The music stuttered to a discordant halt.
Qawi stopped what he was doing and looked up. The elders were staring at a point behind him, towards the desert where they had just watched a ship enter atmosphere. Qawi stood, his bow loose in his hand.
The night air was turning cold outside the heat of the bonfire, and from the distant sand dunes, a group of people emerged. His mother moved beside him, her veil protecting her face from the strangers approaching.
It was a group of Imperial Guards, surrounding the heir to the Galactic Empire. They were dressed not for desert travel, but for star travel. Qawi stared dumbly at them as they moved in formation closer and closer to their group. And then, Qawi saw the heir had not just brought her guard, but had also brought her Left Hand.
His mother stepped in front of him, and his father placed his instrument on the beaded carpet beneath him and stood. He moved, slowly, until he stood beside Qawi’s mother, his wife.
The heir to the throne of all mankind parted her guard with a wave of her hand. Dark eyes met his across the cooling sands. She said, in the language of the planet they stood on, “You will come with us.”
“We do not recognise the Empire’s authority,” his father said. “You have foresaken us, and we have made our own way. You cannot return now and claim what you believe to be yours.”
“He is a man, is he not?” The heir hadn’t moved, but Qawi felt as if she had grown in presence. “Allow him to decide for himself. If you do not come with us, we will destroy this planet. You are correct. Nobody would miss it.”
Qawi looked to his father for guidance, deferring to his wisdom and knowledge. His father, for the first time in a long while, looked troubled. He was unsure. Qawi shook his head, slightly. He did not want to go. He did not want any part of this strange woman’s request. He did not know her, and did not want to leave his family.
The heir nodded to one of her guard, who lifted a communicator to his lips and uttered an order in Galactic Standard. In moments, a streak of light shot down from the heavens, piercing the dark veil of nightfall as it crawled over the planet’s surface. The beam struck, and an explosion unlike anything Qawi had ever seen rose up from the ground. It was so bright the world around them turned to day briefly, before fading away in irritated spots and flashes.
“I hope you did not need anything from the city to the west,” the heir said. “Will you come with me now?”
At her side, her Left Hand, a tall, handsome blonde man, remained silent. He stared at Qawi, as if he would drill a hole into Qawi’s very soul with his gaze. Qawi knew without a doubt that she would do as she threatened.
“I will go,” he said, in Standard.
“No!” His mother grasped his arm. “You cannot! You will surely die.”
“I will not let them destroy this world,” Qawi said. He gently pulled his mother’s hands free, and his father helped tug her away. Qawi faced the heir. “I will come with you.”
“Good.” The heir nodded.
Except. This time, instead of returning to the jump shuttle as they had hundreds of times before, the heir laughed her small laugh, and waved her hand again. Another order issued from her guard, but this time it was to destroy everything.
“No!” Qawi dove to his knees in the sand at her feet. “You swore! You swore it!”
“I swore nothing,” the heir said.
Around him, the world was turning bright and hot. His family screamed in pain behind him, and he could not turn to face or aid them. His knees were sinking into the sand, the heir looming over him as she laughed at his fear and pain-
Qawi awoke with a harsh gasp. His breath was quick and sharp, and his heartbeat rapid in his chest. The sensation of burning and sheer terror clung to him with sweat and the silken sheets twisted around his legs. He kicked them off and hastened from the bed, shaking.
Detecting his movement, the lights in his room slowly brightened, a gradual increase so as not to hurt his eyes. They stopped illuminating at half power, with a red filter in place to simulate nighttime conditions. Shivering, Qawi wrapped his arms around his chest and tried to steady his breathing.
Once his heart stopped galloping in his chest, and the terror of the dream had faded to a reasonable level, he made his way through his expansive suite and into the ‘fresher. He dipped his hand towel under a small stream of water to wet it, and then turned the water off before scrubbing the cloth over his face.
The cool slick of fear slid from his skin, and when he folded the cloth on the countertop, he felt more in control of himself. He reentered the sleeping quarters, and reached for a warm pair of cotton trousers and a soft, dry shirt. He discarded his sweat-drenched ones and left them in the ‘fresher to dry. Slightly warmer, mostly drier, and still a bit unsteady on his feet, he slid on a pair of station shoes and left his quarters.
At this time of simulated night, the station was largely silent. Just a few men and women worked into the bitter hours of the night, monitoring station communications and orbit. Qawi passed nobody in the halls, and the eerie silence of the station pressed against his ears as if it were a sound itself. His footsteps broke the quiet, for which he was grateful. It was unnatural, the silence that pervaded space.
The lights in the halls were dimmed, to aid in the simulation of night, but still enough to guide himself along the walls. He knew of one other person who would be up this time of night. He hesitated a moment, caught at an intersection of hallways in the space station. Then, he gritted his teeth and turned towards the station’s training rooms.
The training rooms were more brightly lit than the station halls, and Qawi winced as he entered, letting his eyes adjust until he could stand the harsh, full spectrum light. He heard the soft thud of fist hitting a bag, and made his way towards the sound.
His partner came into view. The man- man now, no longer a boy- was naked from the waist up, his fists wrapped in tape to prevent undue damage. In the bright, white light, sweat glistened on pale skin, and even though he did not break from his punishing rhythm, Qawi knew he was aware of his presence. His bright blonde hair was tied back from his eyes with a black ribbon, though some wisps clung to his face with the sweat of his exertion.
Qawi stood, patient, while Bastian Toroaian, the Left Hand of the Empress of the Stars, finished his workout. When he had finished reducing the punching bag to a swinging symbol of his strength, Bastian turned and pushed a hand through his hair.
“The dream again?” he asked, deferring to Qawi’s native language. The quiet hung tense between them.
“Yes,” Qawi said.
Bastian nodded, pressing his lips into a fine line. He nodded at the weight rack. “Go take your weights.”
Qawi walked over to the rack and stood in front of it, stretching his arms before reaching for a modest dumbbell. Bastian stood on the other side of the bench for pressing, and motioned for Qawi to get into position. Qawi leaned against the bench seat with one hand, the other gripping the weight firmly. He began to curl the weight in slow, measured movements.
Bastian walked him through his entire workout, from stretching his arms to his final set of pull ups when his arms felt like overdone noodles and he was almost in tears from effort. Bastian grasped him around the waist and helped lower him from the bar, and handed him a drink laden with protein.
Sat on the floor beside Bastian, their backs braced against a wall, Qawi finally spoke. “It ended differently. She destroyed my planet.”
“She would have,” Bastian said, his tone inflectionless.
The thought did nothing to soothe Qawi’s ragged nerves. He took a few steadying breaths. “Surely there was another way.”
“Would you have come if there was another way?” Bastian asked. He tipped his head. “You hid behind your mother. You were not ready.”
“I can be reasoned with,” Qawi said.
“Your people have never respected the Empire. Why would they have started with you?” Bastian asked. He was not incorrect, but the mention of his people made Qawi’s chest ache with longing, even so many years apart.
“We respect those who respect us,” Qawi said. “The Empire has shown nothing but distaste for my people. You leave us to die on barren planets because it is convenient.”
Bastian tipped his head back against the wall. “You are also Empire now, little sandcat. You need to acknowledge it. You’ve been here for years. You cannot go back.”
Qawi let his head rest against the wall as well, refusing to respond. His arms hurt. Beside him, Bastian’s bare skin looked very pale. Or, rather, his own looked dark. The silver armband of the Empire gleamed against his dark skin, nearly brushing up against Bastian’s identical one. A symbol of their status. A manacle.
