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Contract Negotiation Blues



Getting hitched.

Tying the knot. Jumping the broom. Shacking up--no, that one's a little different, I'm already doing that, she thought. Taking the plunge. Making the big commitment.

Signing the contract.

Yeah, that's more appropriate.

But before we can sign it, we have to finish the damn thing, Elaine Jaeger thought, burying her head in her hands.

"Dusty!" she yelled across the room.

"I'm not deaf. You don't have to shout," said her erstwhile partner and presumed love-of-life, who was playing a hologame against the computer, and losing.

"Dusty, did we already decide about the last name thing, or am I forgetting?"

"You're keepin' mine and I'm keepin' yours," Dusty said, distracted, maneuvering his skyfighter around an asteroid. "Damn! Didn't see that one! Uh, or is it the other way around?"

"Other way," Elaine said, scribbling busily with her stylus. "Now I know we talked about the color, didn't we?"

"Ha!" Dusty cried. "Gotcha, space mutant! Uh, what was that?"

"The color."

"Of what?"

"Of the contract! F'r cryin' out -- What else?"

"I don't care. Really, you can have whatever color you want."

"What do you mean, you don't care? This is only the symbol of our affection and lifelong commitment we're talking about here. The color significance is probably one of the most important decisions we have to make about the whole thing. I have the color list right here and I can read them off to you if it helps. White represents--"

"Sugar, it's a piece of polyfib we're going to see once in our lives. Hey! Sorry, hon. Damn space mutant sneaked up on me while I was talkin'. Just a sec."

"Never mind." Elaine pushed herself away from the console, gliding silently in her hoverchair. "You're right. It doesn't matter. I'm going out."

"Are you upset? Elaine? Elaine, come back here. Where are you going?"

"I have to meet my sister at the port." Elaine shrugged into a jacket and grimly strapped on her bulky, on-planet jetchair.

"Is she here already?"

"Her flight gets into town in just about--" She checked her chrono. "Six hours. See you later."

"Are you going planetside?" Dusty asked. "We need milk --"

"Gaaah!" She punched the airlock auto-cycle. The airlock hissed open and Elaine, coasting along at near waist height, almost collided with the man on the other side, his fist upraised to strike the wall. "Oh, mornin', Elaine! I'd actually hoped that y--"

Elaine muttered something that sounded like GeddouddamywayFleetwood and shoved past him.

"Going out?" he said to her retreating back. "Good choice. Get some air. Gets stuffy in these little boats." He hopped into the airlock, one step ahead of the autoshut, and continued into the cabin of The Keys To Infinity. Dusty was standing in the middle of the floor, looking helpless and lost.

"Mornin'," Fleetwood said. "Nice day, huh?"

"Uh huh." Dusty shrugged and went to the corner of the ship's living room that served as kitchen and bar. He set a glass in the tiled service nook, punched at the keypad, and drained the resulting drink in one gulp. He set the glass back and punched the "repeat" key.

"Man, if you keep going at that rate, you'll be one sorry son of a bitch in the morning," Fleetwood said.

"There's no alcohol on board. Elaine can't drink it. I keep meaning to stock some, but as much time as we spend between ports, it's one of those things you never get around to. You know how it is." He drained another glassful, a bit more slowly this time, and set it back under the spigot. "Offer you a virgin margarita? Non-alcoholic ale? Scotch and water without the scotch?"

"Tequila sunrise, if you've got it."

"That would be a 'sunrise.'" Dusty brought the drink and one of his own.

"Thanks." Fleetwood took the drink and tasted it. "So the big day's coming, eh?"

Dusty shuddered and took a slug of his drink. "Yeah."

"When are the two of you signing the papers?"

"Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow? Wow. That's soon."

"You're telling me." Dusty sat down on one of the cushions strewn about the floor.

Fleetwood sat down beside him. "You got a best man?"

Dusty shook his head.

"Good deal! I'll do it, then. Be happy to."

"I wasn't aware the best man is supposed to volunteer," Dusty said.

"It saves you the embarrassment of asking, and I know how you macho types are about that sort of thing."

"You're serious? C'mon, Fleetwood, I barely know you. Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate you saving my life and all, but that hardly makes you my best friend."

"Look, man," Fleetwood said, "unless you got a few stashed away somewhere I don't know about, I'm your only friend."

"No, there's--No, not him." Dusty thought about it. "What about--no, that's right, I think he wants to kill me. There's always--nope. Dammit. You're right. Want to--?"

"Sure."

"Thanks."

"Don't mention it." Fleetwood sipped at his drink. "So what was the little woman--should I call her that--?"

"Not to her face, no, not if you enjoy having a face."

"Right, I'll remember that. Where was she off to in such a hurry?"

"Pick up her sister. I think. She's experiencing a bit of stress ... when Elaine gets stressed, she doesn't mess around. She's very, ah, open about it."

"Not you, though."

"Not me what?"

"Stressed."

Dusty shrugged, shook his head. "Not really. Not like she is."

"Surely you're a little bit tense."

Dusty glared at him. "You're helping a lot. Won't be happy until you give me an ulcer, right?"

Fleetwood raised his hands. "Didn't mean nothin' by it."

"I have got to find some alcohol before tomorrow," Dusty muttered.

"I'm sure that Elaine would appreciate that ... the groom showing up drunk and all."

"Look, I wouldn't need to if she wouldn't keep going on about contract colors--contract colors! As if it makes the slightest difference. Yellin' at me if I don't give her the right answer. I don't even know what the right answer's supposed to be."

Fleetwood looked at him closely. "Turning out to be a bit of bitch, is she?"

"I don't know as I'd go that far. Well, maybe a bit."

"I think it's hormonal," Fleetwood said thoughtfully.

Dusty took a nervous look around out of habit; that sounded like the sort of observation that garnered one of Elaine's frosty silences. "What is?"

"Women and weddings. It's the damnedest thing I ever saw. Take a perfectly level-headed woman, get her within 500 meters of a wedding and every bit of sense goes straight out of her head. Suddenly she starts talking about flower arrangements and coordinating the bridesmaids with the ribbons on the contract case. It's worse than the common cold ... contagious and annoying."

"Elaine's not really doing that," Dusty said. "I mean, she's said from the beginning that she doesn't want a fancy ceremony. The only person there besides the magistrate is her sister--the witness. Uh, and you, I suppose. She's just gettin' a little torqued about it."

"Do you want me to talk to her?" Fleetwood asked.

"Dunno if that would help. She'd probably get pissed that we were talking about her."

"I won't tell her. Discrete is my middle name. Well, actually Lovelace is my middle name, but I prefer Discrete."



******



Elaine hadn't been in a bar in ... years. Years and years. Since her limp became noticeable, something she couldn't hide. No one limped on Amaranth Station. With modern tech and money--the amount of money floating around Amaranth, at any rate--anything could be fixed or concealed.

Almost anything.

She expected the stares when she coasted into the bar, and yes, she got a few. But then they went back to their drinks and their conversations. Not one got up and left. Not one gave her what she'd come to think of as the disgust glare, or the hate glare. She went up to the bar and ordered a Virgin Mary, and the bartender gave it to her as calmly as if legless women ordered drinks from him all the time.

Maybe they did. In this town, who knows. The drink was better than the pre-mixes on her ship, and she sipped it slowly, making the occasional adjustment to the metabolic control behind her ear. For once, she'd decided to break her long-standing rule about making sure her artificial drunkenness kept pace with the number of drinks she'd consumed.

"Buy you a drink?" said a voice at her elbow. It made her jump; she knew almost nobody in Kismet, and this wasn't Dusty's voice.

Elaine turned her head and saw Fleetwood.

"I have a drink," she said shortly, and then after a moment, "Hey, weren't you on the station? How'd you get down here so fast?"

Fleetwood shrugged. "I took your shuttle--your 'Snark'."

"Oh, great. Now the Snark's planetside--thanks a hell of a lot."

"So are you," Fleetwood pointed back, unperturbed. "You can just take it back when you go."

Elaine glared at him, and then swiveled so that her back was to him.

"Hey, barkeep? Bring me a beer over here? Whatever's on draft, I don't care." Fleetwood swiveled back to Elaine, who continued to try to ignore him. Ignoring Fleetwood when he didn't want to be ignored, however, was like trying to ignore an erupting volcano. "So you don't drink, huh?"

