Down

Available in ebook and print from Riptide Publishing, as well as Amazon, B&N, and the usual 3rd-party suspects. You can read a super-long excerpt on the Riptide website. The first chapter is included below for your reading pleasure 🙂

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LammySeal

 

Finalist: Best LGBT SF/F/Horror in the 28th Annual Lambda Literary Awards!

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Down_400x600Seven thousand meters below the ocean’s surface, the crew of the BathyTech 3 mineral mining facility has found something remarkable: a rock-like sphere of unknown material and origin.

For Mo Rees, the discovery calls to his inner explorer and adds color to his dull miner’s life. Even better than the promise of new knowledge is the unexpected connection he forges with Dr. Armin Savage-Hall, leader of the team brought down to study the thing.

For Armin, the object is the find of a lifetime. It could prove his controversial theories and secure his scientific reputation. And Mo is a fascinating bonus.

Then crew members start behaving strangely. Worse, they start to change: their eyes glow purple, their teeth sharpen. Then the violence begins, the brutal deaths. As BathyTech descends deeper into chaos, the surviving crew works desperately to find the cause of the horrors around them. What they uncover could annihilate the human race. And they can’t stop it.

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© Copyright 2015 Ally Blue

May 2137

BathyTech 3 deep-sea mineral mining pod

Bottom of the Peru–Chile Trench

 

Chapter One

Mo thought he knew the dark. He’d sought it out all his life. Made himself intimate with it. Explored cellars and caves and forgotten places where the sun didn’t penetrate and dead things decayed in the corners.

Then he’d gone down, and learned what darkness really meant.

Nothing blotted out the light quite like seven thousand meters of ocean.

The unrelieved blackness with its nightmare creatures called to the explorer in him. The part that wanted to uncover long-lost secrets and learn what no one else knew.

Which was why, when the scientists upside had asked the thirty-person crew of the BathyTech 3 deep-sea mineral mining rig to help find out what was pinging their mapping scans down in Richards Deep, Mo had volunteered to guide the science team into the deepest part of the Peru–Chile Trench to look for it.

His boss, Jemima, scowled when he told her. “I don’t want any of my miners skipping off on some stupid geek mission. I need every one of you on the vents.”

“It’s one shift. You’ll hardly even miss me.” He answered her death glare with a grin. “C’mon, Jem, don’t be like that. Think of it as a political move.”

Jem rolled her eyes, and Mo stifled a snicker. Pod 3 was the first of the BathyTech mining rigs to incorporate scientific research into its operation. To say that the scientists and the miners didn’t always get along would be a gross understatement.

“Fine. But for the love of Pete, ask me before you volunteer for this shit next time.” Jem pushed herself out of her chair and crossed to the refrigerator on the other side of the miner’s lounge. She opened it and pulled out a pouch. “Beer?”

He held out his hands. “Lay it on me, Big Mama.”

That earned him a sour look. She couldn’t weigh more than forty-five kilos soaking wet, and the top of her head only reached Mo’s armpit. The nickname irritated the crap out of her. She tossed him the beer anyway, then dug another one out of the fridge for herself. Mo tore the tab off the top to activate the polymers, marveling for the umpteenth time at the transformation from a soft-sided pouch to a solid bottle that felt exactly like real glass. He always got a kick out of breaking the empty bottle and watching it change back into a flexible pocket. It reminded him of entropy, decay, and dissolution.

She plopped into the chair, tore open her pouch, and took a long swallow the second it solidified. “So when’s this geek crew comin’ down?”

“Tomorrow. Early.” Mo gulped beer, savoring the tingle of bubbles on his tongue. “They’re sending an outside team instead of BathyTech scientists.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Yeah?”

“Yep.”

“How come?” She scratched her chin. “In fact, how come our guys couldn’t go get whatever the hell this thing is?”

“They tried. I heard they sent Rover out, but it wouldn’t pick up the thing. Acted like it wasn’t even there.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.” He took another swallow of his drink. Licked his lips. Did it again because he knew damn well she was dying for more details and he was having way too much fun not giving her any. “Mmm. Good beer.”

