I had less than twenty-four hours to talk him out of it. Watching him across the table, I could feel the faith in my ability to do so dwindling. Howe wore an expression of utter implacability that I knew I could never shift. No matter what I said now, there would be no difference to the result. My usual way — knowing exactly the wrong moment to talk.
“You could always — ” I began.
“No, Vance.” And thus, the debate closed.
I glanced up at the hourglass. The reminder that time was running down, running out. Of the contract on the captain’s desk, signed by both participants, legally binding unless proven invalid. The prospect of the agreement to be fulfilled.
Seconds — those appointed to negotiate and if necessary fill in for the principal fighters in duels conducted by pilots of the Polarin Aerial Fleet — were allowed only one kind of interference: to try and talk combatants out of their folly, or to watch as time ran out and they went to their deaths. This was thought to be a way of reducing the number of frivolous challenges. It had had virtually no effect. When people like Howe were given the means to throw themselves into unnecessary mortal peril, they did not hesitate, in my experience, to do so. I maintain that one can’t teach someone a lesson by ensuring that they die, but then, I volunteered for this position, which undermines that point.
I thought of the duelling ground, the expanse of smooth ice behind the auroral engine-chargers. In winter, it would be the deep blue-black of the sky. Auroras shimmering through. Not a bad way to go, I had to admit. Those brilliant dancing lights would blow out the flare of the pistols, the snow would devour the gunpowder.
The subtle shifting of the liquid within the hourglass snapped me out of it. A fine way to go, sure, but there was no need for them to die at all.
But I should back up a little. Why had it started? That was more the question. I still couldn’t satisfy myself as to an answer, at least not one that could explain how it had escalated so fast. I knew that the quarrel between Howe and Brin, his opponent, had existed since their earliest acquaintance, and was apt to resurface on important occasions. The fleet was the main method of communication between the scattered circumpolar settlements, where most of the pilots came from, and was vital to both search and rescue, and to the research conducted by naturalists, cartographers, and other inquisitive sorts in love with needless danger. There was a prestige to being a pilot, but it meant an isolated life, similar to that of a ship at sea, or so I had heard — never having been to sea. In the summer, the stations constituted a continuous thread running through land and sea and ice, connected by air and the faintly visible aurora. In the winter, they were a constellation, distinct and defiant lights in the unceasing darkness, but always existing in relation to each other. We were our own little world, complete with rivalries.
Howe and Brin had joined the fleet around the same time, and their first captain had favoured Brin; our current captain, Flint, did not, and this fuelled the fire of their quarrel. The challenge itself had been issued over a particular instance, an event that clearly had given Howe enough sleepless nights to become reckless. That the cause of the challenge had been in part my own fault was something I was studiously trying to ignore, while I worked on a plan to save him.
I now considered sabotage: I had heard of seconds who did desperate things, who knocked their friends on the head, or drugged them, or tied them up in the holds of ships bound southward. Two arguments dissuaded me from this course. For one thing, Howe would be furious. For another, I would not risk doing him real damage, which would have been inevitable if I knocked him out or any such tactic. If I tried anything, it would have to be along a different tack.
The thought of sending Howe out of harm’s way did tempt me. Although our UltraLights could not fly beyond the auroral belt, there were often ships bound for the south. I’d never been down there, my flights being confined to the communities along the coast, the edge of the tundra, and the ice-floating cities beyond them. I had heard of things I could barely believe, at the edge of our flight range, beyond the tree line. I had heard of great jungles from which steam curled like smoke from a slow fire, the vastness of an ocean that never froze, the blistering deserts where sand glittered and burned. They were probably real, but so far beyond anything I knew that they seemed almost dreamlike, stories that passed from sailors to ports to the furthest reaches of the ice, so that by the time they arrived they were myth. Howe had been as far south as the Seal Isles, on a rare solo flight, one of the southernmost points we could reach, and thus a risky journey. Such far-flung missions were one of the perks of having the captain’s good opinion.
