Alecto had reason to regret her alcohol intake the next morning. Uncertainty, being the grey-furred morning person that he was, landed on her chest with a rumbling mrf.
Then he began telling her about his day. Probably.
He might have been reciting the recipe for rat-and-mouse stew at high volume. It was hard to tell.
Either way, despite the water and pain killers she’d downed before dropping into bed, her head had a throbbing counterpoint to the early morning lecture. A glance out the window told her it was barely dawn.
With a grimace, Alecto rolled to the side, dislodging Uncertainty, and then sat up. Uncertainty butted her in the back and she had to laugh.
“All right, all right.”
And with that, her day began.
The Lars Nova Institute for Nanotech Engineering was four-story brick-and-mortar building situated on the Central University campus. It was a quaint structure, harkening back to styles popular centuries before the Global Conflict. Lars Nova had firmly believed that people who worked to build the future should be grounded in the past.
They lost a fair few recruits to the ongoing education requirements. No one objected to keeping up on nanotech, most just rolled their eyes at the ethics, but the history requirement was apparently too fearful for some to contemplate.
Those requirements were the reason Nova had always been her first choice for employer.
The fact that it was a teaching institution that paid like the private sector was merely a pleasant bonus.
“Good Morning, Dr. Etana!” Her cousin, Balthazar Chomek, stood by the reception desk, handing one of the grad students a stack of papers for filing. “I hear that you and Dr. Carpenter had an amazing time yesterday.”
Alecto eyed him suspiciously. “It seems a bit early in the day for Mai to have been bragging about me getting drunk.”
“Oh, no, no, no – Dr. Carpenter is in Lab Six, poking Dr. Ling with a pointy stick.”
“I don’t know that I like that smile, Balthazar.”
He pulled out an actual print copy of the local news and Alecto barely held back a groan of despair at the secondary headline of the Social News section:
Dr. Alecto Etana and Dr. Mai Carpenter, New Nanotech Super Couple?
“You’ve got to be joking,” Alecto reached for the paper and Balthazar pulled it away.
“Nope. Listen to this: Are two of the fastest rising stars of Medical Nanotech set to become a Binary System? After making a major splash in nanite research earlier this month, Dr. Alecto Etana was seen on the arm of Dr. Mai Carpenter of House Aerinith at the star-studded wedding of Elek Veasna and Amiri Dekany. Witnesses state that the two hottest – and most hotly sought after – nanite designers in the Protectorate only had eyes for one another during the ceremony and the celebrations after.
“They’ve even got a picture of Mai with her arm around her waist and you leaning into her shoulder. Oh, and a poll on how many people want to get caught up in your mutual gravity well.”
Alecto stared at him helplessly for a moment. “But… we… she spent the whole night making out with people while I was moderating ethical debates… What, I was drunk by the end. You try playing drinking games while gene-modders and cybernetic-techs throw down and see if you remain conscious!”
The grad student sighed and pulled out his wallet. “Fine, you win.”
Balthazar, apparently unable to suppress his mirth any longer, started laughing so hard he shook with it.
“Why does everyone bet on my love life, I ask you?” asked Alecto, more used to this kind of behavior than she liked to admit.
“He actually bet that you’d been doing something completely innocent,” said the grad student, sounding rather disgusted. “Normal people get laid at weddings, Dr. Etana.”
Balthazar managed to grab the credit chit the boy held out. “Dr. Etana is a lot of things, but normal isn’t really one of them.”
“I can be normal!” Alecto clapped a hand over her mouth. Balthazar’s eyebrows went up.
“Oh, really, cousin?”
“Maybe.” Alecto muttered from behind her hand.
“I bet you couldn’t even go an entire week without wearing long sleeves and gloves.”
“Of course I can’t – I’ll be in the manufacturing labs and lecturing all week.”
“Come on, Alecto – just one really normal thing. For a week.”
Alecto glared at him, feeling pugnacious. “What do I get if I do some ‘normal’ thing for a week?”
“We’ll stop speculating on your love life –“
The grad student snorted derisively.
“—at least where you can hear it. And if you fail – we get to dress you how we like for one night and take you to the social event of our choice.”
“That seems oddly specific, Balthazar.” She stared at him with narrowed eyes. “Who is ‘we’?”
“Oh, you know, the Etana research group and associated grad students. There will be polls. And shopping trips. And possibly trips to the hair stylist and a spa. There might even be giveaways.”
“Not speculating about my personal life seems a little light given the penalties I’ll have to pay if I lose.”
