“When did you first meet Miss LaRoux?”
“Three days before the accident.”
“And how did that come about?”
“Meeting Miss LaRoux.”
“How could it possibly matter?”
“Major, everything matters.”
NOTHING ABOUT THIS ROOM IS REAL. IF THIS WERE A PARTY at home, the music would draw your eye to human musicians in the corner. Candles and soft lamps would light the room, and the wooden tables would be made of actual trees. People would be listening to each other, instead of checking to see who’s watching them.
Even the air here smells filtered and fake. The candles in the sconces do flicker, but they’re powered by a steady source. Hover trays weave among the guests, like invisible waiters are carrying drinks. The string quartet is only a hologram—perfect and infallible, and exactly the same at every performance.
I’d give anything for a laid-back evening joking around with my pla- toon, instead of being stuck here in this imitation scene from a historical novel.
For all their trendy Victorian tricks, there’s no hiding where we are. Outside the viewports, the stars are like faded white lines, half-invisible, surreal. The Icarus, passing through dimensional hyperspace, would look just as faded, half-transparent, if someone stationary in the universe could somehow see her moving faster than light.
I’m leaning against the bookshelves when it occurs to me that one thing here is real—the books. I reach behind me and let my fingers trail over the rough leather of their antique spines, then pull one free. Nobody here reads them; the books are for decoration. Chosen for the richness of their leather bindings, not for the contents of their pages. Nobody will miss one, and I need a dose of reality.
I’m almost done for the night, smiling for the cameras as ordered. The brass keep thinking that mixing field officers with the upper crust will create some sort of common ground where none exists, let the paparazzi infesting the Icarus see me, the lowborn boy made good, hobnobbing with the elite. I keep thinking that the photographers will get their fill of shots of me with drink in hand, lounging in the first-class salon, but in the two weeks I’ve been on board, they haven’t.
These folks love a good rags-to-riches tale, even if my riches are no more than the medals pinned to my chest. It still makes for a nice story in the papers. The military look good, the rich people look good, and it gives the poor people something to aspire to. See? say all the headlines. You too can rocket your way up to riches and fame. If hick boy can make good, why can’t you?
If it wasn’t for what happened on Patron, I wouldn’t even be here. What they call heroics, I call a tragic debacle. But nobody’s asking my opinion.
I scan the room, taking in the clusters of women in brightly colored gowns, officers in dress uniforms like mine, men in evening coats and top hats. The ebb and flow of the crowd is unsettling—patterns I’ll never get used to no matter how many times I’m forced to rub elbows with these people.
My eyes fall on a man who’s just entered, and it takes me a moment to realize why. There’s nothing about him that fits here, although he’s trying to blend in. His black tailcoat is too threadbare, and his top hat is missing the shiny satin ribbon that’s in fashion. I’m trained to notice the thing that doesn’t fit, and in this sea of surgically perfected faces, his is a beacon. There are lines at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth, his skin weather-beaten and marked by the sun. He’s nervous, shoulders rounded, fingers gripping the lapels of his jacket and letting go again.
My heart kicks up a beat. I’ve spent too long in the colonies, where anything out of place might kill you. I ease away from the bookshelves and start to weave my way toward him, past a pair of women sporting monocles they can’t possibly need. I want to know why he’s here, but I’m
forced to move slowly, navigating the push and pull of the crowd with agonizing patience. If I shove, I’ll draw attention. And if he is dangerous, any sudden shift in the energy of the room could trigger him.
A brilliant flash lights up the world as a camera goes off in my face.
“Oh, Major Merendsen!” It’s the leader of a gaggle of women in their mid-twenties, descending on me from the direction of the viewport. “Oh, you simply must take a picture with us.”
Their insincerity is poisonous. I’m barely more than a dog walking on its hind legs, here—they know it, and I know it, but they can’t pass up an opportunity to be seen with a real, live war hero.
“Sure, I’ll just come back in a minute, if—” Before I can finish, all three women are posed around me, lips pursed and lashes lowered. Smile for the cameras. A series of flashes erupt all around me, blinding me.
I can feel that low, stabbing pain at the base of my skull that promises to explode into a fully fledged headache. The women are still chattering and pressing in close, and I can’t see the man with the weathered face.
One of the photographers is buzzing around me, his voice a low drone. I step sideways to look past him, but my eyes are swimming with red and gold afterimages. Blinking hard, my gaze swings from the bar, to the door, the hover trays, the booths. I try to remember what he looked like, the line of his clothes. Was there room to hide anything under his dinner jacket? Could he be armed?
“Major, did you hear me?” The photographer’s still talking.
“Yes?” No, I wasn’t listening. I disentangle myself from the women still draped over me on the pretense of stepping closer to speak with him. I wish I could shove past this little man, or better yet, tell him there’s a threat and watch how fast he vanishes from the room.
“I said I’m surprised your buddies on the lower decks aren’t trying to sneak up here too.”
Seriously? The other soldiers watch me head to first class every eve- ning like a man walking down death row. “Oh, you know.” I try not to sound as annoyed as I am. “I doubt they even know what cham- pagne is.” I try for a smile too, but they’re the ones good at insincerity, not me.
He laughs too loudly as the flash explodes in my face again. Blinking away the stars, I stumble clear and crane my neck, trying to locate the only guy in the room more out of place than I am. But the stooped man in the shabby hat is nowhere to be found.
Maybe he left? But someone doesn’t go to the trouble of crashing a party like this and then slip out without a fuss. Maybe he’s seated now, hiding among the other guests. My eyes sweep across the booths again, this time examining the patrons more closely.
They’re all packed full of people. All except one. My gaze falls on a girl sitting alone in a booth, watching the crowd with detached interest. Her fair, flawless skin says she’s one of them, but her gaze says she’s bet- ter, above, untouchable.
She’s wearing the same hue as a navy dress uniform, bare shoulders holding my gaze for a moment—she sure as hell wears the color better than any sailor I know. Hair: red, falling down past her shoulders. Nose: a little snub, but that makes her more pretty, not less. It makes her real.
Pretty’s not the right word. She’s a knockout.
Something about the girl’s face tickles at the back of my mind, like I should recognize it, but before I can dig up the connection, she catches me looking at her. I know better than to mix with girls like her, so I don’t know why I keep watching her, or why I smile.
Then, abruptly, a movement jerks my gaze away. It’s the nervous man, and he’s no longer meandering in and out of the crowd. His stooped posture is gone, and with his eyes fixed on something across the room he’s moving quickly through the press of bodies. He’s got a goal—and it’s the girl in the blue dress.
I waste no time weaving in and out of the crowd politely. I shove between a pair of startled elderly gentlemen and make for the booth, but the outsider’s gotten there first. He’s leaning close, speaking low and fast. He’s moving too quickly, trying to spit out what he came to say before he’s picked out as an intruder. The girl jerks back, leaning away. Then the crowd closes up between us, and they’re out of sight.
I reach down to lay a hand on my gun, and hiss between my teeth as I realize it’s not there. The empty spot at my hip feels like a missing limb. I weave left, upsetting a hover tray and sending its contents crashing to the floor. The crowd recoils, finally giving me an avenue toward the table.
The intruder has grabbed her elbow, urgent. She’s trying to pull away, eyes flashing up, looking around for someone as though she expects help. Her gaze falls on me.
I get one step closer before a man in the right sort of top hat claps a hand on the stranger’s shoulder. He has an equally self-important friend with him, and two officers, a man and a woman. They know the man with the fervent light in his eyes doesn’t belong here, and I can see they mean to remedy his presence.
The redhead’s self-appointed guardian jerks the man backward to stumble against the officers, who take him firmly by the arms. I can tell he’s got no training, either formally or the rough-and-tumble sort they learn in the colonies. If he did, he’d be able to handle these desk jockeys and their sloppy form.
They start to turn him toward the door, one of them grabbing at the nape of his neck. More force than I would use, for someone whose only crime so far seems to be trying to talk to the girl in the blue dress, but they’re handling it. I stop by the adjacent booth, still trying to catch my breath.
The man twists, breaking free of the soldiers, and turns back toward the girl. As the room starts to fall silent, the ragged edge to his voice is audible. “You have to speak to your father about this, please. We’re dying for lack of tech, he needs to give the colonists more—”
His voice gives out as one of the officers delivers a blow to his stom- ach that doubles him over. I jerk forward, shoving away from the booth and past the widening ring of onlookers.
The redhead beats me to it. She’s on her feet in a swift movement that draws the attention of everyone in the room in a way the scuffle didn’t. Whoever she is, she’s a showstopper.
