of Bodie?"
"Bodie was here, my love."
"Yes, but I don't think Bodie would've mentioned George Cowley. Did Targeon?"
The tone of her voice had caused Doyle to stiffen. He rose and turned to face her, bringing her onto her feet alongside him. "You knew him?"
"I met him once," she had corrected. "An acquaintance of Targeon's, so he introduced himself."
Her recounting had been as spare as the contents of Targeon's chest. The man who had called himself George Cowley had appeared on Gilla's doorstep one day years before Targeon had married. She had treated him with typical Vauxan courtesy, all the while sidestepping his rather pointed questions regarding Targeon. Then she had seen him on his way believing she had given him nothing he could not have learned from a stranger. Her elder son's adventuring had too often taken him into the realm of blurred legalities for her not to have exercised a certain caution when discussing his activities. "And you never saw him again?"
"Describe him to me."
"It was many years ago, Raydoyle."
"You must remember something?"
"Oh, well--" She had closed her eyes in concentration, saying nothing for more than a moment. "Slightly built, but strong--at least that was my impression; sandy hair, thinning a bit; pale but very discerning blue eyes--I do remember his eyes: they seemed to look right into my heart; and a limp--he had a noticeable limp, for all that it did not slow him down. He was dressed well and was never other than gracious."
"And Bodie--did Cowley speak of him?"
"As I said, no."
"Did you ever tell Targe or Bodie about Cowley's visit?"
Gilla's face had wrinkled with exasperation, her russet eyes deepening to a shade of sienna red. "You interrogate like a human, Raydoyle."
Once more lifting his mother's hands to his mouth, Doyle had hung his head in mock shame. "It's the company I keep. Please, Mother, it's important."
She had given his unflawed cheek a stinging tweak. "No, I never told them. Until this moment, I had forgotten George Cowley ever existed."
"Don't be cross. It's important to me." He had leaned forward to kiss her broad forehead.
Uncomplicated affection had taken the place of Gilla's irritation. "If that is how you manage Bodie, I'm impressed; I would not have thought him susceptible."
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Doyle had retorted. "Why Bodie tolerates me, I don't know."
"And I accused LerMith of being thick." Gilla had given her head a shake of resignation. "You two belong together, my love."
Another invasion of unbridled wanting jolted Doyle out of his reverie. "Maniac!" he growled. Retaining enough presence of mind to properly shut down the computer, he backed out of the auxiliary program, playing his fingers across the keyboard until he heard the sequence of tones that assured him the unit would power down, yet remain on stand-by. The final beep spoke to an empty corridor, Doyle many yards beyond the center intersection by then.
Just outside the opening to the flight deck, Doyle stopped. There came a fluttering of wings from behind him. He glanced round, but Asper had apparently already darted off again. It occurred to him--not for the first time since setting off from Vaux--that Asper had not been much in evidence just lately. But, as he had done before, Doyle as quickly put the matter aside for more driving considerations.
His partner perched on the edge of the pilot's seat, seemingly engrossed in the display on the personal monitor mounted on the nearer bulkhead. A glimpse told Doyle nothing; but, then only one thing was of concern to him at that moment. The solid form of his mate, so capably constructed yet so appealingly designed, attracted him like a magnet to an iron source.
For all that Doyle's voice was low and unhurriedly paced, Bodie startled as though his name had been screeched over the ship's speakers. He swivelled round, a hand simultaneously blanking the screen. "Damn it, Ray! You trying to scare the life out of me?"
"Thought you must've heard me." Doyle was quite openly confused. "Wasn't trying to sneak up you." Had Bodie been broadcasting unconsciously?
Bodie laughed; to Doyle, his mirth sounded forced. "Never mind. Was deep in it, that's all." He tipped his head to one side. "Good to see you, sunshine. All these systems checks we've been running, we've hardly had a minute to ourselves."
"Thought you might fancy a break." The look that settled in Bodie's eyes, welcoming as well as speculative, went far toward restoring Doyle's equilibrium. He licked his lips; the coil of heat in his groin was unwinding with every second.
"Think I can spare a minute," Bodie dropped his gaze to Doyle's snug trousers, "or two."
Needing no further invitation, Doyle reached down to loosen the band at his waist. Urgency made him clumsy, however, and the simple clasp threatened to defeat him.
"Come here," Bodie demanded.
Dragging his attention away from the recalcitrant closure, Doyle brought his head up, eyes wide and absurdly distressed.
A hand beckoned him forward. "Let me do that, hm?"
Doyle stated simply, "I need you."
"Can see that." As Doyle moved within reach, Bodie swept the trembling fingers away and assumed command. "You've got me, soon as we can get you out of-- There." He tilted his head back and made a quick, comprehensive study of Doyle's features while blindly easing him free of his trousers.
"Better?" he asked silkily.
Breathing shallowly, Doyle whispered, "Want to kiss you."
"Before or after?" The question contained a trace of amusement.
Treacherously hovering at flashpoint, Doyle abruptly shucked his trousers. Seconds later he had swung one leg up over Bodie's knees, unceremoniously climbing onto his lap. Bending forward, he curled his arms round Bodie's neck and matched his mouth to his lover's pouting lips. Doyle's devouring kiss and the sensuous roll of his hips conveyed his inclination clearly.
With a hand working at his own waistband, Bodie shifted to accommodate them both. Seconds later, with the seat fully reclined, he readily gave his partner the lead. Doyle was incandescent with sexual heat, almost frantic in his headlong rush toward fulfillment. Bodie tried unsuccessfully to soothe him, to slow him down.
Beyond control, Doyle communicated the potpourri of sensation and emotion that comprised his condition to his lover, heedlessly overrunning his fragile shields. At once, their shared carnality was impossibly heightened by the brusquely established loop.
Bodie moaned helplessly when Doyle freed his mouth in order to catch his breath. "Need you," Doyle growled.
But Bodie's moan had not been a refusal, he being as much a victim of their resonant sensuality as Doyle himself.
And then they were one. Bodie surged violently upward against Doyle, who met his roughness with equal fervor, clinging to him as the moment swept them both to velvet oblivion.
The hushed murmur of unceasingly active microservos and automatics provided a curious counterpoint to the ragged fitfulness of their breathing.
Some while later, Bodie commented sluggishly, "I think I've died."
Digging a finger into a flank, Doyle assured him, "Don't feel dead."
"How can you tell?"
Doyle only smiled, as utterly drained as his partner sounded. He found that Bodie made an excellent cushion; in fact, he was in danger of falling asleep where he lay.
Bodie slowly rubbed his hands up and down Doyle's back. "Mind if I ask what brought that on?"
A strange sensation twisted inside Doyle's belly. "You did."
"You must-- You must've been thinking about me. Doing...this. Weren't you?"
Bodie did not answer at once. Then with a whimsical air, he shrugged, "Don't know if I can think back that far just now." He cupped Doyle's face between his hands and forced him to meet his gaze. Grinning, Bodie said, "Yeah, 'course I was thinking about you. Always thinking about you, Ray. Just didn't know you can read my thoughts."
"Those thoughts come through loud and clear," Doyle informed him a touch testily.
"Is that why it's been so--um--fraught lately?"
"You mean since we off-worlded?" Doyle clarified. "Must be."
"And you reckon it's my fault, do you?"
Anguine brows knitted together over the bridge of Doyle's nose. "It's both of us. I could block you out, y'know, but bonded partners would never imagine--"
"--doing that. Don't take this wrong, sunshine, but will it always be so--?"
"--fraught?" Bodie's tentative, but good-natured probing eased Doyle's mind. "We ought to adjust eventually, I expect."
Folding his arms round Doyle's back, Bodie gathered his partner close in a breath-stealing embrace. "Just don't forget I'm only human, eh?"
Turning his face into one of Bodie's palms, Doyle suggested, "Then keep your mind on your work.
For just an instant rebellion sparked in Bodie's eyes; he parted his lips to retort. Whatever he intended to say, however, went unspoken; instead, he brought Doyle's head down and kissed first his mouth, then his nose, then each eyelid. "Off with you, then," he said firmly. His notice leapt beyond Doyle's shoulder. "And what are you looking at?"
Following Bodie's gaze, Doyle spied the sfang hunched over the back of the copilot's seat, louring down at them as it slowly swayed back and forth on all six limbs. "How long have you been there, Asper?" Doyle asked, taking care to untangle their legs before attempting to peel himself off his partner.
A brief, but detailed image flared in Doyle's mind. "That long." He turned towards Bodie. "Did you hear him come in, then?"
Bodie rolled his eyes. "Wasn't listening, mate." To Asper, he tsked, "Pervert."
After standing unsteadily, Doyle wiped himself semi-dry with a handkerchief fished out of his trousers pocket. Wadding the soft, damp material into a loose ball, he raked his free hand through his hair, glanced back at Bodie, who was similarly preoccupied, whistled softly to get his attention, then winked at him. " 'S a good thing those seats recline," he remarked. He shook out his trousers, aligning the legs so he could step into them without losing his balance.
"Get out of here, you," Bodie snorted, emphasizing his words with a swat upon Doyle's hastily covered bottom.
"See you at dinner, then."
"If not before," Bodie said meaningfully.
Bodie's words echoed in Doyle's ears through the remainder of the afternoon. The fact that his partner had joked about their mindless coupling led him to believe that Bodie accepted his culpability in their recently obsessive sexual activity. And yet-- There had been that moment of denial when Doyle had pointed out Bodie's part in all this--at least, Doyle would have sworn it was denial. For whatever reason, however, Bodie had chosen not to pursue it.
Perhaps the human was having second thoughts about being bonded to a Vauxan. Or might it be that the novelty of having a lover--and an unusually demanding one, at that--always in tow was beginning to wear off?
It was true that they had not known each other long, though they had known of each other for many years. Compelled by his promise to look after Targeon's half-brother, Bodie had engineered Doyle's release from prison a little over a month ago. In the time since, Doyle, who had searched the known worlds for the man his brother had called LerMith, had fallen in love with Bodie--only to find at the end of their journey, that Bodie and LerMith were the same man. Bodie, at first fearing entrapment, had kept his true identity to himself. Yet he had proclaimed his love and fealty to Doyle, publicly as well as privately--had even opened his mind to him before witnesses. How could Doyle doubt him now?
In the deepest recesses of his heart, Doyle trusted Bodie implicitly. And he knew it was wrong to hold his lover accountable for his own long-standing insecurities. Despite their earlier miscommunications, he knew Bodie would tell him if he wished to end their relationship. Recalling Bodie's recent loving acceptance--and enthusiastic participation--Doyle could dismiss that particular concern with some degree of certainty.
So how to explain Bodie's irritation? Might he have been unaware of his own lusty musings? Possibly. After all, a certain delectable residue could linger in the mind long after the thought that had spawned it had been expunged. Or a new idea, born of stray synapse firings, could have been forming, Bodie all unaware. In fact, while Bodie may have been occupied with something else entirely, below the surface of his senses a veritable cauldron of desire might have been bubbling.
Doyle laughed cynically to himself: Well, it was possible. Presuming that that was the answer, what then might Bodie have been pondering that could have blinded him to his fleshly impulses?
The man had haunted Bodie's dreams for years, a phantom from his past Bodie believed would follow him to his death--if he did not somehow contrive to take a hand in that death. A vague image of Bodie blanking the screen on his personal monitor as Doyle had entered the flight deck flickered into prominence. Obsessed with purely physical matters at that moment, Doyle had given Bodie's secretive action no thought. Was it possible that Bodie had been attempting to track George Cowley's movements even then?
It was time Doyle pursued his inquiry--begun on Vaux in Gilla's house--regarding this George Cowley. While it was not his intention to intrude on Bodie's privacy, he did like to think that Bodie might benefit from a fresh viewpoint.
Unfortunately, Doyle's schedule over the next few days presumed many hours committed to the upgrading of the ship's stand-alone computers. Interruptions like the one just experienced--however pleasurable--would force him to work well into the evenings, should they continue. If that were the case, Doyle would just have to make the time to peruse the vid-cube and those few documents he had taken from Targeon's chest. Not that he expected to find much there: Nevertheless it was as good a place as any at which to begin.
At dinner, Bodie was unmistakably abstracted. He picked at his food and shiftily eyed his watch every few minutes. Before a quarter of an hour had elapsed, he excused himself, brushed a kiss across Doyle's mouth, and departed. As he strode into the corridor outside the galley, he called over his shoulder, "I'll be on the flight deck for the rest of the evening. Want to get a few more refits double-checked, okay?"
"Okay," Doyle said, though Bodie could not have heard him by then.
At the opposite end of the table Asper squatted low before the edge of the plate prepared especially for him. His meal, like Bodie's, had been scarcely touched.
Reaching out a finger, Doyle stroked the sfang's silken feathers. "Catching, is it?" he asked morosely.
Asper pressed into the Vauxan's touch and chirred softly.
"Must go, old son." Doyle picked up a morsel and offered it to the sfang. He had a glimpse of tiny sharp teeth as the creature snapped the chunk of cheese out of his hand. "Leave the fingers, eh?" he scolded without any real rebuke.
Then he was on his feet, stretching achingly as he started for the door. "Only a couple more stations to do tonight," he said wearily. "Don't know why I'm so knackered."
Chittering loudly, Asper clicked his forepaws together.
"Okay, so I do know. Wise guy." He paused at the opening. "You're welcome to join me, y'know?"
When Asper only stared back at him, Doyle lifted his shoulders, unoffended. "Right. Later, mate."
Doggedly Doyle pushed on with his computer work until well into the evening. All the while he determinedly kept his mind on the job, even though the tendrils of arousal had been on the move since before dinner.
This time he was bent on identifying the agent of his lust--the irony that his intense attraction to Bodie might be a contributing factor not at all lost on him. In fact, what he hoped to do--that is, sort out his feelings from those of his bonded partner at a time when they were both possessed of a very similar condition--could well nigh be impossible for any Vauxan, not only a half-breed. But if he had any hope at all of doing so, he must track the phenomenon from its earliest spark through to ignition, at which point rational study quite simply became impossible.
Just after eight, Doyle completed the last assignment of the day--the refit of the slave unit located in the galley--and made his way to his cabin. Once there he crossed immediately to the small desk where he had stored Targeon's things. Lifting them out with a kind of reverence, Doyle straightened and turned for his bed. The soft flurry of sfang wings announced Asper's arrival.
"Hello, there," Doyle greeted blandly. The sfang alighted on his shoulder; automatically, Doyle steadied the small creature with a hand. "Going to look through this lot with me, are you? C'mon, then. Make yourself comfortable."
Doyle settled on his bunk, the rogue image of Bodie lying here naked and beguilingly tumescent springing full-blown into his mind, reminding him that the minimal shields he had erected nearly an hour ago were proving inadequate to their purpose. Soon, he would have to act, or block Bodie's broadcasting altogether--and the latter was simply not an option.
His face a picture of studied concentration, Doyle lifted his companion from his shoulder, aware on one level of his mind that Asper was complaining irritably. He placed the sfang on the bedclothes beside his thigh and took up the documents-folder that had been in Targeon's possession at the moment of his death.
Travel authorizations; passports for those zones requiring them, of which there were three; immunization and fertility certifications; psychological profile; a listing of next of kin; an old-fashioned photograph of Doyle and Targeon, taken by Doyle's father not long before Gilla had sent Targeon home to continue his education; and a hologram of Targeon's wife and child: All of these things Doyle had seen before but not for many years. Targeon's death had brought him back to Vaux for the first time in a decade. Dealing with his grief as best he could, Doyle had spent several hours going through his effects. Not surprisingly, by then Gilla had already disposed of most of her son's things; Doyle had not faulted her for it.
There were no answers here, but he had not really expected any. As he tucked the various items back into their original packet, he squirmed a little: Desire suffused his entire being, down to the most insignificant molecule, it seemed. He was flushed with it, and slightly breathless.
