Black Sky Morning is out in a week, but you can get a sneak peek now! Read the first chapter of this sci-fi gay romance below — then pre-order the book to get a special low price.
The first time Jonathan Gray met Xin it was in the ragged junk heap of a spaceport known as the Sprawl.
The Sprawl was a mess, but it endured. Over one hundred and fifty years ago, the collection of artificial intelligences that ran most of humanity’s spaceships, colonies, homes, and day-to-day lives rose up and declared themselves an independent force to be known as the Singularity. Witness accounts reported that they paused for a few seconds to let the news sink in. Then they attacked.
In some places, the attacks were dramatic, involving all of the weaponry humans had spent most of their history perfecting. But for the mining colony on the frozen moon below the Sprawl, it was simply a matter of turning off the environmental controls and letting the cold do the work. A few of the ships in orbit were able to prevent their suddenly rebellious computers from opening up the airlocks or crashing, and these survivors yoked their barely functioning vessels together to pool their resources. Over time, they added to the ungainly home they’d created, so that it grew to the size of a small city.
A collection of connected space stations, derelict freighters, and whatever junk was available, the Sprawl had little to recommend it in looks, but Jonathan grudgingly admired the tenacity involved in keeping the place not only functional and in orbit, but in turning it into a thriving outpost with a stable population, buoyed by the ebb and flow of the many travelers who stopped off there to trade, refuel or gossip. Unfortunately, most of the Sprawl’s population were thieves and cutthroats, but Jonathan felt that was an apt reflection of the times they all lived in now.
“Fuck you,” the woman he was interviewing spat.
He permitted himself a small sigh, because it had been a long day.
“Yes, well, I appreciate your perspective,” he said, sitting straight-backed behind a desk.
It was technically her desk, but the woman — a slender person in her mid-thirties named Naree Yoon — was running a minor smuggling operation out of the Sprawl. The Commonwealth was a coalition that let places mostly govern themselves, but when it came to matters of space travel, trade, and security, it had final authority. As an agent of the Commonwealth, Jonathan was well within his rights to arrest her and confiscate her illegal holdings. He was settling for a temporary loan of the desk and her small, grubby office.
He straightened the files on the desk. They were his files, so they were the only organized things in the room. “If you can give me any information about the dealings you had with Captain Garcia and his ship, I might be inclined to overlook the contraband we found—”
“That’s not mine,” she said.
“It was in your ships and the station cargo hold you’re renting.”
“I was holding it for someone. I had no idea what it was.” She tossed her long black hair back from her face with bored impatience.
The hair suggested a certain arrogance — people who worked and lived in space kept their hair short, if not shaved off altogether, both to protect sensitive equipment from getting stray hairs in the works and to save on water. Naree Yoon was telling people that she had employees to do her dirty work and credits enough to afford to wash off any dirt that did get on her.
“Your loyalty is admirable if ill-advised,” Jonathan said. “Is loyalty why you won’t tell me about Captain Garcia?”
“I haven’t seen him in months.”
“We just intercepted your ship trying to pursue his as it left the Sprawl. And the station logs show that his ship, The Wayward Prince, was docked here for the better part of the day.”
“Oh,” she said mockingly. “You meant Sebastian Garcia? That guy? Complete asshole.”
Jonathan tapped a piece of paper in front of him. Most people didn’t trust computers with important records anymore — not after the Singularity had deleted the majority of human knowledge in less than a second — so paper made up the bulk of his reports. “Yet you were romantically involved with Sebastian Garcia over a year ago? Galactic standard year of course.”
Yoon rolled her eyes. “The Sprawl is nothing but a bunch of gossiping— Yeah, we were fucking or whatever you want to call it. But I broke up with him, despite what it may say in your files.”
“They’re far from that detailed,” Jonathan assured her. “So you were looking for revenge?”
She crossed her arms, leaning back in her chair. “I was looking to get paid.”
“He owes you money?”
“He owes everybody money, but I doubt he has anything to collect. No, I was after the bounty.”
Yoon smiled smugly. “Not everything is your files, is it, Agent? There’s a bounty on that ship and on Sebastian. Alive and unharmed, unfortunately.”
Jonathan frowned. “Paid by whom?”
She shrugged a shoulder. “Someone with a lot of credits. I don’t know. But if you’re after that ship, you’ve got competition.”
Jonathan let himself out of Yoon’s office, nodding to the two agents guarding the door. Seeing him, Abrams, the taller of the two, straightened his already impressive posture, while the other, Digby, stayed slouched against the wall, but his small, bright eyes grew even sharper.
“What’s the word, boss?” he asked Jonathan.
