by Ellis Ward
(sequel is Broadcast Difficulties)
The intake/outtake chamber in the largest detention facility on Stepney was standard Terran construction; Bodie had seen its like before. Leaning against a wall which faced the corridor to the holding cells, he occupied his time awaiting the return of the section warden by silently and inconspicuously noting the positions of sallyport doors and the probable areas to which they gave access; surveillance units and their fields of vision; feasible locations for microphone pick-ups that would activate at any innocent comment; and the deportment of the single armed attendant who slouched blank-faced near the entry door. Bodie stood with similar detachment, his solid frame betraying none of the tension coiling within, arms folded languidly across his chest, his expression contrivedly one of bored impatience.
It was a rather primitive set-up; but this was a rather primitive, backwater planet. Despite his calculatingly nonchalant pose, and even with the sure knowledge that he could counter any possible opposition that might be offered--were he forced to do so--he remained fully alert, having learned in the painful, but instructive past that to become lax was to invite failure. Mindlessly scuffing a heel on the institution-slick surface of the floor, he hummed tunelessly to himself in a manner guaranteed to offend the most insensitive of ears.
His wait proved surprisingly brief.
The section warden, a man named Carnall, operated the sallyport door which separated the holding cells from the intake/outtake chamber. Accompanying him in the airlock, waiting for the first sallyport door to seal the breach, were a brawny guard and a slightly built, curly haired man. After a cursory glance, Bodie dismissed the two prison authorities and focused on the prisoner. The sallyport door to the intake/outtake chamber slid open, and the three men left the airlock to join Bodie. Attired in standard issue clothing, the smaller man walked with the steady determination of someone who has been hurt but refuses to acknowledge it, hands bound before him by metal manacles. Primitive, Bodie thought with disgust.
As the prisoner obeyed the warden's command to sit in a utilitarian chair arranged before a utilitarian table, he looked across at Bodie. His expression gave nothing away, but Bodie thought he glimpsed a hint of desperation in those wide-spaced eyes--which he knew, even from this distance, to be green. He met the man's wary gaze steadily, wondering if the fool would have the presence of mind to carry off this charade. Shoving away from the wall, and shaking his head ruefully, he asked with mild exasperation, "Ready to get out of here, Doyle?"
There was the briefest flicker of startlement in the prisoner's eyes. Voice low and husky, he replied, "Have been for days."
"That's lucky," Bodie said sarcastically, silently congratulating the man on his quickness. "Your old friend Bodie's come too far to be disappointed."
"You do know him, then?" Warden Carnall probed, dark brown eyes glancing from the seated man to his visitor.
"Yeah, I know him." The prisoner's attention was riveted on Bodie. "Took your bloody time, didn't you?"
"Couldn't hurt you to stew a while, sunshine," Bodie drawled. "But, one more day and you'd've gone on the block. Couldn't have allowed that, now could I?"
The other did not react to the taunt, save to become so still it was apparent to an astute observer that he had ceased to breathe altogether.
Looming behind the prisoner's chair, the guard raised a derisive brow. "Might have been just the thing for him," he observed, just loudly enough for all to hear clearly. "There are a few people here who don't care what they take to bed."
"Save it, Peitz," the section warden said.
Bodie, however, arched a brow at the prisoner, his gaze turning speculative. "You been misbehaving, Doyle?" he asked lightly. Then shifting almost imperceptibly, he addressed Carnall, a tall, bland-faced man whose expression told Bodie nothing, "Didn't think a man's sexual preference was a crime in this forward-thinking community."
The warden said gravely, "We tolerate it; part of being a member of the Consortium. But trying to solicit one of our higher administrators--who didn't find your man's attentions desirable--was a mistake he shouldn't have made."
Bodie shook his head, tongue clicking against his teeth. "I'll be sure to discuss it with him," he said, with an air of distaste.
"See that you do. My releasing this man to you before putting him up for public indenture is unprecedented. Still, I can see no reason not to, since you are willing to pay off his marker--and you do know each other." He looked down his nose at Doyle, who kept his head bent slightly forward, gaze averted. "I explained the conditions of release to you, Doyle. Your friend Bodie will be responsible for your actions until you have repaid the debt." He stated a sum. "Once you have worked off the fine, or alternately served a period of six months in this man's employ, you will be listed with Central as having completed your indenture. He, of course, may release you at any time. And remember, you have the option to fulfill the terms of your sentence here on Stepney. Do you understand?"
"I understand," Doyle said flatly. Unflinching, his eyes slid across to Bodie. "I accept the indenture."
"As you wish." Carnall drew out a force disabler and gestured to Doyle to lift his wrists; with a soft hum the manacles popped open. "That's it." He removed the metal couplers with unexpected consideration. Even from across the room, red welts could be seen around the thin-boned wrists. "You're free to leave Stepney under this man's guardianship."
Rising slowly from the chair, Doyle hesitated when the guard standing directly behind him snorted loudly. Without thought, Bodie stepped forward, his whole body tensed to react.
"You're done here, Peitz," the warden said, each word clearly enunciated.
Peitz pivoted on heel and strode, stiff-backed, out of the processing chamber. Bodie used the guard's departure as an excuse to study the man who was standing unsteadily a few feet away. The prisoner was trembling, although not overtly, and there was a wildness in the eyes that no amount of studied disinterest could quite conceal.
"What about his things?" he asked the warden.
"Forfeited when he was sentenced," Carnall said. "Would you like a breakdown?"
"That would be nice," Bodie agreed dryly. "Have to tot it up, don't I? After all, I'll have to replace enough of it to keep him decent."
"Of course." The warden waved a hand before him, indicating that the two men should precede him out of the room.
Bodie closed the distance between himself and Doyle, who had achieved a questionable vertical. Unobtrusively steadying the slim form with a hand at his elbow, Bodie said matter-of-factly, "C'mon, sunshine. Not long now."
The warden locked the door behind them, then led them out of the chamber and into the corridor which opened onto the administrative wing. A few doors down, he flagged them into the outgoing records room. "Maggie, run a copy of this for me, please." He handed the older woman seated behind a VDU a slip of paper taken out of the file he held.
"Don't suppose you'll be trying to find his lov...friend, will you?" Carnall asked, while they waited.
Bodie hesitated, giving his newly bought companion a sidelong look. But the prisoner produced a tiny shake of the head.
"Nope," Bodie replied. "Expect that one can take care of himself." He took the proffered paper from the other man's fingers, one brow quirking upward as he cursorily scanned the printout. "You should count yourself lucky to have rumbled this one," he murmured; then he smiled disarmingly lest the official should take offense.
"I didn't rumble him," the warden said. "This way."
From the administrative offices, they passed into the corridor that gave access to the main entry lock. Unspeaking the warden walked alongside the other two men, pacing his stride to accommodate theirs, which was slower. Doyle was noticeably lagging, and Bodie was keeping right beside him.
Seconds before they reached the metal slab sealing the chamber, it silently slid to one side, giving them passport to the outer lobby. Carnall flicked a finger in silent communication to the duty officers posted there, and they continued through to the last door.
"Here you go," he said at the glass-fronted entry. "You should encourage Mr. Doyle to employ discretion in future. Somehow I don't think he is suited to this particular environment."
Beside Bodie, Doyle stiffened, a harsh breath catching audibly in this throat.
"I shall," Bodie assured the warden, finding nothing of contempt in the other man's expression, but rather a reluctant compassion. "It won't happen again, I think." He gently jarred the man beside him. "Doyle?"
A little bitterly, the other replied, "It didn't happen this time."
Bodie shrugged. "Good bye," he told the warden, and as they exited into dreary daylight, he immediately relegated the prison official's existence to the furthest reaches of his mind.
"Are you all right?" he asked, directing Doyle to the skimmer parked at the mouth of the wide cul-de-sac. Few other vehicles lined the street; either the prison did not encourage visitors or it was simply not a popular place.
"Yeah." Taking in a huge breath, Doyle asked, "Who are you?"
"Name's Bodie," he said. "And you're Ray Doyle."
The other's mouth twisted slightly, the full, finely sculpted upper lip compressing hard onto its thinner opposite number. "That's right. How could you know that?"
Bodie left the question begging for a moment as he unlocked the skimmer and opened the door to his companion, abandoning Doyle to climb in unassisted as he took himself round to the driver's side. It was late in the afternoon, and the the sun's warmth was thwarted by billowing clouds and the tops of towering buildings. Chilled, Bodie turned up the collar of his jacket, well aware that Doyle was dressed only in slacks and a loose shirt, and prison- supplied soft-soled shoes. He started the engine of the hire car and engaged the heating unit to take off the edge.
"'S not important just now," Bodie answered at last. "You look a bit rough. Are you up to a spot of shopping?"
Doyle sat quietly contained in the passenger seat, hands clasped together in his lap. "I can manage."
Only a short time later, having navigated the skimmer through the heart of Stepney's capital city, Bodie had to stir the man beside him awake. Doyle roused at once to the light pressure of fingers on his shoulder, sleep- shadowed eyes assimilating Bodie's presence and the fact that the hire-car had stopped outside a small, exclusive department store on the edge of the downtown district.
Here the cold air seemed to strike harder than before, and Bodie hurried his companion into the main foyer of the store to get him out of the wind. "You'll need something warm where we're going," he advised tersely. "With that in mind, pick out what you want. I'll wait here." He indicated a chair propped beside the stair that rose to the wide glass entry.
Dark, serpentine brows arched upward. "Aren't you worried I might make a break for it?"
Bodie only smiled at him. "It would be a stupid thing to do," he said, with silken warning. To his surprise Doyle's mouth twitched in the faintest suggestion of a grin.
"All right," he conceded. "Are you registered?"
Bodie nodded. "Just keep it reasonable, eh?"
Giving him a level look, Doyle shuffled away and disappeared amidst the aisles. Bodie took his post, dragging the chair nearer the wall. He had not given any indication of being in a hurry; but the man was a Vauxan, or at least part-Vauxan. Bodie's desire to be clear of this place as quickly as possible should be perfectly obvious to him. Bodie would soon find out just how much of a sensitive Doyle was.
In fact only a short while later Doyle returned, arms laden with two large packages, his face pale with exertion, the dragging gait slightly more pronounced. Bodie made no comment, but took one of the packages as Doyle came abreast of him. "Finished?" he asked.
Doyle sketched a quick assenting nod and followed Bodie through the door. They walked the few feet to the hire-car. Ushering Doyle in before him, Bodie could hear the other man's labored breaths. They were barely in transit before the lithe form slumped in the neighboring seat, head propped against the glass, long-fingered hands resting limply on the package in his lap. Bodie glanced across at his new charge, absorbing the heavy fall of dark lashes lying on ashen cheeks, a frown etched between winged brows even in rest.
A movement out of the corner of his eye restored his attention to the flight corridor ahead. Driving with smooth control, he wondered again if his snap decision, made in the inhospitable surroundings of the bleak prison, would not prove to be a most serious mistake.
Ray Doyle awoke to the gentle jostling of a near perfect landing just as the flyer reached the outskirts of the docking hangars at the planet's main port. It took him a moment to orient himself, his mind slowly juxtaposing the plush interior of the skimmer with his recent barren cell in Stepney's correctional facility. The man named Bodie was engaged in shutting down the hire-car's flight systems with practiced competence. Completing his sign-off to Stepney Control, he turned to Doyle, who was looking at the terminal building with a growing uneasiness.
"You're awake," Bodie said.
"What're we doing here?" Doyle asked, running a hand through his hair to shift long, limp curls off his forehead.
"My ship's docked in Outgoing. We take the shuttle from here."
Bodie did not even blink at the troubled break in Doyle's voice. "We'll be off-planet within the hour."
"Where to?" Doyle demanded, forced to speak gruffly to cover his weakness.
Bodie eyed him coolly. "You'll find out soon enough."
Smothering an angry retort, Doyle watched as Bodie slid out of the driver's seat, leaving the keys in the ignition. Doyle toyed with the notion of seizing the craft and making his escape--but only for a second. The reality of what he had agreed to in the intake/outtake chamber was just now confronting him, and the creeping panic generated by that knowledge threatened to shatter his very tenuous control.
"Hop it, Doyle," Bodie ordered. He snagged one of the packages out of Doyle's loose grasp and shut the driver's door, walking round the snub nose of the skimmer to Doyle's side of the vehicle.
Knowing he really had no alternative but to obey, Doyle tightened his hold on the other package and stepped out, staggering slightly as rubbery legs almost failed him.
When Bodie put out a hand for support, Doyle made no complaint, well aware that his other option would be the too close attentions of the rough tarmac beneath their feet. Guided by Bodie's grip on his elbow, he made it to the shuttle stop. Within minutes they were picked up by one of the regularly circulating transports and, accompanied by a few other passengers, rode in silence to one of the inward hangars. A cargo ship, Doyle guessed a little nervously, and waited to see if he would be proven correct.
The shuttle came to a stop outside a massive structure with huge bay doors that were presently secured. Alighting, Bodie gestured toward the smaller, personnel-sized entrance. The wind whistled through the row of buildings, catching at their hair, and stealing the heat from their bodies. Thankful for the unfaltering presence at his left side, Doyle had no choice but to brave the frigid air, closing his eyes and frankly letting himself be walked the last few yards into the bay. Blessedly at that point the wind was cut off, although the ambient temperature did not appreciably increase.
Bodie's ship occupied the middle of the hangar with space to spare. There was little about it that was outwardly exceptional. Long and full-bodied, it was a standard cargo transport. Deliberately nondescript, Doyle guessed. Heels ringing on the monolithic floor, they crossed to the ramp which accessed the ship's personnel hatch. There Bodie remotely activated the conveyor and keyed the opening, the heavy metal panel swinging wide with the soft hum of automatics.
Carried forward by the conveyor, Doyle could concentrate on keeping himself upright without leaning so heavily on the man beside him. He missed the warmth, but most certainly did not want to be misinterpreted, especially in view of Officer Peitz' comments. As the ramp took them inexorably upward, Doyle realized with sick inevitability that he was beyond the point of escape. His future--or fate, if it came to that--was subject to this man's whim, and there was nothing Doyle could do about it--nothing that would not return him to Stepney's prison, anyway.
The inside of the ship was simple in design and dully furnished, bespeaking standard cargo vessel from the flat grey paint of its bulkheads to the thinly carpeted floors. Herded through the maze-like corridors, Doyle consoled himself that his surroundings, however uninspiring, were at least tidy and notably clean.
"Right here," Bodie said sharply, reaching out and pinching Doyle's sleeve between thumb and forefinger to bring him to a stop, when he would have continued robotically onward. Bodie turned the latch and waved Doyle inside.
Doyle was almost reassured to find that the crew quarters were as starkly appointed as the rest of Bodie's craft. This was no sybarite's craft, but a working freighter. Relieved, Doyle forsook all interest in his new abode, and made his way to the bunk with something akin to desperation. Without asking permission, he lowered himself down, packages falling from nerveless hands. If there had not been a bunk, he would have collapsed onto the floor.
The company of so many humans, imposed upon him in the holding facility, had worn him down more damagingly than he had thought. Even now their errant and wholly overwhelming emotions seemed to linger like the stench of corruption clinging to something long dead. Coupled with that oppressive overload, the short journey from the prison by way of the the clothing store had added to the toll. Curled on his side, Doyle closed his eyes, waves of exhaustion crashing over him, too swamped in misery to wonder why Bodie was allowing him this respite.
"Here, Doyle. Drink this."
Jolted from his helpless descent into the sucking whirlpool of semi- consciousness, Doyle forced himself to look up at the man. He was too weak to struggle when Bodie sat on the edge of the bunk and lifted him in the crook of one strong arm. Almost nauseous with fatigue, he held onto consciousness just long enough to accept the proffered drink, frowning slightly as he swallowed it without question. Then startled, he tried to focus on the other man's face. "You know I'm Vauxan," he gasped. The emptied glass was rescued from rapidly slackening fingers. As warmth and darkness reclaimed him, Doyle felt a flurry of terror spread through his abdomen.
Bodie had given him no reason to fear--until now.
Sitting quietly in the pilot's seat, Bodie idly mulled the star field spread in disarrayed beauty before him. Sad, he mused, that it should be a sight so familiar that it had lost the urgency of wonder. In any case, he was distracted by other considerations at the moment, chief among them the man who slept as one dead in the cabin next to his in the main body of the ship.
Doyle had impressed him. Targeon had said that Doyle was stronger than he appeared, but Bodie had nevertheless been taken aback by the undernourished- looking man, who had yet stood tall and remote in the intake/outtake chamber. It had been Bodie's half-acknowledged hope that the Vauxan would put up a fight at the detention facility; that he would refuse to indenture himself to Bodie, and thereby relieve Bodie of his obligation. Based on what he thought he knew of Doyle, Bodie had assumed that Doyle's stay among the dregs of humankind would surely have stripped some of the self-possession from him.
And yet, the man had had the wits to pick up on Bodie's ruse with uncommon acuity. He had recognized the logic of going with a stranger as opposed to remaining in prison and facing almost certain insanity. Worse still must have been the prospect of being put on the block; though how Doyle had been foolish enough to incur charges of same-sex solicitation on that rathole of a planet, Bodie could not imagine--not given the Vauxan's intelligence and native ability.
Trumped up charges? Possibly--and at this point, immaterial. Doyle's fragile composure had won Bodie over in a heartbeat. From the original intention of doing no more than securing the man's freedom, he had leapfrogged to the decision of taking Doyle on altogether. There were reasons, of course: for all Doyle's carefully constructed facade, he was a man dangerously vulnerable. Left to himself in this condition, he was delectable prey; and Bodie had vowed to protect him.
He glanced up as a soft whirring of wings heralded the arrival of another of his mercy cases. "Had a look at him, did you?" he asked quietly, as the squat, multi-legged body of the sfang settled on his shoulder. He was rewarded by a gentle confusion of images sent skittering across his mind. For a moment he saw Doyle as the sfang must have seen him upon arrival: long- legged and lanky, with healthy musculature on a too-thin frame, and a profusion of dark curls surrounding a pale visage. "You didn't wake him?" And this time Bodie was shown the Vauxan's recumbent form, chest rising and falling to the rhythm of undisturbed respiration. Bodie grinned and turned his cheek against the creature's soft flank. An agile forelimb batted at his face as he resumed his perusal of the forward star field. "Don't get too enamored of him," Bodie warned good-naturedly, yet a little miffed at the sfang's ready acceptance of the other man. "He won't be around that long, if things go according to plan." The sfang shifted on his shoulder, bobbing challengingly on its long legs. "Sorry, Asper," he said firmly. "Two of us on this ship are more than enough."
The sfang hopped onto the back of the co-pilot's seat and there subsided into a bout of sulky preening. Ignoring him with the ease of long association, Bodie settled into the tedium of a full-scale systems check-out. For a while though, as was often the case when the sfang communicated something to him, the Vauxan's image remained in his mind, like the ghosting effect of burned-in phosphors on a cheap monitor screen. "Stupid bugger," Bodie sighed, and doggedly went on with his read-outs.
Several hours went by before the Vauxan awoke. During that time Bodie had looked in on him twice, just to assure himself that the man was sleeping normally. It was not unknown for Vauxans who had suffered severe emotional trauma to descend into a kind of coma. Although it was not an irrevocable state, treatment was most efficaciously begun at the outset. The second time Bodie had let himself into the small cabin, he had found Asper hunkered down on the man's pillow, it's tiny muzzle buried up to its four beady eyes in thick curls. Raising a brow at the tableau, Bodie had refrained from comment, pondering if sleeping Vauxans conjured up particularly soothing dreams for sfangi to feed upon. Assured that the suddenly ingratiating creature would let him know if the Vauxan required his assistance, he had gone back to the flight deck.
Asper was nowhere in evidence, however, when one of the console displays, programmed for that purpose, signalled the Vauxan's rousing. Bodie was already outside the cabin when Doyle began to stretch and make waking, snuffling noises. It was a moment before he spied Bodie, who stayed in the doorway, maintaining a reassuring distance. The round face exhibited only a trace of fear which was soon concealed beneath a mask of watchful caution.
Interpreting that play of expressions easily, Bodie made no effort to enter. "Get yourself cleaned up, and we'll talk. Think you can find your way to the flight deck?"
"I've been on freighters like this one before," Doyle said noncommittally.
"That's where you'll find me." Bodie hid his amusement at the other man's wariness but was quite unable to fault it. He doubted that he would be so composed if their situations were reversed. Overcoming the impulse to linger, he stepped out the door and turned on heel, his footfalls muffled by the padded floor.
Bodie was waiting when the Vauxan reached the flight deck a quarter of an hour later. Showered, and dressed in a simple, loose-fitting shirt and snug trousers, Doyle appeared much restored. He had lost the unfocussed look that had given him such a delicate air on Stepney. Yet Bodie sensed fear in him, amongst other, less readable, emotions; nonetheless, the Vauxan was making a valiant effort to keep his feelings well guarded.
Bodie gestured for the man to take the chair beside the pilot's station, but Doyle shook his head. "You've got a problem," he said baldly.
Taking his measure, Bodie said icily, "Is that so?"
Doyle gave his head another, and this time, impatient shake. "Not me. The ship. I could sense it coming up here. Something in the sub-relays."
"Impossible," Bodie said unequivocally. "I ran a complete systems check just before we took off."
"Including the sub-relays?" Doyle insisted. He was distracted, eyes darting from the console to Bodie's face, his uneasiness almost palpable for all that it was very well contained.
"The overcircuits are fail-safed," Bodie said, as if by rote. "Redundant. You can't miss a fault there. It's impossible."
Doyle inhaled sharply. "I'm telling you there is something wrong. Pull up the register for the starboard cargo hold. Subgroup 371."
Without another word, Bodie swung back to his terminal and accessed the appropriate register. It took a moment for the ship's computer to sift through the data he needed, but as the tiny figures scuttled across the screen, he grew gradually more and more engrossed. Fingers tripping across the keyboard, he stopped the scrolling at the appropriate read-out and swiftly scanned the data.
"The suppressors are failing," he said, almost conversationally. His eyes shot up to meet Doyle's. "That's palogene ore in there, y'know."
The Vauxan blinked. "Can you neutralize it?"
"I'm not sure," Bodie said, his thoughts following along the same path. Palogene ore was one of the most volatile minerals in the known universe; highly unstable, it required a crucially controlled environment to withstand the rigors of transportation in its natural state. With proper precautions it was no more dangerous an item than food products. But, should those safeguards fail, the palogene would rapidly go critical, and any vessel unfortunate enough to be cradling it in its holds would share its spectacular fate. Ironically, Bodie had taken on the load to "legitimize" his visit to Stepney, lest certain suspicious-minded individuals should question his motives. The fact that he would also be well reimbursed for making the trip-- and accordingly out nothing for rescuing Doyle--appeased his mercenary inclinations; presuming, of course, that he survived to deliver the palogene intact.
"This thing can only give me the block of subrelays. Can you pinpoint the assembly group?" Bodie asked, his voice betraying none of the adrenalin flooding his system.
Doyle nodded. "They're sheathed in organics. That's how I knew something was wrong to begin with; the organics are out of phase."
"Show me," Bodie ordered, shoving at the other man as he surged out of his seat.
Requiring no added encouragement, Doyle spun round and bolted down the corridor to the main interchange, Bodie fast on his heels. It took less than a minute, but Doyle was gasping for breath when he came to a halt outside the instrument panel which controlled access to the starboard hold.
The corridor from Doyle's quarters to the flight deck happened to pass this way, noted Bodie gratefully. As he looked on, Doyle began to run unsteady fingertips over the base of the panel. Even through metal alloy, he thought, astonished. Biting his lip to keep from speaking, he guessed that the Vauxan would not hold his silence any longer than necessary. Still, standing with empty hands while another dealt with the problem made Bodie very ill at ease.
"Here." The single word was a harsh rasp. Bodie marked the location of the long finger, then shouldered Doyle aside as he ripped the panel open. He swiftly found the spot and with extraordinary delicacy drew the board out. His practiced eyes found the weak unit at once. If he could replace the impaired link so that the rhythm of the suppressors was not affected, they might be able to increase the damping effect in time. If the palogene wasn't too far gone, they might even be able to save the whole consignment.
"I'll need a linker. There's a spares locker at the foot of the panel. Yeah--there. Hurry, damn it!" Bodie urged.
Doyle dropped to his heels and began a thorough search. Seconds passed, growing in leaps and bounds into a full minute as he pawed through the accessories bin.
"There aren't any," the other man said with terrible finality. He raised his head to look at Bodie. "Not in here, anyway."
Bodie's face went grimly pale. "Don't suppose you Vauxans can substitute as an organic link?"
He hadn't been serious; it was his penchant to offer black humor in moments of despair. Yet the serious green eyes turned inward as Doyle gave the notion full consideration. Then he shrugged. "Probably kill me," he commented, unperturbed. "But we're dead anyway, aren't we?"
Doyle straightened, then swayed. Bodie reached out reflexively to bolster him. "I wasn't--" Bodie began, but Doyle silenced him with a look.
"The organics will resume the link, if you can provide a coupling sheath. I didn't see any in the spares box. Do you have some?"
Bodie gave him a feral grin. "Damned expensive, those are. Of course they wouldn't be in the spares box. My cabin. Stay here." Bodie wheeled and ran toward his quarters, shouting over his shoulder, "And don't do anything stupid."
The staccato drumming of his feet racing through the corridors mimicked the rapid-fire pounding of Bodie's heart. At the back of his mind was the miserable certainty that he was wasting his time. He had seen the linkages and knew that they had already suffered too much decomposition to lend him the two or three minutes necessary to retrieve a new coupler. Yet he never hesitated, skidding into his cabin and almost toppling over as he made a right-angle turn just past the end of his bed. With one long stride, he came to stand before the wall behind his bedside table. Taking a precious five- second breath to steady himself, he stretched forth a hand and palmed the identification plate. A small door swung open, revealing the interior of a compact cubicle. Bodie snaked a couple of fingers inside and snatched up a tiny packet. In the next instant he was out the door and in the corridor, pelting back the same way he had come.
As he skidded round the corner, he felt something akin to a blow at sight of the Vauxan slumped forward over the dismantled panel, the assembly board held between shivering hands. "You bloody-minded--" He braked violently to avoid piling into the man. "Fool!" But he wasn't sure if he were castigating himself or the Vauxan. He fell to his knees, fingers as uncooperative as unwieldy stumps as he fought to extricate the back-up sheath from its protective casing. While he worked, he edged closer to the barely breathing Vauxan.
With the precision of an auto-surgeon, Bodie eased the sheath over the area bridged by Doyle's fingertips, then watched breathlessly as the organic material joined with its kin and began to reknit the rend in the linkage. Slowly, so slowly that Bodie feared he might face old age--or death--before the repair was complete, the unit re-formed. When he judged it safe to allow the organics to finish the job, he began to pry Doyle's rigid fingers from the frame of the board, fully aware when the other man's head drifted sideways to rest against his shoulder. Moving with elaborate care, Bodie shifted his legs out from under him so that he could cradle Doyle's now limp body in his arms, the slow passage of the slighter man's breath reassuringly warm and regular against his throat.
A minute passed, then another; Bodie knew he should pull up the read-outs and recheck the panel. But he was loathe to move, content for the moment to rest with his back pressed against the solid bulkhead, the thumb of one hand tracing a clover-leaf pattern on Doyle's collarbone, freshly washed curls ticklishly brushing the underside of his jaw.
"Doyle." He spoke in a normal tone, suspecting that the Vauxan would respond as well to gentleness as to its counterpart. "Doyle." Bodie rearranged the other man, settling him in the curve of his left arm while he took the rounded chin in the fingers of his right hand. "Can you hear me?" Cautiously, he jogged the tousled head from side to side. "I think it worked. You can come out of it now. Come on, Doyle."
So gradually it might have been his imagination, Bodie felt a faint stirring of resistance. "That's right, wake up," he said encouragingly. A rustling sound brought his eyes up sharply; it was the sfang. "Told you to stay in my cabin," he said shortly. The sfang paid him little attention as it plummeted down toward the Vauxan's head. When it was a few inches above the man's forehead, the sfang began to hover, the impossibly fast beat of its snow white wings stirring the man's soft curls and lifting them. Bodie was about to remonstrate the creature, when a tentative smile lifted the corners of Doyle's mouth. As Bodie watched in bewilderment, the Vauxan's lips parted, and he whispered, "Good; so good...." Then his eyes rolled open, hazy and disconnected. Bodie regarded him intently.
"How do you feel?" he asked, hushed.
Doyle took in his surroundings with vague curiousity. "Okay, I reckon. Who was that talking to me? Wasn't you; not your voice...."
"Get hold of yourself," Bodie warned him. He bent his head to indicate the articulated creature which was still fluttering above Doyle's left temple. "It's a sfang--but he won't harm you," he added hastily.
Doyle caught his breath, eyes wide and frozen upon the incredible apparition. "It's illegal to own those things," he managed at last.
"Yeah. I don't." Bodie smiled and hoisted the man into a sitting position. "Better now?"
Doyle slowly raised a hand to his head, never letting the attentive sfang out of his sight. "Hm. Don't think I'd like to try that again, though. Even if the palogene were going critical." His own words brought him up sharp. "What about the palogene, anyway?"
Bodie shrugged. "Haven't had a chance to look. Been sitting here with you, haven't I." With that he unceremoniously dumped his charge on the floor and clambered to his feet, disregarding the other man's grunted protest. "Should have blown by now, if the suppressors hadn't kicked back in," Bodie observed cheerfully. As he spoke, he refitted the board into the access panel and carefully resealed it. "Like to have another feel?"
Doyle gave him a reproachful look.
"Only joking. The sheath did the trick while you were off with the pixies. Thought I told you to wait."
"And if I had?"
"Yeah." Bodie took in the other man's artless sprawl with unfeigned admiration. "You didn't have to do that, though. Thanks."
"What else was I supposed to do?" Sarcasm edged Doyle's words. "My neck, too, y'know."
Bodie held out a hand. Still suspicious, Doyle nonetheless took it, needing the human's strength to regain his feet. He went stock still as something light and musky landed on his shoulder.
"He really won't hurt you," Bodie stated with certainty. "But if you'd rather...."
Doyle raised a hand, forestalling his offer. With infinite deliberateness, he brought his head round until he was practically nose to nose with the sfang. Swallowing hard, he faced it, the effort to do so clearly written on his tensed visage.
The sfang angled two of its forepaws upward and placed them on either side of Doyle's nose. It rocked forward and prodded the man's upper lip with its silken muzzle. Faintly stifled, Doyle shivered. As if in response, the sfang launched itself off his shoulder, moving with incredible speed past Bodie's head. Doyle produced a heartfelt exhalation. "That's some pet," he muttered raggedly.
Bodie clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Asper wouldn't like that; considers himself my co-pilot, y'see." He gave Doyle a push down the corridor. "Come on; let's see what's happened to the palogene. Then we'll talk."
