One

 

VERLY HELD the edge of his seat, feeling the machine struggle through the air. The seat vibrated and the vehicle rolled a little left and then banked to the right before evening out for all of two and a half seconds and then repeating the cycle. Verly understood the irony of a pilot bothered by the bucking of a shuttle as it fought its way through air, but normally he was the one in control. He trusted his own flying more than Lieutenant Gilson’s.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“Not much longer, sir.” Gilson managed to sound almost respectful, but Verly had seen the sneer when Gilson had first heard his name.

Sometimes Verly wondered how he would handle an entire planet of people who didn’t recognize his name, assuming he could call Livre a planet. Today, the Planetary Alliance would never allow colonization or even mining in such a fragile environment. The planet had huge mountain ranges that interrupted deep deserts and an underground water supply too contaminated with poisons for human consumption. That led to a relatively limited range of flora and fauna.

Back before the civil war and before ships could carry people to countless systems, humans had put boots down on planets that could barely sustain them. They terraformed and carved out niches in places where no human should go. Most of those colonies had failed, but against all odds Livre was still here. And now Verly was going to make this one small planet his home—his refuge from the past and the mistakes that still haunted him. Step one had been learning all about this new home of his.

Honestly, Verly had studied the ecosystem out of a desire to avoid ending up a meal for some carnivorous plant or rodent, which Livre seemed to specialize in. He’d fought in space for most of his life… fought the dirty war of terrorism and bombs that had followed the official end of the Alliance War. So dying with his foot in some pipe trap while rat-sized mammals ate him… that was not an option.

Of course, thirst posed as much of a danger as the plant life or the local predators. Naturally occurring pure water was too rare for human survival, but huge tankers had once landed on Livre carrying water to begin the terraforming. That had been before Verly’s birth. He hadn’t even heard of Livre before its two rather eccentric ambassadors had negotiated an interesting treaty that put Livre off-limits to all but preapproved applicants on official business.

Verly had one of those rare visas.

As a planet, Livre left a lot to be desired. He wouldn’t find cities or long rails for aircars or shuttle launches. He wouldn’t live in sealed buildings or even walk manicured natural spaces with carefully controlled ecosystems. This was a border world like Verly had never seen before, and he wasn’t sure what he could expect to find.

Dust.

People as odd as Ambassadors Gazer and Polli.

Citizens who didn’t look at him oddly the moment they recognized his name.

The shuttle did an odd little hop as it passed through a column of hot air. “Final descent before landing,” Gilson said, and then the engines shifted into a lower gear, the bottom jets firing to keep the shuttle from dropping too fast as it slowed.

White sand interrupted with streaks of yellowed land, and red and brown rocks rose up under them. The lack of actual landmarks was disorienting for someone who’d grown up in a jungle of buildings where the skyline always told you if you were north or south of the river—east or west of a main landing. And the sky back home on Diamond was always streaked with the trails of planes and shuttles. Here the cloudless blue stretched out to the edge of the world.

Eventually, he could see a line of ragged mountains in the distance—young rocks pushing up from below the surface with all their sharp edges pointed to the sky.

“Are we going over those?” Verly asked. He didn’t bother defining “those” because any pilot worth half a credit would have an eye on those mountains. Those were the sorts of formations that could chew through every safety feature and turn a shuttle into a steaming pile of junk if it got too close.

“Yes, sir. We’re staying well above them and landing in the dunes on the far side. Most of the settlements are on the west side.”

“Great.”

Verly kept his eyes on the land as the shuttle screamed through the heavy air of the low atmosphere. The shuttle bucked like a great beast, and then it finally scraped its belly along the ground, landing gear useless in the fine white sand. Enormous clouds of dust rose up. The shuttle slid across the face of Livre, slipping to the right until it finally settled.

“Any idea how long until the dust settles?” Verly studied the glow of the sun through the sandstorm.

“No idea, sir.” Gilson didn’t sound very interested in having any sort of conversation because he started reading off shutdown procedures. Pilots never had to read out loud, not after their first dozen flights, but Verly let the man retreat into his administrivia. It took at least thirty or forty uncomfortable minutes before the sand slowly settled and Verly got his first look at his new home from the ground. If things went well, he’d be here for years. If they went poorly, his commanding officers would lose his paperwork and leave him here a whole lot longer.

“This is shuttle Zulu requesting permission to disembark,” Gilson said.

“Sure, come on out,” the radio answered. The Planetary Alliance was not a fan of informal procedures, so that voice coming through the official PA radio sounded very odd. At least Verly had the advantage of having worked with Ambassador Gazer, so he’d been prepared for less than orthodox people. Gilson looked over at Verly as if seeking some reassurance. Turning his seat around, Verly busied himself with his personal belongings while Gilson cracked the side door open.

The smell of heat hit Verly like a storm front. He hadn’t even realized heat had an odor until this moment, but he sneezed several times.

“That’s an interesting scent,” Gilson said quietly, but then he cleared his throat. “Sir, after you,” he offered stiffly.