Sensing his gaze, Bastian covered his silver band with one hand. The band sat comfortably around the large muscles of his bicep, and accentuated his fair skin. “You are in a deep mood tonight.”
Qawi stared blankly at the ceiling. “I can’t erase the sound of their screaming.”
“It will fade. It always does,” Bastian said. “You should try and return to sleep. We have an important day ahead of us.”
“I doubt I will be able to rest,” Qawi said. He closed his eyes and shivered.
Bastian sighed and pushed to his feet. Qawi cracked an eyelid to see him approach with a towel. Bastian wrapped the towel around Qawi’s shoulder like a blanket, and tucked it in close against him. It did not make him feel warmer, but Qawi understood his intent. Bastian returned to his seat beside Qawi on the floor, and Qawi, despite his words, tipped his head towards Bastian and closed his eyes.
Qawi awoke in his own room, swaddled in a thick blanket so warm that he did not want to leave. Unfortunately, the soft chime radiating from his alarm would not allow him to rest further. He groaned and clawed out of the nest of blankets. The thick one was new, Qawi had not seen it before in his room or quarters. He held it between both hands, frowned, and sniffed the soft fabric. It smelled like Bastian.
Qawi shoved it away and rose, going through his morning ablutions. The shower he took was quick and cold, but enough to do the job. When he exited the ‘fresher, he found his ceremonial robes laid out for him on the bed. Ignoring the twist in his gut at the sight, he stepped closer to them and began to dress.
The fabric felt too fine against his skin, as if he were wearing air and not something to protect him from the atmosphere of the planet once they touched down. It would be cold on the ground as well. Not as cold as in space, but enough that he would be uncomfortable for almost the entire ceremony.
When he left his room, he found two of the Imperial Guard waiting for him. They bowed respectfully, and Qawi dipped his head in acknowledgement. They led him to the docking bay of the station, where he saw Bastian and the heir waiting for him.
He joined the small group waiting outside a small skip shuttle. The heir to the Empire of Humanity, the woman who haunted his dreams and waking hours, stood before him in all her splendour. Satoshi Kanzaki stood almost a head shorter than Qawi even in her heels, and nearly two heads shorter than Bastian. Her straight, black hair flowed down her back, not a single strand out of place, as she watched Qawi approach.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked.
“I slept,” Qawi said. Bastian said nothing, and stood behind Satoshi dressed in his ceremonial suit. Bastian’s tunic was black, wrapped around a white undershirt. Crisp white trousers sheathed his legs, and he work thick, working black boots that added to his height.
Satoshi wore her House’s colours of red and violet. The silver accents embroidered into her soft silk robes complimented her lighter skin. Qawi simply wore a cream tunic and comfortable, waterproof shoes. He would be standing for a while.
The nameless Imperial Guard surrounded them as they climbed aboard Satoshi’s small skip shuttle and took their seats in the main carriage section. The pilot and co-pilot entered shortly after, and after greeting Satoshi, made their way to the front of the ship. Qawi let his head fall against the headrest of his chair as one of the Imperial Guard ensured his safety harness was in place, and closed his eyes.
Once they were all strapped in, the pilots ran through their pre-flight checks and Qawi felt the gentle push of gravity increasing as they lifted from the ground. Small windows in the side of the shuttle allowed him to see the slow movement of the shuttle bay as they ferried towards the vacuum doors that led directly to space.
The doors opened, and the shuttle ejected into the blackness of space. A binary star system glittered against the sheer black that immediately pressed upon them as they left the orbital station. Qawi watched as the station drifted further and further away. The descent towards the water world beneath was quick and sudden, as it always was.
The world they approached was nearly completely covered in water. It was close enough to the binary stars to maintain a constant, tropical temperature across almost the entire planet. Without a mild tilt, the planet experienced nearly no seasonal changes. It was, in essence, a paradise planet. Only the caps at both poles varied from the consistent climate. Small polar regions cradled both poles of the planet.
“Do you have any questions on the briefing?” Satoshi asked, her voice soft in the confined space of the shuttle. As they entered the atmosphere, the shuttle vibrated around them. Still, this skip shuttle was one of the smoothest descents Qawi rode while working.
“No, my lady,” Bastian said from his place on Satoshi’s other side.
“Why are the Krish relinquishing land on the northern sector of the Soji continent?” Qawi asked. He reached beneath his chair, to where his bag had been loaded before strapping into the chair. He drew his computer from the back and activated the screen. His mission briefing file slid into view, and he swiped the screen, scrolling down the document until he found the place he had bookmarked. “I didn’t understand why they would concede such a historically important site to their peoples.”
Satoshi didn’t even look at the screen. She said, “One of their ambassadors was caught trying to assassinate our liaison. Their embarrassment proved to be a very effective lever during negotiations. I simply pressed. It isn’t like they use the land. They spend ninety percent of their lives in the water.”
Qawi said nothing, and let the computer fall onto his lap as the shuttle vibrated around them. He had no further questions. The mission would be resolved once they touched down at the planet’s only spaceport.
The skip shuttle cruised through the atmosphere, the outside windows flaring red briefly before clearing into the bright, crystal blue sky of Krish’alla. Unable to help himself, Qawi leaned forward and glued his gaze to the window. The sunslight streamed down upon the expansive water, reflecting back a shining, crisp image of the oceans beneath them. The skip shuttle made its approach, and Qawi could see land sweeping towards them at a rapid clip.
The skip shuttle touched down, and Qawi waited until they were told it was safe to unstrap. The Imperial Guards handled their freedom, and once he, Satoshi, and Bastian were able to move about freely, they scooped up their briefcases and disembarked.
The island of Soji rose up out of the oceans on the back of a massive volcano, and warm, lush forests had grown all over the exposed land. Soji, considered a continent though it would be considered a small island on any other planet, was large enough to host a landing site for skip shuttles from orbit. Qawi stood on the runway and tipped his head towards the suns.
Shielding his eyes with one hand, he gazed into the deep blue of the sky. Every planet’s sky looked different, and he never tired of seeing each one. Despite the clinging, moist heat, he felt comfortable for the first time in a very long while. Space was cold, very cold, and though his body was accustomed to the dry heat of a desert, he was willing to suffer the wet heat of the tropics to stop his shivering. He stood under the suns and quietly thanked his god as the muscles in his body relaxed and loosened, away from the onslaught of chill that pervaded space and the orbiting stations.
Bastian hovered beside him while Satoshi strode ahead, following the Imperial Guard. At the edge of the platform was the media circus. They were not allowed to draw any closer, for safety reasons, and Qawi was grateful for the few moments of respite before he would be forced to put on his mask and fall silently into line behind Satoshi.
At the edge of the media ring, he saw their escorts waiting for them. Satoshi already moved at a quick pace towards the Krish and Keelah representatives, to hasten the signed process so that they could leave as quickly as possible. Qawi knew the day had been set aside for this momentous meeting, but Satoshi was a woman of business. She preferred to be as expedient as possible.
Qawi followed her, at a slower pace, but not slow enough to delay the party. By the time he reached them, Satoshi was introducing Bastian, as if the delegation did not know who he was. Bastian nodded respectfully to the Krish and Keelah representatives, and Satoshi turned to Qawi.
“This is Qawi Lastname,” she said. “My Right Hand. He will be afforded the same respect and caution you would give me.”
The interpreter for the Kreelah moved her body and sang soft, undulating notes. The Kreelah, the galaxy’s peacekeeping and negotiating race, were lithe bipedals with a soft pelt of fur adorning most of their body. They possessed dark, soulful eyes that seemed to be their own truth tellers. Qawi had never been able to lie to one of them, and he found their easy manner and calm resilience refreshing when he had to work with them.
