By: Claire Russett | Other books by Claire Russett
Published By: Dreamspinner Press
Published: Mar 06, 2013
ISBN # 9781623803841
Available in: Epub, Mobipocket (.mobi), Adobe Acrobat
Click here for the print version
Major Duncan Harris is a Union soldier serving aboard the space station Argo, leading one of the station's exploratory teams. He is quiet, reserved, and has sworn off any personal relationships since his last one ended messily. Besides, working closely with various team members makes him uncomfortable.
One of Argo’s engineers, Dr. Christophe Vabre, recently started serving on Duncan's team. Chris is slowly getting to know Duncan, but Duncan seems determined to keep him at arm’s length, and his mixed messages confuse Chris. When, on one of their missions, they discover a piece of technology that allows people to share their thoughts, Chris never imagines he’ll use it with Duncan—or that the machine will reveal the depth of Duncan’s true emotions.
Duncan is horrified to find himself not only sharing his feelings but forcing Chris to reciprocate his advance. Mortified, he flees Chris’s lab—but before Duncan can discover the truth, an attack on Argo forces the station to evacuate. He and Chris will have to team up one more time if they want to save their home.
“GET down, Vabre!” Major Duncan Harris shouted urgently. With his P-90 clutched tightly in his hands, he sprinted as fast as he could toward where Dr. Christophe Vabre stood, as per usual, right slap-bang in the middle of a mission gone bad. As he ran, Duncan could hear the pulse of Corrin’s Ionian energy pistol and then the staccato of Lieutenant Jessica Fleming’s P-90 behind him as they attempted to hold back the attacking soldiers. Some part of Duncan’s mind was aware that what he was doing was foolish—running out into the open in the middle of a firefight—but the larger part of him couldn’t care less. All he knew was that he needed to get Chris out of the line of fire before he managed to get himself shot. Or worse.
Chris jerked and spun around as Duncan shouted over the sound of the gunfire that echoed all around them. As he did so, a few rounds impacted on the stone pillars behind him, sending shards of rock flying. Chris let out a cry of pain as one hit him in the face, and Duncan saw a trickle of red well up on Chris’s forehead. Too late; he was going to be too late. Gritting his teeth, Duncan forced himself to run faster, willing his body to obey his mind even as his legs burned with the lactic acid buildup and his breath tore painfully at his lungs. Although always on high alert during first contact situations and well-used to the tricks the Thessalia Galaxy liked to play, the speed with which this particular meeting had gone all to hell had surprised even Duncan. Neither Fleming’s forays into diplomacy nor Corrin’s intimidation tactics had been able to avert the current firefight, and the best Duncan could hope for now was to get his team out of here in one piece.
Another flurry of bullets flew past Chris’s head, and he dropped suddenly to the ground. Duncan’s heart lurched painfully and seemed to stop beating. With a final burst of speed, he managed to reach Chris just in time to catch him as he fell. Wrapping an arm tightly about Chris’s waist, he hauled Chris’s body up against his own. He resisted the urge to let loose on their attackers with his weapon, in favor of getting Chris to safety; he knew he could trust Fleming and Corrin to keep them covered as best they could. Glancing around hurriedly, he pulled Chris backward and managed to get them both down into the questionable cover of a large bush, hoping that the foliage would hide them sufficiently from view. He needed time to find out just how badly Chris had been hurt and how best to get him out of the mess into which their mission had rapidly descended.
The blood running freely down Chris’s face captured Duncan’s attention, and for a brief moment, it was all Duncan could do to hold it together. All of his instincts were screaming at him to seek vengeance—to start fighting back hard and not stop until all the bastards who’d dared to attack his team and his scientist were dead. Thankfully, his military training kicked in, and he managed to get a handle on his rage. He took a deep breath and tightened his grip on Chris, channeling his anger into action.
“I’m having words with Tennant when we get back,” Duncan muttered as he did his best to pull Chris with him farther into the undergrowth. “The next ambush was definitely supposed to have been on one of his missions.”
“You make sure you do that,” came a muzzy voice from below him. “Then it would be Jason being bodily pulled through alien vegetation of questionable origin.” Chris paused for a moment before continuing. “Although, then I would have to put up with his whining when he got back to the lab, so maybe it is better for you and I to be here after all.” He shot Duncan a somewhat bleary smile as he spoke.
