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OZ 2231

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This story owes a lot to Eliza B.'s thorough and extraordinary beta. Without her, I wouldn't have done it, or if I had, it would have been really mediocre. Huge thanks to her!

Tobias Beecher

When the Earth Mining Company, that owned most of the mines across the solar system, summoned me to New York, my life was a mess, and I had nothing better to do so I picked out my best suit, shaved, had my hair cut and flew there on a private shuttle that landed like a silver bird on the roof of the EMC building in the clear light of a summer afternoon. In front of me, I could see the city and a thin layer of smoke covering it like a soft blanket. I was welcomed by a staff manager who shook my hand energetically and guided me to the elevator down to the 66 th floor of the impressive building, the highest in the city, the man told me. I entered a cosy meeting room, sat down and listened to a bald fat man sitting in front of me across a huge mahogany desk, surrounded by nameless people he didn't even bother introducing me to. The place was luxurious. I noticed some original paintings, a thick carpet. From the middle of the room came the soothing murmur of a fountain. Huge screens displayed wonderful landscapes of different planets… Lost as I was, it took me several minutes to understand they were offering me a job.

At that stage of my life, I'd have done about anything just to fly away from home, from Gen, her silence, the shame I'd felt since the accident, the kids and my own sorry past. Every time I laid my eyes on them, I could see the little girl's body lying on the road, covered with blood, her eyes wide open seeing nothing. Dead. I knew I'd never overcome that; I knew Gen would never trust me again, let alone love me, I knew my parents would never respect me again, and I'd resigned from my job because I didn't feel able to take it anymore. I'd stopped drinking, more or less. And I was more or less alive and free. I should have felt grateful to my family and my wife for taking care of everything, but I couldn't help the growing feeling that they had stolen my life. Not that I'd wanted to go to prison but the way every one acted, as if nothing at all had happened, made me sick. I woke up in the middle of the night after terrible nightmares, convinced I was damned.

The EMC knew everything about me, of course. After all, Genevieve's parents held shares in the company, and John Devlin, the company's managing director was one of my father's oldest friends. All these people around the table seemed to consider that the job they were offering me was something like a gift. A favour or maybe a chance to redeem myself. And I agreed. It was a favour, but not quite in the way they thought it was. I listened to the same old story: the company had decided to dismantle an old profitless mining orbital station, and they needed a good lawyer to wrap the thing up nicely, avoiding troubles, riots and such with the miners. There was no need to tarnish further the company's public image.

Space miners are a tough bunch of slugs, everybody on earth knows that. Some of them are hired straight from prison: "You've been sentenced to 10 years, pal? What about working for us instead?" They are happy to get rid of their prisoners so easily. That's probably why breaking the law doesn't bother them much, (Well, it didn't bother me that much, either, until the accident). But above all, they're deeply attached to their job; spending days on hostile planets in heat, freezing cold or sulphuric dusts is fairly close to heaven for them. And they can't stand to see their production tool scrapped, that I already knew.

The company had gone through painful experiences in this field, and the miners had become aware of their own power. They were frightening, but their life and working conditions were so awful that people on Earth had come to blame the EMC for treating them like slaves. How many of them died every year –still died every year no matter what we did- in industrial accidents, after years of an exhausting job, far from anything that could be called civilisation? Three years ago, a riot on a mining station after such an accident had led to a real mess and 50 miners had been killed: the company wanted to avoid another unpleasant incident. I could understand them. I remembered the videos we'd been shown at the time, about the way those people worked, and the amazement I'd felt. I'd wanted to join the anti-EMC movement at the time, but of course, that was impossible. My parents and my wife's family would have disapproved.

They showed me a three-dimensional animated map. The mining station was settled on a little planet 900 miles inside the Orion Belt. Fuck, that was really far, but I felt like I had no choice and I didn't want anything more than to fly away and be someone else, even for a short while. The agreement mentioned 8 weeks in the station and 8 more weeks for the trip, which meant 4 months away from my kids. But the salary was worth it. They told me the name of the place, a complicated sequence of numbers and letters, and someone in the staff explained that the miners working up there just called it "Oz". Everybody laughed. What I knew about the miners' very special sense of humour didn't amuse me and my employers seemed to notice. I was told that I'd never have to talk to one of those men, that I'd get protection 24 hours a day.