“Enough!” She has a voice well suited to delivering ultimatums. “Captain, Lieutenant, what do you think you’re doing?”
I knew I liked her for a reason.
When I step forward, she’s holding them frozen in place with a glare that could fell a platoon. For a moment, none of them notice me. Then I see the soldiers register my presence, and scan my shoulders for my stars and bars. Rank aside, we’re different in every way. My medals are for combat, theirs for long service, bureaucratic efficiencies. My promotions were made in the field. Theirs, behind a desk. They’ve never had blood on their hands. But for once, I’m glad of my newfound status. The two soldiers come reluctantly to attention—both of them are older, and I can tell it rankles to have to salute an eighteen-year-old. Funny how I was old enough by sixteen to drink, fight, and vote, but even two years later, I’m too young to respect.
They’re still holding on to the gate-crasher. He’s breathing quick and shallow, like he’s pretty sure someone’s going to fire him out an air lock any minute.
I clear my throat, making sure I sound calm. “If there’s a problem, I can help this man find the door.” Without more violence.
We can all hear how my voice sounds—exactly like the backwater boy I am, unpolished and uncultured. I register a few scattered laughs around the room, which is now entirely focused on our little drama. Not mali- cious laughter—just amused.
“Merendsen, I doubt this guy’s after a book.” Fancy Top Hat smirks at me.
I look down and realize I’m still holding the book I took from the shelves. Right, because this guy is poor, he can’t even read.
“I’m sure he was just about to go,” says the girl, fixing Top Hat with a steely glare. “And I’m pretty sure you were about to leave, too.”
They’re caught off guard by her dismissal, and I use the moment to relieve my fellow officers of their captive, keeping hold of his arm as I guide him away. She’s effectively dismissed the quartet from the salon— again her face tickles my memory, who is she that she can do that?—and I let them make their enforced escape before I gently but firmly steer my new friend toward the door.
“Anything broken?” I ask, once we’re outside. “What possessed you to go near them, and in a place like this? I half thought you were aiming to blow someone up.”
The man gazes at me for a long moment, his face already older than the people inside will ever look.
He turns to walk away without another word, shoulders bowed. I wonder just how much he had riding on this manufactured encounter with the girl in the blue dress.
I stand in the doorway, watching as people give up on the drama now that it’s done. The room slowly comes back to life, the hover trays zipping around, conversation surging, perfectly practiced laughter tin- kling here and there. I’m supposed to be here at least another hour, but maybe just this once I can skip out early.
And then I see the girl again—and she’s watching me. Very slowly she’s taking off one of her gloves, pinching each finger deliberately in turn. Her gaze never leaves my face.
My heart surges up into my throat, and I know I’m staring like an idiot, but I’m damned if I can remember how my legs work. I stare a beat too long, and her lips curve to a hint of a smile. But somehow, her smile doesn’t look as though it’s mocking me, and I get it together enough to start walking.
When she lets her glove fall to the ground, I’m the one who leans down to pick it up.
I don’t want to ask her if she’s all right—she’s too collected for that. So I put the glove down on the table, then find myself with no excuse to do anything other than look at her. Blue eyes. They go with the dress. Do lashes grow that long naturally? So many perfect faces, it’s hard to tell who’s been surgically altered and who hasn’t. But surely if she’d had work done, she’d have opted for a straight, classically beautiful nose. No, she looks real.
“Are you waiting for a drink?” My voice sounds mostly even.
“For my companions,” she says, lowering the deadly lashes before peering up at me through them. “Captain?” She tilts the word upward, as though she’s taking a stab at my rank.
“Major,” I say. She knows how to read my insignia; I just saw her name the ranks of the other officers. Her sort, the society girls, they all know how. It’s a game. I might not be society, but I still know a player when I see one. “Not sure that was smart of your companions, leaving you unattended. Now you’re stuck talking to me.”
Then she smiles, and it turns out she has dimples, and it’s all over. It’s not just the way she looks—although that would do it all on its own. It’s that, despite the way she looks, despite where I found her, this girl’s willing to go against the tide. She’s not another empty-headed pup- pet. It’s like finding another human after days of isolation.
“Is it going to cause an intergalactic incident if I keep you company until your friends get here?”
“Not at all.” She tilts her head a little to indicate the opposite side of the booth. The bench curves around in a semicircle from where she sits. “Though I feel I should warn you that you could be here for a while. My friends aren’t really known for their punctuality.”
I laugh, and I set down the book and my drink on the table beside her glove, sinking down to sit opposite her. She’s wearing one of those enor- mous skirts that are in fashion these days, and the fabric brushes against my legs as I settle. She doesn’t move away. “You should have seen me as a cadet,” I say, as though that wasn’t just a year ago. “Punctuality was pretty much the only thing we were known for. Never ask how or why, just get it done fast.”
“Then we have something in common,” she says. “We aren’t encour- aged to ask why, either.” Neither of us asks why we’re sitting together. We’re smart.
“I can see at least half a dozen guys watching us. Am I making any deadly enemies? Or at least, any more than I already have?”
“Would it stop you from sitting here?” she asks, finally removing the second glove and setting it down on the table.
“Not necessarily,” I reply. “Handy thing to know, though. Plenty of dark hallways on this ship, if I’m going to have rivals waiting around corners.”
“Rivals?” she asks, lifting one brow. I know she’s playing a game with me, but I don’t know the rules, and she’s got all the cards. Still, the hell with it—I just can’t find it in me to care that I’m losing. I’ll surrender right now, if she likes.
“I suppose they might imagine themselves to be,” I say eventually. “Those gentlemen over there don’t look particularly impressed.” I nod to the group in frock coats and more top hats. At home we’re a simpler people, and you take your hat off when you come inside.
“Let’s make it worse,” she says promptly. “Read to me from your book, and I’ll look rapt. And you could order me a drink, if you like.”
I glance down at the book I plucked off the shelf. Mass Casualty: A History of Failed Campaigns. I slide it a little farther away, wincing inwardly. “Perhaps the drink. I’ve been away from your bright lights for a while, so I’m a little rusty, but I’m pretty sure talking about bloody death’s not the best way to charm a girl.”
“I’ll have to content myself with champagne, then.” She continues, as I raise a hand to signal one of the hover trays. “You say ‘bright lights’ with a hint of disdain, Major. I’m from those bright lights. Do you fault me for that?”
“I could fault you for nothing.” The words somehow bypass my brain entirely. Mutiny.
She drops her eyes for the compliment, still smiling. “You say you’ve been away from civilization, Major, but your flattery’s giving you away. It can’t have been all that long.”
“We’re very civilized out on the frontier,” I say, pretending offense. “Every so often we take a break from slogging through waist-high muck or dodging bullets and issue dance invitations. My old drill sergeant used to say that nothing teaches you the quickstep like the ground giving way beneath your feet.”
“I suppose so,” she agrees as a full tray comes humming toward us in response to my summons. She selects a glass of champagne and raises it in half a toast to me before she sips. “Can you tell me your name, or is it classified?” she asks, as though she doesn’t know.
I reach for the other glass and send the tray humming off into the crowd again. “Merendsen.” Even if it’s a pretense, it’s nice to talk to someone who isn’t raving about my astounding heroics or asking for a picture with me. “Tarver Merendsen.” She’s looking at me like she doesn’t recognize me from all the newspapers and holovids.
“Major Merendsen.” She tries it out, leaning on the m’s, then nods her approval. The name passes muster, at least for now.
“I’m heading back to the bright lights for my next posting. Which one of them is your home?”
“Corinth, of course,” she replies. The brightest light of all. Of course. “Though I spend more time on ships like this than planetside. I’m most at home here on the Icarus.”
“Even you must be impressed by the Icarus. She’s bigger than any city I’ve been to.”
“She’s the biggest,” my companion replies, dropping her eyes and toying with the stem of the champagne flute. Though she hides it well, there’s a flicker through her features. Talking about the ship must bore her. Maybe it’s the spaceliner equivalent of asking about the weather.
C’mon, man, get it together. I clear my throat. “The viewing decks are the best I’ve seen. I’m used to planets with very little ambient light, but the view out here is something else.”
She meets my eyes for half a breath—then her lips quirk to the tiniest of smiles. “I don’t think I’ve taken advantage of them enough, this trip. Perhaps we—” But then she cuts herself short, glancing toward the door.
I’d forgotten we were in a crowded room. But the moment she looks away, all the music and conversation comes surging back. There’s a girl with reddish-blond hair—a relative, I’m sure, though her nose is straight and perfect—descending upon my companion, a small entourage in tow.
