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Search the Community: Showing results for tags 'gage'.
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Playing with Fire 12 JUN 2388 (Just before the Pakled Plant-Eaters Convention and the Great Blip of Aegis.) Ethan leaned on the table, the lung-battering pulse of EDM chiseling at his brain. Heads undulated like a rough sea on the dance floor below. The engineering that went into isolating the compartment, preventing the bass from bleeding across the station's frame, must have cost a penny or two. He could barely hear himself talk, much less think. Lifting his tumbler for a sip, he scanned the nearby faces. At the very least, the other patrons were too deafened or engrossed to eavesdrop. "Who is this snitch?" "I told you: private investigator," Gage answered irritably, hunched over and looking uptight as hell. The more he tried to avoid notice, the more people noticed him. Telling the guy to relax was about as helpful as pissing on a supernova. Gage could barely muster more than a vague “play it cool" before dragging Ethan to the club. Mercifully, Ethan's natural personality lent a bit of a my-angry-buddy-is-in-a-rough-patch vibe. It warded off most patrons, who only cared to rubberneck. He smiled casually, lifting his drink at yet another pair of curious passersby. "Yeah, no. What's his name?" "Jackie." "Just Jackie?" "Yeah. Not everyone has a last-name, you know," Gage retorted, only to crumble under Ethan's subtle frown. "Ok, so I didn't ask. ******* sue me." Ethan grunted scoffingly, cringing as he swallowed another mouthful of synthehol. He disliked it as much as alcohol. But when in Rome, you compromise a bit. "We're meeting him here: why?" "Her" — Gage hesitated — "sounded like a girl, I think. And this is where she said she’d be. She ‘likes the ‘atmosphere’ or some ****.” Ethan heard implications in that story. "What're we looking for?" Gage shrugged. "Beats me. She said she'd find us." "You didn't hire her," he fished. It was that, or he had just craigslisted the whole thing. "No. Your parents did." That surprised him, raising his brow a bit. Ethan knew they had paid a few investigators over the last year and a half to look for Rebecca. But this one's peculiar behavior would have provoked second thoughts about hiring. Maybe they didn't know. He glanced from the crowd to his watch. The time for their meeting had come and gone unmet. Plenty of theories why but little to ground or narrow them down. He mused whether she was a paranoiac, given the lack of information she volunteered. Maybe she wanted to observe from afar before she decided to approach. He glanced at Gage, puzzling over which of them would intimidate her more. “You have a way to track her down if she's a no-show?" Gage hesitated, a cringe betraying that he hadn't considered it. "Nope." Ethan hummed short of commenting on his cousin's haphazard way of doing things. Always charging like a blind linebacker. No changing it mid-play. Tossing back the last swig, Ethan spotted her in the crowd over the rim of the glass. She wiggled her fingers in a wave at him. He just about choked. “Hey, look. It’s your favorite rapist," Gage quipped. "Oh, and she has a friend.” The so-called friend had just lip-locked a ring of five guests before wrapping an unearthly arm around the Bajoran. Freely sharing saliva was unremarkable these days. Evolve enough humanoid species in an ever-expanding universe, and eventually, someone's culture would hello or goodbye you on the mouth without hesitation. A bit like the French and their old-world cheek-kissing. Or that resort-planet, Risa: because hedonism loves company — or just a lot of bodies. But the intimate way the Bajoran's companion held her as they bussed and whispered in each other's ears definitely went beyond a new-age Faire la bise. Abruptly, the pair aimed at them, wearing giant smiles. Gage's expression fell, echoing his dread. “****, that can’t be good," Gage said. "You're gonna have to tell them off." Ethan blinked. "What?" "After I told Jackie you were coming, she said she'd back out if anyone else showed up." He remarked dryly, "Should tell me these things before they happen." "I just did," Gage snarked incredulously. "Doesn't count." "Come on, cuz! Don't hang me out." "I'm not. You tell them off." He clapped Gage's shoulder. "I've got your back." "I can't. People like me. But look at you: you're cold as ******* ice right now. Born-*******-natural at being unfriendly. And I don't want to ruin my chances later." Gage mumbled the last part, but Ethan heard it. He couldn't help the flat stare that drove Gage to shift uncomfortably. "What? I can shop the market. I'm divorced." More accurately, devour all the sample trays at the grocer. Now it made sense: why it took him all this time to track his daughter and her mother of a kidnapper. That was the unkind thought Ethan had to shove down, at any rate. He focused on the pair of approaching women instead. Or possibly a man and a woman. "Is that a dude?" Gage blurted. So he saw it, too, the way the companion's facial structure seemed to morph between masculine and feminine beneath the assorted lighting. The hips swayed exaggeratedly as s/he walked. Otherwise, s/he presented a curveless, spindly figure in a skintight black gown and towered like someone who had matured under a fraction of Earth's gravity. The big gray and pink irises, achromic complexion, and cropped hair — not just hair: feathers or scales — popped in the blacklights. Contrasted by pitch-dark sclera and body tattoos etched in the blackest ink that gave the illusion nothing held the bright parts together. "Oh, that's creepy as ****," Gage drawled a bit too close to earshot for comfort. The Brobdingnagian pulled up at their table across from Ethan and took stock of the men, vacant chairs, and