Chapter One

 

Jonah

WHERE THE hell was Wes? He should be there, waiting with Jonah. Why did the captain need this meeting at all? The next three contracts were signed weeks ago. They were the last ones. Jonah paced four steps to the left, then turned and paced four steps back. Abandoning his pockets he ran his hands through his hair, then clenched them together. He leaned against the opposite wall and darted a look down both ends of the hallway while he tapped the toe of his shoe against the floor. Wes had promised. Three more planets and they’d find somewhere quiet, a nice planet where they could settle down and grow a small garden of their own.

Wes had laughed when Jonah first mentioned that was what he wanted to do. It had taken four contracts before he realized Jonah was serious. After traveling for fifteen years and terraforming planets to make them habitable, Jonah wanted something of his own. He wanted to see the same stars every night and feel a breeze on his face that wasn’t from an air recycler.

He looked down the hall again. Still no Wes. Perhaps he was already inside, waiting for Jonah to get his tardy ass into gear and join him. Jonah pressed the request button on the captain’s door, then shoved his hands into his pockets, stepped back, and checked the empty hall. He stepped forward to buzz again just as the door opened.

“Ah, Starovski. There you are. Good, good. Come on in, then.” Captain White was a round, blustery man with a jovial glint in his eyes like he’d been born under a circus star. Jonah double-checked everything the captain said, just as he’d done with the circus masters he’d known in his childhood.

This morning White’s eyes were flat, his jaw tense. He strode around his desk and sat, shuffled some papers to the side, clasped his hands, then unclasped them, and tapped the papers with his fingertips.

Jonah settled into his usual position against the wall just inside the door and waited for Wes. That was probably why the captain seemed so nervous. Wes said no one felt comfortable with Jonah because he was a sullen bastard, but Jonah thought it was probably because everyone thought he could do to them what he did to planets: age them with a word.

Wes had started the rumor when they’d first started this business, saying it made Jonah more mysterious and alluring. Jonah had never worked out what was supposed to be alluring about a man who could supposedly turn a person into a wrinkled prune with the wave of his hand and a grumbling phrase of nonsense, but the contracts had poured in after that, so he supposed Wes knew what he was talking about. It meant no one initiated conversations with Jonah, though, and he was left with just Wes for company.

“Well, sit down, Starovski.” The captain’s hands had stopped moving and now rested loosely clasped on the desk.

“I’d rather wait for Wes,” said Jonah. His voice came out in his usual tenor, which was better than the ruined rasp it became when they started a new contract.

“Farragher won’t be coming.” The captain sounded as confused as Jonah felt. “He left in his shuttle last night.”

Wes left? He won’t be coming? “What shuttle?” Jonah’s smooth tenor was gone. He stumbled forward and dropped into a seat. “He left?” Jonah gripped the edges of his seat, sure the small piece of furniture was the only thing preventing him from floating away through the walls of the frigate Keiki and off into the dead dark of space. His breath came to him in a vacuum. “When will he be coming back?” The words left him in a strangled whisper, but even as he heard them, saw them hovering in an oily mist in the air, he heard the answer whispering in the dark like a lover.

“He’s not coming back.”

Through the fog Jonah heard a request-click at the door and White call, “Come!” The door opened behind him, and the air billowed and swirled as someone came in, but Jonah didn’t turn to see who it was. It wasn’t Wes. Wes was gone, and Jonah was still here. On his own. He lowered his head and stared at his hands clasped around the edges of his seat. His fingers were going numb from the grip. He wished the ache in his chest would go numb too. Finally he was able to draw breath and looked back at the captain.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “We still have three more contracts.”

“That’s right, and as you requested last week, they’ve been paid in advance.”

Jonah gasped in the thick silence that followed. “I didn’t request—” Jonah stopped and drew breath. Wes always acted for Jonah. “Contracts are always paid on completion.” That was one factor that had been nonnegotiable from the beginning. His cheeks grew cool even as a fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead.

“Not this time.” White growled out the words. “Farragher explained your situation.”

“My situation?” When White did nothing more than glare at Jonah, Jonah changed tack. “I didn’t think the ship had the budget to—” Jonah bit his lip to stop talking. He didn’t need to tell the captain how things usually worked. The fact that White had paid from his own budget probably explained the scowl on his face. It would put a lot of pressure on operations for the duration of those contracts.

After another long pause, Jonah said quietly, “I need to go back to my suite.” His knuckles glowed white from his tight grip on his chair. Deliberately, one finger at a time, he lifted his hands away and looked back at the captain.

“I need to discuss with you the conditions of the contract, Mr. Starovski. Your responsibilities remain the same, and now that Mr. Farragher is no longer here, you’re also responsible for anything he’s agreed to. Surely whatever you need to do—”

“I need access to the net.”

The hardness in White’s gaze softened as he tapped the screen of his tablet a few times, then slipped it across the desk. “Enter your codes in there, Mr. Starovski.”