“Lil, there you are,” she says, scolding, and holding out her hand in a clear invitation. No surprise, I’m not included. The entourage swirls into place behind her.
“Anna,” says my companion, who now has a name. Lil. “May I pre- sent Major Merendsen?”
“Charmed.” Anna’s voice is dismissive, and I reach for my book and my drink. I know my cue.
“Please, I think I’m in your chair,” I say. “It was a pleasure.”
“Yes.” Lil ignores Anna’s hand, her fingers curling around the stem of her champagne glass as she looks across at me. I like to think that she regrets the interruption a little.
Then I rise, and with a small bow of the sort we reserve for civilians, I make my escape. The girl in the blue dress watches me go.
“You next encountered her . . . ?”
“The day of the accident.”
“What were your intentions at that stage?”
“I had none.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Major, we aren’t here to entertain you.”
“I found out who she was. That it was over before I even said
“DO YOU KNOW WHO THAT WAS?” ANNA TILTS HER HEAD toward the major as he slips out of the salon.
“Mmm.” I try to sound noncommittal. Of course I know—the guy’s picture was plastered across every holoscreen for weeks. Major Tarver Merendsen, war hero. His pictures don’t do him justice. He looks younger in person, for one. But mostly, in his pictures, he’s always stern, frowning.
Anna’s escort of the evening, a tuxedo-clad younger man, asks us what we’d like to drink. I never bother to remember the names of Anna’s dates. Half the time she doesn’t even introduce them before handing them her fan and clutch and skittering off to dance with someone else. As he heads to the bar with Elana, Swann follows them, after a long, level look at me.
I know I’ll catch hell later for slipping my bodyguard and getting here early, but it was worth it. You have to know to look for it, nearly invisible in the lines of Swann’s skirt, but there’s a knife at one thigh and a tiny pistol set to stun in her clutch. There are jokes about how the LaRoux princess never goes anywhere without her entourage of giggling companions— that half of them could kill a man at a hundred yards is not exactly public knowledge. The President’s family doesn’t have protection like mine.
I ought to tell them about the man who accosted me, but if I do, Swann will usher me out of the salon, and I’ll spend the rest of the evening locked in my room while she verifies the man in the cheap hat didn’t intend to harm me. I could tell he wasn’t dangerous, though. It’s
hardly the first time somebody’s wanted me to intervene with my father. All his colonies want more than he can give, and it’s no secret that the most powerful man in the galaxy dotes on his daughter’s every whim.
But there’d be no point to Swann hiding me away. I recognized the particular slump of the man’s shoulders as the major guided him out. He won’t try again.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Lil.” I look up, startled. She’s still talking about Major Merendsen.
“Just a bit of fun.” I toss back the last mouthful of champagne in a way that makes Anna crack a smile in spite of herself.
She erases her smile with an effort, summoning a scowl far more suited to Swann’s face than hers. “Uncle Roderick would be cross,” she scolds, sliding into the booth next to me and forcing me to move over. “Who cares how many medals the major managed to wrangle in the field? He’s still just a teacher’s son.”
For a girl who spends more nights in someone else’s room than her own, Anna is a prude when it comes to me. I can’t help but wonder what my father has promised her in exchange for keeping an eye on me on this trip—or what he’s threatened her with should she fail.
I know she’s only trying to protect me. Better her than one of my bodyguards, with no reason to cushion the truth when reporting to my father. Anna is one of the only people who knows what Monsieur LaRoux is capable of, when it comes to me. She’s seen what happens to men who look at me the wrong way. There are rumors, of course. Most guys are smart enough to steer clear, but only Anna knows. For all her lectures, I’m glad she’s here with me.
Still, something in me won’t let it go. “One conversation,” I murmur. “That’s all, Anna. Do we have to go through this every time?”
Anna leans in so she can slip her arm through mine and put her head on my shoulder. When we were young, this was my gesture—but we’ve grown, and I’m taller than her now. “I’m only trying to help,” she says. “You know what Uncle Roderick is like. You’re all he has. Is it such a ter- rible thing that your father’s devoted to you?”
I sigh, leaning my head to the side to rest it on hers. “If I can’t play a little when I’m away from him, then what’s the use in traveling on my own?”
“Major Merendsen was rather delicious,” Anna admits in a low voice. “Did you see how well he filled out that uniform? He’s not for you, but maybe I should look up his cabin number.”
My stomach gives an odd little lurch. Jealousy? Surely not. The move- ment of the ship, then. And yet, faster-than-light travel is so smooth it’s like standing still.
Anna lifts her head, looks at my face, and laughs, the sound a delight- ful, well-practiced tinkle of silver. “Oh, don’t scowl, Lil. I was only joking. Just don’t see him again, or you know I’ll have to tell your father. I don’t want to, but I can’t not do it.”
Elana, Swann, and the faceless tuxedo return with a hover tray in tow, laden with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The girls have given Anna enough time to chastise me, and they’re all smiles as they slide into the booth to join us. Anna sends the tuxedo back to the bar because her drink has a stick of pineapple in it rather than cherries, and she and the other girls titter to one another as they watch him walk away. It’s clear why Anna’s chosen this one—he’d give the major a good run for his money in the filling-a-suit department.
Anna begins describing the tuxedo’s enthusiastic attempts to court her, much to the amusement of Elana and Swann. Sometimes this kind of conversation is all I want—light, easy, and not remotely dangerous. It takes the spotlight off of me and puts Anna at center stage, so that all I have to do is smile and laugh. Usually she’d have me in stitches by now. But tonight it feels hollow, and it’s hard for me to let myself go.
I glance at the door now and then, but though it swings open and closed dozens of times, it’s never to admit Tarver Merendsen. I’m sure he knows the rules as well as I do, and there’s not a person aboard who doesn’t know who I am. That he spoke to me at all is a wonder. Though my father made a show of letting me travel by myself for my birthday in New Paris, the truth is that he’s always there, in some way or another.
There is one tiny comfort, though. At least he left of his own accord, and I didn’t have to end him in front of all my friends. After all, on a ship carrying over fifty thousand passengers, the odds of ever encounter- ing again the major’s crooked smile and distracting voice are next to nothing.
The next two nights Anna and I skip the salon, and go straight to the promenade deck after dinner. We walk arm in arm, and talk out Anna’s gossip. I know she’ll still spend the entire night in our adjoining suites draped over the foot of my bed, chatting. Though she never seems to show the effects of not sleeping, I inevitably wake up with purple smudges under my eyes, standing out like bruises on my fair skin. Outside of these voyages, Anna and I never get to spend so much time together. Here, we can be like sisters.
And so we walk. Swann is with us as well, of course—I can barely get out of bed without her at my elbow—but if she listens to us, she doesn’t comment.
Though Anna’s said nothing else about the major, he hasn’t been far from my thoughts. Most of the lower classes, when they speak to me, try to pretend they’re on my level. They fawn over me, dancing attendance, so phony it makes my teeth ache. But the major was candid, genuine, and when he smiled, it didn’t seem forced. He acted like he truly enjoyed my company.
We turn into the broad sweep of synthetic lawn that curves around the stern of the ship as the lights, timed to the ship’s clocks, dim past sunset into dusk. The observation windows tint from their daytime image of sunny sky and clouds through gold, orange, pink, and finally to a starry sky more brilliant than any you could find on a planet. Back home on Corinth there are no stars, only the gentle pink glow of the city lights reflected in the atmosphere, and the holographic displays of fireworks against the clouds.
I’m watching the window and listening to Anna with only half an ear when her arm in mine tightens convulsively. I nearly stumble as she stops abruptly, but thankfully I catch myself before I can face-plant on the syn- thetic lawn. Tripping over my own feet would land me in the headlines for a week.
Anna’s eyes aren’t on me but rather fixed on something—or someone—some distance away. I look over, and my heart drops into my violet satin shoes.
Has he seen us? He’s speaking to another officer, head bowed to listen to him—maybe he’s distracted enough that he won’t notice me. I turn
my face away, willing him not to spot me. I curse my unusual hair, too bright to be fashionable or subtle. And why do I insist on jewel tones? If I was dressed like the other girls, maybe I would blend in.
What awful backwater posting would my father have him reassigned him to, if Anna reported back that I’d been associating with the infa- mous Major Merendsen, teacher’s son, scholarship student, classless war hero? If only the major realized he’d be lucky to make it out with a reassignment.
“Good heavens, he’s actually coming over,” Anna murmurs in my ear through a fixed smile. “What on earth ails him? I mean, does he suffer from some mental—”
“Good evening, Major,” I interrupt, cutting off Anna’s stream of insults before he’s close enough to hear them. I hope.
