Authors: Tracy Cooper-Posey
Tags: #Science Fiction Romance
“Kainan? He likes to eat,” Catherine replied. “Present him with a planet-raised steak and the deal will lock itself in.”
Devlin laughed. “And you wonder why I like to have you by my side.”
“I thought it was because I could out-drink you,” she said.
“That, too. You keep me humble.” He got to his feet. “Shall we do this?”
Catherine stood up carefully.
“I’ll have someone bring you some salicylic acid for your headache.”
“Don’t bother,” Catherine said curtly. “I deserve every minute of it.”
Charlton Space City, New Cathay (Ji Xiu Prime), Ji Xiu System, Perseus Arm. FY 10.187
Brant was booted out of the clinic before Bedivere, who wasn’t responding to rehabilitation and orientation nearly as well. Brant didn’t need to ask the medics why. Brant had every reason to return to his life as quickly as possible. That wasn’t something he could say for Bedivere.
The therapy clinic was located in the garden village, which was part of the original city, so he didn’t have to move through any of the airlocks or bent walkways that turned ninety degree angles with the gravity switching out half-way along. That was a good thing. He was still finding his sea-legs for some of the more strenuous balancing he usually took for granted.
His walk back to Charlton Primary was a pleasant ten minute stroll. The cheap clothing the clinic had printed for him rubbed at his new body in all the wrong places. He could fix that as soon as he could reach his own wardrobe. First, though, he had some groveling to do.
Lilly was sitting at the big desk in the corner, her head down as she concentrated on whatever she was doing. It seemed odd to see her without a tool in her hands but it had turned out she was better at running a city than anyone else. It was her ability to think in terms of systems and circuits and her friendship with Bedivere and Catherine that had uniquely qualified her for the job.
The fact that she had kept Charlton running with few bumps or hiccups for fifty years was more than adequate proof she could do it well.
Brant stood just inside the doorway and watched her, reacquainting himself with her beauty and the fact that she chose to be a part of his life. He had decided to regenerate because of her, yet she had never let him regret that decision or made him question it. He was still happy when each day arrived with her in it.
Lilly looked up. “You’re back! You should have told me. I could have come to help you.” She got up from the desk.
“I wanted to walk, so I asked Yennifer not to warn you. I need the exercise. And I wanted to think.”
“How is Bedivere doing?” she asked, moving around the desk and heading toward him. “Is he still angry?”
“Not that you’d notice,” Brant said. “Something is slowing his rehabilitation, though.”
“The clinic has some of the most well-trained medics in the galaxy,” Lilly said. “I don’t think they would miss something like that.”
“They haven’t,” Brant replied, remembering the hints the staff had dropped whenever the subject of Bedivere had come up in his own counseling sessions. “Knowing what the issue is and resolving it are two different things. You were right all along. He needs time.”
Lilly stopped in front of him, with three feet between them. She made no attempt to hug him or touch him and his heart gave a little jump. “Time for you to kill me?” he asked softly.
Her eyes glittered. “Six weeks,” she said. “You left without word, you sent nothing, not even a cryptic message to say you were alive. You and Connell both just…jumped.”
“Connell caught a hint of Bedivere’s trail. We really did have to jump that fast,” Brant said. “Then, after that, we were too busy following the trail and watching our backs. I’m sorry.”
“You left me alone here!” Lilly cried. “
of you. No help, nothing. While you ran off on some adventure that ended up with Bedivere resenting you and you dying!”
“I know. I’m sorry, Lilly.”
“For putting you through that fear and doubt, yes,” he said flatly. “I would have reached back and let you know if I could. You’re going to have to trust me on that. You really don’t want the details.”
She shivered. It was an unexpected motion and she wrapped her arms around herself. “Connell said enough. He was talking about no-ask contracts out in the Silent Sector and more. You’re right, I’m not sure I want to know more. But, Fareed,
? Bedivere disappeared for
years. Everyone knows where to find us these days, even him. If he had wanted to come back, don’t you think he would have? Why drag him back here kicking and screaming?”
