Bleeding Out (Warhammer High)
|This article contains PROMOTIONS! Don't say we didn't warn you.|
This is the second of writefag Someone else.'s major forays into the Warhammer High universe. Specifically, this project was created because he was asked to make something a bit darker than his usual happy endings. Given that the story opens with someone being shot, he probably succeeded.
- 1 Part One
- 2 Part Two
Freya Russ rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Dad. Enough. Are you ready to go?”
“Almost, almost,” her father grumbled. Leman tugged the little cloth band around his wrist irritably. “Does this matter that badly? I’m kind of hard to miss.”
“Believe me, I know. Now come on!” the perky redhead instructed, pushing her father towards the door of the mansion. “We’re going to be late!”
The man rolled his sleeves up to the shoulder, preparing to go to work.
“Jake, you feel like grabbing some air?” Venus asked, stretching. Her boyfriend looked up from their homework.
“Sure. Where do you want to go?”
“Eh, how about the gardens downtown? Great day for it,” Venus suggested, gesturing at the beautiful pseudoweather out the window.
“All right, let me grab my keys,” the pale young man said, standing up.
The man opened the latches on his military spec case, rummaging around for his tools.
“I’m glad you could make it out, Morticia,” Kelly said, downing the rest of her drink, letting the warm spring breeze blow past her on the little café patio.
“A bit cold, though, isn’t it?” her chronically-ill cousin responded, hugging her shoulders against the breeze.
“Not really,” Kelly said, raising her voice a little over the traffic. “You’re just always cold.”
The man slid the receiver of the weapon together, gently clicking the device into place.
Roberta huffed into her vox. “No, I don’t need a ride, thanks. My legs still work.”
“Just checking, young madam,” her father’s chauffer said placatingly. “Will you be home for dinner?”
“Sure, I won’t be long,” Roberta said, walking down the bustling surface street. Remilia was already waiting at the corner for her cousin to catch up.
The man looked over the stub rifle he was building. It looked good. Useful. Ready.
“That, of course, assumes that the Navy can hold Corlsic against the greenskin filth on their own,” Warmaster Horus said. “I assume they can, too, of course, but there is a force of Salamanders within dispatch range.”
“Unnecessary,” the Emperor responded, looking over the Navy dispatch. “I suspect that battle will be over before our intervention is needed. Speaking of battles,” he said, smiling faintly, “how’s Isis doing with that college hunt?”
“She’s dragging her heels,” Horus grumbled.
The man slipped a few rounds into the magazine, then looked out the window at the poster of the Emperor shaking hands with Eldrad Ultran, across the street. The man’s jaw tightened, then relaxed. He’d make it right today.
“No, she’s smarter than that,” Lyra said, leaning back at her table. WD slid down her shoulder to the table, sitting on the edge and swinging his legs over it.
Isis shrugged. “If you say so. I never thought she was a particularly good listener.” The two girls made way as the waiter arrived with their meals, throwing a disapproving look at the tiny xeno on the table as he did.
The man chambered a round in the rifle, ejected the mag, and refilled it, sliding it back into place. He glanced over the cardboard box as he did so: the label read .402, HPFT FT1. The man nodded. That would work.
Angela laughed. “Really. Well, I’m not much of a holovision person, but if it’s that funny,” she said with a shrug. Miranda nodded, counting the points off on her fingers.
“One, they don’t stop for commercials every fifty seconds, two, it doesn’t have any of that insipid pause-for-laughter crap that throws off every other comedy, and three, it’s actually funny, that’s more than most other shows out there,” she added wryly.
The man clicked the bipod down, carefully locking it in place. He stretched out on the towel he had padded up underneath him.
Farah slowly spun her keyring over her fingers, waiting for the call. At long last, her vox buzzed, and she snatched it up. “Hey, is it ready?” she asked eagerly.
“Sure is,” Hana reported. “Come pick it up.”
“Awesome,” Farah said, heading out the door already. “Be right there.”
The man snugged his rifle against his shoulder, sighting down the highlighted scope.
“Nah, too far,” Furia said, flicking a butt into the trash.
Simon rolled his eyes. “Fine, somewhere closer. Reidel’s? It’s quieter, at least.”
“Works for me,” Furia said uncaringly, shrugging her tattered leather jacket on.
The man slowly squeezed the first of the two double-set triggers. *Click.*
Victoria paused in front of the store window, adjusting her hair in the reflection. The Twins shared a weary expression. “Vicky. It’s still there. We can go.”
“Not yet,” Victoria said absently. “Hang on.”
“Fuck it,” Cora grumbled, walking past her cousins. “Catch up when she’s done.”
The man slid his finger down the curve of the second trigger, pulling gingerly. Such a light break…there. *Click.*
“There you are,” Faith scolded, tapping her foot as Petra caught up with her at the door to the seminary. “I thought you got lost.”
“That does not happen,” Petra said evenly. She cocked her head, frowning. “Did you hear something?”
Kelly blinked as something ran into her eyes. She wiped her hand over her face, and it came away red. “What? Where did that come from?” she asked aloud, then looked up as another dot of blood appeared on the white tablecloth in front of her…
As Morticia, daughter of Death Guard Lord Primarch Mortarion, slumped back in her seat, blood pouring from a hole in her chest.
The man nodded once. A clean torso hit. At that range, quite a feat. He racked the bolt, chambering the next round, then decided not to fire it, setting the rifle down gently and waiting for the end.
“MORTICIA!” Kelly screamed, lunging across the table. Half-remembered emergency protocols kicked in, as she ducked under the metal mesh surface, her eyes racing across the screaming crowd. Half a dozen Treasury agents sprinted through the panicked group, one lashing out with elbows and pistol butts, forcing passers-by to the ground.
“Down, down, everybody down, now!” he screamed, sweeping the crowd with his bolt pistol. The other five dropped into defensive positions around the hysterical Kelly and Morticia, who had fallen out of her chair to the ground.
“Dispatch, Code Red Seven, shots fired, package critical, need a lift lift lift!” another one reported crisply. With a flash of light, both girls vanished, disappearing with a crackling of displaced air. All six Treasury agents leaped to, sweeping nearby windows and doors for any sign of a gunman.
The man quietly settled back against the bare concrete walls of the room, crossed his arms over his chest, and rested.
“SHOT?! My daughter’s been SHOT?!” Mortarion roared into the vox. The eyes of every single one of the Navy officers in the tiny conference room shot open, as the breathmasked Primarch rose to his feet in horror. “When?! Is she…no? WELL BLOODY FIND THEM! I’m on my way!” he yelled into the speaker, running out of the room as fast as he could, leaving the Naval officers stunned in his wake.
A Treasury officer in the gold and black ‘beehive’ uniform of a security agent stepped up to the Emperor’s shoulder, as Horus and Lorgar Aurelian paused their heated discussion of the Ork encroachment on Imperial shipping. “My Liege, Field Sergeant Carver reports that Lady Morticia has been shot by an unknown sniper, only seconds ago, in the township outside Hive Tetra,” the officer whispered urgently.
“Lock it down,” the Emperor said grimly, standing immediately. “Send in the Seekers.”
“Aye,” the man said softly, pressing a few buttons on his wrist implant.
In a garage under the Hive Tetra airlock, a flock of hovering sensor servitors leapt from their racks, swooping out into the sunlight, spreading over the wooded, artificial township. The streets below jammed up in an instant as Treasury officers and plainclothes Arbites fanned out over the community, encircling the entire area in a ring of police.
“Of all the days to NOT wear my teleporter to work,” Mortarion snarled, angrily clenching his fists in the back of his aircar. The driver had the pedal floored, and an escort of Treasury agents in their airtrucks were clearing traffic ahead. They weren’t going fast enough, though. They weren’t going fast enough.
Freya pulled up in her aircar to the curb, bounding out and slamming the door. Her father stepped out behind her, grimacing at the milling crowds outside the school. “Why are the crowds here so huge for such a small student body?” he asked in genuine confusion. “It baffles me. It’s a season game.”
“Compliment my driving,” Freya instructed, tossing him her keys.
“You didn’t get us killed,” Leman noted after a seconds’ thought. Freya had just enough time to glare at him before a tidal wave of black and gold uniforms swept over them both.
“Wha-?” Lord Russ started.
“Back in the car, sir, NOW,” the nearest Treasury agent said quickly, guiding Freya into the car’s passenger seat.
“What the hell’s going on?” Russ demanded, planting his hand on the roof of the car.
“Morticia’s been shot,” the guard said brusquely.
“…Understood,” Russ said, climbing back in and letting the Treasury agent start the car back up.
Jake glanced out the side window of his air car and groaned. “Shit, it’s the cops. Was I speeding?”
“Not police or Praetors,” Venus said after a second’s appraisal. “Treasury?”
“What did I do this time?” Jake grumbled, sliding over to the side of the airlane.
“Not you, I don’t think,” Venus said softly, staring at the car. The aircar stopped over an emergency service strip and the Treasury car slid to a halt in front of it. Several beehives jumped out and ran up to the windows, pulling the doors open as Jake hurriedly unlocked them.
“Lady Venus, come with us at once. Code Red has been declared,” the first beehive said, pulling Venus bodily out of the car.
“All right,” Venus said. Jake stood up to follow her, but another beehive pushed him back in to the car, cracking his head on the doorframe.
“Venus, what’s going on?”
“Sergeant, let him come with us,” Venus said, trying to shake the beehive’s arm off of hers.
“No,” the beehive said flatly, grabbing Venus by the collarbone and pushing her down into the Treasury car. The car lifted, the other beehives jumping into the closing doors, and took off, lights and sirens blaring. Jakes stared at the receding car, cradling his swelling head.
“What…the hell?” he muttered, climbing back in. He took off for his apartment, hoping the news holos would provide some answers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program to bring you a news break,” the pile of clothes behind the news desk said, reading the data stream across her retina. The cameras broadcast her message across the Sol system. “As of fifteen minutes ago, Lady Morticia, of the Imperial Royal family,” as if there were any others, “has been shot. The Arbites have cordoned off the area, and the Lady has been transported to a hospital, where she is undergoing emergency surgery. We will keep you updated as news arrives.”
Mortarion stared at the thick glass separating the operating room from the viewing room, his knuckles white. The glass obscured all details; all he could see was a cluster of humanoid shapes around an operating table covered in blue gauze and sheeting. Kelly and her father, Lord Curze, were sitting in the chairs behind him, Kelly still reeling, and Curze seething, shooting acid glares at the beehives guarding the door.
A doctor tapped on the glass, making Mortarion jerk his head back. The robed surgeon jerked a thumb to the side, and Mortarion nodded, opening the door next to the window. Before he could come in, however, the surgeon rounded the corner, poking the Primarch in the chest with an angry finger.
“Lord, you’re not helping.”
“It’s my bloody daughter,” Mortarion snarled.
“And she’s got more problems than a bullet in the lung, Lord,” the surgeon said coldly. “If you REALLY want to be of help, go get about five doses of that medicine in her inhaler and the prescription card. Quickly.”
“Her medicine?” Mortarion blinked his dead, gray eyes. “It’s not-”
“QUICKLY, Lord, we may have to go to intravenous and do so with little forewarning,” the surgeon said, closing the door before Mortarion could protest. The Death Guard watched the door in quiet rage for a long second, before his shoulders slumped. He wearily dug a vox out of his pocket and tapped his butler’s speed-dial, muttering instructions into the microphone.
“…Dad?” Kelly asked quietly, squeezing her hands together.
“Kelly?” Konrad asked, his attention drawn back to his daughter.
“She’s alive, right?” the black-haired girl asked, her voice tight and confused.
“She is, Kelly, don’t worry,” Curze said, lowering his voice.
“It was a sniper,” she managed, her eyes tracing the hairline cracks between the floor tiles, finding security in the pattern. “I didn’t even hear the shot, he must have been…”
“Baby, it’s OK, you don’t have to talk,” Curze said, glancing at the clock, and cursing every single traffic light between his wife’s car and the hospital.
“A sniper?” Remilia asked, paling. The beehive driving the truck with her and Roberta crammed in the back nodded.
“Aye, ma’am, don’t know more than that.”
“Is she going to make it?” Remilia asked in shock.
“Don’t know more than that,” the driver said again.
“Where are we going?” Roberta asked, eyeing the row of beehives along the passenger bench of the truck.
“The Palace bunker,” the driver said, swinging the wheel to round a blockade, lights ablaze and sirens squealing.
“I understand,” Andrew said wistfully, listening to Hana explain the circumstances of her abrupt departure. “Well…I’ll talk to you later, huh?”
“Sure thing, Andy,” Hana said. “You take care, OK? This could go on for a while,” she added, glaring at the mass of beehives and Arbites guarding the tiny bunker.
The surgeon returned, sliding his gloves off and dropping them in the trash inside the door, closing it behind him with a sigh. Mortarion was on his feet in an instant, walking over to the window and staring through it at the tableau of surgery beyond. “Well?” he demanded.
“Lord Mortarion, your daughter will probably not agree with me, but…she is the luckiest girl I have ever seen,” the doctor said tiredly, tugging off his mask. He grimaced as the sterile air washed over him, loosening his scrubs’ collar. “It was a stubber shot, flatpoint. The round impacted on the top of her seat back, and fragmented. Only a small piece actually hit her. The rest lodged in the chair,” the doctor said, straightening up. “The frag passed clean by her sternum, and somehow did so without pulping her heart.”
Mortarion sagged against the wall, hanging his head in relief. The doctor continued. “It will be a good long time before she can speak, though, sir, it clipped her lung on the way through.” The Death Guard Primarch nodded, holding out the little metal tin of medicine from their house. The doctor took them silently, slipping them into his pocket. He waited a moment longer. “Sir? Any questions?”
“No, no,” Mortarion said slowly, staring through the thick glass at his daughter’s table, clenching his fist in helpless emotion. “…thank you, Doctor.”
“Certainly,” the surgeon said, bowing back into the operating room at the dismissal.
Curze stood, stepping back from his daughter as his wife arrived at full speed, slamming into Kelly. The leather-and-gauze-clad teenager snapped out of her trance to look briefly astonished before she vanished into her mothers’ panicked embrace.
“KELLY! Oh god, honey, are you hurt?!” she gasped out, a cadre of Treasury agents filing in behind her.
“…Not really,” Kelly said, shuddering. Her mother pulled back a few inches and stared at her anxiously.
“Honey, what happened?”
“I think she needs to rest up a bit before she’s ready to tell us,” Konrad said gently. Kelly nodded, once.
“I…need a little time,” she said flatly.
Jake sat on the couch in his apartment, staring at the holoscreen in his living room, more or less the same way half the human population of the planet was, at that moment. His parents sat on either side of him, watching in silence as news anchors and reporters repeated the same few static lines the Treasury had stated. “As of now, the shooter has not been apprehended,” the reported said for the tenth time, showing a looping holo of a Treasury vehicle parking at the scene of the shooting and a team of forensic officers examining the site.
“What the hell…” Jake muttered. “How have they not caught the guy?”
“They probably have, and just don’t want to air it,” his father said. “How else could they know how many there were?” The vox rang. Jake leaned forward and grabbed it out of the cradle, muting the screen.
“Hello?” he asked breathlessly.
“Jake, hey, it’s Freya,” the voice on the other end said. “Venus just arrived here, and she wanted me to call you and say she’s OK. She left her cell in your car.”
“Oh, yeah,” the young man realized, thinking back to the chaotic extraction. “I have it. Uh, how are you doing? And where are you?”
“We’re fine, we’re at the Palace,” Freya said, putting her hand over the mic for a second. She looked over the small crowd of nobles and royalty in the grim little bunker. “They’ve got most of us here, but…well.”
“Yeah. Well, thanks for the update. How’s she doing?” Jake asked.
“No clue, I can’t get a hold of Kelly,” Freya said worriedly.
Hana leaned forward in her chair, staring at the little screen in the panic bunker, taking in the news. Several of the other Royal Daughters clustered around, waiting for…for something, anything, that would explain the day they were having.
“So far, the Royal branch of the VIP Protection Office has refused to comment on the motives of the shooter or shooters responsible for this attempted murder,” the anchor said, a looping image of a forensics officer poking a bloodstained table in the background. “However, sources close to the Treasury have stated that the search is intensifying as the lockdown of the township, Startseite, is now extending to the nearby hive entrances.”
“And by ‘sources close to the Treasury,’ of course, he means a different news channel, since they’re all saying the same damn thing,” Furia grumbled, balling a fist. She stood from her chair and stomped angrily over to the bathroom, as Miranda slid into her seat.
“At least Morticia’s OK,” she said faintly, rubbing her eyes distractedly. The psychic pressure of the whole planet reacting at once was overwhelming her. Angela looked on in sympathy.
“And Kelly. Have they-” she started to ask, before the news anchor suddenly touched his earpiece.
“E-excuse me, viewers, but we…we have a new development,” the anchor said, staring into the camera as more information poured into his ear and eyes. “The shooter has been captured.”
The man sat on a steel chair in a windowless interrogation room, staring with mild interest at the inside of the two-way mirror. He’d never been arrested before. It was new.
A team of Treasury agents had swarmed in, kicked the rifle away from him, and zapped him with some kind of energy weapon. He had woken up here, with a splitting headache and a group of Arbites staring at him coldly.
He’d been read his rights, curtly and clearly, and been offered a lawyer. He had politely declined. He had no argument to make. The door swung open, and a man in a neat black suit walked in, a small recorder in his hands. He sat down at the table, closing the door behind himself as he did. He clicked the recorder on and started talking.
“My name is Arthur. What’s your name?”
“Useless,” the man said.
“I can hardly converse with you if I don’t know your name,” Arthur pointed out.
“No, my name is Useless. My father was very dull.” Arthur stared at the man for a moment, then sighed and dug out the wallet the man had carried when he had been captured.
“Says here your name is Ulysses Keiter.”
“Maybe, but I’m Useless. To my friends,” the man said, shrugging. Arthur nodded slowly.
“All right, Sieur Keiter. I’m the lead legal counsel to the Emperor’s Courts, representing the Treasury and VIP Protection offices. They would very much like to know why you shot Lady Primarch Morticia this morning.”
The man’s mouth dropped open. “I…did what?”
“You shot a Lady Primarch. A seventeen-year-old girl. Royalty too. Why’d you do it?”
“I didn’t shoot a Lady Primarch!” the man exclaimed. “I didn’t!”
“The slug we found in her back matched the ones from your rifle’s magazine perfectly,” Arthur said.
“But I didn’t! I swear, I didn’t! All I did was shoot some random bitch at the café! Some greedy bitch!” the man said, slapping his hands down on the table and propelling himself upwards, voice rising to a desperate shout.
“The ‘greedy bitch’ you shot is the daughter of Lord Primarch Mortarion,” Arthur said, concealing his own surprise.
“NO!” the man said, paling. He gripped his hands on the edge of the table in desperate fear, every inch of his body racing with adrenaline-fuelled horror. “No, no, no, no, I didn’t, I didn’t! I shot…I…she was just some rich bitch, some little moneyslut from Startseite, nobody who…no…”
“Nobody who…what?” Arthur asked.
“Nobody who…” the man sank back in his chair, his hands shaking. “…nobody…”
“Just a nobody? Why did it not matter who you killed?” the lawyer asked.
The man’s eyes widened, shock grabbing him and shaking him by the stomach, until he lurched out of his chair and violently emptied it into the drain on the floor, heaving until he felt like his sides were going to implode.
“No…” he managed, spitting the taste away.
“So, it did matter who you killed. Just pick a rich girl and shoot?” Arthur said, shaking his head.
The man sank down to his knees, holding himself over the drain, eyes and skin white with shock. He couldn’t answer.
“May I assume you want that lawyer now?” Arthur asked. The man nodded once.
The Emperor opened the door into the bunker, taking in the tableau of anguish. His grandchildren – and a few others – were arranged around holoscreens and tables, all looking angry or scared. His son Leman was there, and spotted the Emperor first, gently shaking Freya’s shoulder. “Hey. Short stuff. Look who’s here.”
Freya looked up blearily, and spotted the Emperor at the door. She launched out of her seat and nearly tackled him, holding back tears. “Grandpa, Morticia’s hurt,” she managed.
“I know,” the Emperor said heavily, as the rest of the room took notice. The guards snapped off brisk salutes, the daughters generally queued up for a hug of reassurance, and the assorted boyfriends and others just stared or genuflected. “I’m glad the rest of you are safe. Where are Isis and Lyra?”
“On the way, my Liege,” one of the guards said, tapping his earpiece. “They were in a café in the middle of a mall, didn’t want to start a panic.”
“Very well.” The Emperor made eye contact with Russ, and jerked his head towards the hall. Russ nodded and walked out discreetly, as the Emperor gradually disentangled himself from the flock of his granddaughters. As he closed the door to the hall, Russ glared at the nearest guards until they edged off a few reluctant meters.
“Did they find the shooter?” Russ asked. “The news said it was one man.”
“It was, and they did. He’s being interrogated now,” the Emperor said. He hesitated before delivering the next line. “And it seems that Morticia was not the target.”
“What? Who was? Kelly?” Russ asked in surprise.
“Apparently not. I’ll let you know when I have more,” the Emperor said, turning back down the hall. “Take care of them, Leman.”
The man huddled against the surface of the interrogation room table, trying to die. Arthur kept pressing. “The woman you were trying to shoot, you’d never met her?”
“I don’t know anyone,” the man said, his head reeling.
“Listen to me, Ulysses, you need to focus, here,” his lawyer said, trying to get his client to pay attention.
“No, no, no, no, I’m nobody, I didn’t, I couldn’t,” he mumbled, squeezing his fingers against his skull until the knuckles turned white. “No no no…”
“All right, then. Tell me why you decided to shoot someone this morning,” Arthur said, hoping that it would be enough to break the man from his chattering.
“…I had to do it…” he whimpered.
“Had to shoot someone?” Arthur pressed.
The public defender glared at the Emperor’s counselor, but the reedy voice from the tabletop kept going. “…It’s too much; they have to be stopped…”
“Who has to be stopped?” Arthur demanded.
“…those selfish vermin…” the man muttered, then shot bolt upright in sudden rage, his teeth clenched. “Those self-centered TRASH!”
“Those PARASITES!” the man roared, then lowered his voice to a hateful whisper. “Those Startseite and New Arks and Albiona parasites…”
“Those are the three richest cities in the entire system,” Arthur said. “I assume that isn’t a coincidence.” He leaned back in his seat, glaring at the man. “Was it?”
“Of course not!” the man shot back. “They’re a DISEASE!”
Arthur nodded slowly, thinking. “You know. I was a senior DA for Startseite for two years. One thing I learned, is that there’s really only six reasons that someone ever, ever commits a high crime.” He raised his fingers and counted along. “Money, compulsion, madness, ideology, ego, and conscience. You’re not completely insane. So that’s madness gone. Which other one are you? Hmm? Compulsive?”
“Stop trying to provoke my client with such juvenile arguments, Sieur Hane,” the PD said tartly. “Ulysses, we’re leaving.”
“No,” the man said, jerking his arm away from his lawyer’s grasp. He turned to glare back at the counselor. “I’ll tell you. This was payback.”
“Ah. Ego, then? Were you trying to kill someone who had insulted you?” Arthur said, playing the role a bit longer.
“Insulted me?” the man said coldly, leaning forward, his remorse melting away. “No. DAMAGED me. Like I don’t matter. Like I don’t have a place in this Imperium. Me, or anyone else who wants things to get fucking BETTER around here!”
“Do tell,” Arthur said patiently.
“This Imperium…it’s straining at the seams,” the man said angrily, his eyes turning to the table, staring right through it to some unknown destination. “The parasites and the real people. Can you even tell us apart?”
“ ‘Real people,’ eh. Define ‘real.’”
A pair of forensics officers gingerly lifted the rifle, carrying it over to the air-tight evidence case in the back of their truck. Neither of them saw much point, since the killer had already been caught, but the media had this strange idea that the more famous the crime, the more twists and turns there were in the trial, so they did it anyway, both studiously avoiding the literally hundreds of reporters and on-lookers outside the police cordon. At the edge of the ring of Arbites and beehives, a small cluster of formally-uniformed Treasury officers were briefing the press.
“No, ma’am, we do not yet know why this attack was launched, but I have been authorized to report that it does not appear to have been part of an assault on the Royal Family specifically,” the officer at the front of the cluster said, before raising his hands to head off the surge of questions. “I will say that the shooter seems to have been working alone. Lady Morticia is stable and undergoing treatment.”
“Major, do you know how long this attack was planned?” one reporter yelled, brandishing a microphone like a cudgel.
“No comment,” the Major said. Another reporter stepped up, waving their hand.
“Major, for the people elsewhere in the Imperium, what can you tell us about the attacker?”
“It was a male, working alone, Terran, and that’s all we have to say so far,” the Major said. A beehive stepped up to his ear, whispering a new dispatch. The Major nodded slowly, then turned his attention back to the anxious blob of reporters. “That’s all I have time for, folks, thank you for your patience.” He stepped back within the cordon, two more beehives brandishing riot shotguns stepping up to fill the empty spot.
Arthur stepped into the bunker, eyeing the sorry crowd. The guards had been forewarned of his arrival, and silently lined up against the walls, as the lawyer nervously cleared his throat. “Forgive me, Lord Russ, Ladies Primarch, but I wanted you all to hear the news.”
“Who are you?” Furia asked bluntly, as the other girls took notice of their visitor.
“My name is Sir Arthur Hane, madam, Chief Counsel to the Emperor’s Courts, and I was present for the interrogation of the man who shot Lady Morticia,” Arthur said, drawing the immediate attention of nearly everyone in the room. Before he could continue, the door swung open again, and Isis and Lyra walked in, completing the set. The others welcomed them in, as Arthur took advantage of the pause to collect his thoughts.
“I suppose I should say…first and foremost…I’m sorry you all had to go through this. I can’t imagine what it’s like,” he said solemnly.
“Don’t try, either,” Lyra said. “What happened?”
“Apparently…” Arthur hesitated as the enormity of what he was about to say held him up. “Apparently, he wasn’t aiming for Lady Morticia at all.”
“WHAT?!” Roberta snapped, as most of the other people in the room shared a look of astonishment and various other proclamations of disbelief. “Then what the hell was he doing?!”
“Apparently, he thought that killing a random passer-by in the richest city on the planet would…break the Imperium free of cultural inertia,” the lawyer reported uncomfortably. “He’s a long way from rational.”
“So this was a political statement?” Roberta pressed.
“He himself said that he was proving a point,” the lawyer replied cautiously. “However, I must repeat that Morticia was not the target.”
Cora sank down into her chair, head in her hands. “She…was just unlucky? How…”
“How did the shooter not know who she was?” Victoria demanded.
“Well, his roost was over two klicks off, madam, it would have been almost impossible to identify someone at that range. Especially since he wasn’t specifically looking for her.” Arthur shrugged uncomfortably. Why, he wondered, was he having more trouble talking to a room full of young women than he did a room with a hardened killer in it?
The door swung open again, and the guards on either side snapped to attention. The Emperor walked back in, eliciting a chorus of confused questions from the Royal daughters. He greeted them in turn, before turning to his counselor.
“My Liege,” Arthur said, bowing respectfully.
“Stand up, Hane. We need to talk about this revelation you’ve had regarding the man who shot my granddaughter,” the Emperor replied.
“Yes, Sire,” Arthur said, straightening back up and marshaling his thoughts. “Well, I can’t run it as a murder case since he didn’t actually kill anyone, but I could try to get him on the Attempted Murder charge. That said, Sire, I suspect I would find more success if I offered him a plea, of Attempting an Act of Terrorism.”
“And what’s the sentence for that?” Remilia asked.
“The sentence for accepting a plea of guilty would be seventeen years per act,” Arthur reported, “and since it’s his first charge, did not resist arrest, purchased the gun legally and didn’t break into the building where he fired from…it may be the best I can do.”
“Seventeen years in prison for trying to kill a member of the Royal Family?” the Emperor asked quietly, his face darkening. “Unacceptable.”
“Sire…he wasn’t trying to kill a member of the Royal Family,” Arthur said, shrugging helplessly.
“Then do as you see fit, Sieur Hane,” the Emperor said grimly, turning away before his disgust became too evident. He addressed his granddaughters next. “You are, of course, all welcome to stay here, but since the threat seems to have abated, you may choose to return to your homes, instead.”
“I’ve sure had enough of this place for one lifetime,” Roberta said heavily.
Several hours passed. A small ocean of reporters lapped at the base of the Palace gates, waiting for a chance to grab the images of the Royal Daughters. None were so fortunate, since they left as they arrived: in Treasury vehicles or their own cars, flying back to their respective families’ homes.
Andrew had been nearly pacing in his room when his vox finally rang, with Hana’s tone. He snatched it off the table. “Hana?” he asked breathlessly.
“Hey, Andy. I’m back home.”
“Thank God. Is it cool if I come over?”
“No, sorry. The Treasury guys are still swarming the place, and I don’t think they’d let you in,” Hana said regretfully, looking out the window to the street, where a Treasury vehicle was parked in nearly every spot.
“Ah, damn. Well, call me as soon as you can, all right?”
The next day, for the people of the Imperium, couldn’t have been much farther from a normal Monday. The entire Palace district, and the towns around it, were still crawling with Arbites and Treasury, but the airlanes had been released, and the sky was thick with people trying to catch a glimpse of where the shooting took place.
The lockdown continued. Though Imperator High was open for classes, the place looked like a firing range, with beehives and local police at every hall. None of the Royal family even attended, but the paparazzi was still clustered at every corner, catching shots of their neighbors and boyfriends and distant relatives, dispersing after the bells.
Jake made his way back to his car, wondering if it was too soon to call, and deciding that he didn’t care. Sitting down in the cab of his aircar, pointedly ignoring the reporters clustering outside the parking lot, he flipped his vox open and called Venus’ number, then jumped a handspan sitting down when it went off from the cupholder next to him. He squeezed his eyes shut and sighed, turning off the vox where she had dropped it the previous day.
Idly, he started up the car, wondering if the Treasury would let him return it. A thought struck him, and he dialed her house. The vox immediately turned off in his hand. “Thought as much,” Jake said to himself, starting the engine. The autopilot lifted him smoothly off the ground.
“Let’s try…this,” he said, dialing the house again, this time with Venus’ vox. The cell buzzed once, and an unfamiliar voice answered.
“Uh, hello. I’m trying to return Lady Venus’ vox?” he tried.
“Excuse me?” the voice on the other side said, chilling about seventy degrees.
“She left it in my car yesterday,” Jake said, suddenly placing the voice, “after you pulled her out of it.”
“Sir, the Royal Family is uninterested in solicitation,” the voice said flatly. “Lady Venus will be free to retrieve any property of hers after the lockdown ends.”
“Solicitation,” Jake said. He stared at the vox for a second. “All right.” He tapped an extension number into the vox and waited. A moment later, the vox sounded another dial tone.
“Hello?” Lord Vulkan’s voice said on the other end.
“Hello, S…Vulkan. It’s Jake. I found Venus’ vox in my car,” Jake said quickly, before the no-doubt-enraged vox operator could cut him off.
“Oh, yes, hello, Jake. Yes, she was wondering where it was. Are you offering to drop it off?”
“I’m in the neighborhood, yeah,” Jake said, glancing out at the ocean of red, gold, black, and orange uniforms on the ground beneath him. “But I doubt they’ll let me in.”
“True. Can you just bring it back to your apartment, and I’ll send someone to pick it up?” Vulkan asked, from the line in his office.
“I certainly…could,” Jake said.
“Ah.” Vulkan was quiet for a moment, then snorted. “What the hell. Come on by. I’ll waive your car for the security.”
“Thanks. I’ll be by in a few minutes,” Jake said, then tapped his finger against the microphone. A moment later, he heard the *click* as the Treasury agent on the main line hung up, and smiled. “Vulkan?”
“No problem, Jake.”
Several minutes later, Jake parked his aircar outside the now-familiar mansion, grabbed Venus’ vox, and clambered out, noting the cluster of beehives at the door. Slipping the vox into his pocket, he walked up to the sealed door, reminded subtly of the last time he had seen Treasury agents standing outside a locked door, and glad that his previous verbal sparring partner hadn’t returned. Before he could even reach the door, however, one of the Treasury agents at the door spoke up.
“Be aware, sir, that your presence here continues at Lord Vulkan’s sufferance.”
“The house is ringed by bolter turrets, Sergeant, everyone’s here at his sufferance,” Jake shot back, tapping his pocket. “I’m just here to return Venus’ vox.”
“Then you won’t mind when we keep this entire visit of yours under recording, just for the sake of clarity,” the beehive said crisply.
“I can think of four or five different, very good reasons why you really shouldn’t do that,” Jake said on a moment’s reflection. Before the beehive could reply, however, the door creaked open, and Venus launched out of it, squeezing Jake in a bear hug.
“Mmmph, tookyousolong,” she managed, burying her face in his neck.
“Sorry, baby,” Jake said, squeezing her back. “How are you feel-”
“Get in here,” she cut him off, pulling the door back open. He followed her back in, ignoring the glowering beehives behind him and shutting the door.
Venus’ arms wrapped around his waist and pulled him into a vice-grip. “I needed to see you,” she muttered darkly.
Jake turned around and returned it, directing a stare of malice at the beehive loitering at the bottom of the stairs. “I’m here,” he said softly, returning his attention the girl clutching his shirtfront. “How are you feeling?”
Venus tilted her head back and glared at him, red-hot light bathing his face. “Guess,” she said bitterly, then immediately turned her eyes away from his hurt expression. “I’m sorry. That…damn it.”
“It’s all right,” he said, gently disentangling her from his clothes and directing her towards the couch in the sitting area. “Have you heard? The Heads are just repeating the same things over and over.”
“She’ll make it. When? Don’t know,” Venus said, dropping heavily on the leather sofa. Jake sat down next to her and threw an arm across her shoulders. “But she’ll live.”
“Good. Good.” Jake leaned back on the sofa and searched for something to say. “Here,” he said, digging the vox out and dropping it on an end table.
“Mmm.” Venus dug her fingers into the couch, clearly at a loss as much as he was. “…guards give you any trouble?”
“A bit, but I don’t blame them. Thank your dad for me, ok? For letting me in,” Jake added, rationalizing that his odds of actually talking to Vulkan himself were pretty low.
“Yeah.” Venus sighed, leaning back into his arm and closing her eyes. “…What do you have planned this weekend?”
“Uh, just the last Senior Project report…what did you have in mind?”
“Well, a few of us were planning to go visit Morticia if we could. It would mean a lot to me if you could go,” she said.
“Sure thing, I’ll go.” Jake said. “When should I be here?”
“I’ll have to pick you up.” Venus sighed again, squeezing the leather until it creaked in her hands. “This is not a fun way to be reminded of your own mortality.”
“There’s a fun way?” Jake quipped.
Venus managed a snort of laughter. “Probably not. Uncle Mortarion called from the hospital, this morning. He said she was still out cold, but she’s recovering.”
“Good,” Jake said. Venus shook her head.
“Why Morticia?” she asked of nobody in particular. “Why her? The poor thing barely even sets foot outdoors at the best of times, and then…” She opened her eyes and stared into space, lighting up the corner of the room with a diffuse red glow. “It’s just not fair.”
Jake grimaced. “No. It isn’t.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her in. “But what can we do?”
“I dunno,” she said sadly. “I dunno.” Her eyes slid shut again as she leaned into him. “…you’d think I’d be used to this happening by now.”
“It’s happened before?” Jake asked.
“Yeah. I told you, someone tried to shoot Grandpa once,” Venus said. “Back when-”
“When the Fiat was imposed, right,” Jake said, remembering.
“Yeah. That was…scary too,” Venus said, grinding a palm against her eyes. “Agh, fuck. This is the worst!” She turned her head up to look at him, her blank red eyes dim and sad. “Did the Treasury tail you to your house again?”
“Not visibly,” Jake said dryly. “And there was no door-to-door solicitation this time.”
Both of them managed a brief laugh. Venus settled back against him as the sound faded into the cavernous sitting room. “Nothing keeps you down for long, does it, Jake?”
“Nope,” he replied, wrapping his arm around her back. She snuggled back against him. “But then, I didn’t get to see you at all today.”
“Don’t be. Here,” he said, sliding down the couch a stretch and lying down sideways, jutting his lower elbow out. She settled down in front of him, resting her head on his arm and draping his free arm across her stomach. With one pointed glance at the two beehives visible from the seat, they had the room to themselves. “I’m here now,” he said, and gently kissed the top of her head.
“Yep,” she said, clasping her hand over his. The room went silent. They had both run out of things to say, after all.
Jake closed his eyes and tried to relax, to let the stress of the past day fade. Slowly, the little knot in his stomach unwound.
“That girl can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, can’t she?” a voice asked quietly. Jake cracked an eye open to see Lady Misja, Venus’ mother, standing over them, her expression between maternal indulgence and exasperation. Jake peeked over his girlfriend’s head to note that she was, in fact, fast asleep.
“I didn’t need this arm for a while,” Jake murmured.
“Poor thing didn’t sleep a wink last night,” Misja sighed. She looked up to Jake, now pinned between her daughter and the couch. “Stay a while, will you? Keep an eye on her?”
“Count on it,” Jake said softly, settling back down.
A Very Bad Idea
Michael stood in Angela’s doorway, all but radiating his nervousness. Angela herself was face-down on her bed, which was really the only way she could be comfortable. She was just as morose as she had sounded on the phone, too, and Sanguinius hadn’t even hesitated to let her boyfriend through the cordon. But then, he lived next door.
He sank down on the bed next to Angela, who lifted her head to stare at him, pain evident on her face. The shock of Morticia’s attack was still fresh enough, but as news spread, the surprise and fear –and worse: derision and glee from the insensitive and indifferent – were slamming into her mind, over and over.
Michael wasn’t a psyker. He couldn’t comprehend the pain she was going through, as fear and uncertainty compounded days of exhaustion and waiting by the vox for news. But he still had to be there. He couldn’t NOT be there.
Angela reached out and squeezed his hand, pulling him closer. He lay down next to her, kicking his shoes off and wrapping his arm around her shoulders, propping himself up on his side and looking down at her.
“Thanks for coming,” she said. She sounded weak. Tired. Angry, maybe…and hopeless. Michael nodded, leaning down a hair to whisper.
“I wish I’d been here earlier.” She managed a snort.
“I think you’re too heavy to jump the gutters these days.”
“Probably.” They both lay in silence, letting their words hang on the air. “Angela…I thought about what you said before.”
Angela didn’t respond, but she did cross her arms under her chest, leaning on them to stare at Michael sidelong. “You want to try again?”
“Not if you’re too tired,” he said, remembering what had happened last time. Angela rose up on one arm, her sadness fading a little, behind a mask of intense focus.
“If you mean it…” she said quietly, her eyes locked on his. “I nearly hurt you last time.”
“That was scary,” Michael admitted, “but if ever you needed it…”
“True,” she said softly, sitting upright, her wings folding back against her back as she let her head sink a bit, lost in thought. “…You know what? Alright. I hope your schedule’s clear,” she said with sudden mischief.
“I have all night. My parents aren’t expecting me,” Michael responded, getting up and locking the door.
Angela stayed on the bed, staring at her boyfriend as he shucked his jacket, sitting back down on the covers. Shrugging the shoulder pieces off of her custom version of the school uniform, designed to accommodate her unusual anatomy, she paused as her hand reached the lower row of buttons. “Are you sure about this?” she asked suddenly, turning to face him. “I mean…this isn’t particularly safe. I’ve only done this twice.”
“I want it, though, and I can tell you do,” Michael replied, sliding his own shirt off and tossing it aside.
“I do,” she said, low and thoughtful. “You know Dad might find out. He’ll ruin me.”
Michael shrugged. “Your call.” Angela bit her lip, smiling at last.
She tugged her shirt and bra free, lying down next to her lifelong friend, and more recently lover, who brushed her hair out of his eyes, looking up at her contentedly. “Go ahead…” he said softly.
Angela’s eyes rolled shut as she sank down, half-on top of him. In the instant before she landed, Michael felt the first, faint tug of something at the edge of his mind-
-Then he was gripped, for a fraction of a second, in the most horrible agony he had ever experienced, as his soul was literally ripped from his body. His radiant being drifted forth from the meat body that carried it, invisible to all but the most gifted psykers. Like Angela.
With exquisite care, she cast herself out as well, their souls instantly meeting in the void of the Warp, bound in place by their living bodies. Michael’s soul drifted in place, a tiny spark next to Angela’s roaring, deific bonfire.
Their souls met, linked. She flickered, ethereal as the Warp itself, gently wrapping around his, pulling him closer. He allowed it, spreading across hers in turn, insignificant next to hers and all the more noticeable for it.
Raw, jagged rents of emotions in her psyche raced around her spectral body like mobile wounds, leaking anguish and self-recrimination and terrible, terrible uncertainty. Michael’s soul sidled up to hers, looking, no doubt, like a calving whale, following its mother.
His faint presence approached hers, his own raw, frightened mind dwarfed by hers. He could see himself for an instant, there in the roiling void, next to her, faint and insubstantial, incomparable to her brilliant, vivid outline, and invisible next to her father, down below. In the distance, the torrent of burning light of the Emperor and Astronomican flared, too far to see and right next to them at once.
He didn’t care. He slid a faint thought across her mind, slowing the pain racing through her.
His body, still tied to Earth and reality, twitched and moved, wrapping an arm across her lower back, just below where her wings erupted from her back.
Her mind flinched, racing and frightened and impossibly crowded. She withdrew, her fear for her family lending her soul a reddish purple hue.
Her body bit its lip, so hard it leaked a drop of blood. It landed on Michael’s chest, staining the skin red.
Michael did not relent, extending his thoughts to hers. She relaxed, a tiny bit, gingerly accepting it. He slipped his soul’s membrane across hers, trying to soothe the anguish.
