by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by Jakface
He didn’t look that heavy, but Taiye had been doing this for long enough to know one of the secrets of the universe, which was that a man doubled in mass as dead weight. He was alive dead weight, though, because the posting had been clear: back in a body bag was only worth a tenth as much as returned still breathing. Drunk and angry, he sputtered and thrashed as Taiye tossed him into the cell, but he might as well have been lashing out with noodles for all the strength he could summon. Taiye tapped the code on the outside wall and the force field shimmered, locking his bounty in. As attempts at evading capture went, Dr. Conall’s had been one of the more frantic and ineffectual ones Taiye had ever witnessed. Of all the bruises and scrapes the man in the cell would be feeling tomorrow, most had been self-inflicted.
The ship began to hum as the engines fired up, a low murmur that had become so familiar to him, Taiye only really noticed it when it was gone. A few seconds later, Taiye felt his stomach sway as the ship switched over from the planet’s gravity to its own. He was glad for this a second later when Conall doubled over and threw up.
Taiye made a face. “Facilities behind the blue panel,” he said, pointing over toward the wall nearest Conall’s hand. Already the environmental nanites would be swarming toward the biowaste, so as long as Conall didn’t roll around in it, he’d be fine for the four days it’d take them to reach the nearest waystation. “Need anything, shout. It’s a small ship.”
Conall rolled on his back — away from the sick, so at least his luck was holding somewhat — and folded his hands across his stomach. “Water,” he said, his voice a rasp.
“Water behind the blue panel too.” Taiye pointed again, just in case Conall had missed it the first time. “No shower, though.”
The room’s one interior door hissed open and Kehinde walked in, twisting her hair away from her neck and stabbing it through with a screwdriver to keep it in place. “Seventh in line,” she said to Taiye; she could have told him that from the pilot’s chair, certainly, but the ship’s autopilot could just as easily handle waiting in the departure queue, and she liked to keep an eye on things as much as he did. One long curl had escaped her earlier efforts at taming, and he gave it a little tug, a silent congratulation on a job well done.
When she didn’t respond, though, Taiye let his gaze follow hers, all the way back to Conall. He was still sprawled on the floor and looked green enough that he might empty his stomach again at any moment, but his light brown eyes were wide circles, binary moons in the sick-pale sky of his face. “I know you,” he said, looking from one of them to the other and back again.
“Sure you do,” said Kehinde, though the bluster in her words didn’t match the worry behind her eyes. “So at least you can tell your friends in prison you got caught by the best.”
But Conall shook his head with an eerie, spooked slowness. “3093-α and 3093-β. It’s you, isn’t it?”
It was a testimony to everything about their shared professionalism, toughness, and uncrackable poker faces that neither Taiye nor Kehinde so much as flinched. It was a damningly long minute, however, before either of them managed to speak again. “That doesn’t mean anything to us,” Kehinde lied, turning on her heel. “Better luck next time.”
Without looking back, Taiye followed her a moment later out the door of the aft compartment and into the ship’s middle chamber. Kehinde was sitting on the edge of the bed with her boots propped up on a crate, hands folded in her lap, thinking all the coldest thoughts that she could to keep out hot, blinding fear. Taiye took a seat next to her and took her hand, interlacing their fingers, and thought with her about comets, about frozen gases, about the void of space. They stayed there together for several minutes, until the control panel beeped to let them know their slot for their last check before departure was available. It was time to leave the atmosphere.
Control frowned at Taiye through the video connection, tapping their chin with their index finger. “If you have Conall in custody, why do you want that data now?”
Of course, of all the things he’d planned for in this conversation, Taiye hadn’t come up with a reason there. “Just … checking up,” he said, and when he saw Control’s perfect white-blonde eyebrow raise to a skeptical arch, he sighed. “We’re trying to make sure we got the right mark. All right?”
“Did the DNA scanner confirm identity?” Control asked, and when Taiye nodded, they nodded right back. “Then you got the right mark.”
From behind him, Kehinde leaned in low enough to be seen on the other side of the connection. “Our scanner’s been malfunctioning, Control. I think someone planetside had a scrambler. Might even have been the real Conall, to throw us off the track.” She leaned forward a little more, and Taiye could just see out of the corner of his eye how low-cut her shirt was. “It’d be a clever trick, but the post said he’s a scientist. He might know how to make one.”
That gave Control a moment’s pause, and they leaned back from the screen, crossing their arms across their chest. “This is highly irregular,” they said, “and I want you to know, I wouldn’t do this for anyone else in the galaxy. Are we clear?”
“We are very clear, Control,” said Taiye, breaking out his most charming grin. “Next time we’re at Station Twelve, drinks are on me.”
“You’d better believe they are,” said Control. With a nod from them, the connection dropped, and seconds later, the ship’s computer signaled that the file transfer was underway. Sighing his relief, Taiye slumped back in the captain’s chair and waited for it to finish.
Kehinde laughed and flicked his ear, and he batted her hand away. “Why do I always have to talk to Control?” Taiye asked with a scowl.
“Oh, please. I talk to Control a hundred times for every one I make you call.” Kehinde took the co-pilot’s seat, but sat in it sideways, letting her long legs dangle over the armrest nearest to Taiye. “You just get to call for the unreasonable requests because I need them still to like me.”
When the last file made the subspace jump from Control’s central computer to their own, the whole dossier scrolled open in front of Taiye. “And now I suppose you’re going to make me read it.”
Kehinde yawned and put her hands behind her head. “Just give me the highlights.”
As it turned out, for all the space in the file, there wasn’t much substance. The man named Dr. Sul Conall, so far as the evidence before them indicated, had spent the first forty-three solar years of his life uneventfully: born on a freighter in some unremarkable section of space to a family of merchants; eighth of thirteen children from his three parents; remote education until he was old enough to be offered a full scholarship from the Dahlgren Academy; hired right after graduation by Eight Sky Pharmaceuticals’ R&D department; outstanding, dedicated, and oft-published scientist; no partners or children. In fact, right up until he’d killed three of his fellow researchers with a small-scale bio-weapon, he’d been by all accounts a model citizen and employee. But things like making co-workers sweat blood tended to look bad on anyone’s resume.
When Taiye finished giving her the distillation, Kehinde sat upright. “That’s it?” She reached for the edge of the virtual document and pulled it over so she could see. “You sure you didn’t miss anything?”
“In text, he’s the most boring man I’ve ever seen.” Taiye ran his hand over the top of his bare head, feeling the way his tiny curls of hair brushed back and forth with each gesture; he needed a haircut. “So he guessed. He got lucky.”
Kehinde shook her head, scrolling down screen after screen of text. “Don’t lie aloud to me to convince yourself.” The bottom of the file contained several photographs, some commendations from supervisors, and the full text of several of Conall’s publications, but Kehinde skimmed past them all and closed the viewer with a snap of her fingers. “We have to talk to him.”
“We do not have to talk to him.”
“Then we have to ask things of him.” Kehinde pushed her body over the armrest of the chair until she stood before him. She held up three fingers close to his face. “Okay. One, you’re right, he is the luckiest man, he made the luckiest guess in the history of humankind, I’m making him pick the lottery numbers before that luck runs out. Two, he’s right, he knows us on sight, we are fucked if he says anything, we need to figure out who else knows. Three, I’m right, he read us.”
She must have been keeping that worry at the back of her mind, because until she’d said it, Taiye honestly hadn’t even considered that last possibility. He wrapped all three of Kehinde’s counting fingers in his fist and brought them to his mouth, kissing their tips. “He can’t read us. Half the time, I can barely read you.”
Kehinde screwed up her mouth and gave him the mental equivalent of a flick to the center of his forehead. “Fine. Go see what he knows. If it’s nothing, I’ll go in after you and enlist his help in placing a few bets.”
He didn’t bother trying to mount a counter-proposal; when Kehinde’s mind was made up, that was the end of that. No matter Taiye’s (he felt) perfect appeals to logic — their shared implants were bi-, not omni-directional; nothing in Conall’s file had suggested any connection to TitanCo or any of its facilities — she had put her foot down, and not the might of the whole universe brought together could lift it.
The truth was, he didn’t believe in luck either. The other possibilities were just not ones he was ready to face.
When he walked in, he found Conall standing in the middle of the cell, eyes shut, the picture of calm, perfect grace despite his curious pose. He balanced on his left foot and held the right at the level of his left knee, keeping his right thigh parallel to the ground. His right arm made a third flat line away from his shoulder, and his left arm curled from behind him over his head, hand shaped into a hollow fist, as though holding an invisible object inside. Taiye didn’t recognize the discipline, but he knew a sword form to see it. “Your file said you ran track, but nothing about this,” said Taiye, folding his arms across his chest.
Conall took one more long, deep breath, then wound his limbs in like gears, curling back into place until he stood straight before Taiye, his palms pressed flat against one another. “I’m sure it leaves out a lot of things.” His salt-and-pepper stubble spoke of more than a few days without shaving, and in the patched, baggy mechanic’s jumpsuit he’d no doubt stolen from some unknown worker’s locker, he looked little like the scholar in the image attached to his file.
“You’re awfully calm for someone going to face murder charges.” They’d had hundreds of people in that cell, criminals from all walks of life, and the one thing Taiye associated with none of them was the radiant calm displayed before him.
“Murder?” Conall laughed, a bitter little sound, and crossed his legs beneath him to sit on the floor. “I guess that’s as good of a reason for a bounty as any. What’d they say? Prostitutes disappearing? Hitchhiker never seen again? I’m curious.”
“Neurotoxin,” said Taiye. “Eight Sky’s main facility. Three dead, two dozen in the hospital.”
All the good humor vanished from Conall’s face, and he was on his feet so fast Taiye took a half-step back before remembering the field between them. “That wasn’t me,” he said as he drew his hands into fists.
Having heard as many denials from that side of the cell as they’d had people inside it, Taiye shook his head. “Save it for someone who cares. Guilty or innocent doesn’t matter to me. I get paid to bring you back either way.”
“But you won’t bring me back,” said Conall, and there it was again, the peace from earlier, creeping back in to cover the brief rage that had displaced it. Conall took a deep breath, and as he let it out through his pursed lips, his hands unclenched. “Because I know who you are. You and your twin sister.”
Deep down, Taiye had known that would be coming, but hearing it again still made a chill run down his long spine. “Just another couple of bounty hunters,” he said, trying to sound as bored with the situation as possible; he even forced the last word to dissolve into a yawn he didn’t feel. “Making our way sweeping up the trash of the universe. Big deal.”
“Titan picked me up right before you got away,” Conall said, and no matter how unimpressed Taiye wanted to appear, hearing the first word felt like a dagger straight to the base of his spine. “I’ve seen your files. I wasn’t supposed to, but–”
“What files?” asked Taiye, even though he was sure by now not even the most credulous of listeners would have believed his ignorance.
“Your files.” Conall pointed one finger at Taiye and another toward the door that led to the front of the ship. “Project designations 3093-α and 3093-β. You’re alpha; she’s beta. There are maybe a dozen people still alive who know you ever existed, and you have one trapped on your ship.”
All clever plans to bluff and deflect stood in ruins around Taiye’s feet, and he told Kehinde in no uncertain terms to stay put on the other side of that door, even though he could feel her chomping at the bit. “You’re a crazy old man,” Taiye finally managed to say. “I don’t know who told you these crazy stories, but it’s no wonder you didn’t get very far on the run, if you believe everything you–”
Conall slammed his fist against the force field, making the invisible plane ripple out from the point of contact and startling Taiye into stone silence. “You two have, in your head, right now, the only working pair of Karthagian implants still in existence. And if you turn me into the authorities, I will tell them that, and it may mean nothing to them, but that information will spread, and it will mean something to Titan. And it won’t matter if they believe me or not, because they’ll check it out anyway.” With another deep, steadying breath, he stepped back to the middle of his cell. “However much they want me back, they want you more.”
