Story:ROAD TRIP! (Warhammer High)/Part Two
|This article contains PROMOTIONS! Don't say we didn't warn you.|
- 1 Arrival
- 2 A Safe Landing
- 3 Hesiod
- 4 Day Two
- 5 Traversing the Hellscape
- 6 The Dragonspine
A Pit Stop
As the trip continued, the little group felt their anticipation grow. The routines stayed largely the same, the people never changed, of course, but the travel leg of the journey was drawing to a close. As the ship slid through the Warp for Nocturne, Jake and Alex found themselves spending more of their time together. Alex tried to teach Jake proper gym technique, while Jake attempted to teach his friend how to not suck at darts. In the seven days from Venus’ bout with Isaac to their arrival in the Nocturne system, they both found themselves making progress. But far too slowly for both their liking, the trip came to an abrupt end.
Venus was reclining in the chair in the corner of the suite watching a holo on her dataslate when the ship’s PA system buzzed to life. “All hands, we are departing the Warp. Please brace for breach.” Venus scooted over to the bed and lay down, as Jake hurriedly gripped the armrests of his own chair. The ship shuddered briefly, and both felt their skin crawl as the Warp parted and spat them out.
“Warp departure successful. All engine crews, to your stations,” the voice overhead commanded. Venus stood up and cracked her knuckles, dispelling the Warp Shivers.
“Uugh,” Jake groaned from the chair. “Forget Kines, that will never be more pleasant.”
“Heh. If you made a career out of it, maybe,” Venus quipped. She pulled a nicer shirt on and slid the hatch open, catching a glimpse of Freya bounding down the hall. “Where you headed?” she called.
“I’m going to go find out how long before we have to get off,” Freya called over her shoulder.
The group assembled in the Captain’s Hall. Roemer himself wasn’t there, of course, since he was needed on the bridge, but the ship’s mate was. “We emerged right on target, my Lords and Ladies. The burn is good, we’ll arrive on Prometheus in six hours,” he explained.
“Awesome!” Freya proclaimed, beaming. “Oh man…what local time will it be when we’re boots-down?”
“Prometheus time is synched to Hesiod, my Lady, so it will be about 0378 local. Nocturne has a twenty six hour day, so it will be late night locally.”
Venus smiled, eyes closed, already picturing her arrival. “Home…I didn’t realize how badly I wanted this until we’re nearly there.”
Jake slid an arm around her waist and squeezed. “I know. I can’t wait to see all the things you’ve talked about.”
“Which entices you more, the walls of fire or the ash deserts the size of continents?” she asked drily.
“Weather that isn’t something a machine farts out,” Jake replied in the same tone.
The hatch swung open, and Haarlan and Roemer walked in, pausing to acknowledge the salutes of the ship’s mate. “My Lords and Ladies Primarch, we are en route,” Roemer said.
“Superb,” Venus said. “ETA of six hours?”
“Possibly, though you may take one of the Aquila shuttles if you wish, and arrive a few hours sooner,” Roemer said. “We will be transporting a few other things that way.”
“Oh…guys?” Venus asked.
“I’m happy with either. I’ll be in no mood for sleep when I arrive either way,” Jake said. Alex nodded his agreement.
“I’ll wait,” Freya said dismissively.
“Me too, I want to have another meal before we go,” Remilia said.
“All right. Looks like we’re waiting, Captain, thanks,” Venus said.
“Very well then, my Lady,” Roemer said. “I would be honored to host you for a final meal before you go.”
“Oh, thanks, Captain,” Venus said, sitting at the table. The rest of the group did so as well, as did the officers, save Remilia.
“Actually, Venus, I’ll be back later, all right? There’s something I want to do before we go pack,” she said.
“You don’t need my permission,” Venus said, divining her cousins’ intent. Remilia smiled nervously.
Far below, the O-Club drained as officers made for their duty stations. Remilia walked into the room and made straight for the bar. Kines was busily cleaning it up and packing it in for dock when he saw her. “Remilia. One for the road?” he asked.
“No thanks, Lieutenant.” Remilia paused, suddenly apprehensive. “I wanted to say thanks.”
“For what?” Kines asked.
“For being the only officer aboard who actually talked to us,” Remilia said. “Everyone else is still too scared. Or worshipful,” she said with disgust.
Kines waved her thanks away. “No problem, Remilia,” he said, still clearly trying to attach an honorific to the name. “And this is hardly goodbye.” “Huh?” Remilia blinked.
“The Endless, the ship that was supposed to carry you to Fenris, was dispatched to the greenskin fronts. We’ll be carrying you on the next leg of your trip too,” Kines explained. “News came in just when we entered the system. We’ll put in at Nocturne and stay long enough to get the test data for the new tank, then head out. We’ll be there about a month, so you’ll just be coming with us to Fenris since it’s along the route.”
Remilia absorbed that news. “Great! I’m glad to hear it.” She smiled at the young officer. “So…then I guess I will have one for the road.”
Kines reached under the bar and handed her a bottle of sparkling water, and after a covert look around the lounge, grabbed one for himself. Twisting the caps off, both raised their drinks. “To old acquaintance soon forgot?” Kines asked.
Remilia hefted her bottle with a grin. “Too formal. How about ‘goodbye, and I hope to see you soon?’” she asked.
“That works.” Kines and Dorn downed their drinks, and Kines swept them under the bar. “And it’s true. We’ll be having some leave on Nocturne. Not much, since it’s basically hell. I’ve been here dozens of times.”
“Cool. Maybe we’ll see each other,” Remilia said.
Kines smiled. “I would like that.”
Remilia flushed from ears to navel. “Well. Goodbye, Lieutenant. I’ll see you around,” she said, turning away before he could see.
“Goodbye, Lady Remilia,” he called after her. As soon as she was out of sight, he pulled his elbows into his sides in total, absolute triumph.
Venus grabbed the last of her bags and arranged them on the cargo carrier in the Iron Tide’s hangar. A few seconds of hydraulic groaning later, and they were loaded into the lander by the oversized servitor. She stood back and rejoined the others in the bay, and noted with some amusement that Freya was already wearing extreme environment gear.
“Hot already, Freya?” she asked.
Freya gaped. “Look at your bloody planet!” she said, gesturing out the void-sealed hangar at the planet growing in their vision. The entire globe – all of it – was one giant maze of lava, black oceans, grey sands, white and black ash deserts, and craggy obsidian mountains. “Your planet is made of fire! I’m burning just thinking about it!”
“Your planet has extreme environments too, Freya,” Venus giggled.
“My planet has glaciers and snowfields! Your planet has walls of fire and volcanoes the size of continents!” Freya exclaimed.
“Fenris has wolves the size of small trucks,” Venus pointed out.
“Nocturne has drakes the size of LARGE trucks!” Freya shot back.
Alex held up his hands. “Ladies, ladies, please, your planets are both terrifying. Let’s save judgment until after we reach them both, huh?”
“I guess so,” Freya said grudgingly. “Do you think I won’t need this?” she asked, poking at her heat gear.
“We’re docking with the space station first, Freya. Go change,” Venus instructed.
“…Oh. Right. Durr,” Freya muttered, running off for the head.
Venus shook her head and sighed. “Anyway! I should tell you guys now what to expect. First things first, there will be a small ceremony when we dock. The serfs there will want to hose down the shuttle with flamers. Trust me, it’ll be fine,” she said, noting Jake’s and Alex’s shock. “It’s just ritual, they’re not going to attack anyone. Next, they’ll open the hatches and we’ll come out. I’ll be in the lead, of course, and there will be a few Librarians there, to perform a Ceremony of Officiation, since I’m the reigning member of the Royal Family here in the system. Which is a trifle annoying since I’m sure they’ll barrage me with the administrative stuff, and fucked if I know how to do it,” she grumbled under her breath.
“Well, you can take your time with that since we have a month, right?” Jake asked.
“I think so, yeah.” Venus watched as Freya sprinted back to them. “Much better.”
“Yeah,” Freya panted. She slid back into line. “All right. I have the rest here,” she said, shoving her discarded hot gear into its bag. “When do we dock?”
“Fifteen minutes, for us, two hours for the rest of the ship. We’re going to go ahead on a lander,” Venus said. A thrill of excitement chased itself through her belly as she said it.
Fifteen years. She hadn’t set foot on her homeworld for fifteen years. She could already smell the air.
The hydraulics behind her groaned again, as the passenger compartment of the lander swung open. Venus hefted her day bag. “All right, we’re off.”
A few of the ship’s officers were accompanying them, she noticed, as the group wedged into the compartment. Aside from Haarlan, who had said that he would be joining them only as they docked to liaise with the Salamander Fleetmaster, the ship’s cargomaster was the only guest.
The flight was loud, but mercifully short. The lander shook as it entered the atmosphere of the station, and the volume inside increased as there was suddenly an atmosphere to carry the noises. The noise suddenly died away as the lander’s pilot cut the engines, and the passenger compartment rumbled as the outside of the ship was caked in flames.
“It’s ritual. Honoring the flame and reverence to the Machine Spirits,” Venus explained to her nervous companions. Even as she said it, the flames ceased. After a minute, the compartment creaked open, admitting the stifling fumes of promethium.
Venus immediately stood, stilling her nerves. These were her people. More than just a figurative statement of belonging, it was literal. She was made of the same geneseed as them. She was probably safer here than she had been in her own home on Terra.
She climbed out of the compartment, brushing her layered leather and fiber shirt off. A quintet of armored Marines awaited her at the base of the ramp. Three were helmetless, two wore Psychic Hoods.
Dear Old Friends
One of the three helmetless Marines stepped forth. White heat scars crisscrossed his face, forming the shape of animal wings. He closed his eyes and slowly inclined his head in reverence. “My Princess Venus, Forgedaughter. Welcome home.”
“Thank you, Brother-Captain,” Venus said solemnly. She mirrored his gesture. Behind her, Jake started to dismount the ship as well, but Haarlan caught his wrist, staying him. Jake shot him a questioning look, and Haarlan shook his head, eyes wide.
“Be silent, please. He’s greeting his Princess. This is not our place,” he whispered.
Venus raised her head, and held out one hand, palm up. The two Librarians drew their Power Glaives and ignited them, tapping their pommels against the ground. The two remaining, helmetless Marines knelt, eyes raised to meet hers. She nodded to each in turn, letting them stand or lower their weapons. Silently, all five did. The one in the middle, with the complex tattoos, hefted a tiny green key, and passed it to her. She accepted it, and deftly strung it on the cord that held today’s necklace together. It clanked against the little metal eye she had sculpted.
Suddenly, the scarred Marine beamed. “Venus, my dear girl, it’s been entirely too long!” he proclaimed, holding his arms wide.
“Ir’Sem! I’m so happy to see you!” she squealed, throwing herself into his arms. He lifted her clean off the ground, hugging her with force that would have paralyzed a Kasrkin. “How did you know which lander I would be on?” she asked, eagerly returning the hug.
“Why do you even need to ask?” he said rhetorically, jerking his thumb at the Librarians behind him. “We just had them look for the ship with the little inferno aboard.”
“Oh hush,” she said, playfully smacking his armor as he set her down. “Wow. Well I’m very glad to see you. Oh, you know these guys,” she said, as Haarlan released Jake, and the group climbed down. “You’ve met everyone at parties and such, I think. Jake Seager, Alex Carlin, Freya Russ, Remilia Dorn. Then, the Iron Tide’s representatives, Political Officer Wilhelm Haarlan and Cargomaster Davis Jeorne,” she said, gesturing to them all in turn. “Guys, this is Fourth Company Captain Ir’Sem, one of my father’s oldest friends.”
“An honor, Lord,” Haarlan said, bowing low. Jeorne did as well, and Alex and Jake hastily followed suit. Remilia and Freya, both technically royalty in their own right, simply nodded politely. Haarlan straightened. “It was a delight to ferry Lady Primarch Venus and her guests to you. And that that, I believe, our role here concludes until a month from today, yes?”
“Correct, Officer Haarlan. Thank you for bringing our Princess back to us,” Ir’Sem said with a smile down at the compact girl who was standing beside him. She barely came up to his stomach in his massive suit of armor.
“And you, Lord Seager,” he added, turning to the man he dwarfed. “It’s been a while.”
“It has, my Lord,” Jake said, inclining his head. “I think we met at Venus’ cousin’s birthday party and haven’t seen each other since.”
“Right,” Ir’Sem said. Jeorne stepped up to one of the other helmetless Salamanders and passed him a dataslate, muttering something. The Marine nodded and the two walked off to where the frigate was moving to dock. “Come this way, please,” he said, gesturing to his guests. Haarlan followed the Cargomaster to where the Iron Tide was approaching, while the Librarians and the other Marine followed the teens into the station. “I don’t know if you’ve been informed, yet, Venus, but the people love you, perhaps a bit too much.”
She groaned. “Oh for goodness’ sake, they want me to do the damn speech in public?” Venus asked, instantly catching his meaning.
“They do. Soon.”
“Well…damn it, I can’t say no, can I?” Venus grumped. “So much for my vacation.”
Ir’Sem shrugged, something to see in Power Armor. “It’s only one day. And you DO have a choice, just not one you should even consider,” he said, his voice free of reproach. This was advice, not recrimination.
“I know,” she said contritely. “But I’ll have to rewrite it.”
“Because I thought I would be giving it to the Council of Masters alone, and nobody else,” she grumped. “Now I’ll be addressing a crowd instead.”
“You’ll do fine,” Ir’Sem said dismissively. “Now…you’ll be here for one day, and spend the rest planetside, right?”
“Yep. Do you have a place for us, or should we stay on the ship?” Venus asked, as she followed her guide through the corridors of the station.
“Does the Princess of Nocturne have a place to stay on Nocturne’s control station,” Ir’Sem deadpanned. “Nope, it’s bare corridors for you.” He paused outside an unmarked hatchway. “Here you are.” The hatch swung open, revealing another corridor. The corridor was appointed differently, with overhead lights instead of braziers on the walls for illumination, and the hatches had locks next to them. “You’ll be here overnight. Well. It’s night shift now, or there would have been an even bigger reception,” he explained, gesturing to rooms. “If you wish, and I don’t recommend it, you could just fly down now, stay up all day, and then just rest tomorrow night.”
“No, we’ll stay here,” Venus said, directing her friends down the corridor. “It’s got the better view,” she said cheerfully.
“It does. Your ceiling, in the flesh?” Ir’Sem joked.
“I can’t wait. We DO have a view, right?” she asked, as Jake and Alex picked rooms out.
“Well…no, it would be a structural weakness. But you can see the planet through a holocam,” Ir’Sem admitted. “Now…I will see you all in the morning. Sleep well, Princess,” he said, bowing out of the little side-corridor.
The group dispersed into their rooms, finding them vastly more utilitarian than the rooms aboard the ship had been. Jake dropped his stuff on the floor and fell into the bed, trying to let his tension fade. Venus stared at the hatch to the little corridor, before turning to her lover with a grin that spread from ear to ear. Jake spotted her expression and smiled back. “All fired up?” he asked.
Venus walked over to him and slid her hands under his back, letting the warmth seep into his skin. “As you can plainly see,” she said.
Jake grabbed her shoulders and playfully tossed her onto the bed, rising from it as he did. “Well…I’m not tired, but I could nap before we get up. When do you want to go dirtside?” he asked.
“Ashside,” she corrected. “And…around 0900. So, five hours.” She rose and flicked her finger at the holo control in the corner, wondering if she could bring up a view of the planet.
The room went dark. She scoffed as she tried to reverse it, assuming that she had just triggered the lights instead.
The room lit up, deep red. She turned to see that the entire bulkhead opposite the wall had filled with an image of Nocturne, far below. Venus’ arms fell. She was enchanted.
Jake propped himself up on one arm, staring at the view. “Incredible.”
“It’s beautiful,” Venus whispered.
Jake sat up and watched the projection. “It’s terrifying.” He looked to his side and saw Venus watching the hologram, enraptured. “Nostalgic?”
“I was too young to remember it,” she said quietly. “I wish I did.” She sat next to him on the bed, and he wrapped an arm around her waist. “I will never…ever get tired of that view.”
Jake didn’t reply. He didn’t feel the need. After nearly five minutes of watching the black, grey, red, and white ball spin, she stood, shrugging off her clothes. “I’m going to rest.”
“Me too,” he said, grabbing clean clothes and setting them aside on his day bag, then making for the bathroom. Venus slid under the sheets of the tiny bed and propped herself up to stare at the planet on the far wall.
When Jake emerged, changed and clean, she was still staring. He slid into the bed and moved to wave off the holo.
“No.” He looked up at her. She was still watching the hologram, eyes unmoving.
“Baby, I’m trying to sleep,” he said.
She finally blinked, looking down at him. “Uh…right. Well. It’ll be there tomorrow.” She settled down on the bed and waved the holo off. Even as Jake drifted into a catnap, however, she stayed wide awake, her heartbeat pounding in her ears.
The next morning, Freya wandered out of her room, yawning. With a bleary look around the corridor, she knocked on Remilia’s hatch. In moments, the taller girl was out of the room, gym clothes on. “Morning. Venus up?”
“Dunno. Wasn’t she supposed to be out here?” Freya asked. Remilia nodded. Freya padded up to Venus’ hatch and knocked, just quiet enough that only Venus would have heard it, if she was up.
Silence. Freya cocked her eyebrow. She pushed on the hatch, nudging it open. She peeked into the crack of the hatch, and saw Jake lying alone in the bed. She searched the tiny room, but her cousin wasn’t there.
“Where is she?” Remilia asked as Freya closed the hatch.
“Not here. Let’s go, maybe she went ahead,” Freya replied. Both girls walked out into the corridor, looking around for a deck map. Pausing a passing serf, they found directions to the serfs’ gym, and headed off.
Venus wasn’t there. She was, at that moment, kneeling in the center of the Pantheon Chamber. The beautiful girl was clad in layered leather under large ceramite disks, each decorated with one of the symbols of a Legionary Company.
Ir’Sem, four other Company Commanders, and the Regent of Nocturne, Lord No’dan, were sitting around the room, along with nearly ten other senior members of the Legion. To an outsider, it probably looked like a trial. It was anything but.
“Daughter of the Forge, I am pleased to see you well,” No’dan said. The ancient Marine leaned forward on his throne, extending an open hand. “My Princess, I understand that you do not come to us to bring leadership…but it still does my heart good to finally meet you.” Venus, still facing the floor and with eyes shut, smiled faintly, feeling tears leak from her eyes.
“You as well, faithful Regent. I am…overjoyed to be home.”
“You think of our world as your home? You live on Terra. You will return there,” No’dan pointed out.
Venus shook her head. Her long black hair swept across her armored back. “Terra is where my house is. Terra is where my mother and father live. Terra is where I was schooled, and where I grew up, and…where I hope to start a family. But Nocturne is my blood and future. I am home,” she said. The tear worked its way down her face, splashing on the bare floor. “I am overwhelmed. I do not know why,” she whispered.
No’dan smiled paternally. “Forgedaughter…this is a homecoming. It is to be expected.” Lengthier explanations of geneseed traits and spirituality were unnecessary. If Vulkan had not seen fit to explain, neither would he.
Venus nodded silently. Her smile never faltered. “I feel that I should say outright that the assumptions I am told so many will reach regarding my companions are largely incorrect.”
“Oh? Well…that is to be expected. Terran and Nocturnean civil law are quite different,” one of the other Company Captains said. He leaned forward, gesturing to the girl on her knees. “If you wish to return your icon to us, Princess, now would be the right time.”
Venus rose to her feet, clutching the tiny metal key in one armor-padded hand. She passed it to No’dan, bowing as she did. As he lifted it, however, it clinked against the little metal half-eye on the chain. “You have given,” he began.
“Keep it. Call it a gift,” Venus interrupted. She was beaming from ear to ear. “I may return for the key, though. Some day. And…I hope to do so blessed with a family that can deserve it.”
No’dan nodded, touched by the gesture. “I see. The fellow who accompanied you?”
“I will outlive him by a million years if I outlive him by a day. I care not,” she said, the Old Nocturnean language rolling off her tongue like she was born speaking it. All of them were speaking the language of the Old Shamans, as befitted the gravity of the assemblage.
Ir’Sem rose as well. “There will be more time for ceremonies later, Forgedaughter. For now…your people await you.”
Venus slowly tilted her head down. Another tear escaped her endless red eyes. “And I await them.”
A Quick Snack
Jake stirred in his bed. It was ice cold, which meant Venus was long gone. He struggled to sit up, looking around for a clock. The green LEDs on the corner of his table caught his eye. It was 0720 exactly. He swore and vaulted out of bed, hustling over to the bathroom to get started.
By the time he was finished, Venus was back, and they quickly switched places in the little suite. As he held the hatch open for her, though, her clothing gave him pause. “Wow. What’s with the uniform?” he asked.
“I had to speak with the Council, and they kept a duty version of my formal uniform around,” Venus said hurriedly, closing the hatch with no further explanation. Jake shrugged and pulled the nicest clothes he had brought with him on, and hastily checked his hair in the mirror.
Outside, Remilia leaned against the bulkhead, tapping her foot. Alex and Freya wandered out of their own room, dressed and ready. “We just waiting on Their Majesties?” Freya quipped.
“I think so,” Remilia said. “Unless you guys want to go get something to eat first?”
“Nah, we’ll go together,” Freya replied. Jake opened his hatch, stepping into the corridor.
“Morning, guys. Venus will be out in a sec,” he said. “We all ready to roll?”
Venus clipped her earrings into place in the restroom, and gave herself a quick once-over. Satisfied that nothing was out of place, she grabbed the last of their bags and followed Jake into the corridor. “All right, we travel,” she announced.
A Salamander serf arrived at the entrance to the corridor, right on time. “Princess, are you and your companions ready to go?” he asked respectfully. “We are, but I think we have time for a quick meal before we go down to the planet,” Venus said.
“Then please come with me, your Highness,” the serf said, bowing shortly. He lead the group, baggage and all, down the corridors of the station, deeper into the massive structure. The corridors were lit with a mixture of socketed lights overhead, and flickering fires in braziers on the walls, but as they entered the more utilitarian portions of the structure, they gave way to brighter, artificial lights set into the corners of the ceilings. They entered a large, open room, with great rows of seats and tables. Clearly a cafeteria or dining hall. A few Salamanders were busily moving about at the far end, clearly finishing their own breakfasts. The tables themselves were surrounded by serfs, all munching away. Their guide lead them to the head of the room, and seated them with the Space Marines, to Alex and Jake’s distinct discomfort.
“Princess Venus, I’m honored you could join us before you departed,” one said, starting to rise before Venus waved him back to his seat.
“Just stopping for a bite before we head down, Brother,” Venus said, sitting at the table. Jake and the other guests sat beside her, with a few apprehensive looks at the Power Armored giants around them. “And thanks for getting my armor sent up so fast. I appreciate that.”
“It was an honor,” one of the Marines said. “Did it function properly?”
“It did. Thank you,” Venus said, snagging a sauroch skewer from a plate. She and the others dug in, finding the rough fare to their taste. “If I may, Brother, which companies are stationed on-planet right now?” she asked.
“Some of each company are here now, but nearly all of Fourth and Sixth,” the Marine explained. “Most of the other companies are out dealing with the recent resurgence in greenskins on the fringes.”
“Should I make mention of it in the speech?” she asked.
“If you wish, Princess, then of course you may,” the Marine said.
“All right…then I think I will.” Venus downed some filtered water and looked over the crowd below. The serfs were filing out to begin their daily duties, with a few reverent glances her way. It was funny, really, she realized. She resented it when Terrans treated her like royalty. Even though a few Terrans were serfs here, she actually enjoyed their respectful glances. How funny that the respect of her father’s servants and warriors was less repulsive.
Remilia was watching from her seat. Venus was barely eating. She was spending more time reading the people around her. The quiet, obedient respect of the Marines was alien to Remilia, whose surprisingly few interactions with Imperial Fists Marines had been largely ceremonial and private.
She turned to her own food and finished it. She wasn’t going to make an issue out of it. Certainly her cousin had always been the one who had had the most trouble fitting in outside of school, save their psyker cousins of course. She deserved to feel at home.
Venus polished off her own food and returned her attention to her party. Remilia and Freya were ready to go, and Alex and Jake were…holding back a spate of the giggles. She tuned into their conversation with half an ear.
“‘What do you want with diamonds?’” Alex asked, in a voice that suggested he was caricaturizing someone. Jake pursed his lips, trying not to laugh in front of a row of Space Marines. “‘Why, I wish to be immensely rich!’” Alex finished. Jake gripped the edge of the table with one hand, clearly exerting a great deal of effort not to erupt in giggles.
“What in the world are you two giggling about?” Venus asked.
“Nothing,” Jake squeaked. Alex leaned over, smiling wanly.
“I’m seeing how many rumors about my father’s partners I can prove accurate, apparently,” Alex said.
Venus stared, but decided not to ask. “…Okay. Well, anyway, shall we went?”
“Indeed, let’s went,” Alex replied, cutting his eyes sideways at their hosts.
Venus took the hint. She stood, brushing crumbs on a napkin. “Brothers, thank you for your hospitality. We are going to depart,” she said, in Old Nocturnean.
The Marines stood, bowing to their Princess. “It was our pleasure, Princess,” one said. “Have a safe journey.”
Venus inclined her head as the party stood up, and began making their way out. On their way through the room, Jake leaned over to her. “What language was that?” he whispered.
“Old Nocturnean. The language of the Earth Shamans, the spiritual guides of the people before the Emperor arrived,” Venus replied. “It’s an incredibly easy language to learn, but only Salamanders and scholars really bother to learn it.”
“Cool.” Jake suddenly frowned. “Will I be expected to know it?”
“No, of course not,” Venus said. “Don’t worry, I’ll let you know what’s expected of you.”
Jake nodded in relief. “Good.”
The group carried their bags back to the massive, sprawling hangar complex, where a small group of Space Marines were waiting for them. Venus walked straight up to one and acknowledged his bow. “Brother. Is the shuttle ready?”
“It is, Princess. An Aquila-class passenger shuttle has been prepared,” the Marine said. “Your cargo is aboard. The tank prototype has also been transported to the surface for testing.”
“Very well. Let’s go,” she said over her shoulder, in Gothic. The group moved up to the ship, and filed aboard. To Venus’ surprise, the Marines didn’t follow them. Instead, they formed rank at the base of the ramp, saluting their Princess until the rising ramp closed off their view.
Freya settled into a cushion on the nicely-appointed little ship, awaiting a long and boring flight. Alex immediately claimed the seat next to her, as Remilia wandered the ship, taking in the details. She had never been in one before, after all. Venus and Jake settled in on a crash couch and buckled in, dropping their day bags on the seats beside them. Jake noticed the earrings Venus was wearing and didn’t recognize them.
“Those new, baby?” he asked, peering at the little gold studs.
“No, but I’ve never worn them in front of you,” Venus said, removing one for him to see. He took it and examined it.
“Hmm…I don’t recognize the little symbol in the middle,” he said.
“It’s the city icon for the city we’re going to visit first, Hesiod,” Venus explained. “They’re probably the only pieces of jewelry I own that I didn’t make myself. Dad made them.”
“Nice,” Jake said, passing it back. “What’s this city like?”
“It was one of the tribal meeting places way back when, and it’s the center of governance on the planet,” Venus said. “It’s also the place with the second largest spaceport.” Venus reinserted the little earring, and settled back against the cushion. “I think you’ll like it. I hope so.”
The ship shook as it lifted off, then rumbled as it passed through the atmospheric shield of the vessel and dropped towards the planet. The inertial compensators kicked in, and all five teens relaxed as the g-forces faded. Freya pulled a ration bar she had secreted somewhere from the folds of her clothes and ripped into it, while Alex and Remilia flipped open personal dataslates to watch holos on the one-hour flight.
Jake leaned back against the cushion to relax. His world turned red as Venus glanced over at him, clearly a little nervous. “What’s wrong?” he asked as he caught her expression.
“Just…I don’t want you guys to go into this blind. Nocturne is a terrifying place. Even in the middle of the cities, I can’t guarantee your safety, from criminals or the environment or animal attack. Entire townships get swallowed up by lava every fifteen years, if they’re outside the void shield generators,” she confessed.
Jake squeezed her hand. “I’m not scared.”
“Maybe you should be.” She grimaced. “Now I’m nervous. I’m wondering if we should have gone to a resort or something like Miranda and Petra, instead of flying into hell.”
Jake looked at her askance. “You’re not…ashamed of your own planet, are you?”
“No, but I’d never forgive myself if something went wrong while we were here,” Venus admitted.
Jake shrugged. “We’ll deal with it when it happens. So,” he said, trying to change the subject, “what’s this speech of yours?”
“Well…I’m the first member of the Royal family on the planet in a very long time,” she said. “And…I’ll be expected to make a Royal address. Nothing…TOO ornate, but it’ll be uncomfortable for you and the others. I’d recommend you stay at the castle, actually,” she said. “Three hours outdoors in Nocturne heat, starting the moment you arrive? You’d drop from heatstroke.”
“Oh. Well…what will you talk about?” Jake asked.
Venus shrugged uncomfortably. “Well…I’ll speak first of how proud I am to see the people Nocturne overcoming the trials their own world supplies, and the pride they should feel for it. I’ll make mention of how the bond between the Salamanders and Nocturneans is rare and valuable, and that I count myself amongst both without hesitation.”
“Then…probably mention that the Salamanders and the rest of the Imperial military are the bulwark between our population and the alien menace, just for the cameras,” she continued. “I’ll wrap it up by saying that while I may have spent my childhood away from Nocturne, I will always think of it as home.”