surroundings. "I assume this is where you want us to sit? With our backs to the door?" Cynicism shaded the question, despite the attempt at maintaining a practiced urbanity. She spoke Standard, accented by a native tongue with fewer phonemes, in a high-pitched and delicate timbre by human standards. Or he or however they wanted to identify. But Ethan understood why Gage had thought it sounded effeminate. It was easier for him to follow in his head that way, at any rate. "Yes." It took a second for Gage to glare at him the inevitable: what the **** are you doing?! "I suppose it can't be helped. Hello, Gage." She flummoxed him with a pat on his cheek and took a seat next to him. "Well, it seems that one of you is smart, and one of you is — mmm — passably handsome." Ethan paid little to the remark, glancing narrowly at the Bajoran as she slipped into the remaining chair between him and her companion. He had tensed for a moment, expecting to fend off another round of molesting. But the woman who accosted him yesterday just sat there. Uncharacteristically quiet, almost demure, and content to drape from her companion's taller shoulder. As much for closeness as balance, given her unsteadiness and the smell of fruity cocktails. While he appreciated the lack of attention—aside from her leering—it felt off. Ethan slouched back, hanging his left arm over the back of the chair. The gears in Gage's brain clicked. "Wait. You're Jackie?" "Yes. I am," Jackie confirmed and looked at Ethan. "Before we get to business, why don't you tell me how you made me?" "Why the **** does that mat—" Jackie held her palm to Gage's face. "Quid pro quo. From one professional to another. Please, regale me." The seconds ticked by as they stared at each other. Gage twitched. He never had the patience to sit out these silent spells. "Dude, tell her so we can ******* get on with this ****." Ethan's gaze dropped to the neon drink in her hand. He tipped his empty tumbler on the tabletop in her direction. "Don't smell like alcohol." Bit of irony in the history of synthehol. Invented by Ferengi, who used it to dupe clientele drink-for-drink into making deals while drunk. One day, corporate spies busted the secret, and an entire galaxy of potential business victims fell in love with it, opening an unintended and far more lucrative market. Ferengi got over that injury pretty fast. Until Bajoran synthale entered the scene, which lit off a bit of a rivalry. He remembered one who considered it near-unholy for religious people to invent non-alcoholic drinks solely for promoting sobriety. Sacrilegious in the face of profits, maybe. All synthetic ethanol benefited from the taste, smell, and feel of the real thing without the inebriating effect. Most humanoids could overindulge and never reach a buzz. The appeal baffled Ethan. Some thought it milder than ethanol, but he found the stuff just as unpleasant. Overwhelmingly bitter and often accompanied by a burn that flooded the nose like chlorinated water after a bad dive. Friends would ask if he could taste the spice in this or the sweetness in that. It all fell flat behind the alcoholic or vomitus sapor. Over the years, he had come to appreciate that inability to "savor the bouquet." It likely saved him from developing an alcoholic habit common to his profession. More than he could say for the Bajoran at the table. He wondered whether she knew what her situation suggested — what Jackie had in store for her. Gage boldly sniffed Jackie's glass. "Smells like it to me." "Her breath." "Whatever," Gage tossed back, eyes rolling and folding his arms. A few humanoids in any species, people blessed with those uncommon receptors, could tell synthehol and alcohol apart. But it didn't take an evolutionary superpower. While both left a temporary scent in the mouth, synthetics and ethanol metabolized divergently. Drinking the real stuff faster than the body could process it allowed some unmetabolized excess to enter the blood. Ethanol circulating to the lungs meant most humanoids exhaled it, producing that distinct, mildly sweet breath no mint could hide. Jackie's smelled untainted. Maybe a bit onion-like. Assuming she didn't have some rare gene, either the glass contained something synthetic, or she had a motive to nurse that drink fiercely. He had a fifty-fifty chance at guessing that part correctly, but the crux rested in her desire to stay sober. It also took one to know one, and both could spot a poser. Sorry — rookie. She tended to paint her target with body language and gaze, among other things. But something about her made him reluctant to give her pointers. Their mutual scrutiny had grown severe the longer they stared. For only tenths of a second, the skin of Jackie's face rippled upward into a few hundred feather-like scales, revealing depthless black underneath, and smoothed back to seamlessness. Probably the most patent microexpression he had ever seen. It reminded Ethan of a startled bird. "What the ****?" Gage breathed in recoil, drawing glances from both. Ethan glimpsed the server trolling the seated area in his periphery as he stopped and surveyed the tables. Then, with the rapidity of a shark that smelled blood, the server stood next to him. "Need a refill?" "Uh, yeah. Water, thanks." After the others shook their heads, the server smiled and withdrew with the tumbler. Jackie revealed a mouthful of perfect teeth as she gushed velvety laughter. "It seems we think alike: you and I." He smirked wryly. Gage slapped the table. "Ok, spy hard convention's over. Where's my daughter?" "That's not the first order of business," she replied smoothly. "First, we will discuss my fee—" "The **** we will. You were already paid." "I'm afraid your case has cost me more than I anticipated. I need passage off Aegis." "Passage is free," Ethan interjected. "For citizens." She