Michelangelo Osiris Leary Kusanagi-Jones had been drinking since fourteen hundred. He didn't plan on stopping soon.
He occupied a bubbleport on the current observation deck of Kaiwo Maru
, where he had been since he started drinking, watching a yellow main-sequence star grow. The sun had the look of a dancer swirling in veils, a Van Gogh starscape. Eons before, it had blundered into a cloud of interstellar gas and was still devouring the remains. Persistent tatters glowed orange and blue against a backdrop of stars, a vast, doomed display of color and light. Kusanagi-Jones could glimpse part of the clean-swept elliptical path that marked the orbit of New Amazonia: a darker streak like a worm tunnel in a leaf.
Breathtaking. Ridiculously named. And his destination. Or rather, their
destination. Which was why he was drinking, and why he didn't intend to stop.
As if the destination–and the mission–weren't bad enough, there was the little issue of Vincent to contend with. Vincent Katherinessen, the Old Earth Colonial Coalition Cabinet's velvet-gloved iron hand, far too field-effective to be categorized as a mere diplomatic envoy no matter how his passport was coded. Vincent, whom Kusanagi-Jones had managed to avoid for the duration of the voyage by first taking to cryo–damn the nightmares–and then restricting himself to the cramped comforts of his quarters . . . and whom he could avoid no longer.
Vincent was brilliant, unconventional, almost protean in his thinking. Unless something remarkable had changed, he wore spiky, kinky, sandy-auburn braids a shade darker than his freckled skin and a shade paler than his light-catching eyes. He was tall, sarcastic, slender, bird-handed, generous with smiles as breathtaking as the nebula outside the bubbleport.
And he was the man Michelangelo Kusanagi-Jones had loved for forty years, although he had not seen him in seventeen–since the last
time he had betrayed him.
Not that anybody was counting.
Kusanagi-Jones had anticipated their date by hours, until the gray and white lounge with its gray and white furniture retreated from his awareness like a painted backdrop. If Kusanagi-Jones captained a starship, he'd license it in reds and golds, vivid prints, anything to combat the black boredom of space.
Another man might have snorted and shaken his head, but Kusanagi-Jones didn't quite permit himself a smile of self-knowledge. He was trying to distract himself, because the liquor wasn't helping anymore. And in addition to his other qualities, Vincent was also almost pathologically punctual. He should be along any tick–and, in fact, a shadow now moved across Kusanagi-Jones's fish-eye sensor, accompanied by the rasp of shoes on carpet. "Michelangelo."
Kusanagi-Jones finished his drink, set the glass in the dispensall, and turned. No, Vincent hadn't changed. Slightly softer, belly and chin not as tight as in their youth, gray dulling hair he was too proud to have melanized. But in the vigorous middle age of his sixties, Vincent was still–
"Mr. Katherinessen." Kusanagi-Jones made his decision and extended his hand, ignoring Vincent's considering frown. Not a gesture one made to a business associate.
Through the resistance of their wardrobes, fingers brushed. Hands clasped. Vincent hadn't changed his program either.
They could still touch.
Kusanagi-Jones had thought he was ready. But if he hadn't known, he would have thought he'd been jabbed, nano-infected. He'd have snatched his hand back and checked his readout, hoping his docs could improvise a counteragent.
But it was just chemistry. The reason they'd been separated. The reason they were here, together again, on a starship making port in orbit around a renegade world. Old times
, Kusanagi-Jones thought.
Vincent arched an eyebrow in silent agreement, as if they'd never parted.
"Kill or be killed," Vincent said, next best thing to a mantra. Kusanagi-Jones squeezed his fingers and let their hands fall apart, but it didn't sever the connection. It was too practiced, too reflexive. Vincent's gift, the empathy, the sympathy
that turned them from men into a team. Vincent's particular gift, complement of Kusanagi-Jones's.
Vincent stared at him, tawny eyes bright. Kusanagi-Jones shrugged and turned his back, running his fingers across the rainbow lights of his subdermal watch to order another martini, codes flickering across neuromorphed retinas. He stared out the bubble again, waiting while the drink was mixed, and retrieved it from the dispensall less than a meter away.
"Oh, good." Vincent's Earth patois–his com-pat–was accentless. "Nothing makes a first impression like turning up shitfaced."
"They think we're animals anyway." Kusanagi-Jones gestured to a crescent world resolving as Kaiwo Maru
entered the plane of the ecliptic and began changing to give her passengers the best view. "Not like we had a chance to make them like us. Look, crew's modulating the ship."