"I am drinking," she said, teeth gritted.

"You know what I mean. Alcohol."

Her first reaction was to yell at him. Didn't he have the slightest idea what a personal question that was? Didn't he know she'd rather be dragged over hot coals than talk about her disability? Dusty was the only one she'd spoken to about it at all, and then, most of the time, only because she'd had no choice.

And then the rage passed, and she didn't care anymore. If Fleetwood wasn't going to leave her alone, then she'd give him an earful.

"I could die," she said, darting a sideways glance at him. "I have an artificial liver. I can't filter it out of my bloodstream. Can't metabolize the waste products effectively, not like you can. I get really drunk, and really sick, and if I drink too much--and I don't mean very much at all--I'll die." She waited, holding her breath, for his reaction.

"Sounds like a bummer for you." The bartender passed Fleetwood a damp-sided glass; he nodded and sipped.

Yeah. I'm dying. It's a bummer, all right. "Yes," she said.

"Not that there's anything wrong with not drinking, per se," Fleetwood hastily added. "Fine for some people, I guess."

"You don't understand," Elaine said.

"How so?"

I'm dying, was on the tip of her tongue. She bit back on it. Since he hadn't brought it up, she didn't want to give him that kind of ammunition. "I--I can adjust my metabolism manually. The hormones in my bloodstream. That sort of thing. I can simulate a sort of drunken state." Even her doctors didn't know that. She'd told Dusty, but that was it.

Fleetwood gave her an incredulous look. "You're kidding! You can get drunk without drinking?"

"Or stoned, or high, or whatever. Yes."

"Are you doing it now?"

"Yes. I'm up to, I dunno, a couple of drinks."

"Wow. Shit. That's so cool. Do you get hangovers?"

"Not unless I want to. Sometimes I do, if I've really overdone it and I want to deter myself the next--"

"No hangovers. Shit." Fleetwood wasn't listening. "You have no idea how lucky you are."

"Lucky? What do you mean, lucky? I'm dying, you moron." Crap. She hadn't meant bring it up.

Fleetwood stopped with the beer touching his lips, and slowly lowered it to the counter.

"Say that again?"

"I'm dying." She stared at him. "I--I didn't know you didn't know." Everyone on Amaranth Station could tell just by looking at her. Not to mention anyone in the entire galaxy who watched the news. The Jaegers were not strangers to the wrong side of the tabloid news.

"No. I didn't. Why?"

"Why? What do you mean, why?"

"Well, there's usually some reason. Unless you mean dying in the sense that we're all dying eventually, in which case you're in good company ... present company not excluded."

"You bastard. You're making fun of me. I told you I'm dying and you're making fun of me."

"No, I'm not," Fleetwood said, startled. "I was just curious what you're dying of, seeing as it's not the sort of comment that most people make in everyday conversation. Hello, how's the weather, I'm dying, that sort of thing. No, wait!"--as she started to push away from the bar, abandoning her drink. "Don't leave, please. Look, I didn't mean to make light of your problem, whatever it is. I can't help it. It's how I am. I open my mouth and things come out. I don't even think they stop for a smoke along the way. Trust me, it gets me into a lot of trouble. Don't leave. I'll shut up. Well, I would if I could, anyhow. I doubt that I can. I'll give it a shot."

"You have to be the strangest person I've ever met in my life," Elaine said thoughtfully, adjusting her height and coasting back to the bar. "I can get mad at you, but I can't seem to stay mad at you."

"A lot of my exes have said that," Fleetwood agreed.

"I'll bet you have a lot of exes."

"Thank you," Fleetwood said, "although I honestly can't figure out if that's a compliment or not. I choose to make it one."

"Courelli's Syndrome," Elaine said.

"Say again?"

"Courelli's Syndrome. It's what I'm dying of."

"What is it?"

Elaine looked at him, trying to figure out if that was a joke or not before she got upset again. "You really don't know?"

"I've never heard of it. Well, wait. It sounds kinda familiar. Couldn't tell you what it is, though."

Elaine thought about launching into a detailed description of genetic engineering, gene-sequence breakdown, protein miscoding, and decided not to. Maybe later, if her relationship with Shelley Fleetwood had a later. "It's fatal, and it's killing me slowly. I'll be dead in about ten years."

"There's nothing they can do about it?"

"Nothing. It's in my genetic code. All throughout it."

"Like, inherited or something?"

"Sort of. More like a tendency to develop it. It's not really in the genes themselves--it's more of an instability brought on by germ-cell genetic engineering in the past. Some people's bodies can self-repair the damage as it happens, like with certain cancers. Some can't."

Fleetwood toyed with his beer glass. "So I don't mean to tell you how to live your life or anything, but I'd say Dusty might need to know this."

"Of course he knows."

"He does? Really?"

"Yeah."

"When did you tell him?"

"What do you mean?" Elaine bristled. "How is that any of your business?"

"Before you had sex, or after?"

"What?" Elaine shrugged, and turned back to her drink. "Before."

"Huh." Fleetwood touched her shoulder, causing her to jump. He could be a hands-on person, or not, as the mood took him, but she couldn't remember him ever touching her before.

"Hey, look at me for a sec," Fleetwood said. "I got something important to say."

Elaine looked. Fleetwood's eyes were the greenest that she'd ever seen on anybody. He was silent for long enough that she asked, "So, I'm looking. What's so important?"

He met her gaze with his level green one. "Don't let this one get away."

"I wasn't planning on it," Elaine said quietly.

"Don't plan not to. Just don't, that's all. Maybe you have some idea how rare it is to find someone who'd do that for someone else. Contracting with someone, making a commitment, knowing that even if you both want it to last ... it won't. I wouldn't do it myself, Elaine. Not for anyone, and that's the truth."

"I think maybe you're judging yourself too harshly. You just haven't met the person that--"

"No, Elaine, trust me on this one, I haven't got it in me. Most people don't. You found someone who did. Hang on with everything you've got."

"I'm going to," Elaine said, and then her eyes narrowed: "Dusty didn't send you to find me, did he?"

"Of course not. I dropped in for a drink when D and I got done talkin' groom stuff and saw you here."

Elaine checked her chrono. "In a bit of a rush, weren't you? I took the public shuttle down, oh, not more than half an hour ago. And you were in such a hurry to get to a bar that you had to take our Snark?"

"Of course I was," Fleetwood retorted. "There's no alcohol on that damn ship."

Elaine laughed.

"So how's this half of the happy couple doing?" Fleetwood asked her.

"Kind of tense," Elaine said. "I guess that's normal."

Now it was his turn to laugh. "So I've heard. There's even a name for it. Contract negotiation blues, I guess they call it."

"I don't care what they call it, I just can't wait for it to be over."

"Tomorrow, I hear."

"Tomorrow, that's right, and my sister isn't even here yet, and half the details on the contract aren't finalized." She looked over at Fleetwood, almost shyly. "We aren't exactly having guests, and Sestina is there as our witness, but you could come too if you wanted."

"Actually, I think I'm the best man."

"You are?" Elaine said, surprised. "I didn't know Dusty wanted a best man."

Fleetwood shrugged. "What can I say. He seems to want me there. If you've got a prob--"

"No, no, I didn't mean it that way! Of course you can be Dusty's best man. There's not going to be much for you to do, though. We're not having rings or anything."

"I can just stand there, looking pretty," Fleetwood said.

"You don't have to dress up if you don't want to. We aren't going to."

"Don't worry. Not planning on it. So when does your sister get here?"

"Five hours, give or take."

"Planning on drinking until then?"

"Actually," Elaine said, "yes."

"If you'd like to drink outside, I have another suggestion."

"What might that be?"

"Tour," Fleetwood said. "Free guided tour of Kismet."

Elaine chuckled. "Oh, and that should take all of what, five minutes?"

"You'd be surprised," Fleetwood said. "According to the tourist brochures, this place 'blends the charm and character of its history with the vitality and progress of the future.' That means parts of it are decrepit cesspits of outdated, substandard building practices and others are eyesores of modern development. It's entertaining. If all else fails, we can laugh at the tourists. Plus you can bring your drink."

"You should have been a salesman."

"I thought about it," Fleetwood said. "I do have some standards, though."

