Xihe Station, 2269
“Yo, Zed, get that shit up here!”
Just under a year ago, Zed had been a galactic hero—a super soldier saving humanity from the ravages of the alien stin. He’d been a major in the Allied Earth Forces with his own team of specialized black ops soldiers. He’d fought hand-to-hand battles against the green bugs, facing their poisonous talons without flinching. He and his team had saved a transport of civilians against direct orders. And now…He eyed the mounds of heavy, fertilizer-filled bags waiting to be carted into the cargo bay.
Now he was a shit-shipper.
Oh how the mighty have fallen.
“This shit’s not gonna pack itself.” Flick’s wide grin told him that the novelty of carting around actual shit instead of the usual shit hadn’t worn off yet. His eyes sparkled and the gentle draft in the dock area tugged at his uncontrollable blond curls. He looked like a kid with a new toy, not a veteran ship’s engineer.
Despite himself, Zed’s lips twitched. Felix Ingesson had never met a joke he couldn’t beat to death. He’d done it when they were kids at the Academy and everyone knew him as Flick—and that personality quirk hadn’t changed with the years, or his new home on the Chaos, or the fact he now went by the nickname Fixer most of the time.
“You’re a riot, man.” Elias, the captain of the Chaos, disappeared into the cargo bay, presumably to check the load tie-downs. Unlike a lot of cargo ships, the Chaos depended on physical straps, not virtual restraints. Made sense to Zed—they wouldn’t crap out if the power died. And despite the recent upgrades to the little ship, parts of her were still held together by not much more than hope and stubbornness.
“I try.” Flick jogged down the ramp to join Zed, coming to a stop with a bounce.
Zed glanced over his shoulder. “Eli doesn’t need your help?”
“Not much I can do. Tough to grip with this.” Flick held up his left hand and flexed the gnarled and misshapen fingers. He’d once worn a glove that helped him with fine motor control, but that device had been destroyed. He leaned against the stack of bags, a dimple flashing in his cheek. “’Sides, you’re prettier to look at.”
Being Flick’s lover technically wasn’t new—they’d tried it just before the galaxy had fallen into war nine years before—but Zed couldn’t stop the flush that crept over his cheeks. The past four weeks had been the longest they’d ever been together, and he still hadn’t gotten used to the flirting—not that he really wanted to. He liked that hitch in the gut and the rush of embarrassed pleasure. It reminded him of the good things in life.
Lifting a bag off the pallet, he arranged it on the Chaos’s loader. It was an easy, simple task, one that required more muscle memory than thought. Flick helped shove the bags into place, keeping their edges straight and making sure there were no holes in the smart fiber packaging. The shit had been dehydrated for shipping and application, but its fertilization elements could be activated with a small amount of water. As they worked, Zed longed to return Flick’s flirting and share some banter to make the job go quicker—but the words wouldn’t come. Not how he wanted them to. Not how they would’ve a few weeks ago.
He blinked, realizing that he was now staring at a fully laden cart rather than the few sacks he remembered loading. Pain ricocheted between his temples—annoying and enough to jolt his heart into a faster pace with its implications. He swallowed, surreptitiously looking around. Flick was smiling and shouting something at Elias, who was hovering at the gaping maw of the cargo bay. The words were lost to the pounding pulse in Zed’s ears, but no one was staring at him, no one was even looking at him. Good. All good. He’d lost time with that unintended Zone but not much. Just a small blip.
Zed focused on breathing for a moment, to mitigate both the minor headache and the panic that threatened. There was no point in getting worked up. It was what it was and he’d known for two years that this was coming. At least the instances of Zoning unintentionally only lasted for a few seconds, thirty at most. It could be worse, right? He could still function. That was what mattered.
Maybe if he repeated it often enough, he’d start to believe it.
“Is your ship looking her age? Has space dust abraded away all the shine of her beauty? Restore her now with our patented InstaShine treatment!”
Zed narrowed his eyes at the droid hovering next to them, holograms with customer testimonials spinning around its bulbous head. The pitch of the irritating mechanical voice reverberated, making his teeth ache along with his temples. “No, thank you.”
