“Care to dance?” Harper asked as he stepped in behind Trance, a hand on the small of her back, the other extended out for her to grab. The moonlit gardens suited her. Silvery light dazzled on her skin. She’d been swaying to the music when he found her alone in a side garden at the Governor’s mansion where the laughter and the chatter of the guests was almost indistinguishable but the music ebbed and flowed like the tide. Narrow hips swung from left to right while her hands twisted in front in imitation of the local dancers. She hadn’t known he was watching. Or maybe she had and hadn’t cared. Carefree. Alive in the moment with her eyes closed and a wide smile on her face. He was a mortal who’d stumbled upon the court of a fairy princess.
“Of course.” She twisted and grabbed his hand with her head tilted to the side and eyes sparkling. He shifted her into a dancing position and matched his steps to the beat of the music and the sway of her hips. She fell in step with little effort; quick as always. “I didn’t think you were going to make it with all the festivities down on the beach. Thought you’d be chasing after pretty girls all night.”
A twist and a twirl. His fingers brushed bare skin as she spun out of his grasp and into it again. He’d always liked this particular bodysuit and the way it showed the curve of her back.
“I wouldn’t miss a stuffy dinner party with a bunch of rich old scientists, that even you don’t want to hang out with, for anything.” Step, step, turn. Past a bed of rose-like blooms that left the air around them full of vanilla and spice. “Especially not when invited by my sparkly purple princess.”
One brow curved up as he spun her again. Out she flew, graceful like a gymnast, before returning her hand to his. Their bodies were a conversation with the push and pull between them natural and easy. Like banter between good friends.
“So, none of the pretty girls would entertain you?”
“Not a single one.”
“I don’t think you gave it enough time. You must’ve left pretty early to get here on time from the other side of the continent. How’d the competition go?”
The music ended on a long note that faded into the still air. It was warmer here than where he’d flown in from but not uncomfortable. He relaxed their arms but left his hand on hers. For the first time, he noticed that she’d curled her short blond hair and dotted it with little clear jewels that caught the moonlight and twinkled like the stars.
“It went great. Better than great. Third place and automatically qualified for the Pan-galactic Finals on Infinity. Because I. Am. Awesome.” If the Magog larvae in his stomach had a say in the matter, he wouldn’t make it to the finals no matter how good he was.
Stupid brain. What part of ‘not thinking about impending doom tonight’ did it not understand?
Music began again; gentle beats with sonorous strings drifting between them. She followed his lead once more. A two-step like his mother taught him a lifetime ago on a cool Boston afternoon under a bright blue, cloudless sky. He was ten-years-old. Didn’t matter there was mud beneath their feet or that the radio kept cutting out because it needed a new part he and Dad hadn’t found yet. The air had been fresh with a breeze blowing off the Boston Harbor and the sun was shining. That was reason enough to celebrate.
Her smile fell. Must have noticed a change in his face—a chink in his mental armor. The questions that were always on her lips these days came through her eyes: Was he alright? Should she worry? She tiptoed on eggshells around him. Guilty because she hadn’t been able to remove the larvae from him the way she had Tyr and because she hadn’t found an answer yet. Concerned that he would have another mental breakdown the longer this stretched on. He didn’t blame her, but she didn’t see that. More than anything, he wished he could say he was alright and tell her not to worry. That the Magog babies living in his gut had no impact on his decision-making. He couldn’t.
Why had he left early? Because he didn’t want a one night stand right now and what was the point of looking for Mrs. Harper when the statistical likelihood he’d survive long enough to get married and start a family was next to none? Too much effort, too little to gain. Trance’s presence was safe and comfortable.
Lying never worked, so the truth it was. “To be honest, I didn’t feel like running the rat race tonight, trying to get a girl to pay attention to me for five minutes when I knew I could come here and keep you company. Seems like I always end the night dancing with you anyway when we go to these things. Just cut out the middleman this time.”
Trance never blushed but her eyes always glanced away when she was flattered and her smile went a little lopsided. One of the cutest things in the Universe. The side of his mouth tugged up.
“Well, I’m glad you came. I was getting really bored,” she said and he turned them again for another loop around the small garden.
“Can’t imagine why. By the hors-d'oeuvres table, they were having a riveting conversation about the gestational period of the bromian sand flea. Did you know that they can lay dormant in their eggs for up to three hundred years? I didn’t and my life is now enriched by that knowledge.” He twirled her again and her laughter rose into the clear night sky. “Please tell me the whole conference hasn’t been like that? Why’d you decide to come, anyway? You weren’t planning on it.”
