Bodie's Luck


(Based in the "Downbelow Station" universe created by C. J. Cherryh)

Bodie kicked into the Pan-paris jump range, the squeal of com vocalising his agony. Always, some part of him dimly wondered that human beings, having once experienced jump, ever put themselves through it again. He lifted a drug- numb, gravity-heavy arm to confirm the velocity dump, and almost passed out as DARK STAR pulsed in the vanes and shifted him out of realspace for one gut-compressing moment.

"Query unorthodox approach," the nearest incoming-range buoy was chattering. "ID acknowledged, DARK STAR. Explain coordinates. Further velocity dump and change in course necessary to meet correct incoming lanes. Your immediate cooperation requested, DARK STAR."

"This is DARK STAR returning to civilisation," Mace was saying into com beside him, weary satisfaction in her voice. "Advise Pan-paris central that we came in via a new null point, coordinates follow to confirm routing."

Bodie struggled for consciousness, and took com over from Helm. "Lane instructions confirmed-- will engage autopilot," he informed the buoy. "Last velocity dump in three seconds." Realspace flickered out and in again, then Bodie groaned in relief at the sudden absence of acceleration. "We're on our way in, Pan-paris, coasting all the way."

"We're on our way in," Mace echoed faintly, pausing in her long feline stretch to shoot Bodie a glare with enough malice to make even HIM flinch. "No thanks to the legendary Bodie luck, Captain. I wish I could promise that once we're docked I'll never lay eyes on you again-- but I want my share of the pay-out."

"It's yours, babe; you earned it."

"Don't come over all reasonable at me, Bodie, I'd die of shock if I ever thought you sincere."

"You think I'm going to cheat you out of the money? What's the percentage in that?" Bodie turned back to the controls as Mace clambered out of her chair. "Leave your account number in comp--lock it, if you like--and I'll arrange the deposit direct from the combine. Then you'll never have to look into my baby blues again."

Mace Tindall let out a disgusted little growl. "Anything would be worth that." She headed out of the pit. "Fucking combine's probably folded anyhow," Mace threw back over her shoulder.

"Probably," Bodie muttered, looking over the station's scan image routed through the buoy, the estimates of the positions of all the ships in the system. Pan-paris had expanded operations in the past twenty-six years, that was for sure. Whether the Esperance-based combine Oxford-Price had likewise flourished, was another matter. Going out, Bodie had counted on some other combine, whether established or not, at least purchasing their interest in DARK STAR's voyage if the fledgling Oxford-Price folded. Coming back in, having skipped twenty-five years of realtime and socio-economic history in the Oxford-Price installed cryo-tanks that Mace had insisted on referring to as crypts, Bodie acknowledged his doubts. Still, DARK STAR's comp now held a good few megabytes of valuable information--selling to the highest bidder, or even finding bidders in the first place, was one skill that Bodie trusted he would never lose.

Munching the sandwich and gratefully gulping down the coffee that Mace had brought him, Bodie waited patiently for station to acknowledge their presence. Mace had showered, changed, eaten and even dozed for awhile, and was back on deck all restless impatience by the time com came alive. "This is Pan-paris central. Query unorthodox approach."

"We've been through all that," Bodie muttered to himself. The time-delay meant that they would be holding an incredibly disjointed conversation over the next few hours as he approached station, but central was at least now responding to all the necessary data on DARK STAR via the buoy. It was obviously still standard that station would start chattering as soon as they picked up his entry.

"Welcome back, DARK STAR. Comp reads it's been twenty-six years since you last docked--hope it wasn't something we said."

"Oh, very droll," Bodie commented, smiling despite himself. That this stationer's idle banter was the funniest thing he'd heard in weeks, he didn't want to think about. Mace just glowered at him and com and everything.

"Congratulations on your success," the stationer prattled on, probably risking an irate supervisor, before returning to all the usual business. "Luck must be with you." And it was true, in all the most important ways--the simple fact that Bodie and Mace Tindall were back in human space again meant that they had been successful. And lucky.

"Might get a hero's welcome out of this," Bodie said.

"You wish." Mace settled back into her chair.

"Pan-paris central, this is Bodie of DARK STAR. You have our standard data via the buoy. We're coming in from a discovery mission on behalf of Oxford-Price combine, and would appreciate you notifying them. It's been a long time. We're following lane instructions and request priority docking. Autopilot is functioning normally-- glad you haven't changed your comp's programming. Keep in mind that we're a relic from the past, central, and we're only two crew this trip. Please acknowledge."

"You'd better go freshen up before we get in close," Mace told him.

"It'll be hours yet."

"Look at all that traffic, Bodie. Go get yourself feeling human again, all right? You look like you belong in the crypts. I can handle this much alone."

"Never said you couldn't, babe." He eased gratefully out of the chair and headed for the shower--this, he loved and hated at once. The fresh hot water was sheer heaven after jump; but having to face his stubble and bruised-looking eyes in the mirror, then washing away all the shed hair and skin, was too much like his idea of hell. Bodie hated that one nauseating, glorious jump between null points would take so much out of him, seeing as he was skipping both a solid chunk of realspace AND a month's realtime. "If you were a stationer, kid, you'd be over a month older right now. That's some mercy. And face it, spacer," he told his reflection in the mirror, "you're looking pretty good for a man born fifty-six years ago. Still tall, dark and beautiful. Hell, you don't look a day over thirty-one." But his chuckle was stillborn. "If only you didn't FEEL like you've made the century with no help from rejuv." Having the limber twenty-year-old Mace around was no help, either, especially as she'd decided early on in the trip that she didn't want the privilege of sharing the Captain's bunk. That privilege hadn't QUITE been part of why Bodie had recruited her, but it had annoyed him no end that she saw fit to simply earn her share of their pay-out from Oxford-Price and not take the fringe benefits. Especially after she'd shared a week of sleepovers with him while still at station. Gone were the days, Bodie reluctantly figured, when he could rely on them forever wanting to come back for more.

He changed into a fresh coverall, unrelieved black with the Bodie's DARK STAR patch on the sleeve--sombre but elegant. Understated, but he made up for that with his bluest eyes and smoothest voice and irreverent manner. Bodie figured he had it all, he was the most loaded mass of potential amongst the stars. If only it wasn't for the luck which came with the Family ship and patch and coveralls. If it wasn't for that, because he'd inherited the Bodie luck in spades, just as Coran had. Doomed.

Searching through the freezer, Bodie bypassed the standards and picked out a luxury dinner, good and hearty. With that, and fresh juice, he began feeling more like his usual confident self. Getting himself, Mace and the ship back in one piece--it wasn't enough, but it would have to do. His stomach wasn't protesting as much as it usually did post-jump, so he treated himself to cake as well, with real coffee to wash it down. A well-earned luxury. He took some cake and coffee to Mace in the pit, and checked the scan and comp again.

"Go get some more rest," Bodie suggested. "I'll take it alone until we get amongst the heavy stuff."

"All right." But first, Mace headed for her cabin and packed up the last of her personal luggage, her silence daring Bodie to comment. She loaded it all on a lower bunk behind the pit, then lay down to catch some sleep.

Com continued its chatter, breaking into two streams of information as DARK STAR neared station. Eventually, Bodie heard the words he'd been waiting for. "Oxford-Price welcomes you back, DARK STAR. Will be pleased to meet with you whenever convenient."

"Now, THAT'S a relief." The Bodie luck had passed something by, which wasn't entirely unheard of, but Bodie rested a little easier. Maybe Pan-paris would work out for him after all.

As soon as they were safely docked, Mace was out of her chair and gathering up her belongings. "I'll arrange for the rest to be collected and stored," she said once she'd strung herself about with as many bags as possible.

Bodie helped her as far as the airlock. "We can't part as friends, Mace?" He offered her the smile that not one woman had ever been able to resist. Hell, it had even worked on most men, too.

"I didn't credit you were stupid as well, Bodie," Mace snapped at him. "If we were friends, I wouldn't be about to pass the truth on the docks about you. And don't think you can stop me now--it's too late for a convenient accident."

He didn't dignify that last shot with a reply. "What truth are you going to pass, girl? Things have changed if anyone's going to be gullible enough to listen to you." Bodie watched his one and only crew member turn her shoulder and walk out of the airlock and into the tunnel that led down to dockside. Rumours among the merchanters were fatal for a marginer like he'd been, especially one who had to rely on finding decent crew to hire, one who had to work hard to earn the trust of cargo.

He took the lift up to the pit again, and contacted the Oxford-Price offices to arrange for the download of all the survey data he'd collected in comp on four null points and a star system. "You'll appreciate this," Bodie told the stationer who dealt with him. "The star system has an habitable world, and others good for mining. A real find."

"Sounds good, DARK STAR. We'll read and analyse this. Stay in touch."

"Will do. Out." And next he had to front at station offices to lodge his papers. The bureaucracy never changed, even if the look and feel of virtually everything else seemed alien. Bodie began wondering if he even spoke the right language any more. In place of his and DARK STAR's papers, he ended up with plastic cards which, while unfamiliar, were at least more practical.

The worst part of all the bustle following his arrival were the station vid reporters that dogged his footsteps all the way back to DARK STAR's berth. "How's it feel to be back, Captain?"

"What's changed since your day?" one asked.

"You tell me," he said to that reporter, who was obviously at least seventy despite the rejuv. "You've seen it, the same as I have."

"Tell us about the beyond, Captain," said another. Bodie ignored them as best he could, and almost ran for the sanctuary of his empty ship.

Within two hours, Bodie cautiously headed out dockside again, to start searching for crew before Mace's bitterness could start to affect the potential market available. It was always hard to hire reliable crew because merchanter ships were owned and run by Families. As a result, the crew available for hire were usually rejects from those Family groups, or inexperienced insystemers keen to leave a station behind. It would be worse now, in that Bodie was the only surviving member of the Bodie clan--when they were a Family, back when their parents were alive, or when it had been just him and Coran and Steve Bartlett, they'd been able to attract reputable crew on transfer from other Families. Now, with Coran and her husband gone, he was alone. And Bodie hated the vulnerability that left him with.