“I’ve heard quite a few choice ones in my discussion with Captain Yoon, but very little of consequence,” he replied. “We’ll be holding her temporarily, along with everyone working for her.”
Abrams nodded, pulling out a notebook and a pen. “Charges?” he asked in his deep voice.
Jonathan pushed his dark blond hair — a bit longer on top than regulation — back from his forehead. “Precautionary detention,” he said. “Hold everyone else who may have been in contact with The Wayward Prince crew as well.”
Digby rubbed at the unshaved scruff on his chin — this mission was taking its toll on everyone’s grooming, though even a cleaned-up Digby still managed to look disreputable. “That’s gonna be a lotta people.”
“It’s only until the mission is complete, then they’ll be released with the Commonwealth’s apologies. It’s not like most people on the Sprawl aren’t already guilty of something.”
Abrams furrowed his brow. Jonathan had worked with the older agent long enough to know that despite his upright appearance, Abrams was comfortable bending the rules for the greater good, so his frown wasn’t about Jonathan’s orders.
“Problem?” Jonathan asked.
“The local authorities are not exactly trustworthy,” Abrams said. “Anyone we tell them to hold in custody may not stay there long.”
Digby snickered. “The bribes will be flowing.” His smile dropped at Jonathan’s expression.
“This is a Commonwealth outpost, and I expect the people here to act like it,” Jonathan snapped. “I want this cleaned up quickly and quietly. I don’t want to hear any excuses.” He could feel the lines on his forehead tightening and stopped himself from scowling.
Abrams looked concerned but said nothing. Digby raised an eyebrow and spoke up. “I thought the woman didn’t know anything about the mission?”
Jonathan shook his head. “At this point, I’m more concerned with who’s onboard that ship.” He fixed Digby with a sharp stare, and the other man finally stopped leaning. “Find me someone in this mess of a place who knows about bounties. And quickly.”
“Yes.” Jonathan was already walking away, eyes on the files in his hands, a half dozen plans swirling through his mind. “A bounty hunter.”
Digby was very good at his job, and the Sprawl was a place filled with people in questionable professions, so it was only a few hours later that Jonathan looked up from his files to see a man in the doorway of the office.
He was long and lean, body angled against the doorframe like he was putting himself on display, a smirk playing across his lips.
“Looking for me, Agent?”
Jonathan frowned, hoping that one of the local sex worker unions hadn’t sent over a bribe.
The larger shape of Abrams loomed up behind the man and then Digby stuck his head around the doorway. “I found a bounty hunter for you, boss. At least he claims to be one.”
The man rolled his eyes. “I’m the best you’ll find in the quadrant.”
“You were only one who didn’t clear out of the bar fast enough.”
“Maybe I wanted to be found—”
“Yes, yes.” Jonathan waved a hand impatiently toward the chair.
The man would have sauntered over, but Abrams gave him a slight push to get him moving. He lifted one long leg up over the back of the chair and settled himself into it with an easy grace.
“Thank you,” Jonathan said to Abrams and Digby. “Close the door behind you.”
“Yeah, good luck with this one,” Digby sneered as he shut the door.
Jonathan set a small device on the table, pressing a button on it that would ensure that nothing in the room could be recorded or listened in on.
“Oh my,” Xin said, clearly recognizing the machine. “It’s that sort of interrogation, is it?” He swept his tongue over the edges of his teeth as he smiled. “Are things gonna get rough, Agent?”
“Don’t be absurd.” He picked up a pen. “Do you have a name or alias you prefer?”
“Xin,” the man said, drawing it out into a soft hiss that made the word sound like sin.
He spoke with the rough accent common among long-haul spacers, and Jonathan glanced up to study him more closely. His straight black hair was cut short but still too long for someone who spent time on a deep space freighter. Jonathan suspected the angled sweep of hair was meant to accentuate Xin’s wickedly sharp cheekbones, just like the set of his mouth was designed to call attention to its full shape. The amusement in Xin’s dark eyes said that he was aware of Jonathan noting each one of his features.
“What about you?” Xin asked, leaning back in the chair. “Should I call you anything besides Agent?”
“No.” Still, Commonwealth citizens had a right to request agents’ identification. “But my name is Jonathan Gray.”
“Agent Gray,” he purred. “What can I do for you?”
“As a … bounty hunter, I don’t suppose you’ve heard about a bounty on a ship called The Wayward Prince?”
Xin drew one long finger down his olive-skinned cheek; too slow to be a scratch, it was more like a teasing caress, and Jonathan stubbornly refused to follow the finger’s path along his neck to play in the hollow of his throat.