glared at him, a yellow sheen in her eyes. "And those who don't care about leaving a record." Ethan scoffed under a half-smirk. “How much?” “One bar of latinum.” "The ****?!" Gage’s fist slammed the tabletop, the vein throbbing in his forehead. “We’re talking about my kid!” "You're not the only client who wants results," she shot back. "The people who took your daughter are very difficult and dangerous to track down. Some of us can't operate off charity." Distain curled the corner of her lips. "You *****—" Gage lept to his feet, toppling the chair behind him. The impact of Ethan's shoulder to Gage's mouth muffled whatever else came next. "Hey!" Ethan barked, pressing backward from the table. "Cool it." The upturned chair nearly tripped Gage. He wrestled against the grip Ethan had on his shirt. Struggled to regain his footing and counter. Gage's half-drunken state made it easier to manhandle him. Ethan had pushed him several tables away before Gage could dig in enough to break free. Patrons looked on with wide eyes, but none attempted to intervene. "******* stop!" Gage dabbed his lower lip, a film of blood on the end of his finger, thumping Ethan's. "What the ***, Ethan?" "Not going to work this way, Gage," he cautioned, sidestepping to block Gage from going back with opened hands in the air. "******* rich," Gage laughed as he spun in agitation, jabbing toward Jackie. "That ***** is holding Rebecca hostage for more ******* money, and I'm starting to get the impression you still don't give a ****." "Wouldn't be here if I didn't care," Ethan said flatly, cutting any chance to air old grudges about the last time Gage asked for help. "Listen, fighting with her isn't going to get you answers. You can't save Rebecca from jail." His cousin deflated, tension giving way to anxiety. He chafed at his face and head. "Where am I going to get a ******* bar of latinum? I don't have a hundred thousand ******* credits. Emptied my bank just to fuel up. I'm ******* broke!" "I know. I'll take care of it. Just do me a favor and go get your ship ready." He flashed a small but confident smile. "No, I'm her dad," Gage stabbed a finger at his own chest, hissing through his teeth as his eyes glistened. "I should be the one—" "You will be. You will be," Ethan assured, squeezing his shoulder. "This is just the pregame. Get the ship ready. We need to leave sooner rather than later." Gage mulled it over for a second before heaving a sigh. "What are you gonna do?" "Whatever I have to," he promised. "But that's going to be a lot harder with you here." "****," Gage spat, cuffing the crown of his head. "Don't worry." He squeezed again. "I've got your back." After tossed a grudging, "******* better," Gage left without causing more of a scene. In his wake, Ethan took a moment to breathe and collect his thoughts. Someone had uprighted the chair, and the Bajoran had disappeared by the time he returned to his seat. "What happened to your friend?" "Her name is Sovana," Jackie stressed, "and she went to the toilet." The straw from her drink swayed near the corner of her mouth. She held it pinched between her fingers like a cigarette while she assessed him with an amused expression. "Quite the feat you performed over there. The server brought your drink while you were gone. I told them you had everything under control. I see I wasn't wrong." Ethan glanced at the glass and decided he felt unthirsty. "He's lucky you're here to temper him. He's a very angry man," she said of Gage. It struck Ethan as off-hand and unwelcome. "I suppose that's reasonable in his situation. But no one in my profession wants to work with him after the last contact." She caught the rise in Ethan's brow, adding: "Ah, so he didn't tell you. Well, let's just say that one of my colleagues is a coward—" "You accept credits?" He held up a PADD, and her countenance flattened like he had dropped a bomb. She fished out hers—who knew from where in that fitted gown—and swiped upward with the straw still in hand. A request for mobile payment blipped on his screen. "Send it there." "Five grand," he said flatly. "The rest after we verify your intel." "That's fair." Not as desperate as she claimed. She agreed to it too quickly. That she could keep clients or earn decent reviews with extortion sounded improbable. He wondered what had inspired her to shakedown a grieving father and felt her stare boring a hole in his head while he typed. "You know what they say about Jack?" she asked. "No, who's Jack?" "All work and no play?" Her simpering soured at his indifference. "The Shining?" "What's that?" "You do watch Human movies, don't you?" He preferred reading and didn't feel like discussing his hobbies. "No." Her device chimed at the completed transfer, and she scrolled as she mused aloud. "I watched a lot of your movies when I was learning Standard. I particularly enjoyed psychological horror." She paused to grin at him. Good to know, he mused ironically. "There," she said, "I've sent you a copy of everything I have on Rebecca." He stuffed the PADD in his pocket. "Thanks. Check it later." His plan to leave then derailed as he caught sight of the Bajoran, plodding a (mostly) straight route to the table. He inclined his head, drawing Jackie's gaze over her shoulder. "What's Sovana on?" "On? Ah. She said that she wanted to have an extra good time when we make love tonight. So I let her try some of my stash before we came here. Q, what I would give for one of my smokes right now!" A shiver ruffled her scales, and she blew dramatically out of the corner of her mouth. "But, of course, your Federation doesn't allow smoking in public spaces." Ethan stared blankly, and Jackie pointed at him with an underscoring chuckle. "I saw how she abused you yesterday. You should thank me for taking her off you. I like her." She added with a shrug, "It's a shame