He walked along the docks, looking over the bars, trying to ignore the longings that the sight of the sleepovers stirred within him. Best to concentrate on the classier bars, best to try for the quality crew he needed, before accepting the inevitable and looking lower for whatever untrustworthy crew he could persuade aboard his unlucky ship. Before giving in to other, sweeter needs.

Bodie wandered through a likely-looking entry and strolled up to the bar. A year since he'd had a beer--he ordered a glass and eagerly swallowed the malty liquid before looking around him. Eyes still averted, he slid his card into the payment slot, not wanting to see how much a beer cost these days. Some changes were inevitable.

Bodie's eyes alighted on the sole occupant of a booth against the far wall. Propped up in the corner, the booth's lights low, hidden from view from almost all in the room, the young man sat with his head back against the padded velvet, disconsolately sipping at a lethal looking drink. Bodie swallowed down the rest of his beer and beckoned to the bartender. "Another beer and another of whatever HE'S drinking." The young man didn't even notice him walk up. Bodie stood watching him for long moments, trying not to get too intrigued. The coverall, rust with gold trim at the shoulders, obviously matched the Cator's SANSKRIT patch on his arm-- so why did he also wear the Doyle's AVALON patch under it? And the face itself--the man must be in his early twenties, twenty-three at most, so why so careworn? The hair, a mess of long curls, indulgent for a spacer, was a red-brown that matched the coverall. The body was all wiry strength even in repose. Intriguing, for a number of reasons. Dangerously so. "You look like you could do with another drink," Bodie said to gain his attention.

"That bad, huh?" the other said slowly, turning his head slightly to look at Bodie through barely-opened eyes.

"That bad," he confirmed. Waited another long moment. "May I sit down?"

"Be my guest," was the flat reply.

"So what troubles are you trying to drown?" Bodie asked once he was settled opposite the merchanter.

"Wouldn't want to bore you with them." It was said lightly, but Bodie caught the note of warning. "What are you buying strangers drinks for? Business or pleasure?"

"That depends on what the stranger wants. Having just docked after a long trip, I'm open to suggestions."

"Yeah?" The man finally lifted his head from the wall and squinted over at Bodie, read his patch. "Know who YOU are, at least. Hero of the hour."

"Glad someone thinks so." Bodie returned the stare--met green eyes, wide set. So.

"Everyone does--you were even mentioned on the stationer news channel, they were almost as quick as the ships at getting the gossip spread. The merchanter turned intrepid explorer returns. You're luckier than some, Captain Bodie."

He let out a derisive laugh. "The Bodie luck is slowly but surely reaching epic proportions. Anyone with worse luck than I've had would have been vented at birth, if there was any compassion amongst the stars. That's the way I'll go one day--I'll quit pretending, quit fighting, and exit gracefully out the airlock."

"And I thought MY mood was planetside! Is this some weird way of trying to get a smile out of me?"

Bodie laughed again, not so hollow this time. "Always thought it would be the right grave for a spacer," he opined, "frozen for eternity, orbiting the stars, no barrier between you and infinity." He was rewarded with a slight smile. "Nice--you should do that more often."

"So what ARE you buying me a drink for? Because I was the only person in the bar looking close to how you feel?"

Bodie shrugged. "I came here on business, but a pretty face got in the way. Definitely got pleasure on my mind now."

The young man narrowed his eyes a little, pursed his lips. "You have some crazy sense of humour, Captain."

"I'm deadly serious--no Bodie can pass a pretty face by. It's a matter of Family honour."

"You going to ask me my name?"

"You going to tell me?"

"Ray Doyle. And I've not got a pretty face."

"That's not open to debate." Bodie paused, looking his companion over. "So what's the story behind the patches? Why are you crewing with SANSKRIT now instead of AVALON?"

"You ask too many questions, hero."

"So ask some in return. Then we can both not answer each other."

Doyle regarded him for a long moment. "How does it feel? I guess everyone asks, including the vid reporters--what's it like, visiting your future?"

"What's it like, talking to a remnant of the past? Stranger for you--you weren't even born when I left--but I would still be alive now, doing time the hard way."

"Talking to you? It's curious."

Bodie watched his companion for awhile, sipping at his beer. "Been a year since I last had a drink," he said, voice low. "Been a year since my last sleepover." He knew when Doyle's cheeks coloured a little that he'd been understood--the man would have been naive not to read his meaning, but exactly that had happened to Bodie a hundred times before when it was a fellow he was after. Not that subtlety was ever his long suit. "Been one year subjective, but it feels like it's been the full twenty-six."

"Me?" Doyle queried faintly, bemused.

"Well worth your while--I haven't ever gone without for this long."

"I suppose," Doyle said slowly, "that if the hero of the hour offers you an adventure, you really should accept."

"You should," Bodie agreed. "Be a fool to turn him down."

"All right. I'm not going to start being a fool just yet."

"How much has changed? Could we go to a sleepover?"

"There's one we could go to, down the other end of blue section. I wouldn't want to try anywhere else--don't reckon they'd chuck us out, but I don't have the nerve to brazen it out."

"Come back to my ship," Bodie said. "Not as luxurious, dockside, but it's private."

"No crew?"

"Only one--and she ran out on me as we docked."

"All right," he said again.

"Want another drink?"

"No." Then Doyle smiled a little. "These things pack a mean punch, you know. Want to stay conscious for this, hero."

"Yeah," Bodie murmured. He'd only had two beers, but his senses were swimming. He needed crew, and fast, but all he could see was Ray Doyle. Putting hunger before survival like he'd lost his wits, like he'd forgotten he was only a marginer, never a hero. One day it would all be over--one day soon at this rate. Bodie stared pensively across at his companion.

Then Ray ran a hand nervously back through the glorious curls, long fingers hard over his fragile skull, dropped the hand on Bodie's beside his beer glass. Looked across at him, green eyes both high and scared like he was floating through jump with no tranks. "This going to be good, is it?" he asked like he knew the answer.

"The best."

"Let's go then, Bodie."

"Let's go," he echoed. And nothing else mattered but the man walking close by him all the way down to DARK STAR's berth, through the brightly lit access tube, into the lift. To the dockside sleeping area beyond DARK STAR's pit.

Bodie sat on the edge of his bunk, patted a place next to him where Doyle obediently sat down. He caught Doyle's weird, beautiful face in his hands, thumbs sweeping the wide cheekbones, drinking in the sight of him. "Let me kiss you," Bodie asked softly. Something wild flared in Doyle's eyes in answer--he suddenly leant forward across the space between them, met Bodie's mouth jarringly, kissed him hard and desperate. Bodie let him finish and pull away, but wouldn't let him turn. "I take it that's a yes."

The pale face between Bodie's hand coloured a little again, looking more like a teenaged planetsider than a hardened merchanter. Charming. "Damn you," Doyle muttered with no real conviction.

"We're going to enjoy this," Bodie promised, "if either of us can find a little patience. Seems like you're plenty hungry yourself--and me, I'm starving."

"Hungry for you, hero," Doyle insisted. "Forget the patience. Don't need it."

"Yes we do, colt. Want to make it good for you- - -I specialise in first times." Bodie eased them both down until they were lying together along the bunk. "Like fine brandy," he continued as he slowly unzipped Doyle's coverall, slipped his hands inside, "you warm it, you sip at it, you savour the taste, roll it over your tongue, let it fire you."

"Well-worn words," Doyle commented, despite the way Bodie's deft touches fuelled his hunger.

"You don't want the patter? Fine. Listen to what my body's saying to yours."

"Cut it out--I don't want to hear all that crap."

"There's a reason for it, you know." Bodie drew back a little to look at him. "And, believe me, it does work."

"I don't care if you've done this a million times and it's all a routine: you could do me the honour of pretending I'm something a little new to you."

"You're not going to forget this," Bodie said, as if he'd hardly listened. "I'm an ace lover-- if I've honed my skills through practice, that's all the better for you."

"LOOK at me, damn you. Do you even remember my name? I'm not just some bimbo--I'm a person, and you'll treat me as such. If that's too REAL for you, forget about it."

"Ray," Bodie murmured against the sharp tone: "all right." He ducked his head, drew in a few deep breaths before finding a light laugh within him. "You're right. And so cool...." Bodie lifted his head again, all attention now, cast Doyle an amused, apologetic look. The wiry body became a little more pliable under his hands and he gathered it up closer. "What are you giving me a hard time for? How come you're capable-- you're meant to be nervous aren't you, colt?"

"And you've got a year's hunger to unleash on me. I figure a little honest passion is what we both need."

"All right--just the hunger, no routine."

Doyle smiled, repeated, "Forget the patience."

Bodie lowered his head until their lips almost met again, and Doyle let out the softest moan. "The hunger," Bodie murmured; "it's all yours, lover."

It was Bodie's mainday, but the jump had left him tired so he slept beside Doyle for a couple of hours, then eased himself away without waking the man. He fixed himself some lunch and carried it out to his chair in the pit. "Pan- paris com, patch me through to the Oxford-Price offices, will you?"

"Confirmed, DARK STAR." Then it was Oxford- Price Reception and, finally, Development and Expansion. "Receiving you, DARK STAR."

"Bodie speaking. You analysed that data yet?"

"Yes, Captain. Excellent, like you said. I'll lay any odds you like Oxford-Price will set up a station out there at the system. Get myself an assignment there, I reckon."

"Good for you," Bodie said heavily. "Naming rights--you won't argue naming rights with me, stationer."

The anonymous voice lost its edge of excitement. "No, Captain. The null points as well, or just the system?"

"The system--call it Coran's Luck." And he patiently spelt it out.

"That's logged. There's a story there, Captain?"

"You're not hearing it." Bodie glared sightlessly at the blank screens, the telltale lights. "You figured the pay-out yet?"

"A little over three million credits, Captain. Do you have an account here?"

"Yeah," Bodie breathed. "You got that right?" he asked, then cursed himself for ten kinds of fool.

"You're a rich man, sir."

"It's a fucking fortune!" he couldn't help but burst out.