She shot him a tight smile. “You’re an asshole.”

“Yep.” He raised his bottle to her.

She flipped him off.

Chuckling, Mo slouched into his chair, nursed his beer, and drifted off into his thoughts while Jem turned on the TV. If he was honest with himself, the strangeness of the whole business was the main reason he’d jumped at the chance to lead the upside team in their walk. Dr. Poole, BathyTech 3’s head of science, had already shown him Rover’s vid. It was way more staticky than it ought to be, but Mo had caught glimpses of what looked like a rock. The problem was, rocks didn’t show up as empty space on mapping scans, and they couldn’t fool state-of-the-art unmanned retrievers into thinking they didn’t exist.

Something highly unusual—maybe even something completely new—waited in Richards Deep. Mo fully intended to be among the first to see it in person.

***

Dubai’s three-month-long blackout back in 2110 had taught Mo a lot. Like how to get in and out of any place he wanted without getting caught. How to make a gang member with an automatic weapon and a necklace of human tongues believe a thirteen-year-old boy would shoot first. How to pull the trigger without hesitation when he had to. Mostly, though, he’d learned how to tell whom he could and could not trust.

He’d left his home and his teenage self behind a long time ago, but he’d never forgotten those lessons. People who arrived in the airlock pasty, sweaty, and sick from the journey down might not be bad sorts in general, but Mo sure as shit wouldn’t trust them out in the open water at over seven thousand meters in a walker suit. It was a recipe for disaster. Therefore, he got up early the next day to meet the sub from upside and see what he’d be dealing with on this assignment.

Dr. Poole shot Mo a cool look when he strode into the airlock’s outer atrium. “I wondered if you’d turn up.”

“Of course.” Mo grinned at the geologist’s sour expression. “That’s not a problem, is it?”

The doctor narrowed his eyes. Before he could say anything, though, the chime sounded, and the airlock tech announced the arrival of the sub from BathyTech’s flagship research vessel, Peregrine.

Dr. Poole pointed at Mo. “Behave yourself.”

“Remind me, Doctor, which one of us had our pay docked for fighting in the cafeteria?” Mo rubbed his chin. “Oh, that’s right. You.” And Jem, though that was beside the point right now. The two had literally come to blows more than once.

Poole went red to the roots of his thinning hair. Behind him, his two lab assistants laughed. Poole’s glare shut them up just before the airlock door slid open to let in the upside scientific team.

Mo straightened his spine, put on a pleasant expression, and studied the group filing into the atrium. Three men, two women, all with that hungry look scientists got when they were after something unique.

Curiosity burned in Mo’s belly. He ignored it. Whatever was going on, he’d find out soon enough. Patience is a virtue, his mother used to say.

He went back to his perusal of the team. Of the five of them, only one had that pasty, damp-at-the-hairline look that meant the trip down hadn’t agreed with him. He strode in with a wide smile anyway, bright-blue eyes crinkling at the corners. Mo thought he looked more like a football coach than a scientist.

The man held out a wide hand to Dr. Poole. “Hi there. I’m Dr. Douglas. Call me Neil. Real pleasure to meet you. And you are?”

“Dr. Oliver Poole. I’m the lead scientist here.” Poole managed a smile that settled uncomfortably on his face. “Welcome to BathyTech 3. We’re happy to have you and your team here.”

The other man looked startled, then laughed. “Oh, no, I’m just the exobiologist. Dr. Savage-Hall here is the head of our team.” He turned to a slender, dark-haired man—midforties, at a guess, with large black eyes—who stood silently beside him. “You might’ve heard of him. His work in theoretical marine geology is groundbreaking.”

Mo pressed his lips together to keep from pissing off Poole by jumping into the conversation. He’d read Dr. Savage-Hall’s study on the potential for macroquantum behavior of the seabed at extreme depth last year and found it fascinating. The doctor’s back off expression didn’t invite questions, but damn, Mo would love to pick that impressive brain.