Verly gave a nod and hiked his bag’s strap over his shoulder as he strode down the metal planking to his new planet. His first impression was that it was bare, and then he started sneezing again, and Verly didn’t have a cloth. He was in danger of making a snotty mess out of himself. That would make for a great first impression. Wiping his face, he tried sniffing, and that made his eyes water as the heat seemed to invade his head.

“Here,” a gruff voice offered, and a man shoved a cloth toward him. “Rula had the same reaction. It makes me wonder what sort of air you have up there.”

“Thanks.” Verly took the cloth and blew his nose before checking out his savior. His first impression startled him so much that he took a step back. The man was a warped mirror image of Ambassador Polli. He was an inch or so taller—tall enough that he nearly reached Verly’s own six five—and he carried a lot more muscle, but the two men shared the same prominent nose, dark eyes, and dusky skin. Honestly, they were both exotic and beautiful the way a sharp-edged weapon was. He had angles that were simply interesting to look at.

“You got more stuff?” the man asked with a disgusted look at the shuttle. Usually the disgust was focused more on Verly.

“Nope. This is it.” Verly held out his hand. “Verly Black.”

This sharp-edged man with his wide chest and shoulders eyed Verly for a second, and Verly drew himself up to his full height. They were a matched pair, although Verly didn’t have as much muscle. Piloting didn’t provide much of a workout.

The guy finally took Verly’s hand. “Naite Polli.”

“Ambassador Polli’s brother?” Verly guessed.

Naite gave a snort and turned toward a cluster of low buildings so far away that you could have landed a shuttle before hitting them. “At least you didn’t bring armfuls of shit,” Naite commented before he started striding across the sand.

Clearly Naite was as unconventional as his brother. That was fine with Verly. Leaving the shuttle and the surly pilot behind, Verly blew his nose and set off across the blowing sand. He made it less than half the distance before he had to slow down. His eyes watered, and his cheeks ached from squinting, but still the sunlight seemed to reflect off every speck of white sand. Worse, his lungs ached from the heat, and the sand dragged at his feet.

Stopping, Verly closed his eyes and tried to shut out the stabbing sun for a second as he caught his breath. He’d been on a dozen alien worlds, but none of them had felt alien. Every world had trees and rivers and square buildings rising toward the heavens. Some worlds required more effort to get those pieces all in place, but the Planetary Alliance had a firm policy of not allowing any planet to suffer from a lack of terraforming. But Livre was truly alien.

Verly opened his eyes when Naite returned. The man stood a foot away, arms crossed over his chest.

“Are you planning on throwing up?”

“No, I can safely say I’m not,” Verly said. The frown on Naite’s face made it pretty clear that he questioned the veracity of that statement. “The sun is much brighter and the air much hotter and drier than I’m used to. I need a second to catch my breath.”

“Well, hurry up so we can get out of the heat. We’re fools for standing out here.”

If Verly had the energy, he would have danced for joy. If the heat made Naite miserable, that meant they were headed someplace cooler. That thought gave Verly the strength to wave Naite toward the building. “I’m good.”

One dark eyebrow twitched, but Naite headed for the building. The low squared sides still showed the tool marks from the drop ship’s claw. This was the first settlement. Verly had once visited the first settlement on Diamond. Most schoolchildren walked in the steps of the colonists as a memorial to those first humans who had braved Diamond’s vicious swamps and poisonous wildlife. However, this place was still used.

Naite clambered down a ladder with more grace than Verly had expected from such a large man.

“Are Ambassadors Gazer and Polli here?” Verly asked as Naite pulled a heavy blast door open. The stamped metal suggested it’d been salvaged from some colony ship. This place was like stepping into a historical reenactment.

Naite gestured for Verly to head into the slightly less hot interior of the building, which he was only too happy to do. Waiting until after he’d pulled the door shut leaving them in an artificial twilight, Naite answered, “Shan and Temar are over at Blue Hope trying to talk some sense into some folks who don’t have any to start with.”

“Well, I’m sure Ambassadors—”

“Don’t call them that,” Naite cut him off as he headed across a narrow room.

“Call them what?”

Naite stopped and eyed Verly. If they’d met in a bar, Verly would have assumed Naite wanted to have some very hard and very fast sex. If Naite had been a superior officer, Verly would have assumed that look meant an upcoming demotion. Naite had this odd combination of sexual heat and personal aggression—of carnal looks and suppressed anger. Maybe it was Verly’s self-destructive streak showing up, but he wondered whether Naite bedded men. “Don’t call them ambassador anything. They’re just plain Shan and Temar,” Naite said firmly, and Verly was in danger of losing track of the conversation.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful,” Verly said carefully.

Naite snorted. “And I don’t want you giving those two an overinflated sense of their own importance.”

That surprised Verly. The Planetary Alliance was full of difficult people who all knew that their beliefs were the only correct beliefs for anyone to hold. The ambassadors had navigated political waters that would have sunk lesser men, and they’d done that after giving the breakaway worlds a run for their money. As far as Verly was concerned, those two could have some fairly large heads without overinflating anything. They deserved a few bragging rights.