It looked like a fair deal: I took it … when I told Gen about the job she didn't even try to hide how relieved she was. She probably hoped that some time apart would do us good. That seemed very optimistic to me. We had been through terrible moments lately, and the love we'd felt for each other in the first years of our marriage just seemed to fade away. But I still wanted to hope that we could salvage something of what had existed between us. When it was time to leave, my mother gave me her usual sanctimonious look and a quick kiss, my brother was nowhere to be found. I kissed my children, my father hugged me. Apart from the kids, he was the only one who didn't consider that showing me a little affection was pointless or disgusting. Gen kissed my cheek, and turned her head when I wanted to kiss her mouth so my lips landed awkwardly on her ear. Well, I didn't expect much more. She hadn't let me touch her since the accident, and I was not in the mood for an extramarital romance. And "Oz" didn't look like a place where I could have much fun.

A week later, I boarded a private shuttle. The journey was boring. Spaceflights are boring. Sleep, drink, eat, read a book, or the files provided by the company, watch TV, work out in a little gym, watch through the window, talk to the staff… a whole sickening month and then…

Arcturus4 was a small purple planet surrounded by heavy yellow clouds. No real atmosphere, no water, just rocks, and carbon monoxide and sulphur. Underneath the rocks, though, lay mines of titanium. The pilot informed me that the gravity was just 1/5 of earth gravity, and that the station was about 20 hours of flight from the planet. That the place was hell and nobody could stay down there for more than 10 days without suffering of bad injuries, he added. Because of this they had to settle the workers in an orbital station. When I saw that place they called Oz, I shivered. Dismantle it? Why? In my opinion, there was no need to do anything, time and rust would do it before long. It was the oldest and scariest thing I'd ever seen, and when I realized that I was to spend 6 weeks in this place, I felt like resigning right away. But it was not an option. It occurred to me that the men who worked there had spent several years inside, with a short break every 18 months to go get their kicks on some desolated world. Most of them, maybe all of them had never set foot on Earth at all. They were born on artificial stations, or recently settled planets. My world meant nothing to them. And far worse, I knew that most of them were members of the very powerful Miner's Galactic Trade Union, and that was not good. Since the riots, the MGTU was a force to be reckoned with and its power seemed to grow with every new incident, as did the number of their members. I guessed I'd have to compromise with them as well.

Two hours after a perfect landing in an old hangar, I began unloading my stuff in a tiny room the Director, Leo Glynn, a powerful man who made me think of some stubborn bull, emphatically called "office". Oz looked like a penitentiary colony more than any place I'd seen before, all metallic walls, doors and floor, and I hated that. At least, Glynn told me with an encouraging smile, I wouldn't have to share the cell –he meant the room, I guess it was some kind of joke- with anybody else. And I wouldn't have to share anything with the workers on the station. He warned me, temporarily losing his smile that I had to forget everything I knew about space miners because those guys, here in Oz, they were worse. Really worse, he insisted, so he had to give me protection. I wouldn't leave my office alone, wouldn't talk to any of them, wouldn't share a single moment with any of them, which meant having the gym to myself an hour a day if I needed to. The safety measures annoyed me but I just nodded because what I'd been told about the miners had scared me shitless.

I spent the first night sitting on my leather chair with a growing sense of loneliness. The room was small, and cosy wasn't the first word that would've popped in my mind about it. An overused carpet covered the floor between the locker and the desk. The metallic desk, the bare walls, and in the bedroom, smaller that the office, a spartan bed, and two awful pictures of a landscape I couldn't recognize…there was nothing there I liked. By chance, I had a private bathroom and that was a real luxury; I was to know that later. There was an octogonal window. I could see Arcturus4, the stars, and the darkness all around. Suddenly, I felt trapped. I closed my eyes, thinking of my house in the park, the huge trees and the swimming pool… Green and blue, colours of life and hope. All I could see here was grey, and black, with this purple and yellow sphere in front of me like a strange velvet ball… I shivered. When I went to bed, it was very late, but there was no day or night, and my body needed more time to adjust to this new world. I couldn't sleep.