Fleetwood's tour of Kismet lasted all afternoon and buoyed Elaine's spirits until she even managed to forget about the contract for a while. After Fleetwood had run out of dark corners of Kismet to show her and stories to tell about them (actually, she didn't think he'd run out of stories at all, but his throat was giving out), they ate at a small restaurant near the docks.

"You did come looking for me, and stop denying it," Elaine said. "You wouldn't have taken the Snark, assuming that I'd bring it back, unless you were planning on seeing me or unless you killed Dusty and stole it."

Fleetwood grinned. "Busted. I hid the body in the bathroom. Don't forget to warn the cleaning staff."

Elaine rolled her eyes.

"So when does your sister get in?" Fleetwood asked.

"The flight gets in at sixteen-forty, I think."

"Good. I don't have to be at work until nineteen hundred. I can meet the maid of honor."

"When do you sleep, anyway?" Elaine asked him.

"I don't sleep that much."

Obviously not. They took the tubes to the spaceport, and Elaine piloted the Snark, the Keys' small onboard shuttle, back up to the station. She docked at one of the public ports rather than the grapples of the Keys. If Fleetwood noticed this, he said nothing.

The transport had just been cleared through decontam and the usual scattered groups of tourists and ragtag immigrants were disembarking. Kismet's beacon was used by several major interplanetary transport lanes, but few people actually made Ghost Sun System their ultimate destination. Still, Elaine hung back by instinct. She still hated crowds, even small crowds, even here, far from Amaranth.

"Elaine?"

She almost didn't recognize Sestina, standing with a white plastic travel bag clutched to her chest. Baby sister hadn't changed at all, though. Not at all. Trendy and stylish, dark hair wavy in an understated two-hundred-credit cut. It's I who have changed, Elaine thought; here she was meeting her sister in an old jacket and a Hammering Hustlers T-shirt, wearing no makeup or tints. The thought of changing into something nicer hadn't even occurred to her. Sestina is me as I used to be, Elaine thought, and something painful snapped deep in her heart, then faded.

"Hi," she said lamely.

She floated over and the sisters embraced lightly.

"Do you have luggage?"

Sestina shook her head. "I'm only staying the one night. My flight out is tomorrow. Father wouldn't have it any other way."

No, Elaine thought; he wouldn't. She was amazed, in fact, that Sestina had agreed to come at all. Since she'd left Amaranth, her infrequent calls home had been met with polite greetings and awkward attempts at pleasantries, and were rarely more than two minutes long.

"Lovely lady," Fleetwood said, behind Elaine.

Sestina dropped her hands from Elaine's shoulders, not quite fast enough to be blatantly rude. It's okay to touch the pariah as long as no one's watching, Elaine thought.

"Are you Dusty?" Sestina asked, holding out a cautious, limp-wristed hand.

Fleetwood took her hand and kissed it lightly. Elaine watched in amazement; she'd never guessed that Fleetwood had a courtly bone in his body. "I'm the best man," he said.

"Oh, how nice," Sestina said politely, retrieving her hand.

Fleetwood turned to Elaine, but included Sestina when he spoke. "I'd better head back before the commuter shuttle goes out."

"You can take the Snark," Elaine said. "Bring it back tomorrow when you come up for the wedding."

"Aren't you going to need it?"

Elaine shrugged. "We hardly ever use it."

"Oh, but you have company. Lovely company." He smiled at Sestina. A delicate, dusky flush rose in her dark cheeks. "You might want to take her for a ride and show her the sights. I can take the regular shuttle. I'll see both of you tomorrow--yes?"

"Sure," Elaine said, darting a cautious eye towards Sestina, who was now gazing raptly at Fleetwood.

"What time?"

"Uh ... take the noon shuttle up? That won't be a scheduling problem for you, will it?"

"Toldya, I don't sleep much." He bowed briefly to Sestina. "Tomorrow."

"What does he do?" Sestina asked as they watched him walk toward the airlocks.

"Night shift supervisor in the Kismet, uh, police force." Actually he was spaceport security, but Elaine supposed the man had just devoted his usual sleep-time to helping ease her nerves, so she could at least try to put a better spin on it.

"What an intriguing man," Sestina murmured, touching the back of her hand, where Fleetwood had kissed it.

"Very." Elaine wasn't sure she liked the direction this seemed to be heading. She liked Fleetwood fine, but only in a strictly platonic sense; as little she knew of Fleetwood's adventurous love life, she still knew enough not to trust him alone with her baby sister. "What say we head over to the Keys, eh?"

Sestina cast a last, hopeful glance in the direction Fleetwood had gone. "Is everyone in Kismet that, uh, interesting?"

"To say the least," Elaine said. "Come on."



******



There was no sign of Dusty when she opened the door to the Keys. Elaine checked the bedroom to make sure he wasn't lying naked on the bed; when it was just the two of them, they often dispensed with such niceties as clothing. He wasn't.

"So where's the, uh, groom?" Sestina said from the yacht's main room, echoing Elaine's thoughts.

"Oh, he's out with his friends," Elaine tossed off. "You know. Boys. I guess we can spend the time getting caught up. Drink?"

"Please," Sestina said quickly.

"It's non-alcoholic."

"Oh." Her enthusiasm flagged noticeably.

Elaine poured drinks for them both, and snapped loose her straps to transfer, with relief, back into her lightweight hoverchair. She looked up to discover that Sestina was watching her. She couldn't read the expression on her sister's face.

"Artificial gravity. The field on the station--" she started to explain, out of habit, then realized that Sestina didn't care. Discomfort ... that was the expression, more than anything.

"... you always liked mint juleps, right?" she managed, handing over the julep cup.

Sestina sipped cautiously, and made a face. "What's in this?"

"Ersatz alcohol," Elaine muttered, knocking back a swig of her virgin screwdriver. It tasted like orange juice mixed with fingernail polish remover.

"This is not made with Kentucky bourbon."

"No. It's made with Dow Bourbon #4." Elaine grinned, realizing that for the first time since she was a very young woman, she had an advantage Sestina didn't. She gently adjusted her blood alcohol content. This just might be a fun conversation after all.



******



She'd just missed seeing Dusty. After Fleetwood left with the Snark, Dusty had spent a couple of hours arguing with the voices in his head. Most of the women seemed to be taking Elaine's part, except for Baby who was too young to really care, and on top of that, they were a good deal more excited about the wedding than Dusty himself. It was irritating, so he decided to let Misty be in charge of the body for a while, and zoned out himself, taking a little mental nap. Back when he was living alone, he'd become accustomed to time-sharing body space with his other, less dominant personalities (except for Ray; Ray Alvarez was never allowed out, under any circumstances) but now that he lived with Elaine, he didn't want to disturb her by putting someone else in charge. Elaine knew of the other personalities in a vague sort of way, but it was one thing to know about it, and quite another to be confronted with them in person.

Misty tended to get tetchy when she was cooped up all the time. Besides Dusty himself, and the ever-present Ray lurking in the dark recesses of their shared mind, she was probably the most tangible of the personalities, one of the few who had actual opinions and desires -- a person in her own right, and not a memory-ghost forever trapped in the canned memory that had originally installed itself in Dusty's fragmented brain.

He didn't know who he was. Of all the personalities, Ray Alvarez seemed the most likely to be the original, but Dusty didn't ever want to be Ray again. All he knew was that he'd been a memory junkie for a lot of years, jacking into other people's canned memories, and the personality that he considered his own was, in all likelihood, no more than a memory fragment like any of the others. Or more accurately, he supposed, a personality synthesized from different memories, because none of the many, various memories in his head seemed to relate directly to Dusty except for the last few years' "real" memories, when he'd slowly become the dominant personality in a very shattered brain.

In the early days he hadn't been able to interface with the world very well, and even after he stopped using canned memories out of fear of losing the consciousness he considered his own, he used to rely on the other personalities to take over when he had to disappear. Misty was a good caretaker for the body and the one he most often used to rely on. Though a bit flighty in nature, she carried Dusty's tall, massive brawler's body with light catlike grace.

Dusty had, however, forgotten, during the past few months of living with Elaine and being in constant dominance, how disconcerting it was to wake up after falling asleep in his own head. At least in this case, there were only so many places that he could be, and after a few confused seconds he realized that he was outside the Keys to Infinity and standing in the station's commissary, in front of a row of vending machines.