"Hold on, hold on," the stationer laughed a little, warming to him again. "Inflation, right? It's only a damn fortune these days."

"It'll do me." Bodie read off his account number, then Mace Tindall's. "She's crew, and due a quarter of it--seventy-five thousand or whatever it is exactly. Calculate and pay it directly for me, would you?"

"That's logged, Captain. Nice doing business with you."

"Well, we might be doing more soon enough." Bodie paused, finger hovering over the cut-out. "The first null point," he said, "call it Tindall's."

Doyle woke in a strange place. Not a sleepover- - -a merchanter got used to waking in all manner of sleepovers on station. A ship--he could hear the cycling air, the occasional dull, musical thumps that meant being at dock with a myriad of other ships. A strange ship, not home like SANSKRIT had to be. Bodie's DARK STAR. A strange man. Doyle grinned to himself. Strange enough. He clambered out of the bunk and headed for the pit, naked as he was. Bodie was there, surrounded by scattered parts and debris, installing new backups in the com unit. "Hey, hero."

"Hey, colt." Bodie straightened, turned his head, and then came out of his preoccupation. " there's a sight."

"What's the time?" Doyle asked through a yawn.

"Stationtime, coming up for maindawn in an hour. Me, I'm way out of sync." Bodie smiled at him, the lascivious twist to his lips already familiar. "Come here, starshine."

Doyle wandered over, his mouth echoing Bodie's smile, and let himself be gathered into sensual strength. Pushing up for a kiss, he entangled his arms around the man's waist and solid back, Bodie's coverall cool and rough against his skin. Intoxicating.

"My manners are slipping," Bodie finally broke away to say. "I should be making you some breakfast."

"Forget the manners," Doyle said, only wriggling closer.

"Come on, colt. If I'm not mistaken, you are in dire need of sustenance." The blue eyes danced amusement. "Because after breakfast, Ray Doyle, you are going to be assigned some labour- intensive duties to perform."

"Is that a promise, Captain?" Doyle reluctantly pulled away and followed the man back to the galley, collecting his coverall on the way. And he watched Bodie wolf down twice the breakfast that Doyle ate. "You still hungry after that?" he asked as they lingered over mugs of real coffee.

"Manners, right? Couldn't let you eat on your own."

"It'll be a wonder if you can move." Doyle eyed him as if Bodie was so much cargo he had somehow to load.

Bodie lounged back, indolent, sleek. "A year's worth of hunger...." he reminded Doyle. "You don't think I'm satisfied yet, do you?"

"No," Doyle grinned. "Hey, this coffee is damn good. Only posted crew get it on SANSKRIT. Us Maintenance slaves are lucky to get substitute."

"They obviously don't appreciate you like I do. You get the best on DARK STAR, Ray Doyle."

"That's the truth." He stood, crossed over to Bodie. "Reporting for duty, Captain." He pulled at the zip of Bodie's coverall, began peeling away the black cloth to reveal creamy skin, explored for awhile the contrast of satin softness covering hull-hard muscle. "You're one beautiful spacer, hero."

"I was thinking exactly the same thing, colt."

This time, there was something surer between them, something stronger. They slowly made their way to the bunks, coveralls lost on the way, then held each other as close as separate bodies would allow, hands and mouths firm and hungry, giving in to a passion that came close to violence in expression. And the simple things that had satisfied them earlier were no longer enough.

"What will you let me do?" Bodie finally murmured.

"Anything," Doyle replied, caught in the heady tug of the man's sensuality and abdicating all responsibility to it.

"No, tell me. While I can still think. What don't you want me to do?"

"Shut up, Bodie, and love me."

"For god's sake, Ray, I feel like I'm going to tear apart any moment now." Bodie drew back a little to look at Doyle's face, but even the sight of him was too distracting for coherent thought.

"I trust you, spacer. Just let go and love me."

"Love you," Bodie echoed, falling close against Doyle again as if there was no way of fighting the gravity between them.

Doyle stood at DARK STAR's airlock, looked over at his companion. "It's been an interesting sleepover, Bodie."

"Interesting? That covers a multitude of sins."

"It was bloody wonderful, hero. And you know it."

"I do indeed." The blue eyes danced. "They say you never forget the first time, right? That's true a hundred-fold when it's a Bodie who's seduced you."

"Only time will tell," Doyle replied, smiling a little. He stood for a moment, eyes wandering. "I'm usually good at this bit."

"Got the goodbye patter down to a routine for the girls, have we?"

Doyle shot him a grin. "Touche."

"So how long is SANSKRIT in station?" Bodie asked with an air of surrender.

"We're due to undock next maindawn, and I'm on duty during alterday. I might catch up with you next time round, eh? We'll be on the same trade loop."

"No--it's goodbye, spacer. So kiss me."

Doyle kissed him long and hard, then pulled away, not bothering to hide his regret though he knew it was all fuel for Bodie's run-amok ego. "Goodbye, hero." He walked down the tunnel to dock, finding an unaccustomed jaunt in his step. It had been a long time since a sleepover had driven his discontentment out of his mind. And a longer time that he'd been wondering over the attractions of his own sex.

He well remembered when that impulse had first been woken within him. Fifteen years young, a nobody from a Family that didn't mean a thing anymore, full of his own worth but taken on board SANSKRIT like a charity case. And promptly propositioned by one of the older Cator cousins. He'd been afraid that this was a given, like his status as Maintenance, but somehow he'd emerged from his blunt refusal with dignity intact, old Blair being a little more reasonable than he'd come to expect from the Cators. Doyle hadn't wanted to risk it within the Family--he was already taken too much for granted as it was--but he'd certainly started wondering. Except he'd finally had a run of success with the girls not long after, docked at Paradise, and it had taken all the arrogant charm of a Bodie eight years later to finally sweep him into a masculine embrace.

Ignoring the passing ped-carrier, Doyle wandered on down the dock, keeping an eye out for SANSKRIT-coveralled cousins in general and one in particular. Legs weary, he finally found her at Morris's Diner. "Hey, coz," he said, cuffing her on the shoulder. "What are you doing hanging around with this joker? Didn't I warn you about those Cators?"

Ellen Doyle grinned up at him from her barstool. "Hey, Ray. What am I doing? I heard THIS Cator was worth a sleepover."

"Who's been telling lies about me?" Adrian protested. "You didn't marry me on the strength of THAT, did you?" The three shared a grin at their time-worn banter. "So, where have you been?" Ade started the usual interrogation. "Making the most of docktime, are we?"

"You could say that."

"And who was the lucky girl? A merchanter?"

"My lips are sealed," Doyle said primly, trying to hold back his laughter. What these two honest citizens would make of what he and Bodie had done together, he did not want to know.

"You can tell us--complete with the spicy details, if you please."

"Yeah," El agreed drily. "Us old married people like living vicariously through you, Ray."

"You're not missing a THING, I promise you," Ade told her.

"You'd like me to believe that, wouldn't you?" El turned back to Doyle. "Come on, tell. And if she was nice, I can waste my breath advising you to link up with her."

"You wouldn't waste your breath this time, coz, not if you knew."

"She couldn't have been that bad--we've hardly seen you for twenty-four hours."

"Didn't say it was bad. Just someone well worth a sleepover, that's all."

"Come on, El, leave the poor boy alone. He's young yet, entitled to some fun."

"You'll both be telling me that until he's a hundred," El laughed. "Hey, if you've been holed up in a sleepover, you won't have heard the gossip."

"What gossip?"

"Remember Bodie's DARK STAR was coming in from a discovery mission? Been gone for over twenty years?"

Doyle remained carefully neutral. "Yeah. Everyone was following it on scan and vid coming in."

"They went out with three Family and one crew member--Mace Tindall--and came back with just the Captain and Tindall. Now Bodie's on his own, and Tindall's spreading the word that he's trouble. She reckons he had something to do with the deaths--it was his sister and her husband."

"What! How did they die?"

"Out at the system they discovered. They were planetside, I think, surveying, and he left them behind."

"What else did she say? Did you speak to her?"

"No--I got it third hand, you can hear it all over the docks. Hey, what's the problem, Ray? It's only gossip."

Doyle gazed around the Diner, not having to look far to see a group or two huddling around some news--*she said he killed them*--just the sort of sensation people liked, as long as they weren't in the middle of it. He remembered the little that Bodie had said about the voyage, but they'd been too caught up with another topic for Bodie to have let anything relevant slip, of good or bad. "I had a drink with him last alterday."

"With Captain Bodie?" Ade asked, unbelieving.

"He didn't strike me as the sort who would murder his Family--the last of his Family."

"For the pay-out, Tindall reckoned, to keep their share."

"No, he didn't have a guilty conscience plaguing him."

"Maybe no conscience at all, coz."

Doyle shook his head. "He's decent enough." Last night, he would have easily believed Bodie to be mourning an unlucky accident, if that had been the story he'd chosen to tell Doyle about the deaths. But the man kept so much of his truth, of his worth cocooned within a resilient layer of routine reactions. It was hard for Doyle to believe he could be so wrong about someone, but he had to admit to himself that there was a chance that the worst was true.

"What's Tindall's percentage in spreading the word if it's false?" El was saying. "She wouldn't be doing her own rep any good."

"But blackening his too, just when he needs good crew. She'd better be damn sure of herself." And Doyle had met him on that search for crew, maybe Bodie's only chance to have recruited the better ones--Doyle had distracted him and then kept him shipbound for the alterday and more. At the least, Bodie shouldn't have let Doyle sleep, should have thrown him dockside again and resumed his search. Except that not even his conscience could make Doyle regret the time they'd spent together that maindawn. "Where's Tindall now?" Doyle asked.

"How should we know?" Ade asked, grown exasperated.

"It's not your business, Ray," El added.

"I want the truth of this, damn it. She's killing him."

"Tindall might be justified. Your judgement isn't infallible, especially if it was formed over a drink or two."

"Bodie deserves someone trying to find out. And it looks like no one but me is going to make the effort." Doyle looked up as a handful of Cator cousins came in, surrounded Ade and El with their usual dockside cheer. "He made me more welcome than some," Doyle muttered. "I'll see you, El."