“You chose to do the competition here so I knew I wouldn’t be alone the whole time.” The way the moonlight reflected off her skin made it hard to look away. “You know that Dylan wants both of us to get out into the scientific community more.”
He laughed. “But bromian sand fleas, Trance. Couldn’t you find a more interesting conference?”
“It should be interesting. The presenters take all the fun out of it.” Step, step, sway. Step, step, sway. Around again. “They forget they are talking about life. Life and the creation of it is beauty and chaos and wonder. It’s not stuffy lectures in a room where you can’t even see the sunlight or the trees. Seems like an odd place for a xenobiology conference….”
She rambled on, telling him about her presentation tomorrow, and he let her. The words didn’t register; he was stuck on the way her face had lit up at the mention of life. On the way she loved every living thing down to the tiniest flea and how that love flowed into her voice and expression. Her plants and bugs and animals meant as much to her as his gears and widgets and electrical circuits. A woman of passion and energy. In a perfect world, that’d be the kind of woman for him. A woman just like Trance.
Too bad it was difficult enough to find a single bright star to pay attention to him in a Universe full of them, much less another.
“Did you hear any of that?” Trance asked, laughing. Dark eyes with the moon and starry sky reflected in them scanned his face. Her lips parted like she was going to say something more but closed again. Whatever it was remained locked inside Fort Trance. The music died down a second time. She’d painted her lips a deep red tonight and the urge to kiss them was far stronger than it should be. Their gazes remained locked until she let go of his hand and took a step back.
Slender fingers played at the hem of the short skirt tied over her black bodysuit. “I should… I should probably get back to the party. They'll notice I’m gone. I’m kind of hard to miss.”
“Yeah, I could use something to eat anyway. Is any of it any good?” He extended his arm to her and she took it, all smiles again.
“They have these little sour berries from Rigel…”
“They assured me that my reservation was transferred to this hotel. Here, I can even pull up the confirmation.” Harper’s words were measured and clipped. He tapped a few commands into the bracer on his arm, telling the embedded computer to pull up the document. “See? They don’t have a room over there for me and I sure as hell don’t want to travel another hour-and-a-half back to the other side of the continent just to have them tell me I transferred my room here this morning.”
Trance stood off to the side in the ostentatious lobby with white tile floors, pillars along the wall, and a huge chandelier in the middle. Hallways stretched out from either side with rows of conference rooms and classrooms. The kind of place rich humans favored and she found devoid of life. So much space that footsteps echoed across the room. No color. No fun at all. Not even a decent set of gardens.
She bounced on her toes, scanning the room every so often as if there’d be anything new at 2300 hours in the boring lobby of a boring hotel. Nothing new. Nothing more interesting than what was in front of her. Not even a glimpse of possible futures.
The set of Harper’s jaw and the way his left hand twitched by his side concerned her. He was tired after surfing all day and spending all night at the party with her. Then there’d been the walk from the Governor’s mansion to the conference hotel. She’d carried his surfboard on her back, but in an act of chivalry, he’d refused to let her carry anything else. They could have waited for transit to take them back, but both were used to using the power of their own two feet to conserve funds. She preferred it, really.
“I’m sorry sir. I see that is an official confirmation, but something must have gone wrong. We are completely booked because of the conference, a high profile wedding, and three different sporting events. I don’t have a room to give you. I doubt there are rooms available at any hotel in the entire city.”
She didn’t need probability waves to know the chance of escalation.
“What about the room I was supposed to have booked for tomorrow?” He shifted from foot to foot. Each time he spoke, his voice lifted another decibel. The other clerk turned to watch the show. A few guests returning from the on-site bar stopped to stare.
The attendant typed a few things into his terminal and frowned. “It’s showing as canceled and the room has already been filled.”
Time to intervene before his temper peaked or she’d be faced with a twitchy, red-faced Harper who still didn’t have a place to sleep. She slipped in beside him, gave the attendant, Joss, a disarming smile, and put a hand on Harper’s upper arm. His muscles were coiled like a spring under pressure.
“I can go without sleep. You know I can, and my suite is plenty large enough for the both of us.”
“Trance, that’s not the point.” He spoke through gritted teeth and she appreciated that didn’t yell at her as he often did when wound this tight.
“One moment.” She nodded to Joss then gripped Harper's arm tighter, pulled him a step away, and lowered her voice. “The point, Seamus, is that you are tired and cranky. If, and that’s a big if, there is a room available anywhere it is going to take time to find and cost you.” She nodded at the attendant and channeled her inner Beka with hands on her hips. “And none of that is Joss’ fault. I have a room big enough for the both of us and a bed you can sleep in if you would stop being so damned stubborn. It’s not like our bunks are all that far away from each other’s on the Maru.”