My first day on Oz was hell. The air was too poor, too refined, my lungs hurt, I was covered with sweat and my heart began beating wildly. The doctor of the station, a quiet old woman, told me that it was a very usual symptom. I had to rest for 12 hours, take some drugs she'd give me, and everything would be back to normal. The drugs left me nauseated and weak. I couldn't even stand up and I spent the next 12 hours sleeping. But the doctor was right: when I woke up I felt much better, and I could start work. I barely had time to send a message to Gen and the kids.

From my first staff meeting it became obvious that no one on Oz was happy to see me. Glynn had been right about one thing: during the few hours I'd spent there, I hadn't met any miner. I was kept apart from them but I felt their wary eyes on me, and I knew they were talking behind my back. I'd expected that. What I had not expected was the staff's hostility. This old tin can lost so far from mother earth was these men's home. The company had hired them to work on Oz, as long as the mining station was in activity. Some of them had been there for 20 years. Dismantling Oz meant losing their job, and having to take something else somewhere else, maybe with fewer responsibilities not even knowing if they'd fit in. Glynn was the only one who looked enthusiastic at the prospect of flying away, because he'd been promised a better job, but that didn't imply he liked me. I was the rich prick from Earth and they had heard stories about me, probably. The man who was in charge of my security, Sean Murphy, barely spoke to me, and made it clear that he would have preferred to ship me back to earth as soon as possible. And the feeling was mutual.

I didn't sleep much better on the second night, so I spent some hours trying to understand the way Oz was laid out: level-1, warehouses and shuttle hangars; level 0, something like an entertainment area: the huge greenhouse, the gym, the bar. Guess this was the only opportunity to see a tree or a flower around here. Level one, the rooms, two men in each of them, showers, cafeteria, and a library where movies were played every week. Level two, the offices and the staff's headquarters, the hospital, carefully isolated from the other aisles. I'd been given a room on the second floor. Safe. Noisy elevators, metallic stairs led from one level to another. Narrow metallic corridors lit up with a cold neon light, ran around and across the station. Of course, all that would be of no real use to me: I wasn't supposed to leave the second floor, except for my hour in the gym, and I didn't even use a public elevator. I was important enough to use the private one which looked as old and rusty as anything else here. From what I'd heard, a supply shuttle came each week, bringing foods and other supplies, taking back some of the workers for holidays on Mars5, where bars, hookers and gambling would keep them entertained and drunk for at least one whole month.

I didn't know too much about the way things worked on Oz. I learned. I learned that Glynn himself had to compromise with the Miners' trade union, whose representative was the unsympathetic and cold-blooded Vern Schillinger. I met him during my second staff meeting, less than 3 days after my arrival. He faced Glynn, his arms folded against his chest, feet slightly parted, self-confident and vaguely threatening. He wasn't very tall; he was about 50, bald, a deceptively benign smile and eyes as cold as ice. He didn't say a word, he didn't have to. His mere presence was enough to create a palpable uneasiness. I didn't understand what the matter was. Probably something about the new safety measures inside the mines: a man had died before my arrival. He told Glynn that no one would go down as long as the problem wasn't solved, and I believed him. I believed he was charismatic enough to be a leader, and that no miner would dare to disobey. I was right. Glynn promised he'd do everything he could, and Vernon Schillinger left, but before that, he turned to me, and assessed me thoroughly.

"Who's that?" he asked.

Glynn smiled. "He was sent by the company to prepare the future investment on A4. New mines. New equipment."

Schillinger didn't answer, but I was pretty sure that he didn't believe a single word. He smiled dangerously and brushed against me as leaving. I thought I heard him whisper "Nice ass" and saw him wink.

When he was gone, I turned to Glynn. "When and how do you intend to tell him the truth?" I asked coldly.

Glynn sighed and shrugged. "I'll wait as long as I can," he said in a low voice. "The man's dangerous, trust me on that."

I did. I already hated Vernon Schillinger. I didn't think that waiting was a solution. But that was none of my business.

On the fourth day, I was allowed to go to the gym for the first time, and around 8pm Murphy left me there, under the pretext he had some urgent work to do. After days of work and nights of bad sleep, working out felt like heaven. I'd needed that more than I'd needed anything since I'd been there. I was so anxious, and worried, and scared, although for no real reason, by the place and the people surrounding me (And not only of the miners) that I had to find a way to sweat it all away. When I was done, heart racing, hair damp, I just leaned against the wall, eyes closed, hands pressed on a wooden bar used for stretching, trying to catch my breath. As I recuperated, I became aware of something unusual. A presence. I turned my eyes to the door and saw a man watching me. I don't know how long he'd been there, silent. I'd been so caught up in hitting the punching ball, and fighting, that I hadn't noticed anything.

