AFTER THIRTY THOUSAND years, the Empire is dying," the lieutenant proclaimed. "And you're all too decadent to care." A haze of smoke from the firepool drifted slowly away through the foliage overhead, but the angry words hung unanswered in the night.
That boy had his mix set too high, Maeve decided. Possibly he was just drunk, although she had not noticed him drinking at all, nor even sniffing croil. Possibly he was just a natural loudmouth and his best friends wouldn't tell him. Whatever the cause, he was spoiling this corner of the party, standing by himself in the center and trying to raise trouble.
An uncertain light flickered over the dozen or so faces around the little grotto. Leaves rustled in the breeze, and sounds of laughter and music floated in from distant parts of the grounds to die in the sullen silence. The girls looked annoyed. The boys were embarrassed--they had come to party, not to fight, and especially not fight with a spacer. The lieutenant was big, and his was the only uniform in sight, although Maeve was fairly sure that a couple of the other boys were spacers also. One could usually tell, no matter what they wore. Or didn't.
"Security, identify last speaker," she murmured.
The expected voice came softly in her ear, "Lieutenant Hajin, navigator on Ultian Spaceship Defender."
Just what she'd been afraid of--that pup had teeth! His parents were both admirals, and even her own position in the Cabinet was not secure enough to risk annoying him. His family had been Patrol for generations, and virtually owned three states. When a spacer wanted the sidewalk, civilians walked in the gutter.
Some of the other faces were more familiar to her--a famous ballerina, a celebrated oenologist, the pretender to the throne of Lyshia. She suspected that the chubby boy nearest her was the heir to the fabulous Locab fortune. Mostly she wanted to speak with the girl in blue, who was an ecologist and reputedly had some novel theories about the decline in the smallfish catch in the Narrow Sea. But the girl in blue was being squeezed tightly in a corner by a boy in green, and was presently not interested in anything else at all. Maeve could do no good there, and there was nothing she could do about the blowhard lieutenant. She decided she might as well leave and see how the rest of the company was doing.
There was also the Vaun problem to attend to.
Before she had taken a step, Security whispered in her ear, "Subject of special surveillance is heading in this direction."
Maeve nodded in acknowledgment, hoping that the signal would register--her household equipment was becoming distressingly erratic. During parties, it tended to panic at any sign of rowdiness and then overrun the place with innumerable sims of armed guards. She had almost given up trying to find anyone competent to repair it, and the newer systems were all junk.
Nothing more happened; Security did not ask for further instructions, so she must assume that it was functioning correctly.
She would wait for Vaun. Vaun had been skulking about the grounds all night, haunting the edges of the company as if hoping not to be recognized. If he knew who owned Arkady, he must have had a very special reason for coming here--Vaun had been known to walk out of a diplomatic function when Maeve arrived. He would stand up a king or president to avoid meeting her. But perhaps he didn't know.
"Decadent!" the lieutenant bellowed, growing madder as his victims sullenly refused to talk back.
Maeve wanted to know what Vaun was up to and why he was here. She wanted this bigmouth lieutenant to stop spoiling everyone else's evening. She wanted too many things, obviously. She wished Blowhard would get hungry, or that one of the girls would take him off somewhere and lay him. She was not desperate enough to undertake the job herself--she did not care for beefy loudmouths, and there were lots more interesting people around tonight to talk with or play with; more than she had seen here in weeks. Sometimes it happened that way. Other nights she turned on the beacon and almost nobody came.
She stood back in the shadows under a crimple tree, relishing the musky smell of it, watching the flames dance in the firepool. The night was sticky hot, heavy with the scents of crimple and the night-blooming creepers on the crumbling walls. A night harp trilled plaintively on a twig somewhere. Those walls, the mossy paving, the weathered stone benches--only recently had she realized that they were part of some centuries-old ruin, probably a church. Now they made very effective garden scenery.
Romantic, too! A faint swish of shrubbery announced that the girl in blue and the boy in green had vanished off into the dark. So very shortly they would just be girl and boy...
