Chapter 1: The Party of the Millennium
The dance hall of the /Orchid Spray/ certainly lived up to expectations.
Descending the grand staircase from the docking bay, one faced a colossal
window, the full height and width of the room, that gave onto space. A
delicate, filigreed nebula occupied most of the field of view. Overhead, the
vaulted ceiling was picked out in lines of red and blue light. The
decorations on the other three walls seemed to have been artificially muted
not to distract from the view, but it was still possible to discern the dull
gleam of gold and panels of stained glass. The floor resembled a lake of black
liquid; it seemed to ripple at every footstep, yet remained dry and firm to
the touch. Doors large enough to admit a main battle tank led to further
Through this vast chamber was passing a constant stream of glittering
people -- young and old, human and alien, their costumes ranging from the
sophisticated to the risqué. At any given moment, hundreds would be gyrating
on the dance floor, with hundreds more circulating around the edges of the
The music booming through the chamber came to an end. Flushed and radiant,
Victoria curtseyed to her partner, then joined the crowd heading off the
dance floor. Samantha was waiting for her by one of the pillars.
"Never thought I'd see you bopping like that," she said, as Victoria came
"I'm amazed I didn't strain something." Victoria grasped the black,
bulb-shaped pendant hanging around her neck, which served as entrance ticket,
dance card and bar tab. Holding it up, she read the words racing across its
surface. "I'm not booked to dance again for a bit. What about you?"
Samantha checked her own pendant. "No, nor me. My next one's the Foam
Extravaganza." She grinned. "Can't wait."
"Yes, that's my next dance as well." Victoria let the pendant fall. "I'm so
thirsty. Let's go and have something to drink."
"Sounds like a plan." Samantha joined the stream of humanity heading for the
bar, Victoria close beside her. "Seen any of the others?"
Victoria cast her mind back. "I danced with Jamie twice, and I saw
Isobel in one of the four-squares with two Ice Warriors and some sort of
giant beetle. What about you?"
"Only Jamie. But I wasn't really looking for the others." Samantha grinned.
"Too busy checking out the boys."
"That's what we're here for, isn't it?" The bar was now in view: another
vast room, softly lit, lined on three sides by a polished metal counter with
rounded edges, and divided by low screens into a maze of nooks and crannies.
In the centre, a fountain was running with what looked very much like wine.
Samantha found a gap in the throng at the counter, used her elbows to make
enough room for Victoria, and waited for one of the bartender robots to take
their order. "Have a dance," she continued, "get kaylied, snog a few blokes."
"Personally, I take delight in friendly conversation and cultural exchange,"
"Yeah, you say that now, but just you wait." Samantha paused briefly as a
bartender robot glided up, a list of drinks shown on its screen. "What are
Victoria peered at the list. "I don't know what half of these are."
"Take a guess, then. Or just pick one. Go on, live a little."
Closing her eyes, Victoria placed her finger on the touchscreen. There was
a beep, and she opened her eyes to see that she'd highlighted an entry.
"'Reversion Spanner,'" she read. "Whatever's that?"
"Maybe I should..."
"Too late, can't go back on it now." Samantha firmly pressed the 'confirm'
button, then closed her eyes and made her own random choice. "Laburnum and
rhubarb brandy. Sounds revolting."
Victoria pressed the 'confirm' button for her, and giggled. "It serves you
Having received their drinks from the robot, the two found an unoccupied
table, in an alcove surrounded on three sides by latticework and artificial
ivy. Victoria looked nervously at her glass, which contained half-a-dozen
layers of coloured liquid and had a weathervane protruding from its top, and
took a cautious sip.
"What's it like?" Samantha asked.
"Not unpleasant." Victoria tried a larger sip. "Quite refreshing. And
Samantha sipped at her own glass, which was full of turbid brown liquid,
and grimaced. "Tastes just as bad as you'd think. No, worse."
"Go on, live a little." Victoria giggled again, and took a larger swig
from her own glass. "This isn't bad at all."
Samantha tried the brandy again. "Eurgh. Next time I'm having what you're
Victoria sat up suddenly. "There's Zoe."
"Over there." Victoria pointed. "She's with a strange woman... they've gone
Samantha turned, but failed to see anyone she recognised in the crowd.