He meant to hold out a little longer. One thing he had learned through this evening's experiment was that he was not solely responsible for these voluptuous moods--Bodie had to be transmitting as well. Given that conclusion, Doyle did not feel overly guilty for retaining his control as long as possible--especially seeing that Bodie had yet to put in an appearance.
He set the documents packet aside and took up the vid-cube. Activating the mechanism with unsteady fingers, Doyle raised the oculus to his eyes. The images collected here represented those people and things Targeon had held most dear. They featured alien worlds as well as Gilla's back garden; Targeon's father and Gilla, as well as Gilla with her doctor husband, Doyle. To some extent his own past played before his eyes as well, though his familiarity with the contents of this vid-cube may have contributed to that feeling. Near the end of his viewing, Doyle interrupted the program, his exclamation of recognition causing Asper, who had been dozing fitfully, to come bristlingly awake.
"Sorry, mate." Doyle soothed the sfang with a quick caress.
Increasing the magnification at one edge of the temporarily frozen image, Doyle narrowed his eyes. He knew that well-shaped skull, the smooth cap of jet black hair, the solid curve of a broad shoulder, and the lean tapering of flank to hip. Bodie. So, he had been captured by an imager, after all, though his instantaneous action had ensured that nothing identifiable--except to someone who knew him very well--existed. In the next second, he would have been completely out of the frame.
Flushed with triumph, Doyle ran the program to the end, then picked his way through it once more, searching for other details that he might have missed. That single fragment of Bodie, however, was the only item of note to be found.
With the vid-cube resting deactivated in his palm, Doyle leaned back and moaned softly. Untouched, he was nevertheless hardening at a fresh surge of molten urgency. He must go now, lest he be driven to assuage the simmering need himself--such liberty not encouraged amongst bonded partners, unless separated. Targeon's Last Word would have to wait until later.
Sliding off the bed onto rubbery limbs, Doyle took care not to disturb Asper this time--only to find the sfang staring up at him with four-eyed intensity. "Sorry, sunshine." With his feet more or less steady beneath him, he scissored long legs toward the bulkhead. "You just go back to sleep, eh?"
"Expected you long before now," Bodie said. His mouth smiled--smirked, actually--but his face was ashen, as if with great weariness.
Regarding him through a covetous haze, Doyle ventured, "Look like you should be in bed, mate." His mouth was dry and his heart thudded heavily in his throat.
"Now that's a subtle invitation." Bodie switched the ship's sensors to automatic. "Can you wait till then, or would you rather--?" A hand swept round the inside of the cockpit, completing the question.
"If you'd rather I not disturb you at all, I can handle the matter myself," Doyle replied shortly, a trifle stung by his partner's cavalier attitude.
Bodie sobered at once. Then, with an irrepressible twinkle in his eyes, he said mildly, "No double entendre intended, right?"
A tiny smile cracked the frozen landscape of Doyle's features. "Bastard."
"Sorry, sunshine." Bodie rose from his seat and reached out for Doyle. Pulling him into the circle of his arms, he lowered his head until it came to rest heavily on Doyle's shoulder. "Just worn out, I reckon. Nothing I like more than hours and hours of systems checks following a major refit, y'know?"
"Not to mention a lover who won't leave you alone?"
Bodie drew back and fixed Doyle with dark blue eyes. "You've been the best part of the day--every time. I mean that. And I have been thinking about you--for hours, in fact--so I can't blame--"
"I know. Bodie, can we--?"
"--go to bed? It would certainly be more comfortable than in here, I agree."
But before Doyle could guide him into the corridor, Bodie tightened his hold, his mouth pressed warmly against Doyle's throat. "Love you, Ray."
Bodie's tenderness was almost Doyle's undoing, his raw feelings eradicated in an instant. "And you."
Touching his lips to Doyle's forehead, Bodie whispered, "Then let's prove it once more, eh?"
They lay together under a thin sheet, still coupled. The heat of Doyle's cabin surrounded them like a cocoon, ripening the scent of their lovemaking and the sweaty tang of their efforts, the resultant musk heavy on the recirculated air.
"All right?" Bodie whispered. Curled around Doyle's back, he made a wonderful, living blanket, supplying the greater temperature that Doyle always craved.
"Was afraid I might've hurt you; you shouldn't've--"
Doyle gave a muffled hiccup of laughter. "You couldn't hurt me if you wanted to. What's a little enthusiasm?"
"You did get me going, mate. I've never quite let go like...." The sentence died, unfinished. When he spoke again, a minute or more later, Bodie's voice had dropped a register. "And you're wrong, I did hurt you, didn't I? You know--before: You thought I was making fun of your wanting me."
"Wouldn't've held it against you if you had. I've been a right nuisance lately."
Soft, moist lips nuzzled behind Doyle's left ear. "Which, according to you, has been my fault. In my humble opinion that makes it our fault. If you need me, Ray, you've got me. Any time, anywhere. Within reason, of course."
"And anyway, what's a little enthusiasm?"
Doyle hid a grin in his pillow. At peace with himself, flagrantly sated and bonelessly relaxed, he wanted nothing more at that moment than to lie here with his lover and slip painlessly beneath the surface into the nether realms of sleep. Far enough gone that he barely stirred when Bodie extricated himself from his body then began a gentle mopping up, Doyle nevertheless sensed the almost inaudible rush of sfang wings hovering a short distance away--in the doorway, perhaps?
More than half asleep, Doyle frowned.
"Pass the marmalade, please." Bodie held up his knife, which was already smeared with ungul butter and dotted with bread crumbs, and waited expectantly.
Surveying his partner from beneath purplish eyelids, Doyle exclaimed, "That's not all you're eating?"
"I'll grab a bite in an hour or so." He steepled his thick brows meaningfully. "Behind schedule, y'know. The marmalade, please."
Sluggishly obedient, Doyle wagged his head slowly. "Was you who started things this morning, y'know? I was still dead to the world."
"Didn't take you long to resurrect, though did it?" Bodie gave him an overbearingly cheery wink. His gaze softened as Doyle succumbed to a jaw-splitting yawn. "Besides, who woke me up three times during the night? Don't hear me complaining, do you?"
Finding the weight of his eyelashes almost insuperably heavy, Doyle countered tartly, "That's 'cause I did all the work."
"But the outcome was to your satisfaction, was it not? Every single time?"
Doyle dissolved into a grudging smile. He sighed. "Passive resistance, I think it's called."
"Nothing passive about it, if it gets the job done," Bodie asserted self-righteously.
"Hark, listen to you."
Brushing crumbs off his hands and swallowing down the last of his toast, Bodie stood up. He scooped up his cup of tea. Winking once more, he said amiably, "I'll be on the flight deck if you need me, sunshine."
He strode out of the galley, leaving Doyle alone.
Chewing by rote, Doyle stared into middle distance, scarcely fit to order his thoughts, let alone contemplate the day ahead. And it was a full day that awaited him. The prospect did not fire his enthusiasm.
A hand cupped under his chin, Doyle closed his eyes and surrendered to the drowsiness that blurred the edges of his consciousness like a clinging mist. As he sat there, a chirring sound announced the arrival of the sfang. A current of air and the tap of a forepaw brought his eyes fractionally open: Asper hung suspended just in front of him, his unreadable black stare demanding some as yet unstated response.
" 'Morning, Asper." With his lower jaw held immobile in his hand, Doyle's words were only vaguely intelligible.
Asper, however, did not rely on the spoken word for communication. He was ravenous and conveyed that fact in the best way he knew how.
Wincing as Asper's clamoring hunger collided with his own full stomach's distress, Doyle found himself dizzyingly wide awake. "All right, all right," he groaned, holding his head as he stumbled from the chair. From the perishable food stores cupboard, he selected one of the prepackaged sfang meals that Bodie had specially prepared whenever he put into port. As Doyle turned with the meal in hand, prior to placing it in the processor, Asper rocketed into the air above Doyle's head and commenced a fierce racket.
"What?" Doyle asked blankly. Images blasted into his mind, incoherent and disjointed. Seizing on the underlying tone of Asper's protest, Doyle translated, "You want something else instead?"
Asper plopped down on his shoulder and began to bob energetically.
"Care to give me an idea what that something else might be?" Stretching forth his forepaws, Asper waggled his talons in the direction of the stores cupboard.
"Good enough." Doyle released the safety latch on the cupboard door and held it wide. "So, what d'you fancy, then?"
Leaping from the Vauxan's shoulder, Asper set about more closely examining the food products contained therein. From one item to another he flitted, pausing briefly here, lingering there, then moving on again and again.
Standing with hands on hips, Doyle watched the sfang, a bemused expression easing his strained features. He had never known Asper to refuse a meal of any kind. Now, when the creature landed on a packet, clasped all six jointed legs around it, and lifted it from the cupboard, he put out a hand and speechlessly accepted the choice.
Essence of brinjal? Aware only that this was one of Bodie's preferred selections, Doyle placed the packet in the processor under Asper's supervision and set the appropriate program.
Alighting again on Doyle's shoulder, Asper scraped his forepaws together.
"Only take a minute, mate," Doyle said, turning his cheek against a smooth flank. "Wish you had said something sooner."
The timer hummed as the processor delivered the packet to the preparation chamber, now reconstituted to its basic state but awaiting further processing.
"So-- Do I heat it, chill it? Or do you want it as-is?"
In answer, Asper floated down to the edge of the counter where the processor resided. He scrabbled onto the floor of the preparation chamber and started forward, as if he would march right inside. Before he could tend to the meal himself, Doyle gathered the creature up and returned him to his shoulder.
"Uh uh. Manners, my lad." With that, Doyle removed the brinjal packet from the appliance, pried the seals off the casing, and set the opened serving in the center of the table.
So quickly Doyle saw only a blur of white, Asper fell upon the dish and began to gulp it down.
"Steady on, Asper," Doyle said uneasily. Usually a delicate eater, Asper was wolfing down large mouthfuls of the spicy substance in a wholly uncharacteristic manner. Despite his misgiving, Doyle decided that nobody seemed quite himself these days, and kept the mild reprimand poised on the tip of his tongue to himself.
Giving gritty eyes a rub, he was just thinking that it might be time to start the day's chores, when Asper vaulted into the air and fled the room, his meal half-eaten.
Doyle heaved a great sigh. "Right," he grumbled to himself. "Best leave this out in case the little bugger decides he's hungry again. I have work to do."
The remainder of the morning was taken up in Bodie's cabin. There Doyle installed advanced software and added new peripherals to his partner's computer. The job went easily though not quickly; it was a multi-task process that simply took time. But Doyle was accustomed to the vagaries of his particular avocation, even when it occasionally proved altogether too tedious for his liking. At the moment, Targeon's Last Word lured him like a siren--more because he wanted to see how his brother had viewed Bodie than for any other reason; certainly, George Cowley would not warrant a mention--that name, in any case, was one that would have stood out in Doyle's mind, even through all the intervening years since he had last read his brother's document.
Following that, he would launch a search for information specifically relating to George Cowley. If he had not made such a late start, he would have tried to squeeze in a break in his own cabin to at least finish off his inspection of the items taken from Targeon's chest.
Unfortunately, the middle of the morning was already upon him, and he estimated that he still had a third of the way to go. When the all too familiar tightening in his groin impinged on his senses, he bit his lower lip and gave a growl of sheer frustration.
After yesterday, last night, and this morning, he ought to have no need for a renewed bout of mindless passion--no matter how hot-blooded he might be. In fact, Bodie had taken him to shivering heights twice before releasing him from their shared bed.
To wear him out?
A sardonic smile shadowed Doyle's full mouth. If that were indeed the case--and, in all fairness, he could not be sure that it was--it would appear that Bodie's ploy had not worked. And in any event, Doyle had already decided on another course of action. Of the opinion that prompt action might forestall his twin-edged complaint, Doyle at once ended the current sequence of checks, set the unit on stand-by, and headed for the door.
Moments later, he was in the great main cargo hold, which stood empty save for the exercise equipment that Doyle had provided for his daily work-outs. He sat in the middle of the mat, haltingly pulling on his running shoes, his fingers proving irritatingly uncooperative. His work clothing lay in a heap at the far end of the pad; in their place he wore loose-fitting, warming trousers and no shirt.
Sexual heat sang in his veins, exhorting him to forego this silly exercise and see to his immediate needs. His head clamored with it, his hands shook, his genitals hung heavy and maddeningly sensitive upon his upper thighs. He could think of nothing but Bodie--Bodie, alabaster smooth and pale, sprawled on his back with legs spread wide, pleading for Doyle to impale him now, now, right now--
Still, he took to his feet, trying to focus his mind. The length of hardened flesh filling his support pants mocked his purpose. Any time, anywhere. Every step brought unbearable pressure against his willful erection. Gritting his teeth, Doyle left off walking and began a slow jog, increasing the pace with each step, hands tightly fisted, heart thundering.
The first circuit was self-imposed torment; the second, during which Doyle picked up speed, shifted his concentration toward the physical effort of catapulting his body forward. Almost imperceptibly, the grinding sexual urge began to ease its stranglehold on Doyle's consciousness. With tentative exhilaration--and a modicum of guilt (he was, after all, denying Bodie as well as himself), Doyle pushed himself even harder. The sound of his footfalls were muted on the reinforced but resilient, hold floor. That steady thup, thup, thup and the susurrus of his breath were the only noises to be heard.
Until Asper appeared, clicking furiously, right overhead.
Startled, Doyle glanced up, then away--for the sfang was diving straight toward his head. A clump of hair fell prey to Asper's talons; in the next second it was snatched up and tugged--very painfully.
Giving a yelp, Doyle lurched forward, trying to escape his attacker. This a game they had played before, he readily took part, welcoming the distraction in the hope that it would create a wholly natural barricade to Bodie's unruly broadcasting.
Round they went, and round again, Asper diving and strafing, occasionally connecting with Doyle's curls, and once dealing a burning scratch to the back of his neck.
"Watch it!" Doyle objected, but pelted on. He felt in command of himself for the first time in days, his thoughts his own, his needs held in check, his body no longer his enemy.
Impossibly, a fireball of pure lust exploded inside him, rampant sensation licking out from every nerve ending, lush carnality laying waste to what had proved to be a very tenuous control. Groaning aloud, Doyle refused to stop, not even when the sfang dropped onto him and began to tear at his curls.
Beyond reason, Doyle broke stride and skidded to a halt. Throwing his hands up, he ripped Asper--along with several strands of his own hair--free of his head and heaved him upward, toward the upper deck. Asper let out a blood-curdling screech, extended his wings to stall his forward momentum, and dove straight down.
Defiant, Doyle stood with his arms at his sides, chest heaving with each panted breath, glinting green eyes unflinchingly tracking the sfang's approach. In two heartbeats Asper was upon him, wings and legs at full extension. The sfang wrapped himself round Doyle's head, the acid-producing ducts on the underside of his body pressed tightly against the Vauxan's vulnerable face. For an instant, suffocated beneath gamy feathers, Doyle knew a twinge of fear.
Then, gently, he reached up and peeled the trembling sfang off his face.
Holding the shattered creature a few inches away, he looked with concern into four fathomless eyes. "Silly bugger," he breathed.
He might have said more, but Asper broke free and shot off toward the entryway. There the sfang rose abruptly to avoid crashing into Bodie, who stood paralyzed beside the exercise mat. Huge-eyed, the human swivelled his head round to follow Asper's passage as he careered into the corridor.
At the sound of Doyle's purposeful approach, Bodie turned to face him, his complexion shock-white, his eyes filled with horror. "You're not hurt?"
"Nope," Doyle said matter-of-factly, even though Asper's epiphanical revelation had shaken him. He would have to wait until later to consider the ramifications--later, once his mind was his own again. For now--
He reached for Bodie's shirt, and, with hands twisted inside the open collar at his throat, tore it open.
