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Episode 12

Disclaimer: This is a free work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Copyright © 2020 Rhea V. May. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form, by an electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except quoted brief passages in a review, post, article or other pieces of content. This work is intended for mature audiences only (18+).

Terran Prime station, 2398 TST

Zale

The rest of the people taking part in the impromptu meeting filtered out of CC, leaving the three of them alone. Zale nodded at the officers on shift, then turned to Brayden and Mason. “Let’s move this to my office.”

He strode to the door leading to his tiny office and stepped inside, making a beeline for the soda machine. He poured himself a glass and topped it with ice, then gulped it down.

“You all right, man?” Brayden asked, giving him a concerned look. “I’ve never seen you look so… disheveled.”

True. Zale took better care of himself usually, but he’d barely slept in these past few days. He hadn’t left CC, choosing to nap on the small couch in his office. Swiping a hand down his wrinkled uniform jacket, he sighed. “I’m fine,” he dismissed his best friend’s concern. “I’ll go to my quarters soon, don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried,” Brayden retorted in a drawl. “You’re a rock. A boulder. An immovable force. The eye of the storm—”

“Bray,” Zale warned. “We should focus. Mason, any luck in validating the suspect’s whereabouts?”

“About that,” the Chief Technical Officer rumbled. “We can rule him out. He was in his quarters at the time of Miss Starr’s attack. I verified the footage, and he’d entered his sleeping cabin an hour prior to the attack and hasn’t left it again until dinnertime.”

Zale sighed and collapsed in his desk chair. That was their last lead. Mason, albeit reluctantly at first, shared his suspicion with him and Brayden immediately after the attack. Apparently, he’d recognized a man from his past among the group from Leeweather Holdings.

Zale understood Mason’s caution in telling them about his past. He already knew the talented engineer had been a slave, since his DreamSkin collar was such an obvious mark, but he’d have never pegged Mason for a gladiator if the man hadn’t explicitly admitted it. Sure, the man was built like a tank, and one of the tallest people Zale had ever met, but he was also gentle and calm, contradicting his looks. Because of his cybernetic augmentations, Zale thought Mason had previously worked in private security, or as a bodyguard for some rich asshole.

And yet, his Chief Technical Officer had been a gladiator before he arrived on the Eye. He must have been an excellent one too, considering he was still alive.

Born on Septimus station, a rust bucket down by the Last Frontier, Mason had been sold by his alcoholic father to the criminal organization controlling that entire sector of space and, consequently, the Blithium trade—the Havoc Syndicate. Even though he was only six years old at the time, the pit’s master saw the potential in him and had him in gladiatorial training by the time he was ten.

His master also proved he cared about Mason in his some twisted way, because instead of letting him die, he arranged for cybernetic implementations to be added to each grievous injury. Implementations that were outlawed in the rest of the Union, following the Renditions’ debacle.

Had Mason remained on Septimus until the end of his life, it wouldn’t have been such a problem. But the fierce gladiator had other plans. By his mid-twenties, he had enough of the horrors the Syndicate was capable of, and, armed only with sheer determination, started a minor rebellion in the attempt of freeing the Septimus station from under Havoc’s thumb.

That’s how Mason came into contact with the authorities, and that’s how he became a key witness in the trial against the Syndicate Alphas.

But life was rarely fair. So, even though he was a hero to the people living on the station, he became a pariah to the rest of the Union because of his cybernetic looks. Thus, Mason took refuge on the Eye, the station of misfits, more than a decade ago.

“I’m worried about Leeweather Holdings, if they’re willing to employ such unsavory characters,” Zale admitted. “I started running a background check on all the others. But I found nothing suspicious so far.”

“Goddamit,” Brayden snapped. “I’ve already done that, man, and came up empty.”

Zale focused his attention on Brayden, scowling at the look of absolute lividness his friend sported. His reaction was more than a little exaggerated and uncalled for. Zale’s eyes widened as he realized Brayden wasn’t angry at him butting in what he perceived to be his share of work (he was Chief Security Officer, after all), but because he really cared about Tessa Starr. “I understand that, Brayden. But I wished to triple check. Manually. You know I only trust your algorithms and programs to a certain degree.”

“Speaking of, I was wondering how the attacker could remain hidden from VALID’s footage,” Brayden retorted. “I mean, Tessa saw him exiting the LH section, yet he never appeared on any of the cameras in the corridor.”

“Wait,” Mason said. “Do you suspect VALID itself has been tampered with?”

Zale flinched and looked up at the ceiling. How has it never crossed his mind? “VALID, initiate Cloak policy on my office. Effective immediately.”

“Cloak activated, Commander Corvald,” the neuronet replied.

