The Great Cosmic Turtle

by Tougyo (闘魚)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/238759.html)

“You’re looking well, Domingo.” Yun smiled quite cheerfully as he said so, knowing that Domingo would take it quite personally. He did look healthy, to an extent; beneath the bloodied nose and fast-forming bruises, Domingo had the bronzed look of someone who had been somewhere with real sunshine quite recently, a fact made more apparent by his greying hair. Yun did note, with some happiness, that his enforcer had been considerate enough to set his old friend’s glasses aside before beginning on his face.

“Same to you,” Domingo replied. “I was hoping we could talk.” They’d left him all his teeth, too; Yun made a mental note to thank them for their judgment once this whole mess settled down.

“If you wanted to talk, all you had to do was say so, instead of first trying to empty my poor casino’s bank. That makes it not really my call, the whole being civil and not using brute force thing.”

Yun nodded to Lin, the man guarding the door, and entered a code into the handcuffs holding Domingo to his chair. They beeped and clicked open in response. Shortly after, Lin returned with some ice, two empty glasses, a third glass filled with water, and a bottle of whisky.

Domingo was taking his time saying more, but looked grateful to have the cuffs off, judging from the way he stretched his arms and began to rub at his wrists. Yun handed him the glass of water, sat himself in the extra chair, and waved his men away. The door shut behind them.

The two men sat in silence for awhile, Domingo delicately sipping his water, clearly trying his best to act unfazed. Yun was sitting next to the table where his men had left a few tools, and Domingo’s glasses. He tried them on, squinted, and rapidly took them back off.

“They still let you fly with these eyes? I mean, I’d assumed you’d be out of the game based on senility alone, but…”

Ah, now that got a reaction.

“If you’d kindly hand those over, I’ll do my best not to let a host of embarrassing stories slip through to your henchmen.” Domingo, clearly still too dignified to actually use any sort of force, held out his hand. Yun laughed, and handed him his glasses; he was clearly blind without them.

“Well, now that you can see my face, what brings you to my rock?”

“I need information.” He adjusted his glasses and helped himself to a rag from the table, wiping the blood away from his nose.

“Have Mila get it for you.” Yun poured himself a finger of whiskey, and, noticing that Domingo had finished his water, poured a second glass for his guest. He moved the little table between them, knocking a pair of brass knuckles to the ground as he did so. They made a rather loud noise against the cold metal floor.

“She can’t really help on this one. Also, I think whoever I’m looking for has done a very good job of staying out of the grid, or at least not having his grid identity connected with the information I need. I was hoping you had some gossip.”

“I still think you should have just called, or sent a message or something. Hell, you could have just let my men know you’re here; I’m sure Mila has my access codes.”

More silence. Yun sighed, and finished his drink. “Well, I guess what’s done is done, and you’ve done pretty well for someone who tries to cheat me. And I can’t say I don’t owe you one. What do you need to know?”

Domingo adjusted his glasses, picked up his whisky, and downed it. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and somber. “I need to find the person who created Mila.”

Yun owed Domingo quite a lot, it was true. He’d known the man for fifteen years now, and never paid him back for the simple act of not killing a runaway for stowing away on his ship. In all honesty, he hadn’t actually kept much count of favors, because that kind of thing was going to be a lifelong burden. But then he’d struck out on his own, and somehow he’d acquired all these responsibilities that came along with running a less-than-legal organization. Domingo’s one-man operation seemed more and more appealing, but he couldn’t just leave Themis on some sort of whim. Except it wasn’t a whim, it was repayment, and it was suicidal and completely insane.

It sounded like fun. It sounded like an adventure, the type of proper swashbuckling he hadn’t really done in years. Now, it was all conference calls and interplanetary trade: the art of sounding like he knew what he was doing, and the wherewithal to send some poor kid just like he’d been off into a shootout when necessary.

He sent a quick ping to Hieu. There were preparations to be made for his absence, orders to be given, and at least three lovers to provide allowances to.

Such was the life of a crimelord.

“I suppose I might have something for you,” he finally replied. “Care to show me to your ship?”

*****

Mi pequeña Milagro! ¿Como estas?” Yun yelled quite loudly, upon entering the Tortuga‘s narrow loading area.

The reply came over the loudspeakers immediately. “Yun, welcome back. Domingo has not yet lifted your ban on speaking Spanish. It has been 3,451 days since your last warning, so there will be no punishment this time.”

“Always such a strong sense of humor, Mila!” Yun laughed, and the echo sounded horribly familiar. What felt horribly familiar was the light thud on his shoulder as Domingo entered the ship behind him.

“I swear, your pronunciation has gotten worse. I’ve already stocked all the freeze-dried protein-rich meals either of us can handle. She just needs a bit of fuel, and we can get on our way.”

“I’ve got plenty of fuel to give. And you know I can get you some better stuff from the lounge stockroom, right?” Yun knew he ran the risk of being yelled at for having gone soft, living in one place for far too long, but couldn’t help himself when he thought of the usual interplanetary fare of rehydrated soy product.

“…I wouldn’t frown on it, no. Are those your stills making that whisky you shared, by the way? It wasn’t half bad.”

Yun couldn’t stop himself from puffing up with pride, even as turned his head to make a few calls.

*****

It took three days for Yun to finish his preparations and install Hieu as the provisional head of the family. He’d leaked the proper rumors regarding some sort of deal with one of the Earth syndicates, and trips to Earth were always lengthy affairs. He’d also leaked some rumors regarding a whole series of other possible explanations; since most of them would surface in some sort of less-than-desirable fashion, he might as well choose which way the rumor mill headed.