"I think that stuff's getting to you," she said, nodding at Victoria's
The colour rose in Victoria's cheeks. "I know what I saw."
"OK, OK." Samantha leaned forward to put a conciliatory hand on Victoria's
arm, and managed to knock her brandy into her own lap. She jumped up, but too
late to do more than retrieve her now-empty glass.
"I really hope it wasn't Zoe you saw," she said, trying in vain to wring the
brandy out of her borrowed sailor fuku. "If she sees what I've done to her
dress she's gonna kill me."
"Oh, it was definitely Zoe," Victoria said. "Here, you can share my drink.
If I didn't know better I'd say you spilt yours on purpose." She laughed
again, a little too loudly.
"Yeah, maybe I'd better." Samantha sat down again, took the glass that
Victoria pushed toward her, and took a measured sip. "Wow. I reckon you'd be
out for the count if you'd had the whole lot to yourself. So who was this
woman you saw Zoe with?"
"I didn't recognise her. It wasn't any of us. She was dressed..." Victoria
waved her hands vaguely. "Something like tennis players do in your time, but
with lace sleeves. And I think lace trousers as well. A tall woman, with
very pale blonde hair."
"Yeah, she would have. Zoe's definitely got a 'type'." Samantha took
another swig of the cocktail, and pushed the glass back across the table.
"Tall, fair hair -- and one hundred percent female."
"Is something the matter?" Zoe's new friend asked. She'd introduced herself
Zoe shook her head. "I thought I saw a friend of mine. It's not important;
I'll be seeing her tomorrow anyway."
"Quite right." They made their way towards the central fountain, dodging
through groups of guests. "You're the person I want to talk to. Three would
definitely be a crowd."
They passed through a lightweight archway, and arrived at the fountain. A
faintly glittering force field surrounded the main basin, preventing any
overenthusiastic guest from falling in or introducing other foreign objects.
Around its rim, wine poured into silver bowls, each one provided with a
goblet on a chain. Partygoers, mostly couples in various stages of
dishevelment, were making full use of these.
"If you don't mind, I suggest we don't bother with the wine," Lissa said,
keeping to the outer edge of the pavement surrounding the fountain. "The
whole setup looks unhygienic to me."
"I'm sure that's been planned for," Zoe said.
"Well, maybe." Lissa sat down on a curved marble bench, and gestured to Zoe
to do likewise.
"Good," she said. "Now we can talk in private."
"Private?" Zoe repeated. "But there are people everywhere."
"None of whom care in the slightest about us." Lissa put her arm round Zoe's
shoulders. "As far as anyone knows, we're just one more courting couple."
"And... aren't we?" Zoe asked mischievously.
Lissa smiled. "Not yet, anyway. Sorry if this sounds crazy to you, but: 'By
what star does the wise man set his course?'"
"I don't know. By what star does the wise man set his course?"
"No, it isn't a joke."
Zoe gave her a blank look. "Well, in that case I haven't the slightest idea
what you're talking about."
"Good." Lissa seemed to relax. "I think we'll get on very well together.
Why don't you tell me more about yourself, Zoe?"
There was a similar fountain, running with melted chocolate rather than
wine, in one of the chambers on the other side of the dance hall. Rather
than the dim, romantic lighting that had characterised the bar, this area
was bright and cheerful, just as busy, and just as noisy.
Someone caught Jamie's arm, with a cheerful "Hello, handsome!" He turned, to
see Gia sitting by one of the outlets of the fountain. Since the last time
he'd seen her, earlier that evening, she now had rose petals in her hair.
"Come and have a nibble," she said, holding out a bowl of what looked
worryingly like fish fingers. "You put them in the chocolate. Like this."
Seeing Jamie hesitating, she demonstrated, dipping one of the objects into
the chocolate and holding it out to him. Jamie took a cautious bite, then
eagerly finished the sweetmeat. It tasted of honey.
"Lovely, aren't they?" Gia gave him a bright smile. "Isn't this fun?"
"You've got chocolate on your face." Jamie looked around, located a machine
that dispensed paper towels, and dabbed at Gia's cheek. "That's better."