He stared, open-mouthed then his eyes narrowed and a cute lopsided smile softened his face. His muscles relaxed, though not all the way. She pursed her lips and raised her brows, her eyes locked on his.
So, Beka was right. He just needed a little tough love. Though perhaps it was that he needed love of any sort to sand down all those rough edges.
“Did you just curse at me?”
She shrugged and raised her own brows. “Are you thinking more rationally now? You need to keep your stress level down.” Or he could speed along the gestation of the Magog larvae and she needed more time. She left that one out. When he didn’t respond she turned to Joss who shot her a look best reserved for knights in one of those silly human fairytales where princesses sat around and waited for princes to rescue them. She smiled at Joss. “Add him to room 1742, please.”
“Sir, if you’ll put your finger on the scanner I’ll get you access to…” he consulted his screen, “Miss. Gemini’s room. We will also refund you deposit immediately and comp your meals for the duration of your stay to apologize for the inconvenience.”
Trance nodded towards the front desk and, with a roll of his eyes, Harper turned with a forced smile and pressed his thumb to the scanner. “Thanks.”
She gave Joss a warmer smile then gestured towards the elevators. “Come on, let’s get you upstairs before you bite someone’s head off.”
It hadn’t taken Harper long to fall asleep. Trance sat on the couch with her legs crossed in front of her and a flexie on her lap. Her suite, given to her as a conference presenter, was large with floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the city lights. There were three sections in the wide, open room. A raised dining area, a bedroom, and a living room with a fireplace, though it wasn’t cold enough to light a fire. She’d have liked it, but Harper had low heat tolerance—at least he whined about the heat incessantly when subjected to it. Apparently, it never got much over 26-degrees in Boston.
She smiled and looked over at the bed. For someone who hated heat so much, he sure loved blankets. And pillows. He’d practically built a fort out of them on the huge bed. Only his bare shoulders and head were visible now as he lay on his side, sound asleep. He’d offered to make a wall of pillows so she could share the bed. It was plenty big enough. At least the size of two Maru bunks lined up side by side. But she’d declined more out of concern for his comfort than hers.
The chronometer by the bed read 0300 hours. Neither of them needed to be out of her before 1000 and with a little luck, he’d sleep a full eight hours and they could order breakfast in. A big breakfast with plenty of fuel for Harper’s surfing competition on this side of the continent. She turned back to her flexie intent on preparing more for her presentation tomorrow but, instead of reading it, tapped it on the side of her leg. On Andromeda, she had her plants to keep her occupied in the late night and early morning hours when the rest of the ship slept. She had Rommie to keep her company. There were always diagnostics to run or something to puzzle out. Here there was only silence and a city filled with sleeping souls.
Harper grunted in his sleep and shifted before settling again. Harper… She closed her eyes and stepped into her mental space. On a dais before her sat a meticulously sculpted bonsai tree. It’s real-world counterpart was light-years away on the Maru, but she kept a copy here to help her organize her thoughts. To help her make sense of the millions of pathways before her. The trillions of little choices every day that could change the future.
One path, with thousands of branches feeding travelers into it, led to the perfect possible future. She’d tread it so many times that the soil was impacted and she could rattle off every landmark along the way. Every moment Dylan needed to reach. Every adventure Beka had to go on. The only futures she was to concern herself with according to her superiors. Futures that led to the destruction of the Abyss.
Every single one of them led to the end of Seamus Harper and that was unacceptable.
Tonight, she let her mind wander down the forbidden paths. The ones her people had decided were unlikely, so certain they were that there was only one solution to the problem of the Abyss. She’d believed them. Thrown her lot in with theirs. Moved her friends around like pieces on Dylan’s Go board. Tried to pretend they weren’t her friends. Children, her sisters and brothers called them. Pets said others.
“We are their Gods,” a particularly outspoken avatar of a small red star told her before she left for her mission. He kept a palace on a backwater world where he collected instruments of war from across the Tri-Galaxies. Some from civilizations that had long since destroyed themselves with their death tools. She suspected he’d started most of them. A fun way to keep himself occupied over the course of his long life. Disgusting.
Her people were chaotic. Unruly. They lived to experience the universe in a way the stars had never done before—as people. They were driven by their passions and desires however they manifested. About the only thing they agreed on was that organics were simple creatures and that the Abyss must be destroyed. That, and she was too young, too erratic, and too prone to choosing her own path for this mission. Yet, projections showed her as the one most likely to succeed. Young, yes, but a prodigy. Able to travel probability waves better than anyone else. Innocent by nature and outwardly trustworthy. The organics would trust her and follow her unassuming lead.