“We can speak freely now,” Zale announced, rubbing his face. “Fuck! Why didn’t you say something earlier, Brayden? If—”

“Whoa, calm down, man. You’re turning into a hot mess. Look, I didn’t say someone has tampered with VALID, and it would be extremely hard to achieve it, since I’ve updated the security credentials necessary to access his core code. I just suspect this man has access to some cloaking device, not unlike the policy you just used to shield this room. If that’s the case, then he would have been as invisible to VALID as we are now.”

“But… even that’s a long stretch, since not only are cloaking devices outlawed, but it’s extremely difficult to sync it to VALID’s own signature,” Mason supplied.

“Difficult, but not impossible,” Brayden countered.

“So, we have a fresh lead,” Zale surmised. “It’s worth following it. Not only to find this man, and sate your thirst for revenge, Brayden, but also to see how far this treason goes. I won’t have people like Tessa’s attacker on my station.”

“I’m not thirsting for revenge,” Brayden grumbled.

Zale gave him a droll stare. “Please, everyone can tell you care about Miss Starr.”

“Yeah, you risked your own life to save her,” Mason joined in the teasing, smirking.

Brayden crossed his arms over his chest and scowled, causing Zale to chuckle. Despite all his joking, Zale felt proud that Brayden found someone worthy of his attention. And he supposed Miss Starr was all right, for a Corporate suit. Different from the women usually draped all over Brayden, but alright.

“Anyway, assholes,” Brayden said after a minute. “If cloaking devices are present on the station, then they should be relatively easy to find. I’ll start designing several sniffing algorithms.”

“Could your algorithms track the signals?” Zale asked, rubbing his chin. He understood the basic of software programming, and he knew how to operate almost every console on the station, but he was by no means an expert. He had a degree in Environmental Engineering from Novalis University, a different kind of engineering from Brayden’s specialty. One perfect for terraforming any planet in the Union, but useless in this case.

“I don’t think so,” Brayden answered slowly. “The best I can hope for is confirmation to my suspicions. I suppose that, after I finish designing the algorithms, I could find a way to track the signal to its source, but I make no promises.”

Zale nodded, but clenched his fists in frustration. He abhorred the idea of one saboteur running amok on his station, never mind an entire group of them. He hated this feeling of ambiguity, this lack of complete control over his station. The attack on Tessa’s life came out of nowhere, and it angered him to think about what else he might have missed happening on the Eye. He buried all his emotions and let only the determination to uncover every secret and subplot shine at the forefront of his mind.

“If there’s nothing else, I suppose we can adjourn,” he said, taking a deep breath in. Gods, he was tired. “Let me know how your project goes, Brayden.”

“Sure, man. And go to sleep. You look like crap.”

For a second, Zale hesitated. He wanted to talk to Brayden, really talk. They haven’t had a drink in forever. But no matter how much Zale missed his best friend, they were in the middle of a crisis and it was late and he was exhausted. “Yeah. I will. You do the same, you hear me? If I look like crap, then you look like shit.”

Brayden smirked, his expression so roguish, it reminded Zale of younger, simpler days, when the two of them roamed the penal colony of Orcus. “See ya later, Zale.”

Mason gave Zale a nod which he returned, then followed Brayden out the door. Zale shrugged out of his jacket, draping it over his left arm, and moved around the office, powering off the consoles.

“I’m heading out. Let me know if you encounter any troubles. You have the bridge, Analyst Trapp.”

“Yes, sir, Commander,” the younger officer saluted. “And good night.”

Returning the salute, Zale swiveled on his heels and strode briskly out of CC, heading to the elevator just outside, the one that would take him directly to his private quarters. “Hello, Commander Corvald,” VALID said.

That reminded him. “VALID, lift the Cloak in my office, please.” After VALID agreed, Zale leaned on the wall at his back, closing his eyes just as the doors opened into the front room of his apartment.

He took a shower and inhaled a simple dinner, then collapsed on his bed. VALID woke him the next morning.

“Commander Corvald, Miss Lima Harris-Pratt is at the door. Should I grant her entrance?”

“What?” Still groggy, Zale pushed to an upright position and yawned. “Yeah. Yes.”

After a brief stretch, he jumped out of bed and pulled the first pair of pants he could find over his boxer shorts, then padded out into the living room. Lima was fidgeting by the modular couch in the middle of the room. Her eyes widened when she saw his bare state, but after a second, she let her eyes trail over his naked chest, a furious blush reddening her cheeks.

“Lima,” Zale greeted, raking his fingers through his bed hair. “To what do I owe this honor?”

“I, uh… wanted to see if you wanted to have breakfast.” Lima stammered, then added, “With me.”

Zale arched an eyebrow. Was she asking him out? Internally, he winced as he remembered how abruptly he’d left her when the black alert was issued, after the glorious kiss they shared. “I’d like that very much,” he replied quietly.