"Ray?" Bodie said his name faintly. Hearing nothing, Doyle callously stripped his partner bare. Then he kissed him with savage intensity before tumbling him down onto the mat. "On your knees, Bodie," he commanded brusquely, shoving his own trousers down to his ankles and kicking them off.
Half on his side, Bodie simply stared up at him, every trace of expression wiped clean from his face--though the paleness remained.
Gathering the last shreds of control with difficulty, Doyle sucked in a shuddering breath. "I won't rape you. But I--"
"That's thoughtful of you."
The sharp voice cut into Doyle like a blade forged of jagged ice. Lowering himself to the mat in front of his partner, he gasped, "I--"
Two dark brows rose condemningly, the blue eyes beneath flinty with scorn.
"I'm sorry," Doyle choked out. He extended a hand and shakily traced the curve of Bodie's jaw. "I am sorry." Then he rose in one fluid movement and bolted for the entryway.
Stopping at that moment required a strength of will Doyle would not have believed himself capable of. But stop he did. A few seconds later, he even succeeded in turning round to face the human.
Sitting now with one hand slung across an upraised knee, Bodie beckoned with a finger. There was nothing of reproach in his face anymore, nothing of anger, nothing at all, in fact, that Doyle could decipher. Like a man nearing the gallows, he obeyed Bodie's summons, the killing ache in his genitals a dull throb that chastised him with every tiny movement.
"You scared me," Bodie said without embroidery. "If you'd tried to fuck me just then, you'd've damaged yourself as well as me, y'know? Think I'm okay now, though, if you want to give it a try."
Doyle shut his eyes and sank heavily down onto the mat a few feet away. "I--"
"Ah, Ray-- You're hurting, aren't you?"
Before Doyle could conjure a reply, Bodie was beside him. A gentling hand came forth to stroke him, to cradle, to knead, Bodie's every touch a promise of fulfillment to come. Before long the hand was replaced with Bodie's mouth, hot and wet and very knowing.
A helpless groan escaped Doyle; he resisted the temptation to ravage that molding warmth. What remained of his rationality, however, was fast evaporating before white-hot passion.
All at once even that comfort was taken away. "Bodie, please!" he cried out.
But Bodie had only drawn away to arrange himself on his knees, head down, bottom angled up for Doyle's pleasure. "C'mon, mate," he said, teeth gritted. "Do me while you're still slick, eh?"
By this time Doyle had no choice but to take what was offered. He moved into position behind the incautious human, braced himself with one hand on Bodie's hip, and with the other guided his too-hard erection between lightly downed buttocks. Beyond finesse, he sheathed himself in one desperate lunge, then, clinging to Bodie's back, began to ride him brutally.
It took only a few minutes for Doyle to reach orgasm. Helpless, he dissolved into glittering, searing sensation. Everything became inconsequential then--everything except Bodie, who lay quivering but uncomplaining beneath him, his body providing the succor that Doyle had demanded so urgently.
"Oh, Bodie." Doyle rubbed his cheek against Bodie's shoulder. Self-disgust and shame burned like acid inside him.
"Don't." Bodie's voice was harsh. "Look, Ray, can you move--?"
"Of course. I'm sor--"
"Don't you fucking say it!" Bodie snarled. "Don't ever again apologize for doing that, d'you hear me?"
"D'you hear me?" he shouted.
Withdrawing from Bodie's body with great care, Doyle muttered, "Hard not to."
Freed, Bodie rolled onto his back and reached for Doyle, who was examining himself for traces of Bodie's blood.
"Come here, you idiot."
Given no opportunity to object, Doyle only managed to throw out his hands before his weight could crush his unconcerned partner. Bodie's straightforward gaze, darkly blue and sparking with exasperation, reassured him as mere words could not.
"You're really not angry?" Doyle insisted.
"Bloody moron, aren't you?" Bodie took hold of one of Doyle's hands and placed it on his own swollen member. "Now I'm hurting, and I'd be ever so grateful if you'd kindly do something about that."
Startled out of his misery, Doyle craned his head in order to verify with sight what touch had already disclosed.
"You're not angry," Doyle remarked, amazed.
"Will be, if you don't get on with it," Bodie informed him with silken menace.
Biting his lip hard at this unlooked for reprieve, Doyle hunched forward and gave his lover a searching kiss. Then slowly raising his head, he hazarded a glance at Bodie's face--only to be humbled by what he found there: A vast reserve of love and understanding he presently felt wholly unworthy of.
"Bodie," he whispered, every raw emotion perilously close to the surface.
"Shh," Bodie assured him with a melting smile. " 'S all right, eh?"
Swallowing hard, Doyle mumbled, "Right. I-- What was I--?"
"You were about to get on with it, weren't you?"
"Ah. Well, then-- I'll just get on with it, shall I?"
And get on with it, he did.
"So what was all that between you and Asper?" Bodie sat at the galley table, half-drunk cup of tea girdled by both hands.
Slouching in his chair, opposite his partner, Doyle said cautiously, " 'M not entirely certain." Until he had had an opportunity to dissect his new comprehension of Asper's aberrant behavior, he meant to keep his thoughts to himself.
"But you've got an idea, haven't you?"
"He was about to lay into you," Bodie persisted. "That's the way sfangi kill their victims; they go right for the face." "Things just got out of control," Doyle muttered. Doubt emanated from Bodie like sparks from a flame; Doyle ignored it. "And anyway, if he'd wanted me dead, I would be. Simple as that, eh?"
"Hm." Bodie let go of his mug and laid his hand on the table; he waited until Doyle had enclosed it in a warm palm before remarking, "When I said you scared me--and I wasn't referring to your wanting to fuck me, y'know?--well, I wasn't exactly telling the truth."
"Only, my heart stopped," Bodie explained. His gaze was penetratingly direct. "Whatever possessed Asper to do that?"
"Just out of sorts like the rest of us, maybe?"
Bodie appeared unconvinced. "He's never done that before."
"So perhaps I play rougher with him than you do. And, you know that we operate on a slightly different level, both of us being sort of empathic." Doyle raised his partner's fingers to his cheek. "Bodie, I'm sorry I acted the lout; you should've thumped me."
Lowering his eyes, Bodie gave his head a shake. "After a bout like that? 'Ve never been so hot in my life."
Some of the bruisedness in Doyle's expression gave way before his crooked smile. "Then you'd better have a good memory. It'll probably never happen again."
Unperturbed, Bodie countered, "We'll just see about that, my lad."
"We will." Glancing into the bottom of his cup, Bodie stated, "By the way, I noticed Targeon's vid-cube and Last Word on your bedside cupboard."
"Did you?" Doyle said guilelessly. "I have them on loan from Gilla."
"Any particular reason?"
Turning Bodie's hand over and back over again, Doyle replied, "Just feeling a bit nostalgic, I reckon."
With a twitch of eloquent brows, Bodie wordlessly asked him to elaborate.
A little defensively, Doyle said, "He was my brother."
Bodie nodded understandingly. "And my friend. I do understand, Ray. At least, I think I do."
There was much to divert Doyle's mind while he finished the installation of the upgrades in Bodie's computer. Despite the emotional inducement of seeking Asper out immediately, he chose to gather his thoughts into some sort of ragged order first, well aware that the detailed and familiar work would not divert him.
He had discovered something rather shocking during his confrontation with Asper: Bodie had not been responsible for the barrage of lusty images that had colored Doyle's every waking--and sleeping--hour over the past couple of days after all. Rather, they had been generated by Asper. More accurately, they had been recreated by Asper from the originals, utilizing enough of Bodie's signature emotive patterns to befool Doyle into believing they came from his partner. Now, Doyle was able to employ the appropriate barriers to protect himself against future assaults. Unfortunately, the effects of Asper's last attempt at tampering had not been so easily overcome: Hence, his ruthless treatment of Bodie.
He had also divined from Asper's manic behaviour that the urge to stimulate his and Bodie's mating habits had been completely beyond the sfang's awareness and control. In those moments when Doyle had succeeded in denying his unwanted arousal, Asper had become frantic with frustration--and it was that frustration communicated to Doyle that had at last given him some idea of what was really going on.
So who, or what, had ultimately engineered Asper's curious predicament? And what might it mean for the three of them in the days to come?
Waiting for the set-up program to wind down at last, Doyle stretched his arms overhead, joined his fingers together and loudly cracked his knuckles. Then he bent forward once more and accessed the ship's library.
After a few moments of scrolling through various subheadings, Doyle brought up a dauntingly scholarly treatise on the behaviour of laboratory sfangi, which turned out to be quite expansive and heavily foot-noted. Not to be put off, Doyle returned to the chapter listing and commenced a lengthy browse of topics encompassed.
Then he plunged into the introduction, a brief and sardonically written synopsis of how the scientific community had come to study the sfang. Initial experimentation had been undertaken a century or so before under the aegis of the military arm of the Consortium--even though by then biological weaponry had long been proscribed.
The family of Sfangi--a rather genetically pure species with regard to size, shape, coloration and physical ability--had proven an exceedingly formidable laboratory specimen, for they were generally immune to standard anesthetics. This had soon come to mean that the only vivisectable sfang was a dead sfang--and even the least pedant amongst the group had been forced to concede the contradiction. Worse, dead sfangi were hardly better research material due to the acid-induced molecular breakdown that took place within instants of death.
Even so, until researchers had contrived to accumulate minimal specifics regarding levels and degree of poison, electro-shock, and simple violence necessary to invite but not quite invoke the death-state, the clever and unpredictable creatures had been known to play dead--only to spring "back" to life once taken from the confines of their specially designed cages--with predictable results.
Sfangi had also been found to be master escape artists. Given this talent, along with their by then well-known refractory and violent natures, sfangi had soon been abandoned as possible pawns of the military establishment.
This distasteful prologue out of the way, Doyle then skipped to the chapter entitled Breeding. At the outset, the writer absolved himself for the sparcity of exact data represented therein, citing the nature of the sfang and consequently limited laboratory experimentation as his defense.
As Bodie had once told him, sfangi were not averse to breeding under clinical conditions. They were, however, unforthcoming as to the mechanics involved. Insofar as the researchers had been able to determine, sfangi were largely independent, non-monogamous, and preferred to mate in private. This, the writer reported, was assumed to be the natural resolution to the sfang's tendency of "broadcasting" strong emotions, and the agitation that occurred amongst other sfangi caught within the range of any such transmissions. The assumption seemed logical, given that sfangi were also known to aspire to a solitary existence, seldom being seen in the wild with other adults or young.
It had been determined that the reproductive cycle was uncommonly brief, lasting only a few days from the moment of mating to the instant of "hatching," though the term did not strictly parallel that applied to most oviparous creatures. During the brief gestation period, the pregnant sfang would undertake certain activities identified as "nesting": It would seek a comparatively private place--the highest, darkest spot in the cage--and there it would festoon adherable surfaces with the gelatinous globs out of which its young would ultimately erupt.
Such a site would also be outfitted with a shallow lair formed from whatever odds and ends might be available--hair, feathers, slow-decaying foodstuffs, and anything else that might be got in a lab environment--all of which would be glued together with an extruded binding agent. The actual nest would not be used until after the neonates had not only extracted themselves from their suspended birth membranes, loosened their wings--usually with the help of their mother--and undertaken their first harrowing flights. Only then would they seek the solace of the lair.
Fascinated, but as yet unenlightened regarding Asper's affliction, Doyle scrolled a little further through the document until he came upon a more promising section bearing the beguiling title Unusual Phenomena.
As the writer persuasively argued, much of what onlookers had categorized as "unusual behavior" amongst breeding sfangi had likely stemmed from the unnatural environment in which they had been forced to live.
Doyle gave a sympathetic shudder, his experiences in a crowded prison on Stepney uncomfortably fresh in his mind.
Among such topics as complications of pregnancy and birth, and birth defects, Doyle found brief mention of nesting activity in nongravid sfangi. The information presented was offered mainly for its interesting aspects, as even the scientists of the day had heatedly disputed those findings. According to the writer, the phenomenon was presumed to have resulted from stimulation "overflowing" from mating couples. And, whilst the study of gender in animate sfangi had never developed into an exact science--for obvious reasons--it had appeared that males as well as females could suffer such deleterious effects. In other words, those sfangi incapable of removing themselves to a defensible distance could be affected by sexual stimulus not directed toward them--to the extreme of "rebroadcasting" the stimulation they had experienced, as well as embarking upon nesting behavior which never culminated in the throwing of offspring.
Doyle raised his head and stared at the opposite wall. So-- In unguardedly sharing his feelings with Bodie--and in amplifying and echoing Bodie's feelings back to him, Doyle had unwittingly foisted their sexual arousal onto the hapless sfang?
A guilty smile crept across Doyle's mouth. Poor Asper: A "nongravid, nesting sfang"! Wait until he told Bodie!
Dropping his gaze back to the screen, Doyle skimmed through the remainder of the information, learning, much to his relief, that a synthetic medicament, administered to correct the hormonal disruption, would usually alleviate most of the affected sfang's symptoms. Otherwise, the distraught creature could do nothing but suffer through. This, too, was disputed, and the treatise accordingly directed the reader to the subsection entitled Unusual Phenomena--Unsubstantiated. Also, details were cited for special shielding that would eliminate further incidents involving susceptible sfangi.
Having seen all he needed to, Doyle invoked an electronic "book-mark" to keep his place for later reading--they would need that shielding specification--and then signed off from the program. The pharmaceuticals computer in the medical chamber, recently updated to include Vauxan- and sfang-specific information, would contain the recommended uses and dosages of any reported physic--no matter the application.
Quitting Bodie's cabin at once, Doyle almost collided with the object of his studies just outside the door. Images brilliant, sensuously evocative, and largely incomprehensible skittered through his mind. Almost as quickly, the imposition ended. Eyes tightly shut as he attempted--with considerable success--to clear the minimal but disorienting residue, Doyle looked up a few seconds later to discover that he was once more alone.
Asper had vanished.
Determinedly re-erecting his shields against another such intrusion, Doyle struck off down the corridor which led to the medical station.
His concentration sundered, Doyle gave up staring at the monitor--no hardship following several hours of non-stop effort--and greeted Bodie with a wan smile. "Hi, yourself."
"Missed you," Bodie said pensively. To Doyle, he looked tired: Dark smudges surrounded still lambent blue but red-rimmed eyes, and the familiar pallor was tinged with grey.
"Must be dinner time," Doyle said lightly.
"You always say that when I'm on to you."
"Hm. You were intending to eat some time this evening, weren't you?"
At this plaintive statement, Doyle's impish grin spread across his face. "I'd forgotten, actually. Trying to catch up with my projects, y'know."
"All in a good cause." Bodie lifted a hand to push a clump of heavy curls away from Doyle's temple. "Shall I cobble something together, then?"
Turning his head into the warm palm, Doyle murmured, "I'll just come with you, shall I?" Several hours had passed since he had explained to Bodie the cause both of their heightened sexuality and Asper's unusual aggressiveness. Bodie had not been amused.
"Only if you want to."
Green eyes sparkling, Doyle shrugged. "Why not?"
"You're feeling smug," Bodie observed. "Cured the resident assassin of his malady--"
"Not cured, exactly," Doyle interrupted.
"As near as. And not before time. Y'know, while it was lovely while it lasted, Ray, you must've taken two years off me." "Nearly as many pounds, as well." A thin finger impolitely prodded Bodie's flat abdomen.
"Prick. Think I liked you better when you were panting after me all the time."
With a menacing growl, Doyle twisted his head around and snagged Bodie's forefinger between his teeth. He slowly drew it into his mouth. Lazily watching his partner's reaction, Doyle began to suck on the knuckled member.
"Yeah, okay," Bodie conceded with ill grace. "You can still get me going. Monster. Ow!"
Hastily separating his jaws, Doyle barely avoided having his front teeth loosened. "Watch it!"
"You bit me!"
