by James Alan Gardner
From EOS books
Copyright © 2000, by James Alan Gardner
This excerpt comes from the very beginning of the book.
1. Going to a Party
The first day of the flight, I was so happy to be heading home that I went to Willow's cafeteria for supper with the crew...and it seemed as if every woman on the starship wanted me to try the Angoddi mushrooms, or did I listen to razzah poetry, or would I like a look at the engine room service tunnels when the next shift was over?
I'd forgotten how bored folks get on long tours of duty. Bored with their jobs, bored with each other. One glimpse of a new face, and people go into feeding frenzy. Or breeding frenzy. Maybe I should have been flattered, but all that eager attention sort of got me terrifiedI'd been stuck on a three-person moonbase for twenty whole years, so I felt way out of my depth when a dozen women wanted to make conversation with me.
"You're so cute for an Explorer!"
"And you don't smell bad!"
"Do you have a funny voice? I bet you have a funny voice. Say something."
"Um," I said. "Um."
"Look, he's shy!" one of the women giggled. "Can they stick you in the Explorer Corps just because you're shy? With a guy this built, I could cure his shyness real fast. Overnight!"
"He must be one of the new Explorers," another woman said. "The volunteers. The ones who don't have anything wrong with them."
"Anyone who volunteers to be an Explorer has something wrong with them. Him. Whatever." A bald-headed woman laid both hands on my wrist and stared straight into my eyes. "Come on, handsome, you can be honest with us. You're an Explorer, and Explorers are never normal. What's wrong with you?"
I took a deep breath and told them all, "I'm stupid, okay? I'm stupid." Then I went back to my cabin and locked myself in.
The whole next day I kept getting comm-messages saying, "Sorry," or "We were just teasing," or "That invitation is still on for getting together in the service tunnels." Three women actually came to apologize at my door...and later, a man who said, "The women here are such bitches, aren't they? Forget 'em. Why don't you come down to my cabin for some sudsy VR?" I said thanks anyway, but maybe another time.
After that, when somebody knocked I pretended I wasn't home.
Just before noon on the third day, I got another visitor...and the peep-monitor showed it was a woman wearing an admiral's gray uniform. I couldn't very well keep an admiral shut out, so I ran my fingers through my hair then told the door to open.
The admiral woman was short and brown and young, with a big purply blotch on her cheek; I couldn't tell what the blotch was, and didn't know if I was supposed to compliment it or pretend it didn't exist. My twin sister Samantha used to yell at me, "Edward, when you see a woman has done something special with her face, for God's sake say she looks pretty." It was easy to tell Sam she looked pretty, because she was always as beautiful as sunshine on a lake. With other women though, either I sat there tongue-tied, or I'd try a compliment and the woman would just stare at me...like maybe I was trying to be funny or something. I sure didn't want an admiral to think I was making fun of her face; so I just ignored her blotchy cheek and gave her my best salute.
It's hard to go wrong saluting. Especially with an admiral.
The woman at my door introduced herself as Lieutenant-Admiral Festina Ramos, and said I had to come to the party. "What party?" I asked. Back when Samantha and I had been on active duty, I couldn't remember navy starships ever having parties. At least, none that I'd been invited to.
"We're crossing the line in fifteen minutes," the admiral woman said. "You should be there."
I didn't know what she meant, crossing the line; I was pretty sure there were no lines in outer space. When I said that, she laughed and pinched my cheek. "You're an angel." Then she took me by the arm and leaned against me all warm and a bit perfumed while she led me to the Willow's recreation lounge.
The perfume was in her hair.
I wasn't so used to having perfumey women take me by the arm. Part of it was just being away from human things for so longwhat with escorting Samantha on her big diplomatic mission, then the long awful time after, it'd been a whole thirty-five years since I'd gone out in human company. (That made me middle-aged, I guess: fifty-seven...though with YouthBoost treatments, I hadn't changed a whit since my twenties.)
But even when I was a teenager on New Earth, I didn't spend much time with women. My father didn't like me being seen by anyone off our estate. Dad was rich and importantAlexander York, Admiral of the Gold in the Outward Fleetand he treated me like a big smeary stain on his personal reputation. Even though it wasn't my fault.
Back before I was born, Dad paid a doctor lots of money to make my sister and me more perfect than perfect: athletic and dazzling and smart, smart, smart. It didn't matter that gene engineering was illegal in the Technocracymy father went to an independent world where the laws were different...or where the police were cheaper to buy off.
The gene-splicing worked real well for Samantha, but with me it only did part of the job. I can do hundreds of push-ups without stopping, and Sam always called me devilishly handsome, but my brain chemistry didn't come out so good. Too much of some things, too little of others. So Dad kept me at home for fear his "retarded idiot son" would embarrass him in public.