The major’s fellow officer waits respectfully some distance back, and my heart sinks even lower. Anna knows the rules, so she and Swann make their excuses and walk some distance ahead, ostensibly to look out the window. Anna glances back at me once she’s passed the major, both brows lifted in concern.
Don’t, her expression warns me. Let him go. I can see a momentary flash of sympathy in her gaze, but that doesn’t change the message.
They stay within earshot, providing only the illusion of privacy. Swann leans back against the railing, watching us closely. Still, she looks more amused than concerned. She may be lethal when I’m in danger, but she’s still right at home with the others, thriving on gossip and giggling and the intricate dance of society. Anna’s used to this rotating roster of body- guards, and she adopts them into our circle as readily as any of our other companions. My father chose well.
“Good evening,” says Major Merendsen. Behind him Anna whis- pers something to Swann, who giggles loudly. The major barely flinches, merely smiles a little. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted your eve- ning with your friends. But I never got the chance to ask the other night if you’d be interested in seeing the observation decks some evening. You mentioned you hadn’t been there much.”
Anna is staring at me, her green eyes fixed on mine. There’s no sym- pathy there now, only warning. That not even my best friend will keep my secrets is a truth I’d rather not face right now. Especially since the most painful part is that I can’t even blame her. There’s no one my father can’t rule. Not Anna—not me.
And certainly not Tarver Merendsen. How arrogant can this guy be? Maybe he thinks the rewards are worth it. Men will do just about any- thing for a rich girl’s attention. If he won’t back off on his own, well—I’ve done this before. Nothing short of absolute annihilation will do. I have to choose my moment with care to maximize the damage.
“You remembered.” I find my smile, feeling it spread across my face like a sickly grimace, and turn my attention back to the major. “I think my friends will understand if I miss out on one evening.”
Behind the major, I see Anna’s face freeze, genuine fear flickering there. I wish I could tell her to wait, not to panic. But that would give me away.
His face shifts, the cautious smile widening as some of the tension drains. It’s a jolt to realize that he was nervous. That he really, truly, wanted to ask me. His eyes, the same shade of brown as his hair, are fixed on mine. God, if only he weren’t so handsome. It’s a lot easier with the older, fatter men.
“Are you busy now? Tonight?”
“You certainly don’t waste any time, do you?”
He grins, clasping his hands behind his back. “One of the things you learn fast in the service is to act now, think later.”
Such a change from the circles I travel in, the deliberate games and calculated slips of the tongue. Anna’s mouthing something at me, but I only catch the end of it. Something about now.
“Tarver,” he corrects me. “And you still have the advantage on me, Miss . . . ?”
It takes me a few seconds to understand what he means. He’s watch- ing me, brows lifted, expectant.
Then it hits me. He doesn’t know who I am.
For a long moment I just stare at him. I can’t remember the last time someone spoke to me who didn’t know who I was. In fact, I can’t think of any time at all. Surely when I was little, before I became the media’s darling? But that seems so far away from who I am now, like a movie seen in another lifetime.
I wish I could stop, let it sink in, even revel in this moment. Enjoy speaking to someone who doesn’t see me as Lilac LaRoux, heiress to the LaRoux Industries empire, richest girl in the galaxy. But I can’t stop. I can’t let this stupid, foolish soldier be seen with me a second time. Someone will say something to my father, and ignorant or not, Major Merendsen doesn’t deserve that.
I’ve done this before. So why do I have to hunt for the right words to bury him? “I must have given you the wrong impression last night,” I say airily, summoning my brightest, most amused smile. “I try so hard to be polite when I’m bored out of my skull, but I guess sometimes that backfires.”
There’s little reaction to be seen at first on Major Merendsen’s face, merely a subtle closing down of the amused eyes, a tightening of the firm mouth. Even so, there’s an irrational surge of anger toward him, for being so ignorant as to talk to me at all.
You smiled at him first, a tiny thought points out. And let him retrieve your glove, and bring you a drink, and sit with you. Beyond him I see Anna and Swann about to collapse with laughter, and my jaw starts to clench. The anger shifts.
End it now. Make him walk away. Before you break.
“Did you not understand me?” I toss my hair back over my shoulder. I can only hope that if my expression shows how much I’m hating myself right now, he reads it as disgust. “I suppose it’s to be expected that you’re a little slow. Given your . . . upbringing.”
He’s silent, his face utterly wooden. He just stares at me, as the sec- onds draw out. Then he takes a step back and bows. “I won’t take up any more of your time. If you’ll excuse me?”
“Of course, Major.” I don’t wait for him to leave but brush past him to rejoin Anna and Swann, sweeping them up with me in my momen- tum. I want nothing more than to look over my shoulder and see if Major Merendsen is still standing where I struck him down, if he’s storming away in anger, if he’s following, if he’s talking to the officer he came with. Because I can’t look, my imagination conjures a dozen possibilities—I expect at any moment to feel his hand on my elbow or see him out of the corner of my eye at the elevators away from the promenade deck.
“Oh, that was brilliant, Lil,” gasps Anna, still laughing. “Was he 21 actually asking you to accompany him to the observation deck? To see the stars? God, how cliché!”
The faster-than-light vibrations, usually undetectable, are giving me a headache.
He didn’t know who I was. He wasn’t after my money; he wasn’t after my father’s business connections. He wasn’t after anything, except an evening with me.
Suddenly Anna’s hysterics are like sandpaper on my nerves. It doesn’t matter that her laughter helped drive the major away, that she saw me hesitate and understood, that she’s only doing her best to protect me from something unthinkable happening again. All that matters is that I had to slap that poor guy in the face, and now she’s laughing.
“If you’re jealous, get your tuxedo of the week to take you,” I snap.
Leaving her and Swann staring after me, I aim for the elevator. There’s a pair of techhead guys there already in their flashing, circuit-laden suits, waiting for the doors to close. When I sweep inside, one of them whis- pers to the other, and muttering something like an apology, they skitter out and leave me alone.
In the sound of the doors rushing closed, my mind conjures up the techhead’s words. It’s happened enough times that I don’t need to have heard him to know what he said.
Oh, spark it. That’s LaRoux’s daughter. They catch us in here with her and we’re dead, man.
I lean back against the synthetic wood paneling lining the interior of the elevator and fix my eyes on the symbol emblazoned on the eleva- tor doors. The Greek letter lambda, for LaRoux Industries. My father’s company.
Lilac Rose LaRoux. Untouchable. Toxic.
I should’ve been named Ivy, or Foxglove, or Belladonna.
“You next saw her when the incident occurred?”
“Did you try to figure out what was happening?”
“You’re not military, you don’t understand how we work. I’m not supposed to ask questions. I was just following orders.” “What orders were those?”
“We have a duty to protect civilians.”
“So there wasn’t a specific order that drove your decision?” “Now you’re nitpicking.”
“We’re being exact, Major. We’d appreciate it if you tried to do the same.”
THE AIR LEAVES MY LUNGS WITH A RUSH, PAIN SHOOTING up my back as I slam down onto the practice mats. The other guy falls with me, and I realize I’ve still got a handful of his T-shirt. I suck in a quick breath as I shove my weight to one side, coming up to my knees in one movement so I’m looming over him, instead of the other way around.
I can’t believe I made such an idiot of myself tonight. Everyone in the galaxy knows who Lilac LaRoux is, and I couldn’t have glanced at one lousy newscast, watched one of those damn gossip shows, and learned what she looked like? I must be the only guy alive who doesn’t know.
Normally you couldn’t get me near a girl that rich and entitled if you held a gun to my head. What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking at all. I had my mind on dimples and red hair and—
The guy underneath me pushes up against my shoulder, and I roll it back so he can’t get purchase, planting a knee in his chest and draw- ing back my arm. My fist makes it halfway to the guy’s cheek before he catches it, gripping and twisting so I have to throw myself backward to break free. He scrambles after me, grinning and panting.
“That all you got, kid? Try harder.”
That’s all I ever hear. That all you got? Try harder. Be richer. Be smarter. Learn which damn cutlery to use. Speak like us. Think like us.
Screw that all the way to hell.
A ragged chorus of shouts and swearing in a dozen different languages erupts from the blur of fatigues and faces around us. The only officer down here is the sergeant overseeing the sparring, and he’s not about to tell us to watch our mouths. Well—the only officer other than me. But they don’t know that. It’s only upstairs that everyone recognizes my face from their magazines and newspapers and holovids.
Still, I bet they would have recognized Lilac LaRoux.
I can’t get my mind off of her. Did she think it was funny to play with me like that in front of her friends?
