Goddess above! Minuscule women with gauzy wings gamboled with leprechauns in a field of flowers. Cait hastily averted her eyes from the holovid ad for the newest VR game at Tiny's Emporium. Her face heated up with an embarrassed flush. We're nothing like that.
"Do you like it?" Tiny's voice said behind her.
She turned around. At five-eight she wasn't short, not by any means, but Tiny stood well over six feet tall. He towered over her like an onyx giant and unknowingly projected his need for approval at her. His deep, booming voice matched his size. He rubbed his left hand across his bald head. A heavy embossed ring of a Navy SEAL glinted on his ring finger.
"It's interesting, but..." She noticed his gaze lingering on the random shades of gold, copper, black, and brown of her braided hair. "Tiny..."
She gestured at the ad. The hard part was finding the right words to critique his efforts in a tactful manner. After spending two very enjoyable weeks learning the intricacies of his solar wing VR game, she appreciated the care and intellect he put into developing his programs.
"If you're going to design a semiaccurate VR game about the Sidhe, I think it'll work better if you access Celtic history for your template. Forget all that rot about wings and wee people, cold iron and magic. The Sidhe fought battles with the early Celts and later intermarried with them."
"The she?" The puzzled expression on his face was priceless.
"Sidhe is the Gaelic word for faerie. It's spelled S-i-d-h-e, but pronounced shee," Cait said patiently. "You've heard of the banshee, haven't you?"
Comprehension brightened Tiny's face. He pulled his sofscreen out of his pocket and unfolded it. "Main net," he said. "Download all references to Celtic history and folklore to unit 2957 and bill this activity to Tiny's Emporium, Deck Two, corridor thirty-seven."
"Insert credit chip," the impersonal voice of Sanctuary Station's Net Center said from his sofscreen's commlink.
Tiny inserted his credit chip, gave a satisfied nod, and held the screen out for Cait to see the data dump.
"Nauda's Silver Hand is a good start." She pointed at the reference as it scrolled up. "When you strip away the 'magic' elements, it sounds just like a modern prosthetic device. And here! The stories about the selkie folk and their shape-changing sealskins fit the parameters of deep sea divers' wet suits."
Tiny's emotions shifted from a defensive curiosity into a sudden flood of eager gratitude. She took her hand off his arm and stepped back. It wasn't his fault he was projecting at her so loudly. He had no idea she was an empath and that touching someone gave her a clearer link with them.
She stopped. His voice was serious. It didn't sound like he wanted to discuss VR games anymore.
He folded the sofscreen up. "Now that you've learned EVA flight in VR, how'd you like to sign up for real-time classes this afternoon?"
"I can't." Genuine regret colored her words. "I told you already. I'm only here for a vacation. I'm scheduled to fly back down to Earth on tomorrow's shuttle."
"But this is a chance of a lifetime. A month from today, the mining expedition's going to the Pot of Gold. There are still a couple of berths left open for bid. With an EVA flight certificate and your medical background, you'd be a shoo-in. Two paramedics bailed out of the expedition when Nowan filed its lawsuit."
Cait tilted her head sideways and gave him a hard look. "Is that why the game was so cheap?" she asked. "Are you using it as a recruiting tool?"
"Hey!" He spread his thick hands apart. "We're only asking the high scorers. Kyle and Dushawn are going to this class. I figured you might be interested too 'cause your score is even higher than theirs."
Cait looked away and smothered an irritated sigh. Kyle and Dushawn came up on the shuttle with her last week. Ever since they overheard the customs agent question her visa, they made it their business to follow her around. It was a very simple explanation. Her mother had two husbands. That's why both of them were listed on the visa.
"Well," Tiny pleaded with her. "What do you say? Try it. You can stay here a couple more weeks."
It certainly sounded like a lot more fun than going back dirtside to listen to long lectures on the translocation of genetic factors during meiosis and mitosis. The concentration of metallic ores in the Pot of Gold supported the theory that the asteroids were the remains of another planet. It always made her wonder about an extraterrestrial origin for her people. Especially when she read the old legends and stripped away the magical aspects.
Cait gnawed at her lower lip. Her parents were so proud of her qualifying for Harvard's premed class. "Sorry, Tiny."