After rechecking the linkages and initiating a sub-relay systems verification, they eventually ended up in the small galley, facing one another over a narrow table. Food littered the surface, quickly thrown together by Bodie and laid out with the terse command, "Eat." Doyle had dismissed most of it at first glance; but, as with the drink Bodie had greeted him aboard ship with, much of it was perfectly acceptable Vauxan fare. After a slow start, his ravenous appetite took over. Bodie picked at a small plate of fruit and cheese, washing it down with soul-intimidating tea. Having served on long- haul freighters and military vessels, he appreciated the use of the Gates which allowed him to carry fresh as well as preserved food stocks.
Doyle finally appeared to be slowing down. Having picked the last specks of his meal from the plate, he took a long, appreciative slurp of tea. "Probably one of the few human beverages worth drinking," he said by way of compliment.
Bodie magnanimously overlooked the insult.
"So why did you buy my marker?" Doyle asked without preamble.
"You're a Vauxan," Bodie replied, working his tongue around a wonderfully sour grape.
Doyle leaned forward on his elbows. "There's no way you could have known that. They didn't know on Stepney."
"You mean, they didn't verify it when you said you were human. Why tell them that anyway?" Bodie asked, neatly turning the conversation around.
A sardonic laugh escaped Doyle's throat. "Most people wouldn't believe me if I said I was."
"Because you don't look Vauxan," Bodie suggested astutely. "And yet you were in the company of one; very unusual for humans to do that."
In the act of lifting the mug to his mouth, Doyle paused and studied Bodie over the rim. "How can you know that? Moor was gone a week before you arrived. Or did Warden Carnall--"
"No. You're listed with Central as a Vauxan; not a human. I was looking for a Vauxan."
Bewilderment rippled over the Vauxan's mobile features. He pursed his lips, dark brows drawn forward. "That isn't common access."
"True." Another grape went into the man's mouth; it was caught between sharp teeth and split. "But there are ways to get round it."
"Obviously. You haven't said why."
Bodie lifted his cup and took a long swallow. "You won't like it: I need your services as an empath."
Doyle stared at the other man blankly. "That's against the Convention. Whatever it is you want me to do, if you're caught--if I'm caught--we could be put away for a lot longer than I would have spent in that miserable little pit you just took me out of. And in a lot worse company."
"Mine, for example," Bodie admitted, unruffled.
For an instant the angry frustration Bodie had witnessed in the intake/outtake chamber on Stepney returned to darken Doyle's face. "I'm a Vauxan, Bodie. You have no understanding. We have proscriptions against--"
Bodie interrupted him. "You're right; I don't. But I'm not stupid, either. Stupid means getting caught. Either of us. You do this job with me and you'll be wealthy--and free. I'll even help you track down your lover. This...Moor you mentioned."
It was like watching a block wall go up. Doyle's expression hardened; he studied the human opposite him with a penetrating gaze.
"I have the means to find him," Bodie argued smoothly. "Illegal access or not, it's still access, y'know. And after that, you may go wherever you wish. Central will carry you on its lists as a free man."
"Why me?" Doyle's voice cracked.
"No grand scheme, lad," Bodie replied. "You were there and so was I. Simple, really."
"Well, you may have made a big mistake. I'm a--" Breaking off abruptly, Doyle stared down into the depths of his mug.
"Half-breed?" Bodie finished when Doyle made no effort to continue.
Bright green eyes flashed sparks. "Central has that?" This time logic overrode emotion, and he gritted his teeth.
Bodie bit into a large chunk of cheese. "That must mean 'yes'." At Doyle's stunned look, he shrugged. "Rather obvious, mate. You were in Vauxan company, have Vauxan skills, yet can pass for human. Bloody obvious, if you ask me."
"You--" Doyle pushed away from the table with sudden force, rising indignantly to his feet. Holding onto the edge of the table, he said coldly, "I haven't got a choice, have I? I did agree to go with you. But I bet you guessed what happens when Vauxans are stuck in human company. You knew I'd sign myself over."
Unapologetically, Bodie said, "It seemed likely, yes."
Doyle bared his teeth. "So what do I have to do?"
Dark lashes shielded Bodie's gaze as he made a thorough examination of a small cube of cheese. "For now, get some rest. You might feel better after you do. In the morning, you can start servicing the organics--since you seem to have a knack for it."
"A 'knack'," Doyle repeated hollowly. "And then?"
"Not to worry. We'll be together for while yet, so you might as well get used to the idea." He raised his head, revealing deep, rich blue eyes. "But I meant what I said. When this is over, I'll help you go wherever you want."
"Right. Just don't expect me to be grateful."
Bodie snorted coarsely. "I could remind you of where you were only a short time ago."
Letting go of the table, Doyle slowly straightened. "And you would be right." His eyes closed for just an instant; when he spoke, his voice was hollow with defeat. "You promise, Bodie?
"Yes," the human replied without hesitation. "Stop worrying. We enter the Aldwych Gate in a couple of hours; from there we're only a few days from our first stop. After we drop off the palogene, we'll be heading out again. But no more than a month, and I give you my word, you will be a free man."
Doyle seemed to be studying Bodie's face for the truth. Then he bowed his head briefly in resignation. "All right. If it's all the same to you, I'd like to go my quarters now."
Doyle headed for the hatchway to the connecting corridor, his gait stiff with resentment and fury.
Bodie murmured, "Doyle."
The Vauxan halted mid-stride.
"Thanks again for what you did with the organics."
Doyle might not have heard him for all the response he gave. A few seconds later, Bodie sat alone at the table, glancing over with sharp irritation as the sfang plopped down beside the plate Doyle had forsaken. He watched without joy as the small creature discovered that nothing edible remained. Sighing softly, Bodie pushed his own dish toward the animal. "Go ahead. You'll just get sick, as usual." And with that, he held out the forgotten chunk of cheese, and waited while tiny teeth gnawed delicately at the reddish-yellow morsel.
Bodie's ship, FG BEHEMOTH, penetrated Aldwych Gate according to schedule. As was the custom among smugglers and others of even less savory repute, it was not uncommon to petition for entry based upon perfectly sound authorization--though, once admitted there were any number of places a dubiously intentioned person might go.
Their time in outspace was quite short in relation to the massive distances covered. The discovery of the Gates and the introduction of organics to space drive technology had thrown open the heart of the galaxy to mankind--and many other 'kinds'--several centuries before Bodie's time. Since then exploration, propelled by the universal mechanics of greed and ambition, had carried on apace. The Vauxans had been among the first to join the Consortium along with the Terrans who had first proposed it. Now the member species numbered in two digits, and continued to grow in slow but steady increments.
As all spreading cultures tended to encourage the less conventional members of their populations to support them via often inventive methods, people like Bodie had become representative of a type of adventurer that homeworld policy could not condone, yet relied upon to a great extent to keep their colonial offspring alive.
Abused and unhappy, he had abandoned his homeworld when in his teens, stowing away on a transport to a military colony that quickly made use of his native intelligence and sturdy frame. He had come into manhood in the service of his planet, seeing enough action and spilled blood to satisfy the most rabid of would-be mercenaries. Determining that warfare did not live up to its appeal in the face of raw destruction, he had left as soon as his first enlistment was up. Using what he had saved in the service, he had bought a small interest in a growing company that supplied planethoppers to the rim worlds. A subsidiary of the company trained and engaged pilots to man those same ships, ferrying needed supplies and people to ever-increasing outposts.
The education he had acquired during this period was a good one, despite the high boredom factor. After a couple of years, Bodie had bailed out, far richer and wiser than when he had started. By then he had managed to accrue enough in the way of funds to purchase a small hopper of his own and to take on missions for various, less-than-legal businesses, which for reasons best known to themselves found it necessary to contravene the laws of any particular realm they happened to be in.
Bodie had found this method of making a living far more suited to his tastes. Clients learned that not only was he exceptionally talented and skilled, but he also maintained a code of personal honor that he would not transgress. Accordingly, he was sought out with gratifying regularity, making a discreet, if occasionally embellished reputation for himself that kept him from wanting for anything. If there was something lacking in his personal life, he refused to credit it. Since acquiring Asper, he had decided that he needed nothing more in the way of companionship. Certainly nothing humanoid. And his sexual needs were easily filled: along with his wit and well-developed body, he was endowed with a deceptively boyish face that had never repelled a possible bedmate. He put into port often enough to ensure that that was never a problem. Failing that, he was well adept in the use of either--or both-- hands.
Only one person had ever been allowed to get under Bodie's defenses. Curiously, that one had not even been a lover, but a friend--and a Vauxan. Bodie never knew why it should have been Targeon who had so totally earned his loyalty and respect.
The circumstances under which they had met--a spaceport brothel that was trafficking in kidnapped Vauxans--had not heralded particularly auspicious beginnings. Bodie had almost killed Targeon, mistakenly believing the Vauxan responsible for the vicious beating of one of the human men whose services Bodie had contracted for in the past. As it transpired, Targeon was actually in the midst of instigating a revolt amongst the brothel's ill-treated inmates; with Bodie's eventual, whole-hearted assistance, he had succeeded. In doing so, unfortunately, they had also brought the wrath of a largish crime syndicate down on their heads soon thereafter. They had barely escaped with their lives--and several prostitutes, many of whom were not entirely pleased with being rescued.
To some extent, certainly, their shared sense of ethics and personal morals was a factor. Whatever the reasons, they had remained close friends and partners for several years, even after Targeon had married and begun to devote more time to his family.
It had, in fact, been Bodie who had rendered comfort when Targeon's young wife and daughter were killed in a freak ground accident. After that the Vauxan had seemed to lose his focus on life. A year had passed, and Bodie had believed Targeon was regaining some of his appreciation of life when cruel happenstance struck again. Bodie had been with the Vauxan then as well, only a few feet away when a balky skimmer engine blew. Mortally wounded, Targeon had clung to Bodie in his final moments. There had been nothing Bodie could do, and both had known it. Targeon had asked one thing of him, never having asked anything of Bodie before. And Bodie had agreed, binding himself to a promise that in intervening years he often wished he had never made.
He had been twenty-eight years old then. After seeing to the disposal of Targeon's remains, Bodie had continued as he had done before--before the time he had cared. Since then life had been simple and relatively uncomplicated. Five years had passed and his vow had never been put to the test.
Until the day Ray Doyle turned up in Stepney Prison.
The FG BEHEMOTH was several hours out from Aldwych Gate when Doyle ventured onto the flight deck. Bodie looked up as though nothing untoward had transpired between them, calmly informing the Vauxan of their whereabouts. He even managed to contain his speculation at sight of the sfang closely nestled on the other's shoulder, perched half-hidden under soft auburn curls.
"Where are you taking the palogene?" Doyle asked. As he spoke, he slowly climbed into the station next to Bodie's, his movements exaggeratedly careful so as not to unseat the sfang.
"Dagenham," Bodie replied. "Ever been there?"
"Heard of it. Even less developed than Stepney. Whoever would want the stuff there?"
"It's used in their agricultural industry."
"Palogene?" Doyle's forehead wrinkled with bemusement. "An unstable product like that? What do they do with it: blow holes out of the ground?"
"Actually, no. Mixed with certain bonding agents, it becomes a most extraordinary soil stimulant."
Doyle gave a rude chuckle at Bodie's prim delivery. "What, fertilizer?"
There was an answering twinkle in Bodie's eyes. "Got it in one. Makes the crops grow huge and healthy and feeds ten times as many people."
The Vauxan sighed dramatically. "For that I nearly mushed my brains?"
"In a way," Bodie smirked.
Doyle raked a hand through his hair, disrupting tumbling dark curls that plainly rarely knew the management of a comb. "Pretty stupid, eh?" he said with some pugnacity.
"Very un-stupid, actually. We'd be dead now, if it hadn't been for you." The unemphatic statement conveyed Bodie's gratitude more clearly than a thousand words.
"You already said 'thank you'." A small crease appeared between the wide- set eyes. "Seems odd, though, that the linkages should break down just there." There was as much question as speculation in Doyle's tone.
"Had it checked out just before collecting you," Bodie granted. "Could have been sabotage--but why bother? Although being that it was palogene I'm hauling, I reckon there might be a few splinter groups who wouldn't be unhappy to see it go up. Or maybe just me...."
"Got a few enemies?" Doyle asked.
"Don't think a person could count himself alive in this business, if he didn't have at least one or two." He took the question under close consideration. "Although I don't often visit that particular pesthole. Never could tolerate the petty administration."
"Yeah," Doyle said under his breath. "That makes two of us."
Ostensibly mulling the chart on the screen, Bodie commented, "The charges brought against you were for solicitation and resistance of arrest. What's the matter--were you bored?"
Without turning his attention from the VDU, Bodie was nevertheless fully aware of the Vauxan's sudden cessation of all motion, the lanky form sitting unnaturally upright in the co-pilot's chair. He also knew, seconds later, when Doyle deliberately shed the coiling tension generated by Bodie's question, and forcibly relaxed himself. Only then did Bodie look at him.
"No," Doyle said coolly, although his eyes were simmering. "Not bored. Just thick."
"So what happened?" The low, unjudging voice invited a response.
Doyle arched a brow at him. "Wasn't that in the report as well?"
"No. I expect I could read between the lines--if I knew you better. I do know them--or bureaucratic ciphers like them. Had something to do with your companion, though, didn't it? Was he set up?"
Doyle pursed his lips and nodded, faintly mollified. "Moor was nicked for trying to stop a fight. The bastards who were the cause of it claimed he started the whole thing. Being an off-worlder--and a Vauxan--he was prime fall material." Taking in a sharp breath, he instantly stilled when the quiescent sfang loudly clicked its teeth in annoyance. Guardedly, he continued, "I found the appeals mandarin in the pub round the corner the next afternoon; tried to explain what had happened before Moor could be taken to court." An unpleasant smile tugged at Doyle's mouth. "He was willing to get the charges removed--if I was willing to engage in a little 'recreational activity' with him." Cheeks reddening with remembered humiliation and rage, Doyle finished, "A streetbeater came in just then and our little official turned injured party. Made accusations; I denied them. Next thing I knew I was being processed in."
Bodie inquired very softly, "Would you have?"
Doyle's head snapped up. "Would I have what?" He reflexively put up a hand to balance the sfang, oblivious to the creature's ferocious chittering.
"What he asked. For your lover?"
Doyle glared at him. "No. And not because Moor isn't worth it. It would have been a waste of time and effort, that's all. He would have used me and Moor would have been taken before the court anyway."
"You worried about him?"
All expression vanished from Doyle's face. "What d'you think?"
"Well, you can stop." Bodie gestured toward the computer terminal. "I've already traced him. He's very skilled in the repair and maintenance of ground equipment. The fellow who picked him up at auction has gone to Darius. Expects to be there for about a month."
Hope flickered in skeptical green eyes. "He's all right, then?"
"Perfectly. He's even back on the Central Register. Available as soon as the debt is paid off."
Doyle's head bent slowly forward. "Thanks, Bodie." He peered uncertainly at the human from under thick, dark lashes.
"I'm curious, though," Bodie murmured. "Why was he put on the block and you weren't?"
"Timing," Doyle said, distaste thick in his voice. "It fell on the day I was being processed in. My turn would've come later this week."
"Lucky you." Before Doyle could muster a retort, Bodie pointed at Doyle's shoulder. "Getting on rather well with the local assassin, aren't you?"
"This baggage?" Doyle was startled into an unguarded grin. It took years off his worn face, easing the hard lines etched about the full lips and removing shadows from the gamin eyes. "He seems to think we're kin," he said wryly. "Haven't been able to convince him otherwise."
Bodie snorted. "Maybe you are." He stepped down from the pilot's chair and achingly straightened. "Can you man the fort for a while? I'd like to get something to drink."
Doyle tossed a quick glance at the control panel. "You don't have the automatics on."
"I've seen your form, mate," Bodie advised him, studying his companion from the portal. "You can fly this thing every bit as well as I can." With that he stepped through the hatchway, leaving Doyle with his mouth ajar.
As Bodie headed down the corridor to the galley, he tried to pin down the cause for the vague uneasiness that lurked within him. On the surface, nothing had been said, no confidences exchanged that would account for this instinctive erecting of shields. Oh, he recognized the signs within himself; but it had happened so seldom that he found it difficult to give credence to the possibility of his proving susceptible now.
Well, he wouldn't be. Not now; not ever. His fledgling attraction to the Vauxan was easily rationalized away: he hadn't slept with anyone in weeks. And Doyle was attractive, Bodie had to admit that. Long, well-defined legs, fluidly-muscled body, a face that commanded attention.... Bodie found himself picturing Doyle's mouth, that long upper lip, the beckoning softness of pink tongue-tip, the welcoming moist warmth where it resided.... He inhaled raggedly, more than a little taken aback to discover just how far gone he already was.
So. The Vauxan was getting to him. Well, he could handle that. Lust could be ignored. And even if Bodie were tempted to try his hand, Doyle would see to it that he kept his distance. For there was, after all, Moor; and Bodie had no reason to doubt that Doyle was not devoted to the man.
Reaching the galley, Bodie started the kettle going. A month, he had told Doyle. And so a month it would be--one way or another.
Over the next two days they fell into a comfortable routine. Doyle proved gratifyingly adept at almost all aspects of freighter travel. As his strength and spirit returned, he spent far less time in his cabin and a good deal more of it at various stations around the ship, performing the duties Bodie had assigned to him the day of his arrival. Bodie often encountered him hunched beside a control panel, performing routine maintenance checks. Not that there was much requiring his skills, for Bodie had always been meticulous in the care of his ship, having nothing but contempt for those foolish enough to rely on chance or hope when a crisis developed.
Yet it pleased him to see the Vauxan diligently ensconced at one station or another, often sporting the unlikely halo of a sfang circling overhead-- when it was not affixed to a shoulder. Never given to blind trust, Bodie had naturally checked over Doyle's initial efforts, and had been rewarded to find that Doyle was as well-trained as he was intelligent; everything Targeon had said he was. Accordingly, Bodie forbade him no access.
For himself, having come to an awareness of his new-born desire for the Vauxan, Bodie chose simply to block the feeling out. When he was with Doyle, there was nothing to betray that he had ever considered him anything more than a commodity--or more truthfully, a pleasant, but temporary companion.
Doyle did not question Bodie's attitude, having quickly learned that the man could be distant or friendly, sensitive or callous, all in the space of a heartbeat. He accepted that they were allied merely for the sake of Bodie's venture, yet ceded the man a respect that he rarely gave freely. Bodie had treated him well so far; far better than chronic indenturers at Stepney Prison had led Doyle to expect. He might have been Bodie's employee rather than his slave--for a prisoner who opted for indenture was nothing else, no matter how much the Consortium attempted to circumscribe the usage of sentient beings under such circumstances.
It had been a gamble in that ugly, cold room at the detention facility where they had first come face to face, to pretend he knew the dark stranger with the fraudulently guileless blue eyes. Since finding himself warded to him, the Vauxan often wondered at the human's faultless timing. Had Bodie arrived a day earlier, perhaps even hours earlier, would Doyle have been as ready to partake in the deception? But the answer to that was obvious. Every second spent in the howling company of those imprisoned in the rudimentary facility had been like a stone scraping against already flayed skin.
Humans were not known for their love of Vauxans. They did not understand their empathic abilities, nor often respect their different societal patternings. Even less could they appreciate the apparently devastating effect that wilful emotions could wreak on improperly protected Vauxans. No matter how proficient in the ways of shielding themselves, his kind found large groups of humans empathically too promiscuous to cope with, and therefore tended, when possible, to look on from a safe distance.
But how could Bodie have known? For that was another notable aspect of human intercourse with Vauxan culture: humans had little desire to learn about their fellow humanoids. They were historically selfish and self-serving, and that trait had not diminished greatly with the passing centuries.
The same could not be said for Vauxans, who often gave of themselves to the point of self-detriment. Although biologically basically the same as humans, in their evolutionary process Vauxans had developed a quirk in the cerebral cortex that enabled them to communicate among their own kind almost telepathically. Since people, even Vauxans, rarely expressed their innermost thoughts in actual words, their communication was more on an empathic level than an exchange of direct information. Beyond that, they had the ability to heal one another by a sharing of energy--dangerous to the one offering aid if the injured party were unable to enjoin any control. Not surprisingly, social functions, including mating rituals, were considerably different from human customs.
Somehow, Bodie seemed to comprehend all that, and acted accordingly. He was one of the very few humans with whom Doyle could be psychically at ease. When they shared their mealtime in the galley, even if their conversation was desultory, there was none of the emotional overload that Doyle had come to associate with humankind. Yet because Bodie implied through his body language, and his actions, that he preferred solitude, Doyle was happy to entertain himself. When he had agreed to be placed in this man's custody, he had not known what might be expected of him. He believed now that it was only to do Bodie's job--whatever that job was--without being made to debase himself, as well.
There would come a time, however, when Doyle fully intended to ask Bodie why he had been searching in that particular sector for a Vauxan empath, when it was well known that Vauxans rarely strayed far from their homeworld; and why, too, Bodie should confer his trust upon a total stranger, when Bodie demonstratively took nothing--and presumably no one--on faith alone.
They were less than four hours from Dagenham when Doyle was roused from a doze in his cabin by the human's arrival at his door. What he had come to recognize as Bodie's trademark presence interrupted his sleep as surely as a touch on the shoulder.
He sat up smartly, wiping his eyes with one hand and pulling the folds of his shirt together across his chest with the other. "What is it?" he asked.
A dry rustling announced the arrival of the sfang. It settled briefly on Bodie's forearm then darted across the room to land between Doyle's legs. The Vauxan tweaked the narrow muzzle very gently, bestowing the creature with a smile of welcome. Then he froze as a curious sensation slithered into his gut. Knowing with total certainty that it had not come from within, nor from the sfang, Doyle raised stunned eyes to the human. But Bodie's expression was unchanged, wearing its customary mask of idle amusement. As instantly as it had become evident, the feeling was gone, and Doyle wondered wildly if he had imagined it.
"You all right?" Bodie asked.
In his bemusement, Doyle could not reply. Despite his training and own code of ethics, he sent out a questing pulse. He did not believe for an instant that he had fantasized that jolt of lust. But Bodie was very good at maintaining a facade: Doyle picked up nothing. "Yeah," he breathed. "What d'you want?"
"Thought you'd like to see how the palogene is primed." Bodie unfolded his arms and cocked his head at the Vauxan.
"Prime it? You do that onboard?"
"Part of the deal," Bodie answered. "Saves them the risk; increases my end of the profit."
"Or vice versa," Doyle parried.
Bodie's mouth curled into a crooked grin. "As you say." He waved a hand. "Don't need your help, if you'd rather not."
But Doyle was genuinely grateful. "No. I'd love to learn. Could come in useful someday."
"Come along, then."
The Vauxan vaulted off the bed, setting his clothing to rights as he followed at a comfortable pace in the wake of the bigger man. They were much of a stance; but Bodie had an inch over him, and considerably more in overall bulk. Not that he carried any excess weight, Doyle decided, watching the human stride down the corridor with almost militaristic economy of motion. For all that Bodie was solidly formed, everything was arranged with compact efficiency.
With the sfang zooming back and forth between them, performing fascinating pirouettes in mid-air, the two men progressed to the control panel outside the starboard cargo hold. Doyle drew a face at sight of it, not much liking to recall his brief communion with the organics links there.
"Settle down, Asper," Bodie ordered quietly. Immediately, the sfang homed in on his shoulder and assumed its post there. Bodie stepped to one side and invited Doyle to join him with a quirk of his finger.
"I've been wanting to ask you--how did you get him?" Doyle asked diffidently, half-expecting Bodie to tell him it was none of his business.
But instead of irritation, cagey humor played about Bodie's eyes. "You mean before it got to me first?"
"Something like that, yeah."
Bodie rested his forearm against the locking bar on the hatchway, making himself comfortable. "Was leading a group out of the jungle on Morden. Ever been there?"
Doyle shook his head.
"Well, it's a sort of tourist resort, one of the rim worlds. People go for cheap thrills. The place is really fairly civilized; most of the deadlies have been removed or eliminated. Humankind will out, and all that." This last was spoken with more irony than sarcasm, despite the cold truth of the words. "Sfangi are everywhere, y'know. Not long after they were first discovered on their own planet, someone got the bright idea of using them as biological weapons. They were transported to labs and bred in hordes." He ruffled the velvet feathers under the creature's snout. "The sfangi didn't mind that; they were more than willing to reproduce, even under those conditions. But it wasn't long before some got out. And they weren't nearly as stupid as the idiots who found them."
"Nobody knew they were intelligent?"
Bodie made a rude noise. "Not likely, when most encounters between sfangi and anything else ended up with the 'anything else' rather profoundly dead. Ever seen how they kill?"
Doyle shook his head again. "I've heard about it, though. They excrete some kind of acid when they're disturbed. The acid causes all the affected molecules to lose their bonds, then to reform as one amorphous substance."
The blue of Bodie's eyes deepened with repressed amusement. "'One amorphous substance.' I like that. Ever consider supporting yourself as a media reporter?" Bodie ran his finger down the sfang's throat, encouraging a soft whuffling sound of contentment. "Their favorite site of attack is the face."
"Yeah. My brother liked to tell me scary stories when I was a boy. Wanted to see if he could frighten the spite out of me. Worked, too; at least the stories about sfangi did." Doyle grimaced, remembering the loving detail that had gone into the description of a victim's desperate attempts to breathe through a nose and mouth sealed over with one's own flesh. "So how come you still have yours? Face, I mean."
"Back on Morden...." Bodie began with mock rebuke at being interrupted, "We flushed out a small nest of these fellas. Of course we were equipped. If you're fast, you can kill 'em before they can get to you."
Doyle eyed the other man with new respect. "You're that fast?"
"Was then, anyway," Bodie affirmed without a hint of arrogance. "Haven't had much excuse to practice in recent years. One of our group was killed; one seriously injured. Got them all back to base, then I returned alone. I intended to see that all the other sfangi--if there were any more--were put down, as well."
The Vauxan was unaware of the frown of sympathy that tightened his lips.
"There were only two. One was still alive--barely. Might have been this one's mother." Bodie stroked the now quiescent sfang with a gentle forefinger. "Asper was caught half underneath, almost green with the other's blood. It was making this awful noise, rather like a kitten crying." He looked across at Doyle, who tried to temper his expression. Surprisingly, Bodie said, "Bet you've never seen one of those!"
Doyle blinked hard, pitching his voice for normality. "Thought they were extinct."
"Almost. Anyway, I put the other one out of its misery and took the little feller out. Barely fit into my hand and very weak, it was." The words were spoken softly. Doyle could easily picture the tiny, helpless sfang and the regret that must have filled the human at that moment. "Thought I was going to have to kill it, too. But it did something strange; sent weird swirling images into my mind--wanting...needing.... It was just an infant, of course. I think, in a way, Asper impressed himself on me. Maybe I did the same thing to him, poor beggar."
Doyle was unaware of the warmth of his expression, until Bodie protested, "Don't look at me like that," he said gruffly. "You'd have done the same."
At once undertaking to bring his features under control, Doyle said amiably, "Must have been a nuisance learning what to feed him; how to keep him healthy; all that."
Bodie produced a grating sound that passed for a chuckle. "He taught me quickly enough. As he grew older we learned to understand each other better. We can communicate quite well most of the time now."
"You knew he wouldn't hurt me when I came onboard. You warned him I was coming, didn't you?"
"Of course. 'S not wise to surprise a sfang."
"Even one that loves you?" Doyle queried ingenuously.
Bodie swung back to the control panel, Doyle's fanciful question ignored. "Come on, old son. Let's get stuck in it."
They spent the following hour running a systems drill, through which Bodie walked Doyle one maneuver at a time. Afterward, the Vauxan tensely implemented the exercise himself, religiously following Bodie's instructions; quick to make a query if he were uncertain of any step along the way. They were in the last phase when a steady bleep came over the intercom. Doyle dismissed it, recognizing it as the communications band signalling access.
"Someone wants us." The bite in Bodie's voice indicated that the prospect did not particularly appeal. "Close dispersers--and end sequence." He laid a palm against Doyle's back. "Well done. If I didn't know better, I'd think you'd done that before."
Doyle grinned at him, displaying a chipped tooth in the fullness of his smile. He was inordinately conscious of the other man's nearness and touch; it was pleasantly cool to his Vauxan heat.
Bodie let his hand slip away. "Come on, sunshine. It's probably the community leader wanting to know if we'll be on time."
Rather than route the call to the nearest terminal, Bodie went to the flight deck. "This is FG BEHEMOTH," he announced into the communicator. "Identify yourself, please."
"FG BEHEMOTH, this is Dagenham. Principal Dubchek speaking." Foregoing standard protocol, the leader of Dagenham went on, "Have you primed the palogene?"
"Just completed, Principal. It'll be ready for delivery and general dispersion in under two hours."
A sound very like a sigh came over the open channel. "We have developed problems on this end. Is there no way to reverse the procedure?"
Bodie raised a brow. "Afraid not. Once the palogene has been restructured, there is nothing we can do. What's the difficulty?"
"Two of our pilots have been put out of service by a flitter accident. We need at least three."
Bodie's voice was sympathetic, but unwavering. "We will transport the consignment, just as instructed, Principal. What you do with it is not our concern," he reminded her.
"Yes, I do know. What is your anticipated time of arrival?"
Bodie consulted the chrono mounted on the panel. "Precisely one hour, ten minutes."
"We will meet you at the designated grid. Dubchek out."
Bodie severed the link with a flick of the thumb, then sat back in his seat with a scowl on his face.
"Surely they have more than three pilots!" Doyle mused aloud.
"You would think so. Especially when the economy of their homeworld depends on them." The tips of Bodie's fingers beat a tattoo on the padded arm-rest.
"Couldn't they call for replacements?" The Vauxan shooed the sfang off the other seat with easy presumption, then stretched out a forearm and waited for Asper to land. Crooking his arm, he rubbed his cheek against the creature; the sfang leaned with pleasure into the nuzzling caress.
"Wouldn't do them any good," Bodie explained curtly. "The stuff is most effective when applied within fifteen hours of transition."
Doyle lifted the sfang to his shoulder. "Seems a shame," he declared.
"It is a shame. We'll get paid, but a lot of their people will starve. It's a pioneering planet, dependent on the crops they produce themselves. They don't have any resources to fall back on if something doesn't go right."
"I see," Doyle said, wondering what had caused Bodie's suddenly antagonistic manner.
The human pushed himself out of the chair. At that angle he seemed very large and powerful. "I'm going to my quarters," he announced. "I'll be back in time to make the approach."
"All right." Doyle watched the sturdy back disappear through the hatch, wondering at the sharp change in Bodie's mood. The people of Dagenham would suffer, but Bodie would be paid. Why should he care? Or did he? Doyle could not put his finger on what it was that occasionally set Bodie off, but he had the increasingly worrisome feeling that it had something to do with him.
Principal Dubchek and her group were waiting at the docking bay when the FG BEHEMOTH closed down her engines. Bodie dropped the ramp and, followed by the Vauxan, strode out to meet her.
She greeted him formally. An older woman, the leader of Dagenham was inarguably attractive, with thick blonde hair that fell in waves around a heart-shaped face. Intelligent blue eyes, wearily resigned, met his. "I wish we could have welcomed you under better circumstances," she said candidly. "To incur so much risk and expense on both our parts, only to fail is most bitter."
"You'll excuse me if I speak bluntly, Principal, but I find it astonishing that you have only three pilots who could deliver the palogene to your agri- fields--only to allow two of them to be incapacitated just when they were most needed."
