Samantha told me the same thing years ago. "Edward, if you ever do something really awful, you’d better stay put after that. Don’t go running off into space, thinking you can just sneak away without anyone knowing; because the League always knows. Always." I’d followed my sister’s advice ever since… till now.
Now I was headed for a party to celebrate leaving the Troyen system. If it weren’t for the admiral pulling me along with her, I might have gone back to my cabin and tried not to cry.
The lounge was decked out like one of those old masquerade carnivals in Venice or Rome — all the walls set to starry night, with fountains and cobblestones and fancy bridges over canals that stretched far back into the distance. Now and then, the moving pictures showed people in masks and patchwork costumes, running through the streets with torches or gathering in courtyards for medieval dances.
Very pretty and classical. Unlike the real party.
Nearly everybody in Willow’s crew was there… and they sure weren’t acting like sober navy personnel. Only the woman and I were in uniform, her in admiral’s gray, me in Explorer Corps black. The rest were all costumed up, either in strange clothes or body paints or holo-surrounds. I couldn’t tell what half of them were supposed to be — like the man just inside the door, wearing pink-silk pajamas and a big putty nose. He gave me a sloppy wet kiss on the cheek, and said, "Ooo, aren’t you the fetching whelp!"… in a high voice with an odd accent, like he was imitating a character on some broadcast. The woman on my arm laughed, and glanced to see if I’d laugh too; but it’d been so long since I’d seen any shows, I didn’t know why this was supposed to be funny.
After a moment, the admiral woman gave my arm a squeeze, and said, "Come on, angel, relax, okay? You want to dance?"
I hadn’t even realized there was music playing. It was soft as rainfall but tinkly-jangly, with no beat I could make out. "I don’t know how to dance to this," I said. It wasn’t anything like the music Sam and I listened to, back in the darkened gazebo.
"This is just Coy-Grip," the admiral woman told me. "You don’t have to do anything special." Which wasn’t true at all. Apparently, she and I had to wrap our arms tight together in something like a chin na submission hold I’d learned once. (Over the years, Dad’s security guards gave me a heap of free martial-arts training.) I ended up hunched over like a bear, while the woman was practically on tiptoe; but she told me we fitted together perfectly, my shoulders touching hers, our arms all twined around each other, holding hands, our faces very close.
The woman murmured I could move my feet any way I wanted — the dance was the position, not the steps. She started an inch-by-inch shuffle and I followed along, doing my best to match her every motion; I was terrified if I went the wrong direction, I might accidentally snap her thin little wrists. After a few seconds, she gave a twittery laugh and whispered, "Relax, angel, relax. You look like you’re at a funeral."
She gave me a quick kiss on the nose. I could smell wine on her breath: really strong. She must have been partying a fair while before she fetched me from my cabin.
In fact, everyone on the dance floor seemed tipsy. We kept getting bumped by a wobbly slobbery man wearing the holo of an alien species I didn’t recognize — something brown and cockroachy with six of everything, legs, arms, eyes. The man was too drunk to care about staying inside his hologram "costume"… so I could see bare human legs kicking out from the edges of the cockroach image, and once, a hairy human rump.
Yes, it was that kind of party: where people went naked under their holos. Here and there, I could see couples squashed together against the wall. Right in front of me, a larger-than-life holo of a Roman soldier had his breastplate buried in the face of a holo-alien who looked like a walking thistle bush. The two holograms broke into jagged interference patterns where they overlapped each other, so now and then I could see through to the people underneath. It was a nude woman and a nude man; she had her legs scissored around his waist.
In the middle of the day. On a navy ship. And they all had to be crew members, because I was the only passenger.
"Is something wrong here?" I whispered to the woman Coy-Gripping my arms.
"Nothing’s wrong, angel. You’re fucking gorgeous. Relax." She pressed herself harder against me. It had to be hurting her wrists, but she didn’t seem to care.
Maybe she’d been taking more than just wine.
The music stopped. I got ready to untangle myself, but the woman held on tight. "Wait," she whispered. "Wait. It’s time."
"Time for what?"
Before she could answer, a gong sounded over the ship’s speaker system: like a clock bell tolling the hour in some fairy tale. The woman whispered, "It’ll strike thirteen… melodramatic bastards. We cross the line on the last stroke. Hold me till then, angel, would you? Please?"
All around the room, lots of other people were pairing off too — the drunk in the cockroach hologram stumbled up against the man in pink pajamas and they grabbed each other in a tight hug, the drunk’s arms reaching out of the roach’s chest, the pajama man’s head disappearing through the roach’s mandibles. He must have been leaning in to rest his cheek on the drunk’s shoulder.
Four seconds of silence.
Everyone had stopped talking, but I could hear somebody sniffling back tears. And somebody else praying. And somebody whispering, "Please, please, please…"
Then I gasped as someone new came through the door: someone wearing the holo of a Mandasar hive-queen, sulphur yellow, four meters long, built like a four-clawed lobster with a huge brain-hump on her back. Her venom glands were fat and inflamed — days past the time she should have been milked. Even though I could tell it was only a holo, the sight still made me flinch.
Remembering what happened to Samantha.
The man in silk pajamas saw the queen and screamed. He wasn’t the only one: people shouted and wailed all over the room, till a voice inside the queen said, "At ease, damn it, it’s only me."
"Christ Almighty!" the man in pajamas said, pressing a hand against his chest. "You nearly gave us a heart attack, Captain."
"He should have worn something different," whispered the woman in my arms. "He’s the captain; he should know better."
"What’s the count?" she asked suddenly.
"I don’t know." My mind had shut down for a moment when I saw the hive-queen. I might have missed a gong or two.
"What’s the count?" my admiral called to the room.
No one answered. Faces looked wildly at each other, some of them going pale… as if no one had kept track of the tolling.
"Shit," the woman muttered to no one in particular. Then she looked up into my eyes, and said, "Kiss me. Now."
She didn’t answer; she just bent her elbows, twisting my wrists so I was levered down close to her. Pushing up hard on tiptoe, she jammed her mouth against mine. Open. And her tongue swept inside urgently, moving fast, her eyes closed tight.
I closed my eyes too. Feeling strange and fizzy, as if I’d been drinking myself: the taste of the woman who tasted like wine, the touch of her pressing against me. I knew this wasn’t a love kiss, or even a sex kiss — it was fear, pure fear, some awful terror that made her want to be holding someone as tight as her arms and heart could squeeze. Like a little girl who felt better for hugging her brother, when the lightning and thunder rattled outside. I held the woman and let her kiss me as desperately as she wanted, while the clock continued toward thirteen.
The woman’s tongue stopped. Her grip on my arms loosened and her lips eased back. When I opened my eyes, I saw her head loll to one side. A string of saliva trailed across the purple-red splotch on her cheek.