“Alecto, you can’t win and you know it.”
“You’re theorizing without data, Balthazar.”
“There’s a reason I’m your personal assistant and not a scientist, Dr. Etana.” Balthazar smiled winsomely. “Mostly my ability to charm the grants off of people.”
The grad student winced. “Oh, gods of my ancestors, really?”
“Oh, yes, really,” Alecto allowed, lips twitching. “He’s really good at that. Remember, when you’ve graduated and want to do your own projects, having your own personal Balthazar is really handy. Except when it isn’t.”
“One week. Seven days. No long sleeves barring coats, and no coats unless the weather calls for it. No punting people for brushing your skin in the hopes that they’ll get to dive into your gravity well. No gloves except when you’re actually working with nanobots.”
“If I manage that, you will all leave me alone about how I dress and how I don’t care if I ever have a soulmate and can’t be bothered to look for one? And you’ll keep new hires, grad students, board members, and such off of my back?”
“How long have you been planning this?”
“Cousin, I’ve been planning this since you left for higher schooling.” Balthazar’s smile was sweet and sincere.
“So, basically forever.”
“I’ve always wanted to dress you up like my own, personal doll.”
“Have either of you heard of the term ‘TMI’?” asked the grad student. “Because I really didn’t need to know that.”
“Please,” Balthazar stared down his nose disdainfully. “You’ve already selected the dress you think she should wear.”
“Sooo,” said Mai. “I hear that Balthazar outed himself as your cousin today.”
“Oh, so we’re not discussing our mutual gravity well?” Alecto snorted. “I imagine that was all over campus in about thirty seconds. The only thing that moved faster was his long-standing desire to be my personal dresser as well as my personal assistant.”
“I’d do a lot to get into your gravity well,” said Mai seriously, “But that’s always been an issue of dark matter. You can’t make shattering discoveries about things you can’t even see.”
Alecto groaned. “Really?”
“I’ll ignite my hydrogen with your oxygen any time, baby.” Mai wiggled her brows. “I’ll draw you down to a singularity and then send you nova.”
They stared at one another for a moment before falling into giggles.
“Love and Logic, that was terrible. Really, really terrible.” Alecto eyed her friend. “How do you get people to wander off with you using lines like that?”
“I’m pretty and I know how to dress for success.” Mai posed, her ratty jeans and mismatched socks not really making her point.
“Uh, huh.” Alecto looked down at herself, in her casual uniform of slacks and long-sleeved silk. “Good to know what I’m wearing puts people off.”
“Yes, well, there was a campus-wide poll last year about which professors the students wanted to re-design wardrobes for. I think you came in at number three – not because you lack style, but because you are ‘too damn pretty to be so distant’.”
“So, everyone wants to dress me up?” Alecto looked up from where she was programming the fabrication units. “For some reason that’s not really comforting. And why didn’t I hear about it?”
“Mmmmm.” Mai’s fingers danced through machine calibration. “It was a thing over at the Student Union, and you never pay attention to that. But we all noticed the sensitivity training sessions it sparked. Some of the comments about the professors were inappropriate and showed a lack of boundaries. Like whomever it was who thinks you’re too pretty not to flash skin and seek a bondmate.”
“Mai, you think I’m too pretty not to do that.”
“No – I think you’re too intense and driven and need a partner to balance you and make you happy.” Mai crawled under the power nodes. “You’re not one for the casual game that most of us play, so I want you to find what you’re seeking – your other half. It’s not the same thing at all.”
“Is it that hard to accept that I’m not seeking anything and am happy as I am?” Alecto finished the last line of code, sending it to compile.
“Usually.” Alecto lifted her hands from the keyboard. “I have my work, my friends, and my goals. I don’t really feel the need for more. I could have power and fame – but they’d interfere with what I want to do with my life.”
“A soulmate wouldn’t interfere.” Mai rolled out from under the power nodes. “They’d love and support you.”
“Would they?” Alecto bit her lip thoughtfully and put on her goggles. “I have to wonder.”
Over the weekend Alecto went shopping, the last thing she needed was Mai raiding her closet and realizing that Alecto honestly didn’t own anything with short or nonexistent sleeves. Seven carefully selected tank-tops later (all high necked) she was ready for a week of being pawed at.
Alecto already knew she was going to lose, but she wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
The first day was tolerable. Casual brushes of arm against arm in the hallway wasn’t too different from what it had been before, but she kept startling every time a hand ghosted out of the crowd, trailing down her arm or across her hand.