The woman flushed, bright spots of color blooming in her cheeks. "We do have more pilots, of course. But only three are trained in the use of Borg- 8s. If you are familiar with them, you know that they require a special class rating. None of our other pilots are qualified. It would be suicide to send them out."
"I understand." Bodie hesitated, as though there were something more he wished to say. He spied the transport moving into position along the starboard side of the FG BEHEMOTH and addressed the obvious. "You're ready to unload. I'll break the seals and align the ramp."
"Of course. I have your payment." She held up a small disk.
"As agreed." Then he was on his way back into the ship, Doyle a few steps behind.
Bodie activated the controls from the flight deck, monitoring the process via the electronic displays. The huge container was moved out of the ship and transferred to the waiting transport with smooth efficiency. When he was satisfied that all was clear, Bodie shut the mechanism off, and twisted in his seat, preparatory to leaving.
He came face to face with Doyle. "You can fly a Borg-8." The quietly stated words fell just shy of accusation.
Bodie made no effort to deny it. "Of course. According to your form, so can you."
"You want to help them."
A rebellious muscle tugged Bodie's mouth into a sneer. "Do I? Why don't you offer, if you're so keen to stick your neck out?"
The Vauxan went very still. Then he produced a short, mirthless laugh. "Belong to you, don't I? Can't offer my services to anyone without your permission."
After a long, hard look at the other man, Bodie's lashes fell, shuttering his expression. "That's true," he acknowledged. "Do you want it? My permission, that is?"
Doyle shoved his hands into his back pockets, chin rising. "Guess I do," he replied testily. "Wouldn't hurt you to help as well." Challenge glittered in slanted eyes that seemed inordinately green, and seductively deep in the dim lighting of the flight deck.
Wondering with dismay what was happening to his resolve, Bodie felt himself melting into those inviting depths. It was their enforced closeness, of course. The ever increasing need to make love to someone, to enclose another warm body in his arms, to share his release....
He wrenched his thoughts back onto track. "Why not?" he said, reassured to sound so quintessentially normal, when quite the opposite was true. "Always been a do-gooder," he asked peevishly, brushing past the Vauxan as though contact with him meant nothing. "Or is this a development of impending old age?"
Doyle chuckled huskily. "Practically the same age as you, old man--give or take a year. Don't worry; it won't ruin your reputation. I won't tell, if you won't."
"You talk too much," Bodie said unkindly.
The Borg-8 was not an agile vessel. Over the next eight hours, human and Vauxan alike were reminded in specific detail why the contrary machines were among the most hated of all lifting-craft. Built more for function than for grace, they demanded constant attention and a deft touch that had to be both gentle and dictatorial. For all that, there was a kind of crazy joy associated with the ability to handle a Borg-8 well; and Bodie and Doyle could make it do things that most pilots would never have dared to attempt.
They operated vast distances apart, each ship dispensing a fine, misty substance, which was electrostatically treated to obtain maximum soil absorption. Keeping track of one another via their tracers and through their communicators, they flew in the rarefied reaches of the upper atmosphere, depending in large part on the seasonally turbulent cloud formations to aid their efforts.
The third pilot performed creditably, without attempting the ostentatious maneuvers the two visitors coaxed out of their flyers. He communicated his admiration, but was quick to warn of retribution should either of them add more than soil stimulant to the ground below.
At last the roaring engines were shut off and the three pilots were clambering out of the claustrophobic interiors of the small crafts. A crowd of people lined the landing field, waving and shouting. Doyle raised his brows at Bodie as they fell into step. "You're a hero," he said blandly, virtually shouting himself in order to be heard over the din.
"I'm a tired hero," Bodie responded unenthusiastically.
Doyle just grinned and fell silent as they were directed to the waiting ground car.
Principal Dubchek was effusive with her thanks, pleading that the two men stay long enough to be feted by the people of Dagenham. There was no question of offering more; both men had understood that at the outset. Bodie flicked a meaningful look at Doyle, allowing him to choose. The Vauxan merely shrugged, weary to the bone but tantalized by the prospect of a sumptuous meal, even if it was for the most part human fare.
Bodie agreed for both of them.
The remainder of the day passed in a haze. They were given well-appointed chambers with unexpectedly luxurious bathing accommodations. Being such a spartan community, Dagenham had little to offer in the way of extravagance, and this was clearly a rare privilege. In the early hours of evening, they were led into a huge banquet hall, which to all appearances was overflowing with every living member of the Dagenham pioneer community, young and old.
Food and drink were freely distributed, and thanks to Bodie's word in Principal Dubchek's ear, there was ample variety that appealed to the Vauxan. Guessing immediately where it came from, Doyle sent an appreciative smile Bodie's way.
As the evening progressed, however, Doyle began to grow unsettled, the large crowd increasingly imposing upon him in its exuberant vastness. Since leaving Stepney, he had regained his self-possession, untainted by incontinent human consciousness. He soon discovered, however, that his nerves were still raw; not to the degree they had been on Stepney, but uncomfortably close to the surface, all the same.
Bodie, on the other hand, was quite obviously suffering no discomfiture at being the focus of so large a group. He sat happily trapped between two lovely women, who were acting as though their lives had taken on new meaning at his arrival.
Unobserved, Doyle watched him: the playful way Bodie flirted; the uncomplicated pleasure he took in the women's attentions. And watching him, he felt a queer emptiness deep inside. It was an acid feeling; all the more so given that he had only known the man a few days and was humiliatingly conscious that Bodie viewed him as nothing more than chattel. Some part of him argued against that; no Vauxan--not even a half-breed like him--could have mistaken those sparks of attraction that flared between them. For whatever reason, Bodie had not followed through; Doyle liked to think it was because Bodie was a reasonably honorable man who would use Doyle's services but not his body. Or perhaps Bodie was not as attracted to men as he was to women. Seeing him now, Doyle could believe that to be the case. And maybe, just maybe, Doyle had simply imagined every fleeting occurrence. One of those women, perhaps both of them, would share Bodie's bed tonight.
Almost upon the thought, Bodie's head came up, blue eyes searching through the boisterous revelers until they came to settle on Doyle. Finding the Vauxan's eyes already upon him, Bodie responded with a searing smile, sublimely unconscious of what it did to the other man. From some deep well of strength, Doyle managed a reciprocal grin, then glanced away, pretending that another had spoken to him.
He waited only a little while longer before taking his leave of the celebration, pausing on his way out of the meeting hall to thank their hosts. Pleading weariness, he soon found himself on the front step, directed to the chauffeured vehicle assigned to him. Of the driver he asked only that he be returned to Bodie's ship. In the way of seemingly all the inhabitants of Dagenham, the driver gave every indication that anything Doyle might request would be his singular honor to fulfill; but he was also quick to lapse into silence when it became evident that the Vauxan wished to forego conversation. Following the crush at the banquet hall, Doyle found the relative lack of company intensely refreshing.
At the ramp to the ship he waved the driver off, then stared broodingly after the lights of the departing flyer until they coalesced into the thickness of the night. Here on the landing field it was wonderfully quiet, yet Doyle's keen ears picked out every insect twitter and whisper of breeze.
Yet, even in the darkness, he could see Bodie as he had left him, one strongly-muscled arm round the shoulders of a lovely woman, his face intimately close to hers; another admirer pressing invitingly against his back, intent upon capturing the Terran's every word.
The image was irksome. He should be grateful the human did not want him; after all Vauxans and humans were notoriously incompatible. And yet-- Desiring Bodie had taken him unawares; a leftover of his experience with the links, probably. Bodie's support during that frantic exercise had been keenly felt, and had likely artificially heightened Doyle's awareness of the uncommonly handsome human's attraction. Doyle allowed himself a self- deprecating grin. A month, Bodie had said. Once they left here, they would undertake Bodie's venture; and then Doyle would go in search of Moor--Moor, who had wanted only to go home.
It was time Doyle gave up and went home, too.
Long legs wearily negotiated the ramp, and Doyle went inside, therein hoping to find consolation in his solitude.
"What the hell happened to you?"
The sharp voice hoisted Doyle from the depths of sleep with a terrible start. Groggily he shot a glance at the chrono, then another at the man who leaned bonelessly in his doorway. His leaden brain was slow to comprehend that only fifteen minutes had elapsed since he had entered the cabin and dropped, fully clothed, onto the bunk. There was a flurry of movement beside his head, and a disgruntled sfang bounded from his pillow to his upraised knee.
"Was tired," he replied weakly, scarcely able to form speech around the frantic pulse in his throat. "Thought...thought you'd be a while. No need to ruin your fun."
"Hmm. That's the kind of fun could get me in dock." At Doyle's frown, Bodie elucidated, "Dubchek's daughters. Well, one of 'em was, anyway."
"Oh." Doyle considered this. "What about the other one?"
Bodie succumbed to a silly grin. "Forgot which was which, didn't I?"
Charmed, Doyle wondered how much Bodie had overindulged. "The one on your right," he said helpfully.
"What?" Bodie asked dopily, missing the significance of what, to him, was a non sequitur.
"The one on your right was Dubchek's daughter. The other was probably quite safe."
Bodie raked numb fingers through dark hair that promptly stood on end. "Knew that--once. Doesn't matter. After today, don't think I could've done either one of 'em much good."
Doyle suppressed the smile that twitched at his lips, lest Bodie should be offended. "Need any help getting to bed?"
The offer was not an invitation, yet for an instant, Bodie focused upon the sleep-warm Vauxan with such smouldering intensity that Doyle came completely wide awake and aching. Almost instantly the look was gone, if indeed it had ever existed outside Doyle's increasingly fitful imagination. "Nah," Bodie declined, sheepishly. He straightened up carefully, slowly gaining his full height, a hand on the door frame to steady him. "Can manage." He stepped cautiously into the corridor, then muttered in afterthought, "Oh, you can go back to sleep now."
As Bodie lumbered down the hall, boot heels treading unevenly on the carpeted surface, Doyle slowly relaxed back into the covers. "Can I now?" he whispered. Yet, despite his confusion, he was filled with a kind of elation that Bodie had taken note of his departure, and had thought enough of it to follow him out. Buoyed by an impossible optimism, Doyle closed his eyes, and with the placated sfang making a nest in his hair, was soon overtaken by slumber.
Morning cast its warmth upon the grey hull of the FG BEHEMOTH for several hours before any of its occupants stirred. While Doyle had avoided the more potent of alcoholic offerings the previous night, Bodie had been less circumspect--despite the fact that pioneer brew was standardly among the most lethal in the universe. Even given his own abstinence, Doyle too felt headachy and bedraggled when he finally stepped onto the flight deck; and this in spite of a thorough scrubbing in a blessedly hot shower, the concentrated currying of wilful hair, and the donning of crisp, fresh-smelling clothing.
Upon finding himself alone, and suspecting he would remain that way for a while, the Vauxan made his way to the galley and helped himself to breakfast. He was sipping scalding tea when the planetside call came in. The tea sloshed on the table in his haste to reach the nearest terminal, so that the insistent tone should not disturb the other man in his cabin.
It was Principal Dubchek, requesting their company sometime before departing Dagenham. Doyle dutifully promised to pass the message on to Bodie, discreetly covering for the other man's absence at the speaker. He had scarcely disconnected when a querulous groan emanated from the entryway. A second later a white flash preceded the patently hurting human just as Bodie entered the galley. Frowning impartially, Bodie bore himself to the nearest empty chair and gently eased himself down.
"Tea?" Doyle asked sympathetically.
Bodie attempted a nod, only to grab hold of his head as though it would spin off.
"Tea," Doyle confirmed, and soundlessly set about brewing another pot. Within moments, he had returned from the tiny alcove where the cooker and assorted appliances were stowed, carrying two cups filled with steaming and fragrant liquid. Pausing in the portal he took in the sight of Bodie slumped in the high-backed chair, the dark head bent at an awkward angle, mouth agape, eyelids wrinkled as if in pain.
Leaving one mug on the table, Doyle took the other to Bodie and played the cup under the semi-conscious man's nose, wafting it to and fro for several seconds before garnering a reaction.
With a mumbled snort, Bodie roused, focusing on the Vauxan with some difficulty. Sitting up with a mumbled oath, he accepted the cup and began to sip delicately.
"Didn't think you'd imbibed that much last night," Doyle remarked sententiously.
Over the rim of the mug, glazed blue eyes contemplated him inimically. "'S been years since I've had anything like that. My resistance was down," he muttered sullenly. "Besides, we could fuel the BEHEMOTH on that stuff."
Doyle slouched against the wall behind the other chair. "Finish your tea. You'll feel better once it's had a chance to settle."
Bodie peered suspiciously into the mug. "Why? What's in it?"
"An old Vauxan remedy for hangover. I've heard it even works for humans."
Bodie let his head roll back against the neck support, cradling the mug close to his lips. "Who was that on the com?" He set about draining his cup, then placed it on the table with precise care.
"Dubchek. Said her daughter has some funny bruises on her thighs and wants to talk to you about 'em."
Bodie's eyes widened with precipitous haste. "Bastard," he growled at Doyle's chuckle, and resumed his boneless repose. "So, who really?"
"Dubchek." At the steely expression that was aimed his way, Doyle conceded, "Said she wants to see you before we leave. Really."
Bodie essayed a ragged grin. "No rush, then. I'll be here forever." He fell silent, thick black lashes drifting onto cheeks wholly lacking in color.
Doyle was free to look his fill, for the human dropped off almost at once, putty-colored chin digging into his chest, his head drifting disastrously toward the table. Reaching out without thought, Doyle guided Bodie's shoulders forward, until thickly muscled forearms were resting on the smooth surface, Bodie's cheek cushioned by the back of his own hand. The human murmured something unintelligible, then quietened without reaching consciousness.
This unspoken trust warmed Doyle to the depths of his heart. Resisting the urge to smooth down a patch of unruly dark brown hair, he reminded himself why he was here: He was Bodie's purchase; not a free man. It would not do to assume too much.
And yet he could not help but enjoy the moment, savoring the other man's open vulnerability. For whatever reason, Bodie was confident in Doyle's reliability and good will. Doyle would do nothing to betray that.
When, nearly an hour later, Bodie resurfaced, he discovered that Doyle's potion had done the trick. Peering out upon the world with a wariness learned from unpleasant experience, he was amazed when the action did not result in the usual crashing headache. In fact, he felt ridiculously fit, considering his debilitated condition of only a short time before. Lifting his head off the table, he spied the sfang which was balanced on the back of the other chair, its small, bristling form teetering like a leaf in a breeze, four tiny black eyes boring into him. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Gave you a headache too, didn't I." He managed a very soft laugh, remembering the first time he had returned to the sfang, inebriated to the point of stupefaction. It had not been so funny then as, shortly after collapsing on his bed, the sfang had begun to emit terrifying, infant-like whimpers. It had registered tardily that he was responsible for the sfang's anguish, and he had vowed never to inflict such discomfort on it again.
So, why last night?
Maybe because last night he had been suffering a touch of self pity. After the hero's tribute, he had felt very alone and depressed. The need for another's warmth had consumed him, but the attention he craved was not his to command. So he had turned to the pleasant regard of the two very willing women beside him, only to discover that no substitute would suffice. Dagenham's finest had merely allowed him to forget for a while what it was that ate at him--until he had looked up and found Doyle gone.
Stretching forth a finger, Bodie carefully stroked the precariously positioned sfang, smoothing its skewed feathers, marvelling as he often did at the incredible texture of them.
Only lust, he reminded himself, unable to escape his remorseless thoughts concerning the Vauxan. Yet why had he suffered such a sense of loss to see the empty chair where the Vauxan had sat? It had struck him like a physical blow, causing a breathtaking discomfort just below his breastbone. And when he had barged into Doyle's cabin--intending he knew not what--the sight of the defenseless form, all legs and exposed chest, had reinforced his uncertainty, driving him to speak before he could reach out and do something Doyle would assuredly have ended up hating him for.
Shuddering, he stretched forward and laid his head upon the table. A few seconds later, he felt the forgiving scrape of a wiry paw upon the nape of his neck, then the sandpaper-fine friction of tiny teeth nibbling at his skin.
With the morning, of course, sanity had returned, his wayward emotions rigidly contained once more. He would not make the same mistake twice. And although he had toyed with the idea of immediately hunting down Doyle's lover so that he could turn the Vauxan over to him for safekeeping, he knew there would be too many questions asked--and too many answers demanded--for him to gracefully abort the charade now. In a few more days his unwise adventure would be history, and Doyle would be his own man again. Bodie's promise would have been fulfilled, leaving Doyle none the wiser.
Pulling himself together, he rose with a sigh, mindfully chucking the sfang under its narrow muzzle in passing. Idly wondering where his traveling companion had got off to, Bodie headed for the flight deck. His nap had done him a wealth of good; it was time he applied himself to the business at hand.
Restored to the pilot's seat with Asper dozing on the back of the co- pilot's chair, Bodie had spent half an hour reviewing the main systems check- list, when Doyle finally appeared behind him.
"How about something to eat?" The Vauxan held a large tray in his hands, laden with a variety of fruits, cheeses and breads--and fresh tea. "You should be ready for something by now."
The Vauxan was right; Bodie's stomach even brought forth an appreciative growl from his nether regions at sight of the food. "Missed your calling," Bodie said pleasantly as he accepted the tray and set it upon his lap. "Or do you sideline as a nursemaid on your planet?"
Doyle hesitated at the faintly mocking tone. "Only in unusual circumstances."
Hating himself for causing that look of caution in the other's eyes, Bodie tossed a piece of cheese to him. "What sort might that be? Other than dealing with drunken humans, of course."
Chewing abstractedly, Doyle fell back a step and hunkered down behind the co-pilot's station, under the eyes of a now very watchful sfang. "That's the extent of my training, actually."
Striving to keep his voice level, Bodie demanded softly, "You telling me you've done that before?"
Feinting a swipe at the sfang, Doyle replied off-handedly, "Nah, just learned the basics. My brother once had a human friend; was his partner. Targeon told me that he'd had to nurse him when he got rat-arsed, too. Don't know why I remember it." Scornful green eyes flicked up at him. "Lucky for you I did."
"Hmm." Grateful that the sfang chose that instant to divert Doyle's attention by way of a toothy lunge, Bodie murmured with contrived disinterest, "This bloke--your brother's partner--did you know him?"
Doyle waggled tormenting fingers in front of the sfang's face, jerking his hand away just before a gaping mouth armed with gleaming teeth could clamp onto it. "Nope. Never had the chance. Why?"
"Oh--curious. Didn't know Vauxans kept company with humans. Always heard your kind doesn't get along all that well with my kind."
Doyle spared him a brittle grin. "That's because most of you tend to broadcast too loudly. It isn't that we don't like 'your kind,' it's just that it's uncomfortable being around someone who's always switched on." He started to shrug, but abandoned the movement when Asper made a ferocious dive towards his head. "Yow!" Taking shelter behind Bodie's chair, he glanced up at the human, who was looking on with sardonic amusement. Stifling a giggle, Doyle continued with his explanation: "It's like having someone chatter in both ears for hours on end, day after day. Even humans couldn't stand that."
"Even humans?" Bodie sniffed.
At that moment, Asper launched himself from the instrument console. Doyle leapt to his feet and bolted from the flight deck, the sfang snapping at the back of his head, the angry hum of its wings fading down the corridor. Absurdly content, Bodie continued with his meal, unaware that he was smiling.
The tray was almost empty when the ship's com activated. It was Principal Dubchek.
"May I come aboard, Captain Bodie?"
"Certainly, Principal," Bodie replied politely, a little amused at the woman's formality. She had been markedly friendlier last night. "Just a moment and I'll have Doyle escort you to the flight deck."
"That would be very kind," she stated, and signed off.
Outside the galley, Doyle took the message over the intercom, acknowledging Bodie's request immediately if a little breathlessly. Ducking at the last instant, he just avoided a swooping run by six talon-like limbs, then headed off at a gallop for the main hatch. Once there, he spun round, and threw up both hands. The sfang back-flapped to an impressive stop inches from the Vauxan's head, clicking its teeth dangerously. Doyle smirked and patted the creature's snout condescendingly, then pointed down the corridor. "To your room, beast--for now. I'll play with you later, okay?"
Assuming the sfang would obey as it always did, Doyle reached for the access panel and keyed the release. Just as the hatch began to dilate open, however, there was a stirring of air beside the Vauxan's left ear, and Asper dropped onto Doyle's shoulder. Gasping with the realization that in another second the Principal of Dagenham would see the sfang, Doyle snatched the creature from its perch and stuffed it down the front of his shirt. He folded his arms loosely over his chest to pin the wriggling combatant in place.
Face composed as though nothing were out of the ordinary, Doyle greeted the Principal, who bade her attendants wait at the head of the ramp. He waved her down the corridor toward the flight deck in front of him, maintaining a careful distance between them, one hand inconspicuously stroking his shirt front. The Principal seemed to notice nothing amiss, making inconsequential conversation as they went.
Bodie was awaiting them, and offered a small bow to the woman. He glanced curiously at the Vauxan, who was standing in a rather ungainly semi-hunch.
Eyes overwide, Doyle began, "I'll just see to the...um, galley. Think I left a..."
"No, please," the Principal said, laying a detaining hand on Doyle's forearm. "This concerns you as well. Do stay."
Conscious of Bodie's frowning attention, the Vauxan bit his lip and nodded. "As you wish."
She beamed at him. "I shan't keep either of you long. But I must offer my thanks for all you have done--and to grant you this, from my personal collection." With that she drew forth a small box from her voluminous robe and held it out to Bodie.
He hesitated. "You owe us nothing, Principal. I told you that last night."
"So you did. But look at it, I beg you. Perhaps you will change your mind."
Not best pleased, but determined to be politic, Bodie took the small container into his hand and pried it open. His expression mirrored his astonishment as he lifted the large, iridescent stone from its cushion of silken fabric. "Annic--the largest I've ever seen!"
"And likely the largest you will ever see. They are not easily come by and certainly not of this quality."
Bodie made a low whooshing sound through pursed lips. "I've no doubt you're right." He held the gem up to the light, slowly rotating the multi- faceted stone between his fingertips.
Dark blue eyes shot across to the man standing in the doorway. Doyle froze mid-wriggle, then strove to look as unremarkable as possible. "Don't drop it," he rephrased awkwardly.
Bodie's brows came together as he considered the Vauxan disapprovingly. "Wasn't going to drop it," he said archly. Then he extended his hand back to the woman, conscientiously returning the stone to her palm. "But I think this would be better off with you, Principal Dubchek. You honestly owe us nothing."
Distracted by the twitching Vauxan, the woman returned her eyes to Bodie with an effort. "If you are certain, Captain Bodie; I would not wish to bully you into accepting it. Perhaps you would, however, consider a transaction?"
Bodie tensed automatically. "What sort of transaction?"
Principal Dubchek seemed to find his suspicion heartening; it fell right in line with her pioneer mentality. "Because you ensured the production of our crops, I can afford to offer you this stone--freely, or in exchange for the Vauxan's wardship. An equitable offer, surely?"
"The Vauxan's wardship...." Bodie did not even try to conceal his dismay. "How could you know...?"
The woman regarded him with some amusement. "Last night. You told my daughter. Perhaps you don't remember?"
Bodie rubbed his jaw reflectively. He glanced across at Doyle. The Vauxan's face was wiped clean of expression, his eyes as lightless as coal.
"No, I'm afraid I don't. But--what would you want him for?"
"Not to harm him, certainly," the woman assured him. "He would be an incalculable asset to our training program. His skills, even for a short period of time, would be of great benefit to our community."
"You want Doyle in exchange for the Annic?"
"Yes. It is a very rare stone, Captain."
Bodie moved his fingers over his jaw again, as though giving the question serious consideration--although he had already rejected the idea out of hand. Doyle stood with quiet dignity, plainly awaiting the other man's dictum.
Feeling a little ashamed at stringing the woman along at the Vauxan's expense, Bodie began, "No, Principal...."
His words were drowned out by Doyle's sudden cry. The Vauxan folded over and clutched at his chest. But the sfang, half-smothered and desperate for freedom, blossomed spectacularly from the recesses of Doyle's shirt, wings flaring wide as it catapulted itself into the air.
Neither man was prepared for the woman's reaction. Thought was not a factor as Principal Dubchek reached into her robes and snaked out a hand which gripped a blunt-nosed weapon. Understanding penetrated Bodie's mind at the same instant that she fired, her instinct-swift reaction born of long years of practice and a keen appreciation for survival. Although she was fast, the sfang was faster, already curving back on itself mid-air in order to disappear down the corridor. In doing so, it avoided the main force of the beam, but was nevertheless caught in the nimbus of the charge that melted a chunk out of the bulkhead. A blood-curdling sound, like metal scraping against metal, was torn from the sfang. The creature's wings tangled clumsily together, spindly legs clutched spasmodically against its small body. It tumbled toward the floor.
"Asper!" Bodie shouted. His hand crashed down on Dubchek's forearm before she could let loose another shot.
In the same instant, Doyle threw himself forward to catch the sfang. They went down together, Doyle stretched to his full length, the crumpled body surrounded by long fingers as he twisted and slammed to the deck, taking the brunt of the fall in order to protect the limp creature.
"It's a sfang!" the woman cried. "It will...."
Bodie ripped the shooter from her hand, only then letting go his killing hold on her arm. "It wouldn't have harmed you. It doesn't hurt people. It's never hurt anyone!"
He heard the fury in his own voice, and realized that he was shouting, albeit needlessly. The woman's shocked gaze went from him to the curly-haired man in speechless disbelief.
Doyle painstakingly climbed to his feet, cradling the sfang's body close to his chest. He was saying something neither human could hear, speaking in a soft, incomprehensible whisper.
"Ray?" Bodie asked, his voice breaking on the single syllable.
Green eyes, hazy with pain, told him more than he wanted to know. Bodie tried to swallow and found his throat too constricted to perform so simple a task.
"A pet?" the woman asked, bewildered. "The sfang was your pet?"
Bodie watched Doyle stumble down the corridor, blinking at the sharp prickling at the back of his eyes. The woman's continued presence registered and he pulled himself together. "A pet," he echoed thickly. "Yeah."
Genuine regret shadowed the woman's handsome face. "I am sorry, Captain. It came out of nowhere. I did not think; there was no time."
He nodded, schooling his features to impassivity. "I know, Principal. It was not your fault. I don't hold you responsible." Gesturing to the corridor, he said politely, "We'll be leaving soon. Your offer is generous, but I won't cede custody of Doyle for it." He waved her before him. "Let me show you out."
The woman inclined her head. As they walked together to the main hatch, Bodie returned her weapon. At the entrance, she paused. "My sincerest apologies, Captain. But please know that you are welcome here anytime. Both of you."
Bodie dredged up a neutral smile. He doubted he would ever willingly set down on this particular rock again. "Thank you, Principal. I'll remember that."
He sealed the hatch behind her. Leaden legs carried him to the intermediary first aid station. Finding no one there, he went to the infirmary, but with equal lack of success. Guessing then that Doyle must have taken the sfang to his own cabin, Bodie made his way deeper into the ship. The door to Doyle's cabin stood open, so Bodie silently entered.
The Vauxan was sitting curled forward on his bunk, the sfang lost in the dark hollow formed by the curve of his body. Doyle was crooning unintelligibly in a low, sing-song tone, hands moving rhythmically around the damaged creature. As Bodie came closer, he saw that the Vauxan's eyes were squeezed shut and his face was shining with perspiration.
He did not respond, rocking slowly back and forth. A little uneasily, Bodie reached out and laid a hand on Doyle's shoulder. At contact he almost let go, unprepared for the sensations that bled over into his mind. It was not unlike his own communication with the sfang, but he knew intuitively that this was filtered through the Vauxan. Ignoring the weird feeling rippling sympathetically through his nervous system, he leaned lightly against the other man, and reached into the warm sanctuary created by Doyle's body; there he covered the long Vauxan fingers which were cupped around the unmoving sfang.
It was a dark, but strangely soothing place that Doyle allowed him to enter. Bodie wondered at first what the Vauxan was doing; but as communication among the three of them deepened, he began to understand.
Doyle was sharing his energy with the sfang, channelling it into the injured entity in a steady flow, trying to override the trauma that had buffeted the creature to the edge of death. Unable to offer anything more than the dubious comfort of his presence, Bodie waited, intensely aware of the closeness of the Vauxan's body, of their mingled heat, and of the spicey musk emanating from the sfang.
A second became a minute; a minute an hour. Bodie neither knew nor cared how long they were there, his measure of time reduced to the steady thud of the Vauxan's heart, and the continued link of sensibility that indicated Asper yet lived. Lulled by a sense of completeness he had never known, Bodie slid into a state suspended between dream and fantasy, but was never totally unaware of the two beings sheltered in his protective embrace. When Doyle stirred, he knew without being told that it was not the Vauxan initiating the motion, but a response to the weak efforts of the stretching sfang to gain space.
With profound care Doyle unfolded to allow the sfang to totter out of his grasp; he then slowly collapsed back against Bodie. Asper stumbled, two or three of its legs obviously unequal to the task of buttressing its slight frame. Rearing upward with a strange, articulated movement, the sfang finally regained its balance--only to drift sideways against Doyle's thigh. It remained there for another moment, rubbing itself against the Vauxan with small jerky movements, its wedge-shaped head propped up on Bodie's hand. A bit more steadily, it stepped delicately to the edge of the bunk and with a single, faltering bound, lifted into the air.
Bodie watched, entranced, as beautiful white wings spread wide, describing graceful methodical sweeps as the creature made two complete circuits of the room. Having proved something to itself, the sfang then soared downward in a lazy spiral. Bodie lifted his forearm, and Asper came to rest upon it, its small body trembling. With a finger that was also less than steady, Bodie stroked the soft head and muzzle, closing his eyes against the ferocious stinging that threatened to blind him.
Asper encouraged the touch, directing the human's caresses first to one flank and then the other. After a bit, it lurched to Doyle's side, and there began to push its head against the Vauxan's hip.
A limp Vauxan hand reached down and curled around the sfang's head. "Demanding little sod," Doyle breathed, and pulled out of Bodie's arms to lie on his side on the bunk. At once, Asper crawled along the length of the exhausted man; at the curve of Doyle's chin and throat it made its bed, four little eyes closing all at the same time.
Essaying a tiny smile, Bodie decided it was time for him to go. He winced as cramped muscles informed him of their displeasure; he had been here for a very long time. A prickling sensation at the nape of his neck gave him pause.
Drowsy green eyes were watching him. Bodie bent forward and touched a fingertip to the other man's patrician nose. A gleam of amusement came into the Vauxan's eyes. Bodie moved his hand to Doyle's cheek in a tender caress. Heavy translucent eyelids drifted downward, and Doyle slept.
Bodie waited a moment longer before reluctantly withdrawing his touch. Standing beside the bunk, he drank in every detail: the gleam of teeth barely visible through half-parted lips; the flush of cheeks framed by damp, tousled hair; and the slow, perfect pulse that gave faint distention to the great vein in the strong neck, half-obscured by the pointed snout of the sfang. Bodie resisted the urge to return and brush curling tendrils off the Vauxan's high forehead, or to tweak tiny white pinfeathers which the sfang had not completely smoothed down.
