But obviously and most importantly, Holland:
â€œDo you think I missed out on anything by not going to normal school?â€ Holland asked, two weeks later.Â He was hanging upside down in an underground hanger holding a laser saw and something that looked like an instrument of torture.
Laila tilted her head as far back as it would go, studying Hollandâ€™s long, dark red bangs where they hung down from his head.Â He was a skinny kid, with gray eyes that always looked too big on his face and shined at her imploringly for as long as she could remember, always hungry for more candy or hours of television.Â He was obnoxious and had a smart mouth and annoyed the living crap out of her, which was probably something that could have been bullied out of him (orâ€”God forbidâ€”amplified) during secondary school, if only heâ€™d gone.
â€œI donâ€™t think any amount of normal school could have fixed all the wrong in you.â€Â Holland threw a bolt at her, muttering, and Laila stepped neatly out of the way as it slapped against a lab table, adding, â€œAnyway, I guess the answer is more what you think you missed out on than what I think.â€
Her voice echoed up in the cavernous room, bouncing off the gunmetal gray walls and off of the smooth, unmarked flanks of the Ganymede I and II.Â Laila leaned against Junior, letting her fingers slide along the rivets and reading them like Braille.Â Sheâ€™d lived so long with the Ganymede ships, theyâ€™d always existed in three dimensions in her headâ€”the mutt of warships of years past and cruisers from science fiction books and out of her imagination.Â Itâ€™d taken her fifteen years to build the first one and another three to build the second; along the way, sheâ€™d lost friends to the war and her parents to age and Hollandâ€™s youth to time, but the ships had been her witnesses.
Overhead, Holland was quiet for long moments before he reached back into the guts of the Ganymede II and started rooting around for the frayed wire.
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ he admitted, embarrassed.Â â€œI just saw all the graduation announcements in the news today and felt kind of weird about it.â€
After the war, after everything that had been put on hold for so long, the Nibbana Treaty had triggered a sort of frenetic joyfulness in the people of the four galaxies.Â Every weekend and every evening, everywhere in an ocean of stars and network of more than four dozen planets, people held small celebrations.Â Anything could spark a party: weddings, anniversaries, memorials, holidays from every corner of the Allianceâ€”graduations.Â The ads had been scrolling, all week, down the gleaming lengths of buildings in the business district, hovering over the city on the liquid crystal screens, cut in between the weather alerts and the chatter about the most recent council elections and appointments, the ongoing debate over who owed what portion of the staggering debt accumulated by the war.
â€œIgnore me,â€ Holland decided.Â â€œIâ€™m just being dumb.â€
But before he could get back to work, the pulley system holding him up to the ship dropped himâ€”fastâ€”down twenty feet until he was face to face with a right side up Laila, his heart more or less trying to rip its way through his rib cage.
â€œDonâ€™t do that!â€ he shrieked, clutching the laser saw close.Â â€œI nearly shit myself!â€
â€œHolland,â€ she said, ignoring him in favor of being solemn, â€œYou know I love you.â€
All the blood drained from his face, so horrified by the conversation it was fighting gravity.Â â€œOh, God,â€ Holland said.Â â€œForget I ever started thisâ€”please.â€
Laila went on, â€œAnd if I ever make you feel like youâ€™re unimportantâ€”â€
â€œI swear I will never watch porn on the living room couch again if we stop talking about this,â€ Holland offered, hopeful until her affection melted away and Laila screeched:
â€œYou do what on the living room couch?â€
Holland flailed away from her, sending himself swinging pendulously out of her reach as he shouted, â€œUh!Â It was only the once! I totally used the fabric cleaner after!â€ which didnâ€™t help but just made Laila moan, â€œOh, gross!â€ and reach for something to use as a weapon. Whatever else she might have said was drowned out by the sound of Colonel Helion shouting down from one of the upper walkways:
â€œAm I interrupting?â€
Laila looked up, cheeks still bright red.Â â€œOnly a homicide.â€
Argent smiled down at them, and Holland felt something flutter in his chest that wasnâ€™t just the mounting motion sickness.Â Laila had been pretty clear about which of his body parts sheâ€™d remove if he pulled a stunt like breaking into Colonel Helionâ€™s rooms and arranging himself attractivelyâ€”and nakedlyâ€”on the officerâ€™s bed, but what the hell did she know about true love, anyway?Â The last date sheâ€™d been on had ended in a year of physical therapy.
