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Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2006

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Colonization
Artificial Intelligence
First Contact
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In Old Earths clandestine world of ambassador-spies, Michelangelo Kusanagi-Jones and Vincent Katherinessen were once a starring team. But ever since a disastrous mission, they have been living separate lives in a universe dominated by a ruthless Coalition one that is about to reunite them.

The pair are dispatched to New Amazonia as diplomatic agents. Allegedly, they are to return priceless art. Covertly, they seek to tap its energy supply. But in reality, one has his mind set on treason. And among the extraordinary women of New Amazonia, in a season of festival, betrayal, and disguise, he will find a new ally and a force beyond any that humans have known.


Chapter One

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 destinationand the missionweren'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 cryodamn the nightmaresand 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 seventeensince 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 tickand, 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 patoishis com-patwas 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 cargoalive and materialas 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, unassuminga 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."

"How generous."

"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 washad always beenthat 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 issueand 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...

Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Bear



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