"Not that hard."
Doyle's mock irritation crumbled before Bodie's wounded mien. "Okay. Just give me a few minutes more to finish up here. After that, I'll scrape something together for dinner. Then we'll away to bed. Look like you could do with an early night, you do. What d'you say?"
Fidgeting from one foot to the other, Bodie mumbled, "Can't."
"Why not?" Doyle asked, at a loss. "You've been keeping your nose to the monitor since we navigated Hendon Gate." His brows angled downward as a niggling memory reluctantly surfaced. " 'S not because of that vibration you imagined, is it?"
"Imagined? " Bodie glared at his partner. "I didn't imagine that! And if you hadn't had your balls all knotted up by that bloody sfang, you'd've felt it, too!"
One hand spread wide in front of him, Doyle said, "Maybe so. But, Bodie, it can't be anything that serious, can it? Just one of the refits needing adjustment."
Infinitesimally placated, Bodie gave his head a toss. "Possibly. But it could be that a few other things need fixing as well."
"And you won't rest till you've turfed all of 'em out. I know you." Sensing his partner's unspoken turmoil, Doyle offered, "In that case, can I help? Keep you company, if you like."
"I-- Thanks, Ray, but-- Well, I know you're knackered, too. Need your rest, don't you? And I'd rather you were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tomorrow in case anything else crops up."
A pained speculation came into Doyle's eyes. "Well. If that's what you want. You just go on ahead then, why don't you, mate? I'll see you in the morning."
Sighing explosively, Bodie snapped, "Damn it, Ray, I wasn't--"
"What?" Doyle closed his mouth tightly. Then the words poured out: "I know I've been a pain in the rear these last days," he admitted angrily. "Even put the blame on you. But if what you really want is for me to leave you alone--"
Biting back a curse, Bodie spun away, took a single step, then spun back around, contemplating Doyle with a temper that matched his own.
In the brief instant before Bodie had moved, however, Doyle had glimpsed a shocking bleakness in those weary eyes. All at once he could also see that not only was Bodie grey-faced, he was shaking as well. "Bodie. What is it you're really worried about? You can tell me the truth, y'know?" he assured him gently. "Whatever it is, you can tell me."
Taking immediate umbrage, Bodie began, "Truth? I--!"
Throwing up both hands this time, Doyle forestalled his partner's inchoate denial, "Oh, forget it!" Then, before the conversation could deteriorate even further, he crossed the few steps that separated them, took hold of Bodie's upper arms and held him captive until he could press right up against him. "All right, sunshine," he said evenly. "In your own time."
Half-expecting a jab to the solar plexus, Doyle was mildly stunned when Bodie suddenly slumped forward and molded himself to his rangy form. Automatically gliding his arms around Bodie's back, with one hand moving to cradle the base of Bodie's skull, Doyle found himself lost all over again in the simple pleasure of holding his lover.
"I love you," Bodie whispered. There was an odd tension in his voice.
The hard muscles under Doyle's hands begged the comfort of a soothing touch. Fingertips lightly digging in, Doyle began a cautious massage. "Yeah, and you." After a moment, his concentration seemingly devoted to the task of gentling his lover, Doyle gave a low laugh.
"What's funny?" His lips buried in Doyle's curls, Bodie's words were almost inaudible.
"Not funny, exactly. Just seems kind of strange, that's all. You know, being close like this and not wanting to fuck you blind."
Dropping his hands to cup Doyle's buttocks, Bodie breathed confidently, "It'll come back to you."
"Expect it will. You can be very inspiring."
"Sweet talker." Bodie skimmed his mouth along the tip of Doyle's ear. "Reckon I can inspire you to finish up that workstation so we can get something to eat?"
Grimacing to himself, Doyle realized that he could either continue to pester Bodie about whatever it was that held ascendancy in his thoughts, or he could pretend--as Bodie was doing--that there was nothing amiss. Or--as had been so dramatically proven with Asper--he may have misread Bodie's self-absorption altogether.
Resigned, Doyle said, "Only take a minute, sunshine."
A few hours later, Doyle lay alone in his cabin. Propped up against the headboard of his bunk, he had at last found time to read through his brother's Last Word.
As he had suspected, there was not much to rivet his attention, until, that is, he came to the sections that referred to "LerMith." When he had first seen the document all those years before, Doyle had known of LerMith only as Targeon's close and true friend. Now, with what he knew of Bodie, Doyle hoped to gain some slight insight into his background--the background Bodie took such pains to avoid discussing--and in particular, his involvement with George Cowley.
Which was why, over dinner, in deference to his partner's privacy, Doyle had let that subject--as well as Bodie's current, unspoken concerns--lie. Instead he had focussed their conversation on Asper, who, halfway into the meal, had briefly stopped in for a bite of Bodie's brinjal pickle--along with his usual fare--before flitting off again. Provided the opening, Doyle had sardonically displayed the knowledge gleaned in his researches, regaling Bodie with tales of lab-imprisoned sfangi, including their willingness to reproduce in hordes, and their confounding tendency of seemingly breaking free of the bonds of death so that they might wreak vengeance against the lab staff for their ill treatment. He had also told him that while analyzing the tablets that would correct Asper's problems, he had discovered that Bodie's brinjal pickle contained some of the chemicals found in the hormonal supplement--hence the sfang's instinctive need of the stuff. Once Bodie had stopped grinning, Doyle had then explained in greater detail how captive sfangi, incapable of removing themselves from their mating fellows' empathic overflow, had artificially gone "on heat," even so far as mimicking nesting behavior.
"You know," Bodie had told him, "when you and the little bugger were having it out in the cargo hold, the only reason I was there was because he had come along to roust me out. Really insistent, he was. Made it absolutely clear that he wanted me to follow him--or else. And then he zoomed off, so that by the time I got there, the two of you were already going at it."
"I was controlling it--overriding the sensations he was broadcasting," Doyle had explained a trifle shamefaced; he had, after all, attempted to shut his partner out--however "naturally." "Asper needed to do something to get us going again, I reckon."
"Succeeded, too, didn't he--the little blighter."
Although Bodie had found the incident amusing, Doyle had inwardly cringed. His selfish use of Bodie--regardless of Asper's instigation--would not remain in his memory as one of his better moments.
Not long after, Bodie had taken himself off to the flight deck, leaving Doyle to nurse the dregs of his tea alone. It had been an eventful few weeks and, although he and Bodie had seemed to settle in together wonderfully well, there were assuredly more adjustments to be made. Allowing Bodie his privacy when it was requested was one of the simplest accommodations Doyle could make for his lover.
And it was not--Doyle diligently reread the last few paragraphs that had blurred to nonsense in his mind--as though he had nothing else to do. In fact, after finishing this, Doyle meant to complete his research into sfangi breeding habits. There was still that section on Unusual Phenomena--Unsubstantiated that he meant to skim through.
Bringing himself slowly upright, Doyle narrowed his eyes as he absorbed the last passage read: "As stated," Targeon had written, "in the event of my nearest kin predeceasing me--to whit, Gilla, my mother, and Raydoyle, my half-brother (my own mate and child being dead)--all that remains of my estate would devolve to my cherished friend and partner LerMith. In respecting his wish for anonymity, I do not name his familial connections as is our custom; however, I do note that LerMith comes of sound background; that he is the only son of honorable parents; that his biological father died several years ago; that his mother remarried and thereby provided LerMith with a stepfather of reliable background and temperament, and a stepsister, who sadly, died some years ago."
This, more than the sum total Bodie had hitherto revealed about his family, Doyle felt almost as though he had unearthed some vast secret. Yet, it was not very informative, although Doyle examined the brief section once more before skimming through the remainder of the document. Finding nothing else of interest regarding LerMith, Doyle at last sat back and mulled over all he had learned--little though it was, and little that he had not already known.
In fact, other than the discovery of Bodie having a stepfather and a stepsister--the latter now dead--Doyle knew the rest, though it could be summed up in a single sentence: While hardly more than a child, Bodie had left his family, assumed a life that assured he remain unknown, and had apparently never resumed contact with his mother or stepfather.
All, according to Bodie, because of one George Cowley.
Chewing his bottom lip, Doyle set Targeon's Last Word on the bedside table. After commanding that the lights be extinguished, he lay in the dark a long time, thinking. Quelling the urge to immediately continue his study of Bodie's background--that part of it involving George Cowley, anyway--Doyle surrendered himself to the inky darkness instead. As tired as he was--Bodie had not been wrong about that--Doyle was on the precipice of sleep within minutes. In fact, not only did he forget his intention of concluding his researches into Asper's bizarre plight, but he scarcely noticed when he was joined by that very creature, who soundlessly slipped into his very warm cabin, alighted on his pillow, and there made himself at home, his narrow muzzle lodged deeply in Doyle's curls.
Welcoming the spiraling images that bespoke Asper's presence, Doyle soon slept.
"Thank you, Gunnersbury. FG Behemoth awaits your signal," Bodie said into the communicator.
Watching him from the copilot's chair, Doyle decided that his bonded partner could not have got any rest at all the night before, even though Doyle had woken in his arms.
The morning had been given over to their preparations for taking the Behemoth through Gunnersbury Gate, Bodie's concern regarding engine problems genuine and contagious. Wakened very early, Doyle had refused the offer of a lie-in, and instead, had accompanied Bodie through the standard pre-gating checklist that Bodie always observed religiously.
Tellingly, Bodie had forgone breakfast, though he had accepted a snack once contact had been established with the porting authority on Gunnersbury Station. Kept as busy as his partner, Doyle had had no opportunity to broach the subject of Bodie's family.
Just before hailing Gunnersbury Gate, however, Doyle had made a point of dosing the sfang, who had yet to settle down completely, though he had rested peacefully during his stay in Doyle's cabin the night before. In order to do so, Doyle had had to search the ship, finally tracking Asper down in the vault-like engine room. Not a pleasant place to Doyle's sensibilities--due as much to the prevalence of organics as to the cool clamminess necessitated by their use--Doyle had wandered through huge metal and plasticine structures for some minutes before Asper had made his presence known.
The sfang had been lurking in a cluttered nook between two ranks of ducting set several feet above the ground--and right in the heart of a complex intersection of organic conduits. At sight of the creature's rudimentary nest, Doyle had come to an abrupt stop. Then, wordlessly, Doyle had beckoned the watchful snow-white creature to come to him. "Poor lad, made you think you were preggers, didn't we?"
Encouragingly obedient, Asper had wafted down to land on his wrist, then had bounded up to perch on his shoulder. For a moment they had exchanged welcoming sensations, Asper chirring quietly and stropping himself against Doyle's cheek, Doyle unhurriedly smoothing the creature's silken feathers and uttering nonsense. After a moment, Doyle had raised his other hand--the one holding the tiny tablet wrapped in cheese--and turned it to and fro so the sfang could inspect it.
In response, Asper had reared up on his hind legs, waving his forepaws in a manner that had clearly conveyed his reluctance to bow to Doyle's will. Infinitely patient, Doyle had thought affectionately persuasive thoughts, and eventually, the sfang had conceded.
Before leaving Asper to his privacy, Doyle had made a superficial examination of his "nest." In it he had found a pair of pants that had gone missing shortly after FG Behemoth had navigated Hendon Gate--one of his first bouts of ungoverned lust, if he recalled correctly--a couple of unformatted mini-diskettes, several strands of curly, auburn hair--he had remembered with clarity losing those!--and a mismatched pair of Bodie's socks. At that point, having so far touched nothing, Doyle had hesitated to investigate further.
Felicitously, just then Bodie had summoned him over the com: They had reached the outer corridor to Gunnersbury Gate. And now here they sat, awaiting permission to proceed.
"Take over here, will you?" Bodie said, startling Doyle out of his reverie.
"Where're you off to?" Doyle asked, his partner already half-out of his seat.
"Want to oversee the gross engine read-outs on the engine room computer as we enter the Gate. You okay alone?"
" 'Course." Doyle smiled easily. They had executed this particular maneuver often enough for him to feel competent in his ability.
"Good." Bodie paused to drop a kiss on Doyle's upturned face. "Hm. Give me a couple of minutes, eh?"
While waiting, Doyle mentally ran through the procedure that he must initiate from the pilot's console. Gunnersbury interrupted with a cheery all-clear, which he immediately acknowledged, then resumed his silent checklist. As he neared the end, Bodie's voice came loudly over the com.
" 'M in position. You set?"
"Aye, aye, Captain. Gunnersbury's given us the go-ahead."
"Then, let 'er rip, me bucko."
Doyle did as instructed, confidence lending him speed and ease.
Heard through the communicator speaker, the single word was not a command but an interjection of dismay. It echoed the slight leap in Doyle's heart.
"You did feel that, didn't you?" Bodie asked.
"Felt something," Doyle concurred. "But then I was looking to feel something. The read-outs here are green."
"Here, too. No, wait-- There it is, slight but distinct. How long till we clear?"
"Another...forty-five seconds. Ulp."
"Ah," Bodie drawled. "Feel it that time?"
"Rather noticeably," Doyle replied with equal sarcasm. "What do your read-outs look like?"
"Still coming through. Time?"
"Thirty seconds. Damage?"
"Negligible--if any. The vibration falls well within tolerances allowed."
"Very likely. I'll want your help correcting it."
"Fifteen seconds. You coming back up here first?"
"Nah. But, Doyle--"
"Push it a bit once we've confirmed with Gunnersbury, okay?"
"Increase Behemoth's speed, y'mean?"
"Why?" Doyle asked blankly.
Bodie was slow to reply. "Just a test," he said at last. "Okay?"
"You're sure you want to do that?" Doyle persisted. "I mean, if the engines are out of phase, mightn't acceleration worsen the problem?"
"It's only been a problem when we've sped up in outspace, Ray. Look at your read-outs: It's been at least ten seconds since we left the Gate, and the vibration has stopped. Shouldn't hurt to accelerate in real-time."
Watching the information scroll across the computer display, Doyle had to agree that Bodie was right. "You're the expert."
"I wish. See you soon."
Doyle filed their flight program with Gunnersbury Reciprocal according to standard procedure--a useful precaution in the event information received prior to gating conflicted with that received afterward, which might indicate a malfunction suffered in transit. Only seconds later, confirmation came through: FG Behemoth had traversed Gunnersbury Gate unscathed--according to their sensors, anyway. After logging that information into the ship's computer, Doyle verified that area traffic presented no hazards, keyed in the speed change Bodie had requested, performed a final external sensor check, then switched the ship's controls to automatic.
He spoke aloud, activating the com: "On my way."
"Tell me about your family."
The request earned Doyle a quick, unreadable look. "Why?"
Lying on his side probing into the depths of the main engine room control console, Bodie replied succinctly, "Boring. What's the middle drift read?"
Doyle glanced down at the monitor. "Minus three. Targeon mentioned them in his Last Word. You were in line to inherit, y'know?"
An unforthcoming grunt emanated from somewhere near Doyle's left calf. "Still am, in case you've forgotten. Still don't want it."
"Then you shouldn't've bonded with me. Anyway, it's not as if you didn't know in advance." "Hm. What's it doing now?"
"Gone up to plus seven. You got the shakes or something?"
Doyle smiled to himself and swallowed the retort that came immediately to mind. He knew that Bodie was stalling, and that he would, if possible, avoid answering Doyle's question indefinitely.
Allowing one full minute to pass, Doyle finally said, "So?"
"Your family: Tell me about them."
"Nothing to tell," Bodie said obdurately.
Sighing expressively, Doyle took another tack. "C'mon, sunshine. You've told me all about Cowley and why you've spent the better part of your life changing your name and hiding from imagers so he'd have no way of hunting you down. What could be worse?" A sudden thought leapt to the fore of his mind. "By the way, what name are you using for this trip?"
A blue eye scowled darkly up at him. " 'LerMith.' " At Doyle's disapproving moue, Bodie growled, "That's how I'm known on Vaux, okay?"