“Is that true?” Jake asked. “You were a tiny kid when you were here last.”
“It is, Jake. I know it sounds hokey, but…this is home for me, and I suspect it always will be,” she said quietly. “I love Terra, the cities, the Palace, the art, but Nocturne…Nocturne is my blood.” She looked up at him with a little smile of contentment. “I’ve looked up at it on my ceiling for ten years and wanted it.”
Jake slid his arm across her shoulders and hugged her gently. She snuggled into his shoulder and stared at the deck of the shuttle. “I was wrong. I’m glad I picked to come here.” She glanced up at him again. Her eyes were dim, but from happiness, not sadness. “Thanks for coming with me.”
“Nowhere else I’d rather be,” Jake said truthfully. He leaded down and brushed his lips against hers, held her there for a moment. “If I weren’t, I’d just be home right now, watching holos, jacking off, and wondering if it was too early to ask my boss for a promotion so I could work better hours,” he whispered against her lips. She giggled.
“Wise words.” She pulled back and looked at him curiously. “So…what exactly WAS your old job, anyway? Somehow I don’t think we’ve EVER talked about it.”
“Well…I resigned the day before we left. Part of me still instinctively tries to put on the uniform when I get up,” he ruefully said. “I worked at a corner store in my hab.”
“Right…what did you do? I know you hated it,” she said.
Jake grimaced. “I did hate it. My job was basically the lifting servitor role. Pick up boxes, stock shelves, tell the Slide dealer out front to fuck off every so often so the Praetors didn’t raid us…I hated it. Not my boss’ fault,” he said reluctantly. “He was just a little old man, he couldn’t do any of that himself. But man…talk about a waste of time. I’m pretty sure he was actually paying me LESS than minimum wage, too.”
“Wow. You had drug dealers right outside your workplace?” she asked, eyes wide.
“Yep. Three of them. They’d do shifts, too, completely open. Like clockwork,” he grumbled.
Venus shook her head. “Must have been scary.”
“It was. At first. They openly ignored me after a while. Assholes. Scared off a bunch of customers.” Jake crossed his arms over his chest, remembering the subtle fear that had filled him every time he had gone to work. “I’ll never miss it.”
“How did your boss take you leaving?” she asked.
“Well, I gave him two weeks’ notice, but he was pretty indifferent. When I told him I was going on summer vacation with a girlfriend, though, he flipped out.”
“What? Why?” Venus asked.
“‘What? You’ll never get anywhere with that attitude!’” Jake said, trying to imitate his boss’ voice.
“He was wrong,” Venus said smugly. “You’re a noble, now.”
“Well…not officially, right?” Jake shrugged.
Venus looked to the side for a moment. “Right.” Jake cocked his head, but she pressed before he could ask. “So, did you ever actually tell him that we were an item?” she asked quickly.
Jake nodded. “Yeah, I did.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, this was after he found out I was leaving on vacation. I just sort of mentioned it, indirectly. When I mentioned that bloody tabloid. Remember?” Jake asked.
Venus immediately laughed, leaning away from him and throwing her head back. “You didn’t!”
“I did,” Jake said. “‘Mystery Consort.’”
“Ah ha ha ha ha, I love it! Then what?”
“He grabbed the holomag and opened it, all grumbly and mad. When he got to the right page, he froze.” Jake grinned as he recalled the look of stupefaction on the man’s face. “He just sort of looked at me.”
“Hah! Did he even say anything?”
“Yeah. ‘Jake…what the hell, man?’” Jake recalled. “Then he just turns GREEN with envy.”
“Well, who can blame him?” Venus said airily, flicking her gorgeous hair over her shoulders.
A Safe Landing
The ship shook a bit as it exited the stratosphere. “Princess, we will arrive at Hesiod in twenty minutes,” the pilot announced.
Venus nodded to herself, thinking over their schedule. “Okay…we’ll land at the Castle of the Tribal Kings…we’ll be quartered there. We unpack, then I have to go to the Square and give my speech…then I come back and we go be tourists for a while. I’ll have to wear something that conceals my eyes if we don’t want to get mobbed, but there’s plenty of dark-skinned people on Nocturne. Anyone would be if they grew up exposed to THAT much radiation,” she said drily. “But you guys will be fine if we don’t spend a few years here. Hmmm.”
“Venus, why do people on Terra call you Lady, people on the ship call you Lady Primarch, and people here call you Princess?” Jake asked.
“Oh. Well, I don’t hold the same rank everywhere,” she explained. “On Terra, I’m the Emperor’s granddaughter, but I haven’t been assigned to leadership over a specific region of space, so I’m a title-less noble. A Lady. In the military, I’m the heiress of an Astartes Legion, so I rank just below a normal Primarch. A Lady Primarch. And here, I’m the daughter of the man who rules the entire system as its King, Dad. So Princess.”
“Oh wow. I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jake said.
“It’s not that big a deal. Technically I’ll answer to all three in any place. But nobody likes protocols more than nobles, soldiers, and bureaucrats,” Venus said drily.
The ship suddenly jolted as it passed through the lowest levels of the clouds above Hesiod. The hull sizzled faintly.
“Oh damn it all, it’s pouring rain outside!” Freya groaned loudly. Venus looked over at her in alarm.
“Really? Shit! Rain on Nocturne is super acidic. We’re going to have to get you guys indoors as fast as we can,” she said worriedly.
“Why is it a problem? Rain on Terra can be acidic if the weather machines fritz out,” Alex pointed out, unplugging his headphones.
“When I say acid, I mean ‘Oh holy fuck my skin is melting,’” Venus said. “Even Furia couldn’t survive these rains. We’ll have to arrange a car,” she added under her breath.
The PA crackled again. “Princess, we are five minutes to skids down. The weather is acidfall fifty klicks lateral. I recommend that you and your guests land at the castle landing bays,” the pilot advised.
Venus tapped the call button. “Good idea, Pilot, consider it authorized,” she said. The ship tilted a bit as the pilot moved to the new heading. “Problem solved,” Venus said in relief. “Heh. Welcome to Nocturne. Don’t drink the water.”
“Sounds like sage advice,” Remilia said, turning her slate off and cinching her restraints. “So who do you think will greet us?”
“Oh, a few Salamander honor guards at the most, especially since the original landing was scrubbed,” Venus said casually, as if dismissing an Inferno Guard was par for the course. “Maybe a few really brave reporters.”
“Works for me!” Remilia said.
The ship shook again as it left the driving wind, and bucked as it sat down on the pad. After a few seconds of near-silence, the whole ship rang with the sound of the hull being hosed down with water, scouring the acids away. Nearly a full minute of nervous waiting later, the ramp suddenly lowered, admitting the ozone stink of the hangar.
A Salamander in full Fire Drake Assault Terminator armor stood alone at the base of the ramp. As the party descended, the colossal warrior held both hands over his hearts and bowed low, as Terminator armor doesn’t permit kneeling. “Princess Venus…welcome home.”
“Brother Lieutenant. It is good to be home,” Venus replied in Old Nocturnean. The Drake looked up, apparently surprised she could speak it. “My friends and I are weary from our travels, but eager to see my world. Can you show us the way?” she asked.
“It would be my honor, Princess Venus. Shall we employ Gothic or Nocturnean? It pleases me greatly that you have learned it, but I do not wish to exclude your friends,” he said, gesturing to the other four teens.
“Nocturnean. I need the practice,” Venus said. “And we will discuss nothing sensitive,” Venus said, in an air of undeniable command that somehow sounded like she was discussing nothing at all.
“Of course, Princess. Please follow me,” the warrior said, gesturing to his side.
The bay was absolutely packed. The entire chamber was full of air and space craft, and ground vehicles that had driven into the castle to escape the weather. The Fire Drake parted the crowds of people around the vehicles like an armored prow. At first, he drew all the attention, as the massive Space Marine was of far greater initial interest to the crowds of serfs and civilians than the quintet of somewhat tousled-looking teenagers in his wake. Soon, however…
“Princess Venus! An honor!” someone said excitedly as she passed. And the gates were open. In moments, the group was surrounded by excited well-wishers, whom Venus bypassed with remarkable poise.
“Please, folks, I’m glad to be home, but I’m exhausted. I’ll be happy to address you all as soon as I can, but I have unpacking to do,” she said, slipping gracefully between clouds of reporters. Her companions hovered nearby, unsure of what to do.
The Drake turned and slid his armored hand behind her, guiding her through the throng. “Give Her Highness some room,” he ordered, his voice far from the respectful request it had been moments before. The crowd evaporated.
Finally, the group reached the exit, and the Drake lead them away from the Nocturneans who had gathered for a glimpse of their Princess. “Well, that was exciting,” Venus said.
“My apologies, Princess. Normally we would never have allowed civilians into the bay, but with acid rain that strong…we could not let them die outside. You understand,” the Drake said in Old Nocturnean.
“I do. You made the correct decision,” Venus said. “Now…to our rooms, I think. Are our personal belongings already distributed?”
“They are.” The Drake stopped as the group arrived at a lift. “However…there may have been some confusion.”
“Oh?” Venus asked.
“You shall see. For now, please, rest.” The lift opened, allowing all five to enter the structure. “Farewell, Princess.”
“Thank you for your assistance, Brother-Lieutenant,” Venus said, as the lift doors closed.
Alex blew out a sigh. “Wow.”
“Yeah. Sorry if the crowd got to you guys,” Venus said apologetically.
“It’s to be expected,” Freya said. “Where do you practice Old Nocturnean? I didn’t understand a damn word you said back there,” she pointed out.
“Sorry. We speak it around the house sometimes, but I wanted to be sure I remembered how. I’ll use Gothic now,” Venus said. “While we’re here, you guys want lessons?”
“Nah, I’d never get good in a month, thanks,” Jake said.
The lift opened, and a pair of Salamander serfs in full combat gear stepped back, clearly having summoned the lift for themselves. “Princess Venus, welcome home,” one said respectfully as the group passed.
“Thanks, soldier,” she said. “Which way are the suites we’ve been given?”
“Uh…I do not know, Princess, but I have to imagine it’s the VIP suites,” the serf said awkwardly. “End of the hall.”
“Thanks,” she said, and led the group past the serfs, looking for their rooms.
Sure enough, there were a few maintenance serfs bustling about the rooms at the end of the small hall. One spotted the group and walked up. “Princess Venus, welcome to Hesiod Castle,” he said, taking a reverent knee. “I hope you will find all the suites to your liking!”
“Thank you, serf, I hope so as well,” Venus replied in Gothic. “Which rooms are whose?”
“Your room is the one at the end of the hall here,” the serf said, rising and gesturing behind him, at the room out of which several more serfs were emerging with cleaning implements and EMP sweepers. “The two rooms on either side of the hall before it are also available to you.”
Venus tilted her head in confusion. “Four rooms?”
“Is that not enough, Princess?” the serf asked worriedly.
“It’s too many, Sieur,” Venus said. “We will only need three rooms including mine.”
“Oh!” The serf’s eyes flickered from side to side, clearly doing math. “I see. My sincerest congratulations, Princess. I did not realize that you and your cousin Princess Russ had wed.” Jake choked on his tongue.
Venus glanced back at him and Freya and winked. She turned back to the serf. “We haven’t. But thanks. Are the rooms ready?”
“They are, Princess. Please, enjoy your stay,” the serf said, and bowed out.
The group dispersed amongst their rooms and found their possessions piled in each. Apparently, the serfs had already selected which rooms would be which. Alex and Freya consolidated their cargo in the room on the left of the hall, while Remilia just stayed in the room to Venus’ right.
Jake sank down on the bed. It was gigantic, nearly as big as the one in Venus’ room back home. He kicked off his shoes with a sigh, spreading out on the mattress. “Mmm…nice. Just soft enough.” He glanced over at his girlfriend, who was busily spreading their clothes through the cabinets and drawers. “You and Freya, huh?”
“Har har har, wiseass,” Venus said. “And she meant me and you, and Alex and Freya.”
“Really? Pretty presumptuous of him,” Jake said.
“Not really, Nocturne matrimonial law and Terran matrimonial law are very different. I’ll explain it later. I gotta change,” she said, grabbing several odd-looking pieces of leather and metal out of boxes in the corner. “Awesome, it’s here. Be right back, baby,” she said, disappearing into the bathroom.
Freya tossed her bag in the corner of the room, and it landed on the small mountain of cargo containers and suitcases that she and Alex had brought. Remilia wandered into the room behind her, and sank into a leather chair by the door. “Well, we’re here,” she announced.
“I know. I am so stoked,” Freya said, tugging her extreme weather gear out of her bag. She examined the thermoreflective plastic weave of the shirt and grimaced. “I really hope I don’t need this.”
“Freya, if we’re not in the Pyre Desert, why would we?” Remilia asked drily. She brushed her blond hair out of her eyes and stretched, sinking into her seat. “Is anyone else feeling short of breath?”
“I think Nocturne has Terra-plus gravity, or atmo, or both,” Freya said. “We won’t notice it for long, the discrepancy’s tiny.”
Alex stripped his outer shirt off and threw it into the hamper in the corner, waving a hand over his face. “Would it be appropriate to wear shorts here? Because DAMN, it’s hot.”
“Indoors, maybe, I dunno. We’ll ask Venus,” Freya said. “Is there a map in here?”
Alex looked around the room for one, but neither of them could find it. “Uh…nope. Fuck.” Freya tapped her finger on her chin. “Well…Venus won’t know either, she’s never been here. We can ask where stuff is.”
Venus opened the door to the main room, nerves catching her breath. Jake was just lifting the remote for the holo, and hadn’t seen her yet. She felt weirdly self-conscious in her formal uniform. Why, she wasn’t sure. He had seen the duty version already, of course.
Whatever. It was just clothes. She cleared her throat and stepped into the room. “What do you think?” she asked.
Jake was just picking up the remote to turn on the holo in the corner when he heard her question. He turned to look at her-
He dropped the remote.
She was clad from neck to bootsole in dark grey leather that shone to brilliance. Her pants were covered in front with what looked like a fully centimeter-thick layer of drakeskin scale over leather pads, and they wrapped nearly halfway around her legs. The boots she was wearing were drake leather too, and had an incredibly intricate red flame pattern etched into the surface that wrapped around her calves. They were tucked under her pant legs at an inch or two above the ankle, and the pants had the same pattern on them, though he couldn’t see all of it since the scale didn’t carry the pattern. On her hips and the front of her upper legs, the scales slowly turned from the dark grey they had been to a reddish grey instead, and a Power Rapier and Conflagration Pistol that looked both ceremonial and fully usable were strapped to her hips.
The armor plates on her hips were a deep red scale over tiny ceramite links over adamantium plates, as thin as a hair, over the leather that constituted the entire outfit. The thick belt over her waist was also drake leather from the look of it, but the entire surface was completely covered in flat, wrought-adamantium chain links, the size of pinheads, that had been linked together and hammered flat.
By contrast to her leg armor, her torso armor was somewhat more utilitarian. Her stomach was completely covered in thin, interlocking pieces of adamantium plate, though in deference to the outfit’s intended appearance, a few bright red drake scale links had been arranged in a V-pattern. It started right under the plate over her breasts and ended at her belt buckle; which was, now that he saw it, a wrought silver coil, with a tiny flame pattern etched onto the metal, and a single ruby set on the middle. The plates of armor over her upper chest were visibly thicker, but more ornate; with embossed and raised patterns in a language he couldn’t read rimming the rib and breastplates. The plates on her upper chest continued the same pattern. The words were polished brilliantly, and the metal beneath less so.
The plates themselves were lined with almost invisible rivets holding the adamantium plates to the leather beneath. The segmented metal was arranged with such artifice that it didn’t make a sound as it slid over the other pieces. Between the leather being nearly the same color as her skin and the brilliant silver of the metal, the effect was such that Jake’s eyes were naturally drawn to the red scales that covered her flanks, and the ones down her stomach.
Her arms were thickly padded with drake leather, but here the scales were a dusky orange, almost brown, and the adamantium plates on her shoulders and upper arms were painted the same color. The forearm plates were not, and were left a dull grey. Into the metal, more words were etched, and the raised words were shined to brilliant silver. They, like the words on her chest, were inscrutable. Her gloves were a brighter grey, and tiny circles of adamantium decorated the back of each finger, leaving room for the joints.
Jake stared. He traced his eyes over the uniform, taking in every detail.
Venus tilted her head a little. “So…what do you think?” she asked. She crossed her arms over her armored chest and leaned to the side a bit. “Well? Nocturne to Jake?”
“…Wow.” Jake slowly sat up, still staring. “You look…wow. It’s beautiful.”
Venus smiled, somewhat relieved. “Thanks.”
“What does the back look like?”
She obligingly turned, revealing a few small, black leather pouches on the belt. Probably for ammunition for the weapons. The outfit had deep pockets, he saw, running invisibly under the armor on her hips, which was apparently not as thick as it looked. The backs of her legs were covered in the wafer-thin flame patterns up to her knees, where they tapered away into blank leather. Her back was armored too, but with more drakescale, not metal plating.
“It’s amazing. You look gorgeous,” Jake said. “I’ve never seen you wear THAT at state dinners back home,” he said.
“It’s not for Terrans. I told you, I’m just a noble there. Here, the mantle of leadership means I have to look the role.” She walked back into the bathroom, and some rattling noises started. “Hang on; let me show you the accessories.”
“The weapons aren’t accessories?” Jake asked.
“Nope, they’re for idiots who think Vulkan Forgefather has stupid children. Hang on…okay,” she said. She emerged with a few little boxes in her hands. “Here…we go,” she said distractedly. She pulled some small metal bits out of one box and set the others down. “I made these myself, when I was ten. I promised Dad that I wouldn’t wear them until I came here,” she said. Jake stood and walked over. She extended one leather-clad hand to reveal a pair of tiny platinum earrings, each of which had been set with a little yellow corundum.
“Pretty. You made those when you were TEN?” Jake asked.
“Yep. Solid platinum. Which means nothing since they’re just engine parts Dad was about to throw out. I melted them down and made these instead.” She smiled as she inserted them. “I like my use more.”
“Me too.” Jake glanced into the boxes and saw more shiny metal. “What’s that?”
“The rest.” She reached into the boxes and extracted a thin necklace, with a familiar pendant on it.
“Hey, I remember you,” Jake said, running his finger over the little drake’s head icon. The tiny rubies glittered under the light from her eyes as he held it up. “You sure you want to wear this around?”
“Well, I’d be scared of losing it,” Jake said.
“Well…I’m not, but it does contrast with the uniform,” she said, sliding it back into the box. “Okay…two last things. I think you’ll like this part.” She grabbed a bundle of cloth from the next box, and unfurled it into a flowing, blood red ankle-length cape, with the Nocturnean hammer icon set into the middle in yellow. She slung it on over her shoulders, and fluttered it to rest. “Huh? Huh?”
Jake took a step back and looked her over appraisingly. “You pull it off, Venus.”
“Thanks.” The last item was one of the reasons for her shyness, but she also could never justify not wearing it, and she had to admit that it was beautiful on its own.
She reached down into the last, larger box, and extracted a sparkling crown. A band of solid gold encircled her entire head. No mere tiara this, it extended to cover her head almost entirely. A square slot at the back allowed her hair to flow out. The front of the crown was decorated in an Imperial Aquila, whose wings were spread back over her temples. The forehead stretched down to halfway down the bridge of her nose like a battlehelm. The brim flowed out of the nose above her eyes, back down in front of her ears. A row of truly massive rubies decorated the band. The top was a gold dome, but it was low, almost resting on top of her head.
In the very center, above the Aquila on her forehead, a ridge extended back over the dome, and a few small diamonds were set on either side of it, in a symmetrical pattern.
Venus slid the crown on and stood back. “Well…there’s the complete picture. How do I look?”
Jake looked up and down. The effect was magnificent. The martial appearance of the chest armor and the elegant artistry of the crown blended perfectly. The brilliant red glow from under the crown was frightening and enticing. “You look like a queen,” he said. He felt dumb, trying to encapsulate the way she looked in words. “It’s…it’s beautiful.”
She smiled under the crown, and somehow it didn’t diminish the effect at all. “Thank you, Jake.” She moved her head from side to side, testing the crown’s balance. “Hmm. Bit topheavy, but it doesn’t move…good.”
“Uh, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there serfs for this sort of thing?” Jake asked. “Helping you dress and such?”
“Eh. Maybe if I was in the Residence, up on Prometheus, but the Regent lives in it and I wasn’t about to throw him out for one night.” Venus cricked her neck, trying to get used to the weight on her head. “Besides, why would I want some serf to help me when it gives me a chance to play dress-up with you?” she playfully inquired, running her gloves over each other.
Jake coughed. “Such lack of decorum, Princess.”
She nodded, all business again. “Now…do you think I should show the others, or just head out now and surprise them?”
“Why go anywhere? The rain will kill you,” Jake pointed out.
“All the major cities have some sort of underground tunnels between major civic buildings, but I don’t know if the Castle in on the network,” Venus said, tapping one gauntleted finger against her chin. “It’s earthquake insurance. Hmm…I can ask.”
“And I think you should show the others,” Jake said. “Blow their minds.”
“You think I should, huh,” she said, biting her lip. “All right…I want to save this, though,” she said. She pulled the crown off and set it into its box, closing it up and sealing it with a thumbprint. The tiny electronic lock clicked.
“Okay…let’s show them.” Venus peeked out the door, verifying that the hall was clear, and listened for voices. Sure enough, she could hear the others talking in Freya’s room. She and Jake walked up to the entrance and knocked.
“Come,” Freya called. Venus pushed the door open and struck a gallant pose on the threshold.
“Well?” she asked pointedly.
Jake peered over his shorter girlfriend’s shoulder. Freya was sprawled out on a couch, paging through a dataslate. Her jaw dropped when she saw her cousin. “Venus, you look awesome! Where did you get the hardware?”
“It came with the outfit,” Venus laughed, walking in.
Alex wandered out of the bedroom and froze in his tracks. “Oh wow…Venus, what’s that?” Remilia sat up in the corner, staring.
“My formal outfit. What can I say, we like leather on Nocturne,” Venus said with a happy little shrug. “What do you think? I’ve never actually worn this before.”
“I think it’s awesome,” Alex said. He walked up to her with marked hesitation, and gently rubbed his thumb over the drakeskin on her shoulders. “Is this all real drakeskin?”
“Yep. And that’s real scale,” she said, tapping a scale on her hip.
“That outfit and the weapons cost more than a system patrol boat,” Freya said, flabbergasted.
“Not at all. That drake probably just wandered in front of a Salamander mining crew and got toasted for its incaution,” Venus said. “It’s all from the same animal.”
“Is that a Conflagration gun?” Remilia asked from the corner.
Venus hefted the weapon, balancing it on its trigger guard. “I think so. It was in the kit. It’s not even loaded,” she said. She slid the power pack out. “Yeah, this is a placeholder. Plastic.”
“You’re not going to be incinerating any paparazzi with that,” Remilia scoffed.
“True.” She slid the plastic pack back in and checked the pack on the Rapier’s hilt. “Also plastic. Well, who stores weapons loaded?” she asked rhetorically.
“Yeah…don’t load those here, huh?” Jake asked, coming up behind her.
“Don’t worry,” she said, reaching behind her and pulling the contents of the little leather pouches free. “All plastic.”
“Good.” Jake looked at the golden hammer on her back ripple with the slight movements of her cape in the draft from the hall. He had seen her martial side before, of course. On the ship, when dealing with Custodes and Treasury back home, the incident with the Palace PDF…but this was new. She wasn’t just being military, she was being a leader.
He had thought that this inevitable day would be overwhelming to him. Strangely, though, he felt excited instead. This side of her was interesting. He was actually looking forward to seeing how she acted. She turned around and hugged him quickly. “Gotta go. It’ll be on every news channel,” she said over her shoulder as she went.
The door closed behind her. All four other teens stared at each other. “That was unique,” Jake said.
“I know. I’ve never seen that before. Makes my formal outfit look tawdry,” Freya grumbled.
“What’s yours?” Alex asked.
Freya waved her hand overhead, trying to visualize it. “You’ll see. Furs and tribal markings. Fenris is still a Feral World. I guess a world that’s actually a part of the greater Imperium gets to be fancier.”
“You’re not jealous,” Alex said.
“No, I’m just thinking aloud. Hey, let’s get the news on,” she said, grabbing the remote.
A Relaxing Day at the Range
Outside, Venus checked to make sure she had the right box, then hurried down the corridor to the lifts. A pair of serfs waiting outside the doors fell to their knees as she approached.
“Rise, gentlemen, I’m going to need help here. Has the rain stopped?” she asked, tucking the crown case under one arm.
“It has, Princess,” one serf said, climbing to his feet. He stared at her in open awe. “The scourers should have the Square ready for you in an hour if you wish to make an address.”
“I do. How do I get there fastest without walking?” she asked, stepping into the lift.
The serfs walked in after her. “By an aircar or the tram, but I’d suggest an aircar, your Highness,” the serf continued. The other one piped up.
“I’m sure Regent No’dan will arrange something, your Highness.”
“Sure.” Venus descended in silence, rehearsing her speech in her head. She glanced down as the rapier’s scabbard bounced off her leg. “Oh. Actually, which way is the armory?” she asked.
“Er…two floors below the hangar, your Highness,” one serf said carefully.
“Okay, I’ll stop there first,” she said to herself, and tapped a different button on the controls.
The armory guard was leaning on the security counter outside when a blob of red caught his eye. He glanced up from his holomag and lurched to stiff attention as Venus came to halt before him, her cape billowing in her wake. “Sergeant. Might I pop in for a moment?” she asked quickly.
“Of course, your Highness, what can I get for you?” he asked.
“Seven standard power packs, Sergeant, for a Conflagrator and a Power Rapier,” she said, gesturing to her weapons.
“Of course, your Highness. Seven standard MPC40s, coming up,” he said, scurrying over to the armory and tapping the call button.
“Make that eight, actually,” she called after him.
“Yes, your Highness,” he said back.
Someone answered the call button on his PA panel. “Yeah?”
“Eight MPC40s, pronto,” the Sergeant called.
“Eight? You starting a war out there?”
“I’m starting a discharge form with your name on it if you get between Princess Venus and her ceremonial weapons’ ammunition,” the Sergeant said under his breath.
The PA went silent. Moments later, a turnstile in the wall next to him spat out eight little black boxes. The Sergeant scooped them up and bolted back to the desk, where Venus was waiting, fists on her hips. “Your ammunition, Princess,” he said, depositing the packs.
“Good.” She hefted one and ejected the placeholder from her Rapier’s pommel, sliding the pack into place. The tiny red light on the pommel blinked twice to acknowledge the charge and went dark.
“Do you need a place to test them?” the Sergeant asked.
Venus thought. “I suppose I have time. Where do I sign?” she asked, looking over the assorted slates and papers on his desk.
“I can do the paperwork for you if you’re in a hurry, your Highness,” the Sergeant said.
“No, that’s fine, I should do this…myself…” she said, her voice trailing off as she caught sight of the holomag he had been reading. She slowly tilted her head, trying to get a better angle on its content.
The Sergeant hastily turned the mag off. Venus looked up at him and raised one eyebrow.
“Nothing worth mentioning, your Highness,” the Sergeant managed. “Er. The sheet. Yes. Here you are,” he said, pushing the range sheet and armory sign-in at her. She nodded and signed both. “The range is that way, just please let us know if you need more ammunition or something. Your Highness.”
Venus nodded. “Thanks, Sergeant.” She glanced down at the blank holomag and back up, a smile quirking her lips. “As you were.”
She ignored his panicked salute and strode quickly down the hallway to her side, ammo boxes balanced on top of the other box. Idly, she wondered why the Royal Outfitters had chosen such a non-descript way to ship the crown, then decided it wasn’t worth asking.
She blew into the range, finding it nearly deserted. A serf at the counter stood, having clearly heard her approach over the PA. “Princess Venus, welcome. A little Q before the speech, your Highness?” he asked.
“Nope, testing something. Thanks. Set me up for a CQC stationary and mid-range thermo, please,” she said, wiping down some earmuffs and taking her place at the nearest lane.
“Yes, your Highness,” the serf said, keying it in. With a whining of pneumatics, a meter-thick block of metal with a human outline rose from her lane, about fifteen meters away. Venus set her box and ammo down, popping the placeholder cell from her Conflagration gun, and settled the new pack into place with a *click*. “Clear,” he called.
The green light over the lane flicked on, and Venus depressed the trigger once. With almost no recoil, the muzzle of the gun pulsed orange light. The metal block half-melted in an instant. Venus blinked, staring at the gun in shock. “…Oops.”
The serf gaped. “Uh…cease fire,” he said, and tapped the button again. The light over the range turned red again, and the hydraulics pulled the metal block back down.
Venus set the gun back in its holster and stepped out of her lane. “My sincere apologies, Rangemaster, I had no idea this thing had that kind of punch.”
“I…yes. Well. It’s a Conflagration gun, your Highness, they…all do that,” the serf said. “Well. Nothing a little time in the shop can’t fix. The CQC one?”
“This won’t demolish it, will it?” she asked, tapping the Rapier.
“Not unless it’s ultracharged. Is it?”
Venus checked the tiny letters around the pommel. “No.”
“Then you’ll be fine,” the serf said. “Er…whenever you’re ready,” he said, gesturing her to the melee-weapon chamber.
She walked over and opened the door, wrinkling her nose at the stink of promethium. A metal and plastic model of a human with a plastic lasgun in its hands rose from the floor. The speaker overhead blared once, and Venus lunged at the model, skewering it. She withdrew it and looked closely. “Perfect. No melt,” she said. She tapped the door and the speaker blared again as the model sunk into the floor.