The Kreelah before him dipped her head- the males possessed magnificent antlers on both shoulders- and twisted her hands into a greeting. Qawi, versed in enough Kreelah’lat to hold a conversation, provided the requisite motions to respond to a superior and respected elder. She trilled, pleased, and the lines around Satoshi’s mouth loosened a bit.
Beside the Kreelah, the representative for the Krish stood, also with an interpreter. Krish were the native peoples of this planet, just recently space faring, and being aided by the humans who had landed on their world. It was difficult for them to go into space because they very much resembled dolphins, and needed to be near or in the water for a better part of their lives.
Qawi dipped into the complicated bow of deference that he had practised, and the Krish responded in kind. The interpreter, a human decorated with the colourful, waterproof paint of the Krish to denote her rank, said, “We welcome you and hope you enjoy your stay with us.”
“Thank you,” Qawi said. “Your planet is lovely. I very much enjoy it already.”
Once the formalities had been dispensed with, they were led to a boat, away from the ring of reporters and media hacks, and they pulled away from shore to gain a respectful distance from the landing zone. They would have a bit of privacy, at least.
The ocean breeze clung to his skin in a way that was mildly uncomfortable, but Qawi was so grateful not to be shivering that he ignored it, standing beside Bastian near the centre of the ship. Because it was Krish design, the ship was little more than a curved surface that skimmed over the ocean when the wind caught a massive sail that unfurled over their heads. There were no guardrails, and no places to sit. Qawi shifted until his stance was wider, to better his balance, and Bastian rested a hand at the small of his back, providing an additional support as they moved forward over the beautiful blue ocean.
They reached the appropriate distance, away from the prying eyes of the ever present media, and the boat drifted to a halt, bobbing gently beneath their feet. Qawi felt slightly ill at the up and down, which annoyed him. He didn’t get space sick. Seasickness should be the same. Apparently it was not. He swallowed and sat beside Satoshi.
The small delegation sat in a circle in the centre of the boat, with the Imperial Guard and several Krish guards stood a little ways away, as far as the boat would let them go, while keeping an eye on their charges. Qawi set his computer in his lap, as did Satoshi and the Krish.
“We are here to witness,” the Kreelah interpreter said. She was a pretty woman, with straight, dark hair and dark complexion. “Please continue.”
“I, Kanzaki Satoshi, heir to the throne of Worlds, invested with the authority of my mother, Kanzaki Yukio, Empress of the Human Empire, swear that I have read the documents herein and agree to the terms outlined,” Satoshi said. She pressed her palm against the screen of her computer, and the screen scanned the lines and whorls of her palm and fingers.
The Krish representative made a trilling noise, high and melodical, and the interpreter said, “Before you is Shrima, of the Four Waters, vested with the authority of her people to agree to the terms laid out in the proposed documents. Should humanity uphold their part, the Krish will uphold theirs.”
“We will have measures in place to ensure the enforcement of this arrangement,” Satoshi said. “As outlined in the agreement, we will have an unarmed contingent of keepers on the shore to maintain the peace. Trade will continue unhindered.”
Shrima accepted this, and placed her webbed hand on the datapad to sign the agreement. The interpreter, holding the datapad, said, “With this we sign. May our nations grow together in the future, as one.”
“In peace and prosperity,” Satoshi said, finishing the galactic saying. She let a smile lift her lips. The Krish trilled in excitement.
With the documents signed, the datapads and computers went away, into waterproof bags. Food and drink came out, served by one of the Krish’s entourage. He balanced delicately as he walked around the group, with a platter held carefully between both hands.
Qawi found himself approached by the Kreelah, whose name was a delicate twist of his wrist coupled with a small bow. The interpreter was quick, and able to keep the conversation flowing without awkward hesitations or pauses. Qawi was strong enough in Kreelah’lat that an interpreter was simply for additional assistance.
One of the boat’s pilots, a Krish with dark markings painted across his thin, bottle-like nose and down the slick hide of his back, bumped into Qawi as he crossed the boat, towards the rudder. Qawi immediately apologised, aware of the Kreelah at his side.
The Krish glowered at him, and made a threatening noise, growling low in his stomach. Qawi took a slight step backwards but did not lower his gaze. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Krish interpreter look over to him, her eyes widening. She pushed past Bastian, who turned in the exact moment the pilot reached out and shoved Qawi hard in the chest.
Taken off guard, Qawi stumbled backwards. His foot caught open air, and he toppled from the boat. Not a moment after the water closed over his head, he heard something crash into the water beside him, and he was grabbed roughly around the chest. He inhaled in surprise, and choked as he was hauled to the surface.
Coughing violently, he let himself go limp. Bastian held him tightly, one strong arm wrapped firmly around his chest to keep his head above the water. A Krish jumped in beside them, to aid Bastian in keeping them afloat. Qawi closed his eyes and let himself be supported until hands grabbing at him hauled him back onto the boat.
Sprawled on the floor of the boat, Bastian hovered over him and refused to let any of the other passengers near him. Qawi’s tunic stuck to his chest, and though the air was warm it felt constricting and uncomfortable. He turned his head towards Bastian’s shadow and closed his eyes.
“That was an attempt on his life,” Satoshi was saying, her voice cold steel.
“It was not,” the Krish interpreter said, hastily. “It was not meant in violence.”
“He cannot swim.” Satoshi’s voice pitched. Qawi imagined it would carry over the calm ocean if she got much louder. “He could have drowned.”
“That is not a concept we are familiar with,” the interpreter said. “Everyone swims on this world. It was a miscommunication.”
“A rude gesture is still unacceptable,” Satoshi said. “We have not yet recorded the agreement. If this is how your people will respond to humans perhaps we should review the terms.”
“That won’t be necessary,” the interpreter said for Shrima. “The pilot will be reprimanded.”
“The pilot will come with us,” Bastian said, his voice rough.
“It was a direct attack on my person,” Satoshi said. “He tried to do harm to my Right Hand. He will come with us.”
“He is under Krish jurisdiction, this is our planet and he is Krish,” the interpreter said. “He will be punished accordingly.”
“He will know the full force of the Empire,” Satoshi said. “As a measure of good will, you will turn him over to us after the blatant attempt on my Right Hand’s life.”
“Kanzaki,” Qawi said, finally, in Satoshi’s native language. He was surprised at the hoarseness of his own voice. “Let him go.”
“You could have been seriously injured,” Satoshi said, responding in Japanese as well. “I cannot let that stand. They must know the price for breaking the accords.”
“There is no price for miscommunication,” Qawi said. “It was simply that. Do not press. You will ruin the progress we’ve made here.”
Bastian, who was not as proficient at Japanese as Qawi, said nothing and simply watched the exchange, his hand at Qawi’s shoulder. Qawi pushed himself up and away from Bastian. He stood, and peeled his wet tunic away from his skin. Satoshi pressed her lips together firmly before turning to the interpreter.
A smaller, female Krish approached him hesitantly, a traditional sarong-type style fabric held in her hands. It was a spare from one of the bags, and Qawi took it gratefully. With Bastian at his back, he turned and faced the expansive ocean, and wriggled out of his soaked clothing. He wrapped the sarong around his waist, and when he turned back towards Satoshi, she had stepped away from the interpreter. She let the subject go.
The pilot was escorted off the boat, by another Krish who guided them both into the water and down into the depths. Qawi did not watch them go. He sat in the centre of the boat, with Bastian hovering over his shoulder like a vengeful sentry. Nobody else approached him for the rest of the boat trip. Qawi sat with his eyes closed, focusing on his breathing and the sensation of Bastian at his back. Bastian remained in his soaked uniform.