Doyle would need sustenance when he awoke; so would the sfang. Bodie determined that they would be well away from Dagenham by then. He retrieved the covers from the foot of the bed and draped them chest-high on the undisturbed Vauxan, lightly tucking the edges in at his sides. With a loving pat for the somnolent sfang's sloped forehead, Bodie left.
When the personnel monitor alarm went off on the flight deck two hours later, Bodie was on his way, carrying a tray spread with enough delicacies to beguile the most disinterested Vauxan and sfang into an orgy of eating.
FG BEHEMOTH was sailing on autopilot, course and speed set as soon as they had cleared Dagenham's space. Bodie's own sources and the control station on Dagenham's third moon had assured him of clear passage, but Bodie had set the ship speed and shields to levels that would afford them a safety buffer.
Mindful of the previous evening's excesses, Bodie wished he were better suited to deal with the emotions that still cluttered his reasoning. If it wasn't the Vauxan causing him anguish, it was that damn sfang tearing the heart out of him. After years of successfully maintaining life at arm's length, he was all at once a fully engaged--and unwilling--participant.
He couldn't seem to get his thoughts ordered long enough to determine a course of action and stick with it. For the moment he was being led by instinct; and although he liked to think such guidance could not take him far astray, he was not altogether certain that that wasn't the case.
In the Vauxan's quarters, Doyle was lying on his stomach, one lean hand almost white, buried under sfang feathers. He was breathing shallowly, preparatory to awakening; it had been the alteration in his pattern of respiration that had tripped Bodie's alarm.
Purposely keeping his eyes off the leggy sprawl, Bodie situated the tray on the storage locker at the foot of Doyle's bunk. When everything was to his satisfaction, he turned to his two sleeping charges--and found the reasonably alert gaze of the sfang supervising his every movement. He quirked a finger at it, then reached for a dish especially prepared for the creature. With a quick, sinuous twist, the sfang disengaged itself from Doyle's hand and bounded to Bodie's shoulder. To Bodie's bemusement, Asper did not at once assault its meal, but leaned supplely against his cheek, a low chirring sound rumbling in its throat.
Impelled by an insistent forepaw, Bodie admitted, "Yes, I would've missed you, too." He added gruffly, "So eat this slop, before I give it to your companion in crime over there." Asper bobbed up and down defiantly, then skittered down Bodie's arm to his wrist, where it began to clean its plate with enthusiasm.
Bodie looked on with indulgent appreciation, well aware of the debt he owed the Vauxan. After what Doyle had done, Bodie knew he should clear the Vauxan's marker and give him his freedom immediately. And yet, to do that would signal Doyle's departure--and that moment would arrive soon enough. Till now Bodie had always counted himself an honorable man--by his definition of honor. His willingness to overrule that personal code brought to light a compulsive desire for something he had never expected to want at all; and the lengths to which he would go to secure it rather unnerved him.
"Gonna feed it all to that selfish little glutton?"
Doyle's barely voiced complaint provided Bodie with a welcome distraction to his disagreeable thoughts. "Didn't think you'd mind," Bodie replied amiably. "Thought you were going to sleep for another couple of days yet."
The Vauxan swung his legs over the edge of the bed and dragged himself onto his backside, head dropping toward his knees as gravity asserted its authority. "Haven't I already?"
"Nah," said Bodie. "Just a couple of hours. And if you're quick, Asper might spare you something--especially since you saved the little reprobate's life." He spoke lightly; but he was acutely aware of the Vauxan's continued enervation.
Seemingly oblivious to the other man's concern, Doyle supported his face between his hands, kneading the skin as if it had gone numb. "Feel like I've been out for days." He looked up at Bodie defenselessly. "Never did that before, y'know."
"Not even with another Vauxan?" Bodie belatedly wished the words unsaid.
Unoffended, Doyle answered with a carefully executed shake of his head. "Nope." He drove long fingers into his hair. Almost shyly, he said, "Thanks for hanging about, though. Attempting a transfer was something they warned me against. But you couldn't know that; me being only half-Vauxan and all."
A stab of fear splintered Bodie's guts. "I didn't realize."
The Vauxan gave him a pleasant frown. "No reason why you should. But your being here with me--well, it gave me something to hold on to. Otherwise I might've lost track of where I was. So, thanks, eh."
Bodie nodded mutely, not trusting himself to speak. He handed one of the plates to the slightly swaying man, relieved when Doyle accepted it.
Yet still another moment passed before Doyle attempted to eat anything, and even then he accorded it all the attention of a rare delicacy.
"Who was it? The one who warned you?" Bodie queried casually.
Swallowing slowly, Doyle slouched back against the bulkhead. "My mother and brother. Aren't too many 'breeds around, y'see. Most of them don't survive birth--either intentionally or otherwise."
"Don't survive?" For some reason the implications of this statement filled Bodie with anger. "You mean, on the Vauxan side, or the human side?"
Doyle ferried another morsel to his mouth. Talking around it, he said thickly, "Both. Bonds between our species are not all that common despite the centuries they've worked together. Just doesn't work, y'know. And then, the physiological differences can result in some pretty disgusting combinations-- even though technology is such that the most incompatible genes can be compensated for. Unfortunately the invisible ones--like disordered empathy-- cannot."
"Your mother is Vauxan?" Bodie turned his wrist as the now sated sfang clambered back up his arm.
"Yes." Doyle closed his eyes for a few seconds. "Which means, my father was human." He grinned wryly to himself. "How else would I get a name like 'Raymond Doyle'?"
"What about your brother?"
Doyle sucked in a bracing breath. As he straightened, drawing his plate closer, he said, "Full-fledged Vauxan, he was. From Mum's initial bonding. Mum and her first mate--his name was Taan--were stationed at one of the more dangerous jointly colonized settlements during a period of indigene upheaval. Taan and Mother were caught outside the perimeter on their way back from the mineral labs one afternoon. She was badly injured. Taan didn't make it. She stayed on to recuperate, then decided there was no point in leaving, since the work that had taken her there in the first place was still very important. The doctor who treated her was my father."
"What about your brother? D'you get along with him?" Bodie shifted so that the sfang could relax against his neck. It began to preen its ruffled feathers in the lengthy and intricate ceremony that followed every meal. The human ran a finger along the creature's side to encourage it to settle.
"When I had the chance. He was gone most of the time. Mum sent him home shortly after I was born, to see that he got proper training, and after that he became a wanderer. But he was the one who convinced Mum and Dad to raise me as a Vauxan. They couldn't decide at first, y'see, because everyone thought I had taken after my dad, even though tests showed I had the cerebral development of a Vauxan." Doyle concentrated a moment on eating. Bodie refilled his cup and waited while the Vauxan drank some of the beverage down.
"What decided them that you were more Vauxan than human?" Bodie asked, once Doyle was slowing down again.
A faint flush indicated an old grievance. "A little psychic backlash," he admitted. "One of the local lads was teasing me. Don't remember about what. But I let him have it."
Bodie pointed at his own temple. "With this?"
"'Course. Sent him reeling." Doyle sighed, considering the remains of the tray longingly. "I was on my way to Vaux that evening. Problem was, I was almost six, far older than most children when they begin training."
"Late bloomer, eh?"
Doyle responded to the human's cynical smile with a wistful grin of his own. "Wasn't funny, believe me. There I was, amongst a group of snot-nosed ankle-biters who were ages younger than me. Was damned embarrassing at first. They finally realized I was concentrating more on my resentments than the skills I needed to learn, and private tutoring was arranged." A sudden thought occurred to him and he waved a hand at the plate of food balanced on his legs. "How'd you come to know so much, Bodie? What to feed me; the beverages I can drink--like the restorative you gave me when you first brought me aboard? Where'd you learn so much about Vauxans, anyway?"
Bodie shrugged. "Been around. Even worked with one of your lot for a while. He used to tell me about your customs and--oh, differences, is maybe the best way to put it. We were...friendly."
"He's dead now." Bodie's terseness signalled an end to his confidences. He switched back to the previous topic. "So they turned you into a proper Vauxan after all."
Doyle's lips pressed a little harder together, then relaxed. "Not really. But they did instill the control I needed." Almost to himself, very softly he added, "For the most part."
Bodie sensed pain behind the words, and felt a yearning echo of it deep within himself. "What about your father: what happened to him?"
The Vauxan returned the tray to the top of the locker. "Died a few years after I was sent away. He was quite a few years older than Mum. She's the only one left now; her, and a few cousins--Vauxan cousins. Never met my father's people."
"Do you keep in touch with her?"
Doyle slowly lay back on the bed, head supported by folded arms. "Not much. My brother and I.... Well, I was closer to him."
Bodie rose, automatically compensating for the sfang clinging to him, and picked up the remains of Doyle's meal. "What happened to your brother?" Bodie asked.
"He's dead, too." The quiet words bespoke regret as well as acceptance.
Leaving the statement unpursued, Bodie said matter-of-factly, "I haven't thanked you yet, Doyle. I do. More than you know."
The Vauxan's eyes softened with understanding. "Wouldn't have been the same without the little rotter." He chewed his lower lip. "It wasn't
Dubchek's fault, y'know. She didn't think. It was like a burst of insanity."
"You felt that?"
"Yeah. Took me off guard. Guess I was too close to her." Giving an admiring whistle, he added, "Not that it would have made any difference. She's bloody fast!"
"And several parsecs away by now."
Doyle got his elbows under him. "We've off-planeted?"
From the door, Bodie confirmed, "Didn't feel like hanging about."
A slow grin laid claim to Doyle's face. He said with mock reprimand, "Mistake, that: she'd probably have given you her daughter as reparation."
He was treated to a haughtily curled lip in reply. "She called Asper a pet."
"A pet!" Doyle snorted. "Humans!" Then at Bodie's long, level look, he recanted, "Well, some of them."
"Careful, son," Bodie chided him. "You're as close to being one as makes no difference."
He had taken a single step into the corridor when Doyle spoke his name. There was a strange, tentative expression in the round face.
"What is it?" Bodie prompted.
"So, where are we headed now? You haven't said."
"We'll talk about it later," he said abruptly. To temper the shortness of his words, he went on, "When you feel better. Get some rest for now, mate."
"Tell me, Bodie," Doyle insisted, with a trace of the old caution. "Is it this mission of yours?"
The human relented under that uneasy regard. He said unthinkingly, "In a hurry to go?" Doyle opened his mouth, and Bodie anticipated him hurriedly, "Scratch that. 'Course you are. And, yeah, it's the 'mission,' as you call it. But we'll talk about it later, okay?"
Bodie waited while the Vauxan's face cleared and he laid back onto the bunk. If one's body could relate conflicting emotions, Doyle's was speaking in volumes. Yet he said nothing more, conceding to Bodie's request. It tardily occurred to Bodie that as his bound property, there was really little else Doyle could say.
"I'll be on the flight deck, if you need me." Bodie strode into the corridor, unable to dispel the feeling that he was escaping--and not just from Doyle.
Doyle napped off and on for several hours. When at last he deemed himself reasonably restored, he saw to a few neglected points of hygiene, then made his way to the flight deck.
Bodie switched off the monitor he had been viewing at the first give-away tread that announced Doyle's arrival.
Subjected to the human's intense appraisal, Doyle knew he was looking better. His color had greatly improved, and the lassitude that had followed his healing of the sfang had finally dissipated. This was entirely due to Bodie, who had taken pains to ensure that every time Doyle had surfaced from a convalescent drowse, there had been food and drink awaiting him. Bodie had gauged his appetite well, so that the meals had grown smaller and more suitable to his needs as he had gained in strength.
"You're looking more human," Bodie commented; then with false demur, he murmured, "If you'll pardon the expression."
"Kinder than the truth," Doyle said self-effacingly. "Need to stay awake for a while, I think. Was starting to wonder if the bunk was attached."
"So was I," Bodie confessed. "Would it get easier? If you did that again?"
An involuntary tremor tore down the Vauxan's spine. "Don't think so. Not like learning how to do something; it's an actual physical drain. Suppose the sensations wouldn't be quite so strange, though."
Doyle flopped into the co-pilot's seat, his posture all relaxed curves rather than attentive angles. "Like being sucked empty. Probably like dying, I should imagine."
Covering a shiver of his own, Bodie muttered, "Even from such a little thing as Asper?"
Doyle spread thin-boned fingers wide. "It wasn't the quantity of energy he needed," he explained. "He was very close to packing it in. There's a kind of psychic overlap-- I don't know if I can even describe it. Once caught up in that, it was almost impossible to resist."
"But you weren't injured," Bodie protested.
The Vauxan shrugged. "No. But it's one of the drawbacks of being empathic. Like cheating your body into believing another's death is its own, maybe. Can't say I really understand it. Just know that the shields learned in training are very necessary. It explained a lot to me once I gained control. You've no idea how wanton, or how powerful, the feelings you humans generate are."
"And Vauxans don't?"
"Not if they've had training, no. Worst of all are babies--human or Vauxan. They've no control, y'see. That's one reason our families tend to be small, and why people who work with children have special devices to filter out so much random emotion. Being with children is like being in a pit of writhing slithers; all mindless sensation," Doyle concluded graphically.
"Asper doesn't seem any the worse for wear," Bodie stated, gesturing toward the sfang which was stationed behind his head on the neckrest.
"He wouldn't be," Doyle said sourly. "I did all the work."
A small, wiry forepaw waggled in his direction. "Don't worry, Asper," Doyle said reassuringly. "I'd do it again."
"You would, wouldn't you," Bodie murmured sardonically. "Even with what you know."
Slight shoulders described a vague shrug under the loose shirt. "No choice."
Bodie's face hardened and he swivelled toward the instrument panel. "That's bloody stupid."
Taken aback by the vehemence of Bodie's words, Doyle could not summon a suitable reply. So he chose to say nothing, silently taking in the settings on the pilot's monitor and the computer-generated star field cast upon the main screen. "You're not heading for the Harlesden Gate," he remarked.
Doyle took that as confirmation. "So we're staying in this sector for a while, then?"
The human leaned forward and keyed on the screen pointer. Deftly he manipulated it toward the edge of the computer image. "There," he said flatly. "That's where we're going."
Doyle studied the screen closely. Despite having travelled extensively on his own, this was an area he was not overly familiar with. "Don't know it," he concluded.
"Would've been surprised if you had," Bodie remarked. "Dagenham's actually the last place in this sector to undergo any real exploration. Some of these other systems are completely untouched."
The Vauxan's finger jabbed at the tiny dot which was set apart by the pointer. "Except for that one."
Bodie's eyes lit with a predatory gleam. "Yes. Once; years ago. It's a backward place."
"What took you there in the first place?"
"Ship trouble. Had to put her down to sort out an engine vibration problem."
The slight smile on Doyle's lips was cold. "And what did you find on this backward place?"
"Echo stones," Bodie announced smugly. "A huge cache of them."
For an instant the Vauxan's expression was unreadable. "There've been stories of echo stone hoards for centuries. You found echo--and you were content to let it lie?"
Bodie balanced his elbows on the armrests, fingers steepled over his lap. "Didn't want it then, did I."
Doyle merely stared at him.
"Didn't need it, either," Bodie continued, defensively.
"But that's changed now?" Doyle asked intently. "Now you'll illegally use an empath to retrieve this hoard?"
"That's right," Bodie shot back. "And as I told you, that empath will be well rewarded for his services. Not just pay off his marker, but share in the profit from the echo stones, as well. Enough to free his lover, remember?"
The angry exchange colored the silence that ensued, which was paradoxically louder than the low hum of the automatics.
Finally, Doyle said bleakly, "Yeah, I remember. How long before we get there?"
The Vauxan absorbed this information without pleasure. "All right," he said evenly. "You'll let me know what you expect of me when you're ready, I take it?"
"Of course." Doyle rose, suddenly finding the confines of the flight deck entirely too crowded for his state of mind, and started toward the portal. Yet he hesitated near the hatchway, not pleased that the comradeship he sometimes shared with this oft-prickly human had again been sorely tested. Or had it ever existed outside his own mind? He choked back the words that came unbidden to his mind, and went out into the corridor.
Sometime after Doyle had gone, the dull tread of his heels fading away, Bodie suddenly hunched forward and slammed a fist into the empty chair opposite him. The cushion absorbed the bulk of the blow, but his shoulder took a good portion of it as well, shock vibrating all the way to the base of his skull. A surge of pain sang through his arm; it suited him very well at that moment, an appropriate counterpoint to the exasperating confusion that crowded his mind.
It did not ease the ache--either muscular or emotional--to know that he had brought this upon himself, either. But his actions were necessary, Bodie knew. The day might come when Doyle would find out who Bodie really was, and Doyle would remember then that he was the human who had had no compunction about using him. Any affection he mistakenly harbored would suffer a clean, swift end, and they would both be free to carry on with their lives. Bodie pulled his arm across his chest, rubbing roughly at his angry shoulder. At least, he hoped that's how it would be.
Otherwise, it was entirely possible that he was already lost.
As Bodie had expected, the Vauxan avoided him for the remainder of the day. Bodie occupied his time as he usually did when on a haul like this, mixing basic chores with games and a bout in the passive exercise chamber. Asper made himself scarce, and Bodie suspected the creature was with Doyle. The thought filled him with a kind of bitterness, recognizing as he did the ready bond the two had forged in the very short spell they had been together. Would he lose the sfang when he lost the Vauxan, as well?
He would not hold Asper forcibly, even though they had been together for over five years now. The sfang had come to fill a niche in his life wherein Bodie doubted another would ever be welcome again. Perhaps Doyle had earned the creature's devotion. After all, he had been ready to surrender his own existence to preserve the sfang's.
The drift of his maunderings and the general malaise of melancholy continued until the following morning. Bodie performed his daily inspection of the ship, a necessary habit dating back to his earliest years in space. It never paid to depend completely on the automatics, as Doyle had proven so emphatically just hours after his being brought aboard.
As Bodie made his tour, the other man's presence was in evidence everywhere: a station spruced up here; a console showing signs of recent refit there. Yet the Vauxan himself was nowhere to be found, until Bodie came past the cargo holds.
The door to the starboard cargo hold, formerly the receptacle of Dagenham's palogene ore, stood open. Approaching, Bodie could hear a strange thudding noise emanating from within.
Gingerly, he poked his head inside, his furrowed brow smoothing instantly at the sight that greeted him. Doyle was running the length of the large chamber, the sfang airborne only inches behind his head, chasing after him like a vengeful harpy. Gauging by the broad sweat stain which darkened the front and back of the Vauxan's shirt, Doyle had been at it for some time; yet he did not appear to be breathing at all hard. As Asper dove down and caught some luckless curls in razor-sharp teeth, Doyle gave a yelp and put on a burst of speed.
A slow smile came to Bodie's lips, and unconsciously he untensed. He was reminded of those two cavorting together just before Principal Dubchek had turned everything upside down. As one they circled the makeshift track, sharing the exuberance of wild things barely tamed. Doyle managed to pull free of the sfang's tormenting teeth and skidded out of the near curve before pounding full tilt down the long stretch. They made two more full circuits before Bodie was noticed, and only then because he stepped into the hold where they could not miss him.
It was with regret that Bodie observed the slight stiffening that threaded through Doyle's body. Accordingly, he gave the Vauxan a polite nod and pivoted on heel to leave.
Doyle abandoned the makeshift track and picked up a towel from the end of a long mat; a protective cushion for delicate cargoes. As he swabbed at his neck and face, Doyle offered a conciliatory smile, thin though it was. "D'you run?" he asked, when Bodie hesitated.
Asper fluttered out of the air above his head and landed on Bodie's left forearm. He flicked a finger under its muzzle in greeting, absurdly pleased that the creature had chosen to acknowledge his presence. "No. I use the passive chamber when I need to."
"Not as good for you, that," Doyle stated, peeling off his soaked top. "Keeps the muscles fit, sure; but chambers take all the work out of it."
"Could've fooled me," Bodie scoffed.
"Well, if you don't run, d'you wrestle?" Doyle persisted.
Bodie gave the question due consideration, not oblivious to the underlying request for peace between them. "Yeah. But it wouldn't be fair right now. You're beat. I'd dust the floor with you."
Doyle's eyes widened at this unsubtle challenge. "Would you indeed?"
"Easily. Besides, you're smaller than I am. Must have two stone on you."
The green gaze insolently raked over the human's body. "At least. We'll consider that your handicap."
"You really think I'll need it?" Bodie asked arrogantly.
"Know you will," Doyle goaded, tossing the towel to the floor and falling back a pace as Bodie came nearer.
Asper shot into the air as Bodie began to strip off his shirt; it was too close-fitting to allow him the flexibility he would need. Doyle waited until the human stood bare-chested and skinned of boots.
At an unvoiced signal, they began to circle the mat, studying each other's movements, assessing the easy flow of muscle and sinew over bone. Neither betrayed their conclusions in any way, totally concentrated and totally committed. Bodie broke first, and Doyle barely evaded him, taught in a few seconds just how much advantage his own speed would lend. The human was fast, far faster than he had any right to be. All the same Doyle did not hesitate to barrel into him, thus taking him by surprise.
They grappled briefly, a test of each other's strength and endurance. Doyle danced out of reach, green eyes narrowed. He seemed to be re-evaluating Bodie's ability to back his alacrity with enormous power, even though the strength must surely have been expected. Wondering at what the other man's face betrayed, it occurred to Bodie that perhaps he had frightened Doyle. Surely the Vauxan could not imagine that Bodie would injure him, no matter how determined he was to win? Or maybe it simply went beyond that, to more primal considerations: submission and conquest, and all that either outcome might suggest.
Given that possibility, Bodie began to question whether he should have agreed to this game at all. What had begun as a mere contest of brawn was developing rapidly into a revelation of subliminal--or not so subliminal-- desires. Doyle was certainly endowed with the animal speed Bodie had expected, but he was also possessed of a rare strength for one so slight. His movements were sleek and deft, and Bodie found himself wanting to watch just for the sheer pleasure of it. But there was a part of him that also wanted to capture that quicksilver body; and once imprisoned, bend it to his will.
The match continued for some minutes until both men were panting, without solid points having been scored on either side. Doyle was wearying and it showed in his responses. Under normal circumstances, he would have been an equal opponent to Bodie. Having spent himself earlier on his run, however, it was foregone that Bodie should finally bear him to the mat, his superior weight pinning Doyle down, vice-like hands rendering his arms immobile.
Hot breath rushed between them, chests lifting and pressing together, as starved lungs demanded air. "Give!" Bodie demanded, preparing to straddle the smaller man.
Doyle did not waste precious breath on words, but gave his head a quick shake, denying acquiescence. Yet to Bodie's consternation, he let himself go limp, and the human shifted his weight to move on top of him.
At the instant that Bodie was at his most vulnerable, Doyle seized his chance. He twisted and rolled, squirming bonelessly out of Bodie's grasp. Surprised to find that his apparent victim was still capable of treachery, Bodie tried to restore his temporary predominance; Doyle, however, was not trying to escape at all. Too late Bodie found himself on his back, made helpless with callous skill. Yet he struggled, attempting to gain leeway, only to fail before begun, trapped between the other man's steel-hard thighs, forearms held immobile by nearly the whole of Doyle's weight pressed down upon his wrists.
"You?" Doyle managed to produce the hoarse word though rasping breaths.
Bodie writhed again, the blood flowing too hot in his veins to easily concede defeat, and opened his mouth to shout his refusal.
Before Bodie could give voice to either denial or surrender, Doyle released him and rolled onto the mat at his side.
Stunned, Bodie levered himself up onto his elbow, only just repressing the aggressive impulse to climb onto the other man and insist that he carry on. Looking down into Doyle's sweat-sheened face, all the fury began to drain out of him. "Bloody sure of the outcome, aren't you? Presuming we were to take it to its natural conclusion, that is," he said ironically. Giving Doyle no chance to speak, he added, "That's all right. Just remind me not to take you on when you're not tired, okay?"
"Right," Doyle whispered. He lay on his back, eyes closed, arms loose at his sides. The heaving, darkly pelted chest was slick from his exertions.
Tempted beyond resistance, Bodie plucked gently at a whorl of hair near the stark outline of Doyle's right collarbone. "Who taught you that?" he asked, letting the hair spring back to the heated surface of Doyle's skin.
"The one who used to terrorize you with monster stories?"
Doyle's eyes started open as if with surprise. "Yes."
"You as good as he was?"
The Vauxan let his head roll from one side to the other in negation. "Miles from. He thought, being that I was half-human, I should be able to protect myself."
Bodie gave a cough of laughter. "What did he expect you to do, brawl?"
Doyle rolled his shoulders forward and raised himself up onto his elbows. "Seemed to think I was predisposed to it. My sexual preference may have been a factor." He closed his mouth abruptly.
But Bodie merely smiled, as though all brothers should be so thoughtful. "Has it come in handy, then?"
"More than once," Doyle owned. "Mainly in human strongholds--and there are rather a lot of those."
"Quite a plague on the universe, humans," Bodie said, readily addressing the oblique criticism.
"Some of them," Doyle agreed.
Grinning openly, Bodie jockeyed himself to his knees and thence to his feet. He held out a hand. "Come on, then, sunshine. I could use something to eat. What about you?"
Doyle accepted at once, and was brought all the way to his feet in a fluid motion. Held captive by Bodie's compelling gaze, he jerked with surprise when the sfang seemingly materialized from nothingness and took roost upon his head.
Bodie increased the pressure of his grip on Doyle's hand, leaning forward to taunt the creature. "You scared the lad, you great brute," he chastised tauntingly. The sfang poked an obstreperous paw at him. Bodie lifted his chin, allowing the prodding limb to knock against his nose. His position brought his throat within a hair's breadth of Doyle's mouth, the Vauxan's breath warm and fast upon Bodie's cooling skin.
Doyle took a sharp step backwards, causing Bodie to glance questioningly at him as Bodie came down off his toe tips. Doyle's expression gave him pause, but before Bodie could comment, Doyle was turning away, reaching for his towel. Bodie stepped past him, companionably ruffling the other man's hair. He said equably, "Get cleaned up; then we'll have our little talk, all right?"
"Why echo stones?"
They were sitting in the galley, facing one another across the narrow table. Asper squatted over its plate between them, working at a nondescript heap of brown lumps with evident relish.
Bodie favored the Vauxan with a pained look. "Well, let's see; they're rare--and therefore extremely valuable. Useful, too; or so I hear."
Doyle's fork idly chased a small, wilted tuber around his dish. "In the right hands," he agreed grudgingly. He speared the vegetable and shoved it into his mouth, crunching down with barely repressed violence. "And echo is extremely dangerous--for humans."
The human to whom this comment was directed fabricated a sweet smile. Doyle wondered if the bastard knew the effect it had on him. "That's what I have you for, isn't it?" Bodie stated reasonably.
Doyle was unamused. Forgetting the mouthful that bulged inside his right cheek, he said caustically, "D'you really trust me that much?"
The question seemed to jar Bodie. He said unpleasantly, "If I'm dead, you'll never get your marker back."
The Vauxan's face lost all traces of animation. Then he lowered his head and stared blankly at his motionless fork.
Bodie said curtly, "Sorry. That was a ridiculous thing to say. You could have put paid to me any time I was asleep; even a little while ago, in the cargo hold." His face twisted ruefully. "What did you mean, then?"
Doyle answered with great precision. "I'm a half-breed, remember?"
"So? You're more Vauxan than human."
"Maybe," Doyle said bitingly. "In any case my abilities are limited. D'you mean to risk your life, knowing that?"
Laughing humorlessly, Bodie stated, "Well, if I've picked wrongly, it's only what I deserve, right?"
The Vauxan's head moved with slow concurrence. "And I'll be stuck with a permanently blackened form."
"So just make sure you get it right," Bodie suggested practically. "And we'll both be happy, won't we?"
Doyle was careful to keep his face devoid of the frigid fury clawing at his insides. For several minutes he concentrated on his meal, gently pushing the sfang away when it began to edge toward the remnants of his food.
Bodie made a great show of being engrossed in his meal, also; but for once Doyle noticed that he was only picking--he would snag a morsel, and while it was being chewed, he would push everything else from one side of the plate to the other.
The human only raised his head after Doyle had repeated his name. "Hm?"
"What will you do with them? The echo stones," he elaborated when Bodie gave him a blank look.
"Sell them, of course. For a vast profit, too. Told you that."
Doyle studied him intently. "Legally?"
The moment stretched between them. Bodie stabbed into a piece of cheese, barely missing a segmented forelimb that was inching its way toward his plate. "Don't push your luck, you greedy bugger," he growled. Disregarding the brazen display of tiny white teeth directed his way, he announced, "Actually, yes. There's a research facility on Vaux that would pay most extravagantly for the opportunity to study them in depth." He fairly glowed with innocence. "Satisfied?"
"Why'd you let me think--?"
Bodie interrupted him. "You worry too much. Wouldn't want things to become boring for you, that's all."
Doyle steadied himself with visible effort. Then he broke into a slow, wolfish smile. "This Vauxan friend of yours, Bodie;" he mused aloud, "why did he never kill you?"
"Can't. You know that: Vauxans can't kill."
Doyle rose smoothly. "How unfortunate." He stalked out of the galley.
The next few days passed with unexpected amity. Bodie spent them, as was his wont, ensconced on the flight deck. Doyle kept to his own company although he did not object when the human joined him for a run in the cargo hold or in the galley to share a meal. Their conversation was unforced but infrequent, and unfailingly civil when it did occur.
Asper split its attentions between them, though often Bodie would find the sfang teetering on the edge of an open panel, overseeing the Vauxan's current work in progress.
Doyle took perceptible satisfaction in tinkering with the ship's computers. He had a canny, intuitive touch with them, so that even recalcitrant equipment soon yielded to his magic. FG BEHEMOTH, while always well cared for, had never operated with such finesse.
As they neared the Essex-5 system, Bodie came to recognize a growing reluctance within himself. Once they had completed his "mission" and bartered away their prize, the time would come to return Doyle to his companion. The prospect niggled at him, an untreated wound that slowly festered, becoming more noticeable as time passed.
His knowledge of Vauxans and their ways only confused him when applied to Doyle. He could tell that Doyle was attracted to him; that was not a product of his own imagination, which admittedly could be very inventive at times. But bonded Vauxans were not susceptible to others, Vauxans among the most loyal people in the known galaxy. And although Doyle had never openly solicited Bodie's attentions, his body language betrayed his interest as explicitly as an invitation to his bed. Or so Bodie conjectured.
Never should have promised, Bodie ruminated again, wearied that the same thought should occur to him with such irksome regularity. Would Targeon have understood his feelings? Or would he have despised him for them? And should he himself have anticipated being drawn under this one's spell when the two Vauxans were so unlike that one would never guess they shared common blood?
In all the years that Bodie had worked with Targeon he had never encountered his younger, half-brother, Ray Doyle. He had known of him, of course; a bright young man who had never been comfortable in either of the homes of his heritage. Doyle had pursued his technical training off-planet, wandering the galaxy for several years, apparently searching for something that he had never voiced to Targeon in the increasingly rare times they had met. For all his physical attractions, intelligence and ability, Doyle had always been a man incomplete.