This had come in part because of natural skill; Howe was an excellent pilot and navigator. Much of it came down to luck, as well, and I say that with the utmost respect for Howe’s abilities. He took risks, they worked out. It wasn’t that way for all of us. I had been made cautious by experience, having made miscalculated risks, or mistakes that had resulted in misfortune. (I had once misread my plane’s battery level, and taken it up half-charged — I had learned since then, but the memory still stung.) The balance of poor judgment and ill luck seemed to make little difference to Flint, who believed luck was of a pilot’s own making. I had joined the fleet two years after Howe, and we had flown several missions together, delivering trade goods and relaying messages, or carrying naturalists and diplomats over the pole. Most of the time, the flights were routine, ordinary things, but surprises sometimes befell us — such as the one that had occurred in the summer, the one that had started all this trouble in the first place, though at the time, it had felt like a grand success. It had been a clear, bright blue day, the sun half-blinding anyone who stepped outside without snow goggles. A flurry of snow had erupted from the ground, as of something falling from the sky, far off on the horizon but making the earth and ice shake, and we were the pilots chosen to investigate. As we approached, Howe got on his radio to warn me to stop, come to land. I’d run up to Howe’s plane as it glided to an awkward landing ahead of us, and he jumped out. I’d glanced inside — his equipment was out of alignment, the symptom of some great magnetic disturbance. Our eyes met. He was thinking the same thing.
“So that’s what it was. We should bring a piece back.” Magnetite was valuable to the engineers, fascinating to the naturalists, and rare enough to be in constant demand. Though it was frequently enough found in small deposits and intrusions in the bare rock, pieces of this size were rare. Its arrival in meteorite form was not unheard of, but still, this was noteworthy.
“In which plane? Neither of us brought anything to protect our equipment, we can’t carry the magnetite in our planes.” The great contradiction of magnetite was that despite being one of the main components in our planes, and coveted throughout the fleet for its usefulness and rarity, its raw form had been known to cause massive disruptions to the navigational equipment, which was something that we could not stand to risk. Compasses were our lives, something our captains had told us since the beginning.
“We can use the komatik.” He was already running to the plane and unfolding it, slipping the runners into place. The sled was supposed to be for emergencies, but its sturdiness would hold the magnetite, and it was the only way to transport it safely.
“We’ve no dogs.”
“Well, we can pull it ourselves.” Howe’s stubbornness, when faced with solving a problem, was intense and immovable. I usually supported his plans wholeheartedly, but in this case, I was starting to feel he was taking it a bit far. (I had, at the time, no idea how easy I had it.)
“Pull a komatik? All the way back to the hangar? And, what, leave our planes here?” It was summer, granted, but the ice-field was prone to storms all year, and we were at least two hours’ walk from the base, unburdened.
He nodded, an almost comical full-body motion when his face was all but hidden by the fur ruff of his parka. “The mechanics will have to take a look at my plane, anyway. We’ll just ask them to send someone out.”
“Couldn’t we fly back and send someone out first?” We both knew the answer already. The time saved by doing so would be minimal, of course, and all it would mean was that there might be an easier way of transporting the great misshapen rock. It would be faster to radio back, let them know we were on our way, and set off at once.
I assessed the terrain. It was even, solid ice of a sort that would make the task of pulling a komatik fairly easy. We were well dressed and had rations in our planes, which we could take out and enjoy on our walk. Both of us were undaunted at the prospect of distance, of exertion and cold. There was no reason not to.
“Well,” I found myself saying. “How hard can it be?”
Howe and I had been hailed with three cheers when we returned, by the engineers and naturalists who had been waiting in hopeful suspense since we departed. It seemed that their speculations had grown ever more wild in that span, and that our find had surpassed even the most far-fetched. They were thrilled to have us recount our journey across the ice-field, surprisingly uneventful though it had been, and even more so to take the heavy lump of metal off our hands. We left them chittering excitedly about its extraterrestrial origins, its enormous potential, and grinned at each other over our hot chocolates. How hard can it be? My question had gone unanswered, and we had made it back without incident.