The droid ignored him, which was just rude programming. “InstaShine can be applied in a matter of moments and have your ship looking like she was always the fleet’s flagship. On purchase, our automated washers will turn your tired old rustbucket into a gleaming—”
Flick scowled. “Hey! The Chaos isn’t that—”
Zed blinked. The droid was suddenly shaking, spouting error codes. He realized he was clenching his fist—and it hurt. His headache had intensified, too. Had he…?
“Why the hell did you hit it?”
He couldn’t remember hitting it, which meant—damn it. He’d Zoned. Again. Twice in a matter of minutes? Fuck.
The droid’s holograms shattered into pieces before fading into nothingness. “Err—thank you for your pur—another happy—InstaShine—rinse commencing—”
Zed straightened. “Oh no.”
The droid vibrated for another instant before water burst forth in a stream powerful enough to shove the heavy bags of fertilizer out of their neat pile. Sputtering, Zed scrambled to grab them, envisioning one breaking open and spewing activated shit across the floor of the dock—oh God, the fees that would probably come from that. Flick, drenched in the spray, flailed and slipped. Zed automatically reached for him and lost his grip on the bag. He tried to secure it but managed instead to jab a hole through the smart fiber. Just a little hole. Maybe the water wouldn’t—
Foam spurted out of the hole in the bag, a huge foul-smelling brown stream that forced the hole to grow larger to accommodate it. Zed jolted backward, but Flick, still on the slippery section of the floor, couldn’t escape the foam’s trajectory in time.
The scream that emerged from his lips was worthy of any horror vid.
“Flick!” The activated shit was mostly harmless, right?
Steps pounded down the ramp. Elias stumbled to a stop. “What the fuck did you do?”
The water spurting from the droid slowed to a trickle and it shook, dropping a foot in height before regaining altitude. “Would you like to leave a testimonial?”
“I have shit in my mouth!” Flick wailed.
“Thank you for choosing—pleasant day—our latest customer—‘I have shit in my mouth!’” The droid weaved its way down the dock like a drunken sailor.
Zed clamped his lips together, but when he heard Flick’s “testimonial” drift back up the dock again as the droid approached a new potential client, he couldn’t stop a snort of laughter. Not even his headache and what it meant could deter it. He tried, though. He really did. He glanced at Elias and realized his mistake immediately when he recognized the mirth dancing in the other man’s dark eyes. He might have been able to stop laughing if Eli hadn’t started.
Soon, though, it was all they could do to remain standing upright.
“This isn’t funny!” Flick had managed to regain his feet and was trying to clear his face of the vile brown substance. He grabbed chunks of it from his eyes and tossed it to the ground. “This shit stings.”
“Shit.” Zed snickered.
“Oh my God, I’m going to piss myself,” Elias gasped.
“I hate you all.” Flick glared at them and took a step forward—only to slip and fall back on his ass. He collapsed backward and crossed his arms. “Fuck it. I’m not moving. Y’all can figure out cleanup.”
Shit stank. That fundamental truth was never more apparent than when shit clung to every pore. The smell was singeing his nostril hairs. Elias and Zed were laughing so hard, they could barely get a breath in, so they probably couldn’t smell him yet. Bastards. But as much as he wanted to stick with his threat and remain flat on the deck, Felix couldn’t stand the feeling of the shit oozing into his clothing and grabbing at his skin. He rolled onto his side and pushed up out of the slick puddle of brown nastiness, spat a glob of it onto the floor and grimaced as his teeth ground together, releasing the bitter taste into his mouth again. He dug a clump of something from one nostril and flicked it away.
Zed and Elias laughed on.
Felix stepped carefully out of the shit zone. He crunched crap between his teeth as he mentally debated whose ass to kick first.
“Captain Idowu?” a woman called from the bottom of the cargo ramp.
The smartly dressed woman wore station colors, but instead of the ubiquitous coverall dockworkers usually wore, she was attired in a tailored suit. Her hair had been gathered into a series of knots over the top of her head. Two different earrings dangled from each exposed ear. One was a holo, the other an emitter. The ever-changing configuration was distracting.