His shoulders sagged. "Okay." He patted his shirt pocket. "There'll be other expeditions. If you ever change your mind, I have your VR stats right here with me."
She shook her head. Goddess, she was tempted! The best thing to do was to leave before she agreed. The longer he talked, the more she wanted to go. Empathic sensitivity was a tricky ability to control. She had to make sure it was something she really wanted instead of a reaction to what he wanted. Her gaze focused on the skinsuit draped over her arm. She held it up. "What about this?"
Tiny waved it away. "Keep it."
She nodded, surprised by his generosity. When you took into consideration the special catheter and microfilament neural fibres for direct input into her spinal column, it was well worth the price she paid for the custom fit. Besides, authentic skinsuits for EVA solar wings were all the rage dirtside.
Cait dodged a clump of customers digging through a pile of used EVA suits and walked outside to Deck Two's lift. Its doors slid smoothly open as she approached and revealed two passengers standing inside it already. Was it a plot by the goddess to test her patience? It was the only logical way to explain why Kyle and Dushawn were there.
Their salacious excitement washed over Cait as the lift doors slid shut. That didn't help matters any. She moved to the back of the lift, put on her best poker face, and stared blankly at the wall. Maybe if she ignored them, they'd leave her alone.
No such luck. Kyle moved in on her first. "Your mama has two husbands. How many do you want?" He tried to pinch her buttocks.
She rolled her eyes and stepped out of his reach. No use trying to explain things to these idiots. Her fathers were lucky they found a human woman to love them and accept their culture. It worked out pretty good for her fathers. The only other Sidhe left were too closely related for them to partner. Of course, as a physician, her mother had a unique perspective when she met her two suitors.
"Yeah." Dushawn reached out and tried to paw her chest. "How many guys can you handle?"
Cait didn't want to deal with them right now. "Back off," she told them.
Identical stupid grins blossomed on their faces. They moved closer. Then, with their juvenile lust swirling around her in a red haze, she pushed them against opposite walls. Sidhe strength came in handy sometimes.
The lift shuddered and groaned to a stop at Deck Six. "The next time you make a wrong move, there won't be any warning. I'll just kick you in the nuts," Cait said when the doors opened.
Both men scrambled out. Kyle wiped the blood dripping out of his nose onto his shirtsleeve. Cait rubbed at her forehead. Something didn't feel right here. She reached for them with her mind. Their emotions were a confused jumble. They were in a hurry not to leave her but to go someplace else. Then what Tiny said about the high scorers in the VR game suddenly clicked into place. They were worried about being late for this afternoon's EVA flight class.
The lift door slid shut. "Deck Two, please," she said. Her hands were shaking.
Those punks were going out to the Pot of Gold. What if they found what she wanted to find? She'd kick herself silly if that happened. Especially if they found proof of Sidhe existence and didn't even know what they had. A project of the import of Pot of Gold deserved better than a pair of low-class hooligans masquerading as scientific researchers. She could finish her medical schooling any time she wanted. But she might only get one chance at something like this.
Tiny was busy dickering over the price of a couple of used EVA suits when she reentered his store. He glanced at Cait and nodded. She went over to a pile of scuffed boots and sorted through them until he finished his transaction.
A hopeful question filled Tiny's face while she walked up and laid her hands on his counter. "Sign me up for that class. Do you have any spare EVA suits for sale that'll match up with my skinsuit?"
An hour and a half later, Cait shifted her shoulders under the full weight of her EVA gear and stepped out of the maintenance lift into the unheated storage hold of Deck Six. It was worth it to feel Kyle's and Dushawn's astonishment when they turned around and saw her walk over and stand in line with them.
Standing there on the other side of the vast metal cavern of the hold was their instructor. He turned around and unfurled his wings. Tall and forbidding, he looked like a matte-black chimera with his bat wings and black-visored helmet. Now she knew who provided the template for the master image in Tiny's VR game. The opaque visor of his helmet completed the illusion of inhumanity.
His jet-black boots clicked against the deck's metal grid. "My name's Edelmiro Jesus Santiago de Arroyo." He tapped his finger at the circle name patch on his right shoulder. It had jagged lightning bolts stabbing at the word "Indio." "But I prefer to be called Indio."