Duncan looked down and found himself staring into Chris’s deep brown eyes. He was relieved beyond measure to hear the familiar sound of Chris’s voice despite the blood that welled up copiously from the gash in Chris’s forehead. His heart stuttered back up into an uneasy rhythm, and Duncan couldn’t stop a smile spreading across his features even as he berated himself internally for his weakness. “Hey, Chris,” he said, hoping his slip of using the abbreviation of Christophe’s first name would be overlooked and grateful his voice remained steady in the face of his overwhelming relief. “Are you doing all right?”
Chris huffed out a laugh at that. “No, not so much,” he admitted, batting a leaf aside with a hand and regarding Duncan askance. He did, however, shift in Duncan’s hold, pulling back and then shuffling around so he was crouched beside Duncan rather than leaning up against him. To Duncan’s further relief, Chris also continued to talk, his voice growing stronger as he explained their situation in the precise detail Duncan had learned to expect from his field scientist. “I mean, given that I am currently bleeding from my head, that we’re both trapped in the middle of what is most likely a carnivorous alien cabbage plant, and that we’re currently being used for target practice by a bunch of bloodthirsty aliens with an unhealthy appreciation for guns, I would have to say ‘no’. None of this could technically be defined as ‘doing all right’, really. Could it, Major?”
As if to prove his point, another burst of gunfire whipped over their heads, causing the large fleshy leaves of their cover to sway slightly and underlining Duncan’s need to get Chris to a more secure location and then see to the rest of his team. “At least their aim isn’t so great,” Duncan commented before turning his attention back to Chris. “Can you walk?” he asked. “We need to get out of here.”
“Yes, I can walk,” Chris replied at once. His tone was firm, but his eyes were wide and just a little scared. The dark red blood was still spilling down Chris’s face from the inch-long gash on his forehead that ran dangerously close to his eyes. It stood out in stark contrast to Chris’s pale skin, and Duncan noticed that Chris’s hands were shaking slightly as he fumbled with his vest. “I would, however, Major, appreciate some time to stop myself from bleeding out first.”
“Here, let me,” Duncan said immediately, reaching out to still Chris’s hands with his own, plucking the white handkerchief from Chris’s grasp as he did so. With the folded cloth, he dabbed carefully at Chris’s cut and wiped the blood out of his eye and off his forehead while steadying Chris’s face by cupping Chris’s cheek with his left hand.
Duncan tried to concentrate on what he was doing, but it was hard. The sounds of the battle still raging around them were distracting, and the adrenaline was still pumping furiously through his system. He forcibly blocked out the noise, focusing all his attention on Chris instead. He gently held Chris’s face, tilting Chris’s head to one side so he could attend to the cut. He felt a small spark of warmth start to glow in his chest as he looked at Chris, but quashed that feeling too; it was equally, if not more, distracting. He moved quickly, reaching into his tac vest for his own supplies and dabbing at the blood with a sterile wipe, wincing in sympathy as Chris gasped in pain.
“It’s all right,” Duncan said. “I’m almost done.” Having cleared up most of the blood, he put a couple of butterfly plasters over the cut to help hold it together. “There—good as new,” he said as he pulled back. “Did you get hit any place else?”
“No,” Chris replied, “I was just winded when I ducked down.” Chris still looked rather pale, and Duncan found that he automatically wanted to comfort Chris. He started to reach out to touch Chris but was able to resist at the last moment and clenched his hand into a fist before it could make contact. After all, this was about Chris, not him. And even though Duncan had been leading exploratory missions in Thessalia for over four years now, Chris had only been part of his team for a few months.
“Don’t worry, Vabre, we’re going to be fine,” he said reassuringly, striving for his own composure. “I know that this is all still pretty new to you, but trust me; we’ve got plenty of experience with this kind of thing. Corrin and Fleming are out there holding their own, and we’re just going to head through here and then circle out and around the monument so we can double back to their position. We’ll be fine, you’ll see.” He put as much confidence into his tone as he could in an attempt to buoy Chris’s spirits.
Chris gave him an assessing glance, obviously remaining at least partially unconvinced, but he held his tongue and did rally, sighing softly before nodding his acceptance. “All right,” he replied at last, moving his hands down to his thigh holster and pulling out his Beretta. “Let’s do this, then.” He checked his weapon’s bullet chamber and then snapped the mechanism closed, his hands steady once more and his movements sure and strong. “But if we get killed, I think it only fair that you take the blame.”
Duncan allowed himself a smile at that and reached out to clap Chris on the shoulder, all too aware of how his hand lingered there for just a moment, soaking up the heat he could feel radiating through Chris’s clothes. After a couple beats, he made himself pull back and let his face fall back into its normal calm expression. “Fine,” he said, “but there’ll be no death today. This is just Thessalia reminding us who’s really in charge. We’ve just got to stay calm—”
“And carry on?” Chris finished for him with a smile.