And they had. They had followed her vibrations on the spiderweb of life. It was because of her—because of their plans—that Harper was dying. In every side road that merged into the perfect possible future, she lost him. Either piece by piece as she repaired the damage to his body with bits of machinery until he was more metal than flesh, or all at once when the Magog larvae ate their way out from inside him.
Her superiors believed he was the most expendable. Some had wanted him eliminated from the start. He could help, sure, but he was as chaotic and unpredictable as Trance. The two of them together left too many open variables. She hadn’t thought to question, then, why they feared a child or a pet could corrupt her if that was all humans were. She now understood that her people, as bright and full of life as they were, lacked imagination. For a people who could predict the future, they were short-sighted.
So, while Harper slept she experienced a million moments. A million friendly smiles and late night card games. A million successes and failures. She connected with her distant solar body and used the vast processing power of her sun to make sense of it all. She searched with desperate fervor far into the future, teasing out the threads. A freehand embroiderer uncertain of where to put the next stitch. Not even certain of the final picture. She left the hotel room far behind and wandered. Took all the joy, sorrow, and fear of those potential lives and fed it back to her sun who craved the experiences. Which path allowed Harper to live? Which one led her to the answer on how to take the Magog larvae out before they killed him? How did she help him put his worst nightmare behind him for good?
“Ouch!” Harper’s voice pulled her from her visions. “Son-of-a— ouch!”
She jerked around. He sat bare-chested on the bed with brow wrinkled and jaw-clenched. The blankets bunched up around his waist. One hand clutched his stomach while the other fumbled on the nightstand in the dark, disturbing a glass of water, his bracer, and gauss pistol.
“Harper!” She jumped up and rushed over. She grabbed the inhaler that kept the larvae dormant and pressed it into his hand. Sweat beaded on his forehead. The device hissed as he breathed in the medication. In less than a minute his brow smoothed out and his shoulders relaxed.
“Better?” she asked as she rubbed circles on his back. Her legs dangled off the side of the bed. The chronometer read 0515—so much for a good night’s sleep.
He forced a smile that didn’t reach his bleary eyes. “Peachy.”
She handed him the glass of water. “How often do they wake you? You never said anything.”
He never did.
“It’s nothing.” He passed the glass after taking a few sips.
“I don’t believe you.”
He shrugged. They sat in awkward silence. Too early to be awake and start the day and too many unspoken words between them, all jumbled up and tangled with no place for Harper to hide from her and her questions. She understood, now, his reluctance to share a room.
“When we get home I can get you something to ease the pain and help you get back to sleep when they wake you. It might make you groggy, but I’m sure Dylan would let you start work later. He’d understand.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need anything.” He shrugged off her hand and flopped down on the bed. The force of it bounced her. A storm brewed in his blue eyes they stared at the plain white ceiling. The only thing up there were a few embedded light fixtures. “Doesn’t matter anyway. Sleeping won’t make me live any longer.”
Her mouth fell open, but she couldn’t find the words to comfort. She was lost. Even the future eluded her; hid its secrets and left her alone to handle this mess she’d created.
“Don’t say that,” she said, though it came out with less command than she’d intended. She shifted a couple of pillows out of her way and laid down beside him, her face towards his. He didn’t turn his head but shifted his gaze so he could see her out of the corner of his eye. She tried to lock eyes as best she could. “I’m still looking for an answer. I haven’t given up hope yet.”
A heavy sigh flowed from his lips. He heaved himself over so they were nose to nose. Pain was etched into every line on his young face. Not even thirty. Still barely an adult, even by human standards. He’d lost hope the moment he’d woken up with the larvae still inside him. It was a valuable commodity for someone who’d grown up oppressed, starved and beaten on the streets of Boston. Much of his supply had been used up simply surviving the hell Earth had become after the Fall of the Commonwealth.
“Please don’t give up hope,” she whispered. Her heart rate slowed as she looked into his eyes and she was taken back to this evening when they’d danced in the garden and there had been this pull between them. For once, he didn’t look away. Pawn. Pet. Child. She was his God. That’s what she was supposed to believe, but right now she could only see a man she didn’t want to live without. The smartest person she’d ever met, and one of the funniest, too. The first true friend she could ever claim. He’d accepted her as she was, as strange as she must have seemed to a boy only three-years off of Earth. His death would leave a void in her heart as wide and deep as an ocean. As a galaxy. “I won’t let you die.”
“Every day it gets closer,” he said, finally. “Every day I'm one step closer to not having a future.”
“Then don’t think about the future.”
He raised an eyebrow. “All you do is think about the future.”
When had he figured that out about her? It was wise to never underestimate him. She allowed a small smile. “Sometimes I choose to live in the moment. To take the seconds as they come. I don’t always see what is going to happen next.”