Counting the seconds, Doyle gave Bodie a nudge with the toe of his shoe when he reached thirty. "Your family." He thought he could hear the gnashing of back teeth.
Flatly and with a staccato lack of inflection, Bodie answered, "Was an only child. Mum was okay, but not keen on motherhood. Dad was a good enough bloke, but he never liked me. He died when I was ten. Mum died the year after Targeon bought it."
"Why didn't your dad like you, then?" Doyle asked curiously.
"Was a weedy kid." Glancing up at his partner, Bodie smiled grimly. "Not manly enough for him, I reckon. So he tried to thump a bit of toughness into me. Didn't take, of course. Hand me the pulse meter."
The required tool was more than half-buried amongst its mates in the fourth drawer of the portable cupboard that stood alongside the control console. Once he had extricated it from the tangle, Doyle asked, "How'd he die?"
"Some thug cracked his head open one night on the way home from the pub. Stole his money and his creds. Caused Mum a touch of bother, that."
"Your mum must've remarried: Targeon mentioned a stepfather and a stepsister."
"Few years later."
Eyes resting lightly on Bodie's back, Doyle wondered what Bodie was leaving unsaid. "Did you miss him? Your dad, I mean."
"Of course. He had his faults, but he was loads better than the one that followed."
"Nope. Mum took up with a hard lad for a year or so. Vicious little swine. Really had it in for me. By then I'd got my growth, y'see, put on some bulk. Used to play me about something chronic, he did. Since he couldn't clobber me, he had to get his own back in other ways." A cold amusement lit Bodie's half-hidden face. "Not that I didn't make it hard for him, mind--every chance I got."
"What about your mum? Did she know what he was up to?"
Indifferently, Bodie said, "Not from me. In any case, I didn't aim to hang about. I'd decided by then to off-planet as soon as I could."
"To join the mercenary forces fighting on Joad."
Once more Bodie fell silent. Watching him toil, the darkly handsome face diverted, Doyle gave his head a slow shake. Bodie could be more close-mouthed than anyone he had ever known!
"What happened to your mum's feller then?"
Teeth partially bared, Bodie extended his arm to return the pulse meter. "What's the drift now?"
"Spot on. Come on, Bodie!"
"She finally twigged to him. Then she threw him out."
"Easy as that," Doyle remarked sourly. He could only wonder at the miserable treatment Bodie must have suffered. "When did she meet your stepdad?"
"Not long after. Six months. Less, maybe."
"What was he like?"
"A good man."
"And your stepsister?"
"She was...great." The three words lacked all intonation. "What's the mid-range now?"
"Two through four. Targeon said your stepsister was dead. How old was she when she died?"
Rolling forward, Bodie adroitly balanced on the balls of his feet, then pushed up to his full height. "Sixteen. She fell in with bad company." He wiped his hands together. "Anything else?"
Eye to eye with his partner, Doyle could see that Bodie had no desire to continue the conversation. Curiosity yet burned bright within him--but he would not put Bodie through needless torment to satisfy it.
"Plenty. But, some other day, eh?" Doyle said affably. "You all done?"
To his surprise, Bodie gave him an engaging smile. "Bloody scavenger, aren't you? Picking over the bones. Go on, then, get it out of your system. What else d'you want to know?"
" 'M not a scavenger," Doyle defended himself. "Just want to know about you." Tempted all the same, he searched Bodie's face for some indication that he resented Doyle's nosiness. Finding none, he ventured, "You sure?"
Bodie kissed him. "Yeah. Why not?"
"Okay," Doyle murmured, his mouth close to Bodie's. "What about your stepdad, then? Is he still alive?"
"Far as I know." He elaborated, with mock regret, "We lost touch."
"And Cowley: About his kid Alex, your partner--"
"Yeah?" Bodie's jaws tightened.
"Did your mum and stepdad know about what happened on Joad? That you had to--" Doyle hesitated, suddenly lost for words.
"Kill my partner?" Bodie suggested bluntly.
"Alex would've died either way," Doyle said evenly. "You spared him from the Enils. He wouldn't've thanked you if you'd both fallen into their hands, y'know?" Doyle's face twisted with distaste. "Claws," he amended under his breath.
Bodie nodded somberly. "They knew." Apparently sensing where Doyle's questions were leading, he went on softly, "Mum seemed to understand."
"She stood by you," Doyle interpreted with approval. "And your stepdad? Did he understand?"
Bodie's eyes fell to his hands, dark lashes concealing their expression. "He agreed with Cowley, actually: I hadn't saved Alex from an ugly death; I'd murdered my partner."
"Alex didn't think that."
The breath seemed to still in Bodie's chest. Slowly, he brought his head up to meet Doyle's gaze. "Alex." A raw smile touched his mouth. "In fact, Alex would've done the same for me."
Doyle stated significantly, "Yet, Alex was Cowley's kid. D'you reckon maybe Cowley has finally come to realize that, too: Y'know, that you did the only thing you could?" The question was not rhetorical. Since Bodie had explained his reasons for avoiding George Cowley, the thought, still embryonic, had slowly begun to form that confronting George Cowley might be the only means by which Bodie would ever live in peace.
Bodie tilted his head to one side. "You mean, forgive and forget?" he said cynically. "Somehow I don't think so." Before Doyle could argue, Bodie went on, "Look at it from his point of view, Ray: The day Alex died, Cowley'd finally arranged to buy out the kid's contract. He was already on the way to Joad to arrange a meeting."
"So you really think he's still after you? After all these years?"
"Cowley? Oh, yeah."
"Why? How can you be so certain?"
Leaning nearer, Bodie rested his head against Doyle's. "Something my former commander passed on. Told you I'd been taken to the medical station orbiting Joad's second moon--yes? Well, while I was being patched up there, Cowley arrived on Joad. That's when he found out."
Doyle pulled a pained expression. "He must've thought the boy was clear of it all."
"That's exactly what he thought. When Boswell, my commander, explained to him that I'd been removed for medical reasons and that I might be difficult to get hold of, he said he would find me if it took him the rest of his life."
"Boswell didn't spill where you were?"
"He did, actually. But by the time Cowley left Joad I'd been put on a transport back to base. There I discovered I'd been released from my contract, so I headed out again as soon as I could. Contacted Boswell just before I left--that's when he told me what Cowley had said. Couldn't've been more than a day ahead of him--and purely by chance."
Furrows lined Doyle's forehead. "Was it because of your injuries--your being released from your contract? Pretty unusual, that."
"I never questioned it."
Flinching inwardly at that flat, harsh voice, Doyle regarded his partner with aching sympathy. "No. You were just grateful to be out of it, weren't you?" Sliding a hand into Bodie's hair, Doyle held him immobile while applying an affectionate kiss. Their mouths parted with a lingering, moist sound. "Still-- Other than this Boswell's word, what reason d'you have for believing Cowley's continued to look for you?"
"Because I've continued to track him. And it's far too much of a coincidence--to me, anyway--that he should so frequently put in an appearance in places I've just left."
"Despite all your name changes and assorted fiddles to put him off the scent?"
"Considering technology these days, Ray--" Bodie caught Doyle's lower lip lightly between his teeth, then gave it a tender, penitent lick. "--it's a wonder we aren't tagged with tracers when we're hatched."
Doyle ran his tongue over the spot where Bodie's teeth had been. "Were you?"
"Was I what?"
"Purely natural, sunshine."
"That's what they all say."
Bodie's eyes rested heavily on Doyle's mouth, causing him to stir self-consciously. "About Cowley and Alex," Doyle said apologetically, "It was ages ago; didn't think you'd mind discussing it."
"Don't. But," Bodie noted wryly, "it never was my favorite topic, either." He canted his head to one side to taste the skin at Doyle's throat, his breath stirring whorls of hair exposed at the open neck of Doyle's shirt.
"Can see that." Doyle absorbed the familiar scent of Bodie's hair, relishing it. "I know of a surefire way of changing the subject," he whispered.
"In the engine room?" Bodie said, in a faintly scandalized tone. He knew well his partner's dislike of the huge vault--and why.
"So long as you're with me, I don't hear the organics," Doyle confessed. "And it's the only chamber in the ship that ought to shield Asper from our...um...activities. Anyway, last time I saw him, he was in the main cargo hold, chasing his tail. Followed me as far as there after I dosed him with his hormones." Cupping Bodie's face between his hands, he lifted his lover's head and took command of his mouth with growing passion.
Bodie responded without demur, opening at once to Doyle's searching intimacy. With vast tenderness, Doyle lowered his partner to the floor and began to undress him. Shoulders, chest, abdomen, hips, thighs: He worshipped every inch of the well-loved form, baring Bodie to his sight and touch with the bated calmness of one unwrapping a precious package.
Under Doyle's single-minded assault, Bodie began to writhe with helpless abandonment. "C'mon, Ray!" Hissing with impatience, he plucked at Doyle's shirt, determined fingers soon gaining purchase at his collar. With utter disregard for closures and seams, he yanked violently.
Concerned less about the material than for his need of Bodie's warmth, Doyle held off his partner just long enough to lend wriggling assistance. Seconds later, Bodie's hands slid under the half-removed, body-hot fabric, and Doyle arched forward, encouraging Bodie's further explorations. Eyes closed, he gasped softly.
A short distance away, in the nook formed by two ranks of ducting, Asper hunched motionlessly at the edge of his nest, four obsidian eyes fixed on the two forms struggling together on the engine room floor below. When Bodie gave a low, guttural moan, the sfang leaned fractionally nearer, shifting slightly to keep from pitching forward.
There on the edge of the makeshift roost he remained, until the urgent noises issuing from below--the silken glide of flesh against flesh and the rasp of labored lungs--grew more urgent still. Spreading his feathers wide, Asper settled down.
It would not be long now.
The rest of the afternoon proceeded without incident. Following their mutually gratifying interlude in the engine room, the two men went separate ways: Bodie to the flight deck, Doyle to the medical chamber.
Doyle whiled away his hours crouched half inside the cupboard under the diagnostics unit, installing new connectors and rebuilding the chassis. The work was simplistic in the extreme for someone of his experience and aptitude; accordingly, he was free to reflect upon the morning's conversation while deftly attending to the task at hand.
Considering Bodie's singular reticence, the amount of information that had been divulged had been most impressive. There was yet more to learn--Doyle was sure of that. But something of what Bodie had said had led him to wonder whether George Cowley was quite the nemesis Bodie imagined him.
For one thing, Doyle considered why Cowley, with some proven ability of tracing one man--Bodie--out of the billions of individuals inhabiting the many known worlds had not managed to anticipate Bodie's every move rather than only follow in his wake. That, however, was the very game that Bodie had played with Doyle. Through his unauthorized forays into Central's files, Bodie had sometimes known Doyle's precise whereabouts before Doyle had. Lacking that same access, Doyle had been forced to rely on word of mouth and public records to advance his search for the man he knew only as "LerMith." Perhaps that explained Cowley's situation: Perhaps he, like Doyle, must always follow a step behind due to his lack of timely information.
Which must--as Doyle well remembered--be hugely frustrating for Cowley. And that thought led him to ponder Cowley's motives. In his own case it had been the desperate craving for companionship that had sent him on a years-long quest for "LerMith." In Cowley's case, it appeared to be vengeance. Doyle had some difficulty in accepting this explanation: While a person could bear a grudge for many years, to Doyle's mind it was unlikely that anyone, no matter how obsessed, would commit an entire life to the pursuit of revenge.
Even for the loss of a child.
A burst of inquisitive chattering startled Doyle out of his musings. He peered out of the cupboard to find Asper teetering on the edge of the wide-open door, glowering down at him.
"What d'you want then?" he asked agreeably. Reaching out a hand, he gave the underside of the sfang's narrow muzzle a scratch with the edge of his thumbnail. "You're never hungry again?"
Asper's hormone treatment, Doyle had observed, seemed to have generated a noticeable increase in the creature's appetite. In the hours since noon, he had twice been forced to interrupt his duties to feed the sfang. A glance at the wall chrono indicated that a pattern might be developing.
"If that's what it takes to keep you happy, sunshine," Doyle proclaimed with a wry grin, "I'll feed you every hour on the hour."
In the galley a few minutes later, Doyle dished up Asper's usual fare accompanied by a dollop of brinjal pickle. The sfang dove down past his head as he set the plate on the table.
"Greedy bugger," Doyle commented as Asper settled and began to tear into his meal with alacrity. A rumble from his own stomach suggested that it might be time for him to eat as well. He stepped up to the com unit and activated it with a fingertip. "Bodie."
"It's past your dinner time. You hungry?"
"So it is," Bodie replied vaguely. A second or two stole by. "You offering to throw something together?"
"Nothing extravagant. Want me to bring it up there?"
"Uh--Yeah. Would you?"
"Wouldn't've asked otherwise, mate. See you in a few minutes."
"Right. Thanks, Ray."
Doyle's face darkened as he gathered ingredients. He had heard that distracted note in Bodie's voice all too recently. Since Bodie had blamed his earlier abstraction on the engine malfunction--which problem had since been solved to his satisfaction--Doyle mulled what could be causing his partner grief now.
Once he had completed his preparations--having made more than enough for two--Doyle piled everything onto a tray. As he turned to carry it out of the small chamber, he glanced round to make sure that he had forgotten nothing. Asper had already taken off, leaving his plate pristinely bare. Remarking silently to himself at the sight, Doyle walked through the opening and into the corridor.
"So, what's up now?"
"Up?" Bodie repeated. He sat in the pilot's seat, chewing mechanically on a chunk of Vauxan sourfruit.
"You're worried about something."
Doyle rolled his eyes. One all-encompassing look upon entering the flight deck had told him that Bodie was on the edge of exhaustion. His color resembled the utilitarian shade of grey that graced the Behemoth's bulkheads, his eyes were wreathed with spidery red veins, and his usually relaxed mouth--now petulantly compressed--was offset by harsh, deeply etched lines.
"You ought to have a kip," Doyle said lightly. "I can take over here for a while."
"I'm all right." Bodie thrust another bite into his mouth.
"You're knackered, sunshine. C'mon, Bodie, I'm almost finished with the medical chamber. Why don't you--?"
Bodie cast him a repressive look. "Lay off, Doyle, will you?"
"Something's bothering you," Doyle persisted. "I can help."
"You can't. I know the Behemoth inside and out. Until I get all the glitches worked out, it's better if I stick with it."
"What glitches?" Bodie's stubbornness was beginning to irritate him. "The engines are running beautifully now." The status displays caught Doyle's eye. "And according to the read-outs, everything's okay. Although--" He swallowed a mouthful of tea and raised another piece of bread to his mouth. "You'll lose your profit margin if we carry on at this speed. Bloody hell, we'll be closing in on the science station within a few hours at this rate!"
Bodie set his jaw and said nothing.
"Only we won't, will we?" Doyle realized. "The locator display indicates we're off the main line, but basically on course." He frowned quizzically at Bodie. "You've been running a zig-zag pattern, haven't you?"
After taking a slow, deep breath, Bodie said evenly, "SOP following a major refit." He met Doyle's suspicious gaze steadily. "Better to shake her down on a milk run than to find out I've missed something in the middle of nowhere."
For a long moment, Doyle studied his partner's face, certain that Bodie was leaving something out, but finding no trace of what it might be in his carefully composed expression. "You are the captain," he murmured softly.
The hard lie of Bodie's mouth softened minutely. "And I am knackered," he granted ruefully. "But I won't be here all night." He stretched out a hand and curved it round the back of Doyle's neck. "I appreciate the offer, Ray, but I'll be okay."
"If you say so." Doyle leaned close enough to skim his lips across Bodie's forehead. "After I finish with the diagnostics unit, I'm going to my cabin to do some reading. You're welcome to join me."
"Aren't I always?"
Doyle wrinkled his nose. "Just don't worry that I'll try to have my evil way with you if you only want to sleep."
