Lieutenant Greg Matthews stepped out of the air lock of the starship he’d served on for close to two years and walked away without a backward glance.
In front of him lay the docking sector of Saira Station, and he had to stop as he entered the cavernous space, suddenly dizzy. It had been several months since his last shore leave, so he’d need to readjust to open spaces after all that time in the confined conditions aboard ship. He had time, though. He wasn’t on shore leave now; this was his new home.
Several electric cabs waited at a nearby stand. Greg pulled himself together and took one.
“The base, sir?” the cabbie asked. A safe bet, since Greg was in uniform and stowing a couple of duffel bags under the seat.
“Yes, thank you.”
It took a good twenty minutes to reach his destination, though the tiny vehicle zipped along the wide thoroughfares between the docking sector and the military base. Greg knew the base filled almost a fifth of the station. He paid the cabbie and walked up to the gatehouse. Beyond that he could see a mix of freestanding buildings and ones built into the bulkheads, several levels high. He could almost fancy he’d see clouds and a blue sky high above if he looked up.
“Can I help you, sir?”
Greg brought his attention back to the gate and the military policeman on sentry duty.
“Lieutenant Matthews. Just arrived.” He handed his ID over. The MP scanned it, then looked closely at Greg, whose hands started to sweat. Calm down. He’s just comparing the picture.
After a few seconds the MP handed the ID back.
“Thank you, sir. You’re to report straight to Admiral Bell’s office. If you leave your bags here, I’ll have someone take them to your quarters.”
Straight to the admiral? Bell commanded the five thousand men on this base and the fleet of ships that carried at least as many. Ten thousand men under his command, and he wanted to meet one lowly lieutenant transferring in?
There were two likely reasons why he might, and Greg had to hope it would turn out to be the more innocent one. Because if it was the other... No. It couldn’t be. In that case he’d be reporting to the provost marshal, not the admiral.
He shook himself, trying to head off the rampant paranoia. Keeping his face neutral -- as if he met admirals every day -- he left his bags with the sentry and walked into the base. A few minutes of following the directions in his Link, and he found Bell’s office suite in the base headquarters -- a freestanding building in a wide, open plaza. A clerk told him to take a seat; the admiral would be with him in a moment. Greg didn’t sit but instead walked to the window overlooking a boulevard that stretched to the main gate half a kilometer away.
Before Greg had a chance to work himself into too tight a knot wondering why Bell wanted to see him, the clerk spoke.
“You can go through now, Lieutenant.” Untouched and silent, the high doors into Bell’s office swung open.
Greg straightened his jacket, cleared his throat, and tucked his cap under his left arm. He entered the office and marched smartly up to Admiral Bell’s desk, then stopped to snap off his best salute. As salutes went, it might be not only his
best, but one of the
best. He’d been practicing his salute since the day he gained voluntary control of his limbs.
“Lieutenant Matthews reporting as ordered, sir!”
“Welcome to Saira, Lieutenant,” the admiral said. He was still quite young for the rank, not yet fifty. “Still a hungry man,”
Greg’s father had said. “At ease.”
Greg shifted into the at-ease stance, wishing his heart would stop pounding so hard. Bell was smiling, so there probably wasn’t any kind of problem.
“Don’t look so nervous, Lieutenant. I just wanted to greet the son of my old friend personally.”
The words lifted a weight from Greg’s shoulders, and he had to fight the urge to sag with relief.
“My father asked me to pass on his regards, sir.”
“How is the old rogue?”
Though Greg’s father and Bell had served together years ago, they weren’t close friends, as far as Greg knew. Certainly not close enough for affectionate insults like “old rogue.” But he made a diplomatic answer.
“He’s in excellent health, sir.”
“Good. Always good to hear news from back home.”
Greg himself hadn’t been back to Earth for fifteen months. Any news he had would be as stale as a ship’s stores a year out of port. But the door opening for the clerk to bring in a tray of coffee saved him from having to find an answer.
They sat on leather-upholstered chairs that were comfortable enough to fall asleep in, but Greg stayed on the edge of his. A lieutenant should not relax in the company of an admiral, especially not one whose friendly greeting could be no more than politicking. Admiral Matthews had taken up a seat on the senior promotions board a few months ago. It couldn’t hurt Bell’s career ambitions to take a tactical personal interest in his old shipmate’s youngest son.
“And your brothers?” Bell went on. “All men to watch, I hear.”
“Yes, sir. John just took command of the --”
Yes, I heard. He’s done well.”
“Well” hardly covered it, in Greg’s opinion. His eldest brother had been a captain for only three years but had distinguished himself enough to earn command of the newly launched Chicago
, the most advanced battleship in the fleet.