He only half listened while the upside doc introduced the rest of his team—Dr. Mandala Jhut, microbiology and microgeology; Dr. Carlo Libra, deep-marine geology; and Dr. Ashlyn Timms, practical and theoretical physics. Admiring Dr. Savage-Hall’s severe, studious good looks was much more interesting than hearing who did which job.

Poole gestured toward his assistants. “These are my lab assistants, Ryal Nataki and Hannah Long. They’re both at your disposal while you’re here.” He nodded at Mo, his nose scrunching like he smelled something rotten. “This is Maximo Rees, one of our miners. He’s volunteered to lead the walker team into Richards Deep tomorrow.”

To Mo’s surprise, Dr. Savage-Hall strode toward him with one slim hand held out and a smile that didn’t seem forced. “Mr. Rees.” His gaze flicked downward, then back to Mo’s face, so swift Mo almost missed it. “Thank you for agreeing to provide us with technical leadership on this excursion. We’re most grateful.”

Mo grasped the man’s hand and shook. He had a good, strong grip and a refreshingly direct gaze. Mo flashed his most disarming grin, partly because he couldn’t help liking the guy and partly to see if the once-over he’d gotten came from professional interest or something more fun.

“Please. Just Mo.” He let his smile warm when the doctor’s black-as-the-Trench eyes did the down-and-up thing again, checking him out less covertly this time. A hot glow stirred deep in his belly. “I’m excited to be a part of this team. Thanks for letting me play.”

One dark brow lifted. “I look forward to our time together, Mo.” Dr. Savage-Hall dropped Mo’s hand and turned to his team, all business again. “Dr. Poole, is there somewhere we could all gather to discuss the excursion? I’d like to go over the logistics of it and precisely what everyone’s role will be. I think we’d all be much more comfortable if we could sit down somewhere and talk.”

“Of course.” Poole gestured toward the hallway. “The library is private enough for a conversation and has plenty of room. Would that be all right?”

Everyone agreed, and Poole led the way. While the rest of the group huddled together behind Poole to talk, Dr. Savage-Hall dropped back to walk with Mo in the rear. “This is my first time in one of the BathyTech facilities. I’m hoping to find someone to show me around and tell me more about the operations here.” His no-nonsense gaze cut sideways to meet Mo’s. “Pardon my bluntness, but I’d love it if you’d oblige me.”

The heat in the doc’s eyes told Mo he’d be obliging more than a BathyTech tour. Which was fine with him. After nearly four months without getting laid, he was ready to jump the first man who’d have him. This doctor represented a definite upgrade from his usual casual lovers.

“On one condition.” Leaning closer, Mo lowered his voice to what he’d been assured was a sexy growl. “Tell me your first name.”

“Armin.” The doc’s pretty lips curved into an honest-to-fuck smirk. “I’ll look forward to hearing you say it later.”

Mo laughed. He liked a confident man. “Me too, Doc. Me too.”

***

They made an early start of it the next day. It was still dark upside, Armin reflected, when he, Mo, Carlo, Ashlyn, Neil, and the lab tech Hannah set off in the go-carts for their excursion into Richards Deep.

With nothing to do until they reached their destination, Armin gazed out the window of the go-cart while Mo piloted the vehicle along the seabed. He’d studied the lightless world of the deepest ocean countless times, yet he never tired of it. What seemed barren at first glance teemed with life if one watched with a patient eye and an open mind. Not all living things looked as though they ought to carry that label.

Learning that had changed him forever.

“It was the tube worms that got me.”

Mo’s low voice from the pilot seat brought to mind things other than marine life for a moment, stirring a heart-pounding heat in Armin’s belly. He shoved the feeling away with both hands because now wasn’t the time. Not with Ashlyn in the seat behind him and the second go-cart following them out to the place where the unknown object waited. He needed to present his best professional self and keep his mind on the work.

He glanced sideways at Mo and tried to act casual. “Oh, yes?”

Mo nodded. “I saw a TV show when I was little about the first worms they found on the deep-sea thermal vents. How they didn’t need the sun, but used the nutrients from the vents for energy. I remember thinking how they looked like some kind of weird rock. But the show said they were worms. They were alive. And that changed my whole world view.”