Lima blushed anew, but nodded. “Should we go into the cafeteria?”

Zale shook his head, then extended his right hand in invitation toward the little breakfast nook by the compact kitchen. “Unnecessary. I’ll prepare us something, if that’s alright with you.”

She gave him a small grin, and he could swear he felt a chip break off his frozen heart. “You still cook? I still remember your amazing Pofensis omelets you used to bring to me in bed after you… uh…” Her cheeks were on fire now.

Zale chuckled. “After I spent the night?” he offered, and she gave him a brisk nod, averting her eyes. Yes, he remembered those lazy mornings too, but mostly the nights. They’d been both so young, only in the first year of university, and fairly inexperienced. She was the sweet but naïve girl, and he was the quiet, jaded soul, not much different from now, he supposed. Still, she had been the only one he returned to, seeking more than one night. Before her (and after her), his sexual encounters had been brief and inconsequential.  “I’ll make one now, I have the ingredients.”

“I’d love that,” Lima answered, jumping on a barstool, and placing her linked finger in her lap. Then chuckling, a faraway look in her eyes, she said, “Oh my god, I just remembered my roommate from the first year. Lia Torres, the eye-rolling queen.”

Zale nodded, his back to her as he rummaged in the fridge. “She hated when I dropped by.”

He heard her scoff. “She hated it because she had a thing for you.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” he replied absentmindedly, starting on the omelet.

“Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Can I help?” Lima braced her hands on the counter and leaned forward. Gods, she looked so beautiful.

Zale shrugged. “Sure. You can chop the peppers,” he replied.

For a while, they worked in companionable silence. Lima handed him the chopped ball peppers, then set the table and made coffee. It was something so domestic, Zale couldn’t help but wonder if these would have been their mornings, should they have remained a couple.

“So,” Lima began pushing her empty plate away. “I’m here for more than your delicious omelet. I was wondering if you knew when the next section for Leeweather Holdings would be available.”

Ah. And here he thought she sought him out for something else entirely, besides work. This new Lima resembled him too much, at least where their work ethic was concerned. “No. I’m sorry, Lima, but I haven’t had time to deal with that yet. But soon.”

He wasn’t sure if she should still be on the station, if he was honest with himself. Not when it was becoming so dangerous. Hmm. Zale made a mental note to explore this idea later.

Lima shrugged. “Alright, Zale. That’s fine, we can wait.” She bit her lower lip, then continued, “But, I think you should talk to Austin. Perhaps this… attack… was because of a disgruntled person, someone who hates the idea of LH renting one of the unused sections.”

Zale took a sip of his coffee and slowly returned the cup to the table. “You’re on first name basis with your boss?” He hadn’t intended for his question to come out sounding so forceful, but…

Lima blinked. “Austin is a friend of mine.”

Zale scowled and looked away. Of course, it made sense. Austin Leeweather was incredibly wealthy, and Lima was heiress to the Harris-Pratt empire.

“Are you jealous?” Lima asked, leaning closer.

“Of course not.” He scoffed.

“Pity,” she whispered, and it caused him to turn his head sharply in her direction. His eyes widened at the hungry look in her eyes. “But it’s the truth. He’s just a friend. I’m not interested in him, and he’s not interested in me.”

She licked her lips, slowly, and he snapped. Cupping the back of her head, he brought her lips to his, and he kissed her. She tasted like pepper and coffee, smelled of yearning and decayed happiness. He nibbled on her lower lip and she moaned.

He abandoned his seat and gathered her closer, urging her to put her long legs around his waist. Still kissing her furiously, Zale carried her to the couch, where they collapsed. She giggled, and he pulled away briefly, looking into her eyes. His breath hitched as he met her gaze made of melted chocolate. These were bedroom eyes, and his heart soared when he realized she still wanted him.

Lima skimmed her fingers down his sides, making him shiver, and he bent his head to capture her lips into another kiss, grinding his hardness into her warmth. She arched her back and moaned.

He abandoned her lips, trailing kisses over the rest of her face, from her forehead, to the corner of her eyes, to her chin, then licked down the column of her neck.

“Zale,” she breathed, her hands roaming over his back. “More.”

Her plea was his undoing. The beast was out of his cage. In a single fluid motion, Zale trapped both of her wrists into one of his fists, and used the momentum to turn her around completely, until her back was pressed to his chest. With the other hand, he pressed between her shoulder blades, until she was lying on the couch, face-down, and with him looming over her.

Then he froze, realizing what he’d done. He’d never showed her this side of him before. He’d never dared. He’d always been gentle, caring, subdued.

Before he could jump back and release her, Lima turned her head and looked up at him, giving him a glare. “Don’t you dare stop, Zale Corvald. Show me. Show me what you’re really like.”

Next episode (Brayden’s POV)…

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