Far off, too far from the Emperor for him to see, a tiny sliver of malice drifted through the Warp. A remnant of the darker realms of Chaos, it was fleeing a stinging defeat of its own, a humiliation that had cost it its form and minions. Seeking refuge in the Emperor’s vast shadow, it came across the spectacle, and paused, watching.
Michael’s soul drifted across hers, trying patiently to calm her, ignorant of his audience. Angela’s godlike presence slowly shrank, still weeping from a thousand nonexistent cuts, and so walled-off that nothing could get in or out. Michael traced a slow circle, trying to get her to relent, to let him in.
She paused, her psyker’s light burning evenly, illuminating the nothingness. With the greatest of care, she extended a thought of her own to him, allowing him closer.
He accepted, moving up against her, his empty light nearly invisible against her. She flared instinctively, her emotions racing again, but he wasn’t afraid. She wouldn’t harm him.
The daemon lurked, gliding closer, drinking in the new sights. What was this?
Angela’s body moved, clenching its fists so hard the nails nearly bit the skin, muscles tightening in helpless frustration. Her soul did the same, expanding in the nonreality of the Warp, pushing Michael back. Her form changed, sprouting her father’s wings, and deep, oozing reds of anger and regret and bitterness pouring out of her hands. He slid his thoughts across hers, pushing away her fear and self-loathing, finding her need, her uncertainty, and covering them with himself, sharing them a little.
She paused, feeling her anguish fade, and shrank back to her normal size, the fearsome wings and blood-soaked hands of her soul’s form fading away. Michael kept going, pushing the inadequacies of her persona back, and her body sobbed aloud, a pair of teardrops joining the blood on his chest, running down onto the covers, and her soul turned the blues of remorse and pity.
Michael paused, reaching out to hold her, and she collapsed, her instinctive anger vanishing as she confronted her regret. Guilt brought weakness, and her soul shrank further yet, its brilliant light fading in tune with her emotions, until there was almost nothing left. His soul crossed hers, enveloping her, glowing faintly in the ether, giving her some modicum of shelter.
The daemon shifted silently, weighing its options. Should it strike? Or wait, to see what happened?
Angela’s body went limp, guilt and recrimination cutting her puppet’s strings. Michael’s soul caressed hers, eliciting a sigh of primal familiarity from hers, and she slowly moved away, pulling herself back from his embrace. Her light returned, expanding to fill her mind’s shape, and wrapped herself back around him, seeking his stability. He returned it, sliding around and through her more intimately than a physical hug ever could, and the blues of her remorse faded away to a dull, exhausted gray. The thousand crawling wounds closed, one at a time and all at once, fading into faint scars on her soul, as her physical body slumped aside, rolling off of his chest onto her flank.
Relief, like a thousand doors opening, rushed through him, and his own soul flared, bright and passionate for a moment, throwing a shadow across hers, and her soul responded in kind, finding solace in his love. His mind moved against hers again, satisfaction lending him playfulness, and her glorious form replied, the faintest hue of pink coloring it as she moved back.
As one, they woke. Angela hissed as blood flow returned to the hand she had fallen on, and Michael blinked groggily, unused to the feeling of projection.
The daemon sighed in disappointment, sliding on through the void. It would have found nothing if it had struck, it decided, nothing but sour grapes.
Angela smiled, slipping her legs astride her boyfriends’, resting her ample breasts against his chest. She glanced down to where her blood and tears had fallen on his collarbone, raising her eyebrows. “No wonder my lip’s sore,” she said, rubbing them away.
“…Yeah,” Michael said with an effort, his vision swimming. Angela looked up at him in sympathy. The feeling of soul-stripping, even at the best of times, hurt like nothing else could. He tried to hold up a hand, and couldn’t do it. He was shaking, head to toe, his breath thin and reedy.
“Sorry,” Angela said softly. “I knew that would be a lot for you.”
“Forget it,” Michael managed. “Are you feeling better?”
“Like it never happened,” Angela lied. She knew the scars of her emotional trauma would take much longer to fade…but as far as she was concerned, it may as well have been true. The horror of the ordeal was gone completely. The ennui that had robbed the day from her was fading away, and in its place was a rock of certainty. She smiled faintly, cocking her head so that a lock of blond fell across his forehead. “In fact…”
“No,” Michael said flatly. “Sorry.”
“I know.” She grabbed his shaking jaw, holding him still enough for a deep, passionate kiss. “Think of it as something to wake up to,” she whispered in his ear.
“I…will…” he said with a grin, before his eyes slipped shut. His muscles went slack as he surrendered to the mental, physical, and spiritual exhaustion that the soul-stripping had brought about. Angela waiting a moment longer before planting another, gentler kiss on his cheek, then carefully lifted herself free, grabbing the rest of her clothes and pulling them off.
She slid the covers out from under her boyfriends’ sleeping body, and pulled them up to his chin, before wiggling up next to him, lying on her side, and resting her head on his shoulder. She snapped her fingers and the lights died, plunging the room into darkness.
The tanned angel watched in the darkness, Michael’s breath the only sound. She slipped her free arm across his chest, hugging her bare skin against his body, the rough feeling of his pants contrasting with the soft warmth of his flesh. Angela pulled the skein of the Warp back from her sight, and looked on in contentment as his ethereal form drifted next to hers, glowing a little brighter than before.
She smiled to herself. The first time they had tried that, she had been so scared it hadn’t even worked. The second, they had made the mistake of trying while he was bone-weary from work, and he had nearly gone into a coma. That time, though…
“Third time’s the charm, hmm?” she asked the man asleep in her arms. She smiled at his lack of reply, and let her own exhaustion pull her to sleep. For the first time since the beehives had pulled her and Miranda aside, she slept; and it was deep, restful, and healing.
Freya leaned against the frame of her bay window, staring listlessly at the fields outside. The lights in the pseudosky were dimming as the hour turned late, but it wasn’t an impediment to her. Her inhuman eyes looked out over the grass surrounding the mansion as if it were already morning, sighting every crevasse and shadow. The old-fashioned window creaked on its hinges as she pushed it open, and let the night wind blow into the room.
Her boyfriend stirred in the bed as the cold wind reached him. She glanced over her shoulder at him, but didn’t move from her spot. The faint noise of ground cars moving along the distant road carried over the wind to her ultra-sensitive ears, turning into a distant background rumble.
The cold wind pushed the curtains back against her, silhouetting her naked form against the white cloth. The smell of the ash in the cup by the bed blew away, replaced by the smell of the outside’s fake, circulated air, and the more comfortable smell of the flowers in the field.
Freya stood, gripping the top of the bay and leaning over the seat, staring out at the field, looking for…something. The chill wind blew the curtains back on either side of her, flowing back like Angela’s wings, and, she hoped, was responsible for the tears in her eyes.
The breeze on his cheek roused Alex from his sleep. He squinted in the darkness, trying to find the source of the cold, and paused at the sight of Freya’s outline against the window, his breath catching in his throat. Fully awake in a moment, he drank in the sight in silence, before her hearing alerted her to his rising heartbeat. She let go of the window frame and turned around, smiling sheepishly. “Hey. Did I wake you up?”
“No, you didn’t,” he mumbled, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “You OK?”
“Just can’t sleep. Weed keeps me up,” she lied, pointing at the remains of the joint in the impromptu ashtray.
“Mmm. ‘Kay.” He blinked against the glare from the outside. “You comin’ to bed?”
“Nah. Not tired.” Freya sat back down on the seat, looking back out over the grassy fields. “I just want to think.”
“Ain’t you afraid of someone taking a picture from the road?” Alex asked blearily.
Freya didn’t turn around. “Holofield. The house always looks the same.” She flicked one red dreadlock over her shoulder. “Go to sleep.”
“…You say so,” Alex said tiredly, rolling over to face away from the window, trying not to lie on the wet spot. “’Night, baby.”
“’Night,” Freya whispered.
The next morning, Arthur Hane sat down in a cold, concrete room and stared a terrorist in the eyes. “Sieur Keiter, you’ve stated that your intention was to inspire panic in the civilian population, but only a select slice of the population. What exactly did you mean?”
The man stared right back. “What I said. The Imperium’s the best thing that ever happened to humanity, as a whole. But not on the fringes. What do you think most of the planet does, Sieur Hane? What jobs do they have?”
“According to the Bureau of Labor, nearly all Terrans either work for the Administratum, Munitorum, or various manufactoriae,” the lawyer responded from memory.
“Yeah. The cogs in the Imperial machine. Indispensable, don’t you think? You think the Imperium can maintain its standards of living without them?”
“Probably not, no.” Arthur sipped his coffee and thought about the conversation thus far. “So you think you’re striking a blow for the working man…against the wealthy?”
“Not specifically.” The man leaned back in his seat, grinning wistfully. “The nouveau riche. The spoiled, the petulant, the knee-jerk reactionaries. The parasites, Sieur Hane.”
“The new rich. Industrialists,” Hane continued.
“No, no, the people who think the status quo is just fine, thanks, and doesn’t need to improve,” the man said coldly.
“But the nouveau riche are those who achieve wealth within the span of their own careers. People who struck it rich through success and cleverness. What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s WRONG?” the man asked, his eyes hardening. “What’s wrong. Oh, Sieur Hane, so much is wrong with them. They think the Imperium is their cash cow, their machine to be ignored when it works and berated when it doesn’t, like some rank amateur techpriest.”
“And what do you believe?” Hane asked, his gut sinking.
“That the world needs a blooding,” the man said ominously. “That people who strike gold and forget their pasts need to be expunged. That people who oppose the Emperor’s judgment are fools, and those who exploit His gifts…are…parasites,” he said, ice dripping from the last few words.
“So…people who forget the working man,” Hane offered.
“You’re damn right.”
“But you couldn’t have told the spoiled rich from the career humanitarian through a scope at two kilometers,” Hane pointed out.
“I took a guess,” the man said, misery cracking his mask of ideological rage. “I guessed wrong.”
Hane nodded slowly. “So who got you the rifle?”
“I bought it,” Hane said. “Hunting weapons are legal on Terra.”
“No they aren’t, actually,” Hane said. “They’re legal to ship and store, but not to carry. You can buy them for off-world safaris. Using them on-planet is punishable.”
“Oh, what does it matter,” the man asked dismissively. “It’s over. You have it.”
“Who got you into the building?” Hane pressed.
“I did. I worked there,” the man said, glancing to the side.
“The room we found you in was empty. Completely empty.”
“Remodeling,” the man said shortly, looking aside. Hane perked up. Had he hit a nerve?
“Why Sunday? Any particular reason?” he asked, glancing down at the pad of paper he was using and making a show of writing, as if the question was barely even important.
“It just fit the schedule,” the man said.
“All right.” Hane nodded, thinking over what the Treasury had told them of the preliminary background check they had conducted on Keiter. He was a member of the Civil Honors Union, a volunteer organization that distributed mutancy testing kits in the hives. No criminal record. Civil rifle and pistol permits. Membership in the Sons of the War, a veteran’s families’ support group. “Sieur, can you tell me about the Civil Honors Union?”
“They’re good people. We distribute goods to the lower levels. The places the surface scum forget,” the man said solemnly. “People down there are just as important as the rest of us, and forgotten all the more often for it.”
“Did one of them ask you to do this?” Hane asked.
The man’s hackles rose. “Of course not! They’re a humanitarian group!”
“Well, your definition of ‘humanitarian’ includes murder, so I’m not ready to rule it out yet,” Hane said. The man’s lawyer bristled.
“Sieur Hane, that was un-called for.”
“I'll plead guilty to shooting a-’ the man’s voice caught for a moment. He struggled on. “-a Primarch’s daughter. I have to live with that now. But I damn well TRIED to do the right thing, SIEUR Hane, and nothing you say will change that.”
“But not for yourself, right? You’ve stated several times that you did this for the forgotten hivers,” Hane said.
“Forgotten and abused,” the man said, his eyes growing cold with anger-by-proxy. “We’ve covered this.”
“Yeah, but you’re dancing.” Hane leaned forward. “You still aren’t saying how exactly the new rich are abusing anybody. You keep saying that the poor and the hivers are forgotten, but how can they be forgotten AND abused? You think the Emperor isn’t doing enough for the common man?”
“I think the Emperor is the only thing the common man has left,” the man said tiredly, sinking into his chair with a sigh and looking wistfully at Hane’s coffee.
Hane nodded. A very uncomfortable pattern was materializing in front of him now. He decided to try one more thing. “Sieur Keiter, tell me. Why do you think the common man, the hivers, whatever you call them, need the mutancy kits from the Union?”
“Why?” the man blinked in confusion. “Why do they need…mutancy testing?"
“Yes. Surely not all the people in the hives have mutations.”
“No, of course not!” the man said angrily. “But it must be found wherever it hides. It must be expunged. We don’t force people to act on the results, but they should know what they are!”
“Why? Isn’t that their business?” Hane asked.
The man scoffed. “It’s the business of the pure humans who have to live with them.”
Hane nodded. “Then why target someone topside? Why not just kill one of the mutants? Don’t they hold the Imperium back even more than the rich?”
“Of course,” the man said darkly. “But who’d miss them?” The man’s lawyer shifted slightly, shutting him up, but Hane was done.
“Thank you, Sieur Keiter, Counselor Felger. I’ll be in touch,” Hane said, scooping up his personal effects and coffee. Without a word, he turned from the table and left, wondering how in the world he was going to break this to the Emperor.
The sun glinted off the hive walls, so bright a normal human couldn’t look at it for too long. Remilia was so used to it that she barely noticed. She walked slowly alongside the inside wall of the courtyard of her father’s manor, rolling a soccer ball across the grass every few steps. The small handful of guards on the courtyard wall stood sentry, occasionally glancing down to see if she was still there.
The lanky blond drew her foot back over the ball and flipped it up onto her toe, balancing it against the breeze. The warming air of summer (such as it was) filtered through the wrought-iron fence of the enclosed athletic courtyard Dorn had had built in his manor, and carried the smell of cut grass, charcoal, and the stink of the ionic jets the Treasury cars used to get around.
Remilia kicked the ball up to eye level, tracking it and taking a step back, then slammed it with a side kick, bouncing it neatly off the crossbar of the goal at the end of the field. She watched the ball roll to a stop, burning her angry glare into its plastic skin. Goddamned cross-breezes.
Her father watched from the window of his study, several stories above, resting his chin on his fist, equally lost in thought. Some part of him wanted to take the blame for this. After all, had it not been his security systems, his instructions, and the training provisions he had created, that the Treasury had used that day?
With a heavy sigh, he stood from his desk and walked down the hall to the stairs, wending his way down. He walked out into the courtyard, staring in silence as his daughter practiced.
Remilia rolled the ball down the field, trying to balance it against her new shoes, and trying just as hard to ignore her father. He waited, patiently. He knew she had to come to this on her own.
Finally, she slammed the ball with all her might, sending it caroming off the fence. Dorn sighed aloud, and Remilia whipped around. “What?” she snapped, then raised her hands as Rogal’s face darkened. “Sorry, Dad. What?”
Rogal tried to keep his voice level. “Are you feeling better?”
Remilia exhaled through pursed lips, ramming her hands in her pockets. “…A little, yeah.”
“Good.” Her father looked down at the ball as it rolled to a stop on the fresh grass. “I didn’t tell your mother.”
Remilia’s eyes flattened. She clenched her fists in her pockets, feeling a spike of horrified realization in her belly. “How did you know?” she asked tightly.
“I smelled it. In the bathtub.” Rogal met his daughter’s eyes, and she shrank from the fiery rage she saw, her own fear melting into instant remorse. “Do it again. One. More. Time. And we’ll see if I can’t get you back into the same place they’ve got Morticia. Am I clear, daughter?”
“Yes, father, I understand,” Remilia said, fear turning her demure. She broke eye contact, desperately looking for a smoother topic, but Dorn turned on his heel and marched back into the house without a word.
Remilia sank down cross-legged on the field. She grabbed the grass-stained ball and squeezed it between her arms. “And we can’t have that, can we?” she whispered bitterly, hurling the ball away. She stared at the grass clippings on her arms, then raked them off with her nails, leaving the bright, fresh scars on her arms bare. “Not this time.”
The Night Staff
One of the staff of the intensive care unit poked his head into the break room and coughed discreetly. “Grant? You awake?”
“Naturally,” one of the nursing staff replied, glancing over his slate. “Which room?”
“Not a call, just a heads-up. Your screening came back negative. You’re cleared for the isolation wing.” Grant raised his eyebrows and very carefully set the slate down.
“Really? Which shift?”
“Midnight, if you can make it.”
“Count on it. Tonight?”
“Yeah, you might want to get over there. Meet the Treasury guys.”
“Sure.” Grant stood, cricking his back. “Hey, why didn’t you get past the screening?”
“Dad’s in the Ahmaku League.”
Grant blinked. “It’s a fucking video game club.”
“And they took sponsorship money from a member of the Council once. That’s all it takes.”
“That has to be,” Grant grumbled, hitching his scrubs up and attaching his mask, “the dumbest background screening ever.”
“I’ll say. You got through it.” Grant shot the other nurse a cold stare and shouldered past him.
“Cards?” he asked, holding his hand out. The other nurse dropped a few small, plastic squares in his hands, color-coded for the medicines on them. Grant eyes each one as he walked down to the isolation ward, pausing as he reached the elevator. “Seriously? Orange? What the fuck?”
“Degenerative lung disorder. BEFORE she was shot.”
“Yikes,” Grant mumbled.
Both men entered the elevator, Grant still shuffling the cards. “How many active ingredients were in that inhaler?” he asked in surprise, reading off chemical codes he certainly hadn’t seen on his grad school application.
“Something like twenty-eight in the primary, plus two more in the emergency. She carried two.”
“Well, that’ll be fun. How do I look?” Grant asked, holding his arms out.
“She can’t tell,” the other nurse quipped. Grant stared at him.
“Are you dumb?”
“Yeah, that…yeah. Good luck,” the nurse said, holding the door open as Grant walked out, letting the door close behind him. Grant glanced from side to side, taking in the number of guards in the hallway with a shiver of apprehension. No mere beehives these, they were wearing the green, black, and white of Death Guard serfs, several of whom were even wearing the skull masks. As one, they had turned to look at him as he stepped off the elevator, and when they sensed his hesitation, at least a fifth had, completely without hesitation, drawn or gripped sidearms.
Grant shook his head, unlocking his legs. With a glance at the flags on the doors of the relatively widely-spaced rooms, he found his destination. The process was accelerated somewhat by the cluster of doctors outside, some of whom were looking nervously at the Guards. He walked down the hall, both hands on the cards, his mind shifting into professional mode.
The cluster of doctors outside the sitting room were busy arguing amongst themselves when Grant walked up. “No, no, the cloned organ will be safer despite the tissue scarring, specifically BECAUSE the immunosuppression from her first operation is in effect,” one doctor argued, gesturing angrily at the fistful of documents in his hands.
“We agree that cloning it in is the answer, but shouldn’t we ask what SHE wants? Wouldn’t an augmetic lung that has no necrotic damage after a month be more conducive to her standards of living?” another asked with strained patience.
“If Lady Morticia were capable of telling us, she would. In the meantime, a machine is breathing for her. We don’t have time to debate,” the first one said, as Grant slipped by into the waiting room.
That room was full of people too. A pair of Treasury agents and a few more Death Guard serfs were lingering near the door, one of them speaking quietly into his collar radio. On the chairs in the center of the room were a few piles of detritus. Clearly, someone had made the room their home. A few piles of get-well-soon cards and other knickknacks were stacked on the end tables of the couches near the walls of the rooms, and…standing next to the observation window was a man in full Power Armor.
Grant pulled his eyes away and walked straight up to the door of the isolation room, grabbing a pair of sterilized covers from the box at the door. Snugging them over his face and hair, he reached for the door handle.
“One moment, sir,” a raspy voice next to him said. Grant turned to see one of the Treasury agents waving a card scanner. “Let me see your ID card.”
The young nurse held out the card, and the Treasury agent swiped the reader over the barcode. Glancing at the little machine, he nodded once. “Go on in.”
“Thanks,” Grant said crisply. Didn’t he have to use his ID to enter the elevator anyway? Pushing the door open, he walked into the little room beyond, looking for his patient.
He didn’t have to look far. Lady Morticia was on the only bed in the room, plugged into about seven different machines, including two respiratory systems and a heart stabilizer. A woman in scrubs, probably a new ICU doctor, was glancing over the readouts from the machines and jotting them down. The Lady herself was out cold, of course. Grant looked sidelong at the chemicals on her IV. Several different sedatives and antibiotics, of course, and one he didn’t recognize. The medicine for her respiratory disease, maybe?
“Doctor. How does she look?” Grant asked, slipping the cards in his scrubs pocket.
“Stable, poor thing,” the doctor said, glancing over her shoulder. “Don’t make eye contact with the man at the window. Lord Mortarion doesn’t like the fact that he can’t come in.”
“L-lord Mortarion?” Grant stammered, his fists clenching in sudden fear.
“Yeah. Didn’t you wonder why there were Death Guard troops in the hallway?” the doctor asked, stepping back from the bed. She slid her dataslate back into its hermetic bag and sealed it. “What do you need here?”
“I was supposed to match her IV contents to the prescription cards,” Grant said, fumbling the cards back out.
“All right, I’ll leave you to it.” The doctor left the room, speaking a few words outside the door to Lord Mortarion, who stirred from his view of the room long enough to respond. Grant glanced over the girl on the table, and gingerly ran his fingers over the IV line.
“Okay…blue, blue, green, blue, white, red, orange. Looks right,” he said aloud, trying to suppress his nerves. He fanned the cards out over the table under the IV, glancing them over. “…Vantercin. Wow.” He looked over at the comatose girl again, shaking his head, and slipped the seven cards into the pocket hanging off the IV tree. “All right, Lady Morticia, be back soon.”
“…mgh,” she murmured faintly. Grant started.
“Lady Morticia?” he asked.
“…ow,” she managed, eyes still shut. Grant’s jaw dropped. He stared at the sedative bag on the tree. It was full. He stepped to her side, his heart pounding. He ran a nitrile-clad finger over her neck below the IV point, and felt her pulse: strong, slow, but very slightly faster than it had been. He stared at the heart rate monitor, to confirm his results. She was waking up.
“Fuck, what are you made of, girl,” he muttered. “There’s enough sedative in your system to put a wrestler in a coma.” He twisted the dial on the IV a bit, carefully tweaking the spigots on the bags to increase the dosage of the sedative alone. Her facial muscles twitched a bit, then slackened as the sedative hit her system. She settled back into the bed, briefly, then cracked her eyes open.
“…wherr am I,” she slurred. Grant’s pulse spiked as he fumbled for an answer.
“Startseite hospital, Lady Morticia. Intensive Care.”
“Whysit bright,” she said.
“Ah, we had the lights on so we could attend the equipment, my Lady.”
“Who…whoshotme,” she mumbled, her gray eyes peeking out from beneath her unkempt hair.
“A sniper. They caught him.” Grant heard a loud tapping on the glass behind him and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw Mortarion glaring at him through the glass. He walked over quickly, pressing the talk button next to the window.
“She’s fine, my Lord, the sedative is just starting to wear off. I’m going to increase the dosage so she can get some sleep,” Grant said quickly.
“She’s awake? She can talk?” Mortarion asked, his throaty rumble shaking the glass.
“Not for long, sir, she’s still very dizzy from the sedatives. Please, let her rest,” Grant said.
“I want to talk to her.”
“Naturally, my Lord, but she’s in no shape for it. She’s still missing a lung.”
Mortarion stared at the young nurse, his jaw flexing. “Fine. Fine. Tell her I’m…I’m here for her.”
“Of course I will, my Lord,” Grant said, backing up with a small bow. He walked back to the girl in the bed, her father’s grey eyes burning into his back. “Lady Morticia, I’m going to increase the dose a bit, so you can grab some sleep. All right?”
“Legs asleep…already,” Morticia, said gamely, trying to lift her head to see her limbs. Her muscles were too slack to allow it, and she sank back into the bed with a groan. “Hard…to talk…”
“Your lung is missing, my Lady, you’re on a respirator,” Grant said, examining the bag. He discreetly pressed the call button next to the bed as he did so.
“Wheredi…get hit…” she managed.
“Straight through the back, my Lady,” Grant said, before a gaggle of doctors burst through the door, rushing over to the bed.
“Grant what the HELL did you do?” one hissed, elbowing the nurse aside, and nearly sending him into the IV tree. At the last second, he managed to grab the metal rail of the bed and stabilize himself. He pulled himself straight up, glaring at the doctor.
“Nothing, SIR. The sedative dose was too small.”
“Whass going on?” Morticia asked, her eyes glassy and unfocussed. The doctors’ voices overlapped each other as they each tried to explain, their hasty declarations ranging from the complex to the patronizingly soothing.
“Enough,” the Head of Surgery declared, her voice slicing through the babble. “Doctor Morgan, increase her dosage and let the Lady sleep.”
“I did already,” Grant said tightly, pointing at the IV tree behind him. A dozen pairs of eyes examined the bags of medicine, confirming the claim. He leaned past the cluster of doctors to look the Death Guard Lady in the eyes. “Madam, your father wants you to know that he’s here for you. OK? He’s at the window, looking over you.”
“Dad?” she asked weakly.
“That’s right. He’s here, all right? And he’ll try to be here when you wake up next, OK?” Grant said, glancing over at the window. Mortarion nodded, confirming Grant's suspicions about the Primarch’s hearing.
“…okay,” she said weakly, as her eyes slipped back shut. The heart rate monitor slowly spun its rhythm down as the girl drifted back off to sleep.
“Doctors, I would appreciate it if one of you could tell me what just happened,” Mortarion said. The tone in his voice could have frozen magma. The doctors all looked at each other, trying to find a volunteer.
“Her tolerance for the sedative is substantially higher than it was when she first went under, my Lord,” one of them finally said, holding the Talk button down.
“Well, that’s Progenitor biology for you,” Mortarion rumbled. “Now, let her sleep.”
“Of course, my Lord,” the Doctor said, as the group filed out. Grant was last out, closing the door and dimming the lights as he did so. Mortarion waited by the window, his arms crossed.
“Well?” he demanded.
“Her body is adapting to the sedatives we’re using, my Lord,” one of the doctors admitted. “It’s…unnaturally fast. There should be no way-”
“She’s not human, doctor, she is more than human, and I want to know what our options are,” Mortarion interrupted, staring sideways through the glass at his sleeping daughter.
“Few, Lord. A different sedative, perhaps?” the doctor offered. “But we need to decide whether to give her a cloned lung or an augmetic once. Immediately. Or we won’t be able to sedate her during the surgery.”
Mortarion huffed with impatience. “And what do you recommend?”
“I recommend a cloned-in lung, Lord. Much lower chance of rejection,” the doctor said, to which half the room grumbled or shook their heads.
“Then do it.” Mortarion turned back to the room, his superhuman eyes staring at his sleeping daughter for a long moment before he sighed, and sank into a reinforced chair next to the window. “Will she wake up again?”
“I increased her dosage such that she should stay under for another day or so, my Lord, but the dosage she had should have done it too, so…” Grant volunteered, trailing off uncomfortably.
“Fine.” Mortarion rubbed his eyes, weary from the day’s vigil. “…I should be getting home. Let me know if anything changes.”
“Of course,” one of the doctors said, allowing the Power-Armored giant to walk out of the room. A few seconds of silence passed, before the collection of doctors dispersed, some into Morticia’s room to check on her, the rest either following the Death Guard out or heading down the hall to check on other patients.
And unseen by his target, one of the Death Guard serfs who had observed the exchange silently scanned Grant, locking him into memory.
Healing a Wound
Roberta sat with her arms crossed over her knees, staring out over the neatly-trimmed square of grass in front of her father’s mansion. Her vox dangled from her hands, inert. The morning sun was blocked out by the mass of the house, rising behind her. In the dim light, she could just make out the animal lying down in the grass beneath the trees by the road. The little creature had been lying there, without moving much, for an hour. It was alive, clearly. It had been staring at her for a few minutes, then lost interest.
It was small. Maybe the size of a small dog, with mottled brown and white fur, and long, spindly legs. It was lying in the shade of a tree, as if waiting for something. Roberta racked her brain, trying to remember what they were called, but the name eluded her. The little animal was blinking feebly in the dim light, looking around as if waiting for something. Roberta flipped her vox into the air and caught it, and the critter jerked its head over to stare at it, blinking with its blank brown eyes. The bespectacled girl smiled at that. “Didn’t like that? Sorry.”
A faint thumping noise behind her drew her attention. Roberta glanced over her shoulder to see a much larger animal – the mother, maybe – walking across the grass, and stood up, backing out of its way. The larger animal stared at her for a moment, before walking quickly to the infant and nuzzling it. The smaller animal stared at the larger, before wobbling to its legs and meekly following the larger one into the woods.
She watched the animals disappearing into the forest around her house, inexplicably happy. After they faded from view, she flipped her vox open and speed-dialed Six. On the last ring before it kicked over to voicemail, someone picked up. “Hey, Freya,” Roberta said in greeting.
“…ngh,” someone on the other end mumbled.
“Did I catch you at a bad time, or are you always this dead at 0600?”
“Whozzat?” the redhead asked, fighting back a burning headache. Alex stirred in his sleep, but didn’t wake.
“It’s Roberta. How hung-over are you?” Roberta giggled.
“I’m not drunk,” Freya groused. She slid out of bed, wiping cobwebs of sleep from her eyes, trying not to wake her boyfriend up. “What do you want?”
“Get over here. I have something to show you.”
“At six in the morning?” Freya growled, irritation cutting through her sleep fog. “What is it?”
“But, see, if I told you, you wouldn’t have anything to be mad over when you get here,” Roberta said cheerfully.
“…Fine. Fuck.” Freya said, hanging up. She dropped the phone on her bed and pulled some clothes on, glancing at herself in the mirror to make sure she was presentable. Deciding that she was, she walked back to the bed, leaning over her boyfriend. “Hey, sleepyhead. Be back later, OK?” she whispered, nipping his ear with her fang.
“Mmm,” he said faintly, not waking up. Freya silently grabbed the cup full of ash and put it in the sink of her bathroom, running it under the water until the cup was clear. Satisfied that it was clean, she tiptoed out the door, heading for her own car.
Roberta leaned against the façade of her father’s garage, waiting as Freya’s car pulled through the Treasury line. As soon as she clambered out, she stomped on over to her cousin, anger written all over her face. “What?” she demanded as soon as she was in earshot.
“You’re so lucky that the paparazzi are afraid to come here right now,” Roberta said, holding in a laugh with some effort.
Freya snarled under her breath, baring one canine. “What?!”
“Did Alex wear a button-down shirt last night?” Roberta said, struggling through a smirk.
Freya started, and slowly glanced down her front. She was wearing her boyfriends’ shirt.
With a muffled “eep!” of modesty, she grabbed the collar and hem, pulling them shut, but Roberta was already laughing. “It’s OK, it’s OK, you got…a few buttons,” she managed, trying to keep her face straight.
“Fucking…boyshirts…” Freya mumbled, buttoning the few stray buttons shut. “Fine, I’m here, I’m embarrassed. Now what?”
“Come with me,” Roberta instructed, all business now. She turned and walked away, heading alongside the house. Freya stomped after her, silently daring one of the Treasury agents or Ultramarine Auxilia to stare at her too long. It was only when they were nearly all the way to the small, wooded area behind the house that Freya noticed that they weren’t going in.
“You wanted to show me something out here?” she asked snippily.
“Fear not,” Roberta said, pausing when they reached the edge of the woods. The line between the carefully-groomed grass and the bare dirt beneath the trees was so fine it could have been cut with a razor.
“Okay. Now we need to be quiet,” Roberta said, holding a finger to her lips. She kicked off her sandals, walking barefoot into the woods. Freya stared.
“Shh!” Roberta exclaimed, glaring back over her shoulder. Freya blinked, but kept her lips sealed, curiosity overcoming resentment.
She slid her own flip-flops off, padding silently into the woods after her cousin. “I found them this morning,” Roberta whispered, so faint it wasn’t even audible, had normal humans been listening. Freya, of course, could hear perfectly. “It’s just one and the mother.” She slowed until she was barely moving, walking on the edges of her feet, so the shifting of her weight wouldn’t give her away. She stopped completely at the edge of a small clearing in the wooded area, pointing in silence.
Freya moved up behind her, peering over her shoulder. The baby animal from before was wobbling back and forth in the clearing, getting a feel for its legs. The mother was lying down on her stomach, legs tucked away underneath her body, watching her offspring carefully.
Roberta allowed herself a few seconds to watch, before turning to Freya with a smug grin. Her Space Wolf cousin was entranced. Freya took a few silent steps forward, her eyes locked on the display. She cast her eyes over the scene, taking in every detail, watching as the little animal learned how to use its legs.
Very slowly, she turned to face her cousin, who nodded once, a knowing grin on her face. “They’re adorable!” Freya whispered, glee raising the pitch of her voice. Roberta beamed.
“Enjoy,” she mouthed, leaning back against the tree next to her, settling in for a wait.
Freya rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and melted into the shadows of the wooded stretch. Lord Guilliman had only insisted that it be there because he knew it would be a rarity on the urban world of Terra, and scarcity creates value. Roberta watched her cousin silently move around the clearing, until she actually lost sight of her. How her red-headed cousin could vanish in non-camouflage clothing was beyond her, but she did, leaning low to the ground and disappearing into the shadows. Roberta cleaned her glasses with the hem of her shirt and stared, but no – she was gone.
Roberta’s eyes drifted back to the animals in the clearing – deer, that’s what they’re called, she suddenly remembered – and stared. Neither the mother nor the baby had noticed them, somehow. The mother was clearly just resting, and watching the infant patiently, and the baby was just figuring out what knees were for. She watched them both, unmoving, wondering how long it would take Freya to…
There. A tiny shift of a branch, to the side of the clearing. Both deer turned to look at it, staring with bovine eyes. The branch wasn’t moving with the wind at all. Roberta strained her eyes, trying to spot Freya in the brush. She leaned forward a hair, squinting through the morning glare. Was that her behind the branch itself?
Nope. With a suddenness all the more abrupt for its total silence, Freya slunk out from the completely opposite side of the clearing, and dropped onto her haunches, staring at the infant deer from less than five feet away. Roberta shook her head. How the FUCK does she do that? she wondered in silence.
Freya stood still, leaning back on her bare ankles, staring at the deer with a feral intensity that belied her usual, goofy demeanor. The baby deer turned back to its wobblings, but froze when its saw the girl, its little black nose twitching. The mother turned back and rose to its feet in an instant, staring at Freya, clearly wondering what to do. Freya kept still, her eyes locked on the scene, as the baby took a wobbling step towards her, sniffing the air. The mother walked over, tilting its head down behind the infant’s head, stopping it short. Both deer froze, watching Freya sit there, unmoving. Finally, the mother herded the baby to the edge of the clearing, nudging it into the woods, to find some other place to practice.
Freya gave them a ten-count before standing with a *pop* from her knees and brushing the leaves off her hands. Roberta straightened up and walked over to her, listening to the deer move through the underbrush. Freya turned to her with a radiant grin, her fangs glinting in the sun. “That…was awesome. Thanks, Roberta, I really needed that.”
Roberta nodded sagely. “I bet. Now, go return Alex’s shirt.”
“Oh my god, I hate you,” Freya giggled, tugging the sleeves back down. Both girls trudged back to the edge of the woods, pausing to pick up their shoes. “But really, call me again if they come back, I could use some exercise.”
“Or a snack,” Roberta quipped.
“I’m not Dad,” Freya said primly. She slid her sandals back on and dug her keys out, walking back to her car. “Hey, though, if you want to come over later, we should make sort of thing to send to the hospital.”
“Oh, yeah, good call,” Roberta said. “Uh, I’ll see who’s available and we can congregate somewhere. Where do you want to do it?”
“Uh, Farah’s if we can,” Freya said, pausing in the door of her car. “If not, I can host.”
“Sure. I’ll call you,” Roberta said, waving goodbye and stepping back to let the air car lift off. Freya peeled off, flying under the Treasury line, heading for her own house. Only a few minutes passed before the mansion’s fence resolved in the distance, and Freya soared over it, her car’s IFF passing the Treasury sensors automatically. She pulled up in the garage annexed onto the house, blowing past the pair of Space Wolves serfs at the door into the house with a cursory wave. Her father wasn’t present, it seemed; the house was empty. She marched straight up the stairs and back into her room, stopping at the bedside to stare down at Alex’s still-sleeping form under the covers. With a huff of impatience, she closed and locked the door, and hastily pulled her sandals and pants back off, leaving her borrowed shirt unbuttoned. Finally, Alex stirred in his sleep, screwing his eyes shut against the light.
“Mph. ‘Morning,” he mumbled, shielding his eyes.
“Wakey wakey,” Freya said, her voice low and intense. Perhaps sensing danger, Alex’s eyes flew open, catching an eyeful of Freya, now naked save for his own shirt, leaning over him.
“Uh, hi. Where did you go this morning?” he asked.
“Roberta wanted to show me something. Good thing she did, too,” she said, her eyes traveling up and down Alex’s silhouette under the covers.
“Really? Why’s that?” Alex asked with distinct nervousness, propping himself up on one elbow.
Freya swept his arm out from under him and half-rolled onto the bed on top of him, vigorously pulling the covers out of the way. “Well,” she said thickly, emotion and hunger pushing through her voice, “it left me feeling a little primal.” She grabbed his wrist and held it over his head, pulling him into a vigorous kiss, sinking the fingers on her free hand into the flesh of his shoulder. He instinctively pulled back before he realized what was happening through his sleep-induced fuzziness, sliding his own free hand down her back to her waist and pulling her in. “Good idea,” she whispered roughly, wrapping both legs around his. “Now, let’s see you follow through…”
Her hair was in her eyes again. Farah tugged her headband loose and brushed the offending lock of platinum blonde aside before retying it. Her metal hands felt uncomfortably hot to the skin of her forehead, and she sank them into the bucket of water next to the little forge in her basement. Her father glanced over from his own station, which featured a microsolderer instead of a heating element today. “Careful, Farah.”
“Yeah, I know, Dad,” Farah muttered. “Do you need coil?”
“No, I have one.” Ferrus paused his work to look harder at what his daughter was crafting. “What exactly are you working on over there?”
“A present for Morticia,” Farah said. She gestured at a cooling block of metal on the table next to her. “I already made one for Kelly.”
“I see. What do you have in mind?” Ferrus asked.
“Well, for Morticia, I thought I’d just do something like…this,” she said, pressing a tiny line of copper against the semi-molten steel in her hands. “A little get-well.”
Ferrus stared. “…Is that an embossed inhaler cozy?” he asked after a moment’s scrutiny.
“Maaaybe,” Farah said coyly, gently kneading the copper coil around the outside of the metal case.
“If she has a sense of irony, she’ll love it,” Ferrus said dryly.
The wall-mount vox over his station beeped. Glancing down to see if his hands were anywhere near cool enough to answer – they weren’t – he called aloud. “Answer.” Waiting a moment for the speakerphone to turn on, he then called out again. “Hello?”
“Hello, Uncle Ferrus, it’s Roberta.”
“Ah, hello, Roberta.” Ferrus held his hands away from the heating element, letting the extra heat bleed out of his hands. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine, but I was wondering if a few of us could come over this afternoon and make a get-well-soon present for Morticia,” Roberta said.
Farah smirked at the speakerphone. “Way ahead of you.”
“Farah? Hi! Did you buy something already?”
“A Manus ‘buy.’ ‘Buy’ something. Oh, ho ho ho ho, no,” Farah said, shaking her finger at the vox speaker in scolding. Her father slowly turned to face her in his seat, eyebrows raised. “I made her an inhaler cozy, out of two solid pieces of steel.”
Roberta burst into laughter, eliciting a proud smirk from Farah. “Oh my god I love it,” Roberta managed through peals of laughter. “That’s awesome.”
“I think so,” Farah said happily, turning back to her work. “And for Kelly, I made a little backpack token, since she likes the one Cora has.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, good call. I forgot…OK. Well, when will it be done?”
“I already made the one for Kelly. I’ll be done with the one for Morticia in maybe…ten minutes?” she guessed.
“Awesome, just in time for me to drive over and take credit for it!” Roberta declared.
“Uh huh, sure, Morticia totally won’t wonder when you learned metalworking,” Farah deadpanned.
“Foiled again.” Roberta thought for a moment. “Hmm, so should the rest of us make something too?”
“No, you can sign this if you want. I tried to get a hold of you earlier, actually. Should we just hand it over to them when we meet at the hospital Saturday morning?”
“Sure. Will she be awake by then?” Roberta asked, penciling down the information.
“No,” Farah replied sadly.
Morticia blinked against the harsh glare of the operating room lights, lucidity fighting past her chemical stupor. A pair of doctors in full-body clean suits were standing in the corner of the room, arguing over their closed-circuit feed. Several more doctors and a nurse in the same outfit were cleaning up too, running tools under sterilizers in the edge of the room. Two medical orderlies were doing something under her table, probably preparing it to be moved back into her room.
She tried to speak. All she managed instead was a thin gasp. Instantly, every single head in the room snapped to her, and about fifteen pairs of hands reached for the valves on the IV drip in her arm. The world swam back out of focus, and she sank back into oblivion.
Seconds passed, and suddenly she was wide awake, with a feeling like spiders under her skin crawling up and down her hands and feet. Still, she could feel her feet, that was an improvement. Her vision darkened, but this time it wasn’t drugs causing it. Her father leaned over her, his grey eyes wide. “Morticia?” he asked, his voice muffled.
“Dad?” she asked weakly. His eyes slid shut, and he grabbed her hand, with a gentleness that put a lie to his horrifying appearance.
“You’re OK, sweetheart. You’ll be all right.”
“Morticia?” another voice asked. Kelly’s distinctive hair blotted out another light as she leaned in. “Oh…my god, you’re OK,” she said, tears leaking out of her eyes. She sank down next to her bed-ridden cousin, sobbing. “I was…” she struggled to swallow. “I was so scared.”