Sometimes an image, irreversibly tied to some subsequent event, takes on a peculiar sweetness, which it wouldn’t have developed if everything hadn’t gone to hell. I could claim that was the case with Howe and me and our hot chocolates, steam curling through an empty mess hall. Just us and our brilliant adventure, the only people in the world.
I could probably blame the magnetite for the duel, now that I think about it; most of what followed was tied to it in one way or another. We had both seen the disdain on Brin’s face as we enjoyed the accolades, but given that jealousy was a constant between him and Howe, I had thought that it would end there. In any case, I was too elated by our success to care.
It was not until winter, when we had long since tired of retelling the story, that the consequences of that jealousy erupted. We were gearing up for a mail run, when the call came in that Brin had flown into bad weather on his way back from one of the western islands, forcing him to land. He’d sent coordinates, and his plane was not badly damaged, but the ice-field was still a dangerous place to be alone in winter. It was one thing to pull a komatik several miles in the light of high summer, but it would be much colder now.
We volunteered to fly the mission at once. Our planes were ready and charged, and Howe sent someone to find our mechanics. Before the runner could return, though, Flint gave us both a grave look. “Fly in, pick him up, get him back here,” she ordered. “Anything more than that, try to fix his plane, and you’re begging for trouble. You both know how to do basic repairs? Good — try not to need them. You can fly without mechanics.” A second’s hesitation, but Flint was right. We knew how to make basic repairs. All we had to do was fly in, pick up a lost pilot, and fly back.
From the start, luck wasn’t with us. The weather was getting worse, with whirlwinds of snow playing about the ice-field beneath us. We lost radio contact only a few hours out, as another squall whipped through, and for a brief second all I saw was Howe’s plane, disappearing into the flurry of white, seemingly devoured by the whirlwind, walls of snow on either side.
In spite of Flint’s order to keep to the charted course no matter what, I left my flight path to search for Howe. One missing pilot was bad enough. What I hadn’t realised was that in turning slightly, I would put myself right in the path of the same snow squall, and in a few moments I was upended by it, floating for what could have been minutes or days in a vortex of cold. I don’t remember much about the rest of it. I should have been terrified. All that registered, really, was that I was in control of everything, except somehow the navigation and steering. It could have carried me into the side of a mountain or out to sea, and the great absurdity of it was that had I carried on along our initial route, the squall would have passed to the south and we would both have continued unharmed, as I learned afterward. In the rush to try and find him, the panic of seeing him disappear behind a wall of snow, I hadn’t seen Howe’s plane dodging swiftly to the side, by sheer luck and good timing avoiding the worst of the storm.
When I emerged from the cloud of snow, into the clear night air, I heard the crackle of the radio returning, and I signalled as quickly as I could to Howe, to the airfield. No answer. My equipment had been knocked about fiercely, and in a rush of returning fear, I tested the steering. It answered, and I breathed a sigh of relief, even as I noted the navigation was still down. I wished we had waited for the mechanics — these repairs were beyond me. I could only try to determine, with malfunctioning equipment and disoriented enough that I was almost bound to miscalculate, how to return to the intended route. There was no sign of Howe, and for a moment my fears increased — until suddenly I was over a small stretch of open water, and against the black ocean his silver plane showed like the back of a whale. He had come back, had left the flight path in search of me. But the delay of the squall — the detour to find me — the damage to my equipment — meant that we would have to return to the airfield, leaving Brin where he was.
As we landed and disembarked, voices buzzed into my brain like a radio tuning back in. Howe’s voice relaying the details of the failed mission to Flint. Flint reminding him impatiently that she had already sent another pair of pilots out. I couldn’t, or at least I couldn’t seem to speak, though I desperately wanted to explain, to tell her that I had been trying to help. We had been trying to help. It wasn’t enough.