No wall could have held her back then; despite Taiye’s best efforts to keep her away and thus not further confirm Conall’s allegations, Kehinde stepped into the room, plasma pistol ready at her hip. “What if we kill you right here?” she asked, stroking its chrome handle with her fingertips. Had this been under any other circumstances, Taiye would have felt compelled to stomp on her foot for destroying the air of cool mystery he’d been trying to cultivate.
“I’m not afraid of death,” Conall said with such calm conviction that Taiye had no reason to believe otherwise. “But I’d like to burn off as much karma as I can before I enter the stream again. And without me, you’ll never have another chance this good to take Titan down.”
“What, you have some plan?” asked Kehinde, hand still so tense by her pistol that Taiye could see her fingers twitch.
“Better than a plan. I have information.”
Taiye looked over to the bin where they’d thrown all the various personal effects they’d snatched along with Conall: a parka, two small duffel bags, a wristband display. “Where is it?”
But Conall only shook his head and tapped his skull just behind his left ear. “Inside.”
Taiye hovered cross-legged several inches over the captain’s seat, looking out at the star field ahead of them. Kehinde liked gravity and Taiye was equilibrial on the matter, so they compromised: on while she was awake, and off to conserve fuel after she’d strapped in to the ship’s one bed for the night. That was one of their rules: whenever someone was in the cell, at least one of them was always awake.
Right now, he could tell she wasn’t asleep yet, but he backed off, gave her some space so that she might get there eventually. His thoughts were troubling, so he did the best he could to keep them to himself.
He opened the thermos of amino milk and gave it a shake, then chased the little white orbs around the half-lit cabin, sucking them up with a straw, letting the entertainment value distract him from the horrible chalky taste. They were good at their job, he hadn’t lied about that, but they’d agreed that no matter how much they made catching runaways, they could never spend enough to attract anyone’s attention. Monsters like TitanCo didn’t pay attention to reputation; they watched where money went. If staying off the radar meant running an ascetic operation, then he and Kehinde were willing to accept that as the price for being free.
With a great sigh, Taiye bent back as far as his spine would go, then used the cabin ceiling to give himself a little push, until he spun in a slow circle. He focused on slowing his breathing until he inhaled and exhaled in time with the pulse of the ship’s air reclamation unit. It was a good ship, and he knew it inside and out on account of how he’d had every major part replaced in the two decades since they’d bought it. What money they were willing to part with in large amounts, they spent on it, mostly on back planets where the vendors didn’t send their records to the Core, and never with the same mechanic twice. He’d known next to nothing about starship engineering when they’d started, and he was hardly an expert now, but as with so many things, he’d learned quite a lot out of sheer necessity.
When he came close to the wall, he extended his hands and arrested his momentum before he could spin off into something important. In the dim, colorful glow from the front panels, his dark brown hands turned almost black against the silvery metal panel, as though they might themselves be five-fingered windows, looking out over some starless patch of sky. He couldn’t stay like this any longer. He had to know.
Touching as few things as he could, he floated from the cabin through the middle compartment, over the table where he and Kehinde took their meals, past the bed where she lay now, curled beneath the blankets with grey straps around her shoulders, waist, and ankles. She’d turned toward the wall in her sleep, and her great mass of hair ebbed and flowed, curls moving like seaweed at high tide. He thought about giving her a kiss as he passed, but instead just brushed his mind against hers, a little nudge of reassurance into her dreams.
The far door opened and shut soundlessly behind him as he floated on into the third of the ship’s four sections; the fourth was all engines and storage, and thus not the safest place to be during flight. In the middle of his cell, Conall sat in a full lotus pose, floating upside-down, his eyes shut. “You’re not asleep,” said Taiye, choosing at least for the time being to keep his orientation relative to ‘real’ gravity.
Conall smiled. “Just thinking,” he said. Despite the peaceful air about him, he looked older like this; with most of the ship’s lights turned down with the gravity, the white light from the edges of the force field set all the wrinkles on his face into stark relief. He had the weary look of a man twice his age, and Taiye could see this was not a temporary condition, but something a long time in the making.
“How–” Taiye caught himself mid-question, then sighed and accepted the inevitable. “How did you know it was us?”
“Ibeji,” Conall said, and Taiye frowned to hear his own ship’s name given as an answer to his question. Conall opened his eyes, then uncrossed his legs and turned himself so he and Taiye had heads and feet pointing the same direction. “Saw it on the docking panel as we left. Sacred twins. That’s clever, you know; not many people would get that.”
“We were hoping for no one.” Taiye shook his head. “But that’s still just a word. How did you make the jump from that to us?”
“Not a jump. The first of a series of steps.” Conall shrugged. “It wasn’t anything. It was everything. Like how you tracked me from the bar. I knew there were two of you, so I kept trying to overhear you, but there was nothing. Even at the time I thought, sure, you were good, but no one’s that good.”
Taking the compliment for what it was, Taiye let himself drift closer to the invisible wall between them. “You were rather drunk.”
That just made Conall smile, an expression which took years of worry off his face. “Before last night I hadn’t had a drink in over a decade. But please don’t let that diminish your sense of accomplishment.”
“I won’t, don’t worry.” Having a prisoner in the hold that he liked was no big change for Taiye; some of the most charming people committed the most heinous crimes. What was starting to make him worry, though, was the confidence with which Conall spoke, as though they’d already shaken hands on an agreement to drop him off at the next waystation. Taiye didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives running from Titan, but that didn’t mean anything was settled yet. “Not many people know their old Earth myths anymore.”
“Not many people spend half their lives in a facility that turns out to be a prison camp with lab coats. I wound up with a lot of free time and not a lot of books to kill it with. That neurotoxin attack was meant to eliminate me. I saw the faces of the victims on the news; they were my labmates. I was elsewhere in the facility, picking up a piece of equipment we’d sent out for repair. I’d made plans to escape already. When the chaos began, I grabbed what I could and ran.”
“And I’m supposed to believe this because…?”
“Because it’s the truth,” said Conall, his expression steady. “I haven’t lied. I’ll tell you anything.” He swept his hands in front of him, open palms upraised, with such gusto that he skidded back several centimeters before braking himself with the tips of his bare toes.
Taiye set his jaw, trying to appear as tough as he could while making a silent prayer that he didn’t screw this up. “Why would they try to kill you?”
“They must’ve suspected I was going to run.” Conall turned his head to the right, and Taiye could see a patch behind his left ear where his ash-brown skin puckered in a perfect circle, the way flesh tended to scar after a bad or hasty implant job. “I’d been storing up incriminating data for months. I couldn’t beam it out; except for coded security channels, the whole sector’s a dead zone. I thought about shipping it out somehow, but I couldn’t trust it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands once it left my control. I was the safest method of transfer I could think of.”
If that was true — and Taiye wasn’t saying he believed it, not yet, but if it was — it was about the bravest thing Taiye had heard of in a long time. And literally the only reason he was willing to believe in an escape from Titan’s clutches was that he had done it himself. “What do you mean, incriminating data?”
Conall tapped the patch behind his ear again; his hair had the telltale haphazard lengths of a man who’d cut it himself, and the dark greying curls just barely curtained the wound. “You name it. Financial reports. Evidence of human rights violations. Records of illegal research. Whatever I could grab. I don’t even know what half of it is; I didn’t process it.”
Taiye extended his hand. “Give the storage device to me. I’ll examine it.”
“It’s not a device,” said Conall. “Bio-storage. That’s what they had me working on, and that’s what I’ve used against them. I took out–” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m your device. And I think we can make a deal.”
“A deal,” Taiye echoed; before he could stop himself, his eyes darted toward the door behind which Kehinde lay deep in her dreaming.
Conall showed his bare hands again. “I wouldn’t expect you to decide without your sister. But hear me out. Get me as close as you can to a Node and lose me there. I’ll plug myself in and broadcast what I can to the authorities and media outlets, then get myself to the next Node however I can. You’ll never see me again, and in return, I’ll never tell who or where you are.”
In Taiye’s experience, what sounded too good to be true usually was. “How can I trust you?”
“You can’t. And I can’t trust that you won’t fly straight to Eight Sky’s door and leave me in the mail chute. So I propose we get to know one another. Trust comes from that.” Conall looked at the edges of the reinforced cell wall. “And the first step could be your letting me out of here.”
For a moment, all Taiye could do was blink as his eyebrows reached toward the ceiling. “You serious?”
Conall just laughed at that, drawing his legs up toward his chest and re-forming his body until he was in a full lotus pose. “Nothing exists in and of itself. The entire universe is interdependent. I could have been caught by anyone; I wound up in your hands. I believe in connection, not coincidence.”
“Well.” Taiye ran his hand over his scalp, feeling the little bristles of his hair brush against his palm. “That makes one of us.” But his skepticism voiced only made Conall close his eyes and smile.
Of course it was a terrible idea; he’d thought so from the start, and he kept thinking so even as Conall sat there, not shackled or even somehow hobbled, at their mess table. He thought it so loudly, in fact, that Kehinde stopped giving him mental whacks and proceeded to slap him upside the head in a very literal manner. Sometimes he hated how much she always managed to get the last word. “So what’s in it for you?” she asked, using her knife to take the peel off an orange in one long, slender spiral.
“Expiation.” Conall had played calm and collected all the way out of the cell, right up until they’d brought out food. The way he’d inhaled the shitty rehydrated meal Kehinde had put in front of him, he looked as though he hadn’t eaten in days. Then Taiye thought back to the mining planet they’d found him on and realized that might not be so inaccurate. “If I’d wanted some sort of material reward, I would have stayed. They’d made us a very pleasant prison. Enough that it was easy to forget the bars.”
Kehinde braced her forearms across her knees as she sat on the table. “Fair enough. What’s in it for us?”
“Not the bounty, I’m afraid.” Conall looked around the cabin. “Though from the state of this ship and your apparently impressive reputation, I wouldn’t think you’re hurting for money. How much is it, by the way? Out of curiosity.”
“Three thousand gold credits,” Taiye said, before adding, “alive.”
“Ah.” Sighing through pursed lips, Conall leaned back against a wall of storage compartments. “Makes sense, though. It’s the only way they can tell if I’ve made any outgoing transfers or not. One of the problems with bio-storage — or the benefits, depending on your perspective — is that nothing survives the holder. As soon as electrical function ceases in the brain, not only is stored information gone, but any records of its being there disappear. They want to know how much damage control they have to do.”
“I like the idea of damage.” Kehinde speared one of the orange slices and tucked it in the side of her mouth. Most of the food they carried with them was nonperishable, but Kehinde had a weakness for the occasional luxury of fresh fruit. “How much have you done already?”
Conall shook his head. “I’m not a very good stowaway. I got out all right on a transit drone, but it’s harder on staffed vessels. Most times I tried, the ship wouldn’t even make it out of dock before someone noticed. Passenger transits won’t let me on without ID. I was trying to ply a freighter captain with enough whiskey that she’d let me ride as a passenger off her manifest, and that’s when you two showed up. Titan was watching all the local nerve centers; that’s why I need a Node.”
“Do you know how to crack a Node?” asked Taiye, and the way Conall’s smile slid right off his face was enough of an answer. “Because you can’t just walk up, plug in, and expect whatever you’ve got in your head to show up on the Broadcast.”
“I … hadn’t thought that far.” Conall’s gaze fell to his hands, which he’d folded atop the table.
“He does,” said Kehinde, jerking her thumb toward Taiye.
Both men snapped their heads to look at her, one with hope, one with anger. “I do not!” Taiye snapped.
“Do n–” With a grunt, Taiye folded his arms across his chest; he wasn’t about to get into a childish taunting match, especially when he knew he knew she’d win. “Not … easily. Or without risk. And not for long. Two seconds, maybe, before they notice and shut my access down. That can’t be long enough for you to get everything out of your head.”
“Not everything,” Conall admitted, “but something.”
Kehinde picked up her knife by the tip, then flipped it, caught it by the handle, and wiped it clean on her thigh. “Some’s better than none. Six hundred Nodes in the galaxy, give or take. Two seconds apiece, you do the math.”