For five years Bodie had kept tabs on the half-Vauxan from a distance, honoring his promise to Targeon to look out for his younger brother, playing the part of an impartial observer while leading his own solitary existence. Not long after Targeon's death, a devastating event that had eventually brought Doyle home, the half-breed wanderer had tried to settle down, teaching at a technical center on Vaux. During that time Bodie had travelled around as he had always done, yet continued to monitor the younger brother that Targeon had believed might one day require the human's intercession on his behalf.
Three years later, Doyle had also moved on, and for a short while Bodie had lost track of him. Even a well-maintained, highly sophisticated computer network could be defeated when it was used to trace a single entity amidst the billions of sentient life forms roaming the thousands of worlds cluttering the galaxy. When Bodie had rediscovered him, Doyle had returned to his old ways of flitting from one planet to another; only now he was accompanied by another, a Vauxan of whom Bodie knew nothing and had never bothered to learn more about, assuming hopefully that Targeon's brother had finally found someone to share his life.
That had been a year and a half ago. Since then Bodie had allowed his surveillance to slacken, almost ready to unload the unwelcome burden that Targeon's dying request had imposed upon him. Yet there had been no real question in his mind, when a cyclic update had reported that Doyle was being held in a dingy cell on Stepney, that he would do what he could to effect the Vauxan's release. It was coincidence that he had arrived after Doyle's companion had been spirited away. Bodie could not have reached the backwater planet more quickly had he wanted to.
Waiting in the intake/outtake chamber for the prisoner to be brought to him, it had been Bodie's intention to tell him immediately who he was and why he was there. But when the Vauxan had appeared, emotionally worn and near the edge of shattered rationality, Bodie had suffered a curious surge of compassion. From that desire to help had sprung the decision to do much more than buy the Vauxan's way out of prison.
His hasty plot had been formulated on the spot; a way to keep Doyle with him for a short time, just long enough to get to know this beloved brother of the man who had mattered so much to them both. Perhaps he should have understood the underlying need that had triggered his change of mind. But had he acknowledged it then, he would certainly never have taken their involvement this far. The fact that Doyle should want him made everything all the more difficult: what would Doyle think if he ever found out that Bodie had known who he was all along? Better not to yield to the temptation presented by the siren eyes and lean, seductive body. Bodie was a loner--always had been; he fully intended always to be. And Doyle already had a mate, even if he had apparently never bonded with him, as most Vauxans chose to do.
Bodie heaved a sigh, blindly watching the slowly moving star field on his screen. Asper, who had been sleeping in his lap, chittered suddenly when the pressure of Bodie's hand weighed too heavily on the creature's small back. Bodie shushed him, and continued the idle caress with a much lighter touch.
"Tired?" The husky, familiar voice came from behind.
It was late, and Bodie nodded, swivelling around at the impersonal pressure on his arm. Doyle had brought him a mug of steaming tea. Bodie mumbled his thanks, wrapping the fingers of one hand about the cup to warm them.
"Thought you'd gone to bed."
Doyle slouched against the back of the co-pilot's station. "Nah. Been working on the shower controls in your bath. They were cranked up to near danger levels. Fancy yourself sterile?"
"A little radiation can keep a feller out of a lot of trouble," Bodie joked; his heart was not in it, though he was pleased to see Doyle's expression lighten.
"In more ways than one." Drowsy eyes considered the human with amusement. "What time do we reach this precious planet of yours?"
"Afternoon tomorrow. We'll scope the area out first. Make a run the following morning, just after dawn."
Doyle assimilated this in silence, watching the human's hand in its loving glide up and down the sfang's spine. The indolent movement seemed to hold him entranced.
Bodie surprised himself by asking, "What were you and your friend...your...."
"Moor," Doyle said evenly.
"Yeah, Moor. What were you two doing on Stepney? You never said."
Dark brows rose in mild surprise. "You never asked."
Bodie stared at the other man, waiting vainly for him to speak. Finally, with a grimace he said, "So I'm asking. Is it a secret?"
Thin shoulders twitched in a shrug. "Was looking for someone."
When the Vauxan gave no indication of saying more, Bodie rudely prompted, "Who?"
Shaking his head, Doyle said unemotionally, "No one you'd know. Had something I wanted to talk with him about."
Intrigued, Bodie gulped down some of the scalding fluid, sucked in a breath to cool his stinging mouth, then demanded, "Like what?"
"'S not important," Doyle said easily. "Not anymore." He stared at the human for a long moment, as if searching for something in Bodie's face.
Under that calm green gaze, Bodie felt his blood stir. What he had speculated upon as a possibility was suddenly incontrovertible: if he wanted Ray Doyle in his bed, he could have him there. The Vauxan would not come without a price, however; and Bodie would not trade in the currency of commitment.
As if reading his thoughts, Doyle let his eyes fall. "G'night, Bodie," he murmured. "See you in the morning."
Bodie's mouth fell open, but the Vauxan was already in the corridor, a remote, unreachable figure. He could have called after him, and perhaps Doyle would have stopped. Would have stopped. Doyle was ready; Bodie was not. Turning his mind purposefully away from the pulsing ache in his groin, Bodie began to puzzle over Doyle's cryptic words. He'd gone all the way to Stepney, probably aware of the social climate there, to find a man in order to discuss something. Only now, for some reason, the need to talk to that someone was no longer important.
Bodie was snapped out of a yearning dream by the sharp voicing of his name over the intercom. He had not intended to nod off again, but last night he had not slept well. Taking a few minutes to rest in his cabin early in the afternoon, Bodie had drifted off almost at once, more weary than he had realized.
"What is it?" he asked roughly, just loudly enough to trip the voice sensor.
"Get up here," Doyle said uninformatively.
"Trouble?" Bodie drove a leg into his trousers.
There was a hint of mocking humor in the Vauxan's voice. "Take the time to get dressed. It isn't going away."
The communication was terminated with a click. Bodie could have reaccessed the deck, but there was no point in doing so. The Vauxan would explain when Bodie arrived.
He did not have to ask. Striding onto the flight deck, hair combed by a swift raking of impatient fingers, Bodie came to a halt just inside the entry, eyes riveted upon the image displayed by the ship's screen.
They had reached the outer edges of the Essex-5 system just after dawn. Their speed stepped down by preprogrammed commands, the ship had crept through the increased solar debris and planetary detritus toward the second body orbiting the star called Essex. Everything had been routine till now; the squat shape of the planet skipper enhanced by computer imaging had effectively altered that.
Bodie rubbed his jaw, responding to the silent challenge in Doyle's eyes. "Well, it has been a few years. Have you hailed her?"
Doyle waved a hand at the read-outs shuffling across the bottom of the viewer. "Nobody home."
Bodie moved to the captain's station, finding the seat still warm. "Dead in the water?"
A curious uncertainty flickered across the Vauxan's face. "Almost."
Blue eyes jolted upward. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"There are trace readings," Doyle said. "Not sentient."
Bewildered, Bodie prompted, "And?"
The Vauxan couldn't quite cover his concern. "It's a cross between a mineral and something alive." He raised his brows meaningfully. "Your echo stones, perhaps?"
Bodie turned back to the viewer, bottom lip thrust slightly forward as his face hardened in concentration. "Scans show anything?"
"No life forms. Not the kind we're familiar with, anyway. Don't know how echo might register. Wouldn't have thought it could."
The lower lip was sucked into Bodie's mouth, there to be trapped between sharp teeth. "One way to find out."
Doyle inhaled loudly. "And make the same mistake? Didn't think you were that stupid, Bodie."
The acerbity of his words brought Bodie's eyes up again. "Typical human, y'know."
The curly head nodded in contemptuous agreement. "Yeah. And if it is echo over there, what d'you think will happen when you set foot on that ship?"
"You said it was just a trace," Bodie reminded him. "Probably too weak to do any harm."
Doyle grunted his disgust. "Is that your professional opinion, Bodie? I've always been told that only a few Vauxans understand those things--and they don't condescend to explain it to the rest of us."
Bodie summoned an easy grin. "So we provide the Consortium with some much needed knowledge. For humans, that is."
The Vauxan searched the other's cheeky expression with eyes that were carefully lacking in emotion. As though the conversation had gone according to some predetermined route, Doyle lifted his hands in resignation. "Never really expected you'd do otherwise."
"Good. Looks like you can think for both of us now," Bodie replied tartly. He hefted himself from the chair and pushed past Doyle to the door. "Give me ten minutes--" He swung round to be sure Doyle was clear on this; but the Vauxan was so close on his heels, Bodie found himself talking directly into the other's face. "Where do you think you're going?"
"With you," Doyle asserted mildly. "Where d'you expect me to go?"
"Nowhere," Bodie said with emphatic pronunciation. "One of us has to stay with the BEHEMOTH."
A solid hand came to rest against the human's chest. "She's already on auto."
Bodie frowned at him. "Trying to read my mind?"
The Vauxan's face lit with an engaging grin. "Just doing what you said: thinking for both of us. If those stones are still active, you'll need someone who can shield for you. If you're lucky, I can."
Caught by the unexpected warmth in the wide green eyes, Bodie felt an unwelcome tightening beneath his ribcage. "All right," he said, finding himself unexpectedly short of breath. "We'll go together."
By the time they were suited up, the BEHEMOTH had brought them alongside the derelict craft and was extending the boarding tube. They checked one another's environment gear one last time before entering the airlock which led to the tube. Bodie went first, heart a busy presence in the center of his chest as he traversed the short distance to the other ship. He'd seen the like before and was familiar enough with it to know the basic layout of the interior before operating the access hatch.
Doyle followed right behind, eyes surveying what little could be discerned in the immediate glow from their lamps.
They came in through the rear airlock, which was situated between the compartment housing the engines and the aft cargo hold. Much smaller than the BEHEMOTH, the abandoned craft yet gave an appearance of space through its ingenious design. Feeling cramped and more than a little claustrophobic all the same, Bodie made for the flight deck. Despite his objections he was glad of the company of the man trailing after him; for, mingled with his natural caution, there was a very faint twinge of something in his mind; as though--
"You doing that?" He came to a complete halt in the middle of the corridor, turning clumsily to confront the Vauxan.
Doyle peered at him through the faceplate of his helmet. "Overdoing it, am I?" he queried dryly.
Bodie thumped him lightly on the shoulder. "Nah. Was afraid it was me."
A low chuckle pulsed over Bodie's communicator. "Didn't know you were given to flights of fancy."
Bodie glowered good-naturedly. "Your brother wasn't the only one who knew a few monster stories."
Infinitely reassured by the comfortable by-play, Bodie resumed his inspection of the ship. As he grew accustomed to the feel of the Vauxan's protective presence in his mind he began to accept it with an ease that was in itself a little unsettling. Targeon had never done this, so Bodie had never experienced it before. It made him wonder what it would be like to share that sense of empathy under other, more pleasurable circumstances....
His pleasant meanderings were shattered as they came to the portal to the flight deck. The motionless form slumped in the pilot's chair was clearly illuminated in the glow of Bodie's lamp. He glanced back; Doyle shook his head. The Vauxan pointed and, following the direction of his finger, Bodie saw it: a small, round, glassy black object on the floor just below the dead pilot's hand.
Echo stone. Deadly for humans because they could not control the sensory overload. Once exposed, a victim would be trapped by the sensual feedback that was produced by their own minds, and enabled via the synergy of the stones. In time, they would become mindlessly entranced until exhaustion left them incapable of guarding themselves. It was at that stage the stones would feed without reciprocation, draining the hapless user of energy until death ensued. Discovered centuries before, the devastating, widespread illegal use of echo had eventually resulted in its increasing rarity. A natural product of very few systems, it could not be synthesized nor replicated. Strangely enough, only the empathic races could use the stones with impunity. For humans, echo stones devolved into legend; the stuff of fiction.
"Couldn't resist," Doyle said trenchantly.
Bodie leaned over and collected the stone in his gloved palm. It felt light and insubstantial. "Is it spent?"
There was a pause. "As well as. Wouldn't recommend taking it as a souvenir, though. Probably dangerously unstable."
"Is this what you were sensing?"
"Maybe." Doyle gestured at the rigid corpse. "Certainly wasn't her."
Bodie turned the beam of his torch aside, leaving the dead woman in shadow. "Should we check the cargo holds?"
"No," Doyle said sharply. At Bodie's querying look, he went on exasperatedly, "Unless you're feeling particularly suicidal?"
"What does that mean?"
"Those things aren't alive; not in the way we are, anyway. The reason psi peoples can handle them is because they feed the echo just enough to appease. Reciprocal synergy. If there's any echo in those holds, it'll have gone dormant. Don't imagine I can guard your virtue if you walk in there like a bloody virgin into a room full of rapists."
Bodie didn't give the thought further consideration. "Since you put it that way...." He studied the Vauxan curiously. "It doesn't tempt you, does it?"
There was a slow negative movement inside the Vauxan's protective helmet. "I can..." he faltered, seeking the proper word, "...sense it. The cognition." He frowned at his inability to convey his feelings lucidly. "It's like a twitching muscle, just under the surface of the skin. Not a sensation I particularly enjoy."
Bodie held up the echo stone between thumb and forefinger. "So you're more Vauxan than human, after all."
For a moment Doyle said nothing. Then: "So it would seem," he stated dispassionately.
Bodie tossed the black orb to the flight deck floor. "Why didn't that one go dormant?" he asked.
Doyle nodded toward the woman. "Went too far. Probably damaged itself in her dying."
"I see." Bodie turned away. "We're done here. Let's go, shall we?"
A short while later the two men sat on the deck of FG BEHEMOTH, silently overviewing the molecular destruction of the derelict spacecraft. It had been Doyle's suggestion to obliterate it, in order to avoid the possibility of some other voyager encountering the ship and investigating too thoroughly. Bodie'd had no objections, yet he felt strangely bereft--until he realized that, with the removal of the ship, Doyle had withdrawn the mental overlap. It was almost like losing a part of himself.
The BEHEMOTH assumed geo-stationary orbit at Bodie's pre-established coordinates within the hour. It was later in the day than Bodie had originally intended, due to their inspection of the dead planet skipper.
"That thing wouldn't have been around much longer, y'know," Doyle commented as Bodie commenced planet scans.
"What thing?" Bodie asked absently.
"The ship you just destroyed. Couldn't have been out there too awfully long. Your secret cache may not be so secret as you thought."
"See what you mean. Lucky we got here when we did." Bodie drew a displeased face. "Damn. 'S still winter down there. Four thousand square miles with a mean temperature of 0 degrees."
"Just a spring day," Doyle muttered. Bodie shot him a black look, then saw the unhappy sentiment echoed in the half-breed's face. Vauxans were not fond of the cold; Bodie had already noticed that Doyle kept his cabin several degrees warmer than the rest of the ship. He hadn't thought it remarkable before, but when the body temperature was involved, a few degrees could make a great deal of difference.
"Manageable?" Bodie questioned.
Doyle's expression was not pleasant. "Sure. Just bundle up." He cocked his head to one side. "Unless you'd rather go home?"
"After coming all this way? Not likely, mate."
"Was afraid you'd say that."
"Look at it this way:" Bodie said kindly, "We'll be finished tomorrow morning and...." He hesitated. And you'll be free. "And we'll dump the payload and be on our way to this Moor of yours." The name did not freeze on his tongue this time but rolled off easily; naturally.
Doyle turned his attention to the sfang propped on the chairback behind his head. "Just as you promised," he said tonelessly.
Finding it suddenly hard to swallow, Bodie repeated Doyle's words: "Just as I promised."
Gently patting Asper, Doyle looked away, his face remote.
Irritated by the ready acceptance, Bodie wondered how long it would be before he forgot the flaring emotions this one had stirred out of embers he had believed long dead. You'll die again, Bodie taunted himself. You did before. "Why don't you make yourself useful," he requested tiredly. "Get us something to eat. Something warm and filling."
The green eyes settled on Bodie without resentment. "Suppose I can manage that." He started toward the door, raising a forearm automatically as a white blur sprang toward him. "See what we can find for you, too, old son."
Bodie ruthlessly clamped down on a rush of wanting that surged up out of nowhere. It went far beyond simple desire now; beyond the need for mere physical relief. Why him? Bodie mused sourly. He had never felt anything like this for Targeon--nor for any other man. Or woman, for that matter. What was it about the Vauxan half-breed that had overcome Bodie's self-imposed walls, and was even now penetrating more deeply into every facet of his being? Swamped with resentment that he should have been taken despite his defenses, Bodie could only rage impotently that it should be so.
Love. How he hated that word. But the reality of it was growing bloody unignorable, and he knew he could no longer pretend--even to himself--that it did not exist.
"Bastard," he said moodily, well aware that the epithet was meant more for himself than Doyle.
Having satisfied himself that the long-range scans had imparted as much information as they could, Bodie took FG BEHEMOTH down through the planet's atmosphere and landed it several miles from the small native settlement that worshipped the stones. It was possible that their arrival had gone unnoticed, although the snowfall that accompanied their downward approach had been light and vertical.
Their sensors showed that the indigenous people whom Bodie had observed from afar five years previously had advanced little, if at all. Not long committed to the ways of agricultural living at that time, there was nothing now about the landscape to show that their skills had improved to any marked degree. Of course, Bodie allowed, it was winter; and at this latitude above the equator, the season would be long and harsh.
They locked down the systems, leaving life support on minimal stand-by before going their separate ways to prepare for the environment of Essex-2.
Some minutes later, Doyle found Bodie across from the main hatch outside the cabinet that functioned as his armory. Both had dressed warmly and Doyle was grateful that Bodie had warned him that first day on Stepney that he would require "something warm." Although the outside temperature had not dropped, a brisk wind had risen, and the snow was increasing.
The Vauxan watched as the human strapped on a small Browning pulse handgun, a compact weapon that provided several intensity settings. Asper, who had been silently hunched upon Bodie's shoulder while the human kitted up, suddenly darted upward, circled Bodie's head twice, all the while clicking its teeth. It hovered briefly in front of Doyle, its gleaming eyes very bright.
"What's that about?" Bodie asked distractedly.
"He wants to come with us."
The human's head came up sharply; he fixed the sfang with a piercing look. "Not your kind of place, Asper," he said firmly. "Besides, it's cold."
The sfang landed on Doyle's shoulder just below his right ear. It commenced a violent up-and-down motion, ruffling Doyle's hair with the force of its exertions.
Doyle snickered. "Says he's due an outing, Bodie."
Bodie peered at the Vauxan suspiciously. "Since when does he talk?"
The curly head tilted to one side. "Let's just say I'm good at interpreting."
"Yeah. I'll just bet you are. The answer's still 'no'."
At that Asper crouched forward, two forelimbs outstretched, and clashed the tips together before him. Bodie's brows went up as one. "And what does that mean: 'Please'?"
Doyle turned his cheek against the sfang's side, clucking sympathetically. "You understand sfangi, too," he said complacently.
Bodie gave him a long-suffering glare. "He's so subtle." But he reached out a palm and curved it round the sfang's haunches, letting his hand glide down alongside the Vauxan's face in passing.
Doyle did not draw away.
Eyes fastened on Doyle, Bodie said softly, "All right, you little sod." He scooped the creature into his fingers and planted it on his own shoulder. "Come on, we'll fetch your carrier."
As Bodie strode away with the placated sfang, Doyle ran his fingertips against the surface of his jaw, where the residual warmth of Bodie's touch was rapidly fading. He sighed, a slow passage of breath through parted teeth. Clamping down on his wayward emotions, he turned to the weapons cabinet which Bodie had left standing open.
Incuriously, he ran his eyes over the various pieces mounted therein. His brows rose as he took in the spectrum of firepower Bodie kept available. Despite the obvious Vauxan reluctance to utilize kill weapons, Doyle was no stranger to them, having employed the odd shooter more than once in his travels. Sentient life forms, whilst generally the most treacherous and deadly of all, were not the only unsafe creatures one encountered on a barbaric planet.
Contemplatively, he took out a small S&W.550 and hefted it in his palm. The weapon was fully charged and in excellent repair. Shaking his head with reluctant admiration, Doyle acknowledged to himself that Bodie did nothing by half measures. Fitting the handgrip into his palm, Doyle snapped his wrist up so that the blunt muzzle bore down on a wall fixture at the end of the empty corridor. The.550 cocked smoothly, with the gentlest pressure of his thumb, and the sights zeroed in the guided charge instantaneously. Doyle rolled the weapon over in his hand, deactivating the order to arm, and thoughtfully slipped it into his jacket pocket. With nothing else to occupy his time, he resumed his perusal of Bodie's armory.
He had just shut the cabinet and pressed the reset to lock when Bodie appeared at the end of the corridor, a leathern case slung under one arm. A slight stirring from within betrayed the sfang's whereabouts; Doyle grinned his delight.
"Is he comfortable in there?"
"Hates it," Bodie replied with satisfaction. "It's his own fault, though, isn't it."
Doyle waved a hand at the closed cabinet. "Reckoned you were done. It's locked."
"Ready to go?"
The Vauxan shrugged. "Let's get it over with," he replied simply.
Doyle turned toward the main hatch and began to input the unlocking sequence, oblivious to the searching gaze that followed his every movement. The seals gave way with a loud, pneumatic sigh; he pulled the massive door inward. There was a tiny lull, then the outside weather overrode the artificial environment created by the ship. As the full force of the wet, flake-filled wind struck him, Doyle staggered, huddling instinctively deeper within his warmly insulated jacket. Adjusting the hood to seal out the invasive slivers of cold air, he let the conveyor carry him to the surface, with Bodie at his side.
Bodie stopped at the end of the ramp to check on the sfang, then left the conveyor behind, high-stepping through six inch snow to the rear of the BEHEMOTH. Doyle lent a hand as Bodie initiated the controls that would deploy the small ground skimmer. They waited with cold patience as the three-man craft was eased from the bowels of the ship to the surface. Using the voice- activated remote that circled his neck, Bodie fired the engines and shifted the skimmer clear of the mothercraft, then ordered the closing of all portals in the hull of the BEHEMOTH.
A moment later both men were thawing in the sheltering warmth of the skimmer. It did not boast the comforts of the mothercraft, but it spared them the elements and the tedium of a ten-mile hike. Bodie set the coordinates, and engaged forward thrust. A hundred yards out, Bodie transferred control to the ship. Its computers compensated automatically for vagaries of terrain, wind force, atmospheric density and temperature.
It was an eerie journey, their forward viewing panel obscured with unrelenting snow, seemingly growing thicker as they neared the settlement. When Doyle voiced this observation, Bodie confirmed it, saying laconically, "'S because we're gaining altitude, too."
Doyle did not speak again, sensing that the human was deeply entrenched in his own thoughts; though had he guessed them, he would not have been happy at the direction they were taking.
In fact, Bodie was contemplating the weather and how, despite its intransigence, it might prove to be the ally they needed to complete this job quickly and neatly. Having originally intended to do a thorough reconnaissance, he was thinking now in terms of striking swiftly, seizing the stones, and retiring to a safe distance before their actions could be interfered with. He glanced sidelong at the Vauxan in the opposite seat, only inches away, his heart skipping betrayingly at sight of the tousled head half- concealed by the protective folds of his hood, noting the set of the other's full mouth and the slant of calm but alert eyes. A muscle in Bodie's jaw hardened as he returned his attention to the forward monitor.
They reached their destination scant minutes later. Speaking curtly, Bodie directed Doyle to shut the systems down while he clambered out of the craft alone to make a visual survey of their surroundings.
As he recalled, there had not been much to see; there was even less so in the endless swirl of snow. Yet Bodie had his bearings by the time the Vauxan joined him, wordlessly extending the case containing the sfang.
Bodie took a peek inside. He muttered, "Told you so," into it, then settled the strap about his neck. Doyle waited without comment, his face almost completely enclosed now by the environment hood. The human appraised him briefly before jerking his head sharply to one side. They strode over a stretch of ground that shifted beneath their feet as the less packed surface gave way beneath their weight. Bodie had chosen an area distinctive for low rises and even deeper valleys. The terrain afforded protection from possible observers, but it also impeded their progress. Combined with densely falling snow and their bulky clothing, their rate of speed was necessarily retarded.
Doyle was puffing by the time they topped a small ridge where Bodie signalled a halt. The human took in the other's condition, putting down the uncharacteristic shortness of breath to the weather and temperature rather than to impending exhaustion. Doyle could run rings round him without coming up breathless.
"All right?" he asked.
Doyle's lips tightened, but he responded with a quick nod. "Is this it?" he asked, unimpressed.
Pointing to the next valley, Bodie said, "Other side of that. We have to go quietly from here. There will be guards."
"In these conditions?" Doyle exclaimed under his breath. "What do they need to guard against? Or did you tell them we were coming?"
A firm hand gripped the Vauxan's arm, the bite of it palpable through the folds of Doyle's sleeve. "Hasn't it occurred to you yet?" Bodie snapped. "These people aren't so very different from you."
It obviously had not. "Empathic, you mean?" Doyle asked distastefully, his breath frosting in the air between them. "Of course, they'd have to be, wouldn't they."
"But remember, they're very low on the scale of societal development. Don't you have legends of what early Vauxans used to do with echo stones?" Bodie knew that they did; Targeon had related them to him.
Doyle's expression was as cold as their surroundings. "Of course. Echo's like a narcotic substance, if misused. So what do you expect me to do--kill the poor blighters?"
Bodie's teeth ached from the unnatural set of his jaws. "No, you bloody- minded-- Just get 'em out of the way, that's all. Long enough for me to grab up a few stones and bugger off. Okay?"
Regarding the human expressionlessly, Doyle said indictingly, "Since that's virtually the sum total of what you've bothered to tell me so far, I guess it will have to do."
The human couldn't quite control a ruddy flush that emphasized the fire in his eyes. "Look, all I want you to do is watch my back while I'm inside. If someone comes, just give a shout."
"That's all?" Doyle said scornfully.
Bodie had the grace to look abashed. "And shield me from the echo stones, of course."
Doyle said brusquely, "You're going to do it now, aren't you. Not wait, as you said before."
It wasn't a question, but Bodie gave a nod of affirmation. "Yes. Quicker begun, quicker done."
Regarding him bleakly, Doyle said, "Let's get on with it, then."
Clamping down hard on the surge of regret that sprang from nowhere, Bodie strengthened his hold on the Vauxan's arm; Doyle jerked free.
Hampered as they were by the cold and snow, and the uneven lay of the land, they nevertheless made hasty work of attaining the next ridge. Once at its highest elevation--shy about six feet--Bodie gestured the Vauxan to the ground beside him, then cautiously edged forward to look into the small cove that lay below.
He spotted the native guard immediately, a pathetic individual half-bent over a smouldering fire that sputtered and shivered in the wind. The man was clad in heavy skins, a solid length of wood tipped with a business-weighted stone clutched in one thickly wrapped hand. Bodie alternately watched him for several minutes and scanned the rise on the other side of the small valley, which sheltered the natural outcropping that formed the entrance to the small cave. The other end, he recollected, wound toward the native's small village nearly a kilometer away.
He glanced down at Doyle, who had inconspicuously drawn close for warmth, the round face very close to his. "I'm going to stun him," Bodie said, his breath stirring Doyle's snow-jewelled lashes. "Then I want you to stand watch just there." He indicated the right side of the cave's entrance. Doyle nodded his understanding.
Several seconds later, when the human continued to study him, having made no effort to execute his plan, Doyle asked querulously, "What are you waiting for, then?"
"This," Bodie whispered, and leant forward. Framing the Vauxan's face with his gloved hand, he peeled down the protective mask with the ball of his thumb to bare the full mouth--and kissed him. Taken by surprise, Doyle did not resist. By the time the magnitude--and possible significance--of Bodie's action had begun to register, the human was scrambling away, hissing over his shoulder, "Hold that thought...."
In the compendium of kisses, it would have received a very small entry, certainly no more than a footnote. But for Doyle it assumed disproportionate distinction, an event to be reconsidered and cherished. That brief, sweet contact had somehow struck the cold from his world and replaced it with a simmering heat.
Recalling himself to the present with an effort, Doyle set his mind on the gravity of their situation. It occurred to him that he should feel manipulated; after bloody all, that's exactly what had happened. But he couldn't displace the joy that sang in his veins, or the anticipation of what that kiss might portend.
He lost sight of Bodie almost immediately, the dark figure blending into the shadows of evening alongside the closer outcrop that formed part of the cove.
The guard continued to hunch over his puny fire, having no other goal than to keep its feeble flame alive. Apparently the only form of attack he and his kith had taken precautions against was the kind that came with unsophisticated directness from the front. Consequently, he was taken totally unawares when the Browning spat through the veil of snow and felled him, his body crumpling forward onto the cold powdery earth.
By the expedient of lunging over the ridge and racing across the open ground fronting the entrance to the cave, Doyle contrived to arrive at the guard's unmoving form only seconds after Bodie. The human had already knelt, two fingers going to the victim's throat. His head came up as Doyle skidded to a stop. "He's alive. Let's get him over there, out of the weather." He did not wait for Doyle's compliance, but began to drag the native into the lea side of the outcropping, where drifts had yet to form.
When the guard was arranged to Bodie's satisfaction, Bodie straightened; at his feet, however, Doyle continued to order the creature's limp limbs and disarrayed leathers. "I'm counting on you, Doyle," Bodie admonished, and disappeared into the darkness at the mouth of the cave.
It required a startling act of will not to follow. Doyle did not like the way this idiot venture was being rushed. Despite his misgivings, he took his position on the far side of the outcropping, where he could see any and all possible approaches--including the one Bodie had made.
The wind blew stiffly here, and it was not long at all before Doyle began to feel the nettling sting of it. It tore at his concentration and filled him with irritation. Yet one part of his mind remained keenly vigilant while another acted as a barrier for the massive--but sated--accumulation of echo stones that filled the cavern at his back. A third part simply struggled to ignore the bitterness of the cold, and the ever growing uneasiness that he could neither name nor shake off.
When Bodie finally reappeared, seemingly a lifetime later, only minutes had passed. He triumphantly held up a small pack, brought along expressly for this purpose, for Doyle to see. Dismissing his bounty with a disparaging glance, Doyle was nevertheless well aware that the human gripped in his hand a fortune beyond calculation.
It wasn't the tread of a footstep that snapped the Vauxan's head around, but the abrupt awareness of another empathic mind. He should have sensed it before the other had got so close; but then neither he nor Bodie had reckoned on another guard lying in wait inside the cave, where his psychic essence was overshadowed by the throbbing presence of so much echo. Doyle's shocked motion warned Bodie, who reacted with flashfire instinctiveness. The stones tumbled to the ragged surface of the cave entrance as his arms swung up to fend off the blow of the second man's club.
Bodie gave a grunt of agony as the haft of the heavy wood connected with his left forearm, even padded as it was with full winter gear. Squirming wormlike, he barely managed to deflect the full and deadly force of the guard's murderous intent. The native was a huge creature, almost a head taller than he, and moved with all the brute power of his size and righteous outrage. Bodie might have stood a chance had he been better placed, but as he twisted to avoid the next blow, his heel caught on a patch of ice and he went down, sprawling across the ground.
The hulking guard bore down on him without pause, swinging the club up and bringing it down with killing accuracy.