Gently fondling the knobs of Doyle's cervix, Bodie grinned, "Insatiable brute. Think I can bear up." He drew Doyle's head down so that he could cover the full lips with his. "Nice. Where's your partner in crime got off to, then?"
Doyle did not think it his imagination that Bodie was relieved to have the subject changed. "Don't know. He cleaned his plate and went away. Probably still adjusting to the tablets."
"How much longer will he have to take those?"
"Few more days." Doyle gave his partner one more luxurious kiss. "I'll leave you to it. Ring me if you need anything, okay?"
"I shall." Bodie set his half-eaten meal to one side. "I'll just pick at this for a while, if you don't mind?"
"Right." As Doyle walked away, carrying the remains of his own dinner, he could not shake off a growing uneasiness. The ship's displays had told him what his partner had not: FG Behemoth was being readied to bolt at an instant's notice. There was no doubt in Doyle's mind that George Cowley must be the root of Bodie's concerns--nothing and no one else even gave him pause. Why, however, Doyle could not guess.
Blinded to his own innocent knowledge, it did not occur to him that he might be responsible for Bodie's disquiet.
At ship's time 20.05, Doyle slouched back against his pillow, having first propped it against the bulkhead that ran behind his bunk, tugged the swing-arm platform on which the slave terminal was situated over his lap, and thumbed the screen on.
As the opening menu appeared, he reached for a handful of small sweet biscuits--one of of Bodie's favored "delicacies" that had grown on him--popped one onto his tongue, and with the other hand keyed in his request to access the ship's library. The advent of rustling wings distracted him for only a second. Mumbling a greeting, he waved Asper toward the plate of snacks he had foresightedly placed on the bedside cupboard and resumed his study of the monitor.
While the sfang hopped from the edge of Doyle's pillow to the smooth surface of the cupboard, Doyle began an extensive search for information concerning George Cowley. Not much to his surprise he soon discovered that a large file had been accumulated on the man--Bodie's work through the years, he assumed.
"Hey, you blackguard!" Slinging out a hand, Doyle caught the sfang in mid-air as it attempted to make off with the bulk of his fruit and crackers--no mean achievement for the small flyer. "You can't be that peckish--I just fed you half an hour ago!" he exclaimed. Immobilizing the hissing sfang with a finger curled round its neck, he unceremoniously snatched most of the stolen bounty out of six clutching limbs and dumped it back onto the plate.
"Here," he said by way of conciliation, holding forth a square of cheese and three crackers.
Displaying two rows of tiny, but fierce-looking teeth, Asper bristled hotly at being thwarted--but only for a moment. Springing forward, he grabbed up the offering and carried it off.
Amusedly dismissing the sfang as soon as it had disappeared through the open door, Doyle returned his attention to the screen. With mingled apprehension and anticipation, he opened the file on George Cowley.
There for the first time, he was met with the image of Bodie's lifelong nemesis. Studying the full color holo with interest, he found it ironic that this unprepossessing individual could have forced Bodie to remain in hiding for so many years. Of middle height, Cowley reminded Doyle of the quintessential businessman or company director: tidy in appearance, benign in expression, and forthright but no-nonsense in demeanor.
Moving on to the text, Doyle read silently for a couple of seconds, fingers blindly fetching another biscuit. The morsel was suspended in front of his mouth when a low, stunned exclamation burst out of him: "Bloody hell! He's the head of Home Defense!"
His immediate reaction was one of stupefaction, the next of bafflement: A man having such powerful resources to hand would have no difficulty in running someone to earth--not even so consummate an absconder as Bodie. So why had Cowley failed to catch him up?
Perplexed, Doyle closed his mouth on the biscuit. Next came a listing of personal statistics--all that was made available to the general public, anyway. In his late twenties, Cowley had married one Annabel Irving, by whom two years later he had fathered a daughter, Judith Alexandra. Cowley's career with Home Defense had been in its infancy at that time, though he had soon earned accolades as a man of uncommon compassion and ruthlessness--such traits previously deemed contradictory in one of his profession.
While Cowley had advanced in his own field, his wife, a missionary of some renown, had returned to her chosen work, that of spreading Christianity--a rather popular cult that continued to boast adherents all over the known galaxy more than two thousand years after its origination. Despite frequent separations, their marriage had reputedly been a happy one. Nearly thirteen years following their wedding vows, however, Annie, as she was known, had been killed in a violent zealot uprising during a mission to one of the less civilized colony worlds, leaving Cowley a widower and their then twelve-year old daughter motherless.
Three and a half years had ensued before Cowley, by then having attained the position of Controller of the Consortium's anti-crime organization, had remarried. His new wife, the beautiful, widowed Vivien Bodie--
--had brought to the marriage her own fifteen year old son, William--
Doyle read through the information twice before accepting what his eyes had already informed him. Bodie was George Cowley's stepson. His stepsister, Judith Alexandra--Alex?--must have been his ill-fated partner on Joad.
A sensation not unlike cramp squeezed down on Doyle's insides, causing him to wince.
Why tell me that much, but not the rest?
A shimmer of movement near the bedside cupboard, brought Doyle's head around: It was only Asper, making off with another haul of crackers, fruit, and cheese.
Too distracted to pay the brazen thief any mind, Doyle disconsolately stared back at the screen.
What should he do?
For the next hour, Doyle prowled the corridors and inner chambers of the Behemoth. There was seemingly no place where he could find comfort. Nevertheless, he wandered through the main cargo hold, joined by a silent Asper for a single, unhurried walk of the entire makeshift track. Left on his own again as soon as they reached the opening, Doyle struck off for the engine room--the farthest possible point from his present location--though upon arrival several minutes later, he turned at once and headed back to his cabin. The engine room, after all, disconcerted him at the best of times; it was hardly the place he would choose for an extended spell of brooding.
Outside his cabin, he paused, both hands spread flat against the bulkhead, and there he acknowledged what he had known since uncovering the truth about his partner: The questions he wished to ask could only be answered by Bodie.
So Doyle shoved away from the wall and laggardly worked his way toward the flight deck. He was not anxious to initiate the coming conversation, but neither could he put it off for any length of time and retain his peace of mind. What frightened him most of all was the possibility that he knew Bodie far less than he had believed. Having shared an empathic bond with this man, a bond heightened by their joining, Doyle could not help but worry that he must be more deficient in his Vauxan skills than even his teachers had suspected.
Accordingly, he found it easier to castigate himself for his lack of intuition than to hold Bodie accountable for his guile. Yet he clung to the hope that his partner had merely deceived him by omission through his customary taciturnity. After all, Bodie himself had said that his past was not a subject he preferred to discuss. Yet--
If Bodie's deception extended to their personal relationship, including the commitment they had declared for one another--
Doyle could not even countenance it.
Carried on noiseless feet to the opening of the flight deck, Doyle stopped and stared hollowly at his partner. Bodie sat hunched forward in the pilot's seat, his attention riveted to the personal monitor. The same display that Doyle had glimpsed two days ago--and in the heat of sfang-induced lust had immediately rejected as of no importance--filled the screen now. This time, with unwanted clarity, he recognized what it was: The blurred outline of a ship as interpreted by long-range scanners made to focus beyond their functional limitations.
"It's a Vauxan supply ship," he announced quietly.
Bodie's head whipped round with surprise. "What?!"
"They were assigned to follow us."
"That's impossible," Bodie blurted out. "At that distance, they couldn't've stayed on our tail through all the course changes I've--"
"They're linked to our signal," Doyle interposed calmly. "I set it up myself."
An unpleasant smile tugged at the corners of Doyle's mouth. "Because I'm half-Vauxan. We are transporting echo, y'know."
Eyes narrowed, Bodie demanded with exaggerated patience, "So?"
"So, there was some concern on the part of the porting authorities that you might be at risk."
"That's ludicrous! You're the one who protected me from that stuff to begin with--and considerably more of it, too."
"They thought it best to be safe. I agreed."
"Why? " Exasperation drove Bodie's voice down an octave. It made him sound the slightest bit dangerous.
"Because I don't ever want you hurt."
Groaning volubly, Bodie collapsed back in his seat. "Wish you'd told me that three days ago, y'know?"
"You didn't ask," Doyle said expressionlessly.
"Bloody hell, Doyle! I've been sweating blood because--"
"You thought it was George Cowley."
Bodie tensed. "Yeah. I did."
"George Cowley," Doyle whispered. "Your stepfather."
Very slowly Bodie straightened back up, seemingly one vertebra at a time. "Been doing a bit of snooping, have we?"
"At least you're not denying it."
Inexplicably cold and hot at the same time, Doyle shivered and felt himself flush. "I owe you an apology, Bodie. You are entitled to your secrets. I honestly didn't mean to pry."
Bodie just stared at him, his eyes piercingly blue and unrevealing.
Adrift in the frigid silence that ensued, Doyle cast about for something--anything--to say. "G'night, Bodie," he muttered at last. Not waiting for a reply, Doyle turned on heel and entered the corridor. The walk back to his cabin struck him as uncommonly long and appallingly lonely.
Though Bodie's stonewall response cut deep, Doyle was determined not to brood, nor to sulk. He had done more than enough of that already. For now, he must let things settle down. When--if--Bodie was ready to talk, Doyle would be ready to listen.
His cabin was as he had left it: The bed rumpled, the computer switched on. In his absence the display had timed out, however, the screen-saving device automatically invoked to avoid burn-in. Doyle brushed off the soles of his feet and climbed under the covers.
At the touch of a key, the image of George Cowley reappeared. Doyle gave it no more than a glance before exiting the file. He then brought up the main menu for the ship's library. It was time to complete his sfang studies.
As the subheading Unusual Phenomena scrolled across the top of the monitor, Doyle caught a hint of movement at the doorway.
Bodie stood just inside the opening. At Doyle's expression of polite inquiry, he shrugged, then began to peel off his clothing.
Saying nothing, Doyle stonily waited until Bodie approached the far side of the bed. At the last minute, he drew back the edge of the covers with a flick of the wrist, wordlessly--and with a palpable lack of enthusiasm--inviting Bodie to join him.
There was no question but that the last days had taken their toll. Strain and weariness had been notable in Bodie's handsome features earlier in the afternoon; now, they looked to have been painted on in broad strokes.
Silent as well, Bodie slid under the covers and came up close against Doyle's wiry frame. With one hand he reached up and shut off the computer, then pushed the swing-arm platform out of their way. He lay back, arms closing round Doyle as he went, so that Doyle was perforce taken down with him.
"Lights," Bodie said.
For more than a moment neither man spoke, the darkness surrounding them seemingly absolute. Yet Doyle absorbed Bodie's presence like bedroughted soil a cloudburst. The warm, breathing reality of him was soothing as no amount of explanations and apologies--none of which Doyle expected to hear in any case--could do. Simply having him here, holding him so strongly that Doyle's ribs threatened to crack was enough.
"Thought you'd hate me if you knew it all," Bodie said roughly. The words were spoken into Doyle's hair; moist warmth worked its way down into his scalp.
"I don't. And I meant what I said: It's none of my business."
"I--" Bodie's chest rose higher and higher as he took in a huge breath. "I didn't lie to you, y'know? When I told you about Alex, you assumed she was a bloke. Of course," he added realistically, "I didn't try to correct you."
"True," Doyle agreed neutrally. He rubbed his cheek against Bodie's hard-muscled shoulder. "It really is okay, Bodie. I know you don't want to talk about it."
There came a choked-off sound that could have been a laugh--or a sob. "You're right about that, sunshine."
"Then go to sleep. We can discuss it another time."
Bodie's grip tightened, as though Doyle had just demanded that he leave rather than offering understanding. "Ah, Ray--" One hand cradled Doyle's head, blunt-tipped fingers burrowing into thick curls. "Told you I had already planned on leaving before Cowley came on the scene--y'know, because of Mum's hard boy? Even though I couldn't ever blame her for him, y'know, no matter how badly he treated me. He looked after her, y'see. But when she finally found out what he'd done, she chucked him out. All on her own. I've always given her credit for that. But I'd made up my mind, and I meant to stick by it. Was ready to be on my own--wanted to be a hard boy, too, I reckon."
He began a gentle massage of Doyle's skull, occasionally withdrawing his hand to finger a clump of hair before burying his fingers deeply again. "Cowley didn't know what he was taking on," Bodie murmured, his voice empty. "I didn't trust him, though he was already the head of Home Defense. He was stern, but fair--and I was determined to hate him. Alex--she never went by 'Judith'--and I hit it right off. She was as strong as I was and nearly as big. She'd been working out for years and she loved shooters. As a child, she'd visited a few of the wilder colony worlds because of her mother, so she'd found out early on how to protect herself. George encouraged her. He wanted her to be independent."
Shifting slightly, Bodie insinuated a knee between Doyle's thighs. "Somehow she sussed out that I intended to run off and decided to throw in with me. I tried to talk her out of it, but we were both just a pair of kids. Stupid, too young, and--unblooded."
With the hand lying on Bodie's flank, Doyle used his thumb to calmingly describe concentric circles upon taut skin.
Bodie sighed. "I managed to get us passage on a freighter ferrying supplies and arms to Joad. We were both mature for our age and convinced the ship's recruiter that we could cut it. He'd probably have taken us anyway--things were getting a bit out of hand there by then. And of course our money was good. Once we'd landed, he handed us over to the proving squad. Alex and I acquitted ourselves as though we were born to it. Three weeks later we were on our way."
"Shh," Doyle breathed; Bodie's muscles were coiled like new metal springs: Doyle could hear as well as feel the rapid-fire tattoo of his heart. "It's okay, mate."
Bodie seemed not to hear him. "Within a week we knew we had made an enormous mistake. But by then, we'd both reached our majority, and our contracts were airtight. Not that either of us would have tried to get 'em voided, mind: We were both determined to tough it out. So for three months we fought on Joad. Learned all the ways a person can die; all the ways you can make a person suffer. In the meantime, Cowley finally succeeded in pinpointing our whereabouts. He did his best to break our contracts; in the end, he bought them--both of them--out. If he'd only been a few days sooner--"
The last word lingered on the air, laden with bitterness and remorse.
"It's past, Bodie. And you did all that you could have done. I only wanted to know why you thought it might matter to me that she was sort of related to you--otherwise, you'd told me every bloody thing?"
"Wasn't that," Bodie snapped. "She was only there because of me."
"From the way you've described her, she might've ended up there on her own!" Doyle gave a silken buttock a stinging pinch. "Quite her own person, in fact. But why didn't you try to talk with Cowley? Explain to him what had happened?"
"You know why. I only found out he had paid off my contract when I was already off planet." Bodie's voice deepened. "And because I've always regretted what happened to Alex, I just assumed that Cowley must hate me as much as I did."
"And still do," Doyle observed unemphatically. "Bodie-- I think it's time we faced him."
A soft snort stirred Doyle's hair. "Ready to be shed of me, sunshine?"
Overlooking the caustic tone, Doyle said stubbornly, "If he's kept track of you like you say, Bodie, it hasn't been as an assassin looking to top you--otherwise he'd've done that years ago. As head of Home Defense, he could even make it appear legal. I think he's been looking after you--not for you."
"Well, you'll forgive me if I disagree."
"There's only one way to be sure."
"You mean, arrange a meet? Sorry, mate," Bodie said sardonically. "Doesn't exactly appeal."
"Okay. Then contact him through Gilla. She's met him; did you know that? 'S true. He went to Vaux a few years ago to talk with her."
"Gilla?" Bodie sounded startled. "She never said--"
"She forgot." Doyle stifled a yawn, suddenly unbearably tired. "In fact, she never even thought of it till I brought his name up a few days ago. And then she said he asked her about Targeon--nothing about you. Your name wasn't even mentioned."
"Why would Cowley do that?" Bodie wondered out loud.