She liked that. Nice and easy to remember. She didn't feel any emotions leaking out from him. She liked that too. Especially after the incident in the elevator, she'd rather deal with someone with a mature emotional attitude. Their lessons should proceed without any distractions.
Indio pointed his gloved finger at the swollen lip and goose egg that marred Dushawn's dark-skinned features. "What happened?"
Indio's voice sounded very raspy and guttural to Cait. Was it a deliberate distortion of his suit's speaker system? She couldn't tell. All she knew was that it scrabbled at her senses like a wounded claw.
"Uh." Dushawn gulped. "When we picked up our stuff..." His angry gaze flickered toward Cait. Kyle shot him a warning glance. "...I tripped and ran into the door, sir."
Indio turned to the next victim in the lineup. He tapped the Celtic circle on Kyle's suit, then tilted Kyle's face sideways for a better view of his black eyes and bruised nose. "And you?"
Slanting a swift glare of his own at Cait, Kyle straightened his shoulders and bobbed his head in eager affirmation of Dushawn's feeble alibi. "Yes sir! It was a door!"
Indio turned his helmeted head toward Cait. Even though she couldn't see through his polarized faceplate she suspected he was checking her features out for any bruises or other signs of physical damage.
He leaned closer to peer at the golden-eyed calico cat on her name tag and read her name out loud. "Cait, do you have anything to tell me about this door?"
The last thing she wanted to do was file a sexual harassment claim. Running around the station and submitting testimony to a panel of holographic legal representatives was not her idea of fun. Besides, her people avoided publicity the same way they avoided cold iron before they learned about tetanus shots.
She smiled. Mischief danced at the corners of her mouth. "I have good reflexes, sir."
His curiosity washed over her. He reached up with his gloved finger and pushed a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. She knew he was staring at the random streaks of color that patterned her hair.
Indio took his hand away and stepped back. At the same time, his emotional output shut down. "Good." He peeled off his glove and held out his right hand. "Stats, please."
Tension puffed out in the cold air along with their breath as everyone unsealed their pockets, fished out their VR disks, and handed them over. He walked to the wall, placed his hand on the palmprint ID, and activated the computer. He inserted the first disk into the slot and studied the results.
He keyed in a series of commands and they waited for the first set of wings to pop out of the wall unit. Solar bat wings were custom designed with black photoelectric cells painted directly onto the fabric that powered the wings. Microchips inside the helmets translated external light sources into visible streams of electromagnetic energy. A simple walk on the beach would be transformed on the visors into a kaleidoscope of photons and constantly changing energy patterns.
A light started blinking at the panel beside the computer screen. Indio opened it and removed the first set of wings. He inserted the second disk in the slot. They waited for this process to complete for the next two sets of wings.
She watched Indio snap Kyle's and Dushawn's wings into the sockets alongside their air tanks and help them fasten their helmets. Dushawn's and Kyle's wings were one third black. Hers were half black.
Cait flexed her arms. Her wings flexed. It was a curious sensation, like, yet unlike, the sims. Her back and shoulders tingled while the wings responded to every move, every random muscle contraction.
A multitude of fiber-optic filaments embedded in her skinsuit pierced Cait's spine and provided direct feedback to and from the wings. They absorbed the energy of the ceiling lights and re-sent it to her nervous system as surges of cold fire.
She studied the endless stream of infrared and magnetic imaging data on her visor and realized how much she needed to learn. Indio radiated pure power from head to toe. Dushawn and Kyle radiated uneven blotches and random flares in the data stream on her visor. She figured her readings were most likely just as erratic and uncontrolled. Sweat trickled down her spine. Her nose itched.
Indio's movements were slow and deliberate as he climbed down the ladder to the emergency exit airlock. Figuring out how to balance the wings as she descended required total concentration. Energy flashes crackled through her with every move.
Making her way down without snagging her wings took all her concentration. Kyle and Dushawn followed her. Indio reached up, activated the controls, and sealed the door above their heads. He positioned them around the exterior airlock at their feet.
The lock was pried open. Air hissed out as a cloud of ice crystals released into the vacuum outside. Everyone's suits inflated automatically, compensating for the pressure differential. Cait remembered to fold her wings, then slowly climbed outside and clung like a leech to the handholds spaced around the opening.