He studied Mo’s profile, trying not to picture his face contorted with pleasure the way he’d seen it a few hours ago. “This is what made you want to be a deep-marine diver?”

“It planted the seed, yeah.” The heavy-lidded eyes pinned him with a knowing look. “I saw you thinking about it.”

For a paralyzing second, Armin thought Mo meant their tryst the night before—not that day and night had any real meaning down here. Then he understood and laughed, relieved. “My moment was the first time I saw a mermaid fish.”

Ashlyn snorted. “Those are a myth.”

“They’re not.” Mo’s voice was soft. Reverent. His eyes glittered in the jaundiced light of the go-cart cab. “I saw one six years ago, in the Mariana Trench. It was fucking gorgeous. That’s what made me jump at this job. I heard they’d been spotted here too. I wanted to see one again.”

Armin understood. His first glimpse of the disturbingly humanlike fish on his third bathyspheric dive as a student had cemented his path in life. He’d fallen under the spell of its milky-green stare, and resolved to study the creatures of the extreme ocean depths as a secondary degree to his first love: theoretical marine geology, a field he’d helped pioneer. The possibility that he was about to lay hands on the first real proof of his theories—a macro object exhibiting quantum behavior—excited him.

On the other hand, on the single glimpse Poole and his team had gotten of it, the object they were after looked remarkably like the one Klaudia Longenesse had carried from the Varredura Longa into the Antarctic Ocean. That fact filled him with a deep disquiet.

“Doc?”

He blinked and met Mo’s questioning gaze. “Yes?”

The lips that had explored his body until he shook and moaned curved into a lopsided smile. “Where’d you go?”

He looked away, embarrassed. “Sorry. I get lost in my thoughts sometimes.”

Behind him, Ashlyn made a scornful sound. He glared at her over his shoulder. She pursed her lips and stared out the round porthole at her side.

Mo eyed him with an odd intensity for a moment, then turned his attention back to the cart’s controls. “Okay. Well. We’ve got coordinates for this thing, whatever it is. Shouldn’t take too long to retrieve it.”

“Excellent.”

“Now. About the mapping tech.” Mo touched the flat-screen readout on the dash. It popped up into 3-D. “The walker helmet hooks into the BathyTech satellite automatically. It’ll show you a map of the seafloor if one already exists, and if there isn’t one, it’ll make one as you go and hook it up with what’s already known of the area. What you’re looking at here is a map created during our initial mining operations several years ago.”

Armin studied the readout, impressed. “It’s amazingly detailed.”

“Yeah. The suit’s automatic camera isn’t as good as the extra one we added for scientific purposes—that one records in way more detail, and in parts of the spectrum the human eye can’t see—but the built-in camera has a wide-angle lens, and it’s integrated with the mapping software, so it produces a pretty damn good readout.” Mo pointed at the flat-screen in front of Armin, then jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward Ashlyn. “You each have your own readouts you can study if you want. Dr. Timms, I know you’re not walking, but you can still have a look at the map if you’re interested.”

They lapsed into silence. Armin brought up his personal data display and studied the digital map of their destination. Whatever it was they sought, it lay in a part of Richards Deep less than a kilometer from the official boundary of the Deep, on a shelf above a narrow chasm.

He stared at the soft white dot on his display and wondered, as he’d done ever since he’d first seen it, what it might be.

Ashlyn tapped his shoulder, and he barely managed not to jump. “Yes? What is it?”

“We’re here.” She sounded amused. “Thought you might be interested.”

Mo aimed an assessing gaze at him. A rush of blood turned his cheeks hot. Maybe it didn’t matter what Maximo Rees thought of him back on the BathyTech pod, but out here, Mo’s good opinion was law. If Mo thought he wasn’t mentally up to the walk, he’d be forced to wait in the go-cart. And he could not let that happen.

“Of course. I was just studying the readouts again.” With a smile he hoped didn’t look too forced, he turned off the display. “Well. Shall we?”