Duncan felt his own smile bloom in response. “Exactly,” he said. “We’ll be back on Argo in no time.”
IN REALITY, “no time” turned out to be approximately three hours, the vast majority of which Duncan and Chris spent scrambling their way through the alien undergrowth in an effort to avoid the numerous bands of soldiers patrolling the area. By the time they finally were able to find their way safely back to Fleming and Corrin, they found that their teammates had successfully pushed back the soldiers who had been tailing them, and were waiting patiently by the shuttle.
Duncan did his best to ignore both the concerned look Fleming sent him and the rather more pissed-off look on Corrin’s face. It didn’t matter what they thought—not about this. He was team leader, and he’d made a call: Chris was safe, so it had been the right one. He likewise ignored the little voice in his head, the one that sounded remarkably like Dr. Jane Carter’s, the Argo Expedition’s leader, that was saying maybe he wouldn’t be so lucky the next time and asked him if he’d have chosen to act differently had it not been Chris who’d been under attack. Duncan reassured himself with the knowledge that Colonel Rick Tennant, his CO, would be on his side when it came to protecting the civilian members of Argo’s exploratory teams. He steadfastly ignored the fact that this might have less to do with military protocol and more to do with Tennant being romantically involved with his civilian teammate, Dr. Jason Finely, who was also Argo’s chief of science.
To Duncan’s relief, Chris had become increasingly talkative during the time they spent rooting through the undergrowth, commenting on the signs of life around them and, when it became obvious that they were somewhat lost, about Duncan’s supposedly abysmal sense of direction. But, as Chris himself had not had any better suggestions as to the correct way to turn, Duncan decided not to let it get to him. After all, their getting lost this time had less to do with his sense of direction (or lack thereof) and more to do with the planet’s unstable magnetic field and the fact that Duncan was trying to save Chris’s life by not leading him back out into the middle of a group of trigger-happy alien soldiers. When Duncan had tried to express these things to Chris—calmly and with much patience, of course—Chris had merely rolled his eyes, mumbled something derogatory about military intelligence, and whacked Duncan with a cabbage leaf. Duncan had tried not to let that get to him either. He decided that, all in all, Chris had dealt pretty well with his first real firefight in the field, and if this was evidenced by Duncan having to be hit with a giant leaf, then he was man enough to make the sacrifice.
Duncan had let himself revel in the post-mission buzz as he’d flown their shuttle back to Argo, deciding to count the mission as a success even if they hadn’t been able to make peaceful contact with the planet’s inhabitants. Despite the hostile welcome, the whole team had gotten off the planet having sustained only minor injuries, so Duncan was going to take it as a win. Add to that the fact that Chris, who had been quiet and uncertain during his first few exploratory missions, had obviously been more than capable of handling not only himself and the situation, but Duncan as well. Even if Duncan might never be able to have the kind of relationship he wanted with Chris, to have Chris act so obviously relaxed around him felt like a step in the direction to at least some kind of friendship.
Now that they were back on Argo, thoroughly debriefed and comprehensively de-cabbaged, Duncan attempted to get himself back on an even keel after the stresses of the day. When Colonel Rick Tennant, Argo’s Union military commander, had first started sending out the Argo exploratory teams, Duncan had established something of a tradition for his team. After each mission, successful or otherwise, he liked to get them together socially after their debriefing. Usually, this meant that they all headed to the commissary for a meal or gathered in one of Argo’s entertainment rooms to watch a movie. It had helped immeasurably with team bonding, especially because Duncan’s team, much like Tennant’s own, was a mixed compliment team—with Union military personnel serving alongside a civilian scientist and an Ionian soldier. As Chris had only recently joined the team as their scientist, such bonding was especially important at the moment as Duncan’s original team members, Fleming and Corrin, got to know their newest teammate.
That evening the commissary was serving steak—a rare boon; something one of the more specialized exploratory teams had managed to arrange a trade for on one of their missions—so it was there that they gathered. The room was full, despite the late hour, and Duncan suspected that pretty much Argo’s entire personnel compliment was making sure to stop in and try steak Thessalia-style.
“Hmm,” Chris said, eyeing his first forkful of steak with no small amount of suspicion. “You know, I’m not entirely sure if I want to be actually eating this or not.”
“Chris, it’s steak,” Fleming replied, cutting into her piece with relish. “We hardly ever get fresh meat like this—enjoy it.” She proceeded to take a large mouthful, closing her eyes as she savored it before swallowing. “It’s delicious,” she pronounced.