Brant swallowed. “I did it for you.”
Her eyes widened. “Me?”
“For you and Catherine, Lilly. For all of us. Bedivere is our friend. If we had left him out there without at least finding him and making sure he was okay, we would have been morally responsible for whatever happened to him. If you had seen the…the place where I found him, then you would have done exactly what I did, too.”
Lilly studied him. “No, I wouldn’t,” she said softly. “I couldn’t have. I don’t have spare bodies to fall back on. Only you and Connell could have done it. Connell said…he said you killed Bedivere and then yourself, because it was the only way out of there.”
Brant pushed his hands through his hair. The short length still felt odd under his fingers. “I will give you the details if you really want them. I’d rather not. I don’t want to disturb your sleep.”
She licked her lips. “Very well. Perhaps somewhere in the future, when this is far behind us. I might have the stomach for it then.”
“I doubt it,” Brant said shortly.
She looked troubled. “It was bad, then,” she concluded. “Why would he want to stay in such a place?”
“No one would want to stay there,” Brant said flatly. “He just didn’t want to be here more than he didn’t want to be there.” He shrugged.
Lilly’s gaze flickered toward the closed doors, the ones that hadn’t been opened for nearly a decade. “Is there any way we can help him change his mind?” she asked softly. Her eyes were shining with unshed tears.
“I don’t know,” Brant said tiredly. “I just don’t know anymore. Hell, I don’t even know what
supposed to do now.”
Lilly came to him then. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him and he knew he had been forgiven. Relief flooded him and he held her to him. He might not know what was ahead of him, but if Lilly was there, he’d be happy to figure it out.
Charlton Space City, New Cathay (Ji Xiu Prime), Ji Xiu System, Perseus Arm. FY 10.187
Bedivere stood in front of the ornate, intricately carved door, studying the scroll work and the minute detail on the leaves and vines in the faux wood.
That was all he was doing. Just staring at the door. Even so, his heart was hurrying along far too fast for such a mundane act. It had been racing since he had left the clinic, to the point where he had lingered in the park just outside for long minutes, until it had settled down even a little bit.
Now it was screaming along once more.
“Hi Bedivere.” The greeting came from a bodiless voice. “I can open the door for you, if you would like.” It was a female voice, not Yennifer’s. It was just one of her sub-routines, that had spotted his angst and was trying to be helpful.
“No, thanks,” Bedivere said gruffly. He stepped back from the door and sank down onto the broad bench that sat along the wall of the foyer. The bench had also been carved to within an inch of its life. The tiles on the floor swirled with geometric and symmetrical patterns in subdued colors. There was even a chandelier overhead, with thousands of ionized glass pendants that repelled dust and dirt and never needed cleaning. They glittered and twinkled.
He dropped his head to look at the tiles once more and reminded himself to breathe. All he had to do was stand, put a hand on the door and push. It was keyed to his biometrics and would open with barely any pressure.
Except it was possible that in the time he had been gone, Yennifer or Lilly had deleted his access to the suite. He might push against the door and it wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t something he wanted to find out.
That wasn’t the reason he was parked on the bench, though. He gripped the edge of the bench, letting it bite into his palms. No, the real reason was what lay
the door. However the door got opened—whether he did it or he had to ask someone to let him in—he would still have to step through and face everyone in the big room beyond.
Lilly and Brant. Connell. Probably Yennifer. Lilly might have a whole team of day staff now, helping her run the place. She probably needed the help, because…
…because Cat wasn’t here anymore.
Mostly, he didn’t want to look at their faces and see the condemnation in their eyes. Their disgust. He thoroughly deserved whatever they dished out, no argument. He just didn’t know if he was ready to face it yet.
Better get it over with
. The thought was spoken in Cat’s soft contralto.
He jerked to his feet and propelled himself forward before he could think about it anymore and raised his hand.
The door opened before he could touch it.
He let his hand fall back as Connell’s eyes widened. Bedivere knew it was Connell even though he looked just like Brant, shaggy hair and all, because the clothing he was wearing wasn’t black.