"What are we doing out here? I thought you were going to stay on the ship," he demanded under his breath.

"I wanted chocolate," Misty complained peevishly. She loved the stuff, but almost never got it, since Dusty didn't care for sweets.

"You haven't been talking to people, have you?" He trusted Misty more than the others, but since he'd been keeping himself in control 24/7, Misty had begun to fade a bit, and she was getting disjointed. She could be perfectly normal for hours, and then suddenly slip into one of her old memories, reacting to other people as if they were actors in her mental script. And most of Misty's memories, at least most of the ones Dusty had, were sexual.

Rather than Misty, Baby answered. "I've been a good girl. Haven't I been a good girl?"

"You've been a good girl," he reassured her. Baby was the other reason that having Misty walking around in public wasn't necessarily a good idea, because the two occasionally overlapped each other's thoughts. Dusty suspected that Baby was nothing more than Misty at a very different, more innocent age.

"Excuse me?" Dusty looked around in shock to see a middle-aged mech in stained coveralls staring at him, confused.

"Uh, sorry. Just talkin' to myself." Dusty beat a hasty retreat. He'd also apparently forgotten the knack of talking to the other personalities in public without speaking aloud.

Ray's soft, cruel chuckle echoed inside his brain. "Good thing your woman doesn't know what a psycho you are, eh?"

Dusty turned his face to the wall to hide his expression as he slammed the lid back down on Ray, stuffing the bastard back to the dark hole where Ray normally resided. Damn it ... Ray wasn't supposed to be able to come that far back up anymore. Not far enough to speak without being spoken to.

The other personalities seemed to be fading on their own, but not Ray. Never Ray.

"It's because you humor him," commented one of the others, Nigel, softly. "You dwell on him, think about him all the time. Of course he won't go away if you keep doing that."

Could that be it? Dusty stuck his hands in his pockets and moseyed around the back corridors of the station. Maybe Nigel was right ... actually, maybe Nigel was just expressing something his (their?) subconscious had already worked out. Perhaps the other personalities were retreating because he didn't think about them anymore, and all he'd have to do to get rid of Ray Alvarez was stop thinking about him.

Easier said than done when you've got a rapist and serial killer sitting in the back of your skull, Dusty thought glumly.

Preoccupied with his thoughts, he almost literally ran into the service mech he'd disturbed earlier -- but this time, accompanied by five or six buddies. Well, he knew how to handle himself in a brawl, and at the moment, he was halfway sure that he'd welcome a good hard fight. The mechs were friendly, though. Dusty apologized: "I've got a lot on my mind." (Literally, he thought.) "Gettin' hitched tomorrow."

The mechs offered condolences or congratulations, depending on their own marital status, and Dusty ended up chatting with them for a while. Just a bunch of blue-collar working guys, he thought -- like he used to be, before he started taking up with an heiress and spending more time in her world than his own.

"It's them rich women," one of them said, shaking his head. "Spoiled rotten. Don't know their own minds about anything."

One of the other mechs, the only woman in the group, hit him in the head with a sonic boltcracker. "Pig," she commented without malice.

The station's PA announced an incoming transport, and Dusty's head snapped up. Wasn't Elaine's sister coming in on this flight? Or was it some other flight?

Forget it. He didn't want to see Elaine right now, and he certainly didn't want to meet her sister. Based on Elaine's descriptions, her sister was exactly the sort of snobbish bitch that rubbed Dusty's hackles the wrong way. In his current frame of mind, he'd probably say the wrong thing and end up sleeping on the couch until sometime next year.

Come to think of it ... he was always saying the wrong thing around Elaine, wasn't he? That girl'd been surrounded by bright, well-spoken, well-educated people since she was shorter than a sonic spanner. No wonder he always felt like an illiterate boor in her company.

He became aware that one of the mechs was talking to him. "... almost quittin' time. We're gonna get a drink downplanet -- you got plans?"

No. No, I don't.

"Sure," Dusty said.

He tagged along with the group back to the shuttle dock, keeping an eye out for Elaine, but she didn't seem to be around. The shuttle was clustered with commuters getting off-shift -- mechs and other service personnel, the lifeblood of the station.

And Fleetwood.

"Yo," the security tech said cheerfully, worming himself in between Dusty and the nearest mech, and grabbing hold of a hand strap.

"What'd you do, invent a personal teleporter?" Dusty muttered. "I thought you were downside."

"Came back up with the little woman," Fleetwood said. "Oh, wait. I'm not supposed to call her that, right?"

The shuttle jerked as it disengaged from the grapples and began its short plunge to the moon.

"Did you talk to her?" Dusty asked warily. Depending on what Fleetwood had said, this could be good or bad.

"We had a nice long chat. Nice woman; I can't imagine what she sees in a mutt like you. Her sister's a looker, too. Set of handbags out to here." He demonstrated with his free hand.

Trust Fleetwood ... "You better keep your eyes off Elaine's -- uh, handbags."

Fleetwood winked at him. "Don't worry. I know she's an almost-married woman."

"Since when did that ever stop you?"

"I'm wounded," Fleetwood protested. "Besides, I've sworn off women for the time being, after the last one kept trying to kill me."

Dusty snorted. "You? Sworn off women? Don't make me laugh."

"It's true. They're too much trouble. I'm sticking strictly to men for the time being."

Dusty tried to edge away from him unobtrusively.

Fleetwood laughed.

"Don't worry. You're not my type." He leaned back against the wall as the shuttle clunked into Kismet's dock. "So what are you doing going down, anyhow? Did you meet the little woman's little sister yet?"

"No," Dusty said, letting go of his own handhold to join the line leaving the shuttle.

"I don't think she's mad at you, man," Fleetwood said, following him. "But she's gonna be if you don't get back up there."

Dusty rounded on him, stopping the flow of foot traffic and earning a couple of glares from other commuters. "Look, Fleetwood. I appreciate you wantin' to help out and all, but this ain't your problem, got it? Nobody asked for your advice."

Fleetwood raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture.

"Sorry," Dusty said with a sigh, turning away.

"Don't worry about it. You're tense. I could give you a backrub--"

"Hell no!"

"Joke. Look, I gotta get to work. If you don't mind one more little piece of advice, do give the missus a call. You don't want to start out your married life dead."

Fleetwood waved cheerfully as he walked off. Dusty did not wave back.



******



After having a couple of drinks at the mechs' favorite watering hole and bidding goodnight to his new acquaintances, he found himself roving deeper into Kismet's bar district, and eventually, getting completely hammered at a place called The Moons of Destiny, where he struck up a conversation with the short, dark-haired, intense-looking woman sitting next to him. Or tried to. The more alcohol he consumed, the more trouble he was having getting the voices in his head to keep to their own conversations and not involve themselves in his. Also, Baby kept wanting to pet the woman's dog -- a huge, aggressive-looking German shepherd lying under her bar stool.

"Look," said Jackie Lobo. She'd had a long day in the Kismet police department, had just gotten off work and wished that the massive bruiser sitting next to her at the bar hadn't picked her, of all people, to unload his woman troubles onto. He seemed to be a nice guy, but, like so many of the big ones, could use a few self-esteem lessons -- and she was in no mood to be giving them. "From what you've said, this girl loves you, fool. So go home to her. What are you doing down here?"

"Having a bachelor party, I guess," he said, looking around the bar.

"By striking up conversations with strange women in bars."

"You're a good listener."

"Look. What was your name again?"

"Dusty. Winters."

"Okay. Dusty. Listen to me. Go home to your girl. Or go find some buddies and have a party. Have fun. If you feel like your life is ending by marrying this girl, don't marry her."

"Easy for you to say," he muttered. "She's got it all figured out."

"Getting married is her ideAAAAK!"

Not many things made Jackie Lobo scream, but seeing a leafy green something writhing out from under her companion's sleeve was one of those things.

"Huh? Oh." Dusty looked down at his wrist. "Bad plant, Bingle. Bad kraken."

"What is it?"

"Kraken. An alien life form. From a planet called Sludge." He raised his arm, showing her the ring of leaves, like a gently pulsating ivy bracelet around his wrist.

"Mind if I touch it?"

He met her gaze, his blue eyes dancing with mischief. "Sure. Women love to touch it."