"Seen one reconfig, seen them all." Nevertheless, Vincent came up to him and they waited, silent, while Kaiwo Maru
reworked from a compact shape optimized for travel to something spidery and elegant, designed to dock with the station and transfer cargo–alive and material–as efficiently as possible.
"Behold," Vincent teased. "New Amazonia."
Kusanagi-Jones took a sip of his martini, rolling the welcome rawness over his tongue. "Stupid name for a planet." He didn't mind when Vincent didn't answer.
Bravado aside, Michelangelo did stop drinking with the one in his hand, and Vincent pretended not to notice that he checked his watch and adjusted his blood chemistry. Meanwhile, Kaiwo Maru
docked without a shiver. Vincent didn't even have to put his hand out to steady himself. He pretended, also, that he was looking at the towering curve of the station beyond the bubble, but really, he was watching Michelangelo's reflection.
There had been times in the last decade and a half when Vincent had been convinced he'd never exactly remember that face. And there had been times when he'd been just as convinced he'd never get it out of his head. That he could feel Michelangelo standing beside him, glowering as he was glowering now.
One wouldn't discern it casually; Angelo wouldn't permit that much emotion revealed. His features were broad and solemn, his eyes stern except when bright. He seemed stolid, wary, unassuming–a blocky muscular man whose coloring facilitated his tendency to fade into the shadows. But Vincent felt
him glowering, his displeasure like the weight of an angry hand.
Michelangelo glanced at his watch as if contemplating the colored lights. Vincent knew Michelangelo had a heads-up; he wasn't checking the time. He was fidgeting.
Fidgeting was new.
"I don't love you anymore." Michelangelo pressed his hand to the bubble and then raised it to his mouth.
"I know. I can
still read your mind."
Michelangelo snorted against the back of his fingers. "I'm a Liar, Vincent. You'll believe what I want you to believe."
"Just true." Then the irony of his own statement seemed to strike him. He dropped his head and stared at the tips of his shoes as if hypnotized by the rainbows reflected across them. When he glanced back up, Vincent could read laughter in the way the crinkles at the corners of his eyes had deepened.
Vincent chuckled. He touched his watch, keying his wardrobe to something more formal, and stilled momentarily while the program spread and the wardrobe rearranged itself. "Do you want me, at least? That would make things easier."
Michelangelo shrugged, impassive. Vincent turned, now watching him frankly, and wondered how much of the attraction was–had always been–that Michelangelo was one of the few people he'd met that he couldn't
read like a fiche.
"They offered me a choice. Therapy or forced retirement."
Michelangelo's coloring was too dark for his face to pale, but the blood draining made him ashen. "You took therapy."
Vincent stifled a vindictive impulse. "I took retirement. I don't consider my sexuality something that needs to be fixed
"Sign of persistent pathology," Michelangelo said lightly, but his hands trembled.
"So I've been told. The funny thing is, they couldn't make it stick. I didn't even make it home before I was recalled. Apparently I'm indispensable."
Michelangelo's thumb moved across his inner wrist, giving Vincent a sympathetic shiver at the imagined texture of the skin. Another glass appeared in the dispensall, but from the smell, this one was fruit juice.
He sipped the juice and made a face. "I heard."
Vincent wondered if the license was off. "And you?"
"Not as indispensable as Vincent Katherinessen." He put the glass back and watched as it recycled: the drink vaporizing, the glass fogging. A waste of energy; Vincent controlled the urge to lecture. If they got what they needed on New Amazonia, it wouldn't be an issue–and anyway, they were on a starship, the one place in the entire OECC where conserving energy wasn't a civic duty as mandated as community service. "I took the therapy."
Vincent swallowed, wishing he could taste something other than the tang of atomizing juice. He picked a nonexistent bit of lint off his sleeve. "Oh."
Michelangelo lifted his chin, turned, and gave Vincent a smile warm enough to melt his implants. He glanced over his shoulder, as if ascertaining the lounge was empty, then leaned forward, slid both hands up Vincent's neck, and pulled Vincent's head down to plant a wet, tender kiss on his lips.It's a lie
, Vincent told himself, as his breath shortened and his body responded. Michelangelo was substantial, all muscle under the draped knits his wardrobe counterfeited. They both knew he controlled Vincent the instant Vincent let him close.
Just as Vincent knew Michelangelo's apparent abandonment to the kiss was probably as counterfeit as his
"hand-knitted" sweater. It's a lie
. He took the therapy
. It didn't help. His body believed; his intuition trusted; the partnership breathed into the kiss and breathed out again. Sparkles of sensation followed Michelangelo's hands as they cupped Vincent's skull and stroked his nape. He knew
Michelangelo wanted him, as he had always known. As Michelangelo had always permitted
him to know.