Mo watched him while the two of them stripped to their skins and donned their walker suits. Examined his every move while he fastened into his helmet and started the flow of Mist. Armin tried not to cough as the thick, wet gas mix that would keep his lungs expanded and his body chemistry normalized crept into his sinuses and alveoli. It was fine once you got used to it, but those first few seconds never became any easier.

“Readout on.” His voice was muffled by the Mist. His display popped up on the walker’s faceplate, crisp and clear. He glanced sideways. Mo was going through his own systems tests but still watching him, and his patience ran out. “What in the hell are you looking at?”

If his outburst swayed Mo’s opinion one way or another, it didn’t show. His face was expressionless. “This is Rees in Walker One to walker team. Testing coms. Acknowledge by number. Over.”

Armin knew his temper was being tested as much as the communication systems. He intended to pass.

Calling on his trusty scientific discipline to suppress his frustration, he answered with a calm he hoped his companion would note. “Walker Two, over.”

Behind his faceplate, Mo hitched up one corner of that damned sinful mouth. Armin stared into the inky water of the large, round moon pool in the middle of the floor instead. Something salt white and roughly the size of his thumb skittered across the underside of the clear GlasSteel cover before vanishing into the blackness.

He wanted to follow it.

Carlo’s voice from the other go-cart came through his com with perfect clarity. “Walker Three, receiving both of you. Over.”

Armin made himself meet Mo’s gaze and nod. He thought he caught an echo of his own exploratory yearning in Mo’s eyes before he blinked his attention back to his work.

Mo methodically tested the links between the walkers and Ashlyn, Neil, and Hannah in the go-carts. Meanwhile, he managed, without so much as a glance in his direction, to make Armin feel as if he were still being watched.

Annoyed with himself, he did his best to ignore it. If he’d known how a tryst with Mo would affect his concentration, he might not have given in to the temptation.

On the other hand, remembering the clutching heat of that beautiful body, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it.

Finally, when he’d gotten affirmatives all around on the com connections, Mo declared all systems go. He grinned behind his faceplate. “You geeks ready to walk?”

An answering smile spread over Armin’s face as he pictured the scowl he knew Carlo was wearing right now. The man hated being called a geek. “Let’s go.”

“Computer: Pressurize chamber.” At Mo’s command, the edge of the moon pool room door glowed red, indicating the go-cart’s computer had sealed it and upped the air pressure in the chamber to keep the sea from bubbling up to flood it when they uncovered the pool.

The computer’s voice was bland and sexless. “Chamber sealed and pressurized. Shall I uncover the pool now?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

The cover drew back from the moon pool, revealing a round well of black water cold enough to stop a human heart instantly and heavy enough to stomp their bodies flat without the protection of the walkers. Up front in the pilot’s compartment, Ashlyn switched on the lights on the underside of the go-cart, illuminating a flat slurry of mud and organic detritus two and a half meters below.

Staring down at the first step in his journey to the thing he’d come here to find, Armin felt a vague dread seep into his blood. He shoved it away. He didn’t want anything to poison his excitement over what could be the greatest find of his career.

“I’ll go first. You follow as soon as I give you the A-OK. Got it?”

Armin blinked and looked up at the sound of Mo’s voice in his ear. He nodded. “Roger that.”

Mo flashed that heart-stopping grin again. “See you on the bottom, Doc.” He switched on his walker lights, stepped to the edge of the pool, and plunged in.

He gave the A-OK a few seconds later. Armin switched on his lights and leaped into the deep.

He landed on the ocean floor with a silent ploof. The fine silt rose in a cloud around his knees. Mo stood beside him in a similar cloud. Carlo was walking toward them from the other cart like a misplaced astronaut, holding an equipment bag with its buoyancy adjusted so it floated along beside him. The dive legs of the side-by-side carts cast spindly crisscrossing shadows on the seafloor.

Beyond the reach of the lights, solid blackness hunched like a living thing. He imagined it flexing curved claws and licking long, bloodstained teeth, watching them with pitiless patience, waiting for its moment to pounce, rend, and devour.