I lash out so quickly we’re both surprised, and there’s a crunch, and then the other guy’s rolling away, hand up in front of his face, blood seeping through his fingers. I draw a breath, and before I can move, the sergeant is leaning down to stick his hand between us, showing me the flat of his palm—bout over.
I lean back on my elbows, chest heaving as he helps the other guy to his feet and hands him over to one of his buddies to head for the sick bay. Then the sergeant turns back to stand over me, arms folded across his massive chest.
“Son, one more like that, and you’re off the mats, you understand? One more and I’ll be speaking to your commanding officer.”
Down here it’s all plain fatigues, khaki T-shirts and pants, and I can ditch my stars and bars and pretend I’m a private. Down here I’m just eighteen, not an officer, not a war hero. He doesn’t imagine for a moment that I could be a major. I prefer it that way. Some days I wish it was that way. That I could earn my stripes in official training, rather than out in the field like I did, where mistakes cost more than marks on a piece of paper.
“Yes, Sergeant.” My breath’s still coming quickly, and I climb to my feet carefully. I want to stay a little longer.
The military quarters are utilitarian, the metal skeleton of the ship showing, but I’m more at home down here. The air is humid with so many bodies working and sweating, the filters chugging on overtime without much result. These guys are on their way to one of the colonies to put down the latest rebellion. Take away my medals and my field pro- motion, and I’d be traveling in military quarters too, waiting to see what terraformed wonders and pissed-off rebels were waiting for me. I wish.
The sergeant sizes me up a moment longer, then turns his head to bellow, parade-ground style. “Corporal Adams, front and center. You’re up next.”
She’s a few years older than me, a couple of inches shorter, blond hair spiked. She shoots me a quick grin as she shakes out her arms and readies herself, and I suck in a breath and square up. I’m going to do this until I’m tired enough to sleep.
Turns out she’s fast, shifting her weight nimbly as we circle each other. This is the sort of girl who suits me, quick and direct, none of that upper-decks intrigue. The way she moves reminds me of a line from one of my mother’s poems. Quicksilver light and motes of dust.
She smiles again, and for an instant I can see Lilac LaRoux’s smile, and those blue eyes.
But next thing I see is the metal grating across the roof of the deck. Corporal Adams has her bare foot on my throat, and it’s over. I lift my hands carefully, think about grabbing her ankle, and show her my palms instead. She got me. I should have had my mind on the job at hand.
She lifts her foot and leans down to offer me her hand. I grip it, she hauls, and I come up to my feet.
Now Miss LaRoux’s getting my ass kicked on the sparring mats as well. Is there any part of my life that girl can’t mess with?
I lace my hands together behind my head, arching my back until the stretch tugs at sore muscles, looking over at the sergeant. He directs the corporal to the next mat over, and closes the distance between us.
“Son, I don’t know what you’re working off there, but you might want to try the weapons range,” he begins.
I don’t want my gun. I want someone I can lay into, here in person. “Please, Sergeant, I—”
The ground bucks and heaves beneath me and we both stagger backward—for an instant I think someone’s tackled me from behind, and then I realize it’s the ship herself shaking beneath us.
I plant my feet wide apart, waiting to see if there’s going to be another tremor. The sparring hall is eerily silent as everyone turns their faces up, waiting for information from the loudspeakers. The Icarus hasn’t been anything but perfectly stable in the weeks I’ve been on her.
Nothing breaks the silence, and I exchange glances with the sergeant.
Slowly he shakes his head, broad shoulders lifting in a quick shrug. Where’s the announcement?
There’ll be more information upstairs. For sure, someone will be tell- ing the rich folks what’s going on. They’d expect nothing less. I toss off a quick salute, and stomp into my boots.
When I push through the doors of the silent sparring hall and out into the network of gangways beyond, it’s like entering another world. It’s all soft luxury upstairs, but down here they don’t waste an inch.
The gangways crisscross over and under each other like spiderwebs, populated by techheads in suits that pulse lights in time with the music around us, emigrants heading for new colonies, tourists taking the cheapest route to other planets, folks making the long haul for family visits. I hear a snatch of worried Spanish on my left, and an Irish curse nearby. A cluster of missionaries bent on bringing comfort and relief to the unenlightened rebels on the new planets stands watching the bustle of humanity like it’s their first time off-world. Amid all the sound and movement, there’s not a top hat or a corset in sight.
Footsteps clang on the metal gantries, voices echoing in a dozen vari- ations on Standard, lesser languages woven in. Everybody’s wondering what’s going on, but nobody knows.
Brightly lit screens flicker nonstop advertisements at me—they line the walls and the ceiling, blaring words and songs and jingles. As I work through the crowd toward the first set of stairs, a 3-D holograph springs to life in front of me, a woman in a hot-pink catsuit throwing her arms wide open to invite me to a club at the aft end of the ship. I walk right through her.
My stomach lurches as though I’m in for a bout of spacesickness. I notice I’m not the only one looking uncomfortable—there are other faces in the crowd turning pale as well.
I can’t be spacesick. I’ve been shunted around the universe on ships so badly tuned you could barely hear yourself over the chugging, and all that time I kept my insides on the inside. I must have overdone it on the sparring mats.
I can feel the metal gangway beneath me vibrating to the hundreds of sets of footfalls banging down on it, but there’s something else under
that—a tremor that doesn’t feel right. Abruptly the vid screens all around me freeze, the jingles and voice-overs cutting out so a woman’s voice can broadcast up and down the hallways, smooth and professional.
“Attention all passengers. In a few moments we will be cycling the ship’s hyperspace engines. This procedure forms a part of our routine maintenance of the Icarus. You may notice some minor vibrations. Thank you for your understanding as we carry out this routine maintenance.”
She sounds calm, but I wouldn’t use the words routine maintenance twice in one announcement myself unless I was trying to keep people from noticing it’s not. In two years of space travel, I only ever saw a ship cycle her drives once, about six months back near Avon. By the time we got that tub landed, she was more or less held together by spit and good luck.
This is the Icarus. Newest, fanciest ship to come out of orbital dock, built by the one corporation in the galaxy big enough to terraform plan- ets all by itself. I’m quite sure Roderick LaRoux made certain that spit plays no part in the way she holds together.
I jog along the gangway, ignoring legs that feel like they’re weighted down after my sparring session, and start on the next staircase with one hand on the rail, just in case. It’s a good call—I’m halfway up when another one of those “minor” vibrations hits.
The ship shudders so violently this time that a ripple runs along the gangway beneath me. I can track its progress by the way the civilians ranged along it shout and grab at the handrails, knees buckling.
The crowd’s growing frantic, and I turn my body to push through a gap and make for the stairs, then break into a run as I head for the next flight. At the top, I press my palm against the ID plate, and the door slides soundlessly open.
I hurry through to the richly carpeted hallways of my own deck. Lilac LaRoux’s deck. It’s more crowded than usual as folks emerge from their cabins like they’re going to discover some kind of collective wisdom out in the hallways. Another time I’d pause to admire these women showing off their unlimited sleepwear budgets, but just now I’m moving.
I turn for my own cabin as three sharp alarm blasts cut through the soft music that plays in the hallways. The woman’s voice comes again, this time high with fear, and tense with the attempt to conceal it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. We have experienced difficulty with our hyperspace engines, and the Icarus has suffered substantial damage as a result of the dimensional displacement. We will attempt to keep the ship in hyperspace, but in the meantime, please follow the illuminated strips in the corridors and make your way to your assigned emergency pods immediately.”
The hallway comes to life. It’s clear most of these people wouldn’t know their assigned emergency pod if it bowled up, introduced itself, and offered to tango. I’m firmly in the camp that reads up on all the safety information the moment they get a chance. You develop that attitude after your first this-is-not-a-drill emergency evacuation, and I’ve had more than one.
We military types are all trained to travel with a grab bag. The things you need to take with you if you evacuate, survival gear. None of it is much use out here in deep space, of course, which is the only place you’ll find this ship. She was constructed in orbit. Like a whale, she’d collapse under her own weight if exposed to real gravity. Still, I’m doubling back before I have time to think about it.
I jog up the hallway toward my cabin, fighting my way against the crowd, which is surging along in a panic.
I palm my way into my cabin and unhook the bag from where it’s hanging over the back of the door. It’s a basic hiking pack from my cadet days, designed to fold down small. I hesitate, then grab my jacket as well.
I need to get three hallways along to my right, then take a left and keep going, though with the crowd growing louder and more unstable by the minute, it’s going to take a while. I make it to the first hallway, pass- ing by the doorway that leads out to the observation deck. I glance out sideways through the door.