“I don’t want to do any of this at all.” He didn’t entirely suspect his sister to have fallen to some previously undiscovered form of persuasive mind control, but then again, Taiye wasn’t quite ready to rule it out either. “Everything I’ve done since we escaped has been to make sure Titan never notices either of us again. So you’ll forgive me for not wanting to walk back into the spider’s web.”
Conall held up his hands again, surrendering to Taiye without a fight. “I respect that entirely. I’m not asking you to do this–”
Kehinde cut him off with a wave of her hand. “You’re not asking. We’re volunteering.” She looked at Taiye and pressed her lips together, but he heard her loud and clear: please.
Taiye had said on several occasions and thought on several more than he’d do anything for his twin, and even if he’d had this conviction tested on several further occasions by her somewhat cavalier attitude toward just about everything in the universe, he’d never been so ready to flat-out contradict her as he felt right then. He’d agreed that letting Conall out of the cell wouldn’t be too likely to cause catastrophe, not if they kept the door to the cockpit locked and didn’t take their eyes off him for a moment; likewise, he’d been coming around to the idea that maybe they could just “lose” their quarry at the next busy spaceport, make some sort of excuses to Control, claim that even the best in the business had their off days. But he wasn’t ready to do anything to attract Titan’s attention to him, and what was more, he wasn’t willing to put Kehinde in what he saw as certain danger. “Just … let us turn you in,” he said to Conall, and he tried to ignore the disgusted scoff from Kehinde’s side of the table. “We’ll take you all the way to Station Twelve. We know honest people there. They’ll get you a trial and if you tell them you’ve got evidence of corruption, then they’ll … they’ll have to … listen….” He trailed off, unable to keep the fantasy going in the face of Conall’s sad expression.
A long, quiet moment hung on the recycled air, bringing its own specific gravity to the room. It was Kehinde who broke the stillness first, crossing the room and walking up behind Taiye; she put her arms around his waist and rested her chin atop his shoulder. They were the exact same height and build, and when he looked down at her hands folded across his belly, it was as though he were looking at his own. “How many more like us do they have there?” she asked, speaking in Taiye’s ear but addressing Conall. “Kids, I mean.”
Conall shook his head, his eyes sad. “Hundreds. Maybe a thousand. I can’t access the exact number, but I know I’ve got it.”
Damn her, damn her all to hell, but they were alike enough that she knew all his weak points. “Like us,” she repeated, her voice a low, sad whisper, and that was when Taiye knew he’d made his last objection.
Taiye woke to a strange combination: the sounds of an altercation and the sensation that Kehinde was not only perfectly safe, but having a great time. Choosing not to panic, he sat up just enough that he didn’t bump his head on the bunk’s low ceiling and wiped the sleep from his eyes, then crawled out of bed. The sound was coming from the third compartment, not the cockpit, so at least he could conclude that it was unlikely their captive-turned-guest had decided to try fighting for control of the ship. The thought wasn’t as comforting as it might have been.
He stripped naked, then tossed his underwear in the hamper and folded their grey pajamas on the pillow for Kehinde to wear later. A shower would have been lovely; maybe, if they were lucky, the prisons where they would eventually be incarcerated for aiding and abetting an escaped suspect would have them. Absent that kind of running-water setup on the ship, Taiye grabbed a rough hydro-rag and ran it all over his body, letting it slough off his sweat and dead skin until he smelled, if not entirely felt, clean. From the far side of the door, the muffled noise of blows continued to filter through the unlocked hatch, punctuated by high and low laughter. Taiye tried to pay it as little mind as possible as he pulled a pair of tight undershorts and a light grey shirt from the drawers just above the bed nook. When he and Kehinde were alone, he often wore little more than that around the ship, but even company he didn’t like required certain levels of decorum. The first blue jumpsuit he pulled from the drawer had the sleeves rolled high; Kehinde must have been the one to wear it last. He tugged them back down to his wrists, secured the front panels all the way up to his neck, and went to see what was going on.
The door slid open just in time for Taiye to see Conall spin and aim a kick right at Kehinde’s head; she ducked beneath it, but as though he’d expected that from the start, he used his momentum to carry him around for another rotation and this time struck low, sweeping her off her feet and knocking her flat on her back. She hit the ground hard, and Taiye could feel a burst of sympathetic pain up his spine, but when she came up a half-second later, she wore a mad grin. “Holy shit,” she said, taking Conall’s proffered arm and using it to hop back onto her feet. “Tai, did you see that?”
Indeed, he hardly knew how he could have missed it. “Are you okay?”
She scowled and stuck out her tongue at him. “Great. He’s been teaching me.” She obviously felt none of the same compunctions about dress that he did; the jumpsuit she’d been wearing earlier was in a pile on the floor, and the undershirt and shorts she’d put on beneath were soaked dark blue with sweat. Though she’d tied her hair back in a tight knot at the base of her neck, little tendrils had come loose and sprung out from her head at odd angles, giving her a wild look.
Conall gave Taiye a sheepish little smile. “Hope we didn’t wake you.” The overalls he’d been wearing earlier were still on his body, but only from the waist down, and he’d taken off the grimy shirt he’d had on beneath. He’d looked fit even in those baggy clothes, but now he was bare-chested, ‘fit’ no longer seemed adequate to describing the muscled, lean quality of his body.
“No, I–” Confronted with Conall’s very attractive bare torso, Taiye suddenly felt much clearer about why Kehinde had been so adamant about helping their captive-become-passenger. He resolved to be very grumpy about that. “Was that part of what you spent time doing, growing up on a freighter?”
Conall braced his hands on either side of his neck and rolled his head back and forth a few times. “I used to be a bookworm. I hated most all kinds of physical activity. Built for hiding, not for running.”
“Then…” Conall took a drink of water from the bottle Kehinde handed him, swished it around a few times in his mouth, and swallowed. “Then I took a job that turned out to double as a prison. And in prison, there’s a limited number of things to do with your free time: sleep, read, exercise. One of the virologists was a master of three different disciplines and had studied about a dozen others, so she’d teach anyone who asked. When she died in a shuttle crash, I became the teacher.”
For a moment, Taiye almost forgot how bound and determined he’d been not to be impressed. The moment of awe ended, however, as Kehinde slipped an arm around his waist and put her sweaty cheek against his, laughing as he made a face. “Maybe you should take some lessons too,” she said, poking him in the side.
“I don’t think…” Taiye trailed off mid-sentence as his gaze — for reasons wholly beyond his control — slid down the front of Conall’s chest and landed somewhere about the place the overalls rolled up just below his navel. “I don’t think those clothes will work,” he said, saving the sentence as best he could. “You can’t go dressed like that into a Node. No one will believe you’re supposed to be there.”
Kehinde shrugged. “Okay, shopping trip. The nearest market can’t be far.” Taiye frowned at her, reminding her that Conall could hardly show his face at a market, wanted as he was; she stepped on his foot and told him it was impolite to converse like that in front of someone they liked. “Then you go shopping and he’ll stay here and I’ll keep an eye on him and everybody’s happy.”
“I’m not happy,” Taiye said; she’d wanted him to speak aloud, after all.
“Then the majority of us are happy, and I round up.”
“Why do I have to go shopping?”
Kehinde patted his chest. “You’re already dressed. Come on, let’s go check the map.” She interlaced her fingers with his and led him off toward the front of the ship. As he was yanked from the room, he got one last good look at Conall, who had his hand across his jaw in a thoughtful manner that almost managed to hide his smile. Then Taiye’s elbow smacked against the doorframe and he remembered to look ahead, not behind.
Markets looked like spiders when they were this empty. The central architecture remained in place, but few ships were currently docked along this market’s great spindly tethers, and those that had attached themselves near the core kept their engines running, ready to disconnect at a moment’s notice. Only a few of the storefronts Taiye passed looked permanent; this was, to put it mildly, not a thriving hub of commerce. But it would do.
He almost wished he’d come for something illegal, because he had no doubt he’d have been able to find it here. Shady merchants eyed him but did not bark their wares; in places like this, buyers already knew what they wanted. Markets like these had been the first places he and Kehinde had come to after they’d escaped, catching odd jobs when they could and stealing when they had to. They’d been at a market twice the size of this one when Kehinde had spotted someone from the wanted lists on the Broadcasts and had the bright idea of bringing him to the authorities. Taiye had objected to this ridiculous plan all the way up to the moment Kehinde had put down their whole reward to pay up front for the derelict shuttle that would become the Ibeji, at which point he’d had to admit that maybe, just maybe, she was onto something.
They hadn’t even had names at that point. But the bounty office required at least some record-keeping, so while he’d stood there with his mouth half-open, she’d taken the tablet and entered the names of the Orisha twins from one of the mythology books they’d been given as part of their tests. Only later, after the reward had been transferred and the shuttle had departed from the dock, had they even had a chance to decide which one of them was which.
Clothing was obviously not the primary source of income for the merchant whose shop caught Taiye’s eye, but he was willing for the moment to take the place’s TAILORING HERE sign at face value. Four racks of garments hung behind her tall chair, some of which looked to fit his bill. “Welcome to Auntie Mae’s,” said the merchant, who, in the absence of anyone else in the store, appeared to be Auntie Mae. Curious green smoke trickled up from a long pipe tucked in the corner of her mouth. “What brings you here today?”
“Change of clothes,” said Taiye, trying to seem as honest as he could, so that she didn’t read some odd innuendo into his voice. “Looking to dress a man a little more than my height, little heavier build.”
The merchant looked him up and down a good long moment before nodding. “Auntie’s got just the thing.” At first she looked to stand up from her chair; then Taiye realized that, no, the chair was moving with her, balancing itself on six jointed silver legs. She walked with it to the third rack and indicated a section with her knotted hands. “Should be in here, and Auntie can always make it fit to order. Coin or trade?”
There were places and times for bartering, and this was neither. “What’s best for you?” he asked, rummaging through the clothes. He suspected most of them were third- and fourth-hand garments, but they were clean and they were marginally fashionable, and that would be enough.
“Oh, Auntie loves a good trade.” She laughed, and smoke belched out of her pipe in time with each exhalation. “Have you got a good trade, boykie?”
Taiye took six hooks from the racks and held them up for her to see: two shirts, a pair of pants, two jumpsuits, and a mesh bag containing what looked to be a variety of undergarments; something in the lot was bound to fit. With his other hand, he reached into the bag around his shoulder and produced four protein bars. He might have gotten her down to one bar, and he knew it, but he traveled to places where nutritional supplements were cheap and he didn’t feel good about skimping with someone who couldn’t afford what came so easily to him.
Her milky eyes widened and she clucked her tongue, impressed. “Auntie wonders what the catch is,” she said, though she showed him her lap and let him place the bars in the midst of her many skirts.
“No catch.” Taiye put what he could into his satchel and folded the rest over his forearm. “Maybe we’ll meet again someday.”
“Wait,” she said, holding up her hand to stop him before he could leave. She nodded to a pair of brown boots at the base of one of the racks, clean yet sturdy things that fastened all the way up to the knee. “Your man will need shoes, won’t he?”
It was a generous offer, and Taiye wasn’t going to insult her by not letting her repay his generosity with her own. “Many thanks, Auntie.”
He’d intended to linger at the market, perhaps to check out some of the harmless-but-still-illegal modding devices merchants at places like this tended to stock. The boots were heavy, though, and holding them made carrying anything else an awkward prospect, so he made only one slow round of the central space before heading back out the tether corridor where he’d docked the ship. He passed airlock upon airlock, all cold and dark with disuse. Maybe this place had once been a thriving center of commerce, or maybe someone had just hoped it might one day become that, but now, walking the empty, ill-lit expanse, he could have been convinced that he was the only living thing for ten thousand miles.
As he neared Ibeji, though, that illusion began to fade as he began to come into Kehinde’s range. Even focusing, they faded out of communication with one another at too great of a distance, but close enough and they began to resonate again. With the walkways long since fallen into disrepair, the walk would take him several more minutes, but as was always the case after they’d been separated, even for a short while, he wanted to touch her, to feel her, to promise he’d be back soon.