"You!" the lieutenant snarled, picking out the second-largest boy present. "Haven't you got anything to say on the subject?"
Before he could answer, Feirn spoke from the shadows at the far side of the court. "You've scared us all speechless. How many thousands of years have we got left?"
Maeve had not noticed her sitting there, half-hidden by a gupith bush, but she should have recognized the glimmer of her pale skin, the smolder of the red hair. Firelight suited Feirn. Her companion was almost invisible by comparison.
The lieutenant squinted over the flames of the firepool to see who had stooped for the gauntlet. "So all you care about is your personal existence? You are not concerned at all for future generations. That's decadence!"
The boy beside Feirn started to rise. She restrained him with a pale hand on his arm, and this time her voice was stronger as she gathered confidence. "And why worry about the distant future? Shouldn't we be more concerned about the famine down in Thisly, or the civil war in Agoan, or the grain plague in--"
"Bah! Details! There have always been local wars and famines. I'm talking about the galaxy!"
"Then tell me exactly what I should be doing for future generations. How can anything I do improve the Empire's chances?"
That was a fair question, but it happened to coincide with a burst of laughter from the buffet table on the next terrace up. A cascade of merriment rained down through the canopy of branches and gave the remark more sting than it deserved.
The lieutenant's beefy face flushed. "Support the Patrol, of course! The Commonwealth's record is abysmal, and the rest of the planet does little better. Press for far greater funding. More ships, more com equipment so we can find out what's going wrong, more men--"
"Better men would be a better start," a new voice said, and Vaun strolled in from the darkness.
Well! Maeve eased farther back under the leaves. She wondered momentarily if Vaun also might have his mix set too high tonight, or whether the lieutenant could somehow be his reason for coming, but she quickly decided that no mere lieutenant could ever be worthy of Vaun's notice. Not a male one, anyway.
He hadn't changed by one eyebrow hair since the last time she'd seen him, and she couldn't remember when that was. He was wearing only a plain white shirt and shorts--Vaun detested uniform--a slight, dark boy, with an arrogance as wide as the galaxy. Contemptuous of everyone--he hadn't changed.
The lieutenant was looking him up and down, smirking in satisfaction. Obviously he hadn't recognized this ambitious newcomer. Obviously no one had. Blowhard was naturally assuming that he'd found the opponent he wanted--which would not be what Vaun intended.
"I think I could take that as an insult," the lieutenant said, flexing his arms.
"If it fits, wear it." Vaun had been running. He was flushed and still panting slightly, and that suggestion of arousal added emphasis to the confrontation. It reminded Maeve of other things, wringing a pang from old wounds: Vaun!
A sleepy smile crawled over the bigger boy's face. "Insulting the Patrol can be dangerous."
"Disgracing it is worse," Vaun said mildly.
And that, Maeve suspected, was the only warning the lieutenant was going to get.
"Besides," Vaun continued innocently, "I don't see why you should be concerned about the remote future. Surviving the next four months ought to worry you more."
In a stage whisper, one of the onlookers said, "The next four minutes for you, bud!" A couple of his companions chuckled, but the lieutenant was now wary of Vaun's inexplicable self-confidence--civilians did not talk back this way.
"Why is that ... sir?"
"Because of the Q ship, of course."
"What Q ship?"
"The one from Scyth. It should have started braking weeks ago. Even in our time frame, if it doesn't start in two days, it ain't going to, and in eleven weeks we're all spareribs. It'll smash the planet!"
This time the snigger was general. Drunk, obviously, or orbiting on croil ... The tension faded. Some of the girls pulled faces.
Not Maeve! Her heart lurched. She knew Vaun, and lying was beneath his dignity. Whatever he was up to, Vaun meant what he said. If he said, "smash the planet," then he meant smash the planet. God Almighty!
"But the greenest ensign in the Patrol," the lieutenant smirked, "knows that it is impossible to get an accurate fix on an approaching Q ship. There's no definition to a fireball, and the singularity fouls up the Dopplering."