From the first glance, I knew he wasn't part of the staff. Half naked, his shirt hanging loosely between his fingers as if he'd just taken it off, he just stood there motionless, dark blue eyes staring at me. He was tall, a bit taller than myself, and powerful. Muscular and lean body, chiselled muscles under a smooth skin, narrow hips, long legs, and on his left arm I saw a huge tattoo. Was that Christ? I wondered. That seemed strange. There was so little religious feeling left, now, and Christianity, in any of its form was not the most widespread. So many sects had appeared, praising so many strange gods… But the figure of Christ, so precisely and beautifully pictured, on a miner's arm, wasn't what I had expected.

We watched each other for a few seconds and he smiled.

"I don't know you," he said.

"Neither do I," I answered. He laughed shortly. "My name is Christopher Keller. I work down there. In the mine."

So I was right. "Tobias Beecher. I'm here from Earth."

He looked surprised. "Earth? What are you here for? Business?"

I sighed. "I really wish I knew." I didn't want to give anything away. "I was just... working out." Yeah, Beecher , like he couldn't see that. He nodded. He had an enigmatic smile, and very dark blue eyes. God. He was beautiful. I'd never seen anybody that beautiful before.

"Guess it must be boring. Working out alone," he said dreamily. "Just like… I don't know. Jerking off?"

I grinned. I'd been doing that, too, every night since I'd left earth. His smile didn't change. "Maybe I could help?" He saw my expression, I guess, and laughed, stepping in the room and walking towards me.

"Help you work out, that is." He took one more step. "Well, the other thing too, if you'd like." His voice was low and soft and sensuous, and Christ, I just couldn't look away; I felt mesmerized and trapped. He was so near that I could nearly feel his breath on my face. I could feel the heat, smell his scent, and there was nothing I wanted more than to touch him. I was outstretching my arm to brush my fingers along his tattoo, and ask about it, when a voice startled me.

"Mr Beecher?" I turned to the door. Sean Murphy, my guardian angel, was there, frowning. I saw Keller's look harden, as if he'd been interrupted in something very important, and for a second I thought that he would pounce on the man but he just stepped back.

"Keller, you got nothing to do here. Get out." Murphy snarled angrily. Chris turned to him lazily. "Hey, we were just chatting."

Murphy shook his head. "Chatting? Really? Go chat with someone else, Keller."

Keller didn't answer. He tilted his head on the side and watched me with an ambiguous smile. "I'll see you later."

Murphy cut him short. "No way. The orders are quite clear. No contact."

The grin faded, something guarded darkened Keller's eyes. but the smile was back again quickly: " sorry. I didn't mean to bother your favourite. Just that I'm sure everybody here will find a bit strange that Glynn keeps this chick apart so carefully. What makes him so precious?"

He didn't wait for Murphy's answer. He just swaggered out and disappeared in a corridor, his steps echoing behind him.

"We'd better go." Murphy's voice was worried and I followed him without a word.

Later, as I was showering I thought about him again. Closing my eyes, I leaned against the cold wall, tasting the water running down my face. Yeah, he was something new. I wanted to see him again. I needed to see him again. Jerking off was no fun, and the offer had been clear enough. I was no choir boy; I'd experienced sex with men several years ago, just before meeting Gen. Sex with men was something usual on Earth. Usual as long as it didn't last too long and didn't mean too much, that's what people used to think. I should have felt some kind of shame: I was openly planning to cheat on Gen. But I didn't. Actually, I hadn't really thought about her since I'd arrived. I had missed her and the kids during the flight, but not now. Everything seemed so unreal from here that I thought I could be losing my bearings, as if I'd entered a different dimension, where nothing of what I knew really applied. I had to find someone here I could rely on and the miner, Keller… Maybe it wasn't just about sexual attraction after all. Maybe I was looking for some kind of company? But I wasn't even fooling myself. I began to think how I could meet him again, and my hand slid on my cock, jerking it furiously as I lost myself in the memory of Chris Keller, his eyes, his smile, and the attractive body I *so* wanted to feel on mine.