â€œGood to know,â€ Argent said, and jogged down the long metal stair to the floor, his boots clattering against the riveted steel plate floor tiles.Â â€œIâ€™d hate for you to be short an assistant on our upcoming trip.â€
â€œI would somehow survive just to make the journey with you,â€ Holland promised.
Laila rolled her eyes, shaking her head, and said, â€œHere, hold this,â€ to Argent, handing him her wrench-slash-murder weapon before hitting the pulley button and rocketing Holland back into the rafters, his scream of shock a long, high-pitched echo in the hangar.Â â€œAnd stay up there!â€ she yelled up at him.
â€œYouâ€™re seeing this, right, Colonel?â€ Holland called down, voice tinny from a great distance, waving his laser saw.Â â€œYouâ€™ll be a witness for me when she kills me, right?â€
â€œYou keep this up, Iâ€™m having you neutered!â€ Laila warned, and Holland fell silent.
Argent didnâ€™t even try to hide the smile that stretched across his face.
â€œYou two should really take your comedy act on the road,â€ he said, hopping up onto a metal lab table heaped with spare parts and dangerous-looking machinery.Â He held up the wrench.Â â€œWhat do I do with this?â€
Laila took it out of his hands and tossed it in a perfect arc across the room, landing inside a squareâ€”marked off on the metal floor with blue painters tapeâ€”and stopping, three inches short of the ground without a sound.
â€œTa da!â€ she said, beaming.
â€œThat,â€ Argent said, frowning at the wrench, hanging midair, â€œis weird.â€
â€œItâ€™s magnetized,â€ Laila explained.Â â€œItâ€™s only in beta stage right now but itâ€™s infinitely customizeable, and the theory is that if we can make it an efficient enough technology, we could remove the need for packing materials altogether on trade ships and transports.â€
â€œVery cool,â€ he said, and noted the way there was a line of blue tape framing out the ground underneath Hollandâ€™s dark shadow.Â â€œSo admit it: you have one of those things set up in case he falls, donâ€™t you?â€
Laila smirked, reaching around his left side for a tablet calculator.Â â€œDonâ€™t tell him I care,â€ she admonished him.Â â€œMy only comfort is that one day, theyâ€™ll apprentice him his own horny teenaged prodigy.â€
â€œWell,â€ he said, â€œI remember being seventeen.Â It passes.â€
â€œNot fast enough,â€ Laila sighed.Â â€œAnyway, what brings you down?â€
The labyrinth of halls and elevators and escalators and security checkpoints it required to reach the lab was so maddening Argent wasnâ€™t even certain where he was, geographically speaking, and he was sure that was the point.Â He always ended up making a few wrong turns whenever he made the trek out, and although Laila reminded him over and over again he could just raise her on her comm., there was no way he was giving up an opportunity to hang out in the coolest lab in the four galaxies.
Holland had taken Argent on his first tour of the lab almost a week ago, and heâ€™d been almost every day since.Â It never got old to be there, so dwarfed by the twin Ganymedes in a hangar the size of four football fields underneath the fringes of the city and whatever else Laila and Holland worked on each day. Sometimes he visited to find it deserted, and other times there were dozens of scientists hanging around shouting at one another and waving particle boards, like Lailaâ€™s workspace was the neighborhood dweeb bar or something.
â€œFinal preparations,â€ he said.Â He dug an xdrive out of his pocket.Â â€œThatâ€™s the total passenger manifest and payload, itemized.Â Everybodyâ€™s been vetted and everything for the trip has been triple-checked.Â Last chance to add, subtract, or reorder.â€
Laila set the drive on top of the reader and considered the display when it called up, hovering and translucent over her worktable.
â€œNo chance I could convince them to let me leave Holland behind?â€ she asked.
Argent shook his head.Â â€œItâ€™s a goodwill mission, a gesture,â€ he reminded her gently.Â â€œNot bringing your protÃ©gÃ© would appear distrustful.â€
â€œI am distrustful,â€ Laila murmured, reaching up to flip through the pages of the manifest.Â She had bandages on half of the fingers of her left hand, and Argent wondered what the hell they did down here half the time.Â â€œThis is still a dangerous trip.â€
â€œIâ€™m there to mitigate that risk,â€ Argent said, and thought that from the side, she looked like a Baroque portrait heâ€™d seen once, gauzy with an overlay of light.Â â€œEverythingâ€™s going to be fine, Laila.Â Weâ€™re taking every possible precaution and so are our Vorian ambassadors.â€
â€œHeâ€™s only seventeen,â€ she said, catching his gaze.Â Argent had noted Laila Noreen looked down for no one very early on, and he couldnâ€™t help but think that his mother would have liked her for itâ€”her unschooled sense of assurance.Â â€œYou wouldnâ€™t let any other seventeen year old make this trip.â€
Above them, Holland sent a rainbow of sparks flying, elbow-deep in the most terrifying warship ever created, and let out a string of curses that would make a soldier blush.