“That was pretty scary,” another voice said, one she didn’t recognize. An arm reached across her and gently tugged a clear plastic tube from under from Kelly’s hands.
“Ah, sorry,” Kelly sniffled, hastily shifting her arm away before she could pull the IV out.
The strange voice came back, and Morticia placed it as one of the doctors she had spoken to last time she had woken up. “I’ll be in the hall if you need me, sir.” Mortarion nodded curtly, and the voice and its matching arm disappeared.
“Daddy…” Morticia struggled to lift one arm. “How…how long have I been out?”
“It’s Saturday the ninth, so six days.” Mortarion fought back a tide of anger that was starting to wash in around the edge of his voice. “They caught the guy who did it to you, Morticia.”
“Did you or…uncle Konrad…get to him first?” Morticia asked.
“The Treasury,” Kelly said bitterly.
“Oh…damn,” Morticia said. She flexed her fingers experimentally. “Where…did I get hit?”
“Back. Right through the lung,” Mortarion said, the anger pulling at him again. How DARE some common filth do this to his daughter?
“Then why…is the air so light?” Morticia asked, gingerly shifting herself up on the bed. A lance of agony shot through her back as she did so, and she decided against it.
“You have a new lung. They cloned it in to replace the old one,” Mortarion explained.
“So…no scarring. Right.” Morticia smiled weakly, like a ray of sun peeking around a cloud’s edge. “I should enjoy that while it lasts.”
Kelly managed a tiny smile. Morticia focused on her for a moment. “Are you..okay?”
“I’m…” Kelly struggled to say yes. “No, I’m not. I was so scared…” She screwed her eyes shut, wiping at them with one hand. “I’m a wreck. I haven’t slept in days.”
“Sorry I scared you,” Morticia said apologetically. Mortarion visibly winced.
“Not your fault. God, nobody’s blaming you,” Kelly said immediately. “I just…I was sitting there, and you just fell…” Kelly buried her head in her hands and gasped, sobs of relief and loathing ripping her carefully-constructed emotional façade apart. “…Sorry, sorry, I’m…”
“Hey!” a voice that was far too loud suddenly interrupted. Mortarion nearly jumped. “Look who’s up!” Remilia’s face suddenly appeared next to Kelly’s. Kelly quickly dried her eyes, leaning back from her cousin’s bed. Morticia tried to sit up a bit more, and her father slid his had gingerly behind her back, helping her sit without aggravating the incisions. “You’re looking better!” Remilia said cheerfully.
“You’re lying to me on my recovery bed?” Morticia asked, smiling wearily.
“Yep! But it’s good to see you sitting up and taking notice,” Remilia said, squeezing her free hand. Mortarian sat back a bit and watched as the rest of the Royal daughters filed in, most either carrying flowers or something similar, save Hana and Farah, both of whom were acting rather secretive.
“Hey, there she is!” Isis said, crossing the room under the watchful eye of several Death Guard serfs. “How the hell are you?”
“Exhausted and sore,” Morticia responded, cheering up at the sight of her cousins. “I’m glad you could all make it.”
“Like we wouldn’t?” Angela noted. “Although I don’t know how long we can stay…”
“I would advise that you not stay more than an hour at most, my Lady,” the doctor noted from the hall, where he was hovering impatiently.
“Then, I should do this now,” Farah announced importantly. She leaned forward and presented the box in her hands with a flourish. “Just in case,” she started, enjoying the spotlight. “Should the worst come to pass yet again, you see.”
Morticia blinked. “What?” She took the box and pulled the lid off, wondering what could make Farah so giddy. She pulled a piece of metal out of the container and stared at it. “Is this…is this an armored inhaler cozy?”
“It IS!” Farah said proudly, as at least a third of the other girls sighed, giggled, or just stared.
Morticia stared at Farah’s radiant smile, until a slight, pained giggle forced itself out. She doubled over in the bed, flinching. “Ow, it hurts to laugh.” Mortarion helped her settle back against the pillow, and she ruefully shook her head. “Thanks, Farah. That made my day.”
“So glad you like it,” Farah said happily. The other girls clustered around the bed, just chatting with her and getting her caught up on the world outside the hospital, until all too soon, the hour was up. The doctor poked his head in, tapping a phantom wristwatch.
“Ladies, I think Morticia needs her sleep now,” Mortarion said, eliciting a few grumbles, but no complaint. One by one they said their goodbyes, filing out until only Kelly and Morticia herself were left. Before she walked out, though, Hana paused.
“Hey, Kelly. This one’s for you,” she said, leaving it on the table by the door.
“Oh. Uh…thanks,” Kelly said, managing a wave as her cousin shut the door behind her. Morticia sunk back into the pillows, letting the exhaustion of her ordeal show. The doctor opened the door, pushing in a small handcart of IV bags, and moved over to the tree, carefully checking the cards on the lines. Mortarion watched him for a while, weighing his words. He hadn’t let his simmering rage show in front of his nieces – most wouldn’t have understood – but he knew Kelly would.
“Morticia…I want you to understand…I wish I could have stopped this,” he started.
“Of course you do, Dad,” Morticia said wistfully.
“Right. But…” his hands tightened on the metal bar on the side of the bed with an audible squeak. “…I wish I’d been the one to find him,” he finished, his voice darkening. The doctor shivered and hastily finished his work, leaving the room with all due decorum.
“Dad, if he was caught, he’ll hang. I’m sure of it,” Morticia said.
“No, he won’t. Lord Hane said he’ll get seventeen years at the most,” Mortarion growled.
“…Really?” Mortician asked, her grey eyes widening in surprise.
“I wasn’t sure how to tell-”
“The fucker was shooting into the crowd,” Kelly said, her own rage bursting forth. “He was just shooting at RANDOM!”
Morticia paled further. “He wasn’t…h-he wasn’t aiming for me?”
“He was making a political statement,” Mortarion said bitterly. “And you were just the first one in the line of fire.”
“Why? Why, why, why would he…” Morticia ran her hands over her eyes, dazed. “Why did he do it?”
“Good question,” Mortarion answered, his lips twisting into a bitter grimace. “Lord Hane’s answer is…unsatisfactory.”
A Bitter Pill to Swallow
The Emperor set the dataslate that Hane had placed before him down, seething. “They’re a CULT?” he snapped.
“No, my Liege, he’s no cultist, not at all, but his fixation does explain his reaction to the news that he had shot your granddaughter and not some random stranger.” The counselor fidgeted a bit under his master’s angry stare. “I can’t admit complete surprise. He seemed to be more than just distraught when he learned the truth. He was devastated. Appalled.”
“And this…Honors Union,” the Emperor said, glancing back down to the dataslate, “they’re responsible for indoctrinating him?”
“Apparently not, Sire. The organization distributes mutancy testing kits in the underhives, they’re not a doctrinal group.” Hane sighed, wondering about the best phrasing. “The problem lies in the fact that Keiter is convinced, absolutely convinced, that the rich and the mutants are more than just problematic for humanity, they’re actively holding it back from your ideal.”
“My ‘ideal’ involves leaving matters of corruption and disease to the police and doctors,” the Emperor said with a frigid wrath, which he then immediately blunted. “I apologize. Do not interpret this as a slight against you, Arthur. But this…this can not stand.”
Hane nodded. “I agree, my Liege. However…the fact that he worships you is not something I can charge him for.”
“I have purged WORLDS for that crime, Hane,” the Emperor said sharply. “I think, if you look hard enough, you can find a statute that applies.”
The lawyer felt the blood drain from his knuckles. “I will…search, my Liege.”
“Yes. Find me something. Let me know what you uncover,” the Emperor said, dismissing his counselor with a wave of his hand.
Jake looked up from the magazine he was reading at the end of the isolation hall as he heard the Royal Daughters returning. With one, final, acid glare at the beehives that had prevented him from staying with them when they went to see Morticia – and a warning glance at the other well-wishers that had accompanied him – he dropped the magazine and stood up. “Hey. How is she feeling?” he asked as soon as Venus was in earshot.
“She’s awake, and she’s going to be OK,” Venus said, offering him a quick hug. The other boyfriends and non-Royal visitors stood too, and the hallway filled with the sounds of the Daughters delivering their reports.
“Any idea when she’ll be out?” James asked the crowd.
“Nope. She has a long way to go,” Farah said ruefully. “She liked the cozy, at least.”
James chuckled. “Good. Did Kelly like her pendant?”
“I gave it to her, but it was right at the end,” Hana put in. “I’m sure she will, though.”
“Good.” Farah looked around at the crowd of people at the end of the hall. “Maybe we should get going. This is pretty crowded for a hospital.”
“I agree,” Isis said. “I’m heading back to the Palace. I want to go tell Grandfather the news. Who else is in?”
“I’ll tag along,” Remilia said, and a few others in the group nodded or murmured their assent.
Hana followed her security detail’s leader out of the hospital’s vehicle annex to the waiting motorcade, shielding her eyes against the blinding light reflecting off the windows of the office building across the street. The Treasury agent ahead of her opened the door to the aircar in which she had arrived, glancing over the sea of reporters for any potential troublemakers. She climbed in and tapped the glass at the front of the cabin. “Driver, head for the Palace instead of home, please. Dock Forty.”
“Yes, madam,” the driver said, changing his autopilot’s route. The cars lifted, some peeling off to return to the noble district, most heading to the Palace. Hana settled back in the seat, watching the screen in the side of the compartment. It looked like yet another biography in brief of Morticia.
“Can you believe this shit?” Andrew muttered, staring at the news reports on the holoscreen as well. “It’s a farce.”
“What is? The fact that so much of it is wrong, or that fact that it exists at all?” Hana asked.
The new channel was blathering on about the shooter, and simultaneously claiming not to be relaying speculation while wildly speculating on his motives. Andrew watched in silence for a few minutes before cutting the Head off. “Load a’ crap.”
“I wonder if Morticia will give an interview,” Hana mused.
“Maybe. She’s not ready, I don’t think,” Andrew said, “from what you told me.”
The Emperor stood in front of the array of holoscreens in his public office, watching the same news feeds as his granddaughter. The talking heads were going into a biopic about Morticia again, and displaying interviews with people in the hives, asking what their reactions were.
The Emperor sighed and rubbed his hands together. The feedback from the people was disappointingly banal. He had the feeling that negative reactions and ignorant responses had been pruned from the footage. “The Lady remains stable, and the spokesman for Startseite Hospital has refused all comment.”
“As well he bloody well should,” the Emperor muttered, turning back to his desk.
“As has the Royal Family,” the Head concluded. The Emperor paused, looking back to the screen with his eyebrows raised. He hadn’t been contacted for comment yet, save in the immediate aftermath of the arrest of the sniper. Had Mortarion and Konrad refused comment as well? That was unlike them.
“So far, the Arbites and the Administratum have refused to release any notice of the shooter’s motive-”
The Emperor cut the feed with a gesture, clasping his hands behind his back and thinking the news over. After a moment’s contemplation, he reached for his vox panel, and was moments from dialing Curze’s number when it beeped.
“Answer,” he said, sitting back down at the desk.
“Hello, Grandpa,” Isis’s voice said from the speaker.
“Hello, Isis. What can I do for you?” the Emperor asked.
“Well, we’re coming back from seeing Morticia; I thought you might want to hear the good news in person.”
“I appreciate that, Isis, but I’m afraid I must decline,” her grandfather replied. “I have a meeting in fifteen minutes that I can’t postpone.”
“Oh.” Isis paused for a moment, then forced a laugh. “I…probably should have called ahead. Well. Anyway, she’s awake, and she’s feeling a lot better.”
“That’s a relief,” the Emperor, who had been so informed by the hospital staff over an hour before, replied.
“I think, if you don’t mind, we’ll come back to the Palace anyway and just…be here, for a while, anyway,” Isis said. “We haven’t had the chance to see each other much since…you know.”
“You never need my permission to come over, Isis, make yourself at home,” the Emperor replied, looking over the surface radar feed and noting the approach of the motorcade. “I’ll try to come by and greet you if I can get away.”
“Thanks, Grandpa. Bye,” Isis said, hanging up.
“No joy on the burn?” Julius offered, glancing up at Isis from his seat. Alone amongst the ‘consorts,’ he might – might – have been able to get into the Palace on his own, since he was the son of the greatest living mortal warrior in the galaxy. That the public knew about, anyway.
“No, he’ll be busy.” Isis slipped the vox back into her pocket, leaning back on the leather seat. “Still, we can hang out at the Palace for a while. It’s been too long since we got to just…be together, without a cluster of Treasury agents hanging over us.”
“They already caught the fucker, why are they keeping security in place?” Julius asked.
Isis shrugged, shifting her blond hair over her shoulders. “They don’t know he was acting alone.”
“I guess.” Julius was quiet for a second, and watched the lights of the hives below vanish into the white and gold of the Palace. “That kind of uncertainty…it’s a long way from fun.”
“No kidding.” Isis reached over and grabbed a drink from the refrigerated compartment in the console, flipping the cap into the trash with a practiced flick. “Well, once we get there, I think we should ask Dad if we can lower the Treasury screens a bit, he should be there.”
“Will he do it?” Julius asked, waving off his own bottle.
“Nope, but I can ask.” The sky darkened a bit as the aircars descended into the shadows of a tower at the edge of the continent-spanning Palace.
The cars landed in the cavernous space of a VIP bay, and several ranks of Treasury and Arbites personnel – and a brace of Custodes – assembled in rank before the vehicles. As the passengers climbed out, Jake stared at the golden-armored Custodes with undisguised fear, but Isis simply walked straight up to them.
What a sight she made. The casually-dressed teenager, complete with shoulder-length blond hair and calf boots, needed nod and salute once to dismiss a rank of soldiers and bodyguards, one of whom was easily two thousand years old. The other girls and passengers walked up behind her, with her cousins looking like nothing of significance had happened and their companions looking awestruck.
“I’ve never been in this part of the Palace,” Jake said with wide-eyed amazement.
“I’ve only been here once or twice myself,” Venus said. “Isis used to live here, though. More or less. Rarely left.”
Isis must have overheard them, because she fell back from the front of the little troupe and slowed next to Jake. “If you want to know something about the Palace, Jake, I’d be happy to answer,” she said, smiling reassuringly.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” Jake admitted, looking around the hangar as the procession entered a corridor. “You used to live here?”
“Not literally. Father did, for a period of about three years. I came over every day,” Isis said. “I was in the VIP wing most of the time, of course, there’s only room in the Residence for the Emperor himself.”
“I’ve only ever been to one of the rooftop gardens and the museum,” Jake said.
“The gardens are nice. Uncle Rogal designed them himself,” Isis said. “What did you think of the museum?”
“Incredible. It had more room in the bathroom than my entire apartment does,” Jake said. Isis was quiet for a moment.
“Right. Hiver. I forgot.” Jake quirked an eyebrow, but he knew she hadn’t meant it to be insulting. “Anyway. I think you’ll like the place we’re going.”
“What is it?” Jake asked. The décor of the rooms around them was growing steadily more grandiose, he noted.
“The closest thing the Palace has to a modest room,” Isis said dryly. Angela, now in the lead, turned from the main hall into a side corridor, and immediately turned again to enter a nearly-hidden door. Jake followed her through, curious, and his jaw dropped. The room beyond was so far from ‘modest’ that it was honestly a little ostentatious to his taste. The room looked out over the hivescape beyond, and was filled with luxurious leather chairs, glass tables, and, on the far side, what sure looked like a bar. A servitor slot next to the glassy table hung open, with nothing inside.
“Is this a…nightclub?” Jake asked.
“Hah! It may as well be. It’s a lounge for visiting Overlords,” Isis said, walking up the bar and looking expectant.
“Yet it’s empty,” Jake observed, sitting down next to her.
“Well, there’s several,” Isis said, glancing side to side.
Remilia ignored the exchange, sinking down into a couch by the end of the spacious room. The other girls dispersed around the room, but she disregarded them completely. The zipper of her loose-fitting jacket snagged on the edge of a cushion, and she tugged it free, glaring at the carpet. Freya noticed and wandered over. “Hey. You OK?”
“Just a little upset that we can be here while Morticia and Kelly are off in the hospital,” Remilia said evasively.
“Kelly?” Freya asked.
“Didn’t you hear?” Remilia asked, consciously avoiding her cousin’s gaze. “She checked in for psychological counseling yesterday.”
Freya was quiet for a long minute. “Kelly’s just trying to get her problem solved.” She crossed her arms and stared down at Remilia, who finally met Freya’s gaze. “What about you?”
“What about me?” Remilia grumbled. Freya sighed faintly. She sat down next to Remilia and searched her face with her inhuman eyes.
“You’re hurting too, Remilia,” she said softly.
“Damn it, furball, I don’t need a mother right now,” Remilia hissed under her breath.
Freya’s eyes narrowed. Remilia felt remorse tug her heart, and sighed again, grinding her hand over her eyes. “Sorry…I didn’t mean…”
“Yes you did.” Freya’s statement wasn’t a question.
Remilia’s shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, Freya.” Freya’s stare drifted pointedly down Remilia’s arms, and she flinched in sudden self-consciousness. “…Can’t keep anything from you.”
Anger and confusion leaked into Freya’s voice. “Why do you do it?” she asked.
“Once. I did it once,” Remilia said, anger starting to color her voice too. “And it’s none of your damn business.” Freya looked away for a moment, then looked back, sadness etched onto her face. “…And don’t give me the puppy eyes.”
“Remilia…fine. If you don’t want to tell me, fine.” Freya reached over and squeezed her cousin’s shoulder. “But it hurts to see you do that.” Her fingers tightened their grip. “So knock it off.”
“How…” Remilia seethed. “How can you even say…fine. Whatever. I’ll stop,” she said, completely done with the discussion.
Freya nodded, apparently willing to drop it too. She wrapped her arm around her cousin’s shoulders and hugged her tight. “Thanks.”
“Yeah,” Remilia grumbled.
The other occupants of the room – who were largely ignoring the heart-to-heart in the corner – were distracted by the door behind the bar suddenly opening. A man in a neatly-pressed white suit walked out, taking in the room in a moment. His wrinkled face split with a smile the moment he saw the Daughters. “Girls! Been too long!”
“Al!” Angela proclaimed happily. The others wandered over to the glassy bar, exchanging greetings with the bartender, who knew them all by name. The other guests exchanged confused looks. “It has been too long.”
“Hasn’t it? Let me see,” he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I’m going to guess most of you are too young to be drinking still…”
“Ah, but today we have something to celebrate!” Isis declared cheerfully. “Morticia woke up today. She’s gonna be all right.”
“Ah! Then we do indeed have a reason to celebrate.” The barkeep reached under the counter and pulled out a double armful of long-neck bottles, each filled with something bright orange. “On the house,” he declared, handing them out.
“It’s an open bar,” Roberta said, continuing their ancient joke.
“Really?” the barkeep asked pensively. “Don’t tell the Ambassador that, he didn’t know.” The girls dutifully laughed.
Venus plopped down in a chair by the window and looked out over the expanse of gold and white. The pseudoweather was turning grim, she noticed. The sky was darkening rapidly. Andrew grabbed a soda from the counter and wandered over, sitting down across from her. “Hey, Venus.”
The Forgefather’s daughter turned her eyes to him. “Hi, Andrew.”
“How did Morticia seem to you?” he asked, popping the cap on his soda.
“Happier than I expected. I don’t think she really knew what was happening,” Venus said, twisting her own cap off.
“Yeah. I wish I had gotten to see her,” Andrew said, glancing out the window. “Hell of a view.”
“I love it here.” Venus took a long drink of her soda, rolling the cap between her fingers. “How have you been, anyway? It’s been two years since we had a class together.”
“Pretty well, actually,” Andrew said. “Thinking about joining the Army after I get out of school.”
“Really?” Venus asked. “Wow. That’s interesting. Officer candidacy or enlisting?”
“Thinking I might go for enlisting, then work my way into the Warrant program. Field Artillery,” Andrew said. Hana dropped down next to him on the couch.
“Who knows, we might even get stationed together,” Hana said with a laugh.
“You’re joining the military?” Venus asked in surprise.
“It was a joke,” Hana laughed.
“Oh.” Venus breathed a sigh of completely un-feigned relief. “Okay.” Jake flipped his bottlecap into the trash and stood next to the window, looking out over the vista. He lifted his hands to shield his hiver eyes from the blinding glare of the sun off the white rock walls. Andrew tapped him on the shoulder. When Jake glanced back, Andrew proffered up his sunglasses, with Jake took with gratitude.
“Thanks, man. How do you people live up here? It’s so goddamned bright.”
“You just sort of get used to it,” Andrew shrugged.
“I can’t see that happening without ample practice,” Jake said, looking out over the streams of distant traffic.
The bartender swept the discarded caps off of the counter into a bin, then looked around the room. A pair of Treasury guards and a Custodian were visibly patrolling outside the room, but nobody else was coming or going. Al caught Isis’ eye and beckoned her over. “So, what else can I do for you? And how late can you stay?”
“Not long, sadly,” Isis replied ruefully. “But I wanted to give the good news to Grand…the Emperor in person.”
“Well, I’m sure he would have been happy to see you, Isis,” Al said. “Where are the rest of your cousins?”
“Oh, they had other places to be, I guess,” she replied with a shrug.
The Emperor clicked the holoscreens of his office off with a sigh of disappointment. So, the Rogue Traders Coalition weren’t willing to play ball. How unfortunate for their Senator.
After a moment’s deliberation, he clicked the holos back on. From memory, he dialed a secure line to Mortarion’s home, wondering if he would be there or the hospital. The line was picked up on the first ring. “Lord Mortarion’s residence,” the voice on the other side began.
“Is the Lord in?” the Emperor asked. The man on the other end must have recognized his voice.
“Indeed not, my Liege. He remains at his daughter’s side for now,” the butler said humbly.
“Thank you,” the Emperor said, hanging up and sighing again. He pushed himself up from his desk, walking over to the wall of monitors, switching them over to the security camera feeds. He cycled through them until he reached the wing where he had sensed Isis and her sisters – he could never think of them as cousins – arrive, passengers in tow.
As he watched, they dispersed throughout one of his dignitaries’ lounges, chatting amongst themselves. It seemed Isis had a bit of a breather on her mind.
Angela looked up from her drink and stared at the door of the lounge for a moment, a smile playing around her lips. Michael leaned over and raised an eyebrow. “What’s funny?”
“Nothing,” Angela said happily. She turned back to face the room, taking a quick headcount. Twelve of the Royal daughters remained, and about half again that many guests. Just enough for an audience. Isis caught her eye and smiled, clearly divining the reason for her cousin’s sudden good mood. She stood and stretched luxuriously, wandering over to the window where Jake and Andrew were still discussing the merits of in- and out-hive living.
“Hey,” she said, clapping both men on the shoulder and leaning between them. “So what do you two think of home-away-from-home?”
“It’s awesome,” Andrew replied. “Now all it needs is a water park and I’m set.”
“In a word?” Jake said carefully. “Profligate. I can’t imagine His Excellency actually needing this much room in his Palace.”
“This Palace houses over six billion members of the Administratum, you know,” Isis pointed out. “And a museum, two full garrisons of Custodes, and a guest wing or nine.”
“And I think the Emperor gets to put as many rooms in the place as he wants,” Angela put in from the door, watching a faint glow in the hallway grow brighter.
“Naturally.” Jake took a long drag on his orange soda, staring out over the endless expanse of gold and white. “Still.” He shook his head. “Sorry, I must sound like a broken vox right now. I like it here.”
The Emperor paused at the door. The bartender spotted him and genuflected deeply, balancing a few empty bottles in his hands. Angela had known he was coming, and she was beaming a grin at him from the bar. Several of the other Daughters had also seen him and immediately moved in to say hello. The rest of the room’s occupants seemed to become aware one-by-one, with reactions of varying degrees of humor.
“My liege, welcome!” Al said, rising from his bow. “How my I serve you?” At that, the rest of the people in the room turned around, and the air pressure dropped a few PSI as they inhaled as one.
“Not at all, thank you,” the Emperor said politely, moving over to where Angela was still sitting, acknowledging his other guests and relatives on the way, with the same patient smile he had used for the last four thousand years. “Angela. How are you feeling?”
“A lot better, this far from the hives,” she admitted, rubbing her forehead. “Yourself?”
“I am well. Your uncle Mortarion isn’t picking up the vox, however,” he said, leaning on the bar.
“Can you blame him?” Angela asked.
“No.” The Emperor glanced over the cluster of ‘Royal’ boyfriends and hangers-on that had congregated near the window. “And who might my other guests be?”
“Ah. In order, Alex, Andrew, Jake, Michael, Aaron, James, Pietro, and Adam,” she said, pointing each one out in order. “Over there, Julius and Kevin.” She then identified the four or five students from their school who had accompanied them.
“Gentlemen,” the Emperor said, inclining his head a few degrees. “Welcome.”
“Sire,” Julius, who had met the Emperor several times, replied on their behalf, to a chorus of assent and nodding heads.
Isis walked back over to where her grandfather was standing. “I guess you must have heard from the hospital by now, but I wanted to let you know in person. Morticia will be all right, the lung took.”
“Excellent,” the Emperor said, allowing himself a smile. “I hope she’s in high spirits, inasmuch as she can be?”
“Yeah, from what we saw,” Isis said. Jake and few of the other guests were shifting a bit, wondering if it would be poor decorum to sit down. Julius noticed and sat back down on the nearest couch, and the others took their cues. “It’s Kelly I’m worried about. She’s taking this hard.”
“Indeed, she is.” The Emperor nodded gravely. “Still, I’m sure she has what it takes to overcome this.”
“Speaking of,” Isis started, but the Emperor shook his head once. Clearly, discussing any leads on the investigation was verboten, “do you think you’ll be able to visit her in the hospital?” she improvised.
“I imagine I will, but I’ve taken Mortarion and Konrad’s duties of commanding my fleets upon myself until they can return to duty.”
“The midnight oil, she burns fast,” Angela said.
“Indeed.” The Emperor glanced at the clock over the bar, noting the time with a grimace. “Well, I must return to it, in fact. Isis, as ever, you and your sisters are most welcome to stay here if the security detail on your homes becomes too overbearing. I’m rather more used to it,” he added with a wry grin.
“I imagine so, but I suspect the Custodes are less intrusive than the Treasury,” Isis giggled. Jake muttered something inaudibly.
The Emperor noticed, of course. “Something to add, Sieur Seager?” he asked.
Jake’s blood froze. “Nothing Lord Vulkan didn’t already see to, Sire,” he said quickly.
“Ah, the incident with the overzealous bodyguard?” the Emperor asked rhetorically. “Yes. I was informed, and Lord Vulkan was absolutely right. The Treasury had no grounds to harass you like that, I apologize.”
Jake boggled. “Not a…problem, Sire.”
“Well, then.” The Emperor stood straight once more, addressing the crowd. “I must return to work. Safe journeys.”
“You as well, my Liege," Remilia said formally, for the group. Pausing to shake a few hands, the Emperor made for the door, glad to see his granddaughters taking their trials well.
Turning from the corridor, a few Companions falling behind him, he thought over the meeting. Surely, Isis would be able to keep the others from asking about the investigation until he had something to tell them.
His jaw tightened. Worship. Keiter worshipped him. He resolved once more to root out the source of the corruption that had nearly taken a granddaughter from him.
Isis looked over the assemblage of people in the room and smiled at the contrast. The Royal Family members and Al were acting like nothing at all had happened, and everyone else was looking awestruck. Even those who had met him before were looking a bit sandbagged.
“Out of curiosity, anyone actually going to take him up in it?” Angela asked. A chorus of ‘no’ met her question. “Me neither.”
“In fact,” Venus said, dropping her bottle on the bar, “I should head out.”
“Me too,” Freya added dolefully, lining her bottle up with Venus’. “Who here is planning on being back in school on Monday if the Treasury lightens up?”
“Aye,” Remilia said with feeling. “Enough of this lockdown.”
“Me for sure,” Isis added. "I need to hand in my Senior Project anyway.”
“Oh blast, I forgot that was due Tuesday. Aaargh, how could I forget?” Angela asked. “Uh, uh, damn. I haven’t even written the speech.”
“What’s your topic?” Andrew asked.
“Differentiation of Civil and Military Law in the Aftermath of the Demobilization of the Imperial Army,” Angela said.
Andrew looked at her with newfound respect. “In a school full of veterans? Gutsy.”
“Not if I botch the speech Thursday,” she said worriedly.
“Ah, you’ll do fine,” he said.
“Just talk about how your father broke Ka’Bandha over his knee that one time,” Michael said. “And reap the A-plusses.”
“Oh, please,” Angela grumped.
Al finished putting away the empties under the bar and cast his eye around the room for strays. Finding none, he bowed formally as the little troupe marched past. “’Til we meet again, ladies and gentlemen,” he said by means of farewell.
“Bye Al!” Isis said, waving over her shoulder as they moved back down the hall.
Julius leaned towards her, glancing meaningfully towards the next corridor into the tower. Isis caught his meaning, looking over to the Custodian protecting the procession. “Brother, is my father in the Palace right now?”
Discord and Disquiet
“He is, my Lady Isis. Shall I take you to him?” the gold-clad giant asked.
“Please do, Brother. And Sieur Pius as well,” she added. Angela cast a glance over her winged shoulder at the two conspirators, but decided not to interfere.
“As you wish, lady Isis,” the Custodian said, diverting down a nearby corridor. Isis and Julius followed their guide away from the rest of the group, into the more utilitarian parts of the Palace, and stopped at a tram station. “Your father should be in Bunker Three, in the Palace Core.”
“Thank you, Brother,” Isis said, as the doors of the tram closed. She tapped the coordinates of the Bunker into the tram, and it lifted, soaring away.
“Game plan?” Julius asked, looking intently at the tiny holographic map of the Palace on the inside of the car.
“Honesty. We ask for answers, we look for more if we don’t get enough.” Isis leaned back against the seat of the tram.
“Will he answer us?”
“Who knows,” Isis replied heavily. The air outside whipped into streams as the car accelerated to nearly six hundred miles per hour, launching into the heart of the continent-spanning structure. Julius closed his eyes and relaxed as the tiny force field around the car switched on, and its inertial dampener reduced the momentum of its occupants to zero. Isis wiggled across the seat to Julius and leaned against him, her mind turning over at blazing speed. Conversation plans, speculation over what Horus could be doing in the middle of the Palace anyway, reviewing her aborted questioning of the Emperor…they sped through her mind as fast as the tram over its magnetic rails.
Julius wrapped his arm behind her shoulders, and she absently squeezed his hand. “We have ten minutes until we arrive. What should we ask?”
“Why is the Emperor convinced that there’s more to this Keiter guy than one whacko with a vendetta and a rifle, for starters,” Isis said quietly, her mind kicking into detective mode.
“He thinks there’s something more?” Julius asked.
“You saw the way he cut me off when I started to ask,” Isis pointed out.
“Right, right.” Her boyfriend thought over the conversation, trying to remember what the Emperor had said precisely. “Well…we can ask who the Treasury is investigating.”
“He won’t answer that in front of you,” Isis said, bitterness darkening her voice. Julius frowned.
“You think so?”
“He likes you a lot, Julius, and he trusts your family, but we’re talking about information so heavily classified I don’t even think he’s technically allowed to tell ME,” Isis said heavily. “I can ask anyway.”
Julius went quiet. After another minute of silence, Isis looked up at him. He was looking away, torn. “Should I stay here? I just tagged along without thinking.”
“Come with, Julius,” she said. It wasn’t an order, it was a statement of preference.
Julius shrugged, looking back down at her. “All right.” A smile quirked his lips, quite against his will. She felt a sudden and inappropriate wave of good humor wash over her too, and had to look away herself to prevent a sudden giggle.
“OK. We should make sure we’re not pressing him, if he’s busy,” she said.
“We could call him,” Julius suggested.
“He won’t commit to anything over the phone.” Isis wiggled free of her boyfriend’s arm and eyed the holographic map. “We’re nearly there. Any last-minute ideas?”
“Fresh out.” Both teens watched the holographic map fizzle out as the door under it opened, and they both clambered out. This wing of the Palace looked like no other; this was the command hub, far from the public offices of the Primarchs and the Emperor, far from the Audience halls and the guest wings. This was the part of the Palace with walls made of reactive armor, with security Servo-skulls every few dozen meters, with Custodes in armor that could block lascannon beams stationed at the corners. Isis, of course, breezed past the security checkpoints, with Julius along in her wake, drawing a mean eye from every guard they walked by.
After several minutes of descending stairs and passing Custodes, they finally arrived at an incongruity: an unassuming block of offices. Several Administratum and Munitorum higher-ups were bustling in and out, exchanging data bursts on their implants, fussing with cogitator banks, or just generally making themselves busy with the inner workings of the Imperium. Several paused to watch the pair wend their way through the block, but none stared for too long; the heart of the Imperium never stopped beating.
Beyond the block was yet another of the ubiquitous Custodes checkpoints, and a Mechanicum station for tending to the machinery of the offices, and beyond that was one of the most closely guarded offices in the Imperium: that of Warmaster Lupercal.
Isis stopped at the checkpoint outside the office and sketched a quick bow before the Companion leading the guard contingent. “Brother. Is my Father in?” she asked.
“He is, my Lady, however, he is not to be disturbed,” the Companion said. He swept his inscrutable black visor over Julius. “Who is your guest?”
“Sieur Julius Pius,” Isis replied.
“I see.” The Companion looked over the both of them, apparently speaking on his helmet vox. “The Lord Warmaster will see you when he can. It may be a while.”
“I can wait,” Isis said, nodding her head again. “Thanks.” She and Julius made their way over to a small sitting area near the checkpoint, under the watchful gaze of the Custodian.
“Now what?” Julius asked sotto voce.
“Now we wait,” Isis replied.
Arthur Hane sat down in front of the imposing mahogany desk before him and brandished a thick sheaf of paper. “I have the case file, Provost.”
Fourth Provost Marshal Rachnus accepted the proffered dossiers and rifled through them. “Seems in order, Counselor.” He glanced over at Keiter’s lawyer. “Counselor Felger, anything to add?”
“Yes, I do have something, Provost,” Felger said, drawing a dataslate from his pocket and piping some data to the Arbites’ own. “A motion to dismiss the case, on the grounds that my client is not capable of performing the act of which he has been accused.”
“You ARE kidding. He confessed,” Hane said flatly. Rachnus peered over his spectacles at Felger.
“The case has yet to begin formally, Sieur Felger. What grounds are you basing this on?”
“Provost, my client has been charged with two crimes: firing a weapon with the intent to kill, and Attempted Regicide. He was not trying to kill anyone with the shot. Least of all a member of the Royal family,” Felger explained.
“You must be hoping for high pressure fronts in the jury room, Sieur Felger, if you think that shit will fly,” Hane said curtly. “I have an audio recording of your client specifically admitting that he was trying to kill someone with that shot.”
“That statement was made under an inadmissible level of duress,” Felger said, waving his hand dismissively.
“Duress? He was proud of what he had done! He told me as much! You were there!” Hane said.
“I was. And I saw the tears in his eyes when he told you how much he regretted harming a member of the Royal Family.”
“He worshipped them. Which, lest we forget, is a violation of the Imperial Creed,” Hane said darkly.
“Counselor, I see nothing in your brief about prosecuting Sieur Keiter for a violation of the Creed,” Rachnus pointed out.
“I wasn’t going to prosecute him for it. If Sieur Felger’s motion passes, I will,” Hane promised.
“Well, you needn’t worry yourself,” Rachnus said, dropping the paper sheaf into a binder. “It’s not going to pass. I’ve read the transcripts being offered up as evidence, Counselor Felger. Your client was completely remorseless about shooting someone. He showed remorse for harming Lady Morticia not because he shot her, but because he shot Royalty. That does not constitute a defense against a charge of Attempted Murder.”
“But Provost, that’s not the charge in question,” Felger pointed out.
“Then let’s discuss the third charge on the docket,” Rachnus said, lifting his dataslate. “Attempting an Act of Terrorism. I see no motion from you to dismiss that.”
“He’s no terrorist, I can assure you of that,” Felger said with a theatrical sigh. “He wasn’t trying to terrorize anyone.”
“No, just murder them and change the political views of the survivors,” Hane riposted. Felger glared at him.
“Counselor Felger, your client has admitted to harboring the desire to force political and economic change by murdering a member of the upper class,” Rachnus said, tapping one of the transcripts on his screen.
“And yet no such murder occurred,” Felger pointed out. “The magazine in his gun was fully loaded. He could have simply fired again if that was his desire.”
The Arbitrator stood, shrugging the metallic chains of his office on over his shoulders. “Counselor Felger, your client was attempting a change of the status quo of the Imperium through killing someone. Your motion is dismissed.”
“I see.” Felger sat still for a long moment, then reached back into his bag, pulling free a small piece of blue paper. “Then this is all I have to pass along.”
Rachnus picked it up, glanced it over – “Is this a motion for a Trial Seclusarius?”
“It is,” Felger confirmed.
“Well…you have the right to one if your client insists on it, of course, but are you sure you want one?”
“We are both in agreement,” the Public Defender said. “This is what’s best for my client, for Lady Morticia, and for all incidental parties.”
Hane stared. A Seclusarius would mean little time for either party to assemble evidence, no public evidence vetting, no holocams in the courtroom, a Judge Arbitrator instead of a jury weighing the guilt, and separate verdicts and sentencing, by individual Judges. It was the right of all Terrans. Few enacted it, finding their odds improved in a trial-by-jury. In reality, it was harder to get people convicted by a Judge than a jury, in Hane’s – and Felger’s – experience. This was playing into his hands. Wasn’t it?
“Well…then so be it,” Rachnus said. “Any final motions, gentlemen?”
“No, Provost,” both men replied, standing up as well.
“Then I will see you both in court.”
Faith’s aircar slid to a halt outside the Aurelian manor, kicking up a thin pall of dust. As it settled, the estate servant opened the door for Faith, who marched on by without a word, shoulders hunched. She walked straight past the guards at the door and stormed into the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.
“Faith? Is something the matter?” her mother, Viera, asked from the dining room.
“Hi, mom,” she called back, reigning in her temper. “Morticia says hi.”
“Glad she’s feeling better,” Viera said, appearing at the door. “Did you stop somewhere on the way home?”
“We stopped by the Palace to let Grandfather know,” Faith replied, yanking the fridge open.
Viera didn’t answer. Faith looked over her shoulder to see her mother standing in the door, arms crossed, in the look of slight maternal concern she did so well she could have traded on it. Faith huffed. “It’s nothing. I’m a little worried about Kelly and Remilia. That’s all.”
“What’s wrong with Remilia?” Viera asked, sitting down at the kitchen counter.
Faith drummed her fingers on the tabletop, debating her words. “…I think she’s started cutting again.”
“Oh, god,” Viera breathed. “Did you see?”
“She had a long-sleeve jacket on. In mid-May.” Faith grabbed an apple from the basket and slammed the fridge shut. “Why does she DO that?”
“She’s hurting,” Viera sighed.
“Cutting yourself makes pain worse,” Faith grumbled.
“It gives the illusion of control,” a new voice put in from the door. Lorgar stepped into the kitchen too, tugging his robe of office across his shoulders. Clearly, he had been about to head out. “By causing a pain to the body, a pain one can influence and expand or stifle, it makes the pain of the soul seem lessened.”
“I thought she was smarter than that,” Faith said. She tore into the apple, ripping a chunk out. “Freya tried to talk some sense into her. At least I think that’s what she was doing.”
“This was at the hospital?” Lorgar asked.
“The Palace, afterward,” Faith said. “Isis wanted to pass along the news to the Emperor.” She grabbed a glass and filled it. “We almost didn’t catch him, meeting ran long.”
“I see.” Lorgar thought for a moment. “Do you want to talk to Remilia about it?”
“What’s the point?” Faith asked coldly. “She won’t listen to me.”
“Why not?” Lorgar asked in mild surprise.
“She thinks I’m patronizing. Thinks I’m too nosy, or something,” Faith muttered. “Because Freya totally isn’t.”
“Faith…” Viera started.
“Mom, if she’s going to be dumb, let her. Her father can deal with it,” Faith said. “I bet Rogal’s read her the riot act anyway.”
Though Lorgar wanted to point out that Rogal Dorn was hardly one to lecture anyone on the subject of masochism, he merely nodded. “What did Freya tell her?”
“Couldn’t hear,” Faith said. “But she looked pissed. And she did the eyes thing.”
“That usually works, in my experience,” Lorgar said, forcing a note of levity into the exchange. “Well, if you think it’s out of hand, I can talk to Rogal about it. Until then, I suggest you focus on that graduation paper.”
Faith gave a long-suffering sigh, but dropped the subject. “Yes, Father. Will I see you tonight?”
“You shall, assuming Magos Calbrin doesn’t try to chew my ear off about instituting the Doctrine in Mechanicus seminaries,” Lorgar said. “I’ll be back for supper.”
“All right,” Faith said. “See you then.”
The Companion outside Horus’ door beckoned silently to Isis. She caught Julius’ eye and stood, calming her nerves. It was her own father, for goodness’ sakes. The Companion stood aside, allowing her to pass, but held out one massive hand to halt Julius’ passage. “I apologize, Sieur Pius, but your presence is not allowed.”
“What?” Julius asked. His eyes darted to Isis, back up to the Companion. “Then why was I allowed this far?”
“Sieur Pius, I have no doubt in your ability to remain discreet, but this is non-negotiable,” the intractable Companion declared. “You are not entering this office.” Julius’ hands clenched in his pockets, but he kept himself impassive.
“…Very well. I’ll be out here, Isis,” he said crisply, walking back down to the seats and sitting back down. Isis turned back to the Companion, who merely looked at her through his black lenses. She shook her head, resolved to make mention of it to her father, and continued into the office.
The bare, stone floors bounced the sounds of her footsteps into the air, which felt oppressively tight in the shielded hallway. The walls were nearly a meter thick: all armor and Faraday shields and sound mufflers. No expense was spared for the headquarters of the Imperial Armed Forces. There were several small offices spread amongst the hall, but they were just for functionaries and secretaries. The Warmaster’s office was much harder to miss.