The first reach to her brushed against the very edge of her awareness, and he didn’t feel her turn to respond to him; something else was taking all her concentration. His inclination was to worry, but there was no accompanying distress. Sparring again. Well, it kept them both occupied and let him blow off steam in a way that didn’t involve tormenting him, so he figured that all things considered, he couldn’t complain too much. Still, the sooner they could begin disembarking procedures, the sooner they could get on their way, so maybe if they could stop kicking one another in the head for five minutes and not make him have to do all the work–
He was glad to be alone in the corridor when he stopped in his tracks and gasped, dropping the boots in surprise, when Kehinde sat on Conall’s cock and began to ride.
It was a nice cock, too; that much was clear. She hadn’t had one that thick in her in a long time. They hadn’t made it to the bed, only to the mattress on the floor of the cell, and Conall was now on his back on top of it as she straddled his hips. Laughing and growling at once, she scratched bright red marks down the front of his chest with her fingernails, making him gasp and grab her hips hard. He was still slick with sweat from their fighting, but the smell just made her horny; she grinned as she bent over to lick the side of his neck. She teased him somehow, with some words she wasn’t focusing enough for Taiye to understand, and Conall said something back, something sharp and vulgar, that just made her fuck him harder.
They’d had at least a remote awareness of one another since Taiye could remember, and had been able to communicate clear, solid thoughts early into their shared childhood. When puberty had hit, there had been no hiding the changes going on in each of them, and they’d never had any secrets anyway. Out on their own together, they afforded one another as much space as they could, but they spent so much time in close quarters that privacy wasn’t something they expected from one another. She’d timed this, though, so that he’d be out, and he was simultaneously so mad at her he could spit and so hard he could barely walk.
Conall through Kehinde’s eyes was a very different man. Where ever-cautious Taiye saw trouble, Kehinde’s leap-before-you-look personality saw possibility, excitement, adventure, justice. She also saw the ceiling as Conall used his powerful body to flip them over so she was on top of him and her legs were around him. He was strong, which to Taiye seemed obvious just to look at him, but there was a difference between looking and feeling; Kehinde felt that strength as he gripped her wrists and pinned them to the mattress, and she laughed and fought back just enough to let him know she hadn’t been beaten yet.
Alone in the corridor and not likely to be disturbed, Taiye leaned back against the wall and shut his eyes. He should have left, just gone straight back to the market core and given them some privacy, but he was having trouble remembering how to move. Perhaps he might even make that his strategy; maybe, if he just stood very still, neither approaching nor departing, she’d never notice.
Luck was not with him. Kehinde gasped as he thrust into her again and again, and as her concentration softened around the edges with pleasure, it snagged against Taiye’s presence; he tried to pull away, to make his apologies, but she grabbed hold and yanked him right back. She laughed, and when Conall asked what had amused her, she said something Taiye couldn’t quite make out, though the gist of it was clear: He’s listening.
Holding so still he barely dared to breathe, Taiye dreaded the reaction to his uninvited voyeurism from someone not as used to the arrangement as he and Kehinde were. However, Conall’s grin spread to a wicked width and he rocked back on his knees, bringing Kehinde with him, her legs still wrapped around him. Kehinde wasn’t focusing enough to convey precise words, but when Conall asked whether or not their audience was enjoying the show, Kehinde responded by raking her nails down his back. Taiye was going to kill him, he was going to kill them both and dump their bodies somewhere in the cold vacuum of space, just as soon as he could make his erection go away enough that he could function like a normal human being.
They didn’t last much longer, but what did transpire between them from that point on was total show — a performance still thoroughly enjoyed by its performers, absolutely, but one with the audience in mind. Kehinde got her hands all over Conall’s back and arms, measuring the mass and contours of his body and reporting on all the dimensions. She teased his back again with her well-groomed claws, scoring but not breaking the skin, and that just made him fuck her harder. He fucked like he sparred, with constant intensity but never losing his grin.
At last, he came inside her and collapsed on top of her, and they lay there together, a sticky, sweaty mess of limbs. He said it had been months since he’d had the chance to do something like that, and she told him they hadn’t had a guest like him on their ship in far too long, and they both laughed about how uncomfortable the mattress had been. Somehow, Taiye found the small talk afterward comforting, almost normal. He could focus on that and forget any number of things about what had just transpired. He hoisted the boots up under one arm and started up his approach again.
When at last he stepped through the airlock, he found them dressed again, though the entire cabin smelled of sweat and sex in a way Taiye would not admit was not altogether unpleasant. No conversation that might have come out of this was anything like a conversation he wanted to be having, though, so he handed Conall the clothes with a nod. “Just try it on and see what works,” he said, trying but not quite able to meet Conall’s gaze with his own.
“Thank you,” said Conall, looking through the garments. “Let me see what I have that I can use to pay you back–”
Taiye shook his hand, cutting Conall off. “Clothes are cheap. We should keep moving.” As brusquely as he could manage without flat-out appearing rude, he set off for the front of the ship. Disembarking procedures, at least, would give him something else to think about.
Several minutes later, just as the ship came clear of the market’s moorings, Kehinde walked into the cockpit. She came up behind Taiye and put her arms around his shoulders, resting her chin on the top of his head. “You don’t have to be like that,” she said, placing one of her hands flat against his chest, just over his heart.
“I’m not being like anything,” Taiye said, even though he knew he was. Setting a course was a routine to him so familiar that he could have done it half-drunk and with his eyes shut, but now he paid deliberate attention to every step. The nearest Node wasn’t far now; they could be there in another twenty standard hours or so. By this time tomorrow, they’d either be free of Conall or in prison. Either way, some degree of his troubles would be over.
Kehinde let go and stood; Taiye heard her tap a panel, then felt the familiar shift in his stomach as the artificial gravity ceased its pull on him. Moments later, Kehinde floated into his lap and curled on her side against his chest, her head on his shoulder. Though perhaps he should have been, he wasn’t irritated with her, and she knew this as well as he did. “He’s just as into you,” she said, kissing his jaw.
Taiye snorted. “Is not.”
“Is so.” This time, she gave him a real flick in the middle of his forehead. “You need to stop believing the worst of the world.”
“Someone needs to.”
“Not all the time.” She sighed, curling her hand around the back of his neck. He could feel the way she was pressing calm, reassuring thoughts against him, and though he could be stubborn even at the easiest of times, he’d never had the heart to keep her out. “I know you. I know you couldn’t live with yourself if you had a chance to stop Titan and let it go because you were too chickenshit.”
“I’m cautious,” he said, poking her hard in the thigh. “Have you considered that this might be a trap?”
“Have you considered that if they knew where we were and really wanted us, they wouldn’t need this level of detail and planning to get us? They could blow us to pieces with maybe one phase cannon blast. Or they could knock out our engines and wait until we’d passed out from lack of breathable air. Or they could drug us anywhere we stop for a drink. Or — and this is far more realistic — they could just walk up in any public space and have the police arrest us for being both thieves and stolen property.” The lack of gravity made her curls tickle the side of his face as she leaned in to kiss him again. “We’re not as safe as you think we are. We never have been.”
She was right, of course, but that didn’t mean Taiye wanted to think about things that way. He wrapped his arms around her waist, folding his hands together just above her hip; they were weightless, but the forward momentum of the ship kept washing her back against him with a gentle, steady pressure. “That was the point of running away. To be safe.”
“The point of running away was to be free.” She shook her head. “We were safe there. We worked! They wouldn’t have killed us, not their golden-egg-laying geese. They could have kept us there forever, scanning our brains as while we read books to one another from different rooms, gathering data. They wouldn’t have….” Her voice trailed off.
Taiye swallowed. “Euthanized us and autopsied our lifeless brains?” he finished for her. They’d never talked about this before; they’d never thought they’d needed to. Maybe they had. Maybe they still did.
There had been fifty others like them, give or take. Most were pairs, bonded in a closed circuit the way they were; a few were meant to work in groups of three or four. They never really saw one another, except for the infrequent group trials or the occasional pass in the hallways. Once, Taiye — back before he’d been Taiye — had been instructed to think of an animal and try his best to tell a little girl on the other side of the room all about that animal. She’d had hair so black it was almost blue and he could remember seeing her head shake, time and again, as he concentrated his hardest but she never heard his thoughts about a giant orange octopus. He hadn’t even known her designation. He had no idea what had happened to her, only that she was as dead now as the rest of them.
Kehinde had never met that girl herself, but she’d heard the story before, and as Taiye’s thoughts drifted back to their life in the labs, she stroked the nape of his neck. “I bet he knows,” she said, and he could feel her think of Conall. “Somewhere in what he stole, it might say.”
“Are you going to say we owe them?” he asked with more bitterness than he’d intended.
“No, they’re dead,” she said. “What I am going to say, though, is: what if I told you there’d been someone thirty years ago who could have stopped what was happening to us, but they didn’t?”
In that moment, he hated the correctness of her reasoning with plasma-burning force. Instead of answering, he buried his face in her hair, breathing in the sweat and the sex and the familiar scent of her. They floated there together, hovering just off the chair, as the stars drifted past. At last, he gave a great sigh and thought, you’re right, you’re right, and he couldn’t deny how good it felt when she smiled and held him close.
The traffic around the Node became visible around the same time the iron-red moon that housed it did, and the Ibeji became just another one of several hundred vehicles swarming around it. From over Taiye’s shoulder, Conall leaned in closer to the window. “That’s it?”
“There’s the station,” said Taiye, who’d calmed down by several degrees since his initial awkward return. He pointed to a wide, branching translucent structure that spread out all over the moon’s surface. It was a small enough orb that the effort of generating enough gravity to hold in a full atmosphere would have been prohibitively costly, so whatever government or corporation had shelled out for this particular Node had erred on the side of utilitarian architecture. The station log listed the moon’s resident population as nearly a million, more than a quarter of whom were directly employed by one of the thirty-odd subsidiaries of the Broadcast. “We’ll dock at one of the far points.”
From out of the corner of his eye, Taiye saw Kehinde hand Conall a curved clear rod. “This fits behind your ear,” she said, indicating Conall’s left side. “You won’t be able to interface with a Node without it. If anyone asks, you’re a guest contributor to the Science Bureau.”
Small glowing satellites in geosynchronous orbit with the moon lit Taiye’s way to approach. The autopilot could have handled without difficulty the approach, working off of instructions sent from the station’s flight control, but Taiye liked to keep an eye on things anyway. “Four hours,” he said to Kehinde, keeping his gaze locked forward. “Then you leave with or without me. Understand?”
“Four, minimum.” She set a soft grey hat atop Taiye’s head, fixing it so it just covered the tops of his ears. “Unless it seems unsafe, I can stay.”
Taiye opened his mouth to argue, but Conall beat him to the punch, taking both of Kehinde’s hands in his. “Your brother is right. Four hours. I don’t think either of us could do this without being sure you wouldn’t put yourself in danger on our account.”
Kehinde’s mouth screwed up to the side, but Taiye could feel her concede the point even before she sighed and said, “Fine. Four hours, and I take off for Station Twelve.”
“Why there?” asked Conall.
“We know the Control there, there’s no shortage of traffic coming in and out, and even the slowest transport from here to there won’t take more than three days. It’s a shitty rendezvous point, but it’s the best in a universe of bad options.” Kehinde reached over to the front panel and set the gravity to sync with the moon’s — lighter, but by no means weightless. “But it won’t matter, because you’ll be back here well before then.”
Taiye heard the implicit plural in the pronoun there, but he let it pass without comment. She shouldn’t be waiting for both of them, she should be waiting for him, and Conall was on his own after this. That had been the agreement, and Taiye was bound and determined to honor it to the letter and no further. It was clear Kehinde liked the man, but that didn’t change how he needed to go his way and they to go theirs. Anything else was unreasonable.
By the time the ship finished docking, the three of them were together by the aft door, the one that led into the cell chamber. Conall had put on what clothes he’d liked best and stuffed a few other garments into a knapsack, but he’d otherwise opted to travel light. With a shave and the earpiece behind his ear, he looked like any other person whose business might have brought him to this Node. “Thank you,” Conall said to Kehinde, shaking her hand with firm affection but being no more physical than that in his show of gratitude.