"Ray!" She stood and walked closer. "I've seen that determination before," she said, voice low to keep the Cators out of it. "I know not to get in the way, but stay in touch, right? I'll hang around here for the day, then I'll be on SANSKRIT. If you need your duty covered tonight, let me know."

"You're a friend, El."

"Family," she reminded him. "You and me, we're Family."

"Yeah." Doyle stood for a moment, restless to be gone but bound to her. Sometimes Family could count too much. "See, all I can think of is bringing Avalon in, me and Jeremy--if anyone on station had said we were responsible for the others being dead, I would have killed them. I can't imagine Bodie feeling much different."

"All right, Ray," El said. "I understand."

"And...I want you to remember this, Ellen, remember that I meant it. Cators are your Family too, now. If you have to choose, then choose them."

"Ray!" But this time he didn't pause on his way out.

Two hours later, Doyle was no closer to finding Mace Tindall, though there were merchanters throughout the docks who were willing to pass on the gossip, repeat the stories which grew wilder. "She's not lodging charges," Doyle kept saying until he was hoarse. "It's not fair to listen to her--if there was anything to it, she'd make it official."

"How is she meant to prove anything?" was the usual reply. "It's her word against his. She says negligence at the least, murder at the worst."

"What does Bodie get out of murdering Family? What's the motive?"

"There's a few million credits involved in the pay-out, what do you think the motive is?"

"That's garbage. Family would have kept the money tied to the ship, he wouldn't have lost use of their share." And Doyle would revert to the only thing he was sure of: "If it were all true, she'd tell it to the authorities, proof or not." By the end of blue dock, he felt he'd at least sown a little doubt on Bodie's behalf-- without even knowing whether the man deserved it or not. But if there was a chance Bodie was innocent, he sure needed friends.

Doyle reached the bars nearest station offices just in time to see Bodie storming out of them, legal documents in hand. His heart skipped a beat or two. Ignoring the flurry of interested merchanters and reporters and wide-eyed stationers, Doyle jogged a couple of paces to intercept Bodie's path. The blue eyes flashed over him, contemptuous, unseeing.

"Has she pressed charges? What are those papers?" Doyle asked, having to force his tired legs to keep up with Bodie's angry stride.

"Get out of here."

"You owe me an explanation, Bodie."

"The hell I do."

"I have to know if it's true or not," Doyle insisted. "Tell me that at least." Bodie strode on in silence. "I've been talking to merchanters from here to green dock, telling them Tindall might be wrong, that if this were true she'd have filed charges. Have I been wasting my time?"

"I didn't ask you to do it."

They were already close to DARK STAR's berth. "Look at me, damn you. I'm the only friend you have right now, and that isn't just because you're a good sleepover. Tell me the truth, and if you didn't kill them--"

"You think I might have? Then I can do without your friendship."

"I don't take anything for granted. But I might take your word if you give it me."

Bodie came to a halt at DARK STAR's access tube, turned abruptly to scrutinise his companion. "I don't give my word that easy--you either trust me or you don't."

"Give me a reason to trust you."

"Coming on board?"

"Did she file charges?"

Bodie sighed. "No. I did--against her, for malicious libel."

Doyle almost grinned. "All right then."

"You're mad. I would have filed charges, guilty or innocent. I've too much to lose, else."

"You won't give me your word, I won't give you my trust. But I'll help you if I can. Until proven guilty. All right?"

"All right." Bodie led the way through DARK STAR's airlock and up to the pit. "Want some coffee?" he offered, heading back to the galley.

"Real stuff? Couldn't say no." Doyle followed him, appropriated one of the benches.

"You know how much this costs these days? I figure if I sold all the coffee I have frozen in store, I'd be able to buy a new ship."

"Hell, don't sell it--list it as a fringe benefit for crew, and you'll be stampeded with potential recruits."

"That's an incredibly helpful suggestion, Ray," Bodie said flatly. "Any more where that came from?"

"No. Sorry." Doyle ducked his head and gulped at the hot coffee. "So what are you planning on doing? Getting onto the trade loop?"

"I was only ever a marginer. Nothing on SANSKRIT's scale."

"There's enough trade around, though it's not the busiest loop to be on. Put yourself on the station list, you'll get cargo allotted you."

"I'm not after cargo."

"What then?"

Bodie topped up their mugs. "Do a little more exploration. Out into the Beyond again."

"For god's sake, why? You're crazy."

"Why not? There's nothing for me here, is there?"

"What is there here for you in another twenty- six years? If you don't feel like you belong NOW, how much worse is it going to be THEN?"

"It's not that."

"What are you running from, Bodie? Mace Tindall's slander? Your sister's ghost?"

"Shut up, Ray."

"Don't you see how that's going to look? Like an admission of guilt."

Bodie stood, paced out to the pit, Doyle tagging behind, coffee mug in hand. "I'll get that cleared up by the time I leave. Mace will cave in under the charges--she doesn't have anything but suspicions. Oxford-Price are paying the dock charges, and I can sure as hell afford the legal fees."

"But what's out there? I can understand you doing it once, with your Family with you--"

"--and bad debts to pay," Bodie added.

"So it's the same story: running away? What's going to be different THEN? You'll be so out- of-touch, it will be like you're not part of the human race any more."

"What choice is there?"

"Stay here for awhile, trade a little. At least get to know NOW before you jump ahead again."

"I'd need crew, and I'm not going to get any good ones here, even after I shut Mace up."

"You'd need crew to head for the Beyond, too."

"Half the survey equipment's automated now, and Oxford-Price will give me azi crew if I need it."

Doyle took one look at Bodie's face. "You don't want azi crew," he observed.

"They give me the creeps."

"Hell, they're human, Bodie. Just born in labs, that's all. And completely trustworthy--could be just what you need."

"Meet me here in another twenty-six years and see if I've grown used to the idea."

Doyle sighed, swung his gaze around DARK STAR's pit. "My best offer--I'll crew for you on a trade trip to Paradise. I'll catch up with Sanskrit again there, and you'll outrun the gossip, so you'll be able to get good crew. If you want to go exploring after that, Oxford- Price will have an office there."

"We'd have to string the jumps close to keep up with SANSKRIT."

"I'll live."

"And I need more than Maintenance crew if it's just the two of us. DARK STAR's not that small."

"I'm not just Maintenance, though I don't deny it's been useful experience." Doyle paused, sighed. "I was training for Helm on AVALON. She was somewhere between DARK STAR and SANSKRIT in size. I was mostly on simulators and backup, but when I was fifteen, AVALON was disabled, we lost a lot of Family. Me and a cousin took her through two jumps and limped into station. If I can do that, I can crew for you."

"What happened to her?"


Bodie waited. "You going to tell me the story?"

"Maybe, if you tell me yours."

"Oxford-Price has already started a refit," Bodie said. "Thanks for the offer, but I'm heading out again in five or six days. And not to Paradise."

"You were planning this all along, weren't you? That's why it was goodbye this morning."

"Come with me."

Doyle stared at him for a long while, found he knew his companion well enough by now to read vulnerability and need in the blue eyes. "No, I...I don't think I could leave everything behind like that."

"Your Maintenance status with a Family that isn't yours, for instance?"

"At least it's what I KNOW." Doyle watched Bodie as he turned away, swallowed the last of his cold coffee. "You look awful, Bodie. You need sleep, this must be your alterday."

"Stay with me."

Again, Doyle was surprised. "Sex isn't a good idea, is it," he said after a moment. "Seeing as how we don't trust each other."

"You trust me," Bodie told him. "Your instincts tell you to, and you find it hard to remember that you shouldn't." He walked over to comp, keyed in some instructions. "Come here, Ray." And he pressed Doyle's right hand against the scanner, palm down. "There, you can come and go, access the lower levels of com. If you won't stay with me, at least come to see me again before SANSKRIT undocks."

"All right," Doyle said, unsteady. Far too inclined to reach again for this man's embrace, let his judgement be further blinded, let the temptation to leave SANSKRIT grow too enticing for refusal. To be offered Helm on a good ship, and friendship, and sex with the most alluring spacer he'd ever laid eyes on.... He'd unwittingly let Bodie hang onto his wrist, and the man was now pulling him closer, aiming for a kiss. Doyle surrendered to the sweetness for a long moment before pushing himself away. "You know that's unfair recruiting tactics, hero."

"Honest tactics too, Ray."

"Let me go, there's someone I have to talk to, OK? I'll be back in a few hours--you get some sleep, then we'll talk."

Bodie almost let out a laugh as he watched Doyle run for the lift. Youthful enthusiasm and fear and anticipation and desire. He could work on it all in Doyle, could even feel a little of it all revive within himself in empathy. Heading back to the store, Bodie broke out some more of the backup units, resumed the painstaking process of replacing parts piece by piece around the pit. His anger had turned to complacency in record time, but he was still too jumped up for sleep, though his body was way overdue for it.

Smug, because he knew he had Doyle right where he wanted him, where he needed him. Because even if Doyle was just Maintenance, even if he, like Mace, called off the sex once he was DARK STAR crew, Doyle was still one hell of a lot better than the scum Bodie would attract otherwise. And even those scum would be an improvement on having god-damn azi haunting the ship.

"Face it, spacer, the universe is running your way again," he said to himself. "Child of the stars, you are." Somehow, he didn't think Doyle WOULD call off the sex. Doyle was too caught up in him altogether. And that was good.

"Ellen!" Doyle beckoned her over, out of the Cator cluster. Ade came with her, and the three settled into a corner booth.

"So what have you been up to, coz?"

"Where do I start?"

"At the beginning?"

"Depends on how many sordid details you want."

"The lot."

But Doyle smiled and shook his head. "I've been offered Helm on a ship."

"If it's the ship I think you mean, you're crazy."

"Yeah--DARK STAR. And I might be mad, but I'm thinking about it."

"Why, for god's sake?"

"Why do you reckon, El? I'm nothing on SANSKRIT."