Before her, the world fractured like a broken mirror showing the same scene in each shard. A dozen possible futures and choices she could make. Something about this moment held significance enough to present her with a handful of probability waves. She blinked them away and focused on Harper’s face. Sometimes, rarely, she even chose not to see what came next. If he’d noticed a change in her demeanor, he didn’t say anything.
Drawn by a need for physical connection she reached out and placed her hand on his cheek. The stubble scratched her palm. An odd, stray thought fluttered through her mind, took root there, and sprouted to life. Harper needed something to live for. Something so precious that he had no choice but to fight in the moments he lost hope.
Love was something to live for.
This time, he picked up the change. “Trance?”
Her organic heart sped up. If she made this reckless choice, she set herself against her people. Trusted that they needed her more than they needed her to follow direct orders. She was their best hope. Their weapon against the Abyss. A tool they could use to bring about the future they desired so they could keep on living their lives and amusing themselves at the expense of everyone else.
She wanted to live too. And if they didn't like it, they very well could figure out how to defeat the Abyss without her, because she wasn't going to lose Harper.
Without a word, she brought her face to his. First, their noses brushed. His eyes narrowed and his shoulders tensed, but he didn’t pull back. She kissed him once, and then again. The scent of sunshine and the ocean lingered on his skin. One of his hands rose to cup her face as he returned her kiss. His breath was warm. A shift brought their torsos together and heat radiated off his bare skin. His tongue darted out to trace her lips. She allowed the escalation and he pulled her closer to him with a grunt. Fingers slipped under the fabric of the tank top she’d changed into earlier and goosebumps rose on her arms. She sighed against his mouth, enjoying one of the simplest pleasures an organic body had to offer.
Harper pulled back. Clouded eyes moved over her face. Full of questions, they searched for answers in her expression. “Trance, if we keep—”
She didn’t need him to finish the sentence. “I know.”
“I mean, I… I want—”
She kissed him again and cut him off. “I know.”
This was a dream. Had to be. Trance was in bed with him, kissing him, smelling like a spring afternoon and tasting of sweet tea. Good dreams often turned to nightmares, but it was rare that a nightmare turned to something so amazing. He’d made a futile attempt to stop it. Was his duty as a friend to at least try but he didn’t want her to stop. For the first time in months, he was alive. Goosebumps on his skin. Heart thumping out a new sort of rhythm. He took his hand from her face and hovered over her to see better. Her dark eyes followed him and when he moved in for another kiss, she accepted it. Rose up to meet him, even. Wrapped her strong arms around his neck and held him close. As eager a participant as himself.
He pulled her shirt up over her head and she shrugged out of it. He kissed her neck and she extended it to him. Her fingers were everywhere. They dug into the muscles of his back, then pulled along his scalp, sending jolts of electricity through his entire body. He helped her out of the rest of her clothes and she helped him out of his boxers. Skin against skin, and hand to hand with hearts keeping time.
There was passion, and there was this. Different than a one night stand, or even the occasional woman who’d shared his bed more than once. His heart had gotten all involved, expanding in his chest as he explored the shape of her. The feel of her. Found the places that caused her to arch her back, gasp, and sigh. She discovered that he was ticklish right below his hip bone and exploited that knowledge with an impish grin until he pinned her to the bed with hands above her head and a grin on his own face. From above, he took in her mussed up hair, the curve of her lips, how her perfect breasts rose and fell with each ragged breath, and decided it was time to take this whole thing to its foregone conclusion.
They hadn’t left the dancing behind in the Governor’s moonlit gardens. Their bodies were still in conversation but that conversation had evolved into something new. Something wonderful. Like earlier, he took the lead, and she followed. Neither of them knew the steps to this dance—their dance—but they figured it out bit by bit. He kissed her hair, her mouth, her neck. He pushed into her and she curled against him with fingers digging into his back. It was sweat and heat and life. They fit together—belonged together.
He held her close to him after with the cozy weight of the blankets over them both. It was a little after six. His eyes drooped and the room had taken on a pleasant, sleepy haze. For the first time since Andromeda had met with the Magog Worldship, he was at peace.
“What do we do now?” he asked, then kissed the back of her neck.
“Mmm,” she muttered. A content, lazy sound. “Signs are hazy, check back later.”
He smiled at the joke. “You have to have some idea, almighty knowing one. This was all your idea, after all—not that I’m complaining.”
She rolled over to face him with half-lidded eyes. “Take it one day at a time, I guess.”
She smiled. “But maybe you should go back to sleep for a couple of hours. I’ll stay right here—I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Neither did he.