It felt like she was hanging onto the edge of a vast carousel trying to fling her off into the void. A multitude of stars sailed past. The moon swung by. A few minutes later, the sun swirled into view and scorched her with the brilliant roar of its wild energy fields. The skinsuit reacted to the blood rushing away from her head and tightened around her arms and legs. Swallowing the sudden nausea that welled up in her throat, she looked sideways and watched Indio tuck his feet under himself, then walk toward her. The vibration of his boot magnets resonated through her insulated gloves.
When he reached for her, she activated her boot magnets and let him pull her to a standing position. She straightened up too fast and collided with him. Rock steady, he held on and waited for her to catch her balance. There they were, hanging upside down like a pair of bats. He put his helmet against hers. "Easy now," he said. "You forgot to switch your commlink on."
"Goddess!" She looked for the switch.
"Down below your chin on your right side," he said. "You tap the green one once with your chin for a local and twice for the emergency channel. The red one shuts it down again."
"Okay..." Cait blurted out, "your voice, why does it sound the way it does?" Hot mortification flooded her cheeks. Why did I ask him that? It's none of my business.
Indio's gloved hands tightened on her arms. "An old injury," he said finally. He released her, then turned to Kyle and Dushawn. They were clinging to the other side of the airlock.
Cait switched her comm on and stopped watching them while she sorted out the different electromagnetic and radiant energy flows superimposed on her visor. Moonlight splashed around her and eddied into a whirlpool. The solid wind of sunlight crashed over the edges of the station and sucked the moonlight into a massive current swooping through the dark void of space. Earthshine flooded the sky.
Space Station Sanctuary, or Heaven Help Us, as the long-term residents called it, looked like a giant top. Around the spindle's base, riding on mag-lev rails, was the vast lazy Susan upon which the station rotated. Freight elevators raced up and down the spokes delivering cargo and passengers to the rim.
East of the sun and west of the moon was one of the more poetic descriptions of La Grange Point #5. She wondered how the person who wrote that old fairy tale managed to describe this exact location so accurately. Was it just a coincidence?
A wave of nausea slammed into Cait from Dushawn. She turned and watched Dushawn sway while he adjusted to the centrifugal and centripetal forces pushing and pulling at him. Bad enough she had to fight her own nausea; feeling his quadrupled the sensation.
She watched Indio make sure Dushawn's boots were securely planted on the metal wall. Indio turned toward Kyle. But Kyle didn't wait. He pushed himself away from the rim with his arms and started pinwheeling away parallel to the station's curving side.
"Shit!" Indio's voice yelled in her helmet over the comm. He hurtled himself after Kyle's flailing shape. Twin streams of light flared from Indio's wrists. He spread his wings. Kyle's struggles carried him too close to a solar vane. One of his wings snagged the vane and fragmented. Kyle spun out into the darkness. Indio swooped after him. They vanished over the sloping curve of the station.
Cait hesitated. Should they wait? She switched the comm to local. "Dushawn," she said.
"Uh ... yeah."
"I think we should switch on the emergency channel and listen for any signal from Indio. Okay?"
They waited. Silence reigned. She motioned at Dushawn to switch to the local commlink again. "Dushawn?"
"Should we stay here?"
"Don't know." His response wasn't very enthusiastic or helpful.
"Maybe they flew too far down the line and they're not in range of the relay antennas anymore. I think we should fly ourselves out away from station interference and try the emergency channel one more time."
"Uh sure. That sounds good."
Taking a deep breath to steady her racing pulse, Cait focused on the energies surging through her wings down the fiber-optic filaments into her spine. Cold fire burned through her as she silently cursed the sims for inadequate emergency training. She activated the wrist jets. Catheters provided an annoying but crucial source of raw methane for the tiny jets.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw small spurts of flame sputtering out from Dushawn's wrists. At least he was following her example and learning his suit's capabilities before leaping out into the energy flows. She checked her visor's screen.
"Dushawn, did you hear anything from Indio yet?"
"Are you ready to go out and look for them?" Cait unclipped her grappling hook and coiled the line around her right hand and arm.
Dushawn unclipped his. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
Bracing herself for the next blast of energy as the station spun sunward, she eyeballed the vanes jutting out at irregular intervals on her projected flight plan. She deactivated her boot magnets and pushed off onto the crest twisting past the station wall. Her wings snapped open. Back and shoulder muscles protested the sudden changes in direction. A steady stream of urine flowed from her wrist jets.