It was at the evening watch that the second rescue party returned, with Brin weary but hale, but relief was short-lived. Flint gave him the briefest of explanations before sending him to the mess hall for a hot meal. I was caught between trying to avoid him, and wishing to tell him we had done our best. Too late, I realised, hearing my name from one of the tables.
“ … should be dismissed from the fleet,” Brin was saying. “Never seen the like.”
“Drop it, Brin,” someone cautioned. “Navigational problems happen to everyone.”
“Especially to people who like to play with magnetite,” he growled, but let it go for the moment. I briefly froze. Magnetite was the tool of the saboteur, or so we had been told. It left no trace upon navigational equipment and so could easily be used to get temporarily, deliberately lost, and make it look like an innocent malfunction. It was supposed to be an easy way to get out of flying in particularly bad weather, or in nobler cases, a way to disobey the orders of an incompetent captain, without facing legal consequences afterward. But to desert, especially on such an important flight, would have been an act of absolute cowardice. With effort, I ignored Brin. I left the mess hall to find Howe, who was still alone and shouldn’t have been.
What exactly Flint had told Brin, I did not know. She had barely addressed me or Howe since our return, and I assumed this was because she had more important things to deal with, such as the second pair of rescue pilots returning successfully.
The last thing I wanted to do — apart from confronting Brin, and I’d done a fine job of keeping out of that so far — was talk to Howe about the failed rescue mission. This was partly my own guilt, and partly the knowledge that he was taking it even harder. We each kept to ourselves the next day, and it wasn’t until the day following that anything happened. It was a clear twilit day, all the planes out in the field, engines charging with auroral energy. I was getting ready to set off on a mail run. So far that morning no one had said much about what had happened, nor repeated any rumours, though Brin’s expression could have seared through ice.
I strapped on my snow goggles, the metal of the clasp cold where it brushed my wrist between sleeve and glove. I handed Howe my flight plan in case anything went awry. Then I climbed into the cockpit, wishing I’d given him a severe look before putting the goggles on.
“Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.” He’d never been good at following instructions. I left with a dark feeling in the more sensible part of my mind.
I was, to my displeasure, quite right. I’d come back from the three-hour flight to find him surrounded by a knot of fellow pilots, various degrees of surprise, horror, and indignation on most of their faces. I leapt from my plane and ran to him, aware of all eyes on me. But it wasn’t the place to discuss it. Leading him away by the arm, I whispered, “What did I tell you?”
He shook his head. “There wasn’t another answer for it. Brin wasn’t trying to get under my skin, he picked his moment too well, he was trying to have you dismissed.”
“Dereliction of — ”
“The hell with dereliction of duty!” I said, a little too loudly. He jumped. It was then that I saw that this had not been a rash decision, nor a stupid one, even, but an act of desperation and calculated self-defence. Or, rather, friend-defence. It was good of him. I hated that.
“I’m sorry,” Howe said evenly, forcing me to lower my own voice again. “He accused you in front of everybody. Told them he was going straight to Flint. Said you’d kept a bit of magnetite in your pocket and sabotaged your navigational equipment, that we’d brought it back to get out of flying dangerous missions. If no one defended you, you could have been dismissed.”
“Well, I can prove it now. Rescind the challenge. Let me talk to Brin.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. You know it’s not that easy, we’ve signed the contract.”
“Couldn’t you have explained to Flint? Brin wasn’t there, he couldn’t know, he’s just throwing out stupid insults because he’s angry. You could’ve told her all of that.”
There was no way of proving my innocence. I had been alone in the plane. Howe — well, everyone knew that he would be willing to lie for me. If I had failed in my resolve and tried to ditch back to base, putting another pilot’s life at risk, I would have trusted him not to conceal that fact, even for my sake, but I doubted that anyone else would see that. Whether they thought that I had lied to him, or that he was lying for me, made little difference.
