by Morokoshi Katsura (唐 桂)
Sasha woke slowly. For minutes he allowed himself to drift in and out of a light doze, too lazy and comfortable to open his eyes. It had the flavour of luxury, as if he’d been sleeping for longer than usual already. Sleeping and dreaming. His limbs were slack with REM-paralysis and barely felt there at all. He wouldn’t be able to move freely even if he made an effort to rise, but the thought caused no anxiety. He reached for the dream again: it slipped over the edge of consciousness and was gone. Something about a key—
It was not entirely dark in the room. Had he left the bedroom lamp on? Or was it morning?
“How do you feel?” said a soft, familiar voice. Sasha’s lashes fluttered, and he opened his eyes.
A sense of disorientation seized him. He tried to sit up, but fell back on his side against the sheets. It took two tries before he shook drowsiness off enough to realise why: he couldn’t move his hands. They were fastened together at the wrists, behind his back. His ankles were attached as well, though there was more give there.
Not his room. Not his bed.
Sasha’s heart thudded. He lay still for a moment, quelling the thread of instinctive panic. Hal had…
“I’m here,” Hal said. Sasha lifted his head, searching for the source of the voice.
A tall, multi-branched lamp of Italianate design stood at the opposite corner of the room, the illumination dialed down low. Hal was sitting – lounging – in an armchair beside it, only a few metres from the side of the bed: the floorspace was small, the bed large. He’d taken his suit jacket off and draped it over the armrest. Otherwise he appeared no different from how Sasha saw him every morning, down to the silver cufflinks and the perfectly knotted tie.
He was smiling. Sasha’s throat closed on a mixture of relief and reflexive longing. He covered it with a smirk of his own, wiggling his shoulders to indicate his bound hands.
“Didn’t think you were into this sort of thing.”
Hal made a slight gesture with his hand, like a shrug sketched in the air. He was wearing controller gloves, Sasha noticed, the thin, pricey make that looked like black leather.
“Hal, where is this?”
“My apartment,” said Hal. “Would you believe me if I said that?”
What a strange remark, thought Sasha. He let his gaze wander around the room, taking in the decor: soberly-patterned wallpaper, heavy drapes drawn closed, vase of flowers on the side table. Surfaces were pristine, dustless. It seemed more like an expensive hotel room than anyone’s living quarters.
He had been at a club. That was it. It had been a private party. He remembered taking his leave at – when had it been? – dashing across the several metres of cold air that separated him from the club’s exit to the limousine’s open door, and Hal, and Hal’s smile. Laughing at something Hal said as he sank back into the leather seating, and Hal poured and handed him a—
Memory ended there. He strained to recover what followed – anything – but the effort only made him feel lightheaded.
“Not what I’d’ve pegged as your taste in interior decoration,” he said finally. “It’s… staid.”
“The theme of the evening,” said Hal. He stood and crossed the room, leaving Sasha’s field of vision. Sasha heard glass clink against glass, and a soft liquid gurgle. “Drink? …Actually no, you’d better not. Not on top of all the rest.”
His arms were beginning to ache. “Hal, I deduce that I was smashed off my rocker, but surely I couldn’t have made a public menace of myself to this point?”
No answer. He could feel Hal’s gaze boring into his back. Was this really Hal’s apartment? His bed?
The idea brought with it the warmth of unwanted arousal. Sasha shivered.
“Look, the joke’s not funny anymore, it’s damned uncomfor—”
“It’s not a joke,” said Hal. He recrossed the room in front of Sasha and set both glass and carafe down on the nightstand. Sasha caught the scent of amaretto liqueur and – abruptly – Hal’s cologne. “And you weren’t smashed off your rocker, as you put it. I drugged you.”
Sasha stared. After a few seconds he struggled into a half-seated position and tried to scoot off the bed, more by instinct than foresight. Hal caught him by the shoulders before he could get far and slammed him back against the mattress. Sasha’s wrists bent awkwardly under him, and he hissed through his teeth.
“An issue’s come up,” said Hal. He sounded – looked – entirely casual, as if he were standing in Sasha’s library with a laptop full of figures under his arm and not pinning Sasha to the bed with his weight. “It concerns Esskei’s next codec release.”