Bodie heard the cry as though from a great distance, filtered as it was by the blood pounding in his ears and the certainty of death numbing his brain. But he retained the wits to roll out of his attacker's way when the great form suddenly glowed with a fierce red energy. The native man collapsed like a toppled tree, his club sliding harmlessly to a stop several yards away.
In that very instant, Bodie was seized by a terrible comprehension. His ragged shout echoed Doyle's, and he was moving before the fallen brute had ceased twitching. He had scarcely reached his feet when the satchel that had slipped off his shoulder during the brief melee emitted a fearful, keening cry. Out of the corner of Bodie's eye he glimpsed the frenzied sfang scrabbling free of the leather carrier.
But the sfang was the least of his concerns. "You can't do that!" Bodie yelled as he pelted the few meters to Doyle's still form. "You half-witted bastard, you can't kill!" He threw himself to his knees beside the other man, automatically taking note of the.550 that had fallen from the Vauxan's fingers. Bodie rolled Doyle onto his back and dragged the mask from the waxen face, all the while muttering a mad jumble of pleas and threats, his voice counterpoint to the mindless skreeing cries of the aimlessly darting sfang.
Death and dying had long been a problem for empathic races. Shields and conventions protected them amongst their own kind, but when they were exposed to humans or other races capable of broadcasting, it was nearly impossible to avoid the backlash of psychic trauma that was unleashed at the instant of death. It was worse, somehow, if the empath were in any way responsible.
"You know better," Bodie cried out, gathering the unresisting figure into his arms. "Damn you, you can't leave me like this. Ray!" Breathing erratically, Bodie held him close, refusing to accept that he could lose the one person who had become so important to him. He dragged off his gloves and opened Doyle's jacket to slide a hand inside, right up under the Vauxan's shirt, desperately seeking a heartbeat.
It was there, but only just; a faint pulse that was noticeably fading even as Bodie verified its presence.
"I won't let you die, you backward sod," Bodie raged hollowly. Yet he knew that Doyle's chances were nonexistent. Even if the empath had been farther away, while his odds would have improved, in all likelihood the result would have been the same. Targeon had understood that risk in being partnered with a human; any Vauxan wandering free of his own kind knew and accepted it.
But Bodie would not accept it. Doyle could not die; Bodie needed him. Somehow he must maintain that fragile spark; somehow he must--
Yet even as Bodie wildly sought some means of preserving the Vauxan's life, he sensed the first ominous wisps of another presence.
Fear stole the moisture from Bodie's throat. Doyle's dwindling consciousness was leaving him vulnerable to the echo stones. Those in the cave could not endanger him, blocked as they were by the natural elements built into the structure that formed the grotto, and being recently fed. But Bodie had brought out a dozen or so in his own hands, and they lay now-- awakening--only a few feet away. They would never have been missed from the awesome pile he had uncovered within. But one was more than sufficient to destroy him.
Acting purely on instinct and propelled by more than a little blind fear, Bodie surged to his feet, finding his legs watery and uncoordinated. He dragged the Vauxan up beside him and hefted him into his arms, gasping with shock at the burst of pain that radiated from his battered forearm. He found his balance with difficulty. Lurching forward through sheer strength of will, he turned back in the direction of their transport.
Bodie never knew how he managed to reach the skimmer. The snow blew into his face with every step and he did not have a hand to raise his mask. The Vauxan was a dead weight in his arms but it never occurred to him to leave Doyle behind; no matter that abandoning him would have greatly improved Bodie's own chances. Distance helped, and as it lengthened between him and the stones, his head began to clear a little. At one point he thought he heard voices. He ignored them, doggedly maintaining his pace. It was not long after that the voices turned frantic, fractured by distance and the muffling snow; then they broke off altogether. Sometime thereafter Asper reappeared, folding itself into a miserable huddle upon Doyle's chest, its hideous shrieking reduced now to a terrible mewling that Bodie no longer even heard.
Exhausted to the point of indifference, Bodie almost stumbled over the skimmer, which had been whitened by the accumulation of snowfall. Beyond surprise or relief, he activated the entry wings and fell inside, not even then relinquishing his precious burden. Just retaining the sensibility to command their return to the BEHEMOTH, Bodie lay back, gasping loudly. He was vaguely conscious of a tearing pain in his lungs that was of as little consequence as the hot pulsation in his bruised arm.
More than that, he was feeling strangely weak and disconnected; as though he were suffering a spell of syncope. Bodie puzzled over it with little real interest. The injury to his forearm had not been sufficient to cause such a reaction; he was certain of that. And while his exertions had been considerable--taking into account the distance he had covered while carrying Doyle, along with factors of cold, adrenalin overload, and emotional turmoil-- he had certainly suffered far more in previous misadventures and had never fallen into a faint as a result.
And yet-- He drew a little away to gaze down into the pallid face of the man he had come to love too late. Bodie had always known that Targeon would have died for him, their friendship had been that close; but Targeon, being a Vauxan, would never have considered killing for him.
"Damn you, Doyle," Bodie whispered brokenly. His thumb etched a path down the cold cheek to the base of the wilful jaw, then downward still to the soft skin of his throat--and froze there as two independent thoughts fought to gain predominance in his addled brain.
His sense of debilitation had retreated once distance was placed between Doyle and him.
Doyle's heart was still beating.
Made dizzy by a sudden rush of hope, Bodie brushed away the sfang, which was tentatively climbing onto the Vauxan's shoulder, and molded himself against his torso. It took a moment for him to differentiate between the trembling weakness that was his own and the feeble, but he was sure now, real presumption of his energy.
Targeon had told him that Vauxans could do this: an injured person could be restored to health by another's life force. He himself had seen Doyle employ that very technique to save Asper from the deleterious effects of Principal Dubchek's lightning-fast draw.
Somehow it had never occurred to him that his life force, his strength could be used to repay the debt of life he owed the Vauxan.
Easy, Bodie decided driftingly, willingly submitting to the Vauxan's unconscious demands. I don't have to do anything. Just lie here close to him, while he takes what he needs.
He had wanted to lie close to Doyle since the first moment he had seen him. Certainly he would not complain about the fulfillment of his fantasy--no matter the threat to himself.
The reality of that danger was brought home explicitly when the skimmer's preprogrammed run was complete, and Bodie was drawn out of a deadly stupor to the knowledge that they had already arrived back at the BEHEMOTH. Impossibly weak, he extricated himself from the Vauxan's warmth to check the read-outs. This time the lethargy lingered, but when he trailed a finger down the length of Doyle's throat, the trace of heartbeat there was markedly stronger. Asper, all six legs tightly clenched around Bodie's forearm, fretfully butted at Bodie's lowered chin.
"Don't worry, old son," Bodie reassured the sfang with a tremulous laugh. "One of us will feed you."
Doyle lay cold and pale in the middle of his own bunk, lashes and brows strikingly dark against the pallor of his skin. Bodie had been forced to leave him for longer than he had liked, and it had delayed him even further that he had returned nervously to check on the Vauxan following each task.
The infusion of Bodie's energy had served to temporarily stabilize him, so that Doyle held his own while Bodie concentrated his efforts on reinstalling the injured man in his own quarters, and sketchily saw to the security of the ship. Bodie could not guess what might happen to them--having no measure for gauging just how much of himself he could safely mete out to Doyle. But while it was not his intention that he die for Doyle, should it come to that he wanted the other man protected. The arrangements took only minutes. When he was done, he paused just long enough to down a couple of protein/glucose tablets. Fortified, he returned to the Vauxan's cabin.
He stripped to the skin, then removed Doyle's clothing as well. The room felt stuffily warm to him, the temperature set nearly ten degrees higher than the rest of the ship; nevertheless Doyle was cold when Bodie pulled him into his arms. He bent the curly-capped head so that it lay in the curve of his shoulder. Drawing the covers up close around them, Bodie began to focus his entire being on radiating heat, and strength.
This time the draining sensation took hold at once, causing Bodie to reel under the stunning force of it. They had spent twenty minutes on the skimmer on their return trip and that had taken him the edge of inanition. He voice- programmed the alarm to wake him after ten minutes, then once more succumbed to the curious, swirling blackness.
There was something beating against Bodie's face; an insistent tapping against his nose and eyelids that finally drove him to respond. When he tried to pull away, his limbs were leaden as with massive weights, and his heart thumped with labored slowness in the huge cavity of his chest.
The soft pummelling upon his forehead resumed, accompanied by a fearful noise that only gradually resolved itself into the wake-up alarm he had set just minutes before.
Fully conscious, albeit rather tenuously, Bodie forcibly broke free of the man lying beside him. "Stop." The single word bore little of its usual stolid intonation, but the computer apparently recognized it as one permutation among many, and the irritating wake-up tone finally ceased.
Catching his breath with difficulty, Bodie looked about the cabin owlishly, welcoming the sfang's tentative advance. He lightly stroked its feathers with a single, wilted finger; that was the only part of his body that recognized his sovereignty at the moment.
Reassured, Asper squatted down beside him, its glossy eyes moving between him and Doyle, the darting movement almost more than Bodie could take without becoming dizzy.
As he slowly regained control of his faculties, Bodie glanced across at the wall chrono--and went very still. Nearly twenty-five minutes had passed since he had set the wake-up call. Had it not been for Asper, it was very likely that he would still be under the Vauxan's spell.
"Bloody vampire," he mumbled. But it was with relief rather than resentment that he drank in the sight of Doyle's dark-downed chest moving with the tell-tale rise and fall of functioning lungs. His skin tone had improved as well; there were two vaguely pink smudges notable amidst the expanse of grey-tinged cheeks.
Bodie watched him peacefully for several minutes as strength crept back into him, before stretching forth a questing hand. He wove his blunt-tipped fingers into errant auburn curls, revelling in their living warmth.
His eyelids were heavy and he found himself dozing. Frightened that he would not wake to recommence his unconventional nursing of the Vauxan, Bodie forced himself to sit up. He spent a long time on the rim of the bed, head swimming, eyes hazy with the blood pounding across them.
At least he had had the foresight to bring along some sustenance packets and choked one down now despite his constricted throat and parched mouth. Feeling marginally better, he drained a glass of water, then curled up on the bunk near Doyle.
Summarily crushing the tiny murmurs of trepidation that niggled at the back of his mind, he gently drew the lax body once more into his arms. No matter what happened, he had this, the unlooked for pleasure of Doyle sharing a bed with him.
With unwitting avarice, Doyle's injured essence took command of him again, as fiercely intense as the last time; perhaps stronger. Bodie set the wake-up alarm for ten minutes and instructed the computer to crank up the volume. With a last feeble pat for the unhappy sfang, Bodie closed his eyes.
"No...." It was an echo of the Vauxan's last word. Soft and indistinct, it penetrated Bodie's brain with the lack of substance sometimes found in the detritus of dreams.
"No." The husky voice cracked upon the single utterance. "Bodie, you...idiot." If the human's ear had not been mere centimeters from the Vauxan's mouth, he would never have heard the susurrant complaint. It hardly made sense as it was, each word delivered with audible strain.
Bodie tried to swim toward the surface, fighting hard against clinging restraints. It eluded him, shimmering in the distance. And he was so tired, wanting only to sleep--
There was movement; a shifting of bedclothes. Warmth that had been plastered against him slid away, leaving him at once abandoned and curiously relieved.
Bodie's eyelids refused to cooperate as he directed them to open. Once they did, he understood their reluctance, for nothing made visual sense. Blinking furiously, Bodie could almost make out the shape of a familiar face; an important face.
The room was filled with a blaring tone, deafening in its persistence. Having lost all sense of time, Bodie yet understood the noise and croaked out the one-word incantation that would shut it off. He felt queasy and disoriented, as he had the time many years ago that he had suffered a serious cut; he had lost so much blood then he had passed out. Waking afterward had been like this; as though he had been pushed through a liquefier and slowly poured out. Nothing functioned properly, his brain least of all.
Yet things began to make sense a little at a time and dimly he began to take stock of his situation.
Doyle was looking at him with a frightened, cornered expression. Bodie reached out, thinking only to offer comfort, but the Vauxan snarled, "Don't!"
Not understanding, Bodie scraped up a dry-as-tinder whisper: "Doyle, it's me."
"Fool...." The Vauxan closed his eyes, the toil of speech evidently taxing his uncertain strength. "I'll...drain you." He fought for breath, his chest heaving erratically. "Can't...control it. Don't...let me...kill you."
"Won't," Bodie promised mendaciously. But when he reached out, the Vauxan struggled impotently to evade him. With an irritated hiss, Bodie followed and pressed himself nearer, somewhat relieved to find that his strength was still greater than the other man's.
Caught between the bulkhead and the human's engulfing form, Doyle struck out weakly. "Bodie, don't...."
But Bodie was not to be argued with, resolutely molding the slight form back against his, the curve of Doyle's compact buttocks fitting perfectly into the hollow formed by Bodie's torso and bent knees. "Lie still," Bodie commanded softly, experiencing again that dizzying suction of energy. Doyle was right; it was very like dying. "You silly nit," he muttered, exasperated, "it's already yours, isn't it--my life."
Not equal to the contest of wills, Doyle moaned in frustration, his hands futilely attempting to repel the brawny arms that encircled him. His own body betrayed him, however, well pleased to take advantage of the other man's offering. "Can't...stop," he whispered. "Oh, Bodie...."
"Silly nit," Bodie repeated with vast tenderness. Utilizing what he recognized as the last of his reserves, Bodie cradled the Vauxan lovingly in his arms. "C'mere, lover," he whispered. "If we're going to do this, let's do it right."
Doyle woke with a start of fear, eyes shooting wide and sightless. It took a few seconds for his shattered thoughts to catch up, reminding him what had left the sour residue of anxiety.
The Vauxan forced his head to one side. Yes; the human lay there still, head half-turned toward Doyle. At some indeterminate point Doyle had roused sufficiently to break their unhealthy congress, Bodie no longer capable of self-preservation. Still trembly and muddled from the shock of his experience, Doyle had been unable to do more than edge away, placing as much distance between them as the narrow bunk would allow. Not long afterward, he had floated off again, not quite asleep, not quite conscious, suspended in a strange shadow-world of emptiness and regret.
Bodie's eyes were closed, his face chalk white. He looked dead. Doyle gazed upon him, a terrible hollowness filling his heart. In control now, he placed a hand upon Bodie's chest--and quickly pulled it away. The human was alive, breathing in long, deep respirations that signified heavy sleep. Doyle reached out again to scrape his fingers over Bodie's darkly stubbled cheek. His reverent touch trailed down the slope of the long neck, stopping at the demarcation where Bodie's beard ended near the hollow of his throat. There he sought and found a steady pulse. The inconsequential thought flitted into Doyle's frazzled brain that Bodie was one of those rare human males who chose not to permanently rid himself of facial hair, electing instead to treat it with depilating chemicals which retarded growth for only a few weeks at a time.
An immense wave of tenderness washed over the Vauxan, leaving him painfully conscious of the love and desire he felt for this contrary human who had risked his life and perhaps his intellect, to snatch Doyle from imminent death.
"Bodie." Doyle's voice was rough with disuse. He went closer, one hand gliding over the hard swell of Bodie's shoulder and down the length of his arm to his laxly curled hand. Entwining their fingers together, he said more urgently, "Bodie, wake up."
He spoke to him in the same quiet but insistent tone for several minutes, beginning to despair that the human had slipped into a tenebrous region from which he might never be retrieved. It had been known to happen, even among adept Vauxans involved in an energy exchange under laboratory conditions. But no human had ever been foolish enough to attempt such a thing.
"Bodie!" By now Doyle was bent over him, rocking the motionless human in his arms. "Please," he whispered. "Please."
There was a faint response, so slight that Doyle did not at first identify it as an independent action on Bodie's part. The movement became stronger, a physical request for room to breathe. Bodie's hands pushed against the Vauxan's chest, a pressure that was almost more implied than actual.
Doyle looked down into the other's face, his lungs failing him as he met guileless eyes, glowing blue. "Bodie!" he croaked. "You're all right?"
But the human only gazed back at him, betraying no sign of recognition, much less comprehension, the beautiful blue eyes shockingly vacuous.
"Oh, Bodie, no...." The words were wrenched from Doyle's throat. Tears welled up and tumbled onto lined cheeks. Carefully he gathered the human into his arms and holding him possessively, once again began to sway back and forth.
He was a being without identity, existing from instant to instant. At first he seemed completely helpless, dependent upon others for everything. When he ate, food was ladled into his mouth and he instinctively swallowed, choking sometimes until the pieces presented to him were uniformly smooth and soft. Water proved equally unmanageable, more of it dribbling down his chin than entered his throat, until he was encouraged to take it a sip at a time. His other requirements were addressed as efficiently, although he seemed to have a greater understanding of those, even though they were every bit as basic.
A great deal of time was lost in the pursuit of sleep, but time was of no consequence to him, so he did not begrudge his body's strange obsession with endless slumber. Slowly he came to comprehend that there were only two others who peopled his very contained little world. In his reduced capacity he knew them only as Large and Small.
The Small One was with him constantly. Rare indeed were the times that he woke and The Little One was not there. The Large One was in evidence only a little less frequently, at least at first. Somehow he knew that The Large One was inestimably important to him, and suffered that one's absence with terrible distraction.
These two comprised the fabric of his life, and he was content with them and their evident caring, which was expressed to him in many ways. He felt it in their unique manner of touching and in the soft, strange intrusion that both were adroit at. He came to depend upon that invasion of his innermost self, seeking it upon awakening, and despairing when it was withheld.
Often he would wake to find himself surrounded by the angular length of The Large One, cuddled protectively beside the lanky body. He would squirm closer still, avidly seeking warmth--and something more that was hugely desirable but beyond his ability to communicate. The other would soothe him with low words and pleasurable caresses. Lost to sensation, he would eagerly return the other's embrace, gleaning as much delight from holding as being held. The quiet murmur that flowed from The Large One's mouth would fill his ears, caressing them while imparting nothing of sense, but ever welcome in that loving tone.
The Little One spoke to him as well, but in a startlingly different way. Its tiny teeth would click together and it would jab at him with prickly, shocking white appendages. Sometimes it would scold him, although he never understood what he had done to earn such disapproval. The Little One's grumbling was never harsh so he learned to disregard it. And inside--inside, The Little One created a tableau of wonderful images: things and places and creatures that fascinated him even as they worried at him with a kind of mocking familiarity. Eventually, he came to suspect that he should know these images, that he had seen them himself. But for some reason, a vital part of him had gone dormant. He had no idea how to reawaken it; was not even sure that he wanted to. But he guessed that the images would have no meaning until he did.
The Large One's voice cut through the cotton-wool of dreams with ease. As time ambled along, he found that he was sleeping less, and had regained full charge of his own bodily functions. Still he shared a bed with The Large One, having come to rely on his presence to quell a rising disquiet that only that one could displace. Smiling with uncomplicated pleasure as The Large One sat on the edge of the bunk, he leaned forward to press his cheek into the hot palm that circled his jaw. The other smiled back, and he was alight with wanting, as though a small fire had been kindled within the core of him.
"How do you feel?" It was a collection of noises which Bodie intuitively understood; he responded as he had learned, with an inclination of the head.
The other bent near again, holding Bodie's face between long-fingered hands, brushing moist lips across his forehead. Stunned, Bodie objected aloud when The Large One began to draw away. He mimicked the action, cupping The Large One's cheeks between his bigger, square-cut hands. The other held himself immobile as Bodie brought them together and, eschewing The Large One's forehead, chose instead to place his mouth full against The Large One's half- opened lips.
It was a deed that stirred the banked fire inside to stunning effect. He did not understand the turbulent imperatives that demanded gratification, but set about acceding to them at once, letting the seeking movements of his mouth express his innermost compulsions.
Trembling, The Large One forced them apart. Bodie was confused to see his own wanting reflected in the other's face. But The Large One only raised a hand and lightly knuckled Bodie's cheek. His haunted green eyes became brilliant, the color shimmering under a veil of moisture. The wetness welled up onto dark, thick lashes, and through them, onto ashen cheeks. Stricken but not knowing why, Bodie reached out and collected the freely flowing phenomenon on the edge of one finger. This arcane occurrence represented deep-seated pain, Bodie understood that; he understood too, that in some way, he was responsible.
"No." Denial burst from his mouth, torn out of that deeply cloistered part of him that had shut itself off. "Don't."
Snuffling loudly, The Large One dragged Bodie into a suffocating hug, clutching him so closely that Bodie's ribs ached. Indifferent to the discomfort, he accepted the embrace happily--but the seeds of uncertainty were sprouting.
As time continued to pass, he came to answer regularly to the name 'Bodie,' and increasingly extended his learning of the small world around him. Even The Large One's conversation was beginning to penetrate his walled-off comprehension. Little affected his routine, however, except for the occasional absences which always devastated him. Although they never lasted long, it was as though they augured the possibility of immeasurable loss. The Little One stayed close at hand when The Large One was gone, offering its presence as consolation. Bodie made do with that, mainly because he had no choice; but the time came when Bodie believed that his unreasoning dread had finally been realized. The Large One was truant for far longer than usual. Bodie slept twice, fitfully, and still that one did not return.
Driven by the need to do something--although he was not clear exactly what--Bodie forsook the small cubicle that was his home, only to be beaten back by the ferocious protests of The Small One. It refused him passage no matter how much he shouted or waved his arms, and swamped his mind with incredible pictures, distracting him until he was exhausted.
When next he awoke, The Large One was with him once more, clutching Bodie in his arms, his thin body unnaturally cold. With a small moan of thankfulness, Bodie returned the embrace, wrapping himself around the other as he remembered having it done to him. And then Bodie spent a long time simply looking, cataloguing the other's features one by one.
Soon he discovered that there was nothing about this one's face that did not appeal: from the dark hair that curled so enthusiastically around his skull to the well-shaped jaw, and the perfectly proportioned nose and beguiling mouth in between. He explored The Large One's face with unabashed interest. Testing the memory of several individual curls, he marked the fineness of each strand and its overall softness, then carefully stretched it to its limit. The Large One fidgeted at that, a faint line appearing between the dark arching curves of his eyebrows. So Bodie moved on, running the tip of a finger over the neatly defined brows, bringing up the edge of his thumb to tease spreading lashes, which lay so thick and prickly upon the ridges of high cheekbones.
Using thumb and forefinger, Bodie travelled along the compactly formed nose, causing a twitch and snuffle as he briefly inspected the two small holes at its base.
Then he stopped, captivated by the well-shaped mouth with its slightly longer, more voluptuous upper lip. Hesitantly, Bodie traced the outline of it, aware for some reason that his fingertip was shaking. The lips quivered, falling apart so that the teeth they guarded were slightly visible. Bodie raised his finger to his own mouth and wet it. Then he glided the moistened pad along the tender surface of The Large One's lower lip, and eased the tip a little inward until it rested upon the pliant cushion of a wondrously soft tongue.
He had explored too much. Green eyes flared open and the sharp edges of teeth came down on Bodie's finger. He cried out, more in startlement than pain. When he would have removed the offending digit, The Large One captured his wrist and held his hand there. The Large One then sucked Bodie's finger deeper into the enchanting moist warmth of his mouth.
Shivering, Bodie coasted on the sensations. The other's glittering eyes were lustrous green, focused on him unwaveringly. From nowhere the other's name was in his mouth and he set it free in a low murmur: "Doyle. Ray...Doyle."
Doyle let go of Bodie's wrist, fingers slowly following the curve of his arm up to the back of his neck. Without releasing him, Doyle rocked forward and kissed the human's lips. Bodie invited him in immediately, comparing the velvet pressure of the tongue within his mouth to the raspy sponginess of it as it had encircled his finger. This was most definitely better, he decided, losing himself in the taste and texture of Doyle's kiss. He pressed closer, seeking something that he knew this one could give him--but Doyle drew away, hands on Bodie's shoulders to keep him at bay when he would have demanded more, narrow thumbs rubbing calmingly on the bony ridge of Bodie's collarbone.
"Please." Bodie sought to overcome Doyle's resistance. "Ray?"
But that one would not be persuaded. "Not yet," Doyle said with an odd quaver that made his voice vibrate huskily in Bodie's ears. "Not yet, Bodie."
It was the sfang who forced mind and memory to fully reconnect. Bodie woke alone from a troubled sleep, his head coruscating with confused images and half-grasped memories. Only this time, they did not go away.
Bodie rolled over and glared up at the small creature looming over the head of his pillow, its dark, fathomless eyes staring down at him with fearful intentness. The human believed that the images must originate with the sfang and struck out at it. But the sfang eluded him, launching itself into the air, the barrage of thought pictures continuing to assail him unabated.
Bodie scrambled to his knees, gathering himself to lunge at his attacker. Made dizzy by that constant assault, however, he could not even balance, and sank back onto the bunk, head clasped between his hands. "Asper, don't!" he cried out. "Asper!"
Just then the doorway was filled with Doyle's familiar shape, his startled eyes absorbing everything in an instant. "Asper, leave him alone! He may not be ready yet!"
Obediently the sfang ended the tormenting images, and Bodie collapsed in a heap. Doyle was there immediately, comforting Bodie with lavish gentleness, caressing the other man's arms and back, whispering his name, over and over.
The sfang fluttered to the rumpled mattress, and tentatively scuttled onto Bodie's left knee. It rammed its pointed head against his thigh.
"Bastard," Bodie said gratingly, the word framed equally with rage and helpless laughter. "Rotten, self-centered little sod."
He heard a muffled sob, but when he tried to raise his head, Doyle would not let him. They remained in a close embrace, sharing their body heat for a long time. As Bodie rested limply against the Vauxan, the fragmented thoughts coalesced into memories. Snow; sudden sick terror; the gut-tearing realization of a loss he could not bear. Then later, warmth; too much warmth; and a giving that he could not deny nor control. And finally, the emptiness; a vast unbroken lake of it upon which he had floated lost but never entirely alone.
"How long?" he asked, his mouth moving against the column of Doyle's throat, measuring the rhythmic surge of blood flowing under the surface there.
A prickling quiver skated down Bodie's spine. "So long." He was allowed to look up at last. "Are you all right?"
Doyle's eyes were brilliant with tears. "You bloody fool. Of course I am."
Bodie turned his face back into the comfortable notch beneath Doyle's jaw. "That's all right, then."
There was more he wanted to say, but a not unwelcome languor had settled upon him and it was all he could do not to fall asleep where he sat. But he resisted all the same, for he had no intention of leaving Doyle; not even to nap, however briefly.
The capable hands that had seen to him for five days bore him down to the mattress anyway. "Give it up, mate," Doyle murmured. "I'm not going anywhere." Chirruping in agreement, the sfang sprang onto Bodie's leg and took up residence on his lap.
Wanting for nothing, Bodie slept once more.
Doyle was happy at last. For two years he had searched for the person his half-brother, Targeon, had encouraged him to find should he ever want a friend. Targeon had always understood him and his peculiar differentness. His friend--the human Targeon had been partnered with for several years--had never been on Vaux when Doyle had; hence, they had never met. Doyle only knew him as LerMith, the Vauxan name that meant 'almost Vauxan.' Doyle had been called that as well, under less than kind circumstances, by his own people.
Through Targeon--on the rare occasions that they had been together in the years before he died--Doyle had come to know much about this human: his quirky, sometimes twisted sense of humor; his bravery and tolerance--and his own sense of being apart; for he was never at home with his own people, and was sometimes even uncomfortable with himself.
Doyle's three sterile years in the research center on Vaux following Targeon's death had convinced him that the time had come to find LerMith, to see if the friendship Targeon had promised him was really Doyle's to command. So he had set out with his cousin Moor, who was the only person willing to join him on this venture, who also knew what LerMith looked like. Moor had seen him once or twice while Targeon was still living--and a last time at Targeon's passing ceremony, which had taken place while Doyle was away, and before he could reach Vaux.
Considerable persuasion had been employed to convince Moor to accompany him. The fact that Doyle had extricated his cousin from a rather sticky situation several years before had weighed in his favor; Moor had readily conceded to owing his cousin more than mere thanks.
But it had been a journey in frustration. Once traced, LerMith had always moved on a short time before, often only a day or two ahead. Doyle had begun to believe that they were following a spirit creature, for the human rarely travelled under the same name twice, and always managed to escape them, no matter how they tried to anticipate him. To make matters more difficult, Doyle had no hologram with which to spark recognition from those he questioned at each spaceport. No one on Vaux had ever been able to explain this apparent oversight, except to note that LerMith always managed to be somewhere else when likenesses were being made.
After two years, Moor had grown quite, quite bored with the whole venture, and Doyle himself was to the point of admitting defeat. He had promised Moor that Stepney would be the last place they would search--and that had been a shot in the dark, a planet LerMith had only visited from time to time. The chances of his being there had been miniscule. But for Doyle it had been the last opportunity to find...something; a friend with whom he could share the common bond of background, forged by his half-brother Targeon.
Instead he had found Bodie.
Lying on his back on the bunk, the Vauxan abandoned his contemplation of the ceiling to look at the human, eyes feasting on the face that was sinfully handsome in repose, but which he had seen taut with anger, mischievous with humor, and flushed with passion. In all his searchings it had never occurred to him that the one person in all the universe who could make him happy should have found him, instead.
And he had come so close to losing him.
It had been an unbearably close-run thing. He had killed for this man, fully comprehending the consequences when he had downed the primitive bent on murder. The shock of the native's dying had been stupefyingly painful, and nothing Doyle might have done could have prepared him for it. Only the knowledge that Bodie would survive had given him any consolation at all; when he had woken later to find that Bodie was risking the very life he had suffered so much to ensure, it had nearly maddened him.
But Bodie's indomitable strength of spirit had brought him through, and with each new hour he had gained back lost ground. It'll be all right, Doyle promised himself, although he could not help but question what the future might hold for them. Bodie had turned to him in passion, and mutual desire had sprung up between them. But had that been for him, Doyle; or just the pliant, accommodating body that had been so conveniently near to hand?
If that were all, then Doyle did not know if he could endure it. He had never wanted anything so much as he wanted this man's love, so much more important than his lust. Yet, if Bodie could love him, would Doyle be able to deal with the promiscuous ways of human commitment? He knew their oaths of fealty rarely extended beyond the first bloom of attraction; and although they often maintained financial and emotional support for one another, it was not uncommon for humans to betray their mates with frequent extraneous sexual encounters.
Vauxans were different. If they were sure of their feelings, they bonded. The empathic joining ensured that a mating was much more than a coupling of bodies. Could such a single-minded, long-lasting devotion exist among humans? Or would they forever pine for what they could no longer have, until the relationship was sundered by unequal needs?
Doyle sighed softly. He lay on his side, bent elbow supporting him, his gaze warm on Bodie's still sleeping figure.
Should he, being half-human, understand this need? If Bodie offered his love, should Doyle grant him the freedom to do as he wished, so long as Bodie never revealed his other liaisons?
The very thought plunged Doyle into terrible bleakness. No; he would not be able to handle it, and knew that from his body's reflexive response to the mere thought. He was, as Bodie had pointed out, more Vauxan than human after all.
But did he even have a choice in the matter?
Doyle watched the human, beguiled by his twitches and snores, yet yearning also to touch, to complete the galvanic contact that he had been forced to discourage the day before, when Bodie had still been victim to his mind's self-enforced shields. It had taken every last ounce of will to fend off the human's uninhibited advances. Doyle remembered how desire had sparked in the blue eyes, turning them black with frustration as he had begged for Doyle's compliance.