Chris still looked less than convinced. “Perhaps,” he conceded. “But are you sure it’s supposed to be this color?”
That remark had Corrin, the only Thessalia native of the group, throwing Chris a confused look. “What color should it be?” he asked. “This dark blue indicates that the werlaten was well-bred and in perfect health when it was slaughtered.”
“Go on, Vabre,” Duncan said, reaching out to pat him on the shoulder. “I think you’re outnumbered here—try a bite.” Duncan proceeded to cut a piece of his own meat and, shooting a grin over at Chris, ate it. If pressed, Duncan would have to admit that the deep blue color of the steak was vaguely disturbing, but the meat itself was tender and succulent, the flavor not all that dissimilar to the red meat native to Earth.
At Duncan’s bidding, Chris finally gave in and started eating. “Huh,” he said thoughtfully, having finished his first mouthful. “It is actually very good.” He cut into the rest of his piece eagerly, then leaned down to examine it closely as he mused aloud. “I am curious about the color, though. I will have to have a word with Renolds about this particular species’s biochemistry. I would imagine that its circulatory system and blood makeup would—”
“Hey, enough of that,” Duncan cut in before Chris could get any further into his suppositions. “We’re done for the day—no more shoptalk, remember?”
Chris rolled his eyes. “Well, given that I’m an engineer and not a biochemist, I’m not sure whether that technically counts as ‘shoptalk’, Major,” he replied tartly.
“Sounded like shoptalk to me,” Corrin put in.
“Exactly,” Duncan said with a grin, turning to Fleming. “And what about you, Lieutenant? Is Dr. Vabre here breaking our team code for off-duty hours?”
Fleming looked over at Chris, resting her chin on her hand thoughtfully. “Well, I’m not really sure, sir,” she began in a teasing tone. “But I know what might help me make up my mind… a bit of a top-up on my hot water allowance, perhaps?” She smiled winningly at Chris as she made the request.
“Blackmail!” Chris cried in mock outrage. “And from my own team no less.” He shook his head as he turned to look at Duncan. “Don’t you Union military people have rules about that sort of thing?”
Duncan managed to withhold his smile and mirrored Fleming’s thoughtful pose. “What’s this I hear about you being able to increase hot water allowances?” he asked.
When Chris’s jaw dropped, Duncan couldn’t withhold his laughter any longer. “God, Chris,” he said when he sobered sufficiently, Chris’s name falling effortlessly from his lips. “The look on your face! Do you honestly think I would try to blackmail you?”
Chris blushed brightly. “Well, no, not really,” he conceded with a sniff. “But you are my team leader. How was I supposed to know you weren’t being serious? Besides which, it’s not as if such a thing hasn’t been attempted before.” He glanced across the room briefly as he spoke, his gaze directed momentarily on where Colonel Rick Tennant and Dr. Jason Finely both sat eating dinner with the rest of their team.
Now it was Duncan’s turn to look surprised. “Really?” he asked. He had, of course, heard the rumors, but hadn’t for one moment believed that they could be true. “I can’t really believe the colonel would condone such a thing.”
Chris looked back at him with an eyebrow raised in speculation. “You can’t?” he asked. “Well, you obviously don’t know Jason very well.”
“Not really, no,” Duncan had to concede. He only really ever interacted with Jason on a professional level, and even then, it was normally alongside Rick when matters concerning Argo or one of the exploratory team’s findings required action from both the scientific and military contingents on Argo. “I usually leave Tennant to deal with him.”
Chris huffed out a laugh at that. “Very wise,” he said. “Jason can be… difficult at times.” He grinned over at Duncan. “Don’t get me wrong—we’ve been friends for many years and work very well together, but I’m also more than happy to leave him for Colonel Tennant to deal with. Especially when Jason’s in a mood and starts using his access command codes to supplement his personal hot water supply. Not,” he added quickly with a glance around the group, “that you ever heard such a thing from me.”
As Chris was talking, Duncan found his gaze wandering back across the commissary to where Rick and Jason were finishing their meals. Jason was talking animatedly to Rick, his hands waving wildly and his blue eyes shining with excitement. It was an expression that Duncan found at once rather endearing and very familiar—Chris often wore the same one, although it was rare that it was directed at Duncan in such a way. Duncan felt a familiar pang of disappointment flash through him as he watched the two men rise and start to leave the room, Rick resting one hand gently against the small of Jason’s back as they walked.
“Well, I think they’re cute together,” Fleming said, her voice drawing Duncan’s attention back to his own team. A smile graced her lips as she watched the pair leave.