By the time they reached Soji’s shore, Bastian’s uniform was dry. They parted from the rest of the delegation, making their appropriate farewells before beginning the short walk to their skip shuttle. Bastian shrugged off his sun warmed tunic and laid it over Qawi’s shoulders. Qawi drew it around him as they boarded, and he felt the perceptible temperature drop.
Qawi settled into his seat and allowed himself to be strapped in by the Imperial Guard. The sarong fabric was thin and airy, designed for the tropical breezes of Krish’alla. It was not designed for the barren, crushing cold of space. He pulled Bastian’s tunic closer around his shoulders and shivered.
They returned to the space station, without a word spoken between them, and once they had boarded, Satoshi walked away from them without so much as a backwards glance. She left Bastian and Qawi to themselves, as she usually did, and the Imperial Guard dispersed. Well, at least they had returned from their mission early as was her plan.
Qawi made his way back to his rooms, intent on scraping the sand and salt from his body with a warm shower. Bastian was a constant shadow behind him, even though he was down to his undershirt. Qawi ignored him and let him follow, having learned long ago that Bastian would find a way into his rooms whether he liked it or not. It was easier to just let him trail behind.
Thankfully, Bastian waited in the common area while Qawi stepped into the shower. Qawi hastily rubbed the sea salt from his brown skin, and stepped out of the ‘fresher with a towel wrapped around his waist. Bastian had made himself useful, and laid out a change of clothes for him, warm, cotton fabrics that would protect him from the chill of space.
Qawi wrapped his fingers around the tunic and paused. “I am fine.”
“I’m aware,” Bastian said, in his gravelly voice. He did not move, arms folded over his chest as he stared at Qawi.
Qawi shook his head and donned the tunic and soft trousers. He scrubbed the towel over his hair, and let it fluff out. He ran his fingers through it to try and tame it down, but as usual it was a lost cause. Bastian still stared at him. Qawi said, “You reached me in time. I am fine.”
This time, Bastian said nothing, but his gaze fell to the ground and the muscles in his shoulders tensed perceptibly. Qawi took pity on him, and asked, “Will you be in training today?”
“Kanzaki and I have tests to run on the mashin,” Bastian said. “The scientists made some upgrades that we need to run to check the installation.”
“When is that?” Qawi asked. Watching Bastian and Satoshi manipulate the mashin was fascinating, and Qawi wanted to witness the tests. Sometimes, the scientists let him review their findings, and explained the deeper functions of the mashin while Bastian ran through the various tests.
Bastian checked his watch. “In about an hour. There is enough time to eat, quickly, if you are hungry.”
“Yes, swimming does increase the appetite,” Qawi said. Bastian frowned, and Qawi sighed. “Joke. I could eat.”
“I will make your tea,” Bastian said. Qawi nodded and let him lead the way out of his quarters.
The common mess was brightly lit, with white painted walls and chrome fixtures. It was impossible to leave an area dirty because the crumbs and stains stood out against the table plating. Bastian led him straight through the common area to a small door near the back of the room with a label warning people to stay out. Bastian pushed right through the door, and held it open for Qawi.
Inside was the heir’s private eating chamber. Instead of clean white, it was crisp and warm, with red and cream colouring on the plush chairs. Qawi sank into one of them, and let Bastian fiddle with the food dispenser. After a moment, Bastian placed a steaming mug on the table in front of Qawi. Qawi thanked him, and wrapped his hands around the warm mug.
Bastian sat down across the table from him with a well balanced meal. Qawi saw salad, protein, and carbs on the plate. Swimming must have worked up an appetite, despite the short time they had been in the water. Qawi sipped at his tea quietly as Bastian ate.
They did not say anything between them, for which Qawi was grateful. When their time came, they made their way to the massive hangar that contained the mashin. Stepping into the hangar, Qawi paused for a moment to let his senses become used to the incredible shift in magnitude. The hangar took up most of the space station’s area. It was essentially a massive drop-chute, which was also a holding bay for maintenance of the gigantic robot housed within it.
The mashin was a large, human shaped robot that was impervious to the vacuum of space. It was able to travel through space like a ship, and also in atmosphere. Heat shields protected it during reentry, enabling the robot to be a fully functioning travel device despite the sheer lack of mobility the operators suffered.
Bastian finally, finally, left his side to get suited up for his tests, and Qawi made his way towards the scientists who were sequestered in a small cubicle at the foot of the towering robot. One of them, a small, pale woman named Alice, looked up at his approach.
“Hello, Lastname,” she said. Her native Swedish still influenced her Standard words, and Qawi found himself entranced. “Come to watch the show?”
“What is being worked on today?” Qawi asked. He stepped into the cubicle. Someone drew up a chair for him to sit, and he sat down and leaned back in it.
Alice grabbed a datapad off the console and handed it to him. “We’ve redone the neural networking to allow for a faster response time along the limbs and weaponry. Built it from scratch, we did. Quite a bit of brilliance. The prior neural networking used atomic level discharge to enable the operator’s thoughts to reflect real time movement. With Dr Langowski’s breakthrough in particle physics allowed us to rebuild it using quantum string energy to relay information.”
“Brilliant,” Qawi said. “I didn’t think we had the energy capacity to do that.”
“We didn’t. We had to put a cold fusion pack in the undercarriage to provide a boost,” Alice said, breaking into a grin. “But we did it.”
“Amazing,” Qawi said. “I look forward to seeing the results.”
Bastian and Satoshi approached the scientist’s cubicle, dressed in their skin tight operator suits. The suits were designed to relay physical action on the part of the operator to the robot’s mechanical limbs, thereby moving the robot in accordance to their wishes. Despite Qawi’s hesitance around the massive machine of destruction, it was always awe inspiring to watch Bastian and Satoshi work.
The suits were dark blue with small ridges that lined the musculature of their bodies. It had to be designed to the unique person, because every body was different, and calibrated for each body. Qawi watched as Alice and one of her coworkers attached a datapad to the suit and ran through a quick diagnostic.
“You’re clear,” Alice said. She unhooked her datapad.
Bastian and Satoshi walked to the scaffolding that surrounded the mashin, and took a skeleton lift up to the pilot’s cockpit. With the help of some engineers on the scaffolding, Bastian and Satoshi climbed into the mashin. The doors to the cockpit slid shut after them, hiding them from sight.
Alice reached for a switch on her console, and one of the screens in front of Qawi flickered to life, revealing the top of Bastian’s head and Satoshi’s shoulder. They arranged themselves into position, with Bastian behind and slightly raised above Satoshi. Satoshi faced the monitors and controls of the mashin. Bastian set up to control the weaponry and limbs, everything that controlled the mashin’s motion and reactions. Under the crisp view of the camera, they both put their helmets on.
“Here.” Alice handed Qawi a datapad. He accepted it and saw it displayed Bastian and Satoshi’s vitals. Their heart rate and brain activity scrolled across the screen as Qawi watched. “Watch them for me.”
Qawi nodded, gripping the datapad hard in one hand. He was familiar enough with both their vitals that it was not an unreasonable request.
“Beginning testing,” Bastian said, his voice echoing in the chamber, amplified by the mic at his throat and patched through the communication system.
The scaffolding fell away, and the mashin shifted in place. The hands flexed, fingers waving as Bastian tested his new dexterity. His heart rate quickened as he moved in the cockpit, lifting the mashin’s legs and arms. Beside Qawi, Alice was speaking into the communicator, giving Bastian direction to test the new networking in the mashin.