The door was set into the wall a small ways, ostensibly to look more imposing. Those trained to see them, however, found the concealed pulse cannons in the in-set doorframe rather more intimidating. Isis, of course, took more to intimidate.
As she walked through the solid marble frame, her father looked up from his dataslate with a warm grin. “Isis, my daughter.”
“Father,” Isis said, ever-mindful of the decorum of the office. “Sorry if I’m interrupting.”
“Not at all. I must apologize for making you wait.” Horus stood behind his desk, his fur-rimmed armor gleaming on the stand behind him. “I am afraid you caught me on the vox. Dispatch orders for the new Terran Battle Groups.”
“Problems?” Isis asked, sitting down in front of the desk.
“Always. Easily resolved with the nebulously-phrased instruction ‘Don’t Make Me Come Down There,’” Horus noted. “What brings you by?”
“I wanted to tell you that Morticia’s feeling much better. She should be all right in time, and we had a chance to meet her at the hospital,” Isis said.
“Wonderful. I trust you passed along my well-wishes?” Horus asked.
“I did. But I was wondering if you had heard anything about the man who shot her,” Isis said, coming to the point.
Horus slowly sat back in his control chair, gauging his daughter. “Nothing you haven’t already heard…”
“Dad. Please. A junior maintenance guy does not smuggle an anti-infantry gun into Startseite. Where did he come from?” Isis asked.
The Luna Wolf slowly shook his head. “Isis. Do not lecture me.”
“His background you know. He smuggled the gun in, because who looks for guns in a town that quiet?” Horus leaned forward. “There is nothing more to it. Trust me.”
Isis met her father’s eyes without flinching. They sat still, only the ticking of the pre-O’Neill clock on Horus’ desk making a sound. Finally, Isis let her shoulders slump. “I understand, Father.”
Horus nodded solemnly. “Thank you, Isis.”
“I would ask, though, that Julius be added to the Admitted Persons list for this office,” Isis said.
“No.” Isis drew her head back, hurt or surprised. “He is a fine young man, and his father an old friend, Isis, but he is still non-military, and does not bear the Emperor’s trust as you do. He is not getting in.”
“Then, at least, tell me the Treasury lockdown around the District will be lowered enough that we can go to school and visit each other?” Isis asked.
Horus thought for a moment. “Yes, that’s fair.” She didn’t let her surprise show at her father’s unexpected agreement.
“Well…thanks for that much,” Isis said.
Horus’s brow creased. “My daughter, do not mistake me. I know the danger has passed. But the appearance of laxity from the government here would be catatrophic. Our inability to produce anything more substantial than ‘a lone gunman’ has the media in a frenzy. Were we to disband our guard now…”
“Our all-important public image would be tarnished?” Isis offered. Horus’ eyes narrowed.
She sighed. “I mean…” she struggled with her emotions for a moment, trying to take the barb from her words. “It’s interfering with the graduation schedule.”
“Then I will have the Treasury lower their travel restrictions, though I understand that Freya at least, and possibly Faith as well, are already openly flouting them,” Horus said.
“Thanks. And…if you do hear anything else about the shooter…his motives, his sponsors, anything, you WILL tell me, right?” Isis asked pointedly.
“If I can,” Horus said.
Isis stood, glaring daggers at her father across the desk. “The uncertainty in your voice does nothing for me, Father.”
“I can’t tell you what I don’t know, Isis. If the Arbites learn anything, and should they tell me, I will-” he said.
Isis held her hand up for silence. “Wait. Wait. Did you hear that? That papery sound?”
“I hear nothing,” Horus said after a moment.
“I hear it, five by five.” Isis leaned forward, the heat in her eyes spilling into her voice. “It’s the sound of the buck being passed.” She let the angry silence fill the room for effect, before shrugging her fleece back on. “I’ll see you if you get home tonight, Dad. Thanks for your time.”
“Yes. See you when I can, Isis,” Horus said, his voice carefully controlled.
Isis nodded formally, backing out of the office. As soon as her father could no longer see her face, she let a grimace of disgust twist her lips. She walked back to where Julius was still sitting, his patience fraying.
“How did it go?” he asked immediately, nearly leaping to his feet.
“As you yourself said,” Isis growled, “no joy on the burn.” Julius scowled.
“Blast.” He sighed shortly, shrugging the tension from his shoulders. “Worth a shot.”
“Yeah. I did get him to lower the Treasury guard a bit, so we can go back to school,” she said, leading him back down the halls to the tram.
“Hey, that’s a thing,” he said.
“A thing, that it is,” Isis said.
“Well.” He looked for more words, but couldn’t find them. “We could always go, you know. See for ourselves.”
“Not yet,” Isis said tightly. “Maybe not ever.”
“We’ll see,” Julius said ominously. The rest of their journey back to the Lupercal manor was conducted in silence, with each lost in their thoughts.
-Two days later-
Morticia shifted uncomfortably in her bed, holding onto the rails for support. Grant glanced over his clipboard, seeking the issue. “Are you all right, my Lady?” he asked.
“No. When can I get up and walk farther than here to the head?” she asked irritably.
“Presumably, right now. That said, I didn’t say that,” Grant cautioned.
“Hmph. You ever been in one of these?” she asked, halting her fidgeting as she found a place to lie comfortably.
“I have. An accident when I was a kid.”
“Yeah?” Morticia looked over at him. “What happened?”
“Fell off a jungle gym, landed chin-first on a block of corrugated aluminum,” Grant said.
“…Ow, that makes me cringe just thinking about it,” Morticia said.
“As does a lung replacement. How are you feeling?” Grant asked, returning his eyes to his clipboard, carefully checking off the chemical components of her IV.
“A lot better, actually.” Morticia flexed her hands experimentally, felt nothing amiss. “Did Dad happen to say when he’d get back?”
“He did not, my Lady…but it is 0100. You should really get some sleep,” Grant said.
“Eh. Sleep is for people who aren’t gene-seeded,” Morticia said. Grant raised his eyebrows.
“Excuse me, madam?”
Morticia stared. “You didn’t know?”
“Know…know what, my Lady?” Grant asked. He started to wonder whether it would be wise to call in one of the normal staff.
“Oh. I guess I assumed Dad would have…never mind,” Morticia said. “Well…you wondered why I kept coming out of sedation, right? It’s because I’m genemodded. The guy they have operating my life support really ought to know that,” she added with a smile.
A cold chill descended over the young nurse. “I…forgive me, my Lady, I had no idea,” Grant said, a twinge of desperation in his voice.
“Relax, I was kidding.” Morticia cocked her head at him. “Who are you, anyway?”
“My, my name. I’m Grant, my Lady, and I’m your night care specialist for the foreseeable future,” Grant said, pulling himself together.
“Not by yourself.”
“Well, yes, my Lady.”
“Isn’t that unusual?” she asked. “Having a single staffer in an Intensive Care unit?”
“The background check carried out on my colleagues was…exhaustive, my Lady,” Grant started.
“Probably for the best,” Morticia said, reading between the lines well enough. She watched Grant finish his checklist, gauging him through her clear, grey eyes. “Sorry if I made you nervous.”
“It’s not your fault, my Lady, that my superiors have not seen fit to alert me to your atypical medical requirements.”
“How old are you?” Morticia asked.
“I’m twenty seven years old, madam,” Grant said.
“Then please stop treating me like I’m made of glass, Grant,” Morticia said.
“Madam, I don’t think you’re made of glass. However, if I treat you in any way that could be interpreted as inappropriate by those strapping young men outside, they may well treat me like I’m made of ballistics gel,” Grant deadpanned.
Mortarion stood before the Emperor’s desk. The Emperor had steepled his fingers over his desk, and looked at his son with an air of patience. “Mortarion, I think you should know I refused a request by Ahzek Ahriman to perform a psychic augur on the would-be assassin.”
Mortarion stood agape. “What…”
“Morticia…she means the world to you, my son.” The Emperor stood behind his desk, and was dwarfed by his son, but did not turn his gaze away. “I can fully appreciate how you feel, I assure you. But…the shooter. Keiter. He worships Morticia. He thinks of her as a demigoddess.”
The Death Guard reeled. “He…that’s treason, a violation of the Creed! Why is he not being prosecuted for it?”
“Because we don’t have the evidence to prove it. Yet,” the Emperor pointed out. “I held this from you because you have had, I think, far too much on your mind of late. I did not want to burden you overmuch. But to be honest, with the declaration of intent for Seclusarius on his trial, the assassin leaves us little room to work.”
“If he even seems to be eluding justice, I will carve his heart out,” Mortarion said flatly. It wasn’t a threat.
“I have no doubt. But I suspect that such an approach will go over poorly with the trillions of Morticia’s well-wishers. Have you seen how she is being portrayed by the media?”
“I make a point of avoiding such drivel,” Mortarion scoffed.
“As well you should, Mortarion. My point is that your daughter, primary victim though she may have been of this catastrophe…she deserves better than a streak of vengeance. Of her attacker being violated, as she was.” The Emperor’s gaze skewered Mortarion’s seething visage. “She deserves to find her closure in the arms of justice.”
“Listen to you!” Mortarion said angrily. “I watched as you FORCED Lorgar to bend the knee! I watched as you purged loyal worlds for the sin of worship! Now you spare an ideologue murderer his punishment because of…what? Media pressure? Or is it location? Can you not bring yourself to harm Terra itself?” Mortarion’s blank grey eyes narrowed to slits. “Or do Morticia’s life and well-being not mean as much to you as I had hoped?”
The Emperor was silent for all of one second. In that second, his eyes flashed a burst of cerulean blue, like a robin’s egg, piercing through his skin and through the lights of the office. In a moment, they vanished, and his temper was reined. Mortarion saw it all, and two weeks before, would have flinched away, in surprise or even anger. But now, he stood. His dead, empty eyes met his fathers’, and he stared straight back.
“…Morticia means more to me than you know, my son. For that reason, I will forgive you your insinuations, and your lapse of memory,” the Emperor said.
“Lapse of memory?” Mortarion hissed. “I remember the horror as my wife was taken from me by a disease I gave her. I will not let my daughter be taken from me by a madman with poor aim.”
“No, my son, you will not. She lives. She will be strong again. But that to which I refer is not the loss of your wife, nor my actions in the Crusade. The thing to which I refer is the identity of the other injured party to that attempted murder,” the Emperor said coldly. “And, lest we let the knowledge fade from our minds, her father’s methods are somewhat more subtle than yours.”
Kelly Curze ran her hands together, trying to calm her nerves. Her new therapist was supposed to arrive soon, and she didn’t know what to expect. She had been persuaded to wash her makeup off, but it sure didn’t make her feel better.
Her father stood near, trying to sort his own thoughts. Her problem was alien to him. He had slain his way across entire arms of the galaxy, left grown men shivering in fear of his name, and frightened entire star systems into solving their own rebellions before he arrived to handle it in person. On Selgura, he had been the sole survivor of an entire joint Army/Astartes battalion, sent in to cleanse a particularly recalcitrant horde of Dark Eldar. He had witnessed blessedly false visions of his own father killing him. He had watched his homeworld slip dangerously close to falling back into the ways of corruption and evil that he had so laboriously purged in his childhood. He thought – he had to think – that if he had been the one who had watched Morticia being shot, he would have been far more capable of overcoming it.
But he, he reminded himself, was not his daughter. And she didn’t have his millennia of killing to harden her soul. Perhaps that was for the best.
“Kelly…you know that as soon as the session’s over, I’ll be here to pick you up, right? You don’t have to stay in the hospital,” he offered.
“Dad, please…I’m scared. I don’t want to go home yet,” Kelly said, her voice thin. Even without her eyeshadow, there were dark circles under her eyes.
Curze clamped his teeth around his tongue. He didn’t think his daughter was weak. He didn’t. But all he could see was someone who had reacted poorly to something he saw every single day – or near enough – for several thousand years. His wife gave him a reproachful glare, then leaned forward, squeezing their daughter’s shoulder. “Kelly, if you want me to be here for this-“
“No, thanks, Mom,” Kelly said, clenching her hands tighter. Her shoulders hunched a bit at her mother’s touch, but she looked up and made eye contact. “Thanks, though.”
“Kelly…” Konrad struggled to find words. “I want to understand.”
“I know you do, Dad, but I don’t really understand either,” Kelly said sadly. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Okay…okay.” The doctor’s footsteps sounded from down the hall. Konrad made his mind up. “Kelly, I’ll be back to hear how it went, OK? I hope you feel better.”
“Me too,” Kelly said. She made a little wave of farewell as her parents walked out, her mother pausing to speak to the doctor. Konrad walked down the hallway, making for the elevator to the aircar lot, planning his route. As he ascended to the lot, his mind churned, thinking over the precious little information he had gleaned thus far. He was sure the Emperor would not approve of his taking matters into his own hands…but it wasn’t like it was unprecedented. The door pinged open, and he stepped out into the cordon of waiting Night Lords serfs.
“My Lord Curze?” a gravelly voice asked from the shadows of the lot. The serfs each took a long step back from the Primarch, leveling their lasrifles at the speaker.
Ahzek Ahriman stepped forth from the darkness, his eyes locked onto Curze. “May I speak to you a moment?”
Curze looked at the old warrior askance. “You’re Ahriman, right? Magnus’ man?”
“I am, Lord. I have a piece of…valuable knowledge to pass along to you.” One of the Night Lords looked over his shoulder subtly.
“…Give us the room, men,” Curze said at length. The Night Lords serfs snapped to attention, then marched off in the direction of their staff car. He waited until he was out of earshot before speaking back up. “What is it?”
“My Lord, I suspect that Sieur Ulysses Keiter had some assistance in his deed,” Ahriman said frankly. “I suspect also that the Arbites, for all their zeal, are overplaying their hand and disregarding some potentially valuable sources of information.” Ahriman tapped his staff on the ground for emphasis.
“Such as?” Curze asked.
“Such as those who resent them. Any figure of law enforcement is going to be resented on a world where crime runs so rampant as Terra. They will have questioned the obvious suspects, like the Civil Honors Union, his relatives, what have you. But sources of information in a criminal investigation are rarely cooperative with the Arbites, I have learned. Besides, we are both of the…enlightened race. Are we not?”
“What of it?” Konrad growled. His psychic talents had certainly never helped him much.
“My point, Lord, is that we would be better served in our search amongst those who revile this Keiter than amongst his friends. Look for information from those who would offer it up gladly…and look for a lie where it forms.”
Curze was silent. Two men in Power armor would be as far from subtle as it is possible to be. But, as he had so frequently learned, fear was a weapon. And if Ahriman was right…
The Emperor had spoken to him in private after the incident with Furia. He had been told to never employ such measures against civilians again. He had given his word. He had intended to keep them. And then he had watched his daughter shivering in terror in a hospital room, blood soaking her clothes. All it would take, he was sure, was one visit by the Night Haunter, and nobody in his path would fail to yield the information he sought.
He closed his eyes for a moment, seeking the tendrils of fate, but they were clouded and out of his reach. He opened them again to see Ahriman staring at him through the visor of his helmet, inscrutable.
“Where did you get this lead?” Curze asked.
“From a vision I received. It was abrupt, and full of things that do not seem to have come to pass…but enough did that I think this warrants investigation.”
“We will be spotted. This will not be stealthy,” Curze said.
“And yet…” Ahriman let the statement hang in the air.
“Where?” Curze asked of the psyker.
Ahriman opened his palms. “The hive-tops. One of the areas not supposed to have been reconditioned like Startseite, but instead one that sprung up from whole cloth. They are full of the worlds’ most destitute…but also the worlds’ most loyal."
“Very well, Brother Ahriman. We go. And let us hope you are right,” Curze growled.
The Emperor clenched his hand over his fist, resting them on his chin. His granddaughter Isis and her friend Julius, bruises and all, sat in chairs before his desk, with Ahriman and, true to form, his son Konrad, standing behind them. On his desk was a report from the coroner’s officer, detailing the scene of grisly genemodding Curze had found. Next to it was another report, from the Tetra hive Praetor’s office, describing how several unidentified genemodded men had been found with various contusions and burns on their bodies, splayed out in a garbage bin nearby. Yet a third report, this one penned by a very confused Arbitrator Judge, bespoke the seeming contradictions that the Civil Honors Union suffered regarding their opinions of their sanctioned status and governmental funding.
The Emperor slowly looked up at both teens. Julius, he noted, was swooning in nerves and fear, and Isis just looked sullen and exhausted. Ahriman, on the other hand, looked so embarrassed that it was honestly quite distracting, while Curze…was Curze, and looked no more or less stable and rational than he ever did.
“Well.” The Emperor stacked the three reports on his desk and swept them into an envelope. “Seems I’m not the only one who’s had an interesting evening. Let’s start with you, Sieur Pius. What on Terra possessed you to think that discharging a Hellgun in public was wise?”
“Knowledge of the alternative, my Liege,” the dark-haired young man said, his voice nearly cracking under the strain. Then, he was seventeen. “Those Babu thugs were going to gut us. Better alive and penalized than…well, dead. Sir.” The Emperor nodded slowly, wondering where the kid had even gotten his hands on that kind of hardware, and suspecting that the answer would involve pointed questions with either his father or one of the Legions with which he had fought.
“Isis, why did you go into the hive?”
“Because I think – I know – there’s more to this than we’ve found out,” Isis said urgently. Her tone bespoke disappointment and genuine concern. “I can not believe that a single junior maintenance technician could have possibly smuggled a sniper rifle into Startseite without assistance.”
“And thusly informed, and sure in the solidity of your intelligence, you then ventured in the absence of any sort of protection, into the depths of the poorest and most crime-ridden hab of the most impoverished block of the most dangerous Cube in the entire Hive Grid,” the Emperor finished.
Isis squirmed. “I know it was unwise, now. But we did find out some useful things.”
“Yes, I’m sure. You’ll have all the time in the world to relay them to your father when you see him next,” the Emperor said, his voice laden with hidden meaning. Isis blanched.
The Emperor lifted one hand slightly, as if it were the cup of a scale. “Both of you disappoint me. Such recklessness…you thought to find some hint of a conspiracy, didn’t you?”
“We did, Sire,” Julius said, a bead of sweat gathering on his brow.
“And if you had found it? What then? Fighting? Flight? You were equipped for neither,” the Emperor said. “You were nearly killed by a group of criminals.”
“Had we gone with backup, we would have found nothing,” Isis said bluntly.
“Which, conveniently enough, is what you found anyway,” the Emperor said. He lowered his hand, tapping the envelope. “You see, now I have to deal with the fact that my own granddaughter was seen shooting someone in the hive, mere days after her own cousin was shot. Now, I have to deal with the fact that Terrans are wondering if perhaps there was more to this shooting than random terrorism, when previously there HAD NOT BEEN,” he said, his voice rising. The blood in Julius’ face drained. “You two have, in a stroke, complicated this investigation to the extent that it may not conclude peacefully. Now, we have a brooding gang war in a hive on my own doorstep, and the fact that one of my warriors is a criminal mastermind has been aired to any who were watching.” There was neither mercy nor regret in his demeanor as he leaned forward. “Neither of you are ever to enter the hives again. Isis, should your father choose to levy some other constraints upon you, I will voice no objection. Sieur Pius, I would think carefully if I were you, regarding the possibility of being seen in public for a few months.” He didn’t need Warp mastery to interject the specter of something terrible into his voice.
Both teens recoiled, but stayed silent. The Emperor glanced over both older men, but neither said a word, with Curze practically radiating his disgust for the entire affair. The Emperor leaned back in his seat, reining in his temper. “Now. Both of you, get home. I imagine I’m not the only person waiting to speak to either of you,” he said coldly. Both stood, Julius looking like he was ready to vomit, Isis just looking sad. As soon as they were out of the room, the Emperor turned his anger on the two older men. “Now. They’re seventeen years old, with no security clearance to speak of, and desperate for insight. What are your excuses?”
Ahriman spoke first. “I apologize for not mentioning it sooner, but I sensed it would be unwise to make mention of this in front of the children.”
“Mentioning what?” the Emperor demanded.
“Our search was not so fruitless. We have found more to this than the Arbites detected,” Curze finished. “One of the witnesses to Keiter’s…deviancy…bore the taint of Tzeentch. Not enough to control him,” he said, correctly anticipating his father’s next question, “but enough to confuse him. Render him useless as a witness.”
“I obtained that much from him. But as to whether Chaos plays a role here or is merely seeking an advantage, I suspect the latter,” Ahriman confessed.
The Emperor sighed, staring through the tangled mass of futures and pasts into which he could look. Ahriman was right, of course. There was no sign of the taint on Keiter. He had seen as much before, but couldn’t shake the suspicion that there had been more to it than that. This little investigation had proven him wrong.
Keiter had acted alone. That was the end of it. And now he had an entire criminal organization on his doorstep, howling for his granddaughter’s blood. Curze’s growling voice cut through his reverie. “Father, if you will allow it, I promised Kelly that I would be there when she needed me.”
The Emperor looked up sharply, but withheld his rage. “Very well, Konrad. Do be sure to tell your daughter what you’ve found, regarding Isis’ willingness to see this to its end. Do not, however, make mention of the Chaotic element you found. She’s scarred enough.”
“I agree.” Konrad bowed shortly, backing out of the office. The door closed behind him, leaving Ahriman alone with the Emperor. The Emperor slowly stood, but before he could speak, Ahriman took a knee.
“My Liege. I feel that I must ask you something,” he said. “I know that the taint of Chaos we have found was not the causative factor behind this catastrophe. Is it possible that my own sight is tainted? Was I lead on this hunt?”
The Emperor stared at the Librarian, his disgust rising. “If that is the case, Sieur Ahriman, COUNSEL is not what you need from me. Now…abandon this foolish quest. See to your students. And never take it upon yourself to perform interrogation upon my citizens ever again.”
“As you will it, my Liege,” Ahriman said, feeling the hand of shame clenching around his heart.
“This shrine of Ruin you found,” the Emperor said next, glaring furiously at the Librarian. “It was a decoy?”
“It was. Not a hint of the taint on it,” Ahriman admitted. “It was just decoration, as far as we can tell. Or a taunt.”
The Emperor’s hands gripped the envelope of reports. “A taunt?”
“So I sense.” Ahriman shrugged uncomfortably.
“Then perhaps, Brother Ahriman, you should spend a little time in the company of Lord Magnus, who will, no doubt, be quite willing to aide you in the clearing of your ethereal senses,” the Emperor retorted. “The mere existence of an Icon of Chaos in MY city suggests that there is far more to this gang than we thought, and even if they are dupes, somebody here knows its source,” he added, a quiet anger at the affront coloring his words.
“I shall indeed, my Liege, and I agree entirely,” Ahriman said, bowing respectfully. “I shall meditate on this with my soul cleansed of distraction.”
“Then I suggest you wait until the school year ends, Ahzek, since your obligations to your students ends in a few days, and I am more than capable of following this up on my own,” the Emperor said angrily.
Ahriman bowed contritely. “So it shall be, my Liege, thank you for your understanding.” Ahriman took his leave, as the Emperor slid the reports into his desk, clenching a fist. After a moment’s introspection, he stood, the confrontation forcing an uncomfortable realization upon him. He had dispensed the punishments the situation called for. Now, it was time to make amends.
Morticia leaned on the railing of her bed, testing her weight. With an effort, she swung her bare legs over the edge and stood, gripping the stainless steel bar tight. Grant clutched her arm, helping her balance, until she nodded, and he backed up a bit. “Okay, ready?” he asked through his mask.
“Yep, let’s go,” she said. He marveled at her resilience; her voice was almost back to normal after less than a week. He gently guided her across the room to the small bathroom at the end, and helped her ease in, closing the door behind her. While she saw to her needs, he quickly changed the bed and swapped out several IV bags. He was just finishing the sterilization of the IV feed when the bathroom opened back up. Morticia took a few steps towards the bed, then paused and accepted Grant’s help on the return trip.
“Okay, ready, ma’am?” he asked, leaning over. By means of response, she swung herself over the rail by herself, just remembering to tug her surgical dress into place to preserve her modesty. Grant smiled behind his mask. “You’re recovering faster than any patient I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said happily. She grabbed the pillow on the table beside her and gingerly slid it down behind herself. “What time is lights-out around here?” she asked. “I’ve usually gone back under before then.”
“Well, we’re technically past it now,” Grant said. “It’s supposed to be 2200 local.”
“And tonight, no sedatives unless I need them, right?” she asked.
“No, not any more, ma’am. I suspect that your biology would reject them at this point anyway,” Grant said.
“Yes. Did I ever tell you about that? It might be important,” Morticia asked. She irritably flipped her lank grey hair back out of her eyes. “I need a haircut…”
“No, my Lady, you didn’t,” Grant said.
“Please call me Morticia, Grant. There’s nothing noble about me right now,” Morticia said. Grant fidgeted in professional confusion for a moment before acceding to the instruction.
“I’ll forget a few times, I promise…but very well, Morticia.”
“Great. Then I think you should know that I’ll probably be up for a few more hours.”
“You need your rest, ma’am,” Grant pointed out.
“That was fast.”
“Well, I’m not human,” Morticia said with a shrug. “We don’t need as much sleep.”
Grant stared. “I’m sorry?”
“I’m not baseline. I told you yesterday, remember?” Morticia prompted. “All of us are genemodded.”
“I see…and nocturnal behavior is part of it?” Grant asked.
“Basically.” An uncomfortable silence followed.
“Well, Madam…Morticia, I think of course that you should do what makes you most comfortable.”
“I’ll tell me what would make me more comfortable: solid food,” Morticia said emphatically.
“I would imagine,” Grant said, making a note. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Mortarion watched the news from his office, seething. The Head Du Jour was talking about how Ahzek Ahriman, of all people, had been sighted with – surprise, surprise – the Night Haunter. In the hives below the Palace, no less.
“’Subtle,’” Mortarion said bitterly. “Yes. Subtle indeed.” He fumed at the holograph before stabbing the display with a finger, switching it off. He glanced at the clock. The tiny digital readout said 2230. He swept his personal belongings into his satchel and swung it up, determined to visit his daughter again before he went home. She should have still been up.
Grant returned to Morticia’s room, shaking his head ruefully. “My apologies, Morticia, but your case file says no solid food for a bit longer.”
“Damn. I’m getting tired of this liquid stuff,” Morticia said ruefully. “Still, thanks for checking.”
“No problem, ma’am…Morticia. Sorry.” Morticia grinned as the nurse visibly shook himself. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Actually, do you know how the case is going so far? They won’t let me watch the news,” Morticia asked.
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” Grant replied. “The news is mostly biography and speculation. The Arbites are keeping it quiet for now.”
Mortarion stepped from his limousine to the cold concrete of the garage, brooding. “I will return in some time. Don’t bother leaving the car running,” he muttered to the driver.
“As you say, my Lord,” the driver said, rolling the window up. Mortarion ignored him, walking into the hospital, acknowledging the salutes of the guards with a distant wave. The waiting elevator carried him down to where his daughter was resting.
Morticia chuckled. “I think I would probably be best served by a news blackout. I don’t want to just make myself too anxious.”
Grant smiled. “I’m very glad you’ve been able to keep yourself in good spirits, Morticia. I know it can be tempting to get into a spiral of despair after such an incident.”
She shrugged slightly. “Not much else to do but think about how badly I want to leave,” Morticia said. “But thanks.”
A loud rap on the window caught both their attention. Mortarion was hovering behind it like a green thundercloud. Grant glanced over at Morticia, catching a nod from her, before moving to the door. No sooner had he opened it than Mortarion was inches from his face.
“Your conduct, nurse, has been highly inappropriate,” Mortarion bit off. “Every single time I’ve seen you here, you’ve been acting rather casually towards my daughter.”
“By her specific request, my Lord, as you are welcome to ascertain,” Grant said curtly. Without another word, he turned on his heel and walked out of the isolation room. Mortarion glared daggers at his back until the door closed behind him.
“Dad, quit it,” Morticia said. Her voice carried through the glass to Mortarion’s superhuman ears. “He’s really nice.”
“Too casual, for someone whose responsibilities involve tending to royalty,” Mortarion said coldly, tapping the speech button on the window.
“Too bad,” Morticia said with a glare. “He’s a very bright guy. He’s not being inappropriate at all.”
Mortarion seethed, but couldn’t find the spite to argue with his daughter. “Fine. How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Morticia said. She raised her hands, moving them normally. “No nerve damage at all. The doctors say I should be able to walk on my own really soon.”
“Good,” Mortarion said, his tension fading a little.
An Encouraging Sign
Jake noted the black hovercar outside the lot near his home with a jump of his pulse. Snatching up his bag, he parked in his usual spot and nearly leaped out, jogging back to his apartment. Pushing the door open, he was greeted by the sight of his mother and Venus giggling their hearts out over a holomag, while father was hovering nearby and trying to look stern. His heart sank. “Uh, hi, everybody,” Jake said.
“Hee hee hee hee, hi, Jake,” Venus said, suppressing a laugh with great difficulty. His mother coughed once, slapping a hand over her mouth to fight off her own giggles. “How was it?”
“I thought I did perfectly,” Jake said, walking over to the group. “Now I’m not sure.”
“Aw, I’m sure you did fine,” Sandra said.
“Thanks. What’s so funny?” he asked self-consciously.
George sighed. “I don’t think it’s funny.”
“You were laughing,” Venus accused.
“Yeah, but at least I had the good sense to be ashamed of it afterwards,” he grumbled. Jake stared.
“Here,” Venus said, handing him the holomag with a giggle. “You look good.”
“Well, that’s a given, but…” Jake trailed off as the holomag picture came into focus. It was him, in his school clothes, walking around the Palace gardens with Venus, not two days before. “What?!”
“Must have been a long-range camera in one of the skycars near the Palace,” Venus said. “It happens,” she said with another giggle. “Look at the headline.”
Jake glanced it over with apprehension. “‘…Mystery Consort?’ What the flailing fuck?!”
“Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha!” his mother laughed, grabbing the edge of the counter for support. “Oh my god the look on your face!”
“Mom, this isn’t funny!” Jake said angrily, dropping the holomag down on the polished plastic surface. “I don’t want to be in a tabloid!”
“Oh, it’ll pass, once Vicky gets her latest fling, I’m sure,” Venus said. “But for now, enjoy the envy of the rest of the planet while it lasts,” she said airily, tossing her hair back over her shoulder with a prim little flick.
“Sure,” Jake grumbled. He paged through the article with one finger, skimming the contents. “…so they don’t know where I live. Good.” He kept reading until he reached the end of the small article. “How macabre. Morticia’s still hospitalized, and they’re already voyeurizing her cousins.”
“Well, more specifically, you,” Venus said, batting her eyes innocently.
“Ugh.” Jake pushed the mag away. “Well…anyway. As long the school year ends soon, I can live with it. As long as they don’t follow us to Kouthry.” He whipped his head around to stare at Venus. “They won’t. Right?”
“Of course they will. It’s their jobs,” Venus said.
“They’re not going to harass us at the apartment, are they?” Jake asked, crestfallen.
Venus gave a sly little grin. “Sure, for the first few days. To their own embuggerment. A few beehives and a Fire Drake or two will put that sort of behavior to rest in a hurry.”
“Well, that at least sounds fun,” Jake said. George picked up the holomag and started reading it. “I guess I can look forward to the show.”
“Heh.” Venus stood from the seat at the counter and hiked her jacket across her shoulders. “How did the presentation go, for real?”
“Well enough. They liked the topic. ‘Support Structures for the Mentally Disabled in Private Schools,’” Jake said. “The speech was rough. I was the only one who didn’t have a custom holographic diorama or something. But they liked the envelopes.”
“Yeah, that was a nice touch,” Venus said. “Mine was ‘Preservation Versus Removal of Statutes of Detention from Terran Civic Law.’”
“Very brave of you,” Sandra said. “Nobody seems to want to talk about that.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve never been one to shy from controversy. Just ask my Mystery Consort,” she said sweetly.
“Oh, for fucks’ sake,” Jake growled. “I’m never gonna hear the end of this, am I?”
“Nope!” Venus said cheerfully.
Cora let her feet hang from the edge of the Spire, feeling the sun shine on her face. Eyes closed under her shades, he listened to the omnipresent hum of passing vehicles, and wondered about when she would be obligated to step in.
Remilia hadn’t been in school today. She had said she would have been, and she wasn’t. What did it mean? Had Freya’s typically blunt confrontation failed? Had she hurt herself? Or did she just not feel safe at school?
The hot spring winds swept across her skin, a sign of the hotter summer to come. She tugged her jacket off, leaving her arms bare. Her skin was as white as the clouds overhead, in contrast to the dappled grey, white, black, and navy blue décor of the Spire. In the white vest and school skirt of Imperator, she was almost invisible against the white trim of the building, except for the long black hair she splayed around her head as she lay back down.
Her vox was off. Her implants were on low-power mode. She was incommunicado, and she was on top of the tallest building around, with the exception of the hive wall against which the Spire was backed up. She had the sky to herself. More or less.
With a long-suffering sigh, she grabbed a few specks of gravel off of the top of the building, letting them run through her fingers back onto the building top. She watched them fall through the nearly-opaque lenses of her glasses, seeing every tumble and turn with her gifted eyes. Her father’s eyes.
Her jaw tightened a bit as her frustration returned. She did her best thinking up here. It was warm, it was beautiful, it was quieter, and best of all, thanks to the impermeable holoscreen of the building and low flight ceiling of the neighborhood, it was the best place to steal a quick rendezvous with her friends and sisters if needed, or a boyfriend if she was feeling more salacious. Her lips twitched into a smile as she let herself remember the last time she had done that, and the thrill as she had surrendered to his gentle touch. At the moment, though, she had the roof to herself, and her thoughts. Unlike the vast patches of blue overhead, however, her thoughts were unclear. She grabbed a few more specks of rock again, watched them fall back down. Remilia’s quiet pain was distracting her. She knew it. She wanted her to get better. They all did. So what could she do?
“What would your father have said?” she asked the air. “What would Rogal have done?”
The air didn’t answer. She lay in silence, letting the light from the sun sink into her skin, never darkening it. It couldn’t overcome her biology.
She sat up as inspiration struck. Could she help Remilia that way? Get her to overcome her own self-destructive tendencies? A streak of grey and red appeared over the blurred lines of cars in the distance. Cora squinted to make it out, grabbing nervously at her jacket…but then she relaxed. She knew who it was. The streak passed through the holoscreen with a suddenness that always startled her; the blur faded into total clarity in an instant. Angela, complete with her custom rocket pack, resolved at the head of the exhaust trail, hovering to a halt above the Raven’s daughter.
“Nice entrance,” Cora said casually, coughing through the updraft of the engines. Rocket pack travel was the pastime of the obscenely rich, even here in Startseite, but for Angela, it was more like a way of life. Given her heritage, who was surprised?
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Angela said, disengaging the jets. Cora, as one would expect of a Raven Guard’s daughter, had an appreciation for rocket packs. She looked over the one Angela was wearing with undisguised envy, watching its flaps retract, the coils of smoke from the engines disappear on the wind. Angela unclipped the harness and hefted the pack down on the roof, fluttering her wings to work out the cramps. “How are you feeling?”
“A bit dusty, now, but largely ok.” Cora cocked an eyebrow behind her mirrored shades. “Yourself?”
“Great. I had a morning speech, so it was cake,” Angela said brightly. “I suspect I aced it.”
“Yeah? Good for you,” Cora said, leaning back on the rooftop. “Mine’s the very last one. In the whole class.”
“Ouch. That’s Friday?” Angela asked.
“Yep,” Cora sighed. “My topic’s a boring one too. I thought it would be fun, but it’s so dry!”
“‘Effects of Pre-conditioned De-orbiting of Non-metallic Orbital Wreckage,’” Cora sighed. “Also, less pretentiously, known as ‘Blowing up Shit in Space.’”
Angela laughed. Cora smiled quite without meaning to. Her cousin’s laugh was infectious. “So, Angela, what brings you over?”
“Well, I just wanted to make sure you were OK, and to see if you had any plans to drop back in on Morticia,” Angela said, sitting down beside her cousin.
“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?” Cora asked.
Angela shrugged, her feathers twitching in the wind. “I dunno. The thing with Morticia’s been hard on all of us, and I know you and Kelly were closer than she was to me.”
“I guess.” Cora peaked a brow again. “What about you? You’re looking awfully saccharine.”
Angela flushed furiously, and looked away, into the wind. Cora wondered what she could have said to provoke such a reaction. Perhaps a touchy nerve? “What?” she giggled.
“Nothing,” Angela said into the wind.
“Can’t hear you,” Cora lied.
Angela glanced back at her, tugging the red leather of her jacket’s collar a bit higher. “Nothing.”
Cora’s eyes picked a line of tiny red spots on her cousin’s neck out against the glare, and smiled knowingly. Angela flushed again. “…It’s not that visible, is it?”
“Not unless you’re looking,” Cora said. This time it was true. “Lucky girl.”
“What? I’m happy for you. But seriously, back to the topic at hand. When are we dropping in next time?” Cora asked.
“We, uh, we aren’t. Not as a group. I meant individually.”
“Oh. Well, after school on Friday I’m studying with Freya for finals, but after that I might go by.”
“Great!” Angela proclaimed. She stood back up, effortlessly balancing her weight with her natural counterbalances. “Sorry if I, um. Made you uncomfortable.”
Cora waved it off. “I brought it up.”
“Yeah, I know.” Angela fidgeted. “Sorry, you want privacy,” she said, picking her pack up.
“No,” Cora sighed. “I want answers. How do I stop Furia and Remilia from hurting themselves?”
Angela grimaced, setting the pack back down. She stood in silence, then walked over to where Cora was still lying, sitting down next to her. “I don’t know. Furia…she’s already stopped. Simon threatened to end it, right there, when he found out. Said it was a slap in the face. Her father nearly blew a gasket when he found out, too.”
“A slap in the face?” Cora asked.
“Simon’s little hospital journey. Remember? It was some drug peddler from-”
“Right, right.” Cora thought that over. She glanced up at her cousin from her back. The sun was glinting off of the zip on Angela’s jacket, and the glare almost hid the look of intense concentration on her face. “Hmph. And Remilia? She sucks at hiding it. She didn’t even come to school today.”
“I think she’s stopped too, but…I don’t know why she wasn’t at school,” Angela said.
“You know who else wasn’t? We had a substitute for Warp Studies.”
Angela looked down at her cousin. “Yeah? No Ahriman?”
“Nope. Some random sub.”
“Huh. He got in deep shit for that little stunt with Konrad,” Angela pointed out. “Maybe he had somewhere else to be.”
“Maybe. I bet Grandpa was livid,” Cora snorted.
“He was. I don’t think I’ve ever felt him that angry,” Angela whispered. “Not from that close.”
Cora looked up at her, blinked in surprise. Angela’s face was haunted, her eyes focused on something far below. “Were you there?” Cora asked.
“No, I was in the same wing of the Palace but nowhere near him,” Angela said. “I went back to him to get some advice on something after the rest of you went home.”
“Wow. What did it look like?” Cora asked earnestly. Psychic phenomena fascinated her. Some part of her envied Miranda’s and Angela’s powers, even though she knew the risks were still huge, even now.
“Scary. Everything went all twisty,” Angela said. “The lines that hold everything together got shaky. They weren’t going to break, though, that was really obvious. Still kinda scary.” Cora nodded sympathetically, her cousin’s attempt to describe the Warp percolating through her head.
“Well, don’t let it spook you,” she advised. She balled up her jacket and stuck it under her head like a pillow.
“I can’t even imagine what it would have looked like up close. Miranda might have seen it in more detail,” Angela continued. “She’s way more powerful than me, now.”
“I’m a beta, she’s an alpha-plus,” Angela explained.
“Holy shit.” Cora propped herself up on her elbows to get a look at her cousin. Angela squirmed a bit under the scrutiny. “What does it feel like?”
“What? Looking into the Warp?” Angela asked. Cora nodded, speechless. “Oddly comforting, sometimes. When I’m near another psyker, it kinda feels good. But if I’m not, or if there’s a huge outburst of emotion nearby, it’s really chaotic.”
“That’s so cool.”
“It can be, yeah,” Angela allowed.
“What do people look like?”
“People look sort of indistinct when I’m just looking at them. Like, I can see them perfectly clearly, but…hmm.” Angela struggled for a metaphor. “Before my power manifested, I saw people normally. Then my powers awakened, and people look the same…but if they have a little psychic power in them, they glow a bit. I can hear them clearer, even if my normal ears are working fine. And if they have anti-psychic power, they’re a little darker. I can hear them fine, but they look a little dark. Really emotional people glow in colors. And a really powerful psyker like Dad or Miranda…they glow so bright that it’s impossible to ignore them. But it’s not blinding either. It actually feels more like…like…” Angela pursed her lips and rubbed her hands together.
“Like what?” Cora asked. Angela glanced down and grinned. Cora was up on both elbows, spellbound.
“Like…like a tiny hole in a piece of metal. It lets some light through so you can see, but as long as you don’t stare into it as hard as you can, you’re not going to be blinded. So like that, only it’s in every direction.”
“What does it feel like? That must be distracting,” Cora put in.
“Not at all. It’s more like if you’re trying to read something and someone turns a light on behind you. It’s clearer. It’s helpful.”
“What about Malcador or Grandpa?”
“They glow so bright it’s amazing. And Uncle Magnus too. It’s breathtaking. Even Miranda, she’s so bright, but it doesn’t draw the eye, either. It’s just sort of there. Like how you might notice if someone has a new haircut, but then you don’t even notice after a few minutes. And that’s all passive. I don’t have to look to see it. If I really stretch, actively look into the Warp, everything looks even weirder. I really don’t think I can explain it.”
“What about that Eldar Ambassador? What does he look like?” Cora asked.
“He’s super bright. Like a bonfire. Light pouring out everwhere. But it’s more directed. A human psyker is sending light out everywhere. Eldar look more…focused. They only send light where they want to. It’s really alien.”