She stepped out into the range, picking up her things. “Thanks, Rangemaster, it works fine. Sorry again about the thermo,” she said. “I should have specified.”
“It shouldn’t be a problem, we replace them every week anyway,” the man said. The casual tone of his voice spoke volumes about his station. On an Astartes range, the Rangemaster could talk down a Terminator. “Thanks for dropping by, your Highness.”
“Thanks for having me,” she said, scooping up spare ammo and dropping it into the pouches on her belt. She said her goodbyes and hefted her box, walking back to the lifts. As she arrived, she found her nerves returning. She was looking forward to speaking before her people, of course. She was apprehensive about the way she would be perceived. She hadn’t been home in a long time, and her first act was to take a vacation. How would that go over?
She stepped into the lift, tapping the button for the hangar floor. As the lift rose, she breathed deeply, trying to banish her ill feelings. Whatever happened, happened. Nothing to do but go on as well as she could.
In the hangar, she paused, noting the streams of air and ground cars leaving the building. The sky outside was a bruised purple, as the reddish light from the sun poured through the acid blue clouds. A Salamander noticed her standing at the door and immediately marched up. “Princess Venus. Are you ready to depart?”
“I am, inasmuch as I can be,” she replied. “Do I have a ride?”
“Of course, your Highness, an aircar has been called. Will your companions be joining you?” the warrior asked, glancing around.
“They will not.” Venus watched as an aircar pulled up across the back of the room. “Good. We’re a little early.”
“Then let us depart, and avoid crowds that may pose a security concern,” the Salamander said. “Of course we suspect no risk to your Highness here, or the speech would not occur…but as recent events have shown…”
“Of course,” Venus said. She really didn’t need to be reminded of poor Morticia at that juncture. The Power Armored warrior opened the door for her and she climbed in. The car lifted immediately, and soared off to the City Square.
She craned her head, staring out the tinted windows. The view was amazing. The buildings were all acid-swept stone and metal – not a piece of wood in sight. Statues of the Salamanders, meticulously protected from acid, decorated the corners. The acid clouds were boiling away under the desert sun. The star burned a bright, painfully intense red…not unlike her eyes.
She looked below. The streets below were soaking from scrubbers, spraying the acid rain away, but already there were people below, hawking wares, fixing buildings, and going about their business. Signs of new construction were abundant, too, but no building rose above the spires of Hesiod Castle, which was really nothing more or less than a Governor’s Palace with an in-built Salamander shrine.
Venus fingered the box with her crown, and she lifted it out, staring at it. She had inherited her father’s disdain for exercising authority in front of blood relations. But her father had also never felt more comfortable than he did leading his brothers into war, and had loved the responsibilities of leadership. Had she inherited those too?
She didn’t know. Certainly, her cousins and friends were confident in her.
She put the crown back in its box, sealing it again. It clinked against the little pendant as she did.
The car settled on the scoured roof of a building adjacent to the square. Ranks of Salamander serf snipers and what looked an awful lot like an artillery spotter were assembled nearby, camouflaged with varying levels of obtrusiveness. The square, to her astonishment, was nearly vacant. But then, the skies had been bleeding acid minutes before.
Venus stepped out of the car, one arm wrapped around the box, the other resting on the sword scabbarded at her left hip. One good thing about rapiers, she reflected, was that it didn’t matter which way you drew them.
A row of Salamander Serfs and Hesiod PDF knelt as she emerged and shook her hair loose. “Hail, Her Royal Highness, Princess Venus,” the Sergeant at the end of the rank said reverently.
Venus bowed slightly and lifted her hand, palm up. “Please rise, soldier. I’m about to address my people for the first time since I learned to speak. Get on your feet.”
“Yes, your Highness,” he said, scrambling up and gesturing the others to do the same. “No security threats have been reported. Even the Underground is quiet.”
“Underground?” Venus asked.
“A small smuggling organization that gets around the customs offices in the Sanctuaries by utilizing mining tunnels, your Highness, hence the name,” the PDF Sergeant reported.
“A smuggling organization on a Space Marine homeworld,” Venus said.
“To our endless shame, your Highness,” the Sergeant admitted. “But we can’t collapse the tunnels without risking active mine shafts, so…”
Venus nodded. “A matter for another time. From where shall I give the speech?”
“Right here, your Highness,” the Sergeant said. “Should the swell return we need to be able to get you out of here quickly. And you can address the Square directly from the balcony one floor down.”
“Lead the way,” she said. The Sergeant saluted and gestured to his men, and they fell in rank beside her as she walked to the access stairs. Fortunately, it seemed the building saw use as a landing pad with some frequency, and the stairs were wide enough to admit them all. The group escorted Venus to a small room at the back of the building, where they left her to prepare.
Venus set the box down on a table and opened it. She removed the crown, setting it down on the table, and sat backwards in a chair, facing it. She crossed her arms over the top of the chair and stared at the Aquila on its face, measuring her thoughts. “So how are we gonna play this, Dad?” she asked quietly. She reached out and gently rubbed a thumbprint from the gold face of the crown with her leather-clad finger.
“I guess we see how it goes…and we’ll see how badly I want to stay after school,” she whispered. “What will Mom think? What will Grandpa think?” She set her head down on her crossed arms. “What will Jake and Uncle Ir’Sem and Farah think?”
The crown didn’t answer. She gripped it and set it on, feeling its weight on her head. As she did, she moved to close the box, when the little pendant caught her eye. She stared at it, wondering. Finally, she lifted it out and put it on, carefully disentangling it from her hair and the crown. “Can’t hurt,” she said.
The crowd outside had swollen considerably when she finally stepped out to the balcony. The privacy screen was still in place, so they couldn’t see her yet, but she could see them, and she swept the crowd with her eyes. The balcony was only two stories above the square, and the techpriests were busy setting up a microphone. A few serfs swept the place, searching for snipers or lesser troublemakers. A trio of local law enforcement were station every ten feet along the sides of the square, which was really only a large, flat piece of exposed bedrock near the physical center of the city. Venus cleared her throat, pushing away last-minute nerves. She was ready. She had to be ready.
“Your Highness, we are prepared,” a techpriest by the microphones said.
“Thank you,” she said, stilling the nerves in her hands. She flexed her fingers irritably. “Lower the privacy shield.”
The techpriest did so, and the shimmering light around the balcony disappeared.
The crowd below caught sight of their Princess and erupted in cheers. Venus walked up to the edge of the balcony, beside the microphone but not behind them, and waved. Several servo-skulls floated by, recording the whole affair. A perfectly timed breeze blew past her, rustling her hair and snapping her cape.
After acknowledging their applause for several seconds, Venus stepped up behind the microphone, inaudibly clearing her throat.
“My friends…it is good to be home,” she began.
Jake sat back in his seat, watching the news. As soon as Venus walked out in front of the microphones, he beckoned the others over. “Hey, hey, she’s starting!”
Alex, Freya, and Remilia found seats around the holo and sat. “Wow. She didn’t show off that headgear before,” Remilia said.
On-screen, Venus was looking out over the crowd. “I’ve been gone a long time. I lived on another world entirely. And I’ve wanted to come back for a long time, too.”
She tilted her head back, staring out at the facades of the buildings across the square. “No excuses. School, life…they kept us apart, Nocturne. But now…I’ve returned.” She looked back down at the crowd, and smiled. “Inclement weather notwithstanding, I feel welcomed. I thank you for that.” The crowd dutifully chuckled.
She gestured at the moon, massive in the sky. “When I arrived, I was glad to see that the stories I’ve been told about how things work here were correct: the Salamanders and their kin are close. Family. That pleases me to no end. Terran or Nocturnean, all Salamanders and Nocturneans are bonded by history and blood. I am truly honored to be a bridge between them.” She paused to let a ripple of applause cross the square.
“I wonder how much she rehearsed that,” Alex said.
“I didn’t hear her rehearse once,” Jake said.
Venus slowly ran her leather-clad fingers over the railing of the balcony. “I may not have returned to take up the reins…yet. But know that one day I will, and when I do, I will be infinitely proud to shoulder the responsibility of leadership.”
She held up one hand, gestured to the sky above them. “Terran skies are blue, for those who can afford to see them. Our red sun scorches our world, and illuminates the trials that lurk within it. But Nocturne has supported ten thousand years of human life, despite monsters and the best efforts of the environment itself. Few people possess Nocturnean strength, resilience…and those few who do rarely possess the unity and selfless dedication of the Nocturneans. Even now, your friends and family lend that strength, that unity, to the purging of the Imperium of the aliens that come to threaten our shipping. Your thoughts and pride support and uplift them.” Venus lowered her hand and closed her eyes for a moment, showing her respect for the warriors of the Salamanders and their auxiliaries. The crowd went quiet as some shared in her respects.
She raised her head and smiled, fingers splayed on either side of the microphone. “I will visit all the Sanctuaries in my time here. Here I shall begin, and Themis next…The Jewel, The Dragonspine, The Beacon, The Fire Spike, The Merchant Sprawl. Though, again, I do not turn to leadership in my time here, I will also visit those who live beyond even those scant protections of walls and shields, and see the lifestyles of ALL my people.”
Remilia nodded slowly. “She’s not doing a speech. She’s improvising.”
“How can you tell?” Jake asked.
“Her voice. She’s not pausing between sentences as long as she would be if she had rehearsed,” Freya said.
Venus turned to the side slightly, glancing over the rows of serfs and PDF on the rooftops. “I know that my arrival was…somewhat disruptive to the city. In that spirit, I will keep my remaining comments short.”
She gripped the railing on either side of the microphone and leaned forward slightly. The wind rose again, sending her hair and cape flying. She spoke over the noise. “My friends, I can not overstate the depth to which I felt alive and comforted as I arrived. Nocturne is more than just the place I was born and the place where my father built a Legion. It is home, on a level as satisfying and certain as anything I can imagine. I may leave once more, to complete my schooling, but I will not stay gone. My future is here, as a Princess or a General, and I can and will not forget it.” She inclined her head, hand over her heart. “I will carry the memories I build here with me always…and I will carry your aspirations, your own desires and futures with me, as I do.”
She leaned forward again, her endless red eyes staring over the crowd, meeting several people’s gazes, an easy and confident smile on her lips. “Thank you all for your kind welcome, and for having me here. Farewell,” she said. She turned off the microphone and bowed as low as she dared without letting the crown fall off.
The crowd erupted in cheers once more, and she bowed again, slowly stepping back. Once she was out of sight of the crowd, she walked briskly back into the building, bulling the heavy gold crown off as soon as she was out of view of the servo skulls.
She blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes, sighing in relief. “Whoo…that was rough.”
“That was inspired,” a voice said behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. A serf stood there, his hand locked in salute. “You did wonderfully, Princess Venus.”
“Thank you, serf,” she said, placing the crown in the box and sealing it. She cricked her neck and groaned. “I was sweating bullets. I hate public speaking.”
“You didn’t show it,” the serf said.
Venus nodded. “Well…time to head out.” She hefted the box and walked back to where her escort was patiently waiting. “Gentlemen.”
“Well said, your Highness. Are you ready to return to the castle?” the Sergeant asked.
“I am.” Venus followed the escort back up to the roof, and crisply returned the salute of the Sergeant leading the group. “Thank you, Sergeant. Back to the Castle, please, and let’s move immediately before we get caught in traffic from people leaving the square,” she added for the driver’s benefit. She climbed in and they took off, heading back to the massive metal structure. Venus settled back in the seat, trying to relax, and wondered what her friends would say.
Exploring the City of Tribal Kings
First was a squeal. “Eeee! Venus that was amazing!” Remilia said. She wrapped her cousin in a bear hug. “I was so impressed!”
“Thanks,” Venus managed, disengaging herself from her cousin. “Could you tell?”
“I could tell, but nobody else will, Venus, trust me,” Remilia said.
Freya added her own hug to the total. “You did fine.”
Alex spoke up from the bed. “Nice job, your Highness.”
“Nobody in this room calls me that, all right?” Venus groaned. “Except where protocol demands it.”
Jake set the crown on the table and sank into a chair. “Well…baby, I thought it was great. Concise. Leave them wanting more.”
“That was the plan, yeah. So glad I didn’t stick to the speech,” Venus said, powering down her weapons. “It sounds so corny now that I think about it. All ‘From the bottom of my heart’ and ‘Endless gratitude,’ etc.”
“Eh, you would have made it sound good,” Remilia said.
“Suuure. Anyway. Who’s hungry?” Venus asked. Jake snorted at the total incongruity between her appearance and question.
Alex levered up out of his chair. “Ravenous. What time is it?”
Freya checked her travelers’ watch. “Uh…around local noon.”
“Perfect.” Venus stood up and stretched, the scabbarded power sword waving dangerously. “Lemme change, then we can go grab some food and be tourists for a few hours. Then back in uniform for part three.”
“What?” Jake asked.
“Oh, I won’t be having dinner with you guys. I need to meet the Governor and reassure him I’m not taking over his job or anything.” Venus shrugged, grabbing the box.
Jake followed her into their room and Venus disappeared into the bathroom. Jake eyed the clothes he had brought with him in the closet. “Hey…Venus, what clothes do we have that are appropriate for here?”
“Uh…pretty much anything. Nocturneans don’t give much a fuck about fashion, really, from what I know.” Venus stuck her head out of the door. “Just…dark pants, any length, and a shirt you don’t mind having sweat on.”
Jake selected a few items and hurriedly changed, then passed her recommendation on to the others. As he returned, Venus emerged, pushing her armored clothing on a mobile rack. “Okay…I want to leave this on a rack so I can wear it tonight.” She cast an appraising stare over her boyfriend. “You look fine.”
“Good.” Jake grabbed his sunglasses, a going-away present from his parents, and carefully slid them on. “Awesome. They fit perfectly.”
“Looks good on you. Are those from your parents?” she asked.
“Yeah.” Jake grabbed his wallet. “Guess I don’t need this,” he said, pulling his Terran drivers’ license out.
“You should always carry an ID on another planet.”
“I mean I won’t be driving any more,” Jake said. Venus looked up at him, confused. “I sold the car, remember?”
“Oh…yeah. Why did you do that, anyway? You’ll need it at Kouthry. And your parents might need a car too.”
Jake shrugged. “They paid for half the car, and I sold it for a third of what we bought it for, so I just gave them the money.”
Venus laughed. “Man…that’s a shame. We have history with that thing.”
“We did,” Jake said. He half-smiled as the memories came back. “Ah well. So long, we hardly knew you. Oh hey, before I forget…” he wandered over to the door, as nonchalantly as he could. Closing it, he let his hand rest on the handle, trying to phrase his question. “How, uh…how exactly are you going to come back?”
“Come again?” Venus asked, struggling into her walking shoes.
“In the speech, you said you were going to come back and take leadership of the planet. When, exactly?” Jake asked.
“At some point in that nebulous blob of time called ‘the future,’” she said, but she didn’t sound like she was joking. Jake turned around to see her sitting on the edge of the bed, looking up at him. “Look…I know we haven’t discussed it. To be honest, I had barely even thought about it. But…Jake, it’s going to happen.” She immediately screwed up her face in regret. “Shit. Let me revise that.” She rubbed her eyes, thinking hard. “See…Dad was really generous. He knows that I didn’t really know what to do with my life after we graduate. Military, private business, travel, politics…I don’t know. I DIDN’T know. But when we arrived here…it was like my blood had been too cold my entire life, and now it’s the right temperature. I feel physically different here, Jake. I feel better.”
Jake crossed his arms. “Wow. Venus…that scares me.”
“That sounds like this planet’s a drug to you, or something.”
Venus looked up at him, hurt. He stared back, clearly intimidated, but not backing down. “It’s…” She tried to find words. “Damn it. I did make it sound that way, didn’t I?”
Jake didn’t respond, knowing from experience that it was better to let her work it out on her own. She fidgeted. “Jake, I can’t explain it. When we stepped off the Tide, it was like coming home in the weirdest way. You know?” She sighed. “No. You don’t.” She stood, rubbing her hands. “I don’t want to sound arbitrary. But…I do have a responsibility here. It’s not the part of my life you saw back on Earth, I know, but…I do. I’m a Princess here. Even if I didn’t feel…whatever the hell I feel here, I would STILL have to come back. All the time. I might not have come back permanently, but…Jake, technically, I AM the system Overlord. Dad’s ceded his position to the Regent, and as the highest noble in the system, I’m the Imperial System Overlord until we leave again. I will be every time I visit.” She finally met his gaze again. “Does that help?”
Jake drew in a long breath, and unclenched his arms. “A little. I admit…we haven’t talked about it much.”
“Well…we’ve got time. Kouthry. Maybe grad school.” Venus sank back on the bed. She looked over at her armor on the stand. “I won’t do anything permanent without asking. Of course. But Jake, this place is home to me,” she said. She looked up at the burnished breastplate, inscribed with Old Nocturnean words. She read them to herself, finding some odd comfort in their design. “It probably always will be. These are my people.”
Jake nodded. “In honesty, I think…if it weren’t for the gravity, I could learn to like living like a noble here.”
“Well, first off, the gravity differential is so small that with a little exercise, you genuinely won’t even notice it,” Venus said. She looked up at him again, smiling coyly. “And you are a noble.”
“I’m your boyfriend, hon, and nothing more formal than that,” Jake said with a laugh.
“Well…I hope this isn’t too distracting for you,” she said. “Personally, I think you’ve done an outstanding job at ignoring how completely weird my life is.”
“Not ignoring, disregarding,” Jake said. “I would be ignoring it if I pretended it wasn’t weird.” He grinned. “There are benefits, too. I don’t live in a hive any more, and I won't, for several more years."
She stood up and grabbed her wallet. “Do you miss it?”
“The sense of community? All the time. The locale? Fuck that noise,” he said. “I’ll live surface as long as I can.”
“I bet,” she said, passing him his license back. “Here. Let’s go.”
Meeting And Greeting
They rejoined their companions in the hall, dressed and ready. “So…Venus, what do you recommend?” Alex asked.
“How should I know? Let’s ask someone downstairs,” she said.
Alex snorted. “Right, sorry.” The group made their way down the hall to the lifts, and Venus was just considering asking random strangers in the hangar when a chambermaid serf emerged from a nearby room.
Freya angled straight up to her. “Excuse me. Can you recommend a place around here to go eat?”
The serf looked over at them, pre-packaged smile on her face, and did a quick double take as she spotted Venus at the back of the group. Venus put a finger to her own lips and winked. The serf stared, but struggled to answer. “Er…there’s no place to eat around here for three blocks…but I would recommend a cafeteria five blocks east if you don’t mind a walk.”
“Great, thanks,” Freya said, bounding away. Venus slid some mirrored sunglasses on, and tugged up her collar. No sense in tempting fate.
The group emerged from the lifts in the public hangar, and made for the ground exit. A small group of Salamander serfs in plainclothes followed them at a discrete distance, just for safety more than anything else.
As they stepped out onto the streets beyond for the first time, Jake and Alex both paused to stare. The sky was red. Deep, burning red. “That’s going to take some getting used to,” Alex murmured. Jake nodded his silent assent.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Venus asked.
“It is…” Jake said. He looked up at the volcano rising in the distance. “Wow…that’s what a mountain looks like.”
“That’s Mount Deathfire,” Venus said. “To the Salamanders, it’s the most sacred place on Nocturne’s surface. It was in the shadows of Deathfire that Dad first fought back against the Dark Eldar. There’s a massive shrine and forging complex in its magma tunnels.”
“Sounds amazing,” Alex said. Jake snugged his new sunglasses to his face and craned his head back, staring at the blue clouds in amazement.
“I feel like my world has been palette-shifted,” Jake said. He stared up at the sky, watching the clouds move. “Aren’t skies supposed to be blue? And clouds gray?”
“Welcome to Nocturne,” Venus giggled. “But yeah…it’s pretty amazing.”
The little group let itself be pulled into foot traffic, and they headed east. The storefronts were still wet from the scourers, and the group carefully avoided the pools of water that were sluicing away into the drains.
After less than a block, Jake was already sweating. “Man…you weren’t kidding about this heat,” he said. He loosed his collar with a finger. “This is crazy.”
“Are you going to be all right?” Alex asked. Jake glanced over at the stocky rugby player. Damn it, he wasn’t even sweating a drop.
“I think so, as long as we can get something to drink at this place,” he said. “Aren’t you hot?”
Alex modestly shrugged. “Compared to summer practices, this honestly isn’t so bad. We had one guy drop from heatstroke once.”
“That’s encouraging,” Jake grumbled. Venus, naturally, hadn’t even slowed down, and he made an effort to keep up.
As they walked, they people-watched. The buildings were all squat, compact things, reinforced heavily. They had little of the sweeping and spired architecture of Terra. Instead, they seemed to be more focused on maximizing floor-space without compromising their considerable integrity. On an earthquake-prone world, that was wise.
The people were an interesting mix. Most tended to muscled and compact, with dark skin and reddish hair. Eye colors spanned the whole rainbow, and nearly all clothing was loose leathers and artificial fabrics. Venus’ companions drew some attention with their clearly Terran clothing, but the Nocturneans kept their comments to themselves.
As they approached the restaurant, the streets narrowed. Buildings were taller here, presumably because they wouldn’t be threatened by the turrets on the castle. Narrow alleyways formed between the buildings, too, and to Venus’ pronounced distaste, many were littered with half-dissolved refuse. Apparently the locals just dumped anything damaged by the acid rain out back.
They arrived at the restaurant, which was really more of a food court. As the group dispersed throughout the open room to select whatever reached their fancy, a few excited whispers began as someone recognized Venus despite her admittedly flimsy disguise. By the time the five rejoined at a table, several people were openly staring.
Venus steadfastly refused to acknowledge any stares, and the few who looked like they were building up courage enough to actually approach and interrupt were quickly dissuaded with a quick glance. As the group tucked into their fare, Remilia leaned over to her fiery cousin with a conspiratorial whisper.
“You appear to have a few fans.”
Venus rolled her eyes behind her shades, which she had not removed. “I expected as much. People seem pretty well-behaved, though, by and large.”
“No worse than when we went out for dinner on Terra,” Jake said. “Remember that time at Ciordello’s when that dude started to hit on you?”
“Oh man, that was so dumb.” Venus ruefully shook her head.
“What did he do when he figured out who you were?” Freya giggled.
“Oh, if anything, this activated him further,” Venus said.
Alex glanced over at Jake. “What did you during all this?”
“Try not to laugh,” Jake said. “It didn’t work. He’s just sitting there, trying to put moves on her, she’s just glaring at him harder and harder, and I’m on her other side trying not to inhale my soda.”
“Then, he hears Jake laughing and starts getting all angry at him, trying to glare at him over my head,” Venus continued. “Jake is just sitting there giggling-”
“I was not giggling!”
“-And finally the other guy half-stands in his seat, bobbing his head like a fucking rooster. Jake is cracking up, and finally I reach over and get about an inch from his face and tell him that I’ll turn every bone in his torso to sawdust if he moves an inch for the rest of the night,” Venus finished.
“I love it,” Alex chuckled. He smirked over at Jake, who was still looking indignantly at Venus for her affront to his manhood. “So who wears the pants in this relationship?”
Jake turned to gape at his friend, all indignation. “Hark who speaks!”
Alex slowly raised his eyebrows, but glanced over at his wolf-girl, Amazonian girlfriend and had to concede the point. “…Touché.” Freya batted her eyes innocently as Remilia laughed into her napkin.
As lunch wound down, Venus brought the check up to the counter, and the other four nursed their drinks in anticipation for heading back out into the heat. “I’m surprised water isn’t rationed on a planet with toxic oceans and murder rain,” Jake said as she returned.
“I was too, until someone told me the size of the ice deposits on Prometheus. They just rip glaciers up whole and drop them into purifiers in Clymene, one of the cities we’re going to visit,” Venus said. “Then they just send them wherever they’re needed on the planet. They don’t need to do that much, now, though, the population is pretty stable.” She sank into her chair at the table and sighed contentedly. “We chose well.”
“Yeah, this place was great. I can’t even pronounce what I ordered, though,” Alex joked.
“It was sauroch flank. A massive herd critter from out in the deserts,” Venus said. “Good eats. Dad brought some home once.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the plainclothesmen at their own table slide his fingers across the butt of his needle pistol. Venus looked straight at him and cocked her head in silent question, feeling her heartbeat pick up. He saw her glance his way and shook his head as the other serfs visibly relaxed.
Her shirt moved. Venus glanced down to see a young girl – couldn’t have been more than three – standing awkwardly next to her chair, tugging her shirt. She had one hand on her mouth, and was staring up at Venus in evident confusion. Venus stared back through her shades. “Hi. Can I help you?” Venus asked.
“Stop that!” her mother hissed at the infant, grabbing her and lifting her up. “Leave the Princess alone!” The weary-looking woman took a few respectful steps back before starting to take a knee.
“Stop,” Venus said quietly, her voice hard as steel for an instant. The woman froze. “Sit down. I don’t mind. And I wouldn’t be here in disguise if I wanted people kneeling.”
“Uh…all right, sorry, your Highness,” the woman said, sitting back down at the table next to the little group.
Venus smiled to take the sting out of her words. “She’s a cutie. What’s her name?”
“Ly’Sung,” the mother said.
“Nice.” Venus grinned broadly at the baby before turning back to her own group. “You guys ready to head out?”
“Sure,” Freya said, standing and stretching. “Where to now?”
“Dunno. Castle first. Then I want to go see the shops a bit,” Venus said. She leaned over to Ly’Sung, still clinging to her mother. “Bye.”
The baby stared silently at her as her mother managed a nervous smile.
Outside, the group started back to the castle. Jake turned to look at Venus through his own shades. “You made a friend.”
“I did.” Venus smiled. “I don’t remember her making a sound the entire time. I wish all kids were that well-behaved.”
“She still grabs strangers,” Jake chuckled.
“Eh, can’t win ‘em all.”
Remilia slung an arm around her shorter cousin’s shoulders, gesturing broadly. “They just want to acknowledge their Queen.”
“Bah,” Venus scoffed, shrugging her cousin off.
As they walked back to the castle, the wind picked up considerably. The temperature rose with it, until Jake and Alex both were panting. Freya and Remilia – iceworlders both – were looking pretty overheated as well. As they arrived at the castle, Jake actually stopped to lean on the doorway. The serfs on either side of the entrance both looked at him askance.
“You all right, baby?” Venus asked, glancing over her shoulder as she heard him stop.
“No,” he managed. “This…this is bad.”
“Do you need to sit down?” Venus said worriedly, walking up to him and taking his free hand.
“I need to lie down,” he said, sweat pouring off of his head. “And have a haircut, and an ice bath,” he continued as he slowly followed her to the lifts.
Venus guided both boys into the lifts and hit the button for their floor. Before the door could slide shut, however, a man outside slid a hand into the closing gap. “Just made it,” he sighed.
Freya tapped the Open button and he slipped in. “Thank you…oh. Your Highnesses,” he said, inclining his head politely. “Adjutant Governor Enike, at your humble service.”
“Ah, Governor, nice to meet you,” Venus said, shaking his hand. “I expect we’ll see each other at the dinner tonight, then.”
“Indeed.” The Governor peered at the two swooning men at the back of the car. “Are your companions well, your Highness?”
“No,” Alex managed. “You people are tough as nails to survive in this heat.”
“Where are you from, Sieur?” Enike asked.
“Terra,” Jake supplied for both. He wasn’t looking dead on his feet any more, but he was still looking pretty grim.
“Ah. Yes. That would do it,” the Governor said unapologetically. “Well. Good thing you’re here in winter time, eh?” he asked. Jake boggled.
The lift opened, and Enike walked out. “See you tonight, your Highness,” he said, bowing out now that he had room to do so. As the lift doors closed, both men rounded on Venus.
“Winter?!” Jake asked.
“Yeah, it’s the dead of winter outside. Didn’t you wonder why so many people had long pants on?” Venus asked. Alex slumped back against the cool metal of the elevator.
“You people are insane,” he muttered.
“I will admit, any colony group that looked at Nocturne and concluded ‘Yep, that’s a good idea!’ was probably high on something,” Venus said. “But then, the planet was nicer in the ancient past. There were actual forests in some places. We should fly over the Petrified Forests if we have time.” The doors parted. The group walked back to their rooms. Jake flopped unceremoniously down on their bed the moment he unlocked the door. Venus walked in behind him and gestured at the air conditioner. As the frigid air wafted over his prone body, he groaned into the covers. “Outstanding. Thank you, baby.”
Venus sat down on the mattress next to his head. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I need to change and shower, badly. But…yeah.” He turned his head to stare at her shapely backside. “Listen…baby…I’m sorry about before.”
“What do you have to be sorry for?” she asked.
“I may have sounded like I can’t appreciate what Nocturne means to you.” He sat up. “I’m saying I didn’t mean to insult you by saying you were addicted to the feeling of coming home. That’s all, really.”
She nodded once. “No apologies necessary. You’re right. It did feel like a physical change. The one who needs to be sorry is me. I didn’t even think of how a hiver’s body would react to the ambient heat here.” She squeezed his hand. “I’m afraid this month is going to kind of suck.”
“I brought thermo gear. I just wasn’t expecting to have to wear it in the cities.” He kissed her on the forehead and squeezed her hand back. “Are we both done feeling sorry?”
“I think so,” Venus said.
He squeezed her hand again. “Great. Make-up sex?”
“Oh, shut up,” she sighed, melodramatic. “Go have a shower and cool down. I’m going to go explore the town a bit.”
“Will you be all right by yourself?” he asked as she stood.