Elias straightened out of his dead-man-laughing posture. “That’s me.”
She opened her wallet and activated a holo. “Gert Balar, Xihe dock security. I have an order here for the captain of the corvette Chaos, registration delta four…” She insisted on reading the entire registration sequence before getting to her point. “You are in violation of docking code 342 B.”
“Chemical contamination of the pier. The cost to decontaminate the affected area and surrounding zones will be—”
“Hey, hey, wait a minute. The droid malfunctioned. It’s not our fault.”
The argument quickly escalated.
Felix had crewed with Elias for close to five years, eighteen months of that on the Chaos, their ugly but functional corvette. They’d learned early on in their partnership that Felix negotiated better with circuits than people. Leaving Elias to do the captain thing with dock security—Zed and his charming smile alongside—Felix made his way through Cargo One with the intent of washing the shit off his skin before it stained.
Nessa O’Brien, ship’s doctor, stood in an open hatchway, swallowing, not coincidentally blocking his access to the interior of the Chaos. “You can’t come in here.”
He’d never have taken Nessa for having a delicate gag reflex. She must have seen shit during the war. Worse shit. That joke was getting old fast. “Aww, Ness. This stuff stings. It’s burning my skin.”
Nessa waved her medical wallet over his torso, where his SFT hung in a lifeless ruin, the smart fibers rendered catatonic by the sludge of activated fertilizer. The shirt was dead. “It’s mostly nonreactive, except…” Her lips clamped together.
“Except in my crevices. Tell me something I don’t know.” Felix scratched at his arm, his shoulder, his neck and cheek. Thought about scratching his ass. “I need to get it off my skin.”
“A shower isn’t going to get the residue out of your epidermis, and it will only reactivate the fertilizer that has already dried. We don’t have soap strong enough to counteract the process, and I’m not sure our water cycler can handle it.”
Felix’s usual curse—shit and double shit—died in the back of his throat. Instead, he breathed out a mournful whine, barely heard over the roar of the moisture extractors being set up across the cargo bay.
Shipping shit wasn’t their usual thing, unless you used the term broadly. Hauling cargo from one end of the galaxy to the other didn’t pay as well as skip traces and bounties, but since running afoul of the Agrius Cartel, the lower the profile of the job, the better. The profit margin on this one was starting to look a little thin.
Qek poked her head around Nessa’s shoulder. “What is that smell?”
Nessa turned to regard their pilot, a diminutive ashushk with wide eyes that were about to disappear in a crimp of blue wrinkles. Qek—short for Qekelough, which was a mouthful even without grit caught between his tongue and teeth—let loose a delicate shudder as she eyed him.
“That smell is Fixer,” Ness said.
Felix looked down at his streaky brown self. The stink was rolling off of him in dizzying waves. “Look, I’m going to pass out from my own funk if I don’t get clean. What do you recommend?”
“We have only just refilled our water tanks. If you use the shower, you will likely seed the entire system with traceable elements,” Qek said, inferring that their water would smell and taste like shit until they purged the system. “I would recommend a chemical wash station.”
“Oh, hell no.”
Felix chopped the air with a mottled brown hand. “Been there, done that, not doing it again.”
“It’s the only way to get the stink off of you,” Nessa said. “Permanently.”
“Fuck!” He knew she was right, but…a chemical wash station? They were reserved for the processing of undesirable elements—people leaving quarantined zones, those suspected of carrying communicable diseases, people covered in shit, and…
“You have visited a chemical wash station before?” Qek asked.
“Yeah.” Something in his tone had Qek and Nessa exchanging a glance. “The AEF put me through one. After, you know, I got back.” Former POWs were always submitted to chemical wash stations. Standard procedure. Couldn’t have stin bugs crawling all over AEF systems.
“Would you like me to accompany you to the station?” Qek offered.
“Nope.” Felix gestured toward the cleanup operation taking place outside. “Oversee this, will you? Eli’s charm might run out any minute, and Zed…” Had a crease between his brows, the sort he got with a headache. “Zed might trip over another bag and double the cleanup bill.”