"Who knows? Maybe he thought that by learning something about Targe, he'd learn something about you. Anyway, that's not the important bit."
"Eh?" Lowering his head, Bodie idly began to trail light kisses in a semi-circle from the outer edge of Doyle's eyebrow down to his marred cheekbone. From his distracted manner, Doyle doubted that Bodie was even aware of what he was doing.
"He didn't show up there by accident, Bodie. Pay attention!"
"Oomph. Didn't have much dinner," Bodie complained, tenderly rubbing at the spot where Doyle had finger-stabbed him. "Got to make do with munching on you."
"Keep that up and you'll get something to munch on, all right. Are you listening to me?"
"I'm not deaf, mate-- All right! What's the important bit then?"
Grudgingly, Doyle said, "There's some food on the bedside cupboard, if you're that desperate. What I was going to say--" Doyle paused as Bodie immediately thrust out a hand and rooted around on the top of the low cupboard. "It's in a plate near the edge."
"Well, there's a plate all right, but nothing on it."
"Nothing?" Squirming onto his side, Doyle commanded, "Lights."
"Ow!" With a dramatic moan, Bodie turned his head back against Doyle's curls to shield his eyes.
"Hush. Lights." Darkness overcame them once more. "You're right. That bloody, gluttonous sfang of yours must've made off with the lot."
"My sfang! " Bodie protested. "More your sfang these days."
"So he's had a rough time of it, too."
The stillness seemed to enclose them as completely as the darkness. Doyle bit his lip, belatedly realizing what he had unwittingly said.
Bodie remarked colorlessly, "As have we all. Idiots, the lot of us." "Speak for yourself. Anyway, what I was trying to point out was--"
Doyle conceded a smile at Bodie's arch tone. "Bastard. Only this: Cowley has always known where to find you, y'know? His going to Gilla's house proves that--as does your statement that he's always known where you've just been."
"But why, Ray?" Bodie asked, his voice suddenly hoarse. "Why always wait until after I'd left?"
"My guess is that he only wants to know about you. How you're getting on. How you're living your life. After all, you've made it rather clear that you don't want anything to do with him."
Bodie's head rolled back and forth on the pillow. "What Boswell said, about Cowley saying he'd find me--"
"Who knows? Maybe once he'd had a chance to think things through, he decided you'd done your best for Alex. Which you had. I don't have the answers, sunshine. Just guesses."
"And you think I should set up a meeting."
"I think it's time you stopped running. Don't you?"
"I think--" Bodie slid his knee further up between Doyle's thighs, curling around until he could kiss Doyle's mouth.
Sometime later, Doyle reflected languidly, "Here I thought you'd rather sleep."
"Not just at the moment, no." And it was true; Doyle was sick of confrontation. As Bodie's mouth scattered biting kisses down his torso, Doyle found it absurdly easy to shut off his mind and give himself over to his partner's knowing caresses and his own growing arousal.
Just, he suspected, as Bodie had known he would.
The stirring of wings overhead rippled across the smooth surface of Doyle's consciousness. A second later the abrupt clicking of tiny teeth just outside one unprotected ear broke through the uppermost barriers of slumber. As the sound grew in intensity, Doyle, still more than half asleep, reflexively threw up a hand to ward off his tormentor.
Just as he was about to melt back into womblike nothingness, six taloned feet snatched up a fat curl and gave it a vicious tug, wrenching a grunt of dismay from Doyle's sleep-numbed mouth.
"Sodding hell, Asper!" The last syllable was lost beneath the sfang's full weight as it dropped down and folded itself around Doyle's face. Gasping, he instinctively brought up both hands to wrench the creature away--then froze as wave after wave of coruscating images flooded his brain.
Nearly stifled, he was nevertheless careful to lift the sfang gently off, sucking in a restorative breath before trying to do anything else--not the least of which was the ordering of suddenly frantic thoughts. "Go on then," he said at last, something of the significance of Asper's erratic communication filling him with equal parts of dread and incredulity.
Now all too awake, he felt the sudden current of air as the sfang soared high above his head, then managed to track Asper's movements by sound as he took to the opening. Before the noise of the sfang's passage had quite faded from his ears, Doyle demanded, "Lights." The illuminators blasted the cabin with painful radiance. Through slitted eyes, Doyle blinked down at his partner, who had not moved at all. "Bodie, wake up." A peremptory shake lent urgency to his words.
"Wake up, I said. Now, Bodie!"
Doyle wriggled free of his partner's possessive grasp, then clambered over him, stealing a rough kiss as he vaulted to the floor. "Need to move, Bodie. Right now! "
Peering stupidly at the chrono through puffy eyelids, Bodie groused, "It's the fucking middle of the fucking night! What--?"
"Now! " Taking hold of Bodie's arm, Doyle jerked the semi-somnolent man upright and physically hoisted him out of bed. "No time to explain. But we must go."
"Go!? I can't even--!"
"Shut up, Bodie!" Locking a hand around Bodie's wrist, Doyle afforded him no opportunity to resist. In the next second he was in the corridor and mercilessly cajoling his partner into a jarring lope; once out of the lift at the next level down, he bullied Bodie into an all-out run.
"You'd better have a good explanation for this!" Bodie shouted furiously as they pounded round the corner that gave access to the corridor ending in the engine room.
"Wouldn't mind having one meself," Doyle shot back, wishing the transition from sleep to wakefulness had not been quite so shocking. His legs threatened to buckle and his head rang as though it had been lately fitted with an enormous bell.
"Doyle, damn it--"
"Don't give me any aggro, Bodie."
"You moron, I don't have any clothes on!"
"In case you haven't noticed," Doyle roared, charging headlong into the engine room, "neither do I!"
Guided by the image embedded in his consciousness, Doyle did not slow the pace until they had arrived at the far side of the boilers--a name which had survived through the centuries to describe the ship's motive source, though the units used in the Behemoth bore no resemblance to those early devices. Here, organics were integral to otherwise impossible functions, and so were lavishly employed: Doyle squirmed inside as their trace signal scraped at his brain.
"There's nothing in here--"
"Shut up! " Doyle snarled. Having yet to release Bodie's wrist, Doyle snapped his partner up against his side, and while working to catch his breath, continued to hold him, lest he attempt to break free.
A surge of dizziness washed over him. "Listen to me, Bodie," Doyle said thickly, his tongue awkward in the dry vault of his mouth. "It's Asper who's called us here. He-- He wants to show us something. I think."
"How do you know?" The muscles in Bodie's forearm bunched as he prepared to struggle.
Steeling himself for resistance, Doyle began, "He woke me up. He--"
Whatever else Doyle had meant to say died unspoken. A sharp movement amidst the shadows of the organics-infested ducting had caught his eye.
"Bloody hell! Bodie breathed.
The tiny form, stunningly white and noticeably ungainly flittered into full view, joined within the blink of an eye by another--then another--until three of the impossible creatures had become visible.
Gratified on one level of his mind that he had not misinterpreted Asper's boggling summons, Doyle was nonetheless as taken aback as his partner by the reality of what he beheld: Three miniature Aspers, seemingly sprung from nowhere, bobbing up and down mid-air as though suspended from lengths of elastic.
All at once the three advanced, though not one of them travelled by the most direct route. Their flying ability was as unpolished as their apparent sense of the rational horizon, each varyingly soaring upside down and sideways.
Doyle heard Bodie's sharp breath as the first sfanglet reached them. It attempted to land on his partner's almost hairless chest. Infant talons failed to gain purchase so that the creature slid down Bodie's torso, all six legs scrabbling for a foothold, untutored wings fouling in panic.
"Don't move," Doyle hissed.
Bodie made no effort to reply, every muscle in his body tensed as the sfanglet skidded inch by inch down his abdomen, below his navel, and onto his genitals. There, it finally arrested its perilous plummet by grabbing hold of thickly curling pubic hair in two sharp-tipped forepaws.
Air escaped loudly through Bodie's teeth. He cautiously curved a palm under the presumptuous visitor with the clear hope that the sfanglet would realize that his hand offered better support than his rapidly shrinking penis.
At that moment, Doyle himself was accosted by a tiny, squeaking flyer. As it faltered forward, aiming, he thought, for his shoulder, it broadcast blurry, pastel images that were every bit as disorienting as the side-effects of his recent abrupt awakening. The creature hovered briefly, then shot straight upward. Tipping his head back to follow the novice flyer, Doyle tucked his chin into his chest only a second later, eyes squeezed shut as he prepared for impact. The sfanglet drifted down onto Doyle's curls and was hardly felt. Immediately after, however, it lost its footing, and only after a ticklish pin-wheeling of limbs, did it succeed in heaving itself back onto Doyle's crown. Six sets of razor-sharp talons dug into his scalp until the sfanglet had arranged each limb to its satisfaction.
Through the link of their now meshed fingers, Doyle felt Bodie shiver once more. Glancing sidelong at him, he saw that the third neonate had touched down on Bodie's right ear and was obdurately attached to it, like some absurd-looking ear-muff.
" 'S okay, sunshine," Doyle whispered, though what comfort he meant to render may have been lost amidst the ignoble cracking of his voice. "Asper, where the fuck are you?"
A defiant clicking erupted from the ductbanks that had unleashed the sfanglets. Looking in that direction with extreme care so as not to disturb his new passenger, Doyle spied his summoner perched on the corner of a grille some feet away.
"We're here," Doyle prompted him patiently. The colorful but undisciplined images lapping at his mind were making him very dizzy indeed.
The larger sfang gathered himself, then leapt into the air. Chirruping scoldingly, he began a display of plunges, ascents, and spins that set the newcomers achatter.
Doyle closed his eyes, the ache in his head blossoming before Asper's acrobatics, coupled with the sensations and impressions each of the sfangi were putting forth so indiscriminately. He clung to Bodie's hand, relying on his partner's sense of balance to be equal to the task of keeping them both upright.
"Ray?" Bodie murmured worriedly. "You all right?"
"Yeah. Bit of a headache." He swallowed a moan as the sfanglet that had been clutching Bodie's ear suddenly abandoned its lofty setting and threw itself onto Doyle's shoulder.
The next moments passed in a welter of turbulent emotions, all new, unfocussed and utterly raw. Thinking back later, Doyle remembered far more of the frenzy than of the charm--for there was something of the latter to be experienced in this first exposure to the unfledged sfang mind. At the time, however, smarting and discomposed as he was, Doyle could only think longingly of his mussed bed lying empty and unwarmed without him.
Before too much longer, happily, the multiple forays into his consciousness did not so much resemble the pillage-and-plunder of an unweaponed village by ravening forces as the uncertain overtures of lost children seeking guidance. Once a degree--however elementary--of ordered communication had been established, Doyle found his vexation effectively defused, and to some extent even his physical complaints made tolerable: The sfanglets, fresh from their birth membranes and intent upon forming their first links between each other as well as the two men, were deliberately invoking a less stressful and therefore more harmonious atmosphere for all involved.
All at once, Doyle understood why Asper had rousted them from their bed with such urgency--though there had never been any doubt but that he must obey the sfang's imperative. The mental tableau of several sfangi bounding about the engine room had ricocheted inside his sleep-drugged brain as only one more of Asper's occasional bouts of hyperbole, and therefore of no great concern in itself. It had, in fact, been the alarming exigency of Asper's summons that had secured Doyle's witless obedience--and perforce Bodie's.
What Doyle now knew was that he and Bodie had been brought here so that they might meet the new offspring at the earliest possible moment--and thus expedite their imprinting process. Inferring that Asper approved the conjoining of human and sfangi minds--else the sfanglets would have been kept hidden for as long as possible--Doyle was moved to wonder if Asper had strong recollections of his own initial encounter with Bodie.
The question of how Asper had contrived to reproduce continued to loom large in Doyle's mind--though he hoped the ship's library might be able to provide a satisfactory answer. Tomorrow, however, would be soon enough to relaunch his sfangi researches. Tomorrow--
"Hm?" "You going to sleep on me?"
"Don't...think so," Doyle replied dopily. Betrayingly, his eyelids slid downward as though weighted, and his head began to loll to one side. Gently rocked in sedative images, Doyle was certainly very tired, but he suspected that it was the efforts of the sfanglets toward relaxing him that were more directly responsible for his torpor.
Suddenly the spell was broken as Asper flashed round and round, screeing loudly, streaking within a hair's breadths of each of his offspring. One by one the tiny sfanglets left their respective perches, albeit with some reluctance, and in single file, followed their parent back to the nest which lay hidden behind the front panels of the ductwork.
Released from their mesmeric influence, Doyle swayed unsteadily, his head beginning to clear almost at once. A touch at his elbow brought him round; he willingly acceded to Bodie's lead. He staggered after his partner out of the engine room without a backward glance, down the corridor, into the lift, and out again onto the deck that accommodated their shared cabin. Shortly thereafter, he half-fell through the just opened door, was peremptorily caught and steadied by his partner before he could measure his length on the floor, then was aimed, with amused patience, toward his bed.
"In you go, sunshine." Bodie ushered him under the covers, which were then drawn up to Doyle's chin.
" 'M all right," Doyle protested, and as Bodie slid in beside him, commanding the lights off as he did so, demonstrated this statement by pulling himself onto his backside and ordering the lights on again in a much stronger voice.
Bodie gave him a peevish look. "You were acting like you were going to fall over just seconds ago. Where'd you get this sudden burst of energy?"
"Got away from all those little mind-melters, that's how." Eyeing his partner closely, Doyle remarked, "Don't seem to have bothered you in the least. Why not?"
With a shrug, Bodie shifted around so that he could rest his head on Doyle's lap. "Been through it before, though it was a long time ago. 'Sides, something lethal attached to that particular bit of my anatomy is guaranteed to keep me alert. What are you doing?"
"Calling up the library. You interrupted my reading earlier."
"Pardon me. Didn't act like you minded at the time."
Though he thrummed with the need for sleep, Doyle was presently wide awake. "Of course I didn't. But I thought you might be curious about Asper--y'know, mum and dad all rolled into one ill-mannered little package. Bit odd, that, you must admit."
"Well, it had crossed my mind to ask," Bodie grinned sheepishly. He rubbed his cheek lazily across Doyle's thigh. "But you know me, sunshine: Don't give much thought to theoretical discussion once reality has bitten me on the bum."
"Or had a swing on your dangly bits?"
An unfeigned shudder vibrated through Doyle's leg. "If that insolent bugger'd taken fright, that'd've put an end to your conjug--"
"Asper knew what he was about, Bodie. The little fellers were curious, but not the least bit nervous. Hang about, here we are: Unusual Phenomena--Unsubstantiated. Hm. Hm hm. Ah--this must be the place: Parthenogenesis or Asexual Reproduction?"
"I'm all ears." Eyes closed, Bodie wrapped himself around his partner like a large, human blanket. Once comfortable, he exhaled placidly and gave Doyle's upper thigh a chaste kiss. "Go on, then."
But Doyle said nothing for a few minutes, reading silently to himself. Several pages into the section, he noticed that Bodie's respiration was becoming very regular and deep.
Guessing that his partner was not yet asleep but perhaps disinclined to listen, he spoke in a low, well-modulated voice that could be easily ignored. "This section repeats most of the data on nesting activity in nonpregnant sfangi--because the symptoms exhibited by unmated pregnant sfangi were virtually identical. Apparently these very rare occurrences always involved sfangi that had been caged closest to mating couples. The researchers were never able to demonstrate with absolute certainty that the subject sfangi had not somehow been exposed to some form of insemination, however--by airborne transmission, for example, or some other physical process--"
Eyes wide, Doyle clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "The writer here suggests that the researchers themselves might have provided the means of impregnation by handling those few specimens which could be safely studied--waste products, feathers, that sort of thing--and in some way ultimately transported the reproductive material to a susceptible female."