Twisting and turning her body and wings like a bodysurfer, she rode the energy wave curving away from the station. With her arms lifted overhead, she slowed herself down with the wrist jets. She scudded sideways onto a weaker energy wave, turned, and watched for Dushawn. His efforts were awkward but he kept himself in a straight line and rode the next wave out to her.
As he realigned himself beside her, she studied the energy flow of his wings. Looking down at Sanctuary, she compared the patterns of the vanes as they absorbed and transferred solar energy into the station's generators. She hoped Indio managed to drag Kyle back down on the rim. Trying to find them anywhere else would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
She tuned in to the emergency channel. Nothing. She tabbed the comm back to local. "Dushawn."
"No distress signal."
"Maybe they're unconscious and can't signal," she said.
"Maybe." His voice didn't sound very enthusiastic. "I could send a distress signal out now."
At least the energy streams weren't so erratic out here. It felt like she was floating. "No," she said. "How are we going to give directions for a rescue team if we don't even know where they are? We have to search the rim first. Follow me."
Carefully aiming her wrist jets, she caught a surge of moonlight. Soft and sweet was its energy as she rode the stream around the station and searched. There! A small disordered jumble spluttered on the right-hand side of the upper rim. She wasn't sure, but it was the closest equivalent she could see of their wings against the station's rim. Cupping her wings into the leading edge of a sun wave, she let it bring her back around to the target area.
Four times she circled the station until she figured out how to drag the grappling hook and latch it onto the vane she wanted. It reeled her down to the surface. She skidded sideways, then remembered to reactivate her boot magnets.
Hand over hand she walked herself to where Indio and Kyle were lying all tangled up in the coils of their grappling lines at the base of another vane. Dushawn whirled past. His grappling hook snagged one of the vanes a couple hundred yards ahead. It was going to take him a little while to work his way back down to them. She unclipped the wire cutters from her belt and went down on her knee. Then she cut the line around Indio's arms.
He reached up and pulled her against him. Their helmets were face-to-face but his visor was still totally black. "Kyle's unconscious," he said. "My comm's damaged. I can receive but I can't transmit anything."
Cait nodded. "Should I send an SOS now?"
"Yes. Tell them to send an ambulance crew out to Sector Five on the outer rim. Level Two priority status."
While she finished sending out the SOS, Dushawn limped up. Cait motioned him over to press his helmet to hers and Indio's. "What happened to you?" she asked.
"Twisted my ankle when I landed back there."
"That's because you tried to catch up with the rim instead of flying the opposite direction and meeting the rim," Indio's voice informed them.
"Oh..." Cait said in a very small voice. She'd made the exact same mistake as Dushawn.
"Doesn't matter," Indio continued gruffly. "As long as you didn't kill yourself, it counts as a good landing. Now how about cutting me loose?"
Now that Dushawn was there, it didn't take long. Five minutes later, they sat down with Kyle's unconscious form braced between them and waited for the rescue team.
While they watched the rescue pod maneuver closer, Indio bumped his helmet against Cait. "My wings are too damaged for us to fly back and it's too small to carry all of us. Signal them and ask them if they can carry one additional passenger."
"Who?" she asked.
"Dushawn. They need to look at his ankle anyway."
"All right," she agreed, then opened the commlink again.
It took a couple more minutes of consultation and deliberation, but the team finally agreed to fly Dushawn to sick bay along with Kyle. As Cait stood up and watched the rockets flare as they flew away, Indio tugged her close so they could talk helmet to helmet again. "You did good out there," he said softly. "Real good."
"Thanks. Do you think Kyle'll recover?"
"He'll be all right. His vital signs were good."
They trudged along side by side in silence. Cait hoped their next training flight would be a little more sedate.
"Sector Five!" The sudden burst of sound startled her out of her thoughts.
"Y-yes," she said.
"Your teammate came to a little while ago. He's conscious and aware of his surroundings. He has a moderate concussion and may experience some short-term amnesia."
By the time they climbed up the ladder to the locker room, Cait was tired and crabby. She stripped down to her skinsuit.
Her shoulder muscles cramped. "Ow!" She stumbled forward and leaned against the door of her locker.