“They’re aliens,” Cora said sagely.
“Yeah. But being near a human psyker with that kind of power feels really good. Like stepping into a hot bath on a frigid day. It’s incredibly comforting. It’s…there’s a soul here, and it’s really complex, and it’s so bright. It’s tempered by people’s emotions, too. And when I’m near Grandpa, the whole world feels straighter. Even the ripples in the Warp from the passage of time calm down.”
“That sounds like it can be a lot of fun,” Cora said wistfully.
Angela’s face darkened. “Not when you’re near someone with bad waves going on,” she said.
“Someone really angry. Or scared. Or nervous, or apprehensive, or bitter. Or if you’re near someone who’s dying. That’s terrifying. It’s…there’s a little ball of light inside them, and it’s going out, and you want to grab it and put it back in, but it’s going, and you can’t stop it,” Angela said darkly. “And if you look into the Warp at JUST right time, you can see the soul there. The mind’s gone, the body’s meat, there’s just this tiny little ball of emotion and pain, and then it’s gone, swept away by wind. If they’re lucky. If they’re not, it lingers, lost, confused, terrified, hurt, so deeply hurt. And if they’re really unlucky…CHOMP,” she said, slamming her hands together. “Eaten intact. And aware of it too.”
“…Holy hell, Angela, that’s awful,” Cora said, utterly aghast. “Eaten by what?”
“Take a guess,” Angela said, a little horror creeping into her voice. She looked down at her cousin, and somehow, a smile crept onto her lips. “See, though, that feels good. You saw I was getting scared, and you wanted me to feel better. Subconsciously. And you changed colors a little, and your soul moved a bit closer. That feels really good. The benefits outweigh the costs, believe me.”
Cora was a bit taken aback. “All right…wait. When did you see someone dying?”
“At the hospital, before,” Angela said. “One floor up. And when I was there to see Furia and Simon that one time. That was in the room right next to Simon’s. I don’t know how Uncle Magnus managed to stay focused. That one wasn’t so bad since he…the guy who died, I mean…he knew it was his time. Sedated. He just kinda went out. That’s not so bad.”
“Huh.” Cora seemed to be thinking over the mountain of information Angela had given her, then suddenly blinked and recoiled a bit as she realized her deific cousin was staring down at her with a knowing grin. “Er, keep it to yourself,” she mumbled. “I mean, it’s none of my business.”
“I don’t mind,” Angela laughed. “It’s really peaceful. Blissfully relaxing. Nearly fell asleep once.”
“What?” Cora giggled despite the mood. “You nearly fell asleep mid-boink?”
“Yeah. You think having an ARM fall asleep feels nasty,” Angela grumbled, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at her folded wings. Cora pitched her head back and laughed. Her voice carried over the edge of the colossal building, bouncing off the hive wall in a musical echo.
“It wasn’t that funny,” Angela said after her cousin’s hysterics faded. That, naturally, launched her into another bout of giggles.
“See, now I don’t feel quite so envious,” Cora managed.
“Mmm.” Angela looked down at her in mock exasperation as her laughter finally faded. “Feel better?”
“Much,” Cora sighed happily.
“Mission Accomplished,” Angela declared. She stood up again, snugging the rocket pack over her wings, and smiled down at her black-haired cousin. “You know you can talk to me whenever, right?”
“I know,” Cora smiled gratefully up at her. “It means a lot to me, but I’m not sure I’m ready yet. You know? It still kind of stings.”
“College,” Angela said, tugging her gloves on. “It’ll salve the hurt.”
“Is that a prophecy?” Cora joked.
“Yes,” Angela said, shocking her cousin. She took off without another word, plummeting several dozen stories down the side of the Spire, before leveling off and streaking into the distance. Cora watched her until she suddenly lost resolution behind the holofield. She smiled to herself, leaning back on the jacket bundle, and twirling a tiny sliver of gravel between her fingers.
“Thanks,” she whispered to the morning wind.
Confession of Guilt
Grant finished his checklist, exhaustion pulling at his eyes. His shift was nearly over, and he was ready to go home. The last (and in fact only) patient on the floor was Morticia, and after the confrontation between him and her father the shift before, he was in little mood for any distractions. Opening her door, he noted with relief that she was feeling well. She was busily reading a holomag when he walked in, and immediately looked up and smiled as he walked in. “Hi, Grant. Sorry my father put the fear in you, before.”
“I understand his concerns, Morticia, fear not,” Grant said. “Trust me, he wasn’t the first jealous parent I’ve had to deal with.”
Morticia’s eyes sparkled with some hidden mischief, which she kept to herself. “Really. Well, I may be having another guest later tonight, sorry.”
“That’ll be somewhat difficult, since the hospital’s now closed,” Grant said. He unhooked the last IV bag on the tree and placed it on his cart, completing his tasks.
“That didn’t stop him, I see,” Morticia said happily, gesturing over Grant’s shoulder. He glanced over to the waiting room, where a group of three men were discussing something with the Death Guard serf.
“I’m done, now, actually, so I’ll leave you to it,” Grant said, wheeling the cart out. “See you tonight.”
“See you then,” she said, putting the holomag down and feeling a tremor of nerves race through her stomach.
Grant wheeled the cart past the cluster of men in the middle of the room, noting that they stopped their discussion as he went by. One rather gaunt man stopped him with a question. “Nurse, is she comfortable enough to speak?”
“She should be, sir, but she’s quite tired,” Grant said, wondering which branch of the Royal Family this one represented.
“Of course. I won’t be long, I suspect,” he said, bowing his head for a moment.
“As you will, sir,” Grant said wearily, wheeling the cart to the hallway and starting down towards the elevator.
“That’s the one Lord Mortarion told me to watch, Sire,” the serf told the Emperor and his Companions. “They’re entirely too close.”
“I’ll see to it,” the Emperor promised, letting his sorcerous disguise dissolve. In a moment, the aura of power that surrounded him flooded the room, lighting its corners and banishing the shadows from the window. His true appearance restored, the serf began to take a knee, before a gesture stopped him. “I will be as discreet as possible. Please do not allow anyone else in behind me.”
“As you so command it, my Liege,” the serf said reverently. The two Custodes Librarians behind him, sans their more visible accoutrements of office, quietly stood to the sides of the door into the isolation room.
Morticia grinned widely as the Emperor walked into the isolation room. “Grandpa! I hoped you would make it!”
“I would have come the instant I heard, had the Arbites not needed me to hold their hands throughout the ordeal,” the Emperor groused. “I assure you, I would not have delayed otherwise. Are you feeling better?”
“Yep,” Morticia said, overlooking the weakness of his statement. “I can walk now, and the IVs come out tonight.”
“Excellent,” the Emperor said, smiling fondly. He stopped at the foot of the bed, shaking his head at the state of things. “My dear child. I can not tell you how much it pains me to see you hurt so gravely.”
“Grandpa, believe me, it’s worse on this end,” she said, smiling gamely. The Emperor returned the smile despite himself, coming around to half-sit on the edge of the bed.
“I would imagine so. It’s not a fun experience, is it?”
“You’ve been shot too?” Morticia asked.
The Emperor laughed shortly, rolling his left sleeve back to reveal a circular scar on the back of his hand. “A few times.”
“Still, my child, I’m built for it, and you aren’t. Is there anything I can do to help? Perhaps that nurse Mortarion dislikes so much must be replaced?”
Morticia huffed impatiently. “Graaaandpa, he’s a great guy, and he’s been completely professional!”
“I should sincerely hope so,” the Emperor said sternly. “I put him through the most rigorous background check of any position I’ve tried to fill since I appointed the High General of the TPDF.”
“Well, he’s been really nice, and he doesn’t treat me like I’m made of acid-laden ceramic cups, so Dad can deal with it,” Morticia said primly. The Emperor grinned.
“I’m glad.” His smile faded as his trans-human eyes followed the grotesque map of scars on her body. “Morticia, my dear girl, I am sorry.”
“Stop it. Neither you, nor the Treasury, nor the Custodes, nor the Arbites, nor Dad, nor the army of Praetors and Enforcers that I’ve seen since I got shot are remotely responsible for this. One asshole with more ideology than common sense did this,” Morticia said firmly.
“He worships me as a god, Morticia,” the Emperor said softly. “I have never felt such shame.”
Morticia’s eyes softened, and her shoulders slumped. “Please stop. Okay? For me?”
“I will try.” The Emperor went silent, his eyes inscrutable. “Do you know why your Uncle Konrad and his ally Ahriman went into the depths of the city last night?”
“Because Uncle Konrad is paranoid?” Morticia sighed.
“Well…that’s true, yes. But they are convinced that there is more to Keiter’s motivations than ideological blindness,” the Emperor said.
“I don’t know,” Morticia said, shifting her shoulders. “I think I’d be more comfortable with there being nothing more to it than one psycho.”
The Emperor nodded. “It would be disingenuous of me to say that I have not harbored similar doubts. But their investigation, if you can call it that, turned up nothing. For now, I shall continue to view the Arbites’ theory as accurate.”
Morticia shrugged uncomfortably. “Your call, Grandpa. Do I have to attend the trial?”
“Technically, you must do so only if you are healed enough to make it safely. So…yes, you do,” the Emperor regretfully replied.
“Okay.” Morticia peered up at him with her odd grey eyes. “You look like you have something else to say.”
“I do.” The Emperor, for the first time in a long while, found himself struggling for his words. After a moment’s internal debate – rather more of a literal concept than it was for most people – he decided the story needed to be told in full. “Morticia, do you know the true reason I created you and your sisters?”
“The ‘true reason?’” Morticia asked, with the sense of creeping dread that had haunted her lately wending its way back through her stomach. “Uh…I guess not. Unless there’s more to you wanting our fathers to have something to come back to?”
“Oh, that was entirely factual, make no mistake of it.” The Emperor thought back to those chaotic, trying days of ceaseless conflict. “Your father…all the Primarchs, in fact, whether they saw it or not…were exhausted. I had driven them and their Legions to conquer as much space as the bounds of the Astronomican allowed. Millions of planets, well over one point two million stars. The Imperium was much, much larger than I had originally thought it would be. Our Alliance with the Eldar helped. Our brave Houses of the Navigators helped. But…there were supposed to be twenty one of them. Twenty one super soldiers, all guiding humanity to its rightful, glorious future.”
“Then my uncles died,” Morticia supplied.
“Yes. Then your uncles did something so…monumentally stupid, so unforgivably foul, that your uncles Leman and Roboute had to…put paid to them.” The Emperor closed his eyes in remorse. “I may never forgive myself for allowing their weakness to persist as long as it did. But the survivors, those of your uncles who remained, and your father…they had to divide the responsibility of governing the Imperium up amongst themselves. Had they received the tutelage I had planned for them when I began…it does not matter. We found ways.” The Emperor tilted his head back and stared into space. “We created councils and councilors, and counselors too, and Admirals and Lord Commanders, and we divided up space like a puzzle. As the Warp Storms receded, more and more worlds came back into the fold. We conquered them too, and the Legions expanded alongside the Army, and the Navy, and all the branches of my military.”
He looked down at his granddaughter and smiled. “I knew that even the super men I had created would need a reason to stop fighting some day. Some…reward. Some motivation. Not just to lay down the swords, but to want to never pick them up again. So I gathered my scientists, a fresh batch this time. I repaired my long-neglected genelabs on Luna and Terra, and I got to work. In the interim, I sent my sons to the edges of space, to take and fortify the systems at the outermost reaches of the Astronomican’s light. I even added more seats to the Choir of the Beacon, at the heart of the Astronomican, so that its range would be increased, beyond its point of diminishing returns. Until the Imperium was as physically large as it could be. And while they fought…I worked.”
Morticia shifted on her mattress, a little uncomfortable, but listening enrapt. The Emperor stood, started pacing. “My…confidant…Eldrad Ultran, perhaps the one person left in the galaxy at that point whose powers of foresight eclipsed mine, warned me against my initial plan to tap the Webway and turn it into a teleportation network for the Legions. He saw the device I had reclaimed to serve as its core, and found its flaws. Instead of relying on it to become a psychic gateway for me, we turned it into the core of the project we dubbed the Carpe Noctum Experiment.”
“That’s High Gothic for Seize the Night, isn’t it?” Morticia asked.
“It is. Four Eldar Farseers and myself…we journeyed to the very, very edge of the Astronomican, where several Eldar Craftworlds were looking to establish permanent colonies for their people. There, we interred the Golden Orb, the device that would have powered my Webway portal, and used it to create a psychic bridge between the core of the resurgent Eldar Empire and Terra, such that Webway or no, all travel on that pathway would be orders of magnitude faster.”
“Wow. What went wrong?” Morticia asked, wide-eyed.
The Emperor blinked, his speech interrupted. “Nothing. Nothing went wrong, it’s there now, still fully operational.”
Morticia winced in chagrin. “Oh. I thought you were building up to something.”
“I am,” the Emperor said with a grin. He sat back down, looked his granddaughter in the eye, and continued. “You see, the Primarchs thought that that signaled the end of the Crusade. It wasn’t, of course. I had much more in mind. As soon as the bridge was declared safe, I returned to Terra, and I instructed my scientists to begin work on…well, you. I sent the Primarchs to their Legionary worlds, and to recruit their numbers back up to full. When you, and the other Royal daughters were completed, I sent word for your fathers to come to Terra, and receive their reward for completing the work I had set out for them.”
“‘Reward,’” Morticia echoed, stone-faced.
“Well, not in so many words. But I will not deny that I was proud of them.” The Emperor’s face lifted slightly at the memory. “You can not imagine the glory we felt. A million star systems, more, united by our force of arms, our technology, our creed, our species.”
“Well, how did the Primarchs take it?” Morticia asked.
The Emperor’s good spirits vanished. “Well, to be fair, I didn’t really use your life, the lives of your sisters, as collateral. I can see that you’re thinking along those lines.”
“Kinda hard not to,” Morticia said, distantly offended.
“I see.” The Emperor sighed heavily. “Then I will be frank. When I recalled them and declared, at that private ceremony, that the Crusade was over, several were relieved, even before I said anything else. They knew. They’re bright lads, you know.”
“Some more than others, sure,” Morticia joked. The Emperor smiled, quite involuntarily.
“I would never say that,” he chided gently. “Anyway. Your uncle Roboute, for instance, had had enough of killing. He wanted to govern. Perturabo…less so, but he did as well. Rogal, and Fulgrim, and even Lorgar, they wanted to lead people, to be teachers and princes, not just Generals. Vulkan…he was happy at war. He found comforts in it. But had just wed, anticipating my recall, and took to it gladly. Leman wanted to start a family, too, I think. So did Corax. But the other Primarchs…including your father, I am sorry to say…did not. They wanted to keep fighting. Forever, if need be. Or, at least, they could not think of themselves as anything but fighters.”
“Dad didn’t want me?” Morticia asked, stunned.
“Please, never say that. Not to me, not to him, not to anyone, not even yourself,” the Emperor said, his face darkening. “I said that I wanted them to start families before I said I had already created them. Or parts of them. He had no idea you existed when he said he did not want a family.”
“But…” Morticia said weakly. The Emperor was devastated, the girl was clearly crestfallen.
“Please, PLEASE, let me finish, Morticia,” he asked, his voice rising. “Your father…was quiet. He said little, it was…certain others of your uncles who objected. I will not say which. But they did, and they said that they would be horrible parents, and horrible husbands, and so on. I let them voice their opinions, and I did listen to them. Then, those who had said nothing were asked their opinions.” The Emperor lifted his hand, palm open. “When Horus asked Magnus what he thought of fatherhood, he surprised us all. He said he couldn’t wait. Vulkan and Lorgar chimed in. Lion too. They had thus far been quiet.” The Emperor closed his hand, letting a tiny bead of golden light play along it. “We were all a little stunned. When asked why, each said the same thing. They wanted LEGACY.” The Emperor clenched his fist, extinguishing the light. His eyes pierced Morticia’s. She recoiled, surprised by his fervor.
“Your father, he came to think of you not as a burden, to restrain him from doing his role as a leader of the Imperium, but as a model. He wanted to make the best Imperium he could, for you to live in. And Vulkan, and Lorgar, and Lion, and all of them, they were told, by me, by their own consciences, by their old cultures, by whatever they listened to, to make the best Imperium to live in.”
He stood, his eyes ablaze. “I had instructed them, Morticia, and carefully too, to create the best Imperium in which the species could survive. Now, I wanted it to THRIVE! I wanted the leaders of the Imperium to find their company, of noble wives and brilliant, beautiful daughters, and to find in you contentment. I made them ambitious, Morticia, so ambitious, because they had to be. Because I wanted them to be driven by a desire to conquer. But now there were no conquests left. Not unless I wanted to rip open the Warp or the Webway and send them in after the monsters that reside therein, which I will never do. I wanted their instincts to be honed and focused, on you, on making the best worlds they could build.”
“And…how is that different from what I had already been told?” Morticia asked, resentment fading into genuine confusion. Aside from the thing about her uncles taking it poorly, it wasn’t anything she had not already known.
The Emperor sank back down into the bedside, his eyes losing their fire. “Because, Morticia, there is more. When I created the Primarchs, I made…mistakes. I committed errors. I built flaws. You know them, they know them, I shall not list them here. But they are there.” He took up her hand, squeezing her cold flesh in his own hand. “Morticia…when I created the Primarchs, and the Custodes, and the Legions…the very first geneseed was contaminated. Those flaws are not supposed to be there. And three thousand, six hundred years is a very, very long time. The end of the Crusade came upon us slowly, but come it did. I no longer had the luxury of rooting out old errors. When I created you, and your dear sisters…I simply reused a modified version of the original geneseed, methods and all.” He stood, still holding her hand, and crouched by the bedside, bringing his eyes down to hers. Her face was locked in a mask of complete astonishment.
“Morticia, my dear girl…I must ask your forgiveness for three things here.” He closed his eyes, finding his words. “The first mistake…is not preventing the sort of ideologues that spawn vermin like Keiter from existing. I have the power, you know. If I felt the need, I could send an army without limit into the hives, scour them down to metal and stone, and start over. Erase every single mention of me as anything other than a politician. You know why I do not. Beyond common human decency, I know what that could trigger. I know what I would become. But I have the power to keep people like Keiter from existing, and I do not use it. Will you forgive me?”
Morticia stared. “Forgive you…for what? Not being a bloodthirsty, tyrannical, despotic, genocidal executioner? Why would you even ask? Of course!”
The Emperor nodded once, acknowledging her statement. “Thank you. The second thing I have erred in is…more personal. I viewed your creation as necessary. I still do. I do not regret it, and by and large, neither do your uncles. You know your father doesn’t. So…the problem of your core geneseed remains. When I created you, I used geneseed from which the taint had not, COULD not be completely erased. If I had not, you would not exist as you are, do not mistake it. If I had used pure geneseed, you would be nothing more or less than a female Custodian. But you would be whole. No scarred lungs. No wings. No third eyes. No burning visage and endless flames under the skin. You would not be cursed with the same mutancy that the contamination forced on your fathers. So...will you forgive me?”
Morticia leaned back in her bed, a sense of absolutely surreal disconnection filling her. “Grandpa…I’m no more or less perfect than any other human. And I think, if you had gotten clones of yourself, you would have resented it later. Of course I forgive you.” He nodded again. Then, he felt his breath catch in his throat a little. The first two mistakes, he had suspected she would forgive, but…the last was much more personal.
“Morticia…the last mistake is one of which I do not yet think I deserve to be absolved. When I created your fathers…some of their flaws ran deep. I do not speak of mutancy, nor madness, nor overambition, nor any other affliction of mind or body. I speak of something subconscious, something between the soul and the mind. Flaws of personality, of perception. They are intrinsic parts of who they are, and I have come to know them better for it. Some of them overcame their scattered, piecemeal youths and became better people for it. Others…did not. I do not hide it, neither do they. And do not assume that I assign such flaws or lack thereof to any specific Primarch, either, for I’ve known them far longer than you. But…at some level, Morticia, I allowed my own personal experiences to cloud my judgment.”
“How?” Morticia asked, confused.
“I allowed my expectations, my desires, to alter and distort what I could perceive of their expectations, their desires. Morticia…the addition of the geneseed in your creation occurred before I spoke to your fathers. To this day, I do not fully understand my own reasoning. Perhaps I wanted to ensure that they did not say no. Perhaps I wanted to make sure the process was well under way before they were committed. But, Morticia…I think that I also wanted a chance to correct those flaws. Your sister Kelly is not plagued by uncontrollable psychic torment, your sister Venus is not harmful to the touch…you can breathe without a mask. But the flaws of the mind, I sought to cure those as well. Rather than let your fathers choose, rather than let you choose…I chose for you.”
“Is that any different from random genetics playing dice with normal people? Isn’t that really better?” Morticia asked, that sense of numbness spreading.
“It is not, Morticia. I saw in you more than a chance to anchor your fathers. More than a chance to provide them, and indirectly myself, with a legacy. I saw in you, to some extent…a means of starting over,” the Emperor confessed, regret tightening his throat again. “I owed your fathers more than seeing them as a failed experiment. And…I certainly, undeniably, owed you more too. You should be princesses, Morticia, the Royal Daughters of the species, and the pinnacles of humanity…but my greed, my self-pity, robbed you of that. Your futures will not only be marred by the flaws your fathers could not escape, but will be restrained by my own inability to let a poor result stand. I used geneseed I knew to be flawed because I had to know whether I could do better, regarding my ability to guide my offspring to a greater future.” He closed his eyes, not to stifle tears, but so that he could not see the tears in her own eyes.
“I have regretted that decision since the moment Isis looked at me, at a mere ten months, and spoke her first word. I missed the childhoods of each and every one of the Primarchs; they were robbed from me by the machinations of a force beyond my control and your reckoning. But yours…your formative years, the years that imprinted within you the behaviors and personalities that will create your entire lives, they were here, on Terra, within my reach and protection, and even then I did not do enough to ensure that your lives could be safe, could be healthy, could be productive, and most importantly of all, could be filled with the love and the stability that were so uniformly and permanently taken from your fathers.”
He opened his eyes and met his granddaughter’s, and now his tears gathered too. “…I put the lives of nineteen innocent, eternal children into the hands of men who had told me outright that they could not be entrusted with them. I forced fatherhood on them as I forced flaws on you, without thinking, without using the one asset I have in greater abundance than any other soul in the entire galaxy save a few: foresight.” He tightened his grip on his granddaughter’s trembling hand, his vision tracking the exact path the frag had taken through her body, mashing her guts to pulp and pouring forth her blood. He saw the scars already beginning to form on her lungs, not as a result of the air she breathed, but as a result of the damage to Mortarion that he didn’t – but perhaps could have come to – fix. “Morticia, every mental and physical and psychological flaw that every single one of your sisters bears is directly, indisputably, my fault. So…I ask now, completely beyond any hope of finding it…will you forgive me?”
Morticia sobbed, a racking cough seizing her fragile chest. She clamped her hand her mouth, catching a few drops of blood as they escaped, and wiped her hand on the cloth at the edge of the bed without even thinking consciously. “Grandpa…please. Stop. I can’t blame you for this. This, this is NOT your fault.”
“It is. All of it. If I had waited but a few more years, I could have removed the flaws from the geneseeds I used to make you. I could have taken your eternal illness. I could have taken Venus’ fire. I could have taken Angela’s wings and Omegan’s crippling self-doubt. But…I did not. And even if I had, even if their personalities had remained intact and whole after the fact, it would have remained, stark and undeniable: fully one third of your fathers wanted daughters only after I gave you to them.”
“Grandpa…how can you ask me to choose?” Morticia asked, tears soaking her cheeks. “I can’t! I can’t choose! I can’t decide! What option do I have? I could have never had a life at all if you hadn’t done it, if I had been a different person! And how much of who we are…” she paused to arrest the trickle of blood again, “is defined by WHAT we are?! Do you know that? I don’t! Grandpa, please…don’t ask me that…” She sank back against the pillows, her eyes clouded with anguish. “Grandpa…stop it. I forgive you. How could I not?!”
The Emperor hung his head, letting a tear of his own work its way down his cheek. “…Again, Morticia…you shame me. And once more…I am selfish. Thank you, my dearest child, thank you so much.”
“Grandpa…” she sobbed, squeezing her own hand back against his at last.
For a minute or two, the room was silent, save the sound of her crying, until she was all cried out, and restlessness set in. The Emperor slowly stood, his bearing and visage regal once more.
“Thank you, Morticia. I can see by your soul I have burdened you, here, far more than I had any right to. A task at which I seem remarkably adept. I can stay longer, and so I shall, because if, bucking the trend, I am to learn from this…I must do so now.” He sat back down at the side of the bed, earning a smile of weary approval from the grey-eyed girl. “Morticia, my dear girl…tell me more about your life, and those of your sisters. I am far too small a part of them, for my liking.”
Morticia settled back against the pillow, thinking. “Well…I think Venus and Freya are thinking of going to visit Nocturne and Fenris after graduation. They want to see what their fathers’ homes were like.”
“Do they? Interesting. Do they know when they will go? College commitments seem to have taken them both,” the Emperor noted.
“Well, yeah, but they won’t get another chance for a while, and it’s good timing. I don’t want to go with them, though, even if I could. I’m thinking of going on a bit of a vacation of my own, if I can, to see Terra a bit more. The cities, the hives,” she said, cleaning another ribbon of blood from her mouth.
The Emperor nodded, thinking that over. “That should prove educational, too, I would hope.”
“I hope so,” she responded, and so it went, for over an hour, before duty called the Emperor back to his role, and sleep called Morticia to rest. But the Emperor knew, as he walked back to his motorcade, that her forgiveness had been sincere, and for all he had left unsaid as much as he had said aloud. And that, he supposed, was good enough.
Horus stood at the entrance to his daughter’s room, watching as she deliberately avoided his gaze. She hadn’t come to greet him when he had returned from work the previous night. She had avoided him while getting ready for school that morning. Now, when he had finally cornered her, she had nothing to say.
“Isis. I want to hear about your little excursion,” he said evenly.
“I nearly got killed by a bunch of genemodded gangers, and it was entirely my own damn fault,” Isis said quietly. “I marched Julius into a trap and it took the goddamned Night Haunter to save my dumb ass."
Horus raised his eyebrows. “Well, I’m glad you said it first.”
“I can’t believe it.” Isis ground her hands into her eyes, muffling a snarl. “Fuck it. I was…”
“Isis. My daughter. I understand exactly why you did it,” Horus said, standing back in the door a little. He didn’t want to look too imposing. “You want there to be something more to this. Do you understand how things have been complicated by your actions?”
Isis sighed, finally meeting her father’s eyes. “Yes.”
Horus nodded slowly. “Good.” He stood quiet a moment longer, before turning to leave.
“Dad, what about Julius?” Isis asked suddenly.
“What about him? He fired a Hellpistol in public,” Horus noted. “Would you have me make an exemption to the law for him?”
Isis clenched her teeth, fighting back her emotions. “I…I don’t want him to suffer for trying to do the right thing. He was protecting us from a murder! He was defending himself and me!”
“Yes, he was. A situation that should have never arisen, resolved by brute force and intimidation,” Horus said. His tone never changed. It was driving Isis crazy. “He will go to juvenile court and be tried, found not guilty by means of extenuating circumstances, and go about his life with a mark on his record. A just punishment for his misbehavior. You should feel fortunate you didn’t fire that bolter you conveniently forgot to ask to borrow.”
Isis’s face twisted, her concern for Julius overriding propriety. “Dad, please...I don’t want Julius to suffer for my bad idea.”
“Was it your idea?” Horus asked. “Or did he propose it?”
The question brought Isis up short. “It…he was…he proposed it,” Isis said. She buried her face in her hands, utterly ashamed. “…There was no way this was going to work out well, was there?”
Horus sighed, paternal instinct tugging at his professionalism. “Isis…I assure you that Julius is going to be found not guilty.”
“But he still has to suffer! He has to miss the last weeks of school, he has to miss Morticia’s trial…he’s going to turn seventeen in jail, he might be tried as an adult!” Isis cried.
“And if I demand that the Arbites make an exception for him, what does that say?” Horus asked. “What would you have me do?”
Isis thought desperately, her mind racing. “Can…can we find an alternative? Something that doesn’t leave him with a felony arrest on his record? Community service? Something?”
Horus stared at his daughter. “Community service for Willful Assault with a Deadly Weapon? A fine for Concealment of an Automatic Weapon?”
“Ask the Judge to take pity on him. Dad…” Isis’s eyes welled up in tears. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think this wasn’t fair.”
Horus inhaled deeply, let it out in a rush. “…I will ask the Judge to remove the felony arrest from Julius’ record when he is found not guilty. That is the extent of it.”
Isis felt a lump of tension in her stomach dissolve. She rose, walking over to her father, and hugged him, overcome. “Thank you Dad,” she said faintly. “It’s the most I can ask, and I won’t forget this. I’ll do whatever I can to make this up to you.”
“If you mean that, then do me a favor and make it abundantly clear to your friend that my patience has reached its limit,” Horus said, all business again. “I will never stick my neck out for him again.”
“Don’t worry,” Isis said, humor gamely coloring her words. “I’m told the Pius family never forgets their friends.”
Purging a Wound
Remilia sat down, feeling strangely detached from the world around her. Miranda noticed her discomfort, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Just us, Remilia.”
“I know.” She flipped her ponytail over her shoulder, glancing from side to side from nerves. “When does he get here?”
“When he means to, and not a moment before or after,” Miranda said dryly. “But don’t worry. He knows how much it means to you to get this done quietly.”
“I hope so,” Remilia said. Behind her, the door squeaked a bit on its hinges. Remilia started.
Magnus the Red walked in, nodding serenely at his daughter as he did so. She beamed a smile back at him, then turned it on her cousin. “Should I...?”
“If you don’t mind,” Remilia asked sheepishly.
“Sure thing,” Miranda said. She gave Remilia another squeeze for good measure before standing and heading out through the door her father had used. Magnus turned to face his niece, sitting beside her at the little table in his study.
“I want to make it clear that I understand the responsibility you’re asking me to shoulder,” Magnus said by way of greeting. His voice was in the range of bass that could vibrate small objects off of tables, but somehow didn’t feel too loud. “However, Remilia, I feel I must ask. Why are you asking me for help?”
“Because I’m absolutely ashamed of myself,” Remilia said, her voice catching in her throat, sudden bile and hatred clogging her voice. “I’m…I’m seventeen goddamned years old, and I…” she slammed her hand down on the table.
Magnus watched the display in silence. He could see her soul as plain as day. It was a deep, throbbing red of anger, dashed with yellow of dishonesty. Was she lying to him or herself? “Remilia, please.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, instantly contrite. The yellow faded. The teal of self-loathing flooded in behind it. Lying to herself.
“I can help,” he said softly, “but I will say now that I am not a doctor. I may not know when I’ve found the problem.”
“I will,” she said coldly. “I’ve had enough. I can’t look my father in the eye and tell him…tell him…”
“Tell him that you have done as he asked,” Magnus began. Remilia nodded, her eyes locked on the table. “And stopped this pointless self-mutilation?” Remilia’s eyes snapped up, wide and uneasy.
“…Yeah,” she breathed. “Did…did Miranda tell you?” Magnus took Remilia’s hands and flipped them. A tracery of little red scars – most old and faded, two very fresh – webbed the skin.
“Dear child, these leave marks I don’t need both eyes to see,” he said gently. “Each act of self-destruction scars your soul as deep as your body.”
Remilia’s eyes turned downward again. “I know,” she said softly.
“No, you don’t,” Magnus said coldly, in complete contrast to his demeanor moments ago. Remilia flinched. “Remilia, you think of the mind. When you think of a scar one can not see, you think of the mind, the activities and processes to which and through which your body acts. I speak of the soul, the facet of personality as lasting as the body or the mind can even be. You think of the pains of the mind, the shames and despairs that leave with death, and ease with time.” He leaned forward again, and there was something terrible about him. “I speak of ETERNITY.”
Remilia’s skin paled as some part of her genehanced mind started to fully comprehend what her uncle said. He continued, hammering his point home. “The body is a vessel, the mind a lens. The soul is a diamond, borne by one and empowered by another, until they fade and it is cast adrift, and it rests in limbo. When you draw that knife through your flesh, you damage yourself in a way that CAN NOT BE FIXED,” he thundered. Or so it seemed. In that little room, a whisper would have been a scream, in his voice.
“Never?” Remilia asked, in mounting horror. “I-I’m damning myself?”
Magnus leaned back in his seat. “Yes. Your soul already bears its wounds. I can see them as plainly as the scars on your flesh.”
“…I can do nothing to erase them?” Remilia asked. Her instincts screamed to fight, to avoid the danger, but if what Magnus was saying was true, it was already past.
“You can not erase them. You can, however, patch them.” The red-headed man nodded slowly. “Your father also bears those scars. If he has not told you…I care not. He should have. The moment he sensed your own behavior.”
“Dad cut himself too?” Remilia asked. Somehow she wasn’t surprised.
“He did not. He subjected himself to a more…debasing treatment. That, I shall leave to him.” Magnus cocked his head back, remembering. “He reveled in pain. He loved it. It was a focus. It was a tool. It was a reward. It was a punishment and a blessing. He found his strength in it.” He peered down at his niece. “Then you were born. Tell me. Do you know why he wants you to stop feeling this pain when he felt it himself, and enjoyed it, for three and a half millennia?”
“Because he never looked in the mirror while he did it?” Remilia asked.
Magnus smiled. “You are wise, child.” Remilia shrugged, still feeling a creeping horror in her stomach. “Your father came to view hurting oneself as indicative of a lack of strength, not a sign of strength. Do you share this belief? You came here, yes?”
“I asked Miranda for help. She said I should…let you do whatever it is that you do,” Remilia confessed. “So…I guess so.”
Magnus smiled again, all truculence gone. “Dear child. If your father and you are correct, you should leave.”
Remilia blinked. “What?”
“If you had no strength…or not enough…you wouldn’t have come here.”
“I can’t stop myself,” Remilia said. The dread in her stomach pulled itself higher, tightening her throat again.
“Yes, you can. But you don’t want to. At some level.” Magnus softened the barb with a caveat. “At least, that is what I would have said. If I agreed with your own conclusion. There is strength left in you, child. There is. Would you find it? Even if that means you have even less of a means of dealing with the pain, of whatever incident robs you of your stability?”
Remilia stared straight back at her uncle, terrified. His voice promised some horrible trials, she was sure, some grilling or test that would scour the weakness from her…but suddenly, she didn’t care. She couldn’t even look her mother in the eye at dinner now. Her cousins were confronting her in front of her friends and family. Enough was enough.
Magnus smiled once more. “Good. Tell me,” he asked, drawing a small blue card from his robes of office, “have you ever seen one of these before?”
Remilia leaned closer. “Not sure. What is it?”
“Here,” Magnus said, passing her the object. Remilia held it up, staring at it.
“…It’s a business card-” her voice choked off as she blacked out, sinking down onto the table with a *thunk*.
Magnus took back the unoffending card, resting his hand on the back of her neck. “Rest, child. The hardest part – for you – is over. Now, my work begins.”
Magnus effortlessly lifted the girl and laid her down on the table, glad she had chosen a modest outfit for the occasion. He, of course, had seen more intimately into the souls of men and women then mere eyes ever could, but he was certain he’d never hear the end of it if her blouse had fallen open in the middle of the process.
Once she was down, and snoozing peacefully, Magnus glanced over her arms. “Such pain you inflict upon yourself, girl. You should have sought help years ago. Rogal…you are a fool.” Shaking his head again, he rested her hands over her heart, and sat down at the table side. “Now…let us see how deep your scars lie, Remilia.” He leaned forward, casting a small part of his mind across the insignificant gulf between him and the girl. She was a restful light blue, at the moment. Her mind was blank of dreams and thoughts, and in the absolute peace of her rest, was the absolute honesty of her spirit. It could not lie to Magnus.
“…Poor thing,” he whispered. Her soul was not the brilliant, undimmed beacon of his daughter. The sheer brilliance of her light drew a tear to his eye when she wasn’t looking, out of paternal pride. Nor was it the endless complexity of Magnus’ brother Horus, nor the swell of selfless kindness of Venus or the life-loving energy of Freya…but instead a darker pall. It frayed, it wore. And in it he sensed the same resignation and lack of motivation that plagued Furia, that which had only begun to heal after she had come so terribly close to loss.
As he examined it, he was struck by its similarity to Alpharius’ daughters. They, too, felt a lack of direction in their lives, exacerbated by a sense of inadequacy. They, at least, knew their feelings for the weakness it was, and attempted to overcome it. Remilia, he realized, hadn’t had the guidance that the Twins had had: each other. She was alone. Badly, deeply, painfully, alone. That, he could not cure.
He set his mind’s eye on the glowing crevasse in her psyche. There. It was from there that her pain stemmed. The slashes across her self-esteem and the frayed edges of her kindness, they stemmed from there. He closed his eye, allowing more of his untrammeled Warp mastery pour loose, bathing her soul in light.
“Oh, Rogal,” he said bitterly. “You selfish bastard.” The crack in her mind was more than loneliness. She did not solely feel alone, she felt incomplete. She saw in herself the design the Emperor had imparted, her genes twisted for great beauty, wisdom, longevity, health…but not success. She saw the wondrous Imperial Palace, the gleaming ranks of the Imperial Fists on parade, and she despaired of ever equaling her glorious father.
“Have you ever even told the girl how deeply you love her, you arrogant craven?” Magnus hissed. Her memories parted before his psychic wake. He saw his brother lift the young Remilia over his head on Remembrance Day, rest her on his shoulders as a parade went by, hold her hand and look encouraging as a boyfriend walked out on her…but he saw also the look of stone on Rogal’s face as Remilia scrambled through her bag for a report card, forgotten in a desk at school. He saw Dorn’s cold face of disapproval as Remilia sobbingly hid her ‘injured’ arm from her weeping mother. He saw…
“You son of a bitch,” Magnus snarled under his breath. He saw her vision turn white from the blow as Dorn slapped his daughter across the face for daring to lift some trophy weapon from its cradle in the hall.
“No wonder the girl bleeds from the wrists, you churl,” Magnus said darkly. “You made her bleed from the lips.” He pulled back, looking carefully at the rest of her memory. Her sports career. Her glee as she found her first puppy love, and her pride as she beat out even his own daughter Miranda at some academic achievement or another. Nowhere else in her entire mind did he see the pain and fear and loathing of that slap. “I wonder,” he said to himself. With exquisite care, he pulled her remembered memories aside, looking for something buried more deeply. With a glance at her body on the table – she slept still – he leaned into her mind, seeking the places where the character of her soul filtered through the sheen of her mind.
“I see,” he whispered. He had feared that she simply felt that she would NEVER equal her father…but she saw instead a competition. She would never lead armies and Legions, and she knew it. Instead she would surpass his outward advancements. She sought to overcome every obstacle in her way, not because it was there, like he would, but because he would have done it. And when she hit a wall, some problem her competitive spirit could not surmount…
“Then you take your own blood, sweet girl, in punishment,” Magnus said. He opened his eye, staring at her prone form on the table. Her cheeks were caked in tears. They had not been there when he started. “You care for Morticia as much as Kelly does. I dare say you care for her nearly as much as brother Mortarion, who sees his wife as much as he sees his daughter, in her.” Magnus carefully dried her cheeks, sighing to himself. “I shall see what I can do.” He sat back down, focusing on the memory from which all the pain stemmed. “I will not take this from you, child. It is not mine to take. But…you deserve better than this.” His mind sharpened, focusing his efforts. With the greatest care, he tamped the ragged edges of her conscience, her compassion. As he did, he saw her father, offering up a smile of approval as Remilia bounced a goal off the bar, sliding under the goalie’s hands. He saw both of her parents, hands held, as they watched Remilia accept the Junior Combined Activities Award, on stage, with rivals and friends alike applauding.
“You do love her, Rogal, you just can’t bring yourself to show it sometimes,” Magnus said, his displeasure fading. “…You and I must speak, when this is over.”
Remilia stirred. She blinked grime from her eyes, wiping her hand over them, and looked around herself. Magnus was sitting in the corner, cradling a vox in his hands. “Uncle Magnus?”
“Remilia.” Magnus looked up, exhausted, but clearly happy. “You awaken.”
“Is it over? Am I still…damned?” Remilia asked tremulously.
“No, child, and I was very glad to see the worst had not come to pass. There was more strength in you than either of us guessed,” Magnus admitted. “I owe you a sincere apology. The last soul from which I removed such a taint was…beyond salvation. Yours is very much on the right path.”
Remilia recoiled, betrayal and relief battling for supremacy. “I was scared over nothing?” she asked.
“Far from it,” Magnus said gravely. “Your soul was in very real danger. But…do you feel different?”
“No,” she said. “I feel the same.”
“I see.” Magnus stood. He dropped the vox into a charger, looking down at Remilia as she rolled off the table. “Give it a few days. Go see Morticia. You’ll feel like a new woman.”
“Okay…who were you calling?” she asked in sudden suspicion.
“Your father. You and he are going to have a very important conversation when you get home.”
“What did you tell him?” Remilia asked.
“That strength comes from action as much as will,” Magnus said darkly. Remilia shook her head, uncomprehending. “Fear not, you will see. Go, my child. And please…be well.”
“Thank you, Uncle Magnus,” Remilia said.
Arthur Hane wheeled a metal cart through the hall of the courtroom, parking it behind his desk at the front of the room. His counterpart, Keiter’s lawyer, Felger, was pushing a similar cart over behind his own desk. They exchanged a quick nod, before the door swung open, and admitted a third party. Fourth Provost Marshal Rachnus marched up the center aisle, stopping before the bench, staring impassively up at its occupant.
Third Provost Marshal Mako stood, gesturing all to rise. Both lawyers and the lesser Judge stood respectfully. “Gentlemen. I understand I’ve been called upon to mediate a dispute in the case of the Imperium V Ulysses Keiter,” Mako said. The bailiff gestured for the three men to sit. The lawyers did, but Ranchus stood, hands at his side. Mako lifted the dataslate in front of her, reading down the motion. “Counselor Felger, why have you seen fit to ask for the dismissal of Fourth Provost Marshal Rachnus in this case?”