that she has a bounty." "Bounty?" She frowned. "Allegedly, she slept with some alien matriarch's fifth husband and failed to appear for the trial. His story starts a bit like yours, actually. But, as they say, 'innocent before guilty.'" She smiled to herself. "Who knows, this could be the beginning of a charming relationship." Ethan said nothing, resting a hand over his mouth and jaw. She spoke so openly that he began to doubt his suspicions, but that quiet feeling persisted. Bounty hunting skipped bails was legal in the Federation, he reasoned. Sovana, the Bajoran, managed to reach the table on her feet and nuzzled Jackie. "Let's leave now, Quee." "Yes, ja'ahkayah." She patted Sovana's hand with a faint grin and looked at Ethan. "We're done here, right?" Ethan briefly lifted the hand from his face in agreement. He couldn't say he felt sad to see them leave. Sovana had other ideas and pitched across the table, sending the tumbler of water in a slide he barely stopped. "You can come, too, Lieutenant," she purred, caressing his chest. Fortunately, her condition had her too awkward to do much else. "Sovana, you promised it would be just the two of us tonight." Jackie pried her up, looping an arm around her. Stronger than she looked, given how easily she supported the more buxom Bajoran. "Ok," Sovana bobbed sloppily. "But I want him to come tomorrow." Jackie pressed her lips to suppress the laugh that puffed her cheeks. "I'm sure he'd love to," she said, the patronizing tone lost on the drunk. She winked at Ethan as if to say: Look, I saved you again. It irritated him. She steered the pair for the exit, twisting a few steps into it and contorting in a swipe at her PADD. "Here. Something extra for your trouble. From one professional to another." Then she carried on, moving quickly despite the deadweight hanging off her side. He watched them merge down the short staircase into the crowd on the dance floor. His skin crawled at what had unfolded. The product of a hundred and fifty planets and a half-million diverse cultures in the most hedonistic and sexually liberal century to date. Trillions of law-abiding citizens freely living their lives how they wanted. Not the first time he had run into someone with values that didn't mirror his. He defended basic freedom. He didn't have to like everything they did with it. The PADD in his pocket shuddered a second time, finally rousing him to fish it out. The last message Jackie sent contained a single black playing card. Ethan recognized the metallic logo of a syndicate called the Band of Blackout Brothers. Nearly impossible to track, almost fabled, and most certainly at odds with the Federation. He felt a chill. No one could get ahold of these cards without trading blood for their trust. That she possessed one painted Jackie in a dubious light at best. He flipped it over. Aces. Highest priority and risk: biggest payout. Several million credits worth that devalued with time to up the ante. He blinked, but his face was still there, staring back in holographic definition. Bold white letters flashed his name across the bottom, underscored by a warning in red: Former Special Forces. Wanted: dead. Ethan's jaw flexed, the temperature dropping around him further as he read the timestamp near the countdown. Just hours after he requested leave. It hit him all at once. Not Jackie. A misquote of Jah Quee. That elusive Chameloid from the Deck of 52. She weighed a five among the most wanted when they added her in 2244. Never climbed or dropped in the reshuffle. Higher targets got all the task forces, and lesser ones practically stumbled into cuffs daily. Everyone joked she was so average that she couldn't even get out of the deck after she had likely died of old age. They couldn't have gone far. Ethan half-vaulted the table, gave the crowd a hasty scan before he sprinted onto the dance floor. He forced his way through a dozen patrons. Ignored the shouts and brushed off the few who got pushy. He hadn't thought to ask from where Sovana had skipped bond. But the Blackouts operated in places far outside the Federation, and he could think of one staunchly matriarchal society that would want her head shipped on ice. They would mount her on a stake as an example. No fair trial awaited, not even the sham of one. Say by some anomaly the male half of the affair had consented: he didn't possess the rights to defend her. No doubt, given her behavior, she had brought it on herself through hubris or folly. But Ethan couldn't let someone just abduct and murder her. The idea went against everything he believed, the fundamental right he had fought and sacrificed harder than ever to preserve in the last year. He rushed through the lobby into the passageway, threading between clusters of people to the nearest junction. Then he backtracked to the opposite side. "Scheiße," he gritted, panting as he propped a hand against the joint of the bulkheads. He lost them.
Eighteen months ago… According to the debriefing conducted via hyper-channel aboard the ibn Majid, the operation on Canopus Major had dead-ended on faulty intel after thirty-six-hour days of monsoons, mud, and little rest. But Ethan barely managed to shower, and crawl into a pair of sweats and bed, let alone think of drifting to sleep before the comms beaconed in the darkness. "Your cousin, Gage Silver, is calling. He says it's an emergency." Sure he did, Ethan thought irritably. Gage had developed a penchant for exaggeration to bypass comms routing and do-not-disturb settings over the last couple of years. In addition to the drinking habit that he had picked up to cope in his crumbling marriage. Ethan felt sympathetic most of the time. At the moment, he stared at the holographic ID projected overhead weighing between skeptical and too drowsy to care. "Would you like to answer?" the AI pressed for a