Duncan wasn’t sure he’d go with the word “cute” to describe his commanding officer and Argo’s head of science, but he couldn’t deny that he was happy for them both. Their close friendship from the outset of the Argo expedition had been obvious to all, and when, several months ago in the aftermath of Rick’s close call with a Zenoid fungal infection, they had become a couple, not too many on Argo had been surprised. Although the Union military usually frowned upon romantic liaisons between closely serving personnel, such a thing was by no means unheard. That aside, Argo was situated so far outside Union space that such matters were unlikely ever to garner the Union’s attention.
As Rick and Jason disappeared, Duncan found his gaze returning to Chris, who was now deep in conversation with Fleming. He felt his affection for Chris growing as he watched him—the deep gold color of his five-o’clock shadow catching the light and his dark brown eyes full of curiosity as he listened to her. It was only when Chris’s gaze rose to meet Duncan’s that the smile slipped from his face to be replaced by an eyebrow raised in question.
“And what did you make of my performance in the field today, Major?” Chris asked.
Duncan’s gaze flicked quickly to the freshly dressed cut on Chris’s cheek as he forced himself to answer without giving too much of his emotions away. “Not too bad, Vabre. Not too bad at all. Especially not for your first real combat situation. Was it what you expected?”
Chris cocked his head as he considered the question. “I’m not really sure what I expected,” he replied. “I mean, I’ve been party to enough of Jason’s post-mission rants to know that such incidents are, unfortunately, rather common, but I guess you never know how you’re going to react until you’re actually in such a situation yourself.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Fleming said. “I remember my first taste of action after basic training. Got me wondering why on earth I’d opted for the military when I could have gone straight into the diplomatic service.”
“Well, I for one am glad you did,” Duncan said. “We’d be a poorer team without you. Plus, under Dr. Carter’s guidance, you are becoming a fine diplomat.”
Fleming made a face at those last words. “I’m not so sure about that. Today’s mission was nothing like diplomatic, sir.”
“Pfft,” Chris said, waving away Fleming’s comment. “What chance did you have? They opened fire almost as soon as we arrived in their village.”
“Unfortunately, that’s often the way of people here,” Corrin said, his tone somber. “Better to destroy your enemies at once rather than risk having your people taken.”
“But we weren’t their enemies,” Fleming argued. “The opposite, in fact; we were there to ally with them against the Zenoid.”
“They weren’t to know that,” Corrin replied simply.
“This galaxy has lived with the Zenoid threat for too long, Lieutenant,” Duncan said. “It’s hard for people to realize that there is hope.”
Corrin nodded in agreement. As a native from Ion, the planet above which Argo orbited and with whom the Argo Expedition had managed to successfully fend off a Zenoid attack, Corrin knew firsthand the perils of living under the constant threat the Zenoid colonies posed. However, despite the bleakness of the subject, a smile slowly started to spread across his face. “But they’ll learn.”
Duncan smiled in return. “That they will.” He glanced around the table. “You know, it may have taken a while for all of us to get here, but now I think we make a pretty damn fine team.”
With his words, the smile returned to Chris face. “I’ll drink to that,” he said, raising his glass and gesturing for the others to do likewise. “To us.”
As they all echoed the sentiment and drank, Duncan let his gaze touch each one of his teammates, the look lingering on Chris for a few beats longer than the others, and felt the last stresses of the mission slip away.
ABOUT an hour later, Duncan was done for the day and found himself ambling slowly toward his quarters, filled with a kind of listless energy. After dinner, the team had dispersed—Fleming and Corrin had gone to do the weekly training session they helped run for Argo’s civilian personnel, and after being radioed by an excited-sounding Jason, Chris had grinned at him and bounced off to join in whatever fun was to be had in Argo’s labs. Somewhat resigned to an evening of work, Duncan had returned to his office to complete his post-mission report. He’d then spent some time going over the reports from the other exploratory teams and pulling together a digest for Colonel Tennant and Dr. Carter to review.
It was at times exhilarating work—reading through what their teams were encountering in a largely unexplored galaxy reinforced the importance of their mission and made Duncan feel as though he’d made the right decision leaving home all those years ago to join the Union Military Command. His parents had been staunchly against the idea, despite the fact that, to many, a career in one of the Union’s branches was something to be prized. But Duncan had been born on one of the outer worlds, far from Earth and the center of the Union’s power. His home world, Revia, was primarily an agricultural planet, but had also been a place of civil unrest for almost a century as the disgruntled Revians had fought against the strictures placed upon them by what they saw as the distant and out-of-touch Union administration.