He thought he saw the gleam of hungry eyes on the edge of the light. But it was probably just one of the delightfully unusual creatures that called this cold, unforgiving place home. There were wonders enough here without imagining the dark itself as something with thought and intent.

Mo’s calm voice brought Armin out of mental pathways best left untraveled and back to the safe, sensible world of the real. “Okay. We’re heading south-southwest from here. We’ll hit the start of the ledge in about fifteen meters. After that, it starts sloping down a little. Not too bad, maybe five degrees. The ledge narrows down fast to only a couple of meters wide, though, so watch your footing.”

Carlo nodded inside his helmet. “What’s our order?”

“I’m leading. You’re second. Doc Armin’s taking the rear, since he has the most experience out of the two of you with walker suits. Once we get near the thing, whatever it is, I’ll let the two of you at it.” Mo studied each of them in turn, his expression serious. “Any questions? I want everything crystal clear before we go.”

Carlo shook his head. “No questions. We’re clear.”

Mo looked at Armin, who nodded. “Everything’s understood.”

“All right, then.” Mo turned to face the direction they were heading. “Go-carts, Walker One here. Walker team moving out.”

Ashlyn’s cool voice crackled in Armin’s helmet. “Cart One, acknowledged.”

“Cart Two, acknowledged.” Hannah sounded excited as a child. “Keep the feeds on, guys. Neil and I want to see!”

Mo laughed. “You got it, Hannah.”

The three of them moved beyond the comfort of the go-cart lights and into the dark. Armin tried not to imagine the creep of silent footsteps in the expanding swath of blackness behind him because really, what could be there? Tiny shrimp? Miniature squid flashing neon colors? Translucent fish with their needle teeth, too small to hurt anything so massive as a human being?

All those things might hover in his wake, certainly. But none could stalk their team with intent to harm, or indeed any intent at all. None could create the deliberate, plodding floop . . . floop . . . floop . . . his brain insisted on hearing at his heels—despite the fact that his helmet’s sensors weren’t configured to pick up external sounds. Even if it were possible for this sound to exist. Which it wasn’t.

Eventually, his stubborn refusal to look paid off. The impossible noise stopped once the team started down the sloped path, an ever-rising wall of rock to their right and the abyss to their left. He peered into the void less than a meter away. The dark water felt charged, as if on the verge of revealing some forgotten horror older than human memory.

For one heart-stopping moment, he knew—knew—the thing was about to rise from the murk, white and bloated as a corpse.

He shook his head, as if he could physically knock the unwelcome visions out of his mind. Clearly the atrocities he’d seen a few weeks earlier in Antarctica had affected him more than he’d thought.

Mo slowed, one hand held out behind him. “All right. The anomaly is just ahead, about three meters. You guys go around me. Very carefully, all right? I don’t want anyone going over the edge.”

“Copy that.” Carlo tweaked the buoyancy on the equipment bag, and it drifted downward to rest on the ledge behind Mo. “I’ll leave that here. You can bring it up when we’re ready.”

Mo nodded. “Sure.”

Mo and Carlo flattened themselves against the wall. Armin edged forward, taking small, cautious steps. He put a hand out to steady himself, and Mo grasped it. They looked at one another through the faceplates. Mo smiled, excitement equal to Armin’s shining in his eyes, and Armin’s heart turned over. He smiled back, savoring the moment of connection.

“Go on, Doc.” Mo’s voice was soft and eager. “Go get your mystery thing.”

Laughing, Armin stepped around Mo and reluctantly let go of his hand. “Yes, indeed. The great mystery.”

He faced forward and made his way along the ledge. His helmet and wrist lights picked up an outcropping of the wall, and sitting atop it was a plain, round, jet-black stone. The lights glittered on its surface.

I’ve seen this before.

The thought was so out of place, it stopped Armin cold. But it was true. He had seen this before. Or rather, something remarkably like it. The grainy, three-second bit of footage from the Varredura Longa’s outside camera was the only clue to what had happened there. The sheer improbability of what seemed to be the same type of object showing up both there and here kept Armin’s feet glued to the seabed and his gaze fixed, unbelieving, on the thing that appeared to be a rock but wasn’t.