Christopher Keller

Working on Oz means a week down on A4 sweating in the mine 5 hours a day, never more because the air in the space suit is so thick you could die from breathing it too long, and the heat is just too much to stand, and the dust gets inside all our suits, even the latest ones. At the end of the day, there's a very long decontamination shower, then a meal in the pressurized quarters, and sleep. You don't even jerk off there, because you're too tired and -what's the point in lying- too scared. You don't even talk. You just want to fall asleep as fast as possible, and stop thinking. You know you can die any minute, anywhere in this hell hole, so you close your eyes, and try not to listen to the strange yellow wind that keeps blowing outside, and could sweep away the whole building. After a week like that, being back on Oz is like being back in heaven. You've made it one more week, you're alive, and you've got a wad of cash in your pocket. It's all good. And if you're lucky, you'll live long enough to spend 4 weeks on Venus2 every 6 months or go back to your own world and your family. That's how I've been living for the past 4 years. But on this particular day, the pleasure was spoiled when Schillinger's voice came out of the age-old radio of the shuttle. I knew why he was calling, so I just asked.

"Fucker's up there?"

I heard Vern cold voice. "He just arrived. But baby's in bed. Space sick." I laughed. "Poor chick. What d'you expect me to do?"

He laughed. "C'mon, Chrissy." I hated him for a second. Nobody except him calls me Chrissy and lives. "You know your job. I want the files, all the files you can get. I want to know every single detail about the way the company wants to fuck us over."

I shrugged, tired. "What does he look like?"

Vern laughed. "Just a prick from earth. Nice butt, though. Easy job for you, Chris." Yeah, I thought, and why don't you do it yourself? But Vern Schillinger was an influential member of the trade union. He had got me that job, and I owed him for that. Yeah. And he fucked my ass, 20 years ago, when I was just a rookie working for the company, helped me survive, protected me, taught me useful things about the job, staid by my side when I was hurt in an accident. And if all it takes to clear debts is getting inside a computer to know how the company plans to fuck us over, that's fine by me. I can do that.

I arrived on Oz quite late, had a long hot shower, and went to my room. Thanks to Schillinger, I don't share it with anyone, now. Y'know, I'm touchy and I can fight anyone for any reason. I'd done that already, and I guess many of the guys here knew that. I guess most of them didn't like me that much. The company hired me as I was doing time for a murder I hadn't even committed –I mean, the man died out of fear, that's not murder, right?- and they came there on Mars3 and offered me the job. Guess they didn't find a lot of assholes to do that. I said yes, of course. That's true, I had to kill other men. Men who got in my way, men who threatened me, who tried to kill me, hurt me, hurt my friends. Men who were far worse than I am. Those who know that, they leave me alone. The others learn fast. This is what I call respect. I'm alone, and proud to be. When I talk, which I don't do very often, they just shut up. And Schillinger shuts up too. Now, I have to meet the guy, and from what I'm told in the cafeteria, this won't be no piece of cake. It's not like I had a lot of time to spare! Two weeks and I'm back down in hell. So I have to move fast.

Hours later, I was half asleep on my bed. Thinking of the past. That often happened to me at night when I had nothing better to do. Sometimes I wondered about Earth. My mother used to tell us stories about the old world. We were living on Mars3, where the sky's a dazzling red and wind's always blowing, but she was born in a big city on Earth. I think maybe Mexico , some place like that. She met a minor, and he took her away from earth. She never went back. My father died just months after I was born, her only son. She was only 18. She became a hooker to survive, and when she died, I was in prison. Wasted life. She probably deserved better. I remember an attractive young woman with dark eyes, dark hair and a smooth soft skin. She always said I looked like my father, and it's the only thing he gave me. My name, and a pair of blue eyes, and a body. I don't care much about the name, but the eyes and the body… Well, that's the best I've got, so I should be grateful, I guess. My mother used to tell me that I looked like him a lot. She never told me how he died, and now I wonder. I fell asleep early that night. I'd think about the guy later, I'd find a way to meet him later. I was too tired to think about that now.

Tobias Beecher

"Money's the key." The staff on earth had kept telling me that, and they'd seemed self-confident enough to convince me. " a golden handshake will do. They'll leave the station without a murmur."

