I’ve written more than once about that one moment. That moment in the story when the hero makes an irrevocable choice. That moment when the reader screams at the hero to do the opposite of what he actually does. That (final) moment when all of the shit can be averted. That moment when the writer either ratchets up the tension, or gives up on the story entirely.
A brief warning for those readers I’ve gained since I last wrote about these two: Connor and Oz are the protagonists of my sci-fi stories. Everything I create in my sci-fi universe comes through their lens. Beyond that, however — way, way beyond that — Oz is, of all the characters I’ve ever created in any story, far-and-away my favorite. Connor is fun, but Oz is…well…important to me…
Anyway, that one moment for Connor:
Connor entered The Beat and paused a moment to let the music wash over him. It was a recording this time. An old one, from when Vin and Marie were young and stupid, as Marie had once put it. Oz was at one of the tables, a strange look on his face.
Great, something was wrong. Connor didn’t want something wrong. Connor didn’t need something wrong. He needed everything to be perfect. Things had gone well with Nat so far, but failure was still a very real possibility and he didn’t think he would like the consequences of that. His last shift working cargo had shown him just how strong were the demons of his past, and he knew the only way to quiet them was to win the revenge he sought.
A wave for Oz, then, and a grin, and Connor stepped over to greet Marie at the bar. He leaned across the bar and answered her hello with a kiss on the cheek and a smile.
She looked at Fadi, at the end of the bar, and said with mock-severity, “You see what I have to put up with? These ikiryo always want to take advantage of me.” Then, to Connor, “Oz already ordered lunch for you two. He’s worried about something, but he won’t say what.”
Connor nodded. “Thanks, Marie.” He turned to Fadi and held his hand out. Their shake was brief but strong. “Thanks again, Captain. Miko’s givin’ me more jobs, and I owe you. You doin’ another cargo run soon?”
“I leave tonight. Be back in a week or so. You did good last time, so I told your boss he’d get the work again,” Fadi answered with a nod.
Connor’s large smile held genuine gratitude and warmth, a rarity with a stranger. “That’s all I can ask. Thanks again, boss.”
Marie had put a bottle on the counter and Connor took it with him when he stepped over to take the seat across from Oz. He poured a drink for each of them, then said, “Glad you had some time, bozu. Been a couple days since we talked much.”
Oz’s smile held all of the warmth they shared, but also a touch of stress, and of worry. “Between the docks and the girl, you’ve been going pretty steady for the last few days. How’re things?”
Connor gave a little shrug. “With Nat? Good. She sends a message or screens me a couple times a day. I’d say she’s pretty well hooked.”
“How about work? Both kinds of work, I mean.”
There was definitely something on Oz’s mind. His expression, his eyes, his words…they all said he was dancing around something he wasn’t sure how to approach. Connor’s feeling of wrongness grew stronger. He considered his words for a moment before he answered. “I haven’t boosted a damn thing, and I’ve let every fuckin’ kamo slide past. Been a good little angel, just like we talked about.”
Oz’s stare was penetrating, but there was a touch of fear deep in his dark eyes. “Spog…Miko screened me. He’s kinda worried about you. Said you’re pretty wound up at work, that you’re distracted and out of it. I guess Moran talked to him, checking on you. Miko likes you, so he just shined the aho on, but he was worried. So, tell me again, how’s work?”
Connor took a long a drink, picked at his rice for a few moments. He looked up finally and said, “It’s fine, bozu. Why would anything be wrong? Nat is reacting just like we talked about, and the mappo and jaao por ain’t fuckin’ with me, so what could be wrong?”
Shit, the last thing Connor needed was Oz getting worried about him. Everything was under control. Nat was coming tonight — that thought brought a gulp and a surge of stress — and he didn’t have time for this.
Oz shook his head. “You haven’t had a real night’s sleep in a week, and you look like it. Spog…Connor…you talk in your sleep. You always have. I know you’re dreaming about your dad again, and about the Riot.” He reached out and touched Connor’s hand…gently, slowly, almost hesitantly. “Tell me about it.”
Connor looked away, considered the question. In all their years of friendship, only three subjects had been off limits, never to be discussed. His dad’s death was one of those. He didn’t want to talk about it. Hell, he didn’t want to even think about it. The past was gone, why dredge it back up?