Connell stepped back. Pleasant surprise or horror?
Then a smile formed on Connell’s lips. “You’re home,” he said simply.
Bedivere swallowed as something shifted inside him. It wasn’t quite relaxation. Not yet. Relief?
He moved through the door and looked around.
The massive room had changed dramatically since he had gone and that was probably a good thing. Before, it had been a modern space with cool surfaces and muted colors and lots of light.
There was still lots of light. The windows could not change their shape, not without structural changes. Nor had the view beyond the windows changed. Everything else
been altered. The floor now looked like old wood, polished and waxed. The windows had leadlights and the ceiling was vaulted, with huge beams arcing up to meet in the middle of the vaults, their curve mimicking the pointed arches on the top of the windows.
There were old-fashioned multi-hued carpets here and there, anchoring groups of furniture together. None of the carpets matched, but they all went together anyway. Sofas and armchair by one window. A piano…. Bedivere blinked. He had only ever seen images of one before.
There was a big, ornate desk beyond the piano, which he guessed would be Lilly’s. Then a step up to another level where a long table and dining chairs sat.
Five people were sitting at the table, which gleamed with the dull glow of highly polished wood. All of them were looking at Bedivere.
He found he had come to a halt, five paces inside the doorway. His heart was jumping around again.
Connell’s hand came down on his shoulder. “It’s fine,” he said softly. “No one will bite.”
Bedivere made himself take another step. It felt like he was wading through concrete. Then another step. It grew easier to keep going.
Lilly was getting to her feet. Bedivere couldn’t read her expression. It was changing and shifting anyway. She stopped in front of him, right by her desk, halting him.
Bedivere waited. Even his breath stopped.
Then tears spilled down her pale cheeks and she reached up and hugged him. Bedivere rested his hands against her back, not quite returning the hug. If he did, she might step away from him. He didn’t want to risk it.
Then it occurred to him. This was the first hug, the first positive, friendly and warm physical contact he’d had in….
He couldn’t help himself. He tightened his arms around her as the tension in his chest shifted and melted. He closed his eyes. Human contact. He hadn’t realized how much he needed it.
Lilly shifted and leaned back, her hands still on his arms. “It’s so good to see you,” she said, giving him a small smile. “I’m in the middle of a meeting. Come and sit in on it. We can talk afterward.”
She walked back to the table, bringing Bedivere with her, her hand still around his elbow.
Even Connell returned to the table.
Everyone else was getting to their feet, watching him.
Yennifer was smiling, her beautiful almond-shaped eyes warm. The woman next to her was dark skinned and androgynous, her eyes a light brown. There was very little expression on her face and Bedivere knew from her lack of reaction that she was an AI projection. Possibly she was the one who had spoken to him outside the door. He would know if she spoke again.
Brant was wearing his customary black once more. He gave Bedivere a half smile. Somewhere in the next few hours Bedivere knew he would have to talk to Brant privately. There had been no privacy at the clinic and neither of them had been strong enough to really talk properly, even if they had been able to find an isolated corner. Besides, every time he’d shown the slightest stress response, the clinic’s AI had dosed him into an induced sleep.
At the time he had been grateful for the constant reprieves. Now he didn’t have that bolt hole anymore.
The fourth person at the table was the outsider, for whom this meeting had apparently been called, but Bedivere knew who he was. “Nichol August,” he said, acknowledging him.
Nichol was Brant’s height. While Brant was wiry, Nichol was solid, with heavy shoulder muscles and a thick neck. His hair was dirty blond and like Connell, he wore it at a medium length. Usually, though, he swept it all back neatly while Connell’s locks shadowed his face and had him constantly pushing them out of the way.
Nichol’s smile was jovial. “Bedivere. Welcome back to Charlton.”
Bedivere gave him a nod. “You’re still spokesman for Celestial, then? That’s why you’re here?”
Celestial was one of the five original villages that had petitioned and been granted permission to attach themselves to the Charlton city core. It was a village of domes, which was where it got its name. The permanent star field was a constant backdrop there.