“Sure. There’s a plainclothes detail with me. And Remilia and Freya will be coming with me,” she said. “I’ll be back after dinner. This isn’t a hotel, exactly, but they house dignitaries all the time here, so just order room service. Or, hell, come to the banquet if you want.”
“I didn’t bring anything formal,” Jake pointed out.
“Mmm.” She looked back at him as he wearily peeled his shirt off. “You’ll let me know if the weather really is too much, right?”
“I will. It’s the gravity and pressure that are making it unbearable, really. The air in here now isn’t bad at all,” he said. “But with heat on top…”
She pursed her lips, trying to think of a solution. None came to mind. “Well…I’ll be back as soon as I can get away from the dinner. You might want to just watch some holovision or maybe write a letter to your parents. Didn’t you promise that you were going to write when you arrived?”
Jake nodded. “I did.” He turned to the bathroom, and Venus took a moment to admire his back.
“Alex’s workout routine did you a turn,” she said approvingly.
“Yeah, I’ve lost six pounds since we left Terra,” Jake said. “Probably gained it back with lunch, though, oof.”
“Hah! Well, working out in 1.3G would be hard on your system, so if you guys go to the gym in the basement, take it easy, all right?” she asked. She grabbed her wallet and slid it back in her pocket.
“Is that where it is? I’ll let him know.” Jake paused with his hand on the bathroom door. “You go have fun.”
“I will.” She blew him a kiss and closed the door. Remilia wandered out of her own room, looking freshly scrubbed. “Hey! You want to go out shopping for a while?” Venus asked.
Remilia thought. “Uh…sure. That sounds fun. Shopping for what?”
“Oh, just hitting the city. It’s hardly Startseite, but I want to see what people on my planet wear and eat and do for fun,” Venus said eagerly.
Her cousin nodded. “I’d love to. Freya in?”
Venus listened for a moment, heard the telltale sound of someone putting shoes on from Freya’s room. “I think so…yep,” she said as Freya opened the door.
Remilia looked at her. “You heard her coming?”
“I heard her get her shoes on. You didn’t?” Venus asked.
“I didn’t hear a thing,” Remilia said, an odd tone in her voice. “Must not be used to the air pressure yet.”
“What’s up?” Freya asked as she wandered up to the others.
“We’re going shopping, I think. You ready to go?” Venus asked.
“I’m in!” Freya exclaimed. “What’s that about hearing something?”
“I heard you getting ready to come out,” Venus said. “That’s odd, apparently.”
“Well…it wouldn’t have been odd on Terra,” Remilia allowed. “Maybe you’re just used to Nocturne already?”
“I guess,” Venus said. “Anyway. We passed some stuff I’d love to check out on our way to the restaurant. Where do you want to go first?”
Freya thought for a moment. “That little market on the first street we passed, I think.”
“Works for me,” Remilia said, putting her cousin’s preternatural hearing aside.
Jake stepped out of the shower, toweling off. The steam in the bathroom wasn’t dispersing, even with the fan at full blast. He opened the door into the bathroom, and the mist started to clear. With a sigh, he finished drying and grabbed some clean clothes. “Volcanic worlds, man.”
Bathroom rituals accomplished, the tall hiver walked into the main room and pulled his slate out. He tapped a few runes on the front of it and dropped it on the bed. “Record,” he said aloud. The slate’s screen blinked and a large red circle filled the middle of the screen.
“Hey, Mom, Dad. We’re safe on Nocturne. We’re on the closest thing the planet has a to a formal capital, Hesiod. It’s incredible, you guys. The sun here is RED. The sky looks like blood. The clouds are blue. It’s fucking opposite day up there.” He stood in the middle of the bedroom speaking clearly for the transcription package. “The flight was fine. I took exquisite pleasure in unnerving the senior crew with my humble origins. They never see it coming. Apparently you need to be a noble to date a Primarch’s daughter, who knew?” He crossed his arms, thinking of the flight. “You would have liked a lot of the guys we met, though. The actual ride was smooth, except for the Warp transitions. Those completely sucked.
“We’re safe and sound, though,” he continued. “Alex has been a complete bro. He’s given me all kinds of workout advice. Lost six pounds in nine days, fuck yeah.” He grinned at the slate. “Not much else to do on a ship.”
“I dunno if Venus has already sent home a message, but if she didn’t…you guys need to see the speech she gave the people here. It was breathtaking. And that uniform! Holy shit, you guys, that uniform of hers is fucking awesome. I seriously need to get one of those.” He paused as someone rapped on the door. “Pause,” he said aloud. When the slate beeped, he walked to the door and peeked out. Alex was waiting outside.
Jake opened the door. “What’s up, man? I’m composing a message for my parents,” he said.
“Shit, sorry,” Alex said. “I can come back.”
“What’s up?” Jake repeated.
Alex sighed and walked in. “Jake…this shit is out of hand.”
“What?” Jake asked.
“This weather is going to fucking kill us. What do we do?” Alex asked, slumping into a chair by the door. “I’ve seen athletes drop from heatstroke in this weather without even getting hit, man. Terrans can not handle this planet.”
“And this is winter,” Jake added. “I don’t know. Genetic conditioning is all I can think of.”
“You can’t afford that,” Alex pointed out.
Jake closed the door. “I know.”
Alex sighed heavily. “All I can think is that we stay on the ship.”
“For a MONTH? Not acceptable. We’d be wasting a fortune in Navy assets just moving from surface to space that many times, and I’m not trusting my soul to a fucking teleporter,” Jake said emphatically. “I say we gut it out as long as we can, and if it’s really unbearable, we stay on Prometheus.” Alex squinted at him. “Jake, when I was in freshman year, I saw a junior on the soccer team fall over, out like a light, in practice. We all ran up to him. He was out from heatstroke. When he woke up in the hospital, he said he remembered feeling over-heated and dizzy. How did you feel in the street today?”
“Pretty much like that,” Jake admitted.
“Right.” Alex fidgeted. “Look…we all brought thermoprotective kit. I thought I’d only use it in the deserts, but…”
“Yeah.” Jake glanced over at the thermo gear in his bag. “Yeah. We wear it around, then.”
“It’ll be a little embarrassing, but it’s better than hospitalization,” Alex said. “Well. Anyway. I should let you get back to your letter.”
“Unpause,” Jake said aloud. “Sorry about that, guys. Alex just dropped by to say something.”
“Uh, hi, Seager family,” Alex chuckled. “Alex Carlin here. Dunno if we ever met.” Jake winked at him as he stood up to go.
“Shit weather aside, Nocturne itself is amazing,” Jake said as Alex walked back to his own room. “The people here live so closely with the Salamanders. It’s not a thing like back home with the Imperial Fists. We had breakfast with a few Salamanders this morning, and they were just chatting with us like…well, like normal people. It was great.” He glanced at the timer on the slate’s screen. “I don’t want to take up more than my fair shot of Astropathic time. So…I guess I’ll talk to you later. Goodbye,” he said. “Stop.”
He bundled the message and hit Transcript. In a few seconds, the slate beeped, and the transcription popped up on the screen. After fixing a few errors, he tapped into the line on the wall, grateful for having the master suite, and sent it off to the Astropathic temple in Aethonion.
Green Light: GO SHOPPING!
Venus ran her hands over the fine fabric of the shirt on the rack. “Oooh. I like,” she said under her breath. She glanced at the price tag and lifted an eyebrow above her mirrored shades at the cost. “Cheaper than dirt! Awesome.” She lifted the shirt and carried it up to the vendor at the front of the tiny market booth. “I’ll take it,” she said happily.
“My honor, Princess!” the vendor said.
Venus sighed patiently. “I mean I’ll buy it,” she said, brandishing a money card like a sword.
“Oh…well, I would be…all right, your total comes to seventeen credits,” the vendor said hesitantly. Venus swiped the fifty thousand cred card through the reader.
“Thanks,” she said, walking out before the vendor could complain.
“Oh ho, refusing graft, are you, Princess? How principled,” Remilia joked from the door.
“Bite me,” Venus grumbled. “Why do I even wear these shades if people can see my eyes through them? I should just get a bionic visor or something.”
“You best be kidding. I would kill for those eyes,” Remilia said.
“Eh. I was. And it’s my own fault for thinking people wouldn’t recognize me after a speech like the one today,” Venus said. Freya meandered up from the next booth over, some little icon in her hands. “What you got there?”
“A ske-run sculpture,” Freya said excitedly. “Check this out!” She passed the tiny stone sculpture to her cousin.
“That’s a sa’hrk, not a ske-run,” Venus said. “It’s for the better, trust me. Ske-run are what sa’hrk eat.”
“Oh.” Freya’s face fell. “Well, that’s good too.”
Venus grinned. “You want to head back now, or keep shopping? You appear to have…acquired some lucre already,” she noted, staring at the bulging fanny pack Freya was wearing.
“Let’s head back, actually,” Freya said. “I feel bad for ditching the boys. And I want to get this stuff packed.”
“Okay. You know the way?” Venus asked.
“You’re not coming with?” Remilia asked.
“No. I want to stay a bit longer and just…talk. You know? Find out what my people are like.” Venus smiled at the processions of people on the street. “Sure thing. See you after dinner,” Remilia said. Both of the paler girls walked back to the castle, a plainclothesman discreetly breaking off to follow.
Venus turned back to the crowds, watching in silence. A group of merchant trawlers was hawking their wares at the large table in the middle of the market. As she watched, one swept a pile of goods into a black plastic box and passed it along to family that had paused at their table.
“My Princess?” a voice at her shoulder murmured. She glanced back to see one of the plainclothesmen standing behind her. “If you’d like to explore the market, we could have someone send your purchases back to the castle.”
“Thanks. I think I’m good,” she said. “I won’t be out too much longer before the dinner.”
“As you wish, your Highness,” the man whispered, disappearing back into the crowds.
Venus turned and walked along the rows of booths along the outer edge of the market. The beautiful assortment of exotic jewelry in one booth caught her eye. A natural jeweler herself, she cast her stare over a row of magnificent silver coins. They were blank in the middle and had tiny sparkles along the edges – diamond dust, maybe.
“Remarkable craftsmanship,” she said softly.
“Thanks, dear,” the fellow behind the counter said. For a miracle, he seemed not to recognize her. “I can emboss your picture on one for six hundred credits extra.”
“By hand?” she asked.
“No, no, that takes forever. I use a press and scrape the details by hand, though.”
“Heh. I like those too,” she said, gesturing at a coiling silvery necklace on another table. “Is that electrum? What’s it’s proportion?”
“Good eye. It’s electrum, all right. I hacked the rocks out of a lode my sister sent me. 40-59-1, gold-silver-copper,” the man said. “Try it on.”
“Really?” she asked. She ran her finger gingerly over the coiled links. “Well…” she set her shirt down and lifted the beautiful necklace, holding it over her chest and glancing in a mirror on the cloth wall of the booth.
“It’s gorgeous,” she said quietly.
“It’s yours for forty thousand credits,” the man said.
Venus set it down on the stand again. “No, thank you, sir. But…ooh. Is that a heliotrope ring?” she asked.
“It is. You know your rocks, dear.”
“I do.” She lifted the ring. “The balance is perfect. How did you balance the set with such an asymmetric rock?” she asked.
“Patience. Lots of patience.”
“Bloodstone is my birthstone,” Venus said.
“I live on Terra. On Terra, certain gems and rocks correlate with your birth month. I was born on March 20th, so I’m bloodstone, heliotrope,” Venus said. “My boyfriend was born on June 29th, so he’s Catseye,” she explained. “Don’t suppose you’ve got any yellow cymophanes?”
“I just might,” the man said, reaching under the display case and rooting around. “Hmm…no rings…just a stone,” he said, pulling a gorgeous yellow gem from under the counter.
Venus smiled. “Name your price, sir, on the ring and the stone.”
“Hmm…the stone is cut, and ready to balance. I’ll say five thousand six hundred. The ring was a lot of fun, and you don’t see heliotrope this far from the Dragonspine…I’ll say four thousand five hundred fifty. Comes to ten thousand, one hundred fifty. Taxes make it ten thousand, nine hundred sixty eight and eight cents.”
“Sir, please. The stones aren’t even symmetrical. I’ll give you ten thousand even for the set,” Venus said.
“Miss, you might be able to haggle with the meatmongers across the way, but I know the value of my wares, and your total is 10,968.08 credits,” the man said patiently.
Venus shrugged. “I can’t argue with that.” She swiped her card at the reader and lifted the gems. “So…where did you study, sir?”
“Under my father. My family’s been turning chunks of this misbegotten little piece of hell into artworks since you could count the stars within the Imperium with two hands,” the man said, with the quiet pride of a career craftsman. “My son and one of my grandsons are just as good.”
“Truly? Good for you,” Venus said.
“Yes…my youngest grandson entered the Salamanders. He’s a Techmarine now,” the man said with unmistakable delight.
“Wow. Good on him. What’s his name?” Venus asked as she slid both jewels into a pouch and tied it shut.
“Hasdreth. Tech-brother Hasdreth Liun,” the craftsman said.
“Oh yeah! He studied on Mars, in the Seminary of the Guiding Machine,” Venus said as relevant memories returned. “I met him once at a dinner party.”
“You…met him?” the old fellow asked, baffled. “How?”
Venus looked at him over the edge of her mirrored glasses and winked cheerfully. “I’m a Salamander too.”
“Oh my…Princess Venus, I’m deeply honored,” the man said. “I…suppose I don’t have to ask where you made all your jewelry, at least,” he joked weakly.
Venus laughed warmly. “Indeed. I’m following the family craft as well. Of course Dad’s creations tend to kill things instead of make them pretty.”
“Present company excepted, I’m sure, your Highness,” the jeweler said.
“You’re too kind.” She stuck out a hand to shake. The jeweler hesitantly took it, and Venus shook his hand briskly. “Thank you, sir. Good day.”
“I’ll treasure this day, your Highness. And welcome home,” he said, bowing his head as she left his shop.
Venus glanced back at the sun, high in the sky, and grinned. “It does feel good,” she said softly.
A loud rattling noise from in front of her drew her attention back down to the surface. A group of local police – Enforcers, they were called, Venus remembered, like in the Hives back home – were cordoning off a small road bridge between two parts of the market. She wandered over to take a peek. “Come on, folks, move along,” one Enforcer said.
“What happened here?” she asked the man next to her.
“Robbery,” the man muttered. “Nobody got hurt. Some tourist with a pistol slid in to a booth on the far side, demanded money, and ran for it.”
“Revolting,” Venus said coldly.
“Yeah. Fucking tourists,” the man grumbled, surprising Venus. Before she could say a word, he had turned on his heel and walked away, cloak billowing. Venus stared. He was more upset about the foreigner than the robbery? She looked for a detour around the bridge and found one, skirting around the Enforcer quarantine and emerging in a similar section of market, this one focusing more on the essentials; food and housewares predominated. Venus casually meandered up to the Enforcer line, which was now brimming with locals looking for answers.
A few Enforcers were gingerly guiding a clearly shell-shocked stall owner to a sheltered seat, while some others were examining the booth and asking questions of a witness. Venus stared. That sort of crime was all but unheard of in Startseite. From the reactions of the people around her, it was rare here too.
“Ought to hang the vermin by his balls from the Walls of Hesiod, let him fry,” a woman next to her growled. “Offworlders don’t know what it’s like trying to hack a living from the crust of hell.”
“Or just don’t care. I suspect foreign criminals are just as greedy as Nocturnean criminals,” joked the man to whom she was talking.
Venus backed up, sensing that her presence would have been unnecessary. Even as she started to leave, however, the woman who had been robbed glanced to the side and spotted her. Her eyes flew open.
Venus’ finger shot to her lips, gesturing for quiet. The woman stared, clearly traumatized, but nodded. Without a word, Venus turned and slid back across the detour bridge, making for the castle. Suddenly, she didn’t feel like shopping.
Jake was reading his slate when a knock came on the door. “Come,” he said, setting it down.
Venus opened the door and walked in. “Afternoon, Jake.”
“Hey, baby. You’re back early,” he said. He stood up and walked into the sitting room. “Thought you’d be out mingling.”
“I was. Lost my appetite when I saw a robbery. I wanted to come back and give you a hug,” she said, squeezing him tight. He planted a kiss on her forehead.
“Nobody was injured, but yeah, it was.”
“Well…I sent a message to my parents. I’ve got the afternoon free if you want to do something else,” he said.
“No, thanks, I need to get dressed for the dinner,” Venus said, dropping her shirt on the couch. “But…look at this,” she said, pulling the bloodstone ring from her pocket.
“Oh, wow. It’s pretty,” Jake said, taking the ring. “What stone is that?”
“It’s bloodstone. Heliotrope. My birthstone,” she said. “I was thinking I might wear it to the dinner if I decide not to wear the gloves.”
“It’s really cool. Where did you get it?” Jake asked, following her into the bedroom.
“A jeweler’s shop in the market.” Venus halted when she saw his thermoreflective gear and water pouch on the bed. “You going spelunking in a lava vent, baby?”
“Yes, it’s called ‘walking outdoors in Hesiod,’” Jake said. “No offense, Venus, but I nearly had a heart attack on the way back from lunch. I’m wearing that tomorrow.”
“Oh.” Venus shrugged. “Your call. We’ll just be tourist-ing again.”
“No problem in looking like a tourist if you are one,” Jake said.
“Aye aye.” Venus grabbed the armor stand and rolled it into the bathroom. “Be back in a bit.”
As she shut the door, Remilia poked her head in the door to the sitting room. “Knock knock.”
“Hey, Remilia, come on in,” Jake said. “You just get back too?”
“No, I’ve been back for a while. It’s getting close to dinner time, you want to go grab something?” she asked.
“Love to. I’ll call room service,” Jake said.
“I meant out. In the city,” Remilia said.
Jake winced. “Uh…well, I didn’t handle the heat so good today.”
“We’ll take a car. Come on, my treat,” she said insistently. Jake gave in, his hunger outweighing his reluctance.
“Sure, let me just tell Venus where I’m going,” he said. He raised his voice. “Venus, I’m headed out to dinner with Remilia.”
“Okay, I’ll see you tonight,” Venus’ muffled voice came from the bathroom.
A Revelatory Night
Jake reclined in the spacious seat of the diplomatic car Remilia had requested. How she had convinced the castle staff to let them borrow it, he didn’t care to guess. Remilia herself was sitting beside him on the backseat of the car, trying in vain to encode her portable vox to the local network. “No good,” she grumbled. “The bloody local nets are all four generations behind on cell codes. I’ll never get a signal.”
“I had the same problem.” Jake glanced over at Remilia, who had selected a nicely cut silver shirt and conservative pants for the occasion. “You look nice. How are you not dying of heat? You’re from Inwit!”
“Good genes,” she said with a shrug. “I’ll still be wearing thermos tomorrow.”
“Me too,” Jake said emphatically.
The car halted in front of a small restaurant by the outer edge of the city walls, and the servitor at the drivers’ seat turned the vehicle off with a clatter of cooling metal. Remilia and Jake emerged to find the air much cooler, but still boiling by Terran standards. They walked the short way to the restaurant and entered, and to Jake’s infinite relief, it was even cooler inside.
“My Lady Dorn, my Lord, welcome,” the woman at the front desk said. “How may I serve you?”
“A table for two with a bit of a draft,” Remilia said, smiling politely. “And a steady flow of ice water.”
“Yes, indeed…do follow me,” the hostess said, leading the pair into the building.
Alex finished changing and slid his wallet into his pocket. “As soon as you’re ready, babe,” he called.
“Hold up…there,” Freya said from the other room. She emerged decorated with the single tiny sapphire she had decided to purchase that afternoon hanging from her neck. “Where do you want to go?”
“Somewhere close to the castle,” Alex said. “Maybe that steakhouse you saw at the market?”
“Sure, let’s head out,” Freya replied. As she said it, a familiar red light filled the main room.
“Hey, kids, I’m out of here,” Venus called. “You two sure you don’t just want room service?”
“We can save that for a rainy day. For now, let’s experience Nocturnean cuisine,” Freya said. She eyed her shorter cousin’s formal uniform, replete with weapons. “No crown this time? A shame.”
“Oh hush, that thing is for times when I need to look regal instead of just important,” Venus chided. “Besides, I’m going to replace the guy I’m dining with tonight, I want to be able to look him in the eye.”
“Right.” Freya nipped her cousin’s ear on the way out the door. “Knock ‘em dead.”
“Not yet, they need to stay active until I take office and fire them all,” Venus said nonchalantly. Freya started. “A joke, a joke.”
Jake dug into his appetizer, grateful that Remilia had chosen a place with Terran-style food. “Good call, Remilia,” he said.
“Thanks. Apparently this is The Place to Go when Terran diplomats are in town,” Remilia said. “I think a Lady Primarch qualifies.”
Jake grinned over his riblets. “Man…that gets me.”
“At what point did rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people in the galaxy become something I do over dinner?” he laughed to himself. Remilia half-grinned.
“When you got a scholarship to Imperator.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Jake leaned back, sipping his water. “Thanks for this.”
“My pleasure,” Remilia said with a smile. “So…what do you think of Venus’ homeworld?”
“Amazing place. The weather, the people, the architecture…amazing.” Jake nodded at his own wisdom. “It’s a proud world.”
“It is.” Remilia nicked one of his riblets and chewed. “I want to go see the place they call the Jewel. It’s a city in the middle of an acid ocean.”
“We’re going there soon, though, right? Four days per city, then two extra in the last one and then off to Fenris,” Jake said from memory.
“Yep.” Remilia finished the rib and wiped her fingers. “I’m glad to see you taking to Alex’s tutelage.”
“Mmm. Muscles, flex,” Jake said deeply, clenching his neck. Remilia snorted into her drink. “You want to get into a contest, buddy, you ain’t gonna win.”
“Hmph. No fair. You can kick a hole in rebarred concrete,” Jake grumbled.
Alex downed his first beer and tapped the rim for another as the waitress walked by. “Thanks.” He waited until she was out of earshot before sighing. “Thank goodness the legal age is seventeen here.”
“Heh. Not too much. You need to be lucid,” Freya scolded.
“I won’t splurge.” Alex let his eyes wander across the room. “I feel overdressed.”
“Eh.” Freya shrugged her bare shoulders, and her braids fell across her pale flesh most distractingly. “We’re not hiding our tourist origins. Embrace them.”
Alex chuckled. “Right. You think we’ll get to see some of the Salamander bases?”
“I hope so. The Wolves and the Salamanders can’t be much more different, tactically. I want to see how everything else is different, too,” Freya said eagerly. She grinned, flashing her fangs in the low light of the room. “Beyond the superficial.”
“Yeah? How do they operate differently?” Alex asked.
Freya counted on her fingers. “We don’t use Terminators as much, they rebuild reduced squads, they don’t use speeders or other fast movers, they have Chaplains, we have fewer Thunderhawks by half…tons and tons of stuff.”
Alex cocked his head. “You keep saying ‘we.’ Do you think of yourself as a Space Marine?”
“I may not be able to wear Power Armor or absorb knowledge by eating brains, but I’m a Wolf.” She nodded cheerfully. “The year and a half I spent on Fenris as a kid were some of the the happiest years of my life. When I went back, it was even better. I can’t wait to go back again.” She smiled again. “You’ll love it.”
Jake cut a piece free from his sauroch flambé and bit in. “Delicious,” he said.
Remilia sipped her wine, nodding appreciatively. “It is.” She finished her starter bread and dug in to her own entrée. “To answer your question, no. I would like to be able to play after college, but I don’t have a team in mind. Frankly, I’ll probably just go into politics.”
“You hate politics,” Jake pointed out.
“I completely loathe politics,” Remilia grumbled.
“Then don’t! Start a business or something,” Jake said. “You get to pick. You know how few Terrans get to pick? Go into the private sector.”
“Like what?” Remilia asked.
Jake shrugged, biting into his sauroch. “You’re awesome with money. You could start an accounting firm. Or go into the Army and lead the Quartermasters’ Corps. You’re too smart to waste your time on something you hate.”
“Thanks, Jake,” Remilia said, touched.
“I mean it. Go travel. Find a world inside Imperial Fists territory that’s in the middle of an economic downturn and build it back up. Or hell, go Rogue Trader. Live like a queen,” Jake continued.
“‘Remilia Dorn, Corsair Queen,’” Remilia said aloud. “That…is amazingly appealing.”
“I can see it. You could have a servo-skull follow you around and record it all. Sell holos on the Network and make trillions,” Jake joked.
“Stop making sense!” Remilia said plaintively.
Venus held her plate of nibbles with one hand, the other resting on the hilt of her scabbarded Power Rapier. “Governor, as much as I’d like to say that that’s in the cards, no.”
“Ah, your Highness, you wound me,” the Governor said sadly. “I suppose you have your heart set?”
“I do indeed,” Venus said. She had decided to tie her hair back in a ponytail that night, and had been laboring to project a feel of complete confidence to her audience. “Kouthry. On Terra.”
“I see,” the Governor said. He and the leaders of all seven Sanctuaries, plus nearly a hundred lesser dignitaries, had assembled that night. “Well, I’m sure it’s a good school.”
“My father and mother are both graduates, and my boyfriend is staff there,” Venus said proudly. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“We had been hoping that you would pick a Nocturnean school, your Highness,” the well-muscled Governor said. The man had been a PDF trooper in his youth, and had clearly kept up the exercise routine. Venus found herself liking the man.
“Graduate school may happen. We’ll see,” Venus allowed. She plucked an hors d'oeuvre from her plate and bit in. “I don’t know.”
“Ah well,” the Governor said.
“Governor Erd’Chel, please, do not misinterpret my intention,” Venus said. “Nocturne is my home, and though Terra may house me, I will not forgo my heritage.” She smiled tightly. “I’ve not felt so alive as I have since I arrived. Not in a long time.”
A robed man bearing the stylized I of the Scholastica Psykana walked up to the Governor and whispered something. Venus’ supernatural hearing detected it verbatim. “Governor, the echo is back. I recommend a level five alert.”
“Do it,” the Governor said. The psyker backed away, leaving the Governor grimacing.
“Something require an alert, Erd’Chel?” Venus asked mildly.
“Not at all, Venus,” the Governor said, deftly assuming the same informality as his guest. Venus nodded contritely. “At least not an alarm.”
“Do tell,” she said, downing another bite of imported Septiim liqueur fruit.
“A small radio echo. We suspect that a Tier Y energy spike may be building in the sun,” the Governor explained. “Nothing fatal, but worthy of immediate observation.”
“Of course, I apologize.” Venus set her tray down and wiped her fingers clean on a napkin. A paper napkin. How much did THAT cost to import? Finishing off her plate, she wandered off to the center of the floor, seeking a new speaking companion.
She spotted her old teacher Isaac across the room and smiled conspiratorially. He returned it, winking over his drink, before resuming his conversation with the robed Salamander beside him. The warrior had been silent for much of the night, including the toast to Venus, and Venus ambled over, wondering if he was familiar.
He was not. The robed Space Marine nodded his respect to his Lady Primarch. “Princess Venus. An honor,” he rumbled.
“As you were, Marine.” Venus inclined her head. “I do not believe we have met.”
“I am Fletsun, my Princess, Master of Sanctity,” he said, surprising Venus deeply. The fifth highest-ranking member of the entire LEGION was on-planet and she hadn’t been notified?
Wining and Dining
“I surprise you?” the Marine asked.
“Somewhat. I had expected to be notified of your presence, Master,” Venus said. “Do not mistake that for displeasure. It is an honor to be in the presence of he who keeps the souls and discipline of my father’s Legion to task,” she added, genuflecting with her hand across her heart.
“The honor is mine, Princess.” The ancient war cleric closed his eyes for a moment. “I was overjoyed to hear of your return to us. You were the size of my hand when you left us,” he said with the ghost of a smile on his coal-black lips.
Venus nodded ruefully. “Indeed I was. I have found my time on Terra to be both surprisingly trying and greatly rewarding, however. I deem it time well spent,” she said, effortlessly switching to the Old Nocturnean tongue. Fletsun nodded his approval of her mastery of the language.
“Good. You have had the luxury of formal schooling?”
“Some. I will return to Terra to complete it. Or, rather, gain more. I am genuinely considering graduate school here. Medicine, perhaps, or the sciences. I have the luxury of time as well,” Venus admitted.
“A luxury the Emperor’s gifts grant, and one few embrace properly,” the man said. He smiled once more. “Your Old Nocturnean sounds of recent practice.”
“Father insists that I maintain total fluency and literacy alike. There are approximately ten speakers on Terra, however, so practice is elusive,” Venus confessed. “I do not deny it.” She raised a hand to her lips. “It is a beautiful language.” Her gloves were clasped to her belt for the duration of the meal.
“Indeed.” The Salamander eyed her hand. “A ring of engagement, my Princess?”
Venus laughed aloud. “Were it but so! But it is not. A purchase of mine. On Terra, ancient jewelers and artificers tied times to stones for luck and beauty. The one that corresponds with my time of birth is the aptly-named bloodstone.”
“Fitting,” Fletsun said. “You bear it well. Do you pursue your father’s taste in artifice?”
“Vigorously!” Venus said proudly.
“As you should.” Fletsun bowed again. “I do not monopolize your time fairly. Go. Enjoy the adoration of your people. I will be here.”
“Thank you, Venerable Shepherd,” Venus said, bowing deeply in return. She turned back to the room with a spring in her heel.
Isaac watched her go. “She has become strong and wise, Master. She has defeated me outright in battle. She has found a family to die for. To live for.”
“Indeed.” Fletsun watched her go as well, eyes burning like torches in his face. “A fitting heir to her father.”
“No. Not yet. But when she is one, the galaxy will be bettered for it,” Isaac said quietly.