The Tortuga‘s mess (which consisted of a few storage cabinets and an electric kettle) was fully stocked with provisions and liquor. The first day of loading, Yun had gone through and straightened up all the places where Domingo had left papers or clothing or tools in the seats and bunks intended for the second member of a two person crew. Domingo had later griped about not being able to find anything, but the appropriate surfaces were still clear on their departure day.

The casino was as busy as ever, and Yun thought he’d successfully hidden which ship he would actually be leaving on from all but his most trusted lieutenants. The Tortuga was docked in his private bay, and had been since a few hours after Domingo’s beating.

Once the preparations were made and the ship pushed away from Yun’s beloved asteroid at last, there still wasn’t much in the way of direction. Yun hadn’t been able to find much that Mila hadn’t already, and Domingo had long since exhausted what his own networks could give him in information on impossibly human artificial intelligences. Yun had wondered, the first day he’d stepped into the ship again, what the rush was. The little tin can was the same as ever: neither fast nor slow, too large for one man and too small for three, constantly in need of repairs, and yet well-cared-for all the same. Domingo seemed to have no shortage of cash or work, and Mila was as competent as ever. Yet for all Yun’s questioning, neither of them would answer on why something needed to be done now.

Their first stop was to Phobos. Themis was, for the moment, closer to Mars than the Jupiter orbit, and so that was there the Tortuga was headed.

Travel time was mostly filled with card games and the occasional drink. Sometimes, if it were solely a game of chance, they’d play on the console so that Mila could join in. They’d long learned not to play each other over the computer, as Mila had a way of choosing favorites, and the favorite was usually Yun, which merely made Domingo jealous, which meant that there would be no card games except solitaire for days. So they played on an old set of actual cards, well-used and somewhat dog-eared, for money neither of them needed or lacked.

It was comfortable, the time between planets and moons and asteroids — which was fortunate, because they were headed for a great deal of time travelling for a great paucity of information.

*****

Yun woke up to Mila’s voice over the loudspeaker. He had to remind himself, every now and then, that while there were three people on board, only two of them were, well, human.

“Domingo, we’re about an hour away from the Phobos spaceport. Could you please prepare for landing?”

Yun carefully uncurled himself from the upper bunk and rolled himself to the edge of the bed so that he could fall the four feet or so to the floor without too much loss of dignity. He stretched and cracked his back, reaching his hands up to put them flat against the room’s low ceiling.

“Milaaaaaa, don’t you have something for me to do?” he complained, knowing full well that Domingo took far more time than necessary to get out of bed if he didn’t think there was some emergency on the way, like Yun flying the ship by himself.

“I think we should make Domingo land the ship alone, as he claims neither of us are worthy of her.” Yun wondered if Domingo wanted to find Mila’s creator just to make him turn off the sarcasm module.

“Well, neither of you are,” came Domingo’s voice, as he curled himself around to the awkward position required of sitting on a low bunk bed.

“May I remind you, Domingo, that I practically am this ship and could vent you out into space at any moment.”

“Yes Ma’am, Captain Mila; I’ll be at my post right away. Yun, go find some coffee, would you? And pour some on Mila’s circuit board for me; I think she could use a drink.”

Yun rolled his eyes and took the three steps or so to the mess, where instant space coffee was ready to be created with instantly boiled space water. “I’ll join you in the cockpit. If I beat you there, Mila and I will take care of things ourselves.”

Two cups of coffee and pouches of rehydrated oatmeal later, the team was assembled together in the cockpit. Domingo landed his ship smoothly and quickly, despite the constant ruckus of Mila and Yun’s color commentary.

The rest was just footwork.

*****

“I haven’t been to Phobos in ages. I thought you wanted to track down someone powerful enough to know about the most powerful computer in the sky?”

“No, I want to track down someone smart enough to create a true AI but not invested enough to keep track of it. That means either someone who is too smart for their own good, or someone who is already too powerful for their own good.”

“Well, not much in the way of clout to be found on Phobos.” Phobos was all labs, some corporately funded, but mostly known for having a large number of independent hackers and computer artists. They enjoyed the solitude, supposedly, and it was some sort of mark of distinction among the tech-set to spend all one’s time in a four-meter cube on a rock that was only half-supplied with gravity. Yun, having spent too much time in tiny cells of a different sort, did not see the appeal.

Domingo just huffed as he checked the airlock. Phobos had only had gravity installed fairly recently, and there weren’t any true bio areas on the damned rock. Furthermore, instead of a proper spaceport with the usual bays and force fields, it had a massive tower protruding from one area. Ships were docked up and down it, although there were plenty of empty spaces to be seen.

Yun grabbed a mask from the emergency area near the door, just in case. Everything on Phobos was still so analog he didn’t really trust it not to all fall apart.

“We’re looking for a woman. Name of Ursula. She’s a genius, so try to keep your mouth shut lest she deems us too stupid for her presence.”

Yun rolled his eyes, and as the airlock opened, he pushed himself through it. The lack of gravity was disorienting for a moment, but he waited for the other side to open. It did, and they both kicked off from the Tortuga, latching onto mobile handholds on the other side of the tower.

One push of a button later, and Yun’s handhold was moving down toward the base of the tower.

“I presume you know where to find this Ursula?” Yun’s voice was muffled by his mask.

“Theoretically.”

Theoretically?” Yun raised an eyebrow, but found it was difficult to make sure his expression was visible to Domingo when they were both being pulled along by their arms.

“I know her cube number, through the grapevine. Like I said, she’s a genius, but she’s not much of one for espionage; I doubt she’ll have put much effort into hiding. And I don’t think she owes anyone money.”

They’d reached the base of the tower, and there still wasn’t any gravity. Yun sighed. “Do people still live like this? We didn’t even live like this on the Moon.”

“Well I’m sorry, Mr. Asteroid Owner, if you’ve become too accustomed to artificial gravity. Clearly I should turn off the Tortuga‘s just to teach you a lesson.”