response. "Hmm." The sound didn't entirely make it past his throat. Chirping in acknowledgment, the computer's heuristics selected audio-only based on his eye-rubbing. He listened for a second after the channel opened, nearly dozing off while summoning the energy to speak. Gage blurted as though he thought the line had closed, "Hello?" "Yeah?" he mumbled. "Don't hang up, okay? Okay? She skipped court. They can't find her. She's gone. She ******* took Rebecca." Every joint ached as Ethan sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, endeavoring to stay awake. "You're drunk." "Shut the **** up and listen. You're not listening—" "Where are you?" "At home: where the **** else?! If I knew where she was, I'd ******* be there. But I don't know where she is!" A replicator buzzed in the background, followed by the clink of bottles and a metal cap falling to the floor. He heard Gage swill. "I told you she was going to do this. I ******* told you." "So what's your plan?" Ethan grazed an unshaven face, already suspecting the answer. "Plan? ****," Gage sputtered on his beer. "That's what I called you for." "At three in the morning." "Oh—well, ****, you never tell me where the **** you are." Of course, Gage thought it convenient to ignore why. Ethan checked an urge to attack that solecism behind a deep breath. "What'd the judge say?" "I got custody, and he issued a warrant. But like that means **** after she left the ******* planet." Defeatist but likely accurate: the farther she went, the longer she successfully hid, the harder to find her. Ethan gazed quietly, unwilling to acknowledge Gage's motives and provoke the discussion he didn't want to have right now. "You're going to help me, right?" Gage snapped uncomfortably at the silence. "Do what exactly?" "****, you're a ******* mind-reader, but you always play stupid. You know damn well. I'm gonna resign; get a ship—" "Should let the police handle this, Gage." "You're joking, right?" "It's what they do." "Yeah, at the speed of ******* molasses. I can't wait that long. Remember last year? I had to haul *** home from the other side of the ******* quadrant because the neighbors found my daughter living by herself and called the cops. That ***** left for three ******* weeks! Took a ******* trip to Free Cloud where she and her dumb*** side-**** gambled our entire savings." "Yeah," Ethan exhaled into the hand he brushed across his face. "I remember." "I need you, Ethan…" Gage faltered, likely chafing the back of his head the way he always did when exasperated and restless. "****! Rebecca needs you. You're the only one I know who can do what you do." "I can put in for leave in a few weeks—" "That'll be too ******* late. We're talking about my daughter's life." "Is what it is, Gage," he said more firmly. "Can't go right now—my guys need me." "Son of a *****, Ethan. The judge ruled her unfit. Un-*******-fit. I've got scars—that ***** put me in the ******* hospital, Ethan. How long's it gonna be before she ******* loses it on Rebecca?" "Might not," he shrugged faintly. "I don't know." "Then why aren't you coming with me?" Ethan responded with silence. Even sober, Gage would refuse to accept his position no matter how much he explained. He hated arguing. "I thought blood was thicker than water," his cousin shot through clenched teeth. "Fine. You ******* do you. I'm gonna get my daughter back." The call disconnected. Ethan raked his hands over his head and fell back on the bed, wrestling to empty his brain and sleep right up to the moment the ship's bells chimed at zero-four-thirty. *** In many ways, Gage Deforest Silver and Ethan Neufeld epitomized the cliché of oil and water. The kinship mostly began and ended at cousins who lived under the same roof through Gage's teens. The only son of Ethan's maternal uncle started life with an affectionate nature, a pair of gifted archeologists and geologists for parents, and good prospects. No one doubted they loved Gage for all the doting and extolling of his precociousness. But the passion for deep-space expeditions that rationalized their frequent absence inflicted a wound. Seven years later, Gage had strayed toward attention-seeking and self-absorption. His parents' presumptive death certificates stung like salt. The trip and his attempts to comfort the inconsolable towheaded cousin formed the clearest early memories Ethan had. After the memorial service, Gage remained under the guardianship of their grandfather on his South Dakota ranch. Four-year-old Ethan and his mother returned to his paternal grandparents' home in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. Who the boys would become and remain into adulthood pivoted on the few holidays and summers they spent together. Gage's deteriorating behavior often undermined his desire for a buddy. It drew an assertiveness and antipathy from Ethan, astonishing a mother accustomed to parenting a docile, easygoing child. On the occasions that Gage didn't drive his younger cousin to solitude, Ethan possessed a fierceness that more than made up for Gage's age and size. They called a few draws, but Ethan lost only once. One Christmas, Gage had shot a dart in Ethan's knee after he had quit playing Gage's game. Then Gage all but pissed himself in retreat, taking a dart from the same gun in the ***. A combination of pride and fear sealed Gage's lips, and Ethan simply didn't care to talk about their fights. He had done what needed doing. Neither stopped to wonder whether their guardians knew. Gage's redemption came at the outset of his freshman year of high school. The elderly Silver finally admitted he had long since aged beyond the ability to care for his business and meet his grandson's needs. Gage joined the Neufelds in San Jose, California, on the heels of uncle Robert's retirement from Starfleet. Under his aunt's patience and