“Comments that His Honor registered while I filed my motion to dismiss the case lead me to think that he had allowed himself a bias against my client,” Felger said. He stood and carried a sheaf of paper to the bench, passing it up to the Judge. Mako did not remove her helmet except in bench cases, but here she did, and she examined the paper Felger had given her with her own eyes.
“Counselor, your claim seems to hinge on Judge Rachnus having a desire to convict your client before the evidence had been presented,” Mako said.
“That is correct,” Felger said.
“Counselor, nearly everyone on the planet has heard of this case. If you’re trying to find a way to prove that Judge Rachnus went into the meeting with too much knowledge of the case, you are out of luck.” Mako lowered the papers, gauging Felger from her high vantage.
“Not too much knowledge, your Honor. A desire for a certain outcome. I direct your attention to line forty two,” Felger said. Mako looked down the sheet to the words in question.
“‘Counselor Felger, your client was attempting a change of the status quo of the Imperium through killing someone,’” Mako recited.
“That sounds to me like he was assuming an outcome to the charge before the trial began, your Honor,” Felger said. Hane’s jaw tightened. Rachnus stared at his superior, expressionless.
Mako read the entire transcript, beginning to end, then folded it on the table, sat back with her fingers steepled, and thought carefully. “It seems that Counselor Felger may have a point, Judge Rachnus. Have you anything to say in rebuttal?”
Rachnus steeled himself. “I do not, Judge Mako. And I respectfully tender my withdrawal from this case. I can not allow even the appearance of bias to color such a vital proceeding.”
Hane stared. Mako nodded slowly. “I accept your request, Judge Rachnus. As the position of Fourth Provost Marshal is an exclusive one, I shall be handling the case myself.”
“Very well, thank you, Judge,” Felger said, nodding his assent. Hane risked a glance at Rachnus again. Rachnus looked more resigned than angry; Hane interpreted that as a good sign.
Freya tried not to break the vox in her hands. “What does that mean?” she asked, keeping her voice level.
“It means nothing. Truly. Mako is one of the most level-headed, rational Judges in the Arbites,” her father answered. “Trust me, she will side with Hane.”
“I sure hope so,” Freya said quietly.
Leman went quiet. “Don’t worry. Keiter can’t win this. How is your project going?” he asked, diverting to what he hoped was safer grounds.
“Awful,” Freya moped. “The presentation is fine, but the paper is crap.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I just reread it, and I don’t quite meet the citation standards,” she complained. “I had to go rewrite a bunch of it.”
“That sucks,” Leman said, glancing out the viewport to his left. He was standing on the launch platform for Lightning fighters on the Lunar platform on which his meeting was being held. “Do they let people watch?”
“No, just the moderator,” Freya glumly reported. She blew a strand of red out of her eyes. “Otherwise I would totally let you come intimidate them.”
“That’s I’m for,” Leman said sarcastically. “I’ll hear all about it when I get home, OK?”
“Sure thing, Dad,” she said wistfully. “See you tomorrow.” She clicked the vox off, dropping it in the cradle. Alex tapped his stylus on the papers in front of them, lost in the work.
“What did he say?”
“He said not to worry about it,” Freya said, dropping back into her seat. “Any luck?”
“The principles of higher calculus continue to elude me,” Alex reported.
Freya huffed. “All right. Is it answers in the back time?”
“It may very well be,” Alex said heavily, turning to the back and pouring over it.
Remilia stood patiently at the door of her father’s study, waiting for him. Dorn stared at the news ticker at the bottom of his monitor rack to catch up, grimacing in displeasure. “They went with a different Judge. What the hell is Keiter up to?” he snarled under his breath. He spotted his daughter at the corner of the room and switched the monitors off, beckoning her in. “Remilia, welcome home.”
“Father,” she said formally. Dorn sagged in his throne, suddenly seeming much older.
“I had a chat with your uncle Magnus, you know.”
“I was there,” Remilia pointed out.
Dorn closed his eyes, fighting down his anger. “Yes. So I’ve been told. Remilia…why didn’t you just…” he clenched his fists under the table. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”
“Ask you what, Dad?” Remilia shot back. “Ask you why you slapped the shit out of me?”
“No! Why did you need Magnus to pick over your brain when all it would have taken was a question to me?” Dorn riposted. “I would have told you!"
“Then why DIDN’T YOU?!” she roared, civility completely gone. “What could POSSESS YOU to think that was a good idea?”
“Do not speak to me of possession, my daughter, not for one second,” Dorn said darkly.
“Stop dancing!” she barked. “I went to Magnus because I was powerless, because I couldn’t stop turning my life into a competition, and then, HEY! Surprise, surprise! YOU DID IT TOO! And then, Magnus tells me you changed your tune when I was born. Did you get a revelation you’d like to share?”
Remilia’s cheeks were beet red, tears pooling in both eyes. “What did you learn, Dad? What secrets did you stumble upon that made it all worthwhile? Tell me, damn it, I want to know!” she said, loathing and regret cracking her voice. Dorn clenched the edge of the table. Very hard.
“Remilia,” he ground out, “I realized that it took more than tolerance for pain to grow stronger.” He tore his eyes off the desk to stare into his daughter’s red-rimmed gaze. “I wanted you to arrive at the same conclusion.”
“Why…” she asked bitterly, tears pouring down her face now, her voice barely more than a whisper. “Why didn’t you just tell me?”
“Because some lessons can’t be passed along,” Dorn rumbled. “Some have to be learned.”
“Is that why you hit me?” Remilia choked out.
Dorn closed his eyes again, pinching the bridge of his nose. “It may be meaningless to say so. But I have regretted that since it happened.”
“Odd way to show it,” Remilia snarled, a little fire creeping back into her voice.
Dorn’s eyes snapped open, and he shot the glare straight back. “I have never once handed you the knife, Remilia. I’ve never once carved a line through your flesh. You did that. Not me, not some memory of me, not some instruction or…or failure. You. It was a conscious choice, every time. The same as when I did it to myself.”
“Small words, Dad, small words,” Remilia said, though she couldn’t deny them either. “When did you offer to help?”
“Some lessons are meant to be learned on their own!” Dorn repeated.
“SOME!” she suddenly screamed. “Not ALL!” She grabbed the hem of her long sleeved shirt and ripped it off over her head, exposing the tracery of scar on her arms. “When did you plan on giving me ADVICE? Or a little guidance? Or even asking me why I did it?!”
“When did you realize you couldn’t justify it?” Dorn asked coldly.
“When did you realize you weren’t interested in stopping it?” Remilia asked, lava and ice mingling in her voice in equal measure.
Dorn shot to his feet. “Would I have told you to stop if I didn’t want you to?”
“God knows you weren’t trying very hard,” Remilia hissed. “Something made you stop hurting yourself after three and a half millennia. What was it, and why couldn’t you share it with me?”
“I already told you. I realized that I was gaining nothing,” Dorn said, staring his daughter down.
“Would it have killed you to tell me? Clearly you didn’t figure it out in time, don’t know why you expected me to. And we both know that you’re not happy unless I’m not quite measuring up to you,” Remilia said, glaring at him.
Dorn recoiled. “I have NEVER said that! Ever!” Remilia started her rejoinder, but Dorn cut her off. “No, damn it, we have this out now! I have NEVER, even ONCE, said that you had to match up to me for me to be happy, or even the reverse! NEVER!”
“There’s a lot you don’t say, Dad, and sometimes I don’t catch it,” Remilia said, loathing, for herself and her father, dripping from her voice.
“But sometimes I get enough. I can’t lead an Army or design the Palace or break an Ork in half, but I can read between the lines well enough,” she said, neatly ignoring her own argument for how her father should have told her to stop and explained why outright. “When have you ever actually helped me accomplish anything? When have I struck an obstacle, and had you there to help me over it?”
“I am proud of you every single time you accomplish a goal alone,” Dorn said.
“But I shouldn’t have to do it alone,” Remilia said angrily. She drew herself up to her full height, and slapped a hand across her heart, clenching her hand in the sports bra’s strap. “If you see me struggle with something, no matter what it is, and you’ve overcome it yourself, you have NO REASON not to help me! Not do it for me,” she said angrily, cutting her father off. “But help me! Is that so much to ask, damn it?”
Dorn stared at her, his own anger boiling under the surface. “I am…not a good father, Remilia. I didn’t need Magnus to tell me that. But I have looked to make you stronger the same way I made myself and my Legion stronger. I showed you what it was to overcome an obstacle. I showed you how to find power in a challenge.”
“No. No, Dad. You’re not a bad father because you showed me all that shit. You’re a bad father because you left me to figure it out by myself, and never told me when I got the answer wrong,” Remilia said, her exhaustion and anger burning a hole in her emotions, until all that was left in her voice was emptiness. “I’m not one of your solders, Dad. I’m not a Space Marine. I’m a seventeen-year-old girl. I have one cousin on the edge of a drug addiction, one in the hospital for a gunshot wound, and one whose mind is falling apart. And when you see me hurting, and see me wanting the pain to stop, your approach is to berate me. I don’t care how much pride you find in me getting shit done. That one reaction is all I need to know about what you think fathering is about.” Remilia’s eyes were flattened, her voice dead and cold. She shrugged her shirt back on in silence. “…I think I need to go see somebody. I don’t know who. I have my vox. Call me some time, tomorrow maybe. I need to get shit figured out.”
She turned on her heel and walked out, her knees weak. She wandered down the halls of the manor, scooping random detritus from her room into a bag and throwing it over her shoulder. She dropped her copy of the graduation paper in the bag, too. It was her day tomorrow, after all. Couldn’t forget it. Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked, trying to push them back.
She grabbed her vox, switched it on. With a final once-over of her room, she grabbed her dataslate and slung it on its strap. She walked down to the drive, bags and sling in hands. She knew her father would be watching from his study, but she didn’t turn around. Let him stew. Let him rot, in fact. She didn’t care. Not yet. She walked up to the family limousine, opening the rear door. The driver, an elderly Legion serf, huffed up to it as she got in. “I do apologize, Madam Dorn, I didn’t see you come out. Would you like me to take you somewhere?”
“Please. Sorry I crept up on you, this is unscheduled.”
“Indeed not, Madam, it is no trouble at all. Where shall I take…oh dear,” he said, noting the state of her. “Madam, are you all right?”
“By no means,” Remilia said hollowly.
“Is there anything I can do?” the chauffer asked worriedly.
“Nope. But you would if you could. I’ve learned how much that means.” She turned her tear-streaked face up to him and managed a tiny, completely empty smile. “But yes. Right now I need to be somewhere else.”
“…Your father will ask me where I’ve taken you,” he said, sitting down behind the controls.
“Tell him. It’s not a secret,” she said as the vehicle started up and hovered of the ground.
“Back to Lord Magnus’ manor, Madam?” the man asked.
“No, no, no, no,” Remilia said hastily. “Sorry, somewhere else. Uh,” she said, quickly thinking it over. “…Lord Russ’ place. Please.”
“Straight away, Madam,” the driver said, entering the course.
An Outside Perspective
Freya sat at the table, tears gathering in her eyes as her cousin relayed the entire story. The soul-healing, the argument, the cutting and when it had started, all of it. “Oh my…oh my god, Remilia, come here,” she said, the tears breaking free. She stood up and stepped to her cousins’ side, crouching beside her chair and wrapping her in a crushing bear hug.
“T-thanks, Freya,” Remilia managed. Her own tears stained Freya’s skin-tight denim top, but she hurriedly broke the hug. “I need to tell someone.”
“Hell yes you do,” Freya said, wiping her own tears away. “God, Remilia, the pain you’re in.”
“Right now it doesn’t hurt,” Remilia said brokenly. “Right now I’m just tired.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Freya wiped her eyes again, sitting down. Alex was waiting awkwardly in Freya’s room, still, where he had been since his woman’s cousin had shown up at the door in tears. Freya thought hurriedly, wondering if the schedule for the night was still set in stone. “Um, listen, I didn’t want to interrupt, but I know a few of the others are already going to come over tonight. Is that OK? You can sleep in the guest wing, you don’t have to talk to them.”
“It’s your house, Freya,” Remilia said. “I just…I can’t be home right now.”
“You can stay as long as you want,” Freya promised. The doorbell rang, and she hurriedly looked at her blond cousin. Remilia sniffled, then looked up at Freya and nodded.
“OK, I’ll be in the guest wing if you need me,” she said, grabbing her bags and walking off.
About one hour later, she was sitting in the chair in the guest suite she had picked, watching the fields outside sway in the moonlight. Her eyes weren’t as sharp as Freya’s, of course, or even as sharp as Isis’ or Cora’s, but they were still a genetic marvel. She watched the tiny movements of grass as animals ran by at the base of the stalk, and envied them. Their lives were simpler.
A quiet knock on the door brought her out of her reverie. She checked to make sure she was still dressed, and cracked it open. A Space Wolf serf stood there with a tray of something that smelled really good. “My Lady Dorn. Compliments of Lady Russ,” the serf said, placing it on the table by the door. Remilia nodded.
“Thank Gairwyn for me, then, would you?” she asked, lifting the lid on the little pot.
“Lady Gairwyn is on Luna, Lady Dorn. I meant it was Lady Freya,” the serf corrected. “And I shall pass it along.” He bowed out, closing the door behind him.
Remilia sniffed the fragrant liquid in the tiny silver pot. “Oooh. Onion broth. Good call, Freya.” She put the lid back on, smiling despite herself.
“I’m never calling you ‘furball’ again,” she promised. She sat down by the table and dug in, mopping the soup up with some crackers. Just as she finished, another knock came from the door.
Remilia quickly wiped down her mouth with a napkin. “Come in,” she said.
The door swung open. This time, though, her visitor was no servant. “Remilia,” Venus started, her eyes dim and drawn, “talk to me.”
“Venus,” Remilia said, surprised. “Didn’t know you were coming over tonight.”
“Sure. I had to. Finals and presentations all this week, remember? Freya wouldn’t let that happen without observing the ritual,” Venus pointed out, sitting down at the table.
Remilia blinked. “Ritual? What ritual?”
“Oh, yeah, you’re not in on it yet…” Venus said, suddenly bashful. “Well, I imagine she’d let you in on it if you asked nice.”
“What is this ritual?” Remilia asked, completely confused.
“Well, whenever we have a big test coming up, a bunch of us get together here before it happens and we all swap boyfriends. It’s so incredibly helpful. Haven’t you seen how much Freya’s grades have gone up since she met Alex?”
Remilia stared at her cousin in absolute shock, until a hint of suspicion crossed her face. “Wait. Wait, are you fucking with me? You’re fucking with me, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Venus said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I am fucking with you.”
“Oh, fucking hell,” Remilia scoffed.
“I had you. Hook, line, and sinker. You believed every single word,” Venus said, smiling. “That’s a problem, too, you usually see through my terrible lies.”
“I’m in a bit of a rut right now,” Remilia admitted.
“Yeah, Freya didn’t tell me anything, but she’s also really bad at hiding things. I could tell you were here,” Venus said sadly. She reached over and squeezed her cousin’s hands, catching them between her own. She trained her eyes on Remilia’s, and they were a far dimmer red tonight. “But I’m a hopeless softie. I need to try to make you feel better. So come on out of here and be with us for a while, OK?”
“Ah, I would, but I need to work on the paper too,” Remilia said, scrambling for an excuse.
“No, you finished yesterday,” Venus pointed out. “And you did the speech too. All rehearsed.”
“How did you know?” Remilia asked in surprise.
“I know you, Remilia. That’s why you need to be with us, tonight.” Venus stood, pulling Remilia’s hands with hers. The blond soccer player, however, stayed in her seat, her eyes betraying her torment. Venus looked at her for a few moments longer, before letting her cousin’s hands fall through her own. “…All right. I understand.” She turned to leave, walking back through the open door, closing it behind her.
Remilia sat at the table, staring at the empty dishes in silence, fuming, until she leaped from her seat and jogged after her cousin. “Wait, wait,” she called after her. “You’re right.”
“Yep,” Venus said contentedly. She waited in the hall for her cousin to catch up, offering an encouraging little smile to her cousin. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” Remilia breathed. “Lead the way.”
“So, I look at the guy on the stage asking the questions, and I realize he’s quoting the interview section of the book I read to source my argument,” Jake explained. Alex tilted his head back and laughed raucously.
“Fuckin’ serious, man? He was quoting it?”
“Yep. It was a test. He wanted to see if I had actually read it or not,” Jake said. “So I started giving the specific answers from the book back to him. He nodded, so I assume I passed.”
Alex tilted his glass to him. “Nice.” He turned to see Remilia emerge from the side corridor with Venus. “Hey, there she is. You feeling better?”
“A little, yeah. Thanks for the snack, Freya,” Remilia said. She turned to Jake, forcing a smile on her face. “What was your topic?”
“‘Support Structures for the Mentally Disabled in Private Schools,’” Jake said. “Aside from the one bit where the interviewer started quoting my sources to see how closely I had been reading them, it was rough. I couldn’t really do a visual, so I just made these little paper handouts in envelopes. Seemed to work.”
“Good. I bet you did great,” Remilia said. She took a discreet headcount as she listened. Jake, Venus, Alex, Freya, herself, Faith, and Pietro. Good. No psykers. She may have been doing a poor job of hiding her feelings, but at least there were no mind-readers in the crowd. “Anyone else go yet?”
“Me,” Pietro said. “‘The Core Systems and Their Means of Economic Stabilization of the Expansion Zones.’”
“Me too,” Faith said. “‘The Balance of Mechanicus Doctrine with Post-Educational Requirements.’”
Freya nodded glumly. “I think I need to put a bit more work into mine. Plus that Math test Thursday. Blargh.”
“Yeah, that’s a mean one,” Pietro said ruefully.
“I can help you study for it if you need me to,” Jake offered. “Math is my best subject, after Chemistry.”
“No, thanks. I think I can handle it,” Pietro said, downing his tea.
The little group sat there, discussing the few parts of their lives that could be called ‘normal,’ until Remilia felt her bone-weariness set in. “Sorry to break it up, guys, but I’m really tired. I think I’m going to turn in.”
“Okay,” Freya said sadly. “Feel better tomorrow?”
“I hope so,” Remilia said. She stood, turning to the hall, but lingered a moment, catching Jake’s eye. He stood, curious, and followed her down the hallway to the guest suite. The luxurious room didn’t look a thing like the décor in the rest of the house, with its rough simplicity. Everything here was more ornate, designed to look old-fashioned. Remilia pushed the door open, then nearly collapsed into the chair next to the door. Jake paused at the threshold, somewhat nervous.
“Did you want something?” he asked.
“Please sit down,” Remilia said quietly. “I want to ask you something.”
Jake did so. The serf had been back to clear away the detritus of her snack, Remilia noted distantly. “Jake, I’ve never seen Venus happier. I hate to burden you like this, but can you help me figure some shit out?”
“If I can help, I will,” Jake promised.
“Okay. Can you keep a secret?”
“Sure I can,” Jake said, a bit nervously. “What is it?”
“Jake, I’m really, really scared. I have the best sisters I could ever want, but I can’t…” she struggled to find words. “I can’t…I’m afraid of my father. I’m afraid of him now. It only started a few hours ago, but it’s there.”
“Remilia, I’ve never even met Lord Dorn,” Jake pointed out, feeling like the ground was falling out from under him.
“I know, Jake, but I…” Remilia clamped her mouth shut, thinking furiously. “I’m sorry. I can’t ask this without sounding like a horrible person. But…how do hivers deal with this kind of shit? Family trouble? You have so few places to go.”
Jake nodded slowly, thinking her words over. “…I don’t know where to start, Remilia. My family, we’ve always lived in the hives. Even my Grandfather, who was one of the greatest Magi of his temple, always lived in the hives when he could. We’re spread out all over the hab, it’s true, but we always have each other.”
“Of course,” Remilia said in a small, contrite voice. “I’m sorry. Like I said, horrible.”
“Remilia, don’t beat yourself up. I didn’t know how surfacers lived before I went to Imperator. I don’t expect you to know how hivers live.”
Jake leaned forward, trying to sound more helpful than patronizing. “I thought you people lived in apartments made of gold. Well, no, not exactly, but the thought was the same. And in the time since I’ve come up here, I’ve wanted to strangle a few of our classmates for wasting as much as they do. I don’t know if that sense of waste and entitlement extends to the actual nobility themselves, in their lives and families, but the others at school sure have it. Now, I’ve never met your father. From what I’ve heard, he’s a scary son of a bitch and a powerful leader of men. But…from the sound of it, the two of you…had it out today.”
“You could say that,” Remilia muttered. “What does wasteful living have to do with anything?”
“Because, Remilia, I don’t know if the troubles you’re having stem from the natural filter of disposability through which the people up here see everything, or if you’re having a problem I can address,” Jake said bluntly. Remilia jerked her head up, stung.
“I don’t think of things as disposable.”
“This table is worth more than four months pay in my weekend job,” Jake pointed out. “That necklace Venus made, the one she’s wearing tonight? I could buy the apartment my neighbors live in for a month with it.”
“Having something and wasting it are two different things,” Remilia argued. “And we’re getting off-topic.”
“Yeah, all right.” Jake sat back, working through his own nervousness. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to go on a tangent. But I know some guys at school who got into pretty dumb fights with their parents over shit a hiver would shrug off.”
“This is a little more serious, I bet,” Remilia said.
“Remilia, I gotta say, I don’t know how much of a help I can be if your father frightens you. From what I know of you, from what we’ve said to each other since we met, I think you’re a pretty strong girl. I don’t know what you said to him, and what he said to you, to make you so scared. So what is it?” Jake asked reasonably.
“I…he told me that he was a bad father, and I agreed,” Remilia said, letting it tumble out. “I…hurt myself, and he did it when he was younger too, and rather than help me stop, he just yelled at me and didn’t say anything that would help.”
“…Okay,” Jake said. “Wow.”
“Yeah…it wasn’t fair of me to ask you to help me, was it,” Remilia said miserably. She stood up from the chair, tottered over to the bed, and collapsed, facedown in the cover. “Sorry. You can go.”
Jake stared at her for a moment, before standing and closing the door. He sat down next to her on the bed, his mind racing. “Remilia…all I can tell you is what I would do if I were having a problem with my own father. And we’ve had a few fights, believe me.”
Her voice was muffled by the covers. “Yeah?” she asked. “Like what?”
“Well, when he found out I was dating Venus, he asked me to stop. He thought I would embarrass her family,” Jake said truthfully. Remilia popped her head up to look at him.
“Really? What did you say?”
“‘If you say so, Dad,’” Jake recalled. “Then I went ahead and dated her anyway.”
“Wow. Was he pissed off?”
“Livid,” Jake said. “I didn’t care. Then I brought Venus home one day, and she got to meet him. And of course they hit it off just fine. I think Dad made the same mistake that a lot of hivers make. They think of you and your family like demigods or something.”
“Yeah. One of them took it so far that he shot someone who wasn’t in perfect accord with Grandpa, or tried,” Remilia said darkly.
“I really, sincerely hope you’re not comparing George Seager to Ulysses Keiter,” Jake said.
“Fuck, fuck, no, of course not,” Remilia said hastily. “I didn’t…argh, damn it!” she said, slamming a fist into the bedspread. Jake sighed.
“The next big one was when the Treasury got involved with us,” Jake continued. “The Emperor had put us on the VIP list, since he had misinterpreted my name being on the Special Guests list for the Museum Wing opening party at the Palace. When I came home, Dad was standing there in the main room, just waiting to grill me. Know what I did?”
“I called Venus on my vox, but pretended that Vulkan had picked up. ‘Yes, Lord Vulkan, I can ask. By the way, I didn’t make too much noise with your daughter last night, did I?’” he pantomimed.
Remilia actually giggled. “You didn’t.”
“I did. ‘Did I exacerbate her back too much? I certainly wasn’t trying to.’ Come to think of it, I still don’t know if Dad’s figured out that it was Venus at the other end.”
“Hahah, that’s great.” Remilia crossed her arms under her chest and smiled up at Jake. “So…aside from trolling and ignoring him, how do you deal with problems?”
“I talk it out. I try to remember that he’s been through some shit in his time too,” Jake said. “I don’t know if he’d want me to tell you this, but when he was seventeen, he was arrested for possession.”
“Yeah. He got off, but it was close. Arbites wanted to make an example out of him. So I remember that he’s got reasons to telling me to do or not to do shit.”
“Yeah. I guess I just want Dad to tell me when he has some reason for the bullshit he pulls,” Remilia said angrily.
“Well…assume that he has one. He’s not stupid. But ask when he doesn’t tell you outright. That’s about what I can provide.”
“All right.” Remilia went quiet, staring at her arms. “Um…I did have one more question. Two, actually.”
“Please don’t answer this if it makes you uncomfortable, all right?” she asked, looking sidelong up at him. When he nodded, she continued. “Do you and Venus ever fight?”
Jake hesitated. “Never about anything meaningful. I mean…once or twice, yeah, but not something we’d break up over.”
“Like what?” Remilia asked. “Sorry to be nosy.”
Jake thought for a moment, looking off into the distance. “I’m not really comfortable answering that in detail. But…I guess there’s one thing. When we first met, I treated her differently from the other students at Imperator. I treated her like the other members of the Royal Family, like you and Farah. She acted really weird over that. I thought she was just like that always, but then Farah explained that she hated being treated differently from the other students at the school, Royalty or not. Once we got that ironed out, things were OK.”
“Mmm. Well, don’t answer more than that if you don’t want to,” Remilia said.
“Unless…did Venus already tell you about the party?” Jake asked.
“Huh? You mean the party where she hurt her back?”
“Yeah, she said a little. She was discreet, but she and I chatted a bit that morning, on the ‘Net.”
“Mmm.” Jake grimaced a little. “See, now I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“I was dumb enough to ask,” Remilia said.
“I asked her why she would hurt herself like that. And…she told me that it was how the Salamanders decorate themselves after a victory, or to commemorate something.” Jake looked down at Remilia. “Is it like that for your Dad and you, too?”
“…Sort of,” Remilia said, deciding to leave the lengthier story for later.
“Well, she promised me that she would never do anything like that again. I believe her. I think she understands that I think it’s barbaric, and that her father doesn’t want that to be part of her life.”
“See, that gets me! Dad wants me to stop, so I do, but he wants me to stop for the worst possible reason! He cares more about me figuring out why I should stop than the fact that that it was happening in the first place!” Remilia exploded.
“I can’t speak to that,” Jake cautioned, “but if he really didn’t care about you, would he want you to stop at all? Since he thinks it made him stronger?”
“…I don’t know. Maybe. He was the reason I was cutting in the first place,” Remilia said bitterly.
“Really? How do you figure?”
“…Fuck, I don’t know. I’m too tired for this shit,” Remilia grumbled. “I don’t think he likes seeing me angry. I want to think he just…can’t understand why I’m so disappointed in him.”
Jake nodded sadly. “Do you know why?”
“Because he never once helps me figure things out. I’m always on my own.”
“What about Lady Dorn?”
“Mom’s never around. She’s always off championing some charitable cause or other. Never here when I need her.” Remilia sighed heavily, her shoulders shifting under the weight of the world. “…I should apologize to Miranda and Magnus for dragging them into this.” She looked up to see Jake looking down at her, clearly pained. “I guess…I’m just angry at how little it means to him that I be a part of his life.” The pale hiver didn’t say a word, just looked down at the princess in silence. She held his gaze for a few seconds, before her eyes unfocused. “…Faith is completely full of shit. But she’s right sometimes. She once told me revelation doesn’t heal.”
Jake reached over and grabbed her closer hand, running his fingers along hers. “Do you want me to say here for a while longer, or should I go?” he asked. Remilia felt her pulse quicken a bit before shaking off her irrational impulse.
“I should sleep,” she said.
“All right,” Jake said, offering up one last smile. “See you after the presentation tomorrow.”
“Yep,” she said faintly. Jake stood up to go, reaching for the handle. Her voice caught him up short. “Jake?”
“Do you really think surfacers are wasteful?”
“Do you want me to be honest, or nice?” he asked hesitantly.
“Honest’s worked so far,” she pointed out.
“I think the cruelest thing the Emperor ever did was build a world where his chosen live in such splendor, and everyone else lives in such deprivation,” Jake said truthfully. “It took effort not to resent surfacers.”
“Mmm.” Remilia thought for a moment. “Is it wrong of me to want to do something nice for you for helping me get my shit together?”
“No, but I won’t accept anything too expensive. I’ll feel bad. I’m full of contradictions like that,” he joked.
“Okay.” Remilia smiled into the downy cover. “You have a nice shoulder. Can I lean on it again some time?”
Jake chuckled. “If you need one.”
“Good. Say goodnight to everyone for me, okay?” she asked.
“You bet.” He turned the lights off with a wave. “Sleep well.”
Venus and the others were waiting for him when he got back. “Is she going to be all right?” Freya worried.
Jake smiled wearily. “She’ll be fine. She just needs about three days worth of sleep.”
“What she needs is a hot dicking and a father that doesn’t wish he had a son,” Freya growled.
“Hey,” Jake said, frowning at her. “She’s a mess. Just let her be. Can you get her to school tomorrow? She said she would want to visit Miranda’s to thank Lord Magnus for his help after the presentation.”
“I’ll do it,” Freya said.
“All right.” Jake grabbed his jacket. “Then, if you don’t mind, I think I need to head out.”
“Me too,” Pietro said, fishing his keys out of his pocket. “Thanks for having us over, Freya.”
“Hey, any time.” The perky redhead watched the others file out and say their goodbyes, until she was alone in the room. A serf popped his head in from a side door.
“Freya, may I tidy up a bit?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, standing up. “We’re done.”
“Very well,” the serf said, making for the pile of dishes in the middle of the sitting room. Freya stood up, brushing her knees free of crumbs.
Remilia was pulling the covers up when yet another knock came from the door. “Who’s there,” she asked blearily.
“Me,” Freya called back. “Can I come in?”
“Uh…okay,” Remilia said, yanking the covers up a bit higher.
Freya pushed the old-fashioned wood doors open and walked in, closing them behind her. “Hey. I’m glad you got to talk with Jake.”
“Yeah,” Remilia said wearily. “He’s good people.”
“He is.” Freya didn’t wave the lights up; her eyes could see through the darkness like there was a searchlight in each one. “Are you going to be OK?”
“Not for a few days, but eventually, I suspect so,” Remilia said, letting her head fall back to the pillows.
“…Do you want to know what my Dad would say if he were here?” Freya asked hesitantly.
“What?” Remilia sighed.
“‘Your cousin needs a vacation,’ I think,” Freya intoned.
“Hah! He’s not wrong.”
“After graduation, I think we should go on a tour. You, me, Venus, Alex, Jake. Just a few months. Go see the galaxy a little,” Freya said.
“…A road trip? Really?”
“Yeah. Fenris, Nocturne. Venus really wants to go home, see it. I do too.”
“I can’t say I’m fucked to see Inwit, but a vacation sounds grand,” Remilia said. “Maybe I can guilt Dad into loaning me the Phalanx.” Freya didn’t answer for a moment, and Remilia huffed. “It was a joke.”
“Oh. I was really unsure for a moment.” Freya padded silently over to where her sister lay, and gingerly leaned down next to her. “I mean it. Stay a while. Get your head together.”
“Thanks, Freya,” Remilia said. Freya nipped her ear. “Now go get some sleep yourself, OK? Presentations.”
“Right.” Freya straightened up. “Good night.”
Alex pulled his shorts down, admiring his physique in the mirror in the bathroom of Freya’s suite. Glancing over his reflection, he finished his bathroom processes and thought over what Freya had said. A road trip? Really? To Fenris and to Nocturne? As much as it sounded awesome, he had his doubts. He knew Leman Russ was slowly growing to like him, even if he was still openly uncomfortable around him. But would the other Wolves tolerate some non-genemodded human in their midst?
The door to the bedroom swung open. He hurriedly cracked the door open, catching a glimpse of Freya’s red hair in the bedroom. “Hey. She OK?”
“She’s fine. She loved the idea of a trip,” Freya answered, replacing him in the bathroom.
“Yeah? I’m a bit nervous, myself,” Alex admitted. The door to the bathroom closed behind his girlfriend, cutting off his words. He slid into the bed, waving the lights down to total blackness. After a few minutes passed, he tensed up, waiting. He strained his ears, listening for any sign of her return. The door to the bathroom opened up, and he caught a hint of her outline in the darkness as she turned the lights off. He stretched his hearing out to its limits, trying to find her.
“Give up,” she whispered from his side of the bed. “You won’t catch me until I let you.”
“Unless I get lucky,” he whispered back.
“You will only catch me if you’re about to get lucky,” she corrected him, crawling across him and snuggling under the covers.
“Well put.” Alex wrapped an arm under her shoulders, pulling her in. “To that end…”
“Sorry. I can’t enjoy myself with Remilia falling apart at the seams a few halls down,” Freya said apologetically. She kissed him on the forehead. “I’d feel bad for her.”
“Aw. The one night her father’s nose isn’t in the house and she doesn’t wanna fuck.” Alex leaned back against the headboard and snapped his fingers. The window creaked open, letting a little of the light and sound from the field outside filter into the room. “Did you hear me when I said I was a bit off-kilter about this whole trip thing?”
“Yeah. Dad’s old friends put the scare in you?” she asked.
“Baby, your friends are eight-foot tall killing machines with serrated canines and mongoose reflexes. They scare the shit out of me. How are they gonna react when I stroll into the Fang hand in hand with you?”
“Catcalls, challenges to drinking contests, pats on the back, and at least one semi-serious offer to induct you into the Wolves. Then Dad will hold a feast to welcome himself back to the Fang, and we’ll have a grand old time, while you draw the eyes and envy of every serf in the fortress,” Freya predicted happily.
“…You’ve thought about this, haven’t you,” Alex accused.
“Yep! You’ll like them, you really will,” Freya promised.
“Hmmph. If you say so,” Alex said.
Outside, Jake lifted his car off the ground and started out. “Hey, you want to do something tonight?” he asked. “It’s only 2200.”
“Hmm…” Venus thought it over, then shook her head. “No thanks. Can we just head out? It’s been pretty rough.”
“That’s what I mean,” Jake said, keying in her address anyway. “Something to take the edge off.”
“Um…actually,” Venus said, “could we divert to your place instead?”
He shrugged. “Works for me,” Jake said, keying the pad. “But won’t the Treasury get on your ass over it?”
“Eh, not again,” she said, waving off his concerns. The car soared over to the airlock, queuing up behind the usual evening traffic. Jake looked out at the row of Seeker drones by the lock. The little machines weren’t remote-controlled, but they weren’t completely autonomous either, he knew. They had set instructions to scan passing vehicles and divert their autopilots if need be. What they did to manually-piloted craft, he didn’t know. But then, who flew the airlock manually?
“Can I ask what you and Remilia talked about?” Venus asked, breaking into his thoughts.
Jake grimaced, wondering how private she was asking her to be. “She…really confided in me. I was surprised. She wanted a ‘hiver’s perspective.’”
Venus gaped. “Are you serious?” she asked. “That’s so rude.”
“Yeah, but…I can’t get mad at her. She wanted to know how hivers settle family disputes. I couldn’t really find a polite way to tell her that we’re a fairly complex group and can’t really be shoe-horned into one group like that, so I just let it slide.”
“Well, I’m sorry she put you on the spot like that,” Venus said.
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. And I didn’t mind answering her other questions. She wanted to know if I ever argued with my father, or with you.”
“What did you tell her?” Venus asked. She wasn’t judging, she just wanted to know.
“Nothing too intimate. I think she just wants someone to talk to. Frankly, I think she needs a guy,” Jake said, as the car slid through the lock.
Venus made a non-committal sound, thinking about what he had said. “Do you like Freya’s road trip idea?”
“I think it’s awesome. I can’t wait,” Jake said, grinning from ear to ear. “I’ve always wanted to go into space.”
“I’ve been to Mars a few times, but I’ve never left the Solar Core,” Venus said, using the technical term for all bodies within the Jovian orbit. “Went to the experimental EASTF plant on Mercury with Dad when I was four. So boring. Had to stay inside the radiation shields the whole time.”
“Probably wise,” Jake noted. The car swooped over the token Praetor vehicle under the lock, flying for the apartment. “I’m really looking forward to this,” he continued. “You’ve told me a lot about Nocturne, but what is Fenris like? Freya never talks about it.”
“It’s a glacier world. Mostly. Some jungle at the equator, I think,” Venus said. “The Wolves rule over it as tribal gods. The hardiest tribal warriors’ children join the Wolves as inductees and go through training like the rest of the Legions. Or did you mean the culture?”
“Well, if it’s a tribal world, there won’t be too much technology, will there?” Jake reasoned.
“We won’t be going outside, much, trust me,” Venus promised. “Predators on Fenris can grow the size of aircars. And those are the birds.”
“Awesome,” Jake said happily. “When do we leave?”
“Heh. It’ll be a while. I think my parents are going to want to hold a get-together after the ceremony. Graduation party, you know. And I will definitely need to find a ship to carry us,” she went on. “I want this to be somewhat low-key. Maybe a Salamander ship.”
“Hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted. “…Do you have your own ship?”
Venus shook her head. “No, even we aren’t allowed our own ships. We’d be diverting Navigators from the Merchant fleets for nothing.”
The car coasted to a halt in the lot outside his hab structure. As they climbed out, Jake discreetly palmed the little plastic box under his seat and slid it into his pocket before locking the car and following Venus out. His parents were sitting in the eating nook, chatting over the remains of a late dinner, when they spotted their son and his girlfriend. “Hey, you two,” George called out, brushing his hands off and standing up, as he always did by instinct when he saw Venus. “How was it?”
“Horrible,” Venus said heavily.
“What was wrong?” Sandra asked in surprise.
Venus glanced at Jake for support before continuing. “Remilia’s having a lot of trouble at home.”
“Aw, that’s a shame,” Sandra said, standing too. “Is she going to be all right?”
“Eventually, I hope.” Venus glanced at Jake again, this time in mischief. “I think the road trip will help.”
“Read trip?” George asked.
“Yep. She, Freya, and I are going on vacation after graduation,” Venus announced.
“And I’m going with them,” Jake said proudly.
George blinked. “You are?”
“Yes. Me and Alex are going with,” Jake explained. “Three months or so, from graduation to just before school starts up again.”
“Well, that sounds like a lot of fun,” Sandra said. “Where are you going?”
Venus’s smile took on a sly grin. “I’m going home.”
“Nocturne?” George asked, stunned. “You’re going to Nocturne?”
“Yep!” she declared happily.
“I’ve wanted to try going into space since I was a kid,” Jake said excitedly. “We’re going to go do Nocturne and Fenris, for about a month each, with the rest of the time in travel.”
His father nodded. “Wow. Well, good on you, Jake, that sounds awesome,” George admitted. “How long before you head out?”
“Right after graduation party season,” Venus said cheerfully, “and I need to actually book us a ship. Nocturne and Fenris are both technically Death Worlds, so no passage on civilian ships, but I’m sure Dad or Horus can whip up a reason for us to go.”
“Will you be bringing Morticia with you? I’m sure she’d love to get out of the hospital for a while,” Sandra pointed out.
Venus’s eyes froze. Clearly she hadn’t thought of that. “…I bet she would, but A) her homeworld’s atmosphere is very, very toxic, and B) she may not be ready to go in three weeks.”
“Shame.” George smiled proudly. “Still, I’m sure it’ll be a grand time.”
“Have you ever been to space?” Venus asked the both of them.
“I’ve been to Mars eight or nine times,” George said.
Sandra shook her head. “Never.”
“Well, I’ve never been outside the Core,” Venus said.
“Hmm. Should be fun. Send pictures?” Sandra asked teasingly.
“Mom, we don’t leave for three weeks,” Jake laughed.
The four of them sat back down at the table, discussing the logistics of the expedition, until George looked at his watch and realized the time. “Well, some of us have work tomorrow, so I think we need to turn in.”
“All right, then, see you both tomorrow,” Jake said, standing too.
“You’re heading somewhere?” Sandra asked.
Jake stared. “Uh, no. Just…saying good night.”
“Oh. All right, good night then. See you later, Venus,” Sandra said, making for the tiny bathroom.
Bathroom tasks accomplished, both elder Seagers retired, leaving Jake and Venus alone. Jake let the nervous grin he had been holding the entire time out, reaching across the table and grabbing her hand. He lifted it up to his lips, as much out of romance as to hide the goofy look. “Stay with me tonight?” he asked softly. Venus bit her own lip, casting a stare at the closed door to the master bed.
“Can you? Won’t they hear?”
“Not if we’re careful,” Jake counseled. He pulled the little plastic box free with his other hand and flipped it slowly across his fingers, grinning broadly behind her hand. Venus squirmed a bit in her own seat, a smile working its way across her face too.
“…Sure, I’d love to.”
“Superb,” Jake said eagerly, pocketing the box again. He stood up, squeezing her hand again, and switched the lights off in the main room, opening the door to his own. “Show me where to go,” he said quietly.
One of the two glowing red eyes – now the only light in the room save the clock over the oven – narrowed a bit as Venus cocked an eyebrow, but she dutifully stood and walked up to the threshold of the bedroom, then backed slowly up until her legs hit the edge of the bed. Jake walked up in front of her and slid his hands down her back to her waist, then lifted gently and pushed, easing her down onto the bedspread. She clenched his jacket with both hands, pulling him down after her.
Jake pushed the door closed with his foot, kicking off his shoes as he did so. He let his fingers slip back up to the small of her neck, running his thumbs across the line of her collarbone. She leaned upwards a little, her eyes narrowing yet further, but actually getting brighter as her blood started pumping a bit faster. “The key,” he whispered, “and the thing that every hiver learns more or less as a matter of course, is silence.” He tugged his own jacket off, dropping it into the darkness beside the bed. “So,” he continued, “let me know how you feel…quietly.” He unhooked his belt and slid his pants off to join the jacket on the floor.