I was thinking about that, watching the men who gathered in the main hall, silent, their looks anxiously riveted to the screens where the level of production was displayed, like every evening. They began yelling when the figures appeared, hugging each other as it became obvious that all the previous productivity records had been smashed. I saw Vernon Schillinger stand up, raising a clenched fist toward the metallic ceiling and I heard him say: "Oz brings more money to the company than any other mine!" and the men shouted out their approval. Next to me, Glynn's right-hand man, Tim McManus, was watching the scene, a worried expression on his face.

"Are they right? Is Arcturus4 as profitable as Schillinger pretends it is?" he asked me, frowning.

"No." I sighed, shook my head. "No, it's not. Well, it is profitable at the moment, but as soon as the new safety standards are implemented, it'll be over, because bringing this…" I pointed at the walls of our obsolete tin can, "into compliance with those standards will cost too much money. I'd say about 50 times the annual operating budget. The place's too old, the mine's too dangerous, Arcturus is too far. I read the reports over and over today. Those men are working every day at the risk of their own life. This structure's one of the most dangerous mines still running. It will be more profitable and much safer to dismantle Oz and abandon Arcturus4, start it all over again with a new mine on some easier planet."

"I see what you mean," McManus pointed to the miners below. "But that will be real shit to explain to them. They feel like they own the place. And they do, in a way. Much more than me or anybody in the EMC."

I knew that, and as I watched those men crying out their faith in the future of Oz, I felt a shiver run down my spine. I was about to leave when I saw Keller, sitting aside from the others, his arms crossed on his chest, his legs stretched in front of him, watching the crowd with the same enigmatic smile I'd already noticed. At the same moment, he looked upwards and his eyes caught mine for a second… I was thinking about going down the stairs and talking to him when I saw him rise, stretch lazily, then cross the room to leave without a word, leaving me disappointed and frustrated. I hadn't seen him again since our first meeting in the gym two days ago and I didn't know how I could ever talk to him again. I sighed and went back to the staff quarters. McManus had offered to go to the gym with me and I'd agreed. That way I could get rid of Murphy, whose look reminded me of my mother's last glance, and McManus' company was better than none. I began to think that loneliness could be the worst thing I'd have to endure during my stay on Oz and making friends had never been my strong point. McManus didn't seem to have many friends either so we found a mutual advantage in each other's company. Later that evening, I found a pretext to skip the dinner with the other members of the staff. I wanted to be alone and think about the situation: maybe the reasons why the EMC wanted to close Oz weren't that simple, after all. Sitting in my office, I wondered whether the company wasn't trying to get rid of the MGTU as well as of a profitless mine. Closing the old mines where most of the Trade Union members worked, opening new ones and asking the new miners to sign out of the Trade Union if they wanted to be hired there could be a good way to stop the increasing influence of the MGTU. If that was the case, I hoped that nobody would find out before I'd left, because I was sure that the unsympathetic Vernon Schillinger wasn't so easily fooled. And if I was right, I didn't dare imagine what his reaction would be.

Christopher Keller

It's easy to know when somebody's attracted to you. I've always been familiar with that, and that night, the guy from Earth, Beecher , seemed pretty happy to see me. He watched me for a long time with hungry eyes, I could feel it without looking up and when I caught his look, he didn't avoid it. That was enough. I managed to leave quickly. On my way back to my room, I kept thinking that I didn't like the way things were going. Schillinger upset me. I knew what he was doing, but honestly I didn't think his plan stood a chance, and I believed that we'd get fucked in the end, as usual. Because we were miners, just that, and we had no instruction, no power, no knowledge of how things worked outside; well maybe Vern knew about that, but the others, they were just the usual kind of slugs and when the time would come to fight, I didn't know how many of them would get mixed up in it. I'd watch them as they hugged in joy. I'm not the hugging type, and I don't feel really proud about my work. I didn't choose it; I'm not fond of it. I'd been named the best miner of the station twice during the previous year: that had been enough, I didn't like the pressure the staff tried to put on us, so I just slowed down the pace and let people forget about me. But I didn't want to leave Oz because I'd been there for 17 years and I didn't know how I would adjust somewhere else. I was thinking about that as I opened the locked door of a private stairway with a stolen key, closing it behind me, and stepping up to the second floor. The place was empty and Beecher 's door was open. I had thought he'd be in the staff dining room with the McManus and the others and that would have made things much easier: unlock the door to his room, open the computer files, find out Beecher 's password and take a look inside. Stealing the files for Vern was an easy thing, and I would've been gone before Beecher 's return. No use working my charms on him, then.