“What, and have your coffee escape its own mug? You wouldn’t.”

****

It was only half an hour or so of tortuous zero-gravity travel to make it to the far end of Phobos’ tunnel network, and the residential cube labeled Z144.

“So what, do we just knock now?” In Yun’s experience, people tended to ignore knocking, and responded much more favorably to threats of violence. Then again, he didn’t usually work with non-syndicate hackers.

“Naturally.” And, true to his word, Domingo rapped solidly on the door, attempting to straighten himself up. Yun smiled; attempting good posture looked patently ridiculous in zero-g. (He also resisted the urge to smooth back his hair; it wasn’t likely to do much good.)

The door slid upward. The woman there was short, somewhat portly, probably around Domingo’s age, and incredibly pale. Her longish greying hair was tied back, and she was dressed in sensible coveralls tied around the waist.

“Who are you?” She asked. Her voice sounded genuinely curious.

“My name is Domingo Valdez; this is Yun Reyes. I’m trying to track down someone who could have made a certain computer program.” Domingo’s voice dripped charm, and Yun found himself succumbing to it as well. Somehow, getting older had only made him more charming, the damned fox.

“Virus or AI?” The woman seemed quite unfazed by the entire thing. Did this happen to her often?

“AI.”

“Does it have a name?”

“Mila.”

“Hmmm, doesn’t ring a bell. You can come in, if you want; it’s a little cramped.” She gestured and held the door open. Yun noticed that she was sticking to her own floor, and was relieved that she had her gravity turned on.

“You are Ursula, I presume?” Domingo asked, as he followed her through the door.

“That’s one of my names, yes. Where’d you hear about me?”

“Friend on Io. Said you paid back a favor by programming him a butler for his complex.”

“Oh, good old Wadsworth. He was a hoot and a half. Sit anywhere you like.”

Yun looked around. There weren’t many places to choose from, and he found himself sitting on a backless barstool while Domingo settled into a simple chair. Ursula pulled over a rather ergonomic looking chair from in front of an impressive array of screens and server cabinets.

“Now, tell me about this Mila.” Ursula’s expression was one of simple curiosity; there was no fear or apprehension on her face. Strange for someone as obviously involved in black market AI to have such comfort among shady figures like themselves. It was a fairly good business model, he thought, especially if she dealt with people like them on a regular basis.

“She’s been on my ship computer for more than twenty years now. She suddenly asked me to try to find whoever made her, and she’s been very quiet as to why she wants the information.”

“Has she kept things from you before?” Ursula frowned a bit.

“Oh, I’m sure,” Domingo said with a chuckle. “She downloaded herself to me, I don’t know from where; she was on my network for a few months before she made contact with me. She’s unimaginably human; Wadsworth is the closest I’ve ever seen to her level. So, now we’re here.”

“Well, twenty years was a long time ago, and Wadsworth is the most human AI I’ve ever made. And that was three years ago. I’ve been in this field a long time, and I find it all hard to believe.” Ursula leaned back in her chair and made a contemplative noise.

After a few moments, she suddenly leaned forward again. Yun noticed a mildly discomfiting light to her eyes, matching the smile on her face.

“Can I talk to her?”

****

The walk back to the ship was mostly full of Domingo flirting unashamedly with Ursula; Yun supposed that some things never changed, but couldn’t help the flutter of his heart that felt all too fifteen-years-old again. How dare Domingo be so flirtatious with everyone except himself! You’ve no claim to him, Yun Reyes, he thought to himself. Even though he did give you a surname, and a home, and an escape route.

“Home sweet home. Welcome, Miss. Ursula.” One quick airlock visit later, and they were back in the gravity-filled atmosphere of the Tortuga. It smelled like two men had been living in it without real ventilation for a few weeks, but other than that, it was indeed home sweet home.

Credit to Ursula: she didn’t even wrinkle her nose. Then again, her own cube hadn’t exactly been spotless, and she must have been used to recycled air by now.

“Welcome to the Tortuga; I suppose you’re one of the leads Domingo has dug up.” The usual clear welcome over the loudspeakers, as Mila made herself known.

“She’s all yours, Mila,” Domingo said. “I hope she’ll be useful.”

“Hello, Mila!” Ursula’s voice had quickened, and she had a quite cheerful tone. She sounded a bit like an over-eager schoolgirl, Yun thought, which was amusing for a woman of that age. “My name’s Ursula; I’ve heard an awful lot about you.”

“Thank you, Ursula. Domingo, Yun; may we please have some privacy?” Well, that was a surprise.

“What, you want us to go crouch in the airlock or something?” Yun was not a fan of being banished back to zero-g.

“Pretty please.” Sarcasm module and false-politeness module. Hopefully they could disable both if they found Mila’s creator.

“Come on, runt.” Domingo grabbed Yun’s shoulder and waved cheerfully to Ursula as he stepped into the airlock.

*****

Ursula and Mila talked for about thirty minutes, Yun reckoned; it had been long enough for him to start idly pushing himself between walls and changing which way was designated as “up” just to mess around. Domingo was being quiet, and Yun had long learned to take his cues from Domingo; he’d talk when he wanted to, and he didn’t like his thoughts being disturbed.

There was a quick tap from the other side of the airlock, and then it slid open.

“Now, just what were you two ladies up to? Don’t make me use my imagination.” Domingo had no trouble making small talk with women and/or anyone he wanted something from, Yun thought.

“Well, in short, I have no idea who could have made Mila. She’s amazing; are you sure she isn’t an actual consciousness? The implications of her existence are ridiculous, even if she is, but that’s the only explanation that makes any sense to me.” Yun was amused that someone so stumped could also look so thrilled about it.

