The first time Julian ever saw the sea-man was on the day the fleet left him behind. He'd run out to the end of the docks, already knowing he was far too late, and stood there, fists clenching and unclenching. He had struggled not to spill a single tear as he watched the sails billow full and carry the fishing fleet away like a flock of gulls.
He'd turned listlessly to begin the shameful walk back into the village when some strange bit of movement had caught at the corner of his eye, and he'd turned toward the stone breakwater to see a shirtless man wading casually through the water. Wading where the sea floor was at least twenty feet down. Julian had raised a hand to shield his eyes, and just as the man's motions had drawn his attention, Julian's gesture made the man turn toward him. The man, unfamiliar, stilled for a moment before diving beneath the gentle waves.
For a moment, Julian had stood entranced, thinking that he must be swimming toward the dock, but the sun had glinted off of the clear, unbroken stretch of sea for too long, and Julian had realized with a chill that he'd witnessed a visitation from something... unnatural.
Nonetheless, the creature had been beautiful, the sun glistening wetly across the type of muscles that Julian would never know on his own body. And though Julian had known that he should return to his home and begin to plan his strategy to prove himself, it had been an hour or more of hopeful waiting before he'd been able to pry himself away from the harbor.
The next day, he was up early to mend the tears in his father's second net, hoping to earn his way back onto his father's ship. It wasn't his fault he was spindly or that no amount of work seemed to build up his frame, but there were other skills he could exercise, and he was talented at finding the places where the fish were thick in the water. He was blamed, nevertheless, for his inability to haul his fair share of the nets. Or to drag his brother Paul back aboard during the frantic tossing of a midsummer storm.
The Wheelman loved sex in the Net. Unlike the real world, where his paralyzed lower body was at best unpredictable and at worst utterly useless, in the Net he could have anything he wanted. Anything and almost anyone.
He scowled at that. The Net-runner called Timberwolf, one of the best cyber-thieves in the business, had once more raided EIT and escaped with a valuable bit of data. Nobody stole from Ezekiel InfoTech and got away with it. Nobody crossed Erik "The Wheelman" Ezekiel and lived free to boast of it. He would have to raise the price on the runner's head even higher, since nobody seemed able to catch the beast.
When they did, the Wheelman was going to enjoy himself, in and possibly out of the Net. He hoped the Timberwolf was male.
Erik sighed and summoned his Immortals. Business was business and he needed to tend to his and quit worrying about the runner. The wolf would be found and dealt with. His mind created the great audience hall. The Immortals answered his summons.
One by one they approached the door and shed the skeletal disguises they wore on official business in the larger Net, taking on their true avatars. He required the skeleton look—a sort of company uniform—but each runner was free to individualize it, whether Horus' nightmare of half-rotted flesh or the Datazon's clean lines, Clarion's burned horror or Swift-Current's almost-cartoonish creation, with its bright yellow eyes and cheerfully bony smile.
The skeletons, coupled with EIT's wheel-within-a wheel logo and his own Net appearance on a wheel of fire, were his little joke on his name. Some few got it, but no one dared laugh or call him out for bad allusions.
The lone starport on Opus Dei stood out like a black thorn amidst the plowed fields and sprawling forests of the otherwise rustic planet. A thick chain fence surrounded the port. For any of the travelers inside the fence, it would be a matter of seconds to go through it if they wanted to. They didn't. There was nothing on the other side of the fence worth seeing. The fence's true purpose wasn't to keep visitors to Opus Dei in, but rather to keep the people of Opus Dei out.
There was one gate, which was lit day and night by large fog lamps. Since the lamps were technically inside the grounds of the starport, they were begrudgingly allowed, though that didn't stop the locals from glaring at the constant light disrupting their nightly view. Two guards were stationed below the lamps, checking every transport in or out to be sure nothing illegal passed either way. The fence itself was neither electrified nor guarded. The fact that it was there at all was deterrent enough for most.
For Aaron Adams, the fence was merely a hindrance. His hands ached from gripping the chain too tight. Metal links cut into his palms, and his thin shoes did little to soften the press of metal against his feet. He'd spent his whole childhood climbing trees, not knowing that it was all preparation for this.
The fence seemed impossibly tall when he started, taller than even the priests' hall or the mayor's house. He heaved his torso over the edge and hesitated there, metal pressing into his belly as he stared out over the port. He could see the guards in the distance. One yawned while the other slouched on the ground, likely asleep. Still, he took care to keep his movements small and make as little noise as possible as he hovered on the border between his home and the starport.
He let out a slow breath, and then flipped over the top of the fence. The fall took much less time than the climb. He landed on his feet and pressed both hands to the ground, crouching low as he surveyed the port. There were five ships parked, more than usually visited, but that only made it easier for Aaron to sneak around the dark edges of the compound until he was near the ship that his uncle had told him about.
Jonah woke with his arms bound and hot breath at his neck. He twitched against his restraints, only a waking reflex, and felt the muscles in those pinioning tentacles flex like thick cables under silken skin. Sharp teeth brushed his ear as a third tentacle caressed his thigh, his hip, the curve of his oblique.
His breath caught. His pulse throbbed in every inch of him in counterpoint to the purr of the engine.
Jonah sighed and leaned back into the embrace. "Christ, Othosh, you're not even minding the helm?"
"I set us down on a ridge and let the sensors run," Othosh replied, nipping his ear like a rebuke. "So we won't crash."
"We're supposed to be working," he said, but he was already nuzzling Othosh's chin in invitation. "I've already missed one big deadline. Fujimoto won't let me hear the end of it if I don't transmit something soon."
"Transmit something. Not even something particular, just something." Othosh's gills fluttered against Jonah's cheek. "Do all humans have these ridiculous ideas about work? As though you have to work for the sake of working, instead of because something needs to be done?"
"That's us all over. Some of our most important philosophers wrote about working for work's sake; I'll have to hook you up with some Marx, next time we're at the base. It will explain a lot about us."
"Marx." Othosh tried out the name, but his lips were awkward on the M, and it came out Narx. "Your philosophers write about work. What kind of benighted species have I married into, if you can't write about anything interesting? A species that invented recreational sex, and you write about work! I'm glad they won't let you take me back to Earth. I'd be bored to death."
"We write about recreational sex, too. Life, death, and the afterlife. Whether there are gods, and what they do. Morality, ethics, justice—we write about all kinds of things. But we also write about work, because work's important to us." Othosh didn't have hips, exactly, but Jonah slid his hand over the place where leg and tentacle met abdomen. The skin there was thin and sensitive, laced with delicate veins; Othosh shuddered at the touch and tightened his grip.