Jonah reached a trembling hand to drag the tablet toward him. His heart beat frantically as he typed. If he was wrong about this, even if Wes didn’t come back, everything would be okay. Please be wrong.

Silence clung to the air in worried vapor, punctuated by the tap-tap of Jonah’s fingers on the screen as he accessed his bank accounts. The screen morphed into a spreadsheet that showed regular deposits and a growing balance, until the last one. The zero at the end of the column of numbers seemed to pulse with Jonah’s harsh breathing. He cleared the screen and tapped frantically until another account came up on the screen. It told a similar story.

Those were only their working accounts. There were other accounts that Wes had set up for their future. Jonah opened screen after screen, the tapping, sharper and louder with each screen, punctuating the dense waiting in White’s office as he accessed the accounts. Empty. Empty. Empty.

Fuck. He wouldn’t believe it. Wes wouldn’t have cleaned him out. He wouldn’t have taken it all and left Jonah with nothing and no one except contracts to finish that he wasn’t even going to be paid for. Because they had already been paid for them. Black spots danced in front of the screen, and Jonah realized he’d been holding his breath. He sucked in air, harsh and acrid in his throat. It burned his eyes, but he blinked the sting away.

He opened the last account. It was the one he’d opened when Wes had first shown him how to do it. One just for him, after so long of not being able to have anything for himself. It held the same amount he’d had when he was in the brothel. Nothing.

He stared at the zeroes while he got his breathing under control. As his heart rate slowed, his anger grew. He’d worked with Wes for fifteen years, building a life that would keep him away from Tolifax, the rat-infested planet he was born on. They’d been building a partnership.

“When will Wes be back?” he asked. He would be back. Jonah knew it. White was wrong before. He had to be. Jonah just had to ask the question in the right way.

“I don’t think he will be, Mr. Starovski. He surrendered his ship pass when he left.”

The zeroes blurred in front of him. Wes wasn’t coming back. This wasn’t some quick jaunt Wes took for fun. Jonah knew that too. Wes never went anywhere without weeks of planning.

He reached out to close the screen but paused. Wes knew the passwords to all the accounts, including this one. There was nothing left, but these were the only accounts he had. When he eventually made some money of his own, he couldn’t risk Wes taking that too. He was too old to go back. No one wanted a thirty-two-year-old trick.

So, new password. Something Wes would never think of. He looked at the captain. No, too obvious. The other one. The one who came in late. He turned suddenly to the man standing at the door. His brown eyes widened when Jonah looked at him, as if he was surprised Jonah even knew he was there.

“What’s your name?”

“Lieutenant Davis.”

Davis. Jonah replaced a couple of letters with numbers and symbols. No way would Wes think of that for his password. He changed the passwords on all the accounts: if Wes deposited money in them, he wouldn’t be able to take it out again. Jonah would have grinned if his stomach wasn’t still churning. For the first time, he was glad that Wes had insisted they each have total control of all the accounts. It had allowed Wes to drain the accounts, but it also meant Jonah could make changes without his permission. After he’d changed the passwords, he removed Wes’s authority from them too, so he couldn’t request access. He’d still be able to deposit, but wouldn’t be able to do anything else. Once everything was changed, he pushed the tablet away, sat back, and stared at his hands twisting in his lap.

“You can make a complaint, you know. The matter can be investigated, and a tribunal will determine how much of the money was yours. You could press charges,” said White.

Wes was gone and had taken all their money. A tribunal deciding half the money was Jonah’s wasn’t going to change that. “No,” he said. Jonah’s dream of finding a quiet place to live and grow things was shattered. Somewhere deep down inside, his broken heart was screaming and flailing against what he knew he had to do, but there was no choice. Jonah had to keep going. He had to find a way to survive that wouldn’t take him back to his past. There was only one thing he knew how to do. He looked up at the captain. “Are there more planets to be terraformed?”

“There might be one or two left in this galaxy, but they haven’t undergone the stringent testing for native life-forms,” said White. “I don’t have jurisdiction in other galaxies. You’d have to submit applications directly to other terraforming expeditions.”

Jonah cringed at the pity he heard in the captain’s voice. After another lengthy silence, he sighed and stood. “Thank you, Captain. Please let me know as soon as we’re in orbit around the next planet.” He shifted on his feet and swallowed audibly. He’d never worked alone before and wasn’t sure what would happen if he did now. Sometimes the power built so strong he felt like his body would explode and paint the room with everything he was, as well as his breakfast. If it got really bad, he’d send out magnetic impulses that would interfere with the ship’s operations, or worse, harm the crew. He wasn’t going to allow his power to do that again. The screams still echoed in his dreams. He’d have to have someone there to assist him, but he wasn’t going to have someone ordered to do it. He still had nightmares of the time Wes forced a rent boy to help him release the energy. “I’ll also need a volunteer from your crew to assist me during that time.”