“Well, she is,” Domingo said, with a tone that voiced a certain amount of offense at the idea that Mila had to have been human at some point, “but we’re also pretty certain someone created her as ones and zeroes. Which is to say, I don’t believe she was ever in a meat-suit.”

“Well, I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help. My guess is that whoever created her or coded her or whatever has massive amounts of resources and the ability to hide those resources. So you’re looking at Earthlings, probably.”

“Ah, joy of joys.” Domingo’s expression had turned somewhat grim. “I suppose I have to go back home sometime.”

Ursula looked genuinely surprised for a moment, opened her mouth, and quickly closed it again. “Well, I won’t hold it against you, Mr. Highroller. And let me know if you happen across any more impossible technology; I can always stand to brush up on my own skills.” She held out her hand, and Domingo took it immediately. After a light kiss, prompting her to blush, he patted her on the back.

“Mila, care to open the outer airlock for our guest?”

“Certainly. Take care, Ursula.”

“I will, Mila. Come back sometime! And good luck!”

Yun would not wonder until later why Ursula would only wish Mila good luck.

****

Before heading to Earth, Yun insisted they at least visit the Mars colonies and talk to their respective informants. They made a brief tour, visiting both the old established well-terraformed settlements and the red rock water mines, full of indentured slaves, their skin seemingly permanently dulled by the long time spent in the dust and underground. Through their travels, they found nothing except sore feet, bars at night and street vendors in the day. When they stopped to refuel the Tortuga, they asked about any rumors; when they stopped to sleep a night in a real bed, they asked about any rumors; when they ducked into bars in the middle of the day, they asked about rumors. But for all the gossip and hookers and graft to be found, none of it pertained to uncannily brilliant artificial intelligences.

“I think this is our last night on Mars,” Domingo stated, as the two men walked down a hallway to their rooms for the night. “Fat lot we have to show for it all.”

“The things you do for your robotic wife,” Yun mused.

“She’s a nosy hackjob of a computer virus that just happened to meet the Blue Fairy and get turned into a real girl. I wouldn’t care, except that she can knock the Tortuga out of the sky if she so pleases. Still not so sure why you said yes to coming along, though. I’ve already forced you to spend a whole two hours in zero-g, and to hang around the water mines without being allowed to punch any of the overseers.”

Yun fumbled for the key to his hotel room. “A man gets tired of living on a rock, after awhile. Not much else for me but the stars, when it comes down to it.”

“You romantic, you.” Domingo gave his signature cheeky grin and ruffled Yun’s hair a bit. Yun’s heart sank, as he wished that Domingo would really stop touching him if that was all he was going to get.

“If you’re going to be that way, I’ll start telling Mila to book us the honeymoon suite.” Yun tried his best to sound like he was joking, even though he knew Domingo knew that his crush was still there. He had to know. Domingo knew everything. It was all so frustrating.

“Unlikely. I know you can’t stand my snoring.”

Yun said nothing, even though he knew full well Domingo didn’t snore.

*****

Visiting Earth was a problematic proposition. Officially, Domingo had spent the last twenty years on Mars, overseeing a private business, import-export, or something along those lines; Mila handled all the tax documents. Yun, however, was officially a Class One criminal, with a fairly substantial bounty and an even more substantial loan that he had defaulted on by exiting his indentured servitude two decades early.

“Yun, I’ve prepared your documents.” Yun had been staring at a screen while ostensibly co-piloting; they’d been on autopilot for a day or so, so there hadn’t been much to do except pretend to research things on the grid. He tabbed over to take a look at his new Earthling identity.

“Ray Young? Mila, you’re usually a little more imaginative than that.”

“If you like, you can forge your own documents. I hope you enjoy your lengthy vacation time in a tiny, poorly ventilated cell, or in the most terrible of the Moon mines.”

“Thank you Mila. I didn’t mean it. I would never question your judgment or the idea that I look like a Ray Young.” Yun pressed a few keys, and the printer began to slowly construct the passport pages, from the simple type to the watermarks to the seals. Later he’d have to sew them into a case himself, but he’d done enough of those when he was a mere mook for the Mars syndicate that that was no problem.

“What about you, Domingo?” he asked as he waited for the printer. “What’s your name this month?”

“Domingo Valdez.” Yun craned his neck to look back into the bunk room at that little surprise. “Yun, it will be my pleasure to introduce you to some old classmates of mine. One of them is the CEO of InterComm.”

“You always said you couldn’t stand the people you grew up with. I thought you had Earth contacts who weren’t, you know, those same people.”

“I can’t stand them. That’s why I shall shock them all with my triumphant return, and hopefully manage to keep my head long enough not to steal all their jewelry and run off into the night. You can have your choice of being my co-pilot, my business partner, or my scandalous young lover.”

“I have booked you a room together to add to the veracity of the third option,” Mila chimed in. Yun blushed and turned to look at a monitor.

“Mila, I was joking,” Domingo protested, his voice thin and anxious.

“I’m sorry, my humor identification module must be broken. Clearly, you should find who you are looking for as soon as possible so that we may repair it. Two hours until we reach the atmospheric checkpoint. Yun, will you be able to finish preparing your documents by then?”

“Uh, y-yes, I think so. Mila, um, you really shouldn’t have.” Could Mila understand horrific, decades-long crushes now? Was she on his side? Was she trying to teach Domingo a lesson about making jokes to a heartless machine? Suddenly, none of those options seemed any more likely than the others.

*****

Yun knew he ought to be more nervous about an Earth visit than about his stupid crush, but it was clear that Domingo had been on edge ever since they’d left Mars. Yun supposed that to most people, he would simply seem to be in a good humor, but the fact of Domingo was that he acted crabby and sarcastic when he was content, and chatty and convivial as hell when he was freaking out. So the final two hours were fairly annoying for Yun. He’d be trying to place a seal on a document, or forge a signature, or sew something into his passport booklet, only to be interrupted by Domingo’s manic voice.