However, Naite’s expression made it clear that Verly did not have permission to argue. “Okay,” Verly said slowly. “So, they’re talking to this other city?”

With a small nod of approval, Naite turned and headed through a door into another identically sized room, only someone lived in this one. “Hopefully Temar’s doing the actual talking,” Naite said. “Shan’s version of persuading people usually involves large amounts of guilt and God, two subjects that plenty of people have a rather uncomfortable relationship with.”

Verly had misunderstood Livre’s political scene. He hadn’t expected the leaders to inspire such resentment. Usually Verly saw that on much more developed planets, not small worlds with scattered settlements that had to work just to survive. “I suppose I don’t have a very clear impression of Am… Shan. He was injured most of the time I knew him.”

Naite stopped near another door and studied Verly. “Huh. That’s right. You’re the one who saved him, are you?”

Verly gave Naite his widest smile. When he was sixteen, he’d spent an embarrassing amount of time learning how to give potential partners a crooked, devilish smile, in part to make up for his rather austere expression with a square jaw and prominent chin. His masculine features were even more noticeable with his fair skin. He had a manly face, a face the military had once chosen to put on the front of an advertisement for pilot training. But he’d intentionally developed a boyish smile.

“The official reports say that I’m the one who put him in danger. Luckily, Temar gave a direct order, so very little of that blame fell on me, or I might have been dropped back another rank.”

“It’s hard to see Temar giving orders.” Naite opened the door, and the brutal heat of the planet once again pushed against Verly’s skin.

“Actually,” Verly said as he squinted, “Temar threatened to bring me to Livre and let the sandcats strip the flesh from my screaming body if I double-crossed him or didn’t follow orders.”

Naite’s mouth fell open. “He what?”

“That’s not a threat a man forgets soon,” Verly pointed out. “I get the feeling Temar is very attached to your brother and a little overprotective.”

“Obviously more than I knew. He really said that?”

Verly nodded. When Naite’s angry exterior dropped, he looked even more like Shan, although Verly wasn’t fool enough to say it. Naite didn’t seem like a big fan of his brother.

“Well, you’re lucky it wasn’t the other way around with Shan making the plans and Temar in danger. Shan’s plans are downright suicidal. So, since those two are off doing whatever they’re doing, you’re stuck with me. Shan suggested that I show you around, but I have work, so I figure I can show you the working end of a dig-stick. Unless, that is, you have some problem with putting in a day’s work.” Naite crossed his arms again, clearly waiting for Verly to make a protest.

“No problem at all, at least not as long as you keep in mind that I have no idea what a dig-stick is.”

“It’s a stick. You dig with it.”

Verly smiled. “I had gotten that far in my analysis of the term. I don’t know what to do with one, and you don’t have to suggest that I dig.”

Naite grunted and closed the door to the silent base behind him before setting out for a newer and much less level building. This one was made of native twigs. A cargo hauler of some sort waited in the shade. Climbing up into the driver’s seat, Naite waited as Verly got up into the passenger side. The vehicle had two ovals of plastic right in front of the driver and passenger seats, but they didn’t feel like enough protection. Verly felt a little like he was perched on top of some teenager’s version of a bootleg motorized vehicle. Naite started it, and the machine yanked itself into motion with an uneven lurch. Verly grabbed at the nearest stable point as he tried not to fall. He grabbed Naite’s arm.

Naite looked down with a barely veiled humor. The edge of his mouth twitched. “Problem?”

“Old machines and worse, old machines that I’m not driving.”

“Do you even know how to drive a hauler?”

“Nope. But pilots are all the same. We don’t do well if we’re not steering.”

Naite gave him a long look. “I generally prefer to steer,” Naite said, and his voice had an edge that almost sounded like an invitation. Almost. It’d been so long since anyone had invited Verly for a quick tumble that he wasn’t sure whether he could trust his judgment. Perhaps he only wanted that invitation so much that he imagined Naite’s interest.

“You need a sand veil,” Naite said, his voice suddenly businesslike as he pulled a white cloth out of his pocket. It resembled burn gauze with heavier strips of white fabric on either side, trailing off into long tails. “You tie it around your face to make sure you don’t breathe in too much dust. If you do, you can get sand pneumonia.”

“Charming.” Verly took the veil and started tying it around his mouth and nose. Naite tied his own sand veil around his face, the white of his fabric already gray with dust.

“That’s never going to stay.” Naite half stood and leaned over to roughly tug the veil into place. Reaching around, he tied it around the back of Verly’s head, and that left him so close Verly could smell his musk. The scent reminded Verly of barracks and men pressed close together, of dirty little moments stolen between drills and hand jobs in corners. Verly’s cock was already aching with need, but Naite finished arranging the veil and then sat back down.

“We’ll get to the valley in an hour or so,” he offered as he put the hauler into gear and made the machine lurch forward again. Either it had been far too long since Verly had gotten laid, or this trip to Livre might prove more interesting than Verly had expected. Maybe both.