He wondered what the ship's Governors made of the kiss, whether they had been instructed to turn a blind eye on whatever illegalities proceeded between the diplomat and his attaché. Or if their interaction had been logged and would be reported to the appropriate agencies within the Colonial Coalition when Kaiwo Maru
dispatched a packet bot.
The relationship between the Cabinet and the Governors was complex; the Cabinet did not carry out death sentences, and the Governors did not answer to the Cabinet. But after the Great Cull, they had begun performing some of their Assessments in accordance with planetary laws. There was détente; an alliance, of sorts, by which the Cabinet maintained control and the Governors, with their own inhuman logic and society, supported an administration that maintained ecological balance.
Once, there had been many governments on Old Earth. Industrialized nation-states and alliances had used more than their share of resources and produced more than their share of waste. But Assessment had ended that, along with human life in the Northern Hemisphere. In the wake of an apocalypse, people often become reactionary, and the survivors of Assessment were disproportionately Muslim and Catholic. And in a society where being granted permission to reproduce was idealized–even fetishized–where every survivor meant that someone else had not
lived . . . those who were different were not welcome.
Over a period of decades, in the face of necessity, resistance to the widespread use of reproductive technology and genetic surgery waned. The Governors did not care about the morality of the human-made laws they enforced. Or their irony either.
So, throughout Coalition space, that kiss was the overture to a capital case. But just this once, its illegality didn't matter. That particular illegality was why they were here.
Michelangelo leaned back, but his breath stayed warm on Vincent's cheek, and Vincent didn't pull away. "They'll just separate us again when this is over."
"Maybe. Maybe not. We were useful to them once."
"Politics were different then."
"The politics are different now, too."
Michelangelo disengaged, stepped back, and turned away. "Can't honestly think we will be allowed within three systems of each other. After New Earth"–Michelangelo's weight shifted, a guilty tell Vincent could have wasted half a day on if he'd been in the mood to try to figure out how much of what Michelangelo gave him was real–"we're lucky the Cabinet thought us useful enough to keep alive."
By Michelangelo's standards, it was a speech. Vincent stood blinking for a moment, wondering what else had changed. And then he thought about therapy, and the chip concealed in–but isolated from–his wardrobe. Don't love you anymore
That would make things easier, wouldn't it?
"If we pull this off"–Vincent folded his hands behind his head–"The Cabinet won't deny us much. We could retire on it. I could finally introduce you to my mother."
A snort, but Michelangelo turned and leaned against the bubble, folding his arms. "If we don't wind up Assessed."
Vincent grinned, and Michelangelo grinned back reluctantly. The sour, sharp note in Michelangelo's voice was a homecoming. "If we bring home just the technology we're to negotiate for–"
"Assuming it is either portable or reproducible?"
"–we're unlikely to find ourselves surplused. I know what a cheap, clean energy source will mean to the Captaincy on Ur. And to appeasing the Governors. What will it mean on Old Earth?"
Michelangelo had that expression, the knitted brow and set muscle in his jaw that meant he agreed with Vincent and wasn't happy about it. He had to be thinking about Old Earth's tightly managed population of fifty million, about biodiversity and environmental load and Assessment. Culling
"On Earth?" Michelangelo would never call it Old Earth
, unless speaking to someone who wouldn't know what he meant otherwise. "Might mean no culls for fifty, a hundred years."
"That would pay for a lot." Michelangelo could do the math. Nonpolluting power meant that a larger population could be supported before triggering the Governors' inexorable logic.
The Governors did not argue. They simply followed the programs of the radical environmentalists who had unleashed them, and reduced the load.
Assessments were typically small now. Nothing like the near-extermination of the years surrounding Diaspora, because Old Earth's population had remained relatively stable since nine and a half billion citizens had been reduced to organic compounds, their remains used to reclaim exhausted farmland, reinvigorate desertified grassland, enrich soil laid over the hulks of emptied cities–or simply sealed up in long-abandoned coal mines and oil wells.
Michelangelo's nod was curt, and slow in coming. Vincent wondered if he'd been mistaken in pushing for it, but then Michelangelo made him a little present of the smile they both knew tangled Vincent's breath around his heart. "And if we manage to overthrow their government, steal or destroy their tech, and get a picture of their prime minister in bed with a sheep in bondage gear?"
A heartbeat, but Vincent didn't even try to keep the relief off his face. "They'll probably give you another medal you're not allowed to take home."
Michelangelo's laugh might have been mistaken for choking. He shook his head when he stopped, and waved a hand out the bubble at the light over the docking bay, on Boadicca Station's side. "Light's green. Let's catch our bus."
Excerpted from Carnival by Elizabeth Bear. Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Bear. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.