Qawi watched Bastian’s neural scans, his brain functions lighting up as he exerted different motions with the mashin. The human brain was still, even in this day and age, one of the most brilliant things in the universe to Qawi. There were still things scientists could not fathom about the human brain, even after all the centuries of research into human reactions and tendencies.
Bastian’s heart rate spiked suddenly, and Qawi lifted his eyes. “Something’s wrong.”
“What is it?” Alice asked, to Bastian and Qawi. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Bastian said. “Just mild discomfort.”
“Tell the truth, Toroaian,” Satoshi said, admonishing.
“There is… slight pain where the suit is touching skin,” Bastian said.
“Pull him out,” Qawi said, getting to his feet. “Pull him out now.”
Alice barked the order into her communication device, and Qawi strode out of the scientist cubicle. He made his way quickly to the lift and waited for the on site doctor to hop on before mashing the button that took them straight up to the top.
When they reached the top of the scaffolding, it was already moving towards the mashin, and with a violent shudder that threatened Qawi’s balance, it connected to the mashin. Two engineers popped the seal on the cockpit and as Qawi closed the distance between them, they hauled Bastian from the cockpit. Over their shoulders, Satoshi poked out of the mashin, her face grim.
Bastian dropped to the ground, and Qawi could see him shake from where he stood. One of the engineers pulled Bastian’s helmet off, revealing a pale, sweating face pinched with pain. The doctor Qawi brought up pushed past him and dropped to his knees beside Bastian. With the engineer’s help, they peeled back the suit. Qawi gripped the railing of the scaffolding.
Bastian’s pale skin was littered with electric burns, pressed into his skin from the suit. The engineers wrestled him out of it as quickly as possible, and Bastian weathered the doctor’s hushed murmuring.
Satoshi skirted around the huddle and stood beside Qawi, watching the doctor work with a fierce gaze. She folded her arms over her chest, her helmet dangling from one hand. The doctor stood and faced Satoshi.
“He’ll be fine. I want to get those burns treated.” The doctor stripped off a set of plastic gloves as he talked. “Please see him escorted to the infirmary.”
“I will,” Satoshi said. She nodded at the engineers standing in front of Bastian, and they bent to help him to his feet.
Wincing the entire way, Bastian let himself be assisted down the scaffolding. Qawi and Satoshi followed shortly after, but Bastian was long gone by the time they reached the ground. Satoshi threw a long look at Qawi before she handed her helmet to one of the scientists and went to get changed. Qawi did not need the verbal order. He would check on Bastian.
One of the engineers had delivered Bastian’s suit to the scientists, and they were examining it when Qawi walked past them. They would figure out what went wrong. Qawi continued past them and out of the hangar bay. The station closed in around him, dark and stifling, as he strode through the corridors, heading down to the infirmary.
The infirmary resided at the bottom of the station, the place least likely to take damage if they were ever assaulted, and directly beneath the mashin hangar for additional protection. Qawi stepped into the brightly lit elevator that took him down to the infirmary.
He stepped into the infirmary as the elevator chimed its arrival, and made his way to the back of the room, where Bastian and he had private quarters. He stepped into Bastian’s quarters, and pressed back against a wall while the doctor worked on Bastian.
Bastian caught sight of him and grimaced, his mouth turning down framed by the dark blonde hair of his beard and moustache.
“She is not pleased,” Qawi said, answering the unspoken question. Bastian sighed.
“I thought it would fade,” Bastian said over the doctor’s shoulder. The doctor was invisible between them, smoothing burn cream over the red marks arching over Bastian’s skin.
“It would have. When your nerve endings had been burned away,” Qawi said in Bastian’s native German. He kept his tone level, letting his words sink in. Raging against Bastian did nothing, but he could be reasoned with. “The point of a test is to determine failures. That only works if you speak to the failures. What if the suit had been burning Satoshi as well? Or there is a possibility? If we stop it with you then she will remain unharmed.”
Bastian had nothing to say in response. He knew he was wrong. Qawi could see it in the slump of his shoulders, and the grip he had on the edge of the medical cot. Qawi leaned against the wall, his arms folded over his chest. The doctor kept working, and once Bastian’s wounds were properly treated, he gathered his things and left them in total silence.
“I trust you with my life,” Qawi said, driving his argument home. Straight through the heart of the muscle-bound man seated before him. “Why do you not return the favour?”
Bastian huffed a laugh, and shook his head in disbelief. “It is not your job to protect my life.”
“We work together,” Qawi said. “You are my partner. I would have you whole and well. Why can you not see that? This universe is too dangerous to withhold your trust from the people who work with you closely. As we do.”
“Why must you always make sense?” Bastian asked, awed. “Every word that ever comes out of your mouth is like a knife to the chest. How do you do it?”
“Practise,” Qawi said, keeping his temper in check. He could not tear his eyes away from the stark, vicious red lines marring Bastian’s normally clear skin. Bastian could have been seriously injured. He could have lost mobility in his fingers and limbs if the burns went deep into the muscle. He would not have been able to do his job. He would have been replaced.
“Okay,” Bastian said, his eyes softening. Qawi must have given something away in his expression, and he quickly smoothed his face out, trying to minimise his expression. “I’m sorry.”
“Kanzaki wants to see you when you’re released,” Qawi said, switching back to Standard. “I’m sure she will have words to say about your judgement regarding the mashin.”
“I’m sure she will,” Bastian said. He looked at Qawi, an odd tilt to his head. Qawi ignored him. He pushed himself off the wall and left Bastian to heal in peace.
Qawi returned to his room, where he had piles of paperwork waiting for his attention. He sat down at his desk and pulled up his list of files to sort through. His administrative assistants had sent only the most important missives through to him, diverting others to ambassadors or peace keepers across the human empire.
One message was from his Kreelah contact on one of the border planets, just at the edge of the galaxy. His name was a complicated twist of the ankle, and Qawi pushed his chair back to stand and prepared to open up a video call.
The Kreelah answered immediately, and Qawi made his greetings. The Kreelah responded in kind, and thanked him for answering his call for assistance. They began the complicated, literal dance of diplomacy. Human settlers had been encroaching on the native species of the world, searching for land to cultivate on an already strapped planet. As far as Qawi could discern, the humans were moving without authorisation from the proper supervisors. He would have to send a group out to investigate, and quell any rambunctious humans who refused to stand down in the face of a settlement agreement. He told the Kreelah that he would arrange for a small contingent to be sent to the nation.
The Kreelah asked him if he was all right, and Qawi inwardly cursed himself. He was not at the point where he could master the emotions playing across his face, but he had thought he was more adept than this. The Kreelah laughed, a light, musical note, and said with a twist of his shoulders that it was only because he knew Qawi so well. Qawi could only reveal there had been a training accident. All information surrounding the mashin was the most secret of top secret.
Pacified, the Kreelah ended the call and Qawi sank back into his chair. The room around him was growing dim, to simulate the encroaching approach of night. He would have to make an appearance in the mess hall shortly, to show everyone on the station that he was fine. Bastian would force himself to be there as well. Word spread quickly on a station of their size. It was too easy for rumours to get out of control.
As much as he wanted to crawl into bed and sleep until next week, Qawi pushed to his feet, closed out his open files, and made his way to the mess hall.
The room was packed with everyone coming off shift for the evening, leaving the skeleton crew of the night shift in place. Qawi walked into a wall of conversation, the crushed murmur of almost a hundred voices talking at the same time, and made his way towards the food dispensaries.