Ellen cast a look at Ade. "You're on a reputable Family ship with regular work. You were lucky they agreed to take you on after AVALON--not many ships would have bothered. Don't throw it all away for a maverick ship like DARK STAR."

"You trust him that far?" Ade asked. "You're more gullible than I thought."

"I trust him. But...I guess I'm a little too subjective. That's where your opinion comes in."

"Good," said Ade. "Then turn him down. This is ridiculous."

Ellen was watching Doyle carefully. "Why so subjective?" she asked after a long moment.

"You want the sordid details now? My sleepover last night--I was with Bodie." Doyle looked from one shocked face to the other. "There's no easy way of saying it."

Ade shook his head, as if to settle something into place. "You had sex with him," he said flatly, plainly wanting Doyle to deny it.

"What can I say? He gave me real coffee. How could I turn him down?"

"You don't have to be flippant about this," Ade said.

"Why the hell not? Sex isn't a serious subject."

"Ray, what do you think you're doing?"

"Maybe DOING something with my life. Being Helm like I was meant to be."

"And Bodie?"

"Maybe linking up with someone for awhile, like you keep hassling me about, El."

"This was hardly what I had in mind."

And Ade said, "This is all about sex then."

"No. That's tempting, and it's good. But the chance to be more than Maintenance, to take a ship through jump again, to answer to one Captain and not a hundred cousins. Can't you understand that, for god's sake?"

"It's your reputation, Ray--you MEAN something in a SANSKRIT coverall. What are you in DARK STAR's? Just a maverick, a loser, always suspect."

"You're exaggerating, El."

"The hell I am! And whether or not Mace Tindall is right, IT COULD BE YOUR LIFE."

"I'll risk it."

"You don't want our opinion," Ade said. "Your mind is already made up. Your mind or your glands. This man must REALLY have something."

"Will you get your mind out of the damned disposal chute?" Doyle snapped.

"YOU dragged it down there."

"You can blame one of your precious cousins for dragging MINE there in the first place."

"What! Who?"

Doyle groaned and rubbed wearily at his temples. "Forget it. Can't either of you admit how lousy it's been for me on SANSKRIT? It's not your fault--either of you. So I've never laid it on you. But I've been thoroughly miserable, and no end to it in sight."

"There has to be other options," El said.

"I've been thinking it through for years. It only works if I get permanent placement on some other Family ship. I'm not crazy enough to just hire out. Not yet, anyway. That would get me nowhere."

"But where does this get you? A trade loop growing bare of cargo on a marginer ship with an untrustworthy Captain and no Family. SANSKRIT is large enough to make its own opportunities-- DARK STAR is a nobody going nowhere."

"For a start, Bodie's done something about the trade loop, hasn't he? Discovered a star system to set up a new station, provide resources, expand the loop. One hell of a success, when all's said and done. And he's going for it again--he's heading into the Beyond. There's more systems out there to find."

Ellen and Adrian stared at Doyle for a long while. "And you want to go with him," Ade finally said. "That's it--you must be certifiably insane."

"Dear god, Ray, can you really be that desperate?"

Doyle looked from one to the other. "I'm going," he said, at last knowing that he would follow this impulse, this instinct, no matter where it led. "I'm sorry, but that's that."

Strange to walk alone up DARK STAR's access tube, to be let in the airlock by comp like he already belonged. Strange, and exciting. The lift took him up to the pit, where the debris of parts and packaging made it obvious that Bodie hadn't been sleeping much since they'd parted. Now he was inside the ship, Doyle could hear that work was being done on the engines. That was one way of seeing station that he'd often been curious about--suited up and outside, around the vulnerable rear of all the docked ships.

Wandering back to the bunks, Doyle found Bodie fast asleep despite the noise and the fact that strangers were swarming over DARK STAR. The man must have finally given in to utter exhaustion. Doyle headed quietly back to the pit, saw where Bodie had reached and continued the work, replacing units and circuit boards, testing backups.

It was maybe three hours later that Bodie appeared and began to silently appraise Doyle's work. "Looks like you know what you're doing, colt."

Doyle, crouched on the floor, grinned up at him. "I know you'll check it anyway. Seeing as our lives will depend on it all."

"OUR lives, eh?" Bodie returned his grin, slowly stalking closer. "Couldn't resist my offer, Ray?"

"Not for long." Doyle stood as Bodie neared him, somehow managed not to back away. "Didn't want to spend my life regretting you."

"Couldn't resist ME?" Bodie cornered him, tried for a kiss that Doyle successfully ducked. "Come on, spacer, don't be coy."

"Trying to be sensible, remember? Captain."

"You're trusting me with your life, colt, so where's the harm in letting me at your body as well?" This time, Bodie's mouth found bare skin at the base of Doyle's neck. The man groaned in unthinking reaction before trying to pull away again. "Come to the bunks," Bodie said, and virtually dragged him over there.

"I'm meant to be meeting my cousin for dinner in an hour," Doyle protested.

"Plenty we can do in that time," Bodie said, starting to strip the SANSKRIT coverall off him.

"I'm meant to ask you along too."

Bodie laughed at that, distracted for a moment. "It's MEET THE FAMILY time, is it? Did I propose or something?"

"As good as--carrying me off into the Beyond."

"And all we'll have out there is each other."

Doyle met the man's gaze, about to scoff at the sentiment--but he almost flinched at the intensity he found in the blue eyes. Wordlessly, then, he surrendered to Bodie's demanding hands, his hard and hungry body. And knew that it was right.

They were late for the dinner that Ellen was hosting at one of the classier dockside restaurants, and didn't bother hiding their grins or apologising. "Bodie, this is Ellen Doyle, a far distant cousin of mine. And Adrian Cator, who's reputed to be worth a sleepover."

"Oh great, Ray...." Ade muttered.

"El, Ade, this is Bodie. He doesn't usually look this awful--he's been missing a lot of sleep lately for one reason and another."

The three shook hands. "Captain. You have a first name?" El asked.

"I did have, but I gave it back because I didn't like it."

Doyle laughed, first at Bodie, then at the others' obvious disapproval. Once they were all seated and had ordered drinks, he asked, "So what did the Old Man say."

"He wants to see you before SANSKRIT undocks."

"Of course. You know I would have told him in person, if you weren't so keen to get in ahead of me. I'll come back with you after dinner."

"He thinks you're crazy," Ade added.

"That's because you told him YOUR version of the story."

"He's paying out the salary he owes you--"

"I should think so," Doyle interrupted.

"--AND giving you a three-thousand credit bonus. And, Captain Bodie, if you're short of supplies or need backing with station, SANSKRIT can help out. We're undocking at maindawn, but that should be time enough to sort things out."

"Didn't know Ray came with a dowry," Bodie said into the silence as the other two waited for Doyle's reaction.

"The Old Man didn't have to do that," Doyle said.

"He didn't have to do a lot of things," El replied sharply.

"Wonderful--he took me in for your sake when we lost AVALON. That much I'm grateful for. And for the pure luck that SANSKRIT was in station at the time. But he wouldn't take Jeremy as well--Jer ended up on a ship with no Family at all. And I was downgraded to Maintenance for life, though I was worth better. Your cousins certainly didn't welcome me, I've always been the outsider. It was different for you, El, you married aboard, you've always been Family to them."

"OK--this is the first time you've complained about it, so you get our understanding. But for god's sake, don't leave SANSKRIT just because you're bitter. You can't decide your future in that frame of mind."

"Ray's not just bitter, he's hooked on this pervert."

"Yeah, let's have a demonstration of just how snide you can be, Ade," Doyle snapped back over Bodie's surprised but appreciative chuckle.

"Why don't you listen to your elders for once? Believe it or not, we're trying to look out for you."

"Just because you got El hooked, doesn't mean you can tell me what to do. I'm not fifteen any longer, if you hadn't noticed. And I never was your child."

El interrupted them. "Let's keep this civilised, OK? Ade, Ray's decided what he's going to do, and he was looking happy about it ten minutes ago. Let's just say goodbye to him, all right? He's the last of my Family I'll probably ever see."

"Sorry, El," Ade said. And after a long moment, he made the effort to politely ask, "So where are you heading for, Captain?"

"There's a system out there between the one I discovered and Wyatt's--I figure plenty of combines would give a lot to expand the trade loop that way."

"How long will that take?"

"Twenty years of realtime, more or less. I'll jump back through to Coran's Luck first--that's what I called the system, after my sister Coran."

Doyle watched his cousin and her husband, who were obviously disconcerted at the reference, and then shook his head in amusement at Bodie, who was grinning evilly as El and Ade looked away. What DID you say to such casual words from a suspected murderer? He wanted to follow Bodie up on that, get the story, any story, but that was a futile wish--a dockside restaurant swarming with waiters and merchanters was the last place Bodie was going to discuss the matter.

"Twenty years--you'll have to find us again when you get back, Ray," El said. "Heavens, I'll be over fifty. You'll have to remember to tell me that I'm still beautiful on rejuv."

"Of course I will, El," Doyle said, grabbing her hand with a desperate sadness that he hadn't expected to feel. "And of course you will--you were always the star of the family."

"I'll miss you, coz," she said.

"Hey, colt, stop distracting me. I've work to do."

"You KNOW how I like to be woken up these days."

"Yeah--my coffee supplies are severely depleted." Bodie stood finally, and looked his companion over. "If you're going to insist on wandering around the pit stark naked, I guess I'll have to cycle the air a little warmer."

"Surely it's less trouble to come warm me up yourself, Bodie."

"Giving in might take less time than arguing about it, I suppose." Bodie finished off what he was doing and wiped most of the grease off his hands.

"Sounds like the honeymoon's over," Doyle said. "Or maybe I should just make sure you get a decent night's sleep right now."

"Sleep's a luxury."

"A necessity, Bodie. Come on, hero, what are you pushing yourself so hard for?" Doyle walked up to him, took his head in both hands to scrutinise the drawn skin, the bruised eyes. "Still beautiful, spacer, but GAUNT doesn't suit you so well. Don't go exiting gracefully out any airlocks, will you? Don't quit fighting yet."

"I wasn't planning to."