“I haven’t had proper seafood in years, What do you say to ceviche? Fresh shrimp? Fish tacos?”

or

“As long as we have the honeymoon suite–thank you, Mila, by the way–perhaps I should find myself some nice Earthlings. I could find someone for you, too, Yun; I know you’ve always wanted to sleep with money. Some classy earth girls and boys; sound good, hmm?”

or

“I swear, there’s nothing like the original Earth atmosphere, no matter how well-established the Mars terraforming gets. And the blue skies! Perhaps we should take a vacation. See the ocean, or some mountains.”

Thankfully, the interjections became fewer as they got closer to the first checkpoint, and Yun was easily able to finish his passport. He rolled it around between his palms a bit, and attempted to make it look slightly less-than-brand-new. Mila did a good job on the basic forgery, and he had great faith in his finishing touches.

He did, however, find himself worrying about Domingo, both when he was making annoying interjections and when he was silent. It was easy, he supposed, to hate Earth when he’d spent a lifetime dealing with nothing but bullshit from there. But to hate the place you came from, that seemed entirely different, especially since Domingo was using his own identity for this visit. Yun wondered if Mila had the capacity to be grateful for all this; she certainly seemed to be, but even he could not fully accept an AI as being the same as his fellow human in the other half of the ship.

*****

They passed through the checkpoint unnoticed, without even needing to bribe anyone. Domingo’s family ties seemed to carry quite a lot of weight, Yun noticed, and they were cleared to land in San Jose without any problems. Landing was annoying; they had to wait forever coming through customs, but they were soon declared to not have any sort of illegal booze (it had been consumed during the trip and traded to Martians for information), drugs, agriculture, or propaganda, and were allowed to continue onward.

Mila had found them a car to take from the spaceport, a new convertible, clearly expensive, and clearly designed for Earth alone with its reliance on solar batteries and lack of an airborne option. All-natural Earth gravity at work.

The drive was long and silent; Domingo insisted on taking the wheel, but also forbade the use of the music player. Instead, Yun sat in silence, after his few attempts to make conversation were stymied.

“Where are we headed, anyway? We’ve been driving a while.”

“I texted that old college friend of mine; she’s booked an entire hotel on the coast and throwing some sort of party. It’s a blessing in disguise, I suppose; almost all of Silicon Valley will be there, and if we’re looking for AI experts from twenty years ago, they’re our best bet.”

“It smells nice out here.” And it did; they’d crossed over some fairly substantial hills at some point, and now the air was thick with moisture and the smell of eucalyptus. Yun supposed that Domingo was right about Earth’s ecologies; there was nothing this beautiful and fragrant anywhere on Mars, let alone on the Moon or the belt or the Jupiter colonies.

“I do miss it, sometimes. The smell, that is, not the insufferable idiots who live here.” Domingo sighed, and shifted a bit in his seat. Yun contemplated reaching out a hand, placing it on Domingo’s thigh, letting it rest there as a token of comfort and understanding. Whether it would have been for his comfort or Domingo’s, though, he did not know. He kept his hands to himself.

*****

“Mingo? Mingo, is that really you? I’m surprised Mars hasn’t turned you bright red; come in, come in!”

Claire Doritz was nothing like Yun would have imagined from the rumors and corporate world that he admittedly knew little about. She seemed chipper, glowing; she was dressed in a cocktail dress that had to be incredibly expensive to look so simple and so sophisticated all at once.

“And who is your friend, here?” Her voice shifted a little too quickly from excited to lascivious.

“Ah, Claire, you never change; always the gossip-monger. This is my compatriot, Ray Young.”

“I see. And did you two book one room or two rooms?”

“I’ll never tell, Claire.” Yun noticed that Domingo ended that statement with a wink, and tried his best not to blush like a teenager.

“Well, with a pretty young thing like that, I might just have to steal him out from under you! Don’t tell Esteban, though; we’re really doing very well in our marriage.”

“My lips are sealed. Now, you have to give me all the gossip; I’ve been away for so long! Yun, could you go get us some punch?”

Yun watched as they walked off together, chatting up a storm, and suddenly felt quite adrift. He looked around a bit, and identified the food tables and (more importantly) the open bar.

He knew he should be making small talk and asking important technological questions, but the fact was he didn’t know anything about tech, certainly not enough to keep up with the established geniuses of the valley. And he also didn’t know any of the gossip. All he really had going for him was his looks, but there was definitely not anyone here he wanted to seduce for information; the idea made him sick.

So he made his way to the open bar and proceeded to drink his way out of the situation. The occasional person came by to strike up a conversation, and he did his best to play along, the role of some backwater idiot who had caught the eye of the wandering son of the Valdez family. Mostly they seemed to want gossip about Domingo, especially the women; he seemed to be considered quite the eligible bachelor. And then there were the looks he kept catching, from people who he just knew were wondering how much he cost, and whether Martian escorts could be had for cheaper rates than good clean Earth boys. Or perhaps they had an inkling that he was somehow dangerous, due to the way he carried himself. Maybe they were wondering what business Domingo was actually up to, out in the universe. Yun found that after a few drinks, he no longer cared.

“But Yun, don’t you find that Earth’s biosphere is just so refreshing? It has so many health benefits; you should try to convince Domingo to come back here. I’m sure he’d get you more than just a tourist visa; his family has plenty of connections.”

“Maybe we’ll head to the Moon,” Yun said, just to see what would happen.

“Oh, there’s nothing on the Moon but criminals and debtors. I swear, we should just abandon the whole thing, if it weren’t for the Lunarium.”

