Today's Reading

Mendoza shrugged and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief he pulled from the back pocket of his pants. His forehead reflected bright spots from the strings of colored lights draped across the ceiling, and there were blotches under his arms. "Can't say you're wrong, but this needs fixing. One of the drones down south went dead. Looks like a storm took it out."

"So? Send another one."

"They're too far away, and we don't have time to print a replacement. Last thing the drone detected was some organic material along the coastline. Needs to be checked before we leave."

"Oh come on. You really want me to head out tomorrow? I've already cataloged every microbe on Adra." A trip like that would cost her the morning with Alan, and Kira was damned if she was going to give up any of their remaining time together.

Mendoza gave her a steady, are you bullshitting me look from under his brows. "Regs are regs, Kira. We can't risk the colonists running into something nasty. Something like the Scourge. You don't want that on your conscience. You really don't."

She went to take another drink and realized her cup was still empty. "Jesus. Send Ivanova. The drones are hers, and she can run a chip-lab as well as I can. There's—"

"You're going," said Mendoza, steel in his voice. "Oh six hundred, and I don't want to hear any more about it." Then his expression softened somewhat. "I'm sorry, but you're our xenobiologist, and regs—"

"And regs are regs," said Kira. "Yeah, yeah. I'll do it. But I'm telling you, it's not worth it."

Mendoza patted her on the shoulder. "Good. I hope it isn't."

As he left, a text popped up in the corner of Kira's vision: <Hey, babe, everything okay?  Alan>

Subvocalizing her answer, she wrote: <Yeah, all good. Just some extra work. Tell you about it later.  Kira>

From across the room, he gave her a goofy thumbs-up, and her lips quirked despite herself. Then she fixed her gaze on the punch bowl and made a beeline for it. She really needed another drink.

Marie-Élise intercepted her at the bowl, moving with the studied grace of an ex-dancer. As always, her mouth was pulled off-center, as if she were about to break into a crooked smile...or deliver a scathing witticism (and Kira had heard more than a few from her). She was tall to begin with, and with the shiny black heels she'd printed for the party, she was a whole head taller than Kira.

"I'm going to miss you, 'chérie,'" said Marie-Élise. She bent down and gave Kira a kiss on each cheek.

"Same here," said Kira, feeling herself getting misty. Along with Alan, Marie-Élise had become her closest friend on the team. They'd spent long days together in the field—Kira studying the microbes of Adrasteia while Marie-Élise studied the lakes and rivers and the deposits of water hidden deep underground.

"Ah, cheer up now. You will message me, yes? I want to hear everything about you and Alan. And I will message you. Okay?"

"Yes. I promise."

For the rest of the evening, Kira worked to forget the future. She danced with Marie-Élise. She swapped jokes with Jenan and barbs with Fizel. For the thousandth time, she complimented Yugo on his cooking. She arm-wrestled Mendoza—and lost—and sang a horribly off-key duet with Ivanova. And whenever possible, she kept her arm around Alan. Even when they weren't talking or looking at each other, she could feel him, and his touch was a comfort.

Once she'd had enough punch, Kira allowed the others to talk her into pulling out her concertina. Then the canned music was put on hold and everyone gathered round—Alan by her side, Marie-Élise by her knee—while Kira played a collection of spacer's reels. And they laughed and they danced and they drank, and for a time all was good.
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