The woman wore an old flight jacket with stripes on the shoulders. She led Alan up a creaky set of steps. The factory's second floor was one room. Folded against the walls and on the floor of this room were dozens of old sails. They were several models out of date, their ribs sticking out crooked and their shiny skins dulled by dust. Pushed among the forgotten stock were dozen of squat shelves, all filled with unmarked packages of varying shapes and sizes. The room was lit by a single strip of light, which flickered like an old wire fixture. On the other side of the room three sofas had been pushed into an open box shape, each was a different shape and each was covered in a nauseous blue synthetic slip. A man sat in the centermost sofa. Opposite of the man sat a stool. Alan stayed standing. He curled his fingers around the corner of his portfolio.
"Your Master should know," he said, "this place is a mess."
The man looked up from the phone he was reading from. He had sleek black hair and elegant eyebrows, both of which arched.
"This will not be hard," he said, with a shrug of his tattooed shoulders. He wore a sleeveless pilot's shirt with a high collar. It was fitted tight over his thick pilot's chest. "I am the Master, so I will not need to tell anyone."
Xie Tian nodded at the stool. Alan sat down. He rested his folder on his lap and stared straight ahead and did not apologize. You did not apologize to pirates.
"You have gall," said Xie Tian, after an expectant pause. "You must have a lot of confidence in your abilities, to be so rude to your interviewer."
"I'll let my application speak for me," said Alan.
"I have read it," said Xie Tian. "It is impressive. There are not many official graduates of SEER on this side of the belt. Not many SEER graduates at all, anymore." He tipped his head, a slash of hair fell across the bridge of his nose. He jerked his chin and it was gone.
"The program ended after my class."
"That would be two years ago?"
"You look younger than that." Xie Tian shook his head, and lifted an object between his fingers. It was a pipe. One of the very old ones that had to be lit, and that everyone said were no longer produced. The end of it glowed. Alan stuck out his chin.
"You can check my public records if you'd like," he said. "My age and my school history. They'll check out."
"Not anymore," said Xie Tian. "According to public record, you don't check out in any way at all."
Alan said nothing.
"It comes from being a Person of Interest," Xie Tian held out the pipe. Alan did not move to take it. Xie Tian rolled his shoulder again and placed it back against his cracked lips. "You are interesting enough to your government that you would be held on the spot should you set foot on your home world. I am interested in why you would be paid so little to go back."
He bent his head. "I didn't know they'd go that far."
Xie Tian's lips formed an 'O' around a bloom of smoke. "Surely you did, though? Why then, if you did not know, not make for the Harbor? An official crossing would be more comfortable, you know. You are nicely dressed, and your name sounds good. Money must not be so important for you."
Alan's head came back up. "Money is no issue to me at all. I value discretion, and I thought the most infamous criminal in the outer system might share those sensibilities."
Xie Tian put his pipe down. "He might."
"But I didn't know they'd go that far." Alan ran his finger along the good stitching of his student's vest. "I would not have offered my skills for so low a company if I thought I had another option. But I assumed the person they would've held at the gate would still be a person at all."
"Three bodies in the upper lines," murmured Alan, eyes focused on the close ceiling of the cockpit out of habit. As a custom unit, he could recognize nothing about how it worked. He'd been trained on licensed vessels, from which only a few pieces of such ships had gone into the creation of this beast. Xie Tian seemed to have no trouble coaxing functionality out of it. The sensors were hooked directly to the nerves in the pirate's wrists and back, and Alan could feel him shift with the ship's every list as it left the stratosphere.
"Four to the leftline," Alan said. The sensors linked to his ports were surprisingly well-integrated, as thrown together as they'd looked. Xie Tian's ground crew had been good on their word. The equipment was clean and functional. The last thing he needed was to catch the often fatal meningitis that could take a psychic who relied on a poorly maintained plug. Thinking about it made his implants itch. He forced his attention to the center of the field. His eyes went wide.
"And ten, twenty... thirty two...." He swallowed at this estimate. "Thirty eight bodies along the centerline."
Xie Tian settled his hands over Alan's hips. Alan wished instantly that the custom weren't so small. Xie Tian laughed. "You're more accurate than the last I hired to make the crossing."
"Did they make it alive?"