Mai had traced helixes and base principles on her shoulder until Alecto had poked her with a pen.
Balthazar had simply poked her nose when no one was looking and she’d beeped at him the way she had when they were children.
Most of the touches were benign and fleeting. Others were less so. Several students had to be warned off – the silent signal that one was searching for a bondmate bringing out less savory behaviors in some.
Day two was worse as half the campus seemed to want to bump into her, but Alecto bore it relatively good cheer. After all, you could shake a million hands and have your soulmate be a random person on the street, revealed when your shoulders brushed.
Day three was calmer, most of those curious if they might find a match having wandered off to other pastures, leaving only the casual, the determined – and what Alecto began to privately call the depraved. Those touching out of casual sexual interest took her rejections with good humor. The determined took them with irritation and shame. But those who touched because they could, because they wanted to, because they felt they had the right… well…
“Four days,” said Balthazar, standing over a student Alecto really had punted into the wall for touching her. “I’m impressed. I thought you’d break after two.”
“I don’t think this should count – he’s been brushing my wrist and shoulder all week. Today he grabbed me. That’s not ‘are you my soulmate’ – that’s sexual aggression, especially when I told him to stop days ago.”
“Sometimes it can take a few tries for a bond to manifest.” Balthazar countered. “Are you sure –”
“I don’t care if it takes gnawing on his spleen to make a bond manifest. He wouldn’t stop touching me and that’s not acceptable.” She glared at her cousin. “Why in the world does anyone actually put up with this?”
Campus security arrived and the boy began wailing about how a professor had unfairly knocked him off of his feet. They looked her over with suspicious eyes, and Alecto assumed a level of calm that would have terrified her research team. The gaze she turned on her gibbering assailant was cold enough to burn.
“I asked you to stop touching me on Monday,” Alecto said icily. “And on Tuesday. I sent you a formal note through the Provost’s office on Wednesday and tried to move away from you when you grabbed me today.” She looked at the officers. “He is a predator and a threat to the student body as a whole. I want to press charges.”
“What if I want to press charges? All I did was run a hand up your arm, like anyone would do – and you threw me into the wall!” The little worm’s chest puffed out and Alecto narrowed her eyes. “You wanted to be touched – no one wears sleeveless shirts unless they want people to touch them!”
“Actually, I’m wearing it on a bet – a bet everyone in the damn department is in on, so spare me your false ignorance – and it’s a bet that you are on the verge of making me lose, you worthless waste of oxygen.”
Balthazar’s breath stuttered the moment the insult spilled from her lips.
“Dr. Etana, you can press charges against the young man, of course.” said one of the officers, an older man with a ratty moustache. “It’s your word against his, of course. You do realize that that if the judiciary board finds against you, you could be heavily fined and sorted over to Criminal Investigations for assault and for making a false claim.”
“No, ma’am. Surely you understand that pressing charges will be difficult and –“
“Stop speaking to me.” She looked at the man’s partner, a woman barely older than the boy lying on the ground. “Are you willing to assist me, or must I go through calling the Provost and having her come down here?”
The younger officer shifted on her feet. “Ma’am – well, in general people don’t press charges for something as simple as a touch. Um. It’s, well, common practice to brush fingers along exposed skin–”
“Silence.” Alecto interrupted. She looked at Balthazar, who had gone straight through white and on to grey. “You’re quite right, I can’t be normal, even for a week. I concede your point. Get the Provost on the line and if she won’t do anything, I want Dr. Eyembe.”
“Doc, if you press charges, the kid’ll be expelled,” Balthazar said neutrally, his Perfect PA mask on. “If you involve Dr. Eyembe from the Ethics Council, it’ll be a scandal.”
“Good. All the more reason.” Alecto’s smile was like a burning blade. “I can deal with people brushing against me, testing. But this boy continued to do so after I told him to stop. He was confident enough to grab me, as though I was disobeying property. That isn’t soulmate seeking behavior – it’s the mark of a predator. I have to wonder, how many times has a woman or a man shoved him away, only to be told that they’re the ones who will be turned over to Criminal Investigations? How many suffered worse, because they were ‘obviously seeking a bondmate’? If he was willing to do this to me, a Professor, how many students has he imposed upon and how far?”
One officer blustered, the other flushed with shame. Across the quad she could see four officers from Criminal Investigations moving toward them, the gathering crowd parting before them like a school of fish startled by sharks.