I know what the view’s meant to be—and it’s not like this. The stars beyond the clear screens blur, then lurch, then come back into focus.
They’re not the long, graceful lines that should be visible in dimen- sional hyperspace. They’re in focus for a moment, white pinpoints of light, then long blurs again. I’ve never seen a view like this before—it’s as though the Icarus is trying, and failing, to claw her way back into hyper- space. I’m not sure what will happen if she’s torn out prematurely, but I’m pretty sure nothing good.
For a moment something huge and metallic is visible out the corner
of the observation window, and then it’s gone. I crane my neck, trying to catch sight of the object again. It’s so massive that it would have its own significant gravitational field, enough to pull the Icarus out of her flight path.
I turn back to work my way through the crowd toward my pod. The press of bodies is too thick, and I duck to the side to slide along the guard railing. On these back passages, the railing is all that stands between us and a nasty drop, all the way down at least a dozen levels. As I turn the corner I collide heavily with someone smaller than me, and I’m instinc- tively putting my arms out to keep the person from toppling over.
“Excuse me!” says a breathless voice. “Sir, watch where you’re going!” No. Oh, hell no.
A pair of blue eyes meet mine, flashing shock—then outrage—before
she’s shoving me away with all her strength, staggering back against the walkway railing.
I unclench my jaw with an effort. “Good evening, Miss LaRoux.” Drop dead, my tone says.
In spite of everything—the screaming of the crowd, the jostle of bod- ies, the blaring of the ship’s alarms—I take a moment to savor the shock and dismay on the faces of Miss LaRoux and her companions as they register my sudden reappearance. I’m not expecting the surge of people that comes flooding from a side passage.
They knock me off balance, but the crowd is so dense that I don’t fall. As if I’m caught in a violent river current, it takes me a moment to get my feet onto the solid floor again. I catch a glimpse of Miss LaRoux’s friends as they’re swept down the corridor. One of them is trying to battle the crowd, make her way back toward me, shouting Miss LaRoux’s name and slamming into people right and left. I realize she’s had training—not just another pretty face. A bodyguard? But even she can’t make any headway. The others are already almost out of sight.
I see one of them scream—mouth open, sound drowned out—in the same instant I realize Miss LaRoux’s not with them. I shove my way through to the railing, trying to catch a glimpse of that brilliant red hair.
This panicked crowd is enough to trample the unprepared. With a wall on one side and the balcony railing on the other, they’re channeled wilder and faster every moment, like beasts in a canyon. I see people
lifted off their feet, slammed against the wall. She’s not here. I’m about to stop fighting the crowd and follow the current when a cry pierces the chaos.
I shove my way toward the sound. I’m in time to see a flash of green dress and red hair and white face vanish over the railing, as some frantic man twice her size goes barreling down the walkway.
I’m moving before I have time to think. I swing out over the railing, shifting my grip so I can angle my momentum toward the floor below mine, and jump after her.
“So you knew which escape pod was yours?” “Yes.”
“Know which was mine?”
“Know her own, Major. Please cooperate.”
“I suppose she did. I don’t know.”
“But neither of you ended up where you were supposed to be.” “Some of the passengers didn’t handle the evacuation well.”
PAIN LANCES THROUGH MY SHOULDERS, AND I TASTE BLOOD as I bite the edge of my tongue—but I’m not falling anymore. I’ve hit another railing, the bar catching me under my arms. I have no breath, no strength. The crowd surges past, paying no attention. Spots dance before my eyes as I try to force my lungs to work before my grip gives out.
I can’t have fallen more than a floor or two, or surely I wouldn’t have been able to catch myself without jerking my shoulders out of their sock- ets. Below me stretches a drop that will shatter my body beyond any surgeon’s ability to repair it.
A ragged cry tears out of me as my lungs finally expand and contract, but nobody hears. The people around me are a blur of color and sound, the smell of sweat and fear, the feel of hips and elbows connecting with my face and arms. They’re too terrified to even dodge the girl clinging for her life to the railing—much less help me. “Swann!” I scream, trying to make my eyes focus on anything long enough to recognize faces, but it’s all moving too quickly.
And then a voice snarls at them to keep back. Not Swann. A male voice.
Strong hands wrap around my arms, pulling me from the railing back onto the catwalk. Someone hurries me down the walkway, moving with the flow, his body between mine and the screaming people scrambling for safety. My feet don’t even touch the ground.
He jerks me into a side corridor free of traffic and sets me on my feet.
All I can see are brown eyes staring into mine, stern, urgent. With an effort I recognize him.
“Major,” I gasp.
“Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
My shoulders are shattered. My tongue is bleeding. I can’t breathe. I gasp for air,
fighting the surge of nausea that threatens to overcome me. “I’m okay.” Major Merendsen leans me against the wall like a sack of laundry and goes to the mouth of the corridor, where the crowd whizzes by in a blur. As we watch, a man in an evening coat goes down, pushed by someone behind him; in an instant he’s gone, before the major can even reach for him.
This isn’t a crowd—it’s a riot. And a deadly one. Swann might be able to take care of herself in this chaos, but— “Anna!” I cry out abruptly, lurching away from the wall. I lunge for the crowd. I only know I need to find them.
The major grabs my arm with an iron grip. I beat at his hand, but he pulls me away and swings me around before letting me go, sending me staggering backward, heels skidding. “Are you insane?” he gasps.
“I have to find them.” I raise a hand to my lips, wiping away the hint of blood from my tongue. I recognize where we are now—a mainte- nance corridor, one of the many that thread through the private areas of the ship. “They’re out there—I need to make sure they’re—”
Major Merendsen blocks the way between me and the torrent of peo- ple rushing for the lifeboats. The ship lurches again, the floor buckling and heaving beneath us, throwing us both against the wall. The sirens start up, and we have to raise our voices to make ourselves heard over the urgent wailing.
“There’s nothing you can do for them,” he says, when he’s regained his balance. “They’re two decks up and half a klick away by now. Can you walk?”
I inhale sharply through my nose. “Yes.”
“Then let’s move. Stay between me and the railing. I’ll try to keep them from flattening you, but you have to keep your feet under you.”
He turns toward the crowd, squaring his shoulders.
“Wait!” I stagger forward and grab his arm. “Not that way.”
He sucks in an irritated breath, but he stops. “We have to get to an escape pod. Much more of this shaking and she’ll tear herself apart.” I’m still struggling to breathe, and it takes me a moment to get enough air to reply. “I know this ship,” I gasp. “There are pods for the crew nearby.”
He stares at me a moment, and though I know he must be debating, struggling, none of it is written on his face. “Then let’s go.”
The service corridor is empty, only the emergency lighting strips along the walls to tell of any problem. The crew must be at their stations, assist- ing the passengers into their pods before heading for their own. Or else there’s no way for them to get back here, all pretense of civilization gone.
The major follows me in silence, though I can feel his tension. For all he knows, I could be leading him to his death. I’m sure he doesn’t want to follow me anywhere. But he doesn’t know this ship like I do. He didn’t spend his childhood in her skeleton as she was being built.
We turn down a maze of branching corridors. I head for a door marked Authorized Personnel Only and shove it open with a slight whine of unused hinges. My shoulders still ache, but I can use my arms—maybe I’m not so shattered after all. The door opens onto an escape bay, a five- seat pod waiting with open door for its refugees.
“Thank you for the escort, Major,” I say crisply, stepping over the lip of the entrance and turning to face him. He’s just behind me, stopping abruptly to avoid running into me. I want to burst into tears, thank him for what he did, but if I do, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop crying. And he doesn’t know what it would mean for him if we got picked up in the same pod. My father would never believe there was an innocent explanation.
“There’s another pod a little ways down the corridor. It won’t take more than five minutes to reach it.”
The soldier lifts both eyebrows. “Miss LaRoux, there are five seats in that pod, and I mean to use one of them. We may not have five minutes. It seems like something’s pulling the ship out of hyperspace before it’s supposed to.”
For a moment fear freezes me. As my father’s daughter, I know better than most what happens when the fabric between dimensions is dis- turbed. I take a deep breath and step back so as not to have to crane my neck. “Major, if they find you alone in a pod with me when the rescue ships arrive—”
“I’ll take my chances,” the major replies through gritted teeth.
He doesn’t want to be in this pod with me any more than I want him to be. But the ship gives another horrible lurch, sending me crashing into one of the chairs. The major braces himself in the pod doorway. From somewhere in the distance comes a terrible metallic shrieking.