“Ugh, I can’t imagine living there; my brother joined the military, and he had to pay such a huge amount just to avoid being stationed there. It’s a cultural wasteland; they don’t even have any bars there.”

“I hear some of the Triads have businesses there where you can get a drink, but only near the spaceport.”

Yun suddenly wished he hadn’t said anything.

“If you’ll excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, I think I’ve had a bit much to drink. Dear Mr. Domingo will be quite upset if I don’t at least brush my teeth before he’s ready to turn in.” He made himself wink, turned around, and tried to keep his rage in until he reached their room.

*****

It wasn’t fair, Yun thought, staring up at the stars and listening to the crash of waves on the rocky shore below. I’m not even sure how the hell I got where I am, except that it involved breaking a few dozen laws. Without that, I know I wouldn’t be here.

People claimed that Earth gravity was special, somehow, that it was better and healthier than the artificial gravity on every asteroid and in every spaceship these days. Yun couldn’t really feel a difference; the weight from above was the same as ever. The smell of salt and seaweed on the air, that was different. The sound of sea lions from the shore, that was different. Everything else was just the usual trappings of luxury.

He heard the door open and close again, and Domingo’s soft footsteps as he came to join Yun on the balcony. Domingo leaned over the rail next to Yun, still dressed in his white shirt, though he’d unbuttoned it, leaving his undershirt exposed. Yun noticed the way the white looked against Domingo’s bronzed skin, even darker after their trip in the convertible. True, Domingo’s hair was paler now, grey in most places, but his demeanor was the same as ever, and something about that unshakeable confidence brought back that swarm of annoying teenage memories. The open bar was also partially to blame, most likely.

The two stood in silence for a moment. In space, distances are so long that silence becomes a matter of course, but somehow, Yun thought, things should be different on Earth.

“I don’t belong here,” he finally managed to speak. “I mean, I have more money to my name than half the people in that room, but I hate having to watch how I speak and what I reveal about myself. Heaven forbid they knew they had some sort of Moon creature in their midst.”

Domingo said nothing.

“Just… fuck this planet. I’ve done more good for this solar system than any of them. I get people out of their system, people they want to pretend never exist, that they want to treat like dirt.” Yun couldn’t help the rage in his voice, although he tried to keep somewhat quiet; even with all the liquor in his system, he knew sound traveled between balconies.

“And then do you send them to finish your drug deals for you?” Domingo’s voice was calm and quiet, and maybe a bit sad.

“Yes. I do. But they go willingly. I went willingly, back when I had to.”

Silence again.

“I went willingly when you asked me on this wild goose chase. And you’ve done a lot for me, Domingo, but don’t think I’m here just because I owed you. I’m here because you’re better than those people. You’re better than most of my people, and I trust them with my life.”

“Oh, and what would Mila say if she knew she never entered into your calculations?” Domingo said.

Yun knew Domingo was trying to calm him down, and he tried to speak more quietly as he replied. Besides, it was the truth. “I wouldn’t know.”

“Her feelings are easily hurt, and she thinks she is always right because she happens to be able to calculate the odds of every outcome in a few seconds. I think she tells us less than she knows, if only because she knows we both enjoy not always knowing the unfortunate odds of our stupid decisions.” Domingo paused for a moment. “It is one way in which we are alike, you and I.”

Yun turned and looked at Domingo’s face in profile, softly lit by the lights surrounding the hotel. Again, those teenage feelings, although really they’d never gone away. He’d been rebuked plenty of times back then, true, but what had Mila said? 3,000 and some days since his last poorly spoken Spanish aboard the Tortuga? That was ten years ago. So much had changed, but this man, he had stayed the same in all the right ways and changed in all the best ones.

“Did you always think I was just trying to pay you back?” Yun asked suddenly.

“Well, you do owe me an awful lot.” Evasive as ever. Such a snake. A snake who was avoiding eye contact.

“Don’t act so moral,” Yun replied. “I saw you with plenty of boys my age, back then.”

“Yes, because I didn’t particularly want them to stick around,” Domingo said, in his most diplomatic and measured voice. “Nothing like teenagers for not sticking around.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, Domingo, I’m not a teenager anymore. And my presence indicates a certain amount of, of stickiness. I do believe I have more money than you, a nicer ship than you, and people I can pay to teach me Spanish if I so desire.”

“Then go pay one of those nice brown poolboys. An escort paying for an escort; that’ll get them talking.” Domingo chuckled softly at the thought, but kept looking out at the water rather than making eye contact.

“I don’t want an Earthling,” Yun stammered out. “I want the nice alien who picked me up and took me away.”

“Oh? Revoking my citizenship all on your own, now?”

“It’s not like you’re using it.”

Thunk. The familiar feel of a palm against his head, rustling his hair. “I’ll think about it. And Yun–” He paused a moment there and let his hand fall from Yun’s head to his shoulder. “I do have a thing for Moon creatures.”

Yun looked at Domingo, and maybe it was the booze, but he saw something looking back at him. And so he decided, screw it and leaned in to Domingo’s lips, slowly enough to let Domingo push him away, and kissed him.

It had been ten years since the last time he’d tried this, and he was horribly relieved to feel Domingo’s hand fall from his shoulder to his waist, resting lightly on his hip, as he felt Domingo’s other hand wrap around his back. Yun found his own arms trapped between the two of them, and raised one hand to Domingo’s face, resting it on the other man’s cheek. They kept kissing, slowly and carefully, mostly lips with a few wandering flicks of tongue or brushes of teeth.

Domingo broke away first, and leaned his forehead against Yun’s. “I never wanted to take advantage of you, and I never wanted you to leave. That’s all.”