He got in line just like everyone else, but when he got his food he walked to the back, and ensconced himself into the privacy room. Satoshi was already there, rolling a spoon through her soup with a bored expression on her face.
“Thank you,” she said as Qawi sat down. “You seemed to get through to him.”
“Surprising,” Qawi said. “Did they determine what went wrong?”
“Not yet. They will work on it until they either die or solve it,” Satoshi said.
“You are allowing them to eat, at least, yeah?” Qawi asked.
“Yes. Protein blocks only,” Satoshi said. “The suits must function.”
Qawi shook his head. “You need to send them dinner. They will be able to think clearer if they know you aren’t coming for their heads.”
She pursed her lips and shrugged. Qawi waited, while she thought on it, and then she waved her hand towards the door. Qawi stood and entered the common mess hall, where he pulled aside one of the deck hands from the command centre. The kid looked shocked, his eyes wide, as Qawi said, “Bring the researchers on deck three their dinner. There are five of them.”
The kid nodded hastily, and broke away from Qawi as soon as he let go. Qawi returned to the private eating booth, and Satoshi watched him closely as he returned to his seat. Qawi ignored her, used to her soul-searching looks. It was not dissimilar to making eye contact with a Kreelah, whom he worked with very closely on a regular basis.
When Bastian finally entered the room, he held a plate and was fully clothed once more. His posture gave no indication that he had been hurt just hours before, and he quietly, humbly, slid into his chair beside Satoshi. They ate in an awkward silence that Qawi was happy to maintain. He felt as if it was a form of punishment for Bastian. Hopefully he would learn from his mistake and his silence.
Satoshi broke the silence primly, resting her spoon in her bowl. “I have a new mission for you both while I return home for the holidays. It’s on a central planet. One with very little water to swim in.”
Qawi gritted his teeth as Bastian flinched. Satoshi smiled. “I think you will both enjoy it. The briefing is tomorrow morning. You ship out when I do.”
When they finished their meals, Satoshi stood and passed her dishes through the small trolley that would take them to be cleaned. “Have a good night, boys.”
Qawi and Bastian both sent their dishes to be cleaned, and parted ways to return to their quarters. Qawi closed and locked his door behind him, before heading back to his desk to work on more paperwork. There were endless missives begging for help and assistance in disputed lands, where only the highest sovereignty could settle a dispute because of the political nature of the conflict.
It was very late when he finally pinched the bridge of his nose against an oncoming headache. He leaned against his desk with a sigh. The paperwork never ended, no matter how late he stayed up, or how much effort he put into it. There was no way to stay ahead of it.
He did not want to waste any more water today, so he simply rubbed himself down with a wet washcloth before slipping into his soft pajama bottoms. He crawled into bed, and the room sensed his lack of motion and dimmed the lights. Eventually, the lights flickered off.
Sometime before he fell completely asleep, when he was in the nascent stages of sinking against the mattress, he heard his door open. Soft footsteps crossed the room until the reached his bed, and the mattress sunk as another body pressed down into it.
Qawi kept himself still as Bastian slid closer, close enough to press his bare chest against Qawi’s back. Qawi relaxed against Bastian’s chest, and Bastian’s arm curled around him until his hand rested over his heart. The slick feel of the burn cream cooled Qawi’s skin, and he drifted to the gentle sensation of Bastian’s breathing
When Qawi woke, Bastian was gone, but he left the warmth of his body pressed into the sheets, and Qawi let himself roll into it for a few moments, unwilling to face the day just yet. Bastian always ran hot with his Northern heritage, and in the constant, suppressive chill of space Qawi truly appreciated his tactile nature.
When they were dressed and in Satoshi’s office, neither said anything about the late night excursion, and simply accepted the datapads Satoshi handed them. She sat down behind her desk, and Qawi and Bastian sat in their chairs across from her.
“Military personnel are disappearing on Cramitus Prime’alla,” Satoshi said. Beside him, Bastian stiffened. “High ranking military personnel. You need to find out why, and do it quietly. If the Brunti population realises what is going on, we are going to have a fight on our hands.”
“Is it clan warfare?” Qawi asked, looking at his datapad. The Brunti were very closely knit along familial alliances. A slight against a fourth cousin would see retribution.
“We’re not sure,” Satoshi said. “The same Brunti pack was seen in all of the cities where disappearances happened, but nothing concrete has surfaced. I cannot stress the importance of discretion.”
“Understood,” Bastian said, tersely.
“While you’re away, I won’t be able to contact you,” Satoshi said. “I will need to be present for the celebrations of our family’s rule. I will be on the other end of the galaxy. Do you need anything before you go?”
“I will review the briefing and let you know,” Qawi said. He grasped the datapad, already skimming the documents held on the screen. It was going to be undercover work.
“Get me your required items by end of day today. We leave in two days,” Satoshi said.
Two days later, Bastian and Qawi stood in the shuttle hangar with Satoshi. She was dressed in a crisp business suit, and the Imperial Guard stood behind her, at attention to see them off. She watched as they gathered their bags and boarded the small but comfortable ship that would take them to Cramitus Prime’alla. The entire space station would return to the capital of the empire- Earth.
Bastian dropped his bags into their shared bunk, and made his way to the cockpit with Qawi close behind him. They strapped into the pilot and co-pilot chair. Satoshi and her Guard stood far enough away from the shuttle that she was in no danger when they took off, and Qawi could see her from the window of the cockpit. She kept her official mask in place as the shuttle taxied from the hangar and lined up to be released into space.
With a soft push, the shuttle launched, and Qawi was alone with Bastian for the indeterminate future. Qawi kept his eyes on the controls in front of him. He had very little training in piloting, but just enough to bolster him in the event of an emergency. It never hurt to practice. And Bastian would answer his questions.
The journey to Cramitus Prime’alla would take several days. After the events of the past few days, Qawi wasn’t sure how the trip would go. Bastian seemed intent to ignore what had happened, and simply reassure himself that Qawi was alive and well with casual touches and long, hard stares. Qawi weathered them, knowing it was what he needed. Once the shuttle was on cruise control, Bastian unstrapped himself and pushed out of the pilot’s chair. Qawi followed him into the small common area. They sat at the table with the datapads.
“I do not like that you are here,” Bastian said, without preamble. Qawi said nothing, waiting for him to continue. “The Brunti will shoot first and ask questions later.”
“Do you think I can’t manage myself?” Qawi asked.
“No. I know you can. That doesn’t make me any less nervous. I don’t know why Kanzaki included you on this mission, to be honest,” Bastian said. “I thought I had been handling the Brunti situation well enough.”
“I very much doubt that her faith in your abilities has lessened,” Qawi said. “She has a reason for me being here. You are very good at what you do. There is no doubt of that.”
Bastian shifted uncomfortably in his chair, his eyes fixed on the datapad in front of him. He took a breath. “We will be working much more closely for some of my… more intricate duties than we have in the past.”
“I’m aware that you deal in violence,” Qawi said. “I’ve seen you return from missions before. Including the ones where you can barely stand for your injuries.”
“I don’t think you know exactly what I do, and what I have done,” Bastian said. “And I would rather you not. If, at any point during this mission, I ask you to leave, I need to know you are going to obey.”
Qawi squashed the indignation arising in his throat, and said, “If I determine that your life is not in immediate danger, I will.”
Bastian frowned, but decided that it was not worth arguing over. He would surely lose anyway. Qawi had trained his entire adult life to understand and use words as a sword and shield. In an argument between them, Bastian would not come out victorious.