Taiye didn’t have to share any good-byes or wishes of luck with Kehinde; they both knew how hard it was on one another to be apart and couldn’t indulge that now. Instead of being his support, this time she’d be the decoy, going to purchase the engine parts that were the ostensible reason for their stopover. What he wanted right now was her on backup, coming with them, eyes and gun both alert to dangers lurking behind him. Instead, he nodded to her and pressed his hand flat against hers, then kept the memory of that touch strong in both their minds until he and Conall had traveled so far down the walkway that he couldn’t feel her anymore.
As they walked through the crowd without so much a second glance from anyone, Taiye though on the fact that if this worked, Conall would never have it this easy again. Nodes relayed the huge amounts of data that passed through the universe every second, but the surrounding systems were more to prevent the infrastructure itself from out-and-out destruction, and less to dissuade those bent on corrupting the data. The Broadcast itself had safeguards like that programmed into it, ones that would kill any malicious signals and suspend any access it suspected to be unauthorized. But if this worked — and that was an enormous if — security at all other Nodes would go to high alert.
Still, that would be Conall’s problem then, not his. “Since the system thinks you’re a medical correspondent,” said Taiye as they walked through the the busy public areas, one of the few places Taiye was sure surveillance equipment wouldn’t pick out their conversation, “you go through the white entrance, right over there. You can’t use this ID again, though, not for a long time; when they see a breach, they’ll flag the bios of everyone here. You use it again and there’s another system intrusion in the same place, it won’t take them long to put two and two together.”
“I understand.” Conall had his hand resting in the crook of Taiye’s arm. Taiye was comfortable in both standard gravity and a complete lack thereof, but the nine-tenths standard gravity of the moon made him wobble coltishly; graceful as he was strong, Conall had no such problems.
“But you can bribe or steal another ID. Just know what it expects you to be.” Taiye stopped and turned Conall toward the gates, as though Taiye needed to get something from the bag slung over Conall’s back, though he kept talking to Conall as he rummaged through. “White entrance for science and tech. Red for lifestyle, arts, that sort of thing. Green for commerce. Gold for politics, but do not get a political ID if you can help it.”
“That puts you into the fancy studios, which are as far away from the raw Node as you can get.” With a satisfied nod, Taiye fastened Conall’s bag shut again. “If you try to go in the wrong one, they’ll escort you to the right one, but then they’ll have eyes on you, and that’s the last thing you want.”
Conall nodded as he brought his hand up absently to brush along the rod transmitter Kehinde had given him. “I’m sorry, I’m….” He sighed. “This seemed like a much better idea when I first thought of it.”
“I find it hard to believe it ever seemed like a good idea at all,” said Taiye, hooking Conall’s hand back in the crook of his arm to keep them both moving. He was all for letting Conall chicken out and his careful planning die unhatched, but he thought of Kehinde’s face and walked right up to the security gate. He went first so Conall could see the process of handscan, retinal scan, and full-body sensor, then lingered afterward in case Conall needed a quick excuse for his inexperience — or, worse, if Conall’s bio-storage somehow managed to alter the sensors the Broadcast used to keep out unauthorized equipment. Conall was the perfect mimic, however, and the body scan didn’t so much as pause as it looked over his bag, and thus he passed through without incident. At least that had gone right.
He’d forged them both IDs as medical correspondents not only because he knew Conall could bluff that job as necessary, but because according to the station’s public records, its medical bureau had the fewest full-time staffers and the least funding. The second hallway they turned down was empty, so Taiye took the opportunity to crack the lock on a maintenance door and slip inside.
As the doors shut behind them in the tiny, overheated room, Conall looked around. “What now?”
“Now?” Taiye gestured to the wall beside them. “Get in.”
Conall frowned as he looked at the wall — then Taiye saw his eyes widen as he really looked and saw the mess of mismatched metal panels and relay wires that was, in fact, the heart of the Node. “How the hell does that…?”
“Oh, be grateful,” said Taiye, clipping a similar rod transmitter over his own ear; he’d modified them both from commercial personal communicators, something the Broadcast’s sensors wouldn’t have looked at twice. “They can’t take it down long enough to do a full overhaul, so when little bits fail, they stick newer versions in. If Nodes were single, solid units, they’d be uncrackable. But some of those parts are probably a century old, if not older — and that’s how we’re going to get in.” He tapped the rod and felt the eerie, nigh-inaudible vibration it made as it interfaced with the piecemeal monster before him, and when he put his hand up to one of the older panels, it glowed orange beneath his fingers in acknowledgment.
Conall walked up behind him and put his hand in the center of Taiye’s back as he leaned in close. “Are you sure it’s compatible?”
“I’m not sure of anything today.” Taiye spun his hand like a dial and the system scrolled through its files in acknowledgment, reacting to the buzz from his transmitter as it looked for the way in. This was what Nodes were meant to do; that they weren’t supposed to do it for him was, for the moment, a minor detail. “…But it should be. It’s got to talk to everything else here, doesn’t it?”
“I see your point,” said Conall as Taiye pulled up the display, then set it to prepare to receive. The few times he’d done this before, it had been to get information, never to give; asking the system to listen instead of talk was at once a simpler and more complex prospect.
But the Node was meant to do both, and it wasn’t long before it was ready. With a deep breath, he turned to face Conall. “One second,” he said, and when Conall opened his mouth, no doubt to protest that Taiye had said two earlier, Taiye raised his hand to cut him off. “I’m factoring in both your reaction time and mine, and I don’t want to trip anything while my sister is still in danger. It’s primed to listen to you now. Hold up your hand.” Conall did, palm flat, and Taiye placed his own there as a mirror, keeping the other on the panel. “When I say go, start doing … whatever it is you do. I count to one and then let go. Do you have a single question about what’s about to transpire?”
Conall’s eyes darted from one of Taiye’s hands to the other. “How would I do this on my own?”
You don’t, Taiye thought, but instead he nodded toward the hand on the panel. “Make the circuit on your own, make it quick, get out. If there’s not a tactile display, use an EEG port. No EEG port, find some other proximal conduit. None of those? Turn around and walk out the way you came. Which is what we’re going to do two seconds after I say go. Hear me?”
“Then tell me when you’re ready.”
Conall shut his eyes and took five long, slow deep breaths; his eyes darted back and forth behind his eyelids as though he were dreaming, and his hand shook where it hovered a hair’s breadth from Taiye’s. He straightened his shoulders and nodded. “Ready,” he said.
“Counting down from three.” Taiye saw the orange glow around his palm brighten. “Two.” Conall caught his lower lip between his teeth. “One.” Taiye pressed his hand forward, making contact between them the second he said, “Go.”
It was without exaggeration the longest single second of Taiye’s life. As the physical bridge between the terminal and Conall’s biostorage, his body felt every shred of data as it coursed through him, humming in his chest as though he’d stepped inside a star. He couldn’t make sense of the individual bits any more than he could have stood in an ocean and counted every molecule of water as it passed by him. It was noise to him, but to the Node it was signal, and the instant it reached his fingertips against the terminal screen, the Node whisked it away. He felt his heart pound once, twice — and then he pulled back both his hands and it was over.
Conall gasped and staggered back, panting. “Did — did it–?”
“Pray it did,” said Taiye, who didn’t bother to close the conduit behind him as he grabbed Conall’s arm and dragged him out of the room as fast as they could go.
They were ten steps down the hall when the alarm sounded, just long enough that Taiye began to hope that they might, by some miracle, have made it out unnoticed. “Look concerned,” he hissed at Conall as two security techs rounded the corner at a brisk clip, though mercifully not at a run. “What is that awful sound?” Taiye asked them, feigning ignorance as best he could.
“Please clear the area,” said the shorter tech, shooing him aside.
“Do we need to leave the station?” Taiye asked, hoping his worry made him look like enough of an idiot to remove suspicion.
“Move to a designated center, now.” The same tech glared daggers at him before heading back toward the maintenance door Conall and Taiye had left only moments before, and Taiye decided to take the hint and go back out the way they’d come in.
They were close enough to the entrance that they exited again without incident in a flurry of confused guests and bored-looking staff, the latter of whom had the long-suffering faces of employees who thought this one more useless evacuation drill. “Here, come on,” said Taiye, and this time he took Conall’s hand as they pressed into the crowd. With all the strength he had, he held them both down, hoping that neither of them would make a careless step that would spring them toward the ceiling; their best bet was to look as little like off-world visitors as possible.
“What happened?” Conall whispered in his ear as they moved forward, clinging to Taiye’s hand as tight as he could.
Taiye couldn’t answer right away, not until shifting bodies moved them so he was closer to Conall’s ear. “Exactly what was supposed to.” He nodded toward the entrances and the gates they’d passed earlier, all of which now were lit up a foreboding scarlet. “The system knows something went wrong, but doesn’t know what, so it evacuates everyone until it can rule out something dangerous.” They made their way to the edge of the crowd, near the exit to a larger pavillion, when Taiye withdrew his hand. “Nice working with you. Good luck in the future. Don’t be on the station by the time they decide the security footage is worth reviewing.”
“Are we–?” Conall’s brow furrowed and his hands gripped the straps around his bag as he looked with plain terror at the crowd gathered by the exits and the security force milling about, waiting for the first sign of trouble to spring into action. Taiye had to admit that even this gentle pandemonium was a little unnerving. But this had been the deal, and he wasn’t going to feel bad about seeing it fulfilled.
“We’re even.” Disinclined to hang around in plain sight even as much as they had, much less any longer, Taiye nodded and turned away. There were several security officers waiting by the walkway that would take him back to the docks, but they looked unimpressed by the goings-on. They could even check his ID without raising any red flags. Kehinde was just at the far end of the hall, having conducted her business and returned in a timely fashion. In less than ten minutes, they could be gone from the station for good.
That was when the real alarm went off. The guards on either side of him sprung to life, hopping to their feet and heading for the Broadcast offices. Taiye hadn’t expected them to realize the problem that quickly, but security advanced all the time. Whatever single second’s worth of information that Conall had managed to get out there, it must have been impressive enough to alert Titan to the real nature of the problem. He and Kehinde would certainly have to show ID before departing, then, and maybe their escape would take more like twenty minutes, but they could still be gone free. All he had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, all the way out the terminal, all the way home.
He didn’t know what disgusted him more — that he was truly thinking about walking straight out of the mess without looking back, or that he was dumb enough not only to look back, but to turn back, to hurry back the same fifty paces he’d just crossed to find Conall right where he’d left him, to grab his hand, to drag him with the rest of the evacuating crowd in the exact opposite direction from where Ibeji was parked. He said nothing as he pulled, and if Conall asked, he did so at a volume that didn’t carry over the blaring of klaxons and chattering of the crowd. Down the corridors they went toward signs that pointed the way to the residential sector. It was a stupid idea, and it was the only one Taiye had, and where he led, Conall followed.
On the way, they passed several small open storefronts of the kind catering more to the permanent community than to travelers: groceries, pharmacies, salons, boutiques, a few restaurants, a transit bureau office. Most stood all but empty at that time of the day, and the few visible proprietors had come out the front of their shops to the walkway, peering over to see what all the racket might be about. One of the pharmacies was dark and had bold ‘FOR RENT’ signs in the windows, so Taiye pulled Conall into the salted-fish stand next to it. The proprietor, an old man in an apron frowning at the commotion, didn’t so much as glance at them as they passed straight on through and out the back of the shop. A small service corridor connected all the rear doors of the shops along that side, and the lock to the disused pharmacy gave after only a moment’s picking on Taiye’s part. They hurried inside and dove behind the counter, out of sight from any prying eyes.
“I thought–” Conall gasped, eyes wide as moons.
“Shut up,” Taiye snapped, closing his eyes and trying to figure out what the hell they were going to do next.