“I admit I was a little surprised, though, when I saw your transfer request come across my desk,” Bell said. “I thought all the Matthews boys were starship officers in the blood.”
“My father, ah, expressed his surprise too, sir.” At length.
“But you’re doing some cutting-edge development work here that I wouldn’t have the chance to get involved with out in the field. Though, of course, I love being a starship officer.” That last part seemed the right thing to say. The expected thing. Greg always tried to say the expected thing.
“We’re not as glamorous as a warship, for sure, but we need good officers too. I’m pleased to have you join our team here, Lieutenant. I know a man of your potential will make a great contribution.”
“Thank you, sir. I intend to make the most of the opportunity.”
“Good man.” He rose, and Greg quickly put down his coffee cup and stood too. When Bell offered his hand for a shake, Greg hoped he wouldn’t read too much into Greg’s sweaty palm. A mere lieutenant, even one from an influential family, might be expected to be nervous meeting an admiral. Entirely natural.
“Dismissed, Mr. Matthews. Go find your quarters, and good luck with your new duties. I’ll be following your progress with interest.”
He left the admiral’s suite and breathed more easily once he’d exited the building, crammed as it was with senior officers who would all be happy to arrest him personally if they knew his secret.
But none of them would find it out. Those days were gone. Whatever story he told Bell, or his father, about cutting-edge systems development, Greg had come to Saira for one reason only.
To become someone else.
* * * * *
Overcrowding had its advantages.
Such as a good excuse to share a table with a hot guy, like the one Karl noticed as he carried his coffee cup around, searching for a seat. The hot guy leaned on the rail of the coffee shop’s veranda, apparently absorbed in the view of the heavy cargo docks.
“Mind if I share?” Karl asked, making the young man turn. The initial irritation on his face cleared in a flash, and he nodded, eyes wide.
“Oh yes -- I mean, no, that’s fine.” He waved at the other chair. “Help yourself.”
Karl would have liked to help himself to more than the chair, but he’d have to work on that. He sat down with a smile and a “thanks.” His tablemate looked at him for a few more seconds, then turned back to the view. Karl took in the view too, but not of the docks. Blond hair, nice profile, late twenties. A lean body, with slim hips Karl would like to slide his hands around. He hoped he’d get to check out the legs.
Oh, drink your coffee, he told himself. He picked it up, along with his Link, and started reading the station news. But his concentration lasted only seconds before he took another look at the man. His eyes were blue, his skin pale, but more creamy than sallow. His hair was short, almost military-style.
Probably no almost
about it. This one had junior officer written all over him. Which by Karl’s rules usually meant potential trouble -- stay away
. Still, he could look.
So could the blond. He didn’t even turn his head, but his gaze flickered to Karl and away again when he met Karl’s eyes. Hiding a smile, Karl bent over his Link again. Caught you catching me.
He read a couple of news stories, glanced up again, and this time caught the man looking first, his head turned now, not just a sly glance out of the corner of his eye. The man’s lips parted in a slight gasp when Karl smiled, and he quickly turned away -- back to that oh-so-fascinating view of the docks.
Maybe it was fascinating. Karl had grown used to the slow ballet of the giant cargo ships maneuvering, but newcomers to Saira Station often found it awe inspiring.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Karl said, making the young man turn to him with a wary expression. “The size of them, I mean.”
“I’m used to seeing them in space,” the man said. “The scale isn’t as obvious there. Seeing them so close like this makes me realize how huge they really are.”
“Leviathan,” Karl said. “Like whales,” he added when he saw the question in the man’s eyes. “Are you new to the station?”
“I just arrived a week ago.”
“Passing through or staying?”
Damn. Not so good. Passing through meant he’d be more likely to take a chance on a casual encounter -- as would Karl if it meant Mr. Potential Trouble would be gone in a couple of days. But staying made that a much riskier proposition for both of them.
“You’re a resident, right?” the man said.
“What gave that away?”
“You’ve got one of those station-model Links.” He gestured at the device Karl had put down on the table. Observant. Only permanent residents tended to have that particular model, which was only sold here.
“You’re right.” Karl held out his hand across the table. “Karl Webster.”
After a brief hesitation the man returned the shake.
No last name offered. Interesting.
“Welcome to Saira, Greg. If you’re staying, you should get a Link.” He turned the device around and pushed it across the table. “Here, take a look.” He didn’t push it far, so if Greg wanted to take a look he’d have to lean forward over the table until they were bare inches apart.