Qawi knew better than to ask Bastian about his tendencies. Just as Qawi had learned to use words, Bastian had learned to use silence as a shield, to keep himself away from others to watch and learn, and to perceive threats if necessary. He would not answer Qawi’s questions about why he did the things he did, because they were not concrete. He could not put his hands on it and form it to his will. And Qawi allowed him that, because pushing him was not an appetising option.
The next few days were a blur of drudgery masked in the outfit of routine. Every morning, Bastian rose with ship dawn to begin an exercise routine that made Qawi want to cry just watching it. Bastian made Qawi work on the muscles of his arms; stretching and working on strengthening muscles he used for his bow. They had breakfast together and then sat in the common area to work on their backlog of paperwork. After lunch they sat for a game of chess, and then monitored the news feeds and transmissions from Satoshi. After dinner they watched a film before going to bed.
Boredom was the biggest killer in space. Humans who became bored because restless and irritable, and substantially increased their risk of getting into a fatal argument or situation. Bastian did well to keep their schedule flexible and interesting, but by the time Cramitus Prime’alla came into view Qawi was ready to jump out of the ship and hit atmo in his suit.
They cruised through the atmosphere without any issue, though Qawi noted that Bastian provided a ship designation that was not theirs. He said nothing, knowing that they were to remain unnoticed while performing this task for Satoshi. After they docked, they gathered up their bags. Bastian threw a cloak over Qawi’s head, and Qawi wrapped it around his shoulders and lifted the hood. Bastian did the same.
They stomped down the boarding ramp, and Qawi glanced up to see they had docked in a very industrial portion of the planet. Massive building rose up out of the ground around them, blocking out a better portion of the sky. Qawi breathed in the scents of an industrial planet and exhaled sharply. It was not a pleasant smell. The chemicals clung to his lungs, and he could almost feel the stick to his throat was he breathed. Hopefully they would be finished quickly.
As if reading his thoughts, Bastian handed him a face mask. Qawi accepted it, for the added benefit of concealing his face and colouring. The mask over his face filtered the air being fed into him, and while it didn’t smell any better at least the particles were being filtered out. Bastian fitted his own mask over his nose and mouth, and hefted his bag over his shoulder as he led them away from the ship and towards the docking registration office, attached by a rickety gangplank of rusting metal.
The docking registration office was cramped and incredibly disorganised. Qawi found himself jostled from all sides as they pushed their way to the clerk, and Bastian slapped down some money and his docking forms. The clerk snatched everything up and provided Bastian with a swipe card that designated his dock number. Bastian pocketed the card and grabbed Qawi’s elbow to ensure they weren’t separated as they made their way outside and into the city.
The other side of the docks was just as dirty as the first side. Qawi was grateful that his mask hid his grimace. He didn’t want to accidentally offend anyone, but he felt slightly claustrophobic with the impressive crush of buildings looming overhead. To his dismay, Bastian headed down a street that looked to be on a downward path, towards the actual foundation of the planet. The earth and dirt. Qawi gritted his teeth and followed without a word, shifting his own bag further up his shoulder for ease of movement.
What little of the sky Qawi had been able to see disappeared as they trekked further into the city’s underbelly. The buildings around them climbed higher and higher, and Qawi walked as close to Bastian as he could without tripping over the man’s feet. He could hold himself in a fight, Bastian had seen to that, but he did not want to come to that.
After an interminable amount of time walking through the dark streets on the ground, Bastian pulled Qawi aside and knocked on a door in a distinct pattern. The door opened, and Bastian ushered Qawi inside. Once inside, Qawi flipped the hood of his cloak back, and looked around.
They had stepped into a small hovel, a one room safehouse of sorts, clean and white and welcoming. Qawi felt his shoulders relax. Behind him, an Aetnop flipped the lock on the door, securing them inside.
“Welcome,” it said with the help of it’s voice box. The electronic box was fixed to the Aetnop’s lightly furred upper arm, with a wired earpiece that fixed to one of it’s large, fluffy black and grey ears. “I am Thesieus. I have procured what you will need for your stay. If you require further supplies please let me know.”
“Thesieus,” Qawi said, with a small smile. “I have heard great things about you. Kanzaki is very pleased with the work you do for her.”
The Aetnop trilled, his ears twitching in delight, and his small eyes, ringed with black fur, twinkled in the dim, off light of the room. “I am pleased to hear such a thing. It is much pleasure to provide my services for the Empire.”
“We’re grateful that you set this room up for us,” Qawi said. “Is there anything we should know? Who lives next door?”
“A small family, will be no bother,” Thesieus said. His voice box sounded very mechanical and stiff, reminiscent of older technology than the newer, smoother voices available. Though on this planet, in the bowels of the city, the older model would be more in place than a brand new one straight off the upper levels. “The mother very friendly. Will help you.”
“Thank you,” Qawi said. The Aetnop’s tail swirled as he turned and left them, closing the door behind him. Bastian flipped the lock after him, and they were once again alone together.
“He never speaks to me that way,” Bastian said, with a wry smile.
Qawi shrugged. “One thing that I have found constant in the universe is that beings want to be appreciated for their services. Nobody wants to feel used. Acknowledgement goes a long way.”
Bastian grunted, and dropped his bag onto the single cot in the room. The room had a small kitchenette, with not quite enough room to cook on, and a very small refrigerator that would not hold more than two days worth of food. The ‘fresher was accessible through a door in one of the walls, and was a simple toilet and shower set up. The pipes groaned when Bastian turned the water on. They seemed to be working, though.
“I’ll sleep on the floor,” Bastian said.
“Don’t be ridiculous, we’ve slept on the same bed before,” Qawi said, quietly. Bastian didn’t meet his eyes, and an awkward silence descended over them. Qawi tried to relieve it. “I will sleep better down here, anyway. With you at my back. I think this is the closest to the ground I’ve ever been on an inner world.”
“A different perspective, isn’t it?” Bastian said, his lips ticking up. “I am very familiar with it.”
“I do not like being unable to see the sky,” Qawi said. He pulled his mask down and sighed. “I do not belong in the cities.”
“We will end this quickly, and return you to the open air, little sandcat,” Bastian said, the warmth in his voice making Qawi relax. “Are you hungry?”
Qawi shook his head. “The smell of the air has somewhat lessened my appetite. I would rather just lie down.”
“Lie down. I will make you tea to settle your stomach.” Bastian dragged a small pot out of a short cabinet, and filled it with water. He set it to a boil while Qawi shucked his outer garments and gratefully sprawled out on the cot. Bastian’s bag dug into his hip, but he did not care. He twisted his head until he could see Bastian move about the small kitchen.
The muscles of the man’s shoulders flexed as he moved, and Qawi found himself transfixed by the play of his shirt over his back. He had drawn his hair back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, though a few strands had freed themselves during their walk down. Qawi let himself drift as their small studio grew warm with their body heat.
He was shaken awake sometime later, and Bastian handed him a mug of tea after he sat up. Qawi sipped it while Bastian wolfed down a marginally well balanced meal. Bastian took Qawi’s mug when he was finished, and said, “I have to go out a bit later tonight, to meet one of my contacts. Will you be all right on your own?”
“Of course,” Qawi said. “My bow is packed. I doubt I will need it, but it is available.”
“Good.” Bastian nodded to himself. “You should sleep.”
Qawi yawned. Space travel, even though he had been relaxing and unpressured for a few days, was always tiring. He felt like he could sleep for days, and adjusting to the planet’s time was always a challenge. “I think I will.”
Bastian clapped him on the shoulder, reached over him to grasp his bag, and left him to lay on the cot and drift. Qawi barely registered Bastian leaving, at some point during the night, and then he was captured by the world of his dreams.
