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So I went through the story, right from the start — which shocked young Benjamin, let me tell you. He couldn’t believe the kind of party Willow held for crossing the line. Tobit told him not to be naive. "Just goes to show," he said, "the crew knew they’d pissed off the League. They were all in on it, they were all guilty… and they were all whacked out with fear as they came up to crossing the line. In a way, you have to admire these bastards; most Vacheads would just sit around moaning if they knew they were going to die. At least this group had the good taste to hold an orgy." He sighed, then glanced at me. "I don’t suppose you know what gruesome deed they’d done?"

I shook my head. "No one told me anything."

"You were just a passenger. Getting rotated back to New Earth, right?"

"Right. I was stationed on the moonbase near Troyen, but it was getting too dangerous to stay. You know Troyen’s having a big civil war? Most of the time they just fight among themselves, but a few weeks ago someone took a potshot at us — a missile came close to landing on top of our station. The blast disrupted our outer dome field and nearly knocked down the inner one… so our base commander decided we had to evacuate. The other personnel got away in a two-person scoutship, but I was assigned to stay behind till everything shut down properly."

"They left you on your own?" Benjamin said. "While Mandasars were shooting missiles at your base?"

"There was only the one missile," I told him, "and I volunteered to stay. Somebody had to make sure the computers finished locking everything down. Anyway, Willow came to get me, so it was all right."

Tobit asked, "When did Willow show up in the Troyen system?"

"Right after the others left in the scoutship. Willow’s name just appeared on the base’s list of in-system ships. They hung around for five days, then picked me up to go home."

"Sounds like they were on a secret mission," Benjamin said with sudden interest. "The way they didn’t come out till everyone else had gone. Orbiting the planet five days even when they might get shot at. Not telling you what they were up to…"

"Of course, they were on a secret mission, toad-breath!" Tobit rolled his eyes. "For one thing, they were ferrying this queen from Troyen to Celestia… which was probably what got the poor buggers killed. The League takes a dim view of folks transporting dangerous non-sentients from one star system to another. And I’ll lay you good odds this queen qualified as non-sentient — ready and willing to commit murder. You said Troyen’s been at war for twenty years?"

I nodded.

"Well then," Tobit went on, "she’d have her own army, wouldn’t she?" He patted the queen’s chitinous flank. "How long d’you think this old gal could play warlord and still keep her mandibles clean… never taking a single wee life except in direct self-defense?" He snorted. "When I studied hive-queens at the academy, no one ever described them as saints."

"So," I said, "the League killed the queen because she’d killed other people. And they killed Willow’s crew for trying to transport a dangerous creature to another world?"

Tobit nodded. "It’s the League’s own version of disease controclass="underline" never let uncivilized organisms leave their home system. This queen must have claimed to be a perfect angel, and Willow’s crew gambled she was telling the truth. They lost the bet."

It made me feel bad, how I’d been puzzling over things for more than a week without getting anywhere, then someone like Tobit could walk in, take one look, and explain why everybody died. "So," I said, worried this would be obvious too, "who sent the nanites? What did they want?"

"Fucked if I know," Tobit answered. "What good is stolen venom? And how did the nanites get smuggled onto the ship? Who knew Willow would be transporting a hive-queen? Someone on Troyen? Or maybe someone on Celestia?"

"Why Celestia?" Benjamin asked.

"Jesus, boy," Tobit groaned, "didn’t you learn anything at the Academy? Celestia has a Mandasar population too — ten million children were evacuated just before the shit hit the fan on Troyen. Everyone thought it was only a temporary measure; a happy-sappy field trip. But the war’s dragged on for two decades, and the brats have all grown up."

He turned suddenly toward the queen’s corpse and stared for a few seconds. "Hey… when the Outward Fleet shipped the kids to Celestia, I don’t remember the Admiralty including any queens."

"They didn’t," I said. "My sister belonged to the Diplomacy Corps back then; the High Council wanted her to check with all the queens to see if any wanted to evacuate with the children. Samantha just laughed — a queen would never abandon her home territory to baby-sit a bunch of kids. It wouldn’t be regal."

"So Celestia has ten million junior Mandasars," Tobit murmured, "and nary a queen. Then again, who gives a shit? The lower castes are as smart as humans. They can take care of themselves."

"But they have all these instincts," I said. "They want guidance. They need to be ruled by a proper queen."

Tobit made a face. "I bet a queen told you that. The poor dear peasants couldn’t possibly survive without kissing my royal heinie." He grunted. "But whether or not it’s true, some of the damned lobsters probably believe it. Especially on Celestia, where they don’t remember life under a queen’s thumb. If they arrived as kids, what are they now, in their twenties? There’s bound to be some who think their lives are fucked up — at that age, you’re supposed to think your life is fucked up — keep your trap shut, Benny — so it wouldn’t surprise me if a chunk of the population thought a queen would make everything better. Somehow they persuaded the Admiralty to bring them one… or else the Admiralty is running a scam of its own and wanted a queen to whip the baby lobsters into line."

"The Admiralty doesn’t run scams anymore," Benjamin protested. "They cleaned house three years ago."

Tobit reached out and pretended to whack the boy on the helmet. "Every time you say pig-ignorant things like that," Tobit said, "I dock another point off your performance evaluation." He turned to me and rolled his eyes. "Fucking useless cadets."



We kept poking our way forward through the ship. The closer we came to the lounge, the more nervous I got that the Explorers would think I was a terrible captain for not cleaning up. The refrigeration had stopped people from rotting too much, but they’d still messed themselves when all their muscles went limp; the place smelled like a toilet no one had scoured for a long time. I kept apologizing in advance, saying I’d wanted to tidy up but knew I wasn’t supposed to touch anything no matter how bad it got. Just as we went through the door, it finally occurred to me Tobit and Benjamin wouldn’t smell a thing — they were closed up in their suits, with their own air and all, so I was the only one who had to hold his nose.

Even so, young Benjamin went stone quiet when he saw dead people lying around — a lot of them naked and none nice to look at anymore. Tobit seemed okay till he caught sight of the admiral woman who’d kissed me; then he stormed straight to the corpse and stared down at it.

"What’s wrong?" I asked. "Do you know her?"

"I know the original," Tobit answered, "and I guess there’s a slight resemblance. Explains why Ms. Deadmeat here thought it would be a good costume for the party. But it’s not the real Admiral Ramos. Just some chippie dressed up." He turned away quickly. "Do me a favor, York, and scrub that crap off her face."