“What do you think the captain would do if she knew what happened? We both disobeyed orders, Vance. But that’s not the point — we both tried to complete the mission, and Brin lied about it. You weren’t back yet. I had to make a choice.” You had to make my choice for me, you mean. I left it unsaid, but my anger was growing. He’d made the same decision on the mission. If he had carried on, had gone to collect Brin before looking for me — I stopped myself there, realising that I had done the same. At the time it had seemed reasonable.
It was then that I blurted out the fatal words. “I’ll be your second.” As though it were an inconvenience only. Softening the blow, I added, “Of course.”
“Thank you.” I think he was surprised. No reason to be, but it was always like that with Howe.
With that much at least settled, we made our way wearily to the mess hall, finding a quiet table at which to discuss the details, which in practice meant increasing desperation on my part, resigned silence on his. After an hour’s failed persuasion, I lapsed into silence. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I didn’t notice that Howe had left, and Brin appeared, until I looked up to find the latter lurking in the doorway. I covered my surprise as best I could, pretending that I had been intending to spring up from the table and knock my bench over. He on the other hand remained irritatingly cool.
“Vance. Good to see you’re talking some sense into him.”
Not how I had expected him to begin. “If you’re here to gloat, you might as well leave. I was just about to.” I went to pick up the bench with as much dignity as I could muster.
“You think I want to fight this duel any more than he does? Don’t be ridiculous. This wasn’t my idea.” He adjusted his sleeve cuffs in a bored way.
“Doesn’t matter whose idea it is. It was a stupid one. But if you’re so keen to call it off, do it. Take back your accusation and we’ll hear no more about it.” It struck me that I had no idea what he thought he would get out of this — vindication, the captain’s favour, or merely the chance to take out his resentment towards Howe in legally acceptable fashion. It had to be the latter: while it had not been his idea, he must have known where his accusation would lead. Still, I could not tell whether he honestly believed we had deliberately failed him. I knew he didn’t think much of me, but accusing Howe of cowardice was like accusing ice of being too hot.
He stayed in the doorway, making no move to either enter or leave, and against my better judgment I felt the need to break the silence. That was Brin, though — he had the uncanny ability to get other people to say more than they intended. If he hadn’t been a pilot, he could have been the more dangerous kind of lawgiver. And so he stayed silent until I blurted out, “If neither of you wants to do this, why not tell Flint you were mistaken?”
He laughed. The least encouraging sound he could have made. “No.” As firm as Howe, but with an edge of mockery to it that set my teeth on edge. “Like I said, I’d rather not have to bother fighting a duel. But I’d have to consider how that would look. Besides, I haven’t mistaken anything.” A conspicuous glance at the hourglass, and he was gone.
I was left alone again. The mess hall, vast as it was, had started to seem suffocatingly small. I stepped outside, and before I quite knew where I was going, I was at the duelling ground, just beyond the bounds of the floe edge. A ridge of broken ice separated it from the airfield, shielding it from view.
Duels on an ice floe. Only we Polarins would think that up. Still, we had done so with style, polishing the duelling ground until it shone with the eerie gleam of ice beneath the winter sky, shimmering with auroras, suspending our steps above a pool of stars.
I wasn’t the one who would be taking my place here tomorrow morning, but I paced the ice as if it were mine to pace, evaluating each step. Midnight. Time was running out. It was in that mood that I sank down to the ice, hoping against hope that no one would see me as I cast myself down to lie on it face-first, like a fool.
No such luck. There was suddenly someone beside me, kneeling, a hand on my back. Then a voice.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
Howe. The last person I wanted to see me. The last person I wanted to look at or speak to, unless it were to sway him from this course of action.
“Go away,” I murmured, not looking up.
He stayed where he was.
“I’m quite serious,” I went on. “I cannot stand to think about you. I’m only doing it now because you won’t do what I’m begging you to do and just leave me alone.”