“Bozu…I’ve got it, I’m fine. It’s just stress. I’ve got Nat coming tonight, and I’m gonna break it to her that I’m not Devon. That’s got me imagining all kinds of kuso, but everything’s okay. Donmai, Oz.”
“Bullshit. For four years you’ve buried it away, but it’s still there. The anger and the guilt. It’s all coming back again, isn’t it?”
Oz’s stare was direct and knowing. Far too knowing. Connor couldn’t look away from his friend, couldn’t find a place to hide from that stare. Why did it all have to crash down now? First the dreams…then the memories…and now Oz was at him, too? Shit.
Oz continued, pressed harder. “Spog, I’ve never had a goddamned family. You know that better than anyone. You’re it, you’re all I have. I can’t watch you tear yourself up like this. I want to help, and I have an idea.”
Connor’s tongue was firmly tied. He finally tore his eyes away from Oz’s, managed to look down at his lunch. A drink, then, and more picking at food that tasted like ashes. His gaze was locked firmly on his lunch when he answered. “Help? How? I don’t have time for this, bozu. I’m okay. We’re better off talkin’ about this date than some fuckin’ dreams that don’t mean shit. I gotta get ready for tonight.”
“You’re not okay. You’re not even close. You’ve boxed it all away, Connor, but you have to deal with it. I know it’s weird for me to say something like this, but you can’t just bury all this shit. Let’s go to the Memorial. In four years, you’ve never been, and I think it will help. You’re dad’s dead, Spog. You told me about it that first night, but haven’t said a word since.” Again he touched Connor’s hand, gripped it this time. “Let’s go, right now…please.”
The Memorial…the one place Dockside had given itself to mourn the dead. The Riot had bred grief and pain, but Docksiders seldom gave in to such emotions. Resentment and rage were no problem, but seldom were there tears.
Oz was right, Connor had never been to the Memorial. He’d never wanted to wake the oh-so-carefully-buried demons. In the end, he’d always been too afraid, even if he would never admit that.
Shit, life had been so much simpler when Connor had just been scamming takies so he could eat that night. When did things get so complicated? Was Oz right? Would it help? Maybe…but the last thing Connor needed was the emotional shitstorm the Memorial would bring. He just didn’t have the time.
He was shaking his head before the words were ready. “I can’t, bozu. Even if I wanted to, I can’t. Not now. I really do have to get ready for tonight. Nat’s coming, and I need to make sure everything goes perfect.”
With Nat, he knew what he was doing. With Nat, he was in control. Connor very badly needed to be in control just then.
Oz’s expression didn’t change, but Connor knew his friend. Yet another thing Oz had been right about: they were each other’s only family. Each, without the other, was alone…and alone was worse.
There was hurt in Oz’s eyes, hurt Connor wasn’t prepared to deal with. No change in his voice, no change in his face, but Oz’s eyes held all of the secret emotions that were another of those things they didn’t talk about.
Shit, this was not what Connor needed. Oz was breaking the rules. For four years they had lived in balance. Friendship and brotherhood, a unique kind of love, even, if one that meant something different to each. Why change now? What was going on?
A moment of that stare, then Oz found his own drink fascinating. He swirled his glass with all the focus of someone disarming a bomb. “Spog, at least talk to me about it. It’s getting to you, and everyone can see it. Even Marie sees it…why do you think she set up that cargo job for you?” He looked up, then, appeal in his eyes. “We can reschedule that date. It’s probably better to string her along, anyway. Make sure she’s well and truly hooked. Let’s go get wasted.”
“Hottoku, Oz. Enough,” Connor said. He didn’t have time for this. “Some other time, not today.” He reached out, touched Oz’s arm. It was stiff, the muscles locked, but nothing showed on that thin, handsome face. “I appreciate it, bozu, I really do. Just…not now, huh? I got too much to do.”
Why was Oz suddenly so fragile? That shook Connor. It was Oz who was the strong one. Oz who kept him going when things got to be too much. If Oz broke down, Connor didn’t know what he would do. Probably be right back at the edge of death…just like the day they met.
Connor had an image, then, of being cold and alone, of death’s footsteps echoing on the deck. He shuddered and almost changed his mind, but the moment passed. He had to get ready.
He stood and put a hand on Oz’s shoulder, squeezed gently. His voice was quiet, “We’ll go out in a couple days, I promise. Somewhere peaceful, bozu.” It was no question this time, it was back to a promise…and a wish.
Oz was quiet, still swirling his drink. “Jaa ne, Spog.”