Doyle leant in for a kiss, just as com signalled. "DARK STAR, this is SANSKRIT. We're undocking now."

"Acknowledged, SANSKRIT," Bodie replied. "Thanks for your help." Desperate marginers with a Family ship to maintain couldn't afford to be ungrateful, after all, even to smug bastards like the Cators.

"Luck to you, Captain, and to Ray Doyle. Out."

Bodie turned back to Doyle's embrace. "I've got all the luck I can handle," he observed sourly.

"I wish I could bring you better, but the Doyles have done even worse than the Bodies. At least you've still got your ship."

"Don't say things like that."

"For fear of it coming true? You are in a bad way, hero." Doyle eased himself closer against Bodie. "Cheer up, lover, things will get better from here on in. For both of us."

But Bodie pulled away from him. "Don't count on it."

"What happened?" Doyle had been haunting the shops nearest station offices for the last hour. "What did she say?"

"Nothing. It's sorted out. God, I'll be glad to leave this place behind."

"Sorted out? Are you still pressing charges against Tindall?"

"No, I dropped the charges. She apologised in front of station officials, and agreed to shut up."

"What does that mean? Tindall still thinks you're guilty, or what?"

"It's over, Doyle. Forget about it."

"That isn't good enough. Hey!" Doyle grabbed at the man's arm. "That isn't good enough for ME. You owe me an explanation."

"The hell I do." Bodie's stride didn't falter, and Doyle had to jog to keep up.

"You told me that before, but I'm crew now. I have to know."

"Yeah, you're god-damned crew. And your Captain is telling you to forget about it."

"Bodie!" Doyle followed him up the access into DARK STAR. "What do you think you're playing at?" No reply, except for the brooding glance that swept across him. "Don't do this--I need to know what happened."

"It's none of your business."

"For god's sake, Bodie, I'm trusting you with everything. I'm entitled to a little honesty in return." Silence. "Tell me about your sister, Bodie."

"Go to hell."

"I think I'm already there," Doyle muttered. He'd known it would be difficult to get Bodie to talk about this, but Doyle had counted on one thing--that if Bodie could finally satisfy station authorities and Mace Tindall with his story, then surely he would break the silence he'd maintained with his own crew, his only friend. "My best offer--I bought a couple of bottles of nice heavy Chianti with that SANSKRIT bonus. How about we crack them open, get roaring drunk and tell each other our life stories? I can promise you some juicy details and some tragic ones in return for yours."

Bodie was standing by the bunks, running his hands hard back across his temples and his cropped hair. "Shut up, Ray, my head's about to go nova."

"You all right?" Doyle asked, unable to ignore the concern that stabbed through him. "You're not exactly looking after yourself."

"Could do with some sleep, if only to stop you nagging. Come here, Ray. Relax me."

Doyle was barely able to stop his urge toward the other man. And he hated that, when Bodie would give so little of himself. "I don't think so...." he said flatly.

"Come here. I need to get my mind off things. God, I can't wait to undock."

"You don't trust me--why should I trust you?"

"For god's sake, what's sex got to do with all that? And what's so different all of a sudden? I couldn't keep you off me the last few days."

"The sex confuses me, that's what. Just when I need a clear head. I want to figure you out, Bodie, and I'm not going to be able to do that in your bunk with you."

"The hell with you!" Bodie yelled at him, eyes wild. Doyle flinched, never having had the Bodie temper directed full at him alone. "Will you come here or not?"


"I'll sleepover dockside then. You finish off the circuit board replacements in comp two while I'm gone. And there's a load of frozen food packages due at fifteen-hundred hours--get it bedded down."

"All right. Captain." Doyle watched him leave without so much as a backward glance. And missed the sex with a yearning that was vengeance all by itself. Because someone else was going to feel Bodie's skilled hands on them that day, and it didn't have to be that way. For awhile Doyle thought of a proper bed, in a proper sleepover, some girl under Bodie's muscled, cream-skinned splendour. And hated himself for letting it happen. But he couldn't hate Bodie, though he tried, because Doyle thought he understood. "So you're still Helm One to his Captain," he told himself on further reflection. "And that's better than SANSKRIT any day. You can live with that, Ray Doyle." Which helped a little. But, god, he missed him.

"I've been looking for crew the last couple of maindays," Bodie said over his breakfast and Doyle's dinner in DARK STAR's galley. "Scouring the bars. With no luck, of course." Bodie looked up, met surprise on Doyle's face, and laughed. "What did you think I was doing?" he asked, all innocence. And watched jealousy and confusion and hope all flit across the beautiful features. Bodie chuckled unpleasantly. "Yeah, besides sex and sleep. Not that I got much sleep," Bodie continued as Doyle's face returned to the mask he'd worn for the last three days. "Hey, I found that sleepover and bar down the other end of blue dock that you mentioned--never been in a place before where they think it's weird if you're NOT with another fellow. Crazy bunch. Still, I spend some happy hours there. And I even scored a girl from FINITY'S END last night--pretty classy for a marginer, eh?"

"You reckon we need crew?" Doyle broke in.

"Maybe to stop us two driving each other insane."

"Too late for that, isn't it?"

"Then as backup, if nothing else. We can get by with two to fly DARK STAR and operate all the survey equipment, but if there's another accident, whoever's left would be in serious trouble."

Doyle carefully kept his eyes on the table between them. "Is there likely to be another accident?"

"Not like last time--we don't even have to go planetside because the equipment's so automated these days. Hell, it's such an improvement, I reckon next time I come back, I'll be out of a job entirely. They'll just be sending automated probes out by then."

"So what's the problem with getting crew? Is it still the word Mace Tindall spread around the docks?"

"Not so much--Mace even grabbed a reporter and apologised on vid, did you know? And SANSKRIT put its weight behind me. No, it's not that-- people just tell me that anyone who wants to head for the Beyond is crazy, that's all. Charming how uninhibited people can be when expressing an opinion, isn't it? Since I docked, I've been called a murderer, a pervert, and a relic, and I've been told a million times that I'm crazy. Anyway, no one wants to join me. I'm even starting to think that a couple of azi crew might be the answer."

Doyle groaned. "Do us all a favour, and don't even consider it."

"Why not? Thought they didn't bother you?"

"They don't--but they DO bother you. And no matter how socialised they are, working with a Captain who has a foul temper and a healthy prejudice would make them utterly miserable. And that's not fair on them."

"The temper is going to improve once we're undocked."

"Glad to hear it," Doyle muttered.

"So skeptical," Bodie lamented.

"If it's station that's bothering you, just remember that we're undocking in thirty-six hours, and everything's on schedule."

"YOU could put me in a better mood meantime," Bodie said.

"Don't push your luck, Captain."

"Speaking of foul tempers...."

"And you know JUST how to aggravate mine. Why don't you go screw your way through the rest of dockside--if there's anyone left--and leave your crew to get on with his work?"

"No, you sleepover dockside for once. There's technicians coming to work on the crypts--the cryo-tanks. They'll only disturb your sleep."

"All right," Doyle said after a moment. "There's just a couple of tasks to finish up here first."

"Take the evening off. You deserve it."

"It really throws me when you're reasonable," Doyle complained. But this time, he returned Bodie's smile. "You should do that more often," he said as he headed for the lift.

Doyle wandered dockside for awhile until he found an expensive, anonymous bar, secured a dimly-lit booth, ordered a lethal-looking drink. And there was a girl, a merchanter from LENINGRAD, which would have been almost as classy as Bodie's FINITY'S END girl, and it would have been sensible to go through the motions--no knowing WHEN he'd have the chance again--but Doyle simply wasn't in the mood. And he didn't want to think about why, so he ordered another drink and swallowed it fast.

DARK STAR kicked into Tindall's null point and hurtled toward the burnt-out star that had pulled them away from Pan-paris. Doyle pulsed in the vanes and added a thirty degree vector to their course. When the ship shifted back into realspace, it was heading cross-system at a far less manic speed.

"Dump some more velocity," Bodie ordered, and Doyle pulsed DARK STAR's vanes in again, shed enough momentum so that their realspace acceleration was tolerable even to Bodie's jump- ridden nerves. "You did good, Ray."

"Well, we got here at least." But Doyle's grin gave away his excitement even if his words didn't. He shunted the Helm function to the azi seated in the next chair. "Here, Grant, you set us on a course through system. OK with you, Captain?"

"OK with me. Then set up the autopilot, Grant."

"Yes, sir."

Doyle watched Grant's calculations for a few moments. "Bodie, we're going to be here for almost five days at this velocity."

"That's right." Bodie stretched as far as the chair would allow. "After jump, I like to spend some time remembering that I'm still alive." Doyle laughed a little, a friendly sound, so that Bodie gave him a smile and admitted, "I hate jump."

"You hate jump, you hate stations. What's left?"

"Just this, I suppose--lazing across null points. Heading into the Beyond."

"At last," Doyle sighed theatrically, "he's where he wants to be."

"Taro," Bodie said to their other azi crew member, "shunt your functions over to Doyle, and go get us some food and drink, would you, babe?"

"Yes, Captain."

Bodie unbuckled his harness and sprawled back in his chair. "This is the life," he commented. And when Taro came back with juice and sandwiches, he devoured them without his usual post-jump queasiness. "Shifts--Doyle and Taro, you take alterday. Grant and I will take mainday. And I hereby declare that it's alterday."

"You would," Doyle muttered, but good-humouredly because that all fitted in with his and Bodie's unsynchronised timelines.

"OK, we'll take turns to freshen up, then you and Taro are on for six hours before we relieve you. Not that there'll be anything to do-- there's no traffic out here yet, and it's a clean system. I'm not fussy enough to insist on someone actually at the controls--in the pit area will do."

"You're being reasonable again."

Bodie stretched again, smiled at his companions. "Just can't help myself sometimes."

"Doyle, Taro," came Bodie's voice over intercom, "if everything's clear up there, I think you'd better come back to the galley. Grant's been cooking."

Bodie barely managed to wait for the others to arrive before starting in on the meal. Doyle pulled up short in the doorway as he saw all the platters and bowls of steaming food spread across the table, all too used to DARK STAR's frozen ready-made food packages. "This looks incredible."