“You may be right, Isaac.” Venus was chatting with a senior noble of the Skarokk mines now, projecting an easy confidence that only the soul-speaker and the warrior teacher could see was fraught with nerves and uncertainties of youth. “But she will be soon. Her father’s concern for her is the concern of a parent who feels his job unfinished. That is a relief.”
“Better he feel he has much left to teach her, at her youthful age, than nothing more to do,” the Chaplain said. Isaac bowed his submission.
Alex finished his second beer and listened to the background noise in the steakhouse grow louder. “I missin’ something?” he asked.
“No, people are talking about a rad alarm outside. We’ll be fine if we’re indoors,” Freya said, her hearing providing the answer. “How’s your sauroch?”
“Awesome. These people know their grills,” Alex said. “You want a bite?”
“Oog, no, I’m stuffed, thanks.” Freya leaned back and tapped her belly. “How about you?”
“I’m good.” Alex watched as a pair of Enforcers walked past the entrance, yellow lights on their uniform vests flashing. “They must be clearing the streets.”
“Sure looks that way. I hope Remilia and Jake are all right.”
Alex nodded. “So…am I crazy, or does Remilia like Jake a bit too much?”
“It’s just you. He helped her get through some bad shit, remember?” Freya said.
“Right, that thing with her dad.”
“My advice? Let it go,” Freya counseled.
“Done.” Alex finished his entrée and sat back in his seat. “Man that was good. You want dessert, or should we head back before this radiation thing?” “We should go,” Freya said, flagging the waitress. The woman bustled up and deposited the check, bringing a few plates back with her. Freya signed the check without even looking, dropping a card on it as she did.
Remilia stood in the doorframe of the restaurant, listening to the Enforcer beyond. “Ma’am, the city is under rad-lock. You may not exit the building,” the Enforcer said patiently.
“What’s a rad-lock?” Remilia asked.
The Enforcer bit back a sigh. “It’s a lockdown because of a radiation alarm. You’ll be perfectly safe in any building with a stone roof, but you may not go outdoors.”
“All right, we’ll wait it out. Thank you, Officer,” Remilia said, walking back to where Jake and a number of other guests were gathering. “Sorry guys, the lockdown won ‘t lift for a while.”
“Blast,” one man who looked like a merchant grumbled. “We’re stuck here.”
“Seems it,” Remilia said. Jake shrugged and pulled his vox out, flipping it on and booting a game.
“Might as well make the best of it,” he said.
Venus was making her way through the crowd, impressing various nobles, when the psyker she had noted before made his way over to the Governor again. “Sir, the radspike is beginning.”
“Sound the alarm,” the Governor murmured, looking apprehensively out the window.
“Yes, Governor,” the psyker said, his eyes flashing. For an instant, nothing happened. Then, outside, yellow beacons lit, all across the city. Venus’ eye wandered across the sea of yellow lights, reminded incongruously of images her father had once shown her of Nocturne before the Mechanicus had uplifted the Cities to their current grandeur.
The sky turned black, for just a moment. Darker than the night that was coming, the sunset vanished behind a turbulent atmosphere. Several guests grimaced and shielded their eyes.
Venus braced herself, unsure of what to expect. Her skin prickled as the radspike hit. She felt her heart pounding like a hammer in her ribcage, and the world turned a bit redder as her eyes grew so bright that the reflection overwhelmed her contact lenses.
Power surged through her. Her armor felt constricting where before it had fit like a glove. The weapons at her side seemed to sing to her. The world around her sharpened. She could hear the heartbeats of guests nearby accelerate as their bodies dealt with the radiation’s lingering heat. The tiny cracks in the varnish in the floor refined themselves before her sight.
Her blood raced to her stomach, her arms, her legs, her eyes, her back. She was ready to fight. She was back in the ring with Isaac and spinning in Ir’Sem’s arms, and she was back before No’dan and in bed with Jake watching her world twirl on the wall.
Her breath was loud, unsteady. A hand fell on her back as Governor Erd’Chel moved up behind her. She had heard his breath and heartbeat as he had approached, and it unnerved her. She normally couldn’t do that, at least not in a room so crowded.
“Princess? Are you all right?” he asked, a note of distinct worry in his even voice.
Venus straightened up. Erd’Chel took a step back from the raging inferno in her eyes. “I am well, Governor. Thank you for your concern,” she said. Her voice was rich and resonant. Her concerns melted away. She projected an absolute confidence she had never felt, and found it real.
“Good, Princess, I was concerned when you nearly dropped your plate,” the Governor said, eyeing the plate that teetered on the edge of the table next to her.
“Sorry.” Venus’ suddenly radiant eyes searched the room, casting red across it. The other guests were all back to normal, talking, snacking, dancing. None seemed to share her exhilaration and power.
She turned back to Erd’Chel and saw every weak point in his posture. Every place she could hit him to cripple or kill.
She smiled. “I’ve never felt that before.”
“It’s a fact of life around here,” Erd’Chel sighed. Behind him, Fletsun stared at Venus, his own eyes suddenly ablaze.
Alex walked out of the restaurant as the beacons died. “Glad that’s over,” he said, a faint slur in his words.
“Yeah, that was a whole lot of no fun,” Freya said, following him down the street. “You nauseous?”
“Naw. Little drunk, but I’m good.” Alex walked carefully down the empty streets as night lamps kicked on overhead. “I am so full right now.”
“Yeah.” Freya walked up beside him and squeezed his hand playfully. “Not too full, I hope?”
“Not even a little,” Alex happily said.
“Good.” Freya released his hand and pointed up into the sky. “You see that?”
Alex squinted. “That a space station?”
“I think it’s Prometheus Station,” Freya said, focusing her eyes. “It’s big enough anyway.”
“Huh.” Alex shivered. “Is it just me, or did it get a lot cooler?”
“That bigass ball of fire over there is going away; yeah it’s cooler,” Freya laughed. “You should have stopped after one beer, featherweight.”
“Oh, baby, that hurts,” Alex said, wounded.
Jake stuck his hands in his pockets and breathed the evening air deep. “Everything smells so clean here,” he said. “How, I don’t know, with all the acid in the water and radiation in the air.”
“I suspect it’s the absence of a trillion humans underground,” Remilia joked, joining him at the curbside. “You ready to head out?”
“You bet.” She grinned at her sidelong. “Thanks for dinner.”
“My pleasure.” Remilia’s own smile faded a bit. “Do you think I should send a message home?”
“Absolutely. Warp travel is scary as hell. Let your parents know you’re all right,” Jake counseled.
“Yeah, I should.” Remilia leaned sideways on Jake’s shoulder for a second, and Jake reached across to squeeze her back. “I like your advice.”
“Make me first mate on your pirate queen flotilla,” Jake quipped.
“Hah! You’ll be busy being Prince of Nocturne,” Remilia laughed. Jake shook his head as they walked back to their car.
“Why do people assume that I’m already some sort of noble all the time? I don’t even look like one.”
“And I do?”
“Yes! Look at you!” Jake said.
“Hmph. You should ask Venus about Nocturnean matrimonial law, Jake. It might surprise you,” Remilia hinted. Jake cocked an eyebrow.
Venus marched straight up to Fletsun and spoke. “Master. What is happening?” she demanded in Old Nocturnean.
“Your blood stirred when you felt the radiation from our sun reach you,” the old Master rumbled. “We all feel it.”
“What IS it?” she asked urgently.
“The geneseed at the heart of you reacts with the radiation of our world, as it did for Lord Primarch Vulkan himself,” Fletsun said. “You strengthen. Our connection with our world is as real and visceral as our bodies themselves.”
Venus clenched a fist. “I do not like this power. It smacks of addiction and drugs,” she said coldly.
“You do not like it because it is unfamiliar. No harm comes of it. Your father drank of this world for three thousand, six hundred years, and he is no weaker for his time abroad,” Fletsun pointed out.
He rested a hand on Venus’ shoulder, speaking quietly. “You are stronger here. You are whole here. The gifts of your father and grandfather can be used to their fullest here. Do not be afraid of it. Embrace it.”
The black-haired girl stared up at the old Master, and Isaac, silent beside them, and finally relented. “No harm comes of it? No drawback?”
“None whatsoever,” Fletsun said. “Our Librarians have studied it for the length of the Crusade, and found no downside. It is the blood of Nocturne pulsing within you.” He stood tall and spoke faintly, but with infinite conviction. “Child of the Forge, our connection to our people is more than mere altruism and pragmatism. Our world is a literal part of us. Our sun fuels our blood.”
“You can not accept your responsibilities until you understand that,” Isaac added.
Venus looked from one man to the other. “I see.”
“That is why we are kin to the Nocturneans. We are their brothers, not their masters,” Fletsun said. “Their souls and lives are forged by the unrelenting cruelties of their home. They rise above it, and become artisans, warriors, merchants. We are simply the next of the paths of the Promethean Way: the apotheosis of the Nocturnean spirit of survival. We express our world’s harshness on the fields of battle as the Emperor’s paladins, a bulwark against the ravaging of aliens and mutants, heretics and witches, daemons and thinking machines.”
Venus nodded. “I…have never thought of it that way.”
“Then you must, Princess, before you take your icon back from No’dan and rise to become our rightful Queen,” Fletsun said. “Do you understand?”
Venus clasped her hands together over her belt buckle and thought. “I…do not know. I truly do not know.”
“You will. I have confidence in your ability to make good decisions,” Fletsun said. “And no step in the process of learning is as great as admitting a lack thereof.”
“Thank you, Master Fletsun,” Venus said. “I will reflect on your words.”
Like A New Woman
Alex turned around as he heard yelling behind him. He turned to see someone screaming at the plainclothes detail that had been shadowing them since they had left the restaurant. A group of surly-looking Nocturnean men was glowering at them from behind the rank of serfs, all of whom had their hands on their needle pistols.
Freya slid an arm around Alex’s waist and guided him back down the street. “Go. We shouldn’t be here,” she said urgently.
“What can you hear?” Alex asked.
“They’re pissed because they think you’re the robber that trashed their cousin’s stall this afternoon,” Freya said tightly, speeding them up. “And at least two of them have guns,” she added under her breath.
“Fuck,” Alex muttered, rounding a corner. Both teens relaxed as the reassuring bulk of the castle came into sight before them. A trio of uniformed serfs loped past them, clearly heading for the confrontation behind them.
Freya shook her head, braids snapping behind her. “Assholes.”
“Forget them,” Alex said. “Let the Salamanders handle it.”
Remilia paused outside her rooms. “All right. I’ll see you tomorrow, Jake,” she said.
“Good night. Thanks again for dinner,” Jake said, walking into his own accommodations.
The light was off, and he flicked it up, along with the AC. The frigid air washed over him as he sank into the bed. “Much better,” he said into the bedspread.
The door rattled as Venus arrived. Jake rolled over and peered into the sitting room. His girlfriend was standing in the middle of the room, hands on her temples. “Hello, Venus. How did it go?” he asked.
She spun around, eyes flaring. Jake recoiled and wondered if he had done something wrong.
“Awesome. Aside from the radspike, it was great,” she cheerfully said.
Jake sat up on the bed. “Good. You just looked a bit distracted.”
“Nope. Just coming down from an emotional high,” she truthfully said. “How was dinner?”
“Great, though I have the feeling that the place was a tourist trap,” Jake said. “It was fantastic, but I nearly choked when I saw the prices.”
“Thank goodness Remilia Dorn has more credits than there are stars in the sky, then.” Venus snarked. She walked into the bedroom and started stripping her armor off. “Where were you when the radspike hit?”
“We were just waiting to leave in the restaurant,” Jake said. “You?”
“Middle of a conversation at the party.” She powered off her weapons and hung the belt on the rack. “It felt extremely weird.”
“Really? I didn’t feel a thing.” Jake shucked his own shirt and shoes. “It was over so fast.”
“I’m still feeling it,” Venus admitted. She carefully extracted herself from the armored chest piece of the uniform and hung it on the rack as well. She rustled her undershirt to get the creases out. “Phew. That’s heavier than it looks.”
“You’re still feeling the effects of the radiation?” Jake asked. “You should see a medic,” he said.
“No, no, it’s all right,” she hastened to explain. “Here,” she said, sticking her hand out to him. He curiously took it. His eyes widened.
“Whoa. You’re red-hot.”
“Yeah. There was a Salamander at the party, he explained that this always happens to us when we’re exposed to the radiation of our sun,” she said. “It’s supposed to happen. That’s why I was feeling so strange this whole time.”
“Oh. So…it’s not bad?” he asked.
“Not at all.” She smiled contentedly, bringing his hand up to her lips and resting it there. “I promise.”
He relaxed. “Good. Want to watch a holo before we turn in?”
“Sure. Something stupid,” she said, resuming her de-armoring.
Alex finished his bathroom routine and peeked into the bedroom, hoping that Freya would be up for their game. To his considerable dismay, she was sitting up under the covers reading. Consoling himself with the knowledge that she at least slept in the buff, he made his way over to the bed and waved the lights down. “I’m going to try that gym Jake mentioned tomorrow. You in?” he asked.
“Sure,” she muttered distractedly. “You going to work out in this gravity?”
“I’ll be careful.” He lay down next to her and squeezed her knee. “What you reading?”
“Astropathic message from Dad,” she said.
“Cool. What’s he saying?” Alex asked.
“The usual. ‘Hope you had a good flight, don’t drink the water, write when you arrive, don’t let Alex knock you up,’ etc.”
“He did not tell you not to let me get you pregnant,” Alex accused, grabbing the edge of the slate and tilting it towards himself. “…Okay, he did. What the fuck? I thought we were starting to get along! And you're not baseline! I CAN'T get you pregnant!”
“I think he likes you, he just doesn’t like the idea of us fucking. And I don’t blame him,” she said, turning the slate off. “And after the whole incident with the window and the nylon rope and the servo-skull, I don’t blame him for being suspicious.”
Alex scoffed. “That was awesome, and you know it.”
“You don’t gotta tell me,” she said smugly. “I planned it.” She sank down under the covers and flicked the lights off, and chilled the room with a gesture. “Much better,” she said. She snuggled up to Alex under the wafer-thin sheets and slid one arm across his toned chest. He grabbed her hand and held her tight. “So…Nocturne. Thoughts?” she asked quietly.
“Scary place. I want to see more, though,” he said under his breath. She heard him fine. “The heat is going to be a real problem, though. Thermoreflective gear for me and Jake. What about you, iceworlder? You and Remilia must both have been boiling today.”
“We’re built for it. We’ll be alright.” Freya said. She looked up at him from his shoulder. “Do you want to send a message to your father?”
“I should,” Alex said heavily. “He might drop by uninvited if I don’t.”
“He’s a Rogue Trader, not a travel agent,” Freya giggled.
“Can you tell? I can’t, sometimes,” Alex sighed. “Lord Carlin does not suffer poor accommodations for his offspring, no ma’am.”
As soon as Jake and Venus both were dressed for sleep and cleaned up, they curled up around Venus’ dataslate and absorbed an incredibly dumb holo about deep-space vampires, one of Venus’ pastimes. Jake had asked her once about why she loved such horrible movies. Her response: ‘you have to let art flow over you.’
Jake shifted a bit as the warmth from Venus’ skin started to overwhelm him. She noticed and stuck a bunched-up shirt between them, insulating him from her unnatural heat. “Sorry, Jake.”
“Not a problem.” He resumed the movie. “How can you like these? They’re so dumb.”
“Jake, a good cheese villain is one you CAN’T take seriously.” She nodded wisely. “You have much to learn, your Highness.”
“What are you calling me that for?” Jake asked. “You and Remilia both.”
“Oh ho, she figured it out, huh?” Venus asked slyly. Jake slowly turned to face her, pausing the holo.
“What, precisely, are you two talking about?”
“What did Remilia tell you?” Venus asked.
“She said I’m going to be a busy Prince of Nocturne. Present tense.”
Venus nodded. “Yep.”
“Baby, we’re not married.”
“But it’s viable, now. Remember that little contract you signed with Dad?”
Jake very slowly sat up. “Maybe you should explain that.”
Venus sat up too, crossing her legs. “Well, Nocturne basically doesn’t have a marriage law like Terra does. When you agreed to live with me at Kouthry, you were agreeing to be a roommate, essentially. Nothing more. Except here on Nocturne, people agree to what looks to Terrans like marriage with basically the same sort of deal.”
Jake stared at her. “So…people think we’re married?”
“Yeah. Well, bonded. Same principle.” Venus sat back on her hands. “Look, I didn’t tell you because it’s not your problem to clean up people’s misconceptions. We’re already going to be living together on Terra for years, and a lot can happen in that time. I don’t want you to get harassed by tabloids and shit that whole time, asking you if you’re some kind of Royalty. And realistically, you would be, if we had agreed to that sort of arrangement on Nocturne. Really. That’s the whole of it.”
Jake nodded. “Well…all right. I think I understand. Does this mean that things have changed for me?”
“Not if you don’t want them to.” She looked straight at him. He met her eyes with an effort. “Jake, this is a vacation. I’m not going to ask you to take the reins. We’re here to have fun. Tomorrow, I have stuff to do the whole morning. You and the others go be tourists. Have a blast. Explore the city where I was born. I’ll come find you at lunch and we can talk more if you have questions you don’t think of here.” She rocked forward onto her knees and grabbed his hand, raising it to her lap and resting it there. “All right?”
He nodded, staring at her hand in his lap. “…Do people really get married at sixteen on Nocturne?”
“Bonded. And yeah. Before Dad, life expectancies around here sucked. If you weren’t popping out kids by sixteen, you weren’t going to be.”
“Yeah. A different era.”
Jake left his hand where it was, deciding he liked it. “Well…that raises another question.”
“Are we…you know, compatible?”
“I think so,” she purred.
“I mean genetically.”
“Uh.” She blinked. “Good...question. I have to think so. I know that a few of my uncles are…I have no idea if Dad is. I suspect so. I’ll ask Grandpa when we get back. Why? Thinking of having kids out of wedlock?” she asked coyly.
Jake shuddered. “HELL no. But we may have to find out some day.”
“That’s sweet of you,” she said, touched by his implication.
“Then we wait, and deal with it when it happens,” Jake said with finality.
“Yeah, but I honestly think it’ll be all right. My internal temperature would be more of a problem, really,” Venus said slowly. “I’m pretty toasty inside.”
Jake grinned. “So I have discovered.” He leaned forward, running his hand over her muscular stomach. “Your thermostat is broken.” He frowned. “Now moreso than usual. Are you sure you’re all right? You’re boiling.”
“Jake, I haven’t felt this good since before Morticia,” Venus said with quiet emphasis. Jake looked over at her. Her eyes were shut tight, she was grinning broadly. “The Marine at the party said that this is supposed to happen, there’s no drawback that they know of.” She opened her eyes and grabbed his hand, lacing her fingers with his. He felt his pulse quicken as her radiant grin turned to him. “I swear my senses are sharper. I can see clearer…my hearing is better.”
“Cool. Your world is actually good for you.”
“As bizarre as it sounds, your Highness,” she snarked.
“That’s going to take some getting used to…” Jake said, letting the title ring in his head.
Venus leaned over him again. “It’s funny,” she said. “Dad never told me this would happen, but it feels amazing. I wish I could show you what it’s like.”
He tugged the hem of her sleeveless vest up and slid an enticing hand over her stomach. She nodded, as if to accept a superior argument. “I suppose that’s one way,” she said with mock reluctance. Tugging it the rest of the way off, she sank into his embrace. “Welcome to my world, Jake,” she whispered softly.
He caught her lips in a passionate kiss. “I feel pretty welcome so far,” he murmured as she slid his shirt off to join hers. He grinned fiercely as she ran her hands up his sides. “Home sweet home.”
Remilia Dorn sat cross-legged on the roof of the castle, slate in hand. The night was a good thirty degrees colder than the day here. She was actually chilly.
“I don’t want to come off like a neophyte Warp-traveler, you two, but this planet is crazy,” she said. The little recording icon on her slate took down her words and transcribed them. “I’m on the roof now, and the stars are so bright it’s uncanny. Is this what old Earth looked like? Dad, is this what Inwit looked like?” She stood up, staring at the high walls of the city. “Venus tells me that the walls here see use all the time. The city would be under siege from monsters if it weren't here. And the ash drifts have to be burned off with a multi-melta, they get so big.” She craned her head down and stared at the city below. “The people…the people are strong, but insular. They dislike foreigners, except when we’re spending money. But then, who doesn’t?”
She hopped down from the roof to the balcony from which she had climbed, ten feet below. “The place is built like a fortress, even the houses are reinforced all to hell. You’d approve, Dad.” She looked at where a thick column of smoke was rising from a structure built into the distant volcano. “Venus says we can’t go see the Forges of the Mountain. I’m disappointed, but I understand. She’s going to spend some of tomorrow there, though.” She lowered her voice a bit, conspiratorial. “I think she’s making a birthday present for Jake.”
The door behind her opened as someone came to see what the impact was. Remilia turned to look at him, still talking, and the serf who had guided her up there nodded when he saw that she was all right. “The Salamanders are gracious hosts. They treat their serfs…well, not like true equals, but as kin. The people here, too, they treat them nearly as well. There are Salamanders on the streets below. That sense of solidarity is incredible. I wonder if the Wolves will do it too?”
She continued as she set the slate down on the ledge. “The speech Venus gave was amazing. Truly amazing. She improvises public speaking better than I can do with a script.” Remilia tapped her finger on the ledge. “You should find a copy of the speech if you can. It’s worth a watch. Maybe ask Uncle Vulkan, I’m sure he’s got a copy.” She changed gears, moving on to schedule discussion. “Well…tomorrow we’ll be wandering the city a bit while Venus is out. I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of the Castle, too. Apparently the whole city was built vertically; every few hundred years or so they’d tear part of the castle down and make it taller so local structures could expand. The walls of the city look like geologic strata in places, it’s beautiful.”
She looked back to the sky. “Have you two ever been here? You didn’t say if you had. The sky is terrible here. It’s as red as a gaping wound, and the night is as black as the depths of space…but it’s so beautiful. The aurorae from the radspike earlier today are magnificent.” She reached her hand out to the blue ribbons of light, dancing above the horizon. “Did Earth have these before the beacons on the tops of the hives drowned them out, and a million ships in orbit obscured them?” she whispered.
In the distance, a horrific roar echoed over the walls. Remilia started. “I…I think I just heard drakesong.” She listened, very carefully. The noise repeated, even louder. “It’s terrifying...is a Salamander out there earning his admittance to the Fire Drakes?” The noise sounded again, louder yet…then cut off halfway. “That answers that.” She shivered. “Breathtaking. I don’t know if you can hear that, but a drake totally got its ass kicked a second ago.”
Her slate beeped. “Looks like I’m approaching the Astropathic limit. I’ll write again soon. Bye.” She flipped the recorder off and transcribed the message with a button, then sent it off to the Astropathic station in orbit with another press. As she lifted the slate to leave, however, it beeped again. She blinked. “Oh, it sent already? That was fast.” She looked up at the invisible station overhead and smiled. “Maybe I’ll hear back soon.”
Venus’ eyes opened. She glanced at the clock-
0455. A quarter hour early …but she didn’t feel tired at all. Venus smiled to herself. “Radiation…gotta love it, apparently.” She glanced down at Jake, still fast asleep in her arms. “I doubt you’ll see me before lunch…” She leaned over and gently kissed his forehead. He didn’t stir. “Happy birthday,” she whispered.
Ten minutes later, she was dressed, cleaned, and in the gym, gingerly testing her balance in the higher gravity. Ten minutes after that, she was working away on the leg weights when her cousins wandered in and walked on over.
“Morning,” Venus said.
“Hey.” Remilia selected a leg lift and started to set the weights before pausing. “Right…1.3Gs…” She stopped to remove some weights before starting the lift. “How are you feeling?”
“Awesome,” Venus said, flicking a sweaty hair out of her eyes. “You?”
“Apprehensive,” Remilia said. “The weather holo scared me.”
“Yeah. Boiling hot and bone-dry,” Freya said. “Thermos for me.” She glanced over Venus’ stack of weights. “Good for you. Keeping track of your gains?”
“No, because they’ll vanish as soon as we leave,” Venus said. “Trust me.”
“Ah.” Freya selected a pair of free weights and began lifting. “Your core catch the breeze?” she nonchalantly inquired.
Venus’ weight stack slammed back into the bottom of the machine. “How the hell did you know about that when I didn’t?” Venus demanded, eyes wide and bright.
“I didn’t. You confirmed it,” Freya replied honestly. Remilia glanced from one to the other. “I overheard a Salamander ask about something like that on Prometheus. I swear that’s the extent of it.”
“What?” Remilia asked.
“Salamander geneseed was tainted by radiation exposure,” Venus murmured. “Apparently when Salamanders are exposed to specific kinds of solar radiation, we become stronger.”
“Cool.” Remilia removed a small weight from her stack.
“That’s it? Cool? It freaked me the hell out,” Venus said. “I could FEEL my eyes getting sharper.”
“Really? That’s actually…pretty intense. Did it hurt?” Remilia asked.
“No, it feels amazing. But it makes me nervous, too. What will it feel like when I withdraw?” Venus wondered.
“Probably not bad, if your father’s done it a thousand times,” Freya pointed out.
Venus nodded. “True. Thanks. This doesn’t weird you guys? Is there a parallel for the Wolves and Fists?”
“Nope. But hey, if it allows you to approach my infinite athletic ability, rock on,” Freya casually said.
“Die in a fire,” Venus deadpanned.
“That seems likely, actually, given the day’s itinerary,” Remilia worried.
Message in a Bottle
Alex sat down to breakfast a few hours later, dataslate gripped in hand. His knuckles were white. “Son of a bitch can’t tell when he’s not wanted,” he growled.
The doorknob rattled. Alex quickly tabbed to a different page. “Hey, baby, how you feeling?” he asked aloud.
“Our love can never be,” Jake replied, sticking his head in the door. “Morning, man.”
“Fuck you, I’m fine,” Alex said. Jake nodded once, man law upheld. “You want to hit the gym?”
“No thanks. This gravity is really getting to me. I think I might just go for a run before the sun comes up.” Jake appeared in the door to the tiny kitchenette of Alex and Freya’s more modest apartment. “Are you all right? You look pissed,” Jake said.
“I am pissed,” Alex snarled.
“Sorry, man. You want to talk about it?” Jake asked carefully. He had come to like the older man quite a lot in the preceding four months, but sometimes Alex’s temper got to him.
“Might as well,” Alex sighed. “Look.” He passed his slate to Jake, who spun it around to read. “My father’s ‘passing by.’”
“So…he’s going to be here?” Jake asked.
“Oh yes. The stupid son of a bitch,” Alex said darkly.
“Man, why do you hate your father so much?” Jake asked.
“Hate? I don’t hate him. I think he’s an insensitive, brutal, selfish whoremonger,” Alex said coldly.
Jake shifted uncomfortably. Alex sighed. “Man…do you remember meeting him at graduation?”
“Uh…briefly. He was talking to you the whole time, so I didn’t really meet him,” Jake said.
“Do you remember meeting my mother?” Alex asked.
“No, he wasn’t with her, I don’t think. He was with your sisters.”
Alex grimaced. “I’m an only child.”
Jake was quiet for a few moments. “…ew.”
“The man brought hookers to my fucking graduation. With Primarchs’ daughters, a Space Marine or fifty, and an army of Treasury agents in the room,” Alex said with contemptuous disgust. “He can go fuck cats.”
“Man…what do we do?” Jake asked.
Alex’s voice was ice. “‘We?’”
Jake stood there silent. Alex slowed his eyes and slowly ran his hands over his face. “Sorry. Let’s…let’s hit the gym. I have bad feelings to burn.” Jake nodded and fetched his gym bag. He followed his friend down to the gym, wondering if there was anything he could do, and deciding that there really wasn’t.
The boys walked in as the girls were making off to the showers. “Hey, guys,” Remilia said brightly. “How are you?”
“Enraged,” Alex groused. Remilia stared.
“Because my imbecile father, Lord Trader Joseph Kimball-Carlin himself, is at the edge of the system, having conveniently ‘arrived’ a few hours ago,” Alex said.
“Oh for fucks’ sake, didn’t you specifically tell the asshole to leave us alone on our road trip?” Remilia groaned.
“Yes, yes I did, a warning to which he paid precisely zero heed,” Alex said.
Venus walked up, towel slung around her neck. “I can put paid to him if he does something stupid, Alex. Trust me.”
“I know you will, Venus, and I’m sure it won’t come to th…what the fuck am I saying, he’s a Rogue Trader, he gets what he wants,” Alex said wearily.
Venus’ fingers tightened on the towel. “Not in the sight of Prometheus, Alex,” she said softly. Alex winced.
“I don’t want to cause trouble,” he said.
Venus grinned. “You aren’t. If he does…well, you’re hardly responsible.”
“Good,” Alex said. Jake walked up behind him, eying the impressive gym.
Venus walked up to him as Freya and Alex continued discussing Lord Carlin with Remilia, trying to work things out. With a deft flick of her towel, she snagged it behind his neck and pulled him into a kiss. “Glad I got to see you before I left for the Hall of Deathfire,” she said. “I’m off.”
He slid her towel off, smiling warily. “And what pleasant and safe activities does one partake of in the…Hall of Deathfire?” he inquired.
“Forging molten gold in a volcanic stack-fuelled smelter,” Venus said happily. “Home sweet home.” Jake stared.
Several hours later, Venus was standing in the closest thing to her basement she had seen in two weeks. The Forgedaughter was aptly dressed, as well, with short leather pants and a normal forge apron on. A few other Salamanders were at work in the dark caverns, too, and all had paid her respectful heed. Even serfs weren’t allowed here.