Six hours later, they were still in the same spot, and Taiye was still thinking. Conall, however, had slumped sideways onto Taiye’s shoulder and fallen fast asleep; apparently, being a covert operative had really taken it out of him. He snored softly, sending little puffs of air brushing across Taiye’s neck, and Taiye listened and waited and continued to plan an escape route.
Stations like these had no real sense of day or night, but there tended to be busier times and slower times just the same, as humans gathered together long enough often settled into rhythms of activity and rest. By the time the hubbub in the main concourse outside the shop rose again, Taiye was as ready as he’d ever be. He nudged Conall awake but put his fingertips over Conall’s lips before he could speak. “Our identities are still good, but they won’t be for much longer,” Taiye said, turning the data pad in his hands to face Conall. “There’s a cargo ship in port, and one of the loaders is a friend of a friend.”
“Friend of a friend?” asked Conall, blinking away sleep as he stared at the displayed manifest.
“Of a friend,” Taiye admitted. “”But unless you have a better plan…”
Conall shook his head. “Friend thrice removed sounds friend enough for me.” He stretched his arms above his head and shook the last of the sleep away, then nodded his readiness.
Taiye hated to rob the pharmacy, but that was exactly what he did, filling the empty spaces in Conall’s bag with some basic medical supplies and what few stocks of rations were left on the shelves. He resolved both to pay back the debt directly if they ever came back this way, and to pay it twice over into the universe regardless of whether or not they made their return. It was a dubious kind of morality, but it was all he had, and Conall watched and did not judge. That done, they snuck again out the back and made their way toward the commercial and industrial docks at the far end of the station. They passed several guards and monitoring points, but none gave them so much as a second glance. At one particularly exposed point along the concourse, Conall reached forward and grabbed Taiye’s hand with bone-crushing strength, and Taiye gripped right back.
While he hadn’t been willing to send too much data at a time when all traffic was suspicious, he’d gotten enough through to his contacts for a confirmation and a location. Taiye led them both into a small alcove by a crowded public shipping terminal to wait; cycles of stationary life meant nothing to interstellar commerce. Barely a minute later, the door in front of them pushed open, and they stepped inside.
Waiting in there, ill-lit by the stairwell’s pale light, was an enormous woman, nearly seven feet tall and sporting a bright pink beard. She looked them both up and down, then folded her meaty arms across her chest and gave them a nod that Taiye could only hope meant approval. “You DeMarcus’ people?”
“DeMarcus, by way of Galli,” said Taiye, hoping the extra information might be the added push she needed to trust them. “Three years ago, I did a favor for her co-wife. This is repayment.”
If this impressed their contact, her face didn’t show it. “Are you two the ones responsible for all this?” She gestured vaguely into the air, as though clearing smoke from it.
Conall frowned, looking from Taiye to the woman and back again. “You mean, the security?”
“Security? Hell, no. Security’s all got their eyes elsewhere.” She pulled a scroll from her back pocket and unrolled it, then set the display to the Broadcast’s political and financial news channels. With no audio component, the flexible screen displayed eight different columns of text, all in different languages and from different affiliates. “Hell’s come down about Minister Yao and ties to some kind dirty money. Human experiments, maybe. The feeds are being cagey about sources but talk says it came from out of here. This you?”
Text flew by almost too fast for Taiye’s brain to understand. Investigations called for. Representatives deposed. Third and East House members releasing statements. Demands for full financial disclosure in light of the allegations. And all this with not even two seconds’ worth of data. “Yeah,” said Taiye, brushing the screen with his fingertips as though it might all be some illusion, “that’s us.”
With a snap, the woman rolled back the screen and stuck out her hand. “Jan Ray Tass. Tell your Frau Galli she still owes you. This one’s on me.”
Taiye shook her hand and tried not to wince as her powerful shake pressed against skin Conall had bruised earlier. “I hope you’ll forgive us if for now we stay faces without names.”
“Understood,” said Jan Ray, giving Conall an equally solid handshake. “Those fuckers stripped my father and aunt of their pensions when the salt market crashed. Somebody’s needed to make them pay for a long time.”
Conall put his left hand over the top of hers. “That’s what I intend to do,” he said, then he stopped and looked at Taiye. “That’s what we intend to do.” And damn him to hell, thought Taiye, he was right.
For the first hour on board the ship, the two of them barely breathed. The cargo bay was chilly but not unheated, Jan had explained as she’d tucked them in, since the Jok Odudu was transporting plants and other organic material, none of which could be expected to survive unprotected against the interstellar chill. The freighter’s three-person crew would be obliged to make periodic inspections and to report anything unusual or illegal they encountered, of course, but if during this particular trip the inspections were at regular intervals and were announced over the ship’s loudspeaker system prior to occurring, who could say anything of that except to praise such a well-kept schedule? And if they found no other call to enter that particular cargo bay at any other time during the journey, what business was that of anyone’s else’s?
Even so, Taiye and Conall both waited inside the trick crate that had been rigged for them, not daring to move. Taiye stood by the hinged panel, with Conall behind him, his hands on Taiye’s shoulders. No light shone in, though Jan had showed Taiye how to undo the latch and had made sure he could do it before leaving them inside. Each of Conall’s exhalations pressed heavy against the back of Taiye’s neck.
When the ship came to a heavy stop, Conall’s hands on Taiye’s shoulders turned into claws. “What’s happening?” he asked in a heavy whisper.
“Probably customs,” said Taiye, speaking softly not because he feared anyone could overhear them, but because the enclosed space seemed to demand a respectful decrease in volume. “Routine.”
“How long should it take?”
“Not long,” said Taiye, leaving unspoken the if all goes well part of the sentence.
Not even a minute later, the ship gave a lurch as it started up again, and Taiye let out the breath he’d been holding. The ship shuddered again, and he felt lighter, as though he’d shed fifty pounds in an instant over and above what the moon had already lost him; gravity field generators with anything more nuanced than a simple on/off setting were too rich for Taiye and Kehinde’s blood, but he could see the uses they’d have on a freight ship. Taiye counted to three, then slipped his hand into the interior lock release. Though the illumination in the cargo bay was low, the change from complete darkness still forced Taiye to blink as his eyes adjusted. He took a step out, but in doing so he miscalculated the weight of his own body, and he stumbled forward instead, sailing into the container opposite them before sliding to the ground.
Conall emerged moments later, moving with such grace that Taiye was reminded that this was the kind of place where Conall had grown up. He reached down a hand to help Taiye up, at the same time hooking his foot under the low rim of their container, and when Taiye tugged against him on his way to his feet, they did not bob away. “What now?” Conall asked as he held Taiye’s arm.
Taiye looked around the packed space. All the crates had been locked down, but there was still a small open area by the loading controls that looked promising. “Now I’m hungry,” Taiye said. “And tired. But hungry first.” This particular level of gravity made him think of being in a swimming pool, and Taiye found that so long as he could think of his movements the same way he’d think of them in shallow water, he had a better point of reference. When he came to rest on the metal floor, his legs crossed beneath him, he pulled out a pair of protein bars from the pack and handed one to Conall, who made a face as he took it. “Come on, better than starving.”
“I have eaten approximately eleven billion of these in my life,” said Conall, sitting down next to Taiye. “That was one of the reasons I joined up with Titan. They made me an offer of real, soil-grown food I couldn’t refuse.”
“You’re the scientist; can’t you invent something better?” Taiye took a grudging bite of the beige stick, which tasted half like meat and half like sawdust.
Conall laughed. “I would have gone into culinary science, but alas, bioengineering called first.”
Taiye winced as he swallowed the dry-ish lump, trying to remind himself of its nutritional value. “Well, you’re going to need a second career when this is all over.”
“Oh, no. I’ll never set foot in another laboratory again.” Conall smiled as Taiye frowned at him, surprised by that response. “When this is all over, I’m settling on one of the deep space farm colonies.”
“Have you ever been on a farm?”
“I have never seen a farm,” said Conall with such pride that it startled Taiye into a laugh. “As far as I know, I have never even spent more than an hour or so in dock around a planet with a single farm on it. I have only the most academic of knowledge about what happens on a farm. But I know that’s where I want to be.”
Taiye stretched his legs out in front of him and lay back as best as he could against the cold metal wall. If this ship had any sort of amenities for the people who traveled on it, they weren’t to be found here. “I don’t know if I could stand to be in one place for that long anymore.” The protein bar sat like a rock in his stomach, so he folded the remaining half back into its wrapper and tucked it in his breast pocket for later. “That was what we did when we got free, we just … started moving and agreed that we wouldn’t stop. Like they used to say about sharks.”
“Funny,” said Conall, and when Taiye raised an eyebrow in his direction, he continued, “that your response to pursuit is to run while mine is to hide.”
“Well, if you’d been better at hiding, maybe we wouldn’t be running now,” said Taiye, but he smiled at Conall as he did, taking as much of the sting from the truth as he could with his expression. He opened his mouth to speak again about their plans, but his next word disappeared into a giant, lion-like yawn. He’d lost track of how long he’d been awake now, but it had to be close to thirty hours, fueled by anxiety and adrenaline. As uncomfortable and worried as he still was, he wouldn’t be much use if he didn’t get at least a little rest. “Wake me and be ready to bolt if anything happens.”
With his legs crossed, Conall patted his thigh. “Want a pillow?”
Exhaustion trumped embarrassment, at least for the moment, so Taiye closed his eyes and lay his head in Conall’s lap. It was comfortable, or at least more so than leaning against the wall would have been. “Thank you,” he said with a sigh.
“Thank you,” said Conall, placing his hand on Taiye’s shoulder. “You didn’t have to come back for me. You shouldn’t have come back for me. If you had, you wouldn’t be stuck here.”
Taiye grunted and wrapped his arms around his own waist, tucking his legs up toward his chest for warmth. “Don’t remind me.”
Conall made no response to that, though his thumb began to stroke Taiye’s skin, an absent gesture that made Taiye think of Kehinde. He hadn’t been away from her this long since he could remember, perhaps in their whole lives. He thought of her alone in the ship, docked at some waystation, chewing her nails to the quick with worry. He even stretched out his awareness of her, let it travel as far as he could make it go, before accepting that she was nowhere within range. She was light-years away, where he couldn’t protect her and she couldn’t protect him.
Before he could think out all the details of too many worst-case scenarios, though, he sank into sleep and did not wake again until the PA system blared through the cargo bay, announcing that it was time for the first cargo inspection.
The catwalk made a terrible noise whenever one of the crew members walked over it, but when Taiye tugged at from the underside of the railing, it barely squeaked; they must have been wearing some kind of maglev boots in case they had to deal with cargo come loose. The hold was large enough structurally, but its being filled with two-meter-high containers cut down on his options for movement. He gripped it overhand and pulled his chin up over the level of his hands, then relaxed and floated back to his resting place. Pull-ups in three-quarters gravity might have been cheating, but it was something to focus on that wasn’t worrying about everything else.
About the time he neared three hundred without having broken a sweat, though, he sighed and let go, easing back down to the cargo floor. Now his mind was still occupied and his body ached from poor sleep and a lack of activity. He resolved to be grumpy about the whole matter and get it over with.
“Deep-space exercise seems tricky.”
He turned to see Conall, who had been asleep just minutes ago, standing behind him and tugging a fresh shirt over his head; he, at least, had been lucky enough to have packed a change of clothing. “Tell me about it,” said Taiye, looking up the grip he’d had before. “Kehinde and I just leave everything set to a full G two-thirds of the day. I’ve never been in a low-gravity environment this long and not been on the surface of something.”
Conall stretched his arms above his head and nodded. “Is that often the case?”
“Moons and asteroids, mostly. Small stations are like ships: cast the floors around the gravity mesh, and you’re done. But actual bodies take more work to prepare. Sometimes you can’t just drill into the rock, especially magnetic rock, and you have to go all the way around or you can throw off the orbit.” Taiye hopped up and let his fingers tap the underside of the catwalk, then let himself fall back down. “So this must feel like home to you, yeah?”
“No,” said Conall, shaking his head, “the Eight Sky facilities are all kept within a few degrees of standard gravity. Keeps reactions predictable.”