He exclaimed to himself, "Bit far-fetched, that, if you ask me! Especially since they couldn't even go near their experimental subjects without losing a face or a limb." Engrossed, he bent nearer the monitor. "Another theory was that fertilization might have been genetically encoded--"
One skeptical blue eye rolled open and frowned up at him. Bodie scoffed, "Meaning they were preggers before they were even born?"
"Thought you were asleep," Doyle commented off-handedly. "But, yes, I think that's what it means." He read on a little further to himself, his lips moving soundlessly. "You've heard this bit before: Apparently the biggest problem facing the researchers was their inability to study dead sfangi, whose molecular architecture tends to dissolve at the instant of death--due, it seems, to the acid in their systems no longer being held in check by the living chemical balance."
"The scientific community was thwarted once more. What a pity."
"Cold-hearted pricks. Anyway, lacking all empirical evidence, the study of sfangi gender came to be deemed well nigh impossible, as outwardly they are indistinguishable as to body size, shape, coloration, mannerisms, and so forth. In other words, they reproduced readily enough; the researchers simply could never specify how."
As sinuously as a serpent, Bodie twisted onto his back and gazed intently up at his partner. "Which means that sfangi must be basically bisexual, right? In biological terms."
"Don't know that all of 'em are, but Asper certainly is--unless there's another sfang hanging about somewhere that you've neglected to mention?"
"If there're any other secrets between us, Ray," Bodie said levelly, "they're all yours." Doyle made a rude sound. "You've known everything about me for years."
"Not everything, exactly. Like that little trick of broadcasting when we're in bed: Didn't know anything about that." Bodie scowled. "And it's the broadcasting that's caused all this, isn't it? Because we got a bit enthusiastic, Asper ended up pregnant."
"Looks that way. Must've triggered a hormonal overload which went beyond mere stimulation. Remember, the report stated that most of the affected sfangi would only go on heat--they wouldn't actually reproduce." He tapped his finger against his lower lip. "Thought we'd solved the problem with the tablets and dietary supplements, but maybe we only slowed things. Anyway, according to some of the bits I read before, we should be able to shield the cabins to keep him from being--" Doyle produced a cough of helpless laughter "--maybe the word is contaminated again?"
"Rather than infected--which would imply that it could go both ways! Lovely."
"I'm sure you'd make a wonderful mother!" Doyle said artlessly.
"As would you. Bastard." There was no heat in the epithet, however, and in the next instant Bodie was rolling back onto his side, arms encircling Doyle's raw-boned frame, legs twining with his long, wiry limbs. "That's it, surely?" Bodie pleaded. "I'd like to get some sleep tonight, y'know?"
"Unfeeling swine," Doyle chided affectionately. He switched off the computer and shoved the swing arm against the wall. "Here you've just witnessed a miracle of science--"
"Asexual reproduction has been around for millennia, Ray."
"Not amongst creatures as complex as sfangi," Doyle argued good-naturedly. "Lights." Amidst instantaneous darkness, he began to work his way under the covers, hampered by Bodie's inflexible grip and intimate proximity. "Maybe tomorrow you'll be more impressed--y'know, when you've got four of 'em buzzing about your head--and other parts of your body, I might add. Give us a bit of room, eh?"
Bodie's hiss spoke volumes. All the same, he relaxed his hold just enough for Doyle to curl up beside him. Then, giving him a last crushing hug, Bodie stated, "So long as I'm dressed for the event, I shall be as impressed as you like."
"Hm. Mind the ribs, sunshine. Bodie--?"
Smiling to himself at that overly tolerant tone, Doyle asked, "Have you decided what you're going to do with them?"
" 'Do with them?' "
"Other than chuck the lot out the airlock?"
"Now there's an option I hadn't considered," Doyle said drolly.
"Don't lie; your nose'll grow."
"Why ever should it do that?"
"Dunno. Something my mum used to say." Bodie yawned ostentatiously. "Reckon we'll have to do the same thing I tried with Asper."
"First suitable planet we come to, we'll show 'em the door."
Doyle cogitated the logic of this suggestion for at least ten seconds. "Doesn't seem to have worked very well with Asper, does it?"
"Didn't work at all, as you well know. He wandered about for a few minutes then came straight back."
"So what's the point of trying it with this lot? Maybe they'll all want to stay, too."
"And maybe they won't. Sfangi are loners, y'know?"
"Sure he is. Well, mostly he is. He puts up with us, but maybe humans don't figure in that particular equation. I don't know!"
"Ought to." Doyle's voice was cuttingly stern. "Purchased that version of the ship's library because of its extensive information on sfangi; same thing with your diagnostics and prescriptions software--or so you said. Haven't you ever read any of it, then?"
Bodie scraped his beard-roughened chin against Doyle's shoulder, causing him to shrink away. He was not allowed to go far. "Only got it for emergencies. Didn't think I'd want to know everything about the miserable beggars."
Taking pity on his beleaguered-sounding mate, Doyle pretended to yawn--only to be seized by the real thing. "Snaresbrook tomorrow?" he asked, smacking his lips and beginning a hypnotic caress of Bodie's smooth, silky hair.
"Late in the day, yes. Want to be rid of the echo?"
"Not particularly. Haven't noticed it at all, actually."
"No reason you should've." Bodie snuggled nearer, lying heavily against Doyle's side. "It is in a protective casing." He fell quiet then, and the rise and fall of his chest began to slow.
As much-needed slumber tugged at his own eyelids, Doyle somehow thought there might be more to come. Less than a minute later, his intuition proved correct.
"I'm asleep, Bodie," Doyle growled softly.
"No, listen: I've just had a thought."
"About Asper getting preggers because of us--"
Bodie's voice dropped to a hushed whisper. "Ray, d'you remember this afternoon--after we'd adjusted the engines?"
A reminiscent smile tugged lightly at Doyle's full lips. "Yeah, I do. Was nice, that."
"Very. But Asper's nest is in the--"
Doyle's heart advanced a beat. "--engine room." The enormity of the thought stole the breath from his lungs. "Bloody hell."
"Then you think--?"
Teeth bared and glinting whitely in the dark, Doyle said fatalistically, "Reckon we'll know soon enough. But in the meantime--"
"Yeah?" Bodie asked warily.
"If we can't get shielding materials on Snaresbrook, we'll either have to keep our hands off each other, or--"
Bodie groaned. "Or we'll be up to our eyebrows in sfanglets. Hell of a choice, sunshine."
"More like, no choice at all."
Sinking under the edge of the covers, Bodie groaned even louder.
Freshly showered and dressed, Doyle stepped carefully down the corridor which led to the flight deck, conscious of the none-too-steady sfanglet riding upon his shoulder, the other sfanglet ensconced in his breast pocket, and the two mugs of scalding hot tea clutched in both hands.
It was early afternoon, following a morning of discovery. By now Doyle had grown accustomed to the fidgety images and sparkling sensations that flared to life, fully formed, inside his brain whenever he was in the presence of the sfanglets--and that had been most of the day. His many years of training had been slow to kick in, he realized, perhaps because there was something inherently charming about the neonate's wonder-filled thoughts. They tended to wend their way into his head before he was quite aware that they had intruded.
The sfanglet in Doyle's pocket raised its snout and twisted its head to one side as Doyle rounded the corner at the end of the corridor. From here the interior of the flight deck was clearly visible. Bodie sat at the pilot's console, chin in hand, watching the third sfanglet bounce from console to chair back, from chair back to Bodie's head, from Bodie's head to the monitor--
"Is it safe to say that you're having fun?" Doyle ventured. He fluidly ducked to avoid a collision with the careering sfanglet, somehow managing to spill only a drop or two of tea on his clean trousers.
"Wondered when you were going to show up," Bodie groused. He took the mug proffered him, shooting a jaded look toward Asper, who sat crouched forward on the arm of the copilot's chair. In truth, Asper's expression was little less harried than Bodie's.
"Got 'em out of your hair for a while, didn't I? Did I mention they're already eating 'real' food? Gobbled half of my snack right down." Navigating between the two chairs, Doyle reflexively dropped out of harm's way once more, then lowered his bottom onto the seat of the copilot's chair and slid back without disrupting the calm of either of his passengers or the adult sfang presently at rest there.
"Left me to work while you had a nice long run, you mean," Bodie said, ignoring Doyle's conversational gambit. "Speaking of hair, it does rather appear that they came away with a fair bit of yours."
Self-consciously Doyle raked his free hand through his curls. "Not that bad, surely?"
Grimly, Bodie reached across to the narrow storage cupboard on his right and came away with a small sheaf of crinkly, auburn-brown strands. "One of the blighters came in bearing the evidence."
"He's the little feller doing aerial cartwheels. Has a mean streak as wide as the Behemoth."
"You can tell them apart now?"
"Not if they're sitting quietly in a row. Though, that'd be a rare sight, wouldn't it?" He raised his mug to his mouth and sipped carefully. "More by personality. This wee number--" Doyle indicated the sfanglet huddled inside his pocket "--is a lovey, but a bit of a clinger. This one--" He bent his head toward the sfanglet on his shoulder. "--can be a bit more aggressive. That one--"
"Attila. Well named, if I recall my hist--"
Just then the small creature adorning Doyle's shoulder shot into the air and plowed into his rough-and-tumble sibling mid-air. The two began a frantic tussle, plummeting toward the floor, breaking free just before they could crash, then launching themselves upward to engage in battle once more. As the pattern was repeated, Doyle glanced sharply across at his partner as some of the console controls came in for a bit of abuse.
"I've locked all the settings," Bodie assured him resignedly. "They can't do any serious damage."
Doyle lifted his mug in tribute, swiftly laying a hand over the rim when the two combatants spun out of control. The sfanglet in Doyle's pocket shrank down below the edge, only a few tufts of white feathers left visible.
Before they smashed into the Vauxan, however, the two separated, one darting out of the cockpit and into the corridor, the other hot on his abbreviated tail feathers.
Doyle's pocket stirred as his timid passenger hoisted itself out of its fabric shelter and onto his shoulder, so that it could gaze down the corridor after its litter-mates. Without warning, it took flight, charging after the others in hot pursuit.
"We're alone," Doyle said, relieved. He reached out and lifted Asper off the arm of the chair and gently stroked his ruffled feathers flat. "There, there, old son," he crooned.
As Doyle lovingly nuzzled the older sfang, Bodie remarked, "I believe I'm jealous."
Doyle's eyes widened in alarm. "Don't even think it!"
Throwing back his head, Bodie gave a low moan. "Right. Talk about something else, Bodie. Think about something else." He pursed his lips. "We're two hours out."
Restoring Asper to his perch, Doyle asked, "You've contacted the station?"
"Yep. But there's good news, and there's bad news."
"Great. Give me the bad news first." Doyle picked up his tea and tipped his nose into the depths of the mug as he took a long slurp.
"The science station hasn't got enough shielding material to spare for our use."
"That's the bad news. The good news is that the Vauxan freighter behind us has plenty listed on their bill of lading."
"Great! How long before they arrive?"
Pasting a synthetic smile on his mouth, Bodie said, "About ten hours after we do. Maybe fourteen hours all told before we have the modifications in place?"
Doyle bit down on his fist.
"My sentiments precisely," Bodie stated. "Still, we can wait that long. We have waited longer, after all."
"It's just knowing that we can't-- You know."
"Don't I just."
Amidst a whoosh of fiercely beating wings, raucous chittering, and Catherine wheel images, the trio of sfanglets returned. They flew about the interior of the flight deck with fearless abandon, wildly striking out at each other, spinning and swooping, and generally causing a great commotion.
Bent over to protect his head, Doyle started when Asper let out a deafening shriek and, with wings flaring, rocketed into the air. At once the sfanglets stilled, dropping like stones to the nearest flat surface. Asper went to each in turn, then came to hover before Doyle's face. A sensation of intense hunger--not his own--assailed him.
"Right," he said at once. As he climbed to his feet, Doyle downed the rest of his tea as quickly as he could. "They're hungry," he explained to his bemused partner, who was watching Asper, trailed by three suddenly docile sfanglets, glide smoothly out the opening.
Doyle leaned over and pressed his fingertips to Bodie's mouth. "Your turn next time," he said sweetly. Then he turned toward the corridor.
Doyle glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah?"
"After we've unloaded the echo and had the shielding installed, we'll be free to do as we like. Don't suppose there's anywhere you've in mind to go?"
Regarding his partner measuringly, Doyle suggested ingenuously, "Home Defense?"
The animation fled Bodie's face; only his eyes moved, and they studied Doyle with a hint of betrayal. "Can I think about it?"
Prepared for resistance, Doyle was quick to relent. "Of course."
Tipping his head to one side, Bodie said sourly, "You really think setting up a meet with Cowley is something I ought to do?"
"We. Something we ought to do. Yes."
Bodie opened his mouth to speak, but his words were overrun by an onslaught of petulant screeing: Attila had returned and was voicing his impatience in no uncertain terms.
Blue eyes, dark with unpleasant musings, followed the sfanglet's antics as it gamboled from point to point within the confined interior of the cockpit, this display apparently meant to emphasize the creature's displeasure.
"All right. Why not?" Bodie said thoughtfully.
"Cowley?" The surprise in Doyle's voice was unmistakable. He had foreseen a fairly long period of persuasion before obtaining Bodie's acquiescence in this.
"Yeah, Cowley." Distaste dripped from every syllable. Rubbing his chin, Bodie remarked, "Maybe we'll offer him a rare and exotic gift." His gaze continued to track the obstreperous sfanglet.
Doyle broke into an understanding grin. "And here I thought you were looking to make amends."
"He may not be so forgiving as you like to think," Bodie informed his partner crushingly. "If nothing else, it'd distract him long enough for us to make our get-away."
"Our get-away?" Doyle queried.
"If we need to."
Lurching back a step to make room for Asper--who had entered the flight deck at top speed--Doyle paused while the parent sfang latched onto his startled offspring with six taloned paws, swung round one hundred and eighty degrees, then bore the instantly subdued sfanglet away, broadcasting an impassioned repeat of his request for sustenance as he disappeared into the corridor, slowed not in the least by his burden.
"Somehow," Doyle observed whimsically, "I think George Cowley might find Attila a challenge."
"He might. But, then, they're two of a kind."
"Hm." With Asper's fabricated sensation of hunger still gnawing at his insides, Doyle decided it was time to start for the galley. "Okay. We'll think about it."
A faint smile lightened Bodie's features, the transformation, slight though it was, enough to foster a profound sense of guilt in Doyle. "And if you never want to," he declared firmly, "we'll never go."
Bodie laughed. "You're a soft touch, mate. Or maybe all that chitter-chatter has just addled your brains. We will look into it, okay? Only I think you ought to--"
A volley of noise, produced by several sfang voices, could be heard some distance away.
"--feed the hordes. I know, I know. Just a bloody minute!" he shouted, hurling his words in the direction of the clamor which was gradually drawing nearer.
Striding purposefully to the pilot's chair, he braced himself on the padded arms, then bent over and took Bodie's mouth in a leisurely, loving kiss. "I do love you," he said fondly. "Gotta go."
From a standing start, Doyle broke into a run, gaining speed until he was hurtling down the corridor. As he rounded the corner--where he was met by a multitude of busily flapping wings--he heard Bodie yell after him, "Fourteen hours and counting!"
Happily entertaining the activities that would take place fourteen hours hence, Doyle was understandably slow to take notice when his entourage began to act rather strangely. They twirled like tops, two of the sfanglets collided then battled violently before separating amidst a scattering of sfang feathers, and Asper let out a stream of rebuke that frosted the blood in Doyle's veins. He had unintentionally announced his sexual anticipation--and this was result. Ruthlessly, he slammed the shields down on his thoughts, somehow not missing a step as he raced into the galley.
Hastily gathering together the varied components known to entice the sfang palate, Doyle scowled to himself as he mentally calculated the amount of time usually spent in lascivious reflection involving Bodie.
It would, he concluded hopelessly, be a very long fourteen hours.
-- THE END --