He sat on the pool of stars, as alone as I had ever seen him, staring straight ahead. “I didn’t do this for you.” I twitched a little at his honesty. He went on: “I didn’t want you being dismissed. By rights I should be dismissed. But I wanted to remind him that he cannot rashly accuse — ” He broke off, a sign, in his case, of high emotion. I let him collect his thoughts. “I didn’t want the others to think he could get away with those lies.”
“Lies? Like you said, I disobeyed orders.”
“Not because you wanted to get out of flying. You didn’t go barrelling into a snow squall out of cowardice, you were looking for me. For what it’s worth, it was no worse judgment than mine was — you thought it was for the best.” And yet you feel responsible, I added to myself, for being the reason I did something that stupid.
“But I could’ve talked to Flint.”
“Not before Brin got there. And if Flint believed him, what would’ve happened?”
“There had to be a better bloody way.” His mouth quirked into a smile, and I glared back. “You know what I mean. A better, less bloody way.”
“What would you have done, had it been me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well.” He let out a long, slow breath, and it struck me that he was afraid, just not in the same way that I was, or for the same cause. He was afraid of where this left us, afraid that in these final hours before the duel, I genuinely did hate him. Though I still could not look at him, I said softly, “I’m sorry. I don’t blame you, actually, contrary to all appearances.” He laughed — warm and pleasant sound — and remarked, “I never would have guessed.”
I would like, for the record, to dispel a notion that I fear will follow me to the end of my days. We weren’t best friends because I liked him better than anyone else. Everyone liked him. No, we were close because I knew what he was like, how stubborn and melancholic he could be, how much each flight cost him in stress and worry, his diffidence, his doubts, how unpleasant, in short, he could be at his worst, and how much pleasure he took from small kindnesses, how easily I could make him laugh. And in return, I gave him my nameless worries, my desire to raise my status in the captain’s eyes. It was a partnership of strength to weakness, weakness to strength, as two magnets to each other. That our flights were nearly always successful and prompt, our mechanics happy and our machines well-kept, caused many to attribute our friendship to mutual love of flying. But that casual kind of friendship does not make people do this kind of thing.
What would you have done, had it been me? What else could I do? Ask Brin to apologise? I’d tried to explain myself, and it hadn’t worked. It was my word against that of a more experienced pilot, the one who had been the injured party.
What would I have done? Left the fleet, left Polaris, sought out a new life in the south. There was a whole world beyond the auroral belt, even if, as far as I was aware, nowhere else had people managed to take to the air. I could have become a sailor or a traveller in distant lands. But that would have proven Brin’s lies correct, and besides, what else would I do? I had been a pilot ever since I had told my parents that I did not like to hunt. They had shrugged and told me that they figured as much. I was terrible at it. I’d always had my head in the clouds, and if I wanted the rest of my body to go and join it, that was no great surprise. I had been sent to Flint for training, and she had, ever since, been my captain. I did not know how to be anything else. My UltraLight, green and silver in the sun, was the only accomplishment of which I was proud. I loved my profession, and the land that unfolded beneath my plane’s wings was the only land I had ever known. I could read it intricately, the fissures where the rock cracked, the islands and skerries that filled the straits and bays. It was home. It wasn’t perfect, but it was beautiful.
Lawgiving, my father’s profession, I knew little of. Yet I knew that the contract was legally binding unless the principals backed down or the original challenge was found to be invalid, and I knew that anyone with hunting experience, as Brin had, would be an inconveniently excellent shot. Neither of those facts was likely to get myself or Howe out of this, but they might prove useful in persuading him. Or perhaps, I thought, an idea striking me, persuading someone else entirely.
The snow beyond the windows flashed past, sudden streaks of white against the darkness. I was too hot and too agitated to bother admiring it, but the picture it formed was one I had to appreciate even in my distracted state: an otherworldly gleam, emphasised by the light cast by the windows. From the air, it would be as if nothing existed beyond this little circle. The beating heart at the centre of the storm, though it was not really a storm, just a flurry that would be gone by morning. A three-day blizzard such as we had had the previous winter could end in an unrecognisable landscape, sculpted by the stern winds into peaks and currents and delicate interlacing ridges. I was struck by the urge to memorise it, since if my plan worked, I would have precious little time left here. Before I could take that train of thought any further, I shook my head, trying to snap myself out of it, and knocked on the door.