Venus was tapping a few tiny pieces of gold into shape at that moment. Though her skin was a hundred times more sensitive to heat than that of the Salamanders beside her, she was far less vulnerable than a baseline human, and the sweat on her brow was exertion, not heat.
A few of the gene-modded warriors around her had cast approving looks her way as she worked, which cheered her considerably. Approval was something she didn’t seek from many people, but never found unwelcome. And the Salamanders, of course, were hardly strangers to her.
“Princess, you do us proud,” a voice beside her murmured. She glanced up to see a towering Devastator passing by.
“Thank you, warrior,” she replied in Old Nocturnean. The Salamander blinked. She switched to Gothic. “Sorry, force of habit.”
“I think you will find that aside from the Council, the Librarians, a few Chaplains, and about half the Drakes, none of us speak the Old tongues fluently,” the Devastator said, halting at her side. “A shame, I know, but it’s just not needed much these days.”
“Hmm.” Venus shielded her eyes as she poured a tiny drop of gold into a set. “What brings you by, Brother?”
“Upgrades. I need a new rail for my shoulder mount,” the Devastator explained. “Diligent repair prevents ruinous failure, after all.”
“Wise words. My Father’s?”
“They are the words of T’kell, the Artificer Lord, your father’s first Forgemaster,” the Devastator said, tapping his fingers on his cracked shoulder rail. Venus peered at the metal pieces and saw where a chain-fed stubber would be mounted.
“I see.” Venus returned to her labors, flicking a speck of ash off of the work surface. “My arrival was either announced in advance, or Dad learned a few tricks of timing, because no sooner do I arrive than lo and behold, the smallest forge is available for use,” she said drily, gesturing at the forge at which she worked, which was, indeed, miniscule compared to the ones on either side of her.
“I think that was put there for Scouts who received their Carapace before their Plates,” the Devastator said.
“Whatever, it works,” Venus said. She pulled the yellow Catseye from her pouch on the floor and measured it carefully. “Hmm. Bigger than it looks…”
“A new work of art, your Highness?” the Devastator asked through his helm’s speaker.
“No. A gift. Jake’s birthday is today. I saw this in the markets the other day and thought of him in an instant.” She ran some quick numbers in her head, deciding how much gold she would need.
“I see.” The Devastator was silent for a moment. “May I inquire as to the circumstances of your meeting, your Highness?”
“School. Farah Manus introduced us,” Venus said. “Cogitator Design class.”
“Is that right? I didn’t know.”
“You disapprove,” Venus observed.
“I didn’t voice a single complaint, your Highness,” the Devastator pointed out.
“But you harbor them,” Venus said, still avoiding his gaze.
“It is inappropriate.”
“Doubting your leadership is always inappropriate, Devastator, I would hear your justification rather than assuming the worst,” Venus said. She poured a few more drops of gold into the caster’s set and waited for it to cool, just a bit.
“He is not Nocturnean, your Highness. We are.”
“The first batch of Salamanders were all Terrans. So is the Emperor. I lived there for fifteen years. What’s your point?” Venus asked evenly.
“He can not know the Nocturnean way of life,” the Marine said.
“Why do you think I brought him to this hell-world on our vacation, Marine? I want him to see it. Not to give him a chance to back out – though he would if he truly thought it beyond him – but because I want him to understand a bit of my past, and my nature. I will stay with him for years thanks to the educational arrangement we’ve made. Is it my taste in men or my father’s judgment you question?” she asked, turning to meet his eyes at last.
The Devastator recoiled. “I…Princess, this isn’t a slight against your choice. I just want to have it elucidated.”
“Then what’s the issue?” Venus gingerly pushed the mold away from the simmering, molten rock. “You think my father didn’t make him jump hurdles?”
“I suppose he did. I won’t pry.”
“Hmph.” Venus set the mold aside to cool and pulled another from the pile on the left. “Too big for a ring…he doesn’t wear necklaces…ooh, I know.”
The Devastator noted a streak of gray on her bare back in the flare of light from the volcanic forge; it was only faintly visible in the dim light, but it was unobscured by the apron’s tie. “Are you injured, your Highness?”
“Injured? What?” Venus risked him a glance.
“Your back is scarred, your Highness.”
“Ah. Yes. There’s a branding shrine in the house on Terra. What you see is a product of misdirected zeal I will discuss no further,” Venus said flatly.
“Understood. I apologize for my intrusion.”
“Indeed. See you around, Devastator,” Venus said, putting the discomforting conversation firmly aside.
“Your Highness,” The Salamander said, backing up a respectful pace, before moving to another forge elsewhere in the volcanic labyrinth.
Venus shook her head, setting her ponytail sliding over her back. “I suppose I can’t blame him,” she said under her breath.
Alex sat down at the table he had selected for lunch and tried not to make eye contact with any of the people around him. The little group of Terrans and iceworlders were drawing a few stares in the little tavern they had picked, but most people were just ignoring them. Freya was trying to extract more information about his father from him. “Your Dad, you think he’s going to come here and get you?” Freya asked.
“I sincerely hope not, for his sake,” Alex said darkly. He nursed his drink and glared into its depths. “If he’s smart he won’t even contact me.” No sooner had he said that than the vox at his waist vibrated. Alex grabbed it, flipping it open.
“You get reception on the local network? I don’t,” Freya said.
“I shouldn’t, unless it’s a frequency a family member has,” Alex groaned. “Damn him.” He stood from the table and marched out of the tavern, gripping the vox in his hands.
He emerged into the blazing red sun and pressed the call button. “Hello?”
“Alex, good to hear from you!” his father boomed. “How are you?”
Alex drew a weighted breath, let it out slowly. “Just fine. Yourself?”
“Awful, but that’s a story for later. Do you know if there’s a Mechanicus station in Nocturne?”
“A Mech…yeah, of course there is, at the edge of the system. And a single sensor pulse would have made it clear,” Alex said, surprised. “What’s wrong?”
“Like I said, long story. You go have fun. I’ll talk to you later.” The call cut off.
Alex stared at the vox in his hand, surprised. “The fuck?”
After a few finishing inscriptions, the present was almost done. Venus beamed at the results of her handiwork. “Awesome. He’ll love it,” she said. She wiped some sweat from her hands with a rag and hunched over the alloyed gold and stone assemblage. “Hmm…gonna need to find someone in town who can finish it…”
One quick rinse and change of clothes later, Venus was scurrying through the substantial craftworks market in the city, gift components in hand. Having located the shop listed in her quick perusal of the local directory, she arrived at the unassuming little shop. After an impressively short wait, the gift was assembled. She held it up to the light in the little store and inspected it. “Perfect.” She turned to the craftsman behind the counter and paid up as fast as she decently could, and hauled ass to the tavern they had selected for lunch.
She arrived just as Alex finished his perplexing call. “Alex!” she called as she approached.
He turned on his heel and spotted her, waving. “Hey! Glad you could make it!”
She came to a halt a few feet away, gift box concealed in her bag. “What’re you doing out here?”
“Taking a weird call,” Alex said, pocketing his phone. The thermo gear he was wearing made him stand out even more than his pale Terran skin, but at least he didn’t feel like he was dying any more. “My father’s apparently not here for me at all. Or, he was, and his ship broke. Or something, fuck, I dunno. He asked if there was a Mechanicus station nearby. I told him about the one in the Oort cloud.”
“Well, good, because that’s the only one.” Venus looked over her friends’ thermoreflective gear. If she tilted her head right, she could see the light glimmer off the metal and fiber strands under the thin fabric. “Your thermo kit looks good.”
“Thanks.” He shifted his shoulders a bit as they walked into the tavern. “I was worried that it’d make me stand out even more.”
“Well, who cares if you do,” Venus said. “You’re a guest here.”
“People have been glaring at me since I arrived,” Alex said. Venus cocked an eyebrow.
“Show me.” She paused just before the door to the seating area.
Alex walked up to the table where the others were sitting and sat down as normal, joining the conversation the others were having.
Sure enough, several patrons stopped to stare or glower. As soon as Venus walked in, however, the looks vanished, replaced with surprise or reverence. She shook her head as she crossed the room. “Troubling,” she said quietly.
“Hey, there she is,” Freya said as Venus approached them.
Venus paused to slide her arms around Jake’s neck as she stopped at the table. “Hey, guys. How was your morning?”
“Getting to see the Grand Highway was awesome,” Jake said. “I wish all the roads in the hives were that well-maintained.”
“That would be good,” Venus said, kissing the crown of his head and sliding into a seat. The whole room stared.
Remilia downed her drink and caught the waiter’s eye. “I’m glad you’re here. Dare I inquire why there’s soot on your bandana?”
“Not until after the party tonight,” Venus said. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise.” She daubed a few drops of water on the bandana and rubbed it clean. “Good catch, though.”
Venus’ vox buzzed. She grabbed it out of her pocket and stared at the ID. “It’s…it’s the Tide.” She opened it up and muttered into it. “Hello?”
“My Lady Venus, this is Comm Officer Wainwright. A Rogue Trader aboard the vessel Corundum Star has just arrived in-system and is burning for the Mechanicus station at the Oort cloud. Shall we hail the ship?”
“No, I knew it was coming. Just let me know if it breaks for a new heading,” she said quietly.
“Aye aye. Iron Tide out.” The line went dead.
“Well, it seems the Star is headed for that station,” Venus said. The waiter took her order and replaced Remilia’s drink.
“Good, he’ll be out of the way,” Alex grumbled. “Trust me, if he comes planetside, he WILL make this entire journey all about him.”
“With any luck, we’ll be long gone,” Remilia said.
Happy Birthday, Jake
As the afternoon swung by, the group visited the city walls. The colossal structure encircled the whole city, brooding over its citizens like a scowling parent. The air up here was so windy that the party had to use caution crossing open stretches of wall, or be bowled over by the gusts.
All five donned sunglasses for the journey. They stared in silence over the plains of the Pyre desert, gazing in astonishment at the infinite fields of ash.
Remilia shielded her glasses from her blowing hair. “It’s…horrible. An entire portion of the continent…dead.”
“The entire planet, or close to it,” Venus replied.
Their guide, a star-struck young PDF Sergeant, eagerly showed them where the dunes were flat enough that the curvature of the horizon was plainly visible. “It’s like the ice caps of Fenris out there, only even more dead,” Freya remarked.
“Except for that. What’s moving out there?” Jake asked, pointing south over the grey ashes.
The Sergeant squinted. “I think it’s a Land Speeder."
“I thought you guys didn’t use those,” Jake said to Venus.
“We use them all the time, just as a small proportion of our force composition,” she said. “I’d bet money that that’s a passenger variant, corralling Initiates on a trial.”
“In these deserts? Harsh,” Alex commented.
“Can’t have Salamanders that can’t take a little heat. And flesh-dissolving sulfur pits and Sa’hrk nests.” Venus shrugged. “Trust me, it’s better this way.”
By dinner, the group was back in the castle and thoroughly sunburned. Jake eased back into the chair in the middle of the sitting room, gingerly rubbing lotion into his scorched hiver skin. “Okay, ow.”
“SPF Fifty can not withstand the power of your girlfriend’s hellacious sun,” Freya observed. Damn her, her skin was already healing.
“I was fine yesterday!” Jake protested.
“We weren’t standing above all those nice, radiation-obscuring walls yesterday,” Freya pointed out. She lifted the menu as the voice on the other end asked her a question. “Yes, we will, thanks. No, I’ll come get it. Great, I will. Bye.” She set the vox down. “Food’ll be ready in half an hour.”
“Superb.” Alex kicked back in his own chair, swigging his sparkling water. “So…is it time?”
“I believe it is,” Remilia said, sitting down across from Jake. “Well…Happy Birthday,” she said, passing him a card.
“Oh, for goodness’ sakes, guys, is it guilt trip time already…oh my,” Jake said, upon seeing the store printed on the card. “…Good call. This will get spent within seconds of arriving on Terran soil, I assure you,” he said. “Keller’s Electronics is the best retail electronics chain in the Solar system.” He spotted the amount and nearly gagged, but kept his sudden reluctance suppressed. This was probably only a week’s allowance for her. “Thank you so much, Remilia.”
The pretty blond grinned happily. “I knew you’d like it.”
“Am I up?” Alex asked. He slid a tiny grey box across the table. “Eyes sharp, now.”
“Eyes…oh.” Jake didn’t even open the box, instead sliding it neatly into his lap. “Indeed. The pact is sealed.”
“What?” Venus asked, eyeing them both curiously. They turned to give her a solemn look.
“He has passed along powerful knowledge I cannot share with you. Trust me. All will become clear,” Jake said gravely.
Venus looked from one stone-faced teen to the other. “…Did I just witness a drug deal?”
“Oh no no, nothing illicit,” Alex said hastily. “Just private. Also,” he added, sliding a much larger box over to his friend. “I saw this and knew.”
“Oh yeah, you did,” Jake said, prying it open. A brand new vox sat inside, cushioned in a wide-brimmed hat that Jake suspected would fit him perfectly. “Excellent. Thanks, Alex.”
“Enjoy,” Alex said, sitting back in his seat.
Freya nearly slammed a black leather case on the table. “I think this will come in handy if we can’t find what I think we might find on the Tide on the next leg of the road trip,” she said eagerly.
“Excellent!” Jake laughed, flipping the metal latches on the case open. “This is perfect!” Inside was a dice set, two shrink-wrapped packs of cards, and six full sets of clay playing chips. “Oh, fantastic. Freya, this is awesome.”
“I suspected you’d like it,” Freya happily said. “The trip will be more fun with me cleaning you guys out every night. I mean, playing every night.”
“Hurr hurr.” Jake closed the case and slid it under his seat. “Well I love it. Thanks.”
Venus leaned over to him and passed him a small stone box. “And here’s where I was this morning,” she said. Jake opened the box –
“It’s beautiful!” he breathed. He reached in and extracted a gold wristwatch. He held it up to the light and the alloyed gold band glimmered under the lights and Venus’ proud stare. “Venus, this is amazing. Did you make this entire thing yourself?” he asked.
“No, no, of course not, watchmaking goes straight over my head,” she assured him. “All I made was the wristband, the chain, the clip, and the stone’s setting.”
“What stone?” he asked. He turned the watch over. “Oh. It’s awesome!” he exclaimed. Venus had cut a tiny channel down the back of the Catseye and set the buckle of the wristband into it, so it covered the buckle slightly. A tiny hinge set into the bottom of the stone allowed the wearer to turn the stone slightly and fasten the band on under it, then move it back into place and clip it to a tiny clasp on the prong of the buckle, giving the illusion that the stone was holding it in place. “You made this too?” he asked. Also in the box were a length of gold chain, a small clip, and a pack of atomic batteries.
She demonstrated how to remove the back panel of the watch and slide the battery in, and how to remove the band and attach the chain or clip instead. Jake stared at it, entranced. “It’s magnificent, Venus! Thank you so much,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “I have to be wearing this when I get home! Dad would love to see this, his father made watches in his free time at the Seminary.”
“Cool,” Venus said. “I hope you like it. I remembered that Catseye is your birthstone.”
“June…yeah, Catseye. Awesome,” he said, staring at the glittering band. The watch itself was blank save the hands and a single tiny quartz embedded where the 12 would be. “Is this…wait, is this Terran or Nocturnean time?” he asked.
“Terran,” Venus said.
“Wow. Wow.” Jake slid it on and fastened it. “I love it. Is it set?”
“No, but you can set it to your vox,” Venus pointed out.
“True.” He did so, then held it to his ear and smiled as he heard the tiny mechanism turning. “Thank you, baby.”
Freya waited until the exchange was over before tapping her present. “All right…you want to break in these cards?” she asked.
“Hell yeah,” Jake said, putting the watch accessories back in the box. “But not until after we eat, I think. Don’t want to get them greasy.”
“True facts,” Freya said, standing up. “I’ll go get it.”
She walked out of the room, stopping to grab an ID card and a money chip before she did. As she left the suite, she heard Remilia duck into her own room.
The streets below were congested with people. The Space Wolf effortlessly navigated the crowd, glancing at street signs until she found the restaurant she had called. Popping in and finding it packed wall-to-wall, she found a spot in line and settled in to wait.
“Can you believe it? Another smash-and-grab,” someone in the room muttered. Freya extended her hearing to that little corner of the room.
“I know. Was it the same guy?”
“Yes. They didn’t get a picture, but it was him.”
“Worthless criminal vermin,” the second voice grumbled.
“I know, right? Fucking Terrans. They come here expecting the lap of luxury on a Legionary homeworld and rob people when they don’t get it,” the first replied. Freya risked a glance at the speakers through the crowd. The first was a stocky man in the robes and hat of a whaler, the second a surveyor for the mining teams by the gear at his belt.
The second one noticed her glance and stared back, glowering. Freya turned away. “Something to say, Princess?” the man muttered under his breath, clearly not knowing she could hear him.
Freya clenched her fingers until her nails cut her palm. She wondered darkly if the man knew the title he had used was actually accurate, and decided he probably didn’t.
She reached the counter at long last and smiled thankfully at the man behind it. “Order…” she glanced at the note she had scribbled. “8875.”
“Here you are,” the man said, reaching under the counter and passing her the hefty bag of food.
“Great, thanks,” she said, lifting it and offering up her payment, and a generous tip. She glanced over the receipt – all accounted for – and made to leave.
“Hang on,” the man said, looking at the tattoos on her bare arms. “You’re not-”
She turned on her heel and pressed her finger to her lips with a wink, then bounced off. The man stared at her as she left, but the pressing crowd bade him back to work.
Safely outside, Freya looked at her cut hand to make sure the cut hadn’t bled on the bag. It hadn’t. The tiny slit was already healing. She blew out a sigh of relief. “Good.”
“Excuse me,” a voice at her shoulder asked. She turned to see an Enforcer standing behind her. “Have you seen this man?” He lifted a blurry holo of a man with a gun sprinting away from the camera.
Freya blinked. “No. Why do you ask?”
“Because the man in question is guilty of at least two armed robberies, he’s dangerous, and he’s gone to ground hereabouts,” the Enforcer said flatly. “Please let the nearest Enforcer know if you see anything.”
“This close to the castle? What, is he dumb?” Freya chuckled.
“One hopes, we’ll get him faster that way.” The Enforcer curtly nodded. “Stay safe, ma’am.”
Freya shrugged at his retreating back and started the trip back to the castle. As soon as the Enforcer was out of sight, however, something black snaked in front of Freya’s leg, and she stumbled.
“Shit! Sorry about that,” a voice said. Someone grabbed her shoulder. She instinctively pulled free and took a step back. “Did I trip you?”
Freya glanced over the other person. A ragged-looking man in ill-fitting dark workers’ clothes and black steel-toed boots was standing there, looking at her funny. “Yes. Goodbye,” Freya said, resuming her walk to the castle.
“Sorry,” the man called after her. Freya paid him no need, thinking. She wasn’t sure, but that had felt deliberate to her. He didn’t look a thing like the man in the holo. She checked her pockets, clothing…nothing was missing. Her money was present. Her ID card was there. Her vox was there. So, he wasn’t a pickpocket?
She mentally shrugged as she put it aside. Whatever. It could wait. She was hungry.
Remilia returned to the room with the others, concealing a bottle behind her back. She sat back down at the table, listening as Venus described the Hall of Deathfire. “The forges aren’t equidistant, we just put them wherever the lava breaches the floor, so some are really far apart. And the GALLERIES! If I show you nothing else in my time here, I have to show you the galleries. There’s stuff on those walls art merchants would kill for. Technological and aesthetic art, all of it.”
“Sounds amazing, but I don’t think we should go. We ought to respect the Salamanders’ privacy,” Remilia said.
“I think they would be…hmm. Well, I don’t know. Some, I suspect, would be honored to have you, but I think most would resent it,” Venus said regretfully.
Remilia set the bottle down on the table with a discreet cough. “Who’s thirsty?”
Alex turned to see Remilia popping the cork on the bottle of Saerbis champagne. “Oh, hey. I could stand a drink. Where did you find it?”
“Brought it with me,” Remilia said. “Enjoy.”
“Excellent.” Venus held out her empty water cup and let her cousin pour her a cup of the bubbly amber drink. “Happy Birthday,” she said, clinking her cup with the others’.
“Oh yeah, I’m somewhat legal now!” Jake said, taking a sip. He immediately pulled a face and struggled to swallow. “For what it’s worth,” he added.
“Not to your taste?” Remilia asked.
“No offense, but how do people drink this stuff?” Jake asked.
“It’s an acquired taste,” Alex admitted, sipping his. “This is also…very fucking strong. Whoo.”
“I see.” Jake eyed his cup and placed it on the table. “I’ll pass, thanks,” he said.
The door swung open. Freya bounced in, arms laden with food. “Hail, for it is dinner and I bear sustenance!” she declared, dropping the bag on the table.
“Indeed,” Jake said, eagerly grabbing his meal. “Thanks, guys. This is the best birthday I’ve had in ages.”
“No problem, brother,” Alex said, downing some more champagne.
The group set about their food, and Freya relayed the story of the strange journey to the restaurant. “It felt deliberate. From the way he was standing, he would have had to move his leg pretty far to trip me. And he grabbed my shoulder. I think he might have been checking to see if I had a wallet on me,” Freya said.
“Despicable,” Venus grumbled. “Did the Enforcer see it?”
“Nope, he was gone.”
“It seems the drywall has begun to rot in the Drake King’s absence,” Venus muttered darkly. “If we weren’t on vacation, I’d put paid to this little crime spree.”
“Priority one when we get back, then,” Jake said. Venus looked up at him from her sandwich.
“You mean that?”
Jake shrugged. “Sure.” Venus smiled into her food, profoundly touched.
“Well…anyway, the guy at the counter recognized me,” Freya said. “He was the only one. So I think we’re probably good.”
“Has anyone been harassed by paparazzi since they arrived?” Venus asked.
“Nope. But then, we’ve been with armed guards the whole time,” Jake pointed out.
After the food was gone, Jake retrieved the case and opened a pack of cards. “All right, what do you want to play, folks?” he asked, lifting the fresh deck. “How about simple poker, keep it straightforward?”
“Works for me,” Freya said, picking up a stack of chips. “Hmm…white is one, red is five, green is ten, blue is twenty five, purple is fifty.”
“All right,” Jake said. He pulled the jokers and rule cards out, then split and shuffled the deck with speed and casual ease that gave most of the others pause. He smiled blandly as he dropped a few chips into the pot. “Come on, who’s in?”
“I am suddenly filled with dread,” Remilia announced. Jake smirked.
As the sun dipped low behind the horizon, and the game wore on, Remilia, Venus, and Alex dropped out one by one, until only Freya and Jake, the gamblers, were left. For such a tactile and outgoing person, Jake noted, Freya had an unnervingly straight poker face.
She watched his hands as he lifted two more cards and slid them into his hand. Her eyes darted up to his face as he looked at what he had drawn. His heart leaped. He had drawn the five. He had the straight.
“I’m in two hundred,” he said, sliding some chips in.
“See your two, raise you one fifty,” Freya instantly said.
Jake nodded slowly. “Call.” He slid a few more chips in.
Freya offered up a feral grin and laid her hand out. “Six-high straight!” she announced. “Beat that!”
“Okay,” Jake said nonchalantly. He dropped his cards out on the table. “Nine-high straight.”
Freya’s face contorted as the others chuckled. “Son of a BITCH!” She slammed her cards down as Jake scooped up the pot. She glared at the cards that had betrayed her.
Jake smiled wanly. “So who taught you how to play?” he asked as he sorted his chips and shuffled the cards.
“My father used to play with a few Army and Astartes buddies,” Freya said. “He taught me. How about you?”
“My friends from middle school. We would play during every lunch and study hall,” Jake said.
“Hmph. Well, you’re good. I don’t even see your tells half the time,” Freya conceded. “And coming from me, that says a lot.”
“It does,” Jake agreed. “Let’s see…this is your last hand, innit?” he asked, eyeing her stack.
“It may well be,” she said gravely. She picked up her cards and chipped her ante in.
Jake glanced over his cards. Nothing spectacular, just a pair of fours. “All right, I’m in,” he said, chipping ten into the pot.
Freya met his bet and chucked three cards. Jake did the same. Freya looked over her hand and looked up at him, blank-faced. “I’ll open. Forty,” she said, dropping a fifty into the pile and removing a ten.
“See your forty, raise you twenty five,” he said, dropping some more chips into the pile. Freya hesitated, searching his face, and nodded.
“All in,” she said, pushing her remaining thirty into the middle.
The others leaned forward as both set down their hands. Freya had a pair of aces with a king, Jake had three fours.
“Argh! I am slain!” Freya groaned, slumping back into her chair and clutching her heart.
“Just as planned,” Jake said mildly. He scooped up the last chips and cards. “Nice game, guys, that was a lot of fun.”
“I was taking it easy on you,” Freya grumbled, shaking his hand with every sign of reluctance.
“Of course you were,” Jake soothed.
Remilia stood and stretched. “Well, as fun as that was, I’m turning in. We have a lot of walking on the itinerary tomorrow, I need to rest.”
“Me too,” Alex said, weaving a bit as he stood. “Man, that’s strong stuff,” he said, waving at the empty bottle of champagne.
“Thanks for everything, guys, that was a great birthday,” Jake said contentedly, clipping the box of chips shut. “And Venus, baby…the watch. Seriously. Awesome. You’ll understand if I don’t wear it around, right? During tourist-time, I mean?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. She stood too, and cleaned the detritus of their meal away. “All right…I’ll see you all tomorrow. Alex, if your father bothers you too much, really, tell me about it. One snap of my fingers and he’s out of our hair.”
“I want him inconvenienced, not liquefied, but thanks,” Alex said. He grabbed his own effects and headed out. “See you guys tomorrow.”
“Bye, Happy Birthday Jake!” Remilia said, shutting the door behind her.
Jake sank into his chair and pulled the watch back out, staring at it. Venus leaned over him and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’m so glad you like it.”
“This is the kind of watch people on Terra go to interstellar trade shops to buy,” Jake said. “It’s amazing. I really have to show Dad.”
Venus put the watch back in the little stone box and clipped it shut. “Go get ready for bed, baby, Remilia’s right. We have a lot of walking to do tomorrow.”
“Yeah? What have you got planned?” Jake asked.
“We’re going to going to tour the markets a bit,” Venus said. “Then, I want to show you guys the craftwork district where the city hubs are.”
“Cool.” Jake stood and piled his presents on the table. “Man. I know I shouldn’t…I do. But that card from Remilia…yikes.”
“How much?” Venus asked. Jake passed her the card. Venus’ eyebrows rose when she saw the number.
“Jake,” Venus said flatly, making eye contact with him. “I hereby order you to not feel guilty.”
“…Okay,” Jake slowly replied. “Whatever you say.”
“Good.” Venus nodded primly. “Now…get ready for bed.”
Alex finished up into the bathroom and emerged into the darkened bedroom. He weaved his way across the room and fell face-first into the bed.
“…Little drunk?” Freya asked from the pitch-black room.
“Lil’ bit.” Alex groaned. “This was a huge mistake.”
“Featherweight,” Freya snorted, waving the lights up. And she had been all ready to play, too.
“You gotta barf?”
“No, just sleep for eight hours,” Alex moaned. “I’ve turned off the vox and switched off the room line, so no disruptions.”
“Good.” Freya slid into bed and gingerly rubbed his back. “Uh. Sleep tight?”
“I hope,” Alex said.
Forgefather Vulkan leaned back against the frame of his balcony door and smiled. The slate in his hands was downloading a status message from Venus for their trip. He had just been wondering whether she had arrived safely. The timing was perfect.
“News?” Leman Russ asked. He and his wife Gairwyn had come over for an evening supper when the message had arrived. Fortunately for them both, Lord Dorn had been there for an unrelated strategy meeting at the same time. All three Primarchs could hear the news.
“Yes,” Vulkan said, thumbing the biometric swipe on the slate. A decrypted message appeared. “Excellent. You want to hear?”
“Sure,” Russ said, walking back into the study. Dorn was just standing up to go when he returned. “Hey. Letter from the girls,” he said. His white-haired brother turned back. “Oh? What do they say?”
“Let’s find out,” Vulkan said. He sat down behind his desk in the large study and started reading. “’Dad, we’re safe on Nocturne.’ Safe is in quotation marks. Wiseass,” he muttered. Russ chuckled.
“‘The trip was went as well as hoped. You picked a good ship; Roemer’s a decent officer. One thing, though: he thought Alex and Jake were Royal family members, even though the manifest said otherwise. Any ideas?’” Vulkan slowly shook his head. “Nope. Never even met the man.”
“‘The trip was uneventful. Freya picked the officers clean at the dartboard,’” Vulkan continued.
“Hah! That’s my girl,” Russ laughed.
“‘Fair warning: some really dumb guy in the gym made a holorecording of Freya and Remilia sparring. Freya casually mentioned throwing him out of an airlock and he deleted the recording, but it might pop up again. Thought you might need to know,’” Vulkan read.
“If it does, somebody’s going to ‘volunteer’ themselves to be turned into a combat servitor,” Dorn said darkly.
“‘In that vein, remember Isaac? He was my old kickboxing instructor. He’s on the ship, and we sparred today. Seven years of losses avenged. Payback’s a bitch,’ and then a whole lot of angry smile emoticons,” Vulkan said. “Heh. They’re like an old married couple, I swear,” he laughed. “When was this sent?” Russ asked.