uncle's sternness, Gage sloughed the manipulative and self-serving armor over the next few years. He matured good-humored and selfless as his emotional cup filled. Ethan grew to respect his charisma, enjoy his company, and even tolerated his irreverent sense of humor. A poor academic performance transformed to honors, propelling him straight into a brilliant career as a Starfleet engineer. But his marriage to a charming linguist and daughter's birth—who they named Rebecca after Ethan's mother—became the hallmark of his life. He enjoyed a nice, smooth streak until their grandfather passed away, and Gage's wife appeared to take a volte-face. Eventually, it became clear that she had lived a double-life for some time, preying on Gage and neglecting their daughter until she grew too careless. In the days leading up to their divorce, she gaslighted and spun lies to absolve herself from ending the marriage she no longer wanted. Once the lies snapped under scrutiny, she panicked and ran with the only thing Gage believed he had left. For the first time, Ethan had trouble holding ground against his cousin's highly emotional reasoning. Primary operations on the berthing deck had ceased for the night by the time Ethan arrived. He headed toward the solitary glow spilling from the open hold of a yacht several slips down, half a dozen stacked crates at its outer doors casting long shadows. "My Wicked Bones" by Nick Nolan blared, echoing in the cavern, accompanied by a coarse belting and the racket of moving cargo. In search of a particular crate, the tall, stocky singer waltzed out in a sweat-stained khaki tee, jeans, and scuffed roughout boots. Shaggy dark hair that hinted auburn stuck to his forehead, and his beard needed a trim. The malty-sweet odor of whiskey hung several meters around him. Caught mid-refrain, he pulled up sharply at Ethan's approach. "You. Mother. ******. So you were in Sol." Ethan met Gage’s indignation with a flat expression. "When are you leaving?" "Midnight—why? Thought you weren't comin'. Some bull**** excuse about your job or whatever," he remarked as he flexed a crate to the deck and then returned Ethan's silent gaze in a scowl. "Look, if you're here to feed me more of that ******* moral **** about leaving this up to the police, you can **** off the way you came.” A wry smile tugged at the corner of Ethan's mouth as he shook his head. "Nah, not here to waste your time." "Good," Gage shot back forcefully and then tailed off, looking apprehensive. "Good." Hefting a crate of ready-made rations, he carried it inside the hold while Ethan followed in observation. Gage handled his liquor well enough to walk a reasonably straight line. The inebriation manifested more in the clumsy hands that struggled to secure the bulkhead straps. He swiped down the music's volume at the control panel. Then plucked up a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, holding it out by the neck. Ethan pressed his lips in a headshake. "No, thanks." "You're still a boring ****," Gage ribbed and chugged a mouthful with a dramatic gasp. "You just get back?" "Yeah." Ethan pivoted into a stroll around the edge of the hold. "See your parents yet?" "Not technically here." "Wow," Gage's brow furrowed. "So you came all this way just for me? " "Something like that." "Why?" He sneered, tossing back the bottle again. Ethan exhaled, coming to a stop between Gage and the inner door that led into the ship's cabin. "Can't let you fly like this, Gage." "****!" He choked, amber liquor spraying out around his mouth. Bent over in a throat-seared coughing fit, he wiped the back of his hand across his face, tears in his eyes. He needed a moment before he could pull a deep breath and rasp, "*** ******, that hurts!" "You okay?" Gage hawked phlegm, pointing at Ethan with the bottle still in hand. "You better not be ******* with me right now." "I'm not," Ethan replied flatly. His cousin's countenance darkened considerably. "Get the **** off my ship.". "Listen." Ethan held up a staying hand. "Not saying you can't go. You have to go. Just need to sober up first." He watched his cousin's fists ball up as he spoke, the carotid in his neck visibly pulsing beneath the skin. "Don't do it," he warned at the forward shift in the other man's balance. He ducked the haymaker and shoved. Gage stumbled backward on his haunches. The bottle clattered from his grip, spiraling whiskey across the compartment. He scrambled up for a low charge. Ethan kicked back asprawl over his shoulders. Drove his torso into the deck, knocking the air out of him. Ethan's weight shifted. He felt Gage push up but he couldn't roll out of Ethan's foothold. He jabbed and pried at Ethan's arm. Swatted at his head. Threw glancing elbows. The more he struggled the tighter Ethan's chokehold. But Gage struggled to the point his vision would likely gray and just about tunneled to nothing before he tapped the deck. He stayed down after Ethan let go, looking too dizzy to stand as he wheezed and barked for air. Ethan came to a knee, catching his breath. "We good?" Gage managed a nod, and Ethan waited for him to recover a bit. "Listen," he leveled again in his typical fashion. "Call port control. I'll help you load the rest of this, and we'll talk for a while. Or you can sleep it off." Gage groaned, feeling tetchy in his surrender. "You're a real ***hole, you know that?" "Yeah, get that a lot," he countered dryly and wore an equally wry expression as he offered Gage a hand. Ethan watched the yacht zip away in the morning from the public observation deck. Minus the crate of whiskey that he had ensured would remain stranded on the berthing deck for some lucky traveler or dock worker to find. He knew the gesture could end up fruitless. The probability favored Gage purchasing more liquor somewhere else or bypassing the replicator's default for