Jackie sighed, and lightly placed her fingertips on the kraken. To her surprise, it was warm, and rippled gently under the pressure.

"Weird critter."

"She can do tricks," Dusty said.

"She?"

He blushed, to her amazement. The flush rose over his craggy face like sunset on the mountains of the moon.

"Dusty, what the hell do you do with this kraken? Should I arrest you?"

He blushed deeper, and Jackie tried to hide her grin in her beer.

"Hey, look, I don't know what sex the thing is. I got it by accident. Sorta. I called her a girl 'cause she got me thrown off the station and almost marooned on a hell-hole planet for the rest of my life. Only a woman can cause that much trouble."

"Touché."

"Too shay?"

"Nevermind. Back at you, I mean. Good stab."

"No, explain that word. What does it mean?"

Jackie stared at him, but he seemed serious. "Uh, touché. It means 'touched.' It's a swordfighting term." He still looked blank. "It means your opponent scored a point with just a touch. Very skillful. A little jab, with a sword or with words."

"Oh." Dusty grinned. "Too shay. I'll remember."

Odd guy, with a sharp sense of curiosity. Jackie decided to remember that. He might look like a thug, but she got the feeling he was pretty quick, if not very well schooled.

"So what is it about this woman and you?" Personal question, but if he needed someone to talk to, hell, why not. She didn't have anything else to do this evening. Jackie absently worked off one of her shoes with her other foot and rubbed the ears of the dog, Milcah, with her toes under the bar stool.

"Elaine? She's ... hell, I don't know. She's pretty and smart and she's got a hell of a lot of money. I don't want to spend the rest of my life trying to measure up to what she's looking for."

"Smart women," Jackie said, "are hell to be married to."

Dusty glanced at her.

"Dumb ones are worse," she added, "for a smart guy. Do you want to spend the rest of your life trying to explain every little thing to a moron?"

Dusty shook his head.

"So. You got a smart one; consider yourself lucky. She's going to be tough to live with, though. Does she love you?"

"She says so."

"Well. Do you trust her?"

"I suppose ..."

"Is that it?" Jackie said. "You suppose?"

"Well ... naw. I trust her."

"Good. If you trust her and she says she loves you, then she does. Now, she's smart, so she's probably second-guessing herself, too. In fact ..." Jackie sighed. "You have no idea how much grief the human race would save itself if we were as stupid as we sometimes act."

"Hmm?" Dusty said. Jackie noticed, for the second or third time that conversation, one of his hands creeping down towards the dog, before he seemed to notice it and jerk it back. He probably thought Milcah would bite. Actually, the big dog was quite friendly, but she was happy enough to let strangers be taken in by his fierce appearance. Sometimes the best defense was a good bluff.

"I mean, it's normal to have second thoughts at a time like this." Or so she assumed, never having even come close to getting married herself. The only time a guy had ever asked her to marry him, she'd left the planet shortly afterward. Sometimes she did wonder what Mike was up to these days ... but that was neither here nor there, and why was she thinking of it now? Damn strangers and their damn problems ... "If you really don't want to be married, then go have yourself a one-night stand or something and get it over with."

The look he gave her was startled and almost hurt. "I don't want to do that."

"Then why don't you go home."

He smiled a little. "Maybe I will."



******



Quiet night. Fleetwood liked working nights. Nothing ever happened. The night shift finished up the day shift's paperwork (which took all of half an hour this time) and then there was nothing to do but hang out, read softcore porn and take an occasional stroll around the spaceport to check for anything amiss. Station shuttles left and landed every two hours, and periodically a private ship or a shipment of cargo would come in, but Kismet wasn't a big town and most of the traffic went on at the space station overhead. Besides, the Customs/security department hardly did anything anyway. The whole process was automated and they didn't have an import ban on anything, so there was nothing to check. Cargo shipping was the only hassle associated with the job, and it was exactly as much of a hassle as you wanted to make it. Carnelian House, the offworld organization that owned the spaceport, attempted to make their money back by charging import duties on incoming shipments. They had a book-length document detailing procedures for calculating import duties on hundreds of different categories of goods, with hundreds more exceptions.

The Customs personnel had quickly responded, in true Kismet fashion, by developing their own individual interpretation of the regulations. Each shift had their personal set of rules -- some charged almost nothing, some charged quite a lot and took most of it, some allowed exceptions for anything that they could get a piece of, such as alcohol and drugs. Fleetwood and his partner, Zack, saw very little shipping on their nights, because they had realized that if you charged outrageous fees, pretty soon all the cargo shipments would come in on somebody else's shift, and you'd be left alone.

Being an isolated colony outpost on a remote moon, Kismet didn't get a whole lot of cargo shipments anyhow. Interplanetary shipping was prohibitively expensive for all but luxury items. Ordinary household goods and food were manufactured locally.

"One of these years, you know, the Carnelians are going to realize that they'll never turn a profit on this place and give it up as a lost cause," Fleetwood remarked, tossing a dart at a flat printout he'd taped to one of the walls of the Customs control booth. The picture of Frank Bernetti (local mobster and ex-husband of Fleetwood's current wife) was riddled with small holes. An open beer sat by Fleetwood's hand.

"If they were gonna do that, they woulda done it." Zack flipped idly through the latest copy of New Soldier of Fortune, his boots propped on one of the computer consoles. "You know how the Houses are. They're so busy maneuvering between themselves to even notice what else is going on. They've probably forgotten they even have this place. It's on their monthly budget, buried somewhere under 'Poison', 'Caviar' and 'Man-Eating Sharks', and they don't even know where the money is going."

Fleetwood laughed, balancing another dart between his fingers and letting it fly. It plunked into Frank's left eye. "I guess if they ever figure it out, we'll be out of a job."

"And just after getting promoted, too," Zack snorted, flipping a page.

Fleetwood raised an eyebrow.

"Didn't you take them up on their offer?" Zack asked.

"Still thinking about it." Fleetwood flipped the last of his darts. It went awry, skipping off Frank's face and clattering onto a computer keyboard before bouncing onto the floor. "Oops." Fleetwood went to retrieve his ammunition.

"Hasn't the craving for power worked its way into your every pore?" Zack asked. "Oh, hell, check out this ad here, Shelley. Iridian pleasure-bot kits -- they're half-off. Sounds like your thing."

"Which half is missing?" Fleetwood inquired, bending down to look for his dart between the console and the wall. "Top or bottom? Top, I hope."

"Price. Half price, nitwit. So, what did you say? I thought you were going to tell them yes."

"Naw. Even for half price, an Iridian pleasure-bot is probably out of my price range."

Zack rolled his eyes back in his head. "About the promotion. I'm serious here."

"Aw, jeez, Z. I don't know." Fleetwood teased the dart with the tips of his fingers until he could get a grip on it, then turned to give Zack a glare. "Why would I want to be in charge of this place? That sounds too much like work to me."

"It sounds like more money to me. And if you get promoted to boss, then I'll get your job -- night shift supervisor."

"Like you want that," Fleetwood snorted. "It's a pain in the butt, is what it is. And being supervisor over the whole place would just be more of a hassle."

Zack waved a hand around. "I don't see you working."

"That's because I've spent the last four years customizing this job to the point where I don't actually have to do any work. Now you want me to start over doing the same thing in a new job? I don't think so."

"You turned 'em down?"

"I probably will. I don't want to work days, Zack. I like nights."

"No ambition," Zack sighed, turning the page. "No Iridian pleasure-bots, huh? How about a killer android? 'Slightly used', it says. 'Some parts missing.'"

"Already got one," Fleetwood said.

"What, that thing you're rebuilding? It's never going to run. You wanna talk about some parts missing -- try most parts missing."

"Everybody needs a do-it-yourself project," Fleetwood said, starting again with a fresh batch of darts on the hapless Frank.

"You'll have the galaxy's first quadriplegic killer android."

"He can still kill people with his teeth."

"I thought teeth were one of the parts you're missing."

"With his nose, then. I can put that old rocket launcher I got from your cousin in his nose."

Zack started laughing. "How would you like that on your tombstone? Killed by a nose cannon --"

"Yo," a voice said from the doorway. The two Customs agents and ostensible security guards looked up in surprise.

"Yo," Fleetwood said, tossing a dart backhand.

Dusty shuffled in and slumped into an empty chair.