The Twin Chain was the most treacherous and stormy belt in the whole of the Seven Systems. The Imperial jump ports had been built for the express purpose of bypassing the shattered twin planets that had once claimed six out of every ten vessels to make the trip. Even the most hardened of criminals would in the normal way pay a gate tech for a false pass to make an official jump容ven in times of war, when the prices were tripled. Only the most foolish or desperate pilot and navigator would risk the debris. Alan was desperate, but Xie Tian was no fool. He was simply mad.
"Most of him," whispered the pirate. Even with his sense extended as they were around the ship, Alan could feel the deep laugh all up his spine. Those hands slid over his hips and spread across the console pressed to Alan's knees. "But you come with better credentials, so I expect more of you will make it through."
"Thirteen more on the highline," gasped Alan. "Can't imagine what's so important you'd chance this more than once."
"I must ask the same of you." Xie Tian leaned forward, flipping a switch somewhere with his calf as he did so. Everything all at once fell forward for Alan. Xie Tian leaned over him. The main screen appeared with a hiss. His head hung over Alan's to view it. The heat on his back was amazing. "You have come so cheaply, I should not be pained to give you at least your advance for services thus far."
The screen's image was a black plane dotted with an army of grey blobs. Alan put the heat of the body over him out of his mind as he dropped his head. The visor came down over his eyes, blocking his physical vision. Seeing anymore would just distract him. "I told you from the beginning. Money is no issue."
"Nor is it for me," whispered Xie Tian. The ship's wings retracted against its sides with a firm clank. The sails would only tear under the punishment they would no doubt be taking in a moment. The burners went on. They hurtled for the belt.
It was said that as recently as two millennia ago that there had once been eighteen planets in orbit around the Eastern Reach system. Two of them had been in close orbit, and were eventually torn apart by the clash of their gravitational fields, or else an undue collision with a meteorite. No one could really be sure what it was that caused the accident, but the remains of it were on clear nights visible from the northern hemisphere of R6. The Twin Chain stretched across the line dividing the Britannic-dominated inner planets from the EAF outer planets; with R6 and R5 providing what was once the neutral international points on either side. The line of debris was extensive. The twins must have been large bodies in space, because pieces of rock of varying size formed nearly a complete ring around the sun. The way was made more treacherous by the bones of earlier ships that had tried and failed the crossing, before and during the construction of the gates. They drifted dead between the rocks. No one was ever brave enough to retrieve them, and so the belt became their tomb.
There were also mines that had been let loose during previous System disputes, but Alan wasn't going to think too hard about those. The custom's cramped size was to its advantage, it slipped between the first row of floating rocks without any trouble at all. "Five to the lowline. Six to the highline..." The wing popped marginally, Xie Tian pulled his arms up. Alan felt the pirate's hips against the back of his legs as the ship angled upwards. The wing snapped quickly back against the hull. They could not afford to slow down. The only way to approach a belt crossing in such a small vessel was to take it in one burst. The burners were on a full atmospheric roar. Everything in the cockpit shook, including the dice that had been hung from the overheard bars. Alan was only aware of the heat of Xie Tian, as he lowered himself to level out.
"One on the centerline..."
"I see this one," laughed Xie Tian.
"And two more incoming from above."
The ship rolled over it self and spiraled clear. Alan had never liked this part of his training. He kept his mind oriented on the outside, remembering that there was no conventional up or down, but that he would have to create one to continue giving an accurate reading. Interplanetary energy currents ran strong in this system, and while that made inter-system travel on sun sails easy, in the Twin Belts these currents pushed the dead rocks around like dice. The burners would only churn those currents, disturbing the smaller debris. A larger vessel at a slower pace would have already been scraped, but as it stood they rocked through the next line and under a pair of long bodies that Alan realized belatedly had likely once been the wings of a previous journeyman.
"Dead sails," he gasped.
Almost too late he sensed the thin, ghostly tatters of the torn membrane, hanging off of the old wing frames like a veil. Xie Tian hissed and made a hard left. They cleared it, but barely. The membrane slid along the top of the hull, stalling them by a millisecond, and in that millisecond the rocks came nearer, two of large bodies closing in up ahead.