It was the same dream as it always was. Satoshi Kanazki landed on his planet, stole him from his people, and decreed that he would be hers until the end of his life. She did not destroy his planet in this dream, but this time, his mother cried and screamed as he was guided away. The heart wrenching sounds forced a sob out of his own chest, and he woke with the force of it. He cried out, gripping his pillow as he shook, and the door burst open.
Bastian secured the door behind him and crossed the room in three quick strides. Qawi jerked back when Bastian dropped to his knees in front of him. Bastian’s hand hovered over his shoulder, a pinched look on his face. “Qawi? Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” Qawi said, despite his voice cracking. He pushed further away, until his back was flush against the wall with the entire span of the cot between them. He dragged in a harsh breath. “I’m fine.”
Bastian sat back on his heels, his hands clenched in the sheets. Qawi struggled to get himself under control, to even his breathing and the choking thunder of his heart. He pressed his face against the pillow, gripping so hard his hands hurt. When he lifted his head, after his initial panic had receded, he sat that Bastian had moved until his back pressed against the door. He sat, a silent sentry against the rest of the world, and as the terror and pain of the nightmare washed away Qawi was grateful for his presence.
Qawi pushed himself from the bed, shaking, and Bastian kept his eyes cast down so as not to make Qawi feel self conscious. Qawi made his way to the ‘fresher and leaned over the sink, pushing back the last of his terror. He ran the water in the sink, cupped his hand and sipped from it.
He exited the ‘fresher, and hovered in the threshold of the room, finding Bastian watching him with unrestrained concern. Qawi resisted the urge to curl in on himself under his fierce gaze.
“Do you dream every night?” Bastian asked. His voice sounded loud in the oppressive silence.
“Yes,” Qawi said, admitting for the first time to his partner that he did not sleep at night. He wasn’t entirely sure Bastian slept either, because every night he was up from fear, he found Bastian in the gym on the station, without fail. He did not go searching every night, but on the nights he did, he was able to find Bastian.
“Have you not spoken to anyone about it?” Bastian asked.
“Have you spoken to anyone about your insomnia?” Qawi asked. Bastian had no response for him, pressing his lips together.
“That is different,” Bastian said, finally. “You have done nothing to deserve your sleepless nights.”
Qawi did not know how to respond, given the nature of Bastian’s job. He had surely seen terrible things in his life. But everyone needed sleep. “I do not dream when you are with me.”
Bastian’s grip on the knife at his thigh loosened in surprise, and his blue eyes widened. Qawi spread his hands out at his sides, and said, “It is the truth.”
Bastian pushed up from the floor. “I believe we can come to an accord, then.”
Qawi watched as he stripped off his outerwear, laying all of his weapons and satchels on the ground behind the door. He reached for Qawi, his hand palm up in a gesture of trust. Qawi slid his palm along Bastian’s, clasping his hand, and let himself be pulled over to the cot.
Bastian climbed onto the cot and Qawi followed. He was quickly ensconced in the warm circle of Bastian’s arms, and Qawi pressed his face to the pillow and found himself drifting back to sleep to the cadence of Bastian’s breathing.
He did sleep through the night, after Bastian joined him, and when he woke, Bastian was still with him. Qawi climbed out of bed without disturbing the other man, and used the ‘fresher to wake up. When he returned to the main room, Bastian was sat up in bed, scrubbing a hand over his face.
“You’ve got some meetings with the embassy today,” Bastian said. “I’ve got to shake down some crooked cops for information. Can you find your way?”
“Yes,” Qawi said. “Do you want breakfast?”
“Please,” Bastian said. He stumbled to the ‘fresher and didn’t bother to shut the door. As Qawi began preparing food he heard the toilet and shower run through the crack in the door. The supplies Thesieus had left them were sparse but wholesome. Qawi quickly pulled together some food that would hopefully sustain Bastian for his morning.
Bastian returned from the ‘fresher and sat on the edge of the cot, scrubbing a towel through his long hair. Qawi handed him a plate, and then sat beside him to eat his own breakfast. Bastian wolfed his food down, and put his plate in the bin resting on top of the oven, where they had been piling their dirty dishes. He dressed in his black leathers and working boots, and threw a cloak over his shoulders.
“Good luck,” Bastian said, over his shoulder. Qawi nodded. Bastian grabbed his pack and weapons, and left the cramped space for the city streets.
Qawi dressed much slower. In this play, he was to be an emissary from one of the border planets seeking trade with some of the industrial moguls that did business on Cramitus Prime’alla. He had been provided with a modest outfit, a business suit that denoted hard work and a willingness to trade. He donned it, and was surprised to see the jacket had been lined with an additional material to keep him warm. He ran his fingers over it, wondering if Satoshi had ordered it to be sewn in.
The trip back up through the city levels was long and tedious. Qawi kept his face mask in place as he climbed stairwell after stairwell to reach some of the business sectors on the upper levels. The sun had risen, painting what little sky he could see a thin blue. He did not see any clouds.
His first stop was the human embassy building on Cramitus Prime’alla. It would be harder for him to go unnoticed here, but it was amazing what a demure attitude and some fawning would accomplish.Qawi made contact with some of the clerks on the floor that controlled trade requests. He was patched through to several businessmen, and given their locations. The clerk, flattered by his compliments, even set up a meeting with some of them for the afternoon hours. He thanked her and made his way to the first of the meetings.
It was not the most glamorous part of his job, and it was not even close to being his favourite part, but it was something he was, regardless, very good at. People tended to open up to attentive strangers, and Qawi could posit himself as one. His extensive knowledge of linguistics aided him in appearing benign and open to conversation.
The first stop was an Aetnop-run business that specialised in machinery for mining colonies. Qawi entered the building and told the Aetnop at the front desk that he had a meeting. She bobbed her head and gestured to an elevator off to the side of the lobby. Qawi thanked her and made his way to the elevator. He rode up a few floors, then stepped off.
The meeting was quick and to the point, as Aetnop business meetings tended to be. Qawi thanked the Aetnop for her time, and left her office.
Instead of heading back to the elevator, however, he tugged a passing Aetnop aside and asked where the server room was. “I’m here to look into the system latency you’ve been experiencing.”
Her ears flicked back. “Finally. Go up one more floor. It’s by the rec room. And don’t screw it up this time, yeah?”
“No problem,” Qawi said. He followed her instructions and found himself staring at a locked door. Surprisingly, it was a manual lock and not an electrical lock. He knew the Aetnops preferred not to rely on things that could easily be hacked, but he thought on an inner world he would have to crack a few door codes here and there.
Qawi blessed his luck, and quickly popped the lock on the door.
The server room was brightly lit and artificially cooled to prevent the servers from overheating. As he walked towards an access point, Qawi pulled his tablet from his bag and ported it into the server access point. He quickly disabled the firewall and dove into the company files.
As with all underhanded tactics, Qawi knew he had to follow the money. He swiftly scrolled through the accounting files, looking for anything that might seem out of place for a company that made mining equipment. He saw nothing strange or unaccounted for, and he disconnected his tablet and left the server room. He made it out of the building without being confronted.
On to the next one.
He hit three different companies, belonging to three different species. The beings in the galaxy were largely friendly towards each other outwardly, but there was always political jostling going on beneath the surface. Wars were prevented by deals made behind closed doors, whether the common people enjoyed the notion or not.
After the third company, Qawi took himself to a skyview cafe where he could sit under the pale, open sky and review some of the data he collected. Two of the companies had discrepancies in their ledgers would could be anything from input error to embezzlement. The files needed further review before he could come to a reasonable conclusion