“Oh my God,” breathed Carlo through the walker’s com system. “That looks just like—”

“I know.” Armin cast him a keep quiet glare. “Let’s not jump to conclusions.”

Mo, who’d crept up behind them, leaned around Armin’s shoulder to study the object with fascination. “Looks like what?”

“Nothing.” Armin touched Mo’s chest. “Could you give us a bit of room, please?”

Mo obediently backed up a couple of steps. “So what is this thing? Poole said Rover was working fine, and so was all the equipment on the Peregrine, so how come it acts like it doesn’t exist?” He turned his curious gaze to Armin. “If the tests bear it out, it’ll pretty much prove your theories about the potential for macroquantum behavior of some materials under extreme pressures, right?”

Armin looked at him, surprised and pleased. “You’ve read my paper?”

“Yeah.” Mo grinned. “Can’t say I understood all of it, but yeah, I read it. Everything about marine science fascinates me.”

A sweet warmth rose in Armin’s chest. He returned Mo’s smile, and for a moment it was only the two of them, alone in the vastness of the sea.

Carlo cleared his throat. “Any time you’re ready, Romeo.”

If it weren’t for the Mist, Armin would have blushed. Ignoring Mo’s low chuckle, he walked the last couple of meters to the mysterious object. Pulse pounding in the base of his throat, he stroked the thing with one hand. The bulky glove kept him from feeling anything, of course, but he imagined the smoothness of it anyway. The idea that he might be touching something new to science, something unique—perhaps something extraterrestrial?—sent elated shivers through him.

“Can we retrieve it?” Carlo asked. “I mean, are you able to just pick it up, or will we need to blast it loose?”

“Whoa, hang on there.” Mo held up both hands, palms out. “We’ve got incendiary paste back at the pod, but we’d need to do more extensive testing on this wall before you could safely blast it.”

Carlo gave him a sour look. “I’m well aware of that. I was asking Armin, who is also well aware of the precautions we’d need to take, whether or not we can retrieve this thing without blasting.”

Armin spoke up before the other two could get into a completely unnecessary argument. “I believe so. It doesn’t seem to be attached to the wall.”

“Good.” Carlo moved closer. “Let’s do the scans, then grab it and go.”

“Of course.” Armin glanced back at Mo. “Switch to infrared lights, Mo. We’re going to scan on IR first.”

“Roger that.”

All three of them switched their suit lights to IR. The specially made IR sensors in the walker’s faceplate allowed Armin to see the reverse-image ghost of Carlo’s faceplate display. It lit his features in a sickly pale green that made him look dead.

A hard chill ran down Armin’s spine. Doing his best to ignore the unease tickling the nape of his neck, he leaned forward, one hand on the outcropping blocking the path, and peered at the back of the object. The IR light reflected off the curve of the rock. It was utterly featureless, and produced no heat or other radiation visible on infrared.

Armin found it strangely beautiful in its blank, perfect symmetry. He stared at it until he could no longer fight the instinct to blink. As his eyelids swept down, feeding his weak human need to lubricate his weak human corneas in spite of the Mist in his helmet, the thing seethed like a nest of worms.

He froze. Stared again, harder. This time it held still, like an ordinary—if uncannily round and smooth—rock.

He swiveled to look at Carlo. “Go ahead and get out the transport box while I complete the scans.”

Carlo switched to regular light, then opened the bag and fetched the box they’d brought to transport the object, while Armin activated his walker’s built-in scanning function. His gut told him microbes and radioactivity would not be among the dangers this thing brought with it, but a scientist couldn’t afford to operate on instinct. So he scanned for everything modern technology allowed.

Absolutely nothing showed up. Less than nothing, in fact. As far as his suit could tell him, the object he’d been staring at for several minutes, that he’d touched with own hand—albeit through a walker glove—wasn’t there at all.

Because that was clearly not the case, he lifted the stone carefully, reverently, and placed it in the box.