“I’ll need your badge numbers,” said Alecto with a frigid, white-hot calm, her rage incandescent behind her eyes. “Because I am going to press charges, and at this point it’s not just going to be against the loathsome child on the floor.”
“Alecto, are you aware that you are the most frustrating woman on the entire planet?” asked Anatole Eyembe. A beautiful example of a gene-modded human, Anatole was slender man with pale skin and deeply violet eyes and hair. His voice made her think of fey creatures of legend, and it was an eternal disappointment that he didn’t have large dragonfly wings to carry him aloft.
Alecto raised an eyebrow before taking a seat before his desk. “Dr. Carpenter has claimed this on a number of occasions, but I’m not convinced that she’s right.”
“You’ve accused Bevin Delaney of House Delaney of assault with sexual intent.”
“What else would you call it?”
“I am enjoined by Madam Delisle, our Lady Provost, to suggest that it is a misunderstanding.”
“What was there to misunderstand? I asked him to stop and he did not. It’s a fundamental violation of the Tenet of Respect, Anatole.”
“Of that, my dear, I am aware.” Anatole’s violet eyes glinted somewhat malevolently. “I do not myself suggest that you have misunderstood anything. It would be an egregious lie, especially as you have been so kind as to document the young man’s behavior toward you. The warning through the Provost’s system was rather an inspired touch, I must say. There has been a decline, these last few years, in the use of the grievance system that would allow such infractions to be punished.”
“Then I don’t understand the problem.”
“Bevin Delaney is the son and Heir of Ivana Delaney, Matriarch of the House. She has asserted that your behavior was uncalled for and unconscionable, and has demanded a wergild from both the school and from your House for the insult of it.” He leaned back in his chair. “And that is why you are so impossible, my girl. My office has been aware that there is a problem, but we haven’t been able to find anyone willing to come forward. You wear short sleeves for less than a week, and you break the whole thing wide open. Criminal Investigations wants to build a shrine to you, simply because you refused to let Officer Avery push you into withdrawing your claim.”
“I’m never doing it again,” Alecto muttered. “I can’t understand why anyone would want to. The first two days it was like swimming in a sea of groping hands. It was horrid.”
“Most of us learn to deal with that quite young.”
“Most of you grew up on Earth,” Alecto bit back, irritated. “There is nothing wrong with me.”
Anatole was silent.
“I am sorry,” he said eventually. “Unlike many, I do know that there are differences between us Earthers and those who grew up on the Moonbases and the Orbital stations.”
“No – I’m the one who owes an apology.” Alecto stood up, filled with nervous energy. “You have never been anything other than kind to me, even when I was a miniscule brat with enough rage to fuel a star system. Being a Baser is no excuse for me to treat you with anything other than the utmost Respect.”
“My dear girl, I wish you wouldn’t call yourself that. You are Moon born and there is no shame in it.” Anatole sighed. “Would that I was about a million years younger. I would chase you around this campus until I caught you.”
“You would not – your wife would kill you and serve me your slow-roasted remains.”
“Well seasoned, no doubt, with a lemon chiffon pie for afters.”
They both laughed.
“So what is the actual problem?”
“Other than the fact that by asking me to talk you down, the Provost has proven herself false? That our Security forces, which ten years ago would never have permitted that boy to sully our hallowed halls, have been discouraging reports of such unseemly behavior? That a Matriarch seated in the Oligarchical Sphere would dare try to intimidate the University, my office, and a Department Head because her child is an ill-mannered lout? I cannot imagine what problems I may face because you sucker punched the little weasel.”
“Point ceded,” said Alecto. “But I will not withdraw my claim, either before Education’s Judiciary or Criminal Investigations. Bevin Delaney was not concerned about the fact I am an instructor here – and he wasn’t unaware of it, as he’s auditing my Basics of Nanotechnology class. He was not deterred by my requests or the fact that on each occasion his unwelcome approach was made in a monitored room or hallway. Ivana Delaney and the Provost can suck vacuum.”
“Very well,” Anatole’s fingers danced over his tablet. “Operation: Make Brigantia Delisle’s Life a Living Nightmare is a go. She will doubtless try and coerce you herself, so I strongly suggest that you take some steps.”
“And tell that cousin of yours I think you would look good in black.”
“I don’t think you get a vote.”
“The Ethics Committee oversees everything your research group does, my dear. Of course we get a vote.”
“I’m going to kill him, you know.”