But there he was, sitting at his desk, his elbows on his knees, watching the floor, frowning.

"Hey," I said playfully. He started, turned his head, smiled.

"Hey! How did you get there?" he asked. That didn't seem to bother him much, though.

"You know… I had a key. Useful thing." He pushed his hair back and I noticed the way his eyes seemed to shine under the cold light. I watched as his tongue wetted his lips reflexively: I'd seen him do that in the gym two days ago.

"Come in and close the door. I'm not supposed to socialize with anyone round here. This place's worse than a prison. I'd like to know why they keep me apart from anyone here."

I walked in, took a look around. The room was not very different from mine. Larger. But it was the same kind of functional place, all grey and metallic and ugly. There was a window, though." Nice view, nice place. Cosy and all…" I crossed the room, entered a bedroom. A separate bedroom, with a real door you could close. Good for me. "Your bed's bigger than mine." I opened a door, whistled. "Private shower… Lucky guy!"

I turned back to him. He watched me, a bit stunned, I guess.

"What do you want?" he asked. He wore black pants and a black shirt, all buttoned up, hair a bit messy. If I'd not seen him in the gym, I'd still have believed he was the perfect pansy ass lawyer Vern had told me about. But the guy was strong and he could fight. I'd seen that. I knew that kind of men, all peaceful and calm most of the time, who tended to get crazy sometimes. Unpredictable men. Dangerous men. Some of the miners on Oz were like that, too. They worked there peacefully for months, maybe years, and one day ran amok and slaughtered anyone who crossed their way. I didn't know why, but I thought Beecher could be one of those crazy fucks. Then I realized he'd asked a question and was obviously waiting for an answer. Get a grip, Keller, I told myself.

"In the gym the other day? Nothing personal."

He snorted, frowned. "Oh yeah? It seemed personal enough to me." He answered, his eyes not leaving me. I came back to the desk, sat on a corner. "Nah. See, we ain't got a lot of fun here. Working out is part of it. A big part. But last month, Glynn decided we couldn't go to the gym more than four times a week. I used to work out everyday, sometimes twice a day. He didn't say why. Just a problem with the company's fucking safety standards. I mean, some fights happened there, but nothing too bad. Nobody died." I noticed a picture on the desk in a nice wooden frame. A woman and 2 kids. The woman held a baby in her arms. That made three. Ok. So Beecher was the "married with kids" kind.

"So when Murphy told me that *you* could have it for yourself, I didn't like it. But it wasn't against you. Just against them."

He watched me. He'd got that strange expression, thoughtful, serious, like he was trying to decide if he'd give me a second chance. Then he nodded and asked:

"Is that a kind of apology?" Take it however you want. "That your wife?" I asked, pointing to the photo. "Nice chick."

Beecher didn't seem as enthusiastic as I expected and just nodded. "Are you married?" he asked.

"I've been. It never worked. I tried it 4 times."

He looked genuinely stunned. "4 times?" he asked, giving me an incredulous look.

"Yeah. But I married one of the girls twice."

I liked the way he snorted. He looked younger and naïve. I love naïve and overeducated guys. They're easy.

"I bet she came back begging for more?" Aw, and I had him right where I wanted.

"Actually, I begged her to take me back," I answered. Well, that was true, all things considered. His eyes roamed over me, on my mouth, on my body…

"Well, she was one lucky woman." He whispered. I couldn't believe it. I caught his eyes, expecting irony, but there was none. I just saw… I don't know what it was. Lust, probably, but underneath there was something else. I had no time to spend on that, so I just went on to see if that would work.

"How's your bed?" I asked. He gave me a wary look. "Why?"

I shrugged. "Well, I think we could give it a try, don't you?"

That look again. God, he seemed so serious I almost felt sorry for him. Then he nodded again like he had the first time. "Yes. We could."

I'd told Vern it would be easy. All I had to do now was fuck the guy into sleep and do my job. And maybe leave Oz just after that. Let things go on without me. I followed him in the bedroom and began to strip, purposely slow. He'd won the right to take a good look before the final assault.