“Good idea,” she said softly, her voice thickening a bit. She undid her own clothes, dropping them down to his. “Like that?”
“Quick learner,” he said, his voice barely louder than his breath itself. He reached down to where his clothes had fallen, extracted the little box, pulled a condom out, and quickly applied it, the act illuminated by Venus’ hungry stare.
Her eyes ran back up to his face, bathing it in hot red light, as he settled into his rhythm, and went out completely as she closed them. He moved against her again and they flew wide open, but a finger to her lips kept her silent. She wrapped both arms around his back, holding him close, and moved one hand up to the nape of his neck, gently guiding him in for a kiss.
“…Silence is golden, it turns out,” she said almost inaudibly, shaky but jubilant. Neither of them said a word for the rest of their quiet lovemaking, just enjoying the simple intimacy of the moment.
When it was over, Venus lay curled up next to him as he cleaned up, the lights on now. They were just bright enough to get the job done. He pulled the towel he had laid out beforehand, just in case, out from under them, dropping it with the rest of the laundry. Venus looked over at him as he tugged the covers loose. “Should I sleep above the covers?” she asked faintly. Jake shook his head in confusion. “I’m kinda hot.” Jake nodded, accepting the great truth she had imparted, and ran a fond hand up her flank. She giggled, slapping his hand away. “I mean my skin.” Jake shook his head, pulling the covers back from the mattress with a smile. Venus looked at him for a moment, then wiggled under the covers. He slipped up against her back, planting a kiss on her neck. She made herself comfortable on the thin padding, lying on her side to save room. Distantly, she wondered what people did with single beds when they found a partner. Jake wrapped his arm around her middle, splaying his hand over her waist long enough to deliver a playful squeeze, before rolling over to lie back-to-back to her. From the sound of his breath, he was asleep in minutes. Venus lay there, dreamily content, and wondering about the logistics of their trip, until sleep took her too.
Remilia stumbled out of bed the next morning, glad she had thought to set an alarm before falling asleep. Finding her clothes cleaned and neatly deposited by the bedside by a servitor in the night, she ignored them entirely for the favor of the set of much nicer formal uniform clothes in her bag. Finding them suitable, she laid them out on the bedspread before starting her bathroom protocols.
Freya was busily devouring a stack of bacon and eggs in the kitchen when her cousin emerged, already in her nicer uniform. “Morning, Remilia,” she mumbled through a mouthful of toast. “You ready for your thing?”
“Well, it’s an early one, so I’m a little nervous, but I’ll be okay,” she replied. “How about you?”
“I’m good. Wide awake. You always sleep this late? I was up at 0530 to go work out,” Freya said.
“No, I’m usually up much earlier, but I was really tired.” They didn’t need to discuss why, of course. “What’s your workout routine, anyway?” Remilia asked, examining the obscene amount of food in front of her cousin.
“Mmph,” Freya said expressively, then forced herself to swallow before continuing. “Start with a four mile run around the lot, then a one-seventy rep hauler’s circuit. Usually do some free weights too, but I skipped that today.”
“…Uh huh,” Remilia said, eyeing the stack of food. Suddenly such a caloric intake seemed much more reasonable. “Where can I get some of that?” Freya jerked a thumb over her shoulder to the cooking servitor, and Remilia walked over to place her own order.
By the time Freya’s driver had announced that it was time to depart, both girls were ready, and climbed in. Freya noted that Remilia wasn’t turning on her vox. Remilia shook her head silently, when Freya asked why, and her redheaded cousin decided not to press the issue.
“So, when’s your presentation?” Remilia asked.
“Thursday morning,” Freya said, “and it’s Wednesday now, so I think I’m going to just chill here and work until I can call this paper finished,” she grumbled.
“Okay.” The two of them clambered out of the car and walked in, Remilia nervously straightening her formal uniform. “How do I look?”
“You look fine, you’ll handle it perfectly,” Freya shushed, following her down the hall to the classroom they had chosen for the presentation. “Now go, knock ‘em dead.”
Remilia managed a little smile. “Thanks, Freya.” She was reaching out to grab the door when a thought struck her. “Wait, wasn’t Alex with you last night?”
“He had to go home early,” Freya said regretfully. “You just missed him. Practice for the semis.”
“Ah, okay.” Remilia drew in a deep breath, let it out. “Okay. Wish me luck.”
“Luck,” Freya said happily, closing the door behind her cousin.
Omegan picked up her envelope and sighed under her breath, trying to dispel last-minute nerves. She knew what grade she had received, down the point. Alpharia had already gone, there was nobody else in the room but the proctor. So why was she nervous? Irritated, she brushed the nerves aside. She grabbed the envelope, pulling the paper inside out, and scanned the first few lines. A shiny, red A decorated the top of the page. Omegan relaxed. “Excellent.”
“You did very well, Omegan,” the proctor said. “The visuals on your paper were very clever.”
“Thank you, Miss Cortel,” Omegan said, sliding the paper back into the envelope and dropping it into the bag. “I admit to some nerves beforehand.”
“You wouldn’t be the only one,” the art teacher noted. “I was nervous when I did mine, too. And I picked a much broader topic than you.”
“What did you pick?” Omegan asked, as she picked up her things to go.
“I picked ‘The Negative Effects of Hive Cube Stratification on the Economic Future of Terra,’” the teacher said.
“Cheerful,” Omegan noted. “Well…I guess this is goodbye, isn’t it?” she asked, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot in the empty classroom.
“It is. Have a nice summer, Omegan,” the teacher said, waving slightly as her student moved to go.
“You too, ma’am,” Omegan said as she closed the door.
Alpharia and Victoria were waiting in the lobby, under the watchful eye of a pair of beehives. A few well-wishers and sycophants were dispersing as she arrived; clearly, they’d been there a while. Alpharia noted her sister’s approach with a smirk. “See? Nothing to worry about.”
“How do you know how it went?” Omegan asked.
“I have my sources,” Alpharia said happily.
“Yeah, and they’re loud and annoying,” Omegan grumbled. “How did you do, Vicky?”
“I scraped the visuals. But the speech went perfectly, and the paper was fine, so whatever,” Victoria said, shrugging. As per her usual tastes, she had somehow contrived for the buttons on her shirt themselves to be loose enough for the motion to set up some interesting echoes in her ample cleavage. “A-.”
“That’s still good,” Omegan said.
“Yeah, the paper was really just an end cap, I’m done with this place,” the platinum blonde said airily. “I’m looking out for the trip.”
“Trip? Where are you going?” Alpharia asked. Victoria turned wide eyes on her cousin.
“Wow! Really? I managed to get a piece of intelligence past the Twins? That’s a first,” she said.
Alpharia sighed patiently. “You going on summer vacation?”
“No, I’ve decided to take Mom up on her offer,” Victoria said, pushing the door to the outside. “I’m taking a year off. She wants me to start learning how to run the Foundation.”
“Huh. I thought you decided to go to college and get that degree of yours first,” Alpharia said.
“I did. Then…Morticia happened,” Victoria said, climbing into the stretch limo in the parking lot.
“Why did that change your mind?” Omegan asked.
“Well…maybe I’ve just had enough of school for a while. But I also want the chance to spend some more time on my own, you know? Learning how to run the Foundation,” Victoria hedged.
Omegan and Alpharia didn’t need to exchange a sly grin. They both knew the other had one. “That’s your choice to make. What does Uncle Fulgrim think?” Alpharia asked.
“He’s happy with it, too. But I think he would have been happy if I didn’t wait, either.” The aircar lifted off, soaring into the heart of the noble district.
“I’m not taking a year off. Straight to college with me,” Omegan said. “Already got accepted at Newbanks. Political Science.”
“Same for me,” Alpharia noted. “But I’m going to Kouthry, like Venus and Cora.”
“Really?” Victoria asked, looking back and forth between them. “Different schools for the first time?”
“Yeah. It’s about time,” Omegan sighed dramatically. Alpharia couldn’t help but grin. She’d have said the same thing.
“What program, Alpharia?”
“Education, for now.”
Victoria leaned back, idly passing her envelope between her hands. “Since when are you even remotely interested in teaching?”
“I’m a multi-faceted girl, Vicky,” Alpharia said mysteriously. “And I think I would do it really well. I was always good at finding out everything I need to know to talk to people for the first time.”
Morticia knelt, lifting the little metal cube off of the floor, and stood straight up, shifting her weight through her knees as instructed. Her therapist nodded. “Good! Any pain in the back?”
“No, it feels fine,” Morticia said, experimentally working her shoulders. “No pain, no shortness of breath…”
“Then, my dear, in record time…I think you’re ready,” the therapist said, smiling indulgently.
Morticia beamed. “Fantastic. No offense, but I’ve had enough of this hospital to last a lifetime.”
“So I would imagine, my Lady,” the therapist said. “And just in time for graduation,” she added.
“Yeah, I was really hoping that I would get out of it,” the gray-eyed teen said dolefully.
The therapist cocked her head. “You…wanted to miss graduation?”
“I HATE ceremonies,” Morticia grumbled, swapping out the thin surgical shirt for a thicker black and green number she’d had sent from home. Grabbing the pile of clothes, she scooted behind the privacy screen while the therapist politely averted her eyes.
“I’d think that going to your graduation after you were told you couldn’t would be something to look forward to,” she said, turning her attention to the paperwork.
Morticia snorted, pulling her own pants back on. “For you, maybe. I’m going to be gawked at by reporters and various other bottom-feeders for months, starting the second I set foot outside. I’ll pass.”
“I think it would make your family very happy to see you walk across a stage,” the therapist said. When Morticia didn’t answer, she backpedaled. “Though of course it’s your decision.”
Morticia sighed quietly as she finished dressing. “I guess you’re right. It’s only a few hours long of a ceremony. I just wish people didn’t attach such importance to it.”
Remilia walked out of the classroom in which she had made her presentation, checked to make sure nobody was looking, then let out a sigh of relief. She had aced it. She had NAILED it. And now…she was done. Bar a few exams in the coming week, she was well and truly done at Imperator. She straightened up, a giddy squeal escaping her lips. Looking side to side, she didn’t spot any of her usual cohort of friends and relatives, so she took off for the library, hoping to catch Freya.
Freya herself was buried in a Calculus textbook when Remilia nearly tackled her. “Gurf, geddof,” she managed through her cousin’s headlock. She swatted the offending arms away, and stared up at her cousin. “Well?”
“I aced it!” Remilia squealed happily, throwing her arms around Freya again.
“Yeah? Good job!” Freya said, finally returning the hug. The student behind the counter looked over at her pointedly, tapped his lips. Freya took the hint and lowered her voice. “Do you want to head out now, or stay and get ready for the test?”
“Might as well stay,” Remilia said regretfully. She sat down next to Freya and dislodged her textbook from her bag with an effort, opening it up the Review section. “The presentation was tricky, but I think I got the point across.”
“Good. How many judges?”
“Only three,” Remilia said. “I thought there were supposed to be five.”
“That’s for the honors students only,” Freya said. “Roberta had five.”
“Oh.” The two girls sank into silence as they worked, passing notes back and forth as required, until Freya glanced at her watch.
“It’s 1600. Want to head home?”
“Yeah, I’ve had enough of this for one day,” Remilia said irritably. Checking to make sure the student at the desk wasn’t looking, she opened her vox and checked.
She looked over the tiny screen and sighed. “Two messages. One from Mom, one from…also Mom, but using her office vox.”
“Are you going to call her?” Freya asked, as they packed up their stuff.
Remilia thought for a moment, her eyes downcast. “I think I have to.”
Freya nodded in sympathy. “If you want to wait…”
Remilia’s grateful smile betrayed much weariness. “Thanks, but I need to get this over with.” Both girls trooped out of the building in silence, climbing into the car that had sat patiently in the lot for them. Once they were in, Remilia engaged the vehicle’s soundproofing, and started to dial the number for her mother’s office…and stopped. She fidgeted a bit, then hit the END button before the call could go out.
“I think I need to wait,” Remilia said. Freya looked at her, her heart aching.
“Take your time.” The car zipped over the noble district, depositing the pair at the Russ mansion. Remilia paused at the driveway, then looked down at the vox.
“Freya…can you take this in? I want to do this out here,” Remilia said, hefting her bag.
“Sure. I’ll be in making a snack if you want something,” Freya said, taking the bag, with one last worried look over her shoulder before she walked up the steps.
A Veiled Insult
Remilia sat down on the stoop, flipping the vox on and hitting the CID key. After one ring, her mother snatched up her own vox. “Remilia! My god, sweetie! What happened?!” she gasped into the speaker.
“I lost my shit, what else,” Remilia growled. Suddenly the opportunity for a peaceful reconciliation was out of reach, it seemed. “I asked Dad why he never tried to help me get over my problem, if he had done it himself. He gave me some garbage about strength through adversity.”
“Well…he never wanted you to know about his own history. He didn’t want to scare you, I think. Remilia-” she said hesitantly, before Remilia’s curt reply cut her off.
“Bullshit, Mom. If he had overcome it himself, the very fucking LEAST he could have done was help me do the same. Like a FATHER. But nooooo, he just had to threaten me with hospitalization and lecture me about weakness,” Remilia snarled.
Remilia’s mother was quiet for a long moment. When she spoke again, her voice was tremulous. “Remilia, sweetheart, I’m sorry he said that. Can you come home? I want to talk to you.”
“We’re talking now,” Remilia pointed out. “And you’re not at home. I hear the fans in your office.”
“I mean…” the voice on the other end struggled for words. “I want to talk to you. How did your presentation go?”
“Aced it, I think,” Remilia said, allowing a brief change of subject. “Aside from the Calculus test Monday, I’m done.”
“That’s really good to hear, I know you worked hard on it. Are you…coming home for graduation?”
“Mom, I’m sitting on the stoop of Freya’s mansion, I can see our house from here,” Remilia pointed out.
“Remilia, you essentially told your father that you were leaving indefinitely. I am well within my rights to be worried sick,” her mother said, a little anger flaring in her voice.
Remilia grimaced. “Mom, damn it…I’m disappointed enough in this year as it is. Morticia gets fucking SHOT, I nearly come to blows with Dad…I’ve had enough of the house for a while. I’ll be home before the road trip, I’m sure.”
“…Road trip?” Lady Dorn’s voice took on the tones of someone waiting for the other shoe to drop. “What road trip?”
“I’ve had enough of Terra for a while,” Remilia said. “I’m going on a vacation with Venus and Freya, and their boyfriends.”
“Oh, well…that sounds fun. Where?”
“Fenris first, then Nocturne,” Remilia said, privately enjoying the little gasps of surprise her mother made at the names. “One month of each, then home before school starts.”
“That…Remilia, sweetie, those are Death Worlds,” her mother said, worry replacing anger again. “You won’t be safe!”
“Out on the plains, maybe, but we’ll be staying in the Fortresses,” Remilia said. “It’s decided. We’re leaving in…let’s see…nineteen days.”
“Well…all right. Is Morticia coming with you?” Lady Dorn asked.
“She can if she wants to, but I suspect that she won’t be up to it,” Remilia said. She sensed her aggravation fading and tried to redirect the conversation. “I’ll ask her anyway.”
Lady Dorn squeezed the vox in her hand, trying to find something, anything, that could help to explain what her daughter was trying to do. She couldn’t. “Remilia…you know you can talk to me about things, right?”
“When? Over our ever-so-cozy family dinners, which we hold so often? Perhaps when you’re there when I’m crying in pain the bathroom?” Remilia shot back. “I go weeks without seeing Dad, I go a week or two at a time without seeing you. When exactly can I talk to you about things?”
“Remilia, THAT is not FAIR,” her mother snapped. “You’re not the only person who ever needs my time.”
Remilia stared at her vox, overcome with disgust. “Right. And the ability to prioritize them is one you have in abundance. I’m going to go thank Magnus for helping me. I’ll call you some time.” She hung up before her mother could say anything else, or before she could apologize for herself.
A distant black speck appeared outside the holofield, slowly growing larger as Remilia turned the vox off, fighting the instinct to throw it into orbit. The speck suddenly resolved into a vehicle, flying in over the Treasury line to settle down in front of the house. Not wanting to inspire questions, Remilia pocketed the vox and walked up into the house, to get ready to fly to Mangus’.
After freshening up a bit and changing out of her school clothes – maybe for the last time, she realized – she walked back into the greatroom to see a pair of Custodes and a full squad of un-armored Space Wolves already assembled. They were deep in conversation with Freya about something, and didn’t pause to address her, so she simply waited out of sight in the kitchen. Freya, after a few minutes indistinct discussion with her guests, wandered in, looking a bit harried. “Ah, there you are,” she said, yanking the fridge open and pulling a jug of water out. “Sorry about that, the arrangements for the trip are stepping on people’s toes.”
“I wouldn’t want to trouble you,” Remilia said.
“Oh, hush,” Freya scolded, “it just means we’ll be going on a Salamanders ship instead of a Space Wolves one. You ready to go to Magnus’ house?”
“Yeah, I am,” Remilia said. She fidgeted for a moment. “…Freya, what do I ask?”
“What’s to ask? Just thank him for helping you get your shit straightened out,” Freya said, pausing to slug some water.
“But it didn’t help at all! Now my parents are reaching for my throat!” Remilia complained.
“But it’s better than the alternative,” Freya said. “And you said you would.”
“I guess I did, didn’t I,” Remilia grumbled. “Fine. Can I ride with you?”
“You can go alone, if you want,” Freya said. “I’m gonna go hit the gym.”
“Oh.” Remilia looked down to the floor, her courage faltering. “I should.” She took a deep breath, steeling her courage. “All right. Freya?”
Freya paused, halfway out the door herself. “Yeah?”
Remilia wrapped her arms around her cousin’s waist. “Thanks for everything.”
Freya grinned, squeezing Remilia’s hands against her flanks. “Don’t mention it. Don’t get too mad, OK?”
“I promise,” Remilia said sadly. She released her grip on Freya’s midsection and walked out the door, looking for the limousine. The driver must have been notified from inside the house that she was coming, because he was waiting in the lot beside the house, already idling.
Remilia climbed in and the car accelerated into the air, leaving Remilia to her troubled thoughts. What would she say to him? She gripped the armrest of the seat, her stomach rumbling in nerves. Her distraction lasted until the minute the car settled down. Steeling herself, she nodded to the driver as he opened the door, and walked up to the imposing front door of the mansion. The slabs of metal, emblazoned with an ourobouros design, had no visible seam, thanks to their careful design and placement.
Before Remilia could knock on them, however, they swung open, betraying their deceptively low weight. Remilia took a step into the darkened antechamber, when a hand reached out and grabbed her, pulling her into the house.
Remilia stiffened, her hands gripping her assailant to throw them, but relaxed just in time. Her attacker had thick red hair and jasmine perfume, and was crying profusely.
“Remilia, I’m so sorry,” Miranda sobbed. She clamped her arms around Remilia’s shoulders and squeezed like a vice. “Please, please forgive me, we had no idea that would happen!”
“Miranda, it’s okay,” Remilia said, trying to soothe her cousin. “Really, I don’t blame you.”
Miranda pushed back from the blonde soccer player, her hands tightening on her shoulders even more. Her bandana was off; her eye was flaring with an unnerving light. “Yes, you do! Don’t hide it,” she said, her voice dropping to a miserable whisper. “I deserve it. I thought Dad and I could help, but…but…we d-drove you out of your own house,” she wailed, burying her face in her hands. Her knees wobbled, and she tipped against the wall, absolute humiliation dripping from her soul. “I’m so sorry,” she managed, her breath shaking. She clamped her hands over her mouth, squeezing all three eyes shut, looking unsteady.
Remilia stared at her, guilt twisting her own stomach. Nerves, guilt, and exhaustion combined, until she felt a tear gather in her eye too. “Miranda, please don’t cry,” she said, letting her weariness show. She sat the weeping girl down in the chair in the alcove, trying to let her resentment, or whatever Miranda was seeing inside her, fade.
Miranda’s back heaved in grief and self-recrimination, as her despair overwhelmed her. “It never fails. I try to use my insight to help people, and I ruin it.”
“Stop that talk NOW,” Remilia said, anger pushing her guilt aside. “I will NOT hear that again. If someone else’s insight could bring things to a head with Dad like that, then it was inevitable. Or worse, it would NEVER happen, and things would just get worse. So stop it. Okay?” She leaned over to stare into Miranda’s eyes, tricky enough when she had three, harder yet when she was avoiding eye contact. “Stop crying, all right? I promise I’m not angry at you.”
Miranda sniffed, her sobs quieting. “What are you going to tell Dad?”
“What I’d like to know more is how you even found out,” Remilia said, dodging the question. “It only happened last night.”
“I was studying for my final test on Monday, and I felt something like a dam giving way, from your house. Then I see a car heading for Freya’s house, and it wasn’t hard to figure out,” Miranda said tightly, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. “That, and Rogal wasn’t at work today until noon, and…and nearly beat the shit out of Dad when he got in.”
Remilia gasped. “WHAT? Dad tried to-”
“They didn’t fight, but only because there were two full platoons of Custodes in between them,” Miranda admitted, her hands twisting the kerchief. “Or Rogal would have done it.”
“If he was dumb enough to blame Uncle Magnus, fuck him,” Remilia said coldly. Miranda looked up at her in wonder.
“…You mean that. You really do.”
“Like I said,” Remilia said, her voice still frigid. “All your father did was head the problem off.”
“That does not excuse it,” Magnus’ resonant voice said from the hall. He walked up slowly from the stairs to his office, head hung in regret. “Remilia, whether you think you need them or not, please accept my heartfelt apologies, and my desire to pay recompense. You did not deserve that. I would not have done it if I thought it would have ended so poorly.” He turned his gaze to the side for a moment, as Miranda’s own eyes narrowed suspiciously. “No,” he amended, “I would have tried my best to heal the rifts in your soul, and hoped that you would have been able to reconcile with your father, but I would not have called him to let him know you were coming.”
“Why did you do that?” Remilia asked.
“Because I was hoping that a brief discussion of his shortcomings would make your own, inevitable confrontation more equitable. It has worked before, if you can believe that,” Magnus said. “I failed. Regardless, you are welcome to stay here until you feel comfortable at home once more.”
“Well, I do appreciate it, but Freya’s already put me up for as long as I need,” Remilia said tiredly. Miranda offered her a tiny smile as the small amount of blame towards her and her father vanished from Remilia’s heart. “But…I have to know.” Apprehension flared in her, striking a distinct tone in both psykers’ vision. “Am I…you know, healed?”
Magnus nodded. “The trauma you have suffered may have scarred your mind, dear child, but your soul was tempered, not broken. You have nothing to fear.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Remilia allowed. She passed a fresh tissue to Miranda, before glancing at the door, where the limo was still visible, idling on the drive. “Hey, what are you doing after graduation?”
“In the short term, I want to go to work at the Scholastica Psykana office where Dad works,” Miranda said, a touch of pride filling her voice. Magnus nodded serenely.
“I mean after graduation, as in, what are you doing this summer?” Remilia asked.
“Oh. I’m going on vacation to Carshim, the resort world,” Miranda said. “Why do you ask?”
Remilia fidgeted a bit. “I guess I just want to make sure we can all keep in touch after school ends.”
Miranda smiled ruefully. “I know that feeling. I hear you’re off on a…’road trip?’”
“Yeah, I’m going with Freya and Venus on their home tour,” Remilia said, glad for the change of subject.
“Well, that should be fascinating,” Miranda said. “Can’t say I’ve ever been to a Death World before. Oh, and speaking of vacations, have you heard that Professor Ahriman has submitted a request for a sabbatical?” Remilia shook her head.
“No. Is he going to write a book or something?”
“He wishes to return home to Prospero, to contemplate,” Magnus interjected. “After what has transpired because of him…I do not blame him.”
“Who’s going to replace him?” Remilia asked.
“Another former member of the Thousand Sons,” Magnus said. “And a former student of mine.”
“He offered to use psychic healing on Morticia,” Miranda supplied, “but Mortarion and Morticia both refused outright.”
Remilia grimaced. “Can’t blame them. If she’s going to heal on her own, anyway.”
Miranda nodded glumly. She flicked a lock of red out of her eyes, looking at her cousin askance. “Well…I don’t want to keep you.”
“Uncle Magnus, Miranda, I mean it. I do appreciate what you did. This couldn’t have done me any good just festering under the surface,” Remilia said, standing up.
“Perhaps, dear girl, but I wish it could have been resolved better,” Magnus said wearily.
Remilia nodded, a grim smile on her face. “So do I.”
The Trial, Part One
Morticia gripped the brace she had clipped to her arm, leaning it on the tiled floor of the hospital. She was dressed in her street clothes, which her father had delivered, and with a handful of serfs following her with her possessions and the gifts she had received. Several of the doctors who had worked with her during her stay were waiting on the route out of the ward, with well-wishes and advice. Morticia thanked them in turn, and paused as she reached Grant in the line.
“Good luck out there, Madam,” Grant said, offering her a formal little bow.
Morticia patiently sighed.
Grant quirked his lips, as he tried not to smile in front of the staring guards and doctors. “Good luck out there, Morticia.”
“Thanks,” she said, finally returning the bow. “I appreciate the effort. Maybe I’ll see you under less horrific circumstances some time.”
“I would like that,” Grant said. Morticia smiled at him and continued down the row, until she reached the elevator. Punching the button for the roof, she watched the numbers above the door crawl up to ninety. As the doors opened, a pair of Death Guard serfs flanking the door bowed formally, both proffering their arms. Morticia waved them off, determined to make it across the garage on her own. Limping into the open structure, she crossed the curb and parking lines, reaching her waiting car. She looked around the interior, hoping to see a familiar face, but it was empty.
Shrugging in disappointment, she waited for the serfs to fill the car with her possessions, then braced herself against the armrest as the vehicle lifted from the ground.
The vehicle swooped over the cityscape, flying the short distance to Mortarion’s mansion. Morticia allowed the driver to assist her in climbing out, and walked slowly to the door of her home.
Before she could even reach the handle, the door flew open. Mortarion himself appeared inside, crossing the threshold in an instant. He dropped to one knee to more conveniently embrace his daughter. “Morticia, welcome home,” he said softly, taking care not to aggravate her wound.
She squeezed her eyes shut, holding back a tear of relief. “Hi Dad,” she replied, returning the hug with equal care. “It feels good to be home.”
“I bet it does,” Mortarion said, ushering her inside. The procession of serfs that had followed the limo in their own vehicles silently transported the goods they carried into the house and trooped up to Morticia’s room to deposit it, while the girl herself sank into a chair, tired from the trip. “How long must you use that crutch, Morticia?” her father continued.
“At least until graduation, sadly,” Morticia replied dolefully. “It’s better than a wheelchair.”
“I took the liberty of calling the school and having your finals and presentation delayed until the end of the exam period,” Mortarion said, gesturing at the pile of papers on the table in front of his daughter. “So you can get back into the swing of things at a more restful pace.”
She nodded in gratitude. “Thanks, Dad, I really appreciate that.”
“No trouble, Morticia,” her father replied, placing his hands on her shoulders. She reached up and gave one a reassuring squeeze. “I don’t want you to feel rushed.”
By Friday, the entire planet was holding its breath. The trial of Ulysses Keiter was about to begin. Naturally, a Trial Seclusarius meant no cameras, but it was still a spectacle. An army of journalists lined up outside the Precinct, facing off with the army of Arbites – and, behind them, Custodes – protecting the proceedings.
Hane stood behind his desk, mind racing. He and Felger had arrived, exchanged the usual arrangement of pleasantries and paperwork, and set about preparing their places in the courtroom, waiting for Mako to arrive. The witnesses had arrived one at a time, being security screened piecemeal. Morticia, he noted, was sitting such that he was directly between her and the defendants’ seat. He found it very, very hard not to feel sorry for her. Mortarion had insisted on being present for the trial, and had been rebuffed every time; court decorum would no more accommodate him than any other of the Primarchs.
The seven witnesses the two lawyers had called were sitting silently behind the defense desk, fidgeting under the scrutiny of the Arbites Bailiffs. Hane recognized two from his own work: a ballistics officer from the crime lab and a member of his staff who had interviewed Keiter before the trial. The others were an eclectic mix indeed.
One was a member of the Civil Honors Union, and Keiter’s closest friend. One was a member of Morticia’s family that she had outright insisted be present, as a witness or not. Two were members of the Treasury VIP office. The last was a member of the Hive Tetra Organized Crime Unit, which handled drug and weapons trafficking. Hane stiffened to attention as Mako walked in behind her seat and saluted the Bailiff, signaling the beginning of the trial.
“All rise, Her Honor Mako presiding,” the Bailiff loudly said. The people in the courtroom straightened up, nodding their respect. “The Adeptus Arbites of His Royal Majesty’s Courts are now adjudicating. Justice be done.”
Mako nodded once, removing her ornate helm and letting it rest on the bench beside her. “We, the Arbitrators of the Imperium, are called upon to settle a matter of criminal law. By the right of the defendant, the rules of Trial Seclusarius are invoked. Defendant Keiter, stand.”
Useless stood, rubbing his hands over his chin. His manacles clanked against each other as he did so, sounding impossibly loud in the room. “Do you understand the nature of these proceedings?” Mako asked.
“I do, your Honor.”
“Lady Morticia, as the offended party, do you also understand the nature of these proceedings?”
Morticia struggled to her feet, wiping a drop of blood from her cheek. “I do.”
“Then let the trial begin. Sieur Hane, present your case on behalf of the Imperium.”
Hane stood, holding a file folder in his hands. “Your Honor, I have here a transcription I wish to submit as Article 0.”
“Bring it forth,” the Judge said, holding out her hand. This portion of the trial was routine paperwork, the submission of charges. She rifled through the papers, noting their contents. “Do you, on behalf of the Imperium, submit the charges of Attempted Murder in the First Degree, Discharging a Weapon with the Intent to Kill, and Concealment of a Deadly Weapon without a Permit?”
“I do, your Honor.” The Emperor and Hane had had a barely civil argument over whether or not the charge of Regicide should have been lowered to murder, but in the end, the Emperor’s pragmatic side won out, and he acceded to Hane’s counsel. Adding the charge of Concealment had been wise, since neither man thought that Keiter would be able to avoid it, and its presence may have dissuaded Felger from pushing his luck with Rachnus’ resignation.
“Counselor Felger, have you received notice of these charges?”
“I have, your Honor,” Felger said, looking up from his dataslate.
“Sieur Hane, present your evidence,” the Judge said, tapping her gavel once. The witnesses shuffled around a bit, removing coats. Morticia let out a ragged breath, trying to relax. Keiter shot her a glance sidelong, but said nothing.
Hane walked back to his desk. “Your Honor, I wish to call to the bench Witness One.”
“Let the record show that Witness One is recorded as Senior Technician Seller,” the stenographer noted, speaking into the tiny microphone at her desk.
The first witness, the ballistics tech, walked up to the bench, and sat down after a cursory swearing-in. Hane walked up to the bench, brandishing a paper. “Please state your name.”
“Senior Technician Ezekiel Seller,” the tech said, leaning forward to speak into his microphone.
“Sieur Seller, I’ve called you here because of your experience in slugthrower weapons, sometimes colloquially called stubbers. Can you attest to your experience?” Hane asked.
“Sir, I am licensed to perform level One ballistics examinations in all portions of the continental Crime Labs network, and have testified at…exactly two hundred such trials,” the tech said, “this being the two hundredth.”
“So you know your guns, don’t you?” Hane offered.
“I certainly do, sir.”
Hane lifted the rifle on the rack behind him, carefully putting his fingers only on those parts of the gun that were coated in padding by the Crime Lab. “Can you identify this weapon?”
“I can, sir.”
“What is it?”
The tech leaned forward again. “That is a Gannet .402 rifle, sir, chambered for the MacMinister .402 cartridge.”
Hane carried the rifle up to the stenographer. “I wish to submit this as Article 1.”
“So noted,” the Judge said, looking down at the stenographer.
Kelly sat cross-legged in her room in the hospital, watching the news coverage. She twisted the piece of paper in her hands, staring at the holoscreen. They had nothing to say, of course. But they were talking. They were the talking Heads, after all. One of them was blathering on about the possibility of concurrence of the charges, should Keiter be found guilty. That idea appealed to Kelly not at all.
She flipped the channel to a different news station. This one was going on about how Julius Pius had been arrested and placed under house arrest for the stunt he had pulled in the Hives, and how Lord Warmaster Horus himself had testified at the trial, which was almost as sensational as the trial being held publicly. Kelly shook her head. Julius was a brave one, no doubt. The verdict was expected soon, since there was little room in the hearts of the Arbites for the gene-modded criminals Pius had shot.
Flipping the channel once more, she finally found something that didn’t worry her too much: a dispatch about a new class of Astartes candidates being selected from Terran PDF volunteers for induction into the World Eaters and Salamander Legions. They and the ships the Mars and Saturn shipyards had produced would be flying out to their respective homeworlds within a few weeks, the news reported. Kelly turned off the holovision, settling back against the pillow in her chair. She had already sent in the final paper she had written. The final exams were, as far as her grades went, miss-able or already excused. Morticia was fine. The shooter was going away forever.
So why, she wondered, did it still feel like there was a bullet aimed at her back at that very moment?
It was paranoia. She knew it. The therapist had said it. The Emperor himself, who had stopped in after visiting Morticia, had said it. So why couldn’t she get rid of it.
She grabbed the remote again, fighting the urge to slam it through the holoscreen. She gripped it until the plastic cracked, a little of her helpless anger leaking through.
Morticia had been shot, and she was recovering. Kelly felt helpless. What would it take? Why did she still feel so scared?
“Paranoia. It’s paranoia. That’s all it is,” she whispered fiercely, dropping the remote on the table. “Just a specter in the night.”
The trial ground on. With a Seclusarius trial, the testimonies were swift and productive, with neither side stopping for much more than meal breaks. As the second witness stepped down from the box, Hane glanced back at Morticia. She looked absolutely wiped out. Exhausted, enough that he felt sorry for her. She caught his eyes and offered up a tiny smile, but it couldn’t eclipse the weariness in her expression.
Keiter was fiddling with a dataslate, discussing something in muted tones with Felger. Neither of them had had more than cursory questions for the two forensic officers thus far, which was to be expected. Their entire case hinged on being able to convince Mako that Keiter had felt threatened enough by the ‘degredation’ of the people of Terra that he had taken leave of his senses. The forensic case was untouchably solid, so they would have to find another means of convincing Mako.
Hane now had two options. He could call up the witness that Keiter had named, his friend from the Civil Honors Union, or he could call up the law enforcement officers to confirm Keiter’s guilt. He suspected that the former option would serve him best; leaving the proof of Keiter’s guilt until later would make Mako less willing to allow a sympathy defense to fly.
“Your Honor, I call Witness Four to the stand,” Hane said aloud.
Keiter’s friend, Novandio, took the bench, sweating bullets.
Hane walked up to the witness bench as Novandio was being sworn in. “Sieur Novandio, please state your profession.”
“I’m a regional director for the Civil Honors Union,” Novandio said. He pushed his hair out of his eyes, blinking myopically in the brilliantly-lit courtroom.
“And what is that?” Hane asked.
“We’re a charity. We distribute mutancy testing kits and fund local libraries,” Novandio replied.
“How are you funded, sir?” Hane inquired.
“Mostly by private donations from local companies,” the Union worker said.
“Looking for tax writeoffs?” Hane supplied.
“Possibly. We don’t judge,” Novandio said.
“Do you receive any funding from the Imperial government?” Hane asked.
Novandio shook his head. “We do get some money from the Cube authority, but none from the Imperial government.”
“Am I to understand that the defendant is a former employee of yours?” Hane asked.
“He is not,” Novandio stated.
Hane nodded. “What is your relation to the defendant?”
“He used to volunteer for us,” Novandio said awkwardly. “He assisted with mutancy testing kit distribution.”
“And under what circumstances did his volunteering conclude?” Hane asked.
Novandio shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “…He was arrested for attempted murder,” he admitted.
Hane sensed his point being carried. “Thank you, Sieur Novandio.” He walked back to his desk, jotting a few notes down on his pad as he did so. Felger stood, taking Hane’s place in front of the witness bench.
“Sieur Novandio, how long did my client volunteer for you?”
“Approximately nine years,” Novandio said.
Felger nodded. “And in those nine years, how many times did my client perform any violent acts?”
“Never. Not once,” Novandio insisted.
“Did he ever carry a weapon on these distribution runs?” Felger asked.
“Not that I ever saw.”
“Did he ever pick a fight with anyone, verbally or otherwise?”
“No,” Novandio said.
“So in your experience, there was no reason with my clients’ character to have performed the acts of which he stands accused, was there?” Felger asked.
Novandio hesitated. “…No, there wasn’t.”
“Thank you, Sieur Novandio, I have no further questions,” Felger said, dismissing the witness with a nod.
The trial reached recess minutes later, as Judge Mako retired to her chambers to weigh the evidence. Morticia sank into a seat in the hallway, feeling the affair take its toll. Keiter hadn’t deigned to look at her much, but when he had, it had taken all she had in her not to shudder.
A warm hand squeezed her shoulder, jolting her from her brooding rest. Her bodyguard from the Treasury office, the woman been protecting her when she had been shot, was standing behind her. “How are you holding up?” she asked.
“It’s been rough, Sergeant,” Morticia admitted.
The bodyguard nodded in sympathy. The little Velcro strip on her breastplate named her Marchenka, the pips and chevrons on her shoulders declared her an E-6 Sergeant. “I bet it is.” She hesitated, trying to find words. “I want to apologize for that day, Morticia. If I had seen the bastard…”
“He would be dead, and better for it, I know,” Morticia said. “But don’t let it bother you. He was two kilometers away, and indoors. You had no way to know. Dad doesn’t blame you either.”
“That’s good.” Marchenka nodded once, then stepped back. “Well…I best get back out there. You make it through this, okay?”
“I promise, Sergeant,” Morticia said, wearily leaning on her crutch. She walked back in, nodding as the Sergeant held the door for her. “Wish me luck.”
By nightfall, all but two witnesses had been called. Seclusarius was a remnant of the older age of the Arbites, where justice had been meted out swiftly, and the Arbites had been little more than a military police force with civilian jurisdiction. Its methods were simple and harsh, with minimal interaction between the two sides of the debate beyond calling witnesses, and all of the actual decision-making left up to the presiding Judge. Some defendants believed that that arrangement conferred a greater advantage to them. In reality, the Judges tended, by and large, to come down hard on a defendant in this context.
Hane finished interviewing the second-to-last witness, and caught Mako’s eye. The Judge nodded, rising to her feet. Her shock maul clanked against her armor as she stood. “As the hour grows late and not all evidence has been presented, I hereby call this session of the Courts of the Emperor to a close. We shall convene at 0830 tomorrow. Justice be done,” she concluded, re-donning her helm. As the witnesses rose to their feet, the Judge climbed back down from the bench. The Bailiff prodded Useless into a side door, where the transport to carry him back to the lockup waited. The witnesses filed out one by one, as Felger took his leave with his client.
Hane turned over his shoulder to smile at Morticia. “You did quite well, Lady Morticia.”
“Thanks, Sieur Hane,” Morticia said tiredly. She wobbled to her feet, leaning heavily on her brace. “Think it’ll be over and done with in one more day?”
“I think the last witness will seal it up tight, Lady,” Hane said confidently.
“I bet,” Morticia said, exhaustion pulling at her soul.
Saturday rolled around, as the more media-conscious residents of Terra stayed glued to their holoscreens. Mako resumed the session of the trial, as both parties made their traditionally brief statements about the day’s activities. Hane cut a glance at Morticia, gauging how ready for the rigors of the day she looked. If anything, she looked a bit more stable now, but she was a far cry from being good as new. Still, she managed a hopeful grin as the last witness of the trial made his way in. Hane stood at the front of the courtroom, looking up at Mako, as the Bailiff sealed the doors.
“Your Honor, I wish to submit Article 19a,” Hane said, gesturing to the small object on the cart next to him.
“So noted,” Mako said, peering down at the little metal cart. The stenographer recorded the evidence’s presence as Hane lifted the box up to the bench.
“I have here one memory card, your Honor, containing Sieur Keiter’s personal journal,” Hane said. “The card is encrypted, with a normal corporate cipher, Aurex Four. The Arbites cybercrime lab has decoded it, and its transcript is present here, as Article 19b,” he continued, placing a data card on the cart.
“Objection, your Honor.” Felger stood. “My client’s personal thoughts are not subject to this court. If they were, the Emperor would have authorized psychic interrogation of my client.”
“Your Honor, the defendant stands accused of a crime of premeditation,” Hane pointed out. “His thoughts are very, very much a subject of this court.”
“I agree, Counselor Hane. Continue,” Mako noted. Felger sat down, disgruntled.
“Within the journal, which dates back approximately four years, the defendant details his increasing belief that the Imperium is under attack by those who have forgotten those who sacrificed to ensure its peace and stability,” Hane said. He lifted his data card and brandished it. “I submit that the contents of this card supply ample evidence that he planned this act of murder long before he carried it out.”
“Objection,” Felger said again.
Mako nodded slowly. “I will examine the transcript myself, Sieur Hane, after this session has concluded. Have you any other evidence to present?”
“I do, your Honor,” Hane said, pushing the cart over to the empty jury box. “I call Ulysses Keiter to the stand.”
Felger stood at once. “Your honor, my client has not been listed as a witness in this trial.”
“He stands accused of a crime of which he has proclaimed a lack of guilt, your Honor, and yet here he is,” Hane pointed out. “He is under an obligation to speak in his own defense.”
“No, Sieur Hane, he is not. However, he has been called as a witness. As such, he need not take the stand if he chooses not to do so,” Mako said, staring down at Useless.