synthehol. Still, the yacht's captain departed that day clear-headed, in good-humor, with another embellished story, and a belly full of food. It amounted to all Ethan could do. With any luck, it had impressed on him the value of sobriety while he searched for his daughter. *** 11 JUN 2388 Commerce Sector, Aegis Present-day… Ethan's morning had plummeted to a new low: groped by a nymphomaniac whose manipulation of an antiquated parti pris would make Phryne envious. So-called enlightened culture still conditioned society to assume evolution wired men for unbridled carnality and, therefore, incapable of feeling sexually harassed or anything but flattered. That women and beautiful women above all evolved too fragile for the capacity of predation or victimizing men. Moreover, proper masculinity must bear these kinds of abuses from both sexes while wearing a smile. Anything short of stoicism emasculated and stigmatized. Whereas many victims failed to report cases out of fear of reprisal or shame, the masculine fallacy led more male victims to mischaracterize the experiences as bullying or, at worst, obligatory. Criticism often focused on the victim's power to say no or other forms of shaming at the expense of acknowledging that the offense had occurred regardless. That the definition of harassment relied almost exclusively on the victim's opinion further clouded the issue, given some tolerated significantly more than others. Through his teens and early twenties, the amount of (mostly) female attention Ethan received had blended flattering and bizarre. Most of it came off as polite socializing. Some ventured a bit further than that but nonetheless harmlessly if they respected his space. He castigated the few who got too pushy. Sometimes repeatedly, until he had sharpened the skill to a ruthless art form—of which he never felt all that proud. Rarely had a girl forced him to resort to self-defense. Aside from Tiffany, an average dirty-blonde in his sophomore class, who offered to let him do whatever he pleased to her. She laughed it off when he dryly asked if he could push her from a roof. Not until he shoved her in the face while trying to kiss him did she finally get the message. She may have cried; he hadn't bothered to look back and check. Realistically, a few girls may have cried over the years. By his mid-twenties, he had shifted away from cruelty as he grew desensitized to most of the ogling and risque comments. Even a degree of physical contact. At times, he couldn't help but smirk or laugh at their awkward desperation. The Bajoran had won his aloofness at the holo-café. Today, she crossed a limit that should have provoked more than a verbal flaying. Two factors had tempered his response considerably. He sensed that telling her off would likely do more to encourage than discourage — she had that ravening type of presence. Secondly, his exhaustion had him reluctant to risk her filing a complaint. He didn’t care whether the charges would stick, nor feared the plausible deniability she had created. Another investigation was the last thing he wanted. After months of interrogations and (virtual) appearances in court as one of the prosecution's key witnesses against Admiral Farragut—and more upcoming—he wanted to be left alone. Apparently, everyone had missed that memo. Farragut's daughter had merely iced the cake. Ironic metaphor, equating irritants to desserts. Then again, he lacked a fondness for sweets, and she had struck him as unbearably saccharine the first time they met a few years ago. An ignorant true believer who lived so far up her mother's shadow that she couldn't see daylight. On the other hand, the court of public opinion possessed an insatiable bloodthirstiness, and the situation understandably frightened her. He felt a bit empathetic but mainly let her vent on him out of apathy. In her agitated state, no one could possibly reason her out of a lifetime of false hero-worship within a few passing minutes. That would take days at best if he cared or had the energy to try. The moment she telegraphed an intent to hit him, however, his indifference evaporated. Fortunately for her, Gage saved her wrist from a potential sprain. Ethan blew out a deep breath as Captain Chirakis passed through without much fuss. He couldn't describe the relief he had letting Gage run interference on the last of one too many social calls. The walls had finally stopped closing in for a minute—long enough that he realized his cousin didn’t smell like a distillery. Gage rapidly glanced between the two, sounding confused and equally irritated by his confusion. "What the **** was that?" "When did you get in?" "Dunno," Gage scratched his head in thought, unfazed by the change in subject. "Maybe thirty minutes ago?" "Your ship here?" "Yeah, at the dock? Why?" "Let's check it out," Ethan said, flicking toward and then starting in that direction. "Uh, okay," Gage drawled, eyes darting about and narrowing as he mulled over Ethan's interest. Short of an answer, he surged to catch up in a couple of long strides. "It's still the same ship you saw last time." "I know." Gage's brow furrowed upward, and then his lips pressed in a semblance of comprehension. "Well, all right. Let's go check out my ship then," he relented cheerfully. Before falling into an uncharacteristic silence, he tossed over his shoulder, "Just F-Y-I, customs was a ***** to get through." "Counting on it," he remarked, which elicited a wary look from Gage. Ethan fully intended to test how far he could push the boundaries of his confinement. It disappointed Ethan a bit that he met no resistance at all. The agent wore a friendly smile as she gave him the go-ahead to pass the gate, and no one stopped him as he boarded Gage's yacht. Someone clearer-headed may have interpreted that as a sign of Chirakis's trust and a middle finger