“Fine!” I pull myself up with the straps on the chair. This is no cushy first-class pod. This is bare-bones, designed for mechanics’ crews. The floor is a grid, and as I try to stand, the heels of my Pierre Delacour pumps wedge down into the holes.
Two thousand Galactics’ worth of shoes, destroyed in an instant, the silk stripped from the heels. I stare at the floor, trying to catch my breath. What difference do the shoes make? And yet I can’t stop my mind turn- ing it over, can’t stop staring at the ruined shoes. My mind seizes this tiny detail and clings to it.
The major palms the pad by the door, sending it hissing closed behind him. Then he punches the auto-eject launch button, starting a count- down that gives us enough time to strap in. A trio of lights goes on overhead, blinding me. His boots clomp across the metal floor to a chair opposite mine, and he starts clipping himself in. With a jerk, I wrench my heels out of the grid floor and turn so I can sit in the chair.
I take a full breath for the first time since the alarms started blaring. Safe. For now. I’m trying not to think of the fact that there’s no way the screaming crowd can all be safely inside escape pods.
The ship’s autolaunch will send us speeding away from the Icarus, and in no more than an hour or two a rescue ship will pick us up. I just have to get through the next few hours, with only Major Merendsen for company.
His face is blank, locked down. Why did he even bother to save my life if he hates me so much? I wish I could apologize to him for what I said on the promenade deck. Tell him that what I say and what I mean are never the same, because they can’t be. My throat feels tight, my mouth dry. I never should have given him another glance in the salon.
“How much would we have to pay you to not spread this story around 38 once they pick us up?” I fumble with the harness. It’s not the elegant and comfortable lap belts of the passenger pod—this is a five-point harness that chafes at my bare shoulders.
The major snorts, turning his head toward the tiny viewport, which shows only a scattering of stars that blur and lurch as the ship does. “Why do you assume I’d ever want to tell anyone about this?”
I decide to bury the major in icy silence until this is over, for both our sakes. If we don’t speak, he’ll have nothing to report.
The countdown to ejection continues, blood roaring in my ears out of annoyance with the major. Forty-five seconds. Forty. Thirty-five. I watch the numbers over the door click down one by one, trying to make my stomach settle. A LaRoux doesn’t show weakness.
Without warning, we’re slammed down into our seats as the entire pod jerks. A ripple of white-hot energy shoots through its metal frame. I taste copper, and then the universe goes black with a sound like a thunderclap in my ears. All the lights, the countdown, even the emer- gency lighting . . . gone. We’re left in utter blackness but for the stars outside the viewport.
Stars that are no longer stretched thin. The Icarus has been torn out of hyperspace.
For a few moments there’s no sound. Even the background hum of the engines and life support are gone, leaving us in the depths of the most crushing silence either of us has known since we came aboard.
The major starts cursing, and I can hear him fumbling with his straps. I understand his haste. Without power, we’re going to run out of oxygen before anyone out there even realizes the Icarus has had a problem. But that’s not our most immediate problem.
“Don’t!” I manage, the words tearing out of a throat gone dry and hoarse. “There could be another surge.”
“Surge?” I can hear the confusion in his voice.
“There are huge amounts of energy involved in interdimensional travel, Major. If there was another surge and you were standing on the metal floor, it could kill you.”
That makes him pause. “How do you know—”
“It doesn’t matter.” I close my eyes, trying to concentrate on breathing.
And then, the emergency lighting comes back online. It’s not much, but it’s enough to see by. And it means the emergency life support has engaged.
The major’s face is drawn, tense. He looks back at me, and for a moment neither of us speaks.
And then a scream of metal tears through the ship, making the pod shudder; it’s still attached to the Icarus. We both look up at the count- down clock—still blank. We’re stuck. I look across at the major, then down at the metal grid floor. If there’s another surge while I’m standing on it, I’ll die—but if there’s another surge while we’re attached to the ship, it could destroy the pod anyway.
Just do it. Don’t think.
I jerk my straps open and drop to the floor. The major protests but I ignore him and make for the control panel by the door. I don’t know what’s happening to the Icarus, but I know that the last thing we want is to be attached to the ship if another surge goes through it like the last one. I just have to get the separation and ignition sequence going using the emergency power, buckle myself back in, and we’ll be safe until the rescue ships show up.
You can do this. Just imagine Simon, and his tools, and everything he showed you before. . . . I take a deep breath, and open up the panel.
So much for not giving him a story to take back to the tabloids. They’d go crazy for a month with just one picture of me up to my elbows in cir- cuits. No man, woman, or child of my class would own up to something like this.
But none of them would know what they were doing. Not like I do.
I reach in for the bundle of rainbow-colored wires behind the panel, pulling them out and inspecting them. No doubt they’re coded in some way, but lacking knowledge of this particular system, I have to trace them out manually, deciphering amid the tangle which are the two I want.
“Need any help?” The question is tense but civil, revealing nothing.
I jump, jolted out of my concentration. “Not unless you were an elec- trician out there on the frontier, and given I’ve heard they don’t even have lightbulbs, I doubt it.”
A faint noise behind me, a muffled exhalation. Is he laughing at me?
I glance over my shoulder, and he’s quick to avert his eyes toward the
ceiling. No wire cutters, so I use my fingernails. One advantage Simon never had—he couldn’t strip wires bare-handed. And he never would’ve dared use his teeth on live circuits.
The major is silent behind me, and when I sneak a second peek over my shoulder, his eyes are still on the ceiling. A little of my annoyance fades. He did save my life, with no guarantee he’d have time afterward to make it to an escape pod.
I shouldn’t say anything to him. I should make sure there’s nothing for either of us to tell when we return. I should make sure he continues thinking I’m the worst person he’s ever met. But for some reason, when I’ve got a section of the green and white wires stripped, I find conversa- tion fighting its way out of me. I mean to be conciliatory, but despite my best intentions, it comes out as acidic as ever.
“On the frontier, isn’t this how they hot-wire a hover—”
I brush the two wires together, and instantly the rockets ignite, cata- pulting the pod away from the ship. I have only the briefest glimpse of the wall in front of me careening at my face before the universe goes utterly black.
“What did you think was happening at that point?”
“I didn’t know. There was no communication equipment in the pod.”
“You didn’t try to guess?”
“We’re trained to work with solid information.”
“But you had none?”
“What was your plan?”
“Sit tight and hope. There was nothing to do except wait.” “And see what happened next?”
“And see what happened next.”
THE POD’S STILL WOBBLING AND STABILIZING AS IT SHOOTS away from the ship, but we’re not spinning, so I risk unclipping my har- ness. The gravity’s fading out to half strength already and I know it will go completely soon, so I hook a foot under one of the grab straps on the floor as I kneel beside Miss LaRoux. She’s on the ground, stirring and groaning, already complaining before she’s fully conscious. Somehow, not surprising.
There’s a tempting view down the front of her dress, but I can practi- cally hear her snapping at me like she did before. So I jam a hand under each of her arms and rise to my feet, lifting her and setting her down in one of the five molded chairs. She lolls against me, murmuring some- thing indecipherable as I shove her arms through the straps, yanking them tight around her.
Resisting the urge to yank them tighter still should earn me another damn medal. I check the chest strap, then lean down to grab her ankles, pushing them into the padded plastene clip waiting for them. Closer than I should be to Miss Lilac LaRoux’s legs. And how the hell does she even walk with those things on her feet?
The pod lurches again, and I swallow hard as I stretch over to dump my grab bag in one of the storage alcoves, slamming the lid shut on top of it. Then I thump down into my own seat opposite her, pulling on the harness and strapping in, pushing my ankles back into the clips. In my hurry, I bang my legs into place too hard—the left clip breaks with a snap, the right one holds. The last of the gravity fades out, and I have to strain the leg that’s not secured to stop it lifting up.
I study her bowed head. Where did you learn how to do that? I’ve never met a rich kid in my life who even knew how wiring worked—much less how to hot-wire a state-of-the-art escape pod. She must keep this side of her buried so deep that even the relentless paparazzi don’t find it.
She moans again as the stabilizer rockets fire, throwing us both sharply against our restraints. The pod vibrates, and the constellations visible through the viewport behind Miss LaRoux’s head become fixed points. I can see the ship silhouetted against the static stars. And she’s rolling.
“What did you do?” My sleeping beauty is awake, glaring at me with the eye that’s not swelling shut. She’s going to have a shiner, black and blue in a few hours.
“I fastened your safety straps, Miss LaRoux,” I say. Her scowl deep- ens, bordering on outrage, and I can feel my own temper bubbling up to match. “Don’t worry, I kept my hands where they belong.” I’ve mostly managed bland so far, but I can hear the subtext in my tone as well as she can. And you couldn’t pay me to try anything else.