“Oh, is that right.” Sarcasm took effort: the situation didn’t make sense. His heart was pounding. “And here I thought you’d kidnapped and were going to ravish me. Or does that come after the tech review?”
“Is that what you want?” Hal said evenly. At Sasha’s expression he added, “A point of curiosity. You’ve never been shy with anyone else.”
Sasha stared up at him. Hal met his gaze – he had beautiful grey eyes; Sasha thought privately that they were the most beautiful eyes in the world. A spasm of shame and fury shook him.
“Untie me,” he said, not caring how he sounded. “Untie me right now or I’ll call security and—”
Hal’s free hand slid over his stomach, warm not-leather through flimsy fabric. Sasha’s voice died away.
“Call security,” said Hal. “Try it. Call your father, even, if you like.”
His hand moved lower.
Sasha gritted his teeth and reached for the company intranet, letting his awareness of the bedroom and Hal spiral into darkness. The portal appeared, a planar flare of not-blue, and as he passed through the—
Only there was nothing. Empty space in lieu of the flood. Warnings multiplied, flickering, at the edge of his vision: connectivity, firewall. He aborted process with a gasp, landing hard.
“How’d it go?” asked Hal. He was still there – the routine, familiar presence, just at the edge of where Sasha ended and the network began, or should have begun.
“I took you offline. Right now we’re on a closed circuit. Just you.” Hal’s hair brushed against Sasha’s cheek as he bent closer. “And me.”
Sasha grew aware that he was trembling.
“Hal,” he said, dazed. “Don’t talk like that. That’s something a Terminal would do.”
“Is it?” He couldn’t see Hal’s expression, but the other man’s voice was amused. “Of course. You’d know everything there is to know about Terminals, wouldn’t you, Sasha Shaughnessy-Kirilov?”
“I could bring you up to speed, if you like.”
His fingers slipped under the waistband of Sasha’s low-slung jeans. Sasha turned his head away, struggling for calm: trying to think. The fear was real now, even under the persistent vertigo. And he was getting hard – was hard, his body straining for Hal’s touch.
It was the only thing that felt real.
“It’s already common industry knowledge,” Hal was saying, low and soothing, into his ear, “that Esskei is on the verge of rolling out version 5.0 of their bionetwork: first to intranet, then to subscribers on a graduated basis. Details have been kept secret for security reasons – understandably – but the new implementation is know to differ drastically on the back end, enough so that Esskei will force the firmware upgrade on their users and eliminate support for previous versions within a set timeframe. The move is being hailed as a long-overdue safety measure, principally because it limits the access of Terminal groups, most of whom rely on hacks of Esskei’s 3.0 codec—”
The top button came undone. Hal ran a finger along the metallic seam of the zipper.
“—to operate their darknets. Of course, this is all just common knowledge.”
He unzipped Sasha’s jeans slowly. Sasha bit the inside of his lip and tried to move his wrists apart. Was there a little more give than before?
“As an insider, unfortunately, I’ve come to the awareness that 5.0 itself introduces a major security flaw to the system. Almost like a… key, of sorts. Care to guess at what it does?”
Definitely more give. The bonds were some kind of fabric, and the knot wasn’t as tight as it might have been. “I… think you’d be better off… talking to R&D. They might thank you for identi… nh.”
Hal had pressed his lips against Sasha’s throat, where it met his jawline: the brief kiss skittered along Sasha’s nerves like electricity. Then again, and again, following the line of Sasha’s pulse.
“R&D knows,” he said to Sasha’s collarbone. “Better than anyone. They documented it thoroughly.”
“Really. That’s difficult to…”
Hal took hold of his cock and stroked it, once. Sasha bit down before he could make an embarrassing noise.
“Isn’t it? It must have its proven necessity, whether due to design flaws or… other reasons.”
Hal lifted his head to meet Sasha’s gaze. He was smiling, almost wry.
“I don’t need to explain the ramifications if this key were to fall into the hands of a Terminal. Or Terminal group.”