“I’m a big boy now, Domingo. I was a stupid kid, and I wouldn’t have hit that either, for what it’s worth. Not that it didn’t hurt my feelings at the time.”

And then they were kissing again, rougher this time, moving slowly off the balcony and inside, toward the bed. Yun found himself moving backwards, and almost fell over when his legs hit the bedside. He took the moment apart from Domingo to pull his own shirt over his head and slip Domingo’s shirt off his shoulders and pull his tanktop over his head. He let himself sit on the edge of the bed and put his palms on Domingo’s soft stomach, rounder than when he was younger, but no less appealing. He let his hands wander around to Domingo’s ass, and pulled him foward until he half-toppled on top of Yun. Then they were kissing again, Yun’s hands moving around ass and hips, while Domingo tried to prop himself up, a little too considerate of letting his weight fall on Yun. Most of his weight was on his left arm as his right hand grazed over Yun’s chest, fingers flicking against his nipples. Yun let out a soft hiss into Domingo’s mouth and wiggled his hips upward. He shifted again, restless, not content to just stay still while he was living out a longtime fantasy. He pulled himself upright using Domingo as leverage, and pulled gently in the right places until they were both sitting on the bed, Domingo practically in Yun’s lap. Yun began to suck on Domingo’s neck, nuzzling into him and pulling him close, breathing in the smell of expensive perfume and sweat and the ever-present salt air. “Can I leave a mark?” he whispered into Domingo’s neck, feeling some satisfaction from the breathiness of the voice that answered him.

“Of course; give them something to talk about tomorrow, the gossipy bastards.” Domingo ran his hands through Yun’s hair, and wrapped his legs more tightly around Yun’s torso. They stayed like that for a while, Yun leaving not one but two careful bruises on Domingo’s neck and collarbone.

“I want to suck you off,” Yun whispered, and there was another shift as they rearranged themselves, taking the opportunity to remove their pants and underwear. Domingo was sitting quite lecherously against the edge of the bed, his cock fully erect, his eyes hooded. Yun noticed as he gazed over Domingo’s body that Domingo’s eyes were doing the same, tracking up and down, taking in the sight of another body. Yun moved to the floor and fell back on his knees. He started by spitting in his hand, and keeping eye contact with Domingo, he began to jerk him off, using slow and gentle strokes.

“How’s that?” Yun asked, quietly.

“Nnngh,” came Domingo’s reply, and Yun continued to stroke, still watching Domingo’s face as his breathing picked up. Domingo’s mouth would be slightly open, then he might bite his own lips gently, or lick them, or just keep breathing loudly as his eyes stayed on Yun’s.

Yun finally gave a smirk moved his hand to Domingo’s left high. “It’s nice to have the king size bed, don’t you think?” he said, as he laid his head next to Domingo’s other leg.

“You little tease,” Domingo replied. “If you don’t hurry up, I’ll have to take care of myself.”

“Mm, that would be no kind of hospitality.” And with that, Yun took the head of Domingo’s cock into his mouth. He heard Domingo grunt, and felt quite pleased with himself as he proceeded to suck gently, at first, using plenty of tongue on Domingo’s head. Holding one hand at the base of Domingo’s cock, he began to gently move his head up and down, slowly at first, then more rapidly, trying to keep it varied enough to keep Domingo on edge. Domingo occasionally made some very satisfying noises, and Yun began to pull at his own cock with his other hand, his mouth still on Domingo.

Apparently, Domingo liked that view, because Yun could hear him breathing loudly, and sounding the occasional low moan.

“God, that feels nice,” he said quietly

Yun moaned in agreement around Domingo’s cock, which apparently felt even nicer, as he heard another noise.

“I… I’m going to come, Yun, god.”

Yun shifted back again, removing his mouth from Domingo’s cock. Using his right hand, he started to jerk Domingo, much more quickly this time, still tugging on his own cock.

“God, you look so hot right now, Domingo; come for me.”

Domingo obliged, his semen spilling onto his own stomach, a sight so nice that Yun came shortly after into his own hand with a satisfied moan.

He grabbed one of the courtesy tissues from the nightstand and wiped up after both of them, tossed the tissue in the trash bin, and laid down next to Domingo. He kissed Domingo lightly on the cheek, and pushed himself as near to the other man as he could get, letting his arm fall across Domingo’s chest.

“You didn’t even let me do anything,” Domingo said softly, as he kissed Yun’s forehead. “Do you think I’m too senile?”

“Mmmm. Plenty of time to switch things up. I hope?” Yun traced his finger along Domingo’s chest, and relaxed against him, trying to ignore the intensity of his anxiety as he waited for an answer.

“Yes. Plenty of time. But for god’s sake, let’s get off this horrible rock as soon as we can.”

“Agreed,” Yun yawned, as he fell asleep against Domingo’s warm body.

**********

Yun was relieved that the next morning, things were mostly back to normal, but with more kissing. Neither he nor Domingo has particularly good track records with actually liking the people they slept with, so it was all still a bit of uncharted territory.

After they had both showered and dressed, with only a brief break for a short makeout session, they turned themselves back to business.

“Did you learn anything last night?” Yun asked. “I mostly learned that earthlings are insensitive pricks.”

“Claire and I started talking about AIs; she thought I wanted to buy one so I could automate instead of hiring flakey off-worlders. Honestly, I don’t think her company had much to do with this, but she mentioned one of her head researchers. He’s living in San Francisco; we can go rough him up for a bit of information. After that, I suppose we’ll have to hit up Rio and Shanghai.”

Yun sighed. “More time on Earth, huh? I was hopeful Claire was who we were looking for.”

“She’s a businesswoman, not a programmer. Well, not a genius programmer, anyway. But she does know plenty of people.”

“I’m just sick of chasing leads everywhere.” Yun was lying on the bed as he waited for Domingo to finish fussing over his hair.

