“You heard the lady,” Rico said, interposing his muscular bulk between the two men and the girl. Watching the confrontation with the rest of the room, Lamont noticed that the girl was dressed differently from most of the other women at the party. While they had brought dresses of the slim, sleeveless style popular when Westward had launched, she wore a garment that was simpler, almost homespun.
“This ain’t your affair,” One of the men pronounced to Rico, matching his aggressive stance. Meanwhile, his companion edged around the side and said something to the girl that Lamont couldn’t make out. Her response, however, was loud enough for everyone to hear plainly.
“I’m not ‘carousing,’” She said indignantly to the second man, “And Miss Anna ain’t my ma!” A moment later, her face reddened as she looked around and noticed, apparently for the first time, that the attention of the whole room was on her. There was silence except for the incongruent piping of lively jazz music from the loudspeakers.
“Are you going to leave,” Rico asked, his left hand loosening his collar while his right raised in a powerful fist, “Or is somebody going to carry you out?”
At that, Milo Faust stepped forward from his place on the dance floor. “Now, gentlemen,” he began to say, but he didn’t get a chance to finish.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” The young woman exclaimed, slipping around the side to push the two men apart. She wagged a finger in front of Rico’s nose. “You put that fist down, or you’re gonna spend the night cuddlin’ with a pack of ice!”
The unexpected rebuke made Estevez shrink back like a scolded puppy and elicited a barked laugh from the elderly doctor, who lifted his palms and removed himself from the situation.
“As for you,” the girl said, turning her attention to the two interlopers, “Tell Miss Anna and whoever else cares that I’ll be back when I’m good and ready. Lord knows I ain’t gonna disappear in this tin can.”
About an hour later, Lamont found the young woman sitting cross-legged in front of the slanted windows that looked down from the cafeteria. The planet below was a curved expanse of black with a thin crescent of purple along the edge where the distant sun was receding to face its other side. The newspaperman lit a cigarette and crouched down not far from her. Feet shuffled around them as the party continued, but the crowd was beginning to thin out as crew members with early morning duties conceded to the clock.
“I wish I’d got a photograph of the look on Rico’s face,” Lamont said with a smile. “It would be worth its weight in gold.”
The girl frowned. “I’ve always had a wicked temper. Wish it hadn’t gotten the better of me.”
“You certainly held your own, Miss—”
The girl held out a hand toward Lamont. After a moment, he realized the intention of the gesture and offered her the cigarette. She placed it between her lips and inhaled deeply, letting out a slow puff of smoke before replying. “Constance Beckett. And don’t be so surprised; you won’t find any shrinking violets among our lot.”
“I suppose not,” Lamont accepted. “I’m Townsend. Lamont Townsend. Newspaperman.”
“I know who you are,” Constance nodded, taking another drag. “You’re practically a stranger up-top, though. Nothing to interest you about us simple folk?”
“That’s not it,” Lamont said, shifting uncomfortably. “I paid quite a few visits early on in the trip. But after a while I started to feel unwelcome.”
“Maybe,” the girl admitted. “Don’t see why that should matter to a fellow like you, though.”
“Who is Miss Anna?” Lamont asked.
“Anna Lightfoot-Owens,” Constance clarified. “She’s one of the eldest among us. Signed up as a pioneer with her husband, but he passed a month before we left. She’s taken to leading a lot of church meetings and generally getting involved in everybody’s lives.”
“Very involved, apparently,” Lamont said, raising his brows.
Constance made a noncommittal sound and handed the half-spent cigarette back to the newspaperman. “We all respect her. She keeps us close and she’s wise. She sees things.”
Lamont turned the cigarette around in his fingers, noticing the patch of red lipstick at its base. Through the smoke that drifted from its tip toward the nearest air vent, the sun dipped beneath the horizon, visibly lessening the amount of light in the room. “What does she have to say about this planet?” Lamont asked.
“It ain’t the one,” Constance sighed, rising to her feet and brushing ashes off the front of her dress. “Whatever’s to be found down there, it won’t be milk ‘n honey.”
Next: Spiders and Guinea Pigs