“A few hours back…which seems oddly fast, but it’s a tiny file,” Vulkan said. “Anyway…‘Upon arrival, Uncle Ir’Sem’ – my Fourth Company Captain, a very good friend of Venus’ ” he explained – “‘formally greeted me and we exchanged the Icon, then took us on a quick tour of the place.’” Vulkan paused. “…This next part’s for my eyes, brothers. I’ll skip ahead,” he said. Dorn and Russ nodded solemnly. They understood. “‘By the time we were finally ready to go, it was pouring acid rain down in Hesiod. We had to land in the Castle itself, which worked out fine anyway. Alex and Jake both nearly collapsed from heatstroke, though, Dad, I’m worried.’ That does sound bad…good thing they packed thermo kit,” Vulkan said.
“‘Remilia and Freya are from Inwit and Fenris, so they weren’t much better off. Iceworlders, what are you going to do? Fortunately, they’re built for it, and they seem to be handling it well.’”
“Damn right,” Dorn said.
“‘The speech was public, unfortunately. I thought it went well, though. I included a recording. On that note, Dad, holy shit my formal uniform is awesome. Did you design this? Next time I complain about the responsibilities of the family, remind me that my formal uniform includes a Conflagration Gun and a Power Rapier. Plus a crown I could hock to buy my own ship if I wanted,’ and if you ever do, young lady, you’re joining a Penal Legion,” Vulkan added under his breath. Russ laughed again.
“‘On that note, Dad,’…uh oh, the Dad is in italics,” Vulkan said. “‘Funny how I had to learn from Fletsun’ – my Master of Sanctity – ‘about our shared gene-core issue. Why did you never see fit to tell me about it?’”
Vulkan coughed. Russ and Dorn both looked at him askance. “…Forget she said that. I suspect she may have misinterpreted something that happened while she was there,” he lied. “Skipping ahead a bit…ah. ‘Today was Jake’s birthday, and it was a lot of fun. Thank goodness the drinking age here is seventeen...’ oh damn it,” he muttered.
“Drinking ages. How ‘civilized,’” Russ said sarcastically.
“Bite me.” Vulkan read more of the letter. “‘I made him a watch in the Hall of Deathfire, which despite the name, was perfectly safe. I was vaguely disappointed.’ Har har har,” Vulkan said drily. “If you had been there three thousand six hundred years back, honey, you would have had to kill a drake on the way to the door. ‘Freya got him a leather poker set with clay chips, which he immediately put to use by fleecing the hell out of us.’” “A man after my own heart,” Russ said with a grin.
“‘Remilia got him a gift card to Keller’s Electronics, which is perfect because he was thinking about making a new gaming rig before we go off to school. Alex got him some…thing.’ She put the ellipsis there, not me,” Vulkan said. “‘Seriously, I can’t get either of them to tell me what it was. We played poker until midnight and he kicked the crap out of us. Remind me to take him with me to Carshim or some other casino planet some time. And you should see the work he’s putting in at the gym. I’m so proud.’”
“I think I like this kid,” Dorn said drily.
“‘Before I forget, though, there’s one thing here that sort of bothers me. Well, two. First is that people are assuming Jake and I are already married. Apparently that contract with you he signed to work at Kouthry and live with me was interpreted inaccurately. We’ve cleared it up, but how did people here even find out?’ Search me, I haven’t even told all of you,” Vulkan said, glancing up at his brothers.
Russ shrugged. “Who would I tell?”
“I didn’t know,” Dorn said truthfully.
“Hmm. Oh well. ‘The other one is sort of more pressing. Apparently there’s been a huge surge in smuggling, pickpocketing, and armed robbery around here, and the blame falls squarely on foreign tourists and some gang calling themselves The Underground. Is this something I should address?’ Hell no, leave that to me. You go have fun,” Vulkan said under his breath. “‘Apropos of nothing, I’m so glad Remilia came. She feels a little intrusive here, but she’s so much more relaxed now, and we both feel better than we have since before Morticia. Speaking of, how is she? Did she get off to Albiona okay? How about Angela and that book she was writing? Is Farah’s little vacation kicking off already? How about Miranda’s and Hana’s vacations to Carshim and Aldric?’ I should mention that in my reply,” Vulkan muttered.
“Far as I know they all left all right. What’s this about Angela writing something?” Russ asked.
“Angela wanted to write something as part of the Scholastica’s public school programs, I think, something about how new schools should deal with students’ psychic power manifesting while they’re still students,” Dorn said. “Ask Sanguinius about it.”
“Hmm.” Vulkan read down some more. “‘The people here welcomed me with open arms, Dad. It’s so nice. You should return here more often, people are tripping over themselves for a chance to meet the Royal family. We went to lunch in a nice cafeteria yesterday and people were staring at us the whole time, which doesn’t seem so odd until you remember that the Salamanders live here amongst them all the time. Freya, on the other hand, was nearly pickpocketed at a restaurant this evening.’”
“What?” Russ growled.
“‘At least, she thinks it was a deliberate bump. Who knows? They didn’t take anything. On a nicer topic, though, two more days in Hesiod, then four in each city until we reach Skarokk. Six days there, then back on the Tide and off to Fenris. I know we were going to take a different ship, but apparently the greenskin vermin are pressing the Navy assets along the Void Walks trade lane pretty damned hard, so we’re taking the Tide instead.’” Vulkan tapped his chin. “Hmph. Things are getting worse out there.”
“Perhaps I will take the Phalanx out to those lanes and oversee the efforts of the Navy in person.” Dorn leaned back in his seat. “I will await Remilia’s return, though.”
“Good.” Vulkan read to the end of the message and smiled to himself. “She included a picture of herself in her formal uniform. Want to see?”
“Why not,” Russ said. “Put it up on the screen.” Vulkan tapped a few runes and the image appeared on a flatscreen on the wall behind him.
She was standing in the hall outside her room, crown tucked under one arm, and her free hand resting on the hilt of the Conflagrator. Russ looked at the picture. “She looks good. It suits her.”
“It certainly does,” Vulkan said with quiet pride. Her lips were quirked up in a smile, clearly she had been talking to whomever was behind the camera. He tabbed to the next picture, also of her, this time from the square where she had given the speech. She was in her crown and speaking, clearly caught up in the moment. “And she says she can’t speak in public.”
“She’s just modest.” Russ waved his hand.
“Yeah. She included a transcript of the speech in here…and messages for Farah and Hana. And it looks like Jake bundled a message for his parents…and an encrypted file from Lord Regent No’dan for me. Just routine.”
“Well, it was nice to hear from her,” Russ said, rising to his feet. Dorn stayed put.
“Anything from Remilia?”
“Not in here. Maybe you should check your messages when you get home,” Vulkan said, standing as well.
“I shall.” Dorn heaved himself up. “Well. I’ll deliver the files and head for home. Thank you for your hospitality and the update, Brother.”
“Certainly. See you at the Palace,” Vulkan said, opening his own transcriptor to compose his reply.
George Seager set his tablet down with a proud smile. “I’m glad he’s having fun.”
“Yeah. I wish I could visit Nocturne,” Sandra said, rereading the message. “Did you see these pictures of Venus he attached?”
“Yes I did,” George said. He glanced over the pictures of Venus in her uniform and giving the speech. “Jacob’s got a good eye,” he quipped.
“Any idea when we’ll hear from him again?” Sandra asked.
George shrugged. “Hard to say, really. Warp communication is unpredictable. Probably in another few weeks.”
Sandra looked at his message on the screen. “Can we send a reply? I’ve never had to use Astropathy before.”
“We can, but it would be very expensive. Unless we want to bundle a message with Lord Vulkan’s reply.” George hesitated. “We could ask him.”
Vulkan finished his reply and transcripted it. After attaching a few last words on his various niece’s activities, he encrypted the message and prepared to send it. His vox buzzed just as he was about to send the message. The caller ID said that it was Jake’s home line. Raising an eyebrow in curiosity, he tapped the speakerphone button. “Hello?”
“Hello, Lord Vulkan, this is George Seager. Thanks for forwarding that message from Jake,” a somewhat nervous voice on the other side said.
“Ah, yes, glad you got it. Did you want to reply? I was about to bundle a message of my own,” Vulkan said.
“I would be very appreciative, sir, yes. Should I just send it over?”
“Please do. How is he doing?” Vulkan asked.
“He’s happy as a clam, from what he’s said. Venus looks amazing in those pictures,” George said. Vulkan’s slate beeped as George’s message appeared. “May I ask what exactly she is to Nocturne? I’m not completely clear. She never made mention of it around us.”
“She is the Crown Princess.” The line went silent as George digested that.
“I see. So…what exactly does that make Jake?” George hesitantly asked.
“Nothing. She chooses whether to bestow a title upon him. Which she won’t until after college.” Vulkan smiled. “Why?”
“Because, sir, off the top of my head, I can’t recall Venus even tangentially discussing the subject when she was here,” George said.
“Mmm.” The message finished its load and compressed. “All right, I have your message, Sieur Seager. Talk to you when the next message arrives.”
“Thank you very much, sir. I’ll speak to you then. Goodbye.”
Traversing the Hellscape
Several days of tourism passed, as Venus and company explored Nocturne. Venus traveled alone to Ignea, to meet several of the nomad tribes that lived there. They were more reluctant to acknowledge their Princess, but Venus came away from it satisfied. She had made a point of meeting all of her people. That was what she wanted.
As they slowly acclimated to the heat and gravity, the rest of the party found their time better and better spent. The cities of Nocturne may not have had the incredible artistry of Macragge or the magnificent architecture of a Forge world, but their mixture of rustic durability, skilled crafting, and pragmatic design were beautiful in their own way.
Venus had been hoping to show her companions the individuality of the cities. In this, she succeeded; the lovingly-crafted buildings of Aethonion, settled against the edge of an ash waste the size of one third of the continent, were as distinct as the magnificent, half-mile-tall walls of the Jewel City of Epithemus, set as it was in the middle of an ocean of acid.
When the group toured the Merchant Sprawl of Clymene, they nearly had to drag Venus and Freya away from the colossal markets that surrounded the system’s largest spaceport. Restrained only by the knowledge that they would have to load their cargo for the trip home, both girls came away with armfuls of Nocturnean artwork and gadgets, and even Jake found himself sorely tempted by the selection of wares in the city’s exotic art and book stores.
In the entire duration of the trip, Alex didn’t hear from his father’s ship at all. As they were aboard the Thunderhawk that was taking them to Skarokk for the final leg of the stay, he finally relented and called his father himself. Raising his voice over the din of the engines, he reluctantly dialed the Corundum Star.
“This is the Corundum Star.” A voice on the other end finally picked up. “Who hails?”
“This is Lord Alexander Carlin, calling Trade Lord Joseph Kimball-Carlin,” Alex said.
“Alex! Hey, kiddo, your father just left,” the voice on the other end said. “Sorry about that.”
“Left? What?” Alex stared into space as the rest of the group pretended they weren’t listening in. “Where is he?”
“He’s on his way to speak with some merchant or other in Clymene, as long as he’s here,” the vox officer said.
“Oh. Great. What’s wrong with the Star?” Alex asked.
“Void shield projector shorted out in a horrible accident involving some escaped cargo,” the vox officer sighed.
“Uh huh…he’s not going to come find me, is he?” Alex asked apprehensively.
“You couldn’t be mad at that, could you, Alex?” the vox officer asked in surprise.
“Oh yes I could,” Alex grumbled. “This is MY vacation.”
“Oh…I have no idea,” the vox officer confessed.
“Great. Fantastic. I’ll see you around, Max. Bye.” Alex turned the vox off and nearly slammed it down on the deck of the Thunderhawk. “Damn him!”
Venus reached across her seat and squeezed his shoulder. “Say the word.”
“No. There’s a chance he isn’t here to bother me. I’ll let it slide until he does something stupid.” Alex sank back into his chair and looked over at where Venus was tapping away at a slate. “So…anyone going to write home before we leave Nocturne?”
“I am!” Freya excitedly proclaimed.
“Me,” Jake said.
“I think I will too.” Venus contemplatively tapped her slate. “Dad said not to worry about the Underground and the violent immigrants. I guess I won’t.”
“Good. So…tell me about Skarokk,” Jake said.
“Well, it’s called the Dragonspine because of its location. It’s built into a massive mountain range, which is essentially one colossal block of volcanic rock over a hundred seventy kilometers wide and two klicks high,” Venus explained. “The air pressure and temperature will be lower here. Much lower. The mountains back up to a sea on one side and a huge volcanic delta on the other, where meltwater from the polar glaciers and Time of Trial snowfields pour through pumice fields and into the ocean. There’s a tunnel under the mountains, I should show you.”
“You had me at ‘less air and heat,” Jake emphatically said. Venus grinned and settled in to wait.
The Thunderhawk shook a bit as it descended through the clouds to the city below. Arranged through and in the massive spires of rock from which its name was drawn, the city was home to massive plateaus that had been hacked from the craggy mountains, and leveled with Mechanicus technologies to serve as foundations for the city’s buildings. Landing pads and void shield generators dotted the massive sprawl of buildings, which covered the entire center region of the massive mountain range.
Venus stood and grabbed a few of her possessions as the Thunderhawk Transporter settled down on the plateau nearest to the Dragonspine Castle. Aptly named, it had been built by boring directly into a steep vertical mountain; the structure plunged deep into the mountain and high into the sky above them. It was bristling with defensive turrets, reinforced windows, and landing pads that jutted out from its side.
The ramp hissed open. A small honor guard of serfs and a single Salamander from the sixth Great Company stood at the bottom of the ramp. Sixth, Venus had explained, had long held a connection with the city. The group disembarked and waited as Venus and the Salamander underwent their, by now accustomed, ritual. When it concluded, he led them into the castle proper, while the serfs behind them directed the cargo servitors to move their luggage.
The rooms they received were more sparse than they had been in the other cities, but this was the most isolated surface community on the planet, and had few visitors. Venus and Jake settled into the Imperial Suite, while Remilia and Freya and Alex found their own rooms on the floor. Meeting up after offloading, the group headed into the city to get lunch.
Jake slid his sunglasses on and breathed deep in the mountain air. “Mmm…it’s cooler here than anywhere else on the planet.” He looked up and saw the heat waves emanating from the rooftops of every structure around him. “I mean, relatively speaking.”
“Heh. I know. It’s almost tolerable,” Alex said. He shook his thermoreflective clothing free of water droplets and sealed his water container shut. “So…who’s up for what?”
“Something simple and quick, so we can go see the mountains,” Remilia said.
“I’m up for that,” Freya chipped in.
“Okay…should be a small café down the street, then,” Venus declared. She led the group down the roadway, taking care to avoid the deep drainage slots. The mountainous slabs of rock upon which the city was built were so hard that the creation of a modern sewage system and power grid had been something of a technological miracle by the Mechanicus, and its maintenance was difficult. Outside the Castle, the sewers were only a few feet below the surface, and the drains were deep and imposing. Fortunately, the drain pipes weren’t physically connected to the sewer lines anywhere pedestrians could smell them.
In the more pedestrian parts of the city, the roads were a bit broader, though not by much. Towering metal lights illuminated the streets in the lower tiers of the city, fading to darkness near the higher ones, presumably where the richer people lived. The roads cut laterally into the steep mountains, sometimes straight through them in the higher areas, and where cargo moved.
Snacks and Tourism
Venus paused outside the café to don her own mirrored sunglasses. They rarely worked, but with her hair back in a sheet instead of a braid, she looked little enough like her regal appearance in the speech that she occasionally went unrecognized.
Jake held the door for her and the others. As he looked back at them, he pointed across the street. “If we want something to do tonight, let’s hit that bar.”
Venus shrugged. “Want to go after dinner?” she asked.
Jake laughed again, shutting the door behind them. “Why not?”
“All right.” Venus walked up to the counter and started placing their orders as Freya grabbed a table. As she returned with the food, Venus opened a map of the city and glanced it over. “Huh.”
“What?” Jake looked up from his soup. Venus was staring at the map intently, looking vaguely puzzled.
“The city basically doesn’t have a tramway outside of the industrial and residential areas. How surprising,” she murmured.
“Well…trains on a mountain,” Jake shrugged.
“Yeah.” She looked up at him and quirked an eyebrow. “So…mountains. You got used to that pretty fast.”
“Hah! Well, this one more than most. So many people live in it and on it…it’s like a hive, really,” Jake said.
“True facts,” Alex chuckled. “Home at last, huh?”
“No, home has a broken heater and a parking lot on the roof. This has nicer air though,” Jake said. He dipped some flatbread in the soup and munched. “So how about you, Remilia? What do you think of a planet with actual terrain?”
“Incredible place. The way the technology of the Imperium and the harshness of the world blend is very interesting,” she said between bites of her sandwich.
“It is.” Jake finished his soup quickly and stood. “I think I want to go see what the terrace looks like.”
“Okay, we’ll meet up for dinner,” Venus said, pausing her own meal to peck him on the cheek as he passed. Alex and Remilia grabbed their own bags and stood, heading in the opposite direction. Freya and Venus lingered over their food, still looking at the map.
Outside, Jake adjusted his sunglasses and walked up the terrace. The brilliant afternoon sun glared down on him from above, and he shifted his collar, glad he had taken to applying even more sunscreen after burning to a crisp in Hesiod.
Arriving at one of the large switchbacks in the mountain road, he paused, slowly removing his sunglasses to take in the view. The Ash Deltas stretched out to infinity before him. A thousand tiny rivers of glacial meltwater flowed towards the mountains, around them, under them, even through them where the Mechanicus had built culverts. The glistening water poured over hard-packed volcanic ash in rivulets that looked no wider than a hair, but in reality were the size of cars. Larger lines of red and silver denoted thick streams and rivers, each the size of the road he was standing on or much larger.
“Absolutely magnificent,” he said under his breath.
“Ain’t it?” someone said. He glanced back to see a Nocturnean walking along the sidewalk behind him. “You never get tired of the view.”
“What does it look like in the Time of Trial?” Jake asked.
“Actually the same, only the water’s shallower. It’s after that looks different. The whole plane turns bright white from the volcanic snow.” The local stood beside him at the low stone balustrades. “The whalers and prospectors come in and line the streets, looking for food, while the plains outside get a new layer of ash on them.”
“Cool. Where does the water that reaches the base of the mountain go?” Jake asked, peering down to the next terrace.
“Eh, it just kinda pools at the base of the mountain and sluices through the tunnels. How do you not know this?” the man asked incredulously.
“I’m not from around here,” Jake said.
“Oh.” The man looked at him askance. “Well…enjoy your stay,” he muttered, walking away.
Jake rolled his eyes and put the glasses back on. The simmering hostility he’d sensed throughout his entire visit was even more pronounced here. He wondered how many Terrans there even were in the city.
Venus sat back on a chair on the highest point of the city and stared out at the view. The beautiful lines the water carved through the ash fanned out over the plains like a giant fossilized fern. From their source at the north pole, the ribbons of water stretched down towards the sea, and flowed under the mountain in their path towards the seas.
The plainclothes serf next to her spoke inaudibly into a small microphone at his collar and walked away. Venus languidly stretched and sipped at her water bottle. “Hell of a view,” she said contentedly.
The plainclothesman knelt at her side and put his hand to his ear. “City Governor Sralah wishes to reiterate his invitation to a formal dinner tonight for your Highness and your companions,” he said softly.
“Nope. We’ve got plans for tonight. Tomorrow, or any other day, sure, but not tonight,” Venus said, lacing her fingers behind her head.
The plainclothesman put his hand to his earbud again. “Tomorrow, then, your Highness?” he asked.
“Sure.” “He extends his gratitude and looks forward to meeting you,” the man said, bowing formally and withdrawing to the edge of the rooftop.
Venus sighed. “Oh well. At least I get to put my armor on again,” she said wryly.
Freya, lounging in the seat next to her, laughed. “Hahah! You really love that thing.”
“I do indeed,” Venus confessed with a guilty grin. “It’s so badass.”
“The local news is fawning over you,” Freya giggled. “Have you seen the op-eds?”
“I make a steadfast point of avoiding op-eds,” Venus sighed. “In my own experience, the people who know least about a situation are the first to voice their opinions on it, nearly all the time.”
“How profound.” Freya grabbed a bottle of sunscreen from the bag at her side and began applying it, to the rapt and well-concealed attention of every single man and a few women on the rooftop patio. “So, what do you have planned for us?” she asked.
“Well, today we just relax and get settled. Tomorrow, the cragfalls, on the ocean side. Then dinner with the Governor and after that we improvise. See whatever we want.”
Freya massaged sunscreen into her shoulders. “Nifty. Think Alex’s dad will bug us?”
“You’ve met him, I haven’t. What do you think?” Venus asked.
Freya shrugged, carefully tossing her red braids over the back of her chair so they didn’t drag into the lotion. “Who knows? I think he’s just dumb enough to try.”
“Great.” Venus ruefully shook her head. “Oh well. He won’t follow us to Fenris at least,” she said. She turned sharply to look at Freya. “Will he?”
“Not if he wants to live,” Freya casually remarked. “I WILL have the Spirit of Fenris shoot his engines out if he tries.”
“The what now?” Venus asked.
“Fourth Great Company flagship, in drydock at the Fang for upgrades,” Freya said, rubbing lotion into her legs. “Forget about it. Trust me, he won’t try. He’s secretly afraid of me,” she confided in a whisper.
“And he’s not afraid of me?” Venus asked tartly.
“Like you said,” Freya shot back. “He hasn’t met you.” She smirked under her shades as she added a coy addendum. “I’m sure he’s just afraid of strong women.”
“Hmph.” Venus sipped her drink again and settled back down to enjoy the view.
Remilia and Alex meandered through the little market around the city’s main spaceport, picking through the wares on sale. Remilia eyed a pair of tiny earrings shaped like drake teeth. “Man, I know who would love those,” she said under her breath. She glanced at the price tag. “Fair…” She grabbed the earrings and walked up to the counter, paying for them off of her card. With a quick glance at the receipt – she was still well within budget – she rejoined her friend outside.
“Nice,” Alex said, looked at the earrings. “For Alpharia?”
“Do you wish any of your other cousins were here?” Alex asked as they resumed their trawling of the market.
“I wish Miranda were here. She would be fascinated by the people. Or Angela and Michael, they’re always fun to be around,” Remilia said.
“Those two are practically joined at the hip these days,” Alex said, looking over at a clothing rack beside him.
“Did Michael tell you his little plan?” Remilia asked.
“Plan?” Alex asked, curious.
“Heh. Never mind, he’d want to tell you himself,” Remilia said, smiling wistfully. “Let’s see…Hana would find all the artistic metalworking here appealing, but she’d HATE the climate and the lack of open space. Farah would be ecstatic to be here. I know Venus invited her, but she had plans to take a trip to Ganymede and visit her mother’s clan.”
“Her mother lives on Ganymede?” Alex asked.
“No, she wants to go there on vacation then go home to Medusa to be with her mother for four months,” Remilia explained.
“Are her parents separated?”
“Not at all. Michelle just travels a lot, and she’s Medusan nobility. After she goes home for a while, Farah’s going to come back to Terra and start college. She’ll be a year behind us, but whatever. She’s already picked a school. I dunno which.”
“Ah.” Alex decided the clothes were out of his dwindling budget and moved on.
“Splurge, Alex, Fenris doesn’t have any retail on it,” Remilia pointed out.
“True…ah, to hell with it,” Alex said, grabbing the superb leather belt he had spotted and making off to the counter with it.
Moments later, prize in hand, he returned. He stuffed the belt in his bag and they moved on to another part of the market together.
Alex looked over at his companion. She was looking a bit downcast all of a sudden, as if talking about her cousins had been depressing.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I will be. I just miss my family, you know? And…I guess…” she trailed off.
“I envy you,” she said softly.
“For what? The ship containing my father, which may come crashing down on our vacation at any moment?” Alex groused.
“I envy you Freya,” Remilia confessed. “My last relationship ended horribly. I think I just feel a little lonely. Knowing that Venus and Freya came here with you and Jake, and I…didn’t.”
She looked over to see Alex turn away, pained. She sighed, regret clutching her heart. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have burdened you. You’ve got nothing to feel bad for.”
“Neither do you,” Alex said, shifting his bag of goods.
They walked on in silence for a few minutes. When they reached the end of the row, Alex paused. “Look…Remilia, I’m not the swiftest bulb in the marquis sign. I don’t know how to make you feel better. I didn’t even know you had a break-up. But…I don’t want to make you feel bad when I’m…with Freya,” he said. He looked awkward, and his face was pinched. “We’re going to be together for another two months on this trip.”
“Alex…”Remilia sighed, burying her face in one hand and slowly dragging it back over her hair. “Please. You make Freya happy, and that matters more to me than assuaging my own desires. Jake makes Venus happy, too, and I’m glad for you both. All right? I just…I needed to say it. I can’t get caught up in self-pity, though.”
Alex grimaced. He thought quickly, trying to remember what Freya and Jake had said before. “I wish I could help, but…” He stared at Remilia, who crossed her arms over her stomach and looked down, clearly beating herself up for turning things maudlin.
“Damn it,” she muttered.
Alex sighed and quickly squeezed her shoulders, trying to make her feel better. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead on his broad shoulders, trying to relax. “Sorry,” she said. “You didn’t deserve to feel guilty.” She slid her arms under his and gently squeezed him back. “If I wasn’t here, I’d be walking on eggshells back home, trying to get shit straight with Dad. Believe me, I’m better off here.”
“All right,” he sighed, putting it aside. She stepped back, grinning sadly.
“What is it with my cousins’ guys having innate emotional counselor traits?”
Alex shrugged. “Maybe Venus and Freya just like sounding boards,” he said.
Remilia chuckled to herself. “Heh. It makes things easier.” Both teens started the walk back to their accommodations in the hotel.
“So, uh…Remilia…has your hearing adjusted to Nocturne yet?” Alex asked cautiously.
“Sure has. It’s as sharp as ever.” She smiled over at him. “I can hear your heartbeat right now.”
“Cool…so…er…how do I ask this…” Alex stuttered.
Remilia sighed. “I wear earplugs when I go to bed for just that purpose.”
“Oh, thank goodness. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself again if I knew I was tormenting you,” Alex admitted.
Remilia chuckled again. “You’re a sweetheart, but don’t worry about it. I imagine with Freya you can’t focus on much else.”
“Heh. Just between you, me, and the sun,” Alex said, leaning in to Remilia, “Freya’s a complete sub when she’s not in crazymode.”
“No way. ‘Terrify a room full of grown men into submission with a snarl and glint of a fang’ Freya? ‘Launch Furia across the room with one elbow strike’ Freya?” Remilia asked incredulously.
“She’s a Wolf in public and a kitten the rest of the time,” Alex confided.
Remilia flushed and giggled. “Shhh, she might hear you.”
Alex glanced nervously over his shoulder. “Eh…I think we’re good. But hey, Remilia…you know, I’m no Jake, but if you really want to talk to someone…” he said.
She paused to give him a quick hug across the shoulders. “Don’t worry. I know where you are.” She smiled over at him and felt the guilt gripping her heart fade. “Thanks, Alex.”
A Night On the Town
The group reconvened at suppertime, having selected a small restaurant a serf at the castle had recommended. The place was clearly a local fixture: there wasn’t a single foreign dish on the menu, and prices were quite reasonable. Naturally, Venus had been recognized on her way in the door, and spent a few terse minutes staring at people until they looked away. With that finished, the group dug in, recounting the afternoon’s activities, though Alex and Remilia kept their discussion to themselves.
Jake was animated, describing the breathtaking view of the plains, which Freya and Venus echoed. “I mean, the ocean had its beauty, sure, but this…I’ll remember that view forever,” Jake eagerly reported.
“I know. It’s magnificent. We should go out there in an ornithopter and check it out.” Venus swigged her water and glanced around the table. “So what were you two up to?” she asked.
“Being mallrats,” Remilia reported. “I got some cool earrings for Alpharia and a bracelet for Omegan.”
“I bought this awesome belt,” Alex said, tapping his waist.
“Cool. Freya and I just sort of vegetated up on the highest terrace,” Venus said. “It’s surprising how cool it is up there. It’s even cooler on the ocean side.”
“Yeah, I was boiling on the street,” Jake said, ruefully showing where he had burned even through the lotion.
As the group finished their dessert, they headed out for the bar they had spotted earlier. Venus carefully adjusted her glasses over her eyes and moved in the center of the group as they entered.
The place was dark, smoky, and loud. The five teens made their way up to the bar and ordered, though Jake as always abstained. As they found stools at the end of the table, Jake glanced around the bar. “Huh. Looks pretty popular.”
“We try,” the bartender said, sliding a beer down to Alex. The man was stocky, well-built, with dark hair and intense eyes. The tattoos on his wrists said ‘ex-PDF’ to the three Royal daughters. “You kids new in town?”
“Tourists,” Alex answered for all five.
“In this place? Ballsy,” the bartender said. “People around here don’t take too kindly to foreigners with all the shootings going on.”
“Shootings?” Venus asked.
“Every damn month now. Violent crime is up nine hundred percent from ten years ago,” the bartender said darkly. “All of it off-world smugglers in their damnable turf wars.”
“Well, that sucks. But we’re just here to see the city before we head out,” Venus assured him.
The bartender looked her over. “You’re a tourist too?”
“You look Nocturnean.”
“I was born here. Lived for the last fifteen years on Terra with my father,” Venus explained. It happened to be true. “These two are my cousins,” she said, gesturing at Freya and Remilia on either side of her.
“Ah. Well, enjoy your stay, just don’t get too close to the tunnels,” the bartender said. “Half the shootings happen down here.”
“We’ll be careful,” Jake said.
The bartender nodded. “Sure. Let’s see some ID, by the by,” he said. All five dutifully presented their cards. The bartender stopped dead when he saw the names. “Oh…”
Venus winked at him over her sunglasses. “Hush. It’s just a night out.”