“Vance. Come in.” Flint never looked up from her early-morning paperwork. I tentatively stepped inside, a little worried that I’d heard wrong, the longer she sat writing without a single sign that she had noticed my presence.
“Captain — ”
“One moment.” Finishing the signature, she looked up. “What is it?”
“Captain, I have to speak to you about the duel.”
“You are Howe’s second, are you not? Any matters to do with the duel ought to be taken up with the principals. My involvement consists solely of drawing up the contract.” Her tone of voice made clear her opinion of the custom.
“I would like to question the legality of that contract.” Imitating my father, and not well.
“It is a straightforward matter,” she replied shortly. “Brin accused an absent pilot of dereliction of duty. Your principal challenged him to retract his statement, which he refused to do. Howe called him out for slander.”
This would be the moment, I knew, to speak my speech, but my mouth was hopelessly dry. I coughed several times before I could even begin. Flint had the effect of making subordinates believe themselves hopelessly outmatched before even starting.
“That would be the trouble,” I said, as confidently as I could. “The facts of the story are true, but the details are mistaken. My plane did break radio contact, causing our rescue mission to be unsuccessful. My navigational equipment was damaged. I must have had some of the magnetite in my pocket by mistake.”
To my surprise, she observed me keenly for some moments before asking, “Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“What if it would make no odds as to this contract?”
I had no reply. She rolled up the paper, tapped the desk with it. “I thought not.”
“Legally you are now obliged — ”
“I know full well my legal obligations.” Incredible, really, that the one time my captain had taken notice of me was when she thought I was being phenomenally dense.
“Time is — ”
“I know that too.” A swift, piercing glare. I physically flinched. “If you are sure about this, there is nothing I can do to stop you. But you should know there’s no undoing it.”
“Quite sure.” I didn’t flinch this time. I’m nothing if not stubborn.
“Then. So be it.” She took the contract, crumpled it, put it on the fire. “You’ll stay on the fleet. But you’ll have to be transferred at the earliest opportunity, as an example. It’s a sorry business all round, and should never have been carried this far. Tell Howe and Brin to come to my office as soon as possible. No, tell them immediately.” She paused. “I always figured you’d come to trouble.” As I retreated, I could have sworn I saw her fish in her desk for a light.
And there was Howe, already outside the office, as though he had known.
“What did you do?” Pleasing, that. He now knew how I had felt on hearing of the challenge. Asked the question, though he already knew the answer.
“The duel is off,” I told him. “Legal troubles.”
“What did you do?” I’d never seen him this angry with me before, and it felt so, so satisfying. “I cancelled the duel. Try thanking me, for saving your life.” He was dumbstruck, and I could understand why. He had a rather different understanding of who was saving whom in this situation.
“You can’t … ” You can’t leave. And for the most fleeting second, I had a pang of doubt. I was doing him wrong, leaving like this, leaving his own future uncertain. Leaving him with Brin, and under the cloud of rumour that was bound to build up around this.
“Howe. It’s the only way. I’m not leaving the fleet, I’m being sent to another station, that’s all.”
“You — what?”
“She knew I was lying. But she can’t contradict me — she let me confess full responsibility for my plane’s damages and my absence from the mission, and face the consequences. It’s better than letting you get yourself killed.”
He was silent, either impressed or gobsmacked, didn’t matter which. Then he swept me into a hug, shocking us both.
“I’m going to miss you, Vance.”
“Yeah. You too. Howe — don’t do anything stupid.” I wasn’t sure I could say much more, what with the sudden constriction in my throat. He, on the other hand, kept talking, afraid, for the second time in as many days, of where this left us. I let him continue, though that hardly mattered yet. For that brief moment, once again, we were the only people in the world.