The captain stood and reached across his desk to shake Jonah’s hand. “Of course, Mr. Starovski. Lieutenant Davis will be assisting you for this contract.” He nodded at the man at the door.

“Captain, I asked for a volunteer.”

The captain smiled then looked pointedly to the officer who’d joined them. Jonah looked toward the brown-haired man who stood silently behind him.

“I’m happy to help any way I can, Mr. Starovski,” he said. His words were confident and the voice pleasant, but Jonah could feel the trepidation pulsing from him in staccato bursts. His defenses were high, too, and Jonah knew if he pushed, he’d achieve nothing more than a belligerent refusal to back down. If the lieutenant wanted him to believe he was volunteering, Jonah had to accept it.

Jonah’s ability to read other people and the intensity with which he approached everything scared people. Wes always told him to keep his mouth shut because he just made a fool of himself when he opened it. His breath clogged in his throat as he thought of Wes gone and the empty bank accounts, but he pushed it away. He’d think about that later. He clamped his lips tightly and nodded.

“If there’s nothing else, Captain?”

White shook his head.

“I’ll await your advice on achieving orbit.” Jonah looked at the lieutenant before leaving the captain’s office. He was halfway down the corridor to the lifts that would take him back to his suite when the lieutenant caught up with him.

“Starovski. Wait up.”

Jonah paused and waited, keeping his head down. His skin was stretched tight, abrading the nerve endings. Pain pricked through him and burned his eyes. He had to get back to his suite before he broke down completely, but the lieutenant was assigned to him and was going to be working with him for the next month, unless Wes came back. Wes wasn’t coming back. Jonah had to learn how to work with Davis. He clenched his hands in his pockets and turned to face the younger man.

“I wanted to ask you exactly what my duties will be so I can prepare.”

Davis felt more resigned now, but Jonah could still feel a thread of anger in him. It wasn’t directed at Jonah, though, and he didn’t think it was toward the captain either. “There’s nothing for you to prepare for. I’ll do my job, then explain what’s happening on the planet, and you’ll write a report to submit to your captain. That will happen every morning.”

“Is the shuttle already booked for tomorrow? What time will we be undocking?”

Jonah lifted his head to stare right into Davis’s eyes, allowing some of his power to bleed through. There was no way the lieutenant would miss the color or the way his eyes glowed with the power swirling inside. Davis took a step back but then squared his shoulders and stared back. Other crew members wouldn’t meet Jonah’s gaze or stay near him once they’d seen his eyes. Perhaps this one was the right choice for the captain to make, after all.

“We won’t be going to the planet. All I need is visual contact. I can do everything I need to do from orbit.” Jonah continued walking, stretching out his stride so the lieutenant would leave him alone, but Davis tripped along beside him, curiosity hovering around him like a heat haze.

“There must be more than that if you need me there full-time. If it’s just a debrief and a report, I can do that in an hour at the end of the day.”

“You’ll be my liaison. While I’m working I won’t have contact with anyone else. It’s too distracting.” Jonah paused. “There are also some other things you need to do to finish the process. Physical things.”

 

 

Marcus

PHYSICAL THINGS? Like running ten miles? Or…? “You mean I have to touch you?”

Marcus’s mind spun. What sort of touching does he want? His gaze skittered around the walls and floor, and he shifted slightly on his feet. That wouldn’t be the case, and no way was he going to raise that possibility. He had plans for his career, and a sexual harassment suit from the preeminent terraformer wasn’t one of them. Probably it was just a massage on his shoulders or something.

Jonah nodded, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.

“And if I don’t?”

“The process doesn’t work. Reversal of the terraforming process begins almost immediately if I don’t release the energy back to the planet. The release stabilizes the rate of spin and maintains the chemical reactions that lead to atmosphere generation. I’ve tried to… do it myself, but it doesn’t work that way.”

Marcus nodded. It was almost impossible to massage kinks out of your shoulders and back by yourself. “Sure. No problem,” he said. He knew what it was like to be hunched over equipment for the entire day.

“You should consider this carefully, Lieutenant,” said Jonah. “If you decide not to go ahead, let me know tonight so I can ask the captain to find someone else for me.”

By that time they’d reached the door to Jonah’s suite. He activated the entry and stepped inside, then turned and blocked the doorway, so Marcus couldn’t follow him in. He didn’t leave, though. He stood in the middle of the corridor, confused.

“What?” Jonah said.

“It doesn’t seem like I’ll have anything to do while you’re working.”

“What do you normally do?”

A wry smile tugged at his lips. “The captain never said I was relieved of my other duties, did he?” he asked with a shake of his head. “I’ll see you in the morning, Mr. Starovski. I’d better get things set in place so I can work from your suite.” He tapped two fingers against his forehead in a casual salute, then walked away.