"Beer?" Fleetwood offered.

Dusty shook his head. "Already got a mother of a headache. Drink any more, I'll be pukin' all over your paperwork or whatever it is you do in here."

"That's why you need another," Fleetwood said. "That way, when you get sick you'll be too drunk to care." He tried juggling the remaining darts. "So, pick up any hot pieces of tail?"

Dusty glared at him. "I didn't come down here to get laid."

"I thought that's exactly what you were doing," Fleetwood said, surprised. "Sowing your oats while you still can. He's getting neutered tomorrow," he added in a loud aside to Zack.

"Stuff it in your ear," Dusty snapped.

"Don't mind my partner. He had an emergency tact-ectomy a few years ago and he's too cheap to get a prosthesis," Zack said cheerfully, setting aside the magazine. "So you've had the misfortune to make this moron's acquaintance, huh?" he asked Dusty.

"I'm his best man," Fleetwood said.

Zack snickered. "Must have been pretty hard up for a best man, if he's asking you. Are you going to wear the bow tie with the naked girls on it?"

"Not now that you've spoiled the surprise," Fleetwood said.

"I'm Dusty," Dusty put in.

"Zack Sweeney."

"Now that we're all friends, why don't you stick around and throw a dart with us," Fleetwood offered. "We can put up a picture of Elaine for a target if you'd like."

Dusty looked at the time readout on the wall. "Naw. It's getting late. Guess I'd better get over to the airlock, or I'll miss the shuttle."

"Still twenty minutes," Fleetwood said.

"I know. No offense." He got up and staggered out, mumbling under his breath to himself. It sounded as if he was carrying on one side of a conversation.

Zack stared after him for a moment, then looked back at Fleetwood. "Aren't any of your friends sane?"

"No," Fleetwood said, arranging the remaining darts in a careful triangle around his beer bottle. "But some are just insane, whereas some are insane and ugly, such as yourself."

"That's funny, Fleetwood. At least I'm not married to Meg Renata."

Fleetwood heaved a sigh. "A hit, a palpable hit."

"Huh?"

"Shakespeare, you idiot."

"Who's that? Is Meg boffing him, too?"

"You're an asshole, Sweeney."

"Ah, yes. Guilty as charged," Zack said, picking up the magazine again. "But I do have the sense not to marry a mobster's wife."



******



Fleetwood was not entirely certain what he'd find when he rapped on the airlock of the Keys to Infinity shortly after noon the next day. Dusty's defiled corpse, strung up from the ceiling? Elaine and her sister, going at it in a pit of lime Jello? He grinned at the latter idea.

The door slid open to reveal the sister, Sestina, wearing a very flattering cream-colored silk pantsuit, so simple and plain that it must have cost a fortune. Like her sister, Fleetwood noticed, Sestina seemed to prefer pale colors, setting off her dusky skin pleasantly.

"Why, you're Elaine's friend from yesterday," she said, in a voice as silky as the slick fabric rising taut over her (he couldn't help noticing) large breasts. She darted her eyes to the side, then back at him.

"I'm the best man. Did I introduce myself? Shelley Fleetwood."

"Oh, what a nice name--eep!" Sestina disappeared from Fleetwood's field of vision as she was shoved rudely out of the way by Elaine. She wore a camel-colored shirt of some sleek metallic fabric, her tawny hair pulled to the nap of her neck.

"Shelley. Nice to see you. Come in," Elaine said, and spun the hoverchair around to zip off in the opposite direction.

"Nice to see you too," Fleetwood said to her (metaphorical) dust trail, stepping into the yacht's main cabin -- although he only recognized it as the Keys' cabin because it had to be; it was inside the Keys. It looked more like the interior of an angel food cupcake. The simple, stylish wallpaper was gone behind mounds of frothy white flowers. Pink and white ribbons dangled from the ceiling by the scores. Wherever he turned, there were balloons, candles, and more flowers. I thought they were going to keep it simple, he mused.

A warm hand settled immediately on his arm and he looked around to see Sestina smiling at him.

"Can I get you a drink or something? Here, sit down."

Sestina led him to a couch, clearing off a space among the flowers and ribbon swags, and went to the Keys' bar to mix a drink. "What would you like?"

"Anything's fine." It all tastes the same, anyway.

"Do you like mint juleps?"

"Sure." He wondered what fake bourbon tasted like. Although ... when Sestina was standing closer to him, he'd thought he smelled actual alcohol on her breath. Maybe she'd brought her own. He wouldn't blame her.

"Oh, how lovely!" Sestina giggled, punching instructions into the keypad. "That's my favorite drink. What an amazing coincidence!"

Elaine sped by in her hoverchair, pausing to snatch the julep cup out of Sestina's hand. "Thanks, sis. I needed that." She swallowed it in one gulp.

"That was for Shelley!" Sestina snapped.

"Shelley?" Elaine turned on her sister with a suspicious glare. "You're on a first-name basis with -- Oh, I'm being a bad hostess, aren't I? Sit!" She pushed Sestina into the farthest chair from Fleetwood's couch, sped back to the bar and hastily poured two drinks, a julep that she pressed into Sestina's hands and a non-alcoholic beer that she handed to Fleetwood. At the sound of a crash from the bedroom, she jumped, nearly spilling the beer all over him. "Sorry, be right back!" And she was off again.

Fleetwood and Sestina sat in silence for a moment.

"I get the impression your sister doesn't like you talking to me," Fleetwood said.

Sestina giggled wildly. "Why, don't be silly! Whyever would you get that idea? Elaine's just a bit tense." She started to put the julep cup down on the empty air beside her chair, realized what she was doing a second too late and watched it plummet onto the floor, splashing artificial bourbon everywhere. "Oh. Dear. My." She started to rise, then sat back down, started to get up, sat down again and started giggling a bit hysterically.

This is going to be entertaining, Fleetwood thought. It's not every day you get to watch people come apart in front of your eyes.

"Here, this'll work," he said, ripping a handful of white lace off the nearest flower-and-candle arrangement and approaching Sestina's chair.

She stared at the lace in something approaching horror, shrinking back into the chair. "And, and that is, and that is for --"

"Cleaning up," Fleetwood explained, kneeling beside the chair and mopping at the mess.

"Oh." Sestina relaxed and giggled. She leaned forward over the arm of the chair, thrusting her cleavage into Fleetwood's face. "Here, let me help you," her voice said from above his head. "My, is it hot in here?"

"Getting more so all the time," Fleetwood said into her cleavage, then jumped as an ice-cold sensation spread across his back just above the waistband of his pants, and cracked the top of his head on Sestina's chin.

"Owww," Sestina wailed, and smacked Fleetwood in the head. "That hurt!"

"So did that," Fleetwood muttered, rubbing the twice-bruised top of his head, and looked over his shoulder at Elaine, hovering above him with an upside-down water glass in her hand.

"Oops," she said. "I slipped."

Sestina straightened up the chair, recovering quickly from the blow to the chin. "Oh, poor Shelley! Now your pants are all wet. Here, why don't I show you where the bathroom is and you can --"

"He knows where the bathroom is!" Elaine snapped.

Fleetwood stood up, wringing out his sodden shirttail, and took Elaine by the arm. "A word," he said, towing hoverchair and occupant into a nearby corner, where he found himself face-to-face with a life-size gilt cherub surrounded by sprays of blue and cream flowers. "... But first," he added, "where did all this come from? I thought you and Dusty were going to keep it simple."

"Dusty and I were," Elaine said shortly. "Imagine my surprise to wake up this morning and find a certain bitch sitting at the console ordering forty cases of white carnations and fifty kilos of lace."

Fleetwood darted a peek at Sestina, who was dabbing ineffectually at the floor with the ruined lace. "Odd, she doesn't seem like the type."

"I wasn't talking about Ses--"

"Elaaaaaaaine!" Dusty's voice squealed, and he skipped out of the bedroom, wearing a powder-blue tuxedo with his arms filled with candles and lace. "Sweetie, could you help me? I can't reach the ceiling, but you can float --" He giggled. "--aaaaall the way up there!"

Fleetwood was, briefly and uncharacteristically, at a loss for words.

"Sestina! Help Misty!" Elaine bellowed at her sister, who jumped like a startled squirrel.

"But sweetie, she can't float," Dusty pouted. "And that's really why I need you."