Heart rate increasing with the memory, Doyle fitfully licked his lips, eyes roaming over Bodie's quiescent face. Everything about him fed the furnace inside: the silky dark hair tumbled on the high forehead; the curve of heavy lashes on pale cheeks; the soft, sensuous lips that lured him almost irresistibly.
Determined not to wake him, Doyle laid a hand on Bodie's head, just behind his ear. His thumb described a random pattern on the curled-back tip, slid behind and under it, then moved lower still to the corner of his jaw. The skin there was very tender, and Doyle gave it his full consideration, unwittingly creeping closer as he followed the motion of his fingers.
A moment later his mouth was scant inches from the human's, the scent of the other man full in his nostrils, at once heady and most appealing. With his fingers molded to the curve of Bodie's neck, Doyle eliminated the distance between them and gently bestowed a kiss.
Even in sleep Bodie's lips were pliant. Doyle licked at them, just skimming the surface of each one to make them slick, then slipped his tongue between, finding access immediately.
He knew at the precise instant the human came fully aware. Pulse rate rocketing, Doyle drew back, allowing enough space between them for their eyes to meet. The human surveyed him without expression; this was the Bodie Doyle had known before Essex-2. Suddenly he was uncertain, afraid he had offended, and braced himself for condemnation.
"You trying to take advantage of me?" Bodie asked guilelessly.
It was hard to speak through the desert of Doyle's throat. He shook his head. "Could I?"
Bodie smiled. Doyle felt the bewitchment of it well within the center of his being. If a mere smile could swamp him with such intoxicating pleasure, what would happen if he were offered more? Bodie said, "Only one way to find out, isn't there?"
Doyle accepted the invitation as though it were a challenge. Gone was the subtle caution of his first kiss, replaced with the full-grown urgency of a man's need. Bodie held nothing back as Doyle brought their bodies closer, his fingers biting into the human's flanks; he wanted to climb inside Bodie's very skin. They fed at each other's mouths as hands laid burning paths across bare flesh.
It did not take long, this first contact; nor was much more needed than the satin friction of one body against the other to achieve their joint goal. And when, shortly after, they lay calming in one another's embrace, Doyle felt as though the challenge had been met and won--and he was unutterably content.
"Not bad," Bodie intoned.
Doyle lifted his head, examining Bodie warily.
Face soft with pleasure--not smugness or cynicism--Bodie nuzzled against Doyle's cheek, extending his tongue to taste the lobe of a curl-covered ear. "For a first go," he clarified. Arms tightening convulsively around the Vauxan's leanness, Bodie buried his face against the base of his neck. "Was perfect, Ray," he breathed. "Been wanting to do that since I first saw you."
"Have you?" Doyle's brows hitched upward. "You didn't say."
Bodie rolled over, half-pinning the Vauxan beneath him. He fitted Doyle's face between his palms and gave him a daunting look. "Couldn't, could I?"
"Why not?" Doyle was finding it hard to breathe, and not solely as a result of supporting Bodie's not inconsiderable weight.
"Didn't know I loved you then," Bodie said simply. There was no mockery in the words, only simple truth.
Doyle reached up and brushed a finger across Bodie's mouth, receiving the bonus of a quick kiss. "Do you know what you're saying?" he asked.
With a twist of his head, Bodie snagged the Vauxan's finger between his teeth. As swiftly he freed him, muttering, "'Course I do. Haven't heard anything from you yet, though."
Doyle's mouth melted into a smile. "Didn't think you'd need to hear it." He retracted that. "Didn't think you'd want to hear it."
"Why shouldn't I?" Bodie demanded, offended.
"You know about Vauxans," Doyle replied without inflection. "What if I wanted to...."
"Bond with me?" Bodie finished for him. "Just ask."
But a faint line formed between the wide-spaced eyes, Doyle's brows tugged downward. "You must know what it entails. Bodie, would you be...?" He stumbled, feeling a fool, incapable of imparting how important this was to him.
"Faithful?" Bodie supplied. Very seriously, he brought Doyle's face close to his. "I can only promise that I would be; and I have never broken my word, Ray. More than that, you doubting sod, I would never want to hurt you. I know what a broken bonding can do."
Hearing only Bodie's assurance, Doyle marvelled, "Do you? You would have to stand with me before my family. I would want to do it that way."
"If that's what you want," Bodie agreed, and took the full mouth with his.
Very skillfully and with his entire being, Bodie began to make love to him. Only moments passed before Doyle was soaring again, and it took all his strength to slow them both down. "Is it what you want?" He had to know.
Bodie favored him with a tolerant grin. "For you; if it will make you happy." He gave his head a slight shake. "Won't change anything either way," he explained, punctuating each word with a kiss. "Because you're stuck with me no matter what we do."
Satisfied, Doyle pulled him back down. They grappled briefly, sliding sensuously against sweat-and semen-slick bodies, before Doyle maneuvered the unresisting human onto his back. After a gratifyingly luscious kiss, the Vauxan escaped the grip of Bodie's arms and began an exploratory journey down the length of his body. Bodie relaxed under the combined assault of hands and mouth and the silken swab of a cherishing tongue. He employed his own hands across Doyle's shoulders and flanks, and as the Vauxan moved lower, Bodie twisted him around so he could reach Doyle's hips and the backs of his thighs more easily. Doyle encouraged the attention by pushing back against the caressing fingers, producing a hoarse whimper as they curved into the downy furrow between his buttocks.
Taking their time, they pleasured one another again, achieving what neither would have thought possible: They went even higher than the first time.
"We've off-planeted!" Bodie exclaimed. He was in the captain's seat for the first time in six days, addressing this momentous statement to the freshly bathed and dressed Vauxan behind him. "When did we off-planet?"
Doyle disentangled a hairy, fascinated forelimb from his still damp hair and climbed onto the other station. "Couple of days ago. While you were communing with the cosmos." He spoke lightly, but there was an edge to the words that he could not conceal.
Bodie worked the starchart that was cast upon the screen, glancing between the forward display and the small line of data that jiggered across the bottom. "Vaux?" He canted a brow at Doyle. "Pretty sure of me, weren't you?"
"Sure of you?"
"That I'd want to bond with you. You know." At the continued blank stare, Bodie said smartly, "Don't tell me you've forgotten already?"
Doyle laughed. "Don't be a clot. That wasn't why I set course for Vaux."
Wondering if the Vauxan intended that he pry it from him, Bodie cocked his head to one side. "Go on." He decided his new love looked too smug by half. "Doyle...."
The Vauxan threw out his hands, warding off a threatened blow. "It's where you originally planned on going anyway, isn't it?"
Suspicion narrowed the blue eyes. "Yeah. But that was before. To sell the echo stones, remember?"
The pedantic tone was not well received. "Oh. Right."
The moment stretched. "Right?" Bodie snapped. "Right, what?"
"So I set course for Vaux."
"Doyle!" This time the Vauxan did not avoid the deliberate cuffing which caught him just behind the ear. It turned almost instantly into an intimate caress, and Doyle was being reeled into Bodie's arms. When Bodie finally let him up for air, Doyle could hardly muster his thoughts. Bodie said with honeyed menace, "Do I need to get it out of your hide?"
"Hmm? That was nice," Doyle murmured. "Don't suppose you'd like to try? I have a very thick hide, y'know."
"You're insatiable," Bodie said, despair mixed with unwilling amusement. But the challenge of those tempting lips proved stronger than even his usually indomitable restraint. A moment later they were both having difficulty in catching their breath. Seemingly apropos of nothing, Doyle said, "I went back. That's why we're going to Vaux."
The human slumped forward dramatically, allowing his head to lay upon the Vauxan's chest in apparent resignation. Doyle twined his fingers carefully into the black hair, and bent forward to deposit a kiss upon the nape of the long neck. "The echo stones, Bodie," he said very precisely. "I went back for the echo stones."
Bodie's head came up so abruptly the crown of his head clipped the Vauxan's chin, jarring his teeth together with a resounding clack.
Unprepared for the sharp jolt of pain, Doyle gave a whoop, and cupped his jaw with both palms. Oozing remorse, but not quite able to repress the twitching that played havoc with the corners of his mouth, Bodie choked out, "Sorry. Sorry, are you all right?" He ducked his head, inhaling raggedly to steady himself.
"Go ahead, laugh, you lousy crud," Doyle said furiously.
"No," Bodie averred thickly. "No, 'm not going to laugh." But he collapsed forward onto the Vauxan's lap, capturing the wiry wrists to prevent reprisal, at least until he could regain control of himself. When he brought his head up again--considerably more circumspectly this time--he found the faintest acknowledgement of humor amidst the glimmer of involuntary tears.
"Oh, sunshine," he whispered, and kissed each salty eyelid. Then, before Doyle could draw away, he applied the same balm to his chin. "Better?"
The Vauxan murmured, "Hm. But then, you're good at that; making me feel better."
"Am I now?" For good measure, Bodie kissed him one more time, then snarled, "Now what the bloody hell are you on about?"
"Told you," Doyle said, unperturbed.
"Seriously?" Bodie couldn't believe it. "You went back for the stones? But--why?"
The Vauxan curled a finger around the contour of Bodie's jaw. "For you. Thought you would die; or stay as you were. It wouldn't have made things any better, but I wanted to believe it would have pleased you, if you ever knew."
Bodie covered the Vauxan's hand with his own. "If you only knew," he said under his breath.
Doyle accepted that as proof of his gratitude. "We're two days out. Be reaching Hendon Gate in about six hours."
"Can see that. Any other surprises for me?"
"No. But, Bodie...."
At the muted tone, Bodie looked at him searchingly. "What, Ray?"
"There were others outside the cave. They were all dead; the one I killed and...." His voice fell to a hushed whisper. "And two others. They had no faces."
Bodie suddenly recalled the noises he had heard on his way to the skimmer, the cries that had broken off so abruptly. "Asper," he said flatly.
The Vauxan nodded. "He killed for you, too."
The subject of their discussion lay somnolently attached to the back of Doyle's chair. "And for you," Bodie argued, without heat.
"They'll be afraid to go back for a long time."
"But when they do, there won't be anything to find, will there?" Bodie said with certainty.
Pleased that he had been been understood so quickly, some of the light returned to Doyle's eyes. "No, there won't."
They cleared Hendon with a minimum of fuss, then spent the remainder of the quiet afternoon trying to resume their old routine. Neither could quite forget the new dimensions of their relationship, however, and would find excuses to briefly visit and exchange an undemanding caress or a quick kiss.
As he worked through basic systems checks, Bodie would occasionally drift off, remembering the morning's love-making with a serene sense of repletion. He had known pleasure with more people than he could recall, but none of them had left him with the exhilarating sense of well-being that he enjoyed now. Perhaps, he considered, he had been wrong to fear the prospect of love.
Late in the afternoon, he left Doyle in charge of the flight deck, so that he could steal a quick nap. The sfang accompanied him and channelled soothing dreams his way.
Doyle woke him over the intercom some time later, summoning him to the galley. The Vauxan was already eating when Bodie arrived. Bodie gave him a reproachful look which also encompassed the small white creature hunched over its own meal in the center of the table.
"The bloom's off so soon?" he asked, making a great show of serving himself.
Speaking thickly around a large mouthful, Doyle queried eloquently, "Eh?"
Bodie stared at him. "Us. You called me over the ship's com to drag me out of bed--and when I get here, you're already stuffing your gob."
The Vauxan's nose wrinkled affectionately at him. "That's because you wouldn't be eating at all--if I'd got you out of bed personally."
Still a bit miffed, Bodie snorted. "That's assuming a lot, isn't it?"
Doyle waved his fork, dangerously burdened with food, over the table. "Not where humans are concerned, no."
Bodie froze in the midst of ferrying a spoonful of soup to his mouth. "Speaking from experience, are you?"
"Nah," Doyle grinned cheekily. Then: "Well, maybe one or two."
Caught between searing jealousy and prurient curiousity, Bodie inquired with elaborate disinterest, "So, how do I compare?"
Doyle blinked and lowered his fork with more speed than was strictly necessary. "You're not serious."
They stared at one another across the table, still stretched on the rack of newness, their emotions very vulnerable. Doyle broke the moment by saying brusquely, "They don't."
Bodie dropped his spoon and went to the other man's side. He crouched down on his haunches, resting his cheek against Doyle's leg, more grateful than he could express when Doyle's arms came to lie on his shoulders. "I swear I won't do that again. It just...I've never felt this way. Never." He raised his eyes and met Doyle's rueful gaze. "It scares me to death, Ray."
"Shouldn't," the Vauxan murmured. "I'm yours, Bodie, whatever you want to do with me." He touched a fingertip to Bodie's nose. "Kinda nice to know that I can have that effect on someone, though. Especially you."
Bodie encircled the lean waist in a loose hug, pressing his face against a hard muscled thigh. "And what's so special about me?" he wondered aloud.
"You love me." The words were simply stated but unmistakably imbued with a kind of awe.
"I do, y'know," Bodie said at once. "Too bloody much, maybe."
Doyle pushed him away, pointing at his chair. "You'll get used to it. Oh--in a week or so, I expect."
Bodie tenderly ruffled Doyle's already tousled curls. "You should be so lucky, lad. Intend to wear you out, I do."
The dark head arched back and interested green eyes raked over him. "Promise?"
"And threat. Now leave me alone, will you; I have to get my strength back."
"Ah, poor old spacer," Doyle murmured consolingly, but his face was flushed with appreciation as he watched the human resume his seat.
The remainder of their meal was spent in companionable discourse, disturbed only by the plummeting dives and skreeing complaints of a hungry sfang. Doyle offered to clean up so Bodie could return to the flight deck. He readily agreed, having determined in his earliest years that tidying up after a meal was one of life's least stimulating tasks.
Reviewing the flight path that Doyle had established, Bodie decided that the Vauxan had chosen it in order to bypass the more volatile sections of this particular sector. Normally he would never have come this way, simply for the fact that it went through some of the deadliest dull systems in the galaxy. But Doyle would have relied on that, quite aware that neither of them were up to adventuring yet. In essence, they were creeping in through Vaux's back door.
Doyle joined him on the flight deck, bearing two cups of scalding tea and a sluggish, overfed sfang.
Accepting the tea with a smile of thanks, Bodie rolled his eyes, nodding toward the bloated creature. "Can it still fly?"
"Doesn't make much difference, the way he always hitches a ride."
Bodie laughed softly. "True." A little over-full himself, the human leaned back in his chair and stretched forth his legs.
"This Vauxan friend of yours--did you ever mate with him?"
The human's expression was studiedly composed. "As a matter of fact, no."
Doyle held up a hand. "Don't worry, I was just curious." His eyes were very dark and Bodie wondered if it would be possible for him to get lost in such inviting depths.
"I can make it better for you," Doyle said tentatively. "Share my feelings and feed yours back to you. At least I think I can," he added, irresolutely.
Bodie reached out and took hold of Doyle's hand. "Does that mean you haven't done it before?" At Doyle's quiet assent, he asked, "Whyever not?"
Meshing their fingers together, Doyle murmured, "Was never in love before, was I."
"But surely you don't have to be in love...?"
"No. I just never wanted to try it that way unless it was with someone special."
Bodie felt himself melting inside. "Why haven't you ever loved anyone before, Ray?" His thumb curved into the Vauxan's palm and began describing slow, lazy circles.
"Could ask you the same question, I expect," Doyle countered wryly.
"You could. And you'd probably get the same answer."
Doyle bared his teeth and increased the strength of his grip. "Because I'm a half-breed, maybe? You know: never felt right with anyone. But I think it's simpler than that. Maybe I just never knew exactly what I wanted until I found it."
Bodie considered this and arrived at the same conclusion. "Yeah," he agreed. "Maybe that's all it really comes down to." He kissed a prominent knuckle. "Hold out for the best, eh?"
"You never said," Doyle reminded him with an engagingly shy smile. "Do you want me to try?"
His answer was immediate: "Yes. But--maybe in a few days, when I don't fall into a stupor every six hours. You knocked me for ten this morning as it was, y'know."
Doyle leaned across the space separating their stations and kissed Bodie with an artisan's mastery. "And will again, tonight."
"Be gentle with me," Bodie whispered.
Held safe in the Vauxan's arms, Bodie floated on the periphery of sleep, warmed through to his soul, as completely sated and relaxed as he could ever recall being.
The husky voice was ethereally soft, intentionally blending into the artificial night that surrounded them. Choosing to answer, Bodie prompted, "What, Ray?"
A band of hard muscle curved across Bodie's chest. "Thought maybe you'd already fallen asleep."
"What'd you expect, after a work-out like that?"
Doyle's hushed laughter reverberated in his chest like a hollow drum. "You managed to hold up your end fairly well, I thought."
"Yeah," Bodie agreed. "And yours, too."
A prodding finger elicited a groan of protest. "So, I like holding your end," Bodie granted. "Is that it? If so, I'm going back to sleep, okay?"
"No, that's not it at all, you randy toad. Just wanted to be clear on something.... After Vaux--after we finish our business there...."
Bodie anticipated him. "We'll find Moor. You'll pay off his marker with your share of the loot--and then you'll send him on his way. Right?"
"Right," Doyle said smoothly. He hugged the human until his bones creaked. "So go to sleep. Past your bed time, isn't it?"
Bodie wordlessly growled, languidly nestling deeper in the Vauxan's embrace. He was quite willing to do as he was told.
The indefatigable summons of the communications signal brought Doyle out of heavy, cloying slumber. Bodie stirred beside him, grumbling an incoherent complaint about life's constant little exigencies.
Taking quick note of the time, Doyle dragged sleep-numb fingers through his hair, then wiped them thoroughly over his eyes.
"What is it?" Bodie mumbled into his pillow.
"Someone messaging in. Go on, back to sleep with you. I'll answer it." With a fond caress for Bodie's disarrayed hair, Doyle worked his way out of the bed and into his trousers. He shivered in the corridor as the sheltering warmth of his cabin was left behind.
A minor upheaval took place in the bunk he had abandoned as Bodie, curious who was signalling them, and woken past the point of easily returning to sleep, shoved himself upright and considered following his companion to the flight deck.
The decision was made for him when Asper, who had been rudely tossed off the foot of the bed by Bodie's gyrations, decided there might be food involved and came to land heavily on the human's head.
"All right, all right," Bodie groused. "Hang about, will you?"
Not bothering to dress, he padded out of the cabin and into the corridor, patiently collecting the sfang in both of his hands and holding it in front of him so he could fix it with a less than friendly eye. Bodie was quick to concede the impromptu match, however; for, not only did the sfang have a glassy stare that no human could ever hope to equal, but it also boasted four eyes to the human's mere two.
Sighing, Bodie stopped long enough in the galley to ferret out something the sfang would find palatable. He left it alone, intently gulping its food, and went in search of Doyle.
"FG BEHEMOTH," Doyle said into the ship's communicator. "We read you. Identify caller, please."
"This is the routing station on SutTon. We have clearance data and docking information. If, that is, you aren't too busy to receive."
Amused by the overly indulgent tone of the porting authority, Doyle said kindly, "Of course we aren't. Keying over now." After setting the ship's recorders to accept the pertinent data, he asked, "So, how are things on Vaux?"
"Vaux and her satellite SutTon are perfectly fine, thank you," the bored voice replied. "And you'll be pleased to know that nothing much has changed in your absence, lerMith Raydoyle."
Doyle's face lit up in spite of the insult. "Thought I recognized the voice. It's Alders, isn't it?"
"You remember! Yeah, it's me. Old school chums never die, y'know; they just nurse grudges forever."
"That was years ago, mate. Reckoned you'd've forgotten that right after enders."
"No, you forget, lerMith: Your big brother Targeon threatened to kick my teeth in if I so much as ruffled your bouncy little curlies."
Doyle grinned reminiscently. "And it would have served you right, too. You had at least three stone on me."
"Probably closer to five now," Alders responded lugubriously. "Read-outs indicate data transmission successful. Before I sign off, however, there's someone here who wants to talk to you."
"Yeah, who?" Behind him unnoticed, Bodie stepped on the flight deck and leant back against the hatchway frame.
"Your long-suffering Moor, that's who," another, lower-toned voice announced.
"Moor! You're free!"
A thrill of sick surprise sliced into the human's belly at the crow of joy that burst from the Vauxan's lips.
"No thanks to you, sweeting." Despite the curt words, there was a definite undertone of welcome that raised a prickle of sweat to the surface of Bodie's skin.
"I know," Doyle said contritely. "I am sorry. Was coming for you, though. Didn't think I'd leave you stuck in it forever, did you?"
"Nah," Moor said with surly affection. "Know you better than that. But I will have my pound of flesh, y'know."
Bodie held his breath, disconcertingly aware that his heart had somehow worked itself into the narrow channel of his throat.
"Will you, now?" Doyle chuckled. "You're welcome to try."
"Skinny little thing like you? I'll have you down in no time. Look, Alders's making rude gestures at me; this isn't exactly legal. Meet you at your docking bay tomorrow, after you get in."
"Done," Doyle said, the timbre of his voice betraying his pleasure. "FG BEHEMOTH communication ended."
Bodie was already on his way back down the corridor. Unthinking he returned to Doyle's quarters, coming to a stop in the middle of the room. There he stood for uncounted seconds while his thoughts whirled like crazed dervishes. No reasoning or logic would ease the shattering pain that billowed up within him. He had known.... Of course he had. He grasped desperately for something that would refute what he thought he had known. Doyle loved him; he was a Vauxan. He would not hurt him. He--
Shuddering with the effort to behave as though nothing had happened, Bodie forced himself to remain motionless when two thin arms came round him from behind, and a bony, well-remembered body molded itself against the expanse of his broad back. He hissed involuntarily as gentle teeth nipped at the base of his skull, followed by a molten tongue which traced the first, prominent knob of his cervical ridge.
"Oh, Bodie, you're warm," Doyle breathed. "Warmer than any human I've ever known."
Bodie tried to speak but found that he had lost the ability. Doyle's hands slid up his chest, clever fingertips finding and carefully nursing the nubs of his nipples into sensitive peaks.
"It was the porting authority on SutTon," Doyle murmured absently. "Why are you standing here like this?" Without waiting for an answer, he propelled the human inexorably toward the bed. "It'll be much more comfortable here-- although maybe we'll try it like that sometime."
Bodie yielded mindlessly to the insistent hands and seductive voice. He was trying not to think, to keep the dangerous, lurking outrage at bay.
Doyle tumbled him onto the bed, then came down beside him. Still holding Bodie from behind, he moved suggestively against him, tracing the contours of the long, rigid spine, the warmth of Doyle's kisses igniting unwanted fires wherever his lips touched.
Writhing helplessly, Bodie was seized by a fierce rage that his body should be so ready to deceive him as well. All at once, he rolled and grappled the Vauxan onto his back, Bodie's mouth taking Doyle's lips with a savagery that filled him with bitter triumph.
Doyle did nothing to resist, accepting the human's roughness as readily as he had his tenderness. Bodie dug a knee between Doyle's thighs, and the Vauxan merely spread them wider. Bringing his full weight to bear, Bodie finally broke the bruising kiss and opened his eyes. Doyle was watching him, awaiting Bodie's intention, but not at all frightened.
The terrible uncertainty that had driven him to stake his claim evaporated in the face of such unquestioning trust. Shamed, Bodie bent his head forward and lightly kissed the yielding lips that were swollen and tinged with rosy color. His hands begged forgiveness as they ran down tense flanks to the tops of hard thigh muscles. Moving inward across the flat plain of Doyle's belly, they sought to restore the sweet arousal that his fierceness had subverted.
Doyle encouraged him with a small, fluttering sigh. His fingers linked together in the human's hair, and Doyle held Bodie immobile while he took his time to fully relish the human's mouth. Bodie's hands continued to weave their spell of magic, however, and soon Doyle was beyond thought. He gave a murmur of protest when Bodie drifted downward, then gasped aloud as he was taken into generous, wet heat that surrounded and absorbed him.
Bodie heard his name repeated over and over in the seconds before the Vauxan gave up to him what he sought. And then he gentled him, hands sweeping over thighs and hips long after the last shudder had faded away. "Bloody hell, mate," Doyle proclaimed on a lusty sigh.
Smiling, Bodie rose alongside him, and gathered the unresisting body into his arms. Holding him protectively, Bodie asked, "Good?"
Briefly, Doyle could not find words. Then he managed, "Let me show you."
But Bodie would not let him move, squeezing him tightly. "In a while, when you're all right."
"All right!" Doyle scoffed. "I'm great. Here, let me...." And this time he exercised the full measure of strength that was so stunningly formidable in one so slight, tipping the human onto his back. Refusing to be held at bay, Doyle accorded Bodie the same thorough ministrations that had been dealt him, giving no quarter until the human was wriggling under his touch, arching upward to appease the urgency that clamored for fulfillment.
Afterward, cradled in the warm shelter of Doyle's embrace, Bodie discovered tears clinging to his eyelashes. He felt weak and drained--and confused. He could not doubt the Vauxan's devotion, but he also knew he had not misheard him.
So? So, he must have misinterpreted Doyle's words. And even if he hadn't, if Doyle was in fact arranging a tryst with his former lover, it was of no consequence. In Bodie's books, Doyle was his--and would remain his-- whatever it took. He would not surrender him without a fight.
"Forgot to tell you," Doyle said quietly, idly plaiting his fingers through the dark, damp hair at Bodie's groin, "Moor's on Vaux."
Bodie's heart advanced a beat. "Is he?"
"Yeah. You distracted me, you great hulk." The Vauxan rubbed the tip of his nose against Bodie's jaw. "We didn't have much time to talk; not permitted, y'know. Got himself clear somehow."
"Saved you some money, hm?"
Doyle made a rude noise. "Nah. I owe him--but I'll take care of it." He bent back his head so he could study his lover's face. "I love you."
"That's good," Bodie said approvingly, "'Cause I love you."
"Bodie, I...I have something to tell you." Doyle gritted his teeth. "Something about Moor I should've explained a long time ago--"
"No." A heavy finger fell forbiddingly across Doyle's lips. "Not now, Ray," Bodie said. "It's still morning, y'know; not even dawn yet."
The Vauxan's relief at the temporary reprieve was evident. "All right. Later. Just promise you won't hate me when I tell you."
"Couldn't." Bodie kissed the crown of Doyle's unruly curls. Tempering the vehemence of his mercurial emotions, he said, "Just you promise me-- Promise you won't leave me."
"I won't," Doyle assured him, and returned the hug with more energy than caution. "Couldn't if I wanted to, could I?"
"No," Bodie agreed. "I wouldn't let you."
"Good. Wouldn't want you to," Doyle mumbled sleepily. "Want you to want me forever, Bodie. Think you can manage that?"
"I'm afraid I won't be able to manage anything else." Bodie's eyes fell closed and he was overtaken by a curious peacefulness. With the Vauxan close held like this in the aftermath of their lovemaking, he feared nothing--and no one.
After drowsing the early part of the day away, they doubled their efforts in preparing the ship for planetfall, conscientiously attending to the myriad procedural details that would have to be in order for the freighter to escape quarantine.
Bodie had contrived to neglect some of the more irritating "paperwork," a frequent oversight with him, as it was probably the least enjoyable aspect of travel in his opinion. He was inordinately behind this time, however, due to his unanticipated furlough following their misadventure on Essex-2. Bringing the ship's records up to date kept him at the flight deck console most of the morning. Doyle bribed him into breaking away at noon by standing in the doorway and letting the nose-titillating smell of lunch waft into the confined space. Bodie chased after him complainingly, but conceded at once to a brief sit-down in the galley.
They had not pursued the subject of Moor since the early hours. Doyle was in no hurry to bring his cousin up again, even though he knew it was important that they discuss him.
For his part, Bodie remembered belatedly that he owed the Vauxan a confidence as well: the truth about why Bodie had rescued him from the bleak prison on Stepney. In fact, he had let it go far too long to explain his motives satisfactorily. Would Doyle be furious to find out that Bodie had never intended to tell him who he was? Of course he would; especially when Doyle found out that his own mother knew who Bodie was.
It would have to wait until after they had landed, Bodie decided. They had agreed to sell the echo stones at the Institute of Vauxan Studies before doing anything else. Neither was entirely comfortable with them on board. In fact, when Doyle had offered to display them to the human, he had declined with rather more haste than diplomacy. Doyle, with his quick empathy for the human's feelings, did not press the invitation.
So their conversation was desultory and unimportant. While both harbored secrets, each believed their revelations would not unduly affect their relationship, however loathe they were to admit to them.
SutTon's scanning facilities cleared them without undue delay, and they proceeded to Vaux with their ultimate destination the porting facility in the provincial city of CarShalTon, which lay in the heart of the greatest Vauxan land mass. Like most major spaceports it boasted a vast array of peoples and resources. Because it catered to such a wide range of customs and physical characteristics, Bodie had always been at ease there; no one judged, no one asked questions--mostly, no one cared.
But CarShalTon was more than a cosmopolitan spaceport that had something for everyone. It was a place where Bodie had felt accepted for many years. In many ways, before Targeon had died it had felt a lot like home; or as near to one as Bodie had ever known.
As the soft blue planet, wreathed in veils of life-giving atmosphere, grew large on their viewscreen, Doyle silently echoed Bodie's feelings. This world had nominally been his home, even though there were few who had ever truly welcomed him here. The one, still-living person who had loved him unfailingly and without question would be waiting for him, however, and he felt a buoyant happiness that he would at last be able to tell his mother that he had found the one who made him whole. In his more than thirty years, he had long since despaired of ever being able to do that. Glancing across at Bodie, dark and handsome, his big, square, capable hands gripping the atmospheric drive controls, he believed she would approve.
Regardless of her approval--or lack thereof--he would remain with Bodie. The very thought made him warm with elation. As though suddenly conscious of the Vauxan's ruminations, Bodie gave him a brilliant smile. A hand seemed to reach inside and squeeze Doyle's heart. Unable to stop himself Doyle leaned near for a kiss; Bodie did not disappoint him.
"Don't think that's in standard landing practices. You want us to bring the BEHEMOTH down keel-up?" Bodie teased.
"Thought we had," Doyle said whimsically, savoring the lingering taste of Bodie's mouth.
The human only chuckled and returned his concentration to the monitor. The FG BEHEMOTH was entering the atmosphere and soon would require pilot override. In fact, the ship's computers were more than capable of implementing the maneuver, but Bodie preferred to fly the damn thing sometimes. The ship acceded to the switchover with a slight yaw, then settled into trim as Bodie got the feel of it again.
Doyle watched fascinated as they hurtled toward the surface. In most of his travels with Moor he had rarely been accorded such a grand view, being a mere passenger on a shuttle or planet skipper, relegated to the relative confinement of the riders' compartment. And, although he had flown enough craft to have seen this view before, it had been a while since he had witnessed an unobscured space-ground approach, a terrifying but enthralling event he would never grow weary of.
They landed with a barely noticeable jolt, which was as much a tribute to Bodie's piloting skills as to the ship's impact compensators. A moment later the support struts were released and the craft stood at rest on the traffic grid assigned to them, upon the surface of Vaux. There they waited for clearance to proceed to the docking bay.
