Annnnnd more Holland and Co.
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.
â€œOh, God, no,â€ Holland told him a few hours later, horror marring an expression of abject love that Argent was actually starting to get used to.Â It was weird what a person could get used to in a very short period of time, he mused.Â â€œAbsolutely notâ€”who knows what would happen if you tried something that stupid with the R45 engines on the Odyssey class warships.Â No, no, definitely no.â€
Argent was unconvinced.Â â€œYou and Laila do stuff like that all the time.â€
â€œIn controlled conditions,â€ Holland reminded him, wagging a pomme frite at him and reaching for his bag of soda.Â â€œAnd thereâ€™re whole different standards for Laila making a model cruiser and crash landing it with a remote on a dead moon somewhere than her letting you make dumb modifications to a ship.â€
Frowning, Argent said, â€œYou know, youâ€™re much meaner than Laila.â€
â€œOh, sheâ€™s mean, too,â€ Holland said, shuddering theatrically.Â â€œTrust me on this one.Â Iâ€™m one of like, two people in the world whoâ€™ve seen her open her can of whoop-ass.â€
Argent picked at the last of his grilled cheese sandwich and tried not to think about what might be contained in Lailaâ€™s can of whoop-ass if her right hook was mean enough that his eye was still faintly sore.Â Heâ€™d left the Telemachus thoroughly convinced that by the time he returned the next day with their guests the whole thing would be spit-shined and been waylaid by a bright-eyed Holland whoâ€™d bought his company for the afternoon with the price of a lunch at the Urdu CafÃ©.Â Either he was getting (even) easier in his old age or Holland really was as adorable as he seemed to think he was, but Argent had to admit it was nice to sit still on a passageway in Nibbana, to just stop and look around, at the tiered city that soared hundreds of stories up above the ground and to look over the railings and see the escalators and terrascaped sides of buildings, trees and miniature rainforests overflowing, dropping hothouse flowers onto the roof of the office below.
Nibbana, Argent remembered, meant the ineffable freedom from desires at the heart of Buddhist teachings, and it always made him think about the yellowing scroll paintings, of bodhisattvas, their red lips and long earlobes and their hands curled to say â€˜no fear.â€™Â Now, long after most people had lost the meaning behind the name, it was simply the most beautiful and largest city in the four galaxies, and itâ€™s starscrapers clawed away at the dark of the universe around a planet that shared the cityâ€™s name.Â Argent thought that at night it felt sometimes like walking through the swirls of Starry Night, luminous, flared, in many textures and shades of black and bright.Â He was away so often he forgot sometimes what he fought for, and it was good to be reminded, to sit with Holland and humor an adolescent crush and eat sandwiches made with soy cheese because the war was over and he was alive.
He joked, but he knew the seriousness of this thing he was being charged withâ€”Laila might live ignorant of her own chapter in everybodyâ€™s history book, but she was the only one.Â Sheâ€™d been the Allianceâ€™s pet genius, the ISAâ€™s greatest argument for its existence and ruling power, the girl genius whoâ€™d drawn out a warship and built it with her own two handsâ€”the woman whoâ€™d ended the Twenty-Five Yearsâ€™ War with one shot.Â It wasnâ€™t her help that was the diplomatic offering here, it was her mere presence, Argent knew.Â Laila might worry about Holland, but Argent worried about Laila, about who might be waiting for them at the Western Fringe, and who might want her for their own.
â€œShe doesnâ€™t want you to go, you know,â€ Argent said, watching Hollandâ€™s face for any sort of reaction.Â â€œShe thinks itâ€™s dangerous.â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m not letting her go by herself,â€ Holland said, a stubborn edge creeping into his voice, and Argent decided then that maybe Holland and Laila were bad influences on one another.Â â€œAnd besides, if Iâ€™m not there to chaperone, she might go nuts on you.Â Itâ€™ll be like Scientists Gone Wildâ€”only with fusion.â€
Argent smiled.Â â€œThe Franciscans donâ€™t appreciate having that consistently revived as a cultural reference, you knowâ€”they abandoned sins of the flesh a dozen generations ago.â€
â€œBut their legacy of getting drunk teenagers to take off their clothes will live on forever,â€ Holland said with the fervent appreciation of a kid whoâ€™d sneaked more than a few peeks, and concluded, â€œFor that, Colonel Helion, we will all be eternally grateful.â€
Argent lifted his soda bag in a silent toast.Â â€œAmen, Holland,â€ he agreed.Â â€œAmen.â€
â€œWhat are you packing?â€ Holland asked, sitting on her bed and digging through a pile of her bras and panties to match them up by color.Â Sometimes, Laila questioned whether she had really grasped the finer points of this mentorship program; most times, she just defaulted to trying to prevent Holland from killing them all in a freak accident in her labs and gave herself a pass for the day.Â â€œDo I need anything fancy?â€
Laila had been on enough diplomatic missions that she knew the song and dance.Â Sheâ€™d packed an evening gown and a day dress; she brought clothes for a formal meeting and packed up a pair of lutra earringsâ€”fine stone found on a planet on the Eastern Fringe polished until it gleamed like the cream pink of a pearl.
â€œJust one formal,â€ she told him, distracted.Â â€œNothing with zippers in strange places.â€
Sheâ€™d seen a real pearl before, in Nibbanaâ€™s central museum.Â Itâ€™d sat suspended in a case with heavy security around it, hovering midair and drawing her eyes over and over again, set next to a painting of a girl with a blue headdress and a teardrop pearl earring, glancing over her shoulder.Â The museum file said it was a Vermeer, that as an ancient artist, heâ€™d studied light, and how it changed colors, noting mournfully that photographic reproductions hardly did the artist justice.
Laila didnâ€™t have the porcelain skin of the girl in the painting, and her earrings were small spheres, without the warmth and depth of the pearl sheâ€™d seen at the museum, she thought, rushing between her suitcase and closet.Â All the same, when sheâ€™d been younger, sheâ€™d wrapped up her dark, curling hair once in a bath towel and stood in front of her motherâ€™s bathroom mirror and admired the line of her own nine-year-old neck.
â€œAll my clothes have weird zippers on them,â€ Holland said, mostly to be difficult, and sighed at her underclothes, picking up one bra with his fingertips, saying with disdain, â€œLailaâ€”what the hell is this?Â Youâ€™ll never scam a man into your bed with this on.â€
She snatched it out of his grasp.Â â€œWhatâ€™s wrong with it?â€ she asked.
â€œItâ€™s white cotton,â€ Holland said, rolling his eyes.Â â€œTheyâ€™ll have immediate flashbacks to all the girls they knew in the fifth grade, and the ones who get off on that are not the ones you want to be dating, Dr. Noreen.â€