"The centerline is blocked," reported Alan. "Twenty bodies in the highline. Th... thirty low. We should—" Xie Tien turned them sideways. The last of the sails slid clear and fried in the burners. The drag gone, they gave a slight jerk and hauled forward at a renewed burst of speed. Alan couldn't see what Xie Tian saw, but in his mind he watched the solid red glow of the two large rocks advance on them like an oncoming train. The sight swerved in his head, the cockpit swerved between his legs. All at once he saw the rocks again. They had shifted in their alignment. He saw the thin black line of space beyond them. They slipped through just as those two bodies crashed together. Alan exhaled slowly. He could feel the pirate's lips curve against his neck, and he realized Xie Tian very well might not have even looked.
"We might have been crushed between them," said Alan, he could barely hear his own voice over his staggered breathing.
"But we were not." Xie Tian eased his body against him, the ship give a gentle dip. "Do you not trust me? I trust you." They wove their way around the slower moving flat pieces.
"Two along the low line," was all Alan could say. He didn't dare crane his head back. His visor was down anyway, it was not as though he could read the man's face. "You have to. But we can't afford—" A spark flicked on in the corner of his senses. "Pull us up!" he cried, and to his surprise Xie Tian did so without a word, a split second before an old mine burst and broke the stone behind them into three distinct chunks and thousand extra shards. These shards struck first, battering their underbelly, catching in the burner, rattling the cockpit with a thousand tiny little 'pits' that reminded Alan of the hailstorms that had been his boyhood on R5. But those hailstorms never risked puncturing the hull. The larger pieces were flying after them at such a rate he expected a collision any moment, but Xie Tian reached over him. His arm extended for something, his chin hooked over Alan's head. Alan heard a click, and all at once the roar in the cockpit overcame nearly everything else. They were burning at a greater speed than even before.
Xie Tian dropped his head against his neck. "Speak," he said, with a surprising calm. Alan nodded and swallowed.
"Highline, leftline, farleft, high again."
They rattled and strafed objects as they went, bouncing between the bodies but never outright ramming them. It all looked like a blur of color to Alan's senses, but he did his best to relay that blur to words: "Seven to the lowline. Seventeen to the far leftline!" There was one shaped like a brick. Another, like a disc. Then in a violent blue Alan's senses felt the coming rise of the body of a ghost ship.
It was a full carrier. It was curved in the style of military machines from the last century. Its hull was broken in such a way that you could see the entry and exit wounds where the missile had ripped it from port to starboard. The metal at the puncture point yawned open like the jaws of a hungry dog. It looked small, but only because they were coming at it from very far away. It got bigger as they hurtled nearer. It got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Alan heard one of Xie Tian's hands come down on the console. He felt his hips jam against him, nearly forcing him against it as well. They were pressed together, the whole of him beating hot over him and his mouth was open against the sensitive skin next his port, where he'd been hooked into the ship.
"Do you think we will make this?"
"Seventy coming from behind." Alan pressed back against him. Not because he was trying to pull free but because the heat was preferable to the one in his head. "Yes," he mumbled. "Yes, do it." And then his face was against the console, as Xie Tien lunged forward.
The ship lunged with him, plunging down into the very body of the ghost ship. They ripped through the floating wires and innards. They flew through the entry wound, and out the exit wound. Behind him there was no sound, and certainly no visual, but in his mind Alan saw the roaring mess that had pursued them find its home in this larger target. It all bloomed in a great mess of red and blue, and then finally purple spreading in a great bloom behind them. Everything ahead was simply dark. They were clear. The bodies were behind him, and they were clear of the belt.
"Nothing ahead," Alan said, nearly sobbing. "Centerline clear, lowline clear, highline clear, leftline, clear rightline..."
Xie Tian killed the burners and opened the sails, angling them for a reverse coast. The ship slowed, but Alan's breath didn't. He must have been fogging the panels, because Xie Tian curled his hands around his jaw and lifted his head.
"Can you tell me what the damage is?"
"We've been scratched," said Alan. "I... no breaches. Some debris in the burners. You're..."
Hard, is what he couldn't say. Hard and pressed to him like the fires of hell were still chasing them out of the belt. Alan couldn't say more, Xie Tian shoved his index and middle fingers between his lips. It tasted like sweat and sync fluids. It tasted like not being a thousand pieces revolving around the sun and he wrapped his mouth around them gladly.