"It TASTES incredible," Bodie said around a large mouthful.

"Good idea of yours to let Grant look after the food supplies, Captain," Doyle said, promising himself to not interfere in the galley again.

"Grant," Bodie said, "I hope you're considering DARK STAR as a permanent placement. Because I could grow rather accustomed to all this."

"We'll let you know, Captain. The contract's only for one mission." Grant looked over at Taro, and Doyle saw her nod. "Ask us again on the way back in."

They were helping the meal down with coffee when Bodie abruptly fell asleep where he sat. Doyle let out a muffled chuckle. "I'd better try and get him to his cabin," he said, and stirred Bodie enough to get him upright, with one arm flung around his shoulders.

Once they were out of the galley, Bodie said, "I hate to admit this, but I'm way too tired, colt."

"Who's offering, hero? I'm just trying to get you comfortable." Then Doyle quipped, "You get a bit of sleep, though, and I might realise what I saw in you at first."

"The bunks, not my cabin. I'll be able to hear you then."

"Nothing's going to go wrong, Bodie," Doyle said, already a little bored and complacent after a few uneventful hours in the quiet of the null point. "Stop worrying."

"The bunks, and that's an order. It's your first voyage on DARK STAR, remember? So let me stay in touch."

Doyle quit arguing, and helped Bodie up onto his bunk behind the pit, where the man immediately fell asleep again. Doyle stood and watched him for awhile before he returned to the others. "I hate to countermand his direct order to you, but Bodie hardly got any sleep at station. Why don't we just let him go for as long as he needs? I'll cover next shift for him."

"All right, sir."

"God, don't call me sir--I'm not that old. Ray will do."

The four settled into a comfortable routine as DARK STAR jumped between the null points and lazed across each with four or five days of nothing but backup work, maintenance, polishing off whatever had been left as unnecessary in Bodie's haste to leave station. The two azi crew went quietly and efficiently about their work--always occupied, while Bodie and Doyle tended to relax, to waste time. Quiet, that is, until Doyle discovered that the azi shared his taste in music, and routine was from then on set to the bump and grind of their pooled tape collection. Which at least chased Bodie off the bunks and into his cabin during alterday.

DARK STAR was lingering through the fourth null point when Doyle caught up with Bodie alone in the galley at the end of his shift. Doyle poured himself some coffee and sat opposite the man. "Wasn't such a bad idea of yours after all, having azi crew. Thought it would be a disaster."

"They're all right, aren't they? Not as cheeky as some crew I've had. Not as obnoxious. Even do as they're told. Invaluable."

"Going to cure your prejudice, are they, Grant and Taro?"

Bodie shrugged. "Maybe. They're still different. Still give me the creeps sometimes, the way they do things."

"You clone a human being, you get another human being. Where's the difference?"

"In the machines that gave birth to them. And being brought up on learning-tape instead of amongst Family. It's not natural."

Doyle shrugged in turn. "Grant and Taro-- they're nice kids."

"Nice kids despite all that," Bodie agreed with a shrug. "And they fit right in--black azi uniforms match DARK STAR's coveralls. You're the odd one out around here."

Doyle sniffed fastidiously. "Rusty brown suits me better." He was silent for a moment, then leapt in feet first: "But speaking of Grant.... You should clean up your thoughts."

Bodie gave a small self-conscious smile. "Are you being quick, or am I being obvious?"

"You're being obvious."

"You've got to admit, though--whoever made him knew their stuff. When I first met him at Oxford-Price, my eyeballs fell out on my cheeks."

"He's gorgeous all right." Doyle had had virtually the same reaction to Grant's tall, slim build and shock of reddest hair, neither of which could distract from the beauty of his finely-honed classical features. Taro, whose delicate Asiatic face and figure would normally be quite enough to get Doyle's blood racing, tended to fade a little by comparison. "But don't go getting any ideas, Bodie," he continued. "They're a pair, if you hadn't noticed. Wouldn't be fair on them to even ask."

"He'd say yes, that's the temptation."

"Because he's trained to be loyal to you, and dependent on you--it's not fair to abuse that. They shouldn't have even given you azi if you're going to treat them that way."

"I know."

"I know you know. You never pushed me when I said no--so you can do Grant the same favour and not even ask, can't you, hero?"

Bodie looked at him for awhile. "I'd rather ask you again, Ray."

"Rather than Grant? That's a compliment and a half."

"You going to hold out on me the whole damn voyage?"

"Maybe." Doyle smiled, ruefully amused at his own lingering resentment.

"God, I'm still hungry for you, colt, don't you know that? It's been the same between us since we met, and it isn't over yet."

"I know, hero."

Bodie grinned. "That's an admission and a half."

"You really want to talk about this? Because I'm not feeling suicidal."

"I just admitted to being pretty well hooked on you."

"Yeah, and that's the closest you've let me get since the first times we made love." Doyle continued, fierce, daring Bodie to deny it: "That's what we did, it wasn't just sex."

"That's what we did," Bodie agreed in a deceptively casual voice.

"I got through to you, through to your HEART, Bodie, that precious thing you keep hidden from the rest of the human race. And ever since, you've shut me out, like you shut everyone out. With you, everything's just surface reactions-- anger because you were frustrated with being dockside--and pleasant now because you're where you want to be. Am I right so far?"

Bodie was eyeing him warily. "I guess."

"So why don't you be honest with me like this, and we can get to know each other, be friends. And then maybe lovers again."

"Is that your best offer?" Bodie asked, with a slight laugh.

"It is. Going to take me up on it?"

"Yeah, colt." And Bodie reached over a hand to cover Doyle's hand lying on the bench between them, gave Doyle his irresistible smile. "But I take our friendship as given. So let's skip ahead to the loving, Ray. We both need that, don't we?"

"Don't push your luck, Bodie."

"Luck? Hell, if my luck's got anything to do with this, I may as well give up now."

"It's not your luck--it's YOU."

"What, for instance?"

"You give me a little of yourself, just a taste, then you count on your charms to sweep me into your cabin."

"It worked the first time."

"Yeah, you're gorgeous and you know it. But you know my terms--let me know you trust me. And then I'll trust you with whatever you want, Bodie. I'll trust you with everything if you'll let me."

"THAT again?"

"Tell me what happened with your sister, tell me why Mace Tindall was so ready to suspect you. I'll probably believe anything you say, whatever you say--but I have to hear SOMETHING from you."

"You bastard!" Bodie stood, slowly beginning to seethe. "YOU talk of trust?"

"It's important to me. Try to see it my way."

"I don't believe this! You bloody hypocrite-- LISTEN to yourself!"

"This is non-negotiable, Bodie."

"Then you're crew and nothing more. And if I hear one more of your BEST OFFERS, I'll probably shunt you out of the nearest airlock."

"That's meant to inspire me to trust you, is it?"

Bodie glared at him and swept out of the galley. And Doyle went through the motions of fixing himself and Taro a meal. And figured that non- negotiable meant irresolvable.

DARK STAR jumped to Coran's Luck and flew sedately cross-system. Bodie maintained a cold, grim silence, and the azi retreated into the routine YES, SIR they'd started with when they'd first boarded at Pan-paris. Doyle followed suit.

It was only now that the weirdness of venturing into the Beyond began to find its way into Doyle's fears. Spacers, merchanters JUMPED between systems, NEVER flew outside a system into the infinity of deep space--to do so was slow death. And yet that's what they were going to do--leave Coran's Luck under their own power and head for the next null point the long way. And trust themselves to the crypts. Knowing it was irrational, Doyle still couldn't help but think maybe he'd simply wake from the cryo-tanks old, or not even wake at all. Too many things could happen to the ship while they slept like the undead. He wondered vaguely if the azi were this superstitious about the whole process--but then they'd have had learning-tape to tell them it was all going to be fine. Bodie was probably in too foul a mood to worry, and he'd been through it all before anyhow. Doyle would have given a lot to approach him as a friend, ask for a little reassurance, comfort. But, while he didn't take Bodie's threat as much more than rhetoric, it was still clear that Bodie would not welcome such an approach. It was clear every moment of every day.

Which was why Doyle got up to finish his coffee elsewhere when Bodie arrived in the galley the middle of one alterday, showing all the exhaustion of a sleepless midnight.

"Don't go, Ray."

"Should be relieving Taro, anyhow, Captain."

"She's all right. I asked her." Bodie watched him hesitate before sitting down again. "I appreciate the dedication," he added drily.

"You should be asleep."

"Nagging again? So you do care."

"You know I do."

Bodie smiled a little, a paler version of his usual grin. "I didn't mean it about the airlock."

"Glad to hear it."

"You can get me so angry, Ray. And so-- Well, whatever you make me feel, good or bad, I feel it with one hell of a passion."

"I noticed. I like it."

"Do you indeed?" Bodie sat down, out of reach, thoughtful. "Still got that Chianti?"

"Yes," Doyle said, a strained note to his voice. But he had nothing left to conceal any more, so he let the strain show in his face as well. "Why?"

"Because I want to resolve this before we descend into the never-after of the crypts," Bodie replied, with a mockingly ghoulish note creeping into his voice.

"Don't joke about that...." Doyle pleaded.

"I want us together again. It was good, you and me."

"You mean you want to have sex with me again, and go to sleep in the tanks with an expectation of having more when we wake."

"That's one way of looking at it. Don't know if I can find the words for the way I had in mind."


After a silence, Bodie started, "Because I'm tired of it all, Ray. Tired of all the suspicion and the loneliness. I want Family again--you'd be Family for me, wouldn't you?"

"I'd be a brother to you."

Bodie grinned, looked away. "More than that. God, how do I say it? Was joking around at Pan- paris, saying I'd proposed, calling your bonus a dowry. Wasn't exactly a joke, Ray. There's a hell of a lot between us, so I want to give it a go, for keeps." Doyle was silent, so Bodie tried to give it all a more tangible reason. "You stuck with me despite everything, when there was no one else. I wouldn't have survived station without you, not gotten through it and stayed sane as well."