“Please don’t tell me about it – I’m looking forward to seeing you all dressed up. It would be a shame if it was in prison garb instead of an evening gown.”
She stalked out of his office, muttering like a madwoman.
“Balthazar Zaadin Etana-Chomek!” Alecto strode into her office filled with half-amused wrath.
“Some-one’s in trou-ble,” Mai sing-songed from the corner. “That was the full name, wasn’t it?”
“Quiet, you. No, wait, you’re in on this, I know you are.”
“In on what?” Alecto didn’t believe those innocent eyes for a moment, probably because Mai’s smirk spoke of smug conspiracy.
Balthazar, on the other hand, held himself motionless in his chair, still carrying a grey-tinged shock that made Alecto frown in concern.
“Lady Etana,” was all he said, barely breathing, cloud-pale and terrified. Alecto’s heart clenched as the memory of it took her. You will comply or you will die here, you worthless wastes of oxygen. There’s no one to will miss you.
“Balthazar,” unheeding she cupped her bare hands under his chin, tilting his head up to see eyes blown wide with fear. “No. Take a deep breath for me. C’mon. And another. Come on, cousin. Breathe. Just. Breathe. I shouldn’t have said it. I’m sorry.” She looked over at Mai. “How long has he been like this?”
“He seemed fine until we heard you coming down the hall – he looked a little shocky, but I thought that was just because of that kid’s behavior. It was awful realizing what the little monster has been doing.”
Alecto ran a hand through his hair, petting gently. “It was and it wasn’t. C’mon, Balthazar. Breathe. There’s plenty of air. No one is going to take it away from us. We’re on Earth. They can’t deny us. Breathe, that’s it.”
Balthazar shuddered, suddenly taking deep, gasping breaths. Without thought for decorum, Alecto dropped into his lap, curling up as his arms came around her. “My Lady.”
“No. None of that,” she breathed into his neck. “It’s okay. I never should have used that phrase. Never. I was wrong. I’m so sorry. I was wrong.”
“He is, though.” Balthazar’s voice was rough. “I should have listened to what you were saying. He is a waste of oxygen. And he touched, he was touching…”
“Stop.” Alecto sat up a little, placing a finger across his lips. “The Quarantine is over. The threat is over and done. No one will ever threaten us with that again, they’ll never threaten anyone like that again. Never. We’re going to see to that, remember?”
Mai inhaled sharply. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing that isn’t in the public record, if you care to look for it.” Alecto cuddled back into Balthazar. “What do you think happened to the initial nine hundred plague survivors quarantined on a limited-resources station? Oxygen and heat are very valuable resources, you know.”
Mai paled, bronze skin turning a sickly yellow. “What happened? Why did he call you –”
“Not now, Mai.” Balthasar’s breathing evened out, but his arms stayed firm around her. “Right now my first duty is to my House, small as it may be. If you could call a transport so I can get him home to his partner, I would be grateful.”
Mai left without a sound. Alecto said nothing as tears soaked into her hair.
Balthazar said nothing as his shirt was bathed in remembered grief.
The next morning was a nightmare. It was as well that she’d spent the night with Balthazar and his partner Branwyn Chomek. Branwyn was the Family lawyer for House Etana, and currently Alecto’s appointed Heir.
“You’ve made such a mess, cousin,” said Branwyn, who was watching the holonet news. It seemed that the Provost of the University had resigned overnight and there was a small army of Media in front of Alecto’s apartment complex. “A highly respectable mess, and one I rather applaud you for, but rather a mess all the same.”
“Sorry.” Alecto glared at the news and then turned to the refrigeration unit to pull out sufficient foodstuffs to make breakfast. “It’s not like I intended to implode the university when I agreed to wear sleeveless shirts for a week.”
“Oh, Alecto,” Branwyn laughed. “You never intend to implode things.”
“Sometimes I do.” Alecto set to work making breakfast. “I’m sorry it made more work for you, though.”
Alecto looked up to find Branwyn studying her with serious grey eyes. “You are our Head of House, and you’re killing yourself doing it, Alecto. You’ve got nothing other than a 20 year old flycycle and a student apartment filled with toys you don’t have time to play with. You could live in the lap of luxury and instead you funnel everything into the Etana Trust to ensure we’re taken care of and our goals as a Family will be met. If I can do a little work to make your life easier, I’ll do it gladly.”
“We all would, you know,” said Balthazar from the doorway. “I’m sorry I freaked out at you.”