Useless squirmed. Felger grabbed his shoulder and whispered urgently. “Ulysses, you don’t have to do this. I strongly recommend that you don’t. We called for a speedy trial because it would hamstring the prosecution; if you get up there I can’t protect you.”
“But if I don’t, Mako will wonder why I’m pleading innocent!” Useless whispered back. Felger glared half-heartedly at his client, but Useless’ mind was made up.
Keiter stood. “I have no problem with fielding the prosecution’s questions, your Honor.”
Mako nodded once. “So be it, then. Since you may choose not to speak in your own defense, you need not answer questions which would force you to incriminate yourself.”
Useless hobbled over to the witness box, pausing to have his manacles chained to the seat and floor. Hane waited until he had situated himself before beginning. “Sieur Keiter. Do you recall what you were doing the day before you were arrested?”
“I was just working. It was a normal shift,” Keiter said.
“And do you recall any unusual instructions from your bosses?” Hane asked.
“Unusual? No,” Keiter said, shrugging.
Hane looked over to where the evidence they had been discussing was piled up. “Sieur Keiter, at the time you were arrested, you did not request a public defender. Is that correct?”
“And yet, you did request one shortly thereafter.”
“Why did you change your mind?” Hane asked. Felger shook his head infinitesimally, but Keiter ignored him.
“I decided I wanted expert defense instead,” he said.
Hane nodded slowly, thinking. “The charges for which you were arrested are not the charges for which you have been brought to trial. Nonetheless, you requested legal counsel almost immediately after arrest. Almost.”
“Your Honor, I don’t see any relevance here,” Felger said.
“I assure your Honor that I am pursuing a very specific and relevant question,” Hane shot back. Mako nodded.
Hane wheeled back to Keiter. “Sieur, when I first asked you if you wanted legal counsel, you specifically denied it. When I then informed you whom you had been accused of shooting, you vomited in the corner and demanded a lawyer. Why did you do that?”
“Your Honor!” Felger thundered.
“Counselor Hane, your question is leading the defendant,” Mako said. “Rephrase it.”
Hane thought for a moment. “What, Sieur Keiter, caused you to change your mind, specific to the identity of the woman who had been shot?”
Useless shrugged uncomfortably as Morticia shot him a death glare. “I don’t understand the question.”
“Sieur Keiter, you did not change your demeanor regarding legal counsel until the moment I named the woman who had been shot. Why did her specific identity change your mind?”
Useless stared at the floor in front of him. “…She…Lady Morticia’s seventeen. She’s not even out of high school. Why would anyone blame her for anything? She was just a bystander to a crime of complacency.”
“A crime of complacency…of which every single other person in that café was guilty?” Hane asked pointedly. Before Felger could roar in indignation, Hane turned to Mako. “I have no further questions for the defendant, your Honor.”
Felger shot to his feet, walking up to the bench before Mako could say a word. “Your Honor, a moment?”
Mako nodded, leaning forward and turning her microphone off. Hane and Felger huddled up before the desk at the front of the court. “Your Honor, that question was flagrantly misleading,” Felger said quietly.
“I am a Judge, Counselor Felger, I am fully aware of the implications of what was just said,” Mako pointed out. “However, Counselor Hane, Counselor Felger is correct. I instruct that the final question be struck from the record,” she said, louder. The stenographer nodded and pressed the appropriate runes on her dataslate.
Hane and Felger returned to their seats as Useless fidgeted. “Sieur Felger, have you any questions for your client?”
“I do, your Honor,” Felger said, lifting a dataslate and carrying it up to the front of the courtroom. “Sieur Keiter, prior to your arrest, you had never been in the custody of the police at any level, for any reason. Is that correct?”
“It is,” Useless said.
Felger placed the dataslate back down on his desk. “During your time with Sons of the War, did you ever interact with other hivers that worked on the surface?”
“All the time,” Keiter said. “A lot of us work up there.”
“And did any of them express discontent with the state of the Imperium’s social balance?” Felger asked.
“Several,” Keiter answered.
“Amongst the members of the Civil Honors Union, did any of the other volunteers express discontent with the status of the Imperium’s social balance?”
“They did,” Keiter replied.
Felger nodded. “I have no further questions, your Honor.” As Mako dismissed the witness, Morticia leaned over to Hane and smirked.
Hane nodded to acknowledge her silent signal. “I call Witness Seven to the stand.”
“So noted,” the Judge said. A tall, rather aged gentleman in a generic military officer’s coat stood, walking down the aisle to the bench. Morticia smiled at him eagerly as he passed, which he returned. As he sat and was sworn in, he loosened the jacket, slinging it over his seat, revealing the gold and white uniform shirt of a Palace resident.
“Sieur, please state your relation to the defendant,” Hane said without preamble.
“I have never met him before in my entire life,” the gentleman said. There were dark bags under his eyes, Mako noted, and his wavy dark hair was pulled back into a simple tail behind his head.
“And please state your relation to the victim, Lady Morticia,” Hane continued.
“I am her grandfather,” the gentleman replied.
“Lady Morticia’s mother has passed on, has she not?” Hane asked.
“She has,” he replied regretfully.
Hane clasped his hands behind his back, looking over at the witness box. “Sieur, the names of several volunteer organizations have been mentioned over the course of this trial. The Civil Honors Union, the Sons of the War, et cetera. Are you a member of any of these groups?”
“Have you heard of them?”
Hane gestured to the jacket at the back of the box. “You have served with the Imperial Armed Services, sir?”
The lawyer asked the next question slowly, lending it weight. “What was your first thought when you had learned someone tried to murder your granddaughter?”
“Objection,” Felger said from his table.
Hane sighed. “What did you think when you learned your granddaughter had been hurt?”
“Shock. Horror. Rage,” he replied heavily.
Hane nodded in sympathy. “And now that you’ve had the time to sit through this entire trial, what do you gauge the defendant’s motivation to have been?”
“Objection, your Honor, the prosecution has shown no evidence that the witness is qualified to answer that question,” Felger spoke up.
“I’ll redirect, your Honor,” Hane said. He turned back to the witness. “Sieur, are you familiar with the concept of Divinatus Imperator?”
“Objection!” Felger said angrily, rising to his feet. “Your Honor, Counselor Hane is insinuating that my client is guilty of a violation of the Imperial Creed, when he has been charged with no such thing!”
“I am indeed not charging him with a violation of the Creed, your Honor, but I am attempting to establish that sufficient evidence exists to prove the charge of an Attempted Murder of Premeditation. I am well within the code of conduct of this Court,” Hane pointed out, “to allow for the presentation of evidence to that effect.”
Mako sat back in her seat, staring into the lights of the room, for several seconds. When she spoke again, her voice was quiet and even. “I will allow this line of questioning, Counselor Felger. However, Counselor Hane, tread with exceptional care.”
“Thank you, your Honor,” Hane said, turning back to the witness and raising an empty hand.
“I am familiar with it, yes,” the witness said coldly.
“Did you ever fight against it in the Crusade?” Hane asked.
“Many, many times.” The witness sat back and sighed, looking rather weary himself. “It takes so many perfidious forms…”
The Trial, Part Two
“And have you, in your experience in the Crusade, ever encountered any attempts on the lives of those who adhered to the Imperial Creed in lieu of Divinatus Imperator?” Hane asked.
Morticia’s grandfather shrugged. “That was rare. Generally, by the end of the Crusade, it had been stamped out so much that it was usually the other way around.”
“Those who followed the Creed turning Emperor-worshippers over to the Arbites, or attacking them,” Hane supplied.
“Was THAT rare?” the lawyer continued.
Hane lifted the holos of the crime scene, rifled through them. “What form do they take? Emperor-worshippers? Their appearances, their actions, their motivations?”
“Many. But they are primarily normal-looking people. They do not abandon their form, or anything. They concern themselves with slavish service, which can mask their superiority complexes. They tend to lash out at those who do not give thanks for what they have and offer up to the Imperium that which they earn.”
“And…how precisely did they make themselves a nuisance? Surely those who worship the Emperor would be his most valued servants,” Hane said, choosing a holo.
“It made them judgmental. Emotional. Unable to gauge the true worth of themselves, and their works, and their actions.”
Hane showed up the holos, placing them in front of the witness. “I have previously entered these into evidence as Article 7. This is a holo of Sieur Keiter’s apartment in the hive. Do you see anything here that suggests Emperor-worship, in your personal experience?”
The witness peered at the holo. “I do.”
“What is it?” Hane asked.
“Objection, your Honor, being able to shoot Emperor-worshippers in the field does not make a man qualified to appraise the state of their personal belongings,” Felger said.
“I agree entirely, Counselor Felger. However, if the witness has experience identifying them as well as fighting them, the question is fair,” Mako said. “And since he does, he may answer.”
“The contents of the room seem to be indistinguishable from those of any human, save this.” The witness pointed at a large image of the Emperor, psychic aura clearly visible, anointing a new Company of Luna Wolves at a formal ceremony. The image was blown far out of proportion, displaying the Emperor prominently. The image was tucked away amongst various knickknacks, in the middle of the table at the center of the main room.
“That is a holograph of the Emperor. Is it prominent in the room?”
“Is that normal for hivers? After all, hivers in parts of the world have little beyond their employment in the Administratum,” Hane said reasonably.
“I’ve certainly never created a shrine to any boss of mine,” the man said with a snort.
“And do you, in your experience, suspect that Emperor-worshippers would be capable of the crimes of which Sieur Keiter stands accused?” Hane asked pointedly.
“I do,” the man said.
Hane glanced up at Mako. “I have no further questions, your Honor, though I may want to call the witness again.”
“Very well. Counselor Felger?” Mako asked.
Felger stood, mind racing. He slowly crossed to reach the holo, still resting on the desk in front of the witness stand. “Sieur, do you have any legal training of your own?” Felger asked.
“I do,” the witness said.
“And what is this training?” Felger asked.
“I helped co-write the changes to the Book of Judgment after the end of the Crusade, to transfer from martial to civil law,” the gentleman said, startling Felger.
“Did you? Was Emperor-worship a serious problem on Terra at the time?” Felger asked, switching gears.
“It barely existed,” the witness admitted.
“So then, how are you qualified to speak of it in any sort of authority? You may have encountered it many times in your military career, but surely civilian worshippers would behave and appear differently to militant cultists,” Felger pointed out.
“Does it?” the man shot back. “Your client shot my granddaughter in the back. That fits rather well with the patterns of behavior I would expect from a militant cultist.”
“Your Honor, I ask that the witness be registered as unresponsive,” Felger said, glancing up at Mako.
“Counselor, he did answer your question. However, you may ask for another answer if you wish,” Mako said.
“I am qualified to speak of it because I have encountered and fought it both in the guise of military forces and in the guise of civil worship,” the man said coldly.
“Oh? You are a member of the Adeptus Astartes, then, a gene-modded warrior, qualified and rated to invade and destroy houses of worship?” Felger said.
“Of course not,” the man said.
Felger nodded, rifling through the other holos. “Sieur, your granddaughter was injured, certainly. But the man who shot her was a violent criminal, someone who was gripped by an urge they could not control. Does a loss of control, a lack of understanding of consequences, and a lack of proper judgment sound like something a person who worshipped the Emperor would suffer?”
“It does,” the witness noted reluctantly. Hane’s knuckles turned white.
Felger nodded slowly. “Thank you, Sieur.”
Hane shot back up to his feet. “Redirect, your Honor?” Mako nodded.
Hane marched back up to the witness stand. “Sieur, have you ever seen Emperor-worshippers come to regret their actions, when said actions came to hurt bystanders?”
“I have. Many times,” the man said.
“When I first interviewed the defendant, he was overwhelmed with the knowledge that he had harmed a member of the Royal Family. Progeny of the Emperor. Does that sound like something an Emperor-worshipper would do?”
“Absolutely. Their actions are appraised internally, against a scale of earning or losing Imperial approval.”
“So the defendant’s actions are well in line with something that someone who worshipped the Emperor, but was not insane, might choose to do?” Hane pressed.
“Possibly, yes. It wouldn’t be unprecedented.”
“Sieur, in your experience, are people who worship the Emperor still in possession of their faculties?” Hane asked.
“They are. The Imperium is not a Chaos entity, twisting people into its worship.”
“And so, Sieur, you have no reason to think that when Ulysses Keiter shot Lady Primarch Morticia, he did so with anything other than the intent to kill SOMEONE, even if it wasn’t the girl he eventually hit?” Hane said triumphantly.
“That is the case,” the dark-haired gentleman said flatly. Hane nodded, his heart rate returning to normal.
“Thank you, Sieur.” He returned to his seat.
“Your Honor, I have a few more questions for the witness,” Felger said, standing back up.
“Very well,” Mako said. Useless followed his lawyer with his eyes, desperately hoping that their defense would hold. Morticia glared a hole in Felger’s back with every step.
“Sieur, you said that you encountered these Emperor-worshippers in force with the Army?” Felger asked.
“With the forces of the Imperium, I did battle with them many times,” the man said.
“Then why should you be able to judge their mental states?” Felger asked, his voice tone turning curious.
“I don’t understand. Why would I not be able to? I encountered them many times, alive and dead. In their own homes and the homes of others they had invaded,” the man said.
“But you’re not a psyker, not a forensics officer, not a psychologist. How could you know what they were thinking?” Felger asked.
“You are incorrect, sir. I am indeed a psyker, of some skill,” the witness said coolly.
“Then why is your testimony admissible at all?” Felger said, thrown. “A psyker could influence Judge Mako.”
“Not without the psy-reactive systems in the room sounding an alarm. Arbites Courthouses are proofed against such sabotage,” the witness said calmly. “That was a deliberate facet of their design.”
“Well…then you can not see into the soul of my client, perceive his guilt or innocence, nor determine his motives, any better or worse than any other Army officer,” Felger said, back on his verbal feet.
“If I were an Army officer, I imagine that would be the case,” the witness said, shrugging.
“Adeptus Psykana, then. My point stands.”
“In fact, it does not. I am also not of the Adeptus Psykana, though I did found it,” he said. Morticia smiled smugly.
Felger stared at the witness, his words dripping with irony. “You are a founder of the Adeptus Psykana. You’re over three thousand years old.”
“In fact,” the Emperor said evenly, “I am a good bit older than that.”
Hane managed to keep his face straight. Morticia didn’t even try. Felger stared, his hands clenching unconsciously. Keiter went white. Mako sighed heavily. “My Liege, I do sincerely hope that this is not an attempt to modify the outcome of this trial.”
“To what end, Judge? One of the greatest and most vital tenets of my law is that none may hold an advantage before it,” the Emperor said calmly. “I would have worn my armor if I wanted to make an impression.”
Felger shook himself. The Emperor hadn’t moved an inch, hadn’t used any of his powers. But somehow, in that instant, his presence had made itself known. He looked the same, but his voice…
“Then, Lord, you would answer why you did not authorize a psychic interrogation of my client?” Felger asked carefully.
“Again, to what end, Counselor? Were I to make an exception for him, I would make a martyr of him before whatever confederates he may have had, whether they shared his ideologies or lack thereof. I spoke the truth when I said I had never met him before,” the Emperor pointed out, glancing sidelong at Keiter. The man was turning all sorts of interesting colors now.
Felger nodded slowly. “Then…I have no further questions.”
Hane stood. “In that instance, your Honor, I have no more evidence to present on behalf of the Imperium.”
Felger walked quickly over to his client’s side, and whispered something in his ear. Keiter didn’t respond, staring at the Emperor with completely undisguised horror. Felger shook his shouder, and Keiter snapped out of it, mumbling something. Felger glared at him for a moment, then straightened up. “I have no further evidence to present, either, your Honor, on behalf of the accused.”
“Very well. I shall perform, now, an examination of the transcripts presented as evidence thus far. We shall reconvene in half an hour,” Mako said, standing and tucking her helmet under her arm.
The Emperor stood, as did the rest of the people in the court, as Mako made her way down to her office. Morticia was smirking so broadly it threatened to strain her cheek muscles, and the Emperor paused by her side on his way back to his seat, jacket bunched under his arm.
“How are you feeling, Morticia?” he asked quietly.
“Much better, now that the good guys have won,” she said, just loud enough for Felger and Keiter to hear.
“Morticia,” the Emperor chided. “The trial isn’t over.”
“The Judge made up her mind on the third witness, Grandpa, and you saw it as clearly as I did,” Morticia said flatly, rising to her feet with an effort.
The Emperor reached out his elbow, and she grabbed it gratefully, leaning hard on her crutch as she awkwardly scooted out from the row of seats. Both Royal family members ignored Keiter’s desperate stares as they walked out of the courtroom.
The hall beyond was empty save for a few guards, none of whom stopped their patrols to watch as the two of them exited the room. Morticia hobbled up to the window, looking out the tinted glass at the rows and rows of reporters beyond. “Quite a crowd.”
“Vultures,” the Emperor said curtly, his voice back to its unassuming tone, bereft of forty four thousand years of weight. “All of them.”
“But I guess I can’t blame them,” Morticia said dolefully. “I’d be curious.”
The Emperor chuckled. “You are a more patient soul than me, Morticia.”
Morticia leaned against the window, feeling the cool glass against her cheek. “You totally should have worn the armor.”
“Ah, but then where’s the surprise value?” the Emperor asked.
Morticia turned to eye him. “…I was kidding, were you?”
“Perhaps,” the Emperor said.
After a brief while, the Bailiff stepped out of the courtroom. The halls were empty, save for the Emperor and his granddaughter. “My Liege, my Lady, Her Honor Judge Mako is ready to pronounce a verdict.”
“Very well, Bailiff,” the Emperor said, turning back to the courtroom, guiding Morticia along with one hand. Once inside, the Bailiff locked the door behind himself, sealing them back in. Keiter and Morticia took their places behind their respective lawyers’ desks. Morticia just looked tired, while the tendons in Keiter’s neck were rigid from the effort not to stare at the Emperor.
Mako was standing in front of her seat, atop the elevated bench. “The case of The Imperium V Ulysses Keiter hereby concludes. The prosecution has asserted that the defendant acted to kill someone through a means of premeditation, concealed a weapon without a permit, and discharged said weapon with the intent to kill. On the first, and second, and third counts of this indictment, His Majesty’s Arbitrators deem Ulysses Keiter Guilty.”
Keiter sagged into his seat, hands gripping the armrests, while Morticia just nodded, relief flooding through her. “No…” Keiter whispered hoarsely. “I didn’t…”
“Under the circumstances of the commission of these crimes, the sentence demands a meting of demonstration. To that end, the sentence shall be twenty years in Imperial prison.” Mako tapped her gavel on the desk once, sharply. “The Emperor’s Justice accounts in its balance. This court stands adjourned.” Mako bowed at the waist, then walked out of the courtroom to the rear. Keiter buried his face in his hands, still mumbling.
The Emperor leaned over the divider to Hane’s table. “Thank you, Counselor Hane.”
“My pleasure, Sire,” Hane replied, feeling a little relieved himself. He turned to bow to Morticia, who was struggling to her feet. “My sincerest wishes for your recovery, Lady Morticia.”
“Thanks, Sieur Hane,” Morticia said, standing and taking the Emperor’s proffered hand. “I appreciate you doing this.”
“Just another day at the office, Madam,” Hane said wryly. “Pass along my well-wishes to Lady Curze, would you kindly?”
“I certainly will,” Morticia said. She and her grandfather walked out of the courtroom, allowing a few Precinct guards to fall in behind them as they made their way down to the garages.
Parked amongst the Arbites Rhinos and Land Speeders was a single, unassuming hover limo, with the gold and white chasing of the Palace. The driver held the door open, patiently waiting for Morticia and the Emperor to climb in. As she started to do so, however, Morticia hesitated.
“Is something wrong, Madam?” the driver asked, as the Emperor paused behind her.
Morticia tapped her lip, thinking. “I wonder if I should actually give an interview to somebody about all this.”
“It is your right to refuse to do so,” the Emperor pointed out.
“True, but if I don’t tell my side people are just going to keep speculating,” Morticia said. “I don’t want to have that hanging over me forever.”
“Then you can contact a news studio of your choice to notify them,” the Emperor said, “if you’re comfortable with doing so.”
“I think I will,” Morticia said, climbing into the limo and sinking into a seat. “I want to clear the air.”
Useless leaned against the wall of the prisoner transport, shivering. The Emperor himself. He had been in the same room as the Emperor himself. He had shot his granddaughter, and he had looked him in the eye, and he had been in the same room. His lawyer had promised to meet him at the prison to help him get prepared, he didn’t even care. He had been in the same room as the Emperor and watched the Emperor hate him. It had been hours since the trial, and his skin was still crawling. The Judge across the prisoner transport stared at him silently, though his opaque visor. Useless didn’t pay him heed, either, he just sat there, trying not to die of shame. All he could think was how he hadn’t even apologized, and now he would never get the chance.
“Harden the fuck up,” the Judge suddenly rumbled. Useless started, staring at the Judge. “You won’t last a minute in Mannsfried if you just sit there shaking.”
“…I was…the Emperor himself was at my trial,” Useless managed.
“I’m sure that’ll impress your cellmate,” the Judge said coldly, standing up as the transport pulled up to the dock. He grabbed Useless by the elbow, yanked him to his feet, and shoved him out the back of the transport van, into the waiting arms of the prison guards.
Mortica shuffled nervously in the leather chair of the studio. The Emperor had already returned to the Palace, of course, and the studio she had called had arranged for an interview the moment she had asked, of course, but that didn’t make the dress she was wearing any more comfortable.
Her father had been as relieved by the verdict as she had been, naturally enough, though she had been even more convinced of the outcome than he had been. Now, he waited, like a green and black thundercloud, in the limousine outside the studio. The interviewer herself was already perched on her chair like a fakir on spikes, clearly rehearsing questions in her head. A pair of beehives and a uniformed officer were lurking behind the camera, trying not to look obtrusive in their kinetoballistic armor and slinging their assault shotguns. The makeup people had already been waved off; Morticia didn’t particularly care how she looked at that juncture. The cameraman waved his hand once, twice, thrice, and gave a thumbs-up.
The Interviewer turned her empty smile on the camera, beaming at the audience on the other side of the censor delay. “I’m proud to announce that we have been given a unique opportunity today: Lady Primarch Morticia herself has arrived, to offer up her perspective on the trial of her shooter that has gripped the entire planet. Lady Morticia, it is an honor.”
“Thank you,” Morticia said, as the little light on top of the camera directed at her blinked on.
“May I ask why you’ve decided to give this interview after refusing all comment prior to the end of the trial?” the interviewer asked.
“Because until days ago, portions of my chest were missing,” Morticia said dryly, tapping her breastbone. “That makes it little harder to speak.”
Useless lined up with the other prisoners in the line, fed into the gigantic hive block like animals in a slaughterhouse. The guards patrolled on catwalks overhead, watching as the prisoners were stripped and searched for concealed weapons or other contraband. His lawyer had passed along some of his personal belongings and a card, and essentially wished him good luck. Now he was waiting in the process line, as Arbites and Praetors took down data for each prisoner.
He stared into the floor, numb. He was only thirty, this was hardly a death sentence, but his life was still over. Or so it felt.
“Hey.” Useless jerked out of his torpor, staring at the prisoner in front of him. “Ain’t that you?” the prisoner said, gesturing up at the holoscreen in the corner, which was just playing the news to keep the prisoners occupied. It was indeed him on the screen. Specifically, his passport photo. It was being shown in the corner of the screen, while in the rest…was Lady Morticia. Useless’ throat seized.
“Heh, right, of course,” the interviewer said. “Well, now that you’re here, we’d like your perspective. Of course, you don’t have to answer questions that make you uncomfortable.”
Morticia nodded. “Sure.”
“What was the last thing you remember doing before waking up in the hospital?” the interviewer asked.
Morticia raised her eyebrows. “Wow, a fastball right at the start. Well, I was asking Kelly if it was unseasonably cold, then I woke up on the table. That’s it.”
“I see. Kelly is Lady Primarch Curze?”
“She is. And when I woke up, it was actually just before the surgery, when I was supposed to still be under.”
“That must have been quite unnerving.”
“It wasn’t, really, I was so full of sedative I couldn’t even tell what was going on,” Morticia admitted.
“When did you get out of the hospital?” the interviewer asked.
The gray-haired girl shrugged. “Three days ago.”
“You’re well on the road to recovery, I hope?”
“Should be good to go within a week. Good genes,” she quipped with a smile.
“I see. What role did you play in the trial?” the interviewer asked.
Morticia shook her head. “The one defined by the format of the trial. I didn’t say a word the whole time. More than that, I’m not at liberty to say.”
“How do you feel about the verdict?’ the interviewer inquired.
“The verdict?” Morticia asked incredulously. “I think the number of years in the sentence should have a few exponents after them. How else could I feel?”
“Have you had a chance to speak to your attacker?” the interviewer asked.
“No. What would I say? ‘I’m glad you missed?’ Because he himself admitted he wasn’t aiming for me. And what would he say to ME? ‘Sorry my aim sucks?’” Morticia checked her temper before it reached her voice.
“I apologize, my Lady, I didn’t mean to offend you,” the interviewer said.
“You didn’t. It just bothers me a bit that he got off so light.” Morticia shrugged awkwardly.
“I understand that, Madam. Do you have any idea what you’re going to do now?”
“Graduate high school, if I’m lucky,” Morticia said, grinning ruefully. “This didn’t do my exam schedule any favors. Once I’m out, I’m going to go on a bit of a recuperation trip. Go see some of the rest of Terra. The hives, the cities. Explore a bit.”
“That’s wonderful. After the events of the past few weeks, of course, I can hardly expect you to tell me where, but do drop in and give us a summary when you get back, okay?’ the interviewer said with a grin.
“Heh. Sure, why not,” Morticia laughed.
“All right, thank you, Lady Morticia. This is Startseite News, reporting to you live, with Lady Primarch Morticia,” the interviewer said, as the holocam fixed on the Death Guard girl cut off.
Useless’ shoulders slumped. Mentally, he amended his previous conclusion. NOW his life was over.
Morticia gingerly stood, unclipping the microphone.
“Again, I apologize if I was improper, my Lady,” the interviewer said, rising as well.
“You weren’t, really, I guess I just wasn’t ready for this yet,” Morticia said. “But now it’s over, and now I can safely ignore the small army of reporters outside my house. More to the point,” she added, grabbing the brace that had been carefully hidden from the camera, “I really needed to get this off my chest. I didn’t actually have a chance to speak openly about it during the trial.”
“I can imagine, my Lady. Do take care,” the interviewer said, walking back to her normal desk. Morticia wobbled off to the greenroom to change, emerging minutes later in the clothes she had worn into the studio. Her escort met her at the door, guiding her down the limo, where her father was still waiting.
She clambered awkwardly into the low car, accepting a proffered cup of water with gratitude. “That was very brave of you, Morticia,” her father said, tapping on the glass at the fore of the cabin. The car lifted off, heading back to their home.
“Thanks, Dad. It was harder than I thought it was going to be, by a lot.” She sighed exhaustedly, downing a few sips of water. “I guess I wasn’t quite ready. Oh well. Now to not flunk,” she said, raising her fist in mock challenge.
“That’s the spirit.”
Remilia lifted the little bag of clothes she had brought to Freya’s home, deep in thought. There were several days’ outfits in there, which would hardly be enough to make it through the summer even with diligent washing. She had to go home, and get what she would need for the trip, which was slated to begin in less than three weeks…or, she supposed, just go buy more, which was both avoiding the issue and proving Jake right.
She huffed impatiently, dropping the bag on the bed in her suite and standing up. “I’ve been dodging this long enough.” She swept her vox and wallet into the bag and emptied it of its clothes. “Can’t stay away from him forever.” A knock on the door disrupted her mumblings. She finished scooping her meager few belongings into the bag before acknowledging it. “Come in.”
The door swung open on its artistically rustic hinges. Freya ambled in, hands in pockets. “Heading home?” she asked.
“Not for long. Just to pick up some clothes,” Remilia said.
“Uh huh.” Freya stared at her cousin wistfully. “Listen…two weeks is a while. You can stay here if you want, but…”
Remilia closed her eyes, her stomach knotting. “But yeah. I should get this over with. I know.”
Freya turned her eyes to the floor, wondering how to phrase her question. “I know I shouldn’t be there, but I feel like I need to be.” Remilia drew a shuddering breath.
“Damn it.” She dropped the bag, turned, and slid her arms under Freya’s own. “Stop making me wish you were my sister.”
Freya blinked her tears away. “I am. Don’t worry.” She wrapped her own arms around Remilia’s shoulders and held her tight.
Remilia sighed heavily, blowing Freya’s hair back a bit. “…Okay. Time to get this over with.”
“Yep.” Freya picked the bag up and lead Remilia out to the parking lot, where her car was waiting.
The two girls rode in silence to the Dorn mansion. Remilia climbed out, staring at the imposing edifice. It was home. That hadn’t changed. But it wasn’t homey any more. The door opened as they walked up, and a pair of Imperial Army officers walked out, discussing something urgently. They both paused when they saw the Royal cousins, but neither girl stopped to chat, simply walking right by them into the house. Rogal Dorn himself was sitting in the main room, looking over what the officers had apparently delivered. When he heard the door close, he glanced up, his eyes freezing when he saw his daughter and niece. “Remilia. Welcome home.”
“Hi, Dad,” Remilia said, surprised at how calm she felt. “Freya, you know where my room is?” she asked.
“Yeah…I’ll, uh, go do…that,” Freya said, grabbing the bag and making a break for the door.
Silence reigned. Remilia crossed her arms, waiting for the storm to roll in.
Rogal stood, dropping the dataslate down on the table. He ran his hands over his eyes, clearly unready for this as much as Remilia had been. “Look...I don’t know how to fix this.”
“Neither do I, Dad, which is why I’m going on the road trip.” Remilia sighed, tapping her finger on her arm. “I gotta say, though, Dad, I’ve done some thinking, and I realized that I’m more disappointed that you didn’t try to help me through this than anything else.”
“I gathered,” Dorn said heavily. “Listen to me, Remilia. I will admit that…after a frank exchange with your uncle,” he said, in a complete lack of irony, “I have realized that it would be best if I asked you first. So…how do you want this to end?”
“To end?” Remilia asked. She thought over the question. “I want you to understand how important it is to me that you and Mom be part of my life, and that I be a part of yours.”
Rogal Dorn nodded, eyes shut. “Right.” He opened his eyes again, trying to rein his temper in. “And…how should I demonstrate that, while you live in your cousin’s house, leave for the entire summer, and then go straight off to college?”
“Dad…” Remilia clenched her fists, trying very hard not to remind him that he had had seventeen years to get that part right. “Dad, I was going to leave at the end of summer anyway. For now, just trust me that I need some time off.” She turned to regard him directly. “But if you want a specific example, here’s one. That graduation paper. Do remember my topic? I got the paper back yesterday. I got a B+. Do you know what my visual was?”
“Remilia, I don’t want my interest in your life to be defined by my recall of trivia,” Rogal said.
“Trivia,” Remilia said, exasperation flooding her voice. “Trivia. Dad, it’s not goddamned trivia to ME! It’s my high school graduation project! If you want to be part of my life, and MEAN it, then the very LEAST you could do is start caring about what I care about! Or if you can’t do that, at least recognize what is and isn’t important to me!”
“I see.” Rogal sank back into his seat, sounding a little upset himself. “Remilia, I make a point of attending every one of your soccer games I’m here for.”
“And that meant something to me, Dad, but were you there because you wanted me to win, or because you wanted me to be happy? Don’t answer that, it doesn’t matter.” She tapped her foot on the floor, her mind turning over as fast as it could. “All right. We both want this to work. And I don’t want to go off to college angry. So…for now, let’s just both agree that it should end better than this. All right?”
Dorn sighed. “So be it then. Remilia…I show it poorly, I know, but your mother and I do love you. I do want you to be happy.”
“I believe you, Dad,” Remilia said quietly, massaging the bridge of her nose. “I love you too.”
Freya sidled back into the room, trying very hard to be invisible. Remilia held up her hand to stop her. “Freya…I’ll be staying. Until the trip.”
“You’re sure?” Freya asked, cutting her eyes towards Rogal.
“Good!” Freya proclaimed. She set the bag and the suitcase she had pilfered en route down on the floor and scampered over to Remilia, giving her a quick hug from behind. She aimed a quick, awkward wave at Rogal, too, before making for the door. “See you later,” she called over her shoulder as she made her escape.
Remilia picked both bags up, slinging them both. “I’ll be down to talk about the paper after I unpack all this,” she said, a tone of undeniable instruction in her voice as she said it.
Her father nodded as she vanished up the stairs. “I’ll be here.”
Freya slid into the car, tapping the glass even as the door closed behind her, trying to urge the car away before Remilia could change her mind. Remilia herself unpacked her things, noting with grim humor that the room looked better than it had in months. The cleaning staff had obviously taken the opportunity her absence had presented to scour the place. Dispersing her stuff back to its proper place in the room, she chucked the suitcase and bag into her closet and sank back down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. She squinted, and made out the faint, familiar outlines of the plastic stars she had stuck on her ceiling as a child, and then pried them off when she had been ‘too old’ for it. The sight elicited an unwilling smile. Maybe she had made the right choice.
For the thousands of students at Imperator High, the moment of truth – final exams – arrived the following week, and convoys of nervous teens lined the halls of the building, anticipating being put through the grinder one last time. As schedules ended and report cards appeared on parents’ home computers, security ramped up in preparation for the graduation ceremony. Morticia herself promised to make an appearance even if she couldn’t stay through the whole thing, which suited her fine anyway.
The ceremony itself was a zoo, with the Treasury stationing its guards invisibly around the building well in advance, and most of the Primarchs choosing not to attend so as not to upstage the other children (or simply being off-world when it happened). As Morticia crossed the stage, naturally, the room erupted in cheers, which she acknowledged with a nod and carefree wave that did more to assuage the fears of her friends and family than a single interview ever could.
As it ended, and graduates lined up outside for photographs and rides, Venus and Jake stood by the roadside for their photos, which Misja had already promised to distribute on their behalf while they were gone. As soon as they were snapped, Jake made tracks for his battered old aircar, stomach abuzz with nerves. Five days. Five days before he took off for their trip. He couldn’t believe it. He was done, he had passed, and he was going to NOCTURNE!
Morticia, he noted as he passed, was climbing into her own aircar already, with no time at all for pictures. Her father had been the only Primarch to show. He hadn’t been surprised at that, by any means, though he was grateful that Mortarion had at least had the sensibility to wait outside.
Dropping his robe and gown into the trunk of his car, he started it up, gingerly maneuvering it over to where his parents and Misja were waiting. “You ready to head out?” he asked of the group.
“I think so,” George said, clambering into the back.
“Is Venus not coming?” Jake asked.
Misja shook her head. “No, she and her cousins have a dinner planned. I’m sure she’ll want to see you after, though.”
“Oh, cool. Well, say Hi to everyone for me, OK?” Jake asked, Misja nodded, smiling happily.
“You should be proud of yourself, Jake, congratulations.”
“Thank you very much,” Jake said with a confident grin. “I’ll see you later, then,” he added, lifting the car smoothly off the ground and angling for the airlock. Venus watched it go from the street, already having removed her own gown and donned far more formal clothes. Sliding a pair of mirrored sunglasses on purely for show, she climbed into the back of Furia’s own aircar, along with several of her cousins.
“Well. Here we are,” Alpharia said, all melodrama.
“And DAMN, it feels good,” Farah chimed in happily. She laced her fingers together behind her head and reclined against the seat. “No more waking up at six in the morning to go hear old people talk.”
“And then college happened,” Omegan noted.
“College is something that happens to other people,” Farah said dismissively. “I’m still going to take a year off.”
Kelly shifted in her own seat. “It felt good to be at the ceremony.”
“Feel like you’re ready to go home?” Venus asked, fidgeting with the tassel of her cap.
“…I think so, yeah, even if it’s nothing but exercise, comfort food, and staying largely indoors for a while,” Kelly admitted.
“Sounds more fun than being stuck on a ship for a month,” Venus said ruefully.
“Yeah, when are you heading off?” Furia asked, yanking the robe off and struggling into a nicer blouse. Which, by her standards, meant a clean one.
“Four days. Can’t wait,” Venus said.
“Wait, I thought it was later,” Omegan said.
Venus shrugged, sending ripples through the silver material of her dress. “It was. Emergency rescheduling. The Salamander ship we were going to use was diverted, we’ll be going with a Legionary escort instead.”
“That’s probably better,” Furia said, tossing the graduation outfit unceremoniously into the corner of the car. “Line ships are so fucking uncomfortable. It’s like there’s a goddamned law against comfortable beds.”
“My Ladies, we are five minutes out,” the driver said over the intercom.
“I’m nervous. I’ve never been to this place,” Omegan said.
“You’ll love it,” Venus said. She leaned back and took in the view through the window. The greenery of Startseite faded a bit as the car slowed and descended on the edge of the cluster of buildings around the hive skin below the airlock. “I’ve been here a few times with Dad. Best food in the city.”
Mortarion gently squeezed his daughter’s hand as she sat back down in the limo. “I’m very proud of you, Morticia."
“Thanks, Dad,” Morticia said exhaustedly. “I admit. I’m glad I came after all.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go out for dinner with your cousins?” Mortarion asked.
“Yeah, I’m just not up for it,” she said, closing her eyes to rest for a moment. “Doctor says that I should stop feeling like a narcoleptic within a few more days. I’m just glad I didn’t fall asleep in my seat on the field house floor.”
As the day of the trip approached, the Royal cousins found themselves, as expected, moving apart. As soon as her doctor declared her able to travel, Morticia took off for Albiona, eager to see the world. Freya and company prepared for their journey in their own ways: shopping for winter gear for all five, and thermal gear for Alex and Jake. True to her word, Remilia made a point of paying for Jake’s gear, to which he made a token protest before gratefully accepting. It took several days of frank discussions before Remilia was ready to really forgive her father, but they were both sincere in their desire for a reconciliation. Over time, she supposed, things would be able to return to normal, as much as they could be.
When the day of departure finally arrived, the group assembled in the spaceport atop Hive Tetra, collecting their belonging and making their farewells. Teams of baggage forklifts and other vehicles pulled their cargo aboard the ship’s freight haulers. Salamander serfs by the dozen directed the loaders, waving little orange plastic rods to guide the cargo units.
Freya and Alex stood to one side, watching their stuff get filed away. Freya was nearly hopping from foot to foot in excitement. “I can’t wait!” she proclaimed happily, squeezing Alex’s hand.
“I know, this is crazy,” Alex said, watching the procession through his mask. He and the other non-genemodded people on the landing platform were wearing breathing masks, to protect against lack of atmosphere on top of the massive structure. The Royal daughters themselves were not so inconvenienced.
Neither was Vulkan. He and Misja had arrived to show Venus off, and in Vulkan’s case, pass along orders to the ship’s Captain. Misja was busily hugging her daughter and pressing last-minute goodies upon her when Vulkan returned from his own task.
“Now, I know the ship’s Astropath isn’t a messaging service, but try to include a quick update when you arrive, all right?” she fussed.
“I will, Mom, I promise,” Venus said, hiking a backpack of personal effects over her shoulder. A few paces away, Jake was being buried in a similar armful.
“I’ll send a message when the ship’s docked on Prometheus, but we don’t know exactly when that will be,” Jake explained. He adjusted his mask, grimacing against the bitter cold.
“I’m sure you’ll have a great time, Jacob,” George said. He looked up at the rows of Salamander serfs still working on the pad. “Just be sure to refuse any recruitment offers, huh?”
“Bet on it,” replied.
Remilia’s mother walked up to her jumpsuited daughter and gave her a quick hug. “You be safe out there, okay?”
“As safe as anyone is on Nocturne, I promise,” Remilia said. “Say goodbye to Dad for me, all right?”
“I will. Are you going to come right back home afterward?” her mother asked worriedly.
“I suspect so. We don’t know the exact date of our return to the system, so I will if I can,” Remilia said, picking up a suitcase and dropping it on a passing cargo pallet.
Vulkan marched up before the tableau of farewells and clapped his hands once. “Last call, people, the ship lifts in ten minutes and they need passengers aboard.”
Sandra sniffed as she gave her son one final hug. “All right, Jake, you take care up there, all right?”
“I will,” he promised, shaking his father’s hand and slinging his bag. “I’ll stop by when I get home, before I head off to Kouthry.”
“Send souvenirs, okay?” George joked. “Just…not grandkids, yet.”
“Oh my god shut up,” Jake grumbled, glaring daggers at his father. “I’ll see you when I see you, okay?”
Venus squeezed his shoulder as she passed. “Got to go. Bye!” he said, waving again as he joined the stream of serfs and crew that were trooping onboard the lifter. His parents waved as he and his friends vanished into the cavernous cargo lifter’s load deck. Remilia and Venus had been aboard one before, and directed the little party away from the zoo of people and cargo into the corridors of the ship. As the massive cargo vessel lifted off, the ship’s artificial gravity kicked in, nearly knocking all five teens to their feet. Venus lead them into a small viewing area on the upper deck, and they watched in awe as the spaceport below shrank into the endless, featureless gray of the hives. For nearly an hour they watched their planet disappear into the distance. When the planet had shrunk away to the size of a plate, the view was suddenly cut off by two metal plates cutting off their view, sealing behind them. They had arrived on the Iron Tide.
Venus led them into the massive bay, where all five quietly gaped at the sight of row after row of fighters and cargo ships aligned in rows on the deck. A small contingent of guards arrived to escort them up to their cabins. After several decks and lifts, they arrived at a suite of three rooms in the officers’ sections of the ship, where the Captain would quarter guests. Since this was a Navy escort and not an actual Salamander ship, there was room for a bit of luxury, and the rooms were pleasantly accorded, with reasonable beds and dedicated restrooms.
The little party dispersed their possessions into their rooms, and waited as their larger items were delivered to the cabins by the ship’s crew, which Venus directed adroitly. Bowing out, the crewers left the five to their own devices. Shipboard clocks insisted that the time was the dead of night, so all five bedded down, eager for the journey, and hoping that it would be worth every minute.