“I see. Well…I’m honored, your Highness,” he said quietly. “What else can I get you?”
“Just a lager, thanks. I’m stuffed,” she said. He grabbed one and slid it down to her.
“Where’s the head?” Jake asked, glancing side to side.
“Over behind the pool tables,” the barkeep said, gesturing.
“Thanks.” Jake stood up and made his way over as the others started on their drinks.
“So, what brings you home, Princess?” the barkeep respectfully inquired.
“It was time to see it first-hand. I’m hardly staying,” Venus said with a shrug. “I have college commitments on Terra.”
“I understand.” The bartender swept their caps into the trash and took a respectful step back. “How do you find Nocturne so far?”
“Hard. Gratifyingly so,” Venus said, sipping her uninspired beer.
Several things happened at once.
Jake opened the door to the bathroom and started to make his way across the room to his seat.
A green object soared through the air.
The bartender gasped and shouted. “None of that!”
Jake collapsed on the floor of the bar.
The room went silent, then loud.
The plainclothes shot to their feet, needle guns in hand.
Alex flew off his stool and sprinted over to where his friend lay crumpled.
Freya’s bottle shattered against the bar.
Several patrons stood, some wavering, some not.
Jake lay on his back on the floor, cradling the spot where the missile had struck him. The back of his head was a mess of broken glass, hair, and blood. Alex knelt by his side, tilting his head up. “Ow…” Jake whimpered.
“Quiet, man, someone hit you with a bottle,” Alex whispered.
“I can’t hear you,” Jake managed.
“Shhh, man, shhh,” Alex whispered, putting his hand to his lips.
“More than you deserve, shit-heel,” one of the standing patrons said darkly.
“You stupid son of a bitch, you sit the fuck down until the Enforcers get here!” the barkeep roared.
“Cram it.” The patron took another step forward.
“Kneel,” Venus snarled, rising to her feet.
“Fuck off,” the man rumbled, drawing a knife from his pocket. A few people around him tried to grab him, but he slid free. “This is payback.”
“By the name of the Drake King, I command you to KNEEL!” Venus suddenly screamed. The would-be killer spun, rage in his eyes.
The room turned bright red. It went silent. The plainclothes started slamming the butts of their guns into the backs of the people still standing, forcing them down.
Venus had ripped her glasses off and kicked her stool away. The rage in her was incandescent. The heat from her skin drew vapor from the drops of beer from Freya’s broken bottle. The light from her eyes was so bright that even Remilia couldn’t look at them. It was so bright, that if anyone present had been able to meet her gaze, they would have SEEN the swirls and movement of light within the depthless orbs.
Every single person in the room save the bartender and Venus was on their knees in an instant. Remilia sank into a crouch. Freya was nowhere to be seen.
“Barman, call the Enforcers, a medicae truck, and a coroner,” Venus whispered in a voice from the grave.
“As you wish, your Highness Venus,” he managed, his dark skin turning deathly grey.
Venus took a single step forward. The brilliant light from her eyes surged over to where Alex was still trying to keep Jake conscious. The vaguest flicker of red in the darkest corner of the room indicated that Freya was on the move, impromptu weapon in hand. In an instant, she was gone.
“I return to my home and hear of smugglers. I hear of petty crime and off-world criminals,” Venus hissed. “And now…revenge killings…against a Terran who arrived in the city TODAY?!”
“My...your Highness,” the man with the knife managed, “I beg your mercy, I sought only retribution for the death of my son-”
“BY CAVING IN THE HEAD OF MY BOYFRIEND?” Venus roared. She switched to Old Nocturnean, quite unconsciously. “YOU POLLUTE MY WORLD!”
“I didn’t know who he was!” the man wailed.
“No,” Venus grated out in Gothic. “You DIDN’T! BUT YOU STILL MADE TO SLAY HIM!” Her eyes actually managed to brighten. The tears of regret and sudden horror on the man’s face glimmered in the light. “MURDERER!” she thundered.
“Forgive me,” he sobbed.
Venus bared her teeth, and clenched her fists so hard a drop of blood oozed from both palms. “No.”
“Venus?” Jake managed from the floor. “I can’t hear you.”
Her inhuman gaze flicked to him. He blinked and shied away from her brilliance.
One of the plainclothesmen struggled to his feet and leveled his needle pistol at the man with the knife. The room was so quiet that the sounds of the approaching medicae truck sounded as loud as an orchestra.
“…Throw him into the darkest pits in the Castle. Then forget you put him there,” Venus hissed.
“As you wish, your Royal Highness,” the serf said, holstering his pistol and dragging the weeping man out.
Her eyes swept the prostrate crowd. “Should any man henceforth spill Jacob Seager’s blood…the transgressor shall be taken to Prometheus to be turned into a combat servitor, while fully conscious,” Venus whispered.
“Ave Imperator,” a serf said, holstering their weapon and shoving people near the door out of the medicae’s path.
Freya flickered out of the shadows cast by Venus’ eyes, bulldozing a path straight to Jake for the medic.
The medic brushed Alex aside, checking Jake’s pulse.
“I can’t hear,” Jake groaned.
“Massive concussion, at least,” the medic murmured. “Let’s get you out of here, your Lordship,” he said, gingerly lifting Jake into a waiting gurney.
What little presence of mind Jake had left kept him silent until the gurney was out of the building. Freya vanished back into the shadows as Alex slowly wiped the blood from his hands. Remilia rose from her crouch, stomach roiling in fear.
“No mercy for the indiscriminate,” Venus whispered in Old Nocturnean.
Venus swept out of the building, climbing into the back of the ambulance. The Enforcers outside paused to allow Alex and Remilia into the car they had called as Freya somehow materialized at the door.
“Venus…what happened?” Jake managed. A medic dug a blood donor card out of Jake’s wallet and paged through the IV bags on the interior of the truck.
“One of my people tried to slay their rightful Prince,” Venus snarled. She locked Jake’s hand in a death grip. “Don’t fall asleep, Jake.”
“What?” Jake whispered.
“The concussion has given him severe tinnitus, your Royal Highness,” the medic nervously asserted. “He will recover if we can get that wound stitched and he gets about a day of sleep.”
“What?” Jake asked louder, clearly on the verge of panic.
Venus glanced down at him, her wrath instantly gone. She leaned down and held his cheek with her free hand, speaking slowly, her eyes closed to protect his. “You. Are. Hurt. Be. Still,” she said.
“Okay,” Jake managed. “What happened?”
“Someone. Tried. To. Ki…hurt. You,” Venus said. As she said it, she felt her arms turn to water. The air in the rattling truck seemed to shrink and cool as the pure, molten rage in her vanished, and her eyes and skin reverted to normal.
“It worked,” Jake whimpered, clearly having missed the word Venus couldn’t bring herself to say.
Venus suddenly shook, fear and loathing and sorrow twisting her stomach into knots. She made a valiant effort not to be sick on her boyfriend’s body. “No,” she whispered. She buried her face in his chest and sobbed.
Alex and Remilia waited on a couch in the room outside the operating room of the local hospital. Freya paced, her fangs bared. Venus sat in the corner, eyes dimmed and wet. A small army of serfs, reporters, and curious onlookers – VULTURES! CARRION BIRDS! – hovered outside the stark room.
A doctor emerged from the operating theater, stripping his gloves off and loosening his mask. Freya was behind him, inaudible and invisible, in a heartbeat, her killer’s instincts unleashed, but under command. Remilia shot to her feet. Venus tried to stand, but the doctor knelt at her feet instead.
“Your Highness. Sieur Seager will live. He’s strong, the glass didn’t break anything. He’ll be as good as gold in three days. We got the Triacetyl mono into his brain in time, no lasting damage.”
The doctor vanished in a black rush as Venus wrapped her arms around him in a fierce hug. “Thank you so much, Doctor. The Apothecaries will revere your name,” she whispered brokenly.
“All in a day’s work, your Highness,” the man said, extracting himself from her arms.
“Well done, Doctor,” Remilia said gravely. Freya let out a sigh she had been holding, slumping against the wall. Alex leaned back in his chair and covered his eyes.
Venus burned the doctor’s ID into her mind with a glance at his hospital badge and released him, letting tears of suppressed fear and newfound relief pour from her eyes.
Jake himself stirred some time later. He was back in the Castle, he could tell, both from the chilling cold and the décor. His head…didn’t hurt. He gingerly ran his fingers along where the bottle had hit, and found nothing but smooth skin and a lack of hair. He sat up, noting his sleeping clothes were on, and that the little calendar-clock by the bed said that twenty-seven Terran hours had passed. “Venus?” he called to the empty room.
“Jake…” Venus whispered.
Jake turned away from the clock. Venus was sitting in the chair beside the bed, clad in her exercise clothes and with a dataslate in her hands. She dropped the slate and launched into the bed, halting centimeters from him. “You’re okay,” she managed, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and squeezing him like a vice. “Jake, you’re okay,” she cried.
“Easy, baby, easy,” Jake said, returning the hug and easing her down onto the bed next to him. “I’m all right, it’s okay.”
“Jake…” Venus wept. “I…I thought he had…m-murdered you,” she sobbed.
“I’m all right, baby, really,” Jake said, burying his head in her hair and breathing her in. “I’m all right. Please don’t cry.”
Venus sobbed in relief.
The door swung open. “Hey, Venus, we’re going to turn in…JAKE!” Alex suddenly roared, crossing the room in seconds and crouching by the bedside. “You stubborn fuck, you nearly gave us heart attacks!”
“Yelling. Yelling in my ear,” Jake said, flinching back from his ebullient friend.
“Sorry, sorry.” Alex beamed at him. “Man, you scared the shit out of us! How do you feel?”
“Good, actually,” Jake said, flexing his hands experimentally. “Tired. Little sore in my legs…other than that, I feel fine.”
“Awesome. Hey! Get in here!” Alex called, shielding his mouth from his friend. Venus sat up and sniffled.
“Hey, sleepyhead!” Freya said cheerfully, bounding into the room with Remilia in tow. “How’s that thick head of yours?”
“Fine, I think. It’ll take weeks to regrow my flowing, golden tresses, though,” said the dark and curly-haired teen. “What happened?”
“Some fuckface thought you made a good target for a revenge killing. He’s chained to the floor in the basement if you wanna go exact Salamander vengeance,” Remilia said.
“That sounds good. What does that involve?” Jake asked.
“Live-fire practice with flamers,” Remilia said.
“Cool. I’ll let him rot, though, I’m a softie.” Jake sat up, squeezing Venus’ hand. “I was out for a whole day?”
“And the doctor says you’re down for one more, so rest up,” Freya advised. She leaned forward and nuzzled Jake’s neck, smiling fiercely. Jake blushed. “Rrrgh, so GLAD!” she said, happily hugging him herself.
“Thanks, Freya,” Jake said. She leaned back in a playful crouch on the edge of the bed and grinned at him.
“We’ve been clustered around the door to your room for the last day, doing nothing but ordering takeout and working out,” Alex said drily. “Venus hasn’t left your suite since they dragged you back from the hospital.”
Jake leaned over and kissed his girlfriend. “Thanks, baby,” he said quietly.
She managed a shattered smile.
“Well…dude, if you want, we can pick up where we left off. Go be tourists for a while more before we leave for Fenris. My imbecile father is still fucking around in Clymene, the Tide is in orbit…you can do whatever you want for a while,” Alex said.
“Let’s go be tourists and not let stupid drunks ruin a good thing,” Jake said, an air of finality filling his tone.
“Attaboy!” Freya said.
“You were very brave, Jake,” Remilia said quietly.
“Naw, I was deaf and prone. Venus was brave. Alex was brave.” Jake sank back into his pillow and grinned. “You guys are the best friends I could ever ask for.” Remilia sniffed.
“Well. You sleep. I’m gonna go rest, too.” Alex bumped fists with the smaller man and made for the door. “Night.”
“Me too,” Freya added. She leaned over and nipped Jake’s ear, lingered there. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she whispered.
“As am I,” Jake said solemnly. She smiled and flipped off the bed, clearly planning to capitalize good feelings.
Remilia leaned in and hugged him, slow and gentle. “Thanks, Jake. You really, really scared me,” she managed.
Jake squeezed her back. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he promised.
Finally, only Venus was left. Jake looked over at her and nearly gasped. The light in her eyes was gone. Not dim, not fading: dead. Her eyes were balls of blank, red meat. “Venus?” he asked, worried.
“One of my people tried to murder you because of your skin color,” Venus said. Her voice was flat and empty. Completely devoid of the emotions that defined her.
“Venus…don’t you DARE blame yourself for this!” Jake pleaded. Sudden adrenaline pounded into his legs, sparking circulation in muscles that hadn’t been used in a day.
“My people hate offworlders so much, one tried to kill you.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.
“One! ONE person! Venus, the man I grew up next door to was murdered for his stereo! There’s always wackos, there’s always morons! You think I’m going to let this change what I think about Nocturne? About-”
He stopped. His logic trains switched rails. She thought of herself as Nocturne, blood and soul. She didn’t think this was literally her fault. She thought it was a defect of her people and her world…which meant it was part of her. Not physically, but spiritually. In a way, he suddenly realized, was more important to her than any other thing else in her entire life…besides the one thing that mattered most of all to Nocturneans: her family. Him. She was thinking that a fault in her way of life had nearly murdered him.
Without a word, he slid his arms under hers and hugged her deeply, dragging her unresisting body across him until she was prone on top of him. Remilia discreetly closed the door to their suite and left as fast as she could.
“Venus, Venus baby, please, please don’t do it,” he whispered. His heart seized as she managed a single, wracking sob.
He pulled her under the covers next to him and slid his torso over hers, holding her down and staring desperately into her dead eyes. “Venus, listen to me. I can not, will not EVER blame you for this. Not you, not Nocturne, not the Salamanders, not ANYTHING but one stupid drunk and some Terran criminals. Do you understand me?” he urgently asked.
“I nearly lost you,” she rasped. “It shouldn’t have happened.”
“And Keiter shouldn’t have shot Morticia in the back! Horrible people happen to strangers! Never let that get between us!” Jake pleaded. Tears were gathering in his eyes now. “I love you so much it hurts when you’re gone,” he whispered. “Never think this will change that.”
Venus closed her empty eyes and let her own tears flow. “…I have…never…felt such shame...” she managed.
Jake buried his head in her shoulder and hugged her until his arms ached. “No…no no no no no…Forgedaughter, my little fire, you’re better than that,” he sobbed. “Better, you’re, you’re the Drake Princess and the love of my life and stop, please stop,” he babbled.
“…Jake,” she whispered, utterly drained. He pulled back and stared as her eyes creaked open.
A single, tiny spark appeared in both.
His heart leapt.
Her eyes weren’t focused as she whispered. “…I’m a hopeless mess.”
“Sleep,” he said, through his own tears. He pulled her exercise clothes off and huddled her bare body against him under the sheets. With a snap of his fingers the lights died.
The vaguest red glow of life flickered in her eyes. It glimmered off of the light fixtures in the ceiling, anemic and watery. “…Jake…I thought I lost you,” Venus’ ragged voice said in the darkness.
“I can’t imagine what that was like,” Jake said. “I’ll try not to do it again,” he managed to say with a smile.
She turned her eyes to him. Tiny little balls of remorseful flame danced in them. Her skin was cooler than it was when she was fresh from a swim. “I’ll…sleep for a week,” she said faintly.
Jake slid his arm under her head and snugged her up against him. “I’ll be here.” He breathed a sigh of relief as she finally moved, running a tremulous hand up his chest to rest on his heart.
“I haven’t…felt that kind of loss…even when Morticia…” Venus confessed.
Jake nodded, squeezing her hand with his. “I know. Wouldn’t that have been the crowning irony, though? The one guy in the group that doesn’t drink gets killed by a beer?”
She was quiet for a moment. “…I want to laugh, but I don’t have any in me,” she said faintly.
“It’s okay, that joke sucked.” Jake let the tension of his horrified realization bleed out. He was a bit shaky, himself, now.
“My world…my family…” she whispered. “All I want to do is show you the best parts of them. The parts I love.” She sighed again. “Or…the parts Dad said I would love.”
Jake nodded in the darkness. “Well, baby, so far, Nocturne has amazed me.”
Her voice was so soft he almost missed it. “I hoped you’d say that.”
Jake propped his head up a bit more and kissed the top of her head. “I’m glad you didn’t have the guy executed.”
“It wouldn’t have made the trip better, certainly, but…I don’t want to think of you as a killer, even completely justified,” Jake said. “I love you, Venus. You know that?”
“I do,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t think I deserve it, but you do it anyway.” She finally managed a ghost of a smile. “Keep going, okay?”
Jake slid his hand across her bare stomach to link with his other hand. Her flesh was slowly warming back up, but she wasn’t back up to full heat. He tried to enjoy the rare moment. “As long as you want me to.” He tried to marshal his thoughts. “Venus, don’t answer this if you don’t want to. What did you think about when I was out cold?”
Venus didn’t answer for a moment. When she did speak, at length, her voice was deliberate and paced. “Not much. I just sat there recording a message for Dad, mostly. I told the whole story. I haven’t sent it.”
“All right.” He tugged the covers up to her collarbone.
She sighed lightly. “We talked a bit about how we would reschedule things if you wanted to stay here. The governor came by a few hours ago to offer me his apologies. A Salamander Brother-Lieutenant came to me with the drunk guy’s file, which I told him to burn. The file, not the guy. I don’t care who he is yet.”
“Me neither,” Jake said. He placed a hand over her stomach for a moment, and smiled into her hair as he felt a bit of her flame reignite. “See? You’re getting better.”
Venus closed her eyes and tried to think. “I didn’t even leave for food. I just stayed.”
“Thank you,” Jake said softly. He felt his own eyes water a bit again as the depth of her devotion started to dawn on him. “I’m sorry I made you hurt.”
“I’m sorry you got hurt,” she said in the same voice. “You know…Remilia told me that the way I looked when I thought you…had died was so scary that everyone in the room took a knee.”
“I couldn’t hear it, but I saw it,” Jake murmured. The memory was clear in his mind, much more so than the ride to the hospital. “I’m not surprised. What were you saying?”
Venus winced against his arm. “Can we not talk about that?” Her voice was strained with exhaustion.
“Sure, baby,” he soothed. “I’ll see you tomorrow, huh?”
“Yeah.” She ran her hand over her eyes, rubbing weariness away and trying to settle down. He slid his arms free of her, but paused before he rolled away.
He leaned across her and kissed her as gently as he could, barely more than a brush against her lips. “I love you. Don’t ever think I won’t.”
“I know, Jake,” she whispered. “I wish…I wish I could show you what that means to me.” She bit her lip as another tear worked its way down her face. This one was relief, not self-loathing.
Back On Track
The next morning, the group rendezvoused at the mess in the castle itself, to ascertain if Jake was ready for travel. To the others’ relief, not only was Jake recovering well, but Remilia noted that Venus’ self-blame seemed to have dissipated. Neither teen was quite themselves yet, but Jake was determined to move on.
After a quick meal – Jake wasn’t quite ready to pick his workout routine back up yet – they dispersed over the city, with the boys eager to see the ocean-side scenic overlook they had been planning to see the previous day, and the girls visiting the city’s highest terrace, where the upper crust shops and art galleries were.
Jake stood on the edge of the balcony and watched the world fall away from him.
They were atop a ledge over the sheer cliff that dropped down to the ocean below. The red water looked like a sea of blood, stretching out to infinity. “Hell of a view, all right,” Jake said.
Alex leaned on the railing and peered down. “Yeah. We’re at least four klicks up.”
“If you look close, you can see where the egress tunnels for the sluices are,” Jake said, pointing down to some discolored points on the water.
“Cool. I wonder how acidic that water is?” Alex asked.
“Well, there are whales in it, so probably not very,” Jake said.
Alex sipped from his bottle of water and cast a glance over his friend. Shorn hair on the back of his head aside, he looked no worse for wear. “You need to sit down?”
“I do, actually,” Jake said. He glanced over to where a group of Nocturneans were standing, taking in the view. He ambled over to a seat and dropped in with a sigh. Alex sat down next to him, passing him the water. “Thanks.”
“Is it your head or your legs?” Alex asked.
“Neither, just tired.” Jake took a sip and passed it back. “I think I’ll chill here for a while. You want to go do something else?”
Alex glanced down the street to where the city’s foot traffic moved under the terraced roads. “The girls should be meeting us for lunch in ten minutes at a café up the terrace. Want to take a cab?”
“I may have to,” Jake confessed. He stuck his hand out and flagged a passing taxi.
As the vehicle slowed, Alex leaned over the driver’s side window. “Orlaront’s café, please,” he said.
“Sure thing,” the driver said. Jake eased into the vehicle and sat down, massaging his temples. The car sped off. “So, you folks not from around here?” the driver asked.
“Seems like everyone on the planet has either asked or assumed that since we got here,” Jake said wryly.
“We’re Terrans,” Alex said. “That won’t be a problem, will it?”
“Someone already picked a fight with us over it,” Jake added.
“Nah, your money’s silver.” The driver deftly maneuvered them through the weaving traffic. “You in town for business?”
“End of school road trip, actually,” Jake said.
“From Terra? Brave of you.”
Jake shrugged. “I have family here.”
“Ah.” The driver pulled them over beside the modest café. “Here we go.”
“Thanks for the ride, sir,” Jake said, heaving himself out as Alex paid him.
“No problem. Enjoy your stay,” the driver said, pulling back into traffic.
Jake watched him go. “People hereabouts can’t decide whether to be nice or ambivalent towards us,” he said under his breath.
Alex snorted. “Just noticing that, are you?”
“It wasn’t this bad in Clymene or Aethonion,” Jake observed. He opened the door and walked in, spotting Venus’ red eyes at the back of the room. “Nobody tried to brain me there.”
“I’ll grant you that,” Alex said.
Venus saw the boys and waved them over. Jake noted with relief that Venus’ eyes were back to their usual, healthy glow, and that she wasn’t wearing her sunglasses, having slung them in her collar. She stood up and hugged him as Alex slid into his seat. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Much better, thanks,” Jake said. He looked around. There wasn’t a soul in the place besides them. “This place is vacant.”
“Good. Privacy,” Venus said.
After lunch, the group split back up, with Venus heading up to the markets with Jake and Remilia as Alex and Freya went down to the cragfalls, about the only tourism destination in the city. On the way, Jake paused as they walked past the bar where he had been attacked, only two days before.
“Would you guys give me a second?” he asked. Venus and Remilia exchanged a look.
“You want to go back?” Remilia asked.
“Not looking for trouble. I just kind of feel bad for scaring the shit out of the bartender like that,” Jake said.
“Well, I doubt he’s even there, but if you want to go, go,” Venus said. “Take your time.”
“Thanks.” Jake entered the place and found it deserted, save a few people who looked like regulars at the bar, and to his satisfaction, the bartender from before.
The barkeep saw him making his way over from the door and started. “Lord Seager! Sir, I owe you a sincere apology for before, that should never have happened.”
“Easy, man, easy, I’m fine,” Jake said.
The man grimaced in remorse. “It was a disgrace to this establishment and to Skarokk.”
“It’s also over. No hard feelings,” Jake said, extending his hand. The bartender gratefully shook it.
“Thank you for your mercy, your Lordship, and for that of the Princess. I’m in your debt.”
“Not really, you just did what you had to. And the asshole responsible is contemplating eternity in the Castle dungeon, so I think it works out,” Jake said. “Seriously, nobody’s blaming you. I just stopped by to apologize for the whole mess.”
The bartender inclined his head in respect. “Thank you, my Lord, that makes a difference to me.”
“Good.” Jake nodded back. “Goodbye.”
“Thanks for stopping in, your Lordship,” the barman called after him.
Alex and Freya huddled around a table in the shade, staring out at a waterfall three kilometers high. The meltwater from the glacial peaks of the mountains coursed down the side of the razor-sharp obsidian crags that lent the waterfall its name, fanning out over the mountainside until it fell into the sea.
The crowd here was almost all off-worlders, in contrast to the rest of the planet. Groups of sunscreen-coated offspring of visiting merchants and vacationing rich stood up against the railing and gabbled about the spectacle.
Freya sipped her water bottle and watched. “I’ve seen two attempted pickpocketings so far. Enforcers were close enough to spook off both, though.”
“Shit.” Alex grimaced and took a pull on his own drink. “How did things get so bad? Open theft? Attempted murder?”
“Who knows,” Freya asked rhetorically. She craned her head back and stared at the astounding waterfalls. “Hell of a view, though.”
“It sure is,” Alex said. He chuckled to himself. “You know, growing up in Startseite, you think you’ve seen it good when you go into the hives. You see how people live there, then you go back up to the surface and you look at what you have. You think to yourself ‘man, I have seen it all.’ Then you fly to Nocturne, and hey!”
“Yeah.” Freya nodded her assent. “Magnificent world.”
“Sure is.” Alex looked over his shoulder and noted an approaching figure with interest. “Eyes on, Astartes.”
“What?” Freya asked. A Salamander in full Power Armor was marching up the street to the scenic overlook, parting the throngs of people with no effort whatsoever. Alex spotted waving mechdendrites behind his shoulders – a Techmarine.
The people at the railing spotted him and erupted in awed whispers. The Nocturneans around the Marine, however, barely even reacted to his presence, simply walking around him with a respectful nod. The contrast amused Freya.
“Hmm. The Wolves don’t do that,” she said.
“On Fenris, the average Fenrisian is scared shitless of the Space Wolves,” Freya said. “They swoop down in Assault Packs to break up clan wars that get out of hand, abduct gifted sons to serve as warriors, fight monsters in the wastelands…here, they’re friends. Kin.”
“Which system do you think works better?” Alex asked.
“Can’t compare them. Fenris doesn’t know about the rest of the Imperium. They sure as hell don’t have this kind of technology and awareness of the greater universe. If they did…” Freya trailed off, thinking. “I suspect the Wolves would treat the Fenrisians like the Salamanders treat the Nocturneans, only a bit more judgmental.”
Alex cocked his eyebrow behind his glasses. “Judgmental how?” Alex asked.
“The Salamanders think shared burdens and common struggles make them stronger. The Wolves think competition and survivalistic outlooks make them stronger.” Freya flexed her bicep, rippling the Wolves tattoo on her left arm. “Raw skill and ferocity, not community and generosity.”
Her boyfriend nodded. “Fenris will be very different.”
“It will.” Freya saluted to the Techmarine as he passed. He noted the clearly Fenrisian girl and deduced her identify with a flash of his bionics. Rather than stop to acknowledge her, however, he simply nodded quietly and continued on his way. “Techmarines, however, are a breed apart everywhere, I suspect,” Freya said once he was well out of hearing range.
“I wouldn’t know, I defer to you,” Alex said.
The plainclothes serfs behind them clearly wanted to acknowledge their master, Freya’s magnificent eyes observed, but kept their cover in the moving crowds of people.
“Good on them, keeping their heads down,” she said with approval.
“Fifteen more than two nights ago.”
“Fuckin’ A, that’s a lot of muscle,” Alex murmured.
“Surprised?” Freya asked drily.
“Not at all.” Alex sipped his water again and stood, brushing his legs off. “I want to go see the feeder falls.”
“Sure. You know how to get there?” Freya asked.
Alex jerked his head at the broad spiral staircase to the side of the rows and rows of tourists. “Just up the stairs, yeah?”
“Should be. Have fun. I'mma find a little girl’s room,” Freya said, making off in the other direction.
Alex started up the stairs, maneuvering past the crowds of tourists on the tall, reinforced stairway into the sky. It ascended nearly twenty stories, and was cored with solid bars of reinforced iron, embossed and decorated with pictures of snapping drakes and breaching whales. The crowd petered out as the gravity and heat took their toll on the off-worlders, until only Alex and a few brave souls were left on the spiral. The stairs halted at an observation platform with a thick wrought-iron bannister and railing, and Alex stopped to lean on it, breathing heavily.
The ocean spread out to eternity under his gaze. The spiral staircase stood out from the steep mountain face like a tree from an open field. Behind and below him, and even above, the magnificent cragfalls shimmered blood red under the sun. Alex sank into a stone chair and stared out at the view. “Hell of a world,” he whispered.
His vox beeped. He started and immediately muted it, blushing as the other tourists glared at him for disrupting the moment. He yanked it out and flipped it open. “Hello?” he asked quietly.
“Alex! How ya doin’, kid?” he father asked. Alex closed his eyes in sudden apprehension.
“Fine. Yourself?” he asked, scanning the skyline for any approaching aircraft.
“Much better, now that the blasted generator’s fixed, I’ve done a bit of work on the surface, and the Salamanders are clearing me to leave.”
“Good to hear. When are you heading out?” Alex asked.
“Not before I see you, don’t worry, I haven’t come this far to turn back now!” his father said. The plastic of the vox creaked in Alex’s hand.
“Dad…the point of a road trip is to get away from the elements of the familiar. I knew the Star was heading this way before we left Earth, I would have just had you bring us here if I wanted to bring you along,” Alex noted.
“Alex, you sound like you don’t want to see me!” Lord Carlin said, hurt.
“How old were those girls hanging off your arms at the graduation? What were their names?” Alex asked under his breath, standing up and making for the least crowded part of the observation deck.
“If you want to see me before you go, fine, I can’t stop you, but leave my friends and Freya out of this,” Alex said coldly. “Where are you?”
“Skarokk Starport, dock four.” Alex groaned. He was already in the city?!
“I’ll drop by and say hello, alone, as soon as I can. Wouldn’t want to hold you up,” Alex said curtly. “Bye.” He hung up halfway through his father’s farewell and dropped the vox into his pocket after removing the battery. “Douchebag,” he muttered.