He was shy. Well, maybe not shy, actually, but strangely reserved and silent. Not the kind who talks and begs and yells. But his eyes, fuck, his eyes did that all. Talk, and beg, and yell. I kissed him sweet because I thought he could freak out but the way he shoved me against the wall… I nearly broke my skull.

"You've been thinking about me, Beecher?" I asked in his ear, breaking the kiss to catch my breath.

"Yes." And he kissed me again. I pushed him on the bed. Time to make things right, Beecher. See what you're worth. I undressed him hastily. His skin was soft and pale, his body muscled and strong, slender and flexible. I'd seen that in the gym two days ago, I'd noticed the soft curves of his shoulders, his arms, his square hands, and his long neck, the way it bowed and strained every time he hit the punching ball. I'd seen his perfectly muscled back and his slim waist… I wanted to see it again. I wanted those hands to clutch to me, this head to tilt backwards in pleasure. I kissed his neck, licked his shoulder blade, bit his ear, and heard him hiss softly. I laughed into his neck. He smelled good. He didn't smell like the guys on Oz, or like the girls on Mars5 or anyone I'd known. I thought I'd smelled something like that before, but I didn't remember where. " Beecher … Tobias… I'll call you Toby, OK?" I kissed him again "Yeah, I like that. Toby." I loved the sound of the name, I could roll it in my mouth like candy, make it sound needy or sweet. "Toby…" I said again, and heard him moan softly as I took his whole cock in my mouth.

Later, as he was straddling me, my dick deep in his ass, so tight, so hot around me, his arms around my shoulders, his face in my neck, his ragged breath against my skin, I grabbed his hair and pulled his head back. I didn't want to move yet. I wanted him to get used to the feeling, I wanted to make him wait a bit more. Just a bit more and then…

"Look at me, Toby. Look at me. I wanna see your eyes." He opened his eyes slowly, rested an unfocused gaze on me and I shivered. I'd never have a chance to see what people on Earth call the sky. Their sky, so blue in the movies I'd watched. So blue, so clear, so light above their head. And I would never see it now; it was too late for me. But that first night when I lost myself in Beecher 's eyes, that was it. I saw it. It was the same feeling, a feeling of freedom, the feeling you're watching through a pale crystal.

"Move," I whispered, half crazy with need. "Move on me." He opened his mouth, wetted his lips again with the tip of his tongue and began to move, his head thrown back. It was awkward first, but I let him set the pace and then, I began to move too, more and more forcefully, my fingers dipping in his skin, bruising it as I brought him back on me to get deeper and deeper inside him… He'd closed his eyes. "Look at me!" I said, and he did, but after a while, he shook his head and closed his eyes again. Yeah, I thought, pushing him on his back in the middle of the bed to fuck him more easily and take control, yeah, his eyes were like the sky of earth, they were like the water of the pools in the greenhouse, so translucent, and I don't know why but this mere thought pushed me straight over the edge, and I shoved my dick hard inside him and then… then… Oh god, just thinking of it makes me hard, so many years later, the soft moan I heard, the noises in his throat, the way his body shook suddenly when I stroke his dick, once, twice and we came together, as the whole station seemed to shatter around us and we fell through infinite darkness, holding each other tight. That's when I fucked up, I guess. Because I'd never known that kind of pleasure before. Not like that. I'd never fucked a man whose eyes sheltered a whole sky, and whatever happened later, whatever I learned about him, however crazy he got, I never forgot that moment.

When I woke up Toby was holding me tight. I couldn't move without waking him up and I didn't want to wake him up. It was dawn, anyway, through the window in front of me I could see the clouds around Arcturus change from a dark red into a deep gold. I knew I couldn't finish the job that day. I sighed. Ok, I'd do it later. I'd have to fuck him again… I closed my eyes and relaxed in his arms as he moved against me, counted to ten.

" Beecher ? I've gotta go." I shook him softly, watched him stretch, open his eyes. He watched me for a whole minute. His eyes rested on my mouth just long enough to let me know what he was thinking about. Then he nodded.

"I'll be back tonight."

"You'd better be."

I was about to leave when he called me back. "Hey!" I turned to watch him. "Next time I think we should try the shower."

Aw. Working for Schillinger was such a thrill! I laughed. "Whatever you want, Beecher ."

Then I closed the door softly and left before anybody knew I'd been there.