“I meant growing up,” said Taiye. “How did you used to exercise?”
“Oh, there are lots of ways. There’s–” Conall’s smile faltered for a second, and Taiye would have sworn he looked lost, eyes darting to the side in search of something that wasn’t there. “Well, there are lots of ways. There’d have to be, right? Isometric exercises. And weights. And a big enough space to run around in without bumping into anything.”
Taiye frowned at the note of uncertainty in Conall’s voice. “But you grew up on a deep-space freighter, didn’t you?”
“Did you see my file?” asked Conall nodded. Taiye nodded. “Well, that’s what I did.”
“With your five siblings,” said Taiye, sounding as casual as he could.
Conall nodded again, a little too eagerly. “Yeah. All six of us. We were quite a crowd.”
For the first time in his entire life, Taiye found himself wishing that he’d taken Kehinde’s advice about never leaving the ship unarmed. Conall was between him and the bag, and he couldn’t even think of anything in there that would have helped him. “Must’ve been a lot of pressure, being the oldest.”
“Wasn’t so bad,” said Conall, sticking his hands in his pockets and shrugging. “Say, I was thinking about getting my shirt wet from the spout over there and taking a sort of sponge bath, if you–”
Conall frowned. “Thirteen…?”
“Thirteen of you. You were the eighth.”
For a moment, neither of them moved. Taiye held his ground, knees slightly bent, ready to bolt at the slightest hostile twitch of Conall’s muscles. He didn’t know what the hell had gone wrong, but it had gone catastrophically wrong if the man in front of him wasn’t Sul Conall. There had to be other places on the ship to hide. He didn’t know the layout, but neither did Conall. A headstart might be all he needed.
Then Conall sighed and let his chin fall to his chest, no threat at all. “That’s what had to go.” He reached up and touched the scar behind his ear.
Taiye shook his head. “Your family?” Surely Conall’s having murdered his entire family would have shown up in his file, wouldn’t it?
“What I remember of them.” With a sigh, Conall leaned back against the crate nearest to him. “I needed space to put the data. A brain is not an infinite storage case. I couldn’t take anything related to my job or education, or they’d notice. Same with personality. Autonomic nervous systems were out, unless I wanted to forget how to make my heart beat. So I went for the one thing nobody would know I didn’t know anymore.”
Well, that made Taiye feel like a monster a thousand times over, both for suspecting ill of Conall and for all the times he’d complained about Kehinde’s safety. He only might lose his only family on this trip; Conall’s was already gone. “Just … like that?”
“Just like that,” said Conall, who laughed a little as he said it. “This is going to sound awful of me, but … I’m not sad. Any more than you might be sad that you can’t remember them. I don’t even know who I’m missing anymore. I know was sobbing as I made the deletion, but the moment it was done, I couldn’t remember what about it had made me want to cry.”
“I…” Taiye shook his head. “I can’t imagine.”
“The other scientist, who taught me how to fight? She taught me how to pray as well, and not to separate the two.” Conall put his hands in front of him again, palms pressed together. “And she taught me about ending suffering through non-attachment. Trying just to … let things go. Appreciating them when they’re present, and not dwelling on them when they’re gone.” With a sigh, he let his hands fall. “I don’t think she meant surgically, though.”
“Were you and she…?”
“Lovers? No.” Conall smiled. “Not for my lack of interest, though. But she had other things on her mind. After she died, I….” For a moment, Conall pressed his lips together and just breathed. “You know, I almost erased her. I thought about it. But that was the last thing Zuli would have wanted me to do with her life or her death. Those I have to learn to let go of on my own.”
Taiye nodded, though he wasn’t sure how much he understood. “So your family got cut instead.”
“Does it make you mad to hear me say it so easily?”
Of course not, Taiye wanted to protest — but then he felt the way his hands had balled into fists, and he unclenched them with a sigh, betrayed by his own responses. “I guess I don’t even understand why you left in the first place. I feel like someone’s cut off half my body when she’s not here. I’d give up everything else before I’d give up her.”
“Then you understand now how serious I am about this,” said Conall, tapping the scar. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I get that now, but I know it needs to be done. I did some–” Conall cleared his throat, then continued, each word deliberate, “I have done things in my life of which I am not proud. I told myself it was okay, it was for science and progress, but it was bullshit, and I knew at the time that it was bullshit. So maybe I don’t deserve a family.” He looked over at Taiye, and despite his protests about not being saddened by the loss, his expression was weighed down with grief. “You know what’s funny? You probably know more about them than I do.”
“We can find out when we get on a safe connection.” Taiye took a step closer, torn between not knowing how to comfort someone over losses like those and having no idea what kind of gesture might be appropriate. He settled for proximity, just walking close to Conall until he leaned against the same container, their shoulders centimeters apart.
Conall shook his head, but he gave Taiye a quiet little smile. “Thanks, but no thanks. Besides, maybe if they’re lucky, they forgot about me too. Thirteen kids? At least one of them’s got to be forgettable.”
Taiye reached over and patted Conall’s bicep. “You? Forgettable? I only wish.” But he smiled as Conall laughed, and soon they were both laughing for no reason but the sake of laughing, leaning against one another in the cold cargo bay, letting the sound ring out off the high ceilings and fill the thin, recycled air.
Though the cargo bay had little room to move when it was this full, the crew seemed to make their own use of it during its empty times, as Taiye found a soccer ball tucked into a gap beneath one of the staircases. The widest open stretch, a pathway beneath a catwalk, was still so narrow that Taiye could extend his arms and feel the wall on one side and the containers on the other, but it would do. “Your serve,” he said, tossing the ball toward Conall.
“That’s tennis,” said Conall, but he dropped the ball between his feet and kicked it side to side. If anything, the cargo bay had grown chillier during their journey, but exertion had given Conall cause to strip off his sweat-soaked shirt and jacket, so that he looked much like Taiye had seen him sparring with Kehinde. His thoughts had been constantly with his twin for the past two days, and he would never grow tired of that, but it was still nice to have a distraction. Conall used his toe to kick the ball into the air, bounced it off his knee, let it fall to the floor, and came toward Taiye with a fearsome speed for how little gravity he had to work with.
Taiye, who had never played soccer in his life before finding the stashed ball a hour before, stayed put and waited for Conall to approach him. It was not a two-person game, to say the least, but it was the best alternative he had to sitting around and growing restless, so he jumped on it — or kicked at it, rather, as Conall brought the ball closer and Taiye tried to steal it with his feet. He spun and twisted, and his feet nearly got tangled with Conall’s, bringing them both down. At the last moment, though, Conall managed somehow to extract his left leg, draw it back, and send the ball slamming toward the far wall. Grinning, Conall pumped his fist in the air, then bounded over to retrieve the point-scoring ball. “How many is that?”
“Thought you were keeping score,” said Taiye. He raked his fingers back through his hair — and if he’d needed a haircut before, oh, he needed one now — shaking loose drops of sweat. He’d kept on his whole undersuit, which was built to absorb excess moisture from his body, though he’d surely been taxing its abilities with two days of continuous wear followed by exercise. It was better than wearing Conall’s oversized laundry, but not by much. “I wouldn’t have taken you for the team sport type.”
Conall smirked. “Nonsense. I’m very cooperative.” He spun the ball on one finger for a few seconds, then tossed it toward Taiye — only he shot high with deliberate aim and bounced the ball off the girders under the catwalk; it hit there and off the wall, then came back into his hands. His face the picture of exaggerated innocence, he tossed it that way again, and again it sailed just over Taiye’s head, made both ricochets, and came back to rest in Conall’s hands. When Taiye growled, Conall laughed and tossed it again, and only by knowing what was coming did Taiye manage to get ahead of it, catching the ball in the middle of the third leg of its trip.
“Cooperative my ass–” Taiye began, but whatever else he was going to say disappeared under the ship’s-bell chime of the PA system. Before the first officer had even begun to make the announcement that cargo inspections would begin in two minutes, they were moving. Taiye scooped up the ball and lobbed it back in the general direction of the stairwell, hoping that anyone on the ship who saw it and didn’t already know they were down there would suspect it had come dislodged in the general motion of transit and nothing more. Conall grabbed his shirt and jacket, then took Taiye’s hand, and Taiye let Conall move him more quickly through the low-gravity environment than he could have managed on his own. In under a minute, they were both locked in the container’s darkness.
It was barely large enough to fit both of them comfortably under regular circumstances, and now they were both sweaty and Conall was half-clothed and they were pressed chest-to-chest, and Taiye had no idea how long he’d had the erection that was now pressing into Conall’s thigh, but oh, it was there now. He didn’t dare reposition himself, though, not once he heard the sound of heavy boots on the catwalk. Though lightproof, the containers were neither soundproof nor airtight, and he didn’t want to take any chances that they might be audible.
Thus, he had to bite back a heavy whimper as he felt Conall’s hand reach between them and cup his erection through his suit. “Be still,” he said, lips pressed to Taiye’s ear, speaking in a voice so soft Taiye didn’t know if Conall could even have heard himself. Conall rejected his own advice, though, as his fingers stroked up and down the length of Taiye’s clothed shaft with the lightest of touches. “Let me.”
Afraid his ragged breathing would give him away, Taiye leaned forward and buried his face in the crook of Conall’s neck. He knew this smell, this touch already — but here again was the difference between knowing and feeling. He reached up to brace himself, and found the strong wall of Conall’s chest, damp with sweat, ready to hold him up. “If you want me to stop, I’ll stop,” Conall whispered again, his voice just this side of empty air. “But if you want me to keep going, then I want to make you come.”
Of course Taiye wanted Conall to stop, except that he didn’t, not at all, and the way his cock twitched and strained in Conall’s touch gave him all away. So as footsteps grew closer, he did the only thing he could think to do to make sure Conall didn’t misunderstand, which was to take his teeth and sink down with gentle but firm pressure on the side of Conall’s neck; he then pulled back and ran his tongue over the marks he’d left, tasting sweat and skin, and when he heard Conall’s breath escape his lips in a shudder, he knew he’d made his meaning clear. Conall reached up to Taiye’s throat with his free hand and began to unfasten his suit, putting his palm flat against Taiye’s chest and dragging it all the way down. When he reached Taiye’s cock, he gripped hard, so hard that Taiye couldn’t help letting out a tiny squeak. Conall was fast, though, and no sooner had Taiye parted his lips to make the noise than Conall was there with his own mouth, kissing him and swallowing the sound down.
Whatever the crew member inspecting the cargo might have been doing, Taiye was no longer paying attention; instead, he was sucking on Conall’s lip. He leaned back so that the weight of Conall’s body held him fast to the wall, then slid his hands down the sides of Conall’s body, to the front of his pants. A moment’s worry caught him there, but it was unfounded — Conall was as hard as he was, if not more so. Kehinde’s estimation of his equipment had been no exaggeration. His cock was thick and heavy, and if there were any way that Taiye could have crouched comfortably, he would have been down there with it shoved down his throat. There was still the next best thing, though. Stroking him hard enough that had the container not been locked down, it might have tipped over, Taiye leaned in and put his lips up to Conall’s ear. “I want you to come in my mouth,” he breathed. Two could play at this game.
Conall’s response was a silent, shaking laugh as he shifted their bodies, making it his turn to talk. “Want to know what I taste like?” He sucked Taiye’s earlobe for a few seconds, then bit down. “Ask your sister.”
Only someone with an understanding of his and Kehinde’s relationship would ever have intended that as flirtatious, damn Conall to hell. “Fuck you,” he said without sound, mouthing the words against Conall’s shoulder as he tightened his grip.
“I’ll fuck you.” Conall reached around with his free hand to grab Taiye’s ass, squeezing so hard that it hurt, though in a very good way. “Or I’ll ride. She tells me you’re versatile.”
Taiye only wished that Kehinde were in range then so he could tell her that she talked too damn much. What made it sting worse, though, was that both she and Conall had been correct: yes, Taiye was versatile, and yes, he wanted to be pinned to the wall or floor or bed or any flat surface with Conall’s cock up his ass, fucking him hard. Damn Conall’s stupid, foolish sense of nobility and damn his stupid, handsome self. “Fuck you,” Taiye snapped again, this time with just enough noise to make the k click.