"I allowed for that," Vaun said calmly. "It's close enough now for triangulation from the Oort stations. Estimation at the ninety-five percentile. But I don't suppose such dangerous information is allowed to seep down to your level."
"Go get him, Haj," said the kibitzer in the background.
It was astounding that no one had yet recognized Vaun. No one would be more astounded than he. He certainly could not talk his way out of this now. The spacer would tell him to put his fists up, and then he would have to produce his ID. Or he might not bother--Maeve had never seen him fight, but if he was as good at brawling as he was at everything else, then the lieutenant was in much more danger than he realized.
Vaun was the most relaxed person present, supremely confident of his invariant ability to outdo anyone at anything. He thrust his hands in his pockets in calculated contempt, although his opponent was barely two strides away--and smiling.
"So now you're accusing the Patrol of incompetence?"
"Am I? I'm saying that it should be attending its immediate duty to guard the planet before it worries about the rest of the galaxy. Sure the Bubble's dying. It's been dying for most of those thirty thousand years you mentioned and I expect it'll continue to die for the next thirty."
The lieutenant sniggered--only civilians referred to human space as the Bubble. Spacers called it the Empire. Vaun himself, in typically pedantic fashion, usually called it the Doughnut, but he had just set a trap, and the other boy had taken the bait.
Maeve began to move and then stopped. Vaun had expected to be recognized, but apparently she was the only one present who knew him. That did not mean that she had a duty to intervene. He did not even know she was there, or he would never have come to Arkady. He was old enough to take care of himself. And he was serious about the Q ship.
Then, without taking his hands from his pockets, he abruptly dropped his mockery and detonated a parade-ground bark. "Go home, Lieutenant! You're disgracing your uniform, and behaving like a snot-faced aristocratic boor!"
Without a word, the lieutenant stepped forward, swinging punches with both fists. They never came close. Vaun's hands stayed in his pockets, but his foot blurred up to take the lieutenant in the crotch, lifting him bodily. He crashed to the paving. A couple of girls screamed. In a chorus of oaths, the other spacers leapt to their feet, intent on vengeance. Maeve opened her mouth...
Vaun wheeled around to face toward the shadowy corner where Feirn sat, and bellowed, "Ensign!"
With an inarticulate yelp of horror, the boy sitting beside Feirn seemed to cross the little court in one bound. Suddenly he was standing beside Vaun with his cap already straight on his head and his hand snapping up in a flawless salute, while the rest of him stayed rigid and as motionless as a statue. Everyone else in the courtyard froze. Inexplicably, they all seemed rumpled and unkempt by comparison.
Oh, that one? Still? Maeve kept hoping Feirn would tire of that one.
Nicely done, though. With one word, Vaun had vaporized any possibility of a general brawl. Feet thumped in the background as the other spacers came to attention also. One of the other girls wailed, and then slapped a hand over her mouth.
Feirn followed her companion out of the shadows, sylphlike in a sapphire sheath. Firelight gleamed on pale arms and ran rejoicing over her copper hair.
Vaun ignored her, and that was ominous. "You know who I am?"
"Sir!" The ensign's voice cracked like a whip, but his lips did not seem to move. He would have looked more flexible had he been made of cast iron. "Do now, sir. You had your back to me--"
"Have you transportation?"
"Take this thwag back to his kennel and plug him into a medic. I don't trust him to obey an order."
"He is under arrest, sir?"
"Not unless he causes more trouble." Vaun scowled down contemptuously at his writhing, retching victim. "As soon as he can understand, you may inform him that his behavior here tonight was unacceptable. I shall require a letter of apology of not less than ten pages--in his own handwriting, personally delivered, every page initialed by his commanding officer. Within two days."
It was time to intervene. This was all typical Vaun. He could twist a situation to his own advantage faster than anyone and he reveled in tearing up rule books. Obviously he was after Feirn.
Maeve walked out into the light. "Welcome to Arkady, Admiral."
Had she goosed him with a hand-beam, Vaun could not have jumped higher. Then he said, "Oh, shit!" loudly, and spun around to face her.