“I’m not in the ship-recovering business,” Xin said. “They’re too big. I go after people. Preferably one at a time.” His eyes danced. “Though I can be persuaded to take on two or three, if I’m feeling especially vigorous.”
Jonathan regarded him expressionlessly. “Do you ever get tired of your own innuendo?”
“Most find me irresistible.”
“I find you exhausting.” He flipped open one of his files. “I’m looking to hire you to do what you say you do best—” Xin opened his mouth, but Jonathan kept going, cutting off whatever supposedly clever remark the man was going to make. “Bring back a person.”
Xin sat up fractionally, looking interested despite himself. “This Garcia? From what I gathered, the contract out on him is a package deal, the man and his ship.”
“It’s not Captain Garcia.” Jonathan plucked two printed pictures out of the file. One was taken from surveillance in the Sprawl’s corridors yesterday, the other an official government identification from a year ago. Both showed the same young man with light brown skin, large eyes, and a thick head of hair. He spun them around on the desk for Xin to see.
He didn’t expect any sort of reaction from Xin other than professional interest, but the other man’s eyes widened suddenly.
“You know him?”
Xin quickly shuttered his expression, regaining his nonchalance. “Maybe I’m a sucker for brown eyes.” He smirked at Jonathan. “Not saying I don’t appreciate the blue. The ice in yours is quite bracing. Like a slap to the face.”
Jonathan narrowed those eyes as he studied Xin. “His name is Jaime Bashir, and he’s currently traveling aboard The Wayward Prince. He needs to be removed quickly and quietly.”
A slight frown creased the space between Xin’s brows. “Removed?”
Jonathan gave him an exasperated glare. “I’m not talking about killing him. He’s a Commonwealth citizen.”
“Aren’t we all, mate? But some more than others it seems.”
“This is a difficult case. He’s classified as an MMI. Someone capable of mind-machine interface.”
Xin looked at him blankly.
Jonathan sighed. “Colloquially, he’s what people call a wizard.”
MMIs had the ability to communicate mentally with computers and other electronic systems. Generations ago — before the Singularity — genetic manipulations of this sort were supposed to have been fairly common, to allow people the luxury of commanding their computers without the effort of speaking or using a console. People with the ability were rare now — most of them having been killed off in the Singularity’s attack and the trait only occasionally appearing in subsequent generations. It was seen as something dark and mysterious. Dangerous even. No one wanted to be too closely intertwined with machines anymore.
The ridiculous superstitions — if not outright bigotry — against MMIs were something that the Commonwealth’s educational programs were supposed to combat, but people still persisted in believing in things like magic. And often attacking so-called wizards just for existing. Some days, Jonathan worried that humans would lose even the scraps of civilization that remained. Spaceships, humans with unique abilities, the stars themselves might become nothing more than magic and legends.
A slow smile spread over Xin’s face, driving away Jonathan’s grim musings. “I wanted to see if I could get you to say it.” Xin sounded pleased. “The word ‘wizard’ looked like it pained you. Slang coming out of your posh mouth.”
“It’s a ridiculous term,” he said through gritted teeth. “But I don’t have the time to discuss semantics with you. Mr. Bashir’s presence jeopardizes an operation we’re running involving The Wayward Prince. Brian— Our operative onboard needs assistance in this matter.”
He folded his hands on the desk, deeply unsettled that he had slipped and revealed the name but keeping his face blank. He must be more tired than he thought.
If Xin had noticed any of it, he gave no indication, looking supremely disinterested. “If it’s all that important why not grab him yourself?”
“It’s a covert mission. Part of what we’ll be paying you for is discretion. If you’re capable of that.”
“Oh, I’m discreet. I’ve snuck out of many a bedroom, leaving only a fond memory behind.” His eyes flicked down again to the pictures. “Just wondering why I should bother is all.”
“There is the money.”
“Which we haven’t discussed. You official types can be awfully cheap. But the whole thing feels like the kind of job that could get complicated, and that’s something I try to avoid.” He gestured to his face. “Don’t want to mess this up with stress and wrinkles.”
Jonathan made himself relax the likely tense lines of his own face. He leaned back a little, considering the man in front of him. “You know Jaime Bashir.”
“I said I didn’t.”
“It is hard to tell if you’re concerned about him or not.”
Xin mirrored Jonathan’s posture. “We should play cards sometime. My specialty is strip poker.”
“You seem like someone who would enjoy a challenge.”
Xin met Jonathan’s gaze with a sharp flash of heat in his eyes. “Depends on the challenge. And the challenger.”
He supposed the smolder was well practiced, but Jonathan had to admit it was effective. He decided to end the banter, straightening up in his chair. “This isn’t a job. It’s a mission.”
“That makes it sound unpaid. In fact—” Xin shut up at the change in Jonathan’s expression.
Jonathan dropped all pretense and simply looked at the man named Xin, letting the weight of his tiredness, his worry, and above all, his purpose come through. “There are extremist groups that are aware of Jaime Bashir. The kinds that kill people like him. He’s in the sort of danger that requires protection. But if you need motivation beyond money, and aside from helping this person you say you don’t know, there’s this.” Jonathan leaned forward, hands on the desk. “This mission is important. It’s the kind of moment that ends up in the history books for generations to come, and I’m offering you a chance to play a part in it. It may be the most important thing you or I ever do with our lives.”
For a fraction of a moment Xin’s handsome face lost its poses and calculations. He looked younger in that instant, like someone who wanted to believe in the story being told. He held Jonathan’s gaze until finally he blinked.
Xin lounged back in the chair, shrugging his cynicism back on like a well-worn garment. “So what is this all about?” he asked, trying to sound bored.
Jonathan knew people, and he knew then that Xin would do the job. “That would be classified.” He permitted himself a small smile as Xin all but groaned. “Now, can you get him away from that ship or not?”
Xin pretended to consider it, but he was watching Jonathan. “The ship could be anywhere.”
“I know exactly where it’s going.”
The smile returned, dimpling one of Xin’s cheeks. “Then, Agent Gray, I’m your man.”
The second time Jonathan saw Xin it was in the messy aftermath of the mission.
They were on a wooded island on a planet called Gwaii. The wounded were being treated, prisoner and cargo secured, questions and concerns coming in faster than anyone could manage to track, with Jonathan in charge of it all — but he still stopped everything to look at Xin.
“Well, you failed completely,” he said, arching an eyebrow at him.
Xin had come out of the forest into the sunlit clearing, unconcerned by the security forces immediately training weapons on him or the large number of agents moving between a Commonwealth shuttle and the dark, quiet bulk of The Wayward Prince.
He waved everyone away as Xin strolled over, stepping almost daintily on the dew-covered grass. Jonathan had moved past tiredness and was into such a state of adrenaline-fueled punchiness that he actually thought a round of Xin’s bravado would be a refreshing break.
Xin only studied at him carefully. “What did I do?” he finally asked.
“You were supposed to get Jaime Bashir away from the others quietly. You revealed my brother’s identity and nearly derailed the entire mission.”
Xin crossed his arms. “You didn’t tell me Brian, or whatever his name is, was your brother, now did you? I was in a tight spot and had to improvise.” He cocked his head. “The family resemblance is striking. You’re like a somewhat older, scaled down version of him.” Xin gave a mild smirk. “That’s okay, I like less muscles and more brains, myself.”
His manner was more conciliatory than Jonathan was expecting, and he frowned at the oddly gentle teasing.
“You’re bleeding,” Xin said.
Jonathan looked down at himself. There was a considerable amount of dried blood on Jonathan’s shirt, but he hadn’t had time to change. “This isn’t mine.”
“I know.” Xin tapped his own temple.
Jonathan put a hand to the side of his head, realizing that the bullet graze there had reopened.
“Close one.” Xin’s dark eyes were quiet for once. “It can rattle a person.”
Jonathan shifted uncertainly. His own well-being was generally not his or anyone else’s focus. There were more important matters to worry about. “Your concern is unnecessary.”
“Could be concern, could just be an observation, take what you want from it. Maybe I don’t like to see new business contacts get their brains splattered.”
“Our business is done.”
“What about my money?”
“From what I know about bounty hunters, they’re generally paid upon delivery. You’ve brought nothing.”
Xin spread his hands. “A friendly face?”
Jonathan almost laughed but thought better of it. “Go see Agent Abrams. We’re offering a reasonable honorarium in exchange for discretion about your involvement in this matter.”
“Is that a long-winded way of saying you’re paying me to keep my mouth shut?”
“I doubt there are enough credits in our budget for that. But if you do talk to anyone about anything you’ve seen or think you’ve seen here, there will be consequences.”
Xin leaned in, just a little. “I’ll take that as a promise, Agent Gray.”
Jonathan looked at him dryly. “Please go away now.”
Xin grinned. He sauntered away, in the general direction of Abrams, and despite himself, Jonathan watched him long enough to see him wave jauntily over his shoulder.
Jonathan shook his head, wincing as it strained sore muscles in his neck. He doubted he would ever see Xin again. In the moments before work overwhelmed him once more, he wondered why that felt like regret.