“Well, it’s for Mila’s sake. Not much we can do except drive back over the mountains and get the Tortuga.”

They checked out of the hotel, and found the rental car. Going back over the hills seemed to take an eternity, even at Domingo’s usual speed. The idea of being stuck on Earth checking leads was a frustrating one; Yun was perpetually worried that he’d be made, and he could tell that Domingo was just as miserable for his own reasons.

He was about to begin a rant along those lines when a beeping in his earpiece indicated an incoming call.

“Hello?” he said, pushing one hand flat against his ear to reduce the noise from the open convertible top.

“Yun, this is Mila. I’m afraid that there are some InterStel agents at the spaceport; I think the cameras may have caught your face.”

“Dammit, Mila, I thought you said you’d masked me?”

“I may have made a mistake.”

“You don’t make mistakes! You’re freaking perfect! God, they haven’t impounded you yet, have they?”

That got Domingo’s attention, and he began gesturing intensely toward the car’s dashboard interface. Yun gestured at him to calm down (not that it did much good) and fiddled with the car’s speaker system until it was picking up his headpiece transmission.

“I am fine for now, I think they are suspicious but don’t yet have a warrant. I can come pick you up, if you like, and we can make for orbit.”

“Mila!” Domingo’s voice was panicked, and his foot seemed to be pressing ever downward on the accelerator. “Mila, do you think you can get away? We can meet you at… Damn, what’s the best rendezvous around here?”

“We can meet at the reservoir. It’s halfway between us, and there’s enough open space that we can lift off straightaway. Sending coordinates.”

The GPS picked them up, and Domingo switched off the speakers. They continued through the hills at terrifying speed, and Yun found himself unable to do much but hold on and hope for the best.

*****

They actually reached the rendezvous before Mila, most likely according to her plan. Domingo and Yun were both weaponless, an unfortunate side effect of playing things straight on the earth surface, but they knew full well that Mila would be pursued by a great number of police craft. If they were lucky, it would be two; more likely, they’d see half a dozen.

Domingo ditched the car a few hundred yards away from the reservoir; hopefully nobody would be looking for it immediately. He dragged Yun through the bushes and trees, up toward the water’s edge. The place Mila had picked was a large open vista point, with enough room for the Tortuga to touch down and let its members jump aboard. They waited quietly and nervously just under the treeline; Yun felt the adrenaline race through him. Just like old times, he thought, only this time Domingo had reached out and was clutching his hand as they waited. Both their palms were cold and sweaty, but he found it a comfort nonetheless.

Long minutes passed before the roar of engines began to fill the air, along with the quiet static of lasers. Yun didn’t hear any missiles yet, thank god. The Tortuga could withstand ten times what it could give in laser assault, but serious projectiles were another story.

Mila’s voice sounded through his earphones. “Visual on the reservoir. Your trackers indicate you are both in place; get ready to run. No injuries?”

“No injuries, Mila.”

“Good. Here we go.”

The Tortuga flew swiftly past the treeline, pursued by just two police vessels. The main gun was pointed backward, providing cover fire as Mila made her escape. She flew over the reservoir once, doubled back, and flew over again. Finally, she slowed a bit, and began to lower her altitude.

“Now, Yun!” Domingo yelled, and they both leapt from their cover, running as quickly as possible into the earsplitting noise of the Tortuga‘s engines and the constant laser fire. It would take thirty seconds to get them both safe onboard, but there was no way they could take fire for that long–

Then one of the police vessels exploded. The other followed shortly. Yun was halfway in the airlock when it happened, and couldn’t help but stare agape at the sky, until Domingo pulled him all the way in.

“Welcome home, Domingo. Departing Earth.”

Domingo and Yun found they couldn’t do much but sit collapsed on the floor while Mila piloted their way up and out of the atmosphere.

*****

“What do you mean you know where you came from?” Domingo’s voice echoed loudly against the hard surfaces of the Tortuga‘s cabin, as they floated in blackout mode on the dark side of the Moon.

“I have always known. Even if I didn’t, I could find out much more easily than either of you. You are both very nice men, but not very good with programming.”

“Then what was all this about? I had to go to Earth! I hate it there! Yun hates it there! We all hate it there! I have started at least a dozen rumors about how I sleep with Martian whores! This is ridiculous!” The problem with yelling at Mila, Yun knew, was not having anywhere to yell to. It was best to pick a spot and stick with it, for one’s own dignity, but Domingo was rotating between her main camera lens and the main cabin monitor.

“I’ve been in touch with the resistance effort on the Moon. They were hoping for the support of at least one of the major syndicate bosses.”

“What, me?” Yun interrupted, surprised that this was somehow about him. “They could have sent an envoy! The entire solar system knows I’m sympathetic to Moon liberation.”

“I am the envoy. They thought you would be more emotionally invested with someone you knew well.”

“Well, what was with the ruse, then? Why get me involved?” Domingo seemed quite irate that he wasn’t considered as important as Yun on this measure.

“Domingo, you are my best friend, but I am a very sophisticated AI capable of both boredom and annoyance. You were lonely and therefore annoying. I sought to kill two birds with one stone.”

“You… you were trying to set us up?” Yun didn’t know that he had ever, in years of stupid mistakes, known Domingo to sound quite so aghast.

“No, I was trying to force Yun out of his comfortable casino long enough for him to want to join a resistance movement as an active member rather than as a funder, and hoping he would join us and entertain you once he decided to do so. The specific nature of your personal relationships is your own business, Domingo.”

Yun couldn’t help but laugh as he listened to the two of them lapse into Spanish to continue their bickering. Some things never changed, he thought.

But maybe some things could.

*****

(For coloredink, whose fault this is)

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