Indio's helmet clanged down on the floor and rolled next to hers. "Hold still," he said. His fingers dug into her back and shoulders and skillfully loosened the knotted muscles. Reassurance and concern flowed into her from his touch.
Cait stared at the helmet lying on the floor beside hers. If he wasn't wearing it then it meant she could see his face. She turned around to look and gasped. A solid mass of glistening scar tissue marred the left side of his face. It ran from his scalp all the way down to the corner of his mouth and left side of his neck. His hair, where there wasn't any scar tissue, was long and black and tied into a thick braid draped across his right shoulder.
By some miracle, his eyes were intact. She'd never seen such stark eyes. There was nothing soft about his eyes. They were beautiful and dark with uncompromising masculinity.
"I know who you are." She reached up to his cheek and felt the rough texture of his scars. "My mother was on the surgical team that..."
He flinched away from her touch. His shock flared up and seared through her.
She fell against the locker behind her. He probably thinks I'm some kind of sicko grabbing at his face like that.
"Gotta go." She flung the words over her shoulder, then fled into the corridor.
Her appetite was shot. She sat in the farthest corner of the cafeteria and stirred the selection of the day into a featureless brown mush on her plate. Mainday shift came in, ate, and left while she sat and rummaged through her memories.
Cait was only five years old when it happened. At that age, she wasn't old enough to pay attention to names in the news vids. It was on all the channels. Indio's grandfather was leading a protest march against legalized gambling halls on their reservation. He claimed the criminal elements associated with the gambling concession were bringing in alcohol and drugs to corrupt their children.
When the pickup truck zoomed past the crowd and tried to run the old man down, Indio jumped out and pushed his grandfather out of the way. The truck pinned Indio against the casino's wall. His left arm and leg were crushed. Flames roared up and seared his face before his grandfather grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed foam on him.
Cait's mother was on Indio's surgical repair team. They didn't amputate because his grandfather told them it was against their religious beliefs to die with missing body parts. Instead, they used bone putty, tissue putty, fiberglass tendons, microchip sensors, and synthetic skin and grafted all of it to the few shreds of bone and muscle they managed to salvage.
His grandfather's life savings paid for the surgery. Indio sued the reservation and paid his grandfather back. Apparently, he chose not to endure the long and tedious process of repeated plastic surgery and repair on his face and vocal cords.
Ever since then, the bone and tissue putty were being slowly reabsorbed and replaced by his own bone and tissue. Cait shook her head. She should have remembered who he was. Fifteen years wasn't that long ago. The original news vids were probably in the archives.
When she saw Indio walk in with the alterday shift, Cait looked around for a discreet exit. There! Behind the clump of scientists at table number four was a service panel. They were waving their arms wildly in the air and loudly debating quantum space strings. She figured they were drawing enough attention to themselves no one would notice her leave. With her hand held out behind her back she slipped through the crowd to the wall and felt for the panel. Indio walked closer. His head turned. His gaze scanned the crowd.
"Hey! Indio!" Kyle's yell distracted him. Kyle and Dushawn walked in the main entrance. A white bandage decorated Kyle's forehead.
When her groping fingers found the latch, Cait breathed a sigh of relief. She thumbed it open and escaped. The maintenance corridor twisted around the cafeteria. She turned the final corner and stopped dead in her tracks. Indio stood in the exit at the end of the narrow passageway.
He held out his hand. "Don't go."
She didn't know what to do.
"You did good."
He wasn't upset. His eyes were warm and friendly. She relaxed under his intent stare.
"Hey! Wait up!" Kyle's and Dushawn's voices echoed down the corridor. Their footsteps clattered to a stop behind her.
Indio's hand fell to his side. His face stiffened into a cold mask as he looked at them. It felt like a door had just slammed shut between him and Cait. He said, "In a couple of days, we have to repair the vanes we damaged in Sector Five." Then he turned and walked away.
"We have to talk," Kyle said.
"About what?" Cait backed away. She concentrated on the sound of his voice as the easiest way to block his emotions away from her.
"About us," said Dushawn.
"Yeah," Kyle agreed. "We were total jerks."
"Back in the lift," said Dushawn.
"We want to apologize," said Kyle.