Carlo engaged the box’s seal, and Armin switched back to regular light. Mo had already switched. He watched with a million silent questions in his eyes as Armin unfolded the webbing around the container and prepared to carry it back to the go-cart.

Armin pretended not to notice. Now that they’d retrieved the thing they’d come here for, Mo’s part in this was at an end. He wouldn’t like it, but that wasn’t Armin’s problem. His only concerns were keeping this one-of-a-kind object safe, and learning everything he could about it.

Back on the go-cart, Mo sidled up to Armin while they were changing and ran a single fingertip down the side of his neck. “Interesting rock you got there, Doc.”

“Yes, it is.” Armin leaned briefly against Mo’s bare chest, enjoying his warmth. “I’m anxious to begin studying it.”

“I bet.” Laying a gentle hand on Armin’s cheek, Mo angled his face sideways and up until he was forced to meet Mo’s intense gaze. His lips curved into a smile that made Armin’s heart thump. “I know you probably don’t want to share with a walker jockey like me, but I’d sure love to hear all about what you find.”

Armin couldn’t help returning the man’s rakish smile. “We’ll see.”

“Translation: No.”

Before he could think of a suitable answer, Mo cupped his chin and kissed him: a deep, open-mouthed kiss that left him breathless and uncomfortably aroused. He turned in Mo’s embrace and clutched the belt loops on his pants. “I’m sorry. It’s simply that I have no idea what we’ll find, if we find anything at all, and I don’t want any premature information getting out.”

Mo’s eyebrows went up. “I don’t gossip, Doc.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that you do.” He cast about for the best way to explain without making it sound as if he were indeed implying that very thing. “Information takes on a life of its own if you’re not careful with it. And when it comes to scientific research, we have to take great care not to allow incomplete or unverified findings to get out because that can discredit the final findings.” Following a sudden instinct, he took Mo’s hand and laced their fingers together. “I like you very much, Mo, and I admire the way your mind works. I wish I could share more of what we’re doing with you. Please understand why I can’t.”

Mo nodded, his smile soft. “Yeah. I get it.” He kissed the end of Armin’s nose. “I’m coming to your quarters tonight, though. Maybe I can change your mind.” He waggled his eyebrows.

Armin laughed, and they both went back to getting dressed. But something told him that Mo hadn’t been joking.

 

Later, when the approach to researching the impossible rock had been discussed by the team and said rock had been safely locked in the lab vault, after dinner and mutual congratulations, Armin took Mo back to his quarters. Mo sucked him off in the shower, then laid him down on the unmade bed and fucked him until his vision blurred and he couldn’t have formed words even if he’d wanted to.

Afterward, he curled into Mo’s arms with a sense of completion he’d rarely felt in his life. Had never felt, in fact, with a lover. Not that he made a habit of staying with the men he bedded, or inviting them to stay with him. His one and only long-term relationship hadn’t ended well, and he’d never felt the need to involve himself with anyone since then. He wasn’t sure what to make of this unexpected connection with Mo. It was a bit frightening, and a lot exhilarating.

Why should I fight it? he wondered, breathing in Mo’s warm male scent. I’ll be here a few weeks at the most. Why shouldn’t I enjoy his company while I’m here?

Mo started to get up. Armin tightened his grip. “Don’t go.”

The muscular body in his arms tensed. “Huh?”

“I said, don’t go.” Armin tilted his head back enough to peer at Mo through half-closed eyes. “You can stay here tonight, if you’d like.”

One dark eyebrow lifted. “Can I?”

“Mm-hmm.” Grinning, Armin slung a leg across Mo’s thighs. “Don’t go.”

For a long moment, Mo watched him with a strange glitter in his eyes. Armin felt like a prize stallion being admired by a potential buyer. Logically, he shouldn’t have enjoyed it. Yet he did. His skin heated under Mo’s stare, and he wondered at the strength of his own libido.

Finally, when Armin’s breath began to come short and he’d started to wonder if he might actually get hard again, Mo favored him with a wide smile. “I’d love to stay.” He slipped a hand between Armin’s legs. “Can we play doctor again?”

Laughing, Armin pulled Mo down into a kiss.

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