After another brief hesitation Greg did so, moving close enough that Karl could smell the simple, clean scents of soap and shampoo coming from him. No cologne. Another clue he might be an officer -- the military considered men who wore cologne somewhat suspicious. Greg smiled nervously, and Karl had to control an urge to close the rest of the distance and claim those lips.
The strength of the urge surprised him. He was thirty-three, not a horny teenager. He could appreciate good-looking men who crossed his path without wanting to jump them, throw them across the table, and kiss and...
Control yourself, he ordered. Yes, he wanted Greg, but he saw tension in the nervous smile, the set of his shoulders. Caution required. Subtlety. He could do subtle. Usually.
“So yeah,” he said. “If you want to find restaurants, bars, accommodation, news, it’s all on the network.” He should have paid more attention to the Link and less to Greg, because Greg laughed suddenly when Karl’s random flicking brought up the opening times for a ladies-only sauna. The sound of the laugh and the slight relaxation of Greg’s wariness made Karl’s mouth suddenly feel parched.
“Sorry about that. Not entirely relevant.” He flicked through some more menus, taking a deep breath, regaining his cool. Once he got his bearings again, he found the listings for transient accommodations. Short-stay rooms for travelers between ships or anyone else who needed a bed for a few hours.
“This place is nice.” He tapped the details, watching Greg’s face for his reaction. Did he understand what Karl was suggesting? “Clean. Good rates.” Greg looked up, meeting Karl’s eyes for only a second before his gaze slid back to the docks.
“Discreet?” So close to a whisper Karl barely heard it.
“No ID required.” Under the table, Karl nudged his foot against Greg’s. A happy accident. Very happy. Greg shivered and gave a small gasp.
“Okay.” The word came out with the gasp. Greg’s gaze was still on the docks, not on Karl.
Remembering the whispered question about discretion and seeing the tension in his posture, Karl knew he had to move carefully or risk scaring Greg off. He slid back slowly in his seat, needing the distance to think straight without the distraction of Greg’s scent and heat. For a couple of minutes they both watched an especially huge freighter kiss its nose to an air lock. Grapplers snaked out to secure it.
“Show’s over,” Karl said. “Ready to go?” Greg nodded and rose.
Karl let Greg lead him outside. For one thing, he feared he’d look behind to see Greg had simply vanished -- as if he were no more than a dream. And for another, the view. Greg glanced back at him a couple of times, first with smiles and then, as they stepped out of the door, with a frown and a suddenly alarmed expression. Karl looked around, wondering what he’d seen, but there wasn’t anything else to make Greg alarmed. Just Karl. And he recognized the follow-up expression that appeared a second later.
The “what the hell am I doing?” expression.
Oh no. Not now. Don’t lose your nerve now.
He stepped closer, hoping his nearness turned Greg on as much as his turned Karl on. Freshly showered after the gym and a massage with a sandalwood-scented lotion, Karl knew he smelled good. The midbrown skin of his muscular arms gleamed under the warm lighting of the coffee shop’s exterior.
Knowing Greg could change his mind at any second, Karl tried to move things along.
“Why don’t we grab a cab?” He took Greg’s arm.
That proved to be a mistake. Greg pulled away instantly and took several steps back. “Wait, I just remembered.” He pulled out a device similar to Karl’s Link and thumbed the screen. “I’ve got an appointment. Yeah. Right now. I have to go.” He shoved the reader back in his pocket.
“Sorry. Um, another time.” The look in Greg’s eyes told of an agonized choice, but he made the choice, and he walked away.
Karl stared after him. What the hell? How did that go bad so fast?
Should he chase Greg and ask for his number? Maybe there could actually be another time. But no. He had his dignity. So he watched Greg leaving. He wasn’t waiting for him to look back. Absolutely not. He just happened to be looking in that direction. If Greg should happen to look back...
Greg looked back. Too far away to see his expression clearly, Karl hoped he saw regret, but knew that was probably just wishful thinking on his part. Only a glance and then Greg hurried on, swallowed by the crowd that filled the wide thoroughfares of the station’s central core. Well, if Greg did regret it, he had Karl’s name and could soon find him on the station network. Then what? Heat Karl up and dump cold water on him again? No, thanks.
Karl strode away. Forget Greg. There were a ton of hot guys on this station who’d just love to spend an afternoon with him. Screw Greg. Or rather...choose a different word there. The mental picture that one evoked could only lead to trouble.
Maybe Greg did have an appointment? People had appointments all the time. Yes, and maybe it was with his wife. Or his commanding officer. That reader he’d pulled out was definitely military-issue.