His mother was a native of Revia, and her extended family had definite sympathies with some of the rebel factions. His father, human and originally from Earth, found balancing his old alliances to his homeworld with the ties to his wife and his new home difficult and preferred to avoid talk of politics altogether. When Duncan, enchanted with what lay beyond the stars and dazzled by the stories he heard from the Union soldiers who served on Revia’s sole Union outpost, had first broached the subject of joining the Union Military Academy, neither of his parents could hide their dismay. To this day, he could still see the disappointment and upset on their faces as he left for his training.
Yet, he’d not come to ever truly regret his decision. Even when, a few years ago, the situation on Revia became more volatile and trips home more difficult, Duncan found there was enough wonder in the missions on which he was sent to compensate. The military had opened up the universe to him, quite literally, when before, all he could ever think of becoming had been a farmer like so many of his relatives.
Which, of course, was what had drawn him to the volunteer-only Argo Expedition—the chance to be amongst the first people from the Milky Way to venture into Thessalia. There hadn’t been a huge amount of competition for places on the expedition, especially for the higher-ranked positions within the military contingent. As a civilian-led and potentially one-way mission, chances for advancement were limited, but for Duncan the military had always been more about the places it could take him than the levels to which he could rise within it. And so, four years after putting his name forward, here he was: light-years from the messy politics and emotions of home, and living out his dream of being a true explorer.
Lost in thought, Duncan was still aware on some level that he was doing his best to repress the urge to wander down to the labs and see what was going on there. Not only had he already had more than his allotted Chris-quota for the day, but his team was scheduled for yet another early mission to a potential trading partner the next day. He hoped it would be more productive than the one they’d been on today. It was vital for Argo’s continued success for them to be fully self-sufficient and form as many alliances as they could with the other planets of Thessalia. With the numbers of Zenoid they encountered increasing each month, such alliances were becoming even more important to Argo’s survival.
It was late and the space station was quiet, the corridor lit only by the dim glow emanating from the lighting strips set along the ceiling. Duncan sighed and reached out with one hand and started to skim his fingertips along the corridor wall as he walked, vaguely aware of the comforting pulse and hum of Argo’s power systems. As he reached an intersection, he considered the relative merits of each direction. The right-hand fork would take him down toward his quarters and bed, going left would lead him across to the outer section of the station and the lure of the science labs, and if he were to go straight on, he could access one of the larger viewing galleries that overlooked Ion and its moons. He vacillated in the center for a moment, torn between all three options. Ultimately, however, his feet took him forward, lured by the prospect of quiet contemplation.
The double doors to the viewing gallery hissed open at his approach, and with the outer wall almost entirely transparent, Duncan imagined fancifully that he was stepping out into space itself. He made his way across the room to the window, letting his gaze sweep over the expanse of blackness that separated Argo from Ion and then down onto the planet itself. He took a deep breath, which he then exhaled slowly as he studied the shining planet, admiring the reflected glow from its sun and the swirls of color that formed the clouds, oceans, and landmasses. Beyond the planet itself, one of Ion’s moons was visible, and far beyond it, he could make out some distant stars twinkling in the darkness of outer space.
Thessalia, Duncan thought, turning the word over in his mind as he surveyed the scene before him, an unknown galaxy. It was so alien a concept—both literally and figuratively—so completely different from the galaxy in which he’d been born. Different too from the myriad of other places in which he’d found himself during the course of his life. The strange thing was that life on Argo was alien no longer. Or rather, put more correctly, it was he who was the alien—he and the entire expedition, trespassers in a galaxy that was not their own.
Yet even that was changing, as over the years, they’d come to make both Argo and Thessalia their home. They’d made both friends and enemies, benefited from amazing technologies, and tried their best to repay help received in kind. They’d fought battles and won but had also brought destruction down on both themselves and others. They weren’t perfect; they’d made mistakes, but they hadn’t given in—they’d fought hard for the right to live here, and many of their own had died for the privilege.
The thought of the people they’d lost had Duncan’s mind flying back to that day’s mission, and his stomach clenched as he recalled the sight of blood flowing freely down Chris’s face. He needed to get a handle on his feelings for Chris before they started to interfere with his job.
Interfere even more than they already are, his conscience reminded him.
Duncan sighed and shook his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts, determined to get a handle on his wayward emotions. He’d never been one for easy affairs—uncomfortable with exposing himself to anyone to such an intimate level. If he was one for self-examination, he might admit that his uncomfortable relationship with his parents was in part responsible for that. That and the fact that his one long-term relationship, with a fellow officer on his first posting, had ended both publicly and messily. To this day, he could still recall the angry words Jack had shouted at him across the shuttle bay.