"That's not all there is between us."

"God, no, there's the sex. It's bloody incredible, Ray. Never felt the like before."

"Yeah? Thought an old spacer like you would have had it all by now."

"Not like you, starshine. Never like you."

Doyle sat for a long moment, studying the honesty in Bodie's face, then stood. "The Chianti's in my cabin. Wait right there." And he ran.

Bodie was smiling when he got back, the bone- weary look at last enlivened a little. "The enthusiasm of youth. Love it."

"You're right--passion, enthusiasm. Add compulsion to the list." Doyle poured them a glass of wine each, and they toasted each other. After drinking enough to feel the first edge of the alcohol, Doyle said, "If I didn't find you so compelling, I'd be more inclined to trust you. Maybe it's the compulsion itself that I'm afraid to trust."

"If I didn't find you so compelling," Bodie returned immediately, "I'd be less hurt by the fact you won't trust me."

"But I've always trusted you, haven't I? Like an instinct. Though it was reckless to follow it, because my intellect tells me that if Mace Tindall was so convinced that something bad had happened, then my instinct might be wrong."

"Why do you take her suspicions over my word? You of all people...." Bodie grimaced.

Doyle shrugged, uncomfortable. "You never gave me your word, though. Maybe I shouldn't have expected it."

"Would you accept it now? Or is it too late for that?"

"I don't know." Doyle bowed his head for a long moment. "I think I need to hear something more from you, some explanation of why she decided spreading the word about you was such a necessity. For god's sake, you would have had weeks alone with her on the voyage back--why couldn't you have sorted it out then? Got her straight on what really happened?"

"Why do you reckon? Because it's hard to talk about. Painful. Family business, not Tindall's. Guess I never was much good at dealing with people outside of Family--that was Coran's forte, not mine."

"But didn't you realise what she was going to tell people about you? Anything would have been better than letting her warn everyone off you."

"How was I to know she was going to call it murder? She was upset, angry, scared at what had happened. Really grieved over Coran and Steve, but she hated ME--we'd slept-over at dock, but not on DARK STAR--so it all got too personal. When she said she'd tell people, I thought she meant the rotten bloody luck that haunts me. Call DARK STAR a ghost ship. And she seemed to think I wouldn't give her her share of the pay-out," Bodie mused, "though I did."

"And you wouldn't THEN tell anyone else the story, either."

"Why the hell should I take kindly to being called a murderer? How dare you all even think I could DO such a thing? This is my SISTER we're talking about--I know I don't hold by Family as much as most, but I loved her and Steve. And I lost them. And in the middle of all that, people start accusing me of killing them. How the hell would you take to that, Ray?"

Doyle was silent for a long while, applying Bodie's reactions all too easily to what he would have felt after coming in on the doomed AVALON to the same accusations. Finally he said, "I'm sorry, Bodie. And that's not enough, is it?"

"Do you really consider that I'm the sort of person who could DO that?" Bodie asked again, voice unnaturally even.

"I don't think I ever really have, even when El first passed on the gossip. So it's unforgivable that I treated you like I did. But you try and understand now, not just me but all of Pan-paris--you hid so much within yourself, you never condescended to deny the accusations. Think how you looked--safe in all the arrogance of success."

"Why should I dignify such a ridiculous accusation with a reply, Ray? Tell me that."

"I know, I know." Doyle rubbed wearily at his temples. "Hell of a situation you got yourself in, and too righteous and stubborn to worm out of it."

"I prefer to call it noble and resolute, thank you."

"You would," Doyle complained. And they shared a chuckle for the first time in days. "Wipe that self-satisfied smirk off your face," Doyle added in mock disgust.

"Want to hear my best offer?"

"Your cabin and my Chianti, right now?" Doyle guessed.

Bodie was silenced for two beats of his heart. "It's that easy, Ray?"

"What was your offer then?"

"Come to the bridge--what happened is all logged. I'll play it for you, so you'll know."

"You'd let me hear it...?" They each gazed across the space between them for awhile, surprised at what the other was prepared to do. "I don't need to hear it, Bodie. I trust you. I believe in you."

Bodie smiled a little. "I guess that's why I'm willing to let you know. Come on, Ray. Then we can both feel some peace."

"All right. I appreciate this, you know," Doyle said, feeling overwhelmed, foolish, scared. He followed Bodie out to the pit.

"Taro, you can go off-duty. But do us a favour?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"Back Grant up on mainday shift, would you? Ray and I want to spend some time together."

"Yes, sir." Taro looked from one to the other, and read them through and through. "Glad to, sir," she added with a grin before heading back to the cabins.

Bodie chuckled again. "Might have known it would look like a lovers' tiff. Never been subtle, that's my problem."

"It's not a problem," Doyle protested faintly, wondering more about what he was going to hear. Bodie keyed instructions into com and, as the recorded voices sounded quietly through the pit, reclined his chair and lay back along it. Doyle stayed behind him, began pacing restlessly back and forth as he listened.

There were three voices, one of them Bodie's. It became apparent that the other two--Coran and Steve--were planetside, operating survey equipment, suited up to protect their spacer's immune systems from all the mayhem of nature. "What wouldn't I do for solid deck beneath my feet," Steve was moaning. "Clambering over mountains in a space suit? Bodie, it's your turn next time, I don't care if you out-rank me."

"It's hardly a mountain, Steve," Coran commented. "More like a.... What the hell do you call it?"

"Don't ask me," Bodie's recorded voice replied from the ship. "I've never been planetside and, sorry, Steve, I don't plan on ever trying it. So geography or geology or whatever it is couldn't interest me less."

"Steve, it's no more curved than dockside--just carry this last drill up there, would you?"

"For you, Coran love, all right.... Hell!"

"Steve!" There was confusion for awhile, muffled noise from planetside and Bodie's urgent voice trying to get an answer out of Steve or Coran. Then finally Coran's voice again. "He's dead, Bodie. Steve's dead."

"For god's sake, what happened?"

"Rock fall, what do you call it, avalanche. I don't know," she replied dully. "Didn't stand a chance. Quick at least."

"What about you, Coran? Are you all right?"

"No. Broke my arm, I think, and took one in the belly. That'll hurt bad. Ripped up my suit, too."

"God." Taut silence. "Get to the med unit in the shuttle, forget the equipment, we've got enough data. Can you fly the shuttle?"

"No, and no point in even trying, brother. If you haven't noticed the atmosphere readings, there's some killer viruses down here. Probably picked every one of the buggers up. Half my suit's in shreds."

"Just listen, Coran. If you can fly, get out of there now. There's no other way of getting you up here." Then the recorded voice cried out in despair, "You've got our only bloody shuttle!"

"No good, Bodie, I'm done for. And I'm not about to contaminate DARK STAR. I'll stay here, finish the survey. Then tell me goodbye and go collect your pay-out. It'll be a fortune."

"No!" Bodie's recorded voice was full of pain and frustration. Doyle looked over at the quiet figure in the Captain's chair, wondering how he could bear to hear all this again, how he could bear to play it for the crew member who'd been so unwilling to trust him.

Doyle listened to Coran's voice relaying information, Bodie replying automatically, the one growing weaker and the other more and more strained. "Is Mace there? Let me talk to her," Coran finally said.

"No, she's suited up and out on the vanes. Sorting out that loose cable. Doesn't know what's happened."

"Tell her goodbye, Bodie. She's been a friend to me."

"God, Coran, TRY for the shuttle, will you?"

"No good. Thought I had a chance, but the way I'm feeling, I know I haven't. I'd never be able to fly the shuttle out of the atmosphere, let alone dock it." And finally there was no further reply to Bodie's constant signalling.

Bodie reached for com to end the log, and Doyle waited silently behind him. "That's it," Bodie eventually said. "I didn't edit it."

"God! I would never have thought that of you," Doyle said, horrified at the implied accusation.

"Station did."

"Put you through hell didn't they, Bodie?" Doyle came around to face the man, saw the tears in his eyes. "I'm so sorry, I can't begin to tell you."

"It's all right." Bodie didn't reach to brush the tears away, as if he didn't even realise that they were there. But he lifted his arms, and Doyle climbed onto the chair beside him. It was a tight fit, so they lay close, facing each other. "You're here. That makes a difference."

"Love you, Bodie."

"Family, then?"

"Family. You and me." And they kissed.

DARK STAR's crew shared a solemn silence while the ship kited out of Coran's Luck and headed into the Beyond. It was time to trust their lives to the cryo-tanks.

By mute agreement, the four of them congregated on the bunks behind the pit, after checking the course and the autopilot, the systems and the backups, for the hundredth time. Taro and Grant sat deep in each other's arms. Doyle stood alone, lost in his thoughts.

"Hey...." Bodie murmured at last, casting a small smile at each of his crew. "It's going to be all right. I promise."

"That's a promise you can make, is it?" Doyle asked sourly.

"Sure it is." Bodie's smile grew into a grin. "You wait and see--you'll be waking in no time at all, and the first thing you'll hear is me saying I told you so."

"You would, too," Doyle complained. But he smiled despite himself.

"Come here," Bodie said, holding out a hand to Doyle. When the man was as deep in his embrace as Grant was in Taro's, Bodie said, "You going to marry me, then?"

Doyle cast a wary glance at the man. "Thought I already had. As good as, anyway."

Bodie chuckled. "I know. Just finally got the nerve to ask, didn't I?" He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. "Where are you two going?"

"Thought you'd appreciate some privacy," Grant explained.

"It's OK--you can be witnesses. He hasn't said yes yet."

"Of course I'll marry you, idiot," Doyle said ungraciously. And he pushed up to kiss Bodie for the first time in company.

"While we're making promises," Taro said once Doyle and Bodie had broken apart, "Grant and I decided we'd stay on."

"You need some long-term crew," Grant observed.

"What Ray and I NEED is some Family," Bodie replied.

Taro nodded. "We'll stay on," she repeated.

"Good. That's great." Bodie smiled happily at them, then at Doyle. "Looks like my luck's finally changed, starshine."

-- THE END --

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