"It feels good to be alive, doesn't it?" whispered Xie Tian, open-mouthed on his neck. With his other hand, he switched on the coolers. With that same hand, he stroked Alan's flight suit from armpit to the crease of his hip, and then slid with no pause at all to cup him round the front between his lap and the console. He didn't bother to slide the seat back, and Alan didn't request it. Xie Tian's fingertips squeaked across the material of the suit as they did slow, tight circles over his groin.
"Feels good to be breathing? Your breath is so wet against my hand." The pirate slid his index finger deeper between Alan's lips, which went round to take it. He had never approved of the fingerless gloves some pilots wore as a aesthetic preference. Now he pressed his tongue against those bare fingers in his mouth, gasping around them even as he tried to taste every last particle of sweat and skin. "It feels nice, doesn't it? Air in your lungs. Blood in your veins. I can hear it. Here." He murmured this against the soft spot under his jaw. "Here. You like life, don't you?"
The hand circling over Alan's crotch became a palm sliding purposefully up and down, sculpting out the shape of Alan's erection even as Xie Tian's own pressed with a lazy certainty against the back of his thigh. The cables still hooked to Xie Tian's wrists bumped against Alan's ribs as his fingers, surprisingly subtle for those of a flashy criminal, found the discreet zipper over his abdomen.
"You've enough breath left to gasp," Xie Tian hummed, teasing the flap open. "You've enough blood left to hear your own heart."
Alan could hear it. It drowned out the sound of the equipment. The cockpit was air-conditioned, to keep the passengers from frying. The air was cold against his exposed belly. He felt his body flinch away from it instinctively, but his insides were all hot and writhing. Ever one of Xie Tian's words was punctuated by a slow rock of his cock against Alan's back. Alan made a wet gulp around the hand in his mouth and managed a hoarse, "Yes." He wanted that heat all over, inside, it blared on all of his senses like the meteors just a few minutes ago. Maybe less. The thought of them battering against the hull made him arch as well as the plugs would let him. "Yes."
The cold was nearly nothing when Xie Tian shoved his palm down the front of his flightsuit. He was hard and already twitching as the pirate closed his hand over his cock. The weight came down on him. The fingers in his mouth pulled back to thumb his bottom lip as Xie Tian moved over him in slow, powerful thrusts that seemed meant to drag as much of his body across Alan's as he could. Teeth found the curve of his ear not occupied by the dampeners. The plugs pulled on his neck but Alan knew how much they could take. Cables knocked Alan's visor and his cheekbone. The console clicked against the visor as he was shoved down. Alan didn't mind. He thrust helplessly. He moved in short, gasping jabs. He could barely hear the hum of the equipment. The squeak of his flight suit and the softer sound of skin on skin were much louder.
Xie Tian pumped him with a merciless precision, working the circle of his hand up and down his cock with the same firmness he had applied to the ships dive through the Belt. He didn't stop. He didn't vary his pace, only the pressure; a squeeze as he came closer to the base, tight as it came back to the tip and then over again.
His mouth left Alan's ear. He fingered his lip and slid his hand into his hair. He took the side of the visor and tipped Alan's cheek to lay flat on the console. His hips began a circular grind against Alan's rear. "How long do you think it will be," his voice was only a little clipped. "Until we reach R5?"
The planet was a distant hum in Alan's other senses. He reached for it only by reflex and only because he'd known the shape of it in his head all his life. "Ungh," he said.
"Surely, if you can find your way though the Twin Belts you would know this."
He squeezed him. Alan groaned. "Two hours. We'll need to cut speed in an hour and a half. We'll burn out. If. We keep this speed. When we reach — ah, the atmosphere."
"Oh, then we have time," laughed Xie Tian, as Alan's cock gave one last desperate twitch as he came in his hand and all over the seat. "We have five hours of oxygen. Though if you keep breathing like that, it is more like two and half. Maybe." He grabbed Alan's hip, and pushed him into the console, his hand milking the last of him in that same merciless stroke. "I trust that we should last. You are as good as you advertised, Alan Wednesday. We should continue this agreement."
Alan heard a voice that didn't sound like his give a noise that sounded like a muzzled agreement. Alan also heard a low metallic scratch as Xie Tian undid the zipper of his own suit.
"You are the most interesting I've had in a while," murmured Xie Tian. "Let us see if we stay alive."