It was a clear day, made stunningly bright by the all-encompassing presence of Vaux's single, great star. Doyle grinned for the sheer pleasure of it, feeling a little silly at his sentimentality, even as Bodie looked at him askance.
But the human said nothing. He guessed that Doyle was thinking of his homecoming--and possibly of their forthcoming bonding. He knew that meant a great deal to him; accordingly it was of importance to Bodie as well. In truth, he had never considered the likelihood of bonding with anyone, much less permanently; but the prospect of being mated to Doyle stirred anticipation as well as satisfaction. Never before had he loved someone so much that he yearned to make that person physically and legally his.
"Love you," he murmured and received a blinding smile for his honesty.
In moments they had received instructions to continue to their designated docking bay. Bodie guided the BEHEMOTH with expert ease, handling the enormous freighter as though it were a ground skimmer. Once the ship was at full stop again, Bodie shut down all save necessary support systems. By then Doyle had gone to the cargo hold to gather the echo stones; they met outside the main hatch.
The Vauxan opened the specially shielded container so that Bodie could peer within. He had asked no questions since Doyle had told him that he had gone back for the stones and was taken aback now at the sheer quantity of them. The twelve he had collected would have made a dozen men rich for life. This small hoard would easily support the entire city of CarShalTon.
"Greedy?" he blurted thoughtlessly.
A brow went up at that, but Doyle only said mildly, "You wanted them. Thought there should be enough to balance the cost."
Bodie's hands came up and curved around the Vauxan's cheeks. "It wouldn't have been enough if I'd lost you."
"One or a thousand, Bodie," Doyle whispered. "I thought you might have got some joy at the beautiful things I would have bought for you."
They shared a long tender kiss. "So buy them for me now," Bodie suggested.
Doyle gave him a crooked smile. "You can buy your own now, human," and danced aside as Bodie took a swat at him.
Outside, the day was genially temperate. Bodie shielded his eyes with one hand as they came to stand at the head of the ramp, squinting before the glare of daylight following the artificially regulated lighting of the BEHEMOTH. They had arrived mid-afternoon in early spring; hence the human-comfortable temperature. A rain shower had passed through sometime recently, and the humid scent of it rose beguilingly into Bodie's nostrils. He had always enjoyed the unique odors of Vaux; this was one that had been especially favored.
Starting eagerly down the ramp, Doyle outpaced the automatic conveyor, building up speed as he neared the end. When a shout came across the tarmac from the mouth of the hangar bay, Doyle looked up sharply.
It was his name, spoken by a familiar voice. The call came again, and Doyle picked out the figure hurrying toward them. "Moor!" he cried, and leapt the last feet off the end of the conveyor. He set the container holding the precious echo stones on the ground with a thump, and took off running.
Bodie watched as the two men met about thirty yards away and fell instantly into a tight embrace. Jaws grinding together, he banked down the roiling ambivalence that churned inside his stomach. The conveyor came to the end of the ramp, causing him to stumble when his feet failed to negotiate the transition. Then he was standing alone beside the BEHEMOTH, an unwilling observer to the others' emotional reunion.
"You're all right!" Doyle said, his voice thick with relief. Standing a little away he made a thorough inspection of the other man. All the while, he kept a hand on his cousin's shoulder, as though Moor might at any moment disappear into the ether.
"Steady on, old man. Told you I was."
The other Vauxan was a good deal taller than Doyle, taller even than Bodie. Well-built and handsomely featured, he smiled gamely at the half- human. "Don't look like that," he admonished. "I really wasn't whipped or anything. McCoy turned out to be a fair bloke, he did."
"Why'd he let you go?"
"Came up with some cost-savers for his antiquated equipment shop. Made such a good job of it, he decided he owed me an early out. Even got part of the profit, if you can believe that."
Doyle was outraged. "'Course I can. Moor, I am sorry. Never meant anything like that to happen."
Delivering a playful blow, Moor caught Doyle with both hands and dragged him close. "Know that." Facing the BEHEMOTH over Doyle's shoulder, he noticed the human waiting at the foot of the ramp for the first time. Barely giving him a glance, he loosened his stranglehold on his cousin. "And what about you? Reckoned everything must be all right, if you were transmitting the flight plan for this monster." He nodded toward the ship. "Alders rang me, y'know, as soon as he saw the report. Not such a bad old sod, really."
"Easy for you to say," Doyle said tartly. Alders had been a tormentor of the worst sort when Doyle was a youth. It had been as much a matter of survival as pride to sort the bastard out when he had torn into Doyle one too many times. Neither man had forgotten it, although it had engendered an uneasy respect between them. "I'm fine," he went on. Then he broke into a helpless, happy smile. "More than fine, actually."
"Yeah? Treated you nicely, did he?"
Doyle nodded. "Want you to meet him. We're...." but he trailed off before the frown of concentration that knotted Moor's brow. The Vauxan was studying Bodie with unwarranted intensity. Doyle turned to follow his gaze, wondering if Bodie had done something remarkable. As far as he could see, Bodie had done nothing at all.
"Why you sneaky little--" Moor's hands exuberantly clasped Doyle's shoulders. "You could've told me, y'know!"
Doyle looked up at him in bewilderment. "Told you what?"
"About him," Moor said peevishly. "So--you finally found the bastard."
"Moor--" Doyle's voice broke off, and he slowly wheeled round to stare at the object of their conversation.
The other Vauxan noted with alarm that Doyle's face was turning shockingly white. At a loss to understand this seemingly outsized reaction, he nevertheless took hold of the smaller man again to keep him upright in the unlikely event he should faint.
His voice as brittle as shattered glass, Doyle whispered, "You mean, you...recognize him?"
Moor's expression was riddled with uneasiness. "Didn't you know?" His eyes scanned the human from head to toe--just to be sure. "It is LerMith, Raydoyle. I'm sure of it." With unwitting provocation, he protested, "Surely you knew!"
Doyle's face was frozen; he looked as though he had been struck. "That's why I had you along, remember?"
Baffled, Moor asked, "Why didn't he tell you?"
Doyle did not even try to answer that as he disentangled himself from his cousin's grip.
"Think I'll just find out," he said grimly. He started to walk toward the BEHEMOTH--and Bodie. Then he came to a full stop and deliberately turned back toward Moor and took him in another fierce hug. "Thanks, mate. I'll see you later. And, Moor-- Hang about for the next few days, will you?"
"Sure," the Vauxan said agreeably. "Mind if I ask why?"
"Want you to witness," Doyle replied blackly.
His cousin blinked as he took in this astonishing bit of information. "With him?"
"Yeah," Doyle said shortly. "If he's still in one piece."
Bodie had himself firmly under control as Doyle strode purposefully toward him, although he was still awash with reckless passions that lay just below his civilized veneer.
The nearer Doyle drew, the clearer Bodie could see his expression. It worried him. There was a granite stillness in the normally amiable facade that Bodie couldn't recall ever seeing before--not even when, swamped with distrust, the Vauxan had first come on board the FG BEHEMOTH. Something the other Vauxan had told him had disturbed Doyle--something Bodie guessed with sinking heart had to do with him.
Yet he held his ground as Doyle stalked up to within a few inches of him, the rounded chin thrust forward, full lips compressed into a very thin line. Bodie could see the muscles working in Doyle's jaw, and there was a hard glint in distant green eyes.
Before Bodie could speak, Doyle demanded with cold fury, "Why didn't you tell me?"
Bodie's brows went up, and he gave his head a little shake. "Tell you what?"
"Who you are," Doyle's voice crackled with unconcealed bitterness, "LerMith."
"How--" Bodie's eyes darted to the entrance of the bay, but the Vauxan called Moor was gone. The man had looked familiar, although at that distance.... "He told you?"
Doyle glared at him, his face rigidly composed.
The human exhaled raggedly. "I was going to bring it up today, mate. Before we attended Gilla."
This proof of Bodie's knowledge--his mother's name--was almost more than Doyle could bear. Though sorely tempted, thumping one's intended to a mangled heap, after all, simply was not done.
As if recognizing Doyle's hair-trigger state, Bodie explained hurriedly, "She knows me, y'see. I--"
"We've been together for three weeks, Bodie," Doyle reminded him stonily. "You could have told me in the transfer chamber on Stepney. You've known who I was all along! What the bloody hell have you been playing at?" The anguish in his voice betrayed the misgivings spawned by Moor's shocking news. The trust between them, which had developed with such seeming ease, appeared to be crumbling to dust.
Bodie reached out; yet he hesitated to touch, as though he no longer had the right. "It wasn't planned, Ray," he declared. "I...I promised Targeon when he was dying that I'd watch out for you. When I went to Stepney, all I was going to do was pay your marker and let you go. Meant to tell you then...." He sighed again, his words falling on seemingly deaf ears. "Then you were brought out and--I can't explain it, but you looked so beaten, so alone--I wanted to help you." Blue eyes, dark with guilt, fell before Doyle's implacability. "Damn it, I didn't do it to hurt you!" Voice eroded to a grating whisper, Bodie added with self-condemnation, "Never intended to fall in love with you, either."
"What did you intend, Bodie?" Doyle asked caustically, using anger to conceal his own vulnerability. "You said you needed a Vauxan to get your echo stones. Was that a coincidence, then?"
"Yes!" Bodie shot back. "Believe it or not, I concocted the plan right there on Stepney. Sure, I'd always toyed with the idea of going back for them; but when I realized I didn't want to let you go right away, it was a means of holding you--a reason that you'd accept. And one you would probably dislike me for."
"Why?" Doyle tilted his head to one side in unconscious appeal. "Were you so sure of your charms that you had to protect yourself from me?"
"Never hurts to be careful," Bodie said flatly. "But maybe it was more a matter of protecting you from me."
"Or was it because I'm lerMith, too?" Doyle goaded. He wasn't sure why it should hurt so much; all that Bodie had told him could easily be believed-- especially given what he knew about Bodie. Targeon had said a great deal about his friend's aloofness, and how he guarded himself against involvement and even transitory attachments. And yet it did hurt; at that moment, Doyle almost wished he had never met the human.
"Of course not," Bodie said furiously. "You can't believe that makes any difference."
"I don't know what to believe right now," Doyle stated bleakly. "Targeon told me about you, too, y'know. You asked me once, Bodie, why I was on Stepney with Moor. Do you remember what I told you?"
"That you were looking for someone." Comprehension dawned: Surely not him? Bodie flinched. "Targeon's friend?"
"Clever lad. I've spent two years looking for you, Bodie."
The human spread his hands, almost touching his lover, but still afraid to make that final contact. "Why?" he asked hollowly.
"Because he said you would make me a good friend, if I ever needed one. I needed one, you cold bastard. But I thought I'd got a better deal; I thought I'd got you."
Bodie lurched forward before Doyle had finished and yanked him into his arms. "Don't say any more, Ray," he pleaded hoarsely.
"I killed for you, Bodie," Doyle said damningly, reluctantly returning Bodie's desperate embrace. "You bloody-minded-- Don't you understand anything?"
Face hidden in the dark tangy warmth of Doyle's hair, Bodie shuddered. "Only that I love you--and I don't want to lose you. I should have told you a long time ago, I know. But I...I didn't think at first you could share my feelings. I thought Moor--"
"Moor is my cousin."
"Your--" Bodie stepped back to look at him. "--cousin?"
Doyle nodded. "I would've told you this morning, but you didn't want me to."
"You let me think--"
"That he was my lover, yes."
The confusion in Bodie's wide-opened blue eyes would have been comical if Doyle had not sensed the raw pain behind it. "Why, Ray?"
"To cover myself. At first. After all, I couldn't know why you'd bought me. And, after you didn't try anything on, maybe it was a test."
Bodie could only stare at him, completely dumbstruck.
Doyle flushed hotly. "Nobody's ever loved me, Bodie. Oh, they might appreciate the package I come in, but being a half-breed is like displaying a hazard sign; turns most people right off. With you, I wanted to be sure. Didn't really think it through or anything, but when I realized you wanted me, I guessed you'd respect that Moor mattered to me--unless you came to care so much that you'd try it on anyway. Humans will, if they want something badly enough." He stared levelly into Bodie's face, wanting to restore their closeness, yet fearful that they had damaged it irreparably. If their trust was to be salvaged, they would have to employ absolute honesty--both of them. "You heard me talking to him this morning, didn't you?"
Remembering the urge to make Doyle his property, and the way he had almost done so, Bodie shifted restively. "Yes."
"You thought I was setting up a lover's rendezvous," Doyle went on inexorably. "And when we made love, you were angry. I am empathic, Bodie. Did you think I wouldn't know?"
But Bodie only hung his head, incapable of defending himself against the truth.
"Bodie." Doyle took the handsome face between his hands so Bodie could not look away and said quietly, "I wouldn't've hated you, if you had taken me that way. Bodie!" This, as the other man tried to wrench free. "Don't you understand? It would have been my fault--not yours." With his imposing strength, Doyle jerked Bodie into his arms and brutally kissed him.
There was no passion in his touch, only a desperate need to reaffirm their unity. For an instant Bodie tried to refuse him; but Doyle was implacable, holding the human prisoner until Doyle's touch perceptibly softened. No longer heedlessly bruising, Doyle subtly altered his stance so that it was Bodie who set their pace, Bodie's mouth that commanded Doyle's response.
When the kiss finally ended, they stood with heads bent close. "I'm sorry," Bodie sighed. "Never wanted this to go wrong. I'm so--"
"Shut up and listen," Doyle snapped. Then, more temperately he began again, "Just listen to me, will you?" It took the sum total of Doyle's will not to tell Bodie to forget everything that had just occurred between them. He knew the risk in doing that: Neither of them would ever be able to forget this breach of trust, if they did not flog it out now. "I meant that; what I said. I knew how you were feeling; what you intended to do to me--but I said nothing. And, Bodie, you didn't force me. You made it beautiful, instead."
Bodie's eyes betrayed a glimmer of hope. "Realized you wouldn't hurt me," he confessed. He smiled very faintly. "You killed for me, Ray."
The Vauxan slid his fingers around the human's neck and bent forward until their foreheads were pressed together. "That's right. And I'd do it again. Bodie-- I'm sorry I was so angry just now. I was afraid--"
"That you'd been set up."
Doyle kissed him lightly. "Yeah. But I got a little crazy." His mouth twisted into a sort of grin. "Must be the human in me."
"You do tend to be a bit emotional, don't you," Bodie murmured cautiously.
"Sometimes," Doyle admitted, having missed the teasing lilt in Bodie's voice altogether. "And you go to the opposite extreme. Bodie--" Doyle stretched the full length of his aching body against the human's hard-muscled frame. "The stones can wait. We can turn them in tomorrow."
"And what do you propose we do in the meantime?" Bodie asked, his dark eyes deepening with abiding love.
"I want you to take me," Doyle answered in a husky whisper. "Want you inside me."
Bodie crushed the reed-like figure close, more aroused by that silken tone than he would ever have dared admit. "Sure?"
He felt wayward curls brush up and down against his cheek. "Very."
Later Bodie could not recall entering the ship, nor passing down the corridor to Doyle's quarters. Asper greeted their arrival with a quick strafing run that scrambled Bodie's hair. When Doyle suggested firmly that he leave, the sfang bared its teeth whitely, but obeyed at once.
Before Bodie knew it, they were entwined together on Doyle's bed and Bodie's heart was in his throat, its pounding beat resonating in his belly. He took his time despite Doyle's wanton, inciteful lovemaking; Bodie was determined that this joining would cause his mate no pain.
In fact, it was he who cried out when Doyle's body accepted him at last, echoed by the Vauxan's voice begging him to carry on. In the moments that followed there was nothing but pleasure, a sensuous web of it that held them both captive. Then Bodie reeled as something was added, a lush, warm feeling that invaded his mind and scalded already seared nerve endings with an impossibly fiercer burning. It was Doyle, he realized dizzily, magnifying his rapture, lavishing his own on Bodie in a glorious cataclysm of sheer, voluptuous sensation.
He had never known the like. For the first time in his life he wondered if heart and lungs would give out before he finally achieved his goal. It was of little importance if they did, for nothing mattered beyond the deliciously pliant body sheltering him, and the unbridled rhythm of their love.
Afterward, they were like children who had been battered by a storm, huddled together against the astonishing ferocity of their passions. "Ray?" Bodie breathed, his big hands rubbing the Vauxan's still-quivering body with rough concern.
"Hm?" Doyle murmured at last.
"You okay?" Bodie asked shakily, well aware that had there ever been a chance of escaping this wilful, demanding creature, the opportunity was now gone forever.
There was a draft of breath upon Bodie's throat, warm and sweet; and Doyle wriggled closer, seeking out Bodie's sweat-slick skin as though it should double for his own. "'Okay' doesn't do it justice. You?"
"Still alive," Bodie conceded with a wan chuckle. "But only just. That was really something."
"Yeah." Doyle hesitated before saying, "But I should have asked first. You didn't mind?"
Bodie bit the tip of Doyle's nose, then kissed it with penitent tenderness. "Think I'd complain about something like that?"
There was a muffled laugh from somewhere beneath Bodie's ear. "I did it, didn't I," Doyle mused, with a charming combination of arrogance and awe.
"That you did, mate. What do you do for an encore, eh?"
The human squeaked as sharp teeth marked his neck. Doyle soothed him with a caress, then growled, "Sleep, you randy bugger."
"That I am," Bodie laughed under his breath. He squeezed the already drowsing Vauxan with uncomplicated delight. "Thank you."
But Doyle only muttered unintelligibly, worn to the marrow in his bones, totally secure in the human's arms and overflowing with the full measure of his contentment.
In the morning, the outside com signal brought Bodie awake with a groan. Doyle still slept, curled up beside him and held suffocatingly close. He extricated himself carefully; but the Vauxan was dead to the world, softly snoring.
Bodie dressed quickly, and hurried to the main hatch, having already recognized the signal as one requesting boarding permission. He batted a curious sfang away, then ordered it to stay with Doyle. Pausing to verify that it obeyed, he operated the door mechanism--and dropped at once to his knee.
"My lady Gilla," he said with perfectly correct Vauxan protocol.
The woman stretched out a hand and laid it on the crown of Bodie's mussed head. "You have been away a long time, LerMith. I had begun to believe you would never return." Her fingers curled into his short hair and tugged, not gently. "On your feet, human. When did you ever follow our customs?"
Bodie grinned up at her, captivated by the woman as he had always been. She was slight of build but very tall, as were most of her kind. Her eyes were the deep rust color that was common to Vauxans, her straight black hair twisted into an elaborate plait at the back. "I think I must follow them now," Bodie replied plaintively. "I would have your son."
The russet eyes narrowed to slits. "So I hear. And where is he?"
"Here, Mother," a sleepy voice announced from the bend in the corridor a meter and a half away. Bodie's head whipped round; surely Doyle had had the foresight to clothe himself? But Bodie need not have worried. The Vauxan must have woken immediately upon his leaving; for not only was Doyle dressed, but his hair had been tended to, which was more than Bodie had done.
Doyle came forward, brushing the human aside to take his mother into a long welcoming hug. "How are you?"
Gilla graced him with a look of surpassing tenderness. "I am well, Raydoyle. As are you, if my eyes do not lie." Shaking her head ruefully, she smiled, "I fear I must apologize, however."
"For?" Doyle asked blankly.
"It would appear that I passed on more than good breeding to you."
Doyle cocked his head to one side. "What else?"
She cast a measuring glance at Bodie, who had inconspicuously hooked a finger into Doyle's waistband and was using it to pull himself to his feet. "Your penchant for cohabiting with humans. I swear, I did not know it was hereditary."
Doyle laughed, sweeping Bodie up alongside him. "Will you attend?" he asked.
The human glowered at mother and son impartially.
"Of course. You are my inheritor, you know. Should something happen to you, that duty would devolve to LerMith."
Bodie managed to look appropriately honored and faintly disgruntled at the same time. "Was only taking him on, not the whole bloody family," he protested.
Gilla patted his cheek kindly. "You never were terribly bright, LerMith."
Bodie snorted loquaciously, then tossed his head in Doyle's direction. "At least you can't fault my taste."
Gilla drew him close and placed a featherlight kiss upon his cheek. Repeating the gesture with her son, she said, "No, I cannot. In that regard, you have shown yourself to be exceptionally bright. Come around later, if you wish. I think you both need feeding."
Punctuating this statement with an emphatic prod to Bodie's ribs, she held out her arm to her son. Doyle stole a kiss from his sleepy lover, and took his mother's hand to escort her down the ramp.
A few minutes later Doyle returned, finding Bodie, not surprisingly, in the galley. Sitting opposite him, he happily wrapped long fingers around the cup of steaming tea that waited at his place. "Good thing you said 'yes'," he muttered.
"Yes? What did I say yes to?" Bodie queried vacuously.
"To joining the family. That is what you did, idiot, in case you didn't realize."
Bodie's brows formed elegant arches. "Did I? When exactly did I do that?"
Doyle raked a toe down Bodie's shin under the table. "When you said you wanted her son, clot."
"Ow!" Legs safely withdrawn, Bodie pursed his lips and scrutinized the Vauxan over the rim of his cup. "So why is it a good thing?"
The Vauxan drew a wry face. "Because she'd sooner have you for a son, than me; that's why."
"That so?" Bodie sniggered indelicately. "Always did say Gilla had inordinately good taste."
Doyle dropped his face into his hands and simply stared at the human, finding the view from where he sat most enjoyable.
After a few minutes of this silent, intense observation, Bodie began to squirm. "Quit it, will you?"
"Nah. Like looking at you."
"Well, you keep looking at me like that, and you'll find yourself back in bed."
Doyle regarded Bodie with new respect. "Now?"
Shoulders describing the slightest of shrugs, Bodie murmured modestly, "Well, maybe not right this minute...."
The Vauxan yawned, unabashedly displaying the depths of his mouth and throat. "Worried me there for a minute. Even had me wondering if I'll be able to keep up with you."
A reluctant smile crept across the human's sulkily pursed lips. "A little abstinence would probably do us both good."
Bodie laid one sturdy hand palm-up upon the table and left it there, waiting until Doyle fitted his long-fingered one perfectly into it. "I'll let you know, won't I."
The latter part of morning was spent at the Institute of Vauxan Studies. The head of the facility was rendered speechless when Doyle opened the shielded container to show him its contents. The agency authorizing funds for research of echo stones was contacted immediately, and at record speed a sum agreeable to both parties was established. Vaux, being an economically sound world, was more than capable of coming up with the amount Bodie requested. Yet it staggered Doyle to hear it put into words. He refrained from comment, leaving the negotiations entirely to the human.
Later, with their personal financial reserves immeasurably enriched, they went to the home where Doyle had spent part of his childhood. Gilla greeted them with unfeigned elation and, for the first time, Bodie was properly introduced to Doyle's cousin, Moor. Even though he now knew that there had never been anything between the two men, he was still vaguely uncomfortable in the presence of the tall Vauxan. Moor seemed to sense this and directed his attention to both men without favoritism.
They ate sumptuously. Having declared them in need of fattening, Gilla set out to tempt them shamelessly. Coercion was unnecessary; they willingly sampled everything offered.
Afterward they retired to Gilla's walled garden, where the sun shone warm upon clay tiles which were festooned with a multitude of profusely growing things. Doyle sat on the wooden deck at Bodie's feet, his head propped against the human's knee. He was somnolent from overeating and only distantly followed the others' conversations.
Bodie was reminiscing with Gilla, leaving Doyle dreamily content to luxuriate in the human's openly affectionate touch. Bodie idly tousled Doyle's hair, and occasionally deployed his hand downward to wander along the curve of his shoulder, where two or three fingers would rove up and down, just shy of tickling him. With his weight resting more heavily against the human's leg as the afternoon progressed, Doyle's eyes slowly drifted shut and he began to doze.
"What will the two of you do now, LerMith?" Moor ventured to ask, when the conversation finally reached a lull.
Bodie shrugged, unintentionally jarring the Vauxan napping against his thigh. He steadied him automatically, his fingers beginning to knead a sharply boned shoulder. "Ask him. He's a rich man now; got a lot of money to spend."
Doyle straightened with a soft groan. "Not any more. Gave most of it away, didn't I?"
Bodie just managed to keep his jaw from falling open. "Gave it away?"
Scraping his cheek against the smooth material of Bodie's trousers, Doyle explained, "Mother's become a wealthy person; so has cousin Moor."
Gilla contemplated her son curiously. "What are you talking about, Raydoyle?"
He smiled ingenuously. "We sold a load of echo stones this morning to the Institute. I directed your duties man to add a rather large sum to your account this afternoon--and to yours, Moor."
Two pairs of uncomprehending, coppery eyes stared back at him. "You...you must be describing a small fortune, Raydoyle," Moor stuttered.
"More like a large fortune," Bodie corrected. "The Institute was very happy to do business with us."
"Echo stones!" Gilla exclaimed. "However did you find them?"
"Not easily," Doyle replied. He tilted his head back to peer up into Bodie's face. "The cost was almost too high." He was rewarded with a kiss laid squarely between his eyes. "Perhaps someday we'll tell you about it." He began to struggle to his feet. "But now I think it's time we were going," he said meaningfully. He poked a finger into Bodie's chest. "Asper'll be wondering where we are."
"Who's Asper, then?" Moor wondered.
Doyle grinned. "Bodie's former co-pilot. A sfang."
"Co-pilot! Thinks I'm his co-pilot, you mean," Bodie contradicted, heedless of the astonished looks this announcement earned him. To Gilla, he said, "Traitorous brute sold me out the moment he got a look at your bonny boy, y'know."
Gilla disbelievingly shook her head. "I'd always heard those things are deadly."
"They are," Doyle assured her. "But this one knows whose side to be on." He took one of Bodie's hands in his and hauled the human to his feet. "Shift up, mate!"
"Okay, okay," Bodie groused. "Your mother's added a few more pounds of mass here, eh. Things'll have to move a little slower for a while."
"Not too slow, I hope," Doyle whispered, just loudly enough for the human to hear.
Bodie gave him a particularly sweet smile. "Not to worry, sunshine." He turned toward Gilla and Doyle's cousin, tucking Doyle's arm into the bend of his elbow. "Tomorrow morning--at the Templar's office, if you'd like to witness. We're going to make it legal."
Gilla looked from one man to the other; one large and powerful, the other lean and deceptively delicate. "Of course. The rest of the family will be there, as well. If you don't mind, LerMith."
"'Course he doesn't," Doyle said bluffly. "Told him what he was getting into; was only fair, y'know."
"He'll take care of me giving the correct responses tomorrow, too. Wait and see."
Doyle thumped his companion without force. At the front door, Doyle paused beside his mother and gave her a loving kiss.
Moor glanced up at Bodie. Finding no enmity in the blue eyes, he offered a diffident smile. When Bodie smiled back agreeably, Moor turned to his cousin. "Thanks for the gift, Raydoyle. I appreciate it."
"Not as much as I appreciate everything you've done for me, Moor," Doyle said fervently. "I won't forget."
"That's all right. Though, I must say it would've been loads easier if he hadn't kept changing his name," the Vauxan said pithily.
"You're telling me!" Doyle studied the human speculatively. "That's something we'll have to discuss." And then he came to a complete stop. "Your name is Bodie--isn't it?"
Grinning gleefully, Bodie retorted, "Of course it is."
Outside, standing next to the BEHEMOTH's skimmer, Bodie waited for the Vauxan, who was still making his good-byes, to join him. Taking in the quiet, lovely neighborhood where Gilla lived, he wondered how Doyle felt about hearth and home.
A few minutes later, Doyle skipped over the flowerbed lining the walk, and came to stand beside him, sliding his fingertips into the waistband of Bodie's trousers. Latching onto Doyle's hands before they could delve too deeply, Bodie asked, "Do you want all this, Ray?" He waved an explanatory hand. "Y'know, a home, your own garden with those funny-smelling green flowers? We could do it with what we have now. If you want."
Doyle's eyes widened in amusement. "You'd be unbearable within a week, Bodie," he replied with certainty. "Only place for you is out in the wilds somewhere."
"And you?" Bodie asked. "Where's the place for you?"
Doyle took Bodie's mouth in a deep, plundering kiss. "Wherever you are, sunshine. C'mon," he pushed him into the rented skimmer, and strode round to the other side. "Asper's probably taken the ship apart by now."
"Nah, he's a patient little tyke--for the most part. Although I have noticed that he likes you to know when you've been missed."
"You're a brick, mate," Doyle said with mock gratitude, activating the skimmer's computer. "But just remember--that's where you'll be sleeping, too."
Bodie drew a face. "Ah, well; how much damage could the little bugger do?" He exchanged a brief, speaking look with the man who would shortly be his bonded mate. Grimacing, he said, "Right. Hop it, Doyle!"
As the skimmer lurched away, Doyle shot the human a quick grin. "You do realize that he'll want to be there tomorrow?"
The thought clearly had not occurred to Bodie. "Asper? At our bonding?" He mulled this unforeseen prospect for a moment, then nodded shrewdly. "You mean, you want him there in case I change my mind. Devious, Ray. Very devious."
"I'm wounded," Doyle declared. He engaged the flight program; the skimmer left the road and lifted into the air. "You think I don't trust you, is that it?"
"Do you?" Bodie had always preferred the direct approach.
"'Course. But it's an old Terran custom, isn't it: giving away the bride?"
Bodie laughed out loud. "So which one of us will Asper give away, then?"
"Both of us, of course."
Placing one large hand upon Doyle's thigh, Bodie said, "You're a lunatic, Ray Doyle."
Doyle pressed his leg upward against Bodie's hand. "Must be, to be marrying you." He leaned back and stretched. "Moor was right, y'know: It would've been much easier to find you, if you'd used your real name."
Bodie let his fingers walk toward the joining of hip to thigh. "That's probably true."
"So why--if your name really is Bodie--didn't you fob off one of your fake numbers on me, like you did everyone else?" He captured the wanderer assaulting his trouser clasp and raised it to his mouth.
"Same reason you had complete access to the BEHEMOTH'S computers--I trust you."
That unembroidered statement made Doyle break into a wide smile. "Because of Targeon, you mean; because he told you about me. He never called you that, y'know."
"What, 'Bodie'? Probably wouldn't've. Once he'd started calling me LerMith, it stuck. Don't think he even remembered it after a few years."
"I see. One more question--"
Bodie was patently disbelieving, "Only one!"
Applying a mock blow that was rapidly transformed into a caress, Doyle amended, "It's a two-parter. Why did you use so many different names; and why aren't there any holograms of you?"
Bodie let his head fall forward and pretended to snore.
Peering up at Doyle through dark lashes, Bodie warned him, "It's a l-o-n-g story, mate."
"So, we've got the rest of our lives. No secrets, right?"
Bodie sighed with resignation. "Okay, okay. Regular nosy parker, aren't you?"
"Right. Well, there was this bloke, y'see. Name was Cowley--George Cowley, it was...."
Amidst the low hum of the powerful engine, the skimmer glided gracefully toward the center of CarShalTon. In the distance lay the spaceport, its tall, spiring control towers shining like alabaster in the late afternoon sun.
Several minutes later, when the skimmer had completed its programmed flight and was settling on the tarmac beside the waiting Gateship FG BEHEMOTH, Bodie's tale was still being told.
-- THE END --