â€œHollandâ€™s not exactly any seventeen year old,â€ Argent said wryly.
Laila stuck out her chin.Â â€œHeâ€™s my seventeen year old.â€
Argent raised his eyebrows at her.Â â€œYouâ€™ve strung him up from the ceiling.â€
â€œThatâ€™s totally different and you know it,â€ she argued, coloring.
At that exact moment, the laser sawâ€”still engagedâ€”arced down, slicing with a â€˜zingâ€™ noise through a nearby table and dumping its contents onto the floor in a heap, where it clattered with a thunderous voice without the benefit of Laila and her magnetic cushion.
â€œAt least it didnâ€™t hit anybody?â€ Holland whimpered from overhead.
Laila took a long, calming breath and said quietly, â€œIâ€™ll kill him.â€
The trip, Argent was sure, was still going to be a disaster, but at least itâ€™d be a fun one.
The Telemachus was the flagship in a fleet two thousand strong that ranged from full scale warships to cruisers to fighters to jets and stealth flyersâ€”all named after Greek and Roman myths and Gods.Â Itâ€™d been officially handed into Argentâ€™s care almost six years ago, and between the war, the training, and the inability to form social relationships outside of the military, it was official: Argentâ€™s entire crew of four hundred and change were now freaks.
When heâ€™d been recalled from peacekeeping maneuvers to Nibbana to overseeâ€”and then joinâ€”Lailaâ€™s military escort, heâ€™d given his people a weekâ€™s liberty.Â Heâ€™d expected to come back and find the place kind of deserted and everybody quiet as they worked through their hangovers.Â Instead, the ship was bustling, every crewmember, officer, and staffmember accounted for; even the cafeteria was fully operational, churning out perfectly awful meals breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
â€œDid you go home at all?â€ he asked a passing sailor.
â€œI went and visited my aunt for a day,â€ she said.Â â€œBut I wanted to get back and make sure the Telemachus was in ship shape.â€
Argent scowled at her.Â â€œYou guys are really sick, you know that?â€
â€œYes, sir,â€ she agreed, and then her eyes went starry.Â â€œIs it true though?Â Are we leading the escort for the Laila Noreen?â€
â€œSheâ€™s not that cool,â€ Argent lied.Â The hero worship was sort of cute now that he knew Laila enough to know how utterly disconnected she was to her reputationâ€”it probably helped she spent at least twelve hours of her day thirty-four stories underground with an insubordinate, uncowed assistant and technology that rebelled against her.
The sailor just kept beaming.Â â€œDo you think sheâ€™ll like our ship?â€
â€œHow could anybody not like the Telemachus?â€ Argent asked reasonably, and sent her along back to whatever sheâ€™d been scrubbing or tightening.
â€œMan, I just met up with the captain of the Pan,â€ his lieutenant said, falling into step alongside Argent, â€œthat shipâ€™s moral fucking sucks.â€
â€œTheyâ€™re at the helm of a cruiser named after a goatherd with a musical soul, Roy,â€ Argent replied, snatching a tablet away from his chief systems engineer to take a look at the enginesâ€”they were at peak performance, of course, but after two weeks watching Laila overclock the Ganymedes, he wouldnâ€™t lie, the Telemachusâ€™ output felt lame in comparison. â€œIt doesnâ€™t exactly strike fear into the hearts of many.â€
Argent held a moment of silent sympathy for the Aphroditeâ€”a tiny, sleek, and killer-sharp stealth cruiser with a pilot who probably ate living animals for breakfast.Â The Allied Guard had a sick sense of humor.
Roy blew his dark bangs out of his face.Â â€œRemind me why we canâ€™t rename them?â€
â€œSomething about history and symbolism,â€ Argent said.Â â€œHey, do you think we can overclock these engines?Â Dr. Noreen did it with a test cruiser and it was incredible.â€
The chief systems engineer, a tiny woman named Veenya with champagne-colored hair choked out a distressed noise and stole her tablet computer back, giving Argent a deeply suspicious look.Â She said something to him in her native language that sounded foul even to Argentâ€™s ears and pointed meaningfully toward the mess hall.
â€œGo away,â€ she instructed him.
â€œI was just asking,â€ Argent muttered.