"Thank you." She smiled again, slightly vacuously. "You're so sweet and
Jamie looked at her with concern. "Have you been drinking?"
"Of course I have. But if you mean, am I sloshed, then I'm not. Not yet.
Ask me again a bit later. It's definitely on my to-do list. I've only got as
far as tiddly at the moment."
"I can't do this sort of thing Inside, Jamie. One false move and it'd be
the end of my career. I can only be my proper self with you and the girls."
She planted an undeniable kiss on his cheek. "You look really sexy in that
"Gia, I--" Jamie broke off. He'd been going to say that he didn't think of
her in that way. But seeing her like this, forsaking her severe jumpsuit for
a costume that left little to the imagination, and literally letting her hair
down... he /was/ thinking of her in that way. Thinking very appreciatively of
her, too. He realised he was holding her hand, and couldn't remember how that
had come about.
"Listen--" he began, but before he could continue she'd pushed one of the
chocolate-coated honey sticks into his mouth.
"No, you listen, Jamie. You're always flirting with the other girls. Well,
now it's my turn."
"Flirting?" Jamie would have repeated, if his mouth hadn't been full.
"Don't think I haven't noticed." Gia looked him in the eye with surprising
seriousness. "Don't you think I'm as pretty as Victoria or Sam?"
"I think you're very beautiful," Jamie heard himself saying. "And I'd like
Gia smiled. "You'd like to do what?"
Before Jamie could answer, he was saved by the bell -- or rather, the
"There you are," she said, descending on the happy couple like a cheerfully
self-centred whirlwind. "I don't suppose you've seen my handcuffs?"
"No, I haven't seen your handcuffs," Gia replied. "Where did you have them
"Well, that's the thing. I'm not entirely sure." She looked from Gia to
Jamie and back, seeming to notice for the first time that they were holding
hands. "Sorry, did I interrupt something?"
"I was trying to make a pass at Jamie," Gia said matter-of-factly.
Isobel patted her on the shoulder. "Nice work, sister. It'll do you good
to unwind a bit. Let it all hang out, that's what I say."
"With yon dress, I think that's jist what she is doing," Jamie couldn't
Isobel chuckled. "It worked on you, didn't it? Well, nearly." She leaned
over to Gia and attempted to whisper to her. "Bet you he'll say yes, next
On some inner level, Zoe's mental conditioning was still at work. As she
walked hand in hand with Lissa up the grand staircase, she knew in coldly
factual terms that alcohol had impaired her judgement and reaction speed, her
self-discipline was all over the place, and she was dangerously open to
suggestion. But in her current emotional state, those facts only made things
more exciting. For once, her passions had the upper hand over her rationality,
and were determined to keep things that way for as long as possible, whatever
"The docking bay's this way," Lissa said, leading Zoe through the
flower-wreathed archway onto another staircase, of similar gargantuan
proportions, but spiralling rather than straight. She indicated the downward
"Doesn't seem very logical to me," Zoe said. "We just went up all those
stairs. Now we've got to go down again. That's silly. If they had a door
instead of those steps it would come out in the wall about there." She waved
her hand at the wall in question and nearly fell over. "And then you'd just
have to spin this staircase round by five-forty degrees or so to make the
exit line up." She swayed. "I think someone's doing that anyway."
Lissa steadied her. "No, that's just you. Don't worry, not far now."
"This had better be something really spectacular." It took Zoe several goes
to get 'spectacular' right. "If it turns out you're doing all this to to lure
me into your spaceship and steal all my money, I'm going to be disappointed.
And so are you, because I haven't got any money." To her fuddled senses, it
seemed that they were walking along a gently branching path through a forest.
"Am I hallucinating?"
"Oh, pull yourself together." Lissa squeezed her hand encouragingly. "And
here we are."
Ahead, the forest path opened into a glade. On the far side, pairs of
trees flanked massive circular hatches.
"Dead on time," Lissa added. "Close your eyes and open your mouth."
"Ready when you are," Zoe said, and screwed up her eyes.
Something touched her lips. There was a soundless burst of colour and
pressure, and she felt herself falling backwards, streamers of light filling
The rational part of her mind had time for one last thought: /I told me so./