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Ethan Neufeld

The Devil's Got You Beat

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. He felt Ethan's weight shift. Pushed up but couldn't roll out of his foothold. He jabbed and pried at Ethan's arm. Swatted at his head. Threw glancing elbows. The more he struggled, the tighter chokehold. His vision had grayed and just about tunneled to nothing before he tapped the deck. He stayed down after Ethan let go, 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.”

Edited by Ethan Neufeld

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