"Pick her up, then," Elaine growled, and turned back to Fleetwood.

"Odd, he didn't seem that stressed yesterday," Fleetwood managed to say, fighting off the suicidal urge to laugh with willpower he hadn't known he possessed. "Wait a minute ... did you say Misty?"

"Dusty has this little problem," Elaine said wearily. "He ... she ... well, without going into too much detail, Dusty doesn't deal well with crisis situations. When he's faced with something he can't handle, he has a tendency to ... retreat."

"So ..." Fleetwood followed her gaze to the bedroom as a squeal emerged in Sestina's voice, followed by a similar squeal in Dusty's baritone. "So who is that?"

"That," Elaine said, "is Misty."

"He's got a split personality?"

"Sort of."

"Eeeeeeeek!" Dusty burst out of the bedroom, giggling for all he was worth, pursued by a laughing Sestina. "Eeek -- no -- I'm ticklish -- stop it!"

"Elaine, I like your husband so much better this way!" Sestina squealed, chasing Dusty around the room.

Elaine buried her face in her hands.

"Say, Elaine," Fleetwood said thoughtfully. "You know how I told you yesterday ... not to let this one get away? I'm starting to think that's not the best advice I've ever given."

"Eeeeek," Dusty shrieked, trying to hide behind a flower arrangement and knocking it over in a shower of petals and candles as a giggling Sestina pursued him.

"Sestina, quit it!" Elaine yelled. "What's wrong with you? Are you drunk? Wait --" She grabbed a fistful of her sister's pantsuit, hauling her upright. "You are drunk! You reek of booze! How? There's no alcohol on board!"

"Silly Elaine," Sestina giggled. "I had Misty order me some. I've got my own now."

"You idiot!" Elaine shouted, shaking her. "Why didn't you tell me? Don't you realize that if I don't know about it, I could drink it by accident and die?"

Sestina went into a new fit of giggles. "Silly Elaine! How can you drink it if you don't know about it?" She tipped over, into another flower arrangement, sending both the flower arrangement and herself sprawling to the floor.

"Was there alcohol in that julep? Sestina? Answer me!" Elaine picked up a candlestick and brandished it over her flattened sister.

"No! No alcohol! I wouldn't try to hurt -- I know you can't -- I didn't mean -- Stop it, please," Sestina wailed, her giggles changing to sobs.

Dusty's arms closed around Elaine from behind. "You know what, you're very uptight," Dusty said in his oddly higher voice. "I can't imagine what Dusty sees in you."

"You're Dusty! Get off me!" Elaine spun about, knocking Dusty backward, at a knock on the door. "Oh, God. Who could that be? Aughh! It can't be the magistrate already! What time is it?"

"Misty's right. You are getting a bit uptight," Fleetwood said, hauling the weeping Sestina upright by one arm. "Here, I'll settle her down. You get the door."

"Thank you, Shelley," Elaine breathed, then spun around again just in time to see Fleetwood disappearing into the bedroom with Sestina. "Hey! You little weasel! What are you trying to pull?"

"Shall I get the door, Elaine?" Dusty asked, skipping toward it.

"No!" Elaine shoved him out of the way and palmed open the lock as another tapping came. A tall, efficient-looking woman with a briefcase tucked under one arm stood in the doorway, adjusting her bun.

"Ah. Ms. Jaeger, I presume? Amanda Kuhnsweller, certified magistrate." The woman proffered a stiff hand for a brisk shake.

"Thank you so very much. Please, come in, come in." Elaine led the woman into the living room, wincing at the sight of the scattered and trampled flowers. "Mis--Dusty, do be a dear and pick those up, would you? Magistrate Kuhnsweller, could I get you a drink? Would you like to sit?"

"I never drink on duty," the woman said disapprovingly. "And I have another appointment in twenty minutes, so we'll have to be fairly quick about this."

Finally, someone who wants to get this over with as much as I do, Elaine gritted under her breath. "The podium is somewhere under all of this damn-- I mean, under these flowers. Excuse me while I find the maid of honor," she chirped lightly, and sped into the bedroom, only to be confronted by a massive mound of flowers on the bed. "Damn it. Shelley! Sestina!" she hissed, pawing some of the flowers out of the way. "Are you two in here? Where did you go?"

"Is everything all right in here, lovey-dove?" Dusty inquired, poking his head into the bedroom.

"Everything is fine, wonderful, peachy." Elaine skimmed back over to him, leaned very close and whispered, "Where's Dusty? When is he coming back? What have you done with him, you husband-stealing whore?"

Dusty batted his eyes at her. "I'm keeping your husband together, little girl. He's just had a bit too much to deal with, and he'll be back when his poor little psyche recovers. I can get his body through the ceremony."

"You'd better," Elaine said suspiciously. "And he'd better come back. I don't want to spend the rest of my life, what's left of it, married to you."

"Excuse me?" the magistrate's voice called from the living room. "I do have another appointment, you know ..."

"Coming! Coming!" Elaine towed Dusty back into the living room. "Do you have the contract with you?"

"Right here." The magistrate briskly snapped open her briefcase. "The color you selected was charcoal, Ms. Jaeger, is that correct?"

"Oh, charcoal ... that's so dull," Dusty complained. "This is the symbol of your -- of our lifelong commitment to each other, my little peach. It should be a -- oomph!" Elaine drove her elbow into Dusty's side.

The magistrate whipped out the contract along with a pair of matching styluses. "Didn't you have witnesses?"

"Around here somewhere," Elaine snarled.

Dusty winced, rubbing his side. "Yes, they do seem to have disappeared, haven't they?" he inquired.

"Sestina!" Elaine screamed at the top of her lungs.

The hatch in the ceiling leading to the observation deck hissed open, and Fleetwood and Sestina tumbled through. Her lacy necksash was completely undone; his hair was sticking off his head in odd directions; and he had lipstick all the way down the side of his face. "Sorry about that," Fleetwood said.

"We ran into an unforeseen--"

"And that's not to mention the missing--"

"I don't care! My God, Fleetwood, taking advantage of my drunken -- Never mind! I don't care! I'm talking to you after the ceremony," Elaine muttered between her teeth to her sister as Sestina hastily took her place beside the podium, tucking her blouse back into her pants.

"You're such a wicked man," Dusty giggled to Fleetwood as Fleetwood skidded into position by Dusty's side.

"I thought you were married," Elaine snapped, leaning across Dusty.

"We're going through a rough spot," Fleetwood said, licking his hand and slicking back his hair.

"I wonder why!"

"I thought you didn't care," Sestina said.

"I don't!" Elaine yelled. "You're both adults!"

Sestina tried to crane around Elaine to look at Fleetwood. "After the ceremony--"

"My place?"

"Isn't your wife there?"

"No, she's at work."

"You're leaving tonight, remember?" Elaine growled to Sestina.

Sestina giggled. "I'm taking a later flight. Isn't this fun?"

"You're what?"

The magistrate slammed her hands down on the podium. They all jumped. "Now listen, all of you -- I have another appointment in exactly fourteen minutes, planetside, so if the two of you don't sign in the next, oh, thirty seconds, you're doing this without me."

"We're ready!" Dusty squealed, smiling brightly. The magistrate stared at him for a second, then shook her head and snapped open her book.

"Do you take this woman to be your wife?"

"Oh, yes," Dusty said.

"Daddy's going to kill you," Elaine hissed at Sestina.

The magistrate swiveled toward Elaine. "And do you take this man to be your --"

"Daddy always liked me best," Sestina retorted.

"Do you take --"

"Liked you best? Like hell!"

Fleetwood reached around Dusty to grip Elaine's arm, painfully tight. "Yo, the lady asked you a question. Say I do."

"What are you blathering about?"

"Say I do!"

"I do what?"

"Take the damn groom," Fleetwood said. "Sheesh, you bunch are worse than than a bad episode of As The Moon Turns. With subtitles."

"I do, for crying out loud!"

"Thank heaven," the magistrate said fervently, raising her eyes. She shoved a stylus into Dusty's hand and stuck the contract under it. "Sign on the line et cetera until death do you part and so on."

Dusty signed MIST-- (scribble, scribble) DUSTY WINTERS and then untangled Elaine's hand from her sister's hair and placed the stylus in it, while Fleetwood held off Sestina.