“It’s okay,” Alecto set to whisking eggs together to make omelets. “I mean, I’m going to make you answer all of Mai’s questions and deal with the press and I’m going to go hide in my lab until Eyembe tells me I’m needed for the Judiciary, but really, a little freak out over… over…” she took in a shuddering breath “…over what I said? That’s nothing.”
“It really isn’t, cousin,” warm arms wrapped around her waist and she leaned back into his embrace. Hands took away the frothing eggs and another set of arms wrapped around them both. “You would never do to them what they did to us. I shouldn’t have reacted as I did.”
The Oligarchical Sphere, the constantly jostling rearrangement of alliances of Family and Clan that held the greatest wealth and influence in the world. They didn’t rule the world by fiat, they had to work with the independent Spheres of Populace and Labor in order to legislate and enforce their wishes. Their moves were documented, discussed, and dissected by Media, with selfish, Family-serving motives decried to all. Most people were well represented within the Spheres, with the ebb and flow of government working for them.
In times of catastrophe, of large-scale death and disaster, the Oligarchical Sphere was given leave to operate as rapid response without interference by Populace or Labor, often with only cursory investigation by Media. It usually worked well, resources moved with near-miraculous speed from one end of the Earth to the other, to succor those in need.
Yet when the Bririnovian influenza came to Moonbase Alpha, stalking and killing without rhyme or remorse, the Oligarchy had done next to nothing. It was a new, virulent pathogen, many in the Oligarchy argued, that could not be allowed to come to Earth. They could not risk ships or doctors, food or supplies, lest this new, terrifying disease create a global pandemic that could not be stopped.
In the end, the Oligarchy quietly decided that it was a waste of resources to provide help from the outside. The population would have to live or die on its own. Ships were sent to enforce the quarantine of the port, under the public guise of aid and succor.
Faceless, nameless soldiers isolated and shut down power and air to entire wings, sometimes venting them to vacuum. Sometimes they would haunt the public address systems, telling them, in intimate, wretched, obscene detail what the remaining survivors could do to earn the merest breaths of fresh air while the atmospheric scrubbers were powered down and water and heat diverted.
By the time that Media had blown the whole situation open, from the initial base lockdown that had prevented them from receiving medication from Earth to the final Quarantine that had been used to ‘Ensure no living carrier remained’ – there hadn’t been more than a few hundred left of a population that had been counted in the thousands.
In the end, the surviving Houses – Etana among them – received a wergild to rival the land value of the Eurasian continent, but none of them ever forgot what it meant to be called a waste.
“No,” said Alecto, remembering the little ones, the children who had never scented the green and growing air of Earth. Her arms ached with the memory of her brother’s small weight as the last breath of stinking, poison-choked air left his lungs. “I wouldn’t. I would do worse.”
“Lady Etana,” said Branwyn formally, pulling away. “You are my Head of House. I serve you as you have served me.”
“Do you suppose we have enough influence, yet?” Alecto asked, not protesting the title for once. “My contract with Nova is such that my designs and programming belong to me — or rather us, as I insisted they go to House Etana. The Institute pays for the right to use them or brokers the right to put my designs into use, like with the Mars Colony. Do we have enough influence to make our petition for Etana to be Seated in the Sphere automatically approved, rather than one that would be debated and denied by the Oligarchs?”
Branwyn shook her head. “Not quite yet.”
“That’s unfortunate,” said Balthazar. “Although the wergild we’ll get from that idiot Delaney has the potential to give us enough.”
“No, I want it to go through Criminal Investigation. They’ll levy a smaller fine than we could get in wergild, but a public trial will ruin them. I bet if you check, some of the smaller houses will already have left their Aegis for other, less unsavory Families.”
“You know that they’ll try and stop that through any means necessary?” Branwyn looked concerned.
“All the better,” said Alecto, mirthless. “A foolish enough action would see them sanctioned and stripped of their seat in the Sphere. Delaney voted to have Etana disbanded. It would be so very sad to see it happen to them, wouldn’t it?”
“It would be heartbreaking.”
They looked at one another, solemn. Lips began twitching and they began to laugh.
“Oh, fuck it. Enough! Impromptu House meeting over!” Alecto pulled herself from Balthazar’s embrace. “I’m Alecto for the rest of the day, or ‘cousin’ if you must.”
“Okay,” said Balthazar. “Why isn’t breakfast ready then, cousin Alecto?”
His whine was almost a perfect replication of when they were kids.
“Because I haven’t beaten the guard up and taken his lunch money yet, Baby-Bal.” Alecto turned back to omelet-making.