Worry for Zed proved an effective dampener of the anger crawling up his spine at the thoughts of the war and being a slave to the stin. The fact his skin burned was distracting too. The breath huffed out of him on a sigh. “Okay, I’m gonna go get everything that makes me me scrubbed away.”
Nessa’s lips twitched. “Wait just a minute, I’ll get you some clean clothes to take with you.”
Her quiet laughter echoed in the corridor as she disappeared, Qek trailing after. Felix grumbled quietly in his throat. He wouldn’t want to hang out with him, either, not while he stank.
His wallet buzzed. Extracting it from his pocket took all of his concentration. He fumbled with the flexible plastic square until Zed appeared at his side, one of his large hands plucking it from his clumsy grasp. Zed opened the wallet and a holographic display appeared just over it. Felix quickly scanned the incoming message.
“Client for our other shipment. He wants to move the meeting up.”
Zed manipulated the display, activating a map location. “One dock over, and he wants to meet in twenty minutes.” He glanced up. “I’ll take Ness.”
“Like hell you will. I might stink, but I can still…” Felix paused to spit out another brown glob. “Ugh.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I just need to hit a wash station. Be ready in five.”
Zed’s brows made a bid for his hairline.
“Flick, it’s going to take an hour to get that stink off of you.”
“Well, if you hadn’t hit that damned bot. What was with that, anyway?”
Zed didn’t have a temper, not really, which was probably why he’d made such a great candidate for the project that had fucked him up. The AEF would never have asked Felix to be one of their super soldiers. He was far too temperamental—and he’d been “retired” by then. But Zander Anatolius? Perfect soldier, perfect super soldier. The experimental program might have ended the war, but it had wrought changes in Zed and his team that could not be undone. In Felix’s opinion, the cost had been too great.
He tried to hide it, his headaches, the fact that his attention wandered from time to time. But Felix knew Zed like no other. His heart beat in time with Zed’s. He loved him. Always had, always would. He saw the tightness around Zed’s eyes, noticed when Zed failed to finish a sentence.
Had he been in control when he punched the InstaShit droid?
Scrubbing the heel of his palm over his brows, Zed effectively hid his gaze as he answered. “Damn thing was annoying.”
“Not half as annoying as being covered in shit, man.” Felix caught Zed’s elbow and pulled his hand away from his face. “You all right?”
Zed met his gaze. His eyes were the color of steel and could warm and cool accordingly, flashing a chilly blue when he was annoyed, a softer blue-toned gray when he was overcome with emotion. Felix liked watching Zed’s eyes when they made love, the shift of color and intensity. Seeing Zed’s feelings march from one extreme to another. He searched for signs of stress and found none. He wasn’t convinced. Five years of covert ops meant Zed could lie, even to him.
“Truth,” he said, hoping to coax Zed into admitting something.
“Then why did you hit the bot?”
“I didn’t mean to hit it that hard.”
Had he meant to hit it at all? That was the question Felix wanted to ask. He chewed it over a second, then spat it out. “You knew you hit it, right?”
“What the fuck do you mean?”
“Zed, c’mon. You know what I mean.”
“Look, I’m sorry the bag opened on you, okay? Not like I planned this shit.”
Zed turned his hand so they clasped arms. “Go get cleaned up. I’ll handle the client.”
A crease teased the space between Zed’s brows. Felix could see him fighting the frown. He wanted to press, but knew that the fight would have to wait. Right here, right now, they were arguing about something they both wanted to be nothing—and they had a client waiting. And shit to clean up.
Felix closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, Zed had moved in closer and had one hand raised as if he planned to cup the back of Felix’s head. His nose wrinkled and a small coughing sound emerged from his throat. He leaned back. “Can I kiss you later?”
“I should make you kiss me now.”
Zed swallowed visibly.
With a dry chuckle, Felix leaned back and waved him away. “Go. And take Elias instead of Nessa. Xihe is a rough station.”
“Ness can look after herself.”
True, but only Nessa could properly care for Zed if anything happened.
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Text Copyright ©2015 by Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen
Cover Art Copyright © 2015 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved.