an excerpt

Chapter One

Stretching luxuriously, Byron finally finished restocking the bottles on the shelves. It had been a good night in Diamond. He actually enjoyed working in the bar. A Cruiser-class ship had docked for the night and the station, Niteo, had been inundated with visitors. As a consequence, he'd made a lot of credits in tips that he could add to his savings.

He stopped and listened and then glanced through to the lounge. Jem was polishing tables in there, but Byron hadn't heard anything from his friend for a few minutes.

"How are we doing in there, Jem?"

"Doing well, Byron."

Entering the room, Byron quickly realised that his shout had jolted the half-drowsing young man from his somnambulant haze, and he was gifted with a tired smile.

Shaking his head, Byron looked at Jem. His friend had been frozen mid-polish as Byron had come jauntily through, a bright grin on his face.

According to Jem, morning, noon or night, Byron always looked alert and...he sparkled... Jem had no other way to put it. You just seem to project energy from the tips of your silvery-blue, spiked hair to your toes. I don't know how you manage. Well, he did have a good reason, one he hadn't yet revealed to his friend.

"You look tired. Why not catch some sleep and I'll finish off in here?" Byron suggested, sympathetically. "Your family expect too much of you. When did you start this morning?"

"Well, I actually had a really late night. Airlia had a special cargo of clothing coming that needed to be out for the twins' boutique, and then I had to clean the jewellery shop first thing." Jem shrugged.

Pursing his lips, Byron studied Jem. The young man's dark hair no longer had the lustre from several months previously, and his friend's once-expressive eyes always looked tired these days. He was also sure Jem's slender frame had lost more weight and he was skinny enough as it was.

"If Uncle Derex comes to check on the cleaning then we'll both be in trouble." Jem spoke around a barely concealed yawn.

"You're more than just tired." Byron planted his hands on his hips as he glared at Jem. "Are you having those nightmares again?"

"Yes. I see my Dad, Byron. I know he's dead but I dream he's alive and calling for help. I just can't find him." Jem rubbed at his eyes.

"And we've just had a big seminar here on the station." Byron slapped a hand against his forehead.

That means Jem would have had extra work to do, cleaning and stocking the other business premises over the last couple of days. I'm such an idiot.

"The seminar on the space station meant a large influx of customers wanting gifts to take back home, outfits in which to dazzle, and drinks during their off-time." Jem gave Byron a wan smile. "And we cater for all of those needs."

Niteo was one of the biggest stations Byron had worked on. It mimicked a city floating in space and was in a perfect location for space-hopping visitors. The levels were all clearly defined. Docking was on the lowest level and was where the ships constantly loaded and unloaded cargoes, whether people or commodities. They were on the level above docking. Recreation contained shops, bars, restaurants, and conference centres where he and Jem spent all their working time.

Above them was accommodation, including apartments for the people who lived and worked there permanently as well as the hotels for the multitude of visitors. The topmost level held the staff who ran the station; the controllers who oversaw ships docking and departing, station security, and those who monitored and approved or declined the applicants who wanted to lease property. He'd never been on that level. It wasn't for the likes of bar workers like him.

The station was popular and busy, Byron liked working there. Sometimes, though, things got excessively busy and the conference, quickly followed by the cruiser's visit, meant very little downtime for the workers.

Shaking his head, Byron covered Jem's hand with his own, stopping it from moving in the same circle it had for the last few minutes. He pulled Jem's thin frame into a hug. From what he knew of his friend's life, Jem's stepmother now owned and completely controlled his dead father's businesses.

He'd heard that Airlia was a shrewd and successful businesswoman. She'd appointed a manager, knowledgeable in jewellery, to run Cinder's Exotic Gemstones and she had given her children, Jem's twin stepbrother and sister--Kyle and Kira, respectively--Jewel, a glamorous boutique that imported party-wear and fashionable accessories from accredited designers.

Those businesses, along with the bar managed by his stepuncle, meant Jem worked hard, often eighteen of the twenty-four cycles of the station.

Whilst Jem wasn't part of the front-line staff, he cleaned the shops and the bar, was responsible for the displays, and processed the orders for them. It was a lot of work for one individual. Too much, Byron mused angrily.

Byron also knew Jem got paid very little for the long hours of work he put in, but as Airlia kept reminding his friend, you would be incapable of finding work elsewhere because of your medical history. The more Airlia said it, the more introverted Jem became. Jem was industrious, intelligent, and dependable, although he was also innately shy. Airlia's sniping was destroying Jem's confidence and Byron didn't like the way it kept Jem dependent on a family he neither liked nor trusted.

Jem even argued with him over the fact Airlia ensured he was fed and clothed and had a roof over his head. Jem helped with the basics in return for all she did for him. Byron cast a surreptitious glance at Jem. The clothes the young man wore looked little better than rags.

Airlia constantly reminded Jem that she and Derex had saved the jewellery business from collapse. I didn't get much time to get to know your dad, my friend, but I still find it hard to believe Maddox had been so deep in debt he fled the space station, emptying the bank account, only to die when his shuttle suffered a malfunction and crashed. One thing I do know, Maddox was as devoted to you as you are to him, even now.

His death had taken place over a year ago and Jem had suffered a mental breakdown in the aftermath. Airlia carefully monitored Jem and told him he would find working outside the family businesses too demanding and thus too much for his fragile mental state. Byron wondered if Jem's fragile mental state had more to do with the taxing expectations of his stepmother. If the work she expected of Jem wasn't demanding, then Byron didn't know what was.

"I'm so tired, Byron." Jem gave a heavy sigh. "Sometimes I wish for Dad so much it's like a physical ache."

"Have you given any more thought to leaving Niteo with me?" Byron kept a spark of hope that one day Jem would say yes. But his friend shook his head.

"I can't. I love you like a brother, Byron, but I can't turn my back on my family. Airlia hadn't been married to Dad that long. She could have abandoned me, but she stood by me."

"She knows you put family first and that you're loyal to a fault." Byron shook his head. "The real reason you get to clean up here is that Derex trusts no one, but knows he can rely on you to watch me."

"I'm sure that's not the case. He's just protecting the company." Jem's voice was barely above a mumble and Byron sighed heavily.

Knowing Airlia's selfish nature, the act of compassion regarding Jem seemed incredibly out of keeping with her natural ruthlessness. There was little Byron could do about her, but there was something he could do for Jem as his friend yawned widely. "Right. You are going to rest."

To his relief, Jem did not put up any resistance as Byron guided him to a long, padded seat and sat him down. He swung Jem's feet up, and trotted away for a minute to get a blanket he then tucked around his friend. He got a tired, grateful smile before Jem closed his eyes.

Byron waited until he heard the sounds that signalled Jem had fallen asleep. There were no concerns Derex would return anytime soon. The corpulent older man had been drinking heavily during the day--as usual--and would himself be asleep, not coming to give the bar a random check.

A mischievous chuckle escaped Byron. Oh, Airlia. If you only knew just how much of the bar's profits your precious brother consumes in liquid form, you'd be horrified.

He glanced affectionately at the slumbering Jem. He deserved so much more from life. As a beautiful and intelligent young man, Jem should be enjoying himself and mixing with friends. Byron still hoped to coax Jem into station hopping with him. I know I can take care of us both and you would be happier and healthier away from your parasitic stepfamily. He checked on Jem to find his friend still slept soundly.

Then he morphed.

His body collapsed into itself as he rearranged his cells into a new form. His jumpsuit shrank as he flowed free from the garment, then he began to reform. He took the shape of a large, grey, flat-bodied creature with half a dozen yellow eyes and six long, writhing tentacles. Each tentacle scooped up a cloth and began to polish the tables.

A layer of cilia beneath his flat body provided a rapid means of motion and he danced across the floor, humming happily to himself as he cleaned. This way he needed only a few minutes to clean what would have taken Jem at least another hour. Resuming his human form and redressing, Byron gazed across at Jem, who still slept soundly.

"Perhaps I should tell you I'm a polymorph." He kept his voice to a whisper, so as not to wake Jem. "Soon." He nodded.

Polymorphs were not entirely trusted by those unable to change their shapes. He needed to find a way to tell Jem to ensure he kept their treasured friendship. He poured himself a shot of fruit juice, the fructose giving him an instant buzz. He couldn't drink much. However, with a grin, he poured a second drink and moved to sit at the feet of his human friend, savouring the refreshment, while he let Jem sleep undisturbed.