Sasha couldn’t listen anymore. The information was important – critical – but Hal was shifting lower, hitching Sasha’s shirt up to drop a kiss just above his navel. His other hand moved insistently between Sasha’s legs, the leather-like material not quite chafing but still more foreign than skin, and Sasha felt dizzy with sensation, as if he were about to come, wanted nothing else.
Dimly he thought, I have to get out of this room.
“Of course, no one has the security clearance to access the code, apart from a few critical analysts and the president – your father – himself.”
Sasha tried to move again, propping himself up on elbows, and this time Hal shifted to allow him.
“I worked my way down the list of candidates,” he said. “There should be one copy, and I’m confident it doesn’t exist on any of the development servers. Backup media? But it must be on the intranet, ready for deployment, or there’s no point in having it at all. Embedded in someone’s implant? That’s a possibility. But then…”
He moved his hand away. An inchoate sound escaped Sasha’s lips. Hal sat back on his heels, still smiling.
“Do you know what I found,” he said softly, “when I checked your wetware configuration?”
Sasha stared at him. After a few seconds of silence Hal’s lips twitched.
“Well,” he said, “either you’re a very good actor – which is always a possibility – or it was done to you without your knowledge. In either case—” He loosened his tie and tugged it off, one-handed. “I think we can assume that you have something to hide.”
He’d lost track of time when the bonds around his wrists finally came loose.
His reactions weren’t normal, he knew: even if it was Hal. He should have been able to struggle, to fight what was being done to him. Instead he let Hal undress him, let himself be touched, kissed—
It was as if each caress precluded thought, before and after, until he only felt.
When Hal knelt to take him in his mouth he heard a sharp sound, like a sob, and barely knew he had made it.
Afterward he lay, boneless, sprawled over the sheets. Hal sat on the edge of the bed and bent over to kiss him, slipping his tongue into Sasha’s mouth, hot and wet.
“Not enough, it appears,” he said when they broke apart. He ran a finger over Sasha’s bottom lip, slick with saliva. “Further in—”
Sasha pushed him away, hard, and swung his legs off the bed.
Hal grunted, mostly in surprise, and grabbed at him, trying to hold him down. Sasha had no time to think. The carafe still stood on the nightstand; he grabbed it and swung at Hal’s head.
The impact propagated sickeningly up his arm. Sasha dropped the carafe, and sticky, golden liquid spilled out onto the sheets, a fast-spreading stain.
The smell of almonds was very strong.
Hal had fallen back against the mattress and was lying still. Too still. Sasha couldn’t see any blood.
There was a buzzing in his ears. Mechanically he scrambled off the bed and stumbled toward the door, not pausing to undo his ankle restraints even after the second aborted step tipped him forward. He fell on hands and knees and crawled. Reached up, hand closing around the cool weight of the doorknob. It turned—
“Well played,” said Hal.
It was like dreaming of falling: landing and waking, without having moved.
Sasha lay still, gasping, clamping down on the vertigo. Eventually it receded somewhat, but when he tried to move his arms he found he couldn’t.
It took longer before the room came back into focus.
The door was still closed.
“Hal,” he said, finally, very quietly. “Where is this?”
“You seem very certain,” said Hal, “that I’m who you think I am.”
He sounded bemused. Sasha lifted his head as far as he was able. Hal was leaning against the opposite wall, arms hanging loosely at his sides. His shirt hung unbuttoned. The stance was entirely casual, but something about the tone of voice reminded Sasha of when they’d first met: back when Hal still addressed him formally, as a secretary should. I’ll take care of that, sir. If you say so, sir.
Until one day Sasha had caught hold of his wrist and said, Don’t talk that way if you don’t mean it—
He showed no sign of damage. Sasha let his head drop back against the mattress.
“You can untie me, you know,” he said. “It’s not… I’ll just find my way through it again. There’s no such thing as one hundred percent secure.”
“It slows you down,” said Hal.
“Does that help?”
There was a silence. Sasha could feel Hal’s gaze on him, steady. He closed his eyes, willing the knot in his chest to go away.
He should be too tired to want anything. But the usual rules didn’t apply.
“I didn’t choose this methodology, for the record,” said Hal. “It happens to be the only way in.”
He spoke first. Sasha laughed, softly, at the irrelevant victory.