Her gaze hardens, but she offers no retort except cold silence. Over her shoulder I still see the Icarus rolling, and in my mind’s eye I see the stopping and blurring of the stars through the viewing deck window, and the books in the first-class salon falling out of their shelves as the room tips and the tables and chairs topple.
The Icarus is spinning when nothing should be able to cause her to do so, and I can’t see any other detached escape pods in the fragment of deep space beyond the viewport. Are the others out of sight? I catch a glimpse of something impossibly huge—the same thing I saw before— reflective and bright. Where is the light coming from? The next instant the pod spins and all I can see is starry darkness.
I study the metal grid on the floor, then the circuit boards overhead that the builders didn’t bother to cover, the metal plates riveted into place. Not like the rest of the escape pods, I’m sure. They’ll be cushy and expensive. I’d rather be in this sturdy, utilitarian pod than one of the others, somehow. Our pod jerks again, when it should be using sensors and thrusters to keep us floating gently in space. Something’s causing it to ignore its programming.
I look across at Miss LaRoux, and for a moment our gazes meet. She’s some combination of tired, pissed off, and just as sure as I am that some- thing’s not right. Neither of us breaks the silence, though, or names the things it might be.
Her hair’s coming loose from the fancy loops and curls she had it up in, and in zero gravity, it’s fanning out around her face as though she’s underwater. Even with a black eye on the way, she’s beautiful.
Then a violent shudder tears through the pod, shattering that moment of peace. The metal begins to hum as the vibrations increase, shaking me through the soles of my boots. I look up to see a glow outside the view- port, and then an automatic shield slides across it, prompted by some reading from outside.
That glow. I know now what was casting that light. I know what’s shaking the pod, causing it to twist and turn and ignore its instructions to laze about in deep space waiting for the cavalry.
It’s a planet. That glow is some planet’s atmosphere reflecting a star’s light, and its gravity is dragging the pod down, interfering with its guid- ance systems. We’re landing, and that’s if we make it down in one piece. We’re landing if we’re lucky.
Miss LaRoux’s mouth moves, but I can’t hear her—the humming’s too loud, lifting to a rumble and then a roar as the air inside the pod heats up. I have to shout to make myself heard.
“Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth.” I’m bellowing instructions, and she’s frowning at me like I’m speaking Old Chinese. “Relax your jaw. You don’t want to break your teeth or bite your tongue. We’re crashing.” She understands now, and she’s smart enough to nod, instead of trying to shout back. I close my eyes and try, try to relax.
The gravity inside the pod falters, then slams back again, so my har- ness cuts into my chest and my breath is pushed out of my lungs with a hoarse shout I can’t hear.
The air outside the pod must be white-hot as we rip through the atmosphere. We’re within the pull of the planet’s gravity now, but sus- pended as we’re pulled up against our straps by our acceleration toward the ground below. For an instant Miss LaRoux meets my eyes—we’re both too shocked, too shaken to communicate.
I have only that instant in which to register that she’s silent, not screaming her head off like I would’ve expected. Then there’s an impact that jolts my head back against the pad behind it so hard my teeth clash together. It turns out I’m holding my chest strap, because I nearly dislo- cate my thumb.
The parachute’s deployed. We’re floating.
We’re both tense as the sudden silence draws out, waiting for the pod to connect with the ground, wondering if the parachute will reduce the impact enough that we won’t end up smeared across the planet.
There’s a deafening crash, and something scrabbling across the out- side of the pod, and then we’re turning over, upside down. The storage locker bangs open, sending my grab bag flying. I pray to whatever might be listening that it doesn’t connect with us.
The pod jerks again, ricocheting wildly, tumbling end over end. I’m stuck in a world where I’m jerked against my straps over and over, thrown back and forth, until finally we settle. It takes me several quick breaths to realize we’ve stopped moving. Though I can barely tell which way is up, I realize I’m not hanging from my straps, so we must be upright. I feel like I’ve been trampled in a stampede, and I swim back toward reason, trying to understand what’s happened. Somehow, unimaginably, we’ve landed. Right now I couldn’t give a damn where. I’m alive.
Or else I’m dead, and I’ve ended up in hell after all, and it’s an escape pod with Lilac LaRoux.
Neither of us speaks at first, though the pod’s far from silent. I hear my own breathing, harsh and hoarse. Hers comes in little fits and gasps—I think maybe she’s trying not to cry. The pod pings audibly as it cools, the sound slowing and softening.
I’m hurting all over, but I flex my fingers and curl my toes, shifting and stretching within the confines of the straps. No serious damage. Though Miss LaRoux’s head is down, her face hidden by a sheet of red hair, I can tell she’s alive and conscious from her breathing. Her hand moves, feeling around for the release on her straps.
“Don’t,” I say, and she freezes. I hear how it sounds—like an order. I try for something a little softer. There’s no point bullying her. For a start, she won’t listen to me if I do. “No point in both of us going flying if it rolls again, Miss LaRoux. Stay where you are for now.” I release my own straps and ease them away, rolling my shoulders as I push carefully to my feet.
She looks up at me, and for a moment I forget what she’s done, and I’m sorry for her. It’s the same white, pinched, blank face I’ve seen in the field.
Two years ago, I was a brand-new recruit myself. A year ago, I was hitting the field for the first time. That was me, freezing up until my sergeant grabbed my arm and hauled me down behind half a brick wall. A laser burned a hole right where my head had been a moment before.
Thing is, though some of the kids who react this way get blown to bits, some of us come out the other side and make good soldiers.
There’s blood on her neck where the backs of her earrings have punched through the skin, and her face is so pale that I know what’s coming before she speaks.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” she says in a choked whisper, and then she’s pressing her lips together again. I reach up to hold on to the hang- ing straps and stand with my feet apart, shifting my weight. I can’t rock the pod, which means it’s probably wedged in firmly.
“All right,” I say, in the same gentle voice that worked on me the first time I froze, dropping to one knee in front of her and helping her with her straps. “All right, hang on a moment, breathe in through your nose.” She whimpers and scrambles free of the straps, dropping to her knees on the metal grid floor. That’ll leave a mark later.
I flip up the seat of the spare chair, and sure enough there’s a storage locker underneath it. I lift out the toolbox and set it aside. She understands my intention and leans past me to grip the edges of it, back arching as she retches. I leave her to it, getting to work hauling open the hatches of the lockers and storage compartments built in all over this thing. There’s a water tank, the silver wrappers of ration packs, a first-aid kit marked with a red cross, the toolbox. I find a slightly grubby rag stashed inside one, and hold it out to her as she lifts her head. She stares at it dubiously—still blessedly silent—but finally takes it gingerly, using the cleanest corner to wipe her mouth.
Crash-landed on an unknown planet, a black eye on the way, and the contents of her stomach now in the underseat storage locker, and she still feels the need to act like she’s above it all.
She coughs, trying to clear her throat. “How long do you think it will be before the shuttles will find us?”
I realize that she thinks the Icarus is still okay—that they’re doing repairs as we speak. That her surface-going craft will come scoop us up at any moment, that this is all some fleeting nightmare. My annoy- ance fades a little as I think about telling her what I saw. The Icarus dipping, wallowing in the atmosphere of this planet, fighting a losing battle against gravity.
No, telling her will just send her into hysterics, like it would any of those people I met in the first-class salon. Best to keep some things close to my chest.
“First things first,” I say instead, hunting for something I can use to pour her a cup of water. This works with the recruits too—a firm, busi- nesslike tone, cheerful but not quite friendly, pushing them toward tasks they can focus on. “Let’s learn what we can about where ‘here’ is.”
As I speak, I’m watching the heat shields retract on the windows, and something releases inside my chest as I look outside. Trees. “We’re in luck. This place looks like it’s terraformed. There must be sensors for checking the air quality outside.”
“There are,” she agrees. “But the electrical surge fried them. We don’t need them, though. It’s safe.”
“Glad you’re so sure, Miss LaRoux,” I retort before I can stop myself. “I think I’d rather an instrument told me so. Not that I don’t trust your extensive training.”
Her eyes narrow, and if looks could kill, then toxic atmospheres would be the least of my problems.
“We’re already breathing the air,” she replies tightly, lifting one hand to gesture toward the lockers by her feet.
I crouch to get a look at where she’s pointing, and for an instant I stop breathing, lungs seizing. You can’t see it unless you’re down low, but the pod’s been ripped like a massive can opener ran along one side of it. I remind myself that nobody’s started choking and force myself to inhale.
“Well, look at that. Must have happened on landing.” I listen to my