Weeks passed as the Criminal Investigations officers picked the Provost’s Office and Campus Security apart in preparation for the trial against Bevin Delaney. It soon became clear that his pattern of behavior was becoming common amongst many children of the elite and the resulting media frenzy actually pulls attention away from Alecto and the Nova institute.
Which means that, true to Balthazar’s predictions of polls, shopping, spa-ing, and prizes, life became an extravaganza of events for the single goal of “Let’s dress Dr. Etana like a fashion-plate for an unknown social event.”
More accurately, Alecto had no idea what the event is going to be and promised not to try and find out. She strongly suspected, however, that everyone else on campus did, and were waiting for the resultant explosion. It wasn’t much of a surprise when Balthazar called her out to a surprise party to reveal the dress – black, strapless, backless, with a skirt that seems to be made almost entirely of thin strands of tiny jet beads – and Alecto nearly went blind as everyone took a flash-photo of her expression.
“How am I supposed to sit in that?” Alecto stared at the skirt, trying to imagine a way to do so without exposing her thighs up to her armpits and shoving shiny sand in places she didn’t want it to be.
“You’re not,” Balthazar said cheerfully. “It’s our attempt to keep you from moderating ethical debates at parties. If you can’t sit down, you’re forced to at least circulate, because those shoes –” he pointed at spike heels that were not designed for comfort “—will not let you stand around.”
“They’d also prevent me from dancing,” Alecto pointed out in a kind of fascinated horror. “I mean, if that’s what you expect me to do.”
“Well, originally we were going to send you to one of the monthly ‘Find your soulmate’ meet-n-greets, but we’re all afraid of what will happen the next time you punt some little jerk into the wall. You might end modern civilization.”
Alecto punched Balthazar in the arm.
Mai steps forward. “Instead, since you revealed yourself as a fan of his work, we’re sending you to the gallery opening of Amiri Dekany’s Fall…”
“Which happens to be in the same building as a meet-n-greet—”
“…with a VIP pass to talk to the artist and poke around behind the scenes a bit.”
All eyes focused on Alecto and she allowed herself to smile ruefully. “Is there a minimum time limit on the time I must spend mostly naked in public?”
“That’s the spirit!” said Mai as everyone laughed. “You’ll be there for the presentation and are expected to mingle for no less than two hours. We will be timing you.”
“Because you’ll all be at the meet-n-greet.”
“In case anyone was wondering, Dr. Etana is a genius,” said Balthazar. “And her observational skills are amazing.”
Alecto smirks. “Let’s make it more interesting.”
“Oh, dear,” says Mai.
“Scavenger hunt. The student with the most photos of other students or faculty at the meet-n-greet will get my personal tuition for their next major project for Nova. Candids only – posed pictures will be immediately disqualified. As to my team: I’ve got a fifty-year-old bottle of scotch for the member of my staff who manages to get the most candids while appearing in the fewest themselves.”
“That’s just mean,” says Mai. “What if I want your personal tuition?”
“Mai, that presumes there’s something in the world I can teach you.” Alecto grinned. “You’re far too perfect for the likes of me.”
If there’s one thing to be said about the dress, thousands of strands of beads brushing against her skin feels really interesting, like soft, cool hands caressing her legs in unexpectedly intimate ways. It makes her oddly aware of her body, even – or perhaps especially – the parts that she usually keeps hidden.
Alecto walked past the meet-and-greet (hosted by Ensouled, the world’s leader in bonding services) and sees two of her students lying in wait behind some bushes and gives them a tiny wave to let them know they’ve been spotted. One waves back while the other attempts to fade further into the background.
“Dr. Etana! Welcome!”
“Mr. Dekany,” she bobbed a small curtsey, causing beads to chime softly. “You cannot know how very pleased I am to be here.”
“Amiri, please.” Dark eyes glinted. “I believe I may have a fair idea, as Elek’s friend Mai begged me for tickets.”
“Did she, now?” Alecto had to smile. “I suppose shoving an obstreperous boy into a wall was well worth it, then.”
“I didn’t have the heart to tell her you were already on the guest list,” he told her conspiratorially. “But I have to wonder why she was so desperate.”
Alecto waved a hand at herself. “I lost a bet.”
“It takes losing a bet to get you dressed up?” Amiri raised an eyebrow.
“It takes one to get me mostly naked in public, anyway.” She flicked a hand through the outer layer of beads, flashing a hint of leg. “Not really my style.”