I didn't mind so much. He kept Samantha at home too, with all kinds of private tutors. Sam became my private tutor, so it worked out pretty well. She taught me to be polite and brave and honest, and to think really hard about being good to people. Later, when we were teenagers, she'd take me on pretend-dates so I wouldn't feel left out: to the gazebo on the south lawn near the reflecting pool, where we'd dance and dance and dance.
Sometimes I wished I had someone else to dance withsomeone who liked me, who wasn't my twin sister. But I never said that to Sam; I didn't want to hurt her feelings.
On our way to the party, the perfumey admiral woman explained that "crossing the line" meant leaving the Troyen star system for interstellar space. It was a big moment in any starship flight, the point where you cross out of your starting system...because the League of Peoples has a law, if you've been a bad person, you aren't allowed to go from one star system to another. If you try it, they kill you. Not messily or anything like thatyou just die the second you leave the system where you did the bad things. It's like magic; except that there is no magic, just super-advanced science from races that are millions of years older than us humans. To the League, we were as stupid as worms on a plate, and no matter how smart we thought we were, the League was a billion times smarter. No one ever fooled them.
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 Romeall 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 belike 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 wantedthe 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 recognizesomething 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 toothe 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 inflameddays 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 kissit 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.
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."
2. Inspecting My Command
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 deadlike 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.
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 make-up 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 undisturbedthat'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 bodyguardthe 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 SamDad had been a diplomat himself before becoming an admiral, and he refused to let me "sully" the Diplomacy Corps' 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 badmouth 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 Academyyou can't get past the door there unless you have real brainsbut 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 badnothing 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 deadpeople who'd talked with me and flirted with me, and even one who'd kissed mebut now that they were out of sight, I felt more alone than sad. Pitying my live healthy self rather than all those empty blank corpses.
What was wrong with me? Shouldn't I be crying and grieving and all? But the most I could do was touch my lips over and over, like maybe if I remembered the kiss exactly, I would melt into some decent sorrow, the way a normal person would feel.
No. I just felt dull. Deadened and distant and dumb.
After a while, I decided this was no way for a captain to act. A good captain doesn't hang about sulking, trying to prod himself into emotion; a good captain looks after his ship. Maybe when the crew members died, one of them had left the water running, or a pressure pot boiling up coffee. In my years at the Troyen moonbase, it'd been my job to watch for things like that. So I decided to walk around Willow, every square centimeter, hoping maybe I'd find something productive to do instead of brooding all by myself.
That's how I found the hive-queen. A real one. Except she was just as dead as the crew.
The venom sacs on this queen were inflamed bright green, just like the holo I'd seen in the lounge. I guess that's where the hologram came fromthe captain had taken a picture of the queen as she sat in the ship's hold.
From the look of the hold, the queen had done more than just sit here: she'd tried to rip straight through the walls with her claws. You wouldn't think a creature of flesh and blood would be strong enough to gouge out whole chunks of steel-plast...but the far bulkhead was ribboned with huge ragged furrows, so deep I could stick my hand in up to the wrist.
If the walls looked bad, the queen's claws looked worse. With all that smashing and bashing, her claws had got their points hammered down blunt and their armor plate fractured like peanut brittle. Sticky brown blood was still oozing up through the cracks in her shell.
It made me go sick in the stomach to see a queen all damaged and smashed. Injured. Broken. But it was a good thing she'd hurt herself too much to keep whacking on the walls; otherwise, she would have bashed through the hull and let hard vacuum into the ship.
Why had Willow's crew brought her here alone, without attendants? Queens go mad if they aren't milked every day. Her poor venom sacs were like two swollen balloons bulging up where her tail met her torso: both sacs had turned grass green against her yellow body, so you couldn't possibly miss how full they were. Queen Verity once told me it hurt like daggers to go unmilked for even a few hours past ripeness, and this queen...
This queen wasn't Queen Verity. And at the moment, I didn't want to think about Verity, not with one of her royal sisters lying dead in front of me. Which one was this, I wondered. Queen Fortitude? Clemency? Honor? Or one of the queens-in-waiting who escaped from deep freeze while Troyen was spinning into civil war?
Me, I couldn't tell; Verity was the only queen I'd met personally. The palace's chief of protocol claimed that Verity would feel grossly insulted if I ever set eyes on another queen.
High Queen Verity had been fiercely, deeply jealous about me...but then, she'd been fiercely, deeply jealous about all her husbands.
For more, pick up Hunted, available at book stores throughout North America.