Conall squeezed Taiye’s ass hard enough to bring them together, until their cocks rubbed against one another inside the circle of Conall’s fingers, slick and stiff. In total darkness, mindful of every noise they made, they moved together. When at last they heard a familiar heavy thud, the one that heralded the end of the cargo inspection, Conall growled and thrust harder, letting his gasps turn into groans that echoed through the tiny box. Taiye was so warm that he pushed Conall’s hands away just long enough to peel off his own bodysuit, baring his body to the knee. It might have looked silly under other circumstances, but how he looked was the last thing on Taiye’s mind at the moment. He wrapped his arms around Conall’s waist, pressing their bare chests together, and Conall let go to grip tight to Taiye’s hips. Their sweat-slick bodies rubbed together, and their cocks rubbed between them, sensation building with intensity and friction.
Taiye came first, with a cry he didn’t bother to stifle, grabbing at Conall’s back with the sharp ridges of his fingernails. He could feel the impressive mess he made as they continued to rub their bodies together, spreading his come everywhere they touched. As he caught his breath again, he slipped away and went for the door to the container, unlatching it and letting both light and cool air rush in. Conall made a noise of distress and confusion, but it was short-lived, as Taiye knelt on the floor just outside the door, jerked Conall close, and swallowed his cock to the root.
It was a short-lived effort, but Taiye got the taste he’d wanted as Conall came in his mouth a few seconds later, grabbing onto the door frame as he did for balance. Unlike the mess they’d made earlier, not a drop of Conall’s come spilled out of Taiye’s mouth. He kept sucking, in fact, until Conall started to go soft against his tongue, looking up at Conall all the while. Damn everything about him.
At last, he let Conall’s cock fall from his mouth with a soft pop, and Conall sat down hard on the floor of the container, legs hanging out of the entrance, breathing hard. Though it was to say the least awkward, Taiye climbed into what lap the configuration allowed Conall, putting his head on Conall’s shoulder. He took a deep breath and let it out in one heavy rush. “…So,” he said, trying and failing not to make this awkward.
Conall laughed softly and put his arms around Taiye. “So,” he said, his voice gentle now, so unlike how it had sounded only minutes earlier. “I’m sorry I had to blackmail you.”
Taiye snorted a laugh; that might as well have been entire lifetimes ago. “I guess I was never really mad about that.” He shrugged. “I would have done the same thing.”
Conall exhaled into Taiye’s hair. “I wouldn’t actually have turned you in. I’ve done too many monstrous things in my life already.”
“Now you tell me,” Taiye grumbled into Conall’s neck, though he couldn’t fight back a smile. The cargo bay was getting chilly now, though, so he stood and pulled his suit up from where it had pooled around his ankles, then fastened it to his mid-chest; he was really putting the fabric’s absorbent properties to the test. “Honestly,” he said, fixing the cuffs, “if I’d thought that had been a real threat, there would have been easier ways to make sure you never talked.”
“I figured I might have been in when tossing me out an airlock wasn’t your very first mutual decision.” Without taking his eyes off Taiye, Conall tucked his cock back into his pants again. His own front was still a mess, but he made no move to clean himself just yet.
Taiye scowled, but only because Conall was right. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the next container. “Can we make a deal?”
“No more bullshit. Not from you, not from me.” Taiye looked Conall in the eye as he spoke, trying to create the closest thing he could to a telepathic connection between two unlinked minds. “I work with someone I literally cannot lie to. I can’t hide anything from her, good, bad, or indifferent. I can’t trust someone I think is going to trick me. So right now, all honesty, all the time. Deal?”
Conall nodded. “Deal. Does it bother you that I fucked your sister?”
Taiye sneered at him, though more on account of being mad at himself for opening up the line of inquiry than as any real answer to the question. “Yes. And no. No, I don’t care, she’s an adult, she can do what she wants.” He looked to Conall, hoping that was enough of an explanation, but Conall twirled his fingers and motioned Taiye on. “Yes, I get jealous. And I didn’t like you.”
That just made Conall laugh. “Was she lying when she said you were listening in on us?”
“No,” said Taiye, hoping that the simultaneous rush of blood to his cheeks and penis would balance one another out. “Did you fuck her just to get to me?”
“No.” Conall held up his hands, palms facing outward, unarmed. “I want her. I want you. They’re two separate things.”
Taiye supposed that was fair enough; at any rate, it was hardly the first time he’d heard that sentiment expressed. “So … what happens now?”
Conall stood and took the two steps that brought him face-to-face with Taiye again. “What do you want to happen now?” he asked, cupping Taiye’s cheek in his palm.
“I don’t know.” Taiye closed his eyes and turned his head so his lips brushed the heel of Conall’s palm as he spoke. “I really don’t.”
Conall leaned in and pressed a kiss against Taiye’s temple, slow and warm. “Then we wait and see,” he said, and when wrapped his arms around Taiye, Taiye sunk without hesitation into the embrace. After a moment, he realized that he and Conall were even breathing in time, chests rising and falling in a slow unison. So many thoughts were bouncing around his head, but the calm of just being near Conall began to rise over them, not washing them away, but submerging them for the time being. It was enough; it would have to be.
A sharp shake of his shoulder dragged Taiye up from sleep. “We’re stopping,” said Conall, and worry cut through the eternal calm in his voice.
Still foggy and only half-awake, Taiye pressed his hand to the bulkhead. The rhythm of the engines through the metal felt steady to him. “No, we’re fine.”
“No, we’re stopping.” Conall shook him again, then grabbed his wrists and pulled them both to their feet. “I know the feel of it.”
“Did you hear a docking announcement?”
Conall shook his head as he gathered up his bag, nabbing in the process a protein bar wrapper that had come loose. “Nothing. We’ve got to hide.”
There was a thump and a shudder throughout the ship as the engines kicked into reverse with such force they nearly knocked Taiye off his feet. He snapped his head toward Conall, eyes wide, and extended his hand. Saying nothing, Conall grabbed his wrist and began the short sprint back to their empty container. As they ran, Taiye felt each step grow heavier; the ship had no reason to go back to a full G in deep space, so they must have been near some larger body. Probably Station Twelve. That made sense.
But the lack of an announcement from the captain planted a seed of worry in Taiye’s belly, and that seed began to grow. Hadn’t Kehinde said even the slowest trip would take three days? Without windows or clocks, he’d lost track of all sense of both time and location; the inspections had been his only way to mark intervals, and he’d trusted that they’d been as regular as promised. He’d taken so much on faith, when the truth was they could be anywhere.
Instead of stepping in first, Conall pushed Taiye inside, then stepped in after, taking the place closest to the door. He gave one last look around outside, then pulled it shut behind them, locking them in darkness. “You all right?” he asked, reaching back to take Taiye’s hand.
Taiye grabbed it and twined their fingers together. “Fine,” he said, though he didn’t know quite how fine he felt. He and Kehinde had been cut from the same cloth, and he hadn’t entirely been spared her penchant for reckless behavior; he hadn’t gone anywhere with guns blazing, but he had spent every moment since they’d stepped off Ibeji leaping without looking, trusting without questioning. What kind of idiot stowed away on an unfamiliar ship without assurances of what would happen to him when he arrived at his destination? The kind of idiot he was, apparently.
When the heavy door to the cargo bay opened, both Taiye and Conall tensed. One pair of boots started forth along the catwalk, then two more, then so many Taiye couldn’t distinguish one from another. He heard voices, but they were too indistinct to make out. Hoping against hope, he reached out with his mind, but Kehinde was nowhere in range. “I wasn’t told where,” said someone who sounded like the captain, and Taiye’s heart sunk into his chest. They had been betrayed. The question now was only to whom.
It was the longest hundred and ninety-two seconds of his life, and Taiye knew because he counted every one. After thirty, he could feel Conall’s palm begin to sweat; after sixty, his own followed. He tried to focus on anything else, to keep calm, to keep the numbers coming, but every sound make him jump out of his skin. His mind filled in all the details of his fears: it wasn’t customs, it was Titan. They’d made too many connections along the line, one of which had turned them in. They had Kehinde already and were torturing her, or maybe she was already dead. He and Conall were next. They’d take him back to the labs and cut him open, and all because he’d been stupid enough to trust–
The door to the container swung open, and Conall took a strong stance, ready for a fight. Taiye peered over Conall’s shoulder and blinked as his eyes adjusted, but he didn’t need much vision to be able to make out the figures of half a dozen of Station Twelve’s security officers standing in a semicircle around the door — or the petite, tow-headed figure standing in the middle, arms crossed, unimpressed as ever.
“Control!” Taiye called, grabbing Conall’s shoulders and pulling him back, lest he decide to launch a preemptive strike. “Control, it’s me!”
Control snorted a laugh and rolled their eyes. “Of course it’s you, you idiot.” They sighed and stepped back, and the officers backed off behind them. “And you should realize, this means drinks are on you for literally the rest of your life.”
All things considered, Taiye could find no reason to complain.
Draped across his lap on the couch, Kehinde sighed and gave Taiye another kiss on his cheek. “Next time, if you leave me home and I miss all the fun, I’m shooting both of you.”
Sitting next to him on the couch, with her legs across his lap, Conall laughed. “Moments of panicky terror punctuating long stretches of uncomfortable boredom do not ‘fun’ make,” he said, rubbing his thumb into the ball of her bare feet. Control had been nice enough to set the three of them up in one of the station’s unoccupied executive suites, and Taiye had absolutely not pointed out that the room had no doubt cost more than every drink Control could drink in their life, for fear that Control would just go on and add that to his debt. After a tearful reunion, long showers, a change of clothes, and a good meal, both stowaways were feeling much better.
“Wait, did you say ‘next time’?” Taiye shot her a frown. “Wasn’t this deal for one trip only?”
Kehinde snorted and lay back against the arm of the couch, smiling as Conall tugged at her toes until they popped. “Okay, you tell him. Right now, look at him and say, I’m sorry, but even in light of all the good we’ve helped you do and despite the fact that you will surely get caught and jailed without us in your continuing quest to bring justice to the galaxy, my sister and I are taking our ship tomorrow morning and leaving you here. Go on.” She crossed her arms behind her head. “I’ll wait.”
Taiye shot her the dirtiest look he could, but it didn’t even dent her smile. He turned to Conall, who had his mouth pursed in the manner of a man who was trying and failing at a poker face. “I’m sorry,” Taiye began, squaring his shoulders, “but even in light of the good you do–”
“Good we’ve helped you do,” said Kehinde.
“Good we’ve helped you do,” Taiye echoed, ignoring as best he could the way Conall was outright snickering now. “And despite the fact that without us, you’re pretty much screwed….”
Kehinde nodded. “Judges will allow the paraphrase.”
“My sister and I are taking our ship tomorrow morning–”
“Or whenever Control kicks us out.”
“Tomorrow morning or whenever Control kicks us out, and….” Taiye took a deep breath and let it out in the grumpiest sigh he could manage. “And I guess you can come. If you want to.”
Kehinde laughed and sat up again, squishing Taiye’s thighs in the process of redistributing her weight, but Taiye only kissed her bared shoulder and did not point out what a pain she was being. “Excuse me as I translate for my brother. He means, please come with us, because you are a man of great courage and valor, and also you’re very good at the sex I haven’t stopped thinking about since it happened.”
Taiye scowled at her, but Conall laughed. “Oh, she’s a fantastic interpreter,” said Conall, nudging Taiye in his side.
“You shouldn’t believe a word she says,” said Taiye. Kehinde stuck out her tongue at him.
“Then I’ll just have to see for myself.” Conall took Taiye’s chin in his hand and turned toward him for a deep, long kiss, one accompanied by the musical sound of Kehinde’s laughter. Whatever he was getting himself into, he’d deal with it as it came up. For now, though, the world was one step more on its way to being right.
This one really struck me reading it again now (as opposed to when it first came out). Great.