It isn’t even possible to have a relationship with you, Duncan. Not when you won’t let anyone near you. I’ve had enough. We’re through.
It had been then that he’d decided that relationships were far more trouble than they were worth. And no one in five years had been able to make him doubt his decision—not the pretty young recruits who sometimes cast admiring glances his way, not the one-night stands in which he was driven to indulge at odd intervals, not even when his application to join the Argo Expedition was accepted and he realized that he was very likely to die all alone out in Thessalia.
But recently, that had all started to change. He had initially become acquainted with both Jason and Chris during the planning stages of the mission, although their contact had then been primarily work-related. Yet despite the professional nature of their interactions, some part of him had noticed Chris. If forced, Duncan would have to admit to there being a flare of attraction right from the very start. After all, it was hard for there not to be, because Chris was just Duncan’s type—blond, medium build, with deep brown eyes. Duncan’s attraction to Chris had only grown as they continued to work together, and Duncan found that he genuinely liked Chris—with his endless curiosity and enthusiasm for their mission, his intelligence and humor, not to mention his deft way of handling Jason when he was in a snit. However, once Duncan had realized the direction of his thoughts concerning Chris, he’d instantly drawn back, limiting himself to only professional courtesy and gently rebuffing Chris’s initial offerings of friendship.
His strategy had worked, and apart from the odd, confused glance shot his way, Chris had stopped trying to engage Duncan in anything other than discussions pertaining to Argo. But when Rick had come to him recently with Chris’s request to join one of the exploratory teams, Duncan had realized that his relationship with Chris would have to change yet again. It made sense for Chris to be on Duncan’s team. Their previous civilian scientist, a computer programmer by the name of Christine Righter, although keen, had been proven far too specialized to be of help in the general first encounter missions on which they embarked. Chris, however, was not only a talented engineer, but Argo’s deputy head of science. As such, his abilities were far wider ranging and thus more suited to the variety of situations in which the team found itself.
Duncan had found it something of a challenge to figure out how best to deal with Chris once he became part of the exploratory team. As team leader, he could not continue his hands-off approach. In order to operate efficiently in the potentially dangerous scenarios with which Thessalia presented them, they needed to trust each other, to know each other, to be comfortable with each other.
And Duncan was anything but comfortable with Chris. Being put in such close quarters with Chris as he prepared him for fieldwork only served to remind Duncan of all the reasons he had distanced himself in the first place. Chris was just as tempting as before, perhaps even more so because now there was no place for Duncan to hide.
The soft sound of the door opening behind him startled Duncan out of his thoughts. “You’re out late, Harris,” a deep voice rumbled. Duncan turned to see Corrin step into the room, the material of his shirt slightly damp and clinging to his chest, indicating he’d probably just come from the gym. “You should have let me know,” Corrin continued with a grin. “I could have used another sparring partner to demonstrate on.”
Duncan snorted at that and shook his head. “No, you already had a piece of me this morning. That, plus today’s mission, has been more than enough for me for one day.”
Corrin grunted. “Yeah,” he said, coming to stand beside Duncan at the window. “You sure got enough of a workout running after Vabre.”
Something in Duncan tensed up in surprise at the censure in Corrin’s tone in response to Duncan’s admittedly risky behavior in the field that day. Duncan automatically fell back on his tried and tested methods of distance and deflection.
“Yes, well, you know Vabre,” he replied lightly, turning away from Corrin to look out into space. “Always in the middle of trouble.” Out of the corner of his eye he could see Corrin nod slowly, more to himself, Duncan thought, than in answer to Duncan’s rhetorical question.
“So what are you doing all the way out here, then?” Corrin asked.
“Enjoying the view,” Duncan replied with practiced ease, not yet convinced that Corrin was going to let the subject of Chris drop. He could still feel the weight of Corrin’s skeptical gaze resting upon him but chose to ignore it. Hopefully, if he maintained his wall, Corrin would take the hint and leave well enough alone. After all, Corrin was arguably even less inclined to talk about personal issues than Duncan himself.
“Trying to stay away from Vabre is more like it,” he then heard Corrin mumble.
Okay, so maybe not.
Duncan tensed but held his peace, determined not to rise to the bait. After a few beats, he heard Corrin release a huff of breath, and then he too turned to face outward, his attention no longer focused explicitly on Duncan. The silence stretched between them.
“You can’t keep fighting for nothing,” Corrin said at last. “It’ll wear you down completely if you try. There’s gotta be something that keeps building you back up again.”