“A shame,” came Elek’s baritone as a glass of champagne appeared before her. “As you look lovely this evening.”
Alecto sighed at the glass. “No margaritas tonight?”
“Sadly, no,” said Elek, earning himself a swat from his husband. “Champagne was decreed by the gallery owner.”
“Just as well,” Alecto glanced around. “I wouldn’t want to be addled.”
It was true. The exhibit contained a dozen or more paintings and several sculptures, all dedicated to one subject – Elek Veasna and Amiri’s Fall. One painting in particular caught her eye, a portrait of Elek standing by a book case, looking up from his book with a half-smile. The pure, open affection of that look caused Alecto’s heart to clench before tripping over itself at a thousand miles per hour. It was the same look her father had given her mother, had given her, and it was like a punch to the gut to feel it coming from a painting.
“Did you want the ten credit tour?” Amiri offered his arm, and she took it, the silk of his shirt caressing her fingertips like water.
They went from painting to portrait, sculpture to holo, Amiri relating stories about each – the moments that he’d wanted to immortalize, the moments that Elek would probably have preferred he hadn’t. She laughed when they came to the triptych entitled “Three Kisses”. The first image sweetly chaste, the wonder of true love acknowledged. The second was passionate and intense, speaking of life to be lived, captured and enjoyed. And the third was frankly carnal, fraught and desperate.
It was also, Alecto recognized, Elek and Amiri before their wedding, mussing one another up before their vows.
Elek sighed behind her.
“I may have to buy a print of those,” Alecto mused.
“Don’t bother,” said Elek behind her. “He’s already programed limited action holos for Mai.”
“She asked.” Amiri smirked, unrepentant. “And you’re very beautiful, love.”
“She’s evil, you know.”
“I know. I’m very glad to have finally met her.”
Alecto barely restrained laughter. “I suspect that you’re doomed, Veasna.”
“You should talk, Etana. That cousin of yours is a menace. Between the two of them you’re done for.”
Alecto considered that. “You may be right.”
“Elek’s evaluation is undoubtedly correct. From what I understand he’s always right.”
“It would help if you would remember that.” Elek’s eyes shone with suppressed laughter. “You never seem to realize that when we disagree.”
“Is that so?” Amiri moved deep into Elek’s personal space. “But disagreements are so much fun. You get so hot and bothered.”
Their lips touched and Alecto sing-songed “Dooooomed.”
Amiri flashed her an obscene hand gesture and she laughed as Elek deepened the kiss.
She turned to study the next sculpture, depicting a warrior’s grip: two strong hands grasping the opposite wrist in an unbreakable hold. Trust and determination seemed to echo from it, a determination to meet all comers. Nearby there was a fanciful holo of what appeared to be the two of them through the ages, dressed as warriors, soldiers, fops and fools – but in every case, meeting with that grip, kissing with that same passion and carnal physicality.
Alecto’s fingers brushed the base of the hologram and she had to smile. A warm hand touched her back and she startled, pulling away defensively.
Elek frowned, his hand dropping, and Alecto flushed.
“Sorry, I wasn’t really expecting that.” She gestured at her dress. “Skin. Just. Not my thing, you see.”
“Ah, so covering up at the wedding wasn’t all about honoring us?”
“Not just, no.” Alecto shrugged. “It was related to my usual fashion statement of ‘long sleeves are awesome’ and ‘Bonding at someone else’s wedding seems rather gauche.’”
Amiri chuckled as he came up beside her.
“Little wonder they dressed you like this,” Amiri murmured, trailing fingers along her exposed skin, collarbone to shoulder, then from shoulder to wrist. “It must have been irresistible.”
The world slowed, time dropping like honey from a spoon, unbearably sweet as everything flashed golden.
“Oh,” she breathed, watching bonding ribbons begin to weave themselves in shades of gold and silver up is fingertips. Answering lace began to race across her shoulder and down her back, sending shocks of pleasure through her skin. Something in her mind began to shift, sending sparks across her vision. “No.”
Someone screamed, and time flashed forward in an inexorable rush as she turned toward the sound.
“Filthy Baser – you can’t leave well enough alone, can you?” Bevin Delaney shouted. He stood drunk and listing, but his hands were rock steady on the military grade stunner in his hands. “You have to corrupt and destroy what you touch. Take what isn’t yours.”
“No –” Elek’s voice, so far away as the charging stunner grew bright.
Pain drowned the light as the world flared white.