“Why?” he asked. “Does it bother you?”
Silence again. Sasha kept his eyes closed until the footsteps paused at the side of the bed. Then he looked up.
“It’s even simpler than that, actually,” he said. “It doesn’t work unless I want it to.”
He watched Hal’s face change.
“You are a very good actor,” Hal said, finally. He sat down on the edge of the bed and ran his hand through Sasha’s hair, tucked loose strands of it behind Sasha’s ear. Sasha shook his head, but not to avoid the touch.
“I don’t need to remember,” he said. “Most of the time. But I’ll take it as a compliment.”
“Split consciousness,” said Hal. “Like something a Terminal would do. No wonder your father keeps you around.”
His hand moved to curve around Sasha’s nape. Sasha let his eyes slide closed again, and leant deliberately into the touch.
“Hal,” he said, “untie me.”
After a slight hesitation Hal did.
Sasha rolled over onto his back, rubbing at his wrists. Then – as Hal leant over him – he slid his hands over Hal’s shoulders and pushed his shirt out of the way, and wrapped his arms around Hal’s neck, and drew him down for a kiss.
It was easier this way: more natural, or seemingly so. Hal touched him as if he could sense what Sasha wanted, scraped his teeth over the skin of Sasha’s throat and gripped hard enough to bruise. As if Sasha could bruise. Sasha arched up against him, rubbing, his hands buried in Hal’s hair. It was soft, as he always imagined it would be.
Hal pulled him closer, then, shifting so that their bodies fit against each other. He sat up and pulled Sasha into his lap, ran his hands over Sasha’s hips. His erection was demanding and hot against Sasha’s thigh, and Sasha had a moment to think, so after all you want me.
It could be true. If he wanted it.
When Hal sank into him – slowly, frustratingly slow – it was as if the room dissolved into white light. Sasha flung his hand out, catching at the side of the mattress. He felt radiant with heat, sweat starting all over his body.
“Hal,” he whispered, “Hal—”
“I’m sorry,” said Hal. Sasha reached out with his other hand, and on the next thrust he laid it against Hal’s chest, palm flat. Over Hal’s heart. Again, and Hal was in him, filling him to the breaking point, wringing a sound from his throat. “Sasha. I’m sorry.”
Sasha shook his head. It felt too good, he never wanted it to stop— “No,” he said. “No.”
His hand sank into Hal’s chest, as if flesh were water.
Hal stopped short, trembling. After a moment he lifted his head to meet Sasha’s eyes.
“Sasha,” he said, a soft puff of breath, then stopped.
Sasha expected confusion, dawning realisation, anger. Fear, perhaps.
You wanted this. I want—
He didn’t expect Hal to smile.
“You win,” said Hal. “Let me see it.”
Sasha bit his lip. He closed his hand into an unseen fist: Hal gasped, once, as it withdrew.
They were supported by nothing now, weightless, surfaces indistinguishable from air. Sasha opened his hand. A key lay in his palm: it gleamed, not-metal, the white light skittering over its surface as if it were alive.
“The door,” said Sasha, and everything went dark.
When he opened his eyes it was to unaccustomed dimness, and the slow rotation of a ceiling fan.
After a few moments he turned his head, feeling port connectors shift at the nape of his neck. A physical link, of course. He reached up and tugged them viciously free, not caring if it stung.
One of the machines started to beep, and kept beeping, but no one else came.
There was no light source, other than various LED displays. No windows, one door. The floor and walls were concrete, as if the room were part of an underground parking garage. Storage facilities, perhaps.
Hal was slumped, supine, in a controller chair next to Sasha’s: near enough that they may as well have been in the same bed. Near enough to touch. His eyes were closed, and Sasha thought he could see his chest rise and fall. He was—
They were both wearing the same clothes from last night. Or the night before.
It was difficult to tell.
Sasha swung his legs off the chair and approached. Hal didn’t stir, even when Sasha slid his hand over the back of his neck to check the wires there. He hesitated for a long moment, but didn’t disconnect them. Instead he bent down and brushed his lips against Hal’s.
“This way we both get a head start,” he whispered, then turned away. The door was unlocked, and the knob was cool under his hand.