Forget him. Karl stepped into an elevator in the bank that ran through the central core. He chose a smaller one, preferring to avoid the crowds in the big elevators that even took the electric cabs and other small vehicles. He might as well go to work early. Alone in the elevator, he imagined Greg there with him, pressing him against the wall, kissing him. Both of them hungry and urgent. Greg dropping to his knees...
No. He had to put Greg out his mind. He’d had failed pickups before, so why was this one any different? The elevator doors opened, and he realized he’d requested the level with the transient accommodations -- where he’d planned to go with Greg. His mind filled with the images, sounds, and sensations of what might have been. Muttering a curse, he stepped back inside and asked for level 0.
Karl walked past the bars and clubs clustered on the lowest deck of Saira before the purely industrial sectors. Busy brooding about Greg, he didn’t look anywhere but ahead until he reached a club with the name ETERNITY in silver on black above the door.
“Afternoon, boss,” the doorman said. Karl nodded to him and forced a smile as he stepped inside.
The lunch rush was almost over, and only a few people sat eating at the tables arranged near the terrace doors. More people sat or stood in the bar itself or out on the terrace, holding drinks. Men mostly. Idling away the afternoon, seeing and being seen. Perhaps hoping for what Karl had hoped for with Greg.
The sight of a blue police uniform at one table prompted him to walk over there and sit opposite a young woman eating an enormous club sandwich.
“Officer Ramsey,” he said, “didn’t your mother ever teach you that it isn’t ladylike to eat something bigger than your own head?”
“I think I’ll be okay as long as I don’t try to eat anything bigger than your head, Captain Fancies Himself.”
“I do not fancy myself,” Karl protested. Officer Ramsey -- Deb -- snorted around another bite of sandwich and then swallowed.
“Then you’re the only gay fella on the station who doesn’t.”
Karl could have snorted then too. After what just happened with Greg he could present her with evidence to the contrary.
“Weren’t you in here yesterday?” He knew she rarely ate lunch in the same place two days in a row. She liked to keep an eye on all the businesses on her beat.
“I’ve just been in the Bay” -- Deb jerked a thumb over her shoulder in the vague direction of the nightclub next door -- “taking statements. They had some trouble last night.”
Karl nodded, recalling the commotion. “It obviously gave you an appetite.” Besides the sandwich, she had a piece of cheesecake waiting its turn.
“Who can resist Esme’s cheesecake? Speaking of Esme, you might want to go show your face in the kitchen.” A more serious look came into her eyes. “I’d hate to end up labeling her meat cleaver as exhibit A.”
Karl left Deb to her lunch. As he pushed through the swing doors into the kitchen, he noticed the absence of the usual lively banter from the staff. That couldn’t bode well. The subdued staff were clearing up from lunch. The head chef, Esme Foster, worked at the butcher’s block, cutting meat with the cleaver Deb had mentioned. She handled it in a marked manner, directing glares at the cause of the disturbing quiet in the kitchen -- a white-coated official who was closely inspecting the interior of an oven.
“Didn’t we have a health inspection last month?” Karl asked Esme in a low voice.
“Yes, we did.” The cleaver fell again, slicing through bone and making Karl wince. For a woman close to retirement, Esme had strong wrists.
“Is he going to find anything?”
“He certainly is not. Ever since all this trouble started, I’ve been extra careful. You could eat off the floor in here.”
Karl nodded his thanks and walked over to the official. “Has there been a complaint?”
The man straightened up and stepped back, slight alarm on his face. Karl took a step back himself, not intending to intimidate. The official looked relieved, then rather sheepish, as if he knew his presence had nothing to do with guarding the residents of Saira Station from unsanitary kitchens.
“I’m Karl Webster, the owner. Has there been a complaint about our food?” He doubted it. He made no claims to run a gourmet restaurant here, only serving short-order meals in the afternoon session and focusing on the bar in the evening. But what they did offer, he was proud of. They were always recommended highly in the station’s listings.
“I couldn’t say, Mr. Webster. I just go where I’m assigned.”
“Have you found any problems?”
“Not in my kitchen.” Esme’s muttered words made them both glance at her and her cleaver.
“None, sir. I’d happily eat here myself.”
That counted as high praise from a health inspector, Karl knew, and he basked in the glow of it until his next thought brought him back down with a bump. A less-fair-minded official would come next time. One who would find a problem whether one existed or not. One who might even resort to walking in with roaches in his pockets.
But for now they were okay. Esme had even started to smile again at the man’s praise, though she still wielded the cleaver meaningfully. Karl left them to it and went to his office.
The first message he read when he checked his in-box was a buyout offer.