"Did she sign? Good. You are now wed for the duration of the contract, in this case --" She checked the piece of paper. "Life. Life? Unusual. No accounting for ... ah, well." She snapped her briefcase shut.

"Is it legal if I don't kiss her just yet?" Dusty asked the magistrate.

"Yes. Of course. Excellent." The magistrate was already to the door.

"Here, I'll show you ... out," Dusty said, as the door shut behind her.

The two men released the two women. Sestina staggered back a pace. "I don't feel good," she mumbled, turning green.

"Bathroom's that way," Fleetwood said, giving her a push in the right direction.

"Thanks," Sestina mumbled, and promptly stumbled into another flower arrangement and went down in a heap, where she proceeded to vomit on the floor.

Elaine rubbed her temples. "I can't believe you took advantage of her when she was like this," she snapped at Fleetwood.

"I can't believe she could get that plastered without you noticing."

"I had other things on my mind," Elaine retorted, looking at Dusty. He was bent over Sestina, helping the shaky girl to her feet. Elaine sighed. "Lay her on the bed, Misty. She can sleep it off," she told Dusty. "No, wait, the bed's covered with flowers. The couch, then."

As Dusty followed instructions, Fleetwood took Elaine's hand, to her surprise, and shook it. "Congratulations, Mrs. Dusty Winters," he said.

"If I can coax Dusty back out, I will be," Elaine sighed. "Otherwise, I'll be Mrs. Misty whatever-her-name-is."

"Why don't you take him into the bedroom and give it a shot?" Fleetwood asked.

Elaine gave him a wary glare. "Give what a shot?"

"Trying to get your husband back. I don't mean sleep with him -- with her -- necessarily, just get him in quiet surroundings, alone with you. If he goes away when he's stressed, just calm him down and de-stress him."

"You think that'd work?" she asked with cautious hope.

"You may as well try."

"That's true." She looked around the living room, and sighed. "But I can't just leave it like this. And Sestina ..."

"I'll take care of her," Fleetwood offered. "Get her into clean clothes and make sure she doesn't asphyxiate in her sleep."

Elaine glared at him. "If you do a damn thing to her while she's unconscious --"

Fleetwood raised his hands. "Conscious women only. That's my motto. Cuts down on lawsuits and violent revenge."

"Well ... all right. Fine. I'll trust you ... for now. Hey, Misty." She took Dusty's hand. "Come on, love. Fleetwood had an idea." She pulled him after her, into the bedroom. "Let's give it a try."



******



"I'm sorry," Dusty said quietly, hours later. They had not made love, but they lay curled up together, naked except for the kraken curled around Dusty's wrist, both of them half buried in white flowers. Elaine had raked most of them off onto the floor, but had given up in disgust before the bed was entirely clear. Now some of the stems were poking painfully into her back, but she was too comfortable otherwise to move.

"Don't be," Elaine said, kissing his shoulder. "I'm sorry too ... sorry I was such a bitch I made you want to not ... be."

"You didn't do it. I just get like that sometimes. My sources of stress are more internal than external, and I don't handle them well. I'll probably always be like that a little bit, Elaine."

"I can deal with it," Elaine said, laying her head in the crook of his neck. "Mrs. Dusty Winters," she said, giggling. "How odd."

"I like the sound of that." Dusty turned his head to kiss her forehead.

"Me too." Suddenly Elaine's eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright, as well as she could manage with the lower part of her body missing. "Oh, God! My sister! Fleetwood! I left my unconscious sister with Fleetwood! Am I out of my mind?"

She used her one hand to pull herself hastily to the edge of the bed and started fumbling with her prosthetic arm.

"It's probably all right," Dusty said, stretching and sitting up.

"It is not all right! How could I do something so irresponsible? Poor Sestina!" She pulled her shirt hastily around her shoulders as she hopped into her hoverchair.

"Now, don't do anything hasty --"

Elaine punched the door-open button and hurtled into the room beyond. "Ses --" She stopped. If the living room had been messy before, now it was destroyed. The floor was covered in an endless carpet of flowers and the remnants of elaborate candle arrangements.

"Ugh," Dusty said from behind her. "I knew she had no taste, but this is too much. Remind me to never let Misty do my interior decoratin' again."

"Sestina! Fleetwood!" Elaine snapped, floating forward and over the couch, where she saw the two of them -- curled up together, apparently asleep, uncovered and completely naked.

Elaine screamed.

Fleetwood shot upright. "It wasn't me!" he yelled, reaching for his gun, which was on top of his pile of clothes.

"Oh yes it was!" Elaine snarled, seizing the nearest candlestick and brandishing it over her head.

"She was awake!" Fleetwood cried, retreating. "She was awake, Elaine, I swear! Ask her! Sestina, tell her! Help!"

"I was awake," Sestina said, yawning and stretching. "I felt awful from drinking so much, and Shelley helped me feel ..." She giggled. "Better. Much better. He has such wonderful hands. And such a wonderful tongue ..."

"AAAAUUUGHH!" Elaine hurtled the candlestick at Fleetwood, who hastily ducked.

"I have an awful headache, though," Sestina said, wincing and rubbing her forehead. "Do you have any aspirin?"

"You'll both need aspirin in a minute! Wonderful hands! Gaaaah! Get off my ship, Fleetwood!"

"Like this?" Fleetwood asked innocently, looking down at his naked body.

"Oh." Elaine felt her cheeks growing hot and spun around with her back to him. "No, you may put your clothes on first," she said stiffly. She looked up at Dusty and saw him turning red, his shoulders shaking as he tried to keep from laughing. Elaine felt the corners of her mouth twitch. It was a funny situation, she had to admit.

She looked around to see Fleetwood pulling on his shirt and Sestina buckling the belt of her pantsuit. "I'm starving," Sestina said.

"That's because everything that was in your stomach is now on my floor ... somewhere under all of this," Elaine said, looking down at the flowers.

Dusty sighed, kicking idly at the mess on the floor. "I don't feel like cleaning any of this up."

"I'm thinking that we should use a bit of the Jaeger family fortune to hire a cleaning service on this one," Elaine agreed. "Well, that part of the family fortune that you didn't spend on flowers."

"Misty spent it, not me," Dusty corrected her.

"Here's an idea," Elaine said. "Let's go downplanet and eat. We just got married, for pete's sake. Let's celebrate."

"No alcohol," Sestina pleaded, rubbing her forehead.

"You're not going to try to kill me for sleeping with your sister?" Fleetwood asked hopefully.

"If you don't remind me of it every three seconds," Elaine said between her teeth.

"Oh, perhaps we should talk about something else, then." He brightened. "I know a few good restaurants. Actually, I know every good restaurant in Kismet. What are you all in the mood for? Gaian? Iridian South Coast? Buffet? Fine dining?"

Elaine looked around at their motley appearance. Dusty was still naked to the waist. "Probably not fine dining."

Fleetwood snapped his fingers. "I know. Little place off Boardwalk called the Silver Tree. They make a cup of Sylvian spice tea that's better than an orgasm."

"But not better than four of them," Sestina giggled, looking at him.

"Keep in mind that the stipulation for me not killing the two of you is that I do not have to hear intimate details," Elaine snapped.

"Oh," Sestina said. "Then I probably shouldn't talk about what happens when he takes my --"

"No," Elaine said. "You shouldn't."

Sestina curved her arm slyly through Fleetwood's. "I didn't even know people could bend like that."

"You're fairly acrobatic yourself. What do they teach you Amaranth Station girls, huh?"

Sestina giggled. "I wish you'd be my teacher."

"I can't imagine why we invited them with us," Elaine murmured to Dusty. "Now we have to hear about Fleetwood's marvelous tongue all through dinner."

He put a comforting arm around her shoulders. "It's all right. It's a Sylvian restaurant, and I happen to know a lot of Sylvian food is whaddyacallit, flambé, which means there will be live flames at the tables. If you need to set anyone on fire, you'll be all prepared."

Elaine laughed. "You're a cruel fellow, Mr. Elaine Jaeger. A man after my own heart."

"One could say the same of you, Mrs. Dusty Winters. Except for the man part."

"I should hope not."

She leaned against his shoulder, and the newlyweds followed Fleetwood and Sestina out of the ship, stepping forth into their new, married life. Kismet style.







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