Duncan considered Corrin’s words, recognizing how rare it was that Corrin mentioned anything about himself or his past. But who were they talking about now—himself or Corrin? “Daleda?” he ventured at last, naming the Ionian town he knew Corrin had come from originally, the one that had been totally destroyed by a Zenoid attack more than a decade ago. There had been only a handful of survivors, Corrin amongst them.
“Maybe, at first at any rate,” Corrin replied slowly. “But then we kept losing more people, more villages—dying and being taken by the hundreds whenever the Zenoid chose to attack, and even working for the restoration of Daleda wasn’t enough.” He paused and looked over at Duncan. “Places can always be rebuilt; people can’t. You should think about that, Harris.”
That got Duncan angry, because when had he ever not thought about his people? Everything he did—the command decisions he made in the field, the orders he gave, the calculated risks he took in battle, the advice he gave Colonel Tennant as Tennant’s second-in-command—all of it was for the good of his people. “I do think about them,” he gritted out, his voice low and furious. “All the goddamn time.”
“I know that,” Corrin agreed easily, but there was a depth of emotion on his face that Duncan didn’t quite know how to interpret. “And at first I thought that was a good thing, but now I’m starting to think that it’s just gonna get you killed—like it almost did today.”
Duncan couldn’t think of a good reply to that because, loath as he was to admit it, Corrin had a point. What he’d done during the mission had been reckless, needlessly so. He’d never been reluctant to go behind enemy lines to retrieve a fallen comrade, especially not one of his own team, but this time it had been different. Chris knew what to do in a fight—Duncan had been the one to teach him—but, in the heat of the moment, all Duncan could think about was getting to Chris and keeping him safe himself. Not because he was the only one who could possibly do it, but because he had to be the one to do it.
“There’s nothing wrong with needing something, Harris,” Corrin said softly as Duncan continued to hold his tongue. “You’ve just got to figure out how to get it and keep it without killing yourself in the process.”
But I’m not allowed it; I don’t deserve it.
Duncan kept the words inside, but it seemed as though Corrin heard them anyway. He sighed heavily and said, his voice somewhat resigned, “You need to get your priorities straight, Harris, or they’re going to fuck you up completely, you know that, right?” He turned around and headed back toward the doors leading to the corridor. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning for our workout.”
Duncan turned his head and saw Corrin off with a wave and a nod. Alone once more, he turned back to face the night, pulling back from where he’d been leaning braced with one hand against the window. With the conversation still echoing in his mind, Duncan found himself full of restless energy. Corrin’s words had started him thinking about things he would much rather ignore—truths he’d spent most of his life burying deep within him, ensuring that they’d never see the light of day. He started to pace along the length of the room, his strides long and quick as he attempted to outrun his thoughts.
Chris. Things always seem to come back to Chris.
Duncan quickened his pace as he left the room and broke into a jog through the deserted corridors, his unwanted thoughts hot on his heels.
Like many soldiers, he tended to find it difficult to unwind after a dangerous mission, something of which neither his stints back in the Milky Way nor his years on Argo had been able to cure him. Not only that, but it was also a problem that had worsened appreciably over time. And, as reluctant as Duncan was to dwell too closely on his emotions, even he could not help but eventually notice the positive correlation between his enjoyment of Chris’s company and his post-mission distress on occasions when Chris’s life had been placed in jeopardy.
His mind flashed back briefly to the day’s mission—the sight of Chris falling to the ground, the blood running freely down his face—and he picked up his pace once more, moving from a jog into a full-out run.
Unfortunately, his personal myopia had meant that he’d stumbled across that particular piece of insight far too late to do anything about it. He knew he’d already become all too attached to his coping mechanism for dealing with the aftermath of such missions—otherwise known as spending time relaxing with Chris. Naturally, the outcome of this merely led to a strengthening of his feelings for Chris, which meant his reactions to threats to Chris’s life were attenuated accordingly. And so on and so forth until Duncan was forced to acknowledge that there was a fairly large personal epiphany looming just on the horizon that he was going to have to face at some point, regardless of how hard he may fight to remain blind to it.
Duncan came to an abrupt halt, slamming the lid firmly closed on his thoughts as he did so, determined to go no further with that particular line of thinking. Struggling to regain his breath, he found himself thinking back to Corrin’s parting comment about his fucked-up priorities. In the past, they had always kept him focused, but now it seemed the opposite was true; he was more distracted than ever.
“Yeah,” he said aloud, agreeing wholeheartedly with Corrin’s final assessment. The trouble was there didn’t seem to be a damn thing he could do about the situation. He shook his head and spoke his final words out into the night. “The trouble is, I have no idea how to be anything else.”