to Ethan’s enemies in Starfleet. But elements of Special Operations had pushed him far enough that cynicism became the only filter he wore. He saw a carrot on a stick. The hangman feeding out the rope so that he would tangle himself up for the captain to rescue and gain an insuperable debt. At that moment, he abandoned any of the vague notions he had to escape. He refused to play what reeked of a game. A Qowat Milat nun could offer him a good morning and he would question their motive if not impugn their philosophy. Gage sealed the inner door, sending a dramatic flair at the living space amidship between the cargo hold and the cockpit. "Here it is, mi casa on cohetes mágicos." "Heh." Ethan nodded minimally at the motif of glossy white fiberglass, Padauk inlays, and stainless steel accents. A recess in the port bulkhead housed a set of coffin bunks that butted up to a concealed laundry and the head. Storage lined the starboard beside a niched kitchenette. The only furnishings consisted of an anchored couch, a small round table with chairs, and exercise equipment. The cleanliness of it surprised Ethan. Though far from slobby, Gage had never reached the level of clean-freak, either. Astern, a gray deck hatch marked with red letters led to the engine and Gage's natural domain that spanned the craft's length beneath their feet. "Pick a seat, take a load off, grab a drink… and try smiling," Gage urged, maneuvering for the kitchenette. Ethan made a half-scoffing chuckle. "Doing okay?" "Uh, yeah, I'm doing all right. Sober" — Gage appeared to count — "most of the time." He opened the small cooler and grabbed a cold bottle of old-fashioned Reed's Ginger Ale. "How about yourself?" "Eh," Ethan shrugged and dropped gingerly into a chair at the table. He could feel the tightness now. The Bajoran had wrenched his lower back when she jumped on him. “Wow, calm the **** down, chatterbox, I can’t keep up.” Gage popped the cap off of his drink and gestured with it. “Want one?” “No, thanks.” “All right,” he accepted, taking a long draw and a seat. “Why’d you want to see my ship anyway?” “Being watched—“ A spasm cut him off, drawing a hissed, "Scheisse." "Scheisse? Wait, isn't that German for ****?" "Hmm." "That bad?" Eyeing Ethan’s posture, he added, "****, must be bad if you're cussing." "Think the rapist pulled something." Gage nearly choked. "The what?" "Long story." "I like long stories,” he pressed, wearing a goofy look. Ethan only offered the typical, dismissive, "Hmm.” “Or not,” Gage relented and then quipped at the silence, "I’ll take five hundred for the rapist, Trebek.” In a terrible impression of Darrell Hammond impersonating Sean Connery on Saturday Night Live. Sure, why not? "Who is the chick that grabs ***? Ah, never mind, Trebek. Your mother answered the question." Ethan rubbed at the start of a tension headache, somewhat goaded by his cousin’s irreverent humor. "Any news about Rebecca?" “Yeah, actually. She’s here, in this sector.” “What? Where?” “Dunno exactly, yet. I’ve been trying to call you the last couple of weeks, but they said you were unavailable. Gonna use Aegis as my jumping-off point. I was hoping you could ride shotgun this time. Never thought I’d actually find you in this ****hole. Aren’t you supposed to be off saving the galaxy someplace?” “Not anymore.” The statement came out heavily. “Really?” Gage looked shocked. “Thought that was like your ‘calling’ or some mystical-destiny nonsense. You quit?” “No and I can’t talk about it.” “Oh,” he griped, “more of that bull****.” The tone piqued Ethan like it never had before and he leaned back irritably. Gage knew he couldn’t share confidential information. After more than a decade, he needed to get the **** over it. “Well that explains it, I guess.” “Explains what?” “You. You’re all like… ****, I dunno. ” Gage shrugged, at a loss for words to describe the difference he saw in Ethan’s demeanor. Not so much persistently angry as discomposed and easier to irritate. “Maybe the rapist’s got exactly what you need.” “Shut up.” Given the giant grin on his face at that moment, he found ease with which he could push Ethan’s buttons very amusing. "Well, you should at least see a doctor.” “Already know what they’ll say.” “Yeah, but, they could give you something— Oh, wait, you’ve got that weird thing with painkillers, right? How did you figure that out again?" "The hard way." "That never gets old,” he chuckled. Ethan scoffed unamused. “That must suck, though.” “Mmhmm. Upside is I can’t develop an addiction.” “I dunno. Addiction isn’t all that bad—takes the edge off sometimes. Hey, now that I think about it, I’ve got something that might help.” Springing up from the table, Gage fetched an unopened case of a dozen pint glass bottles filled with a viscous purple liquid. “What is that?” “X’hazi.” “Isn’t that normally pink?” And very high-proof like Everclear. “Yeah…” he floundered a bit. “Guy I bought it from said it’s got flavorings and **** added to it—kind of like, uh, vermouth.” “Hmm.” “Want some?” “Nope.” “Seriously, you’re still one of those… whatever-tea-people—” “Teetotaller.” “That’s what I said,” he feigned sourly. “Well, if all this classified **** you’re dealing with ever changes your mind, you know I’ve got good stuff.” “Hmm.” Ethan rubbed away more of the stress on his face. “How long are you staying?” Gage finished off his current drink in an appreciative gasp and tossed the bottle in the recycler. “Uh, about a day or so? I’m here to meet with the ex’s snitch.” “Mind if I crash here?” “Yeah, sure.” Then it dawned him why Ethan had asked. “**** yeah. Knock yourself out. But” — he held up a finger — “only if you help me out.” The grimace on Ethan’s face betrayed the difficulty of that stipulation. But to Gage’s surprise he heard the words he had only dreamed of before today. “Yeah. I’ll see what I can do.”