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Her eyes hadn’t opened.

As I unwrapped myself from the Coy-Grip position, the woman’s weight slumped away from me. Trying to hold her up, I called to the rest of the room, "Can somebody help here? I think…"

But by then, I’d had time to look around.

The man in pink pajamas had fallen on his face. The drunk he’d been holding was on the floor too, lying half-in/half-out of his hologram. The hologram was tilted at an odd angle.

Over against the wall, the soldier and the thistle bush had sagged straight down, still connected to each other. Their holos had gone askew, so that the head of the longest thistle stuck out of the Roman’s back like the hilt of a sword.

People all around the room sprawled limply over the furniture or spread-eagled on the carpet. Even the captain. One of his hands lay on the ground, poking out through the edge of the hive-queen’s shell.

Silence. No more gongs.

We had crossed the line, and the whole crew was dead. Even the woman who called me angel.

It made my eyes sting: that she died kissing a complete stranger.

I laid her body onto the floor as gently as I could. "I’m sorry," I said. "If the League of Peoples wanted to kill someone for being bad…" I looked around the room at the corpses. "Sorry," I told them all. "I thought it would be me."



I couldn’t think of what to do next, so I just sat down on the floor beside the admiral woman. People look so helpless when they’re dead — like they’re expecting you to make it all better. Any other time, I might have tried CPR to start the woman’s heart again; but it wouldn’t work now. When the League of Peoples kills you, you stay dead.

Dead forever, the woman who kissed me. And everyone else. So quiet: the music had stopped when the gonging began, and now there was no one to tell the sound system, "Resume play." The lounge walls continued to show Italian masqueraders laughing and dancing in feathered masks, but they were just silent pictures. No sound.

No breathing.

You don’t know how much you miss the sound of breathing till it’s not there.

In all that silence, I desperately wanted to do something. Help these poor people. But all I could think of was wiping the little saliva string from the admiral woman’s cheek. So that’s the useless stupid thing I did.

When I looked at my finger, some of the purple splotch had come off on my skin. I rubbed the woman’s face again; the splotch was a waxy sort of makeup she must have put on for the party. Was it the popular fashion now to wear big garish blobs? Or was the admiral woman like the man in pink pajamas, dressed up to imitate somebody I didn’t know?

The woman might not be an admiral at all. Maybe this was just another costume.

I wanted to wash her face: scrub off the gunk so she’d look like herself. Underneath, she might have been pretty. But when people died, you weren’t supposed to touch them. Contact Security and leave the site undisturbed — that’s what they always said in VR stories when things went terribly wrong.

"Ship-soul, attend," I called out… hoping that was still the phrase you used when you wanted to talk to a starship’s central computer. "Can you please call the security officer who’s on watch?"

A sexless metallic voice answered from the ceiling: "There are no security officers available."


"Ship-soul," I said, "please connect me with…" Who? The captain? No, he was dead inside the hive-queen. (I avoided looking that direction; even if the queen was just a hologram, she still gave me the jitters.) "Please connect me with the ship’s commanding officer."

"The commanding officer is Explorer Second Class Edward York."


"You are the highest-ranking officer aboard Willow."

I swallowed. "Is anyone else alive at all?"

"No, Captain. Awaiting your instructions."

Nobody had ever put me in charge of anything before. That was fine with me; I knew I wasn’t captain material.

If you want the honest truth, I wasn’t Explorer material either. When Samantha joined the navy’s Diplomatic Corps, she absolutely insisted I go with her on her first assignment. She wanted me for her bodyguard — the only person in the universe she could trust one hundred percent. I figured Dad would make a big fuss, but he gave in almost immediately; Sam knew all the ways to make him say yes, and he never found a single way to tell her no.

Being an admiral and all, Dad pulled strings to slip me around the entrance qualification board and straight into the navy. He didn’t want me going Diplomatic like Sam — Dad had been a diplomat himself before becoming an admiral, and he refused to let me "sully" the Diplomacy Corps’s gold uniform. For a while he was set on me being a Security officer, since the Security Corps was officially in charge of protecting Outward Fleet dignitaries… but that fell through when the senior Security admiral got pissy about Dad forcing "a totally inadequate imbecile" into her command. (The Security admiral had never set eyes on me; I guess she’d heard Dad bad-mouth me for so long, she pictured someone all gibbering and drooling.) Dad tried three more service corps without any luck, then he finally just made me an Explorer. I never went to Explorer Academy — you can’t get past the door there unless you have real brains — but Dad said I’d still fit in just fine with the other Explorers. "None of them are normal either."

I wondered if my father might possibly feel proud of me now, seeing as I’d become a sort of a kind of a captain. No. Not likely. From the day Sam and I were born, she was the precious jewel and me the steaming mound of dog turd. Just look at what happened when things fell apart on Troyen, with the riots and war and all. The surviving diplomats got evacuated all the way back to New Earth, but I only made it as far as a stifling little observation post on Troyen’s larger moon.

Twenty whole years Dad left me stuck there; dumped into exile and isolation. Twenty years without a break, while the other observers got rotated off in six-month shifts. Dad left me on that moonbase like something stuffed into the far back corner of the attic, something he couldn’t get rid of but never wanted to see again.

Because of what had happened to Sam.

Because I hadn’t been a good enough bodyguard.

If Dad found out I’d become acting captain of Willow, he’d probably say, "Get that moron out of there before he wrecks the ship."

It took me a while to learn anything helpful from the ship-soul. I didn’t know which questions to ask, or the keywords real captains used when they wanted a status report. Eventually though, I found out this much: Willow was locked on autopilot, heading toward a navy base near the free planet Celestia. Regulations wouldn’t let the ship dock unless we had a competent human pilot at the helm; but we could hang off at a distance till the base sent over someone who knew how to drive. Barring accidents or breakdowns, I’d be sitting in port within a week.

That wasn’t so bad — nothing for me to do but wait and stay out of trouble.

I decided my one and only order would be to have the ship-soul lower the temperature in the lounge: make it a big walk-in refrigerator. There were dozens of dead people lying around, and I didn’t want them starting to rot.

My first inclination was to sit out the week in my cabin… but soon I couldn’t stand moping there, wallowing all morose. The crazy thing was, I wasn’t really mourning; I was feeling bad for not feeling worse. All those people dead people who’d talked with me and flirted with me, and even one who’d kissed me — but now that they were out of sight, I felt more alone than sad. Pitying my live healthy self rather than all those blank corpses.