A damn good one too, from the owner of the club next door. So good that he didn’t believe it for a second. He spent a few minutes trying to compose a reply, then gave up, frustrated with looking for a more polite way to say what the hell?
Better to reply in person, he decided, and he walked next door.
They really had had trouble last night. He’d always found the name of the neighboring club, Butterfly Bay, rather silly and the decor tacky. But even he had admired the window that ran the length of the club’s front, etched and painted with hundreds of butterflies. Sheets of plastic covered the space the window had occupied, and its remains lay in shards on the floor, inside and out. He stopped and shook his head.
“It’s a damn shame,” said the doorman guarding the entrance. “That thing was a work of art.”
“Hi, Ray. Yes. It’s a shame.” Karl stirred the brilliantly colored pieces of glass with his foot. “What happened?”
“One bastard tossed another bastard right through it. Bastards.”
“Military?” Karl asked.
“What do you think?” The cynical tone of bitter experience. “You still getting much trouble in your place?”
“I’ve known quieter times. Is your boss around?”
“Yeah, she’s in. Go on through.” Ray held the door open to allow Karl inside, where he found Lyssa, the owner, supervising cleanup and repairs.
“Had a rough night?” he asked.
“Lively.” She sighed. “You saw what happened to the window?”
“Yes. I’m sorry about that.”
“I’m scared to tell the guy who made it. I think he might kill himself. He worked on it for six months. Um, you get my message?”
“Yes.” He took her arm and steered her out of earshot of her staff. “Lyssa, where the hell is this coming from? You told me you’re still paying off the loan for your refurbishment.”
Lyssa wore as sheepish a look as the health official’s, and Karl’s gut clenched. Damn it, she was a friend. A good neighbor, at least. Or had been.
“Well, business has been good lately. I paid it off sooner than expected. We’ve become popular with the marines.”
“Looks like they were having a really smashing time in here last night.”
She shrugged, ignoring the sarcasm in his tone. “So they could use some more elbow room.” She swept a hand at the mess. “Which would make this less likely. It’s a good offer, Karl. Set you up nicely.”
“Somewhere else, you mean.”
“You do keep saying you want to go back to Earth one day.”
One day. But now? He could. He could take the money and run and probably live on it for the rest of his life. He didn’t need much in the way of luxury.
“I’d take on any of your staff who want to stay,” Lyssa said.
It wasn’t just the staff, though.
“Mine’s the last gay bar on the station.”
“Maybe I’ll make this place gay friendly.”
Karl laughed. Yeah, that
would sit well with the people he suspected of fronting her the money for this.
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on, Karl. You’re in this business for money, same as me. You don’t have some kind of duty to stay open.”
Didn’t he? One by one all the other gay clubs and bars had closed down, been bought out, or changed to mainstream. All in the twelve months since the military had decided to base a fleet out of Saira Station to protect the local shipping lanes.
Only Eternity remained. The name almost seemed like a joke now. Eternity? Four good years and one bad one and already his time here could be ending.
“At least think about it,” Lyssa said, putting her hand on his arm, giving him a sympathetic look. “It’s got to be better than all this trouble.”
She could have just meant the general extra trouble the influx of new people had brought -- the station’s population had doubled almost overnight -- but he didn’t think so. She meant the trouble Eternity in particular had suffered. And would go on suffering until he wised up and took the money and ran.
“I’ll think about it.”
Anger simmering, he went back to his office. Fuck the military. They had screwed his life up once before, and they were doing it again. He couldn’t escape. Just got comfortably settled here on Saira, and five thousand of the bastards showed up. A man could be forgiven for feeling victimized.
That inevitably brought his thoughts to the military bastard who had screwed with him barely an hour ago. Greg. Pale skin Karl wanted to stroke, kiss, caress...
Not going to happen. He didn’t even want it to happen. Someone like Greg would be trouble. That was why Karl had his rules and preferred someone less complicated. He took out his Link and called Ryan. It didn’t get less complicated than Ryan. Not that Karl liked to encourage him; Ryan had an agenda for sure. But he could certainly help a man forget his troubles. And sometimes his name and what day it was.
“Ryan here. I’m busy right now...
” the recorded voice said.
Damn. Karl could guess doing what.
“If you want to talk, talk. If you want to make an appointment...
Appointment? Could he be more blatant?
Karl ended the call. He wouldn’t leave a message, and he certainly wouldn’t ask for an appointment. He knew damn well how Ryan earned his living, but he had never paid for his services.
Bringing up some work on his terminal, he tried to put both Greg and Ryan out of his mind. He had a bar to keep open.