Nothing about this room is real. If this were a party at home, the music would draw your eye to human musicians in the corner. Candles and soft lamps would light the room, and the wooden tables would be made of actual trees. People would be listening to each other, instead of checking to see who’s watching them.
Even the air here smells filtered and fake. The candles in the sconces do flicker, but they’re powered by a steady source. Hover trays weave among the guests, like invisible waiters are carrying drinks. The string quartet is only a hologram—perfect and infallible, and exactly the same at every performance.
I’d give anything for a laid-back evening joking around with my platoon, instead of being stuck here in this imitation scene from a historical novel.
For all their trendy Victorian tricks, there’s no hiding where we are. Outside the viewports, the stars are like faded white lines, half invisible, surreal. The Icarus, passing through dimensional hyperspace, would look just as faded, half transparent, if someone stationary in the universe could somehow see her moving faster than light.
I’m leaning against the bookshelves when it occurs to me that one thing here is real—the books. I reach behind me and let my fingers trail over the rough leather of their antique spines, then pull one free. Nobody here reads them; the books are for decoration. Chosen for the richness of their leather bindings, not for the contents of their pages. Nobody will miss one, and I need a dose of reality.
I’m almost done for the night, smiling for the cameras as ordered. The brass keep thinking that mixing field officers with the upper crust will create some sort of common ground where none exists, let the paparazzi infesting the Icarus see me, the lowborn boy made good, hobnobbing with the elite. I keep thinking that the photographers will get their fill of shots of me with drink in hand, lounging in the first-class salon, but in the two weeks I’ve been on board, they haven’t.
These folks love a good rags-to-riches story, even if my riches are no more than the medals pinned to my chest. It still makes for a nice story in the papers. The military look good, the rich people look good, and it gives the poor people something to aspire to. See? say all the headlines, You too can rocket your way up to riches and fame. If hick boy can make good, why can’t you?
If it wasn’t for what happened on Patron, I wouldn’t even be here. What they call heroics, I call a tragic debacle. But nobody’s asking my opinion.
I scan the room, taking in the clusters of women in brightly colored dresses, officers in dress uniforms like mine, men in evening coats and top hats. The ebb and flow of the crowd is unsettling—patterns I’ll never get used to no matter how many times I’m forced to rub elbows with these people.
My eyes fall on a man who’s just entered, and it takes me a moment to realize why. There’s nothing about him that fits here, although he’s trying to blend in. His black tailcoat is too threadbare, and his top hat is missing the shiny satin ribbon that’s in fashion. I’m trained to notice the thing that doesn’t fit, and in this sea of surgically perfected faces, his is a beacon. There are lines at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth, his skin weather-beaten and marked by the sun. He’s nervous, shoulders rounded, fingers gripping the lapels of his jacket and letting go again.
My heart kicks up a beat. I’ve spent too long in the colonies, where anything out of place might kill you. I ease away from the bookshelves and start to weave my way toward him, past a pair of women sporting monocles they can’t possibly need. I want to know why he’s here, but I’m forced to move slowly, navigate the push and pull of the crowd with agonizing patience. If I shove, I’ll draw attention. And if he is dangerous, any sudden shift in the energy of the room could trigger him.
A brilliant flash lights up the world as a camera goes off in my face.
“Oh, Major Merendsen!” It’s the leader of a gaggle of women in their mid-twenties, descending on me from the direction of the viewport. “Oh, you simply must take a picture with us.”
Their insincerity is poisonous. I’m barely more than a dog walking on its hind legs, here—they know it, and I know it, but they can’t pass up an opportunity to be seen with a real, live war hero.
“Sure, I’ll just come back in a minute, if—” Before I can finish, all three women are posed around me, lips pursed and lashes lowered. Smile for the cameras. A series of flashes erupt all around me, blinding me.
I can feel that low, stabbing pain at the base of my skull that promises to explode into a fully fledged headache. The women are still chattering and pressing in close, and I can’t see the man with the weathered face.