Cait risked a quick sampling of their emotions. They weren't sorry. Something funny was going on here. Rather than drag this out, she decided to just get rid of them as quickly as possible. "Okay. Apology accepted."
"Wait a minute." Kyle grabbed at her hand and missed. No way was she letting him touch her. "We're not finished."
"Yeah," said Dushawn. "Maybe we're not as radical as Indio."
"Right." Kyle jabbed his thumb toward the spot Indio recently vacated. "You're only twenty. He's thirty-six. That's way too old for you."
"How do you know he's interested?" She tilted her head and studied them thoughtfully.
Kyle grinned. "Hell, it's as plain as the nose on my face the way he was checking you out just now."
"Anyway, we wanted to make sure you know we're sorry," Dushawn said.
"Yeah," Kyle agreed. "Even though we acted like jerks, when the chips were down..."
"You didn't have to do what you did," Dushawn added. "You could have called the ambulance crew and let them search instead."
"Yeah," said Kyle. "We might have run out of air before they found us."
She waved them off. "All right. I get the point. We're friends now. Good-bye."
Dushawn grabbed Kyle's arm and pulled him back. "See you later."
She waited and made sure they weren't returning.
In that crystalline moment, Cait saw it. She saw the mess she made by reacting emotionally instead of thinking things through.
Time stood still.
She looked at the emotional web, the Gordian knot she'd created. Back. She told herself. Go back to the beginning. What was I feeling? What was I thinking? What did I do?
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Back to the beginning. She went on the lift with Kyle and Dushawn because she didn't want them to wonder why she refused to ride with them. They annoyed her with their adolescent sexual assumptions. She reacted.
When Indio spoke, she felt something wrong, out of kilter about him. Her subconscious knew he was wounded. Her conscious mind knew he was reserved and businesslike. He held tight control over his emotions. He felt mature and stable. She liked that.
Kyle and Dushawn felt immature. Their adolescent lusts disgusted her.
Back. Cait exhaled slowly, then cut farther down and exposed the center.
When she looked at Indio, she opened herself to him. She admired his courage. She wanted to touch him. He flinched away. All the remorse he felt over rejecting her gesture poured into her.
His emotions had gotten all twisted around inside her. She thought she was the one doing the rejecting, and she ran away filled with his remorse.
"Goddess," Cait said to the empty corridor. "I'm an idiot. Everyone was trying to apologize to me and I kept running away." She smiled. "I can think and reason. I can choose what I want to feel and what I want to do."
She stopped and looked around again. "And if someone walks in here and sees me talking to myself they're gonna lock me in an asylum and throw away the key." That's when she decided to look for Indio.
The concourse was glutted with alterday workers ready to shop and party. The crowd's ambience flooded her for a couple of seconds. Holovids advertised games of chance, luxury items, and porno shows. Indio was leaning against the railing above the concourse.
An empty space surrounded him. Everyone carefully avoided him, avoided looking at his scars. Wrapped up in his pride, with his feelings locked up inside, he stood there, alone and isolated, in the middle of the crowd.
Sharing only the physical aspects of herself with someone never did appeal to her. Cait had to admit the intensity that simmered beneath his tight control attracted her.
As long as I don't make promises I can't keep, why not ask? He's well past the hormonal surges of a younger man. He'll understand what I'm offering him. I'd rather experience my first real chance at making love with someone I'm attracted to on all levels, emotional and physical.
Before she walked halfway across the concourse, Indio spotted her. He didn't move a muscle. The neutral expression on his face didn't change. He was totally alert and focused on her. She felt it. Tension shimmered between them as she approached him. They stood in a separate region of space and time, just the two of them.
Cait's heart thundered in her ears. Sudden heat seared her face and body. His eyes were dark, vulnerable pools waiting for her. Her lips were dry. She moistened them with the tip of her tongue.
His gaze followed that tiny movement. He straightened up from his slouch.
"Um," she said. "I know what I want right now, today..."
He nodded. His gaze seemed to look all the way into her heart and soul.
He moved closer.
"...I can't promise you tomorrow."
He pulled her into his arm. "I'll take today." His raspy voice made her shiver.
His kiss was long and hard and greedy and